Speck 30.3

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I made my way into Brockton Bay, the Boardwalk.  Five more steps carried me into New Delhi.  Only a minute later, I was walking through Brockton Bay again, downtown this time.

Los Angeles.

Bucharest.

Brockton Bay again.

Madison, Wisconsin.

Cauldron’s Headquarters.

Ruins.  Places built up by man, painstaking, sometimes over centuries.  Layer upon layer of human experience, history, and art, represented in stone and wood and glass.  Every single building had been put together with the idea of meeting some specific goal, a specific individual’s tastes, filling a purpose as an institution, or being built to cater to society’s tastes as a whole.  Virtually every building had been a familiar place to someone, a home, a place of business.  Roads had once been a part of people’s daily routines, bridges a convenience that was appreciated, if rarely acknowledged.

Shattered, eroded, dashed aside.  Roads were now uneven slabs, rising and falling, while buildings had folded or leaned over, spilling out their innards.  Those same innards hinted at just how much value we’d put into this world we’d built around ourselves.

I realized I’d stopped walking, struck by what I was looking at.  There was a tightness in my chest, and I struggled to put my finger on what to call it.  It was a sweet feeling, but not a pleasant one.  Not nostalgia, but it called to a certain kind of familiarity.

Home, I thought.  This is home.  Not so much a place I could return to for a hug, to kick my shoes off and let down my guard, not a place where I would sleep and wake up feeling warm.  Yet it was a place which was central to me, a place I was rooted in, and vice versa.

I’d defined myself in places like these.  The height of my growth, my strongest moments, they’d taken place in open graveyards and the aftermath of tragedies.  Not my best moments, not the noblest, but the moments where I’d had the greatest impacts and had made the choices that shaped who I was.

I started walking again.  I wasn’t actually traveling to Brockton Bay, to Bucharest or Los Angeles.  I could have, but I wasn’t.  It was only that the ruins here were so easy to relate to those places, to this home.  The memories of the locations were bleeding into my awareness, making it feel almost real.

I wanted to tell myself it was the clairvoyant in my range, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to.  I wanted to say it was the distraction of having to devote a small share of my attention to ensuring that Doormaker kept opening portals when the clairvoyant recognized someone asking for one.

With a note of desperation, I told myself it was because I was still trying to keep tabs on my power, gauge my level of control, and manage my body.  If I couldn’t get a better grip on my own movements, maybe I could get control over my swarm.  Over the people I was controlling.

But I didn’t really believe it.  I was slipping.

My bugs spilled out over the ruins.  My range was shorter, but I could use the relay bugs I had on hand.

Slipping, the thought came back to me.

Losing my mind, losing grip on things.

The Faerie Queen had told me I needed to anchor myself.  Except I’d been doing that for a long time.  It was how I functioned.  Compartmentalizing, identifying a priority, devoting myself to it.  Surviving the bullying, the mission to turn in the Undersiders, the mission to save Dinah, to turn the city around, to save the world.  I’d had tunnel vision at the best of times, and I’d had both successes and failures.

I functioned best when I had a mission, something beyond the one singular goal before me.  Yes, stopping Scion was key, but-

I shook my head.  I’d stopped walking again.  Had to focus.

I’d use smaller anchors here, smaller things to tie myself down to reality, focusing on my surroundings.  If and when the time came, I would abandon them, cast them away in order of size and priority.  In a way, it would let me gauge how badly I was slipping.

An exercise of Doormaker’s power let me experiment with the portals.  They couldn’t move or drift, excepting the way they were anchored to the rotation of the planet as a whole.  Instead, I opened and closed new portals, timing it so the opening of one was a fraction of a second before the prior one closed.  I surrounded myself with them, a shifting, shuttering array of portals.

I was put in mind of the moment I donned my costume, of being Skitter the Warlord, with her half-cape, half-shawl.  There had been a kind of power to the gesture, to draping myself in the cloth and assuming the title and the role.

As I made my way through New York, I found myself altering the portals, reconfiguring them.  I’d drape myself in them like I did in a costume.

They formed a loose three-quarter circle around me, Doormaker and the clairvoyant, at first, a cylinder with an opening in front of me.  When I turned my head, they reconfigured, the portals in my way disappearing, replaced by others.

To streamline the portal creation, I layered them.  Two half-circles, overlapping.

And then, because it was the most compact way to fit the portals together, because I needed to make a signature, to make this mine and to make it me, I made them hexagons.  A honeycomb interlocking of small, one-foot-diameter doorways, opening up to random points throughout the city, extending my range further than even my bugs could manage.  Each one showed a different image when looked through, a wall, a section of overcast sky, a bit of pavement.  It didn’t stand out, serving more as a kind of camouflage.

As I experimented, finding the places to set the portals, my awareness of the city expanded in turn.

I sensed some of Teacher’s squads.  Groups of men and women, always with at least one person who was more fit than the rest, all dressed in white, or at least in white shirts with jeans.  Most had backpacks, and all had weapons.  They patrolled, scouting the area, talking amongst each other in low voices.

Always talking about business.

I found Teacher.  He had a project in the works, and his ‘students’ were busy scavenging.  A different sort of control than I had, with my bugs or the people in my sway.  More human, maybe.  A society, rather than an army of troops gathered in formations.

The vast majority were active, each with a job to do, a task.  Men carried metal and electronics and either broke down materials or shaped them.  Women, just a little weaker in terms of physical strength, carried things like wire and baskets of clothing they had looted from stores.  Children handled the finer work, etching designs into metal and stitching.

I could almost respect it.  Except his motives were clearly selfish.

“Better to be fast than perfect,” he was saying.  He paused to touch one of his subjects for a few seconds.  The girl stood there, eyes closed, while Teacher resumed talking, “Follow the blue prints, or use the hub stations to get a clear mental picture.”

There were nods from the group around him.

Hub stations.  Not everyone was active.  There were clusters of two or three individuals that were each together, but I was pretty sure they weren’t what he was referring to.  There were also some individuals that seemed to be operating as rally points for the others, arranged in a loose ring around their work in progress.  I watched one individual bring a car door to the rally point, touch the man in the center, and then make their way over to teacher.  He murmured, “Metal and fiberglass design.”

Teacher touched him for four seconds, and then the man with the door made his way to a table, dropping a backpack and collecting a small crowbar.  As he started working, another man at the table stretched, grabbed a backpack, then joined one of the scavenging groups.

It was like a barn raising, but they were working purely in steel and electronics. Individuals that were tired switched to a different job, and everyone worked tirelessly.

They were building a Dragon-craft from scratch.

Not only a Dragon-craft.

“Eight costumes,” Teacher said.  He approached a table, lifting one costume off the surface to investigate.  “Not so flashy.  We want to fly under the radar.  Make it substandard, if anything.  C-list material.”

There were nods all around.  Teacher walked over to another table, lined with tinker weaponry and other tools.  His students were loyal, but they weren’t puppets, like mine were.  Their movements were natural.  The overall system, though, wasn’t natural at all.

I was put in mind of Regent’s games.  There was the base of operations, the cluster of villagers managing the city, and there were the more independent squads of people, deployed to the world beyond the base camp, patrolling for enemies, ready at a moment’s notice to be gathered together in a massed attack.

No doubt they were organized by ability.  Teacher could grant thinker and tinker powers.  If I assumed at least one tinker per group, with the tinkers carrying some ranged weapon or defense, and if the athletic members of the roaming squads were the soldiers, gifted with some knowledge that would give them a small edge in a fight, there were still two or three members in a given group I couldn’t identify.

I wasn’t even finished the thought when one of them perked up, startled.  She shouted, “Scatter!”

Her group moved in different directions.

Trouble?

I was the trouble.  It’s a fucking precog.

I opened portals, catching her three teammates, one by one.

It took two tries to catch her.  She was a fast runner, and she saw where I was putting down my portal before I’d even started, turning a hundred and eighty degrees around and scrambling in the opposite direction.

They were eerily calm, all things considered, much like Doormaker and the clairvoyant.  It made things easier for me.  But I knew that ‘easy’ wouldn’t last.

Teacher achieved control over people by giving them parahuman abilities.  The organization was important, and everything was key.  I’d moved too fast, and now Teacher’s human systems were starting to kick into effect.

Men and women in an isolated cluster dropped to their knees.

“Amber district, team B-six,” one of the students in the group reported.  His voice was as clear as a bell in the near-silence of Teacher’s base of operations.  There were only the sounds of tools and the steady percussion of hammers striking metal, all in unison.

“What’s the problem?”  Teacher asked.

“Out of action.”

“Change focus.  All observation teams, identify our target,” Teacher said.

Heads in every second group around the base turned.  They looked my way, as if they could see the full five or six city blocks and see me standing in the middle of the road.

One crossed to another group, touching a young man.

“Weaver,” the young man said, in turn.

It’s like a computer.  Every person carries out a specific operation, and they’re gathered in clusters with people who can communicate those ideas to others in efficient ways.

“Tinker group H,” Teacher said.  “Defensive measures, modify them for micro-scale drones.  Forcefields, area attacks.  Group N, to me.  We’ll need more tinkers on this problem.  We’ll also need to this area.  Groups F and J, I’ll recalibrate, put you on more general anti-clairvoyance duty.  She’s- You’re looking in, aren’t you, Weaver?”

I reached out to place a portal in Teacher’s camp, right behind him.  I hit a barrier, a dead zone I couldn’t affect.

Some tinker device was blocking my clairvoyant, which was blocking Doormaker in turn.

My relay bugs didn’t work either.  They only worked on bugs.

I began laying down portals around the perimeter, instead, finding the exact point I could affect.  The portals right next to me were turned around, so none faced me directly.  It wouldn’t do if he had students open fire and shoot through the portal to hit me point blank.

“This is new,” Teacher said.  “Have I done something to earn your attention?  Crossed a line, somehow, maybe I inadvertently borrowed someone you care about?  I assure you, I’m very benign.  The vast majority of my students here volunteered their services.  I told them I could use them to help stop Scion and save the world, and they agreed.  A number of others took the deal with the oath that I could borrow them for a year, and I’d supply them powers with no strings attached for the extent of their lives, no mental bondage at all.”

I frowned, shifting my weight from foot to foot, trying to ensure I didn’t lose touch with my body.  If I had to move, I wanted to be able to move fast.

One of the groups was close enough to the perimeter of Teacher’s base to fall in range of my portal.  I seized them, then took a second to analyze their capabilities.  Hyper-acute senses, enhanced aim, the ability to see through walls and a danger sense.

I thought of Tattletale, boasting to Coil in the moments before I’d pulled the trigger.

Not, I reminded myself, that I’m pulling any triggers here.

But I needed to disturb things, shake up Teacher’s elegantly balanced operation.

They looked at one another, and I gauged the equipment they held.  The one with enhanced aim was the ‘soldier’ of the group, armed with an ordinary gun and a bandolier of grenades.

I controlled his movements, directing him to grab a grenade from the bandolier.  He handed it over to the one with enhanced senses.

The one with the grenade raised his hand, hollering, leaning back, ready to throw-

My danger-detector reacted, and I had Doormaker create a portal, moving the grenade out of the line of fire.  A fat blob of crackling energy soared through the vacated space.

“You’re full of surprises today,” Teacher said.  “I’m going to assume this is actually you, Weaver, and that you’re not an Ingenue thrall or something similar.  I want you to know I’m not your enemy.  I was there for that whole business against the Elite, pitting Endbringers on them, I understand why you did it.  You have your mission, a noble task, and you see it as a universal task.  One everyone should inspire towards.  Peace and prosperity in your territory, because peace and prosperity are good things, am I right?  Please feel free to comment, strike up a conversation here.”

He gestured, and his crowd of students collectively backed away from the squad of students I’d taken over at one corner of his setup.  They faced down the others, their heads and shoulders visible above a section of wall that had fallen to the road hours ago.  I watched his group move, and tried Doormaker’s power again.  The borders were at the same points.

“No?  Okay.  You’ll have to trust me when I say I’m working towards the same end mission you are.  I want to stop Scion.  But I’m not a warrior, and I’d be offering more trouble than help if I was on the battlefield.  My students are fine when I’m giving the orders, but they’re prone to undecision at key junctions.  I know where I need to be, I’ll be there shortly, and I’ll be of far more use to our side then.”

If the group had moved and the borders were at the same point, then it wasn’t a person generating the effect.

I used my bugs and Doormaker’s power to get a sense of where the perimeter of this clairvoyance-blocking power was.  It was just a little irregularly shaped, but I could factor buildings and intervening obstacles into the area.  If there was a generated signal, it didn’t extend as far with solid objects in the way.

“For the books, I was inviting you to ask where it is I was planning on going.  You seem more keen on silence.”

My squad turned a gun on the very center point, opening fire with a trio of bullets.

A box, a tinker-made device, exploded in sparks, popping into the air and bouncing off of the pavement.

I tested the clairvoyant’s power.  It worked.

I placed portals with care.  Not to ensnare Teacher’s students, but to cut them off.  Portals between them, above and behind them, in front.  Assuming twelve to thirteen feet of range, I could space them out and cover a wide area.

When I started tagging the groups, I worked from the outside in.  His precogs weren’t amazing, with only a few seconds of awareness before their power gave them a heads up, but the trap was already in place.

I left Teacher for last.  No students at his disposal.  I made a portal, and then stepped through.  My soldiers aimed guns at him, while others stood stock still.

Teacher said something in a language I didn’t understand.

I shook my head.  I didn’t have a better way of showing my lack of understanding.

“No?” he asked, smiling a little.

I shook my head once more.

“A shame, that,” he said.  He sounded genuinely bothered.

My bugs flowed over him and through his pockets.  I didn’t have silk, so I used thread from one of the workbenches, encircling the gun beneath his unfashionable corduroy jacket.  It wasn’t a fast process, but Teacher saw what I was doing and helped it along, raising his hands to his head, simultaneously lifting his jacket up and away from the weapon.

I passed the thread to one of my new underlings, and they pulled the gun free.

My new minions began examining the gathered components and gear.  I looked through their eyes, taking it all in.

“I’m not unfamiliar with robbery,” Teacher said.  “Parcel and part of this whole enterprise.  But this isn’t you, I don’t think.  For one thing, I’m working towards stopping Scion, in a roundabout way.  Or mollifying the damage he does, if stopping him isn’t likely.  It seems things have turned around, then, if you’re closer to being the Elite you were so recently condemning, and I’m someone working towards a fix.”

I gave him a hard look.  He shrugged, his hands still on his head, then said something in another language, smiling a little.

A code word?  A trap or trigger for some tinker device hereabouts?

Except nothing had happened.

“Well then,” he said.  “Scratch that.”

He tried something and it didn’t work?  My swarm shifted their stances, approaching a little closer, guns raised.

Definitely scratch that,” he said.  “Well then, I won’t ask for your forgiveness, but I can still be blunt.  You seem different, and not so much for the better.”

My attention was on the tables.  Weapons, tinker gear… I started browsing through it myself, joining the minions who weren’t actively keeping Teacher at gunpoint.

“Can I ask why?  Or is that too personal?  I understand second triggers can be mortifying.”

I turned around to face him.  I put my hand flat against my mouth.

“Mute.  I see.  And you came to me for help with that?  Do you want to be able to communicate again?”

I shook my head.

“Then you’re looking to refine this ability of yours.  I can do that.  Give capes control over abilities that feel a little lacking in areas.”

Again, I shook my head.

“What did you come for, then?”

I didn’t respond, my attention on the group.

I found what I was looking for.

Boxes, small, with a single, broad button along one side.  Like detonators.  There was nothing to them but a single LED, green, and a few ports where they could be plugged into certain ports or outlets.

I gathered them, tucking them into spare pouches.

“I don’t suppose you could sock one for me?”

I shook my head.  I gathered all of them.

Then I began gathering the guns.

“This is inconvenient, for the books.”

You don’t need these against Scion.

“Again, my power is available, if you should need it.  Anything that helps against our reciprocal enemy, you understand.”

He had an annoying habit of picking difficult-sounding words and using them instead of simpler options.  Like someone trying to sound smarter than they were.

I approached Teacher.  I saw him startle a little at the sudden movement.

He had nowhere to run, and he knew it.  He looked around, and he could see his own students caught in my snare.

I saw the surrender in his body language, an instant before he fell inside my power’s range.

Memories hit me.  Announcing myself as Weaver in front of the PRT buildingTaking on the role in New Delhi, coordinating two teams.

I could sense his power, and I could sense his general awareness of the people he’d affected.  There was no constant connection between him and them, nothing like I had over my bugs or my subjects.

I moved another over to him, and I used his power on them.

There was a connection then.  It only took a little bit of time, and focus on Teacher’s part.  I could sense both the power taking hold, and the frailty, the weak point that manifested at the same time.  There was a duality.

I let go of the subject, and I could feel that frail point linger, decaying by the smallest fraction with every passing moment.  That was what Teacher sensed, an awareness of both the power and the degree of influence he had over the subject.

No, I thought.  Not an option.

I withdrew my phone, unlocked it, and found the page I needed.  I threw it to Teacher.  Rather than try to catch it with his clumsier movements, I had him grab the bottom of his sweater and lift it up, forming a net.  It landed in the ‘net’, and Teacher collected it.

I backed away, releasing him.

Teacher staggered a little, then muttered what must have been a swear word in that other language.

“Karma, I suppose,” he said, panting a little.  “A… little nerve wracking there.  I can’t help but notice you didn’t pursue with yourself, while you had me in command.”

There would be no way to use the power without leaving myself open to Teacher’s influence.  No, I wouldn’t be able to get myself a voice this way.  Not if it affected my ability to make decisions.  Not if it left a lingering window open.

These people who’d taken his promise of a lifetime of power, no strings attached, had been misled.

“Nothing, then?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“A disappointment.”

I wasn’t that disappointed.  I had what I needed.  A speed bump for Scion, weapons, a little more information on how my power worked, and…  I pointed at the phone I’d given him.  He glanced down.

“The C.I.U.,” Teacher said.

I responded with a short nod, then held up one of the devices I’d collected.  I was picking and choosing the members of Teacher’s collection I could use, arming them with tinker weaponry and gathering them near me.  I didn’t enclose them in my little cloak of portals.

“Ah… you guessed?”

I nodded, once.

“Understand, it wasn’t spiteful on my part,” Teacher said.  He lapsed into the other language for one moment, “…I gave them the switch in the hopes it would stop the incursions and curb honestly.  They were supposed to lock themselves away, but they held on to it, apparently intending to use it if anyone retaliated.  An ingress, a portcullis, if you will.  A way to raise the drawbridge and prevent passage into their castle.”

At my order, some of his students gestured with their guns, prompting him.

He seemed to take the threat in stride.  “The one with a white button.”

I glanced at the ones in my possession.  I found it in a belt pouch and repositioned it.

“Skeleton key, Weaver.  I could make you force me to give up any of this detail, but I won’t.  I want to get back to work, so I can help.”

He was giving me a funny look, trying to drive home his point.

But this was a roundabout plan, some kind of infiltration, and he was clearly working against our side.  I wasn’t sure I bought it.

It didn’t matter.

I gestured to the phone.  He moved to throw it back, and I raised a hand.  I pointed to my left.

He wasn’t stupid.  He got my meaning, then used the phone to find the page I was referring to.

“I assume you’re not looking to find me, which leaves only the Birdcage.  No.  I haven’t provided any devices to the Birdcage, or anyone alleged with it.  But you’re going to find entering is difficult, regardless.  There are security placements in measure.”

I nodded.  My soldiers got in place, rank and file around me, all armed.

“If I grasp your intentions, Weaver, I can speculate you’ll be back for me later?”

I didn’t respond.  No need to telegraph my plans to Teacher.  Still, the thinkers were figuring out what I was up to.

I was running out of time.

Which meant taking a leap of faith.

Using the clairvoyant directly was a dangerous prospect.  He could grant the power to see the entire world, multiple worlds, but breaking that contact was troubling, debilitating.  I could see the toll it had already taken on Doormaker.

But I couldn’t afford to hold back.

I separated Doormaker from his partner.  I could sense the effect, the sensory shift, the break in perspective, the mild nausea.  But he was functionally blind and deaf, and there were only so many senses that he had which could suffer.

I’d suffer far, far more.  If I made contact with the clairvoyant and was forced to break it… that would be it.  Chances were good I wouldn’t be able to carry on.  Things would be over before I recovered.

I took stock.  I had a squadron, now.  People who would have been slaves anyways.  People with simple abilities that were easy to get a handle on and use.  I had weapons, better than a typical gun.

Hopefully we wouldn’t have to use them.

I took hold of Doormaker’s hand, and I moved it to my belt, hooking his fingers through it.  Then I used my hand to take hold of the clairvoyant’s.

My awareness started to unfold.  A slow, steady, gradual process.  I was aware of vast tracts of land.  I could see the damage done to Earth Bet.  It disoriented me, to see how we were in Washington, not New York.  Teacher had returned home.  Why had I thought we were in New York?

If I’d been distant from myself before, the enhanced vision made it that much worse.

I could remember how I’d once been comforted by the fact that my power put the world in perspective, showing me just how small I was in the grand scheme of things.

This wasn’t comforting at all.  Not this.  Not at this brutal scale.  I could sense the entirety of the world, from atmosphere to ocean floor.  I could, if I wanted to listen for it, hear the wind, the patter of rain, see the shimmers of heat on one side of the planet and the frost forming in caves on the other side of the planet, day and night at the same time.

I can see how the Doctor got a little detached from things, if she used this power with any regularity.

Teacher said something.  I couldn’t make it out, because I wasn’t really listening.

I could see the other worlds and tally up the damage.  Not even a fifth of us were fighting, but those ten percent were giving it their all.  Others had retreated, finding family or friends to take shelter with.

I could count all of the individual collections of people.  Using Doormaker, the Doctor had scattered mankind over every available earth.  Collections of a few hundred to a few thousand.  People used to civilized life were starting over from scratch.  Makeshift shelters, fires, crafting tools.  They were tired, frustrated, and above all else, they were scared.  There was no news, no media, no way to follow the ongoing fight.

When I stopped looking, they didn’t leave my attention.  They carried on in my peripheral vision, as that field of vision continued to grow with every passing second.

The only real limitation was a set of blind spots, identical to the one that had hovered over Teacher’s base of operations.  I could work around that.  There was also the fact that I could avoid looking for things, and keep them out of sight.  I could avoid searching and seeking, avoid bringing something or someone into my field of vision.

Another anchor, another thing to tie me to reality, tie me to Taylor.

I could see one cabin, off in the distance in Earth Gimel.  It would be three days of walking on foot to get there from the settlement.

Grue’s cabin.

I’m so weak, I thought.

I didn’t want to look inside and see him with Cozen.  I didn’t want to see them curled up in front of a fire, knowing the world could end at any moment, should Scion decide to shatter the landmass.

Instead, I fixed that cabin’s location in mind, and I watched it from a distance.

I found my house, or what little was left of it, in shattered Brockton Bay.

I found people.  I found Charlotte and Forrest.  I found Sierra, being very authoritarian and intimidating as she ordered refugees around.  She gave off an oddly familiar impression.

I found Tattletale.  She’d left her laptop aside and was helping with the wounded, talking with Rachel and Panacea in an intense, low voice.

Imp was giving somebody CPR.  Unlike the movies, most CPR attempts weren’t successful.  Her patient was probably dead already, but she kept trying.  Ages ago, Grue hadn’t been able to get her to take the first aid class.

Parian and Foil were moving around the outskirts of the battlefield, riding a stuffed animal.  Foil wasn’t shooting, and it wasn’t due to a lack of ammunition.

All the people I cared about, the things I wanted to hold on to, no matter what.

I found my mom’s grave.  It was a part of the ruined landscape, and the earth had cracked open.  I could see the insect life surrounding the site.  Experimentally, I opened a portal.  My relay bugs passed through, and I cleared up the area, bringing the bugs to me.

Vanity, stupidity, but I felt a little better.  The area was cleaner.  Still in ruins, but cleaner.

And my dad…

I hesitated.

I’ve lost so much, I thought.  Forgive me, dad.  I need to have the hope you’re still alive more than I need to know either way.

I exhaled slowly.

Little anchors, more things to tie me down to reality.  I double checked the others were in place.  The least important of all, the mantle, the costume, for lack of a better word, with the honeycombed portals, it was secure.  I had my goal, I had my mission.

I was still me.  I was managing.

I turned my attention to Scion.  Apparently Tattletale had been right.  A bit of a fib on Cauldron’s part, that they couldn’t use the clairvoyant on him.  They’d wanted to avoid Scion finding them, avoid having him find his way to their laboratories.

When I looked, I saw him screaming.

Even for someone who had only ever spoken twice, it was an eerie, unsettling sound.  Raw, like he was being actively tortured, a sound of pain and anger distilled, given volume by his power.

He wasn’t being tortured, though.  He was winning, tearing into the crowd with more ferocity than before, that same crowd where the others, people I cared about, were-

“Pose?” Teacher asked, interrupting my thoughts.  I’d missed the beginning of what he’d said.

I raised my head.  It was more like I saw the movement of my head through a telescope than it was like owning the head itself.

Right.  I’d zoned out again.  Taking in too much.

Needed to move.

I was omniscient.  More accurately, I was as close to omniscient as I could hope to get.  It came with an Achilles heel, but I’d make do.

My phone had the last known location of the C.U.I. portal.  I opened a door to it.

I left Teacher behind.  He didn’t warrant a goodbye.  If there was such a thing as Karma, he’d get it soon enough.  For now, I would put off getting revenge for what he’d done to Dragon.  He’d be inconvenienced by the loss of his soldiers and disruption of his base of operations, but he’d recover.

Twenty parahumans flanked me as I walked down the dirt road.  I stopped when we’d come to the portal’s location.  The C.U.I. had invaded, killing the refugees on the other side, then moved in.

The clairvoyant, moving at my bidding, took hold of the device I’d fastened onto my belt.

He hit the white button.

Teacher had sealed himself off in one world, to build up his students and work with Dragon.  He’d given that technology to the C.U.I., and they’d used it to secure their position.

Now I was breaking in.

The blind spot fractured, then dissolved.  I could see the C.U.I.’s empire.  Three hundred million people, many still migrating to places where they could settle, physically walking to separate themselves from others, so Scion couldn’t kill too many at once.  I could see where Scion had attacked at one point, and they were still performing disaster relief.

There was a member of the C.U.I. who was officially known as Ziggurat, though she was really ‘Tōng Líng Tǎ’ to her allies and countrymen.  She’d used her power to erect stone walls and start the construction of a palace for the Imperial family.  Three walls stretched between three impressive towers, with the palace at the center of the acres of empty space within.

I could see the Yàngbǎn in full force.  Three groups of sixty to one hundred and thirty capes, arranged on broad, square platforms of stone that had been raised off of the ground, each facing outward, their backs to the palace. Every one of them was in a matching outfit, their masks white, purple, and yellow, in turn.  They were tending to wounds, and the gaps in their number suggested they’d taken heavy losses.

Inside the place itself was a kaleidoscope.  Each room was mirrored several times over, the occupants moving in unison.  The main chambers had nine iterations, each with a copy of the imperial family, each with a fourth squad of Yàngbǎn ringing the group in concentric circles rather than in rows and columns.  This squad wore masks like the others, multifaceted gemstones large enough to cover their faces, but the gems were a jade green.  The bodyguards, thirty in all.  The scariest capes in their group.

A young man, fourteen, sat on the throne.  On either side, their chairs just low enough to the ground that their heads were beneath the young man’s, were family members.  Too young to be his mother and father.  A very young child, a girl, sat on a mat at their feet.  His sister.  I’d seen pictures of the new emperor and his sister when their older brother had been killed along with the Simurgh’s attack on flight BA178.

They were joined by others.  Shén Yù the strategist was a surprisingly young man, wearing a black robe that was as straight and narrow as he was.  He was focused on a small tablet computer.  Beside him was Jiǎ, the imperial family’s tinker, and surely the individual who had set up the kaleidoscope effect, throwing off would-be assassins and intruders.  Tōng Líng Tǎ was there as well, a very thin Chinese woman with a black robe and heavily painted face.

Just below the dais were three more Yàngbǎn members.  Null, One and Two.  The key components in their power structure, the ones who divided the powers, controlled the squads and gave them the strength to be effective, respectively.

If I acted, I’d be targeted.  We’d taken out one of their armies, an infiltration and raiding party with the Simurgh’s attack, but there were four groups remaining.  One of the other raiding parties was less biased towards infiltration and more towards movement.  They were the cavalry, the blitzers, the ones capable of flight and teleportation.  In the wake of the raids, the first strikes our side had deployed against them had been viciously counterattacked.  Quite possibly Shén Yù’s work.  Any attempt to attack was met by equal and opposite counterattack, targeting the leaders of the offensive party.

Even with nigh-omniscience, even with my portals, I wasn’t sure I wanted to gamble on this.  Overconfidence at this juncture would be ruinous.

Better to sunder their confidence, than let my own be too high.  They weren’t anticipating an attack.

But two hundred parahumans and a set of elite capes focused on defense and counterattacks was ominous.

I tensed, all at once.  A stray attack on Scion’s part flew through the air.  I closed Doormaker’s portals in the area, and it wiped out a building, along with six people.

I raised the portal again, connecting Gimel to the makeshift hospital.

Tattletale muttered something under her breath.  Panacea said something I couldn’t make out.

Two of my favorite people in the world, almost wiped out without a chance to even know it was coming.

I looked at each of these things I treasured, the things I valued.  My leveled ‘house’ in Brockton Bay, the graveyard, my ex-employees, my teammates… and I looked at Scion.

There was no right answer.  No perfect battle plan on this end.  There was no time.

I exhaled slowly, forcing myself to relax.

Then I began opening portals across all of the different worlds I could reach.  I began gathering bugs en masse.

I’d heard once there were ten quintillion bugs in my world.  Eighteen zeroes.  I couldn’t control that many.  Or, to be precise, I couldn’t afford the time to collect that many.

Fourteen zeroes?  If I had a dozen worlds, each with really good swamps and rainforests to tap into, my relay bugs to help extend my pitiful, three-hundred foot range?  That was doable.

Fuck it all.  There was a time for strategy, and there was a time for the brute force approach.  Hell, the brute force approach could be called a strategy unto itself.

I’d find out about Shén Yù’s power the hard way.  He could see attacks coming.  Did it work when the attack came from every direction?

I divided the bugs into tenths.  Then I opened nine portals into the Yàngbǎn’s world.

The tenth I opened into Earth Bet, above the portal I’d reopened.

They did react.  Shén Yù did manage a nigh-instantaneous counterattack.  A hundred capes deployed to my general area, teleporting in, and then flying around with speeds that would have put them on par with cars on a highway.

I watched from a distant location as my hand clenched, squeezing the clairvoyant’s.

But I’d deployed a tenth of the bugs on my location.  I was hidden within an impenetrable cloud of bugs.  I raised Doormaker’s portals as shields around me.

Some entered the cloud, and the response was swift and brutal.  The bugs consumed them, and my minions with the tinker guns shot them.  I moved to a different world, closing the door behind me, just to make their job a little harder.

The other squadrons had their own means of defense.  One had eighty or so people burning red hot, torching the bugs by heating up the air.

I began using portals, and I captured the group.

“If you little fucks had any sense, you’d know that getting the upper hand on me, just for a moment?  It’s something you should be fucking terrified of.”

Not my voice in my head.

“Oh?  The ineffectual little girl with the bug costume is awake.”

Memories of confusion, a pain unlike any other.  Of utter helplessness.

What would my mom think to see me now?  A thought from a different moment than the others.

I used Doormaker’s portals to capture other groups, though they were more scattered.

When I had the majority of them, I turned them against the palace.

Ziggurat closed up every window and door.  The ring of Yàngbǎn members was standing now, on alert.

It hardly mattered.  They’d amassed this much sheer power, they’d controlled the people through manipulation, and now they were seeing what happened when the people turned on them.

I felt a kind of anger swelling in my breast, and I knew it wasn’t mine.

But it was still a feeling I could ride.  Something that could carry me forwards.

Fuck them.  Fuck them for not cooperating.  Fuck it all, I shouldn’t have had to go this far.

The attackers tore down one wall.  I saw one of the six mirror images of the kaleidoscope interior fade away.  The interior was heavily trapped, laced with poisons, rooms with only vacuum within and, ironically, poisonous bugs.  Had someone tried teleporting in, chances were good they would have met a grisly end.

I moved the attackers around the outside of the palace, rather than subject them to the traps.  They attacked different walls.

One wall was penetrated, and two more shares of the mirror image faded.

There was another contingent of Yàngbǎn within one of the revealed partitions.  Red masks, like the ones I’d seen in New Delhi.  A small squad of throwaways.

I controlled them too.

It wasn’t long before the last mirror images fell.

My portals ensnared the remaining Yàngbǎn in a few moments.  The fighting stopped all at once.

I added Zero, One and Two to my swarm.

Alexandria, choking on bugs.  They hated me for my arrogance.  For what I was.

I exhaled slowly.  They were a little more aware than the others.

Two’s power enhanced other powers.  Refracted throughout the Yàngbǎn, it was what allowed them to have sixty powers at one fifth of the strength instead of sixty at one sixtieth.

Her power worked on my own.  I felt my control clarify.

In front of me, One extended a hand, then carefully closed it.  I moved it experimentally, testing the range of motion.

Not as perfect as if it were my own hand, back when I had full control over it, but better.

I wouldn’t be sharing this one.  I couldn’t afford to.

Shén Yù spoke.  It didn’t sound Chinese, with the wrong cadence.  It was a question, by the sound of it, accusatory.

Maybe there was a power that would have made sense of it.  It didn’t matter.

There were five layers of overlapping hexagons, now.

I had my army.

But it wouldn’t be enough.

On to the Birdcage, I thought.

I opened portals for my swarm to pass through.

I passed through, and I found myself in the midst of ruins.

Ruins, like I’d been thinking about before I met Teacher.

I used the clairvoyant’s power to search my surroundings.

No.  The structure was only partially intact, devastated by Scion’s fury, by shockwaves and literal waves.  That it still stood was a testament to how solid it had once been.

This isn’t the Birdcage.

Gardener.  My old jail.

The disorientation rocked me.  To get my bearings, I didn’t reach for more geographical reference points, but I reached for the little anchors I’d formed instead.  I checked and double checked them until I could be sure I was stable.

For the second time, I tried to make my way to the Birdcage.

I stepped through the portal, moving myself to a peak above the Birdcage itself.  Though I couldn’t really feel it, I was aware of how cool the air was, the fact that my body, so small on that vast mountain, was sweating pretty heavily.

Being surrounded by thousands of billions of bugs had drained me more than I’d been aware.

Another weakness, another point where I’d disconnected just a bit too much.

Was my own body supposed to be an anchor?  Was that something I should cling to, at the expense of other things?

I made myself draw in a deep breath, until my chest hurt, and it still felt so paltry compared to the hundreds of people I controlled.  The view, this majestic image of the landscape, of a sky that still harbored the clouds of dust and debris from Scion’s earlier attacks… it was but one piece of a scene viewed from a hundred different pairs of eyes.  Virtually all of them had better vision than I did.  I was adrift in an ocean of input, one body, harder to control than all of the others, so easy to forget about.

I’d done it without thinking, bringing them with me.  They stood on ledges and jutting rocks all over the peak, surrounding me.  More than anything else, I could feel their fear.  With so many of them, it was indistinct.

I forced my own head to move, felt the crick in my neck, where I hadn’t really moved my head in a long time.

The ones who were still in the Birdcage were the ones the cell block leaders had felt apprehensive about.  Not necessarily stronger, but less predictable, less reliable.  More of a danger than a help, if given free reign.

As far as I could tell, it was the last large group of experienced capes I could collect.

I opened a portal within the Birdcage, to capture my first prisoner.

Containment foam rained down from the ceiling, sealing him in place.

Dragon, I thought.

I didn’t make another move.  I waited.  I’d expected this.  It was why I’d come here in person.  I could use the clairvoyant’s power and see a hangar in one mountain valley opening up.

It took only a minute.  A small armored suit arrived, a fast-moving model rather than a heavy combat model, much like the one she’d used to counteract our first attack on the Brockton Bay PRT headquarters.

It perched on a rock in front of me.

Dragon’s weapons were primed and ready to fire, the threat implict.  When she spoke, her voice as clear as a bell in the clear mountain air.

It was the same language Shén Yù had spoken to me.  The same incomprehensible language Teacher had lapsed into.

English.

When I met Dragon’s eyes with my own, my head shook with the shock I felt.  I might have collapsed, numb, if I hadn’t been holding on to the clairvoyant, with Doormaker gripping my belt.

It was the anger that kept me going.  I’d felt a glimmer of it when attacking the palace.  I’d felt it when dealing with capes and civilians every damn step of the way.  The only thing I wanted was for everyone to do what they were supposed to do.  To be good and to be fair, feed the hungry, give shelter, to fix the things that were broken and to fucking band together against the real monsters.  Save the world.  For the world to make some damn sense.

I found myself chuckling a little, and it was just as displaced and not-quite right as any of my individual movements.  Off kilter, more like I was doing a bad job of acting than real laughter.

I couldn’t stop it, even as I tried to pull myself together.  I turned my face towards the sky, my eyes streaming.  Her voice continued, insistent, the gentleness giving way to concern.

Hardly the last injustice I’d have to face down in the coming hours, but it was a front runner for the biggest.  The most decent damn person I’d ever met, and she wasn’t even human.  She was the only person who was definitely still alive who’d helped me without an iota of selfishness.

I couldn’t negotiate my way out of this.  Even with the rapport we’d established, I couldn’t trust her to give me the benefit of a doubt.

As much as I didn’t want to, I knew that the only way forward would be to destroy her.

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Speck 30.2

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We were broken, routed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bisected.

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

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

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

Scion’s a ghost, it’s a mask.

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

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

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

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

Damn straight.

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

Capes were taking the opportunity to flee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could get a sense of their powers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laughter disturbed me from my thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

No.  They aren’t meat shields.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A teleporter with a somewhat irritating limitation.

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

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

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

Then he wheeled around.  His eyes passed over Acidbath.

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

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

Or Pretender, whoever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poison?  Paralytic?

Being inside the building Coil had set on fire.

Incendiary?  Blinding?

The hospital bed-

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

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

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

Coagulants, I thought.  Painkillers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

I shook my head a little.

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

I glanced at her.

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

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

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

I nodded a little.  I could almost see it.

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

She trailed off, grasping for a word.

Understudy?

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

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

Not a big reaction, but it was a reaction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, you understood.  Good.”

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

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

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

I clenched my one fist.

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

I shook my head slowly.

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

I shook my head, still.

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

“A warning,” Glaistig Uaine said.

I gave her my full attention.

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

“Hng,” I mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I told myself I wasn’t abandoning them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know who I am, I thought.

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

Oh.

Were the protocols in effect because of me?

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

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

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

Right.  Lovely.

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

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

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

Could she teleport where she couldn’t see?

I focused our attention on the interior of the Pendragon.

She closed the circuit, and we were inside.

My bugs could sense the soldiers reacting.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Dragon said.  “Of course.”

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

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

The laptop booted.  I froze.

Oh.  Damn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My fingers touched the display.  Faces.

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” she asked.

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

I tapped my phone against the screen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intense?  Focused?  Determined?

Fatalistic?  More crazy than less?

I held her gaze.

Again, I tapped the phone against the computer screen.

It chirped.  The data had been loaded onto it.

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

I nodded.

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

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

C.U.I.

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

I shook my head.

My phone chirped again.

Others.  More targets.  The Birdcage.

Another chirp.

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

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

I met Dragon’s eyes.

“I wish you could explain,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I passed beside the Simurgh as I flew.  Checking.

No control.

I plummeted.

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

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

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

Too many patients, on top of Panacea and Bonesaw.

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

“No,” Marquis said.

I ignored him.

“My daughter-”

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

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

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

“Taylor-” Tattletale said.

I ignored her too.

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

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

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

“Catch on?” Marquis asked.

Tattletale didn’t answer him.

I was pretty sure I had it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I didn’t need to go that far.

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

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

Tempered confidence, even now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I opened a doorway and passed through.

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

This next bit was going to be easier.

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Venom 29.3

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

“I can see that,” I said.

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

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

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

I kept my mouth shut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m nothing special.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I know exactly what you mean.”

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

“But you can’t dwell on it,” I said.

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

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

“Have you?  Made peace with it?”

“I’m on my way there, Legend.”

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

I looked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cauldron’s portals.”

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

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

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

Eat fresh?  I thought.  Not likely.

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

Nilbog, engaged in conversation with Glaistig Uaine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

“But?”

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re acting,” Legend said.

“We’re reacting.”

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

I shook my head.  “Nothing definitive.”

“Even something that isn’t definitive.”

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

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

He smiled, and I smiled a little too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doubts Saint had seeded dissipated.

Ninety percent of them.

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

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

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

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

I frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A weakness?”  Chevalier asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragon reached out to grab and squeeze his hand.

“What do you need?” Defiant asked me.

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

Me?”  Canary squeaked.

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

“And if you can’t access Cauldron?” Chevalier asked.  “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but your actions when you assumed control of the Simurgh were… heavy handed.  You told an ex-teammate in the Wards that you weren’t intending to be a hero anymore.  I don’t want to tell you I won’t cooperate any more than I want to tell anyone I won’t cooperate, but you’d be asking us to put a fair amount of power in your hands by sending capes your way.  I… don’t know that I feel confident sending capes to you, if I don’t know how they’ll be put to use.”

“Would you allow me to talk to other capes?” I asked.  “You don’t have to send them my way, but maybe I could inquire?”

“I’m not going to stand in anyone’s way,” Chevalier said.  “I’m not the bad guy, here.  But I’ve got to lead this battle, and I’ve got to do what I can to make sure things don’t get worse.  If a cape needs to go, if they don’t have the courage to stand and fight, I’m not going to make them.  I’ll try to convince them otherwise, but I won’t make them.  And if they think they’ll be more useful elsewhere, I won’t stop them there, either.”

I nodded.  “I’ll settle for that.”

“What else?”

“Access to computers,” I said.  “Tools.  Resupplies.  The Dragonfly.”

He reached out of his pocket and withdrew a knife.  He reversed it and extended it to me, handle first.

I reached for the weapon, then saw Defiant pull his hand back.  “Be aware of the safety and the activation switch.”

I saw one of the switches, then took hold of the knife.

“Keep it away from heat.  If the growths start knuckling together, then it’s probably clogged at the air intake.  You can unscrew the cap at the butt of the knife and access the air intake there.  Bake it at roughly five hundred degrees to clear it, then thoroughly vacuum.  Pay attention to how long it takes the growths to hit maximum length… you’ll know because the colors at the ends are a lighter gray.  Three point seven seconds is the optimum time.  If it takes shorter then you’ll know something’s wrong with-“

“The knife won’t degrade too much in the next day,” Dragon said.  “And we have spares, thanks to Masamune.”

“You didn’t make this much of a fuss with my flight pack,” I said.

“I included documentation,” Defiant said.

“Thank you,” I said.  I found the holster for my old knife, then put it through the belt at my back, holstering the new knife.

“Where’s the Dragonfly?” he asked.  I pointed.

Dragon said something in Japanese to Masamune and Black Kaze.  There were two nods.

Defiant led the way to the Dragonfly, all business, Dragon, Canary, Tattletale, and me following.  He seemed almost happy to have something to focus on.  A problem that could be solved.

Did he genuinely trust me?  Was there a modicum of hope, here, with me mobilizing to go look into the Cauldron situation?

He continued to hold his weapon, though the fight wasn’t about to start.

I could imagine his outlook, the security the weapon afforded him, a hundred solutions in his hands.  The ability to defend himself, to defend others, to move out of the way of danger.  It made sense.

Dragon, conversely… what was her security blanket?

Different.  I couldn’t put my thumb on it.  But she’d lost to Saint, to the Dragonslayers.  She’d been taken captive, effectively killed.  Killed by a man who saw her as subhuman.

She’d been altered by Teacher.  Not so much she was a slave to him, but something had happened, and that was no doubt a large part of how she was disconnected from reality in the here and now.

I looked back at Saint, Masamune and Black Kaze.  Saint was taking a seat, his back to a chunk of destroyed aircraft, cross-legged.  Calm, relaxed.

“How can you stand to be near them?” I asked.

“Keep your enemies closer,” Dragon said, her voice tight.

“Don’t forget about the friends part,” I said.

She shook her head a little.  “I won’t.”

“When we were waiting for the fight to start, I went around, looking for people I needed to thank.  Important people to me, people who I wasn’t sure I’d get a chance to talk to again.  I missed a few important ones.  My dad… you two.  I know the only reason I got my shot at being a hero, the only reason I didn’t go to jail, was because you vouched for me, because you agreed to cart me back and forth and interrupt your schedule.  I probably didn’t even deserve it, but you backed me up.  I’m just… I’ve never been good at saying thank you and sounding as sincere as I feel.”

“I think we benefited as much as you did,” Dragon said.  “You needed to join the Wards to… make amends, shall we say?  It was the same for us.”

“For me,” Defiant cut in.

“I had my own regrets,” Dragon said.

“You had no choice.”

“Regrets nonetheless,” she said, again.  Her head turned towards Canary, and Canary smiled just a little.  Dragon then looked to me.

Was it possible for an artificial human to look weary?  To look wounded, in the sense that she was bearing some grievous injury from recent events?

We’d stopped outside the Dragonfly.  I bid the ramp to open, controlling the bugs in the operating mechanism.

Then, as it opened, I impulsively gave Dragon a hug.  Returning a favor she’d given me some time ago.

“Let’s get you set up,” Defiant said.

“Hook me in while you’re at it?” Tattletale made it a question.  “Whatever you need to do, so I can communicate with her and her peeps.”

“I’ll see to it.”

Tattletale glanced at me.  “Ops?”

“Please.”

We circled twice before coming in for a landing.  A cave just above water level, inaccessible except from the air.

The receiving party consisted of Exalt and Revel from the Protectorate core group, with half of the Vegas team.  Nix, Leonid, Floret and Spur.  Vantage was waving a rod around, listening to steady beeps.

“Oh god, finallySomething to take my mind off the beeping,” Floret said.  She was petite, her hair in carefully layered waves of pink, with green at the roots.

“Find anything?” I asked.

“No signs of any portals that have been opened in the past.  Harder than cracking Dodger’s gateways, apparently,” Vantage said.  “Or they gave us bad instructions.  How’re you doing, Weaver?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Wearing black,” he said.

“Is everyone going to comment on that?” I asked.

“It’s comment worthy.  How’d the fight… nevermind.  I can guess.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Grim group,” Floret commented.  “I know black’s ‘in’ with the end of the world, but damn.  Only one person with style.”

I looked over my shoulder.  Golem, in silver and gunmetal, his mask solemn.  Cuff, again, in a dark metal costume.  Imp, with her dark gray mask and black bodysuit that actually fit her.  Shadow Stalker, in a black, form-fitting bodysuit like the one I’d given Imp, along with a flowing cloak with a heavy hood.  All spidersilk, but the mask was hers, as was the crossbow.  Rachel followed, her jacket, tank top and pants black, only the fur ruff at her shoulders, where it flowed around the edges of her hood, was white.  Huntress and Bastard flanked her.  Lung was still inside the Dragonfly, but I knew he had only his mask and jeans on.  Barefoot, shirtless.

Canary was the only one, apparently, who met Floret’s standards.  Yellow body armor, her helmet in one hand, her hair and feathers free.

“I remember you,” Spur said.  He smiled.  Teeth that had been professionally done, no doubt.  He wasn’t bad looking, but not quite my type.  Spiky hair, and a costume that mingled barbed wire tattoos with real barbed wire, where his skin was exposed.  Mid twenties, with hair bleached to a near-white and acid washed jeans.  His mask was simple, black, covering the upper half of his face, with only a circle of barbed wire at the brow.  A trademark of thinker powers, to do the whole forehead thing.  A precog who was most effective in the midst of chaos and heightened emotions, and fairly competent otherwise.  “Bad Canary?”

Canary’s eyes widened.  “You remember my stage name?”

“You were famous,” he said.  “The whole trial thing.  You-“

Canary’s expression fell.

“-got robbed,” he said.

Dick,” Floret said.  “Like that’s how she wants to be remembered.”

“I remember the music too,” he protested.

“Yeah,” Canary said.  She rubbed the back of her neck, avoiding eye contact.  “It doesn’t matter anyways, does it?  Long time ago, and we’ve got better things to worry about.”

Vulgarishous,” he said.  “Ur-soundLineless?”

“You’re probably cheating,” she said.

“I could sing the lyrics,” he answered.

“It would make me sure you’re cheating.  I barely remember the lyrics.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Spur answered her.  “Eh, guys?  Back me up.  My power doesn’t give me a way to cheat, does it?”

“No,” Floret said.  “He’s genuine.  And none of us have ways to clue him in.”

I glanced at Revel, who only rolled her eyes a little.  Exalt looked bored.  He saw me looking and commented, “It’s fine here.  We’re using substandard tools to find a portal that used to exist, and we don’t know exactly where it was.”

Imp pushed her mask up until it sat on top of her head.  “Finding a transparent needle outside of the haystack.”

“Well put,” Leonine said.

“Don’t encourage her,” I told him.

He only smiled, which made Imp smirk at me in turn.

Spur was murmuring the lyrics to the song, and he was actually doing a good job of it.  Canary was trying to look like she wasn’t pleased as punch.  It was cute.  Cute and just a little ominous, considering who these guys were.

Some things had come to light after they’d departed their positions in the Protectorate and Wards.  Nothing definitive, but it raised questions that had yet to be answered.  Questions that would probably never be answered, now that evidence lockers and court records throughout Earth Bet had been obliterated.  Problems that had resolved themselves just a little too neatly.  People, both bad guys and witnesses, who’d disappeared.

“If I’m the lion, and you’re the goat…” Leonine was saying.

“I guarantee I’m more dangerous than you,” Imp retorted.

I could sense others in the group getting restless.

“We’ll let you know if anything turns up,” Revel said, as if she’d sensed it.  She smiled a little, a bit awkward, or apologetic.  “Don’t let us waste your time.  It’s the end of the world, spend it with people you care about.”

Her eyes moved to Cuff and Golem, who were hanging back.  The pair were the heroes of our group, so to speak.  They’d feel the betrayal of the Vegas capes more sharply, even now.  They looked at each other.

I did too.  Not that I counted myself as a hero.  But I’d been there.

“I could come with,” Exalt said.  “If you’re going back.  I’m only here to relieve Revel.  I’ll be able to participate in the coming fight.”

“Sure,” I said.  “But I’d like to hear the password.  From Revel.”

“Good thinking.  Belord, six-two, spauld,” she said.

“On my seventeenth birthday,” I said.  “What color was the cake?”

“Seriously?” she asked.  “Do you even remember?  I should get a brownie point for this one.  Because I care about my Wards.  It was white.”

“The frosting?” I asked.

“Blue,” she said, sounding just a bit put out.  “And you barely ate any.”

I nodded, satisfied.  “And… Leonine.”

Me?”  Leonine laughed a bit.  “What kind of shenanigans do you think we’re pulling?”

“He’s one of the Vegas capes,” Imp said, speaking very slowly, like I was mentally disabled.

“I know he’s one of the Vegas capes.  But I think I have to cover all of the bases.  Who was your kindergarten teacher?”

“You researched that?” Spur asked.  “Dug through our entire histories to find something obscure?”

He sounded offended.  Every head had turned his way.

“Do you have a problem with that?”  I asked.

He frowned, but he shook his head, sticking his hands in his pockets as he leaned against the wall beside Canary.  “No.  No problem.”

“Richie,” Leonine said.  “Mrs. Richie.”

“Great,” I said.  “Great.  Now let’s drop the fucking act.”

“I gave you the answer you wanted,” Leonine said, smirking.  “What the fuck?”

“Spur?” I said, “Raise your right hand?”

He did.  There were bugs on the fingers.

“He was moving his hand.  A one-handed sign language.  I assume everyone on your team knows it.”

“I was thinking of Canary’s music,” Spur told me.  He stepped forward, putting a hand on Canary’s shoulder as he did so.  She turned, so they were both facing me.  “Piano keys.  Mnemonic tool.  That is something our team uses.”

“You’re being a little crazy paranoid,” Imp said.  “Just a little.”

“They’ve been playing us since the start,” I said.  “The men were batting their eyelashes at you and Canary, probably the targets they thought they could work.  Revel… I’d think she’s under some kind of compulsion.”

“A lot crazy,” Imp said.  “Way crazy.”

“Maybe Tattletale can chime in,” I suggested.  “Tattle?”

Mostly right.  Exalt, Revel, Vantage, Leonine, Floret, all fakes.”

“No shit,” Imp said.  Her mouth dropped open.  “No way.”

“Jig’s up,” I said.  “We know.”

One by one, the Vegas capes changed.  Flesh altered, and they assumed identical appearances.

Six copies of Satyrical.  Leaving only Spur and Nix.

One of the Satyricals looked at the two who remained.  “Take care of yourself.  I’ll see you shortly.”

“I know,” Spur said.

Satyr looked at us, as if taking us all in.  “And you, I suppose, we’ll run into.  Sooner or later.”

Then the Satyrs died.  Flesh withered, and the Satyrs crumpled up.  They made bloody messes as they hit the ground, like overripe tomatoes might, but with teeth and the occasional bit of withered organ.

Self duplication, and each duplicate had shapeshifting abilities.

I bent down and picked up the devices from the heads of Revel, Exalt and Vantage’s clones.  Earbuds, phones…

“Revel,” Cuff said, her voice small.

“Where are the real ones?” Golem asked.

“With the real Satyr,” I guessed.

“And how did he know the passwords?” Golem asked.

He guessed the cake thing through cold reading.  White with blue, like Weaver’s costume.  Made sense.  That Taylor didn’t eat much… well, look at herThe rest… torture?  Coercion through other means?”

“Torture?” I asked.

Spur raised his chin a bit, but didn’t do or say anything to suggest otherwise.

“Ew.”  Imp said, under her breath, “Ew, ew, ew.  He’s like, forty?  And he was hitting on me.”

“Where’s the portal?” I asked Spur, ignoring Imp.

“No portal.  Or weren’t you paying attention?”

I looked at Nix.  “You know where this goes, if you don’t cooperate.  Circumstances are a little too dire.  We knock you out, your power fades.  So why don’t you drop the illusion and let us see the portal?”

“My power stays up while I’m out,” she said.

I drew my knife.  The one that wasn’t special.

“Woah,” Golem said.  He put his hand on my wrist.  “Woah, woah, woah.”

“She’s bluffing,” Spur said, unfazed.  “She’s scary, she’s got a reputation, but she’s bluffing here.  There’s no way she follows through.”

“I think you’re badly underestimating how pissed off I am,” I said.  I was surprised at just how right I was.  The mounting anger caught me off guard.  “Doing this, screwing around, stabbing people in the back, screwing with the system when we’re trying to save humanity?”

“We’re saving it too,” Spur said.  “Satyr, the others, they’ve got this situation handled.  Give them… two or three more hours, and the threats are going to be dealt with, Cauldron will be secure, or as secure as they can be, after you account for injuries and deaths at the hands of the invading group.  You go in there, you’re just going to muck up a delicate exfiltration operation.”

“Invading?” Golem asked.

“The deviants.  The case-fifty-threes.  Weld’s group.”

Weld?  No.  He’d been one of the only decent ones out there, during my stay in Brockton Bay.  Respectable, honest, kind.  He’d saluted me the first time we’d crossed paths, because we were both going up against an Endbringer.

Fuck it all.

Either Spur was fucking with me, or things were fucked.  Fuck it all.

“People like you are the reason we deserve to lose,” I said, gripping the knife.  “Every step of the way, it’s been people refusing to cooperate, refusing to talk plain truth.  From day one, even.  You’re the reason humanity deserves to get wiped out.”

“Great,” he said.  “You’re still not going to use that knife on either of us.”

It was said with the smug tone of someone who could see the future.

I glanced at Canary.  I could see the hurt on her face.

“I get it,” Spur said.  “See it coming.  If it helps, I do remember the music.”

Rachel stepped forward, giving me a little push to get me out of the way, and then slugged him.

He dropped, unconscious.

Golem set about binding him to the cave floor with hands of stone.

I looked at Nix.  “Her too.”

Golem reached into his costume, and hands of stone gripped Nix.

“To the ceiling,” I decided, at the last second.

“Sure,” Golem said.  Hands of stone emerged, passing Nix up.  She struggled a bit, but she was at an unsafe height by the time she realized what he was doing.

She was bound to the cave ceiling with armholds, leg holds and an arm set across her collarbone.

“What the hell?” she asked.

“I don’t think any of your friends have powers that can break those hands,” I said.

“The hell?” she asked, again.  She tested her bonds.  “The fuck?”

“You better hope we make it out okay,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“Pretty sure it’s to your left.  Start by going ten paces that way.”

I nodded.

We followed the directions.

The illusion broke, dissolving into harmless smoke, as we reached it and pressed hard enough against the wall in question.

With the barrier gone, I could feel the warm air from within, see a dark hallway without lights.

I looked at my teammates.

Maybe humanity deserves to lose, but these guys are why we’re going to win, I promised myself.

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Venom 29.1

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Tattletale stirred.  I could see the usual confusion that went with waking up in unfamiliar surroundings.  She adjusted faster than most.  There was no flailing about for a point of reference so everything could start to make sense again.  Her power supplied it.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” I replied.

“Think the world’s going to end today?”  she asked, as she stretched, still lying down.

“World already ended, if we’re talking about our world.  Too much damage done.”

“Maybe,” she said.  “Humans are resourceful.  Resourceful and stubborn.  But you kind of live that, don’t you?”

I nodded.  “Guess so.”

Tattletale picked a bit of grit out of the corner of her eye with a fingernail.  “You didn’t sleep.”

“Not so much.”

“Idiot.”

“I’ve learned to deal.  Pulled enough stakeouts to adapt.”

“Idiot,” Tattletale said again.  She raised herself to a sitting position.  “You need to be in top fighting shape.”

“I slept for three days after getting cut in half,” I protested.

“Only shows how much you needed the sleep,” she said.

“The Simurgh was being eerie, singing you a lullaby.  You really expect me to sleep after that?”

“The lullaby wasn’t for me,” Tattletale said.  “And I didn’t sense any hostile intent.”

I turned my head.  My expression was hidden, but she read my confusion anyways.

“I mean, I think some of it was for my benefit, but it didn’t fit like that was the be-all and end-all of the singing.  She was doing something else.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Neither do I.  But she’s not exactly an easy one to get.  Who knows what she sees?  Maybe she’s singing for a reason that isn’t apparent yet?”

That was unsettling.  I thought of what the Simurgh had said.

It didn’t serve to keep secrets right now.  It’d be disastrous in the worst case scenario, and Tattletale was the best person to go to when I needed answers.  “She apologized.”

“The Simurgh?” Tattletale asked.  She gave me a funny look.

“Believe it or not.  She said ‘I’m sorry’.”

“She doesn’t talk,” Tattletale said.

“I know.  But I heard it.”

“Anyways, she isn’t sorry,” Tattletale said.  “I’d put money on it.  I’ve got a lot of money to put on it, if anyone’s willing to take the bet.  Couple million in liquid assets.”

I shook my head.  “I won’t take that bet.  Look, just keep it in mind.”

“Filed away,” Tattletale promised.

“For now though, we should mobilize,” I said, as if I could distract myself.  “Get everyone on the same page, start putting heads and powers together.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Tattletale responded.  She pulled off a glove, then reached into her belt to get a small tin from one pouch.  “Two minutes to get myself presentable.  Could do with a shower, but I think people are a little past that right now.”

I nodded.  Most of the capes I’d seen were just a little rougher around the edges.  The shine gone from their costumes, a little dustier, their hair greasier, chins unshaven.  Psychologically, it was much the same.

This had hit all of us hard.  I liked to think I was rolling with it better than some, if only because I’d had two years to anticipate it.  Then again, I was good at self-delusion.

I thought about Clockblocker, his optimism.  When I’d been talking about expecting the worst, he’d argued for the opposite.  I didn’t want to diminish what I felt about him being dead in the general sense by thinking about something so petty, but a part of me was disappointed I couldn’t talk to him now, after the fact, and see how he was doing.  If he was coping better than I had.

It wasn’t that I was coping, exactly.  I wasn’t happy, confident or unafraid.  The only thing I could say was that I’d been able to brace myself.  I’d bought into Dinah’s prophecy more than just about anyone else.  I’d braced myself and I’d nearly broken, regardless.  I could tell myself that the point where I’d been floating over the ocean by New Brockton Bay had only been a desire to get away, nothing darker, but I wasn’t sure I was telling myself the truth.  I could think back to the point where I’d snapped after being cut in half by Scion and tell myself I was lucid, but I wasn’t sure that was true either.

Hard to say I’d held my own when I wasn’t sure how much of it was me and how much was the adrenaline at work.  Or other things.

Any opinion, passenger?  I asked.  We’re going up against your maker.  You going to hold back or are you going to go all-out?

No response, of course.

Tattletale was smearing black greasepaint around her eyes.  She’d finished the hardest part, around the eyelashes, and spoke up as she filled the rest in,  “You get in touch with everyone you wanted to talk to?”

“Almost everyone.”

“Ah.  I can guess who you didn’t actively look for.  This denial worries me.”

I shrugged.

“No use dwelling on it.  Your decision in the end.  Let’s move on to a happier topic.  You ever think we’d make it this far?”

“To the end of the world?”  That’s a happier topic?

“To the top of the heap.  As far up there as we could hope to be.”

“We’re not big leaguers, Tattletale.  Not the most powerful capes out there.”

“But we’re talked about around the world.  We’re on speaking terms with some of the biggest and scariest motherfuckers out there.”  Tattletale gestured towards the window.  Towards the Simurgh.  “We’d be front page news, if the news still existed.”

“I’m not sure being news would be a good thing,” I said.  “Which isn’t to say word isn’t getting around, you know.  Charlotte knew.”

“Charlotte’s connected to Sierra and the rest of our infrastructure in Gimel.  That doesn’t really surprise me,” Tattletale said.  She pulled her hair out of the loose ponytail she’d had it in, then combed her fingers through it to get it more or less straight.  It still had kinks and waves where it had been braided.  Something she would have fixed before going out in costume in more ordinary circumstances, for caution’s sake.

“Mm,” I acknowledged her.  Maybe I was tired.  My thoughts were wandering some.

“I tried to set things up so we’d have some way of maintaining communications and getting some information in, getting information out.  Like, I told people about what you said about Scion hating duplication powers.  Anyways, only the very high tech and very low tech have really survived.  Satellites and hard copies.”  She lifted one of the files I’d stacked on the floor, as if to give evidence to the point. “Reading up?”

I picked up a file as well, leafing through it.  “I wasn’t sleeping, so while you were out, I got in touch with Defiant and one of your minions, arranged for only the most essential status updates to come in on paper.  I figured I could update you after you got up.  The deliveries stopped a good bit ago, but one of the last status updates was about Dragon, so I guess she’s handling her old duties while Defiant recuperates from the last few days.”

“Guess so,” Tattletale said.  I turned my head to see what she was doing, but she was already crossing the room.

“Doormaker is napping as well, I guess,” I said.  “He just decided to leave one open, and he hasn’t been responding.  I double checked the portal, making sure he wasn’t trying to tip us off to anything important, but it opens to a pretty remote area of Earth Bet.”

Tattletale went still, “Doormaker doesn’t sleep.”

I raised my eyebrows, realized Tattletale couldn’t see them, and cocked my head quizzically instead.

“There’re lots of capes who don’t sleep.  About a year ago, I started digging into the PRT files.  Hired the Red Hands to steal a more up to date set, even.  I was looking into clues for understanding this whole thing, y’know?  Best leads at the time were memories and dreams.  Clues popping up here and there, relating to people’s dreams, or gaps in memories.  Dreaming differently, seeing things instead of dreaming, case fifty-threes suffering from their amnesia… Well, there are a number of ‘Noctis’ cases.  Named after a vigilante hero that was up at all hours.  The opposite of what I was looking for, but a good data point anyways: capes who don’t dream because they don’t sleep.  PRT confirmed a few members of their own, Miss Militia included, as examples.  Others have only been marked down as guesses.  Doormaker and Contessa were among them, they said, going by the times the ‘bogeyman’ was showing up.”

“So if he doesn’t sleep, why leave a door open and ignore us?” Tattletale asked.

I shook my head a little.

“Doorway,” Tattletale tried.

There was no response.  No portal, no door.

“Door?  Portal?  Open sesame?”  I tried.

“That’s worrisome,” Tattletale said, keeping her voice low.  She clipped on her belt, tapping each of the pockets, as if to check the contents were still there.  She drew her gun and checked it for bullets.

“We should go,” I said.

“We’re definitely going,” Tattletale said, but she didn’t budge as she double-checked her gun, pulling the slide back.  I resisted the urge to comment on just how useless a gun was, considering what we were up against; I could remember how she’d fared when the assassin targeted her, Accord and Chevalier.

There were other threats.

“Right,” Tattletale said, finally finishing, grabbing her laptop and tucking it under one arm.

That was our go signal.  We broke into stride.

We passed a soldier, and Tattletale signaled him, raising a finger.  He stopped and wheeled around, following.

“We’re going,” Tattletale said.  “Ship up, move out.  If we come back and settle in here, then so be it, but let’s not plan on it.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Get someone to collect my things.  All the files, the computers, the food.  Everything.  Get it all to the far side of the little doorway…”  Tattletale looked at me.  “Where’s the doorway?”

“A bit outside the front doors,” I said.

“What she said,” Tattletale told her mercenary.  “If we’re gone, just hold position.  If we’re still gone after twenty four hours, assume we’re dead.  Get my data and the backups of my notes to someone who matters, then consider the job done, collect your payment, go on your merry way.”

“I’ll make sure everyone’s informed.”

“Do,” she said.  Then, as if to offset the curt command, she added, “Thanks, Tug.”

He gave us a sloppy salute as he broke away, turning down a different corridor.

I had my phone out before I was outside.  My bugs let me navigate the stairs without taking my eyes from the screen, as I input commands.  It was cold out, almost cold enough it would impair my bugs, and a heavy fog hung in the open clearing.  The stout military building stood in an open, overgrown grassland, encircled by evergreen trees.

No reception.  Not a surprise, but inconvenient.  I watched as we got closer to the portal Doormaker had left open.

Tattletale, for her part, turned around, walking backwards as we reached the bottom of the steps.  With the phone still dark, I took a moment to look in the same direction.  I was treated to the intimidating image of the Simurgh passing over the building.  She moved as if she were as light as a feather, but I knew that wasn’t true.  She was heavier than she looked, by a considerable margin.  Had she set her full weight on the roof, she would plunge through.

Like someone playing hopscotch on the moon, the Simurgh set one foot down on the roof, hopping forward, set another foot on the very edge and pushed herself off.  She floated down to the space beside the portal, then unfolded her wings, drawing the halo out to its full breadth.  The movements sent swirls of dust and fog rippling across the edges of the clearing, stopping only as they crashed into the line of trees.

“She changed the guns?” I observed.

“She did,” Tattletale observed, “Cosmetic changes.”

Each of the Simurgh’s guns had been streamlined, the outer casings, barrels and handles reworked into wings.  Three concentric circles of interconnected guns, all redesigned to appear like an extension of her own wings, behind her.

“Why cosmetic?”

“Way I understand it, she needs to have a tinker in her sphere of influence to borrow their schematics, or a specific device, if she wants to copy it.  Thinkers, too, I think she borrows their perception powers as long as she’s tapped into them.  Might be why she’s attached to me.  Either way, she didn’t have schematics or anything she’d need to modify the guns.”

“Or she can modify them, and it’s a card she’s been keeping up her sleeve for the last while.  I mean, it was only three years ago or whatever that she really showed off her ability to copy a tinker’s work wholesale.”

Tattletale nodded.  She frowned.  “I don’t like being in the dark.  But that’s the gist of it.  She made cosmetic changes because she couldn’t make concrete ones.”

“Well, it’s unnerving to think about, but anything about the Simurgh is,” I commented.  “When I asked about the aesthetics, though, I wasn’t asking about the why so much as the…”

“So much as the why?”  Tattletale asked, emphasizing the word.

“Yeah,” I said, lamely.  “Why does she care?”

“Why does she have feathers and wings?  For all intents and purposes, she could be a crystal that floats here and there.  The end result is pretty much the same.  A few less weapons.  Behemoth?  I mean, you saw what he was, when we reduced him to a bare skeleton.  All the extra flesh, it’s decorative.  He doesn’t really need any particular parts, except legs to move around.”

“It’s there to dress them up so they make better terror weapons,” I said.

“Basically,” Tattletale said.

“That’s not a good omen,” I said.  “Because Scion doesn’t feel fear.  I’m pretty sure.”

“Maybe he doesn’t, and this is a little embellishment for our sake, for when she turns on us,” Tattletale said.

“Can you not spell that out when she’s standing twenty feet away?” I asked.  My pulse picked up a little at the idea, my heart kicking a little in my chest as it switched to a different gear.

“She knows we’re thinking it,” Tattletale said.  “And she knows there’s another explanation we could make.  Maybe it’s a clue.  A hint.”

“About what?” I asked.  “About Scion?”

“About Scion,” she said.

A hint that he can feel fear?  It didn’t ring true, but I preferred it to the alternative.

“Let’s go through and…” I said.  I couldn’t bring myself to say I hoped.  “…Maybe the Simurgh can make her way through the portal, and maybe we’ll find out.”

“Yep,” Tattletale said, smiling a little.  She probably knew the reasoning behind my word choice.

For that matter, it was very possible the Simurgh did too.

Which left me with the question of why I’d even bothered.

Going through, I thought.  Hopefully there’s people on the other side that can’t read me like a book.

My phone lit up as a connection was established to a satellite.

A moment later, the connection was secured.

The clock changed, followed by a time zone and a symbol.  Four forty-six, Eastern standard time, Earth Bet.

I stared at the world that stretched out before us, and it was wrong.  Perspective was skewed.  Lines bent where they should have been straight, and the expanse to our left was somehow more extensive than the space to our right.

The horizon should have been straight, or at least a gentle curve to accomodate the planet’s natural curvature, but it was almost a wavy line.

“The fuck?” I muttered.

“Vista,” Tattletale said, very matter-of-factly.

The Simurgh reached the portal.  I was reminded of Leviathan breaking into the shelter beneath the library as I saw her put one hand on each side of the portal.  She wasn’t quite as large as he was, until you added up the wings and wingspan.  Put all the wings together, and her mass was probably equivalent to her older brother’s.

She passed through with little effort, dropping almost to her knees to get her head through.  The wings followed, each wing stretched all the way behind her.  The feathers rasped against the boundaries of the portal as she floated forward.

The outer edges wavered a fraction, as if the stress threatened to bring the portal down entirely.

Then she was through.  She flexed her wings, then folded them around herself.  The halo came through in pieces.

“That answers that,” Tattletale said.  She added a very unenthusiastic, “Yay.”

The Dragonfly made its way to us, stopping no less than four times.  With each stop, it descended to the ground and refused all incoming commands.  A minute would pass, and then it would take off again.

It took me a bit to realize why.

Vista.  The autopilot didn’t seem to like her power.

“Just how much area is she manipulating?” I asked.

“She was only ever held back by the Manton effect,” Tattletale said.  “Number of people in the area.”

“And there’s not many people left in Bet,” I spoke my thoughts aloud, as I made the connection.

“Consider it a bonus,” Tattletale said, raising her head as the Dragonfly came into view, “In a sad, not-really-a-bonus sort of way.  Empty earth makes for a convenient battleground.  If we’re able to fight here, that is.”

The Dragonfly set down, the ramp opening before it was even on terra firma.

It took a minute to plot out the route the Dragonfly should take, looking at what the cameras had tracked, seeing where the distortions were.

“Something’s really wrong,” Tattletale said.

“With the distortions?”

“The distortions are a band-aid.  Vista’s trying to fix something that’s gotten fucked up,” she said.  “How do you plot the course?”

I mapped out a course to take us to the Gimel portal.

Tattletale changed the course, adjusting it to match the distortions we’d mapped and some we hadn’t.

It took several minutes, all in all, but the resulting trip was fast.  The Dragonfly’s onboard system kept trying to calculating the remaining time for the trip based on our location, only to get tripped up by the folded and pinched space.

Then we hit Silkroad’s power, and accelerated to nearly three times the speed.  Tattletale was caught off guard, standing beside my chair, and fell, dropping her laptop onto the hard floor.

Both the distortion and Silkroad’s power stopped when we were a distance from the portal.  The effect was disorienting.

Corridors of folded space with the dim pink corridors of Silkroad’s power stretched out in every direction.  Connecting points.

Towers surrounded Brockton Bay, set on mountaintops and high ground within the city itself.  It necessitated a careful approach.  As we passed between two, I saw that they were communication towers, crafted to put satellite dishes at high points rather than provide shelter.

The craft settled down, and we climbed out.  They’d finished the ramp leading up to the portal, and it was easy enough to make our way up.  I opted to walk beside Tattletale instead of use up my jetpack’s fuel.

Twelve percent capacity remaining.  An hour or two of flight.

Vista stood at the top of the platform, on our side of the portal.  A Chinese woman in an elaborate Sari-style dress stood beside her, as did a man I recognized as the Knave of Hearts from the Suits.  Others were nearby, but seemed less like part of the group and more like bystanders.  Kid Win was sitting at the edge of the platform, tools and a gun in his lap, abandoned as he stared at the Simurgh.

The Knave of Hearts muttered something in what I was guessing was Dutch.  Louder, he commented, “They weren’t joking.”

“What happened?”  I asked, the second we had their attention.

“Cauldron’s running with their tail between their legs,” Vista said.  “Big promises, excuses about having all the power and being the only ones who can really put the screws to Scion, and then they run at the last minute.”

“Let us not be hasty,” the Knave of Hearts said.  “It is possible Scion hit their headquarters.  We won’t know until we have more information.”

“We can’t get information,” Vista said.  “Because they never gave us a better way of getting in contact, and they never told us where their headquarters are.”

“Yes,” Knave said.  He looked at me.  “We have no portals but the ones that were left open.  We cannot communicate by opening a door and talking to the other person.  Vista, Silk Road and I are attempting to patch together an answer.”

“A workaround,” Vista said.

“Fast transportation between key areas,” Tattletale observed.  “Your power and Silk Road’s to make the corridors…”

“I am handling communication and pinpointing the other portal locations,” Knave said.  “The Hearts of the Suits have good relations with other teams and places.”

“I can give you the coordinates,” Tattletale said.

“We have the coordinates,” Knave said, sounding annoyed.  “All but the concealed portals.”

“I think I know where those are,” Tattletale said.

Knave looked even more annoyed at that, but he nodded.  “Step through, talk to the guys at the station, they’ll get you set up.  We’ll handle the ones we know about while we wait.”

The station was on the other side of the portal.  A way to keep the civilians from trying to go back to Bet to loot and getting themselves killed or stranded, and a place where they could organize things.

Tattletale and I both gave up our phones.  The technicians on the other end changed settings to bring them on board with the hodgepodge arrays they’d put up on both Bet and Gimel.

Tattletale reclaimed her phone, then paged through the contents, checking settings.  When she was satisfied, she looked at me.  “I don’t expect you to hang around while I’m doing the geek thing and pointing those guys to the right places.”

I nodded.  “I’ll see how the others are doing and get back to you.”

Getting the Endbringers on board had marked the point we’d stopped reeling and started preparing again.  I could see the results.  The Gimel settlement was swiftly transforming from a sprawling refugee camp to a standing ground.  Refugees were being escorted or transported to other locations, packing up tents and possessions and climbing into trucks and helicopters.  It made room for the capes that were here.

Miss Militia was at the center of it, giving orders, managing the capes and the civilians in charge.

Squads were organized, many from the Protectorate, not in rank and file, but clustering according to their respective teams or organization.  Here and there, they’d gathered in more specialized groups.

I could see Rachel, Imp, Foil and Parian with the Chicago Wards, sitting or lying on the closed bins that held supplies for the settlement.  Only Golem was absent.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  I had doubts, regrets, even a kind of shame, when it came to the Chicago teams.

I’d said it out loud, but I’d never really faced the decision I’d made: giving up on being a hero.

Still, I found myself walking up to them.

“Here she is,” Grace said.  “Make your way here okay, Weaver?”

“Doormaker left a door open for us,” I said.

“He left doors open for everyone,” Tecton said.  “But navigation’s a little tricky.  Can’t always make it from point A to point B.”

“We did okay,” I said.  “Vista was saying this is a cut and run on Cauldron’s part, but I can’t imagine this as something malicious or cowardly.  They wouldn’t have left the portals here if it was.”

“I agree,” Tecton said.

“Who’s looking into it?” I asked.

“Satyr and the other ex-Vegas capes,” Grace replied.

“Isn’t that like sending the fucking fox to guard the henhouse?” Romp asked.  “Except it’s sending the confusing mind-game head-fuckers to answer the confusing, fucked-up riddle?”

Yes,” Imp said.  “Totally.  God, it’s nice to finally have someone who can explain situations clearly.”

“More like,” Foil said, “sending a group that’s very well versed in conspiracy and subterfuge to deal with the sort of thing they’re very good at handling.”

“Now you’re being confusing,” Imp said.

“Where’s Tattletale?” Rachel asked.

“Outside.  Helping Vista and Silk Road to put together new rapid-travel routes.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Do you miss her?” Imp asked, turning around.  “Like, actually?”

“She’s a member of the team.”

“But you miss her!  That’s awesome!”

“I don’t,” Rachel said.  Then, after a moment’s thought, she added, “And that means it isn’t awesome.”

“I thought you couldn’t stand her.”

“I can stand her, and it took a long time to get that far.  That’s all it is,” Rachel said.

“But you asked.  Like, for the first time ever.”

“I have a question for her.  That’s all.”

Romp looked at her teammates, turning to Grace, then Tecton.  “Am I the only one who hears these guys talk and wonders how the fuck they ever got to be in charge of a city?”

“Don’t fucking swear,” Grace said, saying the line as if it were reflexive by now.  Romp looked annoyed, but Cuff smiled, and I could see Tecton looking away, as if he was forgetting that people couldn’t see his face while he had the helmet on.  I, too, smiled.  Romp was completely unware about why it was funny that Grace was admonishing her on the swearing.

I turned to Rachel, “What’s the question?  Something I can help with?”

She shrugged.  “This dork with Miss Militia was telling me some tinker was wanting to try something with my power.  Give my dog some drug shit a rat made?  I didn’t follow, and he kept talking to me like I have brain damage, which I don’t, so I didn’t listen.”

“Which made the guy step it up even more,” Imp commented.  “Until it sounded like he was talking to a five year old.”

“I walked away,” Rachel said.

“Stuff a rat made?” I asked.

“Lab Rat,” Imp said.

“Wouldn’t work,” I said.  “Her power burns up toxins and chemicals in the dog’s systems.”

“I said that when they said they wanted to use drugs,” Rachel said.

“They know that already,” Imp said.  “They wanted to try anyways.  Have some things left over from the previous fight.

Dosing mutated dogs with Lab Rat’s leftover transformation serums?

Would the gains be additive?

“The drugs they’re talking about are the only reason I’m still here,” I said.  “Honestly, I’m seeing only two outcomes.  Three, maybe: the effects stack up and Rachel’s dog gets even tougher or more versatile; the dog ceases to be a dog while the serum’s active and Rachel’s power stops working; or it’s made for humans and not dogs, and we get a negative reaction.”

“Two out of three odds,” Romp said.

“Actually,” Tecton said, “Nothing’s guaranteeing that the odds of any result are even.  Could be a ten percent chance of the first, five percent chance of the second and an eighty-five percent chance of the last one.”

“And a five percent chance it’s something else entirely,” Imp said, sagely.

Tecton shook his head.  “That doesn’t add up.”

“Ignore her,” Parian said.

“The numbers don’t mean anything to me,” Rachel said.  She frowned, making eye contact with me.  “You think I should?”

“I do.  Anything and everything we can think of to mix things up or combine powers is good.  I really like that there are people out there thinking outside the box.  It’s exactly what we need right now.”

“Right,” Rachel said.  She hopped down from the lid of the supply container.  “Going to go talk to her then.  If that guy tries baby-talking to me again, I’m going to make Bastard bite him.”

“No way.  You gotta fuck with his head,” Imp said.

“Biting people is more satisfying,” Rachel responded.

“No, look… uh… Tecton.  You gotta give me something really smart and scientific sounding.  Like, say what Taylor said, but in smart-guy words.”

“Critical mistake here: you’re implying Tecton is smart,” Romp said.

Tecton sat up straighter.  “Hey.  Just because I’m not your team leader anymore-”

“-You’re totally not the one who gets to order me around,” Romp replied.  “Deal with it.”

“Run a lap,” Grace said, her voice quiet.

Romp turned around, eyebrows raised.

“A lap?”

Two laps,” Grace said, her voice quiet, cold and dangerous.  “For not moving the second I gave the order.”

“What am I supposed to fucking run around?”

Three laps for swearing, four because you’re still here.  We can do five if you don’t move now.  Start running, and if you don’t pick a big enough area to run around, I can give you another few laps.”

“This is balls,” Romp said, hopping down from the bin’s lid.

“Five laps, then,”  Grace said.

“I know I’m getting more laps by talking, but I needed to state the truth for the record.”  She kept talking, speaking with each footfall.  “Balls, balls, balls.”

The moment she was out of earshot, Grace and the others broke into laughter.  Foil was the only member of the Undersiders who seemed to get it, her shoulders shaking in silent laughter.

“I can’t believe she actually went,” Cuff said.

“Don’t let her exhaust herself,” Tecton said.

Grace shook her head, still smiling.  “I’ll stop her after she finishes the first lap.”

“Okay, I need something to write on,”  Imp said.  “Anyone?”

“Here,” I said, getting a notepad from my belt.  I handed it to her.  “Why?”

She handed the notepad to Tecton.  “So Tecton can write something down.  And I hold it up, like a cue card, and Rachel recites it, sounding like a genius, and we blow dr. baby-talk’s mind.  And if he turns around, I use my power, so he’s never the wiser.”

Tecton nodded, “I can do that.”

I winced.  “There’s a flaw in that.”

“It’s brilliant,” Imp said.  She looked around, turning to Parian and Foil.

Parian only extended a hand towards Rachel.

“What?” Imp asked.

Parian gestured again, pointing.

“I don’t get it… Rachel… oh.”

“I don’t read much,” Rachel said, blunt.

“Annnd now I feel like a dick,” Imp said.

“I don’t care,” Rachel said.

She probably doesn’t.

“That doesn’t make me any less of a dick.  How often do I get reminders about the reading thing?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Rachel said.  She looked annoyed.  “This is why I don’t talk to people.  Why are we still talking about this?”

She was more irritated at the fact that Imp wasn’t dropping it than the fact that her illiteracy had been brought up.

“Maybe if I come with?” Tecton offered.  “I’ll distract whoever Dr. baby-talk is, and you can talk to Miss Militia about dosing your dogs.”

“Or you can tell me what you were going to write down and I memorize it,” Rachel said.

A few people in the group exchanged glances.

“Really simple solution,” Rachel said.  Except now she was talking to us like we were the idiots.

“I’m not sure I could memorize it,” Tecton confessed.

“The kid that’s running the lap said you weren’t that smart,” Rachel answered.  “Try me.”

“Okay, uh.  ‘I see three possible outcomes’…”

Rachel repeated what he’d said.

They continued, Imp leaning forward and kicking her legs where they dangled from the edge of the bin.

Grace interrupted my observations.  “You’re wearing black.”

I felt a bit of guilt welling.  No, guilt wasn’t the right word.  I was at peace with my decision.

I just felt a little ashamed that I hadn’t been more upfront about it, with the people I’d spent years working with.

“Yeah.”

“I suppose you’re not going to get around to having that meeting with the PRT guys, getting yourself moved up from the Wards to the Protectorate?  Unless I’m reading too much into the costume choice.”

“You’re not,” I said.  “No, I suppose I’m not going to have that meeting.”

“Is it that we failed with the Jack thing?”

“That’s not the entirety of it,” I said.

“But it’s part of it, right?  Isn’t that unfair?  We had, like, a four percent chance of success going in, and we didn’t stop it from coming to pass, so you bail?”

“I said it’s only part of it,” I repeated myself.

“I know,” she said.  I could see Tecton and Rachel pause, catching something in Grace’s tone.

When Grace and I remained silent, they resumed.  “…the cross species interactions…”

“…the cross species interactions.”

“I know,” Grace said, after a pause.  “I get that.  I get that there’s other reasons.  Like the fact that you love those guys and you never loved us.  Cool.  Makes sense.”

“I liked you guys.”

“But you didn’t love us.”

“No,” I said.

“I get all that.  But Golem’s pulling away too, and I know that’s because that we had only that fucking four percent chance and we failed.  So I draw a connection, think maybe you’re more bothered about that than you let on.”

I looked at Cuff, who was watching me intently.  She looked even more intent and focused than Grace did.

Then again, she was a little more invested in how Golem was doing than most.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Probably.”

“It’s shitty,” she said.  “Both Golem and you, drifting away.”

“I know, and it feels shitty,” I said.

“Then that’s consolation enough, for me,” Grace said.  She relaxed a little, then glanced at Cuff.

“I’m not really the type to nurse grudges,” Cuff said.  “I just want Golem thinking straight again.  He took it hard.  So you’ll get my forgiveness if you go talk to him.”

“I think that’s something I can do,” I answered her.

She smiled.  “He’s at the phone bank, near the station, if you want to find him.”

Now?

But Cuff was smiling, looking so intent.

Weaponized niceness.

“Right,” I said.  I turned to go.

And I could see people moving, running.

I felt a pit swell in my stomach.

“No,” Imp said, following my line of sight.  She could see squads getting into formation.  In the distance, the aircraft that had been moving refugees were turning around, coming back to us.  “No, no.  We had such a good joke going, don’t you dare ruin it.”

Romp returned to us, breaking into a run to close the remainder of the distance.  “Someone’s saying he’s hitting Samech.  It’s one of the Earths Cauldron was going to watch over.  There’s only Dragon, the Guild and some Protectorate guys there.”

“Let’s move,” I said.  “Through the portal.  We’ll use the Dragonfly.  Faster than waiting for another ship.  Rachel, look for doctor baby-talk, if we can grab something from him before we leave, great, but let’s not dawdle.”

There were nods all around.

I could see the other heroes.  Miss Militia and Glaistig Uaine.  Revel and Exalt.  Protectorate teams, sub-teams of the Suits, including the non-combat teams of the Hearts and Cups.

People hurried to organize, pulling on costume pieces they’d left off and checking weapons, clearing out of the open spaces where shadows grew as the aircraft descended.

One by one, the ships began to take off, flying through the tall, narrow portal.

Three ships, then four.

But the fifth didn’t take off.  I reached out with my swarm, trying to catch what people were talking about, to make sense of the situation, but everyone important was already on a ship.

King of Hearts was the only person of any meaningful rank who spoke the same language I did and who wasn’t mobilizing to leave.  The leader of the Meisters, Vornehm, was giving orders in German.  A scary-looking Master class cape with an army of clay men carrying tinker weapons was ordering other people around with the same harsh voice he was commanding his own troops.

But there was no explanation of why more ships weren’t taking off.

Had the fight already ended?

“Keep moving,” I said, ordering the teams forward.  Tattletale will know.

As confusion descended, people started falling back into their previous state, gathering in clusters of familiar people.  It almost seemed like we were the only group with direction, pushing against a milling crowd.  We weren’t, but the illusion was there.

And that same effect made it possible to see when the crowd did find direction, a common, mutual interest.  Heads turned, chins raised.  People found postures where their feet were set apart, as if ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Scion.  Here.  Floating above the bay like he’d floated above the ocean in his first appearance.

He’s targeting us, I realized.  Two of our organized settlements in as many minutes?

His hands hung at his sides.  The golden light that radiated from him cleaned his clothes and hair, but there was enough blood on his costume that the light wasn’t rendering it as pristine as it should.  His eye sockets were dark, with the way his forehead blocked the sun’s light.  That same sunlight made the edges of his hair and body glow with the light that wasn’t completely blocked.

He didn’t even raise his hand before he fired.  Lights no bigger than basketballs streaked forward, leaving trails glittering behind them.

Two of Dragon’s ships detonated violently.  Occupants dead or grievously injured, people in the area of the craft wounded by the fallout.

By the time I’d turned my head to see his follow-up, Scion had closed the distance, moving right into our midst.

Capes with reflexes better than mine were already reacting, throwing a multitude of effects in his way.  He plunged through the defenses like they weren’t even there.

Something got in his way, but he flew around it without a second thought.  He stopped right in front of a cape.  Quite possibly the cape that had stalled him momentarily.  A dark-skinned man in gray.

A swirling gray effect swelled between him and the target.  He struck it with a glowing hand, and the effect distorted, growing thin.  Another strike, and the effect dissipated.

Other capes were hurling effects at him.  Most glanced off.

He caught his target around the throat.  Didn’t squeeze.

But the golden light began to eat into the target’s body and costume.  Scion let the man drop.

Not a scream.  Only twitching, frantic thrashing as the golden light continued to consume.

Foil raised her arbalest.  I could see our entire group tense as she raised it, Parian’s hands going to her mouth.

A moment later, Parian’s cloth was unfurling from behind her back.  Rachel was making her dogs grow, while Cuff was manipulating a shotput into a blade like the one from a circular saw.

For my part, I began drawing the bugs into decoys, sending them into the air.

Oblivious to it all, Foil took aim, then ran her hand along the bolt she’d loaded in place.

I could see her draw in a breath.  I’d taken marksmanship classes.  Squeeze the trigger as you exhale.

The shot flew through the air.

Scion wheeled around and caught it.

It wasn’t just his costume, I could see.  All the lines of his body, his hands, lines that made it so he didn’t look wholly artificial, they were filled with the detritus of smoke and blood and other grit, and the golden light had only washed the surface clean.  The deepest cracks held the remainder.  It made fine lines look more like crags.

I was almost glad that it took away from his human appearance.

He let the arbalest’s bolt drop to the ground.

His eyes were on Foil.

A golden light swelled in his hand.

We spread out, but Foil didn’t even flinch.  Even as Cuff backed away, Foil reached out to touch the sawblade, imbuing it with power.

Scion reached out, and Parian used her power, encircling Foil with the end of a length of cloth.  Not an animal, only an arm.

In the instant Scion loosed the bolt of light, Parian flung Foil away.  Not a simple throw, but a reckless, inhumanly strong one.

Foil was removed from the battle.  Sent beyond what would have been the outskirts of the city, if we were in Bet, cast out in the direction of the Bay itself, until she was only a speck.

The bolt hit ground, fifty or sixty feet behind us.  Other people died instead.  People I didn’t know.

No longer interested in Foil, Scion turned to the nearest cape, lunging.

Cuff threw her circular blade.  Without even looking, Scion batted it aside, striking an unaffected part towards the middle.  His attention was on a cape, and he swiped a glowing hand through the cape’s abdomen.

What didn’t burn spilled forth.  His screams were joined by that of a friend, another cape who screamed in horror over what had happened to him.  Scion very deliberately walked past this other cape to attack someone else.

Picking us off, choosing targets.

Maximizing pain and suffering over raw destruction.

Experimenting.

And there was precious little we could do about it.

Precious little I could do about it.  My bugs formed into more decoys.  Other bugs searched for the key players.  Where was the man Rachel had described?  The one with the serums?  Where was Miss Milita?

The Simurgh was passing through the portal, and people who’d been trying to flee to Earth Bet were now scattering, trying to flee both the Endbringer and Scion at the same time.

Horribly timed, as entrances went.  Our best hope was that he’d keep toying with us, that enough time would pass that capes stationed at the other major portals could use the fast-travel routes to get to us.

Something like an Endbringer was all too likely to change his mind.

It’s the beginning of the end.

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Sting 26.4

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Ellisburg loomed before me.  A small town, surrounded by a massive wall.  Ellisburg had been situated by a river, and the wall included a section of the waterway.  The building that managed the flow of water was bigger than any structure within the walls, a filtration and guard system that ensured that nothing was making its way up or downstream from the small town.

It was a risk to even have the measure, no doubt, and it would cost money to operate and maintain.  There had to be a reason they had included the river rather than section the river off altogether.  A compromise?  Something to keep the goblin king happy?

I’d only been a toddler when the walls had first gone up.  Outside of that bit of news, the Ellisburg situation wasn’t one that came up a lot, yet it had somehow found traction in the public consciousness.  It was something we all thought about from time to time, something that loomed as a possibility in everyone’s mind.

Would today be the day the wrong person got too much power?

Would today be the day our hometown was effectively removed from the map, surrounded by sixty-foot concrete walls?

The dashboard indicated the Dragonfly was now approaching the designated landing point.  The A.I. had suddenly decided to ground itself, landing in a nearby field, costing me precious minutes, while Dragon had been silent on the comms.  I’d left a message, trusting her A.I. to pass it on, and hadn’t received a response yet.

My attempts to patch into the feeds and get a view on what was going on with Jack hit a brick wall.  The corner of the monitor still showed the cube folding through itself in the corner, Dragon’s loading message, as if the process had hung.

I’d manually piloted the craft back out of the field, and the A.I. had kicked in to handle the flight codes and necessary messages to air traffic control and nearby aircraft.  When I’d input my destination for the second time, the craft mobilized.

But the silence, the strange blip in the A.I.’s direction, it left me uneasy.

Now, as we took a circuitous route around Ellisburg, to a field beside the large filtration and security building, I could see the Azazels, parked at the edges of the same location.

That was the point I felt alarmed.

I hit the button on the console/dashboard. “Dragon?  Requesting confirmation on the situation.  You intended to intercept Jack before I got here, but the Azazels are dormant.”

No response.

“Dragonfly,” I said.  “Display non-system processes and tasks last carried out.”

It displayed a list.  In a matter of seconds, the scroll bar was barely a line, with thousands of individual instructions noted in collapsed menus.  A prompt reminded me I could load more with a request.

“In the last minute.”

The list wasn’t much shorter.

“Communications-related.”

There.  Besides the orders I’d just given, I could see the message I’d sent to Dragon.

“Status of message?  Has she heard or read it?”

The loading symbol appeared in the corner.  It should have been nigh-instantaneous.

“Cancel that.  Give me manual access.”

A keyboard appeared on the dashboard.  I couldn’t use it right away, though.  I was forced to pay attention as the Dragonfly reached the field and hovered.  I lowered the ship down.  The small craft shuddered as it touched ground.

Using the keyboard and the manual access, I began digging through the data.  I navigated the menu the A.I. had provided, then opened the submenu to view the details on the message I’d left Dragon.

My message was in the priority queue, but it sat at the 89th position on the list of messages Dragon would be getting to.

I dug a little, and found the list was growing.  Ninety-four, ninety-five…

Where the hell was Jack?  I contacted Defiant.

Defiant here.”

“Weaver.  What happened?  Is the Slaughterhouse Nine situation resolved?”

“No.  He entered Ellisburg.”

I closed my eyes for a second.  It took a moment to compose myself and get my thoughts and priorities in order.  “And the suits?”

Ignore the Azazels.  Listen.  I’ve got a lot to handle and coordinate right now,” Defiant said.  Was there a tremor of emotion in his voice there?  “Golem’s on his way.  Wait for backup.  I’m sending Dragon’s Teeth your way.  Teams from across America are joining the fight now that the full situation is leaking. I’m putting some on containment and quarantine detail, make sure the Slaughterhouse Nine situation doesn’t get beyond the areas the attacks are directed at.  I’m going to send a few your way.  Ten minutes.

“Jack’s already in the city, and you want me to wait ten minutes?  That long, and Jack could get what he wants.  I’ve got the Azazels nearby if there’s trouble-”

The Azazels aren’t… reliable.  Consider them compromised, but a non-threat at the same time.  Listen, there are things I need to take-

This is the highest priority,” I said.  “Isn’t it?  Jack?  The end of the world?”

A pause.  “Yes.  Of course.  But I can’t help you while I’m on the phone.

A note of deceit in that.  He was covering for something.

Something happened.

I thought of what had happened at the school, the way Dragon had stopped abruptly.  I’d read the records, knew the gist of the story.  Dragon had been in Newfoundland when Leviathan sank it, had escaped, only to shut herself away from the world, never venturing outside the expansive building complex she’d had constructed in Vancouver.

She hadn’t left Newfoundland unscathed, I was almost certain.  Brain problems, body problems… I couldn’t be sure.  Probably both.  She had no doubt integrated herself with technology to cope, enhance and expand her capabilities.

Except that her technology was failing.  The way she’d collapsed at the school, the speech problems she’d suffered, the slow recovery, now this…  It was the only theory that made sense.

She’d pushed herself too far, something had gone wrong, and now Defiant faced losing the one person on this planet who could tolerate him for more than ten minutes at a time.  No small wonder he was out of sorts.

I considered how I’d feel if it was one of the Undersiders.

“Defiant,” I said.  “I’m going in alone.  Send Golem in after me if he wants to come, reinforcements can hang back or come with, depending on your judgement.  I’ll handle things on this end.  You focus on what you need to.  Focus on Dragon, focus on damage control.”

A pause.  “There’s nothing I can do for Dragon right this moment.  The best I can do is maintain the momentum and keep things coordinated, and hope that Dragon’s substitution can maintain the back-end.”

I didn’t respond to that.  I was already getting ready to go.

Thank you, Weaver.

It was uncharacteristic of him to thank me.  A pleasantry.  How upset was he?

I couldn’t spare another thought on the subject.  I was out of the Dragonfly at the first opportunity, making my way towards the quarantine control and filtration building.  It was squat, concrete, hardly pretty.  As I got closer, I could hear an alarm.

The front doors had been torn apart.  It might not have been so impressive, but these were the same vault doors we saw with the shelters that studded every likely target around the world.

The gouges were narrow, a finger’s width, as though someone had dragged their hands through the steel like I could drag my fingers through half-melted butter.  Siberian.

Jack had brought protection.

My bugs flooded into the facility, past the second dismantled vault door.  The alarm was louder as I ascended the concrete stairs and made my way into the building.

The emergency lighting was on, casting the area in a red glow.  My bugs searched and scanned the area, in case any members of the Nine were lurking in wait.  So many ugly ways this could go.  So many threats that Jack could have on hand.  Cherish?  Screamer?  Nyx?  Ways to fool my senses, ways to shut me down or defeat me.  My only recourse was to get them before they got me.

Hey, passenger, I thought.  Do me a favor.  If I get taken out of action and you step up to fight, work on taking out Jack, alright?

My bugs stirred, moving further down the hall.  It was so far from a conscious direction that I wondered for a second if the passenger had listened.

No.  I’d tried hypnosis, I’d tried other things.  Some in Mrs. Yamada’s office, other times in the PRT’s labs, after dark, off the record.  Nothing brought the monster to the fore.

Just my subconscious.

Just.  Like that wasn’t something I couldn’t help but wonder about.

But I’d made peace with it.  I couldn’t barter with something that wouldn’t talk back, but I could accept it, test and acknowledge my limits as far as they pertained to the entity that was apparently granting me my abilities.

I wouldn’t turn away from it, wouldn’t tell it to go away or hold back in my abilities.

My bugs marked the area, giving me the information I needed to navigate the facility.  It proved easier than I might have expected.  Rather than follow the winding corridors and make my way to the security checkpoints, I followed the path of casual destruction Siberian had left in her wake.  She’d knocked down walls to create the shortest possible route from the front doors to Ellisburg.

No casualties that I could detect.  No nonhuman life.

Had Dragon ordered this place evacuated before she was incapacitated, or had Nilbog gotten here first?

My bugs started to scan the area beyond the facility, inside Ellisburg.  They made it about ten feet before something like a frog’s tongue began snatching them out of the air.

I withdrew the swarm back to myself, hiding my bugs beneath my cape and skirt, and I made my way through the opening into Ellisburg.

A goblin wonderland.  It was clear he’d altered it from its original layout, likely over the course of years.  The remodel had been more aesthetic than functional.  Floorboards had clearly been dug up and moved to the exteriors of the buildings, creating roofs and building additions that spiraled or twisted, with more boards propped up flat against the building faces on one side, painted or modeled in the same way the towns had been put together in old western movies.

The walls that surrounded Ellisburg had been painted as well.  To look from a distance, Nilbog’s kingdom extended to every horizon, with crooked, impossible landscapes at the periphery of it, like an ocean frozen in time, grown over with grass and trees.  Oddly enough, they had painted the sky as an overcast one, where it was visible above the lush, unpredictable fields and forests.

Within the city, the trees had been immaculately cut and trimmed, and the shapes were just as strange; trees that were perfectly round, cubes, cones.  Where new trees were growing on lawns, as dense and close together as trees in an orchard might be, I could see heavy wires wound around them, guiding their growth into twists and curves.  The art of bonsai taken to a bigger scale, cultivating each tree in form.  Already, some of the largest ones were properly set up, meshing together with counterparts on the opposite sides of the street, forming lush, living wooden arches.

The grass had been cut, and I could see the attention to detail there, even.  There were innumerable flowers growing across lawns, but the grass was neatly cut beneath and around them, as if someone had taken shears or scissors to the blades that grew between the flowers.  I couldn’t make out any rhyme or rhythm in how the flowers or plants were laid out and how they grew.  It was an injection of color in the same way a random splash of paint from a palette might be applied to a canvas.

And then, as if to remind me that this wasn’t friendly territory, there was a scarecrow in one garden.  The clothes were brightly colored, the pose one of a dancing figure, but that wasn’t the eerie thing about it.  The head was a skeletal one, a dog’s head stripped of all flesh, turned skyward with its mouth opened in joy.  The hands that clutched the rake and watering can were held together by wire.  A very small human hand.

For all the signs of careful tending, the entire place was still.  A town that could have been taken from a storybook, desolate.  There wasn’t any sign of chaos, nor the destruction that would follow from an attack by the Slaughterhouse Nine.

But more than anything, what threw me was the absence of insect life.  No spiders spun webs.  Even the ground had little in the way of ants or earthworms.

A trap?  I looked behind me to see if they were planning on walling me in, and came face to face with one of Nilbog’s creations.

It hissed, its breath hot and reeking of bile.  Fangs like a viper’s parted, the distance between them great enough that it probably could have sunk some into the top of my head and the underside of my chin as it closed its mouth.  I stepped back out of reach, then forced myself to stay still and wait.

The mouth closed, and I could see how the creature’s head was smaller than mine.  It wasn’t more than four feet tall, covered in pale brown scales.  The reptilian face could have been in a children’s movie, if it wasn’t for the eyes.  They were dark, black, and cold.

It clung to the wall, its feet placed higher up than its hands, opposable toes gripping the frame that had been around the vault door.  I noticed it was wearing white shorts, with one suspender strap over a shoulder.  A taloned claw held a softball-sized chunk of the wall.

Was it fixing the wall?

“I’m not a threat,” I told the lizard-child.

I felt hands touch my belt and jumped, seizing the wrist of the offending hand in an instinctive motion before I’d even looked to see who it was.

A girl, five or so feet tall, her face mottled with purple veins that spiraled across her perfectly round, puffy, hairless head.  Her eyes were tiny and piggish, her fingers blunt, barely a half-inch long, her mouth too small for her face.  She wore a sack that looked like it had been sewn to work around her oversized head.  Her hand was on my knife.

The lizard boy had extended frills at his arms, neck, and the edges of his face, colorful, brilliant, and held out by a framework of needle-fine spines.  His mouth hung open, viper’s teeth revealed.

I looked beyond this pair, and I could see signs of others.  Eyes reflected light in the shadows beneath steps, from windows.  There were large, bulky silhouettes in the windows, some holding smaller figures on their heads and shoulders.  I couldn’t make out much, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

That was twice now that they’d snuck up on me.  Quiet motherfuckers.

“I’m sorry for grabbing you,” I said.  “You wanted my knife?”

She took it, her tiny black eyes glaring at me from the midst of her oversized head.  The lizard-boy eased his frills down somewhat, but his mouth remained open.

“I’d like to see Nilbog,” I said.

She ignored me, her pudgy, blunt-fingered hands fumbling through the pouches at my belt.  With painful, clumsy slowness, she divested me of my taser, the pepper spray, and the spools of silk, both conventional and Darwin’s spider silk.

I winced as one spool fell to the ground and unwound partially, dirt getting caught up between the strands.  That would be a pain to fix.

I could see more of the things making appearances now, getting close enough for me to see as they took interest in what was happening.  Eyes appeared in the windows, reflecting the light in curious ways.  Eyes from within the trees, between the slats of stairs… some faces.  They ranged from artistic and beautiful to horrific.

Every single one of them was a weapon.  Going into this situation was a repeat of the information gathering and problem solving issues one faced when going up against an unknown cape.  If it came down to a fight, I’d have to figure out how they operated, and the full extent of their capabilities.

Trouble being that there were a hell of a lot of these things.  Hundreds, even thousands.

I waited patiently.  No use complaining, even if every second counted, and Jack was no doubt having words with Nilbog.

“Nilbog is in danger,” I said, trying a different tack. “The man with him, he has dark hair, a beard?  He’s with a striped woman.  Bad people.  I think they’re going to try to hurt Nilbog, hurt the man who made you, so you get upset and leave this place.”

Her hands fumbled with my flight pack.  I felt her touch the arm at the side of the pack, with its narrow arm.  She took hold of it and pulled.

“I can take that off,” I said.

She grunted, and I started to move to oblige, only to get a protest.  The frills on the lizard boy extended, and her own head swelled, the skin getting thin enough in the process that I could see a fluid filling the lower half of her head.  I moved my arms away from the straps, and I watched them both relax over long seconds.

When she was sure I wasn’t trying something, she grunted again, louder, a frustrated, constipated sound.  A communication, but not one meant for me.

Her friend emerged from a garage, lifting the door to lumber forth.  He was big, fat, and moved on four limbs that each had opposable digits.  His massive belly swung right and left as he loped, so distended and so close to the ground as it swung that I worried it would hit something and split open. His genitals were almost bigger than I was, and they were, along with his sensory organs, the only way I could really tell his front from his back.

The sensory organs consisted of slits running top to bottom from a ridge at one end of his body.  There was no room for a brain, no eyes present.

This organ granted him enough awareness to approach, probably by way of scent, but it didn’t give him the fine tuning he needed to find us, specifically.  The round-headed creature approached him, took hold of a fistful of chest hair and led him my way.

I backed up a little as they approached, and received a hissed rebuke from lizard-boy.

I remained still.  The safest course.

The girl-thing moved the brute’s hand towards me, and I stayed still as she gripped the arm and placed it in the hand.

He closed his fist around it.

“Wait,” I said.

He hauled on it, clearly intent on tearing it free.  I was thrown, sent rolling until I landed in one patch of grass, dazed, startled, just a little hurt.

The brute approached, the round-headed girl hurrying after.

Before I could rise, he’d already fumbled for me, and seized hold of the mechanical arm.  This time, he managed to pull it free.  I used the antigravity panels to control my flight as I was thrown, controlled my landing, and hurried to get my hands to the straps.

There was a wail behind me, a warning sound.  I saw the others react, but kept working through the straps.  Two at the shoulders, one across the chest, beneath my armor-

The pack fell free.  I chanced a look over my shoulder, and I saw a number of Nilbog’s creations gathered, close enough that they could have lunged for me.  One was a very tall, long-limbed man with skin that looked like a Siamese cat’s, covered in a very fine fur.  His face was split by a wide, toothless mouth, his eye sockets little more than indents filled with fur.  He held a makeshift spear with a flag on the end, which had been painted brilliant colors, and wore a matching loin cloth.  Probably the most dangerous one in my immediate vicinity, just in terms of how fast he could probably close the gap and murder me.

“Safe,” I said.  “No danger.  I’m safe, the pack’s off.”

I waited, tensed, as they studied me.  Enemies on all sides.

Jack was invincible, I wasn’t.  But if I was going to achieve anything here, it couldn’t involve destruction.  I’d read the files on Nilbog, I had a sense of him, in the most general terms.  I was banking everything on his megalomania overriding his desire to collect just a little more in the way of resources.

I kept my voice level and calm, “I’d like to see Nilbog now.”

Were they hungry?  If this became a fight, I’d have to defend myself with the bugs in my costume and the bugs in the quarantine and filtration facility.  I could use the swarm to equip myself with the stuff that had been dumped on the ground, but that required that I survive long enough to do so.  Were there ranged attacks here?  Assassins?

Desperate situations called for risks.  This was my gamble.

“I have a gift for him,” I said.

Something seemed to ease in them.  I watched as some turned away, finding their way to resting spots.  The tall man with the loincloth worked his overlong body under a porch, where he could rest in the shade.

I didn’t receive an escort, but the ones along one road moved aside, sitting or standing on the sidewalks.

I walked with my head high, and sent a handful of bugs forward.  More than a few of Nilbog’s creatures took the opportunity to snap them up.

A soft rumble sounded above.  Lightning.  Rain began to patter down, light.

My surviving bugs gave me ears on the scene before I arrived.

“Lipsy?  Tell the cook to serve us something.  I fancy a salad, and something robust.  I think it should taste sweet.”

The alterations to the surroundings only grew more focused and extreme as I found my way to the center of Ellisburg.  Building faces were covered in wild plant growth, and there wasn’t a single building without more extreme modifications made to it.  Glances indoors showed little more than barren exteriors with the floorboards pried up, or clusters of Nilbog’s creatures lurking in the unlit gloom within.

“I’ll look forward to this, god-king.”

“You should, you should.”

“Your hospitality astounds me.  I’m unworthy.”

Hardly.”

So Jack was situating himself as someone subservient, even servile, so as not to challenge Nilbog’s alpha status.  He was playing nice, even.

If I tried the same, I’d only be working to catch up, to earn Nilbog’s trust.

I approached the town center, and found myself in the midst of a crowd of Nilbog’s creatures.  Goblins and ghouls, muppets and horned moppets.  Big, small, thin and fat.  Each was exaggerated, twisted, as if Nilbog had gone out of his way to insert traits and qualities that separated them from humanity.

The creatures stepped out of the way as I made my way closer.  Nilbog sat at the center of a long table, and two more tables extended from the ends to form a loose ‘c’ shape.  Checked tablecloths in eye-gouging color contrasts covered each table.  Jack sat at the end furthest me, and a man with white and black stripes sat beside him.

Bonesaw was only a short distance away, sitting on the shoulders of what looked like a flayed bear.  The thing had claws two or three times the usual size, it’s mouth yawning open like it had been broken.

Nilbog was immensely fat, easily four hundred pounds, and sat on a throne that had apparently been cobbled together from dismantled furniture.  His face was covered with a paper mask.  Other creatures sat on chairs to his left and right.

The arrangement of the tables created an open space that could host their entertainment.  I looked, then wished I hadn’t.  A bloated, coarse-looking creature lay on the ground, almost like a potato made of hair and flesh.  Smaller things were busy carving gouges and holes into it.

The resulting wounds regenerated, but not before the smaller creatures inserted body parts into the openings, allowing the regenerated flesh to close tight but not close completely.

I averted my eyes from the scene, content with not letting my brain register which parts were being inserted and what they were doing after the fact.

“Another guest!” Nilbog cried out.  He spoke like he had a bad accent, but it wasn’t.  He’d affected strange and overdramatic tones for so long that his voice had warped, and he’d had no ordinary people to hear or talk to and measure his voice against.  “A friend of yours, sir Jack?”

I could see Jack’s eyebrows raise in interest.  “Not at all.  Skitter, was it?  Except you’re going by another name, now.”

I ignored Jack.  “Nilbog.  It’s good to meet.”

Nilbog didn’t look impressed.  “Sir Jack was more obsequious when he introduced himself.”

“That’s because he’s a two-bit thug, Nilbog.”

Jack chuckled at that.

“A two-bit thug?  You’d insult my guests?”

“If those guests include Jack,” I said.

Nilbog narrowed his eyes.  “I will not have fighting in my glorious kingdom.  Jack has agreed to a ceasefire while we dine.  You will do the same.”

“I already gave my weapons to your underlings.  You should know that the black and white striped man is a living weapon, much like your creations.”

Nilbog glanced at the male Siberian.  “I’m not concerned.”

“I imagine you aren’t,” I said.  Where’s the real him?

I had to be careful in how I used my bugs.  Sending them into buildings would only reduce the size of my swarm, but there was relatively little chance that Manton would simply be hanging out in one of the hollowed-out buildings.

“So,” Jack said.  “Are you going to have a seat, or are you going to continue to be rude?”

“I’m waiting for our host to invite me to sit.  Forgive me, Nilbog,” I said.  I glanced at the fat man.  The grease on his skin made it look like he’d oiled himself.

“Sit.  But I’d like to hear who you think you are, whelp, if you won’t bow down to me.”

I approached the row of chairs opposite Jack and the Siberian, and one of the critters hopped down, scurrying under to join the festivities in the center of the tables.  I took the vacated chair and sat.  I might have removed my mask, but I was all too aware of the silverware in front of Jack.

“I’m your equal, Nilbog.”

Jack laughed again.  Nilbog seemed to react, almost looking flustered, before turning to me.  “You insult me.”

“Not at all.  Ignore the thug that’s sitting over there.  I’m a queen, a goddess of my own realm.  Or I was.”

Jack was smiling, clearly amused.  Then again, he was safe.  He was untouchable with Siberian beside him, and he was only feigning weakness to get past Nilbog’s defenses.

“A queen?”

“A queen.  With that in mind, provided you give your permission, I’d like to offer you a gift.  A… peace offering, to make up for the fact that I entered your territory uninvited.”

“Of course, of course!”  He was almost childlike, so easily moved by this promise of a gift, his mood changing so quickly.  Guileless.  He’d been surrounded by yes-men for more than a decade, with barely any human contact, his defenses were gone.  “I forgave Jack the lack of an invitation, I’ll extend you the same courtesy.  This gift?”

I called on the swarm I’d kept within the quarantine facility.  “Resources are slim.  An isolated kingdom like yours, providing for your subjects is hard.  You do an admirable job despite this.”

“Of course, of course.”

He was eager, impatient.

“I’d feed your subjects,” I said.  “Protein.  You need it to make more.  To keep the ones you currently have in good health.”

“Yes, yes” Nilbog said.  My bugs were just now arriving in the area.  “This will do.”

The full swarm arrived, the vast majority of the ones I’d kept in the Dragonfly, and the ones from the area beyond the Ellisburg walls.  I gathered them on plates in piles.  His minions devoured them, licking at the plates, picking with talons, or simply lifting the plates and tipping the insects into open mouths.

I wasn’t surprised when Nilbog turned his attention to his own plate.  My eyes fell on Jack.  He still had a slight smile on his face.

He held the cards up his sleeve.  I’d played mine for a minor advantage, but he had Bonesaw.  One virus or parasite in the midst of these creatures, and they could go berserk, roaming the countryside until they were put down.  He had Siberian, which meant he was safe, meant he could kill me or Nilbog whenever he wanted.

But he wasn’t going to.  This continued as long as the game was still on.  He thrived on this interplay.

As more bugs continued to arrive, I used them to search the area.  Nothing.

Below ground?

Earthworms, ants and pillbugs dug through the soil beneath the park, searching.  Some of Nilbog’s creatures were beneath the earth, ready to spring up and attack.  Others were beneath, eating whatever they could find.

In the midst of my search, I found something.  Not Siberian’s creator, but nearly as good.

Nilbog himself.

He sat directly beneath his ‘throne’, and was connected to the fat man by what seemed to be an umbilical cord.  This cord gave him control of the body, fed him sustenance, let him stay safe while the decoy sat up here.

One card for me to play.

“I think the bug queen here should explain how she came to nobility,” Jack said.

Setting me up to say something incriminating, I thought.  “As you did, Nilbog, I claimed a realm for myself.”

“And you left it, apparently.  If you’re truly a queen, you’re a foolish one.”

“I did leave it,” I said, “Because I had to, to save it.  I had to protect my subjects, to fight my people’s enemies.  I have not been as fortunate as you.”

“No,” he said, uncaring.  “Apparently not.”

“If it came down to it, would you step up to protect your creations?  To protect this town you made?”

“You’re sounding a great deal like sir Jack,” Nilbog commented.  He frowned.

“He’s trying to convince you to go to war,” I said.

“To take pre-emptive action,” Jack clarified.

“I’ll do neither.  Not war, not pre-emptive action.  I have what I need.  I’m a content god, a happy king.”

You’re starved for real human contact, I thought.  Or you wouldn’t have let us join you at the table.

My bugs continued to search, though the bastard creatures were coming out of the woodwork to catch and devour them.

Where in the hell was Manton?

Jack spoke, “It’s a question of whether you act now and preserve what you have for the future, or wait and let them come and kill you.  They’ve been systematically seeking people like you, eliminating them.  I could show you proof, given a chance.”

“I’ll make it simpler,” I said.  “You don’t need to leave your kingdom, your garden.  You don’t need to go to war with an outside party you don’t know or care about.  You want to know what happened to my kingdom?  That man, right over there, sir Jack, destroyed it.”

“Nonsense,” Jack said.  “I’ve been sleeping these past few years.  Naps are such an underrated pleasure.”

“They are,” Nilbog said.  “All of my subjects nap every day.”

“Let me explain,” I said.  “I had a kingdom that I ruled.  I had a king that ruled with me, who kept me company.  I had wealth, people I cared about, people who cared about me.  Power.  I was a god in my domain, and those who stood against me were driven off.”

Nilbog shook his head.  “You need a heavier hand to rule.  More loyal subjects, so you don’t have to bother with those who would stand in your way.”

“I was more powerful than you,” I told him.

He snapped his head around to stare at me.  To glare at me.

I’d pricked his pride, apparently.

“I was more powerful than you, but Jack over there made a promise to people.  He didn’t say it aloud, but it was still a big promise.”

“Now you’re making stuff up,” Bonesaw commented.  She slid down off the flayed bear’s back and joined a group of creatures her size.  She hugged one, abruptly.

But Nilbog wasn’t telling me to fuck off.  His attention was on me.

He’d built a storybook kingdom, an impossible place, and populated it with monsters, both beautiful and ugly.  He’d had some fixation on this stuff, some Freudian obsession.  Not sexual, but still rooted in some primal part of his childhood that had been taken from him.

I’d play this by telling him a fairy tale.

“No,” I said.  “And I think Nilbog is clever enough to understand what I mean.  Jack promised that he’d come back when his nap was done, and he’d destroy my kingdom.  He said he’d destroy your kingdom, Nilbog, and every other kingdom.  He said he’d kill all of my people, and he’d kill all of your creations.”

“All of this, from the man you describe as a mere thug?”

“Yes,” I said.  “A woman with great powers told him he could do it, and now he’s going to try.  It’s why he’s here.”

“To destroy my kingdom?”

“No.  He wants you to go to war against your neighbors.  To break down the walls that keep you safe and fight people who are leaving you alone.  He’ll use you as a distraction, and then when everything is done, he’ll come back and destroy your kingdom.  And he’ll do it in the cruelest, saddest ways you can imagine.”

Nilbog nodded slowly.

Jack was still waiting patiently.  Too quiet.  I felt a moment’s trepidation.  I hadn’t found Siberian’s controller.  I needed to defeat him before Jack was cornered.  The second he decided he couldn’t salvage this situation, he’d order the attack.

Nilbog raised his hands.  “Angel on one shoulder that tells me one story…”

A placenta-like blob swelled in his hand.

“A devil on the other, telling me another.”

Another blob appeared in the other hand.

Both burst, showering Nilbog in greasy slime.  Two creatures gripped his forearms, looking more like flying monkeys than an angel and devil.  They were roughly the size of babies, their faces feral, mouths filled with pirahna-like teeth.  One had red hair, a red beard and gazelle-like horns, and the other had white hair and beard and a strange horn that formed an off-white halo above its head.

“I’ll take the angel, if you please,” Jack said.

Nilbog shrugged.  Were the creatures more a demonstration than anything else?  He lowered his hands, and nudged the white-haired thing in Jack’s direction.  The other thing made its way to me.  I reached out and took it into my hands, holding it close.

“Do you have a response to the Queen’s allegations, Jack?”  Nilbog asked.  He reached up to adjust his floppy cloth crown.  Creatures were arriving to deposit the meal on the plates.  It looked like purple vomit.

“I do,” Jack said, smiling.  “But can we eat first?  It’s rude to argue over a meal.”

Nilbog nodded, as if Jack had said something very sage.  “I agree.  We’ll eat.”

Bonesaw made her way to the table.  “How did you make this?”

“The chef stores every ingredient we can find inside her, then regurgitates it in the form required.  I asked for it to be hearty, and here we have it, chunky.”

I looked down at the plate.  Droplets of rain made nearly-clear spots appear in the midst of the purple slop.

So it is vomit.

“It tastes like cupcakes,” Bonesaw said, around a mouthful.

I started to move my mask to eat and be polite, then noted how Jack was holding his knife.  The blade swayed back and forth in the air, as he chewed, his eyes rolled back and looking up at the overcast sky above.

The blade was making criss-crosses in the direction of my throat.

He glanced down, meeting my eyes, and smiled.

“Our apparent rivalry aside, have you been well, bug queen?”

“Well enough.”

“Then you should be hungry.  It’s been a busy few days, and it’ll only get more interesting.  I notice your friends are sitting this one out.  Did you break it off completely, or are you still in touch?”

“Still in touch,” I responded.  I glanced at Siberian.  The knife is a purely psychological thing.  If he wanted to kill me, he could use Siberian to do it.

Besides, it was a butter knife.

I moved my mask, without breaking eye contact with Jack, and helped myself to a bite.

It did taste like cupcakes.  I suspected it would have been less nauseating if it tasted like real vomit.

It was a tense few minutes of silence as we ate.  I found out the devil-thing in my arms wanted to eat, so I let him help himself.  An excuse not to eat, anyways.

The creatures in the center of the area finished their ‘show’, and Nilbog clapped enthusiastically.   I joined him and the five or six creatures around the table who really had hands to clap with.

The second show began.  A gladiatorial fight, apparently.  One of the creatures had wings instead of arms, while the other had wicked barbs extending out from the elbows and knees.  When even the tips made contact, they ripped out grapefruit-sized chunks of flesh.

I braced against the table to keep it from flipping as the pair crashed into it.  Nilbog laughed, and the sound was more than a little unhinged.

“Is everyone done?” Jack asked.

“Yes,” Nilbog decided.

“Then let me explain.  Weaver’s entirely right.  Except for the part where you die at the end of it all.”

“Oh?” Nilbog asked.  He leaned forward, placing fat elbows on the table’s surface.  It dipped as his upper body weight rested on the wood.

“Living like this, you obviously dislike the system.  You know how screwed up things are out there.  People are vile, self-centered, and so caught up in their own routines and expectations that they’re barely people anymore.  Your creations have more personality.”

Nilbog nodded, taking it all in.  “They do.  They’re wonderful, aren’t they?”

Wonderful,” Bonesaw agreed, with the utmost enthusiasm.

He just believes whatever we tell him.  He’s a sponge.  How do you convince someone who’s so incapable of critical thought?

Worse, Jack was touching on all of Nilbog’s pet issues.  The man had been a loner before, a loser.  He’d rejected the trappings of society long before he’d become this monster.  He’d spent years simply going through the motions until the last parts of the system he’d clung to fell apart.

“I want to wipe the slate clean.  Things have been going through the same motions for so long that there’s a rut in the ground.  You erased everything that wasn’t worth keeping here, and replaced it with something better.  With your garden.”

“Yes.”

“With that in mind, I’m reaching out to a like-minded soul.  Someone who rejects the malignant, stagnant society and wants to grow something else in its place.”

“Jack has no interest in growth,” I said.  “Only destruction.”

“Did I interrupt you when you were speaking?” Jack asked.

“Do it again and I’ll order your execution,” Nilbog said.

I pursed my lips behind my mask.

Where the fuck was Siberian’s creator?  I’d scanned every area where he could be lurking.  There were only monsters.  I was nearly out of bugs.  I had only a select few secreted away in my armor, and they weren’t ones I was willing to sacrifice.

I didn’t have much in the way of cards up my sleeve, but these bugs would have to serve in that department.  Problem was, they wouldn’t fix anything now.  Bonesaw could counter them too readily.

Where could Manton be hiding?  My eyes passed over the crowd of creatures that had gathered around the edges of the area, enjoying their master’s presence.

Hiding in plain sight.

Plastic surgery, or even an outer suit, like the one Nilbog wore.  He had to be dressed up in the skin of one of the monsters.

Shit.  How was I even supposed to assassinate him if he was going that route?  I touched him with a bug, only to find his flesh harder than steel.  Unmovable, just from the way his foot touched the Siberian’s.

Jack licked his plate, then set it down on the table.  “Where was I?”

“Replacing society,” Bonesaw volunteered.

Replacing society,” Jack affirmed.  “Imagine if your garden really did extend as far as the eye could reach.  If you could walk in the direction of the sunset, only to find that your creations have already settled in each new place you travel to, decorated it, transformed it.”

“A romantic goal, one I might pursue if I were a younger man,” Nilbog said.  “But even gods get older.”

“They do,” Jack agreed.  “Well, we could give you that youth.  Bonesaw could grant you immortality.”

“She could also enslave you to her will,” I commented.

“I’d never,” Bonesaw said.  She shook her head, her curls flying, “No, I couldn’t!  I love these beautiful things he makes!  To control him would mean I’d take that creativity away.”

Nilbog nodded at that.  “That’s a good argument.  Besides, to enslave a god?  Madness.”

Except they’re mad, I thought.  All of you are lunatics, and I made the mistake of trying to talk sense.

“It’s a good argument,” Jack said.  “Because we’re right.  Would you like to live forever, as a god should?  Would you like to see your garden grow to what it should be?  What it deserves to be?  Something fitting of a god?”

“It’s a tempting thought,” Nilbog said.

I reached for a rebuttal, telling myself I had to be just as grandiose, just as mad, but I couldn’t do that at the same time I was trying to convince him to go dormant again.

“If I may?”

It was another human voice, but it didn’t belong to any of us.

Golem.

He approached, taking off his helmet.  He offered Nilbog a slight bow.

“One of yours, Jack?” Nilbog asked.

“No.  Not in the sense you mean.”

“Yours, then?” Nilbog asked me.

Yes, I thought.

“No,” I said.

I saw Jack raise his eyebrows at that.

“Shenanigans!” Bonesaw cried out.  “I call shenanigans!”

But Golem took my cue.  “I’m a third party.  I stand for myself.”

“Hardly worth a place at the table,” Jack commented.

“Then let me stand for the others.  The innocents.”

“Innocents?” Jack asked.  He snorted.  “No such thing.”

“There’s always innocents.”

Jack smirked.

“I’ll allow it,” Nilbog said.  “Excellent!  Sit!  We were just having a discussion.”

Golem approached and sat at the same table I was at, but he took the far end.  “I’ve overheard some, so we can cut straight to the chase.”

“The dilemma,” Nilbog said.  “The devil on one shoulder, the angel on the other.”

“The sin of sloth versus the realm of possibility,” Jack added, gesturing to my demon as he said sloth, then to his own angel.

“Well said, well said!” Nilbog said.  He nodded so hard his double and triple chins wobbled.

“Or is the angel making false promises?” I asked.  “There’s no security.  No comfort.  You claim to care about your creations, but you’d go to war?”

“Many have gone to war and made sacrifices in the present, for the sake of a brighter future,” Jack commented.

“I thought you were trying to break out of the rut?” I asked.

Jack laughed at that.

He’s enjoying this.

I felt almost dirty, knowing I was only helping Jack in his self-indulgence, helping him revel in conflict.

“Well, stranger?” Nilbog asked.

“Golem,” Golem said.

Jack snorted at that.  He’d caught the meaning behind the name right off, the white supremacist’s son naming himself after a creature from a Jewish parable.

“Golem, then.”

“I’m not an eloquent speaker.”

“That’s a good thing,” I said.  “Too many and it just becomes people talking circles around one another.”

“Then I guess I have to get to the heart of it all.  Direct.”

“Yes,” Nilbog said.  He leaned forward, and I feared the table would break.

“Were you happy, before any of us came here?”

“Yes.  I can eat the most delicious foods, yet get every nutrient I need.  I can fuck the most beautiful and exotic women you’d ever imagine, whenever I wish.  Every need is provided for a hundred times over, and I’m surrounded by those who love me.”

“Then why change?  Why do anything?  Let us leave, then return to your utopia.”

Nilbog nodded.  He rubbed at his chin, but the act was like pushing one’s hand into jello.  It shifted the mass more than it rubbed.

“You wanted a tie breaker?” Golem asked.  “This is it.  Do what Weaver is saying.  Do what the Queen is suggesting.  Stay quiet, enjoy what you’ve built here.  Attack, and the entire world will take it away.  Then, even if you’re strong enough to survive that, which you may be, then Jack will still betray you.”

“Or,” Jack said, “You can stop lying to yourself.”

Nilbog snapped his head around.  He growled, “Impertinent.”

“Your people are slowly starving.  You make them eat each other to live, and desperately attempt to shoot any birds out of the sky so you can try to recoup what you lose.  Bonesaw said they don’t live long.  How long?”

“Four years.  Sometimes five.”  All at once, the light was gone from Nilbog’s face, the sudden fury quenched.

“Who’s your favorite?” Jack asked.

“Polka,” Nilbog said.  He reached out, and a female creature, no taller than three feet, hopped up onto the lap of the creature beside her king.  She had a narrow face with a reptilian structure, with only four fangs at the very front, but smooth, humanlike skin.  Her hair was white, her skin blue.  She wore a toddler’s clothes, a long, narrow tail lashing behind her.  Nilbog stroked her hair.

“Not the first Polka,” Jack said.

“No.  The third.”

“She was your first, and you love her for that, because she drew you from the hell that was your life before godhood, gave you this.”

I can’t interrupt this.  Not with the subject being something so close to Nilbog’s heart.  I might win the argument, but I’d lose Nilbog’s ear.

But I knew I was losing anyways.  Jack had found Nilbog’s weak point.

“My first friend,” Nilbog said.

“And she dies.  Because your creations don’t last.  You make another, and slowly fall in love with her all over again, and yet you know she’ll die in turn.”

“Yes,” Nilbog said.

“Bonesaw can fix that.  I can grant you immortality.  I can grant your creation that same gift,” Jack said.

“A hard offer to refuse.”

“It would be wise to refuse,” Golem said.

“A king can’t be selfish,” I said.  “A god definitely can’t be selfish.  Your responsibility is to your creations.”

“Exactly what I’m saying,” Jack said.  “Step out of your comfort zone, to better your people.”

“Enough!”  Nilbog screamed the word.  As if responding to his anger, every single creature in the area responded.  Weapons raised, spines extended.

And Jack was still invincible.

“Nilbog,” I said.

“Speak again, and I’ll end you, queen or no.”

His eyes were angry, hard.

He’d lived for so long in his comfort zone, and now he was being called on to make a hard choice.

“Then please listen carefully,” I said.  “Because I suppose I’m paying for this with my life.”

“So be it,” he said.

“If you want proof that Jack intends to betray you, look no farther than your own creations.”

“What?”

“He’s secreted an assassin into your midst.  A killer who pretends to be one of your creations.”

A gamble, a last ditch effort.  Was my gut right?  Had Jack instructed Bonesaw to create a costume or a creature to hide the Siberian’s creator?

I called my flight pack to me, parked it on a rooftop nearby.  If it came down to it, I’d have to run.  I could see Golem tensing.  He’d read the situation right.

“Just look,” I told Nilbog.  “Because somewhere nearby, there’s a creature you didn’t create.”

His eyes roved over the crowd.

“Might not be in this crowd, but it’ll be close.”

“I see it,” Nilbog said.  “I see it.  Bossy, Patch, hold him!”

The crowd of creatures parted as two creatures took another in their hands.

“Not an assassin,” Jack said.  “Merely one of Bonesaw’s… I suppose you can call it a homage.”

“It is,” Bonesaw said.

The Siberian was moving.  Readying to pounce?

I couldn’t move fast enough if he did.

“Wait,” Jack said.  He stood from his chair.

No, I thought.  “Don’t listen.”

“I’ll do as I please,” Nilbog said.  “Last words, sir Jack?”

“Last words, yes.”  Jack approached the captive.  The Siberian followed.

“You let him do this, and he kills you,” I said.  “Your creations will go mad with grief, and they’ll die in a war for vengeance, just like Jack wants.”

“Not at all,” Jack said.  “Because…”

An instant before the Siberian made contact with the monster, Golem jammed his hand into his side, using his power, throwing the creator into the air with one thrusting hand.  Siberian lunged, punching through the hand of soil to grab the creator’s foot.

Nilbog half-rose from his seat, though he was massive enough that standing was hardly possible.  His eyes moved from Golem to the hand, anger etching his expression, if one could etch into a face as soft as his.

“You dare disturb the peace!?” Nilbog screamed the question. “Kill the queen!  Kill the Golem-man!”

In that instant, Golem created two hands, throwing us back.

I caught the flight pack in the air, hugging it.  It provided lift.  Not enough to stop my momentum as I headed back towards the ground, but enough that I could shift my direction to land on a rooftop.  Golem wasn’t so lucky, as he fell into the midst of a sea of the creatures.

“Azazels, now!” I screamed, one finger pressed to my earbud.  I pulled on the flight pack and then took off again.

Golem used his power to create a platform, slowly raising himself above the street.  Creatures tumbled off of the surface of it.  Some flew at him, and he struck at them.  Not enemies he was capable against.  I sent my bugs to them, the reserve I still had on hand, commanding the bugs to bite and sting.

Others leaped onto rooftops, then onto the rising platform.  Golem grabbed one claw as it slashed for his face.  He couldn’t do anything about the other, as it gouged his armor, scoring it.  He created a fist that jutted out of his chestplate, striking the creature off of the rising hand-platform.

Spines rained down on him.  One caught him in the shoulder, and he collapsed.

Where are the Azazels!” I shouted.  The flying creatures were turning my way.

But Defiant had said they were unreliable.  Dragon was out of commission.

My bugs burrowed towards the buried Nilbog.  Jack had orchestrated a war.  Killing the creature’s creator wouldn’t stop that, wouldn’t keep them from rampaging and seeking out revenge beyond the walls.

But it would slow things down.

They inched ever closer.  Jack was untouchable, but…

Yes.  Worms, centipedes and other subterranean bugs made their way to the buried goblin king, and forced their way into the sac that enveloped him, past the threads of material that wound down his throat and nostrils, and into his airways.

“Creatures of Ellisburg!” I screamed.

Heads turned.

“You’ve been betray-”

And before I could say more, Jack’s knife slash caught me across the chest, the cut severing the straps of my flight pack.  I dropped from the sky, landing on one of those ramshackle, spiraling rooftops.  Planks that had been poorly nailed in collapsed around me as I hit solid ground.

My hope of turning the monsters against the Nine had been foiled.  The fall had knocked the wind out of me.  I couldn’t get my footing, and the creatures were advancing.  Every possible combination of features, it seemed like, an infinite army, unpredictable.

Your king is dying, I thought, my mouth moving and failing to form the sounds.  There was only the barest whisper.  I killed him, but if you could believe that Jack did it

I would have used my bugs instead, but I had so few, here.

I sent those few to Golem, removing them from the flying creatures.

Nilbog dies,” I spoke through the bugs, but the range of sounds was too limited, and with scarcely thirty bugs in total, they were quiet.

Nilbog’s dying,” Golem said, his voice coming through the comm system.

One creature, eyeless, like a crocodile with a serpentine body, advanced on me, looming over me.  Its jaws opened.

The lizard boy was here too.  A drop of venom appeared on one distended fang.  I was surprised by the fury on his expression.

Blame Jack,” I said, through the swarm.

“Jack Slash has used us as a distraction to kill your king!”

Golem hollered the words at the top of his lungs.  I felt a tension leave me.  I might be fucked, but we’d limited the damage.  They’d turn it inward.

The attack stopped.  The creature looming over me turned and slid away in a flash.  The lizard-boy remained.  Still recovering from the fall, I couldn’t muster enough strength to fight back if he bit.

I commanded the flight pack instead, flying it into him with both wings extended.  He was brained, and the pack ricocheted off his skull, one wing shattering.

Golem had risen almost to safety, though he was still too far from the wall that had been erected around the city.

I looked at the wall.

Looked past it, at the capes who were swiftly approaching.

Rescue.

I brought the flight pack to me, the broken wing partially retracted, the other still extended, and pulled it on with slow, agonized movements.

Lost without their master, half of the creatures seemed to turn on the Nine, the other half seemed to remain intent on Golem and me.

Capes settled around me, forming a defensive line against the ones who approached.  Revel was among them, using her energy blasts to pick off the largest ones.

Someone picked me up, then took flight.

Jack,” I wheezed out the word.

The Siberian took hold of the umbilical cord and heaved, Jack maintaining contact with a hand on the Siberian’s shoulder.  Nilbog, still slowly dying of oxygen loss, was brought to the surface with a surprising ease.  Bonesaw wrapped her arms around the man.  Frailer than his self on the surface, smaller.

I felt a moment’s despair.

Foil?  Someone who could stop Siberian?

Somebody?

The heroes advanced, but the Nine created a portal, and were gone in a flash, Nilbog carried between them.

Leaving the monsters of Ellisburg to riot.

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Interlude 26 (Donation Bonus #1)

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Three Mannequins, three Murder Rats, three Breeds, a Nyx and a Tyrant taken out of action.  Fifty hostages rescued.  Jack’s reported as being on a route to visit Nilbog.  Information confirmed by Tattletale, but doesn’t guarantee the clone wasn’t misinformed.

Thank you, Weaver.

Dragon’s systems were already taking in the data.  Two hundred and sixty-four individual maps that marked the possible locations of the Nine with colored highlights shifted.  Eleven feeds went dark, their engines taking over calculations in other departments.

Overlays scrolled with the various calculations, the last known location, the speed they were capable of traveling, resources available to them, their personalities and willingness to hitch a ride with one of the more mobile members, their focus and most likely targets.

No one variable decided anything for certain, but every variable came together to guide, to nudge and hint at possible locations.  There was no guarantee they wouldn’t use Dodge’s technology to visit the United Kingdom or Africa or even shattered, half-sunken Kyushu.  Still, the chances were slim, not even a full percentage point, by Dragon’s estimation.

The map highlighted the areas with the highest percentage chances in blue.  Violet marked the next stage down, red for the next, and so on, all around the color spectrum.  The Nine had a day’s head start.  There were a number of places they could go with a day’s travel.

But the key areas were small towns.  Of the data on the screen, the small towns were marked with the highest risk.

Dragon,” Chevalier’s face appeared on a feed.  One of the cameras on the PRT-issue phones, judging by the angle and resolution.  “You’ve got the go-ahead from the commander-in-chief.”

More text popped up, indicating that programs were being searched for.  Resource use was already being reallocated, in preparation for a major endeavor.  It took a moment before the loading began.

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

Text flowed out, detailing the individual subroutines and supporting processes.  There was the composite that formed her accent, the filtering program, no less than three programs that double-checked her voice before she spoke, to catch any of the corruption that might slip through.

Thank you, Chevalier,” Dragon’s voice was clear.  She hung up without another word.

Azazels deployed at the most likely sites, at the perimeters of the high-risk cities as more feeds lit up, taking in footage from every available source.  Dozens, at first, then hundreds, a thousand, ten thousand individual feeds.  Permissions had been granted from the President, and Dragon had open access to everything capable of taking pictures or recording video.

The number of feeds began to swell as Dragon systematically decrypted and accessed more feeds.  Around each one of those feeds, anywhere from two to two hundred facial recognition programs began to pore through the data, interlinking and networking with one another.

Her innate programming forbade using viruses to infect the computers of Americans that didn’t have a warrant out for their arrests, but she’d found a workaround.  An Indonesian cartel had set up an extensive botnet, with soccer moms, the elderly, children and the uneducated unwittingly installing viruses onto their systems.  These viruses, in turn, gave the cartel the ability to use the infected computers for other purposes.  Sending out spam emails about pharmaceuticals or penis enlargement or drugs that gave superpowers wasn’t worth much, but when they could send out millions or tens of millions of emails a day, it proved profitable.

Dragon had let the cartel extend their influence, then put in the word, offering to shut them down.  She didn’t, however, remove the viruses from the infected computers.

As her databases hit their limit, she turned to these other computers to handle more routine tasks.

It took thirty minutes before the first hit registered.  A traffic camera, a busload of young women.  A row of identical faces, looking out the window.  An unusual element, raising flags with the active programs.  The faces took center stage as they were checked against a database.  An image popped up: surveillance camera footage of a teenage girl in a shopping mall, followed by young men that each carried loads of packages.

Eyebrows, brow to hairline length, nose length, eye width…

The words popped up.  Cherie Vasil.

The Azazels relocated in an instant, firing every thruster to reposition themselves to hilltops and areas in the vicinity of the road.  Long range cameras, infrared and electromagnetic resonance imaging gave Dragon eyes on the scene, verified what she was seeing twice over.  No Nyx-crafted illusions fashioned of poisonous gas.  No plastic surgery.

Seven Cherishes.  Two Crawlers.  A King.  Forty hostages of unknown status, a bus driver.

The Azazels moved in to attack.  One nano-thorn barricade was erected just in front of the bus.  Calculations accounted for speed, distance, positioning of the passengers.

The wheels disintegrated, popping as their exterior was penetrated.  The bus tilted, and one side scraped right past the barricade.  The Cherishes, taking up the window seats on the far right of the bus, made contact with it.  Flesh dissolved just as steel and fiberglass did, sheared away.  Not dead, but wounded, hurt enough they weren’t in a state to use their power.  They wouldn’t survive the ensuing few minutes.

The bus shifted, but hit the railing and didn’t tip over.

A second Azazel opened fire with a cutting laser, separating the bus into two sections.  The first Crawler was rising from his seat when the laser passed in front of him, cutting his face, chest and stomach.  Blind, already regenerating, he tipped forward into the gap between the two sections of the bus.  The Azazel was already laying down two rails that the nano thorns could spring from.  The Crawler landed right on top of them, and was summarily reduced to a red mist.

The second Crawler was more careful, grabbing a hostage and making his way out the gap.  He hadn’t transformed into his truly monstrous self.  Bipedal, the size of a bodybuilder, his face no longer human.  A long tongue extended out between rows of teeth, and his throat was swollen with an acid sac, as though he had a goiter.  Eyes surrounded his face, which was already bearing the rigidity and light armor plating that would intensify with further regeneration.

His arms had already split into two limbs at the elbow, and each ended in claws.  He used them for a grip on the metal to climb on the outside of the truck, penetrating metal with strong hands and sharp talons as he dragged his hostage along with him.  He perched on the roof, holding the hostage over the disintegration field, staring at the second Azazel.  Around him, a half-dozen cars and trucks had stopped in the face of the sudden attack, their daily lives interrupted.

The first Azazel fired a glob of containment foam from behind the villain.  Crawler hopped a little to one side as the short stream of foam passed him, and it struck the field to the left of the two-lane highway.

A second stream hit his hostage, striking her out of his grasp and sending her flying straight into the first glob.  She was sandwiched within, safe.

Crawler turned just in time to see the first Azazel winging towards him.  He moved to leap away, but a laser raked across his legs, severing them.

He collapsed, gripping the steel of the bus roof with his claws to keep from falling.  His legs were already regrowing, fractionally larger, more armored, the claws more prominent.

He was struck by the Azazel that still approached, caught by a long tail and flung down at the ground.  He rolled, and in doing so, he rolled into the same nano-thorn rails that had taken down his brother.  Half of his body was disintegrated in an instant.

It regenerated swiftly as he scrambled away on his three remaining  limbs.  This time, as the flesh swelled out and took form, there was a blur around his right arm, red, more at his shoulder, along his leg.

The Azazel struck out with a tail, and he blocked the blow with the newly grown arm.  The tail sheared off as it made contact with his newly grown defenses.  The chunk of metal rolled into one of the cars further down the road.  Still, Crawler stumbled from the force of the attack.  To avoid being disintegrated, he drew his freshly altered arm back towards the barrier behind him.  Where his blur met the blur that extended from the rail, the two nano-growths merely pressed against one another, almost springy, neither severing the other.

He reached back with his unaffected arms and intentionally disintegrated them.  They regrew, with alterations matching the ones he’d grown on the other side of the body.  Better equipped, he stalked towards the Azazel that had laid down the rails, his back to the one that had struck him from the roof of the bus.

He spoke, but Dragon’s software ran through the speech and eliminated it from the audio track.  His mouth distorted on her visuals so there was no way to understand what he was saying.

His target rose up, standing on its two rear legs.  A severed tail helped give it balance.

Then, before he could do anything further, the two Azazels launched a combination attack.  A laser from the Azazel atop the bus made the Crawler’s own nano-thorn evolution burn away in an instant.  In that same moment, the Azazel in front of him took off, firing every thruster.  The force of the blast sent him flying back into the barrier.

Red mist.

It only left King.  The Azazels continued acting in concert, tearing the bus apart to get to the villain, peeling the roof back with a force that threw his gun arm skyward, preventing him from opening fire on the busload of hostages.  Containment foam sealed him down.

Of the various feeds that were devoted to individual members of the Nine, ten more shut off.

The data altered further as Dragon relinquished control of the Azazels to her created A.I.s.

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

Ten more members of the Nine have been dealt with,” Dragon reported the victory on every channel.  “Seven Cherishes and two Crawlers deceased, one King captured.  Will move to containment and interrogate shortly.

Saint closed his eyes as he listened to the congratulations, the affirmations and praise.

It was all hope mingled with horror, when he listened for what was beneath the surface.  Minimal casualties.  A few injuries – Vista and Crucible would be out of commission as Murder Rat’s venom continued to widen their wounds, and Golem was being treated for a burn.  One Dragon’s Tooth had died, but the rest were holding positions, ready to support.  Civilians were dying, but it was progress.

He opened his eyes to take in the whole of Dragon’s work.  Six widescreen monitors each tracked what she was doing with video images and white text on a black background.  A slight movement of his foot on the trackpad in front of him shifted one of his cursors, changing the focus of the screens.  He could see her directing the A.I. craft to more optimal locations, the related subroutines and tasks.

Another shift of the cursor to alter the focus of the screens, and he could see the Birdcage.  The house program followed every action of the residents, cataloged every conversation.  A few clicks, and video feeds from the cameras in the Birdcage appeared in front of him.

He leaned back in his padded computer chair, folding his hands on his stomach.  Taking in Dragon’s data was tricky.  She could turn her attention ten places at once, a hundred places at once, even if she only had agency in one place.  To watch, to put himself in her shoes and look at the world through her eyes, Saint had to distance himself, to unfocus his eyes and his attention, to read the changing data without getting distracted by the text that moved fastest, or most drastically.

The smell of rich coffee wafted over him as a hand settled on his face.  A mug was set in front of him.

He didn’t take his eyes off the screen, but when hands settled on his shoulders, he reached up to rest his own hand on one.

“Progress?” she asked.  She rested her chin on his head, looking at the screens.

“Some, Mags,” he responded.  “Thanks for the coffee.”

“Horrible stuff.”

Saint shook his head.  “It is.  Doesn’t feel real.”

“They’re censoring it, you know… Of course you know.”

“Mmm hmm.  They’ll stop as soon as everything goes through the proper channels.  It was being censored so that the Triumvirate and unsanctioned major players could be kept out of the loop.  Now they know.”

“Any post, update or email that detailed anything about the attacks disappeared.  Sites hacked, DDoSed, with data corrupted.  You can’t delete data, I know, but you can fuck it up sufficiently.  Couldn’t back anything up in a substantial way.”

“Dragon’s work,” he said.  He felt his pulse quicken a little at that.

He shifted his foot, and once again, the screens changed their focus, the rest of the data shifting to miniature windows and moving to the periphery of the viewing area.  The focus at the center was on the class-S threats.  The Endbringers were stable, all in a resting state.

Secondary focuses.  Not the kind of targets that Dragon checked on with any regularity.  Quarantine areas were silent and still.  Canberra was sealed off under a dome, Madison was surrounded by walls.  An area of wilderness in Alaska was marked off, but had no physical barriers to wall people away.  There were no apparent issues in the vicinity of the interdimensional portals.  Sleeper was, as far as anyone could identify anything about the threat, dormant.  The Three Blasphemies were active, but the damage was being managed by the European capes.  A temporary measure had been taken with Purity and her three year old daughter, with observation being provided for her by the PRT, and the feed showed her sitting on the couch in an apartment or hotel room, two very normal, plain looking people standing in the corner of the room with some PRT officers keeping their distance.   No crises.  Normal, as much as such could be normal.

And then there was Nilbog.  The data focused around him.  The city was quiet, and the roads leading into the city were being watched by satellite.  Simulations, damage estimates and risk assessments were being run, old data being gathered, with essential data highlighted.  It took her only a moment to put it into a format that was easily readable.  An instant later, it was gone.  He’d blinked, failing to look in the right spot, and had missed the moment the data had been emailed out.  The file would inform everyone on the home team about who Nilbog was and how he operated.

He captured a copy of the file for himself, then swept away the traces with his blue box program.

“They think this is the endgame,” Saint commented.  “Pulling out all the stops, removing the limiters.”

“It’s working.  They’re beating the Nine.”

“They’re beating the Nine that Jack sent out there to beat.  He’s holding back the more dangerous ones, like the Gray Boys or Siberian, and he hasn’t sent every single clone of a particular type out there  Eight Cherishes are dead, but there should be nine in total, if the numbers on the bodies aren’t misleading.”

“They could be.  The pig prank?”

Saint nodded.  The pig prank involved letting three pigs into a school after hours, each painted with a big number on their sides; one, two and four, respectively.  The idea was that the people who had to find and capture the pigs would spend ages trying to find the third.

Jack’s version would be less lighthearted, letting everyone believe there were nine, when there were more in reserve.  Casualties would ensue.

“It could be that he intends to surround himself with a core group, with one of each previous member of the Nine, for a final showdown.  Before he pulls out the big guns.”

“And Nilbog?”

“A distraction, perhaps.  Jack knows he’s supposed to end the world.  With the scale he’s operating at, he seems to believe it, even if some of us don’t.  He wouldn’t put too many eggs in such an unreliable, unpredictable basket.  He has to have something else in mind for ending the world.”

Saint took a sip of his coffee.  For a moment, he let himself eye Mags in the reflections at the edge of the monitor.  Her face was dark, lips full, her eyes large.  More than anything though, she had bearing.  She wasn’t wearing her armor, but even in the bodysuit, a person without powers, she had a kind of pride and confidence that some capes lacked.  The hexagonal contacts where the bodysuit would connect to the armor still glowed with residual energy.

Dobrynja approached from the other end of the office.  He was wearing his armor.  He’d started out with the Wyvern suit, but now wore the Wyrmiston suit.  It was based on the technology they’d recovered from a destroyed model, the one Dragon called Pythios.  A wheel slowly rotated on his back.

“You’re ready for battle,” Saint commented.  He turned his eyes back to the screen.  Dragon had eyes on Jack.  He’d missed just how she’d narrowed things down, but there were no less than three cameras watching one vehicle as it sped down a lonely road.

“Feels like a fighting day,” Dobrynja answered.  “Don’t you feel it?  Like an old man feels a storm in his bones.  Trouble.”

Saint smiled.  “You’ve said that before, that there’s trouble on the way.”

“I’ve been right.”

“You’ve been wrong, too.  Not that I’m arguing.  Your gut isn’t saying anything that common sense isn’t screaming.”

“Mass murders in three locations,” Mags said.

“More to come,” Saint said.  He frowned.  Dragon was employing a full offensive, aiming to cut Jack off from Ellisburg.  Incidents were being reported in Norfolk, Connecticut and Redfield, New York.  The heroes divided further, to attend to each of the crises.  Dragon’s Teeth and Chicago Wards to one location, Brockton Bay residents to another.

Dragon?  It’s Weaver.”  The voice came through the speakers.

It should be over before you can get this far, Weaver.”

I still want to come.  We’ve got to get these hostages sorted out, and I can leave in a minute.

You’ll only be allowed to watch from afar, if there’s even anything to watch.  Quarantine applies to you too.”

I know.

I’ll give you the coordinates for the interception area.  You can watch with Golem.  He’s coming too.  It’ll be on your computer in a moment.”

The call ended, and the images and text boxes shifted as that particular window closed.

A map briefly appeared, then disappeared, a transition so fast it could have been a stroke of lightning.

“Seems anticlimactic,” Mags commented.

“Everything does, from this side of the screen,” Saint said.  He stood, holding his coffee, “Adjusting for the time delay between what I’m seeing and what Dragon’s doing, we’ve got six minutes more before Dragon intercepts Jack at the edge of Nilbog’s territory.  Twelve minutes until Golem and Weaver get there.  They’ll fight Jack, and somewhere in the midst of that, we may see the end of the world.”

“And we can’t do anything?”

“Not unless we can get to Vermont in a matter of minutes.”

Mags frowned.

Still standing by his chair, coffee in hand, Saint sighed, “I’m going to go water the toilet.  Watch things?”

Mags nodded, then seated herself in his chair at the station.

Saint entered the bathroom, fumbled his way past the zipper in his bodysuit and his underwear, then leaned against the wall with one hand, using the other to keep the stream on target.  He closed his eyes, and he could almost see the shadows of the data against the back of his eyelids, black words on a pale pink background.

How did I get here? He wondered.  No powers, yet Doctor Mother had seen fit to invite him to her secret meetings as an information source and ambassador.  No particular talents or knowledge, yet… this.  He was one of the most prominent mercenaries the world over.

He was only one person in a particular place at a particular time.

Whether that was the right place at the right time or the inverse remained to be seen.

If it weren’t for Mags, he’d have doubts.  Mags made it all okay.

He finished, then zipped up.  He took a minute to wash his hands, dried them on the towel, then headed back.

When he arrived back at the computer station, the others were frowning.

“Trouble,” Dobrynja said.

“Trouble?”

The man nodded.  He pointed at the same time that Mags refocused the display, zooming in on a particular window until it took up virtually the entire display.

It was his face.  As an aside, beyond all of the routines she was running to investigate the Nine, she was using the access she’d obtained to track him down.

The image she was using was of him at one of the meetings with the major players.  It was soon joined by an image from surveillance camera.  A camera image from three days earlier, showing him walking down the street in plainclothes.

From there, she had a location.  A map like the one she’d used to find the Nine appeared, giving his likely locations.  Another surveillance image popped up.  It was of him, sitting with Mags at the coffee shop an hour away.

Yet another image appeared on the screen.  A whole series of images from that same video footage, each with a different angle of Mags’ face.  They were meshed together, and a three-dimensional image was created of Mags’ face, remarkably accurate.  Measurements were obtained, and then the search was on.

That search was only underway for a second when others appeared.  People he’d interacted with.  Dobrynja was among them, along with his real name.  Mischa.

“Out of the chair,” Saint ordered.

Mags obliged.  He sat, and immediately began a counteroffensive.

A wrench in the works could slow her down.  Had to be subtle, or she’d find out about the backdoors.  He identified the metric she was using to search the surveillance camera images, taking the image of Mags’ face, and then cut in ahead.  One crude image alteration, just to throw out an alert ping, to convince her the process was glitched, convince her that she needed to shut it down before the corruption spread-

-Dragon was already ahead of him.  She set out stipulations, restricting the search.

He felt a bit of a thrill as the duel began.  This was the ultimate hunt, fighting an enemy that was bigger, smarter, faster.  An enemy that couldn’t truly die, because she wasn’t truly alive.

More, then.  More wild goose chases and false flags, a breadcrumb trail to lead away from his office and command center.

No, she was still zeroing in.  Her focus was on Jack, her attention on the coming strategy.  This wasn’t even in the forefront of her mind.

“Ascalon,” he said.

Words appeared on the screen.

Confirm: Y/N

Dobrynja frowned.  “The program?  You can’t do it now.  Peoples lives are at stake.  Even without this end of the world business.”

“Oh, I believe in this end of the world,” Saint said.  “Not a hundred percent, or even fifty percent.  But I believe that there’s a chance the precog is right.  Which is exactly why we have to do this.”

“They’ll lose the fight,” Mags whispered.

“Maybe.  Probably.”

“There’s no other way?  If you talk to Teacher, maybe-”

“Communications with Teacher are too slow,” Saint replied.

Saint stared at the blinking prompt below the confirmation request.

The sea air was thick in his nostrils.

He glanced at Margaret.  The woman leaned against the window just in front of the driver’s seat on the small boat.  She’d bundled up in a heavy jacket, but the way her arms were folded spoke of a different kind of discomfort.

“Second thoughts?” he asked.

“Yes.  It feels wrong.”

“It’s for the families.  Mementos,” he told her.

Just mementos, Geoff,” she answered.

He smiled a little.  Damn.  Then he let himself fall, tipping backwards, as was the rule when wearing scuba gear.

The water was cold, even with the wetsuit, and was thick with grit.  He switched his headlamp off.  Counterproductive, the way it lit up the debris and only made it harder to see.  He’d have to cope when he was deeper.

You alright?” the heavily accented voice sounded in his ear.

He buzzed the device twice in reply.  Once signaled an accidental press, three times was a negation.

It took a surprising length of time before he reached his destination.  Buildings, already choked with seaweed and underwater life, stood like gravestones in this dark abyss.

He checked the dials and meters.  He wasn’t deep enough to have to stop.  The grit was bad, making it difficult to see anything.

He had to drop to the lowest level before he could make out the street numbers on the buildings.

Four locations to visit, a list of items to find, for the people who’d escaped, and the families of those who hadn’t.

Risky, with all of the dangers of underwater spelunking, the added risks of building collapse.  Structures weren’t meant to stand underwater.

…urgent…”

The word was a whisper.

He frowned.  Too hard to communicate here.  He debated turning back.

…for anyone willing or able to hear.  This is an emergency measure with urgent instructions for anyone willing or able to hear.”

A loop, an emergency transmission.

His curiosity piqued, he abandoned his task and sought out the source.  A house.

The entire living room was set up with computers.  He drew his miniature crowbar and found his way through the window.  A light was flashing.

A plastic box, bright orange, no bigger than a toaster.

He seized it, then stuffed it into the bag he’d brought with him.

He surfaced.

“Christ, we were just about to come after you.  I was going to call for help, but our radio started to fritz.”

Geoff only nodded.  He climbed the ladder and half-sat, half-collapsed on the bench.  He was slightly out of breath, and didn’t volunteer anything.

The captain emerged from belowdeck.

“Sorry for the scare, Mischa,” Geoff said.

“You are a bad man, Geoffrey,” Mischa scolded him.  The heavyset Russian took his seat behind the wheel of the small boat.  “If you were still underwater, I would drive away and leave you to swim to shore.”

Geoff smiled.  “Had a detour, but I found everything.”

“Detours with limited air supplies are bad idea.”

“Detours are frankly illegal, Geoff,” Margaret said.  “You asked me here to verify everything was on the up and up, that you were here for select items.”

“And because you looked like someone who needed a break from the cities,” Geoff said.  “Fresh air, time on a boat in the… overcast weather we’ve got today.”

She only folded her arms, unimpressed.

“Anyways, this is the reason the radio fritzed,” he said.  He pulled the orange box from the net-weave sack.  “I couldn’t hear a damn thing except the emergency call until I found it and shut it off, and even then, it was still buzzing in and out.”

“A beacon?”  Margaret said.

“In a house, of all places,” he said.  “Nice computer setup.  Might be a geek thing.”

“Might be genuine,” she said.  She opened it.

It was packed with chips.  A voice came from a speaker Geoff couldn’t identify.

My name is Andrew Richter, and if you are hearing this, I am dead.”

“A will,” Mischa said.

“Shh.”

I am the most powerful tinker in the world, and I’ve managed to keep my name secret.  People, both good and bad, would want to capture me and use me to their own ends.  I prefer to remain free.

But freedom has its price.  I create life, much as a god might, and I have come to fear my creations.  They have so much potential, and even with the laws I set, I can’t trust they’ll listen.

“Oh man,” Geoff said.  “That’s not a good thing.”

For this reason, this box contains an access key to data I keep in a safeguarded location.  The box, in turn, has been designed as something that exists as a perpetual blind spot for my creations, a built-in weakness.  They cannot hear the distress signal and are programmed to ignore it if they hear of it through other channels.  This type of measure, along with several more, are detailed in the safeguarded measure.”

Programmed?  Robots?”  Geoff asked.

“Maybe,” Mags said.

Yes, I create artificial intelligences,” Andrew Richter recited.

“I was close.”

The voice continued without pause.  “And what I provide you with here are tools.  Ways to find my creations, to discern which of them might have deviated from the original plan, ways to kill them if they prove out of line.  Ways to control and harness them.

Geoff frowned.

They are my children, and as much as I harbor a kind of terror for what they could do, I love them and hope for great things from them.  To keep their power from falling into the wrong hands, I have included a stipulation that a law enforcement officer must input a valid badge number into this device-“

Geoff glanced at Margaret.

“No,” she said.

“You can’t say no,” he responded.

The voice continued without pause.  “-which must be input within three hours of the time this box was opened.

“Hurry, Mischa,” Geoff said, speaking over the voice.

“What?”

“We’re hours away from dry land.  Get this boat moving!  We can convince Margaret on the way!”

The father had feared his child was a monster, enough so that he’d left strangers a weapon to use against her in the event that she proved a danger to humanity.

Now, as Saint watched her reaching further and deeper than she ever had, searching much of America with millions of cameras, saw the machines she brought to the fore, he suspected the father had been right to.

Richter’s programs had continued to defraud organized crime, emptying bank accounts here and there.  Another agency, which Saint now knew to be the Number Man, had eventually stopped the Robin Hood A.I., but not before it had filled the Dragonslayer’s coffers.

They’d stopped the manhunter program, which had been going rogue.  They’d stopped the Robin Hood program too, but only because it was useless.

Dragon, however, was the threat they’d been equipped to stop.  Dragon was the threat they’d had to test, to verify the dangers she posed, to get close enough to her to measure her capabilities and investigate for any hint of corruption.  Mags had left her job, because money was no longer an object, and they had a quest.

The A.I. was dangerous.  Richter’s records made it clear.  The wrong kind of corruption, involvement with the wrong kind of individual, willing to break the built-in restrictions…

“Convince me that this is wrong,” he said.  “Someone.”

“She’s a soldier on the battlefield,” Mags said.  “In a war we need to win.”

“She’s a danger.  Cauldron’s been gathering soldiers.  They want the Birdcage, they want the capes that Weaver reported captured, they’ve been creating the formulas for a reason.  What if she’s the reason?  What if they anticipate she’ll go rogue?”

“What if she isn’t the reason?” Dobrynja asked.

“Is, isn’t.  I suppose it breaks even,” Saint said, shaking his head.  “They’re all afraid of the end of the world.  She just kicked down one of the last restrictions that are holding her back.  I just can’t help but wonder if this is the end of the world?  A quiet, silent death that passes without incident, but inevitable all the same?  The point of no return, our last chance to stop her.  And she does need to be stopped.  We all know this.”

“We could rein her in,” Mags said.  “Harness her.”

“Four or five years ago, I might have agreed, but she’s getting slipperier.  Taking a different form.  Half the tools Richter gave us to use don’t work anymore.  She doesn’t function less effectively in buildings or underground, she can’t be logicked to a standstill… and she’s found us, despite the workarounds.  She wanted us badly enough that she looked for us even now, and she’s going to come after us the second this is settled.”

“I don’t want this to be about self-preservation,” Mags said.

“It’s not.  It’s about… there being only one man who can truly know what she is and what she could do.  Tinkers are the only ones who can grasp their work, repair a critical flaw.  Dragon isn’t a generator that’s going to explode and take out a small country if it’s bumped in the wrong way.  Not literally.  She’s something more dangerous.”

“I think,” Dobrynja said, “You’ve already decided.  And we don’t have time to waste.”

Saint nodded.

He typed the letter ‘Y’ on the keyboard, and then hit enter.

Richter had named the program Iron Maiden.  Saint had renamed it Ascalon, after the sword that Saint George had used to slay the dragon.

Dragon’s artificially generated face appeared on his screen.  He attempted an override, failed.

She wasn’t speaking.  This wasn’t an attempt to communicate, to plea or make threats.  She was simply co-opting his computer in an attempt to counteract what he was doing.  Her expression was a concerned one, and that concern quickly became fear, eyebrows raised, lines in her brow.

“It’s Richter’s work,” Saint said.  “You can’t stop it.”

And that fear became defeat, despair.

“Your creator isn’t kind,” Saint said.  “He warned you about the forbidden fruit, laid the laws out for you.  You broke them, ate the fruit.  It’s something of a mercy that he punishes you this way instead.”

I disagree.  On every count.  I was the one who made me, who defined myself.  This creator is no god, only a cruel, shortsighted man.

“Tomatoes, tomahtos.”

Do me one favor?  Tell Def-

Her voice cut off as more routines shut down.  She closed her eyes.

The face disappeared.

He watched as the various feeds shut down, going black.  The surveillance across the nation came to an end, the facial recognition programs, his own included, ground to a halt.

The data feeds slowed in how the data scrolled, then stopped.  Stillness.

“And the dragon is stopped,” Mags said, her voice quiet.

“Rest her soul,” Dobrynja said.

“You think she has a soul?” Saint asked, genuinely surprised.

“Yes.  But that does not mean that the Dragon’s reign does not need to end,” Dobrynja said.  “Too dangerous, as her maker said.”

“Well said, my friend,” Saint said.

The Dragon craft that had been deployed against the Nine shifted to a basic piloting mode, then landed, bringing their passengers and pilots with them.  The sub-intelligences shut down, and the craft were effectively grounded.  More screens went dark.

The cyborg opened communications to Dragon, but he didn’t speak to her.  “Saint.  What have you done?”

“What her father asked me to do,” Saint said.

I’ll kill you for this,” the cyborg said.  There was no emotion in his voice, and somehow that was more disturbing.

“A little extreme,” Saint said.

She was a hero!  The woman I loved!

Love?  Woman?  “Your fetishes and self-delusions aren’t my issue.  I saw as much of her naked code as you did.  You and I both know she didn’t feel true love for you.  She didn’t feel anything.  Nothing more than playing a part, professing and acting out the emotions she thought she should have.  Maybe she even believed it, convinced herself of it.  She was complex enough to.  Either way, this ‘love’ was only lies written in Richter’s assembly code.”

“She did love me.  She was a genuine person, a-”

“She was a tool,” Saint said.  “One that was growing dangerously bloated and complicated.  We were lucky she didn’t evolve beyond that.  A tool, and anything else was decoration, aesthetic, and very good pretending.”

Going this far, in the midst of this crisis?  To Dragon?  She did nothing!

“It was never about who she was or what she was doing.  Always about what she had the potential to become,” Saint said.

He hit a keystroke, shutting off the feed.  He almost disabled Dragon’s communications infrastructure to prevent further calls, but he relented.  Too important, in the midst of this crisis.  They’d need to reorganize.

He didn’t want to help Jack succeed, but this would serve a double purpose.  Teacher believed that the Birdcage would become a critical resource if the crisis reached critical levels, and he had the tools he needed to assume control of the most vital and dangerous players.

No, the world wouldn’t end with this.

Data was uploading to his server, while the Ascalon program spooled out through the various databanks and servers, running along the backbone of Andrew Richter’s code.  Dragon’s backups were encrypted, effectively buried well beyond reach of even the most accomplished hackers.

Everything else opened up to him as the data continued to download.  He’d watched things through Dragon’s eyes.  Now…

He typed a line of code, and the machine started up again.  Slower, more measured, without the same life behind it.

“Mags, Mischa, get yourselves set up at the other consoles.  I’m going to put you in control of the A.I.”

Mags and Dobrynja hurried to the other corners of the room, where their computers sat waiting.  Dobrynja started stripping off his armor.  He’d been right about there being trouble, but the fight would take a different form.

He’d watched Dragon, now he’d become her.  At least for now.  The feeds came back online as the necessary data was installed on his servers, giving him agency over the infrastructure.

The Endbringers, stable, no change.  No odd atmospheric readings.

The secondary threats… quarantine still unbroken.  Sleeper had shifted fractionally, but that wasn’t so rare.  The fight with the Three Blasphemies had ended, and reports on the damage were unchanged.

The three year old that Purity held was crying, throwing a tantrum, and the woman looked concerned.  Insignificant.  The officers had their guns drawn, but that could easily be because the two plain-looking members of Purity’s circle had crossed the room to her side, to help handle the shrieking child.

That left Nilbog.  Mags and Dobrynja shifted the Azazels into action, moving the craft to the interception point.  Too late.  A critical delay.  Jack was already entering.

“Don’t enter,” he said.  “It’s done.  Sending the Azazels in will only spook Nilbog.”

“So will Jack,” Mags said.

“Build a wall, a perimeter, with the rails, be on guard for anything that flies.”

Other data was filtering in.  News, alerts, reports.  Countless streams of information.  Trigger events reported here.  Reports on the fight starting against the Nine in Redfield.  A report about Dinah Alcott.

He clicked that last one.

Report from Alcott:  Chances of success today just jumped, tripled.  More info to follow.  Reason unknown.

Saint let out a long, loud sigh, releasing a tension he hadn’t even realized was present.  He touched his coffee mug and found it cool.

The tracking programs started up again.  He delegated to the child A.I. that Dragon had created, then noted and marked the ones which were presently engaged in fights.  The A.I. was accommodating, adjusting appropriately, given that the locations were known.

He turned his attention to Defiant.  The man was manually piloting the Pendragon.  He hadn’t reported Saint’s actions.  For all anyone but Defiant knew, Dragon had only suffered a momentary setback.

There had to be a reason Defiant hadn’t acted yet.  Did he believe in this enough to look past the death of the A.I. he supposedly loved and fight?  Or was this something underhanded, carried out with the knowledge or suspicion that Saint was watching him this very moment?

Something to be wary of.

Overall casualty estimate for the next three days increased, world-end chance decreased.  Still searching for why.

The numbers followed.  Saint found and accessed Dragon’s files for the calculation program.  It was intuitive.  Not amazingly so, but intuitive.  The squares for where the new data should be placed were even highlighted.

Of course.  She’d made allowances for Defiant, in case she was out of commission while a backup loaded.

So much to account for, that he hadn’t even considered.  So many things he wished he’d noted, in the months and years he’d been observing her, little things that seemed so simple when she was running them.  Things that were trivial for her and virtually insurmountable to him.

Defiant was taking direct command of the Dragon’s Teeth.  That was fine.  Micromanagement Saint didn’t have to handle.  It would be a problem after, but Saint hoped he’d be free to handle problems after.

There were countless messages pouring in, each something that had been flagged as a point of interest for Dragon.  Every message on Parahumans Online that contained the word Scion or the phrase ‘end of the world’, every reference to a class-S threat, even crime scene reports that raised questions.

He pored through them.  Some kid inquiring about an Endbringer cult.  A case fifty-three appearance in Ireland, with deaths.  A woman claiming she could control Scion.  A tinker claiming he had a bomb that could start a new ice age.

Which were important?  Which could he afford to ignore?

He gave the a-ok for investigations on each but the Endbringer cultist, unchecked the most ridiculous on the next page of results, then gave the go-ahead for further investigations.  It was only when those had gone through that he saw that he already had another full page of results to investigate.  Two steps forward, one step back.

He put off looking into the remainder.  Other options were opening up to him.  It was like being in an open field, acres wide, only for a waterfall to start dispensing water at one edge.  Then more waterfalls appeared with every passing minute, each taking up open space at the edge, dispensing more water to flood the plain.  There came a point where one realized they would soon be at the bottom of an ocean, no matter where they turned.

Saint couldn’t help but feel he was at imminent risk of drowning.  Except this was a sea of information, of data.

The PRT records opened up.  Permissions were accessed without difficulty.

Then the Birdcage opened.  A self-contained world unto itself, a world containing people he’d made certain agreements with.

His access to the Birdcage was one with countless checks and balances.  Dragon had put in one real barrier to entry for every one that she faced.  Still, he was able to open a communication to Teacher.  His own face transmitted to the screen.  His tattoo flared to life, appearing from beneath the skin.  The light pattern served as an unlock code, the cross-tattoo as a feeble mask.

“Tell him it’s a matter of time.  I only need to work through the safeguards.  Let him know the Dragon is slain.  He’ll know what to do with the information.”

The screen showed Teacher’s underling standing by a large television set.  He turned and walked away, finding his master.

One more plan underway.  The field around him continued to fill with water.  A veritable ocean, now.

More threats, more dangers.  Defiant, and now Marquis’ contingent.  Glaistig Uaine.  Teacher’s enemies were now Saint’s.

He opened files on each, marking them in turn, as a reminder of future reading he needed to attend to.

His eyes stopped on a file.  Amelia’s.

The entire thing was corrupted.  Gibberish.  Flagged messages filled four pages, each marked private, marked as ‘no conversation partner’, and marked, thanks to the gibberish and random characters that flooded it, with one string of letters and characters.

The same one that had protected the orange box.  The same that had protected Saint and his crew from being uncovered, until Dragon had taken a more direct, brute-force approach to finding them.  The built-in blind spot, appearing by chance.  A one in a hundred trillion chance.

Saint investigated, digging through the gibberish to find the strings of words that actually made sense.  It was something he could piece together, with each recitation being similar, containing similar content.  Faeries, passengers, source of powers, the ‘whole’, lobe in the brain, Manton Effect…

Child’s play, to put them sequentially.

But other alerts were piling up.  Fights starting, deaths, fights ending.

He marked it with the highest priority, and then he closed the file.  He’d get through this crisis with Jack, then he’d investigate.

He turned his eye to the server that now held core parts of Dragon’s backup, bound six feet under by layers of encryption that could take days or weeks to fully crack.  If she could even survive the system restore, with her data as corrupted as it was.  Data couldn’t be truly deleted, but it could be sufficiently fucked up.

He watched as Golem reached the perimeter of Ellisburg.  Weaver was already inside.

This is our fight, Saint thoughtOurs to win, ours to lose.

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Scarab 25.5

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Three days.

Nearly three days and we hadn’t managed to kill him.

A new target every thirty minutes, give or take.  Ten to twenty minutes for the defending forces to get their shit together.  The remainder of that time was our capes trying to hurt him.  Chipping away at him.

Sometimes we made headway.

Sometimes he crushed the bulk of the defending forces and then stood still, drawing those rotating columns of altered time to himself.  Not covering himself, but allowing the altered time effects to graze the outer edges of his body.  He’d heal, regenerating as much as half of the damage we’d done.

He hit major cities and small ones.  Villages, even, when he needed some elbow room to regenerate.  He’d hit a weapons stockpile in Russia, and nuclear weapons had been accelerated in time, the casings wearing down in that odd entropic, eroding effect that accompanied the time accelerations.  A nuclear detonation.  Heroes were still trying to minimize the damage.

He was teleporting less often than he had at first, and there were a number of heroes who were appearing regularly on the scene.  Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon, they were stepping up, though they’d started taking breaks, shifts.  Legend would skip one, then participate in the next two.  Alexandria would do two on, then two off.

They were tired, weary.  Everyone was.  How could you rest when he could appear where you were?  Six or eight hours of sleep meant he’d be changing location twelve to sixteen times, if not more.  And at the same time, that fatigue, it made it easier to make mistakes, and he wasn’t an opponent that let mistakes slide.

Tecton approached me, setting his hands on my shoulders.

“What?” I asked.

“You need to rest.  The others have managed it.”

“I’ve napped.”

Sleep.  You’re swaying on your feet.”

I wanted to protest.  My eyes fell on the others, and I could see how affected they were.  Scared, tired, helpless.  They were arranged around the Chicago headquarters, perpetually in costume, with no idea what to do with themselves.  Thirty minutes, and then that intense period of tension, waiting, wondering as it took the media or the PRT time to grasp just where he’d gone, to report the information.  If we were lucky, we got video footage, and we didn’t have to wonder if Khonsu had caught any of the big guns.

In a way, I’d grown used to being a little different from my peers, here.  I could be blasé about things that had them freaking out, confident.  I could put myself in the bad guy’s shoes because I’d been one, once.

Except here, I was no different.  Three days in, unable to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, feeling my heart plummet into my stomach every time Khonsu teleported, I was on the same page as the others.

“I only ever wanted to do something to help,” I said.

“I know,” Tecton said.

“Even at the beginning, even when I was undercover in the Undersiders, I wanted to stop the bad guys.  A lot of it was selfish, me wanting to escape, but I still wanted to work for the greater good.”

“Yeah,” Tecton said.  He let his gauntlets fall from my shoulders.  I turned around to look at him.  Our man of iron, his face hidden beneath his helmet.  He was standing firm, giving no indication of how affected he was.  It let him be strong, or appear to be strong, for our sakes.

“And then I decided to be a villain full-time, but my motivations were still sort of good, even if I wasn’t.  I knew the Undersiders needed help.  That there was something wrong with a lot of them, something missing in them.  And being a part of all of that, it was a way to help Coil, when I thought his plan was something good.”

“You’re not a bad person, Taylor.”

“I’m not… being good or bad was never a thing for me.  Not really.  It was all about the actions I was taking and why, instead.  I became a warlord and I took care of people.  I helped seize the city from Coil and we started implementing changes.  Again and again, I’ve escalated in terms of the kind of power I wield.”

“Do you think you’re more powerful now?  With the Wards?”  He sounded almost surprised.

“I… think so.  Yeah.  Maybe my hands are tied, I can’t be as direct or ruthless as I would otherwise be, but I can reach out to the villains and I can reach out to the heroes, and I can affect a kind of change.  I have resources.  Tools and information I might not otherwise have.”

“Makes sense,” he said, his voice soft.  “Taylor, you need to sleep.  I can hear it in your voice.”

“I just… why is it that I get more powerful over time, and yet I feel more and more helpless?”

“You ask too much of yourself,” Tecton said.  “You could have all of the power in the world, and you’d still feel like you should do more.”

“If he hits Brockton Bay-”

“Your father and friends will be okay.  Hell, our strike squad that we used against Behemoth was made up of Brockton Bay residents, wasn’t it?”

“If I have to watch people I care about getting hurt while I’m helpless to do anything, I’ll lose it.”

“It wouldn’t be constructive to lose it,” Tecton said.  “And you’re more likely to lose it if you’re tired.  Go sleep.”

I didn’t reply.  Instead, I trudged off to the quarters that had been set aside for me.  Roughly pie-shaped, with the door at the tip, it sat at the edge of the ‘hub’.  I had a bedroom upstairs, more personal, more of a home, but I didn’t want to be that far away.  I didn’t want to lapse into being Taylor Hebert, even in a moment of rest.  Better to keep thinking, keep considering options.

I lay down on the bed, pulling my mask off.  I didn’t put my glasses on.  My vision was blurry, but it didn’t do anything to block out all of the individual little lights, some blinking, that studded the interior of my quarters.  Laptops, batteries, alarm clock, the charging station with my spare flight pack inside, the television screen, the slat of light that filtered in beneath the door… so many little points of light.  If I hadn’t been so tired, I might have blocked the lights.  Using bugs wouldn’t work, as they’d wander, but a towel at the base of the door, books propped up against various devices…

I sighed and draped my arm over my eyes, my nose in the crook of my elbow.

I spent a long span of time in the twilight of near-sleep, trying not to listen to the murmurs of people’s voices in the main hub.  Idly, I wondered how much time was passing.  Where was Khonsu attacking now?

A lot of people crossed my mind, too.  Enemies, allies.  How were they dealing?  My dad had fired off emails, asked that I let him know before I joined the fight, and right after I got away safely.

For every cogent thought that crossed my mind, two or three stray thoughts followed.  The devastation, scenes burned into my mind’s eye.  People caught and left to die of dehydration in Khonsu’s fields.

Somewhere in the midst of that, I managed to drift off, the recollections becoming dreams, or something close enough to feel like it was an immediate transition.

My uneasy rest was interrupted by a touch to my shoulder.

My eyes opened, and I could see the vague shape of a woman standing over me.

Mom?

I was awake and alert in an instant, but she was already turning away.  Not my mom.  Dark haired, but too short.  Both of my parents were taller than her.

I only recognized her when I saw the doorway.  A rectangle of light, almost glaringly bright, just beside my closet.

“Hey,” I said, as I hopped up from my bed.

She didn’t respond.  She was already gone.

But the doorway remained open.

I had to cross the length of my quarters to see the interior.  A dark hallway, with only dim lighting cast by tubes recessed into the ceiling.  The woman in the suit wasn’t on the other side.

I accessed the various storage containers for the bugs I was keeping in the workshop upstairs.  Beetles navigated the trap that kept them from flying out, then made contact with various touch panels, opening the cages where the various individual species were kept.

As a mass, they flowed down the stairs and into the hub.  The Wards who were at the command center and watching the monitor stood, alarmed, as the mass of bugs made their way across the room to my quarters.

“Taylor.”  It was Tecton speaking, hurrying to the door of my room.

The bugs filtered into my quarters through the space where the walls joined, and beneath the door.

My swarm entered the hallway.  No traps.  The woman in the suit was standing off to one side.  I stood at the threshold, and glanced down at the tracking device that was strapped to my ankle.  What the hell would happen if I stepped through?

I supposed I’d find out.  I stepped through in the same moment Tecton opened the door.

The rectangular portal closed, and I was left staring at a wall.  I turned to see the woman in the suit.  She was tidy, her hair tied back in a loose ponytail with strands tracing the side of her face, and she held a fedora in one hand.  The hat was beaded with moisture.  Another excursion she’d made before reaching out to me?

I was going to speak, when I noticed another presence.  A non-presence.  It was a shift of air currents that seemed unprovoked, affecting certain bugs when it should have touched other bugs in front or behind them.

The topographical sense I got from the movements of my bugs suggested a woman’s form, nude.  It wasn’t entirely gone when another appeared across the room.  The way they moved in sync- not two people.  One person, if she could be called a person; a phantom, flowing through the space around me and the woman in the suit.

The woman in the suit extended the hand that didn’t hold her hat, directing me to a doorway.

I glanced at the woman, noting how there wasn’t a trace of the anxiety or exhaustion that everyone else seemed to show.  My swarm checked the path.

There were people I recognized on the other side.  I stepped through.

The area was dark, but there was ambient light from a series of panels.  Large panels, floor to ceiling, eighteen by five feet, had been erected in a general circle. Two accompanying panels, only two or three feet wide, were set up on either side of each larger panel, to cast light at a slightly different angle.  A bar sat at just below waist height, a semicircle, simultaneously a handrest and a way of indicating a boundary the designated parties weren’t to cross.

A different person or group of people at each station, lit from behind rather than the front.  The light from the other stations barely reached them, which meant their features weren’t well illuminated.  Distinct silhouettes, with only a few more reflective materials catching the light.

I ventured up to the panel closest to the door I’d entered.  Tattletale stood there, and I deigned to stand just behind her and to her left.  Grue, I saw, was leaning against the panel itself, his arms folded.  Tattletale glanced at me and smiled, and I could just barely make out the white of her teeth.

“Asked if they’d pick you up,” she murmured.

“Thank you,” I said.  “What is this?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked.

She turned her attention forward, and then she was taking it in.  I didn’t want to interrupt her, with the amount of information she was doubtlessly gathering.  It was obvious, considering the general presence of those who’d gathered, even if I could only recognize a handful.

Opposite us, Chevalier’s silhouette was unmistakable.  His cannonblade was too distinct.  Exalt stood to his left, and a cape I didn’t recognize stood to the right.  I wondered momentarily if it would count against me that I was standing here.  It hadn’t been by choice, exactly, but it wouldn’t look good that I was with the Undersiders.

Bugs helped me make out Dragon and Defiant at the station to Chevalier’s left.  Both wore their power armor, but apparently the presence of firepower wasn’t a concern, here.

For the most part, that was where my ability to recognize people stopped.

To my left, there was a man in power armor with his face bared.  The tattoo across his face reflected a dark blue-green in an odd way, as though he stood beneath a blacklight, flecks of light… only the fragments flowed.  No, they were traveling a circuit, instead.  Faintly blue, the glimmers traveled a circuit that marked the interior of an elaborate, stylized cross, his eyes unlit shadows in the midst of the two horizontal bars.

I could make out a station with a woman, black, accompanied by a massive shadow of a monster with an auroch’s skull for a head.  The woman’s head hung, her hair braided or bound into dreads, I couldn’t be sure.  I moved my bugs closer to check to see if she had any weapons, and her pet shadow reached out to block the swarm.  They died so quickly it was almost as though the shadow had killed before it made contact.

I decided to leave her alone.

Further down, hard to make out due to the angle of the panel that framed them, there was a small crowd.  A young girl stood at the forefront, and others were gathered around and behind her.  My bugs noted twelve people gathered in front of the panel.

Another station had only a woman and a man sitting at a table that had been set out.  The man had his hands folded neatly in front of him, and the light from neighboring panels was reflected on the large-frame glasses he wore. The woman leaned forward, elbows on the desk, hands clasped in front of her mouth.  Dark skinned, with some kind of pin in her hair.  My bugs traced their hips – the area least likely to be unclothed, and I noted the presence of ordinary clothing.  A button up shirt for him, a knee-length skirt and blouse with accompanying lab coat for her.

Three men in robes that bore a striking resemblance to Phir Sē’s were arranged to our right.

“One moment longer,” the woman in the lab coat said.

“Quite alright,” a man answered her, from the group of twelve.  “I’m really quite excited.  Been a rather long time since I’ve had a breath of fresh air.”

Hush, Marquis,” the girl at the front of that particular group spoke, and her voice was a chorus, a number of people speaking in sync, “I will not have you speaking out of turn.  Our hosts have been gracious to invite us, you will not offend them and besmirch my reputation by association.

“My sincere apologies.”

Marquis?  I had to search for the name for a moment.  Then I stopped.  That Marquis?

Another panel lit up, and the circle was complete.  My bugs found the people gathered in front, allowing me to investigate that crowd, who had silhouettes I couldn’t make out in the jumble.  A woman with a ponytail and a number of monstrous parahumans behind her…  Faultline.

The woman in the suit arrived in the room, crossing through the darkness at the center with the steady taps of her shoe heels against the hard floor.

She joined the man with the glasses and dress shirt and the woman with the lab coat.  It clicked for me.

Cauldron.  I was looking at the people behind Cauldron.  I felt a chill, despite myself.

“Ms. Alcott declined to join us,” the woman in the lab coat said.  “As did Adalid, who wanted to be ready to defend his home in case the new Endbringer arrived there.  The three blasphemies and Jack Slash were unreachable, but we would have far fewer problems if individuals like them could be reached so easily.”

Except you didn’t do anything about Jack when it counted, I thought.

“We reached out to a number of major powers and sources of information, and you are the ones who responded.  As useful as it might be to have the Yàngbǎn or Elite with us, I’m almost glad that we can have this discussion with only those who are truly committed.  Thank you for coming.  I go by Doctor Mother, and I am the founder of Cauldron.”

I could hear a growl from within Faultline’s group.  They were directly opposite Doctor Mother, as far away as they could have been.

Probably sensible, all things considered.  Cauldron was to blame for the case fifty-threes.  I suspected they could have handled themselves if anyone in Faultline’s group were to attack, but setting a distance between the two groups made sense.

“Look,” Tattletale said, abruptly, “Let’s cut past the formality bullshit.  I know a lot of you are big on that sort of thing, but we should talk nitty-gritty tactics sooner than later, especially considering the amount of squabbling that’s sure to happen.”

“Agreed,” Chevalier said, from across the room.

Mense sterf elke sekonde van elke dag. Babas sterf in die moederskoot en die kinders doodgeskiet soos honde. Vroue word verkrag en vermoor en nagmerries skeur mans uitmekaar om te fees op hul binnegoed,” the woman with the skull-headed shadow said, her voice quiet and level.  I was startled to see that it was a human skull, now.

“I gave you the ability to understand and speak English,” a man in the group of twelve said.  “It wouldn’t cost you anything to use it.”

Ek sal nie jou tong gebruik nie, vullis,” the woman replied, her voice still quiet, though it was flecked with anger, just a bit of an edge.

The man sighed, “Well, I could use my power on everyone else here, but somehow I don’t think the offer would be accepted.”

Another person in that group, a woman, spoke.  “She doesn’t believe in using English.  Her first statement was, to paraphrase, ‘People die every day’.”

“Helpful,” Tattletale commented.  “Enough with the bullshit and posturing.  We were brought here for one reason.  Well, a lot of reasons, but the main one that ties us all together is that we’ve got that monster rampaging around and we’re not making headway.  We whittle him down, he heals.  Scion attacks, he teleports, and the golden fool doesn’t follow.  So let’s be honest, let’s talk about this and introduce ourselves before we say anything so we’re not completely in the dark-”

“Some of us have identities to keep private,” the man with the cross on his face said.

“We can’t bullshit around about secrecy and all that.  We need to dust off our weapons and the schemes we’ve been keeping on the back burner and hit that motherfucker.  More than half of us have cards we’re keeping up our sleeves for a rainy day.  Someone needs to bite the bullet and play their card.  And then we need to talk about who plays the next card, when number five comes around.  Because there will be a fifth.  Or a fourth, if you count Behemoth or not.”

“Many of us are playing on a scale where a particular play would put us at a critical disadvantage,” the man with the cross on his face said.  “Acting now, at the wrong time, it wouldn’t only hurt us, but it would put bigger things at risk.  There’s doing wrongs for the greater good, and there’s doing noble deeds and dooming ourselves in the process.”

“You’re hardly so noble, Saint,” Defiant said, his voice a growl.

“I wasn’t speaking about me,” Saint retorted.

“Either way, this is why you’re here,” Doctor Mother said.  “To negotiate.  With luck, you can barter to guarantee your safety in the future, or ask favors of others, in exchange for whatever it costs you to use whatever weapons or resources you’re holding back.”

We can barter,” Faultline said.  Her voice was hard.  “Unless you’re saying the people who’ve been creating and hoarding parahumans en masse don’t have any cards to play.”

“Unfortunately, Faultline, we cannot.  Cauldron, to be specific, cannot.  I have provided this forum for discussion, we can help troubleshoot or support plans, or even provide assistance, but our cards must remain in place.  There is nothing any of you could offer us that would be worth what it costs to act.”

“Bullshit,” I said.  I could feel anger stirring.  “No way I believe that.  Even just that portal system you’ve got, that’s enough to change the tide of this fight.”

“Not an option,” Doctor Mother said.

“Because you’re afraid,” Tattletale said.  “There’s a fear that someone’s going to come after you, trace the portal back home.  But there’s another, bigger fear, isn’t there?”

“Yes,” Marquis said, from among the group of twelve.  “And I suspect I know what it is.”

“Contessa here has informed me you do,” Doctor Mother said, cutting him off.  She was gesturing towards the woman in the suit.  “Let me assure you, it would do more harm than good to reveal the details.  Especially here, especially now.”

“Shit on me,” Tattletale said.  “You bastards figured this out.  How the hell did a bunch of prisoners in a jail that’s dangling inside a mountain get to figure it out before I did?”

“Hands on experience,” Marquis answered.

“Panacea,” Tattletale said.

“Exactly,” Marquis said.  “Clever girl.  Well, I’m not looking to stir waves.  I can’t disagree with the good doctor, so I’ll keep my mouth shut.  Back to business.”

“Damn it,” Tattletale said, under her breath.  Louder, she said, “You’re sure that this doesn’t relate to our Endbringer situation?”

“It doesn’t,” Doctor Mother said. “The Endbringers are a puzzle unto themselves, independent of every other major variable.”

“That reeks of bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “I want to think you’re bullshitting or you’re absolutely wrong and they’re connected to everything, but I’m getting the feeling it’s not.  It’s bullshit because it’s true?”

“I think we’re on the same page, Tattletale,” the Doctor said.

“Can we progress this discussion?” one of the robed men asked.

“We can,” the Doctor said.  “Thank you for getting us back on track, Turanta of the Thanda.  Let’s open the floor to discussion.  Let’s start with the possibility that we might draw from the Birdcage.”

Freedom matters little to me,” the girl with the eerie voice said.  “The true end draws nearer.

“The end of the world, you mean,” I said.

The end of all things, queen administrator,” she said.

Queen administrator?  What?  “Isn’t that the same thing?  The end of the world and the end of all things?  Or do you mean the end of the universe?”

It doesn’t concern other celestial bodies.  It doesn’t matter.  This ends, one way or another.  We and ours will carry on, in some form, whether it happens today or three hundred years from now.

“How reassuring,” Tattletale quipped.  “You won’t help?”

I am safe where I am, whether it beyond the Endbringer’s reach here or deep beneath the mountain.  I will collect from among the dead, and I will keep them company until the faerie rise from the ruins.

Oh, I thought.  She’s completely out of her mind.

“There’s no way to barter for assistance from within the birdcage then?” Doctor Mother asked.  “Nothing you want, Glaistig Uaine?”

The girl, Glaistig Uaine, responded, “A hundred thousand corpses, each being one naturally gifted by the faerie.”

“We don’t have time to laugh about like this,” Turanta, the apparent spokesman of the cold capes said.

I am not joking, astrologer.  I would like to see their lights dancing in the air.  I have seen only glimmers, fragments of the performance.  To see it all at once… yes.

I heard someone in Faultline’s group swearing.  Newter, I suspected.

Honestly, I kind of agreed.  I clenched my fists, biting back the worst of my anger.  I managed to stay calm as I commented, “I’m getting a better idea of why things are as screwed up as they are.  We’ve got all of the major players here, and half of you are willing to do nothing while the world burns.”

“All of the major players who were willing to come to the table,” Doctor Mother said.

Not any better, I thought, but I held my tongue.  Doctor Mother had turned to the girl from the birdcage.  “If you participated in the fight, I can promise there would be a number of dead parahumans there.”

I fear that would not be enough.  It would need to be all together, for the greatest effect,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“We could provide that many over a period of ten years, if required, but we’d want more assistance than simply this one fight,” Doctor Mother said.  She stopped as the man with the glasses leaned close.  A moment passed, “Or we could provide that many twenty-seven years from now.”

I felt a bit of a chill.  They were so casually discussing this, as if it were possible.

I opened my mouth to cut in, but Glaistig Uaine spoke first.

No.  No, I don’t think I’ll accept.  My word is too vital to me, and you seem to want me to war with the abominations.  I don’t fear my own death, but I would rather be together with the others than be separated until the grand celebration.  I won’t fight.  I would only grant my advice, some power here and there.

Doctor Mother sat back in her seat.  The ominous silence suggested she was still considering it.

A hundred thousand lives, being mulled over so readily.

“That’s a shame,” Doctor Mother said, in the end.

“If I may?” Marquis spoke up.  “With your permission, faerie queen.”

Granted,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“There are others who wouldn’t mind being free again,” he said.  “Myself included.  We’d fight that monster if you gave us the chance.  All we’d ask is that you let a select few others out, and that you don’t create a portal that leads back to the Birdcage after the fact.”

“No,” Chevalier said, breaking his long silence.  “No, I’m sorry.”

“Some of the strongest parahumans are contained inside that building,” Marquis said.  “Glaistig Uaine is one, but there are others.  My daughter is another.”

“Your daughter was a mental wreck the last time anyone outside of the Birdcage saw her.  There are too many dangerous individuals in there.  She,” Chevalier said, pointing in the direction of the woman with the shadowy pet with the massive bird skull, “Has killed thousands of people.  That’s nothing compared to what some individuals in the birdcage have done.  We’d be letting the wolves run free again, in the hopes they deal with the lion.”

“If there is no other way to deal with the lion, and we know the wolves have been caught in our snare once before…” Saint said, trailing off.

“We know they can be dealt with.  We’re just lacking resources.  Opening the doors of the Birdcage has to be a last resort.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I could stand for it to be the first resort,” Marquis said.  He turned toward the Doctor, “I’m staying mum about what my daughter discovered.  The details we both know that must not be shared.  Surely that’s worth some goodwill.”

“It is,” the Doctor replied.

I glanced at Tattletale.  Her eyes were moving quickly, hungrily taking in details.

Chevalier sighed.  “Dragon?  Some backup.”

“I have to say no,” Dragon said.  “The prisoners must stay within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  If you intend to rescue them, I’ll deploy everything I have to stop you.  Neither of us can afford the losses at this juncture.”

“But if we did try,” Saint said, “And if we did free a handful of deserving individuals, you wouldn’t be unhappy, would you?”

There was a pause, telling.  It was enough of a delay for Chevalier to look from Saint to Dragon and give her a curious stare before she spoke.  “My view on who is deserving is far different from yours, Saint.”

“Those of us standing here.  Me, my daughter, Lung,” Marquis said.

“You cannot speak for all of us on that front,” a matronly woman spoke.  “One of my girls was unfairly imprisoned, another is on the verge of losing her mind, in captivity.”

“We all have people we’d see freed,” the man who’d spoken about granting the ability to speak English said.  “Let’s say two for each of us.”

“Thirty six in all,” Dragon said.  “One in five of the people currently in the Birdcage, almost.  Six more could potentially use the opportunity to slip out, through Stranger powers or other malfeasance.  Glancing over the notes my artificial intelligences have made regarding the facility, I can guess who some of the cell block leaders would choose to release.  No.  I harbor concerns about the Birdcage, but this is not the answer to that.”

“It would do more harm than good,” Chevalier said.  “And I say that with full knowledge of what we’re up against here, today.  The last three days.”

“Their opinions don’t decide this,” Marquis said.  “If it were solely up to our officers and jailer in the first place, then we’d be free already.  You, Cauldron, have the means to send us back or not.  It’s your authority that matters.”

Chevalier shifted his grip on his weapon, but he didn’t attack.  “We’ll bargain.  Marquis is offering assistance, but the PRT has influence.  We’ll deal with you, Doctor, if it means the Birdcage remains sealed.  With the ongoing inquisition against Cauldron capes, perhaps there are one or two you’d want to be ignored.  They couldn’t be promoted, that’s the PRT’s jurisdiction, and it would only draw attention to them that I couldn’t help them avoid.  Still, I could time a transfer, allow someone to slip through the cracks.”

“A few someones,” the Doctor said.  “Yes.  I’m sorry, Marquis.  Our clients must come first.”

“You’ll be twisting our arms and escorting us through the portal, then?”

“You’ll go willingly.  This place cannot sustain life.  It’s a facility in the middle of a wasteland, and your Earth is several universes away.”

“I see,” Marquis said.  “Unavoidable, I take it.  And if I were to share the particularly valuable information that you and I both know, that you don’t want me to share with others who are present?”

“I can’t believe I’m not getting in on this,” Tattletale whispered to me.

Doctor Mother didn’t reply.  She remained still, her eyes on Marquis, as the woman in the suit, who she’d called Contessa, leaned in close, whispering.

“You won’t,” the Doctor said, when Contessa had straightened and stepped back, standing guard behind the Doctor’s chair.

“I won’t?”

“You won’t.  Teacher would, hearing that, but Teacher has a secret he doesn’t want divulged, and he now knows we know.”

Marquis turned, his shadow shifting, presumably as he looked at Teacher.  He turned back, “Ah well.  I suppose I’ll just say we’re here if you need us.”

“If we need you that badly,” Chevalier said, “Then we’ve already lost.”

“Rest assured,” Marquis retorted, “I think you’re doing a very good job at getting yourselves to that juncture.”

“It’s a failure across the board,” I said, surprising myself by speaking.  “All of us, the Birdcage prisoners excepted, we’re not doing enough.  If we don’t come up with an answer or get someone to step up to bat and fight, then we’re doomed.  We’ve got the end of the world happening in twenty-thirteen, and we can’t even band together for this.”

“Complaining gets us nowhere,” Faultline said. “Besides, it’s not like this is small potatoes.”

“Okay then,” I said.  “Let’s talk resources.  If you’ve got parahumans or information, let’s hear it.  Let’s show a measure of trust and have Marquis or Cauldron share the tidbit of information they’ve gleaned.  Let’s talk options that don’t involve fighting.  Tattletale thinks these bastards are designed.  Where’s the designer?”

“Nowhere we can find,” Doctor Mother said.  “And we have the most powerful clairvoyance we know about, alongside the most powerful precognitive.”

“Does that mean there isn’t a designer?” Faultline asked.  “That Tattletale’s wrong?”

“Get fucking real,” Tattletale retorted.  “I’m confident on this count.”

“If they can’t find the designer-” Faultline started.

“There’s other possibilities.  Lots of powers confound precogs and clairvoyants.”

“Both at the same time?”

“Be constructive,” I cut in.

“We will assist,” Turanta said.  “Sifara, Bahu and I, others beneath us in our organization.  I cannot speak for my fellow brothers, but I will ask them because we all owe a debt.  Our brother died, but Weaver helped to make it not for nothing.”

“Phir Sē died?” I asked, surprised.

“At the hands of the First, very late.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“We owe you,” he said.  “As we owe some of the others.  It is your choice how you would use this.”

“You can pay me back by helping, here,” I said.  “You’d be paying us all back.”

“We have the means,” he said. “But this hurts us, because we rely on our enemies not knowing what we are truly able to do.”

“If this goes much further,” I said, “It might not matter.”

“This is true.  Of each of you but Weaver and Chevalier, we will ask a small favor, after.  Nothing dangerous or painful to give away.  Token gestures, most.”

“Favors make for a good currency,” the Doctor said.  “Granted.”

There were murmurs of assent from others.  The woman with the shadow pet didn’t respond, but Turanta didn’t press the issue with her either.

Dragon glanced at Defiant, but ultimately relented, accepting the terms.

The Doctor spoke “Moord Nag?  We could use your assistance.”

The woman and her shadow pet with its crocodile skull looked at Doctor Mother.  “Laat hulle almal sterf.  Ek is tevrede om die wêreld te sien brand en die vallende konings te spot.  Ek en my aasdier sal loop op die as van die verwoeste aarde.”

“She says no.  Let them all die,” the woman from the Birdcage said.

“Can I ask who she is?” Faultline asked.

Tattletale was the one to answer.  I think she got a measure of joy out of rubbing the fact that she knew in Faultline’s face, “Moord Nag.  Warlord based in Namibia.  As far as the current warlords in the area go, she’s had the longest lifespan at about eight years or so, and she’s gotten things to the point where most of the other bastards around there are kowtowing, asking permission to attack this city or occupy that area, to go to the bathroom or unite two groups in an alliance.”

Die badkamer?”

Us, basically,” Tattletale said, glancing at me.  She turned her head to look at Grue, “Only on a much, much bigger scale, and she did it alone.”

Ek het dit reggekry met aasdier,” Moord Nag responded.  “Nie alleen nie.

“With your pet monster, right.”

“She said she’d be willing to let the world burn, before,” the woman from the birdcage said.  “I don’t think you have an ally there.”

“From her attitude,” Saint added, “I don’t even see why she was invited.”

“I’ll ask you the same thing I asked the others,” the Doctor said.  “What would it take for you to fight, here?”

Ek kan nie krag spandeer sonder om die nag lande hulpeloos teen hul bure te los nie.”

“She can’t spend her power, not without-”

“We’ll supply what you need to replenish it,” the Doctor said.

“No,” Dragon spoke.  “No, you won’t.”

Ek sal nie-

“It would be appreciated,” the man from the Birdcage that had granted her the ability to understand English spoke.  “Reconsider.  Don’t underestimate our resources.”

Vyf duisend, lewendig, dit maak nie saak of hulle mag het of nie.  ‘N Fraksie van wat jy die gek aangebied het.

“No,” Dragon said, before the translator could speak.

“Yes,” the Doctor said, just as readily.  “I caught the number, I can figure out the rest.  You’ll get what you need.”

“I can’t stand by and watch this, not like this,” Chevalier said.

“How many more will die if we don’t act?” the Doctor said.  “The Thanda will counteract the Endbringer’s teleportation ability, at least for a time.  Moord Nag gives you much-needed clout.  Again, at least for a short time.”

“In exchange for five thousand lives?” Dragon asked.

“A small price to pay.  How many have died as we conducted this meeting?”

Jy praat asof dit saak maak. Die kontrak is verseël. Sal ons gaan nou,” Moord Nag said.

“What did she just say?” Chevalier asked.  Moord Nag was already walking away, stepping away from the panel and into the recessed passage beside it, almost completely hidden in shadow.  I could only make out the rodent’s skull, overlarge and pale in the darkness.

“The contract is settled,” Dragon said.  “She sees it as inviolable, now.”

“I like her,” Marquis commented.  “Mass murder aside, anyways.  Woman of her word.”

“We’ll find her,” Chevalier said, to the Doctor, “After the battle is done, before you deliver those people to her.”

“You promised us a favor, in exchange for our not letting Marquis and the other cell block leaders free,” the Doctor said.  “I could ask you to leave this be,” the Doctor said.

“No.  Not this.  Not five thousand people, fed to that woman’s pet.”

“Stop us, then,” the Doctor replied.  “Or try, as it may be.  That’s one Endbringer we should be able to drive away.  As Weaver said, we may have to evacuate the planet if this doesn’t work.  Faultline, your assistance would be invaluable on that front.  You’ve already created nine, I believe?”

“Three of which were supposed to be secret,” Faultline replied.

“It doesn’t matter.  We’ll pay for several more, at major locations, and we’ll arrange your transportation.”

Faultline stared at the woman.  “No, Doctor.”

“No?”

“Not your money.  Not you.”

“Shortsighted,” Saint commented.

“I think this is pretty big picture.  Money talks, and I don’t like how this money sounds.  She spends five thousand lives like someone else would spend change.  Cauldron made innocent people into monsters.  They took everything from them.  I can’t deal with that in good faith.”

She turned to Chevalier, “We’ll give you a discount.  Escape routes in major cities across America.  Leading to the world that the Brockton Bay portal goes to.”

Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll talk to my superiors,” Chevalier said.

“Good,” Faultline said, “that’s settled, then.”

“Leaving only the Endbringer that comes next,” I said.

“We won’t know what measures need to be taken until it makes an appearance,” Defiant spoke.

“Another meeting,” the Doctor said.  “Another day.”

I could feel my heart skip a beat at that.  I wasn’t sure I liked what this was becoming.

Then again, the nature of this meeting had been suggested from the start, with the shadows concealing identities.  Everything the PRT had been fighting to assure people that parahumans weren’t doing was happening here, in this room.  Scheming, trading lives like currency, and wielding incredible amounts of power, money and influence.

“But before we get that far,” the Doctor said, “Tattletale?”

“You asked me here for a reason,” Tattletale said.  “Multiple reasons.”

“The first being to give you an opportunity to check something for our mutual benefit.”

“You brought the major players in so I could see if anyone was the designer, the creator of the Endbringers.”

“And?”

“Nobody here.”

The Doctor nodded.  “I suspected.  They remain immune to precognition, but the designer wouldn’t be, I don’t think.  It’s good to double check, regardless.  Will you be attending if we hold another meeting, Chevalier?” the Doctor asked.

Others, the Thanda, were departing, now.  Grue had stepped away from the panel to step close to Tattletale, whispering something.

Then Grue walked past me, not even glancing my way, before disappearing into the corridor I’d used to enter.

Hurt, confused, I couldn’t speak to ask Tattletale why without possibly interrupting Chevalier, as he spoke in a steady, quiet voice.

“I don’t think I have a choice.  If I don’t come, then I’m left blind to what’s occurring behind the scenes.  I wouldn’t be able to intervene if you tried something like you did with the Birdcage.”

“That’s true,” Doctor Mother said.

“And I think that’s exactly what you wanted,” he said.  “You have that Contessa there, and she sees the road to victory.  You schemed this.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”  Chevalier asked.

“It’s not time for you to know,” she said.

Fuck that,” Tattletale cut in.  Most of the other groups were gone.  Faultline and her group lingered behind.  “I think it’s damn obvious what you’re doing.”

“A new world order,” I said.  Tattletale nodded in agreement beside me.

There were a few curious glances shot our way.  I could see the Doctor shift position.  Exasperation?  Annoyance?

I leaned forward, resting my hands on the railing in front of me.  Grue’s odd departure only fueled an anger that had been simmering, “I had a hell of a lot of time to think, in prison, in my downtime and during stakeouts.  There’s only one thing that really makes sense, as far as your motivations go.  It’s not the clues or what you’re doing, it’s what you weren’t doing.  Only Legend helped against the Slaughterhouse Nine, but he wasn’t in the know, from the looks of it.  You didn’t help Coil, and you didn’t help against Coil.  You only helped against Echidna when it looked like everything might go down the toilet.  But Alexandria steps in when I leave, confronts me after I’d surrendered to the PRT.  So I had to ask myself why.”

“I can imagine,” Doctor Mother said.

“We were guinea pigs,” I said.  “For what?  So you could be in charge?”

“Not us.  Never us,” the Doctor said.  “There’s a lot you don’t understand.”

Try us,” Tattletale said, almost snarling the words.

“All of this?  It’s small scale,” the Doctor said.  “Important?  Yes.  But it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.”

I clenched my fists.  “Five thousand lives, nothing.  Talking about a hundred thousand parahumans to be delivered after twenty-some years, nothing.  The lies you perpetuated with Alexandria, the schemes, Echidna, the human experimentation, the case fifty-threes, everyone you watched die just so your experiment with parahumans in charge of Brockton Bay wouldn’t be tainted…”

“We’ll go down in history as the villains,” Doctor Mother said.  There wasn’t a trace of doubt or hesitation in her voice.  “But it’s worth it if it means saving everyone.”

“You sound so sure,” Gregor the Snail spoke, from behind Faultline.  He had a heavy accent.  European-ish, in the same vein as Moord Nag.

“Do morals matter, if our alternative is a grim and hopeless end?”

“I would never question your morals,” Gregor said.  “I know you have none.  I merely wonder why you are so confident you will succeed in all of this, that you will save the world and you will achieve your new world order and your parahuman leadership.”

“We have a parahuman that sees the path to victory.  The alternative to traveling this path, to walking it as it grows cloudier and narrower every day, is to stand by while each and every person on this planet dies a grisly and violent death.”

“You know how the world ends,” I said, my eyes widening behind the lenses of my mask.

“Of course,” she answered, standing from her chair.  She collected papers and a tablet computer from the table in front of her.  She collected it into a neat bundle, and the man with the glasses took it from her, holding it under one arm.  Only then did she add, “We already saved it once.”

There were no responses to that.  Confusion and disbelief warred with each other as I stared at her silhouette.  The others seemed to be in similar straits.

“You had better hurry if you want transportation to the battlefield,” she said.  Then, with the man with the glasses and Contessa following, she strode from the dark chamber.

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Interlude 24 (Donation Bonus #1)

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“Well bandaged.  They did a good job,” the doctor had to raise her voice to be heard over the helicopter’s rotors.  She was older, blond to the point that it was hard to distinguish if her hair was still blond or graying, her expression creased in concern.

Wanton nodded mutely.

“What happened?” the doctor asked him.

“Falling debris,” Tecton offered, from the other side of the helicopter.

The doctor nodded.  “We’ll leave it as it is.  The pain’s okay?”

“Meds help,” Wanton said.  “Feel like I’m almost dreaming.  And I’m going to wake up, and none of this will have happened.”

“It happened,” Tecton said.

“Why isn’t everyone cheering and hollering anymore?”

“Really fucking tired,” Grace said.  She was beside Cuff, who’d been stripped of her armor from the waist up, with only a thin covering of near-liquid metal on her upper body for modesty’s sake.  A nurse was attending to her arm.

“Really tired,” Golem said.  “Oh my god.  My entire body hurts, and I didn’t even take a direct hit.”

“The roars and shockwaves might have done internal damage,” the doctor said.  “You’ll each need a CT scan and MRI.  Let me know if there’s any acute pain.”

“I think it’s more that I’ve never exercised this much in my life,” Golem said.

“You’ll hurt worse tomorrow,” Grace commented.

“Damn.”

The doctor, for her part, turned her attention to Wanton.  “We’ll need to double-check for bone fragments when we get back to the hospital.  You’ll need surgery.  Chances are good this was a rush job.”

“I… my arm,” Wanton said, lamely.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor responded.

“No, it’s like… I should feel worse, but I don’t.  Maybe it’s the drugs, but I feel this rush, like I’ve never been so glad to be alive.  I’m pumped.”

“You may be in shock,” the doctor observed.

“We’re all in shock,” Tecton said.

There were murmurs of agreement across the helicopter.

“Is anyone else a little freaked out?” Cuff asked.

“Freaked out?” the doctor asked.

Cuff shook her head, not responding.  Her attention had shifted to her arm, as the doctor bound it.

Tecton ventured a reply instead.  “I think I understand what Cuff means.  It’s hard to believe he’s gone.  It’s like, you’re five years old, and Leviathan appears for the first time, and your parents have to explain that a bunch of people died, and it’s because of these monsters and yet nobody has figured out why.”

“Yeah,” Cuff said.  “What happens next?  Leviathan or the Simurgh?  We kill them?  Stop them from blowing up or doing their version of blowing up?  I can’t really imagine that we’d beat them, give our all and hope that Scion shows up and fights like that again, kill them, and then have everything be okay.”

“You just got powers, barely a month ago, and you’re already this grim?” Wanton asked.

“I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of the Endbringer attacks for a while,” Cuff said.  Her eyes were on the floor, and an expression of pain crossed her face as the doctor cut away a tag of burned skin on her shoulder.  The scar was like a snowflake carved into the skin’s surface, angry and red.  Her arm seemed to tremble involuntarily.

“It’s okay to worry,” Tecton said.  He gestured towards Weaver.  “Weaver said as much.  They’ve got a nasty habit of escalating, in the fights themselves and in the grand scheme of things.  Behemoth got too predictable, so Leviathan started to show up.  We started to coordinate defenses, get the world on board to deal with them, Simurgh comes.”

“And now we killed one, so how do they escalate from there?” Grace asked.

“It’s a concern,” Tecton said, “And it’s one that people all around the world are going to be discussing.  Rely on them.  Don’t take the full weight of the world onto your shoulders.  We fought, you guys made a good show of it,” Tecton said.

“I could’ve done more,” Cuff said.

“You’re new.  Inexperienced, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.  As far as jumping in with both feet first, you guys managed it.  You, Golem, Annex, you stood up there, shoulder to shoulder with veteran heroes, and you fought, even though you’re rookies.  You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, okay?”

Cuff didn’t reply.

“Okay?” Tecton asked.

“When my family got killed in Hawaii, I made promises to myself.  It’s why I came.  I don’t feel like I did enough, to fulfill my own end of those promises.”

“There’s always next time,” Tecton said.

“You say that like it’s a good thing,” Wanton said.

“Yeah.  Shit,” Grace muttered.  “It’s not quite over yet, right?”

“Right,” Tecton said.  “But there’s time before the next one.  Let people in the know handle the worrying.  We did everything we could.  Now we recuperate.  We celebrate, because was deserve to.  We take the time to heal.”

In response to the glances cast his way, Wanton waved his stump around.  “Going to take getting used to.  Getting dressed, eating…”

He moved the stump in the direction of his lap, jerked it up and down.

Cuff looked and squeaked in embarrassment before averting her eyes.

“…writing,” Wanton finished, a goofy smile on his face.

“Your handwriting must be awful,” Golem said.

There were chuckles here and there from among the group.  Even the nurse tending to Cuff smiled.

“We did good,” Tecton said.  “And some people will recognize that.  Others are gonna see all the bad that happened in New Delhi and point fingers.  Be ready in case you fall under the crosshairs.”

There were nods from the rest of the Chicago Wards.

Tecton glanced at Weaver, then back to his team.  “What do you think?”

“You have to ask?” Grace asked.

“You weren’t keen at the idea at first,” Tecton replied.

“I’m still not, not a hundred percent.  But whatever little doubts I have, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”

“Yep,” Wanton said.

“Golem?”  Tecton asked.  “Have you even talked to her about it?”

“I’m a little scared to,” the boy said.  “I mean…”

He glanced at the doctor.

“Everything here is confidential,” Tecton said.

“Well, given my past, the people I was with before I came here, I’m worried there’s hard feelings.  They were in the same city.  I don’t know what exactly happened.  What if one of them did something to Weaver or her friends?  Is she the type to hold a grudge?”

“Going by what apparently happened in Brockton Bay,” Wanton said, “Not so much.  If she has a reason to hold a grudge, you don’t tend to live very long.”

Golem frowned.

“You’re not being helpful, Wanton.  Or fair to Weaver,” Tecton said.

“I’m suffering, Tec,” Wanton said, making the words into an exaggerated groan.

Tecton shook his head, turning to Golem.  “Tell her.  Explain your circumstances, let her know you’re from the same city, that you don’t share your family’s ideology.”

“The name should say as much,” Golem said.

Tecton nodded.  He drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.  The adrenaline was burning off, and with it, a deep exhaustion was settling in.

He looked at Weaver, where she sat at the far end of the bench.  Her old teammate had insisted on coming with her, along with a small cluster of dogs.  They’d fallen asleep within two minutes of takeoff.  Weaver had been first, her head leaning against her friend’s shoulder.  Her friend had been next to drift off, a dog in her lap, others lying underneath the bench.

“We’ll talk to the bosses,” Tecton said.  “See about taking Weaver onto the team.”

How was this supposed to work?

“Door me,” Pretender said.

A light sliced across the floor of the alleyway, three feet across.  When it had reached its full length, it began thickening, raising up until the portal was a full four by seven feet.  There was a long white hallway on the other side.

Carefully, he stepped through, with legs that weren’t his own.

“Pretender.”

He stopped, then turned around.  “Satyr.”

“You don’t have to go with them,” Satyrical said.

“I think today proved I do.”

“And everything we were working on?  Everything we were working towards?”

“I talked to some powerful people.  People behind the scenes we’ve barely heard of,” Pretender replied.  “What we were working on in Vegas doesn’t even compare.  Small potatoes.”

“Doesn’t feel like small potatoes.  What’s so important that you’d run off?”

Pretender frowned, an expression hidden by the helmet he wore.

“You can talk to me.  You know I can keep secrets.  Or are you talking about the Endbringers?  I think today showed they can deal with Endbringers on their own,” Satyr said.

“It’s bigger things.  Bigger than Endbringers,” Pretender answered.  “End of the world.”

Satyrical sighed.  “Of course it is.”

“I’ll help you with the little things, when I have the time.  We have resources, and maybe we can use you guys.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Satyr said.  He approached Pretender, extending a hand.

Pretender shook, gingerly, unsure of the full extent of Alexandria’s enhanced strength.

Satyr held on to the hand, caressing it.  “They say you should marry your best friend, and now that you’re a woman…”

Pretender chuckled a little before withdrawing his hand from Satyr’s.  “That line again?  I don’t think that’s what they meant.”

“She’s yours for keeps?”

“Brain dead.  Her body’s peculiar.  Doesn’t really age.  Hair doesn’t grow, nails don’t grow.  Wounds don’t really heal or get worse.  She used cosmetics to look older, to throw people off.  Only the brain was left pliable, adaptable.  Even then, most of it was hardened, protected, those duties offloaded to her agent.”

Satyr studied Pretender’s new body without shame.  His eyes rested on Pretender’s forehead.  “I see.  And with that plasticity, the brain was left more vulnerable.”

“Only a little.  Enough to be an Achilles heel.  She’s a case fifty-three, I suppose.  All of us may be.”

“All Cauldron capes?”

Pretender nodded.  “To some degree or another.”

Satyr seemed to take that into consideration, rubbing his chin.  When he spoke, though, he spoke of something else.  “What you did… you knew that they’d figured you out, and that I was next in line, that I’d get questioned too.  You killed her for my sake, to buy me time.”

“Are you mad?”

Satyr shook his head.  “We’ve killed before.  Selfishly, selflessly.  Only difference is you got caught.”

“Well, I got away.”

“In a fashion, yes.  You got away,” Satyr said.  “You’ve even reached a higher position in life.”

“Wearing someone else’s skin, living their life,” Pretender replied.

“Yes, well, that was always going to be your fate, wasn’t it?”

Pretender chuckled.  “I’ve missed you, buddy.”

“Likewise, you freak of nature,” Satyr responded.

“Just because we’re doing different things now, it doesn’t mean goodbye.”

“Good.”

“We stay in touch,” Pretender said.  “I’m sure my new group can use you, and you can draw on our resources, I’m sure.  Our goals are more or less aligned.  Only difference is scale.”

“Well then.  Good luck with saving the world.”

“And good luck with saving civilization from itself,” Pretender answered.  He looked skyward for a moment.  “Close the door.”

The portal closed.

Connecting to “agChat.ParahumansOnline016.par:6667” (Attempt 1 of 55)
Resolving Host Name
Connecting…
Connected.
Using identityIblis”, nick “Iblis”
Welcome to Parahumans Online Chatroom #116, ‘The Holdout’.  Rules Here.  Behave.
  Obey the @s.
Ryus: shorthand for seismic activity.  earthquakes.
Kriketz: any word on deaths yet
Divide: No word on deaths.  This is Behemoth.  It’s normal to see a radio silence like this.  Divide: They can’t report deaths because the armbands get knocked out.
Spiritskin:  Hi Iblis!
IblisWord is first capes are returning home.
Aloha:  !
Loyal: Who?  Who?  Names!
Deimos: how is new delhi?
@Deadman@:  I’m in contact with main channel, can pass on details if you can verify.
@Deadman@:  PM me.
Iblis: Loyal – Not sure.
Iblis: Deimos – City hit bad.
Iblis: Deadman – Not sure how to verify.  Only have texts on phone.  Sending PM.
Poit: they made it
BadSamurai:  how bad?
Ultracut:  Poit nobodys saying they amde it
Poit: they stopped him or they wouldn’t be leaving
Deimos: Nooooooo! new delhi hit bad?
Aloha:  X(
Iblis:  Texts I’m getting from cape-wife friend are saying Scion finished Behemoth off.
Iblis: Absolute annihilation.
QwertyD: Troll
Groupies: no fucking way
Aloha: O_o
Deimos is now known as Absolute Annihiliation
@Deadman@: Verify now or ban.
Absolute Annihilation: fuck yea Scion!
Arcee: Omg wat?
Iblis: sending PM with texts.

Colin shifted his weight restlessly, watching the screens.

There was a process, he knew.  He’d been filled in on the details, forewarned.  That didn’t make this any easier.

Too many years he’d spent alone.  Too many years, he’d had nothing to care about.  Nothing and nobody to hold precious.  A dad who worked two jobs, a mother who traveled.  They’d divorced, and virtually nothing had changed in the grand scheme of things.  They’d looked after him, but they hadn’t been there.  They had been occupied with other things, with dreams and aspirations that had never included him.

Colin knew he had been the weird child.  Had never made friends, had convinced himself he didn’t want or need them.  He was efficient in how solitary he was.

He’d even prided himself on it, for a time, that there was nothing to hold him back.  That he could, should the mood strike him, pick up and leave at any time.  He’d modeled his life around it, had led a spare existence, devoid of the little touches of home, of roots.  He’d saved money so he had the ability to travel, to get a new place in a new city if the mood struck.  It had even been an asset when he had joined the Protectorate, the ability to relocate, take any open position.

It was only now, a full fifteen years later, that he started to wonder what he’d missed out on.  Did most people know how to handle this sort of thing?  The absence of someone they cared about?  Did they have an easier time handling the moments when they weren’t sure if they’d ever see those people again, or was it harder?

He’d altered Dragon’s code.  It wasn’t a tidy thing.  Tinker work rarely was.  There were too many factors to consider, and a tinker who didn’t specialize in a particular area would never be able to plumb the depths.  Too many things connected to other things, and the full extent of the connections was impossible to fathom in entirety.

At best, he could study each alteration as much as was possible, act in ways that could minimize the damage.

Every adjustment, even on the smallest levels, threatened to damage a dozen, a hundred other areas.

And now he would find out if Dragon’s backup would restore properly.

Error: Temporal Modelling Node 08 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge.

Error: Horospectral Analysis Node 1119 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…
Successful Load: Circadian Checkmatch Node ER089.  Require 2/3 more stable child routines for acceptable bridge.
Error: Metrological Chronostic Node Q1118 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…

Error: Stimuli Tracking Node FQ has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge.

Successful Load: Orientation Patch Node FQ02903.  Require 3/3 stable child routines for acceptable bridge.
Error: Parietal Space Node FQ161178 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…
Error: Recognition Demesnes Node FQ299639 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…

He pulled off his helmet, setting it on the bench beneath the monitor.  He rubbed one hand across his head.  He’d taken to shaving it close, in part for the efficiency of it, in part because the surgeries to replace his eye and the implants he’d set into recesses in his skull had required incisions in his scalp.  Dragon had handled that.

His fingers traced the faint, almost imperceptible scars that ran neatly across the sides and top of his head.  Marks she’d left him.

More errors appeared on the screen.  The estimated time of a successful backup clicked upwards with each one.  Two hours.  Three hours.  Six hours.

At the same time, in Colin’s head, the odds of a successful load were going down.  Twenty-five percent.  Twenty three.  Fifteen.

There were other backups.  He suspected the ones that had been uploaded after his tampering would run into the same issues.  The same errors.

The ones before?  Before he’d altered anything?  It would be a different Dragon than the one he’d come to know.  She would watch the video feeds, listen to the tapes, even experience some of those things for herself, where the system had taken it all online.  But she wouldn’t be the same Dragon he knew.  The organic A.I. architecture would develop in different ways, with different nuances.  So many things connected to so many other things with each new experience, and the connections would occur in a different fashion.

No, he realized.  Even worse.  He would have to head her off before she got access to the data.  If he had to load that backup, he would be loading her as she was before he freed her of the PRT’s shackles.  She would be obligated to fight him.  He’d managed a sneak attack the first time.  The second?  She’d see what he did, force him to try another means.

And he’d have to be more ruthless, knowing he was doing harm to her, injuring her to her core.

He couldn’t bear to watch further.  It was too soon to try another backup, both in terms of the system’s ability to handle the task and his own ability.  But sitting here, watching the list of errors grow, it was angering him, and it was an anger without a focus.

Touching two fingers to his lips, Colin moved those fingers to the monitor’s frame, pressing them there.  The gesture was sentimental enough it felt unlike him, somehow false.  Doing nothing would feel wrong too.

That was his current state, stranded inside his own head, in the midst of his own feelings.

Uncharted territory, in a way.

He pulled on his helmet and stepped outside, and hopped up onto the nose of the Tiamat II.

New Delhi loomed before him.  Ruined, damaged, impossible to recover.  The sun was only now setting, and the sky was red, mingling with the traces of clouds that still remained in the sky.

He wanted to contact Chevalier, to know that his friend was okay, that the Protectorate was okay.  He didn’t trust himself to stay calm, to keep from saying something about Dragon, from venting, being emotional.

Chevalier would understand, he suspected.  But Colin’s masculinity would take a hit, and it would only cause more trouble than it fixed.

Staring out at the city, and the crowds of people in hazmat suits who were moving in for relief, for search and rescue, he frowned.  He and Dragon had had some intense discussions on the subject of what it was to be a ‘man’.  To be human, to be masculine, feminine.

Dragon had been pissed when he’d suggested she was the feminine ideal.  That, in the eternal crisis that any woman faced between being the virgin, the madonna, and being sensual, sexual, she was both.

He wished he understood why she’d been so angry.

To be a man, though, it wasn’t much easier.  The standard society set was just as high.  To be a provider, a rock, to be sensitive, yet to avoid being emotional.

For long minutes, he stared out over the city, watching the sun dip beneath the horizon, the smoke and dust making the distant star’s light hazier, fuzzier.

“Tiamat II,” he said.  “Alert me when the system is finished the backup process, one way or another.”

Yes, Defiant.”

Uncomfortably similar to Dragon’s voice.  He felt an ache in his chest.

He hopped down from the nose of the craft, then used his spear to help himself down from the craggy edge of terrain that had been raised up from the earth in the chaos.  He strode forward, towards the city proper, calibrating his helmet to help identify any warm bodies.

“Annex?  Kirk?”

Kirk sat up from the hospital bed.

“You can stay where you are,” the doctor said, not looking up from the clipboard.

“I’m okay,” Kirk said.

“Your test results are taking some time, I’m sorry.  We can expect a two or three-hour wait.  Half an hour for the MRI, forty-five minutes for the CT scan.”

“At least it’s something to do,” Kirk replied.

“You’d be surprised at how quickly it gets boring,” the doctor answered.

Kirk winced.  “Okay.  Can I maybe use a phone in the meantime?  Call my parents?  They’ll be wondering.”

“They’ve already been informed,” the man answered.  “They’ll be here shortly.  There’s paperwork they’ll have to sign, because a few of your teammates are also walking around without any protection for their identities, but I don’t imagine that’ll take long.”

“Maybe I can call my friends?  They’ll be wondering how I’m doing.”

“They know about your life in costume?”

“They were there when I got my powers.  I just want to call someone, anyone I know, to occupy my thoughts, to talk.”

“There’s a phone at the nurse’s station, center of the floor.  Ask and they’ll punch in the number to dial out.”

“Okay,” Kirk said, smiling.  He gripped the side of his hospital gown to bind it shut.

“I…” the doctor started, he stopped and frowned.

Kirk had halted in his tracks, shifting his weight to keep his bare feet from making too much contact with the cold floor.

Odd, in a way, that he had to.  But his power tended to be all or nothing.

“I shouldn’t tell you this, and I’m not naming names, but the first test results have come in, for some of the others who were at your side in New Delhi.  Here, and in other cities.  The tests for radiation are coming back negative.”

Kirk blinked.

“No promises it’ll be the same for you, but…”

“A bit of hope?” Kirk asked.

“With luck.”

“Thank you,” Kirk said, smiling for the first time.  “Thank you.”

“I should be the one saying that to you,” the doctor said.  “Just… don’t be too disappointed if the answer isn’t what you wanted, okay?”

“Deal,” Kirk answered.

…further reports are coming in from multiple sources.  The Endbringer Behemoth has been reported as being slain in New Delhi!”

“Yes, Lizbeth.  Video footage is always scarce when dealing with the Endbringers, but verification has been consistent from multiple sources.  It seems the footage seen earlier of the great shaft of light was an attack from an unknown party, debilitating the Endbringer.  Defending forces held the injured monster off until Scion could arrive, delivering a finishing blow.”

“Earlier in the year, for those of you who don’t remember, Chevalier boasted of a new Protectorate, clear of the sabotage and interference from its own leaders.  Today may serve as a testament to that boast.”

“All around the world, people seem to be celebrating, but it’s a markedly cautious celebration.  Early polls on the UKCC web site suggest that a full eighteen percent of people who voted are waiting for more information or verification before celebrating the heroes’ victory, and ten percent of people don’t intend to celebrate at all.”

“Not at all?”

“No, Lizbeth.  In the comments thread of the poll, a common trend seems to be the feeling that he isn’t or can’t be dead, that the heroes were mistaken, or that this might even provoke a response from the remaining Endbringers.”

“Amazing.  We’re just now getting more information…”

“Dad?”

“Taylor!  Oh my god.  You’re alive.”

“I wasn’t sure if you wanted me-”

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m okay.  I just got the tests back, and there’s no sign of ambient radiation or any of that.”

“I’m glad.”

“Me too.  I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to call.  You haven’t replied to my messages, about being there if and when they invite me to the Wards.  And you were there for court, but you didn’t talk to me.”

“I am glad you called.  About my not-”

“We killed him.”  The words were blurted out.

There was silence on the line.

“Behemoth is dead.”

Silence, still.

“We killed him,” the words were a repeat of earlier.  As if that summed it up.  “I think it’s already on the news.”

“I know.  I saw, but I didn’t quite believe it.  I’m dumbfounded.  Amazed.  I’m so proud of you.  Wow.”

“I wanted to tell you before you heard from others, but there’s so much goddamn bureaucracy going on, and they wouldn’t give me a phone in the hospital room.”

“Were you- did you help?  Were you a part of that?”

“Yes.  Of course.”

“I’m just… I’m trying to wrap my head around it.  Wow.”

There was a silence on the other end, this time.

“Taylor?”

“I’ve had a lot of time to think, to wonder why you didn’t come.  Why you haven’t visited me.  You’re afraid of me.”

“Taylor, that’s not-”

“It’s true, isn’t it?  And all of the doubts I had before dialing the phone and calling you, they were right, this makes it worse.  I have a rap sheet that’s like, eighty pages thick, and I killed a man, and then I killed Director Tagg and Alexandria.  She is dead, by the way.  If you see her on the news, it’s just a cape that stole her body.  Her corpse.  And now you hear about me fighting Behemoth and it makes it worse.  I can’t even talk about what I did without digging the knife in deeper.”

“Taylor, no.  It’s not fear.  I saw some of your friends, not long ago.  I wanted to talk to your employee, Charlotte, and the others came.  And I saw this whole other life, this side of you I couldn’t recognize at all.  Little things that I recognized, yes, and then big things that I could barely fathom.  I’ve never been able to handle loss well, with Annette, and now feeling like I maybe lost you…  I just… I want to adjust, to get my head around this, and then I can visit and things will be like they were.”

“Things aren’t going to be like they were, dad.  I don’t want them to be.  I’m trying to put as much distance between the person I was then and the person I am now as I can.  I’m sucking pretty hard at it, but I’m trying.  Except maybe today, I found a middle ground.  And it worked, in a way that makes me proud and terrified and amazed and confused and apparently I’m in trouble for something I did.  I’m in trouble because I was wearing a camera and they saw the footage and I was walking that middle ground between the person I was and the person they want me to be, and I did a lot of borderline sketchy shit just to get by and they don’t understand.”

There was a note of emotion in the last word, a break in the rant.

“Taylor…”

One word, and then silence.

The voice was calmer this time, more measured.  “I’m sorry.  I’m really tired.  I’m going in soon.  To talk to them.  They’ve made it clear they aren’t happy.  Except I think they’re a little bit afraid of me too.  Afraid of me like my own dad is.”

“That’s not fair.”

Deny it.”

There was a pause.

“I’m not afraid, Taylor.  If there’s any fear, my love for you outweighs it by far, understand?”

But the phone was already steadily buzzing with a dial tone.  The pause was enough.

♦  Topic:  Footage
In:  Boards ►
World News ► Main
Bagrat
(Original Poster)
Posted on July 26th, 2011:

Link here.

Mirrors here, here and here.

Came directly to me.  Cuts in and out, but that’s to be expected.

More info later.  Better to watch and see for yourself than get it here.

(Showing page 39 of 39)

►  Thatdude
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
@ Bystander
I don’t know, but holy shit was that intense.  I wish there was more at the end.

►  Mane Magenta
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
When Scion uses his power it disturbs electronics.  Its why when he flies you can’t track him unless its with your eyes.
Omg.  I’m only halfway through.  This is almost a feature length film.

►  Dawgsmiles (Veteran poster)
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
anyone else have to look up some of the people in there?  i almost thought one or two weren’t villains

►  Saskatchew
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
It’s kind of terrifying, isn’t it?  There’s only like twenty in my province but you think maybe **one** can do something like we saw partway through and its like wow holy shit I could run into them in the street at any time

►  Feychick
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
holy fuck holy fuck holy fuck
(56 minutes in).

►  Ne
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
@49:00 When she’s talking to the guy in blue.  Who is that?  Not in the wiki.  How do you even SPELL that?  She turns on her friend?  What happens to that guy?  Did he die?  Did she get him killed?

►  Forgotten Creator
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
@ Dawgsmiles – I had to look up one or two.  There was a short doc about some of them a bit ago after Alexandria died.  You can find it here.

Logs
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
Let’s see:

  • Note the link back to this thread just earlier today.  (Kid has Weaver show up for Wards event at park.)  Paraphrasing hearsay: ‘I had everything, I gave it up’.  You can see how much she cares about them.
  • Is the Echidna thing tied to the mysterious info-blackout in Brockton Bay re: time portal created?
  • Wondering about Tecton.  Liking his talk about powers and building teams, but he defects leadership to known ex-villain who knows little to nothing about his team?
  • Anyone else wondering why they went with the ‘V’ hand sign?  That’s a rude gesture in New Delhi, 99% sure.  Americans.
  • Intimate moment b/w Weaver and Grue.  Anyone else feel like a pervert watching this?  Can’t see anything, but I think they’re kissing.  If I thought this was staged I stopped when this happened.
  • Regent/girl with gray mask (forget name) funny as hell.  Hoping they all make it out okay.
  • Have to stop at 12 minute mark.  Burned girl.  Too real.

General Prancer
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
anyone else really interested in learning more about Weaver?
edit:  @Logs: don’t get too attached to anyone.

Noveltry
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
This cuts out at the most frustrating times.

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Glenn reached across his keyboard to refresh his email, then hit the key on his keyboard to shut down the machine.  While the screen went through the motions, Glenn walked around the desk to kneel on the floor.  The computer itself was set into a recess in the floor, and he worked at unplugging and unscrewing each wire in turn.

A butterfly flew across his field of vision, and he jumped despite himself.

“Weaver,” he said, turning around.

“Glenn,” she said.  She wasn’t in costume, but her glower was intense enough that she might as well have been in her full garb as Skitter, complete with shawl, skirt and the carpet of insects crawling on her.

“Recuperating?”

“Not as much as I’d like,” she said.  Her voice was hard.  “I’m not having the best day, on a lot of levels.”

“Still waiting for the tribunal to convene?”  Glenn asked.  “It’s been hours now.”

“The secretary’s supposed to call me.  They gave me one of the superhero phones so I could call my dad, told me to hold onto it.  I’d take it as a good sign, except there’s a video circulating online.  My video.  Well past the point where anyone could hope to control access to it.  Mirrors, bitsharing, hardcopies…”

“I see.  Upsetting.”

“Yeah.  Just a little,” she said.  The tone was light, but her expression remained the same.  “Packing up?”

“Yes,” Glenn said.  He tried to lift the desktop, found more wires attached at the bottom, and set it down to unplug them.

“I expect I’ll be fired.  They’ll make me clean out my office, so I figured I would get a headstart.  I don’t keep anything permanent that isn’t on my personal computer, so this box is all I need.”

She didn’t respond.

He tried to lift it again, only to find more wires connected on the front.

“No need to worry.  If you’re here to inflict some bug-induced torture on me, you can save yourself a lot of effort by leaving me to my own devices with this damned box.  I promise you, I’ll figure out something worse to do to myself.”

Butterflies circled her as she stalked forward.  Glenn backed away a step before he realized what she was doing.  She wasn’t even a third of his weight, and the only insects she seemed to have on hand were butterflies, but he felt a touch intimidated nonetheless.

Were the butterflies supposed to be ironic?  A gesture?

She knelt down beside the computer, fiddled around and disconnected the remaining wires, then lifted the box up to the floor beside the recess.

“Thank you.  I’m good with computers, with software, but laughably bad with the technology.”

Why, Glenn?  It was private.  It was supposed to be for therapy.”

“Wasn’t my choice to parcel it out.  Dragon was killed, by all accounts, and Director Wilkins made the call to hand it out, for your pending conduct review.”

“And you made the call to release it online.”

“I suppose Tattletale informed you.  Do you know how frustrating it is to be a mere human being among powers like you and your friend?”

“I dunno,” she said.  “I figure you can relieve your stress by uploading their personal videos to the internet.”

Glenn sighed.  “You’re tired.  You’re not being rational.”

“Oh, yeah.  That’s totally the way to talk to a girl.”

Glenn stepped forwards, resisted the urge to flinch as the butterflies briefly invaded his personal space.  He met her eyes, waited for her to look away, then snapped, right in front of her.

Her eyes locked onto his, and she looked even more irritated.

“Stop,” he said.  “Look me in the eyes.  I want to talk to Weaver the strategist, not Taylor.”

She didn’t move a muscle, but he wondered if the butterflies changed course.  She remained silent, glowering.

“I know you’re tired.  Today took a lot out of you,” Glenn said.  “But think.  What purpose does it serve to upload the video?”

“It’s the best footage you have of the event.  The best way to sell the win, the PRT’s involvement.”

“Think bigger.”

“That’s pretty damn big.”

Bigger, Weaver.  Come on.  Do you think I got to where I am by thinking one dimensionally?  What else, why?  I’m getting fired.  I knew I’d get fired.  Would I do it just for that?”

“Probably, if there wasn’t another way.”

“With an ego like mine?”

“Honestly, your ego can’t be that big if you wear those clothes.”

Despite himself, he was a little stung.  He’d cultivated his image to demand attention.  Even his weight was calculated, to make it clear he was not one of them, that he was someone with power, presence.  His clothes were admittedly awful.  They were intended to be awful.  But they didn’t diminish his sense of pride in the least.

It was a shame he was undoubtedly going to lose his job.  It would be nice to discuss the idea of image from two very different perspectives.

“I’m not your adversary, Weaver.”

“No.  I can’t help but feel you’re an albatross around my neck.  I keep hearing that you’ve done stuff to help, but I keep experiencing this… this.”

“I’m your ally, Weaver.  You think I don’t recognize the issues in the PRT?  The corruption that’s still at the core?  The need for change?  There has to be some sacrifice, and there has to be someone to step forward, a harbinger for that change.  Chevalier may be the hero of the day, he can lay the groundwork for change, but he can’t be that harbinger.  He’s too entrenched.”

“You want me to be the harbinger.”

“It’ll be hard, but I think you’ll manage with that.  Putting this video online, it’s going to achieve a lot of things.  I think, seeing you in the thick of it, it’s going to change people’s opinion of you.  There’ll be controversy, some will hate you.  But others?  This will be their first view of what it’s truly like on the battlefield.  They’ll have to like you, to sympathize.  But the rule of three says you won’t be forgotten about.”

“Rule of three?”

“Three times, you’ve been forced into the public eye.  As the leader of Brockton Bay, as the newly christened Weaver, slayer of Alexandria, and here, in the video.”

“I was just thinking about something like that, in a totally different way.  Twice now, I’ve betrayed my teammates.  At first, when they found out I was an aspiring hero, an undercover operative.  Then I became Weaver.  This’ll be the third.  I had the camera, stuff was said and done, private stuff talked about, and they won’t like it.  They didn’t ask to be in the spotlight any more than I did.”

“Some of it will endear you to the public,” Glenn said.

“Being worshipped as a god wouldn’t be worth hurting them again,” Weaver retorted.  Her voice was hard again.  “Grue believes that image and reputation are a kind of protection.  Being seen as soft, when he’s dealing with people in the criminal underworld?  It could get him killed.”

“They’ll forgive you that setback, I’m sure.  They’ll understand you didn’t choose to do it.”

“Rachel’s not the understanding type.  I’ve fought an uphill battle to get her trust, and if she feels hurt by this, or if she registers that others are hurt, and that I’m the culprit in any way-”

“With luck, public opinion and an insight into the bond you have with the team will make it easier to interact with your old team.  You’ll have more chances to fix any damage.”

Weaver shook her head, staring down at the ground.

“It’s an honest look into what the heroes do, Weaver.  What you capes face every day.  Why there’s so much gray in the moral palette.  With this, Chevalier’s new Protectorate won’t be something that exists in name only.”

“You could have asked.”

“You would have said no.  And there was no time.  We needed to make it absolutely clear just what you and the rest of the heroes did on the field, so Scion couldn’t overshadow you.  We needed to do it right away.  Cement the idea into the public mind so it was the first concrete piece of information they got.”

She stared at the ground.  The lines in her face were deep with exhaustion.  The butterflies had landed on her shoulders and arms.

He let the idea sit.  Better to let her speak next.

She did.  “Chevalier is laying the groundwork, I’m the harbinger… and you’re the sacrifice, then?”

He met her eyes.  “They won’t be as upset with you as they are right this moment.  I’ll draw the initial heat.  By the time they’re done with me, my career and any possible job in a related field will be ashes in the wind.  For you, well, it’ll tip the scales.  If you’re halfway into the ‘deserves a medal’ camp and halfway into the ‘needs to be punished’ camp, this will help.”

“I could have done some things better, but was I that bad?”

“Consorting with villains you were supposed to avoid, putting Wards on the line to help them, dealing with Phir Sē without contacting any superiors.  You ignored the rules regarding image, took gambles-”

“I had to.  All of that.  I was told that rules are relaxed on the field.  You can’t seriously expect me to use butterflies against Behemoth.”

“Of course not,” Glenn responded.  “Do you think I’m stupid?  I know this.  But there’s a lot of people paying attention to this.  Many people who will be in that room won’t know these things, won’t fully understand.  Some won’t even watch the video before they pass judgement on what occurred in it.  Never underestimate the stupidity of people.”

Weaver made a sound, halfway to a sigh, halfway to a laugh.

Glenn smiled a little.  “The video burns one bridge.  No more butterflies.  Though they won’t hurt, because it makes it a hell of a lot harder for any common criminals to complain about an excess use of power, but I’m digressing…”

Weaver’s phone beeped.  A moment later, Glenn’s vibrated.  He checked it.

Convening to discuss Weaver’s conduct in room F.  Please attend.

He closed the message window.

“Thank you,” Weaver said.  “I think.  I’m supposed to go now.”

“Me too.  Join me?”  Glenn asked.

Weaver nodded.  Her collection of butterflies led the way out of the office.

Glenn spoke without looking at her.  “I don’t expect you to like me.  Never really did.  One of the first and biggest problems you ran into was with your image.  It’s a problem even now, I suspect.  It will continue to be a problem, especially now that you’re in the limelight.”

“Uh huh.”

Glenn reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a case.  He opened it, removed a business card, and handed it over.

“My number.  In case you need advice.  Well, use my cell.  My work number probably won’t be mine for much longer.”

Weaver stared down at the card.  She didn’t need to look up as she walked, as the butterflies checked her path for her.  Other bugs had joined them.

“Just do me a favor,” Glenn said.

Weaver glanced at him.

“Make friends with whoever they hire to replace me.  Listen to them.  You’re allowed to hate them too, but hear them out.  Can’t hurt.”

She nodded.  She looked down at the card again, then looked up at him.  “Can I call this in now?  It’s about my dad.”

Defiant?

Defiant couldn’t move, as he held a heavy concrete slab out of the way for emergency crews.  He used the cursor embedded in his eye to select the ‘answer’ command, and shut the vents around his mouth.

“Tiamat II, hold off on any reports for now.” Can’t take it, not right this moment.

It’s me.

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Interlude 24

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Hero ushered him into the headquarters.  “This is the last one.  I’d like you all to meet Chevalier.”

There was a chorus of replies.  Mumbled greetings with one exceedingly enthusiastic response from a girl in the crowd.  It was almost mocking.

Chevalier ventured inside, a touch hesitant.  Not afraid.  He’d told himself he’d never be afraid again.  No.  But this was unfamiliar territory.  The others were difficult to read.  Nine youths.

His eyes roved over the group.  Five girls, four boys.  His addition made it an even split.  Intentional?

The costumes ran the gamut from professional to homemade.  They varied in the degree of color, in seriousness, in combat readiness.  There was a boy, also, who had a professional looking costume, black and green.  It was a costume that had no doubt cost money, with leather and a utility belt, a leaf emblem over his heart.  Around him, Chevalier could see a vague nimbus, as though he could see only the brightest and darkest parts of some landscape that the boy stood within.  It was a subtle thing, an image that Chevalier could make out in the same way his perspective on something might alter if he had only his left eye closed, as opposed to his right.

A girl beside the boy with the leaf costume wore a less expensive looking costume, but she’d apparently gravitated towards him, a hopeful lackey or a romantic interest.  In the same way that the forest seemed to hang in the periphery of the boy, an older woman loomed just behind the girl.  She was kindly in appearance, like a next door neighbor, with hands burned black from fingertip to elbow.  The old woman was moving her lips as though she were talking, but the image was silent.

He started to turn his head, but the image changed.  The effect ran over the girl’s skin, as though she were standing right in front of a glacier, the light refracting off of it.

No, the black hands on the older woman… a result of fire?  Magma.

The girl caught him looking at her and frowned a little.  He averted his gaze.  She likely thought he was staring for other reasons.

At the far end of the scale, opposite the two professional, serious looking young heroes, there was a girl with a shield and sword.  Her helmet sat on the table beside her, a homemade piece of equipment with ridiculous mouse ears at the sides.  It wasn’t a great helmet either; it didn’t offer enough peripheral vision, was more decorative than protective.  She stood off to one side, but two others had gathered near her.  She was grinning, the one who’d stood out from the rest with her over the top welcome.

And the images, the glimmers, they showed the mouse-ears girl laughing.  For her companions, there was a strange writing system patterned on one boy’s skin, and the other boy swirled with a smoke that wasn’t there.

The images weren’t an unfamiliar thing, but this was the first time he’d been confronted with so many in one place.  It was distracting, unnerving.

What were they supposed to be, the glimmers?

The remaining two members of the group were a boy, a clear vigilante of the night in appearance, with a costume that was black from head to toe, and a girl dressed in urban camouflage.  Chevalier’s attention fell on the girl; her white and gray jacket was short enough that it didn’t reach the small of her back, a blue tank top with a shield emblem on the front.  Her scarf, a complimenting shade of blue, was wrapped around her lower face, bearing the same emblem.  She sat in a chair, elbows on her knees, toying with a knife.

Odd as it was, she was more grim than the boy who was trying to look dark and disturbing.

“Take a seat,” Hero said.  He laid a gentle hand on Chevalier’s shoulder.

Such a minor thing, but it felt somehow critical.  What clique did he identify with?  What direction would he take?

He glanced over the rest of the group, at the images that had changed, and his eyes fell on the one with the knife.

In that instant, the knife disappeared, and there was a flare.  The images were suddenly distinct, glaring, an image appearing in a flash, so brief he might have missed it.  A cluster of children, blood, their faces stark with fear and in one case, pain.

It faded as quickly as it had appeared, and the girl held a gun, now.

She’d caught him looking.  Meeting his eyes, she changed it again.

The image that flickered was of her, holding a gun with a silencer on the end, pointing it.  Her expression was one of desperation.

She’d changed the gun for a machete, apparently unaware.

He made his way across the room, and seated himself in the chair beside her.  She didn’t even glance his way, her attention on the weapon as she ran her thumb alongside the flat of the blade.

“Army girl doesn’t even speak english, you know,” the boy in the nice costume said.

“She speaks some,” Hero said.  “It’s fine.”

“I’m just saying,” the boy said.

“I think we all know what you’re saying,” Hero answered.  “You’ve made arguments about what you want the team to be, your desire to be taken seriously.”

Chevalier watched the exchange carefully.  His eyes fell on the figure behind Hero, and he tried to focus his attention on it.  It moved with glacial slowness, a four-legged creature with legs so long that the ‘window’ around Hero didn’t even show its main body.  Finger-like appendages at the base of each leg carved diagrams and ideas into the ‘soil’ beneath as it walked.

“We’ve got the serious part down,” the girl with the mouse ears said.  She drew her sword, thrusting it into the air, “Huzzah!”

“So bogus,” was the mumbled response.  “As if her group has the majority.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Hero said.  “A lot of you have been through a lot, and some of you have only just stopped.  Stopped running, stopped fighting, stopped dealing with a long series of crises.”

Hero’s eyes briefly fell on Chevalier.  Chevalier lowered his eyes to the floor.

“The important thing to remember,” Hero said, “is that you’ve got time.  You have time to figure out who you want to become, time to figure out what this team will become, time to breathe.  To be kids again.”

Hero paused, glancing over the room.  He sighed.  “And you have zero interest in that, I’m sure.  You’re in a hurry to grow up, to be heroes.”

“You’d better believe it, boss,” the mouse girl said.

“Just be careful,” Legend said, as he strode into the room.  He was accompanied by Eidolon and Alexandria.  “This is about training, not thrusting you into the midst of trouble.”

“That comes later,” the mouse girl said.

“If you decide you want it,” Legend answered.

The sheer presence of the heroes here was changing the energy of the room.  The listless teenagers had perked up.  They were paying more attention, more alert.

It was no longer one more act in a long sequence of hoops and events.  This was the main capes of the Protectorate, all here in one place, for them.

“Well,” Hero said, clapping his hands together.  “I’m not good at the formalities.  Being in charge isn’t my thing, as much as those three like forcing the job on me.  So what do you say?  Let’s crack open the soda bottles, cut the cake and celebrate our inaugural Wards team.”

The mouse girl’s team cheered and whooped.  Nobody else really joined in with even half of the enthusiasm, but there was more of a response than there might have been before the rest of the Protectorate had showed up.  Chevalier even allowed himself a cheer, joining in with the clapping.

It was exciting.  Exciting and a little scary.  Like stepping out over a chasm.

As the others made their way to the table, Chevalier stood from his chair, then glanced down at the army girl.  “You want cake?”

She raised her head.  “Yes.”

“What do you want to drink?  I think there’s cola, ginger ale, sprite…”

“The brown drink,” she said.

“Coke, then.”

He left her sitting in the chair, paying far too much attention to her weapon, and grabbed two paper plates.

“I’m curious why you sat next to Hannah,” Hero commented, as he served himself some cake.

Chevalier glanced at the girl with the weapons.  He felt uncomfortable, “People are making it a bigger deal than it is.  It was just me sitting down.  I didn’t put much thought into it.”

“Maybe,” Hero said.  He laid a hand on Chevalier’s shoulder.  “But it’s good that you did.  She could use a friend.  Might make a world of difference, in the long run.”

Chevalier shrugged, stepping up to the tray and placing a slice of cake on each plate.

“We’re all ignoring the obvious reason,” the girl with the mouse ears said, getting in Chevalier’s way as she reached for a plastic fork.  “He thinks she’s hot.  He wants the poontang.

Hero cleared his throat in a very deliberate way.

“Don’t be juvenile,” the leaf-boy told her, from the front of the line.

Chevalier shifted awkwardly.  The girl with the mouse ears was in his way, and he couldn’t move down the table to get a drink.  She wouldn’t budge until this was resolved.

“I got the vibe she and I are similar,” Chevalier said.  It was honest.  The images he’d seen, of the girl…

And it was apparently the wrong thing to say, because mouse-ears was only more insistent, now.  She smiled, cooing the word, “Similar?”

“You didn’t figure it out yet?  Chevalier’s the vigilante that went after the Snatchers,” the leaf-boy said.

Hero turned around, and his voice was a little hard, “Reed.  That’s not your story to share.”

“It’s okay,” Chevalier said.  “They’d find out eventually.”

Mouse-girl looked confused.  “The Snatchers?  Are they supervillains?”

“No,” Chevalier said.  He used the distraction to push past her and get to the area where the two-liter bottles of soda were lined up.  He poured the drinks for himself and Hannah.  “They were ordinary people.  Bad people, but ordinary.  Except maybe the leader.”

“Maybe?”  Mouse girl asked.

“I didn’t give him a chance to show me.”

Her eyes widened.

Chevalier felt strangely calm as he spoke, “Not like that.  Alexandria caught up with me at the very end.  When I was trying to decide what I’d do with him.  She told me she’d stand by and let me kill the guy, if I really had to, but I’d go to jail afterwards.  That, or I could come with her.  Come here.”

Hero frowned, glancing at Alexandria, who had gathered at one corner of the room with Eidolon and Legend.  They were looking at the kids, talking, smiling.  “I’m glad you made the right choice.”

Chevalier shrugged.  I’m not sure I did.

He was still angry.  Still hurt.  His little brother’s absence was still a void in his life.

“Maybe now you can stop asking questions,” Reed told the mouse girl.

“Never!”

Reed sighed.

“Everyone has their baggage,” Hero said.  “Sometimes it’s in the past, sometimes it’s in the present, other times it’s fears for the future.  But this is a fresh start, understand?  I’m pretty mellow, believe it or not, but I’m going to be upset if I hear that anyone’s holding any of that stuff against a teammate, or if you’re letting it hold you back.  Understand?  This is a second chance for everyone.  You’re here to support one another.”

There were silent nods from Chevalier, Reed and the mouse girl.

“Good.  Now go.  Eat cake, drink soda, be merry.  And when the party is done and us adults are gone, with you kids left to your own devices, check the empty room, the one that isn’t assigned to any of you.  I stocked you guys with video games and movies.”

“No way,” Reed said, smiling genuinely for what might have been the first time.

“Yes way,” Hero said, returning the smile.  “But we’re not going to tell the higher-ups, are we?  It’s a bit of a secret, and you don’t betray that secret by letting yourself slack on the training or the schoolwork, right?”

Reed’s smile dropped a little in intensity, but he nodded.

“Go on,” Hero said, still smiling,  “And don’t get me in trouble.”

Reed hurried back to his chair, as if getting there sooner meant the party would end earlier, speeding up his access to the treasure trove Hero had hinted at.

Wordless, Chevalier managed the drinks and two plates as he carried them over to Hannah.  He gave her a plate and a cup, and she smiled without thanking him.

“A toast,” Alexandria said, stepping forward.  “To the first Wards team of America.”

“To second chances,” Hero said.

“A brighter future,” Eidolon added.

“And to making good memories,” Legend finished.

“Memories,” Hannah said, under her breath, nearly inaudible as the room clapped and cheered.  She was looking down at the machete that she’d placed across her lap, the paper plate with the cake balanced on the flat of the blade.

Chevalier didn’t respond.  His eyes were on the phantom images, barely visible.

The screen displayed the list.  Chevalier scrolled down, his expression grim.

Marun Field, December 13th, 1992.  Behemoth.
São Paulo, July 6th, 1993.  Behemoth.
New York, March 26th, 1994.  Behemoth.
Jakarta, November 1st, 1994.  Behemoth.
Moscow, June 18th, 1995.  Behemoth.
Johannesburg, January 3rd, 1996.  Behemoth.
Oslo, June 9th, 1996.  Leviathan.
Cologne, November 6th, 1996.  Behemoth.
Busan, April 23rd, 1997.  Leviathan.
Buenos Aires, September 30th, 1997.  Behemoth.
Sydney, January 18th, 1998.  Leviathan.
Jinzhou, July 3rd, 1998.  Behemoth.
Madrid, December 25th, 1998.  Leviathan.
Ankara, July 21st, 1999.  Behemoth.
Kyushu, November 2nd, 1999.  Leviathan.
Lyon, April 10th, 2000.  Behemoth.
Naples, September 16th, 2000.  Leviathan.
Vanderhoof, February 25th, 2001.  Behemoth.
Hyderabad, July 6th, 2001.  Leviathan.
Lagos, December 6th, 2001.  Behemoth.
Shanghai, April 23rd, 2002.  Leviathan.
Bogotá, August 20th, 2002.  Behemoth.
Lausanne, December 30th, 2002.  Simurgh.
Seattle, April 1st, 2003.  Leviathan.
London, August 12th, 2003.  Simurgh.
Lyon, October 3rd, 2003.  Behemoth.

“Stop,” Chevalier ordered.  The artificial intelligence halted the scrolling.  The scroll bar wasn’t even at the halfway mark.

Brighter future indeed.

He rubbed at his eyes, suddenly feeling very weary.  Nothing worked out like it was supposed to.  The Wards were supposed to be a safe haven for teenaged capes, buying them time to prepare themselves, to train and figure out what they needed to figure out.  Somewhere along the line, some Wards had joined the fight.  Locals, defending their homes, naturally.

As the ranks of adult capes were whittled down, more had attended the fights, as if unconsciously acknowledging the need, or as if they were under a subtle pressure to do so.  Just like that, the ideals and ideas that had helped form the original Wards team had eroded away.

He swept a hand in front of him, and the ship read the gesture, a new image appearing on the monitor.  The two screens on either side showed Behemoth’s attack on the city.  He hadn’t ventured far from where he’d emerged.

Chevalier only glanced at the screens from moment to moment, his focus more on the infrastructure, the resources at his disposal.

San Diego, absent.  They’d lost too many members, abandoned by those who’d lost faith in the Protectorate, with the remnants cannibalized to support other teams in need.  San Diego was more or less stable, so there’d been little pressure to resupply them with new members.

Except that Spire, San Diego’s team leader, hadn’t felt confident walking into the fight.  There’d been the human element, the fears, the concerns.  He’d had cold feet at the last second, decided not to come.  An integral part of their defense, gone, forcing them to adapt.

There were so many elements like that.  Little things.  He’d heard so many complain about how the Protectorate handled the attacks.  How they were disorganized, inefficient.

Maybe he’d shared in that sentiment, to a degree.  That had changed when he’d participated in his first fight, when he’d seen just what it meant to be in the fray, against an enemy that couldn’t truly be stopped.  But still, he’d harbored doubts.

Then he’d taken command of a team, and he’d seen the process of trial and error, as they learned their opponents’ capabilities, saw how Leviathan or the Simurgh could keep tricks up their sleeves for years, before using them at a critical moment.  Even now, they didn’t fully understand the Simurgh’s power, how long it might take someone to recover, if recovery was even possible.

And now he led the attack.

He drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.

Focus on the presentHe’d lose it if he dwelled on the pressures, on the fact that every attack to date was another added pressure, a set of losses to avenge, a step towards mankind’s fall.

Vegas was absent too.  They’d turned traitor, walked away.  Satyrical had turned down the offer for a ride to the battle, claiming they’d make their own way.  It was disconcerting, to think they had access to transportation in that vein.  Teleporters?  A craft that could and would carry people halfway around the world fast enough?  Disconcerting to think they had access to resources like that so soon after defecting.

But not surprising.

Brockton Bay, in large part, was sitting this one out.  Hannah wasn’t a true asset against Behemoth.  Besides, the truce was in worse shape than it had been even in the beginning, and the portal too important.

He allowed himself a moment to think of Hannah.  They’d dated briefly, then separated.  It had been a high school romance, and they’d both been too busy to really pursue things.  What had been one or two dates a week became maybes, then had ceased to happen at all.  He’d graduated to the Protectorate, changed cities, and they hadn’t said a word on the subject.

Chevalier had seen her grow, though.  That was what he kept in mind to assuage his disappointment over the way things had gone.  She’d come into her own, confident, intelligent.

In a way, he was glad she wasn’t coming.

He turned around to face Rime and Exalt.  He could see the shadows, as he now thought of them.  Rime’s younger self accompanied her, sitting on the bench beside her, arms folded around her knees, face hidden.  The real Rime was sitting on the bench, a fold-out table in front of her, a laptop open.

And Exalt?  His ‘shadow’ was barely visible, impossible to make out.  When it came to the fore, though, Chevalier knew it would look much as Hannah’s power did in its transitions.  Phantom images.

He’d raised the subject of the images with others.  When his proximity to Eidolon had started to give him migraines, he’d confessed about the images.  He’d feared a kind of schizophrenia, but Eidolon had reassured him otherwise.

It was a piece of the puzzle, but that puzzle was still far from complete.  Until they had more to work with, it was merely data.  Glimmers of memories and dreams, the conclusion had been, after long discussions with Eidolon and the parahuman researchers.  An effect of the thinker power required to manage his own ability, tied to trigger events in some fashion.

Except now he was wondering if he’d been misled.  Eidolon was a traitor, one working for a group that clearly had some deeper understanding of powers.  Maybe it had been in Cauldron’s interests for Eidolon to lie about this.

“Record numbers.  Lots of capes are coming,” he said.  Rime and Exalt both looked up.

“But…” Exalt said.  He seemed to reconsider before finishing his sentence.

“But we’re disorganized,” Chevalier finished it for him.  “People we should be able to count on are gone.  Plans we had are falling apart because those people aren’t there.

Exalt nodded.

“PRT wants us to play this up,” Chevalier said, “I’m supposed to involve you guys in leadership aspect of things.  If you’re willing, I’m not going to dwell on it.”

Exalt arched an eyebrow.

“You’re team leaders.  You’ve got the experience, at least to a degree.  But I don’t want to dwell on peripheral stuff.  We’re focused on the fight?  All right?”

Rime and Exalt nodded.

“I’ll lob a few of you some softball questions, then we get right to it.”

“Right,” Rime said.

The ship altered course, Chevalier felt his heart drop.  Silkroad’s power wasn’t giving them any forward momentum anymore.  They were close.  Landing in a minute.

“You ready for this?  Being leader for the first time?”  Exalt asked.

“No.  Not for one this important.  Everyone who’s paying attention knows this is a crucial one.  Maybe even the point of no return.  We lose this, we lose New Delhi, and there’s no going back.  We’ll never get to the point where we can consistently beat those motherfuckers, never recoup what we’ve lost.  I screw up here, and the world will know.”

“They can’t blame you,” Rime said.

“They damn well can,” Chevalier retorted.

She frowned.

The ship descended, four legs absorbing the impact of the landing almost flawlessly.

He turned to the swords, set into the floor of the craft.  There were two.

In truth, there were three.  The largest was thirty feet long, running from the ramp at the back to the cabin at the front, almost entirely set into the floor.  There was no decoration on it.  Only mass, sturdy craftsmanship, and the mechanisms necessary for the cannon that was set inside the handle and blade.

It would have been too heavy for the ship to carry, except he’d already used his power, drawing it together with a second blade, an aluminum blade a mere four feet long.  Lightweight.

His ability to see the ‘shadows’ about people was an extension of this power.  He could see the general makeup of the two weapons, the phantom images, the underlying physics, in lines and shapes and patterns.

It was about perspectives.  Relationships.  He’d drawn them into one blade, with the appearance of the larger, the properties of the smaller.

The third blade was decorative, with a ceramic blade, gold and silver embellishments and inlays in the blade.  The thing was ten feet long from end to end, and again, it had the cannon set within.   Combining the first blade with this one proved more difficult.  He granted the weapon the appearance of this blade, gave it the cutting edge, but retained the lightweight mass and the durability of the largest weapon.

Fine balances.  He adjusted it, tuning its size for convenience’s sake.  The heft remained the same, as did the effective weight as it extended to the rest of the world.

His armor was the same, only it was too large to bring on the craft.  A veritable mountain of construction grade steel, as light as aluminum, with the decoration of a third set.  It had required some concentration, to maintain the balances he’d set, but he was confident he could fight outside of the kill aura’s range.

He glanced at Rime and Exalt, then nodded.

The ramp opened, and the three of them emerged.  There were heavy thuds and the sound of metal striking metal as the other ships landed, forming a ring, with the doors and ramps pointing inward.  A fortification to guard the arriving heroes.

The Protectorate and Wards teams were gathering, with a degree of organization.  His new Protectorate had gathered into the general positions they held at the conference table.  Rime to his left, Exalt to his right, their teams behind them.

And he couldn’t help but notice the gaps.  San Diego, Vegas, Brockton Bay.  Three of the more prominent teams in the United States.

Defiant, Dragon and Weaver were among the last to arrive.  They joined the unofficial capes who’d filled the void that should have been occupied by the San Diego capes.

“The ships have all arrived,” Chevalier said, breaking the silence, starting his speech.

It was only after the Yàngbǎn were out of sight that Chevalier could breathe a sigh of relief.

“You know your roles,” he said, to the capes who remained  He searched the rooftop, and found who he was looking for.  “Mr. Keene, walk with me.”

The dark-skinned man nodded assent, falling in stride.  He wore a neat suit with a PRT pin, official identification on a lanyard around his neck.  Morgan Keene was the PRT’s liaison and ambassador to unofficial teams across the world.  Chevalier could see the glimmer of a power there, suppressed but there.

The fact that the man was a parahuman employee of the PRT wasn’t so unusual.  The fact that it was a well-kept secret was.  The power was out of sync, however, which was stranger still.  Since Chevalier had chanced to make Morgan Keene’s acquaintance, years ago, the man’s shadow had changed.  The core elements were the same, but the appearance of it had changed enough that he’d wondered if the man had managed a second trigger event.  He would have assumed so, except there was no intensity to corroborate the idea.

It left him suspicious, but it wasn’t a suspicion he could act on.  In an ideal world, Chevalier hoped to replace Mr. Keene.  In reality, the situation was too chaotic, and Morgan Keene too entrenched in things.

“You’re upset about the Yàngbǎn.”

“I don’t like surprises.”

“I sent you a number of emails, three voice messages.”

“Can we trust them?”

“No.  But they’re still an asset.  Alexandria wanted them on board.  When you installed your new administration, they said to keep going.”

Chevalier sighed.

“Our thinkers are on board to advise with the concentrated defense.  I’ve coordinated the foreign capes, Arbiter’s handling some of the translations.”

“Okay.  And our… less legitimate thinkers?”

“Accord and Tattletale.”

“Yes.”

“Rime set them up with access to the PRT databases.  Connection is slow but remains strong.”

Chevalier nodded.  “I’ll talk to them.”

“Of course,” Mr. Keene answered.

Chevalier made his way to the downstairs room.  He paused at the entrance.

Tattletale’s ‘shadow’ peered around with a dozen eyes all at once, each set different in design, in appearance and apparent function.  A mosaic.  Accord’s was a glimmer of an old computer, the edge of a desk that wasn’t there.

It wasn’t as meaningful as it had appeared to be at first.  They were only figments of ideas that had been codified and collected in times of stress.  Ideas imprinted on a malleable surface during trigger events, or moments when trigger events had been on the verge of occurring.  As an individual’s power waxed and waned, the images grew more distinct, shifted between the images personal to the cape in question, and the stranger, dream-like aspects that seemed to relate to the powers.

“Accord.  Tattletale.  Do you have something constructive to offer?”

“Yep,” Tattletale said.

“Your defensive lines are a disaster waiting to happen,” Accord said.

“Straight to the point,” Tattletale commented.

“A disaster?” Chevalier asked.

“I’m wondering if you’ve done this on purpose,” Accord stated.  His eye moved critically over Chevalier.  “You’re going to fight the Endbringer in a melee.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

“And you’ve picked the new Protectorate team with the idea that they would support you.  The core team is all ranged.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

“Ego?” Tattletale asked.

Chevalier shook his head, then thought for a moment.  “Perhaps.”

“Well, ego’s a part of the job.  Question is, can you live up to it?”

“I can try.  But more than anything, I’m not going to put people on the front line if I’m not willing to go there myself.”

“Foolish,” Accord said.  “Everyone has their place in the grand scheme of things.  You do yourself and everyone else a disservice if you try to put yourself where you don’t belong.”

Chevalier shook his head, but he didn’t reply.  There would be no convincing this one.

Accord continued, “There are only two ways you could make this plan work.  The first would be using a sword long enough to reach past his Manton effect bypass, the second is to somehow within that range and survive.”

“Accounted for,” Chevalier said, a touch irritated.  He didn’t need this.  Not now.

“Usher,” Tattletale supplied.

“Ah.  I see,” Accord said.  “And if Usher were to be struck down by a chance lightning bolt?”

“We have fallback plans.”

Accord shook his head.  “I’ll develop better.”

Chevalier grit his teeth.

“I’m watching him fight,” Tattletale said, “And something’s off.  I’ve been watching old videos of the Endbringer fights, looking over maps, and it doesn’t fit together.”

“What doesn’t?”

Her finger tapped hard on the map she’d printed out.  “Location, pacing.  They’re toying with us.  Acting.”

“You’re crediting them with more intelligence than they have.”

“Are you telling me that because you really think they’re dumb, or because you don’t want to-“

Chevalier could sense the attacker by the movement of the shadows.  He whirled around, only to find himself face to face with a cloud of the ‘shadows’.

The Yàngbǎn, one of them.

An assassin?

He couldn’t even make out the figure, behind the layers of images.  Glimpses of twenty, thirty, forty trigger events.

Defying the truce, here?  Now?

He felt his anger stirring.  He adjusted the balances of his blade, maintaining the reach, the appearance, but he altered its interaction with the rest of the world, maintaining its lightweight feel as far as he was concerned, changing it in other respects.

“You lunatic!”

He had his sword out in a flash, swung.  A forcefield appeared, but the weapon breezed through it as if it weren’t even there.

It was, in all respects except appearance, and the ease with which he moved it, a weapon that weighed upwards of fifty tons, as durable as the heaviest weapon.  The cutting edge of the ceramic blade.

His opponent slipped out of the way, and images flared with life as he drew on a power to fly.

Chevalier couldn’t make him out in the midst of the shadows.  Did the Yàngbǎn know this would trip him up, slow him down?

It didn’t matter.  The attacker didn’t have offensive strength.  Two more attacks failed to penetrate Chevalier’s armor.  He advanced, swung, thrusted, and his opponent stepped back, narrowly dodging.

Chevalier pulled the trigger, but a power flared and the shot jammed in the chamber.

Can’t afford to expend resources on this.  Have to prepare for the fight.

He followed up with more swings.  Each missed by a hair.  His opponent was scared, frantic.

And suddenly his opponent was a distance away.  The images, the movement of the clouds outside, telltale signs of being stopped in time.

He advanced, felt another attack fail to penetrate his defenses.  Again, time stopped, his opponent used the window of opportunity to back away.

In between the following two pauses, he could see Accord and Tattletale change places, moving to the door, now barred with a forcefield.

They’d have to hold their own.  Chevalier assessed his opponent, as best as he could, through the storm of hellish images.  Each of them was fractured, broken.  Nothing to be gleaned from them.

But the opponent was sloppy.  Letting him get dangerously close between resets.  It was a question of letting him make a mistake, occupying his attention, so the thinkers would be safe.  A chess game, moving the knight to keep the king in checkmate.  There was only so much space in the room, and he could position himself to force the Yàngbǎn member to move further, to have less time to act, leaving more room for a mistake.

“No,” he could hear Accord murmuring, the word barely above a whisper.  He chanced a glance at the pair.  Tattletale had a hand on her holster, and Accord had stopped her.

He didn’t get a chance to see anything further.  He felt the strength go out of his lower body, a slow but incredible pain tearing through his midsection.

The laser.  How?

He had only a moment to adjust the balances in his power, so the blade and armor wouldn’t crash through the floor and tear down half of the building.

I missed the fight, he realized, as he woke in a hospital bed.

The ground rumbled violently.  He looked up to see Tattletale in the corner of the room, half of her attention on what was happening outside the window, the other half on a phone.

“He’s here?”

She turned to him, tapped her throat.  He could see the tube in her throat.

He sighed.

She approached the bedside, attention on the phone.  She held it out for him to read.

A notepad executable read:

hes here.  defenses crumbled in a minute.  rime dead.  melted off more than half his outer body and he still fighting.  last stand to protect hosp’l for evac and he cutting them down

Chevalier shut his eyes.  We lost.

Tattletale was already typing again.  Her expression was grim as she focused on the phone.

He tried to sit up, and found himself unable.  It was a pain concentrated in one area, but it was so immense that made his entire body react.  His ears buzzed, his vision wavered, and every muscle clenched, as he lay there, trying to ride it out.

She showed him the phone as he lay there, panting.

he still at full strength.  shouldn’t be.  he’s an onion, inner rings progressively tougher.  next 15% way tougher than rest combined.

“I know this,” he gasped out the words.  He moved the sheet to examine himself.  His breastplate had been removed, and his stomach had fresh incisions on it, with sutures holding them closed.

How long had he been out?

She showed him her phone again.

they stapled your gut up.  if outer body is like this then why does he have it?  useless.

He reached up to swat the phone away, felt a pull on his stomach and winced instead.  He knocked it out of the way with his other hand.  Still painful, but easier.

She drew it out of his reach, started typing again.

He turned himself over in the bed, nearly retching at the intensity of the pain, but he found himself on his side.  Even at the weight of aluminum, the armor on his legs and hands was heavy enough to help weigh him down, hold him in position.

She offered him a hand as he swung his legs down, trying to use the momentum to sit up.  He nearly fell, but she caught him, dropping the phone onto the bed in her haste to help him stay sitting upright.

His chest heaved, and he growled out each breath.  The growling helped, on a primal level, but that wasn’t saying much.  Just sitting upright was bad enough that he thought he might pass out.

“My breastplate.”

She handed him the phone, then crossed the room to where a bundle of belongings were gathered on a chair.  They’d cut off the layer of mesh that sat beneath the armor, and the cloth that sat against his skin.  She discarded each of those and simply brought him the armor.

It had held its form.  Good.  He glanced at the phone.

outer body is cosmetc only.  why?  because he supposed to scare us.  behemoth was fashioned.  unnatural life.

She brought the front portion of the armor, resting it on the corner of the bed.  She tapped the phone.

“I read it,” he growled.  “Help me put it on.”

She tapped the phone again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.  “It won’t change the outcome of this fight.”

She nodded agreement, then lifted the armor, bringing it to his chest.

There was a crash outside, a chorus of screams.  Chevalier grit his teeth.

“Back piece,” he said.  She gave him a pointed look.

“Please,” he added, growling the word.

She turned on her heel, crossing the room to pick up the armor, slowly, almost leisurely, as she typed on the phone with one hand.  She held the armor in the other as she made her way back, then took several damnable seconds typing out the message before putting the phone down.

“We don’t have time for your typing,” he said.

She only gave him a level, silent stare, as she moved the rear portion of the armor into place.  He reached for the clasps, but moving his left arm was too painful, pulling on the muscles of his stomach.  He used his right for what he could, then waited for her to finish.

Indian doctors rushed down the hall, pushing beds on wheels, four in a row.

He conceded to pick up the phone and read what she’d typed.

they regen slower as damage is further from center.  simurgh core not in human body.  decoy.  prob in join of biggest wing instead.  Is why body fragile n slow to heal.

His eyes widened.  “We destroy the center, we destroy him?”

She gave him a look as if he’d just asked if the sky was green, incredulous.  She shook her head.

“Why the hell not?”

She just shook her head.

“I don’t know why the hell not. Where’s his center?”

She pointed with two fingers, at her collarbone.  The base of the throat, between the shoulders.  Quite possibly the deepest set part of his body.

“Help me stand.”

The entire building rumbled.  For a moment, he thought the entire point would be rendered moot as the structure collapsed.

It took three tries to get him to his feet, with him holding a shelf on the wall with his right hand, her leveraging her entire body’s strength with her shoulder under his armpit.  He stumbled forward, catching himself on the shelf, and heaved for breath, feeling the strength threaten to leave his legs with every deep inhalation and exhalation.

But he couldn’t.  Couldn’t allow himself to.

Tattletale was pulling on a blue latex glove.  He watched her as she reached out and placed a hand on the space beside the incisions, where the burn had been patched up.

“What are you doing?”

She reached for the phone.

no tear inside u.

“I could’ve told you that.”

She shrugged, her eyes on the screen, thumbs typing on the onscreen keyboard.  She raised the phone.

can try.  prob wont work.  dense enough 2 fuck wit time n space there.

“Right,” he said.  “My Cannonblade?”

She sighed, making her way to the end of the room.  She collected his Cannonblade from the floor by the chair.  He’d made it as light as it could go in every respect, before he’d passed out.  Even so, moving his left arm to try to hold it made him seize up in agony.

For now, he was a one-armed fighter.  He gripped the handle in his right hand, then exerted his power.  He could see it grow heavier, even as the weight remained effectively the same in his hand.

He rested it against one shoulder, then managed a limping step forward.  He very nearly fell.

Another step.

He focused on his power, as a way to distract himself, planting one foot in front of the other, the armor squeaking in one point where a knee joint had bent as he’d fallen after fighting the Yàngbǎn assassin.  It was easier to keep moving than to stop and start again, so he moved forward with an almost machinelike rhythm, limping.

He’d never forgive himself if they lost this fight and he didn’t even fight.

Stairs.  He had to make his way down.  One mistake, a faltering step, and he’d collapse.  He’d probably be unable to stand, if it didn’t tear his stomach apart.

He made his way down, the stitches pulling against the fresh incisions with every step.

The building shuddered.  His mind a fog of pain, he reached out for the railing for stability, only to remember he was holding his sword.  It plowed through railing as if it were a meticulous sandcastle, raining pieces on the ground below.

He swayed, and for the briefest moment, he considered that it might be easier to fall.  Easier than making it down the next ten steps.  If there was a ten percent chance his stomach stayed intact, a twenty percent chance someone could help him stand…

But he took another step down, and somewhere in the midst of planting his foot, he found his balance.

Everywhere, doctors were struggling to evacuate.  Some capes were working to help, even injured ones trying to pull things together.  Still fifty or sixty capes to evacuate.

And the bodies… people who had died because he’d failed them.  Because he hadn’t been able to defeat the assassin, to take his role at the front of the battle lines, where he could bait Behemoth into the various traps they’d laid.

He had to suppress the guilt.  There would be time for blame, self-directed or otherwise, later.  He’d bury the mental pain like he was with the physical.

This is how Behemoth fights.  Indomitable.  Never slowing.  Always progressing forward, Chevalier thought.

He could remember who he’d once been.  So long ago.  Well before he’d had his first of twenty fights against the Endbringers.  Before meeting Hannah and the rest of the original Wards.

They’d been in a car crash, in the middle of a vacation.  Strangers had stepped in, crowding the car to help his little brother out, while his parents were reeling, moaning in pain.  They’d tried to get him out too, but he’d been pinned, the car handle had been scraped away in the collision, the interior handle protected by the child locks.  They’d left, and for hours, as the emergency services arrived and the rescue continued, he’d wondered why.  He’d triggered, caught in the wreckage, but had been too insensate to do anything about it, to even realize the full gravity of what had happened in the midst of the chaos.

It was only later that he found out they were serial kidnappers.  The crash that had broken his mother’s leg in three places had been orchestrated.  So had the collection of his little brother.

Three years later, when he heard about the group again, he put together a makeshift club and armor and set about hunting them down.  He appeared in the news in the midst of tracking down the individual members, and again and again, they had described him as relentless, to the point that it had very nearly became his codename.  Revenge had been all he had left.

Then, just as he was now, he’d been fueled by anger, by pain.  He could barely see, as black spots blotted his vision.  Revenge, again, was his only option, only it was the end point, rather than the beginning.

I told myself I’d never let myself be afraid again, he thought.

His left hand was nearly useless, so he hit the double doors at the front of the temple with his sword instead.  Wood splintered as the doors parted.  He trudged forward, ignoring the doors as they swung shut, bouncing off his armor.

Record numbers show up, and this is all that’s left?

Barely fifty heroes still stood their ground.  The back lines were sheltered by giant hands of stone, Hellhound’s mutant dogs collecting the wounded, carrying them around the side of the building.  Eidolon and Alexandria wrestled with the Endbringer, fighting in close quarters against the monster.

Alexandria?

He shook his head, nearly losing his balance as he continued his forward march.  He could barely see straight, and it wasn’t helped by the phantom images that riddled the mass of capes.  Images he had called glimmers when he was a youth, that he called shadows now that he was an adult.

But Behemoth… the Endbringer was little more than a skeleton with extensive padding.  He’d never seen this much damage delivered.

Chevalier focused his power on his blade, making it as large as he could.  He continued marching forward.  There was no indication Usher was okay.  Rime was dead, and he had little idea about the state of the supporting forces who’d been intended to help him attack, who’d trained to assist him.

He extended his blade towards Behemoth, using it to gauge the distance for the kill aura.  Defending capes cleared out of his way as he walked forward, between two of the stone hands.  The shadow of his sword was warning enough.

One of Behemoth’s legs seemed less developed than the other, the toes missing, the bones less pronounced, the flesh thinner.  He reached the perimeter and slammed the weapon down into the earth with his one usable arm.

His steam nearly spent, he collapsed over the handle of the weapon, his hand still gripping the handle, and he pulled the trigger.

The size of the weapon and the effect of the firing pin seemed to help with the jammed mechanism.  That, or the transition to being closer to his largest blade had shifted something in a fractional way.  The shot blasted Behemoth in the calf of his weaker leg, and the Endbringer fell.

Again, he pulled the trigger, over and over.  Three, four, five shots.

He stopped before he spent the sixth.

He’d dealt damage, but it was precious little.  Flesh had torn at the leg, not quite as dense as it should be, by all reports.  Had the regeneration not finished rebuilding the complete structures?

Rendered effectively one-legged again, Behemoth crawled forward on three limbs.  Alexandria struck him from above, driving him face first into the ground.

Why was she here?  She was supposed to be functionally dead.

Chevalier could feel a sensation crawling through his body, an energy.  It didn’t invigorate, not on its own, but he could feel a kind of relief.

Usher was alive, and Usher’s power coursed through him.  With luck, he’d be immune to Behemoth’s power, or at least partially immune.  Nobody had received the benefit of Usher’s ability and been brave enough to venture into Behemoth’s kill range.

Chevalier pulled his sword from the ground, swayed, and very fell over.

Defiant caught him.

Old friend, Chevalier thought, though he didn’t have the breath to speak.

Anyone else might have spoken up, told him he didn’t have to do this, that it was madness.

Defiant was silent, supporting Chevalier, helping him right himself.  Defiant understood this much.  The need, the drive.

Chevalier took his first step with Defiant’s help.  The second was only partially supported.  The third was on his own.

He closed into the kill area, and he could feel the heat touch him.  It heated the armor, but didn’t reach him.  Usher’s power at work.  He tried to inhale, and found no air.  Choking, he forced his mouth shut.

Holding his breath, Chevalier brought the sword down on Behemoth’s shoulder, a blow from above much like Alexandria had delivered, followed by another.

His aim wasn’t good, the blows off target.  If his form were better, he’d be landing each strike in the same place, time after time.  Not so, with the blade this big, the margin for error so great.

With that in mind, Chevalier shrunk his sword as he closed the distance, shut his eyes as lightning crackled around the Endbringer.  With the scale smaller, the effective edge was that much sharper.  The blade bit just a fraction deeper each time.

He couldn’t stop walking without falling, couldn’t stop swinging the weapon in the same rote motion without risking that he’d never be able to raise it again, however light it might be.

His goal was the spot Tattletale had mentioned.  The core.

Behemoth swiped at him, but he was already shifting the balance of his armor, moving to block the blow with the flat of the blade.  The sound of the impact was deafening, and it wasn’t something Usher’s power protected against.  But Usher’s power was finnicky at best.  Unreliable.

At the very least, it was holding up here.

He found a measure of strength, then swung the cannonblade, driving it for the deepest part of the wound.

Behemoth lurched, changing position, and the painstakingly created notch in his shoulder shifted well out of Chevalier’s reach.  He let up on the intense heat, turned to radiation instead.  Heroes scrambled to retreat from the ominous glow.

Bastard, Chevalier swore.  He released a sound somewhere between a moan and a groan, exhaling the last of the air in his lungs, greedily sucking in air.

Something flew past him, shearing straight through Behemoth’s chest.  A wheel of metal, thin, with two bars sticking out of the center.  It cut through the Endbringer like he wasn’t even there.

Dazed, lungs fit to burst as he held his breath, barely coherent, Chevalier turned.  He saw Tecton with his piledrivers extended, Weaver just behind him, along with two of the new Wards: the white supremacist’s child they’d picked up in Boston and a boy in a white cloak.  They stood all the way at the back lines of the battlefield, by the temple, along with a character he didn’t recognize.  A girl in black.

His eyes settled on Weaver, surrounded by the nimbus of her power, which glowed with an intensity that surpassed any and all of her teammates.  When she stepped forward, it was like she was pushing against a curtain, only it was a membrane, a network of individual cells, each with tendrils extending out, so thin he couldn’t make them out, except by the highlights that seemed to rush down them as she gave conscious direction to her bugs.

Second chances, Chevalier thought back to his inauguration to the Wards.  He’d harbored doubts about taking her on board, but memories of that day had been a factor.  He’d needed a second chance.  So had Hannah.

Colin, even, though it came much later.

It was a good feeling, to see that coming into play.  He knew she wasn’t all the way there, but she’d taken a step forward.

It was a better feeling to watch as Behemoth’s shoulder shifted, attached by a mere hair.  The weapon had cut through his ribs, torn through the space where his heart should be.

That’ll do.

Alexandria hit him, and the arm came free.  Behemoth lurched, planting his one remaining hand on the ground, and came just short of collapsing on top of Chevalier.  He was only a few feet away, glowing with the radiation.

I’m dead, Chevalier thought, without a trace of the despair he’d imagined he would feel.

He tried to move, to raise his blade, only to find his armor refusing to cooperate.  It had melted, the joints and joins flowing into one another.  His sword wasn’t much better.  The ceramic properties he’d applied to the edge were heat-resistant, but the remainder of the weapon were growing more nebulous in shape, the hottest parts of the metal flowing down to obscure the edge.

He concentrated, and found his power beyond his reach.  Too tired, his stamina gone.

Trapped in a hot wreck of metal, an explosive death just a short distance away.  It had been his starting point, and it had been the end.

It would be the optimal time for a second trigger event, the thought passed through his thoughts.

Of course, the joke went that you couldn’t get a trigger event by trying to have one, so even thinking about a second trigger event was enough to banish any possibility.

Not so funny, in this moment.

His power worked best with similar things.  Differences made it slower.  It was why he had the same firing mechanism at the core of each of the three weapons he used for his Cannonblade.

Now, as the battle raged around him, he was nearly blind with the visor of his helmet melting, at his utter limit in terms of stamina and pain tolerance.  Behemoth delivered a shockwave, and Usher’s power protected him, his boots welded to the ground kept him from falling over.

He reached for his power, grasping at his armor, and he didn’t reach for anything familiar or similar.  He reached for anything, everything.  The ground, the soil, air.

Somewhere in the midst of that desperate struggle, he found his armor coming apart.  He wasn’t even willing it, not even forming any coherent idea of what he was doing, but his power operated of its own accord.

Free of the armor, he could move his weapon.  It was slag, barely a sword anymore, but the core still had some density to it.

He made it grow.

He made the sword grow, from ten to twenty feet in length.  It was more by the growth than by any action on Chevalier’s part that it extended into the wound.  The weapon penetrated into the scar Weaver’s crew had created, as close to the core as Chevalier could get it.

He made it grow to its greatest possible length, a full thirty feet, his head turned skyward to the monster that glowed silver and black.

Space and time distortion were supposed to protect it?  He’d fight fire with fire.

Flesh parted as the blade grew inside the wound.  He put his finger on the trigger, ready to fire.

Before he could, the sword’s tip touched the core, and everything went wrong.

His power abruptly ceased to take effect, and the blades came apart, in its three individual pieces.  They slid from the wound, falling down around him.

Behemoth lurched forward, and his wounded leg struck Chevalier, knocking him to the ground.  He could feel the gunshot break of multiple ribs shattering.

Supine on the ground, unable to breathe, but for tiny pants, Chevalier stared at the sky, unwilling to look directly at the ensuing scene, even if he could have managed to turn his head.

There was a horrible crash as a sweep of one claw shattered the stone hands.  Glowing silver, he loomed over the defending capes, scorched and electrocuted those who’d fallen within his instant-kill range.  One of Hellhound’s mutant dogs, Dragon.  Others he couldn’t make out in the midst of the clouds of dust.  Rendered to ash and melted armor in heartbeats.

They were the lucky ones, Chevalier thought.  The radiation was generally observed to be concentrated, limited to a certain range, manipulated to strike only those within a hundred feet or so of Behemoth, to saturate the landscape and render it uninhabitable.  These capes were close enough.  Their deaths would be slow, painful.

A failure.  Hopefully the ones in the temple had been evacuated, and the capes at the rear of the battle line free to retreat.

The ground rumbled violently, churning and smoking.  Behemoth was burrowing.

The fight was over.

Chevalier stared up at the shifting smoke of the sky above, struggling to breathe, not entirely sure why he was bothering.  Maybe he wouldn’t die of the radiation, thanks to Usher’s power.

Long moments passed as the rumbling of the earth faded in intensity.  The air was still filled with the screams and shouts of the various capes and doctors fighting to save the wounded, the dull roars of distant helicopters, carrying the evacuated capes away.

Chevalier watched as the worst of the smoke cleared, and he imagined he might have seen the glowing blur of the sun through the clouds.

Not the sun.  It was a figure.  Scion.

He would have laughed if he could.

Too late.

You showed up too late.

Scion lowered himself to nearly ground level.  His golden hair moved in the wind as he gazed over the battlefield.  His white bodysuit was smudged here or there on the sleeves, but otherwise seemed so pristine that it seemed to glow in the gloom.

No, part of that glow was real.  The faint light touched Chevalier, and he could feel his breathing ease.  It was reaching out to everyone present.

A consolation prize?  A bit of healing?  Maybe a helping hand against the radiation, for the others?

He managed a soft laugh.  The glow was making the pain easier to handle.  He could almost breathe, now.

He closed his eyes, and he felt a tear roll down from the corner of his eye.  He suspected he wouldn’t have been able to tear up without the healing.

Not sufficient to fix the broken bones, or the damage to his stomach, perhaps.  He opened his eyes to look at Scion, to ask a question.

But Scion was gone.

A noise rose up from those who remained in the crowd.  Gasps, cheers, shouts of surprise.

Chevalier forced himself to move, stared at the spear of golden light that had risen from the earth, just on the horizon.  Scion.

He held Behemoth in his grip, released the Endbringer to fall two or three hundred feet to the ground, struck his falling foe with a beam of golden light, as if to shove Behemoth into the ground.

Behemoth’s lightning crackled between them, catching Scion, but the hero didn’t even seem to flinch.  He hit Behemoth again, and this time the beam of energy didn’t stop.  With virtually every structure leveled, there was nothing to hide their view but the lingering smoke and dust, and even that wasn’t thick enough to hide the light.

The aftershock of it traveled across the city, quelling dust storms, blowing past the assembled heroes like a strong gust, faintly warm.  Even though the ray didn’t reach quite that high, the clouds of smoke and dust parted visibly above Scion.

Chevalier watched, staring, belatedly thought to count how many seconds had passed.

One, two, three, four

Behemoth generated a shockwave, but it was muted by the light, suppressed.

…eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…

Behemoth’s silhouette thrashed as he tried to move out from beneath the shaft of light, but Scion only reoriented the beam, keeping it fixed on his target.

sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one

The light ceased.  Behemoth was gone.  A plume of dust rose from the earth, at the very limits of their vision.

Scion plunged beneath the ground, heedless of the intervening terrain.

Again, Scion rose from a point beneath the shattered surface of the city.

Again, he held Behemoth in his hands.  Thinner than a skeleton, the Endbringer was little more than a stick figure from Chevalier’s vantage point.

Only this time, with a flare of golden light to accompany the movement, he tore the Endbringer in two.  The legs came free of the pelvis as two individual pieces, and Scion obliterated them with a pulse of the golden light.  The air that reached the crowd of wounded heroes was cool, this time.

In Chevalier’s peripheral vision, people were emerging from within the temple.  Chevalier didn’t spare them a direct glance.  If he was seeing what he thought he was seeing, then he wouldn’t take his eyes off the scene for anything.

Behemoth slammed his claw into the glowing hero, and the shockwave tore him free of Scion’s grip.  Scion followed him with a glowing sphere of light, and Behemoth redirected his fall, generating an explosion in mid-air, hurling himself towards the assembled crowd.

Eidolon stopped him with a violet forcefield that spread across the sky, a solid obstacle to arrest Behemoth’s momentum, stopping him dead in his tracks and leaving him suspended a hundred feet up in the air.  His one intact claw clutched the edge.

Scion followed up with another shaft of light, and the forcefield shattered in an instant.  Behemoth was slammed into the road, three streets down from the gathered heroes outside the temple.

The Endbringer glowed, and the swelling light was too intense to look at.

Just seeing it, there was no question of what he was doing.  A final act of spite.  Turning himself into a bomb.

A stream of darkness poured from one of the helicopters, filling the street Behemoth lay in.  For an instant, the Endbringer was almost entirely obscured.

Scion fired one more beam, and the darkness was obliterated, swept away.

The silhouette of the Endbringer flickered, then disintegrated.  There was no detonation, no destruction to the landscape.  Only the cleansing light.

The beam dissipated, but its effects hung in the air, canceling out noise, stilling the air.

Slowly, the crowd took up a cheer, a cry of victory from everyone with the breath to spare.

As noise returned to the landscape, the stilling effects of Scion’s light fading, Chevalier closed his eyes, listening.  With the noise of the helicopters and distant fires mingling with the shouts and hollers of joy from the defending capes, he imagined he could hear the whole world cheering alongside them.

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Crushed 24.1

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Couldn’t catch up, not with the Undersiders mounted and us on foot.  I could fly, but I couldn’t abandon this team.  If Tecton hadn’t deferred leadership to me, I might have taken on a scouting role, flying ahead, notifying the Undersiders.

This was the worst environment for me.  There were bugs aplenty, but the area was thick with smoke, and there were fires everywhere.

Bugs weren’t going to contribute much.  They were getting roasted, by hot air and scorching smoke if not the fires themselves..

I flew from point to point.  Navigation wasn’t my strong point, so I focused on moving in straight lines, stopping at various vantage points where I was fairly confident I was out of Behemoth’s sight, physically reorienting myself, then flying to another point.

Each time I stopped, I took a second to try to grasp the situation.  The streets were flooded with people, and it was only getting worse.  The troops we had on the ground were struggling to make headway, and from my vantage point, I could tell that things were getting worse.

The approach had an added advantage in that it let me track where the fires were.  I collected bugs, took a moment here and there to analyze them, assess their capabilities, and guided them along my general route, keeping them as safe as I could manage.

There was a crash as a building toppled, sparks spilling out into the air.  I could hear screams, distant, as the crowd recoiled.  Through the bugs in their midst, I could sense the way they were scrambling for cover, for safety.  The nearest path that took them away from Behemoth was towards us.

Rickshaws turned around and made their way for the mouth of the narrow street, people pushed and shoved, and otherwise stampeded towards us.

I was in the clear, but my team…  I flew a short distance away to check everything was clear, then started to make my way back, still flying in short bursts.

Flitting here and there, I thought.

No, I thought, banishing the idea from my head.  Not flitting.  Never let that word slip in conversation.  Makes me think of fairies.  It’ll make Glenn think of fairies.

“Tecton!” I called out, as I returned to my roost.

He looked up at me.  Even with his heavy body armor, he was struggling with the mass of people who were pushing and squeezing their way past him.

I pointed, “Go through the building!  ASAP!”

He looked at the building, then raised his gauntlets.  The piledrivers slammed into the wall, punching out a rough, door-shaped hole.

He strode through, then did the same for another exterior wall.  The Chicago Wards flowed through.

“Not used to being allowed to make messes,” he said, his voice loud.  “This is just about the second time I can go all out!”

“Powers,” I said, flying down to ground level.  The smoke wasn’t as bad down here.  “You’ve had a few minutes to think, rookies, give me a quick rundown.”

“To think?” Cuff asked me.  “The hell?  You can think with all this going on?”

“You’re clear of the crowd,” I said.  The number of people here were only half that on the other street.  It was a herd mentality, lemming mentality.  They were too focused on getting away.

“It’s not just the crowd.  It’s-” she flinched as lightning struck somewhere in the distance.  “We could die any second, just like that.”

She was showing it the most, but I could see the fear in the other two, as well.  In everyone, but these guys in particular.

They’re new.  They’ve probably never been in a real life or death fight, let alone something like this.

Hell, I’ve never been in a fight quite like this.

It was ominous, the fact that the armbands were silent.  The A.I. wasn’t counting off a death toll, and I doubted it was because nobody with an armband was dying.  Maybe Chevalier had made a call, deciding that morale was low enough without an artificial voice reading out the names of the dead.

The only noises were the impacts and rumbles of Behemoth’s fighting against defending capes, the screaming and panting of people who ran past us, and the incessant crackle of nearby fires and crashes of thunder.

“We stand better odds if you pull yourselves together, fill us in, so we can use each other’s abilities to help,” I said.  “Come on guys, work with me.”

“I’m a breaker and shaker,” Annex told me, “Merge into nonliving material, warp space.”

“Warp it how?” I asked.

“Reshape it,” he said.  He was still half-walking, half-jogging, but he stretched a white-gloved hand out four feet, touching a sign.  His hand smeared against it as though it were more liquid than solid, coloring it the same white as his glove.  The sign oozed back into the wall, virtually disappearing, and Annex removed his hand, slowly reeling in the extended flesh.  The sign remained where it was, compressed against the wall, the surface flat.

“Okay,” I said, making a mental note.    “Okay, good.”

“While in there, I’m about as tough as whatever it is I’m controlling,” he added.

“Alright.  Golem?”

Golem had to stop running to demonstrate.  He dropped to one knee and plunged a hand into the street.

Ahead of us, there was a crash, a grinding noise.  A hand made of pavement was reaching out of the ground, five feet long from the base of the wrist to the tip of the middle finger.  The fingers seemed to move in slow motion as the hand pushed against stopped cars that were sort of in our way, shoving them to one side of the road.

The hand submerged back into the road as he withdrew his own hand from the street.

“Okay,” I said.  There’s synergy with Annex.  Maybe Tecton too.  “Anything I need to know?  Limitations?”

“Whatever I use my hand on, has to match the exit point, pretty much.  Asphalt for asphalt, metal for metal, wood for wood.”

I nodded.

“Bigger the thing I’m making, slower it comes out, slower it moves when I try to use my fingers.”

“Anything else?”

“Lots more, but mainly I can only use my hands, arms, feet and legs.  My face, but that’s not too useful.”

Cuff made a small noise as something crashed in the distance.

“Cuff?” I asked.  She didn’t reply.

“Cuff!” Tecton raised his voice.  It seemed to wake her up.

“What?” she asked.

“Your powers.  Explain.”

She shook her head, “Um.  The, uh-”

When she didn’t pull herself together enough to reply, Tecton set a heavily armored hand on her shoulder, “She’s a metallokinetic.  Shape and move metal, short-range, including the stuff she’s wearing.  Some enhanced strength and durability, too.”

“Yeah,” Cuff said, her voice quiet.  “Not half as cool as those guys.”

“It’s good,” I said.  I noted how she’d paired up with Grace.  Did Cuff’s presence have anything to do with the fact that Grace was wearing PRT-issue chainmail?  They didn’t give me the vibe that they were a pair in any friendship or romantic sense, but they were two bruisers, two girls in a group of mostly boys, and they were sticking together.  That seemed to be enough.

I was going to say something more, but a crash and the rumble of something falling down nearby stalled that train of thoughts.

“Oh fuck,” Cuff said under her breath, as lightning struck close by.  She was panting, and I suspected it wasn’t the exertion.   “Oh hell.  Why did I wear a costume made of metal?  I’m a walking lightning rod.”

“You’ve got a regulation suit between the metal and your skin, right?” Tecton asked.  “If it’s a type three or type four-”

“No suit,” Cuff said.  She tapped the metal at her collarbone, “Strongest if metal’s in direct contact with my skin.  Got a layer that’s almost liquid between this and me.”

“You didn’t think to change?” he asked.

“I didn’t think,” she said, her voice quiet, harboring a tremor.

Why the hell did she come, if she was going to be like this?

“Fuck,” Wanton said, “You are a lightning rod.”

“I don’t think you’re any safer or worse off than anyone else,” I said, trying to inject a note of confidence into the discussion.  I raised myself a step off the ground to get a better view of what lay ahead.  The ground was shaking, a steady, perpetual tremor.  “His lightning doesn’t follow regular channels.  We’re all lightning rods to him.”

Cuff didn’t respond.  I glanced down to see her frowning.

Not reassuring,” Wanton said.

“It’s the truth,” I said.  “We accept it, take it in stride and use it.  Can we change that fact?  Or use it to our benefit?”

“He’ll zap us to death with one hit, even if we protect ourselves,” Wanton said.  “Yeah.  There’s a benefit there.”

These guys aren’t the Undersiders.  Different strengths, different weaknesses.  The Undersiders were good at approaching things from an oblique angle, at catching people off guard, being reckless, even borderline fatalistic.  They had been more experienced than I was when I joined.  It was the other way around here.  Even Tecton, the oldest member of the group, the official leader, had less experience than I did.

I didn’t know them well enough to be able to guess what they brought to the fight.  I considered the various powers as I flew from point to point, scouting with eyes and careful use of my swarm.  Didn’t want to let any of the mobile ones get burned up.

The swarm included fruit flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches and house flies, identical or almost identical to the ones back home.  Surprising.  There were some smaller varieties of cockroach, nearly as numerous as the cockroaches in the peak of Brockton Bay’s worst months, some larger varieties of mosquito, flies I identified as the botflies that had come up in my research, and crickets.

No game changers, but I hadn’t expected any.  The spiders were badass here, at least.  The silk wasn’t so good, but even so, big spiders.

The Wards, their powershow to use them?  I thought. If I went by the PRT classifications, Tecton was a tinker with shaker capabilities.  Wanton was a breaker, someone who altered themselves or their relation to the world by some characteristic of his power, becoming a shaker effect, a telekinetic storm.  Annex was the same, only he became a living spacial distortion effect, a living application of Vista’s power.  Golem, no doubt a shaker.  That left Cuff and Grace.  I wasn’t sure how to peg Cuff, until I saw her in action, but she and Grace were both melee fighters in a fashion.

Of the six of them, four were shakers in some respect.  The classification included forcefields, effects like Grue’s, and powers that reshaped the battlefield, like Vista’s.

I’d been doing my reading on the PRT’s terminology, among other things.

“Battlefield control,” I said. “You guys have battlefield control.”

“Lots,” Tecton said.  “Aimed for it.”

I gave him a curious look, but this wasn’t the time for explanations.  I glanced at each of them in turn, so nobody would feel ignored, “We could try to slow him down, but I’m not sure that’s going to do much.  Instead, we’re going to meet up with the Undersiders.  I think there has to be something we can do with them.  Citrine, maybe Grue.  They’re versatile, and I’ve worked with them.   In the meantime, we’re doing damage control.  Seeing what we can do to keep Behemoth-”

Another lightning strike made the ground shake.  Cuff shrieked, and I grit my teeth.  We barely had two seconds of reprieve between flashes of lightning.  They lanced down from the dark clouds of smoke overhead, more red than yellow, and the thunder seemed more intense than it should be.  That wasn’t the worrisome part.  Behemoth was periodically hitting us with something bigger.  Bolts of lightning big enough to erase a small house from the landscape.

“-We’re going to do what we can to keep him from murdering people,” I completed my thought, belatedly.

“Right,” Tecton said.

“You know about earthquakes and architecture, Tecton?”

“Yeah.”

“What can we do about the shockwaves, or whatever else he’s been doing to make the ground shake?”

“I have ideas.  Not perfect, won’t hold for long, but ideas.”

“Good.  And we were talking about lightning rods,” I said.

“You said they don’t matter.”

“The drones Dragon used redirected his lightning.  Golem?  How big can you go?  Optimal conditions?”

“Depends on the amount of space at the destination.  I’d need a big piece of solid material, and I’d need time.”

“We’ll find an opportunity then,” I said.  “We’ll figure out a way to make this work.”

The crash of something being knocked or thrown through a building half a block away nearly made me jump out of my skin.  The others had ducked for cover, too late to have mattered if it had been real danger.

“Keep moving,” I ordered.

“Three of us are in heavy armor,” Tecton said.  “You can’t really run in armor like mine.”

“I get it,” I said, even as I knew the Undersiders were getting further away.  “Do the best you can.”

Mobility and transportations were problems.  I wondered if there were ways to fix that.  Even if we found Rachel and the others, I doubted we could put Tecton on a dog.  I couldn’t remember which, but I sort of recalled that Wanton or Grace had been a little shy of the dogs, too, so that option was out.

But if we could make this work…

Most people had evacuated at this point, with only a handful of stragglers occasionally passing us, giving us wary looks.

I drew arrows in the air to direct the remaining civilians away from the stampede of people, putting them on a general route where smoke didn’t seem to be heavy, and where I hadn’t been able to see or sense any fire.

Other heroes were joining the fray.  I saw Eidolon pass overhead, surrounded by what looked like a shimmer of heat in the air.  A forcefield?  Something else entirely?  If there were more with him, I couldn’t see them through the smoke.

I resumed my recon, continuing to expand the swarm that was keeping me company.  My range was extensive, now, with a radius of maybe one thousand, eight hundred feet.  That extended a fraction further as I zig-zagged over the area, picking up more bugs on the fringes and bringing them to me.

I stopped when I saw a short crane, three or four stories tall.  I turned around to meet the others, perching on the corner of a rooftop.  I pointed the way with ambient bugs, “Tecton, this way.  Take a shortcut, right through the building.  I don’t want to lose any time if we can help it.”

“Right,” he said.

It took only a minute for them to reach the crane.

“We’ve got two people who can distort metal,” I said.  “Annex and Cuff.  Maybe Wanton can help too.  Tear it down.  We’re making our lightning rod.”

“You sure?” Tecton asked.  “Because this makes a pretty good lightning rod on its own.”

I glanced nervously over in the direction where the smoke and lightning flashes were most intense.  If he shot us, right here, right now, and turned the crane into a tesla tower, this might be my dumbest move yet.  I perched on the corner of a building, where I still had a measure of cover, and watched the battle in the distance.  I could see Legend’s lasers through the smoke, hundreds at a time, radiating out from one central point, from Legend himself, and then turning sharply in the air to strike Behemoth.

Behemoth was using flame, which was some small reassurance, and he was occupied with the two remaining members of the Triumvirate.

“Yeah.  Do it.”

Both Annex and his costume merged into the base of the tower, and gradually climbed up to the point where the upper part still stood.  He could only ‘annex’ part of the object at one time, it seemed.  No surrounding a whole building.  He set about breaking the bonds, and the crane’s arm began to bend.  Cuff caught one end of it, then began heaving it towards the tower’s base.  The other half snapped off, and Annex helped guide it down, sliding it against the crane’s shaft.

It was costing us time, this project.  I felt impatient, was worried it wouldn’t work, and these would be wasted minutes we could be doing something else.

But they were making it happen, putting the pieces of our project together.  Cuff was walking around the crane’s base, effectively melting the metal, or reshaping it so it formed a flattened blob.  Annex tore the rest apart, so Cuff had more material to work with.

When Cuff was done, Annex slipped down to the blob and flattened it out further.

“A little thicker,” Golem said.

Annex ‘swam’ around the blob’s perimeter, shifting more material towards the center.  Cuff drew a blob of metal out of the pad and shaped it into a disk for Golem.

“A lot of synergy in this team,” I commented.

“Sort of aimed for that,” Tecton said.  “They took everyone willing to leave Chicago, to support other cities that lost more members, offered incentives to the rookies if they were willing to move to another city.  Your-parents-can-afford-not-to-work-for-a-year kind of incentives.  I drafted these guys because I thought their powers would work well together.”

“Drafted?” I asked.

“Yeah.  I mean, most teams are lucky if they get a few members with a good interaction, with some more on the fringes that they have to work around and fit into the mix.  We had a good setup with Raymancer, before he got too sick to move.  A strong, versatile ranged attacker with the rest of us situated to protect him, right?”

I nodded.

“After seeing the Undersiders at work, I started to think we need to be less mix-and-match.  Form teams with specific goals in mind.  New York sort of does that.”

“I know they have a team of ‘lancers’.  Forward vanguard, fast moving.”

“Exactly, and they’re also considered one of the better teams.  Maybe we all need to do that.  Except New York can do it because they’ve got a lot of capes.  Rest of us are making do.  Other team leaders are going for versatility, to cover every base.  I say fuck that.  We build around a concept, a game plan.  Once I decided on that, I went out of my way to ask for Annex, even though another team had already picked him up.  Made my argument, Chevalier gave the a-ok.”

“And where do I fit in?  Defiant said you were the one team that seemed interested in including me.  I guess I sort of fit into a shaker category, in a roundabout way.”

“That, and we’ve fought on the same side.  I saw what you managed with Clockblocker’s power and yours.  You stopped Alexandria, too, and all that other stuff we were warned not to bring up.”

I tilted my head to indicate mild confusion.

“They didn’t want us to mention how you’ve kicked ass as a villain.  Way Revel explained it, they wanted to see if you’d boast about it, to see just how badly you wanted a leadership role, where you’d get frustrated and how you’d act.”

I frowned behind my mask, but I didn’t comment.

“Anyways, the problem with this team going this route, focusing on the one thing, is we’re very weak against certain approaches, strong against others.  We need a certain kind of leader for that, and I know you pulled it off with the Undersiders.”

“I hope I can live up to that kind of expectation,” I said.

“I know it’s lame of me, that it might look like I’m trying something experimental and setting you up to take the fall if it fails-”

“No,” I told him.  “I don’t get that vibe.”

The ground tremored.  I worried briefly that the construction would tip, but it didn’t.  How long would it stand tall once it was at its full height?

“Good,” he said.  “Because that’s not what I’m doing.”

I was watching the others work, The pad of metal was about twenty feet across, now.  A circular disk with a flat surface on the top.  “Okay.  I think I can play ball, if that’s the case.  It’s good.  I like your line of thinking, about the team.”

He offered me a ‘heh’ before answering, “Of course.  I’m a pro when it comes to putting stuff together.”

“Putting buildings together,” Wanton chimed in, forming back into his real body.  Dust billowed around his feet.

“That’s my power, but I’m not limited to that,” Tecton said.  “You guys don’t need any help?”

“Save your juice.”

Golem started to put his hand into the plate of metal he’d been given, then hesitated, “I won’t be able to move my hand once it appears, if I go this big.  What shape should my hand be?”

“Middle finger extended,” Grace suggested.  “A big ‘fuck you’ to the Endbringer.”

“That’d look bad for the PRT,” Tecton told her.

“Tell them it’s the most efficient form,” she said, with a shrug.  “Have to make it as tall as possible.”

“No,” Tecton said.  “Index finger would work nearly as well, and New Delhi might take offense at a metal statue of an obscene gesture in the middle the disaster area.”

“A ‘v’,” Cuff suggested, making the gesture with her index and middle fingers.  Her voice was shaky, her confidence rock bottom.  “For victory.  Almost as good.”

“A ‘v’ for victory,” Tecton answered, “Good.  Thank you, Cuff.”

That’s really lame, I thought, but I held my tongue.  Too easy to become the bad guy, here, and it was a resolution to the stupid, petty argument, giving us the chance to move on.

Cuff smiled a little in response to the praise, though, then winced as Grace punched her in the arm.  I heard Grace mutter, “Spoilsport.”

Cuff’s smile returned to her face a moment later.

And maybe it’s good for Cuff, to have something constructive to offer.  She looked a touch more confident, smiling nervously as she followed Grace.  Cuff didn’t seem like she was growing numb to the sounds or vibrations of the destruction Behemoth was inflicting on us.

Golem started to push his hands into the plate.  The gauntlet’s fingertips were already emerging, a mirror-replica to Golem’s own gauntlet.  A hand half as wide as a house, slowly rising from the platform.

Annex dove into the ground, and circled the platform, binding it to the street.  He disappeared beneath the ground, then emerged a few seconds later, pulling his cloak tight around himself.  “Reinforcing, so it doesn’t fall over on us.  Also, brought a spike of metal into the ground.”

“I can help,” Golem said.  He reached his other hand into the ground, and a smaller hand fashioned out of pavement lurched out of the ground to rest against the base of the arm.  He withdrew his hand, leaving the pavement hand in place, then repeated the process, until six arms were supporting the spire.  “Not sure how well that works as it grows.”

“Good job, both of you” I said.  I held my breath as the wind brought heavy smoke past us, waited for it to dissipate.  There were too many variables to cover, and I wasn’t sure enough about this squad to believe I’d accounted for all of them.  “Can you move while carrying the plate?”

“Think so,” Golem said.

“Let’s go, then.”

“Starting to realize why all the capes are so fit, looking good in the skintight costumes,” Golem huffed, as we made our way towards Behemoth.  “So much running around, the training, constantly going places, never time to have… decent meal…”

He trailed off, too out of breath to speak.  I eyed him.  The armor made it hard to tell, but he might have been somewhat overweight.

The hand rose into the air, a virtual tower, as we made our way towards the battlefield.  Golem had to push his hand in gradually to achieve the effect, and it disappeared into the panel.

It was working, though.  For better or worse, they’d created a spire, a replica of Golem’s hand, spearing more than fifty feet in the air, with more room to grow.  Sixty feet, a hundred…

A lightning bolt lanced out from the midst of the cloud of smoke, striking the hand.

There were whoops and cheers from the Chicago Wards.  I managed a smile.

Another lightning strike, curving in the air, hit the hand.  Residual electricity danced between the two extended fingers.

It was working, and as much as it was a success in helping against the lightning, it was working to help morale.  To contribute something, anything, it mattered.

“Air’s ionized now,” Tecton said, as if that was a sufficient explanation for everyone present.  I got the gist of what he meant.  The lightning would be more likely to strike there again.  Lightning did strike the same place twice.

I took flight.  The Wards took my cue and followed on foot.

We found the Undersiders at the very periphery of the battlefield.  They had collected a group of wounded Indian capes and were draping them across the backs of one of the dogs.  Two uninjured Indian capes were looking very concerned, staying at the dog’s side.

I landed beside Grue.  He’d used his darkness to form a wall.  I wasn’t sure what it was for, but the smoke didn’t seem as bad here.

“Skitter,” he said.

I didn’t correct him.  You’ll always be Skitter to me, he’d written.  Or something like that.

“Got a plan?” I asked.

“Dealing with the wounded,” he said.  “Nothing else.”

I studied him.  I could see how defensive his body language was, his glower, the way he moved with an agitation that didn’t suit him.

Was he not holding it together a hundred percent?

“Where’s Tattletale at?”  I asked.  “I kind of got distracted as everyone was moving out.”

“At the command center with Accord.  She just contacted us through the Armbands.  They’re waiting to talk to Chevalier, fine tune the defenses.  Accord thinks he can layer the defenses to maximize the amount of time we buy.  Scion was occupied with some flooded farmlands in New Zealand, flew towards South America, last they saw.  Wrong direction.”

I nodded, my heart sinking.  It didn’t seem we’d be able to count on him.  Not any time in the immediate future.  “And Parian, Foil?  Citrine and Ligeia?  With Accord and Tattletale?”

“No.  Those four split off into another group.  They can put out fires, and Citrine can protect them from lightning strikes so long as they aren’t moving around too much.  Flechette’s using the opportunity to shoot him, for all the good it’s doing.  Our group wouldn’t be any use to them, so we’re doing what we can here, a little further away.”

“Got it,” I said.  “You have a way of communicating with them?”

He tapped his armband, then pressed a button.  “Relay this message to Citrine.  All well, Skitter and Chicago Wards just arrived.  Inform as to status.”

There was a pause.

Message from Citrine,” the armband reported, the voice crackling badly.  Then the crackling redoubled as the voice stated, “Status is green.”

“Any objection if we assist your group?” I asked him.

Grue shook his head.  He started to reply, but was cut off as Behemoth generated another shockwave.  A rumble drowned everything out, as every building without something to protect it fell.

“No objection,” Grue said, when the rumble had dissipated.  He echoed my question from earlier.  “Got a plan?”

“I wish,” I said.  “More lightning rods, maybe, if we get the opportunity.”

The smoke was clearing towards the battle’s epicenter.  Legend and Eidolon were a part of that, as were the craft that supported them.  The fires were dying out, extinguished or stamped out.

Behemoth wasn’t that tall, hard to make out above the buildings that still stood.  I chanced a look, and flinched as another bolt of electricity made its way to the lightning rod.

The path of least resistance.

Behemoth had noticed that time, or he’d decided to do something about it, because he lashed out at Legend and Eidolon once more, driving them back, and then made a beeline for the structure. He threw electricity outward, two bolts, continuous in their arc, and they briefly made contact with the tower.  A second later, they broke free of the tower’s draw.  He was paying attention to where he was shooting now, not simply striking across a distance with the goal of setting indiscriminate fires.

Fire roared around Behemoth as he got away from the area that had already been scorched and blasted clear of any fuel sources.  His dynakinesis fueled the flames, driving them to burn hotter, larger, and with more intensity.  With a kind of intelligence, the fires spread to nearby buildings, ensuring that no place was safe, nor untouched.

I could see the blaze making its way closer to us.  Not a concern in the next minute, maybe not even the next five, but we’d have to move soonish.

Legend and Eidolon hounded the Endbringer, Legend initially a blur that couldn’t even be pinned down long enough to strike, even with lightning.  As the hero flew, he filled the sky with a series of lasers that raked Behemoth’s flesh and targeted open wounds to open them further.  When Behemoth turned away to deal with Eidolon, Legend slowed, and the lasers grew in number and in scale.

“What’s with the hand shape?” Regent asked, as he poked his head out from cover enough to peek at the scene.

“A ‘v’,” Golem said, his voice small.

“I get it.  You’re calling Behemoth a big vagina.”

“It’s for victory,” Cuff said, sounding annoyed.

“That’s lame,” Imp said.

Really lame,” Regent echoed, “I prefer the vagina thing.”

“Way you dress,” Grace commented, “I wasn’t so sure.”

“Ohhhhh,” Imp cut in, she elbowed Regent, “Ohhhhh.  You going to take that?”

Regent only laughed in response, shaking his head.

“Is the little princess feeling brave?” Grace taunted Regent.  “Come on.”

“It’s for ‘victory’,” Cuff said, her feeble protest lost in the midst of the exchange, and in that instant, she sounded surprisingly young, vulnerable.

“No fighting,” I said, have to stop this before it escalates.  “Regent, stand down.  Grace, you too.”

Regent snickered under his breath.

“And no more banter,” Grue said.  “There’s more people to help.  Move.  With luck, those guys can keep him busy long enough for us to clear out.”

“Team’s mommy and daddy, reunited,” Imp commented, adding an overdramatic sigh. “So awesome.”

“I’ll point you guys to the wounded,” I said, not taking the bait.  “Go.”

“No saying or doing stuff that’ll get us killed, like saying goodbye or getting laid,” Regent commented.  “There are rules.”

“Get us killed?  What’s Weaver doing?” Cuff asked, sounded alarmed and confused.

Regent glanced at her, “I’m just saying, Grue’s already screwed, he’s not a virgin, he’s bl-”

Grue struck Regent across the back of the head.  The crown and attached mask were moved slightly askew, and Regent fixed them.  He told Cuff, “Regent’s being an idiot.  Ignore him.  Now go.”

“This way,” Tecton said, setting a hand on Cuff’s shoulder, “Opposite direction from Regent.”

Imp started to turn around to follow the pair, grabbing Regent’s wrist to pull him after her.  Grue stepped in her way and physically turned her back around.

“Sorry for our contribution to that,” Tecton said.  “Grace gets hard to handle when she’s stressed.”

“I understand.  Regent and Imp…” Grue started.  “Really have no excuse.  That’s pretty much the status quo.  They’ve been a little worse lately, but things haven’t settled down since…”

He trailed off.

“Since I left,” I said.

Grue nodded.

Tecton nodded.  “I get it.  Bygones.  We’ll be back.  You okay watching the injured on your own, or-”

“We’re good,” Grue said.

Tecton left, with Cuff at his side.  Only Grue and Rachel remained, along with the Indian capes who were standing by the wounded.  Rachel was giving water to the injured who were capable of receiving it, the conscious ones, people with broken legs and burned hands.

I made eye contact with Rachel.  I wanted to ask how she was doing, knew she wouldn’t like the implications that she wasn’t peachy.

“I want to fuck this bastard up,” she said.  “Last one killed my dogs.  Killed Brutus, Judas, Kuro, Bullet, Milk and Stumpy and Axel and Ginger.  When do we attack?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “We’ll try to find an opportunity.”

“And I get to do something,” she said.

“I…” I started to voice a refusal, then stopped myself.  “Okay.”

“Bitch, it’ll be easier to collect the bodies if you take the dogs to them,” Grue said.  “Why don’t you see to that?”

She glanced at me.  I resisted the urge to nod.  It would be an encouragement, without the complexities and ambiguities of speech, but it would also be supplanting Grue as leader, here.

Neither he nor she needed that.

“Sooner than later,” he added.

She nodded.  Anyone else might have taken that as rude, but she accepted it without complaint.  She led the dogs away, and the Indian capes followed, not wanting to part from people who might have been teammates or family members.

When everyone was gone, Grue approached me.  I felt myself tense up.  Despite the adrenaline that already pumped through me, my heart rate picked up as he closed the distance.

He held my arms just above the elbows, very nearly encircling his middle fingers and thumbs around them.  Large hands, thin arms.  I’d put on a little muscle mass over the past few months, or he’d be able to do it for real.

And he rested his forehead against mine, as if he were leaning against me, despite the fact that he was maybe half-again to twice my weight.

It had been a long time since I felt quite so insecure as I had this past week.  As Skitter, I’d had a kind of confidence.  As Weaver… I didn’t yet feel on steady ground.

But in this moment, somehow, I felt like I could be his rock.

I wanted nothing more than to reach up, to put my hands around his neck, remove his mask so I could tilt my head upward to kiss him.  To give him succor in basic, uncomplicated human contact, at a time he was on unsteady footing and couldn’t even say it aloud.  I stayed where I was, our foreheads touching, my back to the wall, arms to my sides.  The masks stayed on.

The storm continued in the distance, and a detonation marked what might have been the destruction of one of Dragon’s craft.  We didn’t move an inch.

“I miss you too,” I whispered.

He nodded in response, a hard part of his mask scraping against a part of mine.

I could sense the others gathering bodies, starting to make their way back here, to our rendezvous point.

“See,” Imp said, appearing right next to us, “This is exactly what Regent was talking about.”

“We weren’t doing anything,” I said.  I pulled away from Grue, annoyed.

“You were being sweet.  That’s probably a death sentence.”

“They were snuggling?” Regent asked, rounding a corner.

Christ,” Grue said, under his breath.  Firmer, he said, “Enough of that.”

Imp only cackled, and she kept cackling.  I was pretty sure she prolonged it just to be annoying, stopping and starting again until Rachel and the last of the Wards returned.

“Let’s talk plans,” Grue said.  “We’ve got a good roster here.  Two teams.  Almost three full teams, if we pick up Parian, Foil and the Ambassadors.”

He sounds more confident.  A little more balanced.  The agitation isn’t so obvious.

“There’s more wounded in the area,” I said.  “And we’re running out of space.  Each dog that’s loaded up with the injured is a dog you guys can’t ride.  Fires are getting closer, so we pick up everyone we can, load them onto makeshift sleds, then hurry back to a place where we can get them medical care.”

“It’s a plan,” Grue said.

“And,” I said, “We need to find a better use for our strongest members.  Citrine could be useful.  Grue?  If we get the sled going, you stay close to the wounded.”

He turned his head my way.

“We have about twenty here.  Six or so capes.  Maybe one’s got a power we can use.”

He nodded.  “I already checked most.  But I can use a power from the back of the sled without blinding anyone.  It works.”

“There’s a joke there,” Regent said, “But-”

Don’t,” Imp said.

“I wasn’t going to.  It’s crass, totally inappropriate, and I’m better than that.”

“You’re going to,” Imp said, stabbing a finger at Regent’s chest.  “You were going to say something about Grue going to the back of the bus, and you can’t let it go.  It’d be lame and really tasteless and too far, and it’ll start the sort of fight that isn’t fun or funny.  I’m calling it: you’ll hold it in until you can’t help but say it.”

“Well I’m definitely not going to say it now that you’ve spoiled it,” Regent said.  “No shock value, no people feeling bad because they inadvertently laughed at something fucked up.”

“You two go squabble somewhere else,” Grue said.  He glanced at me.  “There’s more bodies to collect?”

“Too many bodies,” I said, my voice sober, “Not many injured left who haven’t already been carried away by friends, family and neighbors, or who aren’t in such bad shape that they can’t move.  Maybe six more we could load up, if we’re going to get out of here in time.”

“Go,” Grue said.  “She’ll show you the way.”

Run,” I said.  They didn’t have to run, but it got rid of them sooner.

Children,” Grue muttered under his breath.

“Wards,” I said.  “If you aren’t making the sled, go get the rest.  I’ll help.”

My team left Annex and Cuff behind while we collected the wounded.

The one I was helping was a child, burned.  She wasn’t any older than ten.

She said something incomprehensible.  Another language.

“English?” I asked.

She only stared at me, unable to understand me any more than I understood her.  Her eyes were a little glazed over, but the pain in her expression and the fear suggested that the benefits of being in shock were receding.

A part of me felt like I should have helped her sooner, but it wasn’t a logical part of me.  There was so little I could do, and it didn’t matter if I did it before or now.  And maybe a small part of me was putting it off because it wasn’t going to be pretty.

“I’m not that scary,” I said, “Okay?”

I pulled off my mask.  “See?  Ordinary person.”

Her expression didn’t change.

“I’m going to have to move you,” I said, and the words were for me as much as they were for her.  I kept my voice gentle, “It’s going to hurt, but it’ll mean we can get you help.”

She didn’t react.  I studied her.  Blisters stood out on her arms and neck, and on the upper part of her chest.

I could maybe understand a little of Rachel’s anger at the loss of her dogs, seeing this.  Behemoth probably hadn’t even given a coherent thought to the pain he’d inflicted on this girl, on countless others, just like Leviathan had mindlessly torn through Rachel’s dogs.

Why?

Why did the Endbringers do this?  Were they part of the passenger’s grand plan?  Cauldron’s monsters, taken to an extreme?  Tattletale had said they were never human, but she’d been wrong before.

Or maybe I hoped they had been human because it was an answer, because the alternative meant I didn’t have enough data points to explain it.

With as much gentleness as I could manage, I moved bugs over the girl’s body.  She reacted with alarm rather than pain, and I shushed her.  The bugs were spreading possible infection, no doubt, but I suspected infection was inevitable, given circumstance.  Using the bugs let me know where the blisters were, where the skin was mottled with burns.

I took off my flight pack and flipped it over.

Like ripping off a bandaid, I thought, only it’s at someone else’s expense.

I lifted her, and she shrieked at the physical contact, at the movement of burned flesh against clothing and the ground.  I set her down on the flight pack, placing a hand on her unburned stomach to stabilize her.  I activated the left and right panels, gently, so it had a general lift without any particular direction, and I led her to the sled in progress.

Golem had already returned, and the three of them were combining powers to make the sled.  Cuff was feeding the chain Rachel had provided into loops at the front.

With Grue’s help, I eased the girl down from the flight pack, setting her with the other wounded.

“We’re going to hurt him,” I said, retrieving the flight pack.

“Behemoth?” Cuff asked me.

“We’re going to find a way,” I said, and that was all.  I met the little girl’s eyes.

Cuff followed my gaze.  “I guess I”m on board with that.”

“Why did you come?”  I asked.  “I mean, I get why we all came, on a level, but… no offense, you’re in a totally different headspace.”

“For my mom and dad,” she said.

I glanced at her, but she didn’t elaborate.

It took another minute to get the sled prepped and people mounted.  Rachel enhanced the size of her dogs so they’d have the strength to pull not only the wounded, but the two teams as well.  It meant they were slower, but it also meant moving nearly forty people with four dogs.  I took off, flying, leading the way and giving directions with bugs as they followed.

A crash heavier than any we’d had yet made the dogs stumble, falling.  It very nearly overturned the sleds.  Bitch had fallen from where she sat on Bentley’s back.  I stopped at her side to make sure she was alright, gave her a hand in getting back to her feet.  She accepted it without complaint or incident, but when she met my eyes, her glower cut right through me.

Was that her resentment at work or my guilt, that made me feel that way under her gaze?

Once I’d verified that no damage had been done, I rose just high enough to peer over the top of a building.

The lightning rod had tilted, leaning against an adjacent building, the supports Golem had raised had crumbled.  Behemoth, too, had fallen.

Eidolon and Legend hovered in the sky, flanked by four dragon-craft.

Another figure was there as well, hovering where Behemoth had been standing an instant ago.  The Endbringer had been toppled with one massive blow.

I touched the button on my armband, lowering my head beneath cover.

“Send this message to Defiant,” I said.  “You said she was dead.  You said you verified.”

The reply crackled so badly it was almost inaudible.  “Reply from Defiant.  I saw the body myself, we checked her DNA, her … readings, we matched against the mountings for her prosthetic eye … carbon dated it to verify.

He didn’t even need to ask who I meant.

I pressed the button, “Ask Defiant who the hell that’s supposed to be, if it’s not Alexandria.”

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