Scarab 25.4

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Touché, PRT. 

You got me.

Touché.

You’re attempting to reach Glenn Chambers, co-president of Faceti.  For our mutual convenience, please categorize your message.  Press one to contact my personal assistant, who can get your message to me in text asap.  Press two if you got my number from my business card.  Press four if you are an employee.  Press five if this is a personal call.  Press nine if the call is of utmost urgency, to put yourself on the line immediately if I’m on the phone, or set off an alarm if I’m not.

I seriously debated pressing nine.  I felt like this was a nine.

I hit one instead.

This is James, receiving a call for Mr. Chambers.

“It’s Weaver, I… I don’t know who else to call.”

I wasn’t coherent, which was unusual, considering how I could normally keep myself together in a crisis.

Oh, Weaver!  He’s actually talking to someone about you right now.  I got his attention.  He’ll be with you in a second.

“I’m not sure I have a second,” I said.  There was no response.  He wasn’t on the line.

“Oh man,” Golem said.  “I’m… oh fuck.”

Quite possibly the only person who was as concerned as I was.

Glenn here.  You should have called earlier.”

“I didn’t get a chance,” I said.  I would have explained, but time was precious here.

I imagine you didn’t.  Well, there’s good news and bad news.  You’ve already run into the bad news.  Here’s the good.  This?  It’s my plan they’re using.”

I could believe it.  I didn’t respond.

Their timing is off.  I would have done this differently if I were your enemy.  It’s too much of a gamble as it stands.

“They planned this, have been setting it up for a while.  I expected interference with the missions, being supplanted with the Protectorate squad, not this.  I just need to know-”

There was a fanfare, musical, light and jazzy.  By the time it faded, a crowd I couldn’t see had started applauding.

It’s starting,” Tecton said.  He was a pillar of confidence here.

Glenn was talking, but I couldn’t hear over Tecton and the crowd.  I stepped away, my free hand raised to block out the noise.

…nds like the show just started.  They have to have leverage against you if they’re pulling this.  Your probation?

“They’re threatening to declare a breach if I don’t play along.”

Play along.  I heard what you did, announcing what the PRT was doing to the entire building.  Word got around, in certain channels.  Do not do that again.  Don’t call your bosses out and let people know that you don’t want to be here.  They’ll be ready for it, and you’ll hurt worse than they do.”

“Okay,” I said.

Did they prep you?

“No.   I got off a six-hour graveyard patrol with Gauss and returned to the base to hear about this.  They even put our new Protectorate member on the comms to keep me out of the loop, then fed me just enough information I had to listen without telling me enough.  I’ve never even seen this show, and I barely had time to get my costume brushed off and my hair in order.  They tidied it up some here, but-”

Glenn cut me off.  “Okay.  It’s not the end of the world, but I don’t think this show will help you.  These shows almost always result in a ratings dip over timeIt boosts your appeal but hits you on respectability.  It’s only worth it if there’s merchandise or media to sell, which there isn’t.  They’re tanking you.  Still, this is minor in the grand scheme of things.

Being in front of millions of people was minor.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t had appearances before, but most had been without my knowledge.  The unveiling of ‘Weaver’ was a good example of how tongue-tied I was liable to get.

“What do I do?  How do I approach this?”

I’d tell you to just be yourself, but that’s a terrible idea.  Be yourself as you normally are with the Wards.  Be the teenager, the friend.  Play up the fact that you’re a group, that there’s camaraderie.  Build a relationship with the audience by sharing things they probably don’t know.  Nothing sensitive.

I wondered if the dildo prank that the Wards had initiated me with would qualify as sensitive.

More than that, I wondered if I even had enough of a bond with the others, something I could draw on.

Be engaging.  It’s more important to keep the conversation moving than it is to say what you want to say.

“Wards!”  A woman called out.  “All together.  Hurry up now.  You’re on in two minutes.”

Like a kindergarten teacher herding students around.

“Two minutes,” I said.  “I should go.”

Good luck.  This is a day the strategist needs to take a vacation, understand?  Or delegate a task to it.  They’re putting you out there because they think you’ll either take a hit to your reputation or you’ll try to be clever and self destruct.  You stand to lose more than they do, and this isn’t live, meaning they can pull anything they don’t want on the air.

“I get it,” I said.  “They aren’t just giving me enough rope to hang myself with, they’ve put me in a rope factory.”

Exactly.

“Thank you, Glenn.”

I joined the others, my heart was pounding with enough force that the thumps rocked my entire body.  Tecton was closest to the stage, followed by Grace and Wanton.  The core team members, the veterans.  Veterans in one sense.  Wanton didn’t have half the field experience I did, even with our sustained campaign against the local villains, starting to help out in Detroit and trying to deal with that one jerkass in Milwaukee who we hadn’t yet managed to pin down.  Tecton and Grace were a little more seasoned, but not by a lot.

The stage manager was checking the microphones everybody wore.  She paused by me, and ensured it was plugged in, and that the connection was unbroken.  I was essentially wearing the same costume I had in the winter, but had skipped the extra layer beneath.  I suddenly felt intensely conscious of every wrinkle and all of the grit that had gathered up around my ankles and feet as I’d patrolled.

The costumes the others wore were immaculate.  Wanton had styled his hair to be messy in a good way, and was draped in flowing, dark blue clothing with lighter armor situated across his chest, his waist, his boots and along the length of his arms.  I suspected that the cloth afforded him more protection than the thin plates of metal, but it served to mask his artificial arm.

Grace’s costume was light, in contrast to the dark of Wanton’s.  Her new costume was white cloth, almost a martial artist’s outfit, but designed to offer more coverage.  Reinforced pads were situated at every striking point, complete with studs to offer more traction and focused impacts.  There wasn’t a single hair out of place beneath her combination headband, hairband and mask.  She had glossy, wavy locks I was a little jealous of, and a trace of lipstick.

I wish I’d considered some make up.  Not that I wore a lot, or that I’d had the time.  I had only what they’d given me in the studio, and they hadn’t gone overboard, on the assumption that I’d keep my mask on.  No, if anything it forced me to keep it on.  Heavy eyeshadow to make it easier to see my eyes behind the blue lenses.

Cuff seemed to be in the same department as Grace.  She’d done herself up, with a more ornate braid to her hair, and had altered her costume a fraction, to allow for more decorative tailoring at the ends of each panel and the nose of her visor.  Slivers of skin were visible between some slats of armor at the upper arms and collarbone.  Of everyone here, she seemed the most excited.  She couldn’t sit still, but she was smiling, and it was a genuine expression.

That left Annex and Golem.  Golem was uncomfortable, and I couldn’t blame him.  Like me, he had details he’d want to hide.  His family, his background, the fact that he was in foster care.  His costume, too, was a work in progress.  It was a resource for him, and maximizing that resource often set him back in the appearance department.  Annex, by contrast, had settled into a ‘look’.  It was plain, intentionally so.  The white cloak was form-fitting, with ribs to keep the fabric straight and close to his body so it was easier and quicker to absorb.

“Grace,” Tecton said.  “No swearing.”

Wanton snickered a little.

Tecton pitched his voice lower.  “Golem?  You’ve got to stop calling adults sir while you’re in costume.  You do it as a civilian, dead giveaway.  Hasn’t mattered up until now, but this is the test.”

“I probably won’t say much,” Golem said.  “I’m so nervous I feel like I need to puke.”

“No puking,” Wanton said.

“No puking is a good idea,” I agreed.

“Weaver…” Tecton said.  He gave me a look, with only his eyes visible behind his helmet.  “…I don’t even know.  But I’ve kind of gone the extra mile for you, and you’ve done a lot in return, but-”

The stage manager stooped down a little to talk to us, even though both Tecton and I were both taller than her.  “Alrighty, guys!  You’re on in five, four…”

“I still owe you one.  I’ll be good,” I told Tecton, just under my breath.

“One!”

The jazzy fanfare played.  As if that wasn’t cue enough, the stage manager gave us a little prod, literally pushing Tecton forward.

It was surprising how small the studio was, both the stage with its slate gray floor and fake cityscape behind it and the studio audience.  Tecton led the way to the half-circle of a table with the three hosts on the far side.  The largest chair closest to the hosts was undoubtedly his, shipped here by the PRT so he could sit down in his armor without crashing to the floor.

We sat down.  Tecton, Grace, Wanton, me, Annex, Cuff and Golem, in that order.  The music died as we took our seats, opposite the three hosts.  An adult man, African-American by the looks of it, a woman with peroxide blond hair and a girl who could have been her daughter, a brunette who bordered on overweight, with a winning smile and an overly generous chest.

“Welcome back to Mornings with O, J and Koffi,” the woman said.  “School’s out for the day and we’ve got the Chicago Wards here for breakfast.  Good morning, guys.”

We voiced our replies.  Wanton gave me a look, smiling, and I made myself smile as well.

The young girl gave a small wave, “So nice to meet you.  We had the team here before, but you guys have definitely changed things up since.  Campanile was the team leader then.”

“Campanile graduated to the Protectorate a little while ago,” Tecton said.  “He said to say hi.”

“You were there too, weren’t you?” Koffi, the man, said.

“In my old costume,” Tecton said.  “Which I’d prefer we didn’t talk about.”

There were chuckles from the hosts at his comment, and the audience echoed them.  It was oddly surreal.  I intended no offense to Tecton in thinking it, but the comment just wasn’t that amusing.

“The updated costumes look good,” Koffi said.

“We can thank Weaver for that.  Any cloth you see is spider silk,” Tecton said.

“Spider silk, wow!”  This from the blonde woman.

“Cuff and I sort of missed out on that front,” Tecton added.

“I don’t know whether to be amazed or freaked out,” the younger woman said.

“We had a giant Japanese crab on the show just a month ago, I think.  Jo had to leave the stage,” Koffi said.  “I think she’s a little nervous with Weaver here.”

“That was so embarrassing,” the young woman said.  I made a mental note of her being ‘Jo’.  “And you’re never going to let me live it down.”

More laughter.

Oh hell, I thought.  It was all so fake.  Fake responses, fake conversation.  The personalities, the way they were over-talking, it was like they’d taken everything that irritated me and condensed it into this, and situated it all in front of countless viewers so I couldn’t even respond the way I wanted to.

“I don’t dislike you, Weaver,” Jo said.  “It’s bugs I don’t like.  I’m not nervous.”

“Thank you.  Good,” I said.  Then, in an attempt to recover the clumsy sentence, I added, “I’m glad.”

The blonde, who was ‘O’ by the process of elimination, said, “There’s been a fair bit of attention directed at your team.  The leaked video thrust you all into the spotlight.  Then you dropped off the radar.”

“Recuperating,” Tecton said.  “We’re teenagers.  We go to school and play video games and being a cape is only part of it.”

“Except for Weaver,” Wanton said.

Both Tecton and I shot him a look, and then I remembered that there were eyes on me.  There was a reaction from the audience.  Light laughter.

“What do you mean?” Jo asked.

How could I even explain that I was working towards stopping or mitigating the degree of the world ending, when I wasn’t allowed to mention the fact?  Or that we were systematically targeting the most problematic villains, when I didn’t want anyone to see the show and hear the battle plan outlined for them?

“Wanton has been poking fun at Weaver about how she doesn’t go out or maintain any hobbies,” Tecton explained.  “Which isn’t entirely fair.  My apologies to Weaver bringing this up, but it’s not a secret that she’s on house arrest.  She’s on probation, and so she’s limited in what she can do.”

Koffi seized on the topic.  “You had a pretty colorful life as a villain, Weaver.  We’ve seen the cell phone video of you in the cafeteria of your high school, opposite Dragon and Defiant.”

I felt simultaneously glad that the conversation was moving and horrified that I was the subject.  I blamed Wanton.

Still, I said, “Clockblocker too.  I wasn’t actually attending school, though.  It was a couple of unlucky circumstances that put me there, and… yeah.  At that point in time, I’d wanted to focus on taking care of my part of the city.”

“That’s interesting, isn’t it?” O asked.  “You were a criminal overlord.  How were you even qualified for that?”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said.  I was more nervous now, half-convinced I was damning myself further with every sentence.  I’d inevitably come off too harsh and ‘dark’ for the civilians who were watching and too soft for any villains who happened to see.  Damn it.  “Taking the territory and being a villain were independent things.  Related, but different.  It was after Leviathan attacked, food, water, shelter and safety were hard to come by.  It was a way to help.  If I’d been a solo hero then, I’d have done much the same thing.  I’d have been gentler, but yeah.”

With less money to spend, I thought.  I’d avoided mentioning I was an undercover, aspiring hero when I’d started out.  That had never worked out for me, and only complicated things.

“And Alexandria?  I think everyone’s curious about your thoughts there.  You were shocked, in the video, when she made a reappearance.”

I shook my head.  “It’s not her.  I’m… I’m not happy, obviously, to see her up there.  It’s an ugly reminder of what happened.  But to have another person fighting Endbringers?  I’m okay with that part of it.”

“A long, bumpy road, and it’s brought you here,” O said.

“With the Chicago Wards,” I said, in a vain hope to turn the conversation away from me.

She took my cue.  “New costumes, a new group.  Behemoth is defeated and it looks like the Endbringers might have reverted to the schedule they had pre-2002.  An attack every four to five months.”

“Yes,” Tecton said.  “Everything’s new.  There’re a lot of changes going on.”

“Are you excited?” Jo asked.

Oh man, was I ever starting to dislike her.

“I’m really excited,” Tecton said.

The response caught me off guard.  Was he lying for the sake of appearances or was it honest?  How could someone be excited when the end of the world was nigh?  Did he not believe it was coming?

Whatever the answer was, I felt oddly disappointed in him.

Cuff shifted in her seat, and metal scraped against the metal of the chair’s footrest with a high-pitched noise.  She whispered, “Sorry.

O leaned forward.  “It’s fine.  Let’s hear from some of the others.  Wanton, your thoughts?  Are the changes good?”

“The changes are good.  I give Weaver a hard time, but she really kept us alive.”

“She did, by the looks of what happened in that video,” O said.

Bringing the conversation back to me.  Again.

“Grace?” she asked.  “Thoughts on your team member?”

“If you told me way back on the first time we met that I’d come to respect her, I’d have been surprised.”

Jo looked at me.  “Does that bother you?”

“No.  I respected and liked the Chicago Wards right off the bat, but I don’t blame them if there was any suspicion,” I said.

“Pretty generous.”

“If anything, I was pretty amazed by how they all pulled together in New Delhi.  Three of them were new, two hadn’t even been in a real fight before, and they went up against Behemoth?”

Cuff was perched on the edge of her seat, doing her best not to move and make things squeak again.  She had the ability to liquefy the metal touching her skin, which would have eliminated the problem, but the act would have ruined the look of it.  Part of that stiffness was anticipation, like a child who hadn’t done their homework, sitting at their desk and dreading the moment where the teacher called on them.  A stark contrast to her excitement earlier.  Had the screech knocked her off cloud nine?

“Cuff,” Koffi said.  “What do you think?  We saw the video, and you were pretty scared at the start, there.”

“Terrified.”

“You got injured?  We didn’t get to hear how.”

“A burn,” Cuff said, smiling a little.  “I recuperated in a few days.”

A lie.  She still hadn’t fully recuperated today, eight months after the fact.  She might never.

“I love to ask this question,” Jo said.  “What’s it like, being a superhero?”

She loved that question?

“It feels weird to think of myself as a hero,” Cuff said.  “I’m… I don’t think I’ll ever be one of the big heroes.  I’m not a cape at heart.  Fighting isn’t in my personality, and I got powers like this.”

“Cuff is a girly-girl,” Wanton commented.  “Her bunk at the Wards headquarters has pink sheets and rainbows and there’s a unicorn picture on the-”

Cuff leaned around me to mock-punch him.  “I’m not that bad!”

“You’re bad, though.”

Tecton raised a hand to cover Wanton’s mouth.  “I’m thrilled to have her on the team.  She hasn’t disappointed me yet.”

Cuff smiled at him.  “Thank you.

I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to say the same about Cuff, but my standards might have been higher.  She’d always done the job, but there was a reticence to her that wasn’t going away.  Three months ago, in our first real conflict outside of fighting Behemoth, she’d needed a push to carry out an offensive.  Four days ago, in Milwaukee, she’d needed that same coaxing.

Cuff was competent.  She had her strengths, and was stellar in some narrow cases.  At the same time, I still worried if a moment’s hesitation on her part would get one of us hurt somewhere down the road.

She was talking, happy to be in the limelight, stage fright forgotten.  “I was saying what it’s like being a hero.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s something that eats into every part of your life even if you want to limit it to four hours a day, four times a week.  If you don’t train and exercise then you fall behind.  If you don’t read the briefings on the bad guys, then you look stupid when you do run into them and have to ask someone.”

“I certainly hope you’re not getting into serious fights,” Koffi said.

“Um,” Cuff said.  Stage fright back in full force.  She’d touched on something that would get her a slap on the hand from the PRT, and now she didn’t have her footing.

I was trying to think of a way to rescue her when Tecton said, “Fights happen.  We’re actively trying to avoid direct confrontation, but we patrol and we practice our abilities so we can handle ourselves in the real crisis situations.  Many of our members patrol with other capes so they can get experience while having someone to rely on in case of an emergency.”

All true, but he was omitting the fact that we were actively seeking out indirect confrontation.  It was an admirable spot of double-speak, simultaneously reinforcing the atmosphere we were hoping to establish.  Heroes are safe.  Everything is under control.

“I kind of like those times,” Annex said.  “You get to hang out with the local powerhouses, hear what they have to say, learn from them.  I had a brief stay in a few other teams, but the one thing I really like about Chicago is that everyone is okay with me asking questions, and I have a lot.”

“Who’s your favorite cape to hang out with?” Jo asked.

“Shuffle.  Our powers work well together, if we’re careful not to let them interfere.”

“And Golem?  I can almost guess.  When Campanile appeared in the evening news, he had some promising words to say about the Protectorate’s newest member.  When we asked him who the most promising new recruit in the Wards was, he named you.”

“Ah,” Golem said.  “Yeah.”

“Do you think you can live up to that?”

“I hope I can,” Golem said.

The conversation was faltering.  I thought of what Glenn had said.  Showing some of the bonds between team members.  If I had one with anyone, it was with Golem.  The running, the shared perspective on the end of the world, the fact that we were both Brockton Bay natives…

“Everything Tecton has been saying about Cuff is true for Golem,” I said.  “If he’s getting praise from the heroes, he deserves it.  He’s a classic hero at heart.”

“A classic hero?” Koffi asked.

“He’s like Tecton.  Grace and Annex are too, to a lesser degree.  He’s genuinely good-natured and kind.  When everything starts falling apart, he’s still there, naturally courageous.”

“I like how I’m omitted from that list,” Wanton said.  “Only person who hasn’t been praised so far.”

I think you’re awesome,” Jo said, smiling.  The audience cooed.

“Golem’s steadfast,” I said.  “He’s working out, he’s studying hard for both regular school and cape stuff.  And with all of that going on, he’s still generous enough to help me out with my stuff.  Like Tecton said, I’m limited in where I can go and when, and Golem helps with that.”

The running, primarily, but not wholly that.  He’d walked with me to the mall once or twice.  I didn’t want to share details, though, in case people decided to try to find us while we were out, with Golem not in costume.

“Do relationships develop in this environment?” O asked.  “Anything besides friendship?”

“If you’re talking about Weaver and me, then no,” Golem said.  “We’re friends.”

“Friends,” I asserted.

“You had a thing going on with Grue,” Wanton chimed in.

“And this is the third time you’ve turned the conversation awkwardly back to me,” I retorted.

He gave me a sheepish grin.

“A tender moment on the battlefield,” O said.  “I think a lot of people were surprised.”

It was a personal moment, I thought.  If I harbored any ill will towards Glenn, it was for that.  He’d deleted sound or video where it gave up identifying details, like the nature of Cuff’s injury.  He hadn’t erased the scene with the woman in the suit, but the reception hadn’t held up that deep underground, so there was no need.  He’d also been kind enough to erase the scene where Imp had promised to get revenge on Heartbreaker.  The villain hadn’t been notified of her plan.

But all of the bonding, the closeness, leaving interactions with Rachel open for hundreds of millions of people to speculate on?  That was scummy.

Necessary on a level, but still scummy.

I hadn’t replied to his statement.  I almost wanted to let the silence linger awkwardly, just to nettle them and drive home that it wasn’t their business.

Jo didn’t give me the chance.  “You talked about Tecton and Golem as naturally heroic people.  What about you?”

Man, her questions irritated me.  Asking questions where they already knew the answer or where the answer was so immaterial…  Who watched this kind of garbage?

Why was I being forced to support it by my presence?

“I was a villain for three months,” I said.  “Maybe I’d like to think I was a little bit heroic as a villain, and I’m a little bit villainous as a hero.  But I’m working on that last part.”

“Hold on, hold on.  You think you were heroic, before you switched sides?” Koffi asked.  “By all accounts, you killed Alexandria and a law enforcement official.  You were quoted as talking to schoolchildren about the huge quantities of money you earned from criminal activities.”

Was he just sitting back, waiting for an opening?

Grace stepped up to my defense.  “She said a little.  She fought the Slaughterhouse Nine.  She helped the people in her district.”

“That actually sounds impressive,” Jo said.  “If that’s a little, then I wonder what being a little bit of a villain nowadays is like.”

She tittered along with the audience’s reaction.

“No response?” Koffi asked.

They were ganging up on me.  I wished I knew who these guys were, what their normal style was, so I could roll with it.

“I’ll let my actions speak for themselves,” I said.

Tecton was quick to speak, backing me up.  “I think that’s the best way to go about it.  It’s untreaded ground, in a way, to have a notorious ex-villain on the team.  Whatever happens, people are going to wonder where she stands, if I’ve been corrupted by association, or if this is all some elaborate scheme.  But we can work on it.  She can keep doing good work, and hopefully a few months or years down the road, I’ll still be able to say that Weaver’s a good person at heart and she’s done a lot for the good of the city and the world, you know?  Some people won’t be convinced no matter what she does, but time and reliability should let Weaver prove her worth.”

“Makes sense,” O said.  “We’re rapidly approaching another ad break.  I don’t suppose we could get any of you to step up to the plate?  A demonstration of powers?  A neat trick?”

I almost volunteered, but then decided against it.  I didn’t want to spend more time in the spotlight.

Annex stood from his chair.

“One of the new members!  Excellent!”  Jo said.  “We’ve got a crash test dummy, a beat up car…”

“I can do something with the car.  Maybe we could remodel the exterior?” Annex asked.  “Maybe the audience could name a car?  What should we make?”

Jo hopped out of her seat, arm raised like a kid in class.  She was short.  I mentally re-evaluated my estimation of her age to put her closer to her late teens than her early twenties.

A series of beeps, not even a half-second apart, interrupted all of us.  Our phones?

I was still drawing my cell from my belt when I saw a commotion backstage.  People who’d been standing still were running now, talking into headphones.

My cell phone screen was surrounded by a thick yellow border.  A text was displayed in the middle.

Stand by.

Disturbance recorded.

Possible Class S threat.

The others had identical messages on their screens.

There were murmurs among the audience members as someone from backstage stepped up to talk to Koffi and O.

“It can’t be,” Cuff said, her voice quiet.

“We got texts just like this for the incident where we met Weaver,” Tecton said.  “It could be a similar situation.”

The lighting changed.  Tecton stood from his seat, and I joined the others in following suit.

A studio employee advanced to the front of the stage.  When he spoke, the microphone headset he wore carried the sound, “A possible emergency has come up elsewhere in the world.  If this blows over in the next few minutes, we’ll edit out anything problematic and resume the show.  For now, remain calm while we prepare for an emergency broadcast from the news team upstairs.  There is no danger here.”

My phone buzzed.  I checked it to see another text.

Chicago Wards are to remain at current location.

Transportation en route.  Will deploy to studio B parking lot for quick pickup.

A little more ominous than the ‘maybe’ the studio employee had given us.

Panel by panel, the backdrop of the ‘Mornings with O, J and Koffi’ set transformed, images flickering to show a composite of a grainy, long-distance shot of a city.  It had been taken with a cell phone, and the resolution didn’t translate well with the size of the ‘screen’.  There were tall buildings, neon signs glowing in the late evening.  Somewhere in Asia.

“Japan,” Wanton said.

The camera was shaking, and the view on the screen reacted in kind.

Dust rose in clouds, billowing, until they obscured the camera’s view.

The audience was reacting.  Moans, cries of alarm and despair.  They knew what was going on.

“Please be the Simurgh,” Cuff said, her voice small.  Grace put an arm around Cuff’s shoulders.

That may be the first time in history anyone’s thought that.

She’s right, too.  Even the Simurgh would be better than this.

The timing, the fact that it was happening so soon after Behemoth had died… it was all wrong.

Behemoth had come from deep underground.  Leviathan had emerged from the ocean.  The Simurgh had approached from the far side of the moon and descended to hover just above the tallest building in Lausanne.

The fourth, it seemed, was appearing in plain sight.

The dust took forever to clear.  But for a few mutters here and there, small animal sounds of despair from the audience and studio employees who were watching, the studio had plunged into quiet horror.

It stood somewhere between Leviathan and Behemoth in height, if I ballparked by the number of stories in the adjacent buildings.  I waited patiently for the view to clear, revealing more details.  Clues, as if there was a solution to what we faced here.

I pegged him as a he before I saw too much else.  He was broad, a Buddha in physique, if more feral in appearance.  He was as black as night, with something white or silver giving definition around the edges of his various features.  He didn’t wear clothes, but he had features somewhere between leaves and fins, with elaborate designs at the edges, curling away from elbows, his wrist, his fingers and around his legs. It made his fingers and toes into claws, and left dangerous looking blades elsewhere.  His face was a permanent snarl, frozen in place, his teeth silvery white behind the ebon lips.  Tendrils like the whiskers of a catfish marked the corners of his mouth.

All across the exterior of his body, there were gaps, like the gills of a fish, and that brilliant white or silver glimmered from beneath, a stark contrast to the absolute black that marked the rest of him.  It made me think of a tiger.  And at the center of it all, quite literally, there was a perfect sphere of that same material, a marble or a crystal ball, his body perched on the upper half and his legs attached to the lower half.

Arms extended out to either side, he took a step, almost waddled.  He floated as though he were walking on the moon.

“He’s not a fighter,” I murmured.

“No,” Tecton agreed.

“What is he?” Grace asked.

People were fleeing, still in close proximity to the site, evacuating tall buildings.  The Endbringer stopped and extended a hand.  His arms weren’t long enough to reach around his girth, but his upper body rotated on the sphere that formed his midsection, giving him the freedom of movement needed.

The camera shook as he used his power, and an unseen cameraman had to catch it before it fell.  A faint glowing line appeared on the ground, a perfect circle.   The light gradually intensified, reaching higher, and the space within the circle seemed to darken in equal measure.

It moved, the circle roaming, the glowing lines adjusting to scale obstacles and account for higher ground and dips in the terrain.

When it intersected a building, the effect became clear.  Barely visible with the camera’s range, they were nonetheless a blur, moving within the circle’s perimeter.

“They’re trapped,” Golem said.  “He’s manipulating time in there and they’re trapped.”

Golem was right.  How many days were they experiencing in there, with only the food they had on hand?  Was water reaching them?  There didn’t seem to be power.

“Oh god,” Cuff said.  “Why isn’t anyone stopping him?”

“There’s no heroes on scene,” Tecton said.  “Japan doesn’t have many dedicated heroes anymore.”

It took six or seven seconds for the blurring of their movements to slow.  In another second, it stopped altogether.

He left his power where it was.  The glass on the building’s exterior cracked.  Cracks ran along and through the other material, in the street and at the edges of the structure.  It leaned, then toppled, and the destruction was contained inside the effect.

Wanton spoke, almost hesitant.  “Is that- doesn’t that remind anyone of-”

“Yes,” Grace said.  “The barrier, the time manipulation.  It’s similar.”

Similar to what we did.

All in all, the Endbringer was there for a minute.  The effect moved on, and it left a ruined husk of a building behind.  Though there was no sun shining, the stone and terrain had been sun bleached, worn by elements, eroded.

The Endbringer extended his hands out to either side, and two more glowing circles appeared.  Like the first circle had, they flared with light.  Like the first, they moved, drifting counterclockwise around him.  It was a slow, lazy rotation, slower than a moving car but faster than someone could hope to run.

He advanced with floating steps, and the circles maintained a perfect, steady distance away from him and from each other, orbiting him like the shadows cast by three invisible moons.  Here and there, people and cars were caught inside.  He wasn’t a full city block down the street before one circle had a crowd trapped within, half-filling the base of it, another circle perhaps a quarter of the way full.

He moved through a less populated area, and he left trails of skeletons in his wake, in odd fractal patterns that followed the circles’ movements.

He chose what entered and he chose what left.  An attack form that couldn’t be defended against, only avoided.

“Movers will be important,” I said.  “Maybe shakers too, if we can find a way to stop him or his circles from progressing.  His threat level depends on how fast and how much he can move those time-stop areas.”

There was no reply from the others.

I glanced at Cuff, and I saw that she was hugging Grace.  She was silent, but tears were running down her face.  Grace was more resolute, but her eyes were wet.

The timing, it was wrong.

Strategy, figuring out a battle plan, it was crucial here.  The first attacks were often some of the worst for cape casualties, if not necessarily the overall damage done.  Too many lives would be lost in finding out his general capabilities.

But it didn’t matter.

I reached out and took Cuff’s hand, holding it.  A glance in the other direction showed me Golem.  I took his hand too.

This was the key thing in this moment.  Not the future, what came next.  Support, morale and being a team in the now.

Silent, we watched as the heroes engaged.  Eidolon and Legend joined the Japanese heroes in fighting the unnamed Endbringer, keeping a safe distance.

One circle disappeared, and the Endbringer reached out.  Defending capes were too slow to escape the perimeter before the effect took hold, a new third circle forming.  Eidolon tried hitting the effect with three different powers, but it didn’t break.

No, no, no…” Cuff whispered.

In a minute, the capes were dead.

Our phones beeped, and I felt a moment’s despair.  We’d have to fight this thing.

Ship is outside if you want it, Chicago Wards.  Attendence not mandatory.

Temp. codename is Khonsu.

“I’m…” Cuff said, staring down at the phone.  “I’m staying.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re going?” she asked.

I nodded.

She nodded back, swallowed hard, before she turned her eyes back to the screen.  In that moment, the Endbringer, Khonsu, reversed the direction the circles were drifting, extending the distance they were orbiting around him in the same movement.

Capes who’d been trying to time their advance to close the distance to Khonsu were caught.  Four trapped and doomed to die a slow death, a fifth caught between a building and the orb’s perimeter as the circle continued its rotation.  When the circle had left the building behind, there was only a bloody smear where the fifth cape had been.  Skeletons for the rest.

Now he stood still, weathering attacks with the same durability the other Endbringers had.  Damage to his flesh exposed silver, and damage to the belly or other silver parts showed ebon black.  The onionlike layers Tattletale had described, plain to see.

I tore my eyes from the screen, marching towards the emergency doors.

So much was wrong with this.

It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right.  Fucked on so many levels.

A woman was sobbing in the hallway as we passed.  A group of twenty-somethings in dress shirts sprinted down the hallway, carrying bags.

The dragon-craft was waiting for us outside, ramp doors open.

Odd, to see the sky so bright, when the battlefield was shrouded in night.

We stepped inside, entering the center of the craft.  I found a seat by a monitor, with a laptop ready and waiting for use, login screen displayed.  The monitor was showing the battlefield, roving over the dead, the buildings that had collapsed under the weight of years.  Oddly, the cameraman wasn’t focusing on Khonsu or the defending heroes.  A few heroes were fleeing, but most weren’t in view.

“We’re ready,” Tecton called out.  “Ship?”

The craft hadn’t taken off.

My growing sense of dread was confirmed as the image on the monitors changed.

Even with those circles being as devastating as they are, it wasn’t enough.  There wasn’t the same broad scale, the promise of lingering devastation.

No.  There was something more to Khonsu.

The monitors showed him in a different city.  A caption on the bottom of the screen showed the words ‘Cape Verde’.

He’d teleported halfway around the planet.

All of the problems with getting to Endbringer fights on time, with mobilizing and dealing with the fact that half of our best teleporters and movers had been slain in past battles… he was capitalizing on that weakness.

My phone vibrated to alert me to a new text.  I didn’t need to read it to guess what it said.  I read it anyways.

Stand by.

“No,” I whispered to myself.

The heroes were engaging, now.  Legend and Eidolon had caught up.  Khonsu had situated himself near some kind of military installation, and they’d wasted no time in readying for a fight.  Missiles and shells exploded around him.  The columns of frozen time that rotated around him caught many, and they exploded within the delineated structures.

For long minutes, he fought.  I watched, my eyes fixed on the screen, to see his behavior, to look for the cue.

He waded into and through the arranged military squadrons with their parahuman supplementary forces.  He was as tough as Behemoth or Leviathan.  No attack delivered more than scratches or nicks.

Five minutes, six, as he leisurely tore through the forces he’d caught off guard.  Eidolon ducked between two of the pillars of altered time and delivered a punch that sent the Endbringer tumbling.  The orbiting columns were pulled behind Khonsu as he moved, and Eidolon came only a hair from being caught.

Alexandria and other capes joined the attack.  Too few.  Everyone else retreated.

Khonsu didn’t pursue.  He remained where he was, arms extended out to either side, palms down.

Then he disappeared in a massive, tightly contained explosion.  Trucks and sections of fence were thrown into the air by the movement.

Long seconds passed.  Then my phone vibrated.  Another text.

Cannot deploy until we have a way to pin him down.

Stand by until further notice.

I struck the laptop that sat in front of me.  One hinge holding it in place snapped.  I shoved it hard, and it fell to the floor of the craft.

“Fuck!” I shouted.  “Fuck it!”

I kicked the fallen laptop, and it went skidding across the floor, down the ramp and into the parking lot.  My foot stung with the impacts.

The other Wards were gathered, sitting or standing around the craft that was taking us nowhere.  There was no way to approach if he’d teleport by the time we arrived.  We’d never catch up to him.  The others were as quiet and still as I’d been violent, haunted, scared.

Nobody talked.  Nobody volunteered ideas, because we didn’t have any.

I wasn’t sure any of us knew how to fight this one.  Nobody in the Chicago Wards did.  Nobody elsewhere.  Speaking, commenting on the situation, it would only remind us of what we were facing.

Above all else, I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about the detail we hadn’t spoken aloud.  The thing, above everything else, that made this so fucked up.  In the nine years that we’d been fighting Behemoth, Leviathan and Simurgh, they’d never attacked this close together.

Even if we found a way to beat this Khonsu, to mount a defense and stop him from picking us apart, settlement by settlement, darker possibilities loomed.

Two attacks, two months apart.  Had their schedule changed?  Would the next attack come in a mere two months, or would it be more unpredictable than that?

No, I thought, with a dawning horror.  No, it was worse than that.  The Endbringer’s schedule of attack had always depended on the number of Endbringers in the rotation.

If they were keeping to their usual rules, it promised a fifth, waiting in the wings.

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Crushed 24.5

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

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

This?  This isn’t a good day. 

Behemoth roared.

This is the other end of the scale.

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

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

The bastard –the bastards, plural– kept coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Weaver?” Tecton asked me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’d he stop?” I wondered aloud.

“The radiation?”  Grace offered.

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

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

“He went underground,” Eidolon informed us.

“He ran?  It’s over?”

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

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

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

Except maybe for Imp.

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

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

What was at the core?

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

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

“Alexandria,” I said, “How is she-”

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

“-still alive?” I finished.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel commented.

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

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

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

“So?”

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

“We’re tough.  Let’s fuck him up.”

“I was arguing for that,” Grace said.

Oh great.  They’re of like mind.

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

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

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

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

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

Retaliate.

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

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

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

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

“Go!” I shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every armband in earshot repeated my message.

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

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

What was Behemoth really doing?

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

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

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

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

You need to leave, soon.”

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

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

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

Have you gained a bit of faith?

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

I know what you mean.

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

Good bye,” I responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was talking to Rachel, who glowered in response.

“Leave the dogs outside,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stable?  They were better?”

“Mostly better.”

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Weaver now,” I corrected him.

“You’ll-”

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

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

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

“Regent’s dead,” Imp said.

I could see Grue go still.

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

“I should have been there,” Grue said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed, heavy.  “Fuck.”

“Fuck,” Imp echoed him.

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

Fuck,” I agreed.

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

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

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

“Christ,” he said, again.

“So maybe we respect him by respecting that.”

There was no response to that for a few seconds.

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

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

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

I sighed.  I wouldn’t win here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad luck, I thought.

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

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

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

“Hm?”

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

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

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

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

Rachel trailed off.  Emotional?

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

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

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

Empathize,” he said.

Rachel glowered at him, unimpressed.

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

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

“That’s retarded,” Rachel told Tecton.

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

I cut him off.  “Tecton.”

He fell silent, turning my way.

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

“It’s retarded anyways,” Rachel added.

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

She gave me a one-shouldered shrug.

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

“Dunno, depends on the dog.”

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

“Okay,” Rachel said, frowning a little.

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I winced.

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

“Generally, though?”

“He’s taking his time.”

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

Volcanos?  Earthquake?

“Let’s go,” I said.

“Go?”

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

I saw her attention snap to me.

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

“You’re serious,” Tecton said.

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

“You’re expecting worse.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You hurt him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tattletale.  Grue.  Parian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behemoth roared, and the last engagement opened.

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Crushed 24.4

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Particulate said something, and the amount of invective in his tone was enough to make it clear, even if I couldn’t understand the language.

Phir Sē said something in response, his voice calm, almost as though he were talking to a child, then took another drink of his water.  His eyes didn’t leave the screens.

Behemoth had nearly reached India Gate.  The defense continued to be staggered.  One to four parahumans working together to slow him, to impede his progress and buy time for the others to wear him down.  When they failed, the measures circumvented or the capes in question killed, he advanced, the heroes retreated as best as they were able, and they enacted the next counteroffensive.

But each time they fought, he did damage.  Capes perished, tinker devices were turned into lumps of hot metal.  Each time the capes mounted a defense, the defense was weaker.

“Something is wrong,” Phir Sē said.

“Chevalier was attacked,” I answered.  “They were planning a coordinated defense, I think, but someone beheaded our group at the worst possible time.”

“I see.”

“I’m not going to ask any questions about how you guys operate, but it’s obvious you’re organized.”

“Careful,” Phir Sē told me.  He didn’t even look at me.  The defensive line was using Clockblocker, now.  They’d erected a loose grid of wires, almost invisible, but for the flashing lights set at regular intervals.  Alexandria and Eidolon were trying to hammer the Endbringer into the barricade.

“You’ve got secrets to protect.  Fine.  Cool.  I’m not going to pry.  But maybe we’ve walked similar paths.  We had similar practices, probably.”

He cast me a momentary glance over his shoulder, meeting my eyes for a second before he turned back to the screens.  An acknowledgement, without accepting or denying my point.

“My old team wasn’t nearly as effective as you guys seem to be.  But we operated in secret, we understood some key elements.  The need for information, having to know when to go on the offense, being unpredictable against enemies who are already expecting you to try and catch them off guard.”

“Talk slower, please,” Phir Sē told me.  “My English is not strong, and I am very tired.”

He looked like he might drop any minute, like he’d barely eaten, hadn’t slept…

“How long has it been since you slept?”  I asked.

“Three days.  We thought an Endbringer would attack soon, so I prepared, to be ready when the time came.  Too early, I had to stop, restart.  This time, he came, but I am weary.  The talking, is good.  Distracting without being dangerous.  Continue, please.”

What happens if he nods off?  I wondered, looking at the ‘time bomb’.  The same thing he’d stated would happen if he were killed or knocked out?

“Okay,” I answered.  I took a second to compose my thoughts.  “You mentioned how you have to be hard, heavy handed if you’re going to succeed in a situation where your enemies are as scary as the people you and I have gone up against.”

“Yes.  Heavy handed.  Like the judge’s hammer…”

“Gavel,” I supplied.

“The gavel.  Harsh justice.  Crush the enemies who cannot be converted to your side or convinced to do otherwise.”

“Yes,” I said.  I thought for a second, then made my argument.  “And you know the power of having all of the information.  The power of having a group that can communicate that information.  Communication is key, and a group that doesn’t even need to communicate because they function so well together is better yet.”

“You had this.”

With the Undersiders.  “We were close.  And losing that, it’s scary.  Maybe the least fun part about being a hero.  But you understand?  You agree, about information and communication?”

He didn’t respond, as he watched the screen.  Is he going to nod off right here?

On the monitors, a successful hit on Eidolon’s part struck Behemoth into the grid of wires.  It had taken time for the Endbringer to approach the wires, set safely outside of his kill range, and some were already coming free of Clockblocker’s power.  Still, they sank deep, cutting a diamond-shaped pattern into his hide, shoulder to heel.  Alexandria charged, trying to drive it home, and Behemoth struck out with one claw, a swipe.

He must have captured all of her forward momentum and motive impact and redirected it at her, because he didn’t move an inch in response to the hit, and she crashed into the ground at a shallow diagonal angle.  Her body carved a trench a few hundred feet long, judging by the cloud of dust that rose in her wake.

Behemoth lurched forward, and the grid of wires cut him again on their way out.  Chunks of flesh were carved free.

The Endbringer clapped his hands together, and forcefields went down, defenses and defending capes falling in response to the impact.

Clockblocker’s grid of wires dropped out of the sky, blinking white lights falling like sparks from a large firework.  I suspected that I knew what it meant.

Shit.  I hoped he was okay.  Clockblocker wasn’t a bad guy, as heroes went.

“I agree,” Phir Sē told me, belatedly.  “And I think I see what you are going to say.”

“Let’s communicate with them.  With everyone.  Half the screwed up crap I’ve seen, it’s been because we’re fighting between ourselves.  The best achievements, the truly heroic stuff I’ve seen?  It’s been when we worked together.  So let’s maximize our chances.”

“You have been doing this how long?  A year?”

“Months.”

“I have been doing this for ten years.  I admire you for retaining your…” he trailed off.

“Idealism?”

“Not a word I’m familiar with, Weaver.  Faith?”

“Faith works.”

“I have none left, after ten years.  No faith.  We are a wretched, petty species, and we have been given power to destroy ourselves with.”

“Ironic, given what you’re trying to do here.  You’re going to kill people, kill bystanders, on a gamble.”

Phir Sē peered at me.  “What chances would you give this gamble?”

“One in three?”

His stare was cold as he met my eyes.  “One in three.  That is… perhaps unfair.  No matter.  If I’m wrong, we lose this city.  If I’m right, we kill Behemoth.  I would take those odds, Weaver.  I would take them, I would watch this city be wiped from the earth, knowing that people I am fond of would die.  I live in a civilian guise most days, waiting until I have a task from those more powerful than I.  I would perhaps be killing the butcher I talk to every day when I walk to the store for food.  I would kill the widow who lives next door to me, her child, if they have not evacuated.  I have mentioned my daughter, much like you in her abundance of faith in people.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call myself an idealist to that extent,” I said.  I paused.  “Phir Sē-”

We’d started talking at the same time.  He talked over me, half of his attention on the screens.  “I will take this gamble and perhaps kill those people in the process.  I will kill those people who can make me smile and feel more human than I am, I will grieve their deaths, and then I will take that gamble again.  Because one city, however grand, is worth that chance.”

I thought of doing that, of rolling the dice like that, with my father, with the people in my territory.  “Easier to say than do.”

“I have done it, Weaver,” Phir Sē told me.  “My wife, my sons, years ago.  A similar problem on a smaller scale.  I can walk through minutes, I could have walked back to save them, but I let them die because it meant a monster would remain gone.  What merit is a gamble, a sacrifice, if you stake things that matter nothing to you?”

I stared at him.  He was young, no older than thirty-five, but the lines of his face, the slumped posture, the slowness with which he moved… they spoke of a horrendous exhaustion.

I didn’t have a response for Phir Sē’s question.  He smiled a little, and turned back to the screens.

Behemoth was roaring, a sound that didn’t reach us underground.  With the monitors on mute, it didn’t translate there either.  Still, the images vibrated, the flickering intensified, and the defenses the heroes had established were crumbling.  India Gate was damaged, an incidental casualty of the fight more than a target.

My bugs sensed motion to my left.  I glanced at Particulate, and saw him holding his scanner behind his back.

It was pointed at Phir Sē’s ‘time bomb’.

His other hand was drawing a slender gun from a pocket in his combination lab coat and jacket, a gun like something from retro science fiction, with no barrel.  There was only a small extension on the end, much like a satellite dish.

Another disintegration gun?

He saw me looking, glanced at Phir Sē, who had his back turned, then looked back at me.  His eyes flicked over in Phir Sē’s direction, his intention clear.

He had a solution in mind.  A way to disable the explosion and stop Phir Sē.

I had only an instant to decide, before the teleporter intervened, or Phir Sē noticed what was going on.

I met Particulate’s eyes and nodded once, curt.

The scanner disappeared into a pocket, and he drew something like a grenade from within his flowing coat.  Then he drew the gun on Phir Sē.  I felt the tug of the thread in my hand, attached to the gun.

Without thinking, I hauled on it, pulling it off-target.  The gun hit one screen, two feet to Phir Sē’s right, at stomach level.  It exploded into a swirling cloud of black dust.

Phir Sē whirled around.  He barked out a word I couldn’t understand.

“No!” I called out.

Phir Sē made a gesture with his hand, just as the teleporter flickered into existence.  The man didn’t intersect Particulate, but appeared behind him, deftly disarming him of the grenade and pistol before flickering back out of existence.  He took Particulate with him.

“Don’t kill him,” I said.

“You would feel… blameful?” Phir Sē asked.

Blameful?  “Guilty,” I corrected him, before I realized what I was doing.

I could see the small smile on Phir Sē’s face, disappointed and proud and a condemnation at the same time.  “I watch you.  In reflection of screen.  You set him up, to put yourself in my good will.”

Had I?  Not wholly consciously.  I’d set up the string, but how much of that was intentional?  Was it habit, now, to have a measure on hand when dealing with any weapon?

I focused on the swarm, focused on the cords and threads that traced the room.  One in the doorway, one at each of Phir Sē’s feet, just waiting for me to finish the deal and bind him.  Others extended between us, spiders poised to cut the threads or tie them, as the situation demanded.

The passenger, or was it me, being wary?

“I guess I did,” I said.  I made the spiders cut the threads between us.

He shook a finger at me, “I was not born yesterday.  This silliness could have gotten you killed.  Would have, if I did not feel need for outsider to challenge my ideas.”

“I guess…” I said, searching for the phrase, “A gamble’s not meaningful if you’re not staking something important, right?”

He smiled a little, and there was a slight twinkle in his eye, “Your life?”

“I suppose,” I said.  My heart was still pounding, my mouth dry, and it wasn’t just the Phir Sē thing, or the teleporter.  The passenger.

“You think.  So we know where you stand, now.  You are crafty, dangerous.  Underhanded.  You turn on an ally and use him as a pawn to express something to me.”

“He wasn’t quite an ally,” I said.  “He helped us get inside this underground base.  But he was reckless.  Breaking into this chamber in the first place, preparing to attack you.  A chaotic element.”

“I do not know this ‘chaotic’ word, but I get your meaning, I think.  There was no communication,” Phir Sē said.  He smiled as though we shared a private joke.

“I’m doing what I have to, to ensure we all come out of this ahead.  Just like you, but I didn’t get the ability to manipulate time, or to create this sort of ‘time bomb’.  I work on a smaller scale.”

“I get the joke,” Phir Sē told me.  “It is joke?  Small?”

“Sort of,” I said, and I smiled a little in return, behind my mask.  This guy was borderline unhinged, too much power in too unstable a package, and I almost liked him.

“What is it you wish to express to me, Weaver, that you would sacrifice a pawn and risk your own life?”

I wasn’t sure I had a response to that.  I tried anyways.  “You want to hit Behemoth with your time bomb?  Okay, let’s do it.”

“Oh?  You protested only minutes ago.”

“I’m not about to change your mind, I’m not about to stop you.  So let’s make it happen.  We’ll let the defending heroes know what’s up, set up something-”

“Slower.  Speak slower.”

“Let me go.  We work together with the heroes.”

“The heroes will die in minutes.  Before you arrive.”

I glanced at the screen.  How bad was it?  It was so hard to get a sense of how many heroes still stood.  An ugly feeling gripped my chest.

“We’ll try.  Let me try.  I can give you a signal.  You strike then.”

“You are asking me to have faith.”

Let me go, Phir Sē,” I told him.  “You said you have to stake something that matters on a gamble.  Stake your doubt.”

“I do not understand this,” he said, suddenly sounding weary.  “My English-”

“It’s not your English; what I’m saying doesn’t make a lot of sense,” I said.  I had to resist the urge to rush and hurry through the explanation.  “But your doubt, your lack of faith, it’s something safe.  No disappointments, no fear things won’t work out.    Risk that.  Risk losing that.  I did, when I became a hero.”

“Not such a hero,” he said.  “Bargain with the madman, turn on an ally.”

“I’m realizing I’m a pretty lousy hero,” I agreed.  “But I’m trying.  I made a leap of faith.  I’m asking you to as well.”

He smiled a little, then reached forward and took my hand.  He raised it, simultaneously bending over, and kissed the back of it.

“One more,” he said.

“One more?”

“To wager on a gamble.  A pleasant conversation I might look forward to.  Gone, when you die.”

Die?

He spoke a word, and I tensed.  I tried to pull my hand back, but he held on, my fingers wrenching painfully as I tried to get away.

The teleporter appeared just behind me.  His manifestation was followed by a gentle brush of air, as oxygen was displaced from the area his body now occupied.  I could feel my heart skip a beat, the air catching in my throat.

No pain.  A second passed as I made an assessment, realized that he hadn’t impaled me with one of his limbs.  Only surprise, and that vague sense of a killer instinct.

The man’s hands settled on me.

“Fifteen minutes, Weaver,” Phir Sē told me, releasing my hand.  “Fifteen minutes, or if the heroes cannot put up fight any longer, whichever is first.”

And I was gone, out of the basement, planted in the midst of the battlefield.  Phir Sē wasn’t even in my range.  I’d made the call to work with him, and now it was set in stone. There would be no going back to change his mind, to stop him.  He’d strike, guaranteed.

Even with the filter of my mask, the smell of ozone and the heated air burned the edges of my nostrils.  Acrid smoke was so thick in the air that I could taste it, breathing in through my nose.

And Behemoth loomed in front of me, far too close for comfort, his silhouette shrouded in the smoke around him.

I turned and activated the antigrav panels, running to help get up to speed before it could help me lift off.  

The ground abruptly tilted under my feet, a steep shelf of street and underlying rock rising in front of me, blocking my path.  I managed to grab the uppermost edge with my hands, hauling myself forward enough that the flight pack could take over.

No bugs.  I’d left them behind in Phir Sē’s lair.  If I’d thought about it, I might have asked for time to collect them.  At the same time, I couldn’t have spared the minutes.

Two or three thousand bugs, the only silk I had were the cords that were still attached to me, the ones I’d stretched between Phir Sē and myself and then cut.  I had my taser, laughably petty in the face of Behemoth, a small canister of pepper spray, and the flight pack.

Long odds, even at the best of it.  I pressed the button on my armband, spoke into it, and got only silence in response.

My bugs moved throughout the battlefield, and I marked every cape I came across.  Shelter was scarce, and hard to make out in the smoke.  Each flash of lightning marked an unfortunate cape who’d found themselves too far from cover and in Behemoth’s sights.

In the midst of it all, I could speak and I couldn’t make myself out.  It was almost like being in Grue’s darkness, before his second trigger event.  Couldn’t see.  Couldn’t hear.  My movements, even, were harder to judge.  I felt like there was a pressure, here, as if the smoke had substance, and even Behemoth’s existence, somewhere nearby, was weighing on me.  Was I tired, or was everything heavier?  Or, it struck me, maybe the oxygen content in the air was lower.

I wasn’t sure about the ramifications of that.

So few bugs to draw on.  Five to ten touched a single cape, allowed me to check if they were anyone I recognized, then all but one would leave.  One bug per cape, the rest scouting.

Ligeia was the first I recognized.  The conch shell mask, one of Accord’s people.  Citrine would be close by…

Or not.  I swore under my breath, touched ground to reorient myself, then hurried around a corner.

She was creating a massive portal, widening it with every passing moment.  It made me wonder if there was a reason there were so few recordings of the Endbringer attacks, if the PRT hid this sort of thing.  They’d hidden the particulars of the Echidna attack, and one of the reasons Alexandria had argued, a reason I had argued in favor of that, was because it wouldn’t go over well with the public to know just how much devastation a single parahuman could be capable of.

Her portal was perhaps twenty feet across, circular, and cold water gushed out, as if forced by an incredible pressure.

It was the sort of defensive measure that you employed when there weren’t any frontline combatants left.  A desperate, violent one, like Sundancer’s sun.  My bugs found her ear, and I communicated as clearly as I could, “Run.”

She didn’t hear.  Doggedly, she stood her ground, drenching Behemoth, widening the portal’s radius.  So hard to tell just how much, without losing bugs to the spray.  Twenty five feet?  Thirty?

Run,” I tried again.  I muttered, “Run, Ligeia.”

He erupted with lightning, and I could momentarily see his silhouette in the distance, the light cutting through the thick clouds of smoke and dust.  I could see the tendrils of lightning as though through a strobe light, holding positions as they followed the flow of the water, then changing to other targets, finding solid conductors to latch onto.  The entire geyser was lit up.

She changed tacks, and the portal began sucking.  The lightning disappeared, and Behemoth stumbled forwards towards the opening, the water now reversing direction.

Eidolon appeared like a spear from the heavens, striking him between the shoulderblades.  Behemoth nearly crashed through.  His claw settled on the portal’s edge, as though it had a physical mass to it, slipped through.  The lightning wasn’t traveling far, now, and the image of it was soon lost in the smoke.

The portal closed, and Behemoth managed to claw his way back, simultaneously fending off Eidolon, the lighting growing stronger with every passing second.

He lurched, and dropped several feet, the ground shaking.  The light show marked the geyser spraying up around his leg, apparently having sunken into a portal.

Close it, I thought.  Sever it.

But she didn’t.  Not an option, it seemed.

Move, Taylor.  Deal with your own jobs first.  How long did I have?  Fifteen minutes?  Thirteen?  Twelve?  So hard to keep track of time right now.

My underlings.  Wanton, he was nearby.  Larger.  He carried stretchers with the wounded, which moved around the very periphery of his range, where they rotated slower, and other objects closer to his core.  An armband, a dismembered arm with scorch marks at the base.

His or someone else’s?

Once I caught up to him, I found the others a distance away.  Tecton had fashioned something crude to attach to his armor, a shelf on his back that would hold injured capes.  He rode his three-wheeled bike forward, stopped to slam his piledrivers into the ground to erect a wall of stone, punched through an obstruction, made more forward progress, and then created another wall.  A staggered retreat.  Grace, Cuff and Golem followed, each with wounded behind them on their vehicles.

Annex?  I couldn’t find him with my bugs.  He was either swimming alongside them, helping to clear the way, or he was injured.

I was on my way to catch up to them when Ligeia was struck down.  A chance lightning bolt had struck her, just like that.  Behemoth surged to his feet.  Lightning traced the arc of the water that still geysered up, less impressive with every passing second.

Even killing her hadn’t forced the portal closed.  Damn.

I came to a stop at Tecton’s side.

“Sorry,” I panted.  My voice sounded so rough-edged.  So hard to breathe.

“Tecton can’t talk,” Cuff said.  Her voice was oddly level, in contrast to how she’d acted early in the fight.

“What happened?”

“Clipped by another cape,” she said.  Still with no emotion, no affect.

“Doesn’t matter,” Grace cut in.  “Where the fuck were you?”

Tecton’s hand moved, settling on her shoulder.  Grace backhanded it away.

“I found what Behemoth wants,” I told her.  “Where’s Rime?”

“Dead,” Golem said.  He carried a small child, and was falling behind,

“Who’s next in command?”

“Prism, but she’s injured,” Grace said.

“I need to communicate with someone in charge, and we don’t have time,” I said.  “Dragon?  Defiant?”

“Metal suits are all toast,” Grace said.  “No clue about Defiant.”

“Revel?  Your boss?”  I asked.  Then I corrected myself.  “Our boss?”

“Saw her two minutes ago.  No word on chain of command.  She said we should run, take anyone we can help.  Scion’s dropped off the radar, but last we heard, he was heading north.  Not east, not west.  He has to be trying to avoid this fight,” Grace almost snarled the words.

“It’s not hopeless,” I said.  “We’ve got a shot, here.  Behemoth’s target is a weapon.  Kind of.”

“A weapon?” Golem asked.

“A bomb.  Maybe big enough that it makes an atom bomb look like a hand grenade.  Something that’s supposed to take down Endbringers.”

“No shit?”  Grace asked.  I could see a trace of hope in her expression.

“An energy weapon,” I clarified.

I saw that hope become confusion.  “But that’s-”

“It’s something that could go really right or really wrong,” I said.  I saw the confusion become a momentary despair.  “Which is exactly why we need to get in touch with someone that matters.  Where are the heroes?  Where was Revel?”

Golem pointed.  “That way.”

“Citrine?  Woman in yellow dress.”

“Yellow bodysuit now,” Golem said.  “She stripped out of the dress when he pushed past the command center.”

Fuck me.  Now that he mentioned that, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d sensed her with my bugs and dismissed her as a stranger.

“I think I know where she went,” I said.  Same direction Revel went.  I was already lifting off the ground.  “Go, drop off injured, then come back if you can.”

“Revel told us to scram,” Grace said.

“I’m telling you that we need to distract that motherfucker for five seconds,” I said.  “Where’s Annex?”

“Here,” Annex said, from behind me.

I turned to look as he stepped out of a building.

“You’re with me,” I told him.  He didn’t have any wounded with him.

“I need to ride something,” he said, “Not fast enough.”

“Define ‘something’,” I told him.

“Something heavy enough to hold my entire body mass.”

Could I hold an entire other person?  No.  I could hold a child, but that’d be a stretch.

“Climb inside my costume,” I told him.  “The flight pack too.”

He gave me a bewildered look.  “You realize I’d be right against-”

“Move!”  I barked.  How long did I have?  Not enough time.  Modesty was not an issue.

He flowed into my costume, and I could feel him against my skin, his body strangely cold and smooth.  A lump of him stuck out over one shoulder.  His head, not quite normal, not quite his specter form, had formed itself in my shoulderpad.

And we were too heavy for the antigravity.

I’d have to gamble, make compromises, take risks.  I looked to the others, “Reach deep inside, find your second wind.  Find your third wind, if you can.  Rendezvous with me over there if you can make it in eight or ten minutes.”

Then I deployed my wings, activated the propulsion system alongside the antigrav.  It was slow to lift off, but it was faster than running. 

If I got shocked, or if the electromagnetic radiation got any worse, this could cut out on me any second, but I needed to move.  I needed assets, even if I didn’t know for sure what I’d do with them.

The Chicago Wards peeled away behind me, abandoning the defensive walls and careful retreat in favor of speed.

We found the defensive lines in a minute, if that.

The Undersiders were there, fighting.  Three stuffed goats and the dogs provided an added barricade for them to hide behind, while Foil was firing her needles.  Regent held her quiver, handing her bolts to fire, while Imp lurked on the far side of the street, her back to the wall.  Citrine was peering between two dogs, erecting a field of golden light near the Endbringer.

Grue wasn’t with them.

“Gah!”  Regent cried out, as I landed, folding the wings back into place.  “Jesus fuck!”

Right, I had two heads.  “Out, Annex.”

Annex flowed out of my costume and straight into the ground.  Within seconds, he was shoring up the wall, drawing in debris and using it to rebuild and reinforce.

“Where’s Grue?” I asked.

“Hospital.  Burns,” Imp said.

I nodded.  “Bad?”

“More mentally than physically.”

Ah.

I could only hope he’d bounce back.  To business. “Revel.  American cape with sort of an Asian-themed costume, lantern.  Where is she?”

“Zapped,” Regent said.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

My disbelief was tempered by a measure of alarm.  I was limited in time, and that was bad enough, but if Phir Sē decided our defending forces weren’t sufficient to put up a fight, he could strike sooner.  If I couldn’t find someone capable of leading the defense, if we were little more than scattered remnants, why would Phir Sē wait?

“Revel absorbs energy, kind of,” I said.  “She might be okay.”

“She got hit by lightning,” Regent told me.  “Kind of lethal.”

Rachel snorted.

I glanced at the dogs.  She didn’t seem to mind that they were somewhat exposed, huddled against the ruined wall the Undersiders were using for cover.  One of the dogs seemed to be reacting badly to the lightning strikes, and was huffing out deep, very un-doglike noises each time one struck nearby.

“Listen,” I said.  I flinched as lightning touched nearby.  He was focusing more on a quantity of bolts than on the really heavy hits.  Cleaning up the remanants of our defenses.  “Revel.  Where did she fall?  Or you could point me to anyone else that might be in charge?”

Parian pointed, almost absently.  I couldn’t tell if she was dismissing me or if her focus was taken up by the stuffed goats.  One took a lightning bolt, and she was patching it up and reinflating it within a second.

I took off.  Again, I tried my armband.  Static.  Better than nothing, but not ideal.

I passed over the contingent of Yàngbǎn.  Just getting near them, I could feel my powers swelling, my range growing, a crackling at the periphery of my attention.

And then it was gone.  I was leaving them behind.

Eerie.  Uncomfortable, even, with the recent reminder of how my powers were feeling vaguely out of my control.  A boost in range wasn’t worth any surprises on that front.  Bugs were almost useless here, more bugs wouldn’t make a difference.

Revel was in Dispatch’s company, alongside a cape in white, with a starburst worked into his helmet, radiating from the eyeholes and the gap for his mouth.  She was lying down, using a piece of rubble for cover.  She stirred as the ground rumbled, marking Behemoth’s rapid footsteps.  Not a run.  It felt off, saying something like him was running.  But a lope, like how a gorilla might move, that fit.

“She conscious?”  I asked, as I landed.

“She is,” Revel answered for herself.  She seemed to have to work to focus on me.  “Weaver?”

“I found what Behemoth is after.  Who can I talk to?”

Dispatch stepped out of the way, so the man in white with the starburst helm was free to act.

“Me,” the man in white said.  “I’m Exalt.  Interim leader.”

“The Texas Protectorate leader.”

“Houston Protectorate, yes.”

“A local cape has gathered up a whole mess of energy.  Enough to wipe India off the map.  He’s planning to hit Behemoth with it, in two or three minutes.”

“It won’t work,” Exalt said.

“I know it won’t work.  But he’s going to try, no matter what we do, and we need to distract the Endbringer long enough to give it a chance.”

He exchanged glances with the others.

Hurry, I thought.  I was panting, my mouth thick with the taste of ozone.  Even with my lenses, my eyes were watering from the peripheral smoke.

“Go,” Revel said.  “Expend it.”

Expend?

“It’s too soon,” Exalt said, “And we don’t have all the informat-”

“No time!  Decide now!”

I saw him hesitate.

Swearing under my breath, I turned on my heel and flew away.

I was burning bridges, but that was a hell of a lot better than everyone here dying.  How long did I have?  I couldn’t even begin to guess.  Two minutes?  Eight?

Big difference between the two.

Fuck it.  A waste of time.  I’d burned precious minutes finding them, and they’d been too slow to help.  I wasn’t sure I could work with the Protectorate, with the Wards.  Not if they failed us like this at this crucial juncture.

Assets.  Didn’t have enough resources here.  We needed to pull something decent, something that could…

I had no fucking idea.  How were we supposed to keep Behemoth sufficiently still and distracted, controlling a detonation that had the potential to level a continent?

The Chicago Wards were arriving, minus Wanton.  I signaled them with bugs to fine-tune the direction they were traveling, putting them en-route to the Undersiders.

And behind me, as if they were feeling guilty, Exalt and Dispatch were giving chase, rapidly catching up.  Dispatch moved in bursts of speed intersped with moments where he ran at a normal pace, Exalt flew with Revel in his arms.

I found the Yàngbǎn and approached.  They were reacting even before I’d landed, turning, hands raised to attack.  There were twenty of them, or close to.

“English?” I asked the Yàngbǎn.

They were silent, almost cold in response.

They were nationalist capes.  I was a foreigner, maybe an enemy by default.

“English, please.  This is it, the deciding moment.  Your help, it’s… it’s essential.”

No response.

Exalt, Revel and Dispatch were slowing as they approached me.  I drew an arrow in the air with the few bugs I had left and pointed them to the Undersiders.  They ignored the instruction, setting down just behind me.

“Weaver,” Exalt said.  His voice was grim.  “They aren’t allies.

“We need all the help we can get,” I said.

“The Yàngbǎn pulled an assassination attempt on Chevalier,” Exalt told me.

My eyes widened.

“A traitor among us,” a young man spoke, his voice badly accented.  Another snapped something at him, and he responded in Chinese.

None of the heroes replied.  I couldn’t bring myself to speak, couldn’t think of a single thing to say that would be remotely diplomatic, in the midst of this.

“We do need all the help we can get,” Exalt said, not taking his eyes off the group.  “You want to make amends?”

The English-speaking one translated for the others.  I fidgeted nervously.  How many minutes, now?  Why hadn’t I asked for more time?

Shì de!” one cried out.

“Shì de!” the group called out in unison.

“That’s a yes,” Exalt said.  He was already turning, taking flight.

Twenty Yàngbǎn members.  Exalt.  A dazed Revel.  Dispatch.  The Chicago Wards.  The Undersiders.  Citrine.  Me.

The sum total of our defensive line.

And Behemoth was getting too close.  A hundred and fifty feet?  A hundred and twenty? He was swiftly approaching the hundred-foot mark we’d been warned about, where he could close the distance with a single leap.

There were so few heroes capable of holding him back.  He was covering ground at twice or thrice the speed he had been earlier, and the Undersiders didn’t have the means to know.  They were on the ground, blinded by the ambient smoke and the dust of the hundreds of buildings that had fallen across the city.

Run,” my bugs communicated.  But nobody responded, nobody reacted.  Too much ambient noise.

Run, they spelled out words, shaping letters with their bodies.  Too much smoke.

I bit them, stung them, and that spurred them into motion.  Maybe too late.

He wasn’t even a full city block away from them.  Only a few half-destroyed buildings stood between him and the Undersiders.  They were still sorting themselves out, getting mounted on the dogs for a retreat, but it was too little.

Behemoth leaped.  Not the monumental leap he’d used early in the fight, but a leap nonetheless.  He landed in the midst of a building, knocking much of it over, and the impact was enough to bounce Citrine off one dog, to knock Tecton over.

The Endbringer had closed half the distance.  A mere twenty feet separated them from his kill aura, if that.

I landed beside Citrine, helping her up, using my legs and the antigrav to try and help her  onto the dog’s back.  She kicked her heels the second she was seated, shouted an order I couldn’t make out.

The dog, scared, growled and held its ground against Behemoth.

“Rachel!” I screamed the word.  “Call him!”

She whistled, sharp, and it seemed to break the spell.  The dog lurched around and ran, nearly knocking me to the ground.

The Yàngbǎn were landing in the Undersiders’ midst, joining the fray.  I could feel my power swell, my range increasing by one block, two…

I could sense the underground complex, where Phir Sē was.  He swatted absently at the bugs that had been left behind, uncontrolled in my absence.

Wait,” I communicated to him.  “Almost.”

Either we’d manage this in the next few minutes, or we’d be dead and it wouldn’t matter.

I called the bugs, leaving only enough to speak to Phir Sē.

The Yàngbǎn opened fire with lasers, and erected forcefields to ward against the lightning bolts.  Golem’s hands rose, faster with the Yàngbǎn’s help, but too slow to make a substantial difference.  Tecton’s walls, similarly, couldn’t rise high enough to block Behemoth’s line of sight.  The power boost would increase his tinker abilities, but it wouldn’t empower the results of his technology.

Citrine’s power intensified in the depth of the yellow-gold light, in size.  Grace shimmered, Cuff was better armored, Annex covering more ground.

Why couldn’t the Yàngbǎn have helped like this sooner?  From the very start of the fight?  Damn people.  Damn them all, for their idiocy and selfishness and their small-mindedness.

This wasn’t enough.

Behemoth reached out, and lightning plowed through our ranks, left to right.  The Yàngbǎn forcefields fell in the lightning’s wake, and Tecton was struck from his bike.  Cuff was too far back, unprotected, dropped in an instant.  I ducked low, covering my head, as it crashed against a quadruple-layer of forcefields the Yàngbǎn had provided.  One of them was knocked prone as the last forcefield shattered.

A stray Yàngbǎn member, too far to the right, was knocked to the ground.  She started to struggle to her feet, then collapsed a second later.

Revel flew to the injured Wards, but didn’t have the strength to stand.  Instead, she raised her lantern, ready for the next strike.

The Yàngbǎn hadn’t even raised their forcefields again when he hit us with lightning once more.

Revel absorbed the initial impact, sucking it into her lantern.

I wasn’t close enough to benefit.  I saw the lightning twist in the air as Behemoth swept his hand out to one side, striking another two Yàngbǎn members, just out of the lantern’s reach.

Dispatch appeared next to me and other Yàngbǎn members, and in an instant, everything went still, quiet.  My ears roared with a high pitched whine.  My breath sounded too noisy, my heart beat so fast I couldn’t even see straight.

Like Clockblocker’s power extended a temporal protection, almost impossible to break, Dispatch’s power seemed to do the same, even if he was effectively achieving the opposite, accelerating us with the outside world moving at a snail’s pace.

The effect ended just as Behemoth moved on to other targets.  Another Yàngbǎn member was struck down.

And, inexplicably, he continued his lightning strike, carrying over to the far end of the street.

There was a yelp, and I could see Imp, all at once, sheltered by a wall that was shrinking in size with every second the blast continued.  She held the Yàngbǎn member who’d strayed too far away from our main group in her arms.

He’d seen her.  Sensed her.  And now, behind a wall no more than three feet high, she had nowhere to run.

I pushed past Yàngbǎn members, unstrapping my flight pack, tearing at the parts that fed down to my gloves, to get it off.  If I could get it to her…

I couldn’t.  I stopped, the pack in my hands.  The lightning would break the thing before it could carry her away.

If Grue’s alive, he won’t be able to forgive us for letting her die.

Citrine drew a yellow glow around Imp, and the lightning fizzled as it passed the perimeter.

The Endbringer switched to fire, and it passed through.  It seemed to halve in intensity, but that was enough.  I could hear Imp scream in alarm and fear.

He advanced a step, and the fresh angle afforded her even less cover.  His kill aura… if he simply ran forward a few steps, he’d murder us all in seconds.

But Golem’s hands held his legs.  One had sunk deep into a pit, hands of pavement gripping the knee, melting at the close contact, even as others rose to reinforce.  The other leg was raised, but held in much the same fashion.

Imp screamed again as he directed another wave of flame her way.  It was a scream of pain this time.

Foil shot him, but he didn’t turn away from Imp and the Yàngbǎn member.  Instead, one hand stretched out, casting flame towards her.  The cloth goats blocked it, and were promptly set aflame.  He maintained two columns of flame from his hands, one directed at Imp, one at Foil and Parian.

Revel launched a mess of spheres at his chest, and the surviving Yàngbǎn followed up with lasers.  Behemoth simply maintained the assault, almost uncaring as the lasers and disintegration spheres ate into his torso.  Negligible damage, in the grand scheme of things.

“Fuck it,” Regent said, his voice almost inaudible.  He was looking at Imp.

“Regent,” I said.  When he rose to his feet, I raised my voice, “Regent!”

“Hey Shitcrumb!”  Regent hollered, backing away from cover.  “Easy-”

Behemoth dropped the flame attack.  I could see Yàngbǎn members raising forcefields as he reached out, casting a bolt of lightning in Regent’s direction.  The forcefields did nothing, not even softening the blow in any measurable way.

Regent was snuffed out, dead.

A small sound escaped my mouth.

But there was no time to react.  Reeling, grieving, it would cost us.  He’d done what he did for a reason.  The antigrav on the flight pack kicked in, I waited until it started to drag me, then let it go.  It skidded across the gap, across the road, to Imp.  She caught it, and I controlled the motion of it to drag her away.

Retreat!” I called out, and my voice was strangely ragged.  “Citrine, cover!  We need forcefields too!”

And Exalt.  We needed whatever power he could bring to the fore.

Eidolon landed between us and Behemoth.

He said something I couldn’t make out, then raised his hands.

A forcefield, taller than Behemoth, separated us.  For seconds, Behemoth was muted.  He swiped his claws at the forcefield, fell short.  He couldn’t advance, with the way Tecton and Golem had him held with one leg buried up to the knee, couldn’t reach far enough to touch the forcefield.

One claw dashed a hand of asphalt to pieces.  Golem started to raise another to replace it, but Behemoth torched it, turning it to a liquid or a glass.  Something flat, shiny.

We pulled ourselves together.  I changed Imp’s direction, brought her to us.  She let go, and the thing careened dangerously, striking the ground a little too hard.

She crouched by Regent, touched his throat.

She shouted something.  A string of swear words, insults aimed at Regent.

Come on!” I screamed the words at her.  It took me a second to get the flight pack going again.  I steered it, like a fish on dry land, towards her, as Rachel hauled me up onto a dog’s back.

“Weaver,” Phir Sē said, almost half a mile away, still in the room with the monitors, “If he advances any closer to me, I won’t have any option but to strike.

Wait,” my bugs communicated.

Reluctantly, Imp reached for the flight pack, hugged it to her chest.  Not the best option, given the options I had for controlling it.  Still, it was a way to get her moving towards us.

Some heroes were pelting Behemoth from another direction.  So little, in terms of effect, but it was a distraction.

We needed to regroup.  Needed to form some kind of plan, however haphazard.

Fuck it.  Foil had the facemask… who else?  Citrine and Foil… the back of the head of the dog they rode.  Dispatch wore a helmet… but I could use bugs to draw an arrow on the ground.  That left Annex, where the hell was he?  My bugs couldn’t sense him.

My eyes could.  In the midst of the smoke, I saw the bike Tecton rode was lighter than the rest.  Annex was inside it.

I pointed them in the same direction I’d sent the others.

We converged on the same point.

“Dispatch!” I called out.  “Huddle!”

He reached the midst of our group, and his power surrounded us.

Silence, stillness.  The buzz of my power at the periphery of my consciousness was a fraction of what it might otherwise be, limited to the bugs that crawled in the recesses of my costume.  There was only the press of bodies, two dogs and all of the rest of us in an area smaller than my jail cell.

I tried to speak, and emotion caught my voice.  It threw me, as if it didn’t match how I felt, didn’t match the composure I felt like I had.

Nobody cut in, nobody used the silence to venture an opinion.

When I did speak, I did it with care, shaping each word, speaking slowly, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself again.  “How long?”

“This?” Dispatch asked.  His voice was low, grim.  “This many people?  Those dogs?  Four minutes.  Maybe two, if we’re all breathing this hard.  Once we run out of air, I gotta cut it out.”

I nodded.

Think, think.

“Sorry about your pal,” Tecton said.

I shook my head.  A denial?  He was important to me, but… what, then?  Was I wanting to focus on the situation?

“Not now,” I said, sounding angrier than I meant to.  “Need a plan.”

“A plan?” Dispatch asked.  “We run.  We pray.”

“Last I heard, Scion was nowhere near,” Foil said.  “Nobody to pray to.”

“Not funny,” Dispatch said.  “This isn’t the time to fuck around on the subject of God.”

I shook my head again.  Plans.  Options.  I had an idea, half-formed in my head, and I couldn’t bring it to the fore.  Some missing element.

“Rachel.  You wanted revenge on that motherfucker?”

“Yeah,” she said, “Leviathan killed my dogs.”

“Behemoth killed your friend,” Tecton added.

“And Leviathan killed my dogs,” Rachel said.  “They both pay.”

“They both pay,” I agreed.  “What the hell’s Exalt’s power?”

“Aerokinesis and telekinesis,” Dispatch answered me.  “But he spends a charge, takes a day or days to build it up again.”

Which explained why he hadn’t helped.  Fuck.

“Eidolon’s power… he chooses what powers he gets?”

“He gets the powers he needs,” Dispatch said.  “He can be receptive to new ones, hold tighter to ones he wants to keep, but that’s it.”

I nodded.  He was at the mercy of his passenger, it seemed.

I glanced to my right.  “Foil.  Can you use your power on just the tip of an arrow?”

“Yeah.  But why would you want me to?  Fucks up the trajectory.”

“Just thinking,” I said.

“You have a plan,” Rachel said.  There was a measure of smugness in her voice.  No, I was reading her wrong.  Satisfaction?

“Maybe, yeah,” I said.  I glanced at the space outside the bubble.  The people were moving at a glacial pace, heads turned our way.  Eidolon flew in the sky above.  “We need to hurt Behemoth, and hurt him badly enough that he gets distracted.  Then I signal Phir Sē, and hopefully we aren’t vaporized in the wake of all that.”

“Explain,” Dispatch said.

“Each of us has a role to play,” I said.  “Timing’s essential.  So’s luck…”

The bubble burst, and we moved into action.  Behemoth had barely advanced from his position.  The others were still running.  We’d earned ourselves two minutes to think, to plan and discuss.

I’d gathered countless bugs through my journey across the city.  I’d briefly lost track of them when I was teleported away from Phir Sē, but they were still there.  Relatively few had died, even from the start, their lives thrown away to test the boundaries of fires or gushing water, or shielding people from the roar.

A lot of bugs, held in reserve.

“Golem!”  I called out.  “Metal hands.  Doesn’t matter how big.  Find a way.”

He glanced at me, still jogging away from the Endbringer.  Still, he managed to find a shop with a metal shutter at the doorway.  He plunged his hand inside it, and hands appeared in various places across the street.  A large one from a rickshaw, another from a car’s engine block, small ones from the metal grilles covering windows.

Half of my bugs gathered.  Another half began chewing through power lines.  The transformers here were nightmares, tangled messes, and had an abundance of wires.

Each of the others was carrying out their tasks, their roles.  Rachel had a chain stretched between two dogs, and was attaching the chain from one dog’s harness to it to extend the thing further.  Annex stretched it further, extending it so each link was nearly two feet long, thin.  Citrine was tinting the area between us and Behemoth.

Dispatch called to Eidolon, and the ex-Triumvirate member descended.  Dispatch contained them.

Eidolon needed time, and he needed to hear the details of our plan.  Dispatch would give him both.

In the distance, Behemoth pushed his way through the forcefield, shattering it.  We had a minute, if that.

I waited impatiently as the others tended to the chain.

Dispatch’s effect ended.  He and Eidolon relocated to the other end of the street, Dispatch took a second to catch his breath, and then he used his power on Eidolon again.

Come on, come on, I thought.  This could go awry with one lucky shot from Behemoth.

“Yangban!” I shouted, no doubt mispronouncing the title.  “Forcefields!  Protect the teams!”

Lightning crashed against the forcefields only moments after they went up.  Some diverted to the metal hands.

And my swarm started to arrive.  Millions of insects, bearing power lines that they were still stripping of insulation, hauling the wire itself, bearing the ones who bore the wire in turn, or hauling on silk that was attached to the wire.

I’d hoped to drape it over the hands, to wrap it around.  I was forced to attach it to the base of the hands instead.  Too heavy to move otherwise.  Conductive hands, conductive wire.

“Go!” Foil shouted.

The dogs moved.  Bitch rode one, hollered commands to get them to stay apart.  The chain stretched taut between them, long, thin.

I saw Dispatch’s effect end.  Eidolon took flight, following.

“This’ll work?” Imp asked.  Her voice sounded more hollow than Grue’s did when he used his power.  I jumped a little to hear her suddenly speaking beside me.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Because if this is revenge for Regent, it has to work.”

“It’s for him if it works,” I said.

“Mm,” Imp said.  “I’ll kill you if it doesn’t, then.”

“We’re all screwed if it doesn’t,” I said.

“Mm,” she said, and she didn’t say anything else. 

The Endbringer lashed out with a mess of lightning.  It caught one dog before it disappeared behind cover.  The dog slowed, but it recovered and found its pace, redoubled its efforts to catch up, as Rachel continued to shout commands to keep the chain taut.

Behemoth used fire, instead, targeting Rachel, and Citrine’s power dampened the effects.  That was her role in this.

It was just a question of whether it would run out prematurely, if the dogs would get far enough.

He clapped, and a shockwave tore through the area.  Rachel was already directing the dogs; they moved so there was cover, buildings between them and Behemoth.  The chain, imbued by Foil’s ability to shear through anything, cut through the buildings as though there was nothing there.

And just like that, they made it.  The dogs passed Behemoth, a hundred and twenty feet of chain maintained between them, and the chain cut through him as easily as Foil’s arbalest bolts had.

Too low.  There was just a little slack, and they weren’t high enough off the ground.  The chain cut through the soles of his feet, through the lower part of one ankle.  Insignificant.  He didn’t even fall over.

Then I heard Rachel through my swarm.  A shout.  “Back!”

The dogs stopped, one doing so so abruptly that Rachel was nearly thrown to the ground.  Nearly touched the chain, losing a limb.

The Endbringer moved his hands in anticipation of a clap, and Exalt used his power.  Blades of wind, a hundred strikes in a moment, a thrust of telekinetically controlled air from across the city, rushing past Behemoth, making the Endbringer stumble.  The clap arrested.

Rachel held on as the wind hit her, held on as each dog turned a hundred and eighty degrees.  They passed Behemoth a second time, only this time, Rachel shouted another command.  One of the first I’d heard her give.  I knew now that it was the command for ‘up’.

Her dog leaped up to the highest point on a ruined building, and the chain caught Behemoth at the knee this time.

They got halfway before Foil’s power wore off.  The dog tumbled in midair, Rachel thrown, flipping head over heels.

Behemoth crashed to the ground, one leg a stump.

Eidolon caught Rachel with one arm, and extended the other towards Behemoth.

Now,” my bugs told Phir Sē, as the field surrounded the Endbringer, a forcefield, extending into the Earth, surrounding Behemoth on all sides, a cylinder.

Phir Sē’s portal opened beneath Behemoth’s feet, aimed upward, and a plume of light speared into the sky, consuming Behemoth, covering him.

Eidolon’s power held.  He’d had the situation explained, had been given time to let his power build up to full strength, and his passenger had supplied something with a durability on par with Clockblocker’s ability.  Inviolable.

“That’ll do,” Imp said, quiet.  The light continued to flow upward, a narrow column no more than fifty feet across, billowing out only slightly as it reached the top of Eidolon’s barrier, parting smoke and clouds in a circular ring, revealing the intensely blue sky above.  The entire sky seemed to brighten as the light dissipated beyond our atmosphere.

Phir Sē’s light faded, and the barrier collapsed.

Dust continued to fill the area, plumes of it.

Behemoth lurched forward.

Not quite Behemoth, but a skeleton, something like a skeleton.  Emaciated, a black-red frame dripping with ichor, it had all of the key features, the basic underlying structure with the horns and the gaping mouth, the claws and the way the shoulders were broad enough to host his bulky frame, but a good eighty percent of him had been torn away, shredded.  A skeleton covered in a veneer of meat.

Go,” I whispered, feeling a quiet despair.  “Go home.  Go underground.  Leave.  We hurt you as badly as we’ve ever hurt you bastards.  That’s enough.”

He reached out, and lightning reached across the landscape, striking Golem’s metal hands, into the grounding wires I’d rigged.  The hands melted with the intensity of the strikes.

Behemoth wasn’t any weaker than he had been.  Not in terms of what he could dish out. As much as he was wounded, he was healing.  Even from where we stood, I could see him healing, flesh expanding, swelling, regenerating.

The Endbringer lurched forward on three intact limbs, starting to glow with that radioactive light of his.  He was ignoring or ignorant to Eidolon’s escape, as the ‘hero’ carried Rachel away, the dogs following on the ground.

He was continuing to make his way towards Phir Sē, who had formed another portal, was gathering power for a second strike.

“Retreat,” I said, only to realize I wasn’t loud enough for anyone but Imp to hear.  I raised my voice for the others.  “Go!  Retreat and regroup!”

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Crushed 24.3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on, come on,” I muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Back off!” I said, raising my voice.

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

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

“Weaver,” she said, her voice melodic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In less broken Portuguese, she spoke again.

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

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

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

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

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

I turned around.

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

Pregnant with dead teammates?

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

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

“Right,” Arbiter said.

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

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

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

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

“You’re sure they’ll hold?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right,” I answered.  “Listen, I’m-”

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

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

Fuck,” I said.

“He’s okay,” Arbiter observed.

But the others seemed more reticient now.

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

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

“You’re talking about Chevalier.”

“Yes.”

“Then where’s Tattletale?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arbiter only nodded, her eyes on the ongoing fight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I exhaled slowly.

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

I nodded and took off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FUCK

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

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

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

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

you go.  find it.  find his objective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I moved towards the cluster of them.

Two Indian capes, one Caucasian.

“English?” I asked.

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

“Trying to enlist help.  Names and powers?”

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

“And the other two?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, what’s the project?”

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

“We’ve got others on that already.”

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

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

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

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

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

Kismet nodded, then handed me the phone.

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

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

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

He sighed, “Take it, then.”

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

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

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

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

I hesitated in mid-air.

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

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

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

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

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

“Say again,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was Particulate doing something on his end?

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

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

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

Particulate and Kismet joined me.

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

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

“Smart of them,” Kismet said.

“I know, but it doesn’t help us.”

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

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

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

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

“Damn,” I said.  If they had worked…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A lot of energy,” Kismet translated.

“How much is a lot?” I asked.

Particulate spoke without Kismet translating for him.

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop him!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The person.”

“Who’s Phir See?”  I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Kismet said.

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

“I go by Weaver, now.”

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

“It wasn’t for me,” I said.

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

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

“Either.  Both,” he stated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And his forearm extended through Kismet’s chest.

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

A teleporter who can bypass the Manton effect.

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

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

Particulate said something, spitting the word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, I thought.  Approach the temporal bomb.

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

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

“Thirsty,” Phir Sē commented.

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

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

Particulate said something, but Phir Sē ignored him.

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

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

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

He looked genuinely upset at the idea.

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

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

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

“Yes.  Is worth.”

“No,” I retorted.

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

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

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

“Indiscriminate,” I supplied a better word.

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

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

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

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

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

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Crushed 24.2

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If I’d had any doubt it was Alexandria, it was banished when she followed up the attack.  Behemoth started to rise to his feet, and Alexandria struck.  It wasn’t a punch with a great deal of wind-up, and she only crossed fifty or sixty feet before driving it home, but the impact was undeniable.

Behemoth absorbed the blow, and redirected it into the ground.  He didn’t move, as though the blow had never struck home, but the ground around him shattered like the surface of a mirror.  Fragments of rock and clouds of dust flew up around him, and a three-story building on its last legs tumbled over.  The damage to the ground made him sink a fraction.

I could see the change in the Endbringer’s demeanor.  Before, he’d been wading forward, as if Legend, Eidolon and the metal suits were little more than a strong headwind.  He was moving with purpose now, with an opponent that was veering in and out of easy reach, one he could hit, without Legend’s speed or Eidolon’s personal shield.

She had told me that they knew how to fight each other, and I could see that at play, here.  Part of the change in Behemoth’s approach might have been that interaction at play.

It was a fight involving four individuals who couldn’t hope to do substantial damage to their opponents.  The dragon suits and other capes were a peripheral thing.  Alexandria circled, just beyond the perimeter of Behemoth’s kill range, her teammates and their supporting cast bombarding him in the meantime.  They destroying the ground beneath his feet, trying to get him when his focus was elsewhere and his ability to redirect the energies of a given attack was reduced.

He couldn’t keep her in mind at all times.  She waited until he focused on a different combatant, heaving out lightning or creating flame to attack the ones in the air, and then she struck.  Nine times, he simply deflected the strike into the ground, as a rumble and a series of spiderwebbing cracks in the streets, or into the air as a shockwave.  Again and again, he came within a heartbeat of getting his hands on her in retaliation, not even flinching as she struck him, reacting with an unnatural quickness as he reached out, to try to pin her using his claws, to strike her into the ground or to time the collapses of buildings to briefly bury her, so he could close the distance.

The times her strikes did get past his defenses, her tiny form in the distance with the black cape trailing behind her lunging into his kill range to deliver a blow or a series of blows, Behemoth stumbled, caught briefly at the mercy of physics.

In a fashion, she was doing the same thing the lightning rod had been, buying all of the rest of us a small reprieve.  There was no guarantee, and there wouldn’t be any until he was driven off or we moved a hundred miles away, but she was making the rest of this just a little easier, reducing the destruction just a fraction unless he specifically took the time to work around her.

Was she being more cautious than she needed to be?  I saw her pass up on a handful of opportunities I might have taken in her shoes, when his back was turned, his attention sufficiently occupied.  Was she aware of something I wasn’t?  Was she a convincing fake?  Or was she just a little more afraid, after what my bugs had done to her?

However effective the distractions, he was still Behemoth, still implacable, a living tank that could roll over any obstacle and virtually any individual, unleashing an endless barrage of artillery at range.  He reached the lightning rod and shoved it to the ground.

I was reminded of my teammates, descended to the ground, where they were still getting sorted.  The chains that led from the dogs to the harness had tangled.

“What the hell was that?”  Tecton asked.

“Alexandria,” I said.

“You murdered Alexandria,” Regent commented.  “Remember?  You’re a horrible person, doing things like that.”

“You leave her alone!”  Imp said, uncharacteristically.  “She feels so bad she’s seeing things.”

“Can we try to stay serious?”

“Don’t be too hard on them,” Tecton said.  “Some people use humor to deal with bad situations.”

“It’s true,” Regent said, affecting a knowing tone.

“No,” Grue responded.  “They’re just idiots.  You two keep your mouths shut.  The adults are talking.”

Imp raised her middle fingers at him.

He turned to me, “It’s Alexandria?  You’re sure?”

“Can you ever be sure of anything?  Clones, alternate realities, healing abilities… there’s any number of possibilities.”

In the distance, a glowing orange sphere flew into the sky.  It reached a peak, then descended, crashing into the distant skyline.

I reoriented myself and flew up to the edge of the roof to peek at the battle.  Behemoth had melted down part of the metal arm and fashioned the melted metal into a superheated lump.  A second lump, cooler and not yet fabricated into an aerodynamic shape, was sitting beside him.  Alexandria tried to strike it away, but he caught it with one claw.  He superheated it, shielding it from Legend and Eidolon’s fire with his body, then heaved it into the air.  The projectile flared intensely as it left his kill range, following nearly the same path as before.

Lasers from capes in the distance sliced the second sphere into shreds before it could strike its intended target.

Grue tugged the chain.  He looked at Rachel, who only nodded.

And we were moving again.

I returned to my recon position, scouting to ensure the way was clear, keeping an eye on the fight and ensuring that there weren’t any attacks coming our way.

Behemoth was glowing, his gray skin tending more towards white, a stark contrast to his obsidian horns and claws.  The heroes were backing off a measure, and Behemoth was taking advantage of the situation to stampede forward, tearing past buildings and barricades.

“Grue!”  I shouted.  The noise in the distance was getting worse.  If Behemoth was continuing the path I’d seen him traveling, he was wading through a series of buildings.  Grue didn’t hear me.  I raised my voice, waited until the noise died down, “Radiation!  Use darkness!”

He did, and we were cloaked in it.  I continued navigating, using my bugs this time.  Only a small handful ventured forward at a time, checking for fires.  I was flying blind, scouting without the ability to see.

It delayed me when a fire did present itself, and I was delayed even further when I faced the issue of trying to communicate it to the team.

“Fire!” I shouted.  I knew he could hear me through the darkness, but he couldn’t hear me over the sounds of toppled buildings.  I was no doubt drowned out by the sound of the sled scraping against the road, the crashes in the background and the rushing of the wind.

I changed direction, aiming for the sleds, and flew forward.  A little off target.  Didn’t want to knock someone off the sled.  I made a slight adjustment with the antigrav, and landed on the front edge of the sled, between Grue and Rachel.  Grue very nearly let go in his surprise, and I caught the back of his neck to keep him from falling off the sled.

He left the darkness to either side of us intact and created a corridor.

“Fire!” I said, the instant I was able.  “Just over that hill!  Go left!”

He cleared more darkness, and we turned sharply enough that the sleds swung out wide.  I held on to the lip of the sled, but I let myself slide back, using the antigrav pack to keep myself from falling to the road.

The sudden movement had shifted the occupants.  The design of the sled made it difficult for anyone to fall out, but they’d slumped against one side, and one man was hanging halfway out.  With only one usable arm, he wasn’t able to maintain a grip.

The sled went over a series of bumps, and I reached him just in time to give him the support he needed, one hand and both feet on the lip of the sled, the other hand holding him.

Once they were on course, I helped ease him down to a better position.

He said something that I couldn’t understand, his words breathless.

I took off.

A shockwave ripped past us, harsher, briefer and more intense than a strong wind, not quite the organ-pulverizing impact it might be if Behemoth were closer, or if there were less buildings in the way.  I ventured up to a rooftop where I might be able to see beyond the darkness.

The shockwave had parted the clouds of smoke, but they began to close together once again.  I could make out a form, maybe one of the Indian capes, swiftly growing.  Ethereal, translucent, his features vague, the light he emitted only barely cutting through the smoke cover.  He slammed hands into Behemoth’s face and chest.

Behemoth parted his hands, then swung them together.  I didn’t wait for them to make contact.  I ducked behind cover before the shockwave could hit me directly.  All around me, the smoke was dashed out of the sky by the impact’s reach.  With the front of my body hugging the building, I could feel not only the shockwave, but the vibrations that followed it, as buildings fell and debris settled in new locations.

He delivered shockwave after shockwave, and I was forced to abandon the cover of the building for something a little more distant.

He wasn’t irradiated any more.  Or, at least, the glow wasn’t there.  He’d been buying himself a reprieve from the assault of the heroes, a chance to cover more ground.  Now they had resumed the counter-offensive.  The noises of the fight followed me as I got ahead of the Undersiders.

Another obstacle.  A crowd, this time.

I landed on the sled once more and ordered a stop.  It took a second for the dogs to slow down enough.

Locals stood in our way.  Some had guns.  They ranged the gamut from people a step above homelessness to businessmen.

“Leader?” one asked, his voice badly accented.  He was younger, very working class, which surprised me.  I’d anticipated that someone older and more respectable would be taking charge.

“Me,” I said, using a small boost from the flight pack to get ahead of the group.

“Stealing?” he asked me, his voice hard.

“No.  Injured.”

He gestured towards the sled, taking a half-step forward.  I nodded.

I didn’t like wasting time, but I was hoping he’d give the a-okay and the group would get out of our way.  I watched as he studied the people lying in the sled.

“We take,” he said.  “We have doctor, hiding place.  You go fight, help.  Is your duty.”

I could sense a group approaching from Behemoth’s general direction.  Two women in evening gowns, a girl in a frock, another girl in costume.

No time to dwell on decisions.  I asked the man, “You sure?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Cuff, Annex, kill the chains.  Leave sleds behind.  Wards, stay with me.  Grue, I’ll direct you guys to the Ambassadors.  Take the dogs.  Leave us some darkness for cover so we’re safe from any more radiation.”

It took only a few seconds to get organized.  By the time the Undersiders had departed, we had a team of people pulling the sleds.

Message from Defiant,” my armband declared.  “Alexandria confirmed gone from PRT custody.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“Message from Defiant.  Stay out of her way until we know more.  Behemoth’s approaching the first perimeter.  I will keep you posted.

“Tell him thank you.”

“It’s a good thing,” Grace said.  “Maybe not in the long run, but for now-”

“For now it’s an unknown factor,” I said.  “And there’s one really big known factor that’s tearing through this city, and we should be devoting all our attention to it.  To Behemoth”

“We can focus on both,” Tecton said.

“That’s how you get blindsided,” I told him.  I hauled on the chain, and the sled moved.  Cuff seemed to be doing the lion’s share of the work, standing between the sleds and ushering them forward.  Though it screwed up the direction the sleds were facing, making them veer left or right, it gave us enough momentum that we only needed to work on keeping it going.

We reached a squat building with signs featuring unintelligible writing and cars.  Some hurried forward and opened a garage door, and we kept the sleds on course to lead them inside.

Their ‘hiding place’ was an underground corridor, leading beneath and between two hoists for the cars.  Annex had to reshape the sled to fit, and we found ourselves on a general downward incline.  People shifted position to the sides of the sled to keep it from getting away from us and running over the people in front.

I saw the man who’d done the talking glance down at the wounded.  His eyes caught the light in a way that reminded me of a dog, or a cat.

Capes.  At least some of these guys are capes, I thought.  The ‘cold’ capes, the underworld’s locals.

It was an ominous realization, as we descended, to know that we were outnumbered by parahumans I knew nothing about, with unknown motives.

The armband’s crackling was getting steadily worse.  “Message from Grue.  Rendezvous is fine.  On way to your location.

“Message received,” I replied.

Message from Grue…

The voice devolved into crackling.

Too much ambient electromagnetic radiation, and the amount of ground that was between us and Grue probably didn’t help.

It was hard to gauge how deep we were getting.  We reached a point where a fissure made moving the sleds more difficult, but Annex, Tecton and Golem shored it up in moments.

We descended deep enough that I wasn’t able to access the surface with my bugs, then deeper still.

The more isolated we were, the more ominous the uncostumed capes around us seemed to become.  My bugs followed us down the corridor, just far enough back that the ‘cold’ parahumans couldn’t see them, close enough to help.

“This tunnel was made by a cape,” Tecton said.

Don’t bring it up, I thought, suppressing the urge to react.

“No,” the man with the eyes said.  He didn’t turn our way.

I reached out and touched Tecton’s arm.  He, naturally, didn’t feel the contact through his heavy armor.  Tecton continued, “I’m pretty s-”

My nudge became a shove as I moved his arm enough to get his attention.  He looked at me, and I shook my head.  Tecton didn’t finish the sentence.

“Oh so pretty,” Wanton offered.

“Don’t you start,” Tecton said.  “The Undersiders are bad enough.”

I could see the Wards change in demeanor as we descended well beneath the city.  Tecton’s head was turning now, scanning the people around us.  Wanton hunched over, as if the surroundings were weighing on him, a pressure from above.  Cuff had her arms folded, hugging her body, a defensive wall, however meager, against an attacker from above, and both Annex and Grace had gravitated closer to other team members, as if unconsciously adopting a loose formation.

Golem, odd as it was, seemed to fall more in line with Tecton and I, watching the surroundings, eyeing the strangers who accompanied us.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t afraid; everything else about him suggested he was.  It was more that he was wary in a natural, practiced way.

How had he picked that up?  He was supposed to be a rookie.

I held my tongue and used my bugs to scan the surroundings.

The area opened up into an underground living space, crowded with weary and scared people.  It was dim, with lights alternating between floor and ceiling positions, tight corridors with what seemed to be tiny apartments carved out of the rock.  My prison cell had more space than these quarters.  At least there was room to stand straight up in the jail.  These rooms were stacked on top of one another, two high.

But it was space nonetheless.

“Is it stable?” I asked Tecton.

“I can’t see enough to tell,” he said.  “Maybe?  Probably?”

“I don’t know if I can leave people here if it’s a deathtrap,” I said, as I eyed the people emerging from the rooms.

“Pretty risky up there,” Wanton said.

Up there there’s a chance.  I was counting hundreds or thousands down here.  My bugs could sense corridors, and I was left wondering if this was only one area of many.

Some of the residents stepped forward to help, hands on weapons or simply watching us, undecided on whether we were threats or not.

The leader, who I was mentally labeling ‘Cat’s Eyes’, said something, and they relaxed a fraction.  He said something else, and they started helping the wounded.  None used or displayed any overt powers.

“Done,” Cat’s Eyes said.  “You go.  Fight.”

Defiant had said we needed their assistance.  “We need your help.  You and any of the others with powers.”

He narrowed his eyes.  Except that wasn’t the sum total of the change in his expression.  His face hardened, drew tighter, high cheekbones somehow more prominent in the dim, lips pressed together.  “No.”

“No?”

“Not our duty.  Yours.”

“It’s everyone’s duty.”

“We handle enemy you don’t see, you costumes help enemies above ground.  Scare Prathama away.”

Like it’s that easy.  “We need your help.  Everyone’s help.”

“No.  We show ourselves, and all ends badly.  We fight subtle war.  Better to lose today and fight subtle war tomorrow.”

Better to let Behemoth win than to show themselves and lose whatever edge they hold against their current enemies?

“You see me, I am done.  Finished.  You see all of us, they are done.  No.”

Maybe India had its own share of capes, on the same scale as the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Cleverer capes who worked in the background.

Or maybe they were just deluded, too set in their ways, afraid to fight and searching for excuses.

“Go.  Defeat him,” he told me.

Grue was waiting.  Or Grue was coming down here, maybe, with Rachel and the others.  If they saw him, an intruder without invitation, would they act?

“Okay,” I said.  “We need a vehicle if, um…”

I trailed off as I mentally registered what my bugs were sensing.

A rush of cool, air-conditioned air in a space that had no right to have any, off to one side, the appearance of a person where there shouldn’t be any.

“Weaver?”

I’d stopped talking, my attention caught by this visitor.  She was close.  All of the details matched the person I’d sensed inside the Kulshedra.  The clothes, the hair, the dimensions, even the way she moved.

Purposeful, unhurried.

“It’s her.  The one who took Pretender.”

Everyone, myself included, tensed as she approached.  The foreign capes did it because she was an unknown variable.  The Wards and I did it because she was a known threat.

She was older, but not old.  Maybe my dad’s age, maybe a little younger.  Pretty, in a very natural way.  She didn’t wear any obvious makeup, and her black hair was somewhere between wavy and curly, a little longer than shoulder length.  Her features French or Italian, if I had to guess.  She wore only a simple black suit that had been tailored to fit her body, with a narrow black tie and a white dress shirt.  What got me were the eyes.  There was no kindness in them.

She spoke, but she spoke in a foreign language, and it wasn’t to me.

Cat’s Eyes hesitated, then gave her a reply.

“Who the hell are you?” I asked the woman.

She glanced at me, and her gaze went right through me, as if I were barely there.  She turned her attention back to Cat’s Eyes, said something else.

His eyes widened.

“You work for Cauldron,” I said.

“Maybe we shouldn’t taunt the bogeyman,” Wanton chimed in.

“Bogeyman?” Cuff asked.

“She’s a hitman,” I said.  “Takes out anyone asking too many questions about Cauldron.  Or she was.  Apparently she’s gone after a lot of powerful capes, walked away without a hitch.”

My bugs gathered.  I could see the underground capes reacting, preparing for a fight.

“No,” Tecton said, “The truce.”

“I don’t think she gives a damn about the truce,” I answered.

“Until she breaks it, we don’t break it.”

I didn’t take my eyes off her as I murmured, “Fun fact about life or death fights between capes.  You start letting your enemies make the first move, your mortality rate triples.”

“I gave the go-ahead for you to be acting leader,” Tecton said.  “Cool.  Lightning rod was fantastic.  But if we start a fight here and shit goes down, my ass is on the line too.”

“You’re vetoing my order?”

“You haven’t given an order yet, and no.  You’ve fought her, I haven’t.  But I’m advising you here.  Back off.  She hasn’t done anything aggressive.”

She will,” I said.

“Maybe,” he said.  “It’s your call.”

I didn’t give an order.  I watched instead.

She was speaking to Cat’s Eyes in a low voice.  He was nodding unconsciously as she spoke.

Then she met my eyes.

“Who the hell are you?”  I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said.  “Go, Weaver.  Take your team.  We have no business with you anymore.”

Anymore?”

She only stared at me in response.

Damn, being on the receiving end of that stare was like being opposite Alexandria or Faultline in a bad mood.  I was starting to settle on the idea of her being a thinker.

She looked at Cat’s Eye, “It’s time.  Tell them not to be afraid, and this will go smoothly.  Tell them to pass on the message so everyone hears.”

He nodded, then called something out in another language.  Others took up the call.

“Hold on,” I said, raising my voice.

They didn’t listen.  Why would they?  I barely had any clout.  The bugs around me were minor, all things considered.

I brought them closer, so they gathered at my feet.  She didn’t even flinch.

One by one, portals appeared, rectangular doorways that were so bright they were painful to look at.  The smell of flowers, fresh air and nature flooded into the underground.  Every pathway and every available surface soon had one.  Nearly a dozen in my field of view alone.  My bugs could sense two dozen more in my range.

“No!” I called out, once I realized what was happening.  I thought of what the Eidolon clone had said, about them experimenting on people, kidnapping people from alternate worlds.  “You can’t trust her!”

But the people here were scared.  Once the first few people tentatively made their way through, they ran for safety, running out into the open field, disappearing behind tall wild grass.

Cat’s Eye turned to leave.

I reached for him, to grab his wrist before he could disappear.

The woman in the suit deftly deflected my hand, batting it aside.

“What the hell is Cauldron doing?  Do you want to start a war?”

She shook her head.  “No war.  But we need soldiers.”

That was all the confirmation I needed.

“Wards!” I called out.  My bugs and my Wards converged on her.

It mattered surprisingly little.  She stepped away from me, which I took as an excuse to close the distance.  If she wanted to get away, I’d get closer.  I worked to close the distance, using both the flight pack and my own two feet to draw in.  She stepped back out of the way, just out of reach of my strikes.

She swept her hands by the sides of her belt, and she was suddenly armed, if I counted a stiletto knife no longer than my finger and a handkerchief as weapons.

In the moment my swarm drew close, she stabbed the knife into a wall-mounted fire extinguisher.  The pressurized contents spewed out in a plume, collecting on my bugs and blocking their path.  It disabled the largest ones and killed the smallest, eliminating a good ninety percent of the bugs I had in reach in an instant.  I was forced to back off, so I didn’t get the spray across my lenses or the fabric at my mouth.

She’d managed to avoid getting dirty, even.  I watched her from the other side of the spraying canister.  The direction of the plume and the hand with the handkerchief left her virtually untouched as Tecton drew close.  She danced back out of reach of his attack as he plowed past the spray.  Wanton had transitioned to the form of a localized telekinetic storm, and Annex had slipped into the ground, closing the distance to her.

If she was a thinker, someone relying on craftiness to win a fight, then I’d turn it into the kind of fight she didn’t want to participate in.  Tecton had power armor, Grace had super strength and Cuff had her metallokinesis.

I cranked up the flight suit and charged.  It was reckless, and it was hopefully the last thing she’d expect.  The goal was simple.  Close to melee, keep her occupied long enough for someone to trap her.  With that done, we’d call each of the people she’d just contacted and bring them back to safety.

Assuming she was someone along the lines of Victor or Über, a combat-oriented thinker, she’d try to do something like a Judo throw, redirecting my forward momentum to toss me to the ground.  I countered that particular maneuver by bringing myself to an almost complete stop before she could grab me, slipping to one side as Tecton closed the distance.

He punched, and she stepped back.  He extended the piledriver, a second punch without an instant of warning, and she evaded to one side.

A precog?

I wasn’t even finished the thought when she stepped around to Tecton’s side.  He tried to body-check her, but she had a hand up to rest on his side, using the contact to brace herself, to push against him and leverage herself away.  She crossed one leg over the other to maintain an upright position, then brought herself into arm’s reach of me.

Bugs exploded from the interior of my costume.  Spiders, hornets, wasps and beetles.  The only parts of her that weren’t covered by the suit were her head and hands.  The hands were clasped behind her back before the swarm reached her.  A sharp toss of her hair swept them out of her way as she invaded my personal space.

Her hands, protected from my bugs by the simple obstacle of her torso, reached out, avoiding the worst of my swarm.  One caught the concealed flap of my mask, where it overlapped the neck of my costume, and pulled it down.  The other pressed the tip of the stiletto knife to my jugular.

My team, just a moment behind me and Tecton in their intent to engage her, froze.

Fuck me, I had ten thousand bugs here, easy.  How had I not found an opportunity to even bite or sting her?

“Wards, back off,” she said.  “Grace, Cuff, I want you out of sight, or Weaver bleeds.”

The two girls looked at me, and I nodded.  They backed away and stepped around the corners.

“Send your bugs away,” she ordered me.

I started to open my mouth to protest, but she cut me off.  “No tricks.  You have two seconds.”

Something about the fact that she was a known killer and her no-nonsense tone suggested she really was going to follow through.  I banished the bugs.

“The hell is she?” Wanton muttered.

“She’s a precog,” I said, “Something in that vein.”

The woman didn’t respond.  The knife shifted locations, no longer touching my bare throat.

Was she distracted?  I controlled the insect-like limbs on my flight pack.  They were simple, weak, but they were also weapons.  The end of the claw stabbed for her face, for the general region of her right eye.

She turned her head, and it grazed harmlessly against her temple.  The blade of her knife turned around, and she caught it in the hinge of one mechanical arm.

I pulled away, but the knife being wedged in the gap of the joint gave her a measure of leverage over the mechanical arm.  She twisted it as though she were wrenching my arm behind my back.  The arm didn’t give any, and I was forced to bend over a fraction.

Golem reached out from one wall, trying to seize her hair or neck, but she used me as a body shield, blocking the reaching hand.  Annex struck from below, attempting to ensnare her feet, but she threw me down into the reaching tendrils.  In the process, she got ahold of my wrist, twisting it much as she had the mechanical arm.

“Coordinate!” I said, my voice tight.  I activated the thrusters on my flight pack in an attempt to tear way, but she wrenched me to one side, tilting my upper body while using one leg to block my lower body from following suit.  The end result was that the thruster only pushed me into the wall.  I managed to avoid slamming my head against the surface, but I was now pinned against a solid surface.  She still had my wrist behind my back.

Dodge this, I thought.  I commanded my bugs to attack from every direction.

The Wards were taking my order seriously, attacking simultaneously.  Annex was looming, a spectre in the ground, raising up to try to engulf her, Golem was beside a wall, already reaching into it, and Tecton was kneeling, pressing his gauntlets against the ground.  Cuff and Grace had heard my order, and were stepping into view, advancing from behind the others.

The woman laid her free hand over the hand she was twisting behind my back.  Then she pressed my own fingers down into my palm, hard.

The control mechanism, I thought.  Too late.  My bug was already moving towards the off switch when the thruster kicked in.  She swept my feet out from under me, and the thruster drove me into the ground.  The bug touched the off switch, but the impact had locked up the controls.

I hit Annex on my way down, buying the woman time to step back out of his reach.  The bug managed to turn off the thruster, but I was already sliding across the floor, right through the lower half of Wanton’s telekinetic storm body and straight into Tecton’s gauntlets.

The piledrivers fired into the ground a fraction of a second after I bumped into the gloves.  He’d likely aimed to place an effect directly beneath her, but my collision with the gloves had knocked his aim off by a fraction.  It was directed into a wall, creating a crack ten feet high.

The crack, in turn, summarily severed Golem’s outstretched hand of granite.

The woman pulled her suit jacket off and held it out, sweeping it through the air to catch the thickest collection of my swarm within.  She folded it closed, simultaneously breaking into stride, heading right for Wanton.  Grace and Cuff were just behind him, with Tecton directly behind them, and Golem and I off to one side.  Annex was still pulling his spacial-distortion body together into something more useful.

“Stand down, Wards!” I called out, before Wanton could make contact with her.  I was still pulling myself up off the ground.

The woman slowed her pace, coming to a stop.  Wanton materialized a few feet in front of her, swiftly backing away.  I dismissed the bugs that were closing in to attack.

“This goes any further, she’s going to stop going easy on us and she’ll murder someone, maybe murder all of us,” I said, not taking my eyes off her.  “Because it’s the only way she’d be able to stop the bugs from surrounding her, the only way to really stop Wanton once he closes the distance.”

She didn’t speak.

“What the hell are you?” I asked.  “What’s your power?”

She gave me a look, up and down, and then settled her eyes on mine.  Throughout the entire fight, she’d looked unconcerned.  She wasn’t even breathing hard.  Except for a fleck of foam from the extinguisher here and there on the bottom of her pants leg and at the very end of her shirtsleeve, she wasn’t even particularly dirty.

She spoke, “I win.”

“I gathered that much,” I said.

“What I mean is that I can see the paths to victory.  I can carry them out without fail.”

I felt my heart skip a beat at that.  She’d volunteered an actual answer?

“The fuck?” Grace asked.

“She’s lying,” Wanton said.  “That’s ridiculous.  It’s not even close to fair.”

Powers aren’t necessarily fair, I thought.

“It doesn’t matter,” the woman said.  “What matters is that there are other enemies you should be fighting.”

“Enemies, plural?” I asked.

“We’re approaching an endgame.  The end of the world, the sundering of the Protectorate.  Most of the major players know this, and the truce has effectively dissolved in every respect but the official one.  Those in positions of power are making plays.  Now.  Today.”

“And Alexandria showing up, that’s a part of that?”  I asked.  “Someone’s ploy?”

“Yes.”

“Cauldron’s or someone else’s?”

“Yes,” she said.  A noncommittal answer.

“And you’re telling us this why?” I asked.

“That should be obvious.”

“Okay,” I said.  I wasn’t sure it was that obvious.  “Just two questions, then.  Those people you just took-”

“Are gone,” she said.

Gone.  And there wasn’t a thing I could do to change that.  I was almost certain I couldn’t beat her, and I couldn’t utilize whatever it was that was managing the portals to get access to them.  At most, I could survive long enough to report this to someone who could.

“Gone temporarily or gone permanently?” Tecton asked.

“I don’t expect anyone on this Earth will see them again, barring an exceptional success on our end.”

“You can’t use your power to get those successes automatically, huh?” I asked.

She didn’t venture an answer.

“Right, that wasn’t my second question.  What I want to know is why the hell you haven’t used a power like yours to figure out how to beat the Endbringers.”

“My power is a form of precognition,” she said.  “Unlike most such powers, other precognitive abilities do not confuse it.  That said, there are certain individuals it does not work against, the Endbringers included.”

“Why?” Tecton asked.

“No way to know for sure,” she said, “But we have theories.  The first is that they have a built-in immunity, something their origins granted them.”

“And the other theories?” Golem ventured.  “What’s the next one?”

The woman didn’t respond.

I suspected I knew what the answer was, but declined to speak of it.  It would do more harm than good.

“So you’re blind here, useless,” Grace said, a touch bitter.

The woman shook her head.  “No.  I can consider a hypothetical scenario, and my power will provide the actions needed to resolve it.”

“And?”

“And we are doing just that,” she said.  “Doorway, please.”

She wasn’t speaking to us.  Another gate opened behind her, and it wasn’t to that sunny field with the tall grass.  There was only a hallway with white walls and white floors, a cool rush of air-conditioned air touching our faces.

“Doing just what, exactly?”  Tecton called out after her.

She turned back to us, but she didn’t respond.  The portal closed, top to bottom.

“Vehicles,” I said, the instant she was gone.  “I can sense some at the end of that path.  It’s the fastest way back up that ramp.  Go, go!”

Things had gotten worse in the thirty minutes we’d been gone.  Whole tracts of New Delhi had been leveled, and where the buildings had been tall and mostly intact while we collected the injured and met the ‘cold’ India capes, only half of them stood even a story tall now.  The other half?  Utterly leveled.

It was a small grace that the fires had burned intensely enough that they’d exhausted the possible fuel, and the smoke was mostly gone, but that wasn’t saying much.  I couldn’t take a deep breath without feeling like I needed to cough.  Ozone and smoke were thick in the air, and the residual charge in the air was making my hair stand on end.

The Endbringer’s path of destruction had continued more or less in one general direction, but beyond that, the damage was indiscriminate, indeterminate.  Behemoth’s location, in contrast, was very clear.  A pillar of darkness extended from the ground to the sky.  Plumes of smoke and streaks of lightning slipped through the darkness on occasion.

The Chicago Wards rode bikes that were somewhere between a scooter and a motorcycle in design.  The vehicles might have been indistinguishable from normal road vehicles, but Tecton had quickly discovered that they had some other features.  There were gyros that allowed them to tilt without allowing them to fall, and the engines were electric, with only the option of a generated sound, to appear normal.

Near-silent, the Wards zipped down the streets, zig-zagging past piles of rubble and fissures.   I flew above the group.

“Armband,” I said, touching the button.  “Status update.”

The ensuing reply was too distorted to make out.

Grue had gone ahead, though he’d no doubt had information on our whereabouts.  Bitch’s dogs probably could have sniffed us out.  He’d gone ahead.  Why?

“Armband,” I said, still holding the button, “Repeat.”

I thought there might have been an improvement, as we got closer, but it was miniscule enough that I might have been imagining it.

I dropped down, settling on the back of Wanton’s bike.  The wings were already tucked away, to minimize damage from the electromagnetic radiation, but I didn’t want to push my luck further.

We passed a cluster of dead capes, alongside a series of massive gun turrets that had been mounted on hills and rooftops.  The heroes had made a stand here, or it had been one defensive line of many.  A number had died.

Had it been foolish to descend to the cold cape’s undercity?  Should I have told them to take the wounded beneath, damn the consequences, so we could have helped more?

I hadn’t thought it would take as long as it had, hadn’t anticipated a fight with the woman in the suit.

I hoped I wouldn’t regret this, that the absence hadn’t cost our side something.  We weren’t the most powerful capes in the world, but maybe we could have made a small difference here or there.

I’d learned things, but did that count for anything in the now, with tens, hundreds or thousands of individuals dying where they might have lived if we’d stayed?  Another lightning rod?  Something to slow him down and give them a precious extra second to form a defensive line?

The second defensive line, another collection of the dead.  Whatever method they’d tried here, there was no trace left now.

We were getting closer.

The third perimeter.  A giant robot, in ruins.  As many dead here as there had been at the last two points, all put together.

And just beyond this point, Behemoth, in the flesh.  He glowed white, marking the radioactive glow, and Grue’s darkness wreathed him, containing it.  The ground beneath Behemoth was tinted gold, vaguely reflective, and geometric shapes were floating in the air, exploding violently when he came in contact with them.

With all of the obstacles he’d faced to this point, he looked less hurt than his younger brother had for his one-on-one fight with Armsmaster.  He didn’t limp, or slouch, his limbs were intact, his capabilities undiminished.  The tears and rents in his flesh and the gaping wounds here and there didn’t seem to have slowed him down in the slightest.

And with that, he managed to fight his way forward, out of Grue’s darkness, striking out with bolts of lightning.  Forcefields went up to protect the defensive line, but only half of them withstood the intensity of the strikes.

“Armband,” I said, and there was a note of horrified awe to my voice, “Status update.”

The A.I.’s voice crackled, but Grue’s darkness might have been suppressing the electrical charge, because it was intelligible.  “Chevalier is out of action, Rime is present commanding cape for field duty.  Legend is out of commission.  Capes are to assist defensive lines and fall back when call is given.  Earliest possible Scion intervention is twenty-two point eight minutes from the present time, estimated Scion intervention is sixty-five minutes from present time, plus or minus eighteen minutes.

I clenched my jaw.  I’d committed to doing something, but I had no idea what that could be.

I felt a sick feeling in my gut.

“Armband, status of Tattletale?”

Out of commission.

By all rights, I should have reacted, cried out, declared something.  I only felt numb.  This was falling apart too quickly.

“Status of the other Undersiders?”

Two injured.  Parian and Grue.”

Which would be why Grue wasn’t replenishing his darkness.  I closed my eyes for a second, trying to find my center, feeling so numb I wasn’t sure it was possible.

Citrine’s effect seemed to be maximizing the effects of Alexandria’s attacks, because Behemoth wasn’t able to channel them into the ground.

He swung his head in my general direction, and I could see the steel of Flechette’s arrows in the ball of his eye, clustered.  Holes marked the point where the bolts had simply penetrated.

Other capes had managed varying degrees of damage.  The Yàngbǎn had formed a defensive squadron, using lasers to cut deep into Behemoth’s wounds, and other capes clustered close to them, adding to the focused assault.

And yet he advanced.  Inevitable.

A blast of flame caught the defending capes off guard.  Their forcefields and walls of stone blocked the flame from reaching the capes, but did nothing to stop it from spreading as it set fire to nearby buildings, grass and the stumps of trees that had been freshly cut, if the sawdust was any indication.

As if alive, the fires reached forward, extended to nearby flammable surfaces, and cut off a formation.  They started to clear the way for retreat, and Behemoth punished them with a series of lightning strikes.

Golem was already acting, bringing stone hands up to block Behemoth’s legs, two hands at a time.  Tecton moved forward, striking the earth with his piledrivers.  Fissures raced across the road, breaks to keep any impacts from reaching too far.

“Antlion pit!” I shouted.

“Right!” Tecton reported.

And my team was engaging, finding the roles they needed to play.  Grace, Cuff and I couldn’t do much, but there were more wounded needing help getting out of the area.  Annex began reshaping the ground and walls to provide better cover.  Wanton cleared away debris from footpaths.

This particular front hinged on one cape, a foreign cape who was creating the exploding, airborne polygons.  I could see, now, how each explosion was serving to slow time in the area around the blast.  Had he actually been the inspiration for that particular bomb Bakuda had made?

Eidolon had added his own abilities to the fray.  He had adopted something similar to Alexandria’s powerset, fighting in melee, ducking in only long enough to deliver a blow, then backing away before Behemoth’s kill aura could roast him from the inside.  Eidolon was using another power as well, one I’d seen him deploy against Echidna.  A slowing bubble.

Cumulative effects.  Cumulative slowing.  Each explosion added to the effect, and Eidolon’s slowing bubble was a general factor to help them along.  What did it really do if you tried to walk forward, and the upper half of your leg moved faster in time than the bottom half?  How much strain did that create?  Was there a point where the leg would simply sever?

If there was, Behemoth hadn’t quite reached that point.  Either way, it seemed to be a factor in how slow Behemoth was moving.  He was getting bogged down.  Bogged down further as one foot dipped into Tecton’s antlion pit.

Until the Endbringer struck out, targeting one group of capes with a series of lightning strikes so intense that I was momentarily left breathless.

And the explosive polygons disappeared.

He lurched forward, and even a direct hit from Alexandria wasn’t quite enough to stop him.  The shockwave dissipated into the air, rather than the ground, and flying capes throughout the skies were driven back.

The Endbringer broke into a run, insofar as he could run, and nobody was quite in position to bar his way.  He ignored capes and struck out across the area behind them, hitting a building with two massive guns on it, a clearing, a rooftop with what looked like a tesla coil.  Fire, lightning, and concussive waves tore through the defensive measures before they could be called into effect.

We don’t have the organization.  Our command structure is downTattletale is gone, either dead or too hurt to fight.

He struck one area with lightning, and explosives detonated.  A massive forcefield went up a moment after they triggered, and the explosion was contained within, a cumulative effect that soared skyward.

For a solid twenty, thirty seconds, the sky was on fire, and the Endbringer tore through our defenses, making his way to a building with capes clustered on the roofs.  They weren’t, at a glance, our offensive capes.  They were our thinkers, our tinkers, the ones our front line was supposed to be covering.

The woman in the suit had declined to share the other reason her power wouldn’t let her simply solve the Endbringer crisis.

The answer I’d declined to share with the other Wards was a simple one.  She had the ability to see the road to victory.  Maybe, when it came to the Endbringers, there was nothing for her to see.

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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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Interlude 22 (Donation Bonus #1)

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

March 2nd, 1997

“Okay,” Daiichi said.  His Japanese was easy, a lazy drawl.  He paused at the top of the flight of stairs, sneering a touch as he waited for his followers to ascend.  “If you don’t hurry, they’ll be gone by the time we get there.”

There were grumbles from the others.

“Why isn’t there an elevator?” Ren whined.  Of all of them, he was the heaviest, the black jacket of his school uniform straining across his shoulders.  He’d dyed his hair blond, but hadn’t yet found a good style to wear it.  Ren was Daiichi’s lieutenant; most thought that was because Daiichi put too much stock in Ren’s size, ignoring the fact that he was more fat than muscular.  People who knew Daiichi better speculated that it was because Daiichi wanted someone fat and ugly that could offset his own good looks.  Only those inside Daiichi’s group and the people who crossed them knew better.

“Only three floors,” Daiichi said.  “And we wouldn’t use it if they had one.  They could have someone watching.”

“With only two of them?”  Ryo asked.

“Can’t hurt to be safe,” Arata said.

Kenta was the first up the flight of stairs.  Daiichi clapped one hand on his shoulder.  Their leader asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” Kenta answered.  His heart pounded.

For others, for his neighbors and peers, conformity was safety.  To be the same as one’s peers, it reassured the self, reassured others.  Standing out was bad.

But Kenta stood out anyways.  He looked different.  People knew his mother was Chinese.  He was oddly tall for his age, his grades poor.  He could have struggled, but there was so little point.  He was competing with classmates who were already miles ahead of him, who were fighting to keep ahead of one another by studying after school, studying at night.

This was something else.  It was both thrilling and terrifying, to recognize those lines and ignore them.  To be brazen, to stand out on purpose.  Breaking rules, breaking convention.  He imagined it was like the rush that accompanied a fall to open water or hard ground.

“This is our springtime,” Daiichi said, and he managed to say it without sounding ridiculous.  At seventeen, he was older than any of them.

Springtime, Kenta thought.  Daiichi had it all planned out.  They would earn a reputation for themselves, then submit themselves to the Yakuza.  With luck, they would be accepted as low-level members of the ‘chivalrous organization’.  The freedom would be gone, in a way.  Their ‘springtime’, in a sense, referred to the brief period where they were free to do what they wanted, between the confines of school and membership in the Yakuza.

“There’s only two Chinese?” Ren asked, as they filed out of the stairwell and into the restaurant on the third floor.  The rooms here had thick walls and a wooden door, rather than the traditional paper.  They’d wanted privacy, maybe.  It didn’t matter.

“My cousin owns the building,” Daiichi said. “He said they paid with bundles of bills, and no other Chinese came in.  Some Western gaijin, but nobody threatening.”

Kenta looked back at their group.  Nine people for two men?  And they had an unfair advantage, besides.

“Go,” Daiichi ordered.

Kenta was stronger than Ren, so he was the one to kick down the door.  He moved aside to let fat Ren advance.  He wasn’t stupid, wasn’t ignoring the possibility the foreigners had guns. 

There was no gunfire.  Instead, he could hear someone speaking in English, very calm.

The woman is upset you did not take enough precautions,” A man said, in Chinese.  He sounded more alarmed than the English speaker.

Daiichi and Ren led the advance into the back room.  Kenta followed, looking over Ren’s shoulder to take in the scene.

There were five people in the room.  Two were Chinese, sure enough.  Businessmen, they seemed to be, kneeling on one side of a squat dining table that was neatly stacked with cash and ‘bricks’ of white powder in plastic wrap, as well as various dishes laid out with vegetables and meat.  A Japanese man sat at one end of the table, hands folded in his lap, eyes wide.

But there were two more gaijin in the room, kneeling opposite the Chinese foreigners.  A black woman in a white suit jacket and a knee-length dress, and a twenty-something woman with a European cast to her features, with dark hair and a black suit.

The black woman spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to Chinese.  “The woman recommends we stand back.  Her bodyguard will take care of the situation.”

“The woman in front is a bodyguard,” Kenta told Daiichi.

This was wrong.  The two women were too confident.

Daiichi drew a gun and pointed it at the woman.  Kenta felt his heart leap at the sight of the weapon.

Then Daiichi fired, a warning shot.  Kenta flinched despite himself.  He’d never heard a gunshot before.  Loud.

The men were cowering, trying to hide beneath the table.  The women hadn’t even reacted.

“One bodyguard?” Daiichi asked, sneering.  He made the first move.  He flared a brilliant green, then jolted as a phantom replica of himself leaped forth.

The phantom Daiichi flew across the room like living lightning, a trail of neon green smoke in its wake.

The bodyguard was already moving, her hand on a plate.  She turned it upside-down and threw it in a single motion, and it caught the air like a frisbee.  It turned in mid-air and crashed into the real Daiichi’s face.

He staggered, and the phantom he’d created dissipated a fraction of a second before reaching the bodyguard.  She shut her eyes as the residual smoke carried past her.

Kenta stared.  He’d never seen Daiichi’s ability fail him like that.

Daiichi raised the gun, and the woman raised one knife from the table, turning it around so she held the blade, the metal handle extended.  She held it out with one hand, pointing it at Daiichi’s shoulder.

Daiichi fired, and the knife went flying.  It ricocheted, spinning rapidly, striking the doorframe behind the bodyguard before flying over her head in a tall arc.  She caught it in her other hand, resuming the exact same position as before, then shook her right hand for a second.

She said something, murmuring it in English.  The knife, still held in front of her, had a dent on the end.

The black woman behind her said something else.

“What are they saying?” Daiichi asked.

“The woman in the suit just got permission to kill us,” Hisoka said.  “But the black one said not to spill any blood.”

“We should run,” Kenta said.

“You scared?” Daiichi asked.  “We have muscle.”

“So does she,” Kenta retorted.

Daiichi only smirked.

Can’t run, we’re going to get hurt if we stay…

Ren rolled his shoulders, then inhaled.

Wind rushed out of the room, and small objects were drawn towards Ren.  The intensity of the suction grew as the fat boy sucked in more and more air.

The bodyguard kicked one edge of the low table, and the wind caught it, helping it rise.  Money, plates and the bricks of white powder slid to the floor, sliding and rolling towards Ren.

Daiichi opened fire again, indiscriminate, but she didn’t even react.  Her knife blocked one shot that was directed more at the black woman, flying out of her grip, and the bodyguard walked between the rest of the shots without even dodging.  She seized a table leg in one hand.  It would have been too heavy to lift, but Ren’s suction was hauling it off the ground.  Two bullets bit into the thick wood.

Daiichi unleashed his power, creating another ghostly replica of himself, incredibly fast, stronger than he was.

The woman kicked the table, and it spun through the air as it flew towards Ren, clipping the ghost.  The phantom lost an arm and a chunk of its chest, got its bearings, then charged the bodyguard.  The damage to its chest was too grave, and it crumpled into neon green dust a pace away from her.

Ren was struck by the moving table, hit with enough force that he stumbled backwards into Kenta, Hisoka, and the other mundane members of the group.

Ren blew, and the table went flying across the room.  Kenta’s heart sank as he saw the woman, crouching low to the ground.  Her hand reached up to strike the flying table, altering its course as it flew towards the Chinese men.  It came so close to hitting them that Kenta thought it would be like the cartoons, where someone was cut but didn’t start bleeding until seconds had passed.

Except it hadn’t hit them, and the woman was too close to the ground to really be affected by the wind.

“Suck!” Daiichi shouted.

“Don’t!” Kenta said, though there was little point.

It was too late.  Ren had stopped blowing, buying her a second to move.  She stepped forward, closing the distance to the group.  Daiichi created a third ghost, rushing towards her, but she avoided the first strike.

Ren started drawing air in once more.  Daiichi’s spirit opened with a flurry of attacks, moving twice as fast as she was, but failed to land a strike.  The bodyguard took a step back and used the toe of her glossy black shoes to flick a brick of powder into the air.  She threw it, and the suction only added to its velocity as it soared to Ren’s right.

Daiichi’s spirit was fast enough to avoid the brick, but Daiichi wasn’t.  It bounced off his head, and the ghost dissipated again.  She kicked the table, and again, the suction caught it.  It flew into Ren’s shins, and he fell.

Thrice, both the ghost and Ren had been countered, almost casually.

Daiichi shouted, uncharacteristically angry.  Uncharacteristic, maybe, because he’d never lost a fight before.

The others pushed forward from behind Kenta.  Had they not just seen the fight?  They really thought they’d accomplish something?

But the force of the others charging forward from behind started him moving forward, and he was driven to keep advancing by the vague, incoherent idea of what might happen to him if he, the largest, physically strongest member of Daiichi’s group, turned coward.

He knew in an instant that it was a mistake.  Daiichi’s ghost, twice as fast and twice as strong as Daiichi himself, an expendable assailant, hadn’t accomplished anything.  Why would six or seven teenaged delinquents?

She tore through them, every movement precisely calculated to disable, to crush, blind, stun and stagger.  They were driven to stumble into one another, their weapons knocked from their hands.  She wasn’t any faster than any of them, not a martial artist, though there was a degree of elegance to what she did.  No movement wasted.

Her foot caught Kenta in the diaphragm.  She planted one hand on the back of his head as he winced from the blow, then pushed him face first into the ground.

His teeth bit into a brick of powder, puncturing the plastic itself.  Kenta tried to rise, but she stepped on the back of his head, driving him facefirst into the brick a second time, hard.

Someone else fell to the ground a short distance away.  Kenta turned to look, simultaneously coughed, and loose powder exploded around his face, filling his eyes.

The powder caked his nose, thick in his mouth, to the point that he couldn’t swallow.

Drugs weren’t a ‘big’ thing in the East, even among gangs.  He didn’t know the particulars of any powder or substance.  Only that they were bad, possibly lethal if too much was ingested.  He tried to spit it out, but couldn’t help but feel like he was swallowing more than he was removing.  The weight of the woman bodyguard was on his head, holding him there, suffocating.

He felt the rush of it taking hold, intense and seemingly without a ceiling to top it off.  His face in the dirt, in the dust, he was overwhelmed by the paradoxical sense of being like the king of the world.

That rush lasted too short a time.  He could feel the rush building until it felt like his heart was going to burst or vibrate itself into pieces.  He felt nauseous, as if he was going to throw up, but couldn’t bring himself to.

Kenta’s left arm started going numb.  He knew what that meant.

With a cold feeling in his churning gut, he thought, I’m having a heart att

He found himself out of his body.  He was an observer, an outside agent, without body or mind.  He couldn’t think.  He could only exist, as a part of some sequence of events.

Two entities, communicating in increasingly short bursts as they drew together.  Two entities, each unfolding and folding through realities, through multiple worlds at the same time.  Two entities, singing ideas through mediums he could barely comprehend.  Through light and heat and space and half-lives and gravity.

And they were looking.  Looking at a planet that was broad, more gas than solid.  A world of perpetual storms.  There were lifeforms in there, lifeforms in countless possible variations of that world.  Bloated bags of gas that flowed through and in the storms, in kalleidoscopic patterns.

He could see what they were focusing on, see them examining those possible worlds, declaring something.  Ownership here.  Claim there.  Territory elsewhere.

ack.

Kenta’s thoughts were confused as he felt the high seize him.  Three things overwhelming him at once.  The things he’d just seen, fleeing from his recollection.  His own body, dying in a violent, incomprehensible way.  The world beyond-

He blinked the dust out of his eyes, felt them burn, could only see shadows, could only hear the rush of blood in his ears.

The bodyguard had stepped away from him, freeing him to raise his head.  She’d staggered, and was being supported by the black woman.

He turned away, flipping himself over.  He could see the fat shape of Ren, on his hands and knees, Daiichi prone on the ground.

The bodyguard recovered faster.  She found her stride quickly enough.

She kicked at Daiichi’s throat, hard.  Ren, she struck in the nose with one boot.

The black woman said something in English.

S-she’ll take the cost of the lost product out of the deal,” the translator said in Chinese, his voice distant.

Kenta only lay there, his chest heaving.  He felt stronger, could feel his heart returning to some form of equilibrium.

But he knew he couldn’t win.  He lay there, doing his best to emulate the dying, as the Chinese men collected both cash and drugs in a bag, handing them to the black woman.

She spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to, “She would like to discuss delivery of the product on the way out.”

Kenta lay there long after the two women and the Chinese men had left.  He wiped caked powder from his face, though the effects had receded, the tingling and the rush long since faded.  Whatever had happened to him, the drugs did almost nothing, now.

He wiped his face with his shirt, then checked on his friends.

Daiichi, dead, suffocated, eyes bulging.  Ren lay there, eyes rolled up into his skull, his nose rammed into his brain, though the blood hadn’t leaked past the aperture of his nostrils.

Hisoka, suffocated on powder, as Kenta almost had.  Arata, gasping for air he couldn’t seem to pull into his lungs.  Ryo’s head had a dent in it, and his eyes were unfocused.  Jirou’s airway had been blocked, much as Daiichi’s had.  Both Takeo and Shuji lay dead with no apparent wounds.

All dead or dying, with no blood spilled.  Technically.

Kenta waited, holding Arata’s hand as the boy slowly died, then he straightened.

Idiots, he thought, with a degree of anger.  It had been foolish to escalate the fight after seeing what the woman was capable of.  He’d be more careful of who he fought in the future.

November 2nd, 1999

Lung toyed with a flame in one of his hands as he watched the great lizard-man’s rampage.

The Sentai Elite were battling the thing, assisted by the gaijin heroes.  Once every few minutes, someone passed him, flying, carrying wounded.  Lung didn’t care.  It was about timing.  If he was going to do this, he’d do it right.

A tidal wave rocked the area, and Lung had to hold on to a nearby building to keep from falling.  Heroes were swept up in the wash of water, and buildings were leveled.

The anticipation of a fight stirred inside him.  He could feel the scales beneath his skin, just itching to be brought to the surface.  The fire, too, was warm in the core of his body.

This was a fight that was worthy of him.  The trick was orchestrating it so he wouldn’t die before he got strong enough.  It was his biggest drawback.  The fight… the heroes were stalling in their own way as well.  He could tell by the way the heroes moved.  They fought in shifts.

Eidolon was fighting now.  He hurled globes of energy the size of small houses at Leviathan, and each one was sufficient to knock the creature away, flaying away the thing’s skin and simultaneously slowing it.  The hero’s own hydrokinesis deflected the lizard’s ranged attacks, diverting them skyward or off to one side.  Leviathan couldn’t attack from range, and couldn’t get close without getting pummeled.  He attempted to run, only for Japan’s foremost team, the Sentai Elite, to step into his way, blocking his progress.

“Are you fighting?”

Lung turned to look at the speaker.  A woman in a yellow and black Sentai costume.

“Yes,” he answered, his voice a rumble.  His power had granted him additional strength, durability, regeneration and control over fire even in his ordinary form, but the changes to his body had altered his voice.

She glanced at the fight, as if unsure whether she should be participating or talking to Lung, “You’re a yankee?”

“No.”

“You’re a villain?”

“I am me.”

Another tidal wave rocked the area.  This time, the water reached Lung, sweeping up to waist level and forcing him to hold the windowsill again to avoid losing his footing.  He caught the Sentai woman’s wrist to keep her from being washed away.

He could feel the scales beneath his skin stirring, threatening to rise, eager.

“Sumimasen deshita,” she said, once the water was mostly gone.

Lung only grunted a response.

“Why are you back here?”

“I’m waiting,” he answered.  “And you should be fighting.”

“I can’t do anything.  My power hurts people, but it doesn’t hurt him.  I’m not permitted to leave.”

The heroes were winning, slowly but surely.  Slowly more than anything.  Each tidal wave was doing catastrophic damage in the meantime.

I’ll fight, he thought.

With that very thought, his power started stirring into effect.  The scales began growing, slowly but surely, bristling like a sea urchin’s spines as they arranged themselves.  The very anticipation of the fight was serving to fuel his abilities.  When he changed, it would be rapid, accelerated by the sheer threat his opponent posed.

He abandoned his handhold and began striding through the flooded streets, towards Leviathan and the others.

He’d made a promise to himself.  He wouldn’t lose again.  Victory, it didn’t matter.  But losing?  He wouldn’t accept it, not like the loss he’d faced at the hands of the unnamed woman.

And that very thought, that certainty, it stirred his power further, as though it were something alive, something other.

Another tidal wave hit.  Leviathan disappeared in the midst of it, reappearing elsewhere.  Lung could hear the destruction as the beast clawed and tore through the base of one building that heroes were perched on.  He quickened his pace, felt himself growing stronger as he got closer.

The beast was otherwise occupied… this was the time.

“You’re going to die!” the Sentai in black and yellow shouted.

I’ll never die, Lung thought.  I might fall, but I’ll come back again and again.  I might falter, but I’ll return with twice the fury.

The waves were more frequent now.  Buildings here had been built to tight specifications, to remain standing in the face of earthquakes and tsunamis, but it wasn’t enough.  Barely a minute passed between the strikes, with each wave reaching further inland than the last, and only a handful of buildings stood at their full height, where there had been a city here only an hour ago.

It was in one of those brief moments of respite that the ground shuddered.  Lung nearly lost his footing.  When he looked up at the night sky, he could see that the tallest standing buildings were swaying, like fronds bending in the wind.

Somewhere he couldn’t see in the gloom, a building swayed too far and crashed to the ground.

Eidolon backed off, and Alexandria stepped in, flying into close quarters with the beast, battering him.  He tried to duck beneath the water, but she broke off to fly beneath, using her strength and the speed of her flight to part the water, cutting off his retreat.  He slowed as he entered open air, though slow wasn’t the word.  Legend caught him square in the chest, and Leviathan slowed long enough for Alexandria to catch him by the tail.

She flew straight up, holding the monster by the tail.  Between Leviathan’s dark scales and Alexandria’s black costume, they disappeared in the gloom.

Leviathan fell, and the resulting impact was oddly out of sync with his mass.  The water in particular seemed to react, a single ripple extending outward, clearing an area around him of any and all water.

Lung braced himself, felt the water collide with him with a force like a locomotive, was summarily dragged beneath, trapped, suffocating.

Scales pierced his skin, strength surged through him, and his pyrokinesis boiled around him, disrupting the water’s flow, rendering it to steam.

Other heroes were pushed back a hundred meters, but Lung was already standing, burning himself dry, advancing on the fight, where Eidolon was again engaging with Leviathan.

Another tidal wave struck, barely giving the defending forces time to recover from the last assault.  Lung lost his footing, lost another dozen feet of headway.

More scales were sprouting, they were growing en masse now.  His blood coursed through his veins at twice the usual speed.  Fire burned around him perpetually now.  He was naked, the burned rags of his clothes swept away by water, and he didn’t care.  He was in freefall, of a sort, but it wasn’t the ground waiting for him.  It was Leviathan.

His flame blasted out to pelt the Endbringer.  It didn’t do any substantial damage.

Lung ran, and it took him an instant to get used to his newfound strength, to find a stride and a rhythm.

The ground was shaking almost constantly, now.  The lasers, Eidolon’s strikes, the very impacts of the blows Alexandria delivered, the Sentai’s attacks, the barrages from assisting heroes.  A cacaphony of noise, light and violence.

He struck Leviathan, and was struck in turn, his bones broken, internal organs smashed.

He very nearly blacked out, but his rage won out.  He struggled to his feet, found one femur in two distinct pieces.  He knelt instead, resting his weight on one knee, the other foot planted on the ground, taloned toes biting into asphalt, and he directed a constant stream of fire at the Endbringer.

A flick of Leviathan’s tail sent him sprawling.

But Lung knew he’d reached a critical point.  His leg was already healing, the changes speeding up.  He stopped to hold his leg, pull the bones into what was more or less the right position, so they could bond.

Anyone who crosses me will pay twice over, he thought.

A Sentai in purple and green offered him a hand.  Lung ignored the man, standing on his own.  Again, a stream of fire, but the color was more blue than red.

The Sentai joined him, adding their ranged fire to his.  They had a man who mass produced their armor and weapons, each with wrist-mounted laser guns, rifles at their hips.  Sixteen or seventeen of them opened fire with both weapons at the same time.

Leviathan turned, struck.  Some Sentai used powers to soften or deflect the incoming scythe of water.

Leviathan charged, and Lung stepped forward to meet the brute, roared in defiance.

He wasn’t strong enough.  Leviathan knocked him aside, and Lung rolled, putting taloned hands and feet beneath him before rushing forward, shallow leaps that carried him over the water that was knee-high to the humans.  Barely halfway up Lung’s own calves.

He found handholds in the shallow wounds on Leviathan’s back and shoulders.  The abomination moved, and the watery echo that followed its movements crashed into Lung.  Not enough to unseat him.

The tidal wave that struck wasn’t enough either, nor Leviathan’s speed as the creature swam.  Lung dug deeper, clawed flesh away.  Deeper in Leviathan’s body, the flesh was only harder, the ichor making it slick.

Lung roared, burned head to toe as he clawed deeper still.  If Leviathan’s muscle was as hard as steel, Lung would burn hot enough to melt steel.

Leviathan surfaced, and Lung found his way up to the monster’s neck.  He tried to reach around, and his arm shifted, reconfiguring to be a fraction longer.  Lung’s legs, arms, and talons were growing as well.

Stronger, larger.  Another man might have been afraid of what he was becoming, but this was only continuing the freefall.  Freedom.

Leviathan shook him free, and Lung found no trouble in putting his feet under him.  His mouth strained, opened wider than it should have, four individual mouthparts flexing, bristling with teeth, his own lips buried somewhere deep inside, altered.

Water steamed and boiled around Lung’s calves as he stood as straight as he was able.  He’d changed more, his shoulders broadening, his chest heavy with muscle.  He had to rest his taloned hands on the ground to maintain his balance.  His senses focused on Leviathan like a laser, taking in everything, even the faint creaking of the monster’s movements and the Sentai’s muscles, and the infintesmally small burbles of ichor bubbling forth from Leviathan’s wounds.

The ground was rumbling constantly, to the point that the local heroes were starting to seem more concerned about the landscape than about Leviathan.

There was a crack, and Lung was put in mind of the gun Daiichi had fired, more than two years ago.  A loud sound, a wrong sound.

The ground shifted underfoot.  Heroes scrambled for cover, scrambled to run or save their friends, and water rushed forth.  Lung merely set his taloned toes in the ground, ignoring the water, the debris, and the people that flowed past him.

Leviathan charged him.

He can’t ignore me now, Lung thought.  He was only half the height of the Endbringer, but it was enough.  Fire against water, claw against claw.  Leviathan hit harder, but Lung healed faster.  Every second he fought without Leviathan tearing him in half was a second that was to his advantage.

The ground parted, and Lung could hear the water rushing in to fill the void.  The landmass had parted, and ocean water was streaming in from miles away.

Leviathan tried to drag him closer to the chasm, no doubt wanting to fight in that churning abyss.  Lung planted toes in the ground and resisted.

Alexandria was there in a heartbeat, helping, keeping Leviathan from finding his way inside.  She drove the monster back, bought Lung purchase.

She said something in English, but Lung didn’t know the language.  The only others who spoke Japanese or Chinese were gone, now.  They’d evacuated who they could, and the remainder were left to drown.  The only ones left were the indomitable, and for now, Lung was among them.  They fought to keep Leviathan from continuing his rampage, to keep him from carrying on until he’d wiped away all of Japan.  Lung just fought.

Fought for minutes, hours.  Fought until four wings extended from his back, and he burned so hot that the steel-like flesh just beneath Leviathan’s skin was blackening and charring to ash by proximity alone.  Until he was larger than Leviathan, until even Alexandria hesitated to get too close.

For that indeterminate period of time, Lung was king of the world.

But he began to weaken.  The lesser heroes were gone, washed away or helping others to evacuate, the greater heroes a distance away.

And Lung had nothing to fuel his power.  He was engaged in a fight of ten times the scale he’d been in before, and his power was leaving him.

The landmass disappeared beneath the pair of them, the shards of land drawn beneath the waves, and Lung was now fighting Leviathan in the monster’s home ground.

For an instant, he thought he would die.  But Leviathan, wounded, broke away and fled into the depths.

Lung only sank, too dense to float, growing wearier by the second as his power left him, the fight over.

He’d expected a feeling of satisfaction, but he knew he hadn’t delivered a killing blow, that he had been a long, long way from it, though he’d done more damage than anyone had in years.

His enemy couldn’t be killed.  Lung had become something more terrifying than the Endbringer, but there had been nobody to see.  None of the public to recognize him, to respect and fear him.

He sank, feeling a kind of despair.  Too tired to move, he touched bottom.

Alexandria found him in the depths and brought him to the surface.

August 13th, 2002

The walls of the C.U.I. prison loomed around him.

Lung fumed, but his power was denied him.  He paced, punched walls, burned the concrete with his power.  All around him, the area was pockmarked with the wounds that marked his periodic struggles.

They’d had him in regular cells before.  It had been a learning process for them.  He’d found that surviving in a prison like this involved being a true monster, so he’d bowed his head to one boss.  When this boss had discovered what he was capable of, he’d attacked another leader in the prison.  The ensuing war had ended with Lung being placed in higher security, until he fought the man who’d brought him food, very nearly escaping before Tōng Líng Tǎ, who never showed herself, encased him in a mountain of stone.

All in all, three years since he’d fought Leviathan.  Two years since he and his mother had come here to Chaohu.  A year and eight months since he’d been arrested by the Yàngbǎn.

A year and four months since Tōng Líng Tǎ had buried him here at the base of this pit, with the same routine.  Twice a day, he would get two packages with food.  Every day, he would pace, trying to tap into his abilities, finding them beyond his reach.  He would struggle, fume, scream, and wonder if he was going mad with the solitude.  Sometimes it rained, and he found himself knee deep in water.  Sometimes it was cold enough he couldn’t sleep.  Always, he was here, in a pit so deep that the hole at the top looked no larger than his handspan when he held his hand overhead.

Every seven days, Tōng Líng Tǎ used her powers on the walls.  The floor, she left alone, but the walls were wiped clean, her power to manipulate stone turning the four impossibly tall walls of Lung’s cell into flawlessly smooth surfaces.  She would absorb any and all of the trash that remained from his meals, any of the wildlife that had accidentally found their way into the pit, and all of Lung’s leavings, which he customarily left in one corner of his cell.

Every fourteen days, like clockwork, the Yàngbǎn opened communications.

Lung was waiting, waiting for Tōng Líng Tǎ to use her power.  Like a ripple traveling over the surface of water, he could see her power extend down the walls of his cell.  It touched the base of the wall and traveled along the floor.

Lung didn’t resist as the ground swept over his legs, trapping him from the knee down.

They appeared, descending from above, floating.  Two of them this time.  They made no mention of his lack of clothes or his shaggy hair.  Both wore identical uniforms, red jackets and pants, their red masks turning their faces into overlarge, featureless gemstones with coverings over their ears

At each of their shoulders, there was a number.  One-six and two-seven.  Not ones he’d met before.  No names.  No identities.

Will you join us?

Always, the same questions, always in Chinese.  He didn’t answer.

The American heroes approached you.  What deals did you strike?

Again, he didn’t answer.  He’d tried to tell them the truth, that he’d told the heroes to go away.  The Endbringers couldn’t die.  There was no point to fighting them.  Twice they had approached him with better deals, promising him the world, but he’d turned them down twice in turn.  He’d considered the idea of taking the third offer, but then he’d followed his mother to the C.U.I. states and lost touch with the Americans.

Not a real concern.

You will stay here until you answer our questions.”

I will join,” he told them.

They exchanged a glance between them.

He moved one hand and saw them flinch.  They wouldn’t burn any more than the other Yàngbǎn members had, but they still feared him.

It made him feel better than anything in the past long months.

The Yàngbǎn is the solution,” the taller of the two said.  “You agree this is truth?”

No,” Lung said.

That is a shame.”

I want out of here,” Lung told them.  “That is all.  If I must kneel, I will.”

We need to hear the right answers before we can go any further.  We will come again in two weeks time and we will ask you again.  If you give us the answer we require, we can move on to the next step.”

And, Lung thought, carry down the chain of questions, steps, and procedures until I fail.  You will break me and brainwash me until I am one of you.

Worst of all, they would take his powers, most of them, and give him others in turn.  This was the reason they imprisoned him, the reason they sought to break him.

He would risk it, and accept the offer.  He would do whatever they required of him, and then he would kill whoever he needed to and escape.

March 23rd, 2011

With every defeat, a matching ascent.

“The ‘Azn Bad Boys’ is a shit name,” Bakuda said.

Lung didn’t react, staring at her.

“Just saying.”

“It was the name of the group I joined when I came to America.”

“See, that’s what I don’t get.  You’re a badass, fine.  You tested the waters, took on a whole team of local heroes, and you walked away.  Right?”

“I fought Armsmaster, Dauntless, Miss Militia, Velocity, Challenger, Assault and Battery,” he said.  “Yes.”

“Except you’re small time.  You’ve got all this power, and what do you have to show for it?”

“Fear,” he said.

“I don’t fear you,” Bakuda said.  Her pale blue eyes stared at Lung, unflinching.

“You will,” he answered her.

She shrugged.  She paced, looking around the building.  Two of Lung’s whores sat on a couch, looking distinctly uncomfortable, as if they didn’t know how to hold themselves, the pose to take.

“There are two kinds of fear, Bakuda,” Lung said.  “The first is common.  Fear of the unknown.  A questioning fear.”

“Uh huh,” she said.  He could tell he had her attention.

“This is fear of unanswered questions.  If I fought him, would I win?  How is he going to hurt me?  Who or what is he?”

“And the other kind?”

“A fear of knowing.  Of realities.  If I fight him, I lose.  I know him, and I quiver to be in his presence.  I know he will hurt me and I know it will be the worst pain imaginable.”

Bakuda didn’t reply.

“I have found that the first is a weak fear.  It breaks.  It ends when you have answers, when others give you their support.  The other?  It is a fear that breeds itself.  It is a disease, and it only gets stronger when you fight it and fail.  I have situated myself here to engender that kind of fear.  The residents know me.  Those I want for my gang, I take.  My influence grows, and my enemies know not to cross me, because I always have my vengeance.”

“But the ‘Azn Bad Boys’?”

“A reminder, to my enemies, of what I’ve done before, what I could do again.”

Bakuda frowned.

“I defeated many gangs, many groups.  Some had powered members, others did not.  I recruited some.  Oni Lee was one.  The rest I killed.”

“And the heroes didn’t stop you?”

“The heroes see me as a double-edged sword.  They fear me.  They know what I am capable of when the situation calls for it, they know I am too strong to defeat as a group.  For now, I wait.  They leave me be because the only aggression they can see is that I inflict on other criminals, and I amass power, swelling in reputation.”

“And the fact that you, a halfbreed, recruited me, a halfbreed, and built a gang of a bajillion different races, it’s totally not a freudian thing, tying back to some childhood issues.”

“No,” Lung growled.

Bakuda only smiled.  “And what happens down the road?”

“I have enemies,” Lung thought.  “Those who have slighted me, those who have won.”

“Like Leviathan?”

Lung shook his head.  “Leviathan, I beat, if you can even call it an enemy.  It is a force of nature.  No, I speak of other enemies, insults old and new.  I will defeat each of them in turn, and then I will rule.”

The woman in the suit, the Yàngbǎn.

“So petty.  And you want me to help?”

“You will help,” Lung said.  “Because you think like I do.  In terms of power and fear.”

Bakuda took a seat at the end of the couch.  The two whores inched away from her.

She smiled at that.  “Alright.  You got me.”

July 14th, 2011

“…and that’s the gist of it,” Amelia said.

Lung watched Teacher’s expression change as he considered the idea.  The man seemed so ordinary, so unassuming.  To hear the man talk about it, he’d been one of the foremost criminal masterminds until the heroes trumped up charges against him.

“I might not be explaining it right,” Amelia said, “How my power works, hard to interpret.  But I think I’ve worked it out.”

“I can see where it makes sense to you,” Teacher said.  “But for those of us with no conception of these power granting entities, we don’t have enough solid ground to found the idea on.”

Amelia frowned.

Teacher shook his head.  “There’s holes in your logic.  The Endbringers?”

“I don’t see how they fit in,” she admitted.

“A developmental step forward?”

“No,” Amelia said.

“A step backwards, then?”

“No.  At least, I don’t think so.  Something else entirely.”

“To be frank,” Teacher said, “I don’t know whether to hope you’re right or wrong.”

“It’s both,” Amelia said.  “It’s bad, but at least we know how bad.”

“With nothing we can do about it until someone lets us out,” Teacher said.

Amelia frowned.  She rested her elbows on her knees, as she sat on the edge of Marquis’ bed.  Plastic crinkled with the movement.  The tattoo artist who was working on her arms had scrounged up plastic sheets from the meals that came down the shafts, sterilizing them and then taping them in place.  The freshest tattoos and the irritated flesh around the markings were blurry just beneath.

Panacea had complained about how idiotic it was, because she couldn’t get sick, but any artist had their rules and peculiarities, and Marquis had told her to accept them.

“Well,” Marquis said.  “It’s food for thought.  I’d suggest a breakout attempt, given how grave this all seems, but we know how that tends to go.”

“Yes,” Teacher agreed.  “Our deal stands?  You won’t replace my dentists or doctors?”

“That wasn’t the deal,” Marquis chided.  “We’ll price match.  A little competition will keep your employees honest.”

Teacher frowned.

“It’s the best deal I’m willing to-”

Marquis stopped short.  Lung turned to see Spruce at the entryway into the cell.

“Hey, boss,” Spruce said.

“What is it?” Marquis asked.

Spruce gave him a curious look before turning back to Marquis, “Big news. TV.”

Lung took his time walking down to the televisions.  Marquis, Spruce and Amelia made their way down, where a crowd had gathered to watch.  It was rare, that the same thing would be on all of the working televisions.

It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.

“What’s this?” Amelia asked.  She gave Lung a nervous glance as he approached.

“Alexandria bit it,” Cinderhands said.

With that, each of the new arrivals turned their attention to the screen.

“…will recognize Taylor Hebert, revealed to be Skitter in a controversial confrontation at the school just a week ago, a confrontation Alexandria ordered.  Taylor Hebert played a crucial role in stopping Alexandria in a moment of crisis, ending the fight.

“No shitting way,” Panacea said.

Lung remained quiet.

“She’s the one who arrested you, isn’t she?” Cinderhands asked, looking over his shoulder at Lung.

“No,” Lung said.  “We fought twice, I was arrested by others.”

“But she beat you?”  Cinderhands asked.

“Shush, C.H.,” Marquis said.

It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.

“Anyone else thinking that we really should get a chance to appeal our cases?”  someone in the crowd asked.  “If the organization is this fucked up, the arrests can’t count.”

“Yes,” Marquis said, his tone condescending, “I’m quite sure the Protectorate will be apologizing to the public, then they’ll throw open the Birdcage’s doors and let us all loose.”

“…hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency…

And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.

Panacea stared as the girl on the television stepped forward at Chevalier’s bidding, She removed the black sweatshirt and pants the PRT had issued her, revealing a costume of white and gray beneath.

Amelia’s hands went to her mouth.

Marquis glanced at Amelia.  Lung took that glance in all it’s import.  The two girls were opposite sides of the same coin.

Lung’s eyes fixed on the new heroine, then narrowed.

I admitted to reprehensible things.  I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.

“is it reassuring?” Teacher murmured.

Lung turned, realizing that Teacher was talking to him.  “Why would it be?”

“You lost to her, but she’s strong enough to defeat Alexandria.  Less of a wound to your ego?”

“I lost once,” Lung said.  “An underhanded trick, but a loss.  I’ll credit her that.”

“Mm hmm,” Teacher replied, wordlessly.

The girl continued, “I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable. Except there are bigger things.  More important things.

“She was stronger before,” Lung spoke his thoughts aloud.

“More powerful?  Likely,” Teacher said.  “Stronger?  I wonder.”

Lung shook his head.

I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.

“Noble,” Marquis said.  “Foolish at the same time, but the line between the noble and the fool is a thin one, or even a matter of perspective.”

“On this, we may agree,” Lung rumbled.

“I’ll endeavor to see that as something other than a veiled insult,” Marquis said.

This is what I want to do, above all else.  Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-  …When and if I do take up the job, you can call me Weaver.

The broadcast ended, with news reporters discussing the fallout, reiterating details.

The noise of it was broken down by singing, echoing through the Birdcage.  A dirge.

The yellow feathered girl who was in the truck, Lung thought to himself.

“That’s for Alexandria, I imagine,” Marquis said aloud.  “Undeserved, I think, but I imagine Lustrum gave her cell block a very good reason to honor the woman.”

“I wouldn’t have imagined you’d care,” Teacher commented.

“I don’t, really,” Marquis answered.  “But I have a lot of respect for people who keep to a particular code, whatever that code might be, and very little for traitors and wafflers.

“Like this new ‘Weaver’?” Teacher asked.

“I would defer to my daughter’s opinion on that.  She knew Weaver.”

Amelia frowned.  “She’s… both?  She’s stuck to her own personal code, even when it made her a traitor.”

“I see,” Marquis mused, rubbing his chin.

Lung frowned.  All nonsense, and none of it mattered.  That was out there, this was here.

“A word, Lung?” Teacher asked.

Lung nodded.  Anything to get away from this intolerable talk of morality and this singing.  His cell wouldn’t afford much relief, but it would be a touch quieter.

They departed, but Teacher led the way out of Marquis’ cell block, rather than to Lung’s cell.

“I believe I can be useful to you,” Teacher said.

“You have nothing to give me,” Lung said.  He bristled at the implication.

“You know how my power works, yes?”

“You make others smarter.”

“I turn others into lesser Thinkers, into Tinkers.”

“At the cost of their independence.”

“Yes.”

“Not something I want,” Lung said.

“You have strength, good instincts on a primal level, and all the potential in the world.  Yet you’ve failed here and there.  You’re here, after all.”

“And so are you,” Lung said.

Teacher nodded.  “Exactly my point.  Think on that for a moment.  We’re almost to my cell block, now.”

“You were captured because you lacked muscle,” Lung said, “I was captured because…”

Lung didn’t like the implication.  Of a lack of brains?

“Because of your incompetent underlings,” Teacher finished for him.  “Who escalated the feud with the heroes into a war while you were incarcerated, leaving you to sustain what they had started.  And, more apropos to our conversation, because your power has a drawback.  It requires a certain mental state.”

“Yes.”

“Amelia, Marquis’ girl, she won’t fix that.”

“I wouldn’t let her,” Lung said.

“Because it involves tampering with your brain,” Teacher said.  “My offer is… less invasive.  We can break down that barrier, give you the ability to control when you change.”

“At the cost of my identity,” Lung said.  “No.”

“A temporary cost to your willpower,” Teacher said.  He extended a hand, welcoming Lung into his cell block.

There was no conversation in Teacher’s cell block.  The residents were neat, tidy, and well groomed.  Some seemed functional, reading on their own or watching television.  Others were more disabled.  Lung could see one individual rocking in place, tapping something out on a table.  Another was walking in small, tight circles.

“My groupthink,” Teacher said.  “Rest assured, I wouldn’t subject you to something this grave.  We would dig deep enough to discover the true nature of your power, fast enough that you didn’t feel the side effects at their worst.  Then we would use what is effectively a hypnotic state to unlock your power as it truly should be, effectively a second trigger event.  If Amelia is right, the entity that grants you your power will resist… but we can get around that.”

Lung frowned.  “There is no point.”

“There is every point!  Come.  I’ll show you.  But first you need to tell me, are you and Marquis friends?”

Lung shook his head.

“Peers, then.”

Lung considered the word.  There were some that came up in English that he still wasn’t quite familiar with.  “Yes.”

“Then you’ll keep a secret?” Teacher asked.

“I will keep a secret,” Lung answered.

“Good, good.”  Teacher led Lung to one TV in the row.  “Trickster?”

Lung arched an eyebrow.  Trickster… the name rung a bell.  It didn’t matter.

“Connect,” Teacher said.

Trickster reached up to the power button on the television, then began a sequence of turning it on and off, with very specific pauses.  A code.

The sequence was still going on when Teacher said, “Stop.  Leave it on.”

The screen showed a face, the image grainy, flickering.  The face had a tattoo of a cross on it.

“Lung, meet Saint,” Teacher said.

Lung didn’t answer.

“He speaks when we give him something to say,” Teacher said.  “But I may have been too eager to find a way of contacting the outside world, and I’ve irritated him.  Saint explained what happened.  The PRT showed him Dragon’s equipment, asked if he could commandeer it, and Saint found an opportunity to insert a discreet backdoor.  He has a channel in, a way to observe, but our channel out is poor at best.”

“This matters nothing to me.”

“It matters a great deal,” Teacher said.  “Saint can see what Dragon sees, even if he’s blocked off from the Birdcage itself, while Dragon is occupied elsewhere.  It buys us a window of opportunity to communicate something, a message in code.  The program that Dragon has observing us with every moment tracks the activity of our televisions.  Turn it on, turn it off, and do it in a systematic enough way, and patterns emerge in a way that Saint can observe.  This allows us to coordinate.  He can’t rescue us, or empty the Birdcage, but, we could do something.  We could communicate with the outside world, and with the hypothesis that Amelia has posed… well, that’s a world changing set of information, don’t you imagine?”

Lung didn’t speak.

“The alternative, Lung, is that we unlock your power, and we use other information that Saint has collected through his backdoor.  We use it to leave the Birdcage.”

“To escape?”

Teacher shook his head.  “We wait, and we let things devolve to the point that they are willing to open the door and let us go, for the assistance we can give.  Dragon has files dictating scenarios in that vein.”

“They will not let us go free,” Lung said.  “Not the true monsters.”

“Most likely not.  It’s a question: do we gamble, or do we take a modicum of comfort in knowing we’ve perhaps saved the world a great deal of grief and maintained the status quo?  The way things are, if you’re not familiar with that particular phrase.”

Lung folded his arms.  “I have no attachment to the current state of things.”

“Then you agree?  I should tell Saint to bury the information, maybe push events here and there, if it means we could go free?”

Lung nodded.

“And your power?  If I-”

“My power will be left alone,” Lung said.  “It is enough.  If you want a bodyguard for a time after we’ve walked free, you will have it.  I will keep your secret about this Saint for now.”

“Alas,” Teacher said.  “But I’ll take the offer.  By the time this comes through, I’ll have a small army of parahumans at my disposal.  Some will be… under my sway, but I’d rather have your feral instincts to offset my own wit than have you as a slave.”

“I would kill you for trying,” Lung replied.  “You use your power on me, I will see you dead for it.”

“Very well,” Teacher answered.  He smiled.  “I’ll have Trickster pass on a message to Saint, then.  We’ll scrub Dragon’s records of this conversation, and any cases Amelia has talked of the power-granting entities, and we’ll leave a request, perhaps.  I have large sums of money stashed away.  That should be enough to convince Saint to perhaps set some events in motion, in the hopes that things sour just enough that they might open the Birdcage’s doors.”

Lung nodded.  “Do what you must.  I only care for our deal.  I walk free, I will assist you for a time thereafter.  The other things do not matter to me.”

“Very well.”  Teacher extended a hand, and Lung shook it.

Lung turned to leave.

As with the Yàngbǎn, he would stay with Teacher until he had what he needed: freedom.  Then the man would die.

The woman in the black suit, the Yàngbǎn, Skitter, and now Teacher.  People he would have his revenge on, at a later date.  People who had looked down on him, who had tried to manipulate him.

He could feel his power rippling under his skin.  Against Leviathan, he’d waited hours before engaging the beast, had fought longer than he ever had.  Now that he knew he might leave… this would be a two year buildup.

The scale of the event Teacher had spoken of?  That Amelia had alluded to?  Fear and power beyond anything he’d ever experienced, freedom without limits.  That very idea gave Lung a taste of that exhiliration he hadn’t experienced for so long.

Lung returned to Marquis’ cell block.  Marquis and Amelia were sitting at one table, drinking green tea and conversing with one another.

Marquis glanced at Lung, then poured out another mug of green tea without asking.  He gestured to the bench opposite, slid the mug in Lung’s direction.

Acceptance, the idea caught Lung by surprise.  He had a place here, odd as it was, as different as he and Marquis were.

Bakuda had taunted him over how he’d sought a kind of connection to others, how he’d recruited his gang to fill a void.  At the same time he found himself thinking of the restrictions he’d faced in school as a youth, the joys of rebellion, the Yàngbǎn and everything they’d threatened to take from him.

If there was a middle ground between acceptance and conformity, was this it?

“Marquis,” Lung spoke, carefully.

“Hm?” Marquis quirked an eyebrow.

Teacher is working to undermine everything you and your daughter are striving for, Lung thought.

“The tea is good.  Thank you.”

“Quite welcome,” Marquis replied, absently.

And Lung fell silent.

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Scourge 19.7

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The heroes found positions and opened fire on Echidna.  The difference in this and the fighting as it had been before was noticeable.  Small, but noticeable.  Capes weren’t communicating and teamwork was faltering as a result.  Capes like the red lightning girl and Chronicler were struggling to find people to use their powers on.

I didn’t want anyone else running or flying headlong into the thread, so I gathered my more harmless and useless bugs in a thick cluster around each piece of thread, until each thread appeared to be a black bar a half-foot across.

Clockblocker appeared at my side.  He was in fighting shape, though he didn’t look it with his damaged costume.

“Anything I can do?” he asked.  “Anything else set up?”

I shook my head.  “She dissolves the thread if it touches her flesh, and things are too frenetic.  Someone would get hurt.”

“Gotcha,” he said.

He didn’t move from where he was standing.  A minute passed as Echidna was bombarded.  She wasn’t quite at full fighting strength, she didn’t have many capes to clone, and she was apparently hesitant to charge or make any sudden movements with the possibility of there being more thread.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”  Clockblocker asked.

“That I had something in mind?” I asked.  “I guess a part of me thought that maybe if you figured out what I was doing, you wouldn’t have frozen the gun.”

“That’s not fair.  I don’t think I’ve given you any reason to think I’m vindictive like that.”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “Maybe I didn’t want you to give her a tell, or do something that Eidolon might notice.  I’m not sure why, not entirely.”

“So you’re not really doing anything that those guys out there aren’t.  When it comes down to it, you’re suspicious of us, just like we are of each other.”

“Maybe,” I admitted.  “It’s… a lot to take in.  What do you even do from here on out?”

“I don’t know,” Clockblocker said.

A series of neon green concentric circles exploded outward from a point in the sky above, rippling out to disappear over each horizon.  Eidolon had engaged one Alexandria-clone, and whatever he’d done seemed to have finished her off.  One left.

Echidna belched out a mass of clones, and I added my bugs to the firepower that the heroes threw their way.

Some slipped past the loose perimeter the heroes had established, and were promptly gunned down.

“I’m guessing Tattletale told you the particulars of my power?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“The range?  I’m surprised you knew it would work through interconnected pieces.  Hell, I barely knew I’d be able to push that far.  I guess that makes this one of the rare days my power’s working at peak efficiency?  But you somehow knew that?”

I glanced over my shoulder at Tattletale.  She was getting out of the van, and was joined by Faultline, Labyrinth, and four members of the Travelers: Sundancer, Ballistic, Genesis in her wheelchair and a blond boy who resembled but didn’t quite match Oliver in appearance.  Tattletale was exchanging words with Regent.  Getting an update?

“You’re not responding,” Clockblocker noted.

“I”m not sure what you want me to say.”

Yes, Clockblocker,” he added a falsetto note to his voice, bent one wrist to a ninety degree angle as he raised his hand to his mouth, “Of course we know more about how your powers work than you do.  How else would we kick your posteriors with such frequency?

He faked a high society woman’s laugh, where the laugh was said as much as it was uttered.  A cape nearby, one I recognized as Astrologer from the New York team, shot us a dirty look, before she returned to calling down projectiles from the sky.

“I don’t sound like that,” I commented, trying not to sound as irritated as I felt.

“I thought it fit pretty well for one of the wealthy crime lords of Brockton Bay,” he said.

I was a little caught off guard, to see this side of Clockblocker, or more that he was showing it to me.  Was it humor as a coping mechanism?  Or attempted humor as a coping mechanism, to be more on target?  I could believe it, from the guy who’d chosen Clockblocker as his cape name.  But to let me see anything other than the hard-nosed defender of the peace was something different.  A show of trust, letting his guard down some?

Or maybe it was just a coping mechanism, and he had a hell of a lot to cope with.  Only an hour ago, he’d probably felt he had his whole future laid out for him, a career in the Wards transitioning into a career with the Protectorate, with funds, fame and every side benefit and piece of paper he might need to mask his real identity.  Now nobody had any idea how that would work out.

Another circle exploded across the sky.  Alexandria-clone-two was down.  Legend and Eidolon descended in Echidna’s direction, keeping a healthier distance.

Whatever Eidolon had been hitting the clones with, considering the area it was covering and the fact that it was apparently taking Alexandria out of action, it suggested a kind of attack that couldn’t be used near the ground, because it might have leveled whole sections of the city.

Tattletale caught up to me.  The others in her retinue hung back.

“Was that you two?” she asked.  She pointed at Echidna, where the right and left sides of the monster’s body weren’t quite lined up.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You realize that if you pull off the dramatic sacrifice, Grue won’t be able to take it?  He’s relying on you to be his crutch for the time being.  You can’t kick it out from under him mid-step.”

“He’s stronger than you’re saying,” I murmured.  I eyed Clockblocker, all too aware that he was listening in.  Tattletale was aware, too, which meant she was trying to communicate something.  “Can we finish this discussion elsewhere?”

“Why don’t I just leave you alone?” Clockblocker offered.  “I wanted to make myself available in case you wanted to repeat the maneuver, but you’re saying that’s not so doable.”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “But thank you.”

“Signal me if you need me,” he answered.

Alexandria had a steel, fire-scorched girder in her hands, retrieved from a fallen building nearby.  She wasn’t flying, but she walked forward, relying on the girder’s size and sheer presence to clear her way through the assembled capes.

Her back was straight, her chin raised, as her subordinates stared.  Her black costume, it was fortunate for her, served to hide the worst smears and stains from Noelle’s vomit.

She swung the girder at Echidna like someone else might swing a baseball bat, and Echidna was knocked off her feet and into a building face.  The girder didn’t bend like the traffic light had.  This was a piece of metal intended to help support buildings.

Echidna opened one mouth, no doubt to vomit, and Alexandria flipped the metal around, driving one end into the open mouth and through Echidna, the other end spearing out of the monster’s stomach.

Before Echidna could react or retaliate, Alexandria flew straight up into the air, joining Legend and Eidolon.

As attacks went, it wasn’t a game changer.  Something else?  A symbol?  A gesture to us?

Echidna roared, lunged, only to hit a forcefield.  The field shattered and she stopped short, the girder rammed further through her.

To say we were at full strength would be a lie.  Too many had been injured.  Still, we’d pinned her down.  I could see Noelle atop Echidna’s back, craning her head to look at me.  Through some signal or some shared knowledge, Echidna was following Noelle’s recommendation, avoiding sudden movements, enduring every attack that came her way rather than risking running headlong into more frozen silk.

In fairness, she still had something of an upper hand.  None of our attacks were slowing her down, not really.  She was healing faster than we hurt her, and our side was getting tired, burning resources.  We weren’t sustaining casualties, but we weren’t winning this fight either.

With our current disorganization, it was only a matter of time before she popped out another clone that was capable of turning the tables.

“We need to finish her,” I said.

“Sundancer could do it, probably, but she would need convincing.  Labyrinth’s going to set up while we wait for Scrub,” Tattletale replied.

“Where is he?”

“Bit dangerous to have him riding along in a car.  We put him in another, and he nuked the engine.  We rigged a sled, and he should arrive in a bit, depending on how many times they need to stop and replace the chain,” she said.

“He’s going to open the door?”

Open is probably the wrong word.”

“What’s the right word?”

“I’d say it’s more like using a battering ram than a doorknob.”

“With dimensions,” I said.

Through dimensions.  Knocking down the door, not knocking down the house.”

“I’m not seeing the difference between the two,” I said.  “What’s to say a given area is one thing over another?”

That,” Tattletale said, “Is Labyrinth’s job.”

I could see Labyrinth.  Faultline was right next to her, apparently talking her through the process.  Arches and high walls rose like cresting waves, locking into place as they met one another.  It amounted to what looked like a church, if only four paces in diameter.

“You think that’ll be easier for Scrub to punch through.”

“Positive,” Tattletale said.

“How do you punch through to the right place?”

That, Tattletale said, “is something we’ll have to trust to luck and an educated guess.”

“Not reassuring,” I said.  “What’s going on?  I’m worried.  Nearly getting yourself shot, twice?  Provoking the Triumvirate?  Spending however much it costs to bring Faultline into the city, after the financial hit you took pulling the soldier gambit on Coil?  Now this?  The dimensional hole?”

“It’s how I operate.”

“Yeah, you’ve been reckless before, got cut by Jack, provoked Glory Girl.  But this is turning the dial to eleven.”

“We came out ahead in the end, both times.”

“It wasn’t necessary.  There were other ways around either of those situations.”

“Not as much as you’d think,” Tattletale said.

Echidna roared again, each of her mouths making a slightly different noise, combining into a discordant noise that made almost everyone present wince.  Weld tore his way free of her side, two capes in his grip.

Still five captives inside, I noted.  I saw Weld climb free and drop to the ground.  He wasn’t going back in for more.

Tattletale took me by the arm and led me back and away from the fighting, to where we had more privacy to speak.  I used bugs to guide some capes at the back lines toward some clones who’d flown into an alley.  It was odd, to be playing a part in a high-speed chase while standing still, but the capes were closing the distance on their quarry nonetheless.

“I’m just looking for answers,” I told her.  “This dimensional hole, provoking the heroes, apparently spending a lot of money I’m pretty sure you don’t have.  I… I can kind of get that you’re feeling a bit aimless, a bit unfocused.  Maybe that comes across as recklessness.  I’m feeling like that too.  We beat Coil, and so much of what we’ve done over the past while, it was with the end goal of doing just that.  So I get if you’re not sure of where to go from here.”

“Except you’ve been talking to the heroes, and you’ve had that to help center yourself, figure out where you stand,” Tattletale said.  “I haven’t.”

“That’s it?  You need to talk to someone?”

“No.  That’s not what I’m saying,” she said.  She sighed.  “Yes.  Kind of.  It’s only part of it.  Who the hell am I going to talk to that grasps things on a level I do?  Do you really expect me to find a therapist and sit down and not pick him apart faster than he can decipher me?”

“You could talk to me,” I said.

“Not when you’re part of the problem, part of what I’d need to work past.”

“That’s not fair,” I told her.

“No, it isn’t,” she admitted.

Echidna spat out volumes of clones at the defensive line.  The reaction was only a little slower than it should have been.  Squads still weren’t operating as squads.  Legend and Eidolon were offering support fire from above, but they were standing apart from the rest, in a much different way than Tattletale and I were.

“It’s not you,” Tattletale said.  “It’s more about my relationship with you.”

“This isn’t the point where you confess your undying love for me, is it?”

She snorted.  “No.”

“Then what?  Or is this just going to be another secret you keep?”

“All of the good secrets are getting found out anyways, or so Regent said.  I suspected they would be, for the record.  Part the reason I dished like I did was to put us in a good position in case the juicy stuff did come out.”

“Not sure I buy that,” I said.

“You don’t have to.  It was only a part of it.  And I understand if a more in-depth explanation is overdue, but I need to turn it around in my head some, get it to the point where I can share it without it coming out wrong.”

“Your trigger event?” I asked.

“That’s a part of it.  But can we please put that off until after we’ve torn a hole in reality and stopped the pseudo-Endbringer?”

“Just tell me this isn’t another educated guess.”

“It’s not.  Except for the bit where we might be able to find the right universe.”

“When you’re saying it’s not an educated guess, is that because you’re sure or because it’s an uneducated guess?”

“I’m mostly sure.”

I sighed, loud enough for her to hear.

She grabbed my hand and pulled me in the direction of the van she’d brought.  Labyrinth’s church had expanded considerably, and Scrub was very deliberately keeping his distance, keeping the company of Gregor the Snail, Newter, Shamrock and Spitfire.  They looked a little the worse for wear, with burns, scrapes and bandages.  Had Tattletale pulled them away from a job?

“Hey, F,” Tattletale said, smiling.

Faultline didn’t return the smile.  “You’re aware that I’m going to track you down, beat you to a pulp and leave you tied up for the authorities to collect if we don’t get our payment?”

“You’ll get your payment the minute I have access to a computer Shatterbird hasn’t toasted,” Tattletale said.  “No sweat.”

“I’m harboring serious doubts,” Faultline said.  She glanced at Echidna, “But I can look at this situation, and I understand if there’s a rush here.  How does this work?”

“Really simple,” Tattletale said.  “We should get Labyrinth clear, though.  Then I’ll show you.”

Faultline gave her a look, then hurried to Labyrinth’s side, dodging a wall that was erupting from the ground to fit into the greater structure.  The ground surrounding the temple-like tower had changed, with an ornate inlay of what looked to be artificial flowers.  The petals were gold leaf, the stems the black-gray metal of iron.  The thorns, I couldn’t help but notice, were real, like needles, sticking out of the ground.  Dangerous ground to tread.

As Faultline led Labyrinth to safety, I put one hand on Tattletale’s shoulder to get her attention.  “You sure?”

“I’ve got a theory.  With the clues on the passengers that we got not so long ago, about the powers, the idea of how the things work, I’m getting a sense of the bigger picture.  I think I could spend a decade working it out, but the basics of it?  I think there’s a lot of powers that are a lot more versatile than their owners are aware, because they never get the opportunity to leverage it.”

Above us, Legend followed through on one cape’s attacks, opening a wound in Noelle’s side.  Grace leaped in as the laser stopped, grabbed a cape that had been exposed by Legend’s attack, then kicked herself free, bringing the cape with her.

Another cape exhaled a cloud of what might have been acid vapor in Noelle’s direction, apparently to slow the healing of the wound.  It didn’t make much of a difference.

“Based on what?” I asked Tattletale.

“It’s all part of a whole,” she replied, absently.  Her focus was on the others.  “Scrub!  Get closer to the tower!  Everyone else, get back!  Labyrinth, don’t use your power any more!  Hold off!”

Heads turned.  People had no doubt noticed the tower, but now something was happening.

Scrub stepped closer, and one of his explosions ripped through the air.  Another followed shortly after, intersecting one area of altered road.

Like a gas in the air that had been ignited, the entire thing went up in a heartbeat.  In an instant, it was a white void, as undefinable as Grue’s darkness, perceivable by the edges, but with zero depth or dimension.  He’d shunted out the entire structure, as well as everything that had altered on the ground, but nothing had come back.

The door had been kicked out of the frame.

To look at it, I’d almost expected a rush of wind as the void on the other side sucked everything into it, like the vacuum of space.  There was only the sensation of a breeze as the air flowed into it.

Alexandria landed next to us, with enough force that I nearly lost my footing.  Every set of eyes that wasn’t on Echidna was on us, now.

“What did you do?”

“Made a hole,” Tattletale said.

Apparently.  You didn’t ask?  You didn’t consider the ramifications of this?  Close it now.”

“Who said we could close it?” Tattletale asked.

“You’re a fool,” Alexandria said.  She set one hand around Tattletale’s neck.  She could have killed Tattletale with a squeeze, but she didn’t.  A threat.

“I’d be careful,” a cape growled, from the periphery of the scene.  I didn’t recognize the man.  He wore a costume in orange with red metal claws.  Alexandria turned to look at him, and he added, “Wasn’t so long ago that your partner called us all fools.”

In the background, Echidna screeched.  She fought her way forward through the crowd, but the battle lines were holding, now.  Our side hadn’t been surprised, this time, and the only capes in her reach were capes she couldn’t absorb.  The rest were staying well back.

She wasn’t an Endbringer, in the end.  It would be impossible to trap any of them like this, to get an advantage.  They had other tools, ways to exert pressure that were entirely independent of their own abilities.  Behemoth generated storms and background radiation, Leviathan had the waves, the Simurgh had her scream.

“That wasn’t him,” Alexandria said.  “It wasn’t Eidolon who said that.”

“Close enough,” the cape said.  “Let her go.  You can’t throw around authority you don’t have.”

“As of this moment, I am still Chief Director of the PRT, and I am the leader of the Protectorate team that overlooks the second largest city in the United States.  That hasn’t changed.  At the end of the day, I’ll face any consequences I have to, but for now, I’m still in charge.”

“Your authority doesn’t mean anything if they don’t accept it,” Tattletale said, staring Alexandria in the eyes.  “Put me down.”

“I can’t let this go any further.”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Tattletale said, “There’s no further to go.  It’s pretty much gone.  All that’s left is to find out whether this is a useful trick we just pulled or a really useful trick.”

“Useful?”  Alexandria asked.

“Worst case scenario, it’s a place we can dump Echidna.  A place where she won’t be able to hurt anyone.”

“Or?”

“Or Labyrinth figures out that she can work with this.”

The hole blurred, colors consolidating into forms.  I could see Faultline standing by Labyrinth, arms folded.

“Labyrinth… the shaker twelve,” Alexandria said.

“That’s the one,” Tattletale said.  “Mind letting go of my throat?”

Alexandria let go, but settled her hands on Tattletale’s shoulders.  The implied threat was still there, just not so imminent.

“It’s deep,” Labyrinth said.  Her voice was faint, as if from far away.  “There’s so much there.  Worlds that I didn’t make.”

“All parts of a whole,” Tattletale mused.  “Okay, Labyrinth.  The world we’re looking for isn’t very deep at all.  In fact, it’s very, very close to the surface.  When you push into that world, it’ll feel easier.  Like a path that someone’s already walked, more than once.”

“There’s two like that.”

I would have missed it if it weren’t for my bugs.  Alexandria reacted, stiffening, a slight straightening of her back.

Behind us, Echidna roared and threw herself against the barrier of ice and forcefields that surrounded her.

I turned toward Alexandria.  “What?”

“I didn’t say anything,” she responded.  Her hands still rested on Tattletale’s shoulders.

You didn’t have to, I thought.  But I wasn’t sure how to use the information, and I didn’t want to distract anyone from the subject at hand.

“Look,” Labyrinth said.  “One’s like this…”

The image shifted.  I wasn’t the only one who walked around to get a better view through the window.  The landscape on the other side the window was different, the grassy hills that had been Brockton Bay before settlement, the distant beaches.  There were houses, but they were squat and blocky, half-overgrown.

Again, the slightest reaction from Alexandria.

“…And here’s the other.”

Another landscape.  A city, like Brockton Bay, with different buildings.  Intact, undamaged.  It looked like a back road, one that didn’t get much in the way of traffic.  Apparently the streets in that Brockton Bay were in different places.

“Earth Aleph,” Tattletale said.

The Travelers’ world?

“Are you insane?” Alexandria asked.  “There’s sanctions, treaties, truces.  If you open this hole to Earth Aleph, it could mean a war between universes.”

“If that war was possible,” Tattletale said, “We’d have had it already.  The possibility of a whole other world of resources is too much to pass up.  Sure, our side has more raw firepower, by a factor of a hundred, but their side has just as many nukes.  It’s a zero sum war.”

“You don’t understand what you’re getting into.”

“What I understand is that accidents happen, and everyone in earshot will call this particular interuniversal portal as an accident, because it keeps things peaceful.  I also understand that this keeps Brockton Bay on the map.  Any other circumstance, people are going to keep trying to scrap this city, to accept that it’s too costly to rebuild, that the criminal element holds too much power.  They’ll throw bill after bill out there until the right combination of people are in power, the right hands can be greased, and Brockton Bay gets bulldozed and paved over.”

“It still could,” a cape said.

“Oh, sure, theoretically,” Tattletale said.  “But there’s really two options here.  Either we spread the word, and a whole sub-industry explodes around this simple little doorway, accessing and trading information between worlds, research, a mess of other stuff, a city full of residents who’ve put up with disaster after disaster get work, get their homes rebuilt, and ultimately get their second chance.”

“Or we keep this a secret,” I finished her thought, “And we get none of that.”

“Or we keep this a secret,” Tattletale agreed, “We do what Alexandria wants, and everything stays hush hush, just the way the big bad secret organization likes it.”

I could see the capes around us paying attention.  Ten, fifteen capes, from cities all across America and Canada.

“You have no idea what you’re doing,” Alexandria said.

“Fucking you over?”

“You’re putting everything at stake.  All of us, this world.  Even if we ignore the chance of our very first interdimensional war-”

“Traitor!” someone shouted from the sidelines, cutting her off.

Alexandria turned her head to try and identify the culprit.  I got the impression she wasn’t used to people insulting her.  There were more capes nearby.  Miss Militia had backed up, but was keeping her eyes on the spot where Echidna was trapped.  On the far side of the clearing where the gateway stood, Gregor the Snail escorted a bound Sundancer and Ballistic to the periphery of the area.

“I can’t help but agree with Alexandria,” Faultline said.  “This is reckless.”

“More than a little,” Tattletale agreed.  “But I’m not sure you heard the full story.  I only heard it secondhand, and I was with you from the time your helicopter arrived.  When we last ran into Newter, you guys were looking for dirt on Cauldron.  You still looking?”

Faultline’s eyes narrowed.  “Why?”

“No less than ten minutes ago, Eidolon’s evil double admitted full culpability.  The Triumvirate, much of the upper levels of the Protectorate.  Kidnapping people from other universes, experimenting on them to figure out some power-inducing formulas, dropping them here.  Might help you to understand why people are giving Alexandria the evil eye.”

Faultline glanced at Alexandria.  “A little too easy, to find out like this.”

“It’s not the full story,” Tattletale said, “Not by half.  But it should inform your call on whether to side with her or not.”

Faultline frowned.  “That’s not… no.  Maybe she is the person behind the scenes.  Fine.  But that doesn’t change the fact that she might be right.  Better to have Labyrinth find another universe to link to.  Maybe one where a mountain is blocking the other side of this gateway, if we can’t close it.”

“Why do you have to be so reasonable?” Tattletale asked.  “That’s the worst of both worlds.”

“It’s not war,” Faultline retorted.

“Stop,” Chevalier said.  People parted to give him room to enter the clearing.  “There’s other concerns.  The deal that was described to me was that the Travelers would do what they could to eliminate Echidna.  Failing that, we find a way to move her through the gap and deposit her in a place where she can do no harm.  That’s our first priority.”

There was a murmur of agreement.

“Want to go home, Sundancer?  B-man?” Tattletale asked.  “Genesis?  Oliver?”

Ballistic, Genesis and Oliver stared at the opening.  Sundancer was shaking her head.

“What?”

Sundancer spoke, “I… it’s not home anymore, is it?  I’m not me.  Can’t go back to the way things were.  I’ve killed people.  Accidentally, but I’ve killed.  I have powers.  If I went there, I wouldn’t be Marissa.  I’d be… Sundancer.  I’d be famous.  If anyone found out about me, or if there was something in the media that goes between worlds, that clued them in…”

“They don’t have to know,” Tattletale said.

“I don’t… I don’t know if I can.”

I spoke up, “Are you talking about going home, or killing Noelle?”

“She’s… she was my best friend.”

“She’s not Noelle anymore,” I said.

Sundancer shook her head.

“Go,” Tattletale said.  “She’s not happy like this.  You do this, then you go home.  You give your mom a hug, fabricate an excuse to explain why you disappeared, and then go back to life as normal.  Never use your powers again, if you don’t want to.  See if you can eventually convince yourself that none of this ever happened.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“No.  But it’s a hell of a lot better than staying here, isn’t it?”  Tattletale asked.

“She’s my friend.”

“Was,” I said.  “It’s a big difference.”

Sundancer looked at the mound of ice, rock and forcefields.  Echidna was thrusting her clawed hands through the barriers, only for them to be reinforced.

“Are there… does she have anyone inside her?”

“There’s-” Tattletale started.  I flew a bug into her mouth and down her throat, and she choked.

“No,” I lied.  “I’ve been keeping track with my bugs.  Weld and the others got everyone out.”

Saved everyone they could.  If Weld had backed out and nobody else was able to free the small handful that were still trapped, that was it.

Nobody was correcting me.  They knew, but they weren’t correcting me.

Sundancer hung her head.  She started approaching Echidna, her hands cupped in front of her.

“Move!”  Chevalier shouted.  “Clear out of the way!”

Capes began to retreat.  Final patch-up jobs were thrown onto the mound of rock, forcefields and ice before the respective capes turned and ran.

It took Sundancer a long few seconds to form the miniature sun.  When it was formed, she held it over her head, letting it grow with every passing second.

I had to back away as the heat reached me.  I could note how the ice was melting, even though it was a hundred feet away.

Echidna roared and threw herself against her temporary prison.  Rock and melting ice tumbled away.  She began to claw free, until her upper body was exposed.  Capes opened with ranged fire, tearing into her forelimbs and limiting her mobility.  Alexandria dropped Tattletale and cast off her cape, before flying in and helping to hold Echidna in place.

“Marissa!”  Echidna screamed, her voice guttural, voiced from five different mouths.  “Mars!  It’s too soon!  I want to kill them!  I want to kill them all!  Kill this world!  Destroy this universe that did this to me!  Not yet, Mars!”

The sun flew forward, melting pavement as it traveled, before it enveloped Echidna, Alexandria and the prison of ice and stone.

It hung there for nearly a minute, deafening with its sizzling and crackling.

The sun flickered and went out. Echidna wasn’t there any more.  Only sections of her feet were still in contact with the ground, bones and claws scorched black, crumbling and decaying like any part of her did when disconnected from the core that supplied her with power.

Alexandria was there in the midst of it, panting for breath.  Her costume had burned away, and only the metal pieces remained, including helmet, belt and metal underwear, each so hot they were melting and running over her skin.

But Sundancer was already turning away, not wanting to see it for herself.  She pulled off her mask and threw it aside.  Blond hair tumbled down around her shoulders, half-covering her downcast face.

Piece by piece, she removed her costume, not caring in the slightest about the watching crowd.  Each discarded piece sank into the melted ground around her or smoked on contact with it.  When she’d finished, she wore only her camisole and terry shorts.  The ground was still shiny and smoking from the sheer heat as she approached, left cool and solid in her wake.

She stepped into the portal, without a word, and then looked around, confused.  She took another few steps, and passed around the side of the portal as though it were merely a corner, out of sight.

The other Travelers went through next.  Oliver and Genesis didn’t look like anything but ordinary people, with no costume or monstrous form, respectively.  They merely passed through.

Ballistic hesitated for long seconds.  “Trickster?”

“We have him in custody.  He’ll go to the Birdcage,” Chevalier said.

“Good.  Because we don’t want him,” Ballistic said.

He walked through the portal, still wearing his costume.

“Can you close it?” Faultline asked, when Ballistic had disappeared from sight.

“No.  Not really,” Labyrinth said.  “I can pick a different world.  So there’s no war.  Or do like you said, find a place where a mountain covers the hole.”

“Feel free,” Tattletale said, grinning.  “In fact, that might even be more useful.  Can you imagine how significant Brockton Bay might become, if we had a whole unpopulated world to get to, harvest for resources, and Brockton Bay was the terminal you had to pass through?”

Faultline frowned.  “You used us.”

“I hired you.  Not my fault if you didn’t ask for enough money.

Faultline put her arm around Labyrinth’s shoulders.  “Can you find a world without people?”

“I… yes.  There’s one with lots of trees.  I’m looking all over, and I can’t find anyone at all.  Not even on the other side of the oceans.  Only animals.”

“That’ll do,” Faultline said.  She looked at Tattletale, “Not for you.  Only because I couldn’t stand to let her be responsible for an Endbringer finding a defenseless world.”

“Much obliged, whatever the reasoning,” Tattletale replied.  She flashed a smile.

Faultline only frowned and turned to usher Labyrinth away.

“Wait,” someone called out.

Weld, with the red skinned boy and Gully beside him.  They caught up with Faultline’s crew.

Whatever words they exchanged, I didn’t get a chance to hear.  There was no way that the ‘monsters’ could serve the Protectorate.  Faultline was a known element, someone who had, as far as everyone was aware, always been good to the people I was now thinking of as the Cauldron-made.

I couldn’t even begin to guess where they’d go from there, but they’d have stuff to talk about, no doubt.

I’d mentioned to Tattletale that I’d felt adrift, after letting Dinah go.  Untethered, I think, was the word I’d used.  Everyone here now felt like that, to some degree.  The future had never been quite this uncertain.

I saw Alexandria standing by the sideline.  Eidolon had gathered her heavy cape where she’d tossed it aside and was helping to drape it around her shoulders.  I wasn’t the only one looking, but she was oblivious, uncaring.  She still stood with all the confidence in the world.

She was barely covered, with one hand pinching the cape shut in front of her, traces of now-cooled metal lacing through her hair, the eyebrow and eyelashes of her one good eye.  It highlighted the lines at the corner of her eye, a finer metal finding its way into the crevices.  Her other eye held only a scarred over ruin with cooled metal pooled in the deeper recesses.  There were nubs of melted metal rods, no doubt there to help hold a high-end prosthetic in place.  Tinker-made, if she’d been hiding her injury to play the role of the PRT’s Chief Director.

Without Echidna to divide our number, our ranks were free to line up in a rough semicircle around Alexandria and Eidolon.

“Nobody can know what happened today,” Alexandria said, utterly calm.

Someone scoffed.  “You want us to keep your secret?

“Not the secret,” she said, unfazed by the scoff.  “Echidna.  Four capes were inside her when she was scoured away.  More were injured or killed in the course of the fight, or in Shatterbird’s attack.  We can’t cover that up.  We shouldn’t.  They were good capes.  But we can’t tell the whole story.”

“You don’t get to say that,” the ice-generating cape said.  “You have no place, saying that.”

“I won’t argue,” Alexandria said.  “Everything we did, we did for the right reasons.  I understand it’s ugly, without the context.”

Someone at the front spat in her face.  Alexandria didn’t even blink.  She let the spit run down around the ruined pit where her eye had been, much like she had with the molten metal.

“If word were to get out about the clones, the ramifications would be too damaging.  We’ve spent decades cultivating an illusion, that we’re heroes.  Decades shaking the idea that we’re killing machines.  The nature of this fight threatens to reveal just how much damage even the more mundane of us parahumans could do to the common people.  That’s not only the clones and what they did, but how we dealt with the clones, in turn.  We can’t shatter the image that the Protectorate has so painstakingly built, or the entire world will turn on us.”

“And the Protectorate?” Miss Militia asked, her voice hard.

“What of it?”

“The involvement with Cauldron.  It won’t stand, not like this.”

“It has to,” Alexandria replied.  “Too much depends on the Protectorate, even internationally.  If it crumbles, then the whole world suffers for it.  Other teams around the world would go without the resources we provide.  If it means keeping the Protectorate intact, I will step down.  I’ll tender my resignation as Chief Director of the PRT, effective the moment I can reach my desk.  I’ll consent to being watched until the moment I can step down as Alexandria, if you are uncomfortable with me continuing to serve the Protectorate in costume.  Eidolon, I’m sure, will do the same.  Myrddin’s death will be excuse enough for our retirements.”

“What about Legend?” Miss Militia asked.

Alexandria raised her head, staring up at where Legend hung in the air, unmoving.

“He was only aware of the most basic elements.  That Cauldron sold powers, but not how we tested them.  He did not know of our relation to the Nine.”

“He made excuses for you,” Miss Militia said.  “Lied.  We can’t trust him any more than we can trust you.”

“I’m aware.  But what he does next is ultimately up to him.  I am only telling you what I know, and I know he did not know as much as Eidolon and I did.”

“That’s not good enough,” a cape said.  “You’ve committed crimes against humanity.  You bastards should be tried.”

“Do that, and the whole world pays.  Every cape would come under scrutiny, both from other parahumans and from the public.  Teams would dissolve, faith would falter, and I sincerely doubt we’d last through the next two Endbringer attacks in that kind of a state.”

All around me, capes exchanged glances.  I could hear angry murmurs, my swarm could sense fists clenching in anger.

“And the captives?  The people from other worlds Cauldron kidnapped?”  Miss Militia asked.

“Anyone with clearance should know that the number of people with physical mutations has declined steeply.  We’ve stopped experimenting.”

“Or so you say,” Tattletale cut in.

“I do.  Tell me I’m lying, Tattletale,” Alexandria said.

Tattletale shook her head.

“You need us,” Alexandria said.  “If not for the assistance we can provide in the face of class-S threats, then for the image, for the idea.  I’m trusting that each of you are sane enough, reasonable enough, to understand that.  You could come after us, but I assure you it wouldn’t be worth it.”

“And Cauldron?” someone asked.

“As I said, we’re only barely involved.  If you want to try going after them and get justice for what happened to the captives, feel free.  Just know that we can’t help you there.  We can’t give you access or information, because they’re out of your reach, and in the wake of all this, they’ll be out of our reach too.”

I felt numb.  She was everything I despised.  Authority, the institution, the self-serving people in power, the untouchable.  All around me, I could hear angry voices, each trying to drown the others out.  Chevalier was among them, Miss Militia was quiet.

Tattletale was quiet, oddly enough.

“I-” I started, but the voices drowned me out.

My swarm buzzed with noise.  People startled and jumped as the bugs moved, shifting from the various positions where I’d more or less hidden them at elbows and in armor plates.

I stepped out of the crowd, toward Alexandria, and then turned my back to her, facing the capes.  So many eyes on me.

“She’s right,” I said, my swarm carrying my voice for effect.

Voices rose in anger, and again, I had my swarm move, buzzing violently, until they stopped.

“I’m not a public speaker, so I’ll make it short.  I’ve got a long history with the Protectorate, a hell of a lot more experience being angry with them.  I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for them, and that’s not a good thing, not entirely.  But Alexandria’s right.  Not about Cauldron, or the human experimentation.  I don’t know anything about that.  But she’s right that we shouldn’t make any rash descisions.  Talk it out with your teammates before you make a call.  Maybe the various team and squad leaders should convene, form a unanimous decision.  I don’t know.  But… don’t let your anger push you to do something that affects everyone.  Please.”

A second passed.

“You’re not with the PRT, are you?” a cape asked.

“No,” I said.

“So you don’t have to wake up tomorrow and go to work, pretend like everything’s normal?”

“No.”

“Work beside someone, wondering if they lied about their trigger event?  If they maybe got their powers from a bottle, something made only because some psychopaths,” he spat the word out at Alexandria, “Decided to experiment on innocent people and sell the results at a profit?”

“No.  I don’t really have to wonder about that.”

“Then where the fuck do you get off, telling us what to do, then?”

“Calm down, Jouster,” Miss Militia said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You’re right.  It’s not my place,” I said.  I looked at Miss Militia and Chevalier.  Clockblocker was just a little ways behind them.  “Thanks for hearing me out.  Good luck.”

Atlas flew to my position.  I drew my bugs around me and took flight, rising well into the air and hiding myself in the mass of bugs before pausing to adjust to a sitting position.

I saw Legend hovering in the air.  His fists were clenched, and he was looking down.  He looked agonized.

If I’d had any idea what to say, I might have approached him.  I didn’t.

With a command, I directed Atlas away from the discussion that could decide history, maybe even the fate of the world.

I sat on the railing of my balcony, Atlas’ body hidden behind the towel-covered railing, serving as a footrest while I fed him a much-needed meal.  Unfolded pieces of paper sat in each of my hands.

I couldn’t stand to be there any longer.  I’d said what I could, for what little it was worth, but I was too tired, the stakes were too high, and Jouster had been right.  The consequences might have been world-spanning, but it was ultimately up to the Protectorate to decide what happened next.  I didn’t like feeling that helpless.

Beneath me, some kids from my territory were carrying boxes of treats I’d ordered two days ago.  They’d take more than their fair share, but they’d distribute the treats to the other people in my territory, people who had likely gone a good little while without a chocolate bar or bag of chewy candy.

There hadn’t been any clones in my range as I zig-zagged my way to the North end, no signs of swarm activity.  I’d stopped by home, checked things over with my bugs, and my dad was there, more or less fine.

I’d go home in just a little while.  It wasn’t a peaceful place, though.  This was.  My territory, being with people I’d taken care of, people I’d protected and fought for.  My heart was easier here than it was around my dad.

I was aware of the approaching figure, twisted around to get a look at Lisa.

“Can I come up?”

I pointed at the door, followed her movements as she navigated her way past Charlotte and up the stairs.  She reached the balcony and stepped out to hop onto the end of the railing opposite me.

“I own the land the hole to the other universe is on,” Tattletale said.  “Or Coil’s fake name does, and I can finagle that so I have control over it.”

I nodded.  “The meeting?  Did they decide?”

“Legend left first.  Then Alexandria and Eidolon.  The heroes were still talking when I left.”

“Okay,” I said.  That didn’t mean anything, not exactly, but it was better than the alternative.  The longer they talked, the more tempers would cool.

Perversely, I almost hoped that Cauldron had the clout to silence a few angry voices.  I could only hope that they were few and far enough between that the story wouldn’t reach the public.

“Rex,” Tattletale said.

“Hm?”

“His name was Reggie, but he got into sports in high school.  They started calling him Rex, until everyone used the name.  I don’t mean this to be insulting, but you were kind of opposites in a lot of ways.  He was this popular guy, charming.”

“Your boyfriend?”

She laughed, a short sound.  “My brother.”

“Oh.”

“My family was well-to-do, I think that’s come up.”

“Yeah.”

“When you’re that rich, when you have people working under you who do the chores and handle the stuff that you’d normally do with your family, sometimes it’s hard to stay a family, you know?”

Not really, I thought, but I nodded.

She gave me a funny look, but she didn’t call me on it.  “It gets to this point where, you know, your cool older brother only spends time with you because it’s his duty as a sibling.  And when you realize that, it sort of hurts.  Makes it insulting.  I think I caught on to that around the time I started high school.  I stopped accepting those token offers of siblinghood.  We were brother and sister, we lived in the same house, went to the same school.  Our paths crossed, but we didn’t interact.  We were strangers.  He was caught up being the popular senior, and I kind of resented him for it.”

“For not being a brother?”

Lisa shrugged.  “Don’t know.  More for acting like a brother than not being a real brother.  For being the popular kid, being the favorite child, heir to the family businesses.”

“What happened?”

“I started noticing, he was in rough shape.  The smiles seemed fake, he’d get angry easier.  Was bottling something up inside.”

“What was it?”

Lisa shrugged.  “I’ve dwelled on it so long I’ve imagined possibilities and derailed my train of thought.  Even with my power, I can’t guess.”

“And something happened?”

“He slowly got more and more distant.  He’d fake more smiles, get a little more angry, a little more reckless.  And then one day he offed himself.”

Just around the corner, some kids were screaming and shouting as they played.  One boy was pelting another with chocolate pellets.  The victim shrieked in pain.

My bugs swept over the boy with the chocolates, and the pair froze.  They looked around, trying and failing to see me, then ran for the nearest alleyway, fight forgotten.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“So am I,” Lisa sighed.  “I’ve spent so long trying to figure it out, but I couldn’t.  You’d think the star athlete might be gay, but it wasn’t that.  Something else.  I let on to my family that I’d noticed something, after, and they started blaming me.  They were grieving, but that doesn’t excuse it, does it?”

I shook my head.

“Calling me stupid, an idiot,” Lisa looked away.  “It got to be too much, like I was in a pressure cooker, everywhere I went, it was about him, and there was always this feeling, like everyone was aware that I’d known something and hadn’t spoken up, hadn’t done something to help.  I think I had my trigger event while I was asleep, tossing and turning and dreaming about it all.  And then, boom, I wake up and I start figuring stuff out, with killer migraines on the side.  Maybe if I’d caught on that it was powers sooner, I might have been more secretive, but my dad caught on.  Did a complete turnaround.  Faked affection, hid the real feelings, all to get me to use my power for the family’s benefit.”

Lisa shrugged.  “I was already seeing too much ugly, even before the powers.  Seeing more of it?  Seeing when people were being fake, when everything else was still screwy because of Rex’s suicide?  It was too much.  I took more money than I should have from my parents and I ran.”

“And Coil eventually found you.”

She nodded.  “And I eventually found you.  I took one look at you, and I had a grasp of what was going on.  Didn’t take too long for me to notice that you had that same air around you that Rex did.  Maybe I did what I could to save you because I couldn’t save him.”

“Earlier, you said that you couldn’t talk to me about the problem because I was the problem.”

“I saw it when you pulled the trigger, offed Coil.  You saved Dinah, and you described how you felt adrift in the aftermath of it.  But you found a new focus.  You could fight Echidna.  Save the city.  Me?  When you shot Coil, I realized I was done.  I’d helped you out of the same trap of despair Rex had been in.  Don’t know if the road I helped you down was a good one or a bad, but I’d finished.”

“But why be reckless?  Why take the risks?”

“Because I did what I had to do, I helped you, and I still feel like the stupid, self-obsessed little child that let her big brother die.  It wasn’t conscious, but maybe I felt like I needed to up the stakes.  Pull something dramatic.  Show that, with these crazy smart capes like Alexandria and Faultline around, I could still be the smartest person in the room.”

“And do you feel like the smartest person in the room?”  I asked.

She stared out over the cityscape.  “Maybe- maybe when the interuniversal trade takes off.  Can you imagine?  With me and you as the top dogs?  The whole world will pay attention to us.”

I hopped down from the railing, walking around Atlas as I made my way to Lisa.  I wrapped my arms around her, and she returned the hug.

I crumpled the papers in my fists.

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Scourge 19.6

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The Eidolon-clone apparently wasn’t worried about the mass of armed heroes that were mobilized against him.  No, his concern was being naked.

He touched Alexandria, and she flickered.  When the flickering died out, she was dressed in a costume; a long white cape, a white bodysuit with high boots and elbow length gloves and a stylized helmet that let her long black hair flow free.  The tower on her chest was a tumbled ruin.  The ruined lighthouse.  A mockery of her other self, the colors reversed.

I really wasn’t liking the implications for that flickering power.  Healing, the costume…

Legend shot the Eidolon-clone before he could do anything more.  A laser tore into the Eidolon’s chest cavity, slashed out to carve into Echidna’s foremost leg, causing it to buckle mid-step.

The Alexandria-clone floated up, interjecting herself between Legend and his targets.  He adjusted the beam’s orientation, and she moved to block it.  He divided it in two shots that she couldn’t block, and she charged him.  Legend broke off to flee.

I could see the Eidolon flickering to heal himself as Echidna charged the rest of us.

Our battle lines did what they could to slow her down, which didn’t amount to much.  She was massive, now, to the point that cars were trampled beneath her or sent rolling on impact.

Chevalier put himself directly in harm’s way.  He held his cannonblade out to one side, and I could see it swelling in size.

There were a hundred feet between them, seventy-five, fifty-

The sword was growing with every moment, as well.

He brought the blade down to the ground, a razor’s edge biting deep into pavement, the blade’s point directed at Echidna.  Then he pulled the trigger.  The fact that it was impaled in the ground kept the recoil manageable, and the fact that it was as large as it was meant that the effect was that much more impressive.

Echidna leaped to the side as the cannonball ripped out of the weapon.  Not quite fast enough, she wasn’t able to avoid the worst of it.  Three of her eight legs, all on one side of her body, were turned into flecks of gore.  She hit the ground and her momentum carried her forward, skidding.

Chevalier didn’t flinch as she hurtled towards him.  Instead, he waited until her trajectory brought the right part of her into harm’s way, then shot out more of her limbs.  The impact of the hit brought her to a halt, spinning until her back was to him, only two of her monstrous claws intact.

A female hero threw out small ice crystals in Echidna’s direction, and they expanded explosively into virtual glaciers on impact.  Maybe the intent was to give Echidna less room to regenerate.

Chevalier withdrew the twenty-five foot long blade from the ground and chopped at Noelle – the upper body that jutted out of Echidna’s back.  He severed her from the monster at the stomach, turning the blade mid-swing to catch the body on the flat of the weapon. He swatted her away, separating the girl from the monster.

The impact of Noelle’s landing was enough to kill, but she didn’t die.  She flailed weakly for long seconds before she started falling apart.

Echidna caught Chevalier with a tongue.  He cut the tongue with his blade, and walked around her, blade poised, as if he were trying to find a place to strike.

I realized he was trying to find a way to rescue the people inside.  Alexandria, Eidolon, and seventeen of the capes who’d volunteered to fight this thing.  Had he directed the cannon blast with the same intent?  To avoid harming the people within?

Chevalier was struck.  He turned, and was hit again.  He was under siege from one of the nigh-invincible clones, with the burning hands.  The guy was digging his hands into a car at one side of the street, coming up with hunks of white-hot metal and flinging them.

He scraped them off, but more attacks were incoming.  One cape threw a stone, and though the speed and arc of the thrown rock didn’t seem to amount to much, it shattered one of the glaciers the ice-cape had erected.

Chevalier used his cannonblade to block another rock and a lump of molten metal from striking home.  From above and behind him, the woman with the ice shards began raining her attacks down on the clones, encasing them in ice.

I joined in, sending my swarm forth into the fray.  They flowed from the battlefield around me, finding paths to travel between the crags of ice and the capes.  Cockroaches tore into the membranes of eyes.  Hornets found flesh to bite that was close to arteries and veins, stings dug into the most sensitive flesh, and ants worked together to scissor and tear flesh more efficiently.

More bugs moved in the Eidolon-clone’s direction.  The flying insects faltered, their usual mechanisms for movement failing them.  Then they started falling out of the air.

They were suffocating; it was a vacuum.

He’d chosen his powers, and by the looks of it, he’d dressed himself in a mirror of his other self’s costume.  A costume with a black hood, loose black sleeves and a pale red-orange glow emanating from each opening.

The flickering.  Was that some variant on Scapegoat’s power?  More broad?  Paging through realities to find the state he wanted to be in?  Uninjured, dressed?

There were a lot of ugly possibilities with that one.  Could he affect how he was accessing powers?

He took one step, and was carried off the ground.  It wasn’t flight so much as floating.  Combine that with the vacuum around him… It had to be aerokinesis.  Manipulation of air.

Miss Militia took a shot at him, and he reeled.  There was a flickering, and he was back in the position he’d been in a moment before, uninjured.

She changed guns, and unloaded two assault rifles in his direction.

Her hits were on target- at first.  His armor absorbed the worst of it, and he undid the damage he’d taken with more flickering.  The bullets gradually moved off target, grazing him instead of striking vital areas.  A moment later, they stopped hitting entirely.

The effect he was using to alter their trajectories hit the rest of us a moment later.  I felt Atlas’s wings beat against nothing for just a moment before we caught air again, steered him through a sudden, unexpected headwind that dissipated as fast as it had started, and then found a spare moment to pull up, putting distance between myself and the Eidolon clone.

My bugs gave me a sense of his effect’s perimeter.  The storm effect had a diameter of roughly three-quarters my own range, no doubt allowing him to sense where people were by the movements of the air.

The vacuum extended roughly a hundred feet around him, the air condensing into threads that found him and flowed into his mask to sustain him.  Even the clones on his side were suffering, falling to their hands and knees or running to get away.  He was indiscriminate, and far more dangerous because of it.

He was approaching the battlefield where we’d engaged the clones, where many of our heroes had fallen.  If the vacuum extended over them, they wouldn’t last long.  I wasn’t sure what kind of effect it would have, but even the smallest push could mean the difference between life and death, and this wasn’t necessarily small.

“Rachel!” I shouted, but the wind kept my voice from reaching anyone.  It didn’t matter.  I could use my bugs, too, not as a collective effort, but with ten thousand voices in a hundred ears.  “Rachel!  Get over here and fetch the wounded!  Everyone else!  Get your teammates back!  He’s surrounded by a vacuum!

Heroes kicked into action, hurrying to collect the injured.  Rachel was occupied trying to herd the clones at the far edges of the battlefield, but she heard my order and broke away from the skirmish.

We still had to manage those clones, though.  A few Kudzu, and none of the forge-guys.  If they got away-

I contacted the ice dispenser.  She was trying to cover Echidna in more ice, but the wind was blowing the shards away.  “Need your help to contain clones.  This way.”

My bugs pointed the way.  She hesitated, tried to shout something to Chevalier, but went unheard.  She decided to follow my instruction, flying in the direction I’d indicated with the bugs.

Okay, so she was one of Chevalier’s people.  I told Chevalier, “Your ice cape is dealing with clones.

He only nodded.  He at least knew she didn’t have his back, now.

People were moving too slowly as they dragged and carried teammates away.  Worse, there were only so many able bodies.  Only three or four out of every ten heroes were down, all in all, but some required two people to move, and there were those like Tecton that required enhanced strength to budge.  Eidolon was getting dangerously close, now.

People screamed and shouted in alarm as Rachel reached the fallen.  She barely paused as she stopped momentarily by each body, pointed, and screamed the name of one of her dogs.

It’s okay,” I communicated, though it was getting harder with what Eidolon was doing with the air.  “Rescue operation only.

The dogs followed her instructions as much by mimicking Bentley as by anything else, it seemed.  I knew they weren’t well trained, and there was a reason she didn’t bring these dogs on every excursion.  It would look bad if we killed a hero in the process of rescuing them, but we were risking that simply by moving the wounded.  It had been reinforced over and over in the first aid class I’d taken, never to risk moving anyone who was injured.

Then again, this wasn’t exactly a typical situation.  Better to remove them from near-certain death.

With Rachel rescuing the wounded, the Eidolon-clone didn’t have any easy targets in reach.  Instead, he turned and floated toward Echidna.  Ice was chipped and whittled away by what must have been sharp blasts and currents of condensed wind, with fragments flying toward him, twisting in mid air and whipping back at the chunks of ice they’d come from, helping to chip away.  Enough cracks formed that Echidna could use her two remaining limbs to leverage herself to her feet.

The meaty, frost-crusted ruins where her legs had been blown away by Chevalier were healing over, bulging where muscle and bone were growing within the stump.  Bone penetrated the flesh where her claws and armor were.

And on top, Noelle was already more or less regrown, her arms wrapped around her upper body in a straightjacket of flesh, her eyes closed and face turned toward the sky.

Chevalier took aim and shot, and the cannonball veered in midair, slamming into Echidna instead of Eidolon’s clone.  One of Echidna’s growing limbs was destroyed, but so was the glacier that had encased it.

The Eidolon hit Chevalier with a focused blast of wind, and the hero went flying, the air in the Eidolon’s range shifting to reduce resistance and carry him further.

Chevalier was out of my range before he hit ground.

Legend and Alexandria still fought above us.  I could, when he passed into my range, note how he got faster the longer he flew, giving him the ability to put distance between himself and Alexandria, but he couldn’t stop to take aim and shoot without losing that acceleration and giving her a chance to close the gap.

The result was that he was flying in loops and circles, using the turns to find opportunities to take aim and fire on her.  She dodged most, but the hits that did land bought him distance and time to stop and laser down clones who were attempting to escape.

If any of them slipped away, it could be disastrous.  One clone could track down their original self’s family and murder them, or even go after innocent civilians.  My bugs were blinding them, finding weak points, but there were some that my bugs couldn’t touch that Legend was succeeding in taking out, like the forge-man.

Myrddin was below Legend and Alexandria, recuperating from holding Echidna at bay.  He took to the air, flying up to Echidna and the Eidolon-clone from behind.

He pointed his staff at the Eidolon, and his target disappeared.

The air the Psycho-Eidolon had compressed expanded all at once, sending Myrddin flying off course and Echidna rolling sideways, over a line of parked cars.  For the moment, the vacuum was gone.

Myrddin set himself down on the ground.  He wasn’t using his power against Echidna or the clones, which suggested that his reserves were low.

The Eidolon-clone reappeared.  He turned and spotted Myrddin.  The two started fighting, the Eidolon trying to close the gap and trap Myrddin in his vacuum, which was considerably smaller in area than before, but growing every second.  He hampered the self-professed wizard’s flying with headwinds and gusts, and sharp blasts of wind that Myrddin deflected or dodged.  Myrddin, for his part, attacked relentlessly, pummeling the Eidolon with explosions of energy alternating with scattered releases of whatever he managed to suck in while close to the ground.

Echidna was mending, and with Chevalier down and our heavy hitters more or less out of the running, I wasn’t sure we could stop her.

We needed to stall.

One tinker had machines rigged on the ground, with forcefields erected in layers, one behind the other, five between himself and Echidna.  I’d glimpsed him at work before, knew it wouldn’t hold if she really hit the things.  They were dangerous or lethal to the touch, if the experiences of my swarm was any indication, but little more than an annoyance for Echidna.

The ice cape was back, having dealt with the clones.  She began laying down more glaciers around Echidna, but with the monster being more able-bodied than before, it was only a temporary barrier.

We needed something more effective.

My eyes roved over the fallen, both those that had been rescued and the ones that still lay on the ground, injured or dead.  Weld had Kid Win and Scapegoat, and I recognized Browbeat dragging Tecton behind him.  He must have joined another team in another city, only to find himself accompanying them in a return trip to Brockton Bay.

No.  This wasn’t a case where we needed brute force.  Echidna was liable to win any case of hand-to-hand combat that wasn’t against a full-on Endbringer.

Maybe she could even come out ahead in a close-quarters fight against the likes of Leviathan or the Simurgh, if she was capable of absorbing them.

Scary thought.

I recognized so few of the capes around me.  There was a girl who was emanating red lightning that wasn’t harming the allies she struck, apparently accelerating them to a faster speed instead.  I had seen her somewhere, but had no idea who she was.  A boy was fading in and out of reality, grabbing capes and then disappearing with his rescuee in tow.  He’d reappear a moment later, a few paces away, before fading out of existence.  He wasn’t teleporting, he merely wasn’t here when he was walking, some of the time.

Rachel arrived with a number of fallen capes in tow.  I flew low to the ground and helped lower them to the nearest solid surface.  One dog had bitten too firmly, not knowing its own strength, cracking body armor and maybe a rib.  I didn’t mention it – it was obvious enough that people would catch on before he was in terminal danger, but we didn’t need people turning on Rachel or getting distracted from the matter at hand.  The man was alive, and that was better than if he’d been caught in the vacuum.

Psycho-Eidolon went on the offensive against Myrddin, shoving the hero against a wall and then holding him there by pummeling him with repeated blasts of wind.  The Eidolon got close enough to catch Myrddin in the vacuum, and the bugs I had on Myrddin started to perish with surprising speed.

Myrddin, for his part, stopped fighting entirely, trying only to escape.  The Eidolon caught him and knocked the staff from his hand, then pinned him against the wall, choking him with the vacuum.  I knew it was supposed to take around two minutes to suffocate, but that presumed one was able to hold some air in their lungs.

Myrddin’s struggles were getting weaker by the second, almost from the instant he was in the Eidolon’s range.

The Eidolon’s grip slipped from Myrddin’s neck and he careened into the ground, hard.  Again, air billowed out around him, thrusting Myrddin into the wall once more, but supplying him with much needed air.

I could see Regent, turned towards that particular bout of fighting.  Had he been responsible?

It wasn’t enough to revive Myrddin.  He fell to the ground, only a short distance from the Eidolon, and slumped down into a prone position.  One hand pressed against his chest, and he went limp.

The Psycho-Eidolon stood, and Miss Militia opened fire, joined by several other capes.  The Eidolon was driven back, forced to flicker to recover from the blasts.  Again, his armor was absorbing the impacts.  It would be the best stuff money could buy, if it was a functional copy of what his other self wore, and it was healing every time he did.

Then, as before, he found a way to divert the incoming fire away from himself.  The bullets and laser blasts stopped, no doubt because the heroes didn’t want the Eidolon redirecting any of their fire towards Myrddin.

My bugs flowed in, carrying a length of cord.  I bound the Eidolon’s neck as he walked up to Myrddin’s unconscious form, but there wasn’t anything significant to tie the cord to.  I chose a car’s side-mirror.

He stopped short, a pace away from the fallen hero, then flickered.  The cord came free of his neck as though he weren’t even there, and he bent down over Myrddin.  I swore under my breath and tried to bind him again, knowing how ineffectual it would be at this point.

It was Wanton who moved to stop the Eidolon, turning into a virtual poltergeist, with debris and dust flying around him.  He barely slowed as Eidolon directed a blast of wind his way.

The Eidolon flickered, and a knife with a wavy blade appeared in his hand.  Before Wanton could reach him, he gripped Myrddin’s mask, raised the hero’s chin towards the sky, knife held ready.

His hand convulsed, and he dropped the knife.  Regent.

An instant later, he flickered, rendering his hand untouched, the knife back in position.  He thrust it into the soft underside of Myrddin’s chin.

Wanton hit him a moment later, tearing the dagger from the Eidolon’s hand and using it to cut and bludgeon the clone.

Myrddin was dead or dying, I couldn’t even guess if Chevalier was okay or not, and two of the three members of the Triumvirate had been turned against us.  We were swiftly running out of big guns.

The red lightning girl hurried past me, helping mobilize a group of heroes with more wounded.  We had maybe forty to fifty capes on our side, with twenty that were no longer in any shape to fight.

I saw Gully with two heroes cradled against her body with one arm, the other arm holding her shovel, planting it in the pavement like it was a walking stick.

One of the heroes was Clockblocker.  The face of his mask had been shattered, revealing the softer padding beneath.  I didn’t recognize the other cape, a guy with green dyed hair and a domino mask.

“Stop,” I told her.  “Is he okay?”

“Ramus is, but I think the clock boy is going to die,” she said.  She glanced over her shoulder at the Psycho-Eidolon.  He’d broken away from Wanton, and was working on mending the damage, one part of his body at a time.

If there was a limitation to his self-heailng, it was that.  It was healing by degrees, weaker against all-around damage.  If my bugs could have gotten to him, that might have done some damage, but they’d have to get past his armor, which looked like the all-concealing sort, and there was the not-insignificant matter of the vacuum.

“Clockblocker,” I said.  “You there?”

He turned his head toward me.  I could barely make him out over the wind.  “You’re still here.”

What did he mean by that?  Was he surprised that I was still alive?  That I hadn’t run?  I wasn’t sure how to respond.

Craved a fight,” the words reached me despite the winds that were tearing across the battlefield.  It wasn’t my bugs speaking, either.  “I hoped you’d challenge me.

Eidolon.  He was echoing his sentiment from earlier, that had driven him to fight Echidna alone, except it was twisted, warped, the original reasoning forgotten.

Do I need to get you angrier?  Do I need to push you harder?  I could torment you, inflict pain on your teammates until you’re forced to throw all caution to the wind and come at me with everything you’ve got.  Or I could attack you on another level.  Would you like me to tell you a story?

Echidna belched out another set of clones.

There was one forge-man, two identical to the one I’d seen flinging stones at Chevalier.  And an Alexandria.  They lurched to their feet, but they didn’t attack.  They were letting Eidolon speak.

We founded Cauldron.  The Triumvirate.  The Number Man.  William Manton.  The Doctor.  We sold people powers.

“No,” Clockblocker said.  Other murmurs came from the crowd.

It meant more people with powers to fight the Endbringers, that was the lie we told ourselves.  But we created the Siberian and Shatterbird, in a roundabout way.  We created the Gray Boy, selling him powers, finding ourselves unable to stop him when he went out of bounds.  There were countless others.  Echidna is just the latest in a long series of grave mistakes.”

Nobody moved.  I suspected that if anyone attacked him, they’d be seen as a Cauldron sympathizer, trying to shut him up.  I could see Noelle: her arms had separated from her torso, but she left them limp at her sides, her long hair in her face as she stared up at him.

We made the PRT, pretended to let ourselves be run by the unpowered, but we put Alexandria in charge.  We manipulated media, manipulated nations, in the interest of power.  We ventured into alternate worlds to kidnap people, experimented on them to refine our formulas.  And the failed tests?  The people who turned out wrong?  We cast them out, tossed them out as a bonus to anyone willing to pay a little more for an enemy that was guaranteed to lose against them.”

The Eidolon moved, facing one of the monstrous parahumans I didn’t know.  A boy with crimson skin and hair.  The clone spoke, “That’s all you were, monsters.  Little more than the cheap towels that are on offer for a few extra dollars when you buy something on a shopping channel.

Legend shouted something, but the wind kept his voice from reaching us.  He had to fly to avoid the Alexandria-clone’s unending pursuit.

The other, naked Alexandria took flight and went after him.

It said a lot that nobody moved to help.

I glanced at Gully, saw her already disfigured face contorted with emotion.

“He’s lying,” I said, to her.  “Twisting the truth to make it sound worse than it is.”

Gully only made a small noise in response.

“He couldn’t make all that up,” Clockblocker said.  Were it not for the bugs I had near his mouth, I wasn’t sure I would have caught what he was saying in the face of the wind.  “… kernel of truth.”

It’s all been a ploy from the start,” the Eidolon-clone said, his aerokinesis carrying his words to our ears, “Every single one of you were deceived.  For every one of you that bought your powers, there were innocents who died or became monsters for the sake of that formula’s research.  No matter what good you might do, it will never make up for that.  And the rest of you?  Conned, brought in with promises of ideals and saving the world.  You’re fools.

And with that, he let the wind die down.  There was a crunching noise as Echidna shifted her weight, but that was followed only by silence, the sound of murmurs.

“We just lost,” Clockblocker said.

I looked at him, saw Gully hanging her head.

He wasn’t wrong.  We were suffering losses, and we hadn’t achieved anything.  Echidna was as strong as she’d ever been, stronger than she’d been at the outset of the fight, and she kept on acquiring clones that cost more than we could afford to put down.  Alexandria and Eidolon were only the tips of the iceberg.

“It’s a big hit to morale, but-”

“No,” Clockblocker cut me off.  “We lost.  Not this fight.  Maybe we can still win it, won’t deny it’s possible, with Scion maybe showing up.  But the big picture?  There’s no coming back from this.  Without the Protectorate, without all the work that it does to organize heroes around the world, there’s no getting everyone working together.  The amount of anger?  The suspicion, wondering if a teammate took the formula or not?  How can we go up against the next Endbringer that shows up?”

“We’ll manage,” I said.  “We’ll find a way.”

He barked out a cough, groaned.  “Fuck, don’t make me laugh.”

“Laugh?”

“Never took you for an optimist.”

Was I?  Or was it just that the heroes were reeling just a little more in the wake of these revelations.  I wasn’t surprised, and I was betting the other Undersiders weren’t either.

Advantage: us.  We villains were the only ones who could really think straight in the wake of all this.  Except Tattletale, Grue and Imp were elsewhere, and Regent and Rachel weren’t really in a position to do anything major here.

I stared at the scene, Legend doing his best to fend off two Alexandrias, and Eidolon looking down on us, the crowd of fools.  I could see Echidna, standing still, surveying it all, much as I was.

No, not Echidna.  Noelle.

“I need your help,” I told Clockblocker.

“Can’t fight.”

“Don’t need you to fight,” I told him.  I reached behind my back, drew my gun.  I pressed it into his hands.  “If and when she comes for me, aim for the back of my head.  It’s unarmored, anything else might mean I survive, and I don’t want to be hers.  Not again.”

“Hers?” he asked.  “What are you doing?”

I paused.  “Wait until the last second.  Just in case.  You can call that more optimism, I guess.”

“Skitter?”

I moved my bugs away from the heroes around us and into the air, a cloud capable of getting attention.

If I was going to do this, I was going for optimal effect.

Back when this skirmish had started, I’d wondered if I’d be willing to make a sacrifice if it meant coming out ahead.  Even when the idea of throwing away one life for the greater good had crossed my mind, it had been with the notion that it would be me paying the price.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t, ask someone else to do it.

Fuck it.  I wasn’t about to back down now, not with the stakes this high.

With the swarm swirling through the air, and the fact that I was the only person moving in this otherwise still tableau, all eyes were on me.  Noelle’s included.

“Noelle!” I screamed her name.  My swarm augmented my voice, carrying it much as the wind had carried Eidolon’s.

She turned toward me.

“It is you, isn’t it?  It’s Noelle, and not Echidna?”

She didn’t respond.  My swarm drifted between us, partially to help obscure me, to cloak me from her vision if she charged me.

“At the start of all this, you offered a deal.  Any of your captives for one of us Undersiders.  Is that deal still open?”

I saw her shift position, planting her massive claws further apart.

“You’re dead anyways,” she said.

You’re not wholly wrong.

“Follow through with the deal, maybe you get to kill me yourself.  And maybe the other heroes here will turn the other Undersiders in for a chance that they can walk away alive.”

“You’re saying you’ll let your team die?”

“My team can fend for themselves,” I said.  “Right now?  I’m offering you me, in exchange for Eidolon.  That’s all.”

“The one who deceived them?” she looked out over the crowd.  “What makes you think they want him?”

“They don’t,” I said.  I made sure that everyone present could hear as my bugs carried my voice.  “But they need him.”

If there was any salvaging this, any way of recovering from this terminal hit to morale and avoiding the scenario Clockblocker had outlined, I had to make sure that everyone recognized how essential it was that we kept the big guns on hand for future Endbringer attacks.  Regardless of what they’d done in their pasts.  If it came down to it, I was willing to put myself on the line.  I’d die to drive the point home if it came down to it.

Noelle spat Eidolon out.  He landed, covered in puke, wearing his costume.  He recovered faster than the other heroes had, faster than I had.  He took to the air, flying toward the other members of the Protectorate.

A pair of flying heroes moved closer together, barring his path.

Through the bugs I had placed on the two flying heroes, I could hear him.  A single utterance, monosyllabic.  “Ah.”

He turned, surveying the scene, then started to fly towards Legend.  The other Eidolon moved to match his flight, and the original stopped.  If he moved to help, he’d only be bringing his clone into the fight with him.  He settled above a building, on the other side of the street from his mirror opposite, keeping a wary eye on Legend and the chase that the two Alexandria clones were giving.

“Now’s the part where you run,” Noelle told me.

“I’m not running.”

“You’ll try something.  Because you’re a coward.  You don’t have it in you.  You’re selfish.  You killed Coil when you knew we needed his help.”

“I killed Coil because he was a monster,” I said.  I didn’t let my voice carry, but it didn’t matter.  Others had heard what she said.  “But I’m not running.”

I sensed Rachel kick Bentley, stirring him to action.  Some of my bugs barred her path, forcing her to pull short and stop before he’d moved two paces.

“How do I finish you, then?” she asked.  “Should I puke on you and let them tear you apart while everyone watches?”

“Someone might try to save me,” I said.  “They’re still heroes, after all.  Takes a lot to stomach watching a girl get beaten to death.”

“Then I kill you myself,” she said, and there was a growl to her voice.  That would be Echidna chiming in, at least in part.  “They’ll see what you’re made of when you break and start running, and they can’t stop me from tearing you apart.”

That said, she charged.  The ground shook with her advance, and the heroes only stood and watched, no doubt considering the possibility that I was right, that they could negotiate their way out of all this.

I closed my eyes, using my bugs to stop Rachel from intervening for the second time.

I took a deep breath.  Every instinct I had told me to run, to find shelter, to survive, or take cover.  But I had to do this.

Instead, I used my bugs to whisper to Clockblocker, “Use your power.”

There was only one thing for him to use his power on.  He froze the gun.  Along with the gun, he froze the length of thread I’d attached to the weapon.

The thread, in turn, was held aloft by the bugs that flew as a curtain between Noelle and I.

I kept my eyes closed, relying on my bugs to feed me input, dissociating from my real self, because it kept me still, and that kept Echidna on course for the thread that extended vertically through the curtain.

Spider silk was, generally speaking, about two to three times as thick as the thinnest part of a safety razor.  That was still pretty thin, especially when Clockblocker’s power rendered it immobile, utterly unyielding even as a monster with three times the mass of an African Elephant crashed into it.

She tried to pull to a stop as she made contact with the thread, but her momentum carried her all the way through.  The bracing of her foremost limbs against the ground only helped to force the separation of the two halves.

Severed, the two pieces of her body crashed down to either side of me.  Despite my best intentions, I stumbled a little at the impact.

Hit the Eidolon-Clone,” I spoke to Miss Militia through my bugs, hurrying to step away from Noelle’s bisected form.  “Hit him hard.

The Eidolon-clone moved one arm in our direction, only to stop short.  A thread that had draped his arm was now a rigid barrier, connected to the same thread that I’d positioned between Noelle and I.  He tried to retreat, only to find the thread I’d circled around his neck holding him firm.

He started to flicker, no doubt to escape.  One arm free.  Then another.

Miss Militia hefted her rocket launcher.  Our Eidolon was already flying to Legend’s rescue as she pulled the trigger.  The Eidolon-clone wasn’t quite free when the warhead hit home.  For extra measure the explosion drove him against the threads that had draped his body.

If I’d been good at the punchlines, I might have thrown one out there.  The best I could come up with was, Flicker that.

Watch the two pieces,” I communicated through my swarm, still backing away from Noelle.  “Tattletale said there’s a core to her, that’s supplying the regeneration.  Whichever half regenerates is the half with the core.  We narrow it down, then we destroy it.  We can win this.

I could see Echidna’s body swelling, growing huge with tumorous bulges as she sought to rebuild her other half.  Still, she was nigh-immobile, and the heroes were free to unload every offensive power they had on her.  Wanton and Weld advanced, tearing into her, pulling people free and seeking something that might be her core.  She was regenerating faster than they were dealing damage, but every passing moment saw one cape freed, more ground covered.

Her other half was decaying at the same time.  The captives that were trapped in her flesh were revealed as it dessicated, and capes freed each person in turn.

She lurched, then forced herself into contact with her decaying other half, reconnecting to it.  She was minus eleven captives, by my count, Alexandria among them, but she was reforming.  I wouldn’t be able to bait her like that again, but I might be able to contain her.

I glanced at Clockblocker.  Gully had carried him to Scapegoat, who had roused from unconsciousness, and he was getting care.  He looked at me, offered me a curt nod.

I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I did the same.

Behind me, bugs could sense the approach of a containment van.  Tattletale, I could hope, with Faultline’s crew, perhaps.  Chevalier was perched in the fortified turret on top, his sword resting on one shoulder.

We can win this fight, I mused, and this time I could believe it.

But I was all too aware of the movement of a particular contingent of capes.  Having deposited Clockblocker, Gully distanced herself from the other heroes, approached Weld and the red-skinned boy.  The Cauldron-made, standing apart.

Across the battlefield, I was aware, there were very few people standing shoulder to shoulder.  People were distanced from one another as though their personal space was ten feet across, avoiding eye contact, with no conversation, and I wasn’t seeing any upturn in morale.  There wasn’t a cheer to be heard, and squad leaders weren’t giving orders to their subordinates.

I could only hope this divide wouldn’t prove as telling as the one I’d delivered to Noelle.

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