Imago 21.3

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Regent’s base was in the midst of renovations.  The exterior was tame, unassuming, but the interior was becoming something else entirely.  The floor and walls were being covered in stone tile, suits of armor stood on either side of the doorway, and I could see ornate chandeliers at one side of the room, each individual segment separated from the others by extensive bubble wrap.

There was a dais at the far end of the room, almost a stage, with a throne laying on its side on top.  Four people were working in the room.  Workers Tattletale had hired, who would get enough steady employment and money to reward their silence.  Two were working on the walls, one worked on the floor, and the fourth was preparing the dais so the throne could be bolted into place.

“Found it,” Regent said.  He raised his scepter, tossed it into the air and let it spin twice before catching the handle.

I winced.  “Careful.  You really don’t want to catch the wrong end and electrocute yourself.”

He only chuckled.

“It’s daylight.  It’s fucked up that we’re doing this in the middle of the day,” Imp groused, as we ventured outside.  Atlas was waiting, and started half-crawling, half-flying alongside us.

“What does it matter to you?” I asked her.  “It’s not like it makes any difference with your power.”

“It’s the principle of it,” Regent said.  He was walking briskly to keep up with Imp, Atlas, and me.  Despite everything we’d been through, he wasn’t one to exercise or take care of his body, and he huffed just a little to keep his breath. “This is the sort of maneuver you pull in the dead of night.”

I shook my head.  “Circumstances are ideal right now.  You don’t handicap yourself by trying to conform to any preconceived notions.  Keep a goal in mind, look at everything through the lens of that goal, and look for paths to get what you want.  If they’re prepared for you, you strike from an unexpected direction.  If everyone else is expecting a maneuver from an oblique angle, you take a direct route.”

“See, that sounds like a whole lot of work,” Regent said, “Constantly thinking about that stuff.  When do you sit back and chill out?”

“Either you make that kind of thinking a part of yourself, you lose a little sleep to achieve that ‘me’ time, or you don’t get to relax,” I said.

“Doesn’t sound fun at all,” Regent said.

“If it was easy to take over a city, more people would have managed it,” I said.  “This is work.  There’s always more to be done, whether you’re dealing with your enemies, dealing with your subordinates or coordinating with your allies.  If you find you have free time, you’re probably fucking up.”

“Or!” he said, raising a finger, “I could delegate.”

“That’s a recipe for failure,” I told him.

“My dad managed it.”

Heartbreaker, I thought.  I was put in mind of the images of Heartbreaker that had made the web.  The villain, by virtue of his personal, extensive harem, had a whole cadre of women virtually climbing over each other for the chance to fawn over him and worship him.  The pictures were a consequence of that, released by his ‘girls’, as Regent had termed them.  Each picture depicted a man in his thirties or forties, depending on the time the picture in question had been taken.  He had black hair, the scruff of a beard, and was invariably seen sitting or reclining on couches and beds, often shirtless, with women at the periphery of the image.  He oozed confidence and raw sexuality, languid, more lanky than athletic.

I could envision Regent in a very similar picture.  Years older, grown to his full height and proportions, surrounded not by women, but by the people he had claimed as his tools.  Capes he controlled with his power.  Acceptable targets perhaps, people who would be destined for the Birdcage or long sentences in prison, but still people.  A different underlying theme than sexuality: Regent would be sitting casually on his throne, pampered in a very different way than I’d seen with his father, having been fed, washed and dressed by a half-dozen pairs of hands working in unison.  Regent controlled people so absolutely that he would essentially be pampering himself; it was a charade.  Almost the inverse of his father, in some ways, but still narcissistic at its core.

The idea bothered me more than I wanted to admit, and it bothered me in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.  Did I not want him to become that?  I did.  I wanted him to be powerful, and that was what he’d naturally become, given his personality and powers.  I wanted him to customize his lair like he was, because he’d inevitably have people he was controlling in there, and it would be worth a thousand times the amount it cost if it helped him convey a certain image.

Maybe part of it was the ease with which I could put Imp in that imaginary crowd of people who were waiting on him hand and foot.

I’d have to talk to Grue about that.

“You’ve gone quiet,” Regent said.

“Oh!” Imp closed the distance between us, wrapping both of her arms around one of mine, “Did he win the argument?  Tell me he won the argument.”

“We’re discussing, not debating,” I said.

“People say that sort of thing when they’re losing,” she said.

I ignored her.  “I was just wondering, Regent… do you really want to follow in your dad’s footsteps?”

He didn’t respond right away.  He looked away from Imp and I both, as if he were idly observing the scenery.

“You’re a little bit of an asshole, aren’t you?” Regent asked.

“Only when I have to be,” I said, mildly surprised at the reaction.

“Fuck it,” Imp said, letting go of my arm.  “Us two lesser members of the group need a little victory here and there.  Need to win arguments, get more rep.”

“That’s why we’re here,” I said.  “If everything goes well, today should serve several purposes, and one of those was that I wanted to see how you two are operating.”

“Great,” Regent commented, giving Imp a look.  “Mom’s watching over us, making sure we’re doing it right.”

“For any of our enemies with the sense to realize it, you two are the scariest members of the Undersiders,” I said.  “Let’s focus on using that.”

“I’m already using it,” Imp said.

“Probably,” I replied.

“You mean this is about me,” Regent said.  “You ask us both to come along to tutor us in how to freak people out, but Imp doesn’t need any help, so this has to be about me.”

I suppressed a sigh.  These two.  “Not only you.  Imp was doing a terrific job of terrorizing troublemakers in the territory she shared with Grue.  She graduated to owning her own territory, and the fact that she’s there has been keeping Valefor and Eligos at bay.  That’s good.  But it can’t hurt to get an objective opinion and find out how to do it betterI do that, with Grue and Tattletale’s feedback.”

“I’m versatile,” Regent said.  “Give me credit.”

“I’m not saying you aren’t, I’m saying we can always stand to improve,” I replied.

Regent tossed his scepter into the air and caught it.  It bugged me, the idea that he might accidentally taze himself and collapse, with some bystander catching the thing on video.  He knew it bugged me, and it was undoubtedly a very deliberate way to get on my case.  I ignored it.

I thought about what Imp had done in Grue’s territory; Grue had filled me in on the basics and I’d heard more from people who’d been in that area.  As standalone individuals, none of the members of our team had fully matured.  We were finding our way, figuring out the roles we wanted and needed to take, adjusting our images.

Who would Imp be, a couple of years down the line?  It was maybe bizarre to think about the future, with the way Tattletale had outlined the possible ends of the world, but it was defeatist to let things slide because things might end prematurely.  I’d seen Imp change from someone on the periphery of the group, struggling to find a position, to a lesser terror.  She’d cut down superpowered clones with ease, and she was fearless and reckless in a way that could only ease her journey down a bloodier path.

Would Imp become an assassin?  At age eighteen or twenty, would she be an unholy terror, coldly and remorselessly executing enemies who couldn’t even be aware enough to guard against her?  If Tattletale erased all records of Imp, if we employed measures to restrict people from tracking her on video cameras and the like, what might Imp become?

Both Regent as a successor to Heartbreaker and Imp as a murderer with a body count were possible.  Even likely.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to do about that.  With Imp, maybe I could have words with Grue, but Regent…

I was still thinking on the subject of Regent, searching for an angle I could use to convince him, when I was distracted.  My swarm noted a number of soft movements, like a flurry of leaves in the wind.

Autumn was months away, there weren’t many trees around, and there wasn’t wind.

“Found them,” I said.

“Which?” Regent asked.

“Haven.  The Fallen will be nearby.  We’ve got Rosary in a combat mode, and Halo’s not in the air, as far as I can see, so they’re obviously geared up for a fight.  In your territory,” I said, eyeing Regent.

“I could’ve done something if Tattletale called me first.”

I drew myself against a building, increasing the number of bugs I was using to scout for trouble.  “What would you have done?”

“Waited until they were done fighting each other, go after the stragglers.”

“There’s a lot of flaws with that idea,” I said.

He shrugged.  “I’m flexible.  I could figure something out.”

The more I thought on it, the less sure I was that there was any way it’d really work.  It was an easy way out.

I had a growing suspicion that Regent was interested in being in charge for more for the sake of being in charge than anything else.  It made his position tenuous because he wasn’t doing much to hold it.  If this was his modus operandi, then he risked being seen as more of a hyena that preyed on the weak than someone powerful.

“So… if Haven won, they’d arrest Valefor or Eligos, cart the pair off to jail and then leave.  What would you do?”

“Don’t know.  Would have to see the situation for myself.”

“Or if Valefor won, what would you even do?  The members of Haven would be too dangerous to get near.”

“Again, I don’t know,” he said.  He glanced at Imp.  “Today’s going to be a fun day.”

I frowned.

Rosary wasn’t close, but her presence was unmistakable.  Bugs I’d settled on a car were scattered into the air, carried aloft on paper-thin slices of stainless steel and glass.  I had them take flight, returning in the general direction of the car, measured the progress of her power as more of the debris filled the air, surrounding her.  I knew of her from some internet browsing and a few videos, but this was concrete information.  They were details I could use in the event that I had to fight her.

Three or four seconds in all, for her power to erase the car, scattering it into the air as a storm of incredibly light, thin flakes of matter.  Those same flakes flew around her like a tornado.

She raised one hand, covered in a fingerless glove with hard, metallic feathers or scales at the edges. The storm of petals altered in direction and intensity, the flakes flying forward.  A small few of my bugs died where the flakes struck them at the right angle and speed.  A storm of tiny, fragile blades.  A lot of the petals were actually bouncing off of my wasps, bumblebees and cockroaches, leaving me suspicious that it would take a good while to kill someone with her power.

Up until the point where the petals converged together, reforming into a car tire, ten feet in the air.  A man hurried to leap out of the way before it struck him.  I realized it was Eligos.  He wasn’t wearing the Endbringer costume.  Something similar, but without the same theme.  He hurried out of the way as more tires appeared above him.

“We’re going on the offensive,” I said.  “We don’t come out looking like the top dogs if either of the two groups win.”

“We sucker punch them,” Regent said.

“Better to forewarn them just enough that it doesn’t feel like a sucker punch,” I told him.

“Don’t you get it?” Imp said.  She feigned a condescending tone, “It doesn’t count if we don’t do it the hardest way possible.”

“It won’t be that hard,” I told them.  I closed my eyes.  “Let’s focus.  Rosary.  Deconstruction and reconstitution of matter, minor telekinesis with the fragments she creates.  Apparently she can take things apart and then reform them so they fall on you.”

“Not a problem,” Imp said.

“Eligos manipulates wind, creates blades of telekinetically altered air that grow as they travel and boomerang back to him.”

“You’d be better at handling him,” Regent said.

“His wind will probably mess with my bugs.  We take him together.  One-two punch.”

“Right.”

“Halo packs a special ring.  Kind of like Sundancer, but the thing doesn’t burn.  It’s a hoop with a cutting edge, and it acts as a forcefield generator and spits out lasers.”

In the distance, Rosary was blocking Eligos’ path by reconstituting two trucks, blocking off one road.

“I take Halo?” Regent asked.

“Do.  That leaves Valefor.  I’ve got him,” I said.

I paused, bringing my swarm to the battlefield.

I’d used Atlas to travel to Regent’s territory, and I’d walked a short distance.  Throughout, I’d been gathering flying insects and bugs.  I’d been forming silk threads and cords.

Now they rose, flying in formations, just over the tops of the buildings, as they approached Rosary and Eligos.  They meshed together into a barrier, nestled close enough to one another to filter out sunlight.

The area darkened visibly, and the droning of the bugs filled the air.

Rays of golden light speared into the swarm.  They were persistent, unending, five steady beams that concentrated on areas where the bugs were thickest.  Halo.

That left only one unknown.  Valefor had to be somewhere nearby.  The second he got a glimpse of me, it was over.

My swarm hit Eligos and Rosary.  Eligos created a strong wind that whipped around him, driving the bugs away.  Rosary used her power to shred the silk lines.  In the face of the biting insects, however, she couldn’t do as much.  The petals around her cut into the swarm, but it was minimal damage to a great many attackers.

She gathered the petals together to create a car without either wheels or a driver’s side door, and though she’d formed it with some bugs trapped inside, she climbed in and had the petals reconstitute into a door, creating a perfect seal.

Eligos put an end to that when he sent a blade of wind at the back of the car, shearing one corner of the vehicle.  My bugs flowed into the open area, covering Rosary from head to toe.  Her mask was hard, around her eyes, cheekbones and nose, ending in a sharp point, an etched metal plate, worked into her hood.  It didn’t cover her lower face and it surrounded but didn’t cover her eyes.

“Come, and stay close,” I said, drawing the bugs around us.  I walked briskly forward.  Rosary had her petals, I had my bugs.  If Valefor wanted us, he’d have to be clever.  “And Regent?”

“What?”

“I’m going to ask you a question later, and I’ll have my arms folded.  I want you to lie.”

“Lie?” Imp asked, aghast.  “So dishonest!”

“We’re honest villains, Skitter,” Regent said, taking a stern tone.  “We earn our victories the right way, not through deceit and dishonesty.”

I rolled my eyes.

As we approached, I found Halo in my reach.  My swarm approached him, and his halo zipped to his side, five feet in diameter and razor-edged.  A force field protected the hero.

He was still rooted in place.  One less person to deal with.

“Regent,” I said, touching his shoulder.  My bugs spread out to create a clearing around us, and I pointed.

He turned to face Eligos, and I parted the bugs. Eligos was wearing only the bodysuit that went under whatever armor he’d been wearing, and a mask that covered his face, leaving only one eye exposed.

With a wave of his hand, Regent knocked Eligos over, causing one leg to buckle just as the other was involuntarily straightened.  Eligos sprawled, and the wind briefly cut out.  My swarm descended on him, and I began binding him in silk.

I had Atlas take to the air, as I worked more silk cords into the surroundings.  “Be nice if this works.”

“What are you doing?”  Imp.  Her presence caught me off guard.

“Threads,” I said.

“He can cut threads,” Imp commented.  “It won’t work.”

“I know he cuts threads,” I said.  “Watch.”

Atlas passed over a space between two buildings, then dropped out of the sky.  The string that extended between him and Eligos went taut.  I had a series of threads strung between two buildings, and Atlas served as a counterweight, so Eligos could be hauled into the air.

“No way that holds,” Imp said.

“Never intended it to,” I told her.

Mandibles severed the thread, and Eligos fell.  Three stories, give or take, and he landed on all fours.  He screamed, and wind ripped through the area, scattering both bugs and petals.  Eligos flopped over onto one side.

“Two left.  Rosary and Valefor,” I said.

Rosary had disintegrated what remained of the car and was facing me, the multicolored petals a tight storm around her.  I could only make out glimpses of her general silhouette.  The rest I could fill in from my research.  A young woman in a rose-tinted robe with gold leaves at the edges, and a gold-colored mask.  She was silent.

“We have no quarrel with you,” she said.  “We’re only here to deal with the Fallen.”

“Then kneel,” I said.  I banished the bugs, and she almost staggered in relief, after holding firm against their onslaught.

She straightened her back and squared her shoulders, but didn’t respond.

“Kneel.  This is our territory.  If you pay the proper respect, I hand you Eligos and Valefor, and you can leave the city with no problems.”

“I could drop a car on your head.”

“And I could take you down as easily as I did Eligos.”

“Without silk?”

“Without silk,” I said.

She nodded slowly, then slowly knelt, dropping to one knee.  Her eyes, behind her mask, were glaring at me.

“What would you have done if I hadn’t?” she asked.

“Not my style to give away plans to the enemy,” I said.

“You could be bluffing.”

“I’m not.  I would have disabled you, knocked you out and Regent would have used his power to seize control of you.”

Her eyes widened a fraction.

“Regent, you can use your power on unconscious people, right?” I asked.

Regent shrugged, “Obviously.”

There was the lie.

“That simple,” I told Rosary.  “He can assume control instantly, once he’s had control over someone once.”

“That crosses a line.”

“I’m far less concerned about crossing lines these days,” I told her.  “But you only broke one rule.  We’d let you go, with the idea that we’d seize control of you if you ever came back.  We’ll do that with anyone and every-”

I stopped.  Imp had appeared at a grocery store nearby.  She was speaking in a low voice, murmuring.

“…Skitter said she’d take you on and she can use her bugs to attack you without being seen and she can hear and see this so she knows…”

“Fuck!” I growled the word.

“Valefor got her,” Regent drew the obvious conclusion..

“I told her to stay close,” I said, breaking into a run.  Rosary wasn’t even a consideration.

“She’s not the type to listen!”  Regent huffed.  Rosary started to follow us, then hesitated, glancing at Eligos.

Watch him!” I barked the order, augmenting my voice with the combined drones, chirps and buzzes of all the bugs in the area.  The heroine stopped where she was.

Regent and I were thoroughly shrouded by bugs when we reached the grocery store.  There were only a handful of people inside, every one of them rooted in place.

Stranger-type capes were classified that way due to their capabilities in stealth and subterfuge.  Valefor was more the latter.  He wasn’t stealthy, exactly, but his ability to perpetrate subterfuge was devastating.

One look, and his target was stunned, rendered eminently suggestible.  A hypnotic gaze, so to speak.

He’d played up the telepathy angle before people caught on, and the costume that echoed the Simurgh was a token to that.  The fact that he could leave suggestions that only triggered under certain conditions was another part of it.  ‘Attack so-and-so next week’.  ‘Set fire to your workplace the next time your boss pisses you off’.

Capes with powers that allowed them to compel others walked a fine line.  Even without murder, Valefor was pushing that line.

“To everyone listening, if that swarm or any of the people inside move away from that spot, or if something happens to me,” a young girl spoke in a man’s voice, stepping out of the sheltering embrace of a middle-aged woman. “Kill yourselves or do your best to kill them, I don’t care which.”

I’d taken her for a scared kid in the company of her mother.  No.  She’d… he’d compelled a woman to pretend to be his mother, and my roving insects hadn’t thought twice about it.

It was Valefor, in a teenage girl’s top and skinny jeans, with long, straight blond hair, and makeup caked onto his face to hide the tattoo.

“…and forget I gave these orders,” he finished.

That would be one reason for the stranger classification, right there.

The orders to kill or commit suicide were a surprise to me, but he was more than capable of covering his tracks.

“Imp,” Valefor said.  “Find and kill your teammates.  I want you to kill yourself when you’re done trying.  Go, and forget I gave this order.”

Imp drew her knife with one hand and her taser with the other.  She paused a second, and then charged for Regent and I.

I tensed.  I had options, but if any of his hostages read it as a cue to kill themselves-  no.

I could shoot from the midst of the cloud, but then we’d be paralyzed.  There was no guarantee that Valefor’s influence would end with his death.

I’d told myself I’d be heartless, but this wasn’t what I’d meant.

Imp turned a right angle, moments before plunging into the swarm.  She charged for Valefor.

He reacted, giving an order, “Everyone listening, kill yo-”

He didn’t get any further.  She kicked, directing the attack between Valefor’s legs.

Valefor hit the ground, and Imp kicked him between the legs once more for good measure.

“Cancel the orders, fuckwit!” she growled, dropping on top of him.  Her knife pressed against Valefor’s throat.

“How-”

She backhanded him across the face, striking him in one cheekbone with the knife handle.  “Cancel!”

I could sense the crowd relaxing.  People hurried away from the scene.  It took more than a minute before they were all gone.

Imp struck Valefor again.

“Stop,” I said.

“Regent got one in, I wanted one too,” she said.  She spat at Valefor.

I tentatively moved bugs, then settled them around his eyes.  Valefor struggled, but froze when Imp pressed the knife against his throat.

Regent got one in?

Oh.

“You… voluntarily gave him control over you?” I asked.

“Little while back,” Imp said.  “I wanted to see what it was like.  Could come in handy.  Did come in handy.”

It’s Regent, I thought.  I’d fought beside him in life and death scenarios and I would never have allowed him to take control of me.  Couldn’t fathom it.

Was there a way I could diplomatically say as much?

None I could think of, right this minute.

“I can’t imagine submitting myself to that,” I said.

“Riskier for you,” she said.  “For me, his power over me shorts out when I use my power, and that’s any time he slips up or goes to sleep.  Then he forgets who I am, and I’m free to come after him and fuck him up.”

“Eviscerate me in my sleep,” Regent said, too jovially.

“Exactly,” Imp said, sounding just as pleased with herself.  “And I know him.  He’s not about to fuck with me with the amount of work it’d take to keep track of me.”

“Told you, Dork,” Regent commented.  “I’m versatile.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I glanced at Imp.  “Tell me something only Imp would know.”

Seriously?” Regent asked.

“I could tell you that there’s a mole on your back,” Imp said.

That took me a second to process.  When had I ever had my clothes off where she could see?

Not her.  Brian.

“You were there?

“I stopped in.  I wanted to see if my brother was okay.  Believe me, I wish I hadn’t.”

She was thereThen.

“Wait, what’s this?” Regent asked.

“It’s not important,” I said, my voice tight.

“I’ll tell you later,” Imp said.

“Don’t,” I said, in a warning tone.

There was a pause.  I could tell the pair of them were having too much fun at my expense.

But there was still an enemy to deal with.

She looked down at Valefor.  Her tone was more serious as she said, “I didn’t think this man-slut would be able to see me.”

“You know his powers,” I said, glad for the change of topic.  “Hypnotic stare, Tattletale said he might have other senses or augmented awareness to track his victims.”

“It’s fine,” Imp said.  She adjusted her hold on the knife.  “Worked out.”

“Yeah,” Regent said.

“I guess you two got a victory,” I said, “A little… what did you call it?”

“Rep,” Imp said.

“Rep.”

Long seconds passed.

“I could control him,” Regent said.

“What’s the point?” Imp asked.

“It’d be an advantage,” I said.  “And I suppose it’s up to you two what we do next.  It’s your territory, Regent.”

And I want to see how you operate, when left to your own devices.

“Pain in the ass,” Regent said.

“We let him go, he’s going to come after us,” Imp said.

“Probably,” I agreed.

“You want us to turn him in,” Regent told me.

“I’m not saying that,” I answered.

Regent studied me, “You’re here for a reason, and it’s not just babysitting us, being an overbearing boss and making sure we do the job right.  Let’s not waste time.  Out with it.”

I kept my voice low, so Valefor couldn’t hear.  “I said you and Imp were the scariest members of our group.  You heard what I said to Rosary.  How I was going to let her believe that we could take control of her at any second, so long as she’s in the city.”

“Sure.”

“Fear.  Ruling through fear.  How do we get the maximum result for the minimum effort?”

“I like the sound of this,” Regent said.

“We make our enemies paranoid,” I told him.  “We get them scared enough that they start devoting more effort than is necessary to dealing with us.  Feed them misinformation.  With your power, we have an easy way to keep any enemy we capture from wanting to enter the city, and so long as we let them go, rather than using them, we’re not drawing enough heat to get a kill order put on our heads.”

It was the best I could do.  This was the crossroads, as far as I was concerned.  If he didn’t take to this idea, the Regent I’d envisioned was likely to come to pass.  If he did accept the idea… well, it was still likely, but I could have hope.

“Huh,” Regent said.

Apparently that was the only answer I was about to get.

“What do we do with him?” Imp said.  She had the knife in Valefor’s mouth.  “I’m going to get a cramp, leaning over him like this.”

“We can hold onto him long enough for Regent to seize him,” I said, “Then let him go.  Or turn him into custody.  But there’s no guarantee he wouldn’t use his power to control someone and turn them into an unwitting assassin.”

“If he hasn’t already set some up,” Imp said.

“If he hasn’t,” I agreed.

I thought briefly of my dad.  If Valefor had been feeling malicious…

I put the idea out of my head.

“We could trust the PRT to look after him,” Regent said, somber.  “They’re professionals, they know how to deal with dangerous villains.”

He didn’t manage to hold it in for long.  He chuckled in near-silence, his shoulders shaking.

“The other possibility,” I said, “Is stripping him of his powers.”

I reached behind me, and found a small metal container.  I tipped out the contents into my palm, and then held out my hand so Regent could see.

“Seriously?” Regent asked.

“Seriously.”

“If you’re up for it…” Regent trailed off.

“I’m done with holding back,” I said.  “Decisive action.  No mercy for those who don’t deserve mercy.”

“Right,” Regent said.

I approached Valefor and Imp.

Valefor heard the footsteps, must have felt the impact as I stepped forward, standing over him.  He shook his head violently, oblivious to the knife Imp had placed in his mouth.   That, or he’d overheard something I’d said and didn’t care anymore.

He managed to shake enough bugs off that he could open his eyes.  He fixed his gaze on me, and I froze.  My thoughts dissolved to warm, wet, white noise.

The maggots, millipedes and centipedes dropped from my hand.  A part of me that was aware without being quite conscious controlled them, carried out my intent.  They spilled onto his face, and moved toward his eyes.  The stronger bugs helped pave the way for the others, leveraging the eyelids away from the eyes so the maggots could pass beneath.

“No!” he shouted, around the knife.  “Sto-”

Imp shifted position.  She was kneeling on his chest, and she moved the knife, bringing one knee into Valefor’s chin.  I could feel the force of the impact through the bugs on his face.

“Oh god,” Imp said, “Gross.  Gross, gross, gross.  Did I get any of them on me?”

My thoughts were clearing.  I blinked, and the movement felt painfully slow, as though I were almost asleep.

“You didn’t get any bugs on you,” I said, stepping on Valefor’s right hand.  Imp held his left with one hand, and held the knife’s blade against Valefor’s makeup-caked lips.  He groaned and writhed beneath her grip.

“They stink,” Imp complained.

“You’re imagining it.”

“I’m really not.”

Valefor’s struggles continued.  His writhing intensified, and it got to the point where he had to turn his head to throw up.

When he turned his head my way, his eyes moved over me, unseeing.  His chest was heaving as though he’d just run a long distance.

“Let him up,” I said.

Imp backed off, We pulled Valefor to a standing position.

“Walk,” I told him.

He was almost defeated in demeanor as we marched him in the general direction of Rosary.  He looked like he had tears streaming down his face, but it was only the leaking vitreous fluids.

“Fear,” I said.  “Remember what Bakuda said?  You have to be unpredictable, but you balance it with certainties.  Realities.”

“It’s a little fucked that you’re taking cues from the psycho bomb girl,” Regent commented.

“Yeah,” I said.  I wasn’t about to deny it.  “But I’d prefer more certainties than unpredictable elements.  The punishment fits the misdeed.”

And if you take that to heart, then today’s worth whatever bad karma I reap from this, I thought.

“The look on Rosary’s face is going to be delicious,” Imp said.  “Doesn’t Haven have a major hate-on for the Fallen?”

“They do,” I said, “But when we meet her, don’t say anything.”

“What’s the fun in that?”

“It’s the effect,” I said.  “Trust me.”

“What’s in it for me?”

“I’m supposed to bribe you?”

“Fo’ sho,” she said.

“Ice cream,” I said.  I can’t buy ice cream as Taylor anymore.  “I’ll pay for it, you pick it up.”

“Sweet!”

Rosary was on guard as we approached, her stance intensifying as she recognized Valefor.  The petals were a storm around her.

I shoved Valefor, and he tripped and sprawled in front of the heroine.

She stared down at him.  He raised his head, and I could see her tense.

“I was expecting medusa’s head,” Rosary said, when Valefor hung his head again.  It looked like he was trying to avoid gagging.

What?  I could remember the myth, but… what?  I kept my mouth shut rather than ask.

“He’s blind,” she voiced the realization out loud.  “You blinded him.”

I nodded, still silent.

“Permanently?”

I had to give a response, now.  “He’ll need antibiotics.  Both Valefor and Eligos will need medical care.  It’s up to you whether you save his vision.”

“Just like that.”

I nodded once.

“We had it handled,” she said.

“Our city, our business,” I said.  “Next time, ask.  We’ll deal with it.  You leave, now, and you ask permission before you set foot in Brockton Bay again.”

“Or we can expect a fight.”

“Expect consequences,” I said.  I looked down at Valefor.  “See to his eyes.”

I turned and led the other two in walking away.

“What-” Regent started.  I held up a finger.

When we were out of earshot of Rosary, I dropped the finger.

“What’s with that?” he asked.

“We got what we needed.”

“You didn’t even mention how you blinded him,” Imp said.

“It’s about using fear as a tool,” I told her.  “The unknown is always better than the known.  Silence is better than almost anything we could say.  For example, you can leave them wondering just why Valefor’s power didn’t work on you.  And consider the reaction when they realize just why he’s blind.  Maggots packed into his eyeballs.”

Imp shuddered visibly.  “How?”

“That’s the exact question they’ll be asking,” I told her.  “In case you’re wondering-”

“I’m not.”

“-Centipedes and bigger bugs opened a path through the external layers.  Maggots crawled inside.  Nothing critical damaged.  Probably repairable, though I’m not an expert in anatomy.”

She shivered again, “My eyes are watering.  Total heebie-jeebies.”

I didn’t reply to that.  I was more focused on Regent.

“We okay?” I asked him.

He shrugged.  “Sure.”

Noncommittal response, no clue as to whether he’d take my suggestion on using his power to scare people away without creating a harem like his dad.  I hadn’t really expected anything else.

“So gross,” Imp muttered.

But he had the ability to take control of Imp.

I needed to have a discussion with Grue.  A very careful discussion.

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Interlude 20

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If Accord didn’t know better, he might have thought this little soiree was located here with the sole purpose of irritating him.

Wait, he did know better.  Tattletale.  She would have done this just to beleaguer him.

The Forsberg Gallery.  The building had once been a pristine, albeit distressingly asymmetrical construction of glass and steel.  Now it was a shattered ruin.  There was little rhyme or reason to the design, and navigating was something of a chore.

To his right, as he ascended a staircase, there was a wing that jutted out from the side of the building, six stories up, like an architectural tumor.  With the damage done by Shatterbird’s attack, the only glass that remained in the building was scattered across the floor like a winter frost.  The offending growth on the side of the building had sustained some damage, more likely a consequence of the vibrations than damage from the glass itself, and the reinforcements that had been made to shore it up only served to make it uglier.

Inelegant, unbalanced.

His power immediately began supplying answers and solutions.  He was on his guard, and the first thoughts to his mind were of offense and harming others.  As clear as if he were seeing it for himself, he could see a pendulum, disguised among the steel frame of the building, swinging from a point above, and he could hear the sound of steel on steel, like a sword being drawn from its sheath, only at twelve times the scale.

With the appropriate design, the impact would be clean, almost muted.  His enemies, isolated within the wing, would make more noise, screaming as the reinforcing struts and the rivets holding intact beams to the larger structure were shorn away.  The end result would see his enemies dead, and the building improved, more balanced.

Ten minutes to draw up the blueprint.  Eighty to a hundred minutes of labor, depending on the skill of the craftsmen.  Two hundred and forty five minutes of labor if he did it himself… and the result would be stronger, better and more efficient if he did.  One thousand, four hundred dollars plus salaries.

Impractical.  Getting his enemies into the area would be hard.  Impossible, if they had any intelligence at all.

He dismissed the thought, but others were already flooding into place.  Him and his two Ambassadors in the offending wing, connected to nearby buildings by an arrangement of steel cables.  Not one pendulum, but seven.

One pendulum would cut the tumorous wing free.  It would swing out on the steel cables, between the two buildings.  With the right angle, it would swoop between the two nearest buildings.  The right mechanism, and one cable could come free at the right moment, allowing a change of direction.  They wouldn’t even lose their balance, as the angle of the floor and centripetal force kept them steadily in place.

With attention to details, they’d even be able to step free of the platform, as though they were departing a ski lift.  The wing would then slingshot into the rubble of a nearby building, cleanly disposed of.  The Forsberg Gallery would be pulled apart, steel cut from steel by the shearing blades of the pendulums, the weight and movement of the mechanisms serving a second purpose by magnifying the damage, pulling individual pieces free of one another and setting the complete and total destruction of the building into motion.

The unseemly Forsberg Gallery would crash to the ground, with many of his enemies inside, while he and his Ambassadors watched from the point where they’d disembarked.

He loathed making messes, but cleaning up after the fact was so very satisfying, whether it was mopping up the gore or seeing the lot cleared of debris.

Thirty two minutes to draw out blueprints for the pendulums and work out the sequence needed for best effect.  Three hundred to three hundred and forty minutes of time to set it up.  He could estimate costs north of eleven thousand dollars, not counting salaries.  None of the materials were particularly expensive in and of themselves, and he had any number of businesses in his pocket where he could acquire those materials at a significant discount.

Somewhat more practical, but impossible.  He didn’t have the time to set it up, not for tonight.  It made for an elegant image, if nothing else, somewhat soothing.

No sooner had he turned away from the idea of violence than other thoughts were forcing their way into his mind’s eye.  The outstretching wing being transformed from an edificial cyst to a bridge, with similar connections networking the entire city, each bridge and connection point changing individual points of design into a series of gradients.  Architectural styles and building heights would change from a stuttering, jilted progression to something flowing, a seamless wave

Accord closed his eyes briefly, doing what he could to shut it out.  It didn’t help.  He had a sense of the building as a whole, could imagine reconfiguring it, removing the parts that jutted out and using them to fill gaps towards the building’s center mass.  He’d worked with his power to see things through the various lenses of viability: money, resources, time, personnel, but that was almost a detriment now.

He opened his eyes to search for something to take his mind off of the irritating aspect of the building’s design, but he saw only glass shards, discordant in how they had fallen throughout the building.  Some had been swept out of the way by people who’d taken up residence in the Gallery, but the heaping, lumpy piles of glass, dust and debris weren’t any better.  He caught a glimpse of a soggy sleeping bag and the scattered contents of a supply kit and wished he hadn’t looked.

Images rifled through his mind.  A network of wires, drawn taut by a weight plunging through the elevator shaft, moving in concert to sweep the glass shards and signs of human life into the elevator shaft.  The same wires would catch his enemies, mangling them as they were cast down after the rain of glass.  Between the long fall and the thermite that could reduce the mess to a fine, clean ash, even more durable capes wouldn’t be walking away.

No.  It wasn’t constructive to think this way.

On the uppermost floors, plexiglass and a large volume of water mixed with a high concentration of carbon dioxide and a sudsing agent, sweeping through the building.  Staggering it, so the water from the highest floor could clean away the soap-

Rearranging the glass shards into a kaleidoscopic-

“Citrine, Othello,” he spoke, interrupting his own train of thought.  “Distract me.”

“I’m not so comfortable with this vantage point,” Citrine said.  “The climb only tires us out, and the vantage point doesn’t suit any of our abilities.  It puts us in a weak position.”

“Sir,” Othello whispered.

“…Sir!” she belatedly added.

Accord was ascending the stairs just in front of her.  It might normally be impossible, but here, it was easy: to turn and deftly slice her throat with the folded blade within his cane.  Quiet, efficient.

He stopped partway up the stair case and faced her, saw her unharmed and unhurt.  His Citrine, young, blond, wearing a goldenrod yellow evening gown and a gemstone studded mask.  Her hair was immaculately styled, her makeup flawless, with a yellow lipstick that matched her outfit without being garish.

Accord’s left hand folded over the right, both resting on top of the ornate cane.

She stopped, glanced at Othello, beside her.  “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Everything and everyone in the appropriate place,” he said.  “Not just in terms of physical position, but socially.  Courtesy and acknowledgement of status are pivotal.”

“I know, sir.  It’s not an excuse, but I was tired from the walk and the climb, and I was thinking of strategy, in case we were ambushed.  I will endeavor to do better, sir.”

“We all have to do better.  We must all strive to improve.  A step backwards is a tragic, dangerous misstep.”

“Yes sir.”

As if he were watching himself on film, he could see himself pushing her down the stairs.  Not so steep a fall as to kill her, but the pain would enforce discipline, and the act of discipline would both help drive the point home for her and quiet his own thoughts.

But the bruises, cuts any broken bones, her inconsistent attempts at suppressing any sounds of pain as she joined him on the trek to the upper floor?  It would only make things worse.  More disorder.

The thoughts were so sharp they were difficult to distinguish from reality.  He shifted his hold on his cane, staring into her eyes.  She still stood before him.

With just the fractional movement of his hands, there was a change in her body language.  Muscles in her neck and shoulders grew more taut, her breathing changed.  She said, “Sir-”

“Shh,” he said.  She fell silent.

His left hand cupped her chin, his eyes never leaving hers.  More of a reaction: her eyes flickered, moving mere milimeters as she strained to maintain eye contact.  he could feel the warmth of her breath on his wrist as she exhaled slowly, the faintest of movements against his hand as she shifted her weight to stay absolutely still.

His thumb brushed against her cheek.  Soft.  He knew she dedicated an hour every morning to caring for her skin, another hour to her hair.  Unlike hers, his gaze was unwavering, assured.  In his peripheral vision, he could see her chest rise and fall.  He wasn’t a sexual creature, not in the base, animal sense.  The idea of intercourse, it didn’t appeal.  The mess of it.  But she was a thing of beauty, nonetheless.  He could appreciate her from an aesthetic standpoint.

Citrine had shifted out of place, though.  A square peg, just askew enough that it wouldn’t slide into the hole designated for it.  It jarred, and it cast a pallor on everything else that was right about her.

As his fingers moved, tracing the line of her jaw, drifting to her chin, the idea of cutting her throat invaded his thoughts.  A quick, clean severing of vital flows.  He could see the lines of tension in her neck as she stretched it, striving to keep it absolutely still.

Again, though, the disorder, the disruption.  Blood was so messy, and as much as he might relish the opportunity to take thirty minutes from his day and clean up back in a more secure area, others would see, and it would throw too many things out of balance.

There wasn’t a right answer here, and it bothered him.

Thinking rationally, he knew he was irritated.  The location, even this city, they didn’t suit him.  He couldn’t act on that, not yet, and the resulting dissatisfaction affected how he responded to the little things.

His fingers broke contact with her chin, one by one, as he contemplated his options.  By the time his index finger had dropped away, he’d decided.

“You’re my best ambassador, Citrine,” he said.

She was breathing just a bit harder than she had been, as the tension that had drawn her entire body tight was released.  A flush touched her cheeks as she responded, “Yes sir.”

“I don’t want to lose you.”

“Yes sir, I’ll do my utmost to ensure you don’t have cause to.”

“Please do,” he said.  He noted that the flush had spread down to her decolletage.  Not the result of fear or anger.  Another base emotion.  “Citrine?”

She glanced at him.

“Calm yourself.”

“Yes sir,” she breathed the words.

He glanced at Othello, who wore a black suit and a mask divided between alabaster white and jet black.  The man hadn’t commented or flinched as Accord addressed Citrine.

Accord turned and started ascending the stairs again.  “Quicken your paces.  I refuse to be late.”

Intrusive thoughts continued to plague him.  He’d once described it as being very similar to the sensation one experienced on a train platform, a ledge or while standing in front of fast moving traffic, that momentary urge to simply step forward, to see what might happen.

Except the thoughts were sharper, with more weight to them, more physical than ethereal.  His power was problem solving, and every problem demanded to be addressed. The solutions were posited whether he wanted them or not, one step and hundred-step plans alike.  And it never ended.

Every flaw needed correcting, every imbalance needed to be weighed again.  Mediocrity could be raised to greatness.

The greater the problem, the faster he could solve it.  He’d taken the time one afternoon to solve world hunger.  Six hours and twenty-six minutes with the internet and a phone on hand, and he’d been able to wrap his head around the key elements of the problem.  He’d drafted a document in the nine hours that followed, doing little more than typing and tracking down exact numbers.  A hundred and fifty pages, formatted and clear, detailing who would need to do what, and the costs therein.

It had been bare bones, with room for further documents detailing the specifics, but the basic ideas were there.  Simple, measured, undeniable.  Every major country and ruler had been accounted for, in terms of the approaches necessary to get them on board, given their particular natures and the political climate of their area.  Production, distribution, finance and logistics, all sketched out and outlined in clear, simple language.  Eighteen years, three point one trillion dollars.  Not so much money that it was impossible.  A great many moderate sacrifices from a number of people.

Even when he’d handed over the binder with the sum total of his work, his employer had been more concerned with the fact that he’d shown up late to work for his job.  His boss had barely looked at the binder before calling it impossible, then demanded Accord return to work.  A mind like his, in an office handling economic oversight within the PRT, looking for the precogs and thinkers who were trying to manipulate the markets to their own ends.

It was only one imbalance, one irregularity, but it had been an important one.  It had nagged at him, demanded resolution.  He had to prove it was possible.

So he’d siphoned the very funds that his department was managing.  It hadn’t been hard to redistribute some of the wealth that the villains and rogues were trying to manipulate.  One ambiguous evil for the sake of an undeniable good.  He covered his tracks flawlessly.

In the process, he failed to account for the full breadth of his newest coworker’s talents.  Thinker powers interfered with one another, and despite his ability to work with that particular drawback, even help them to work in concert, the clairvoyant had found him out.  He’d been caught, jailed, and subsequently freed by the jailbreak specialist he’d contacted well in advance.

Here he was, years later.  Nobody he’d contacted had taken to his ideas, and government after government had failed to thoroughly read the documents he sent them.  Nobody raised the subject of his work to the United Nations or any major political body.  They were too interested in maintaining the status quo.

His plans weren’t observably closer to fruition, but he had contacts and he had wealth, and that went a long way.  He would take the slow, steady path to victory.  The binder relating to world hunger had been expanded on, with the addition of further binders to detailing the specifics.  Other sets of binders had joined it, each relating to a major issue: disease, population, government, energy, and climate.  He spent an hour and a half every morning ensuring that everything was up to date with recent changes to the economy and international politics.

The recent altercation with the Slaughterhouse Nine in Boston had been a setback, but he remained confident.  Twenty-three years to see it all through.  Twenty-three years to bring the world into order.  Everything was a step towards those ends.

Even this, as much as the setting and the people grated.

They reached the top floor and came face to face with the Teeth.  Seven parahumans, wearing costumes that bristled with blades, spikes and spines.  They managed to wear the trophies of their defeated enemies without looking primitive.  Teeth, eyes, dessicated body parts and bones were worked into their costumes, a collective theme that promised aggression and violent retaliation for any slight.

Accord tightened his grip on his cane.  He itched to end them.  His mind burned with hundreds of ideas on how to do it.  Traps, ploys, ways to set them against one another, or ways to use the other people in the room against them.

The Teeth didn’t get in his way as he led his two ambassadors around the periphery of their group.  There were no windows, and the wind sent minuscule shards of glass dancing over the tiled floor, periodically glinting as they caught the light from the flood-lamps that were set around the room.

“Welcome, Accord,” Tattletale greeted them.

He surveyed the group at the end of the long table.  They weren’t holding back, in making a show of power.  No less than six dogs were chained in place behind them, each mutated and grown to massive size by Bitch’s power.  Their number was bolstered by the addition of a massive spider and a scorpion, both wrought of black cloth.  Silk?  Skitter’s silk?

Regent stood by Imp, a costume of predominant white contrasted by a costume of black.  They seemed to be exchanging murmured words.

Bitch wore a mask that looked much like her dogs did, bearing a black jacket with thick, shaggy fur around the edges of the hood and collar.  She didn’t flinch, even as one of her larger mutants growled and gnashed its teeth inches from her head.  The creature’s ire was directed at Accord, not her.

Parian’s style of dress had changed from the images Accord had seen in his research.  Her hair was no longer blonde, but black, her frock matching.  The white mask she wore had a crack running down one side.  She was very diminutive compared to the others, almost demure with the way she sat at one side of the table, hands folded, as though she didn’t want to be a part of this.

Tattletale, by contrast, was seated on the cloth scorpion, just beside a large monitor.  She was cavalier, her hair wind-tousled, disrespectful by her very body language, sitting askew.

He had to work to ignore her.  He turned his attention to the figures at the head of the table.  Grue stood behind the chair, one hand set on the backrest, a demonic visage wreathed in absolute darkness. Skitter sat at the end, backed by her forces, looking over the room.  Bugs swarmed her from the shoulders down, but Accord could note a shawl and hints of protective armor.  Neither the yellow lenses of her mask or the expanse of black cloth that covered her face gave any indication of her mood or expression.  Either the images that he’d seen had been misleading, or she’d done some work to her mask, making the mandible-like sections of armor that ran forward from her jawline sharper and more pronounced.

Dismissing Tattletale’s greeting, Accord spoke to Skitter, “We finally meet.  Good evening.”

“Good evening,” she said, her voice augmented by the accompanying buzzes and drones of countless bugs in the area.  “Have a seat.”

He took a seat midway down the length of the twelve-foot table, and his ambassadors sat on either side of him.

The Fallen must not have been terribly far behind him, as they arrived less than a minute after he did.  Valefor and Eligos.

Valefor wore a delicate-looking mask without eye-holes: a woman’s upper face with closed eyes.  Beneath the mask, he had a sly, perpetual smirk with tattoos that colored his lips black and extended from the corners.  The ink depicted fangs poking from thin lips that nearly reached his jaw, the points alternating up and down.  His costume was almost effeminate, with white and silver feathers featuring heavily on flowing white clothes that clung to his narrow body, including a corset that drew his waist in.

The costume was meant to invoke images of the Simurgh, no doubt.  Crass.  Eligos’ costume wasn’t so fine, suited more for a brawl, but it, too, conjured up thoughts of an Endbringer: the Behemoth.  Obsidian horns that swooped back over his head, heavy armor that resembled rhino hide in texture and claws built into his gloves.

“Valefor, Eligos, members of the Teeth, now that we’re all here, I’ll ask that you take a seat,” Skitter said.

“Why should we listen to you?” Valefor asked, his voice was incongruous with his outfit, bearing a slight southern twang.  He leaned over one chair, his arms folded over the backrest, taunting.

“It’s customary for there to be violent retaliation if someone causes trouble at a meeting like this,” Skitter said.  “Usually involving every other party that’s present.”

“I’m not saying I’m intending to cause trouble,” Valefor said.  “I’m wondering why we should follow the schoolgirl.  I’m sure everyone here saw the news.  Did you see the news, Butcher?”

“Yes,” the leader of the Teeth answered.  A woman stepped out of the midst of the group of Teeth.  She was elegant, long necked and long-limbed, with her hair tied up in a high ponytail.  Her mask and armor had an Asian style to it, though the costume were studded and trimmed with a number of wickedly barbed blades.  More incongruous, there were three bleached skulls strung to one another and hanging around one shoulder.

The costume, it was asymmetrical, lacking harmony, trying to do too many things at once.  The samurai, the headhunter, the bloodletter.  None of it fit the title she wore: Butcher.

Images flickered through Accord’s mind.  Ways to obliterate both costume and wearer. More difficult than it seemed, given just who she was.

As if to punctuate Accord’s line of thinking, she effortlessly lifted a gatling gun and set it down on the end of the table.  The sheer mass of the weapon was imposing enough that Accord momentarily wondered if the other end of the long wooden table would lift off the ground.

The woman very deliberately refused the offer to sit.  She’d spoken only one word, but managed to convey a great deal with her actions.

“Very embarrassing,” Valefor mused aloud.  “Really, I don’t see why you should get to sit at the head of the table.  A sixteen year old girl, a victim of bullying, it doesn’t conjure up the most imposing image, does it?”

“If everyone agreed to suspend the usual rules, I would be more than happy to go head to head with your group,” Skitter replied.

“Of course you would.  You outnumber us.”

“Just me,” Skitter answered him.

“That so?”  Valefor smiled, considering.

Accord surveyed the situation.  Valefor was a stranger, less in terms of his ability to hide, and more in his ability to engage in subterfuge.  He had only to look on a target with his naked eye, and the fight was over.  It was no small wonder, really, that he’d styled himself after the Simurgh.  The effect was all too similar, in how the victim was often unaware of what had happened until it was too late.

Yet Skitter didn’t seem to mind.  Was it a decoy?  An empty costume?  No.

A trap?

Accord studied the area around Valefor.  What would he do, with her abilities?

He saw it: almost invisible, except where the light caught it at the right angle.  Threads, surrounding Valefor, trailing from his corset, his elbows and knees.

They were all trailing in the direction of the window.  If they were pulled taut, Valefor would be dragged outside.  Depending on how well they held, he’d either dangle or fall to the street below.

“Valefor,” Accord spoke, the layers of his mask shifting to emulate his smile, “Trust me when I say you already lost the fight.”

“Is that so?”

“I won’t spoil the conclusion if you’re eager to see this through.  One less threat to worry about.  But if I may offer my own opinion, I think the response she gave, given the situation, was eminently reasonable.  I gained respect for her, seeing how it unfolded.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

“Regardless, I won’t condone fighting here.  It sets a bad precedent.”

“Yes,” Butcher said.

Valefor frowned.

“That’s that, then,” Skitter said.

Accord studied her.  He could see her swarm in the shadows behind the floodlights, moving in anticipation of a fight, no doubt.  Their presence nettled him almost as badly as if they’d been physically crawling on him.  They were all of the issues he’d had with the glass, but they were alive.  He knew he could make them stop, make them go away, simply by giving an order to his ambassadors.  Not that it was a possibility.

He glanced at Skitter.  “I think you and I both know you’d win the fight.  But how final would the outcome be?  You’re in the seat of power.  More villains will arrive with every passing day.  Are you prepared to kill?”

“Is this some kind of head game?” Valefor asked.

“It isn’t any manner of head game,” Accord responded.  “I’m curious.  Her response would shed a great deal of light on the discussion tonight.”

“Yes,” Skitter gave her belated response.  “But I’d like to keep to the unwritten rules, as abused as they have been, lately.  Killing should be a last resort.”

“I see.”  She has some other trap on hand?  The bugs at the edge of the room?  “Can I ask if- no, wait.  Don’t tell me.  I’ll enjoy it more if I discover it for myself.”

“Very well.  Now, if everyone would be seated, we can begin,” Skitter said, resting both elbows on the table.  

It wasn’t quite straight, Accord noted.  The table was askew, in relation to the rest of the room.  Solutions flickered through his mind’s eye, ranging from ones as simple as standing to push the table into a proper position to a flat-faced wrecking ball that could slam into the building’s side.

No, he had to focus.  He could distract himself by figuring out Skitter’s contingency plans.

Butcher seemed to come to a decision, but that was normal for her, to take some time, ruminate.  To discuss, for lack of a better word.  She sat at the end of the table opposite Skitter.  She was tall enough to be seen head and shoulders over the massive gun.  Her followers didn’t sit, but stood in a half-circle around her, a mirror to Skitter’s own group.

“Valefor,” Skitter spoke, and her voice was more ominous, hinting at the sheer number of bugs lurking at the edges of the room, “Either take a seat or leave.”

Valefor glanced over the room, then shrugged, as if he didn’t care anymore, sitting.  Eligos followed his cue.

And Accord realized Skitter’s contingency plan in the next instant.  Silk wasn’t just attached to Valefor, to him, even.  She’d connected silk to the furniture.

The table.  She could drag the table with the silk lines, each laid out to fit in the gaps between tiles, nearly invisible.  In doing so, she’d sandwich any one group between the table and a wall, or leave them clinging for a grip, almost falling.

How would she drag it?  Another mutant dog?  Some counterweight?

Regardless of the answer, Accord felt oddly pleased with himself.  The danger posed by this trap didn’t even concern him.

“Let’s talk business,” Skitter said.  “Whether you like it or not, the Undersiders have prior claim on this city.”

“A matter of a week and a half,” Valefor said.

“Prior claim,” Skitter repeated herself.  “We have rules, and if you bend or break these rules, we’ll be forced to act.”

“I’ve already discussed your rules with Tattletale,” Accord said.

“You had your chance to accept the terms we were offering then.  Now the rules we’re stipulating have changed.  No killing.  Cross that line and we kill you.  Several members of our team are capable of doing that without you knowing we’re anywhere nearby.  If you’re lucky, Imp slits your throat with you none the wiser, or Regent has one of your underlings stab you in the back, and you go quick.  If you’re unlucky, Bitch’s dogs tear you to shreds, and it’s a long, drawn out, painful process.  If you’re very unlucky, you get the worst of both worlds, and you deal with me.”

“What if there’s someone that has to die?” Valefor asked.  “Sometimes killing is necessary.”

“You come to me.  I decide,” Skitter said.

“There’s no new detail here,” Accord said.  “Tattletale outlined much the same thing, though with less in the way of threats.”

“I’m not even close to done.  Property.  We will find out about any territory you acquire.  Whatever you pay for the land, you pay us a third.  That includes the cost of buying the land itself, rent and taxes.  If you’re not paying property taxes or rent, we still expect an appropriate amount.”

“Expensive,” Accord said.

“You could have accepted our earlier offer,” Skitter replied.  “If you want out from under that particular constraint, any of you may fold your organizations into ours, coming under our direct authority.”

“This is a passive takeover, then,” Accord said.  “You intend to put the squeeze on us until we cave.”

“I am very, very tired of people telling me what I intend,” Skitter answered him.  “Our territory borders are marked with our individual signatures.  Traffic in anything illegal or harm someone within any of these areas, and we retaliate.  Target any of us, and we retaliate as a whole.”

“It doesn’t sound like it leaves us much elbow room,” Accord replied.  “I have yet to see an area that wasn’t already marked as being in one territory or another.”

“Then you grasp my meaning.” Skitter added, “My next point: during any Endbringer event, or the possible incident at the end of the world, you send half of your powered membership or three members to assist, whichever is more.”

“This is bordering on the ridiculous,” Valefor said.  “You expect us to fight the Endbringers?”

“You?  No.”

“You’re picking a fight,” Valefor said.

“I’m giving each of you the option of obeying, leaving or fighting,” Skitter said.  “The Ambassadors will accept the deal as posed.  They won’t like it, Accord may even hate me, because of my powers and my less predictable nature, but they’ll accept.”

“Is that so?” Accord asked.

“Yes.  You’ll do it because you have resources that you can use to leverage what unfolds when they’ve finished scouting the other side of the portal and open it up for business.  You wouldn’t come all the way here and then leave because you didn’t like the terms.”

“There are the other options.”

“Fighting us?  You have only two underlings that survived the attack in Boston.  As strong as they are, you’re not equipped to fight.  You’ll join us because it’s the fastest route to get what you really want.”

Ah, Accord thought.  Tattletale filled her in.

It made life a little easier, and a little harder, in very different ways.

Skitter leaned back, one hand resting on the table.  “What was it you said to Tattletale?  Everyone and everything has a place?”

“More or less.”

“Your place isn’t on a battlefield, opposite the Undersiders.  It’s in this city, building an infrastructure and gathering resources for your long term plans.  You’ll accept an expensive rent and a limitation on criminal activity for that very reason.”

“You would have me risk good help on fruitless fights against immortal killing machines,” Accord said.

“That too,” Skitter replied.  “I don’t expect the Fallen will accept the terms, with the restriction about fighting Endbringers, but I doubt they’re long for this city anyways.”

Valefor stood from the table.  Eligos joined him.  Together, they strode from the room, silent.

“That was a touch rash,” Accord commented, “insulting them.”

“I wasn’t lying.  Imp and Haven will handle them soon.”

“Valefor is more cunning than you’d assume.  An arrogant young man, impetuous and immature, but history suggests he’s rather cunning when he puts his mind to something.”

“Not a concern,” Skitter said.

“If you say so.”

Skitter turned her attention to the other leader.  “Butcher?”

“No,” the woman replied, standing from the table.

“I didn’t think so.  Do you have any other business you’d like to bring up, while we’re all here?”

“You die,” Butcher said.  “You can’t kill me.  I will win.”

With that, her longest statement yet, she turned and walked away.

“Not good enemies to have,” Accord commented.  It was just his group and the Undersiders now.

“We’ll manage.”

“The first Butcher had super strength, durability, and the ability to inflict enough pain at a distance that his enemies went into cardiac arrest.  His other powers only became evident later.  He was killed by a subordinate, and the man who would later be known as Butcher Two inherited a fraction of his powers and a share of his consciousness.”

“Butcher Three inherited it too, along with a share of Two’s powers and consciousness,” Tattletale said.  “He was a hero, though.”

Accord rankled at the fact that she’d spoken out of turn.  Her voice rang in his ears, as though each syllable were the echoing toll of a bell, growing louder with each iteration.  Out of turn, out of sync, out of place.

He bit his tongue.  “Yes.  And the two voices in the hero’s head worked together to drive him mad.  He was gone from this world well before he died in battle.  The Teeth reclaimed the power, and the legacy has largely remained within the group since, each successor inherting powers of the ones before.  The voices and consciousnesses only work with rightful heirs, members of their group who challenge the leader and beat him in a fair match.”

“Which one is this?” Regent asked.

“Fourteen,” Tattletale said.

“This one’s number fourteen?” Regent asked.  “Which means she’s got thirteen sets of powers?”

Another one, speaking out of turn, Accord thought.

Citrine was giving him a sidelong glance.  He met her eyes, shook his head fractionally.

Tattletale answered, “Only a small share of each power.  Don’t forget she’s got thirteen voices in her head, giving her advice and helping her work stuff out, and all the powers she brought to the table, besides.  Her attacks don’t miss.  She imbues them with an effect which means they bend space so they strike her target,  Bullets turn in midair, swords curve, all means she’s pretty much guaranteed to hit you if her attack reaches far enough.”

She hopped down from the scorpion’s head and walked around the table until she was opposite Accord.

One by one, the Undersiders who’d been standing behind Skitter found seats.  The other groups had left, and they were making themselves more at home, now.  Regent put his boots on the table, right in front of Imp, who pushed them away.

Overly familiar.  Presumptuous.

Accord closed his eyes for a moment.  The table was unbalanced now, in a metaphorical sense, but it felt very real.  “I don’t recall anyone giving you leave to sit.”

Tattletale raised her eyebrows.  “I don’t recall anyone giving you permission to complain.  Our territory, our house, our rules.”

I could kill you.  Car bombs, other traps.  I could manipulate the heroes into going after you.  When I direct my ambassadors, they win their fights.  You’d break in the face of what I could do, the pressure I could inflict, everything and everyone in the world suddenly a threat, with me pulling the strings. 

He drew in a deep breath.  Too much at stake, to say such things.  In his most patient tone, as though he were speaking to a well meaning but misguided eight year old, he explained, “I’m talking about the way things are meant to be, Tattletale, understand?”

Tattletale bristled as though he’d slapped her.

“Enough,” Skitter said.  Her voice was quiet.

The silence that followed was both surprising and relieving.  She had control over her subordinates.  Good.  It took a measure of talent to exert control over such disturbed individuals.

He studied the girl.  She was composed, despite the fact that less than twelve hours had passed since her identity had been revealed to the world.  And her bugs… it had grated how disordered they had been, but now that he was looking at the ones she wore like a second layer of clothing, he could see how they were ordered, all in formation.

Skitter was calm, collected, reasonable but willing to act with a heavy hand when needed.  Clever.  She thought at the scale necessary for a true leader.

“Do you accept the deal?” Skitter asked.  “Best if I ask now, because your answer dictates the tone of the conversation that follows.”

“I accept,” he replied.  She was right: he really had no choice in the matter.  He’d dealt with worse deals and worse circumstances before.  “I suspect there will be friction, and we will have our disagreements, but we’ll be able to find a common ground.  You and I are very similar people.”

She didn’t reply.  The silence yawned, and his fingertips twitched involuntarily, dangerously close to the trigger that would turn his cane into a weapon.

“In saying that,” he said, doing his best to remain level, “I was inviting a response.”

“And I was taking a second to think before giving it,” she responded.

Starting a sentence with a conjunction.  He grit his teeth and smiled, his mask moving to emulate the expression.  “Beg pardon.”

“Let’s talk about details,” Skitter said.

The city is too dirty.  Too disordered.  The thoughts were intruding again, oppressive, insistent.  They were at the point where they were repeating, cycling back on one another.  He’d have to do something to break the cycle.  It could be time spent at a workbench, sorting out the projects in his binders or eliminating some of the more chaotic elements.

Murder was out, but there were other options.  He’d sent capes to the Yàngbǎn before.  It was more constructive than killing.  Cleaner.  It also built relationships with the C.U.I..

“Talk,” he said, after too many long minutes of silence.

“We can take them, sir,” Othello said.  “Any one group, we could handle, but not two groups at once.”

“I agree,” Accord said.  “Do you think you could handle them if things went sour?”

“With little trouble, sir.  The only ones I’d wonder about are Tattletale, Imp, Valefor and Fourteen,” Othello replied.

“Imp and Valefor… your stranger powers against theirs makes for a troublesome fight.  Imp is the one I would worry about first.  Unpredictable, impossible to track.”

“I’m suspicious my power cancels hers out, sir.  My other self saw her get close to Butcher.  I think she had a weapon.”

“Interesting.  Citrine?”

“I don’t know, sir.  Forgive my saying so, but a lot of people have thought they could handle the Undersiders, and they were wrong.  I don’t know how my power would interact with theirs.”

“Very true.  Sensible.  I’ll need to recruit, regardless of whether we encounter them.  Focus on the Teeth and the Fallen for the time being.”

“Yes sir,” the pair echoed him.

Skitter and Tattletale, he thought.  They were the real issues for him.  Tattletale’s power might have seemed similar to his own, but it was almost the inverse.  He’d heard himself described as falling somewhere in between a thinker and a tinker, and perhaps that was apt.  It was how he applied his power, starting with the end result and building backwards, and the designs that he fashioned that were so tinker-like.  But his real ability was as a thinker, involving planning, awareness and ideas beyond the reach of the unpowered.

He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but he had to plan for every contingency.

They’d reached their accomodations, a newly built office building.  He owned the two uppermost floors, and was buying the floors beneath as the owners agreed to the sales.  Soon he would have it set up his way, with escape routes and traps to target his enemies.

“Othello,” he said.

“Yes sir?”

“Send the five first tier employees with the best grades to my room.  I expect them in fifteen minutes.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Once you’re done, retire for the evening.  Rest well,” he said.  “There are big things on the horizon.”

“Yes sir,” the two ambassadors echoed him.

Only two.  It wasn’t enough.

He settled in his room.  Too much of the furniture was pre-made.  He preferred things he had made himself.  Cleaner, simpler.  He knew where it had all come from, knew how it was put together.  Accomodations he had crafted himself were as soothing as the outside world wasn’t.

The five employees arrived right on time.  Satisfactory.  He opened the door to his room and invited them in.  Three men, two women, immaculate, all in proper business attire.

His vetting process was strict, and each step up the ladder required both his invitation and the employee’s acceptance.  Each step required them to prove their worth, to face progressively more stress and heavier workloads, and to hold themselves up to his increasingly exacting standards of perfection.

It might have made for reality television, if it weren’t for the blood that was shed along the way.  Theirs and others.

“You are being promoted,” he said.  “After tomorrow, you will be my ambassadors, my representatives to the rest of the world.”

The displays of emotion were well hidden, but they were there.  They were pleased.

“That is all.”

Wordless, the five marched out of his room.

Withdrawing his cell phone, Accord dialed a long distance number.

He smiled a little at that.  He wasn’t much for humor, but it had its places.

The ringing stopped, but there was no voice on the other end.

“Accord.  Brockton Bay.”

The doorway opened at one end of his room.  His hair stirred as air pressure equalized between the two planes.

The Number Man stood on the other side, in the white hallway with white walls.

“Five vials.  Of the same caliber as the last set, same price.”

“Done,” The Number Man said.  “Where do we stand?”

“It’s promising, but I wouldn’t make any guarantees.”

“Of course.  Everything’s progressing according to plan, then?”

Accord nodded, once.  “As well as we might hope.  We lost Coil, but the Undersiders may serve as a model in his absence.”

“Good to know.  I’ll inform the Doctor.”

The gateway closed.  Accord sat down on the end of the bed, then lay back, staring at the ceiling.

Coil had been the focus of the test, unaware.  The man had also been Accord’s friend, the one who’d sold him the PRT databases.  His death had been a tragic thing, on many levels.  There were few men Accord considered worthy of being his friend.

Now it hinged on the Undersiders.  They’d taken up Coil’s legacy, after a fashion, and just like Coil, their ambitions fell in line with Cauldron’s.  The organization’s hopes rode on them and their decisions.  Accord’s hopes rode on them: his twenty-three year plan, saving the world from the worst kind of disorder.  In the end, they were responsible for billions.

Not that he could tell them or change his actions in respect to them.  It would defeat the point.

Everything and everyone had their respective places in the grand scheme of things.  For one sixteen year old, the decisions she made in the immediate future would have more impact than she imagined.

It all came down to whether she could embrace this new role, and whether the city could embrace her in turn.

Accord drifted off to sleep, his weary mind grateful from the respite from the endless assault.

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