Cockroaches 28.5

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At least she’s stopped screaming.

The Simurgh floated in the air, remaining in a kind of stasis, much like she’d been in when we’d approached her, but there was an entire rig of devices surrounding her.  A halo, almost, studded with guns and cannons at regular intervals.  The sky behind her was overcast, clouds rolling past us with the strong winds, and mingled dust and smoke slowly shifting beneath her, brown-gray.  The juxtaposition was eerie, the clouds of the sky moving faster than the smoke and dust, and the Simurgh between the two, utterly still.

On TV, back in the days when we’d had television, there had been the various talk shows, news segments and interviews where the Endbringers would come up.  I’d listened, even though television wasn’t really my thing.  I’d heard people theorize on the Simurgh’s scream, wondering out loud about just how many of the disasters that followed in her wake were her, and how many were our own overblown paranoia.

It helped to remind myself that I wasn’t the only one who was debating the possibilities.  I’d listened for too long.  Was I tainted?  If this was all a trap, then I might already be seeded with some destructive or disastrous impulse.  Should I be hypervigilant?  Should I not stress over it?

It was a debate millions of individuals had maintained amongst themselves, in the wake of the Simurgh’s attacks.  Invariably, there wasn’t a right answer.  If she wanted to fuck with me, there wasn’t anything I could do.  Anything could and would fit into her game plan.

It wasn’t just me, either.  I was very aware of Lung’s presence, and of Shadow Stalker’s.

The Yàngbǎn were dealt with.  There were two major raiding parties, if we judged solely by the colors of their masks, and three or four other sub-groups tasked with different functions.  One raiding party was annihilated, and I could hope the Endbringer’s presence would scare off the other group.

There was an upside of sorts, in that the Yàngbǎn didn’t have access to Cauldron’s doormaking parahuman.  It meant they moved exclusively through the portals that dotted Earth Bet, the same portals the refugees had used, which some stragglers were still using.  Various factions and governments were gathering small armies at each of the remaining portals.  One Earth was already lost to us, destroyed by Scion in the first day he’d been traveling universes.  The South American refugees who had fled through there would be either eradicated or reduced to such a small population that it barely mattered.  Earth Zayin, too, was gone, subsumed by the Sleeper.

Still, a dozen Earths remained, with people scattered all over them.  The C.U.I. had claimed one, and they’d be ready for retaliation, maintaining a defensive line.

I doubted that defensive line would hold if an Endbringer decided to march through.  No, they would be gathering their forces in anticipation of a possible attack.  Good.

I took in my surroundings.  One ramshackle settlement, more than half of it obliterated by bombs.  Relatively little in the way of collateral damage on the Simurgh’s part.

Psychological damage?  Quite possible.  The Simurgh was a terror weapon, her very presence enough to rout armies, and these refugees weren’t an army.  Morale had been low to start with.

I sighed.  We’d scared people off, and they’d fled to the hills, quite literally.  In a movie, this would have been the moment that people slowly began returning, the orchestral music swelling as they overcame their fear.

Ridiculous, in context.  They’d hide for days, and they’d flee the second they saw the Simurgh again.

This wasn’t a case where we’d be able to stop the imminent threat and then recruit a select few people from among the survivors.

“Yo,” Tattletale said.  She had to run to get up the last stretch of the little hill that overlooked Tav’s primary settlement.

“Yo,” I responded.

“Total deadpan?  You can be a little excited,” she said.

“I am.  Quiet terror is a kind of excitement, isn’t it?  Pulse pounding, heart in my throat, and I’m so tense I’m getting a headache, because I’m almost afraid to think.”

“You think I’m notFuck.  There’s very few things that genuinely terrify me.  One of them is hanging out right above us, building something, and I can’t even read her, which makes her one of the few things out there that surprise me.”

Building something?  I looked up.

True enough, the Simurgh had her hands in front of her, and was manipulating debris in between her hands.

“What is she-”

‘I don’t know,” Tattletale said, interrupting me.  “What do you want me to do?  Ask her?”

I shook my head.  “How are the Pendragon’s occupants doing?”

“Ship shape, but Defiant’s wanting to be careful.  He’s demanding they get triple-checked.  Kind of funny, seeing that from him.”

I shrugged.  It would be a bigger leap for Tattletale to see the changes in him than for me to see it.  I’d been acquainted with him over the past two years, while she only saw him here and there.

“They’ll be up for it if we have a fight?” I asked.

Tattletale shrugged.  “For sure.  Scratches, bruises, but that’s about it.  We’re down to fight at a moment’s notice.  Sad thing is, the worst thing Scion could do to us is wait a month or two before he comes back.”

“True,” I agreed.

Not a pleasant thought.  If he took a leave of absence while we were trying to wrangle the Endbringers, odds were we’d get taken out by other factions or by the Endbringers themselves.

“I dunno,” Imp said.  I managed to not be startled as she appeared.  “Killing us all is pretty awful.”

“Awful, but not awful in the ‘let humanity destroy itself’ sort of way,” I pointed out.  “Let us come up with a plan for fighting back, then disappearing?  Letting that plan fester and fuck us over?”

Imp shrugged.  “So?  What do we do?”

“Handle what we can,” I said.  “Let’s go talk to the others and hash out a plan of action.”

The three of us made our way down the hill to the settlement.  In the doing, we passed through a darker patch where the Simurgh’s wingspan blocked out a portion of the sun.  What little sunlight could pass through the cloud cover, anyways.  I glanced up and saw her in shadow, the light behind her outlining her body, hair, feathers and the halo of improvised weapons.

Defiant had his helmet off.  His hair had grown in just a little, but wasn’t much more than a buzz cut, stubble on one side of his face was much the same.  But for the lack of stubble on his cheek, I might not have noticed his face was partially a prosthetic.  A gift from the Nine.

“It worked,” he said.

“More or less,” I responded.  “One civilian death and seven civilian injuries in the fighting, the death and two of the injuries were the Simurgh’s fault.”

“Only that many,” Defiant said.

“She was letting us know she could,” Tattletale said.  “Which is something we really should pay attention to, so long as we’re trying to make sense of Endbringer psychology.  I’m wondering if you could say that they’re primarily a warped super-ego, devoid of any real ego or advanced id.  Built in codes and rulesets, not human social rules, but still rules established by a creator.”

“Sigmund Freud,” Defiant said.  “I remember being back in University.  Second year psychology elective.  The professor said one word, ‘Freud‘, and the entire auditorium of students exploded in laughter.”

Tattletale smiled.  “You’re calling my analysis into question?”

“If you’re basing it on the Freudian structural model, yes.”

“Freud was big on the whole Oedipus, Electra thing.  Mommy issues, daddy issues.  I’d say if we have any understanding of the Endbringers at all, there’s definitely something going on there.  Not sexual, but you get what I mean.”

“You’re way overstating my intelligence,” Imp said.  “I don’t get what you mean at all.”

“The Endbringers have a fucked up connection with whoever made them,” I said.  “Be it Eidolon or someone else.”

“I understand that.”

“So if they’re unmoored from whatever’s anchoring them to reality,” Tattletale said, “What’s motivating them now?”

“A better question,” I said, “Is… well, who the fuck is she following?”

“Us,” Imp said.  “You guys are overthinking this.”

I sighed.  “She is following us, probably.  Leviathan was following the Azazel, Simurgh followed the Dragonfly.  Both maintained consistent speeds, matching pace, keeping a short distance.  What I’m asking is, which of us, exactly, does the Simurgh follow?”

“Who’s in control of her, for the time being?”  Tattletale summed up the question.

“There’s an easy way to check that,” Defiant murmured.  Odd, that his voice had a vaguely mechanical twang to it even with his helmet off.  “Each person that was on the Dragonfly walks in a different direction, and we see who she follows.”

I frowned, glancing skyward for a moment.  No sign of any movement or response from the Simurgh.

“What?” Tattletale asked.

“I wouldn’t say anyone’s in control of her,” I said.  “Because I don’t think anyone is in control of her except her, and-”

I stopped there.

What?” Tattletale asked, again.

“When she was first attacking the settlement and I was musing aloud at the possibility of betrayal, she very deliberately looked at me.  It was a communication, all on its lonesome.  Letting me know the whole betrayal thing was a possibility, that she had some self-volition, and letting me know she was listening.”

“We know she hears.  We know she’s aware of everything around her, present or future.  Simurgh S.O.P.,” Tattletale said.

“I know,” I said.  “But I’m not just saying she heard me.  I’m saying she was listening.  She’s hearing every word we say here and she’s paying attention to all of it, processing it, applying it, maybe.”

“You may be reading too much into a momentary eye contact,” Defiant said.  “I’m watching the video footage in question right now… yes.  I see what you’re talking about.”

“Right?” I asked.  “So you agree?”

But he shook his head.  “I suspect It’s a bad sign if you’re getting paranoid over this.  It’s counterproductive, and the moment your fear or second-guessing is detrimental enough, you need to step down and walk away.”

I took a deep breath, then sighed.  “I’m fine.”

“If there’s an issue…”

“No issue.  All I’m saying, the only reason I brought this up, is because I don’t want to get on her bad side.  I’d very much appreciate it if we treated her with due respect.  Let’s not upset her by talking about her in a negative light.  Electra complexes, talking about who’s controlling her, or experimenting on her.  I don’t think it’s that easy to understand her, and we’re only going to upset her if we keep going down that road.”

“She doesn’t get upset,” Defiant said.  “Didn’t we just spend an inordinate amount of time talking about how Endbringers don’t have conventional emotions?”

“Better safe than sorry,” I said.

“Yes,” he sighed the word.  “Yes.  Of course.  I’m mentally exhausted, I’m being stubborn.”

“We’re all mentally exhausted,” I said.  I glanced up at the Simurgh.  “Keep that in mind.”

There were nods all around.

“The Pendragon won’t fly until I fix it,” Defiant said, standing.  He pulled on his helmet, and there was an audible sound as it locked into place.  “I’ll need parts from elsewhere.  It also means leaving some people behind.  You can’t fit everyone into the Dragonfly.”

“We’ll do something low-risk in the meantime, then,” I said.  “Reduced group.”

“Sensible.  I’ll go see after the others, then.  This would be a good time to eat, stock up on supplies or use the facilities.”

Defiant wasn’t one for goodbyes or formalities.  He said he’d leave, and he left, his boots making heavy sounds with each footfall.

“Well, I’m going to go make water,” Tattletale said, jerking a thumb towards one of the outhouses.  “I’d be all girl-code and invite you with, but I actually like you guys, and I don’t want to subject you to that atmosphere.”

“Thanks,” I said.

When Tattletale had disappeared, Imp and I sort of meandered over towards the others.

Canary was closest, helmet off, her hair plastered to her head with sweat, making her feathers that much more prominent where they stuck out of her hairline.

“This is crazy,” she said.

“This is a Tuesday for us,” Imp replied, overly casual in a way that was almost forced.

I saw the dawning alarm on Canary’s features.  I hurried to reassure her, “It’s really not.  Ignore her.”

Canary nodded.

“Holding up okay?”  I asked.

“Pretty much.  There’s one thing, but it… it’s pretty trivially stupid in the grand scheme of things.”

“We’re killing time while we wait to get organized,” I said.  “Go ahead.”

“There were two people I was talking to.  Forget their names.  One’s really forgettable and the other’s obscure.”

“Foil and Parian,” I said.

“Yes.  Right, yeah.  I was talking to them, and we had a lot in common, and then they went from warm to ice cold in a flash.  Couldn’t understand why.”

I frowned.  “That doesn’t sound like either of them.”

“They didn’t really say anything.  They just talked about going somewhere, and I asked if I could come, and they looked at me like I had three heads.”

“They probably wanted to be alone,” I said.

“Yeah.  I get that,” Canary said.

Alone alone,” Imp responded.  “End of the world, making every minute count?  Nudge, nudge, wink wink?”

Imp held her mask in one hand, using it to nudge Canary twice, then tipping it to the side as she winked, keeping time with the four words.

Canary’s eyes went wide.  “Oh.  Oh!”

“Dudette, with all the hugging and reassuring they were doing, how was this even in question?”

“I don’t follow the cape scene.  I don’t know how close teammates get.  I just figured, shitty situation, life and death, maybe you cling tighter to any buoy in a storm… oh god.  I asked if I could come with them.”

Imp nodded sagely.  “I can see where you’d get confused.  We’re very close, here, after all.”

Canary was blushing, humiliated, the pink of her skin contrasting her yellow hair.

Imp continued, “After all, Skitter… Weaver and I… well…”

She tried to make bedroom eyes at me, holding her hands in front of her, twisting her arms as she drew her shoulders forward, the very picture of a lovestruck schoolgirl.

Canary’s face reddened further as Imp continued to poke fun.

Imp, for her part, gave it up after only two or three seconds.  “Fuck.  Can’t do it.  Weaver here has diddled my brother, and it just feels squick and incestuous.”

That’s the reason we haven’t ever done the relationship thing,” I said, my voice flat.  “It’d be weird in an almost incestuous way.”

Imp cackled.  One of very few people I knew who could cackle.  She was enjoying herself.  This was her medium.  One of them.  “You’d do better with Tattletale, or Rachel.”

“Thank you,” I said, and I injected a little more sarcasm into my voice, “for the mental pictures that evokes.”

She cackled again.

Eager to change the topic, I glanced at the others.  The Wards were sitting a short distance away, Kid Win, Golem, Vista and Cuff, sitting together.  Cuff was fixing up Golem’s costume.

I’d feel weird about approaching them.  Technically, I was still a Ward, though my eighteenth birthday had come and gone.  I should have moved up to the Protectorate, but I’d never been sworn in, had never filled in the paperwork.

The Slaughterhouse Nine, Scion and the mass-evacuation from Earth Bet sort of gave me an excuse, but I still didn’t want to face the questions.

I glanced at Saint, who was sitting between Narwhal and Miss Militia.  They were pretty clearly talking guns.

Lung stood alone.  He was holding a skewer with meat all along the length.  A glance around didn’t show any possible source.

A check with my swarm did.  A few hundred feet away, there was a cooking fire that had gone out in the aftermath of the Yàngbǎn attack.  Lung had apparently claimed some food as a matter of course.

“Lung,” I said, almost absently.

“You know him?” Canary asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“He was kind of notorious in the Birdcage.  A lot of people, they come in, and they do something to make a statement.  Kill someone, pick someone suitable and claim them, challenge someone suitably impressive to a fight, that sort of thing.”

“What did Lung do?” I asked.

“He marched into the women’s side of the prison, killed his underling, and then killed and maimed a bunch of others before the cell block leaders ordered people to pull back.  I got called into a meeting, too, where a bunch of people in charge of cell blocks asked me to come and tell them what I knew about him, since we arrived at the same time.”

I nodded.  “But you didn’t know anything.”

“No.  I think some of them were really worried, too.  I thought they were going to hurt me, until Lustrum, uh, my cell block leader, backed me up, gave me her protection.”

“Geez,” Imp said.  “That’s messed up.”

Canary shrugged.  “How did you put it?  A Tuesday?  A Tuesday in the Birdcage.”

“No, I’m not talking about that,” Imp said.  “I’m talking about the fact that Lustrum the feminazi was in charge of your cell block and you still didn’t pick up on the thing between Parian and Foil.  Isn’t that, like, Sappho central?”

Sappho?

Canary blushed again.  “I… uh.”

“I mean, seriously,” Imp said.

“Ease up,” I warned her.

“I… I live and let live,” Canary said.  “I just didn’t want to step on toes.”

“And you never got any?”

“I had somebody, but like I said…”

They were still going as I focused on my swarm.  I gave some commands to the Dragonfly, which I had landed a mile and a half out of town, and brought it our way.

With the relay bugs, I could sense most of the settlement, the surrounding landscape, everything above and below.  That was only using half of them.

The remainder were fertilized, bearing eggs.

I’d flipped the switches, shifted them into breeding mode, and I was working on keeping them warm and well fed.  I’d have to wait until the eggs hatched before I found out whether the young had any range extension ability.  If I had to wait until they were adult, well, the world might end before I got that far.

Defiant was returning.  I stepped away from Canary and Imp to greet him.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Smaller team, while the Pendragon was out of action, smaller job.

The ones who were grounded would be looking after the settlement, ensuring the survivors were able to make it through the next few nights.

Tattletale was with me.  Imp and Rachel had come with for much the same reason Lung had.  They were restless personalities, unwilling to relax when there was a possibility of a conflict.  I wanted to think that Rachel’s intentions were a little kinder in nature than Lung’s, that she wanted to protect her friends, but I wasn’t going to ask, nor was I going to set any hopes on it.

A pleasant idea, nothing more.

Lung was eerily quiet.  He’d acted to stop Shadow Stalker from attacking me, but he hadn’t shown a glimmer of his power.

After we’d decided who went where, before we’d left, Canary had found a moment to talk to me.  To finish what she’d been about to say when Imp had interrupted to poke fun at her.

Information about Lung.

He coasted on reputation for some time.  Didn’t use his power, didn’t fight, just intimidated.  Nobody was willing to start something because nobody really knew what he was about.  Until this guy from Brockton Bay came in.  Had some info.  Except, by then, Lung was entrenched in Marquis’ cell block, and even if someone wanted to go after him, they didn’t want to deal with Marquis in the process.

Lung hadn’t been using his power.  Why?  Was there a reason?

A deep seated concern about his passenger, maybe?  No.  What would excuse that?

I needed to ask Tattletale, now that I knew, but there hadn’t been a moment where we’d both been alone.

We had Shadow Stalker, who had no interest in rebuilding and resettling.  Defiant was with us as well, relying on remote monitoring to perform the occasional check-in on Saint.  Narwhal would manage the rest.

Miss Militia had come along, and nobody had said anything to mark it as fact, but I got the distinct impression it was for Defiant‘s sake.

And, of course, we had the Simurgh.  Following.  She’d finished building what she’d been working on as she hovered over the aftermath of the fight at the Tav settlement.

A shortsword, four feet long, without any guard to protect the hand from an enemy’s weapon, both sides of the blade serrated.  Black.

Defiant had called it a Gladius.

Defiant had the cockpit and Miss Militia’s company, and so I was left to hang out in the cabin, with Rachel sleeping beside me, Bastard and Huntress sleeping at her feet.

I admired her ability to rest in such stressful situations.  I glanced at Shadow Stalker, who seemed to be filled with nervous energy.  When we’d kidnapped her for Regent to control, Rachel had been able to sleep then, too.

I felt like I had to be responsible, somehow.  I’d taken on three very dangerous individuals, with reputations ranging from bloodthirsty vigilante to Endbringer, and I knew I’d blame myself if something went wrong on any count.  I couldn’t sleep when there was information to take in, when there were people to watch, people to watch over, and personalities to keep in check.

Threats and conflicts, within and without.

Many of the monitors were focused on Bohu, the towering Endbringer, tall enough that her heads reached the cloud cover.  Five miles tall, give or take.  Gaunt, expressionless, without legs to walk with.  No, she moved like a block of stone that someone was pushing, not with lurching movements, but a steady, grinding progression that left bulldozed terrain in her wake.  Overlapping rings marked the area she traveled as well, as she continued switching between her typical combat-mode cycles, altering the terrain, raising walls, creating traps and deadfalls, generating architecture.

The monitors abruptly changed.  One shaky image, from one cameraman at just the right vantage point.

A golden streak crossing the evening sky, appearing out of nowhere.

Just about everyone in the Dragonfly tensed.  I felt myself draw in a breath, my meager chest swelling as if I could draw in confidence as well as air, preparing to give orders, to provide the call to arms.

But the golden light disappeared as soon as it had appeared.  Like the jet stream of an aircraft passing overhead, except it was light, not smoke, and it only marked a brief period where he’d passed through our world on his way to other things.

We relaxed.

Rachel hadn’t even woken up.  She was exhausted, though we’d barely participated in any fighting.

The Dragonfly moved closer to the ground as we approached the next portal.  It was squatter, broader, allowing for more ground traffic at a moment’s notice, though it made the passage of flying vehicles more difficult.

Like Scion, exiting one world, passing through Bet on our way to the next.  It reminded me of my discussion with Panacea.  People who build and people who destroy.  We were trying to do the former, Scion the latter.

The Dragonfly passed through the portal.

Heavy rain showered down around us.  The Dragonfly faltered for an instant as it changed settings, very nearly nosediving into the ground beneath us.

Defiant pulled the craft up.

Agnes Court, I thought.  I’d studied all of the major players in anticipation of the end of the world, I knew who the Elite were, and I knew who had built this.

She fit somewhere between Labyrinth and the Yàngbǎn’s Ziggurat.  Organically grown structures.  Seeds that swelled into pillars, stairs, houses and bigger things, given enough time in proximity to their master.  The wood-like substance hardened to stone of varying colors after she terminated the growth.

In the span of two and a half days, she’d grown a walled city, one with an elaborate castle at the northmost end, with shelters and what looked like a sewer system, if I was judging the perfectly round hole in the cliff face below right.  It was gushing water.

Two days to make this.

Leviathan had taken less than an hour to demolish it.

The wall, taller than some skyscrapers, was shattered in three places, damaged enough to serve little purpose in others.  A shallow river flowed through the spots where the damage to the wall reached the ground.

Leviathan had perched himself atop the castle’s highest tower, though the tower wasn’t broad enough for him to put anything more than two clawed hands and two feet on the very top.  His tail wound around the structure, in one window and out another.

Even through the rain, his five eyes glowed.

“Oh no,” I said.  “The civilians.  The refugees.”

“Relatively few,” Tattletale said.  “That’s… yeah.  I don’t think we offed people in any substantial numbers.”

In any substantial numbers, I thought.

“I didn’t think they’d get this kind of structure up in time,” I said.

“Court grows things exponentially, given time,” Tattletale said.

She frowned.

Grew things exponentially.”

If that was the case, then we’d lost a possible asset.  Fuck this, fuck the Elite for bringing things to this point.

“There were a thousand people here,” Defiant said.  “Many who were managing supplies and resources for the rebuilding and resettlement efforts.”

“I’d explain,” Tattletale said, “But I’d rather not explain twice.”

“Twice?”  Miss Militia asked.

Tattletale pointed.

The Azazel had parked on top of a tower at the wall’s edge, almost opposite to where Leviathan was.  A crowd had gathered around it.

Too many to be just the Dragon’s Teeth.  Far too many.

I swallowed.

Cameras zoomed in on the individuals.  Hard to make out through the rain, but I could draw the appropriate conclusions.

The Dragonfly landed, far gentler in the process than I would have managed on my own.

“Time to face the music,” Tattletale said.

I took the time to restructure my costume, raising my hood to protect my head before I stepped out into the pouring rain.  Defiant was in step to my right, Tattletale to my left.

No, not pouring.  Pounding.  As heavy a rainfall as I’d ever experienced.

The other major players had arrived.  The Thanda, Faultline, the Irregulars, the Meisters, the remnants of the Suits…  Cauldron.

It took time for everyone from the Dragonfly to make their way outside.  We looked so small in comparison to the group arrayed before us.  People had disappeared here and there.  Dead or gone in the wake of the disaster on the oil rig, or the fighting that had followed.

Even after we’d arrived, after the ramp had closed, the group before us remained utterly silent.  There was only the sound of the rain, so deafening I might have been unable to hear people if they’d shouted.  I clenched my fists, tried not to shiver.  If I started, I wouldn’t stop.  Staying calm, staying confident, my attention on my bugs as a way of escaping the stresses here… it made for an almost zen moment.

It was in that same moment that the Simurgh descended.

Descended was the wrong word.  She fell.  It was as though she’d stopped lifting herself into the air, and let herself drop.  Her wings moved to control her descent, keep her facing towards the ground as she plummeted.  In the gloom of the rain and the heavy stormclouds above, her silver-white body was the easiest thing to make out.  If the assembled capes hadn’t already been keeping a wary eye on her, the movement would have turned heads anyways.

A white streak, plummeting from the sky, striking Leviathan.

The shockwave that accompanied the impact tore through the tower.  Superficial features broke away first, followed by the internal structures that had provided structural integrity.  The end result was a gradual, almost slow-motion collapse, a lingering view of the Simurgh and Leviathan as they’d been at the moment of impact.

They tilted as the tower did, but neither Endbringer moved.  The Simurgh had both feet pressed against Leviathan’s stomach, one hand reaching up to grip his face, the other hand holding the gladius she’d made, buried so deep in Leviathan’s sternum that only a little bit of the handle stuck out.

Pieces of her halo began to fall, including her fabricated guns and the other debris she’d arranged to form the ring itself.  It rained down like a localized meteor shower, striking the castle, the base of the tower, the wall, and Leviathan.

The Simurgh managed to avoid being struck, even with her vast wingspan.  She leaped up, kicking herself off of Leviathan, and found a perch on the wall, folding her wings around herself and the top of the wall, as if to ward off the worst of the rain.

Maybe six or seven seconds later, the tower finished collapsing, and Leviathan’s massive, dense body hit ground, crashing through several buildings before settling, the handle of the sword still sticking out of the wound.

He didn’t rise.  He twitched, lashed out with his tail, dashing three already tattered buildings to smithereens, then gushed with water, producing four or five times his body weight in water without even moving.

Death throes?

She’d hit his core.

Beside me, Imp wiped at the lenses of her mask, tried again, and then pulled it off entirely.  She stared at the scene with her mouth agape, then looked to Tattletale, mouthing three words in a voice too quiet to make out through the pounding rain.

Tattletale’s hair was soaked through, streaming with rivulets of water that ran down her back.  Dark makeup ran from the eye sockets of her costume.

However bedraggled she appeared, just after a minute of standing in the rain, she also looked contemplative, rubbing her chin as she hugged her other arm close for warmth.

Leviathan went utterly still.

I watched the faces of the others.  Every set of eyes was fixed on Leviathan’s body.  Nobody seemed like they were willing or able to tear their eyes away from the scene.

Slowly, almost at a glacial pace, Leviathan moved.  One hand with the disproportionately long claws was planted on the ground, then another.  His tail provided some of the support and strength to leverage himself to his feet.

That, oddly enough, seemed to surprise Tattletale.  Her hand dropped from her face to her side.  She fumbled to hook her thumb over her belt as if she needed the extra leverage.

When Leviathan had pulled himself to an upright position with both feet beneath him, his head hanging down, the tail snaked around the handle of the sword.

He wrenched it free, and tore out chunks of his own chest in the process.  There was little left but the handle and the base of the sword.  Needle-like lengths of metal speared out from the base, but the bulk of the sword’s material was gone.

Leviathan continued to move with an almost excruciating slowness as he reached out with his claws, extending each arm to his sides, like a figure crucified.

The wound was superficial, but he was acting like he’d received a more grievous wound than any of us had dealt in the past.

The wind turned, and the wall ceased to provide a curtain against the rain.  For a moment, Leviathan was only a silhouette.

I could see his shape distort.

Others reacted before I saw anything different.  The Number Man, Tattletale, Dinah, Faultline… they saw something I couldn’t make out through the curtains of torrential rain.  The Number Man said something to Doctor Mother, and I saw Dinah fall back just an instant before Faultline gave a hand signal to her crew.  They adopted fighting stances.

Did they really think we could fight, if it came down to it?  Against two Endbringers?

It was maybe twenty seconds of stillness, seeing only vague shapes through the shifting downpour, before the wind turned again.  I got a glimpse of what the Simurgh had done.

I could hear a squeak from beside me.  I expected it to be Imp, saw it was Shadow Stalker, instead.  She clutched her crossbow in both hands.

Fins.  Leviathan had fins.

They were like blades, points sweeping backwards.  A fin rooted in the side of his arm, from wrist to elbow, the point scything back.  Had it not been limp enough to trail on the ground, it might have reached his shoulder.  More at the sides of his neck and along the length of his spine, forming an almost serrated pattern where multiple fins overlapped.  Perhaps some at his legs.  The fins ran down the length of his tail, and ended in a cluster at the end, like the tuft of fur at the end of a lion’s tail, exaggerated many times over in size.

He flexed a claw, and I could see webbing between each finger, mottled in black and an iridescent green that matched his eyes.  It made me think of the bioluminescence of a jellyfish in the deep ocean.

In synchronous motions, the Simurgh unfurled her wings, stretching them to their full length, and Leviathan flexed his fins, letting them unfold in kind.  Each fin was the same as the webbing, mottled black and a eerie green, and the echo-image of water that accompanied his movement produced mist as it washed over the fins.  It obscured him almost completely, and as much as the pouring rain served to drive it away, the rainwater produced more mist as it touched the fins.

It took some time to clear, and even then, it only cleared because Leviathan had folded the fins up again.  When we could see Leviathan again, he had collapsed into a sitting position, one overlong arm draped over his legs, ‘chin’ resting on one shoulder, completely at ease.

Above him, the Simurgh slowly folded her wings closed, like a reversal of a flower blossoming.

Doctor Mother turned to face us.

“Wha-  The-” she stuttered.

Contessa, holding an umbrella to keep the both of them dry, set an arm on the Doctor’s shoulder.  The Doctor fell silent, stopping only to look at Leviathan, then turned back to Tattletale.

Tattletale managed a grin.  “I’d say there’s a silver lining in all this, but that phrase has sort of lost it’s cachet over the last decade or so.”

She gestured in the vague direction of the Simurgh before hugging her arms against her body.  “…He’s probably stronger, which helps if he’s going up against Scion, right?”

“I think,” Doctor Mother said.  She paused very deliberately.  “It would be very wise to keep the Endbringers separated from here on out.”

“We might have to fight them, before or after we take on Scion,” King of Swords, leader of one division of the Suits voiced the concerns that everyone was harboring.

Lung was the next one to speak.  “What did she do?”

“Upgraded Leviathan,” Tattletale said.  “Attuned some device to the right frequency or setting, then tapped into his core without doing too much harm to Leviathan.  Fed things into there.  Knowledge, data, nanotechnology.”

Defiant’s head turned, as if Tattletale had said something.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “Nanotech.  Why do you think the fins were turning water to mist?”

My tech?”  Defiant asked.

“Among one or two other advancements.  If the density rules are in effect, I’d bet those fins are just as hard to cut through as Leviathan’s arm or torso.  Disintegration effect, maybe something else.”

“Mecha-Leviathan?” Imp murmured.

“That’s not- it doesn’t fit with what we know of them,” Defiant said.

Tattletale spread her arms, a massive, exaggerated ‘who knows?‘ gesture.

“It’s the fucking Simurgh,” Rachel said.

“I hope you can understand why we’re… distressed with you,” the Doctor said.

Fuck you,” Tattletale retorted.  “Cope.”

I put my hand on her shoulder.  She didn’t relent, nor did she release any of her tension.

“You wiped out two defending forces,” the Doctor said.  “We lost the Yàngbǎn’s support when you took out their infiltration squads, and the Elite are wiped out.”

I squeezed Tattletale’s shoulder.  She gave me an annoyed look, but she backed away.

I took in a deep breath.  I could see the Doctor fold her arms.  Like a mother or schoolteacher awaiting an apology from the recalcitrant student.

“Fuck you,” I said.

“You don’t want us for enemies,” the Doctor said.

“We have the fucking Simu-” Imp started.  Tattletale elbowed her.

“The Yàngbǎn were doing more harm than good,” I said.

“They were limiting their strikes to civilians.  Not something I agree with, but with Earth, with every Earth on the line, I’d forego two or three thousand lives for the help of over two hundred of the C.U.I.’s trained parahumans.”

“They’d given up,” Tattletale said.  “They were taking territory to run and hide.”

“Contessa would have changed their minds.”

Tattletale shrugged.  “Don’t blame us for not taking your plans into account, when you don’t share your plans with anyone.”

“This is common sense.  No matter.  The Elite, though?”

“They were attacking civilians.”

“They were nonviolent.  Refugees in the vicinity of the portal were evacuated.  The Elite then made contact with possible settlers who they thought would be interested in paying a premium for good shelter, for resources and supplies.  If not paying with cash, then paying with skills.  Doctors, talented artists, scholars… it was one of our best bets for re-establishing a hub of development across all of the Earths.”

“They broke the truce,” Tattletale said.

“Again, they were an asset.  They were cooperating.  The truce hardly stands in this dark hour.”

“They broke the truce,” I echoed Tattletale.  “The code has been there since the beginning.  If a bigger threat shows up, we band together.  We don’t distract each other with attacks or murder attempts, we don’t take advantage of the situation to fuck with civilians.  The truce is there for a reasonand it has weight because everyone knows that they can’t handle the trouble that gets express-delivered to their doorsteps when they’ve defied it.”

“Siding with Endbringers could be seen as a violation,” Queen of Wands said.  “I seem to recall you participated in an effort to drive out a gang that had escalated too much, too violently, too fast.”

Her eyes fell on Lung.

Were they serious?

“Don’t be fucking stupid,” Faultline said.  “If you start going after the Undersiders and Guild for trying to amass enough firepower to take down Scion, then nobody’s going to be able to put up a fight.”

“Hey,” Tattletale said.  “Faultline, sticking up for me?  This is a first.”

“So you agree with this?  Using the Endbringers?”  one of the Thanda asked.

Tattletale grinned.  “Agree?  It was her idea.”

Faultline whipped her head around.  “No.  No it wasn’t.”

“Talking to the monsters.  Well, you said talk to Scion, but this is close.  You can have partial credit.”

“I’ll have no such thing.  I don’t disagree with this, but I won’t condone it either.  This is the Undersider’s plan, they can reap the consequences if it goes wrong.”

Tattletale smiled, but it wasn’t quite a grin.  Confident, calm.  I doubted anyone but the perception thinkers on the other side could see, but Tattletale was clenching her jaw in an effort to keep her teeth from chattering.

I felt just a little warmer, owing to my hood.  I spoke so Tattletale wouldn’t have to try and risk an ill-timed chattering of teeth.  “That’s fair.  We’ll deal with the consequences, be it a stab in the back from the Endbringers or punishment that follows from any real issues that follow from this.  But we will keep going after anyone who violates the truce.”

Rachel stepped forward, her arm pressing against my shoulder and side, as if she was bolstering me with physical presence.  Through the bugs I’d planted on him, I could sense Lung folding his arms.

“You will not be taking charge of all of the Endbringers,” the Doctor said.  “Teacher emerged with a small force at his disposal.  He defeated the Protectorate squads that were deployed at one empty location…”

“The place Khonsu or Tohu were supposed to appear,” Tattletale said.

“Quite.  It was Khonsu.  The Endbringer has imprinted on Teacher’s group, and he has offered to sell that squad, along with the Endbringer, to a sufficiently wealthy buyer.  We agreed, if only to keep this from becoming a monopoly on Endbringers.”

Tattletale smiled a little, but didn’t talk.

“How good of you,” Defiant said.

“We strongly advise you leave Tohu for another party to claim,” the Doctor said.  “Focus on the three you have.”

Defiant glanced at Tattletale and I.  I looked at Tattletale, reading her expression, before coming to a conclusion.  “That’s fine.”

“Then we’re one step closer to a resolution,” the Doctor said.  “Much better than the alternative.”

Veiled threats, now?  Just how badly had we fucked her plans?

“This is more firepower than we expected to have at this juncture,” the Doctor said.  “But not enough by itself.  Without sufficient distraction, Scion will treat the Endbringers as he treated Behemoth.  We’ll step forward and unveil our own plan B and plan C at the time of battle.”

“Armies,” Tattletale said.  “You were collecting people for a reason, and you didn’t release every Case Fifty-three you made.”

“Essentially,” the Doctor said.

“Five groups,” I said, and my eyes fell on Dinah, who was standing beside Faultline.  “We should split up so we can respond the instant Scion appears.  We make sure every group has some way to maybe occupy him or pin him down, and we move to reinforce.”

Dinah, standing beside Faultline, nodded slowly.

“Four Endbringers, and then Dragon and Teacher to comprise the final group,” the Doctor said.  “If Tohu arrives, she can reinforce the weakest group.  Quite possibly Bohu.”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He was clutching his spear so tight I thought it would break.  He looked to Miss Militia for clarification.

“I’ll run it by Chevalier,” she said, “But I don’t see a problem with this.”

There were heads nodding.

Not enough.  We don’t have enough people here.  There’s groups missing.  People still hidingPeople like the Yàngbǎn who are fighting us instead of helping.

I was all too aware of the Simurgh and Leviathan at the corner of my peripheral vision, of Lung and Shadow Stalker, who I could sense with my swarm.

Too many people ready to stab us in the back.

“I would recommend,” the Doctor said, speaking slowly, “That you take your time to visit loved ones, say goodbyes and make your peace.  I don’t think there will be another fight after this.”

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Cockroaches 28.4

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“We’re here,” I said.

It was enough.  All the different personalities in the Dragonfly, the… how had Tattletale put it, once upon a time?  The people who weren’t inclined to play ‘cops and robbers’, who weren’t the types to follow the rules or codes, and were dangerous without a firm hand.  Rachel, Lung, Sophia… they fell silent.  The fighting stopped.

Because they, even with their unique and personal issues, acknowledged that this wasn’t a situation where you fucked around.

Monitors switched settings without any cue from me.  Showing the Simurgh from a distance away, from a different angle.  Defiant had switched on his long-ranged cameras.

A moment later, he switched on the cameras in the Dragonfly.  The two sets of images alternated across the innumerable displays in the craft.  Only the display directly in front of me in the cockpit remained untouched, showing altitude, heading, speed, distance from target, and alerts regarding Scion’s latest appearances.

The Dragonfly changed course, angling to maintain a set distance from the Endbringer.  Again, not me.

Defiant seemed content to handle the mechanical end of things.  I stood from my seat, stretching a little, before gathering my bugs.  Two relay bugs, for safety’s sake.  They exited the craft.

No scream from the Simurgh.  At least, not one I could detect.  It would fit her to keep it beyond our notice, influencing us, the sort of card she would keep up her sleeve.  To make the psychic scream ‘audible’, for lack of a better word, purely for spreading fear, then use it subtly at a time when she wasn’t attacking.

The others in the ship hadn’t only gone silent.  They’d gone still.  I might have taken it for an almost hypnotic paralysis, a sign that something was deeply wrong, but Rachel turned and found a seat on the bench opposite Shadow Stalker.

No, they were still themselves.

My bugs made their way towards the Simurgh, while I chained the two relay bugs together to extend my range.

Fragile, as it only required the death of one bug to sever my connection with the swarm.  I didn’t mind.  If she acted on my swarm, that was likely to be the least of our worries.

Cameras changed focus, zooming in on the Simurgh’s face, hands and various wingtips, different cameras taking over as the Pendragon and the Dragonfly rotated around her and the cameras lost sight of the features in question.  Mosaic views of her features, broken up like I might see if I were looking through the eyes of my bugs, but without my power to coodinate the picture, draw it into something cohesive.

In the corner of each image, metrics, numbers, measurements, as if Defiant hoped to track the slightest movement.

It was the hair that got me.  Gossamer-fine, silver-white, straight, it blew in the wind as if each strand were a separate entity.  Not in clumps or locks, but a curtain of strands ten times as dramatic as something one might see in a digitally altered hair commercial.

Artificial.

“Seventy,” Tattletale said.

“Hm?” I asked.

“I said I was sixty-five percent sure before.  I’m revising it to seventy.”

I nodded.

Hello, Simurgh, I thought.  We finally meet.

The Protectorate was strict about who could join the fights against the Simurgh.  Capes needed psychological evaluations, they needed to sign documents agreeing to the quarantine procedures, and they needed to be on board with the timetables.

I’d been unable to participate when the Simurgh had attacked flight BA178.  When she’d attacked Manchester, I’d been barred from joining the fight by bureaucratic red tape.  I had a bad history and I was still on probation.  Too likely that I was mentally unstable.

When the Simurgh had hit Paris, I’d gone to Mrs. Yamada, hoping for a therapist’s bill of clean mental health.  Or, if not quite that, then at least a go-ahead.

She’d advised me to see it as a good thing, instead.  That my participation would be another black mark on my record, another reason for people to be suspicious of me or second guess my decisions.

She’d also very elegantly avoided spelling out that she wasn’t willing to give me that clean bill of mental health.  I’d noticed, but hadn’t pressed her on it.  She would have been forced to say it straight, and I would have had to hear her say it.

“Ready?” I asked.

“I do the talking, you pass it on,” Tattletale said.

I nodded.

Tattletale sighed.  “Look at her.  The folly of man, am I right?”

“I don’t know.  You have a better idea about whether you’re right, but it… doesn’t fit to me.”

“I’m sure.”

“You’re seventy percent sure.”

“Seventy percent, yes.  If I’m wrong, then I’ll be approaching this entire conversation from the wrong angle, and we might wind up siccing an otherwise passive Endbringer on humanity.”

“Let’s hope you’re right, then,” I said.

She nodded.

“Everyone ready?” I asked.  I looked around the craft.  No responses.  Only silent nods.

One head that was shaking.  Shadow Stalker.

I touched the screen on the console.  “Defiant?”

Ready when you are,” he said.

“We’re starting right now,” I said.  I nodded at Tattletale.

She rolled her shoulders, took in a deep breath, then sighed.  “Hello, Endbringer, this-”

I echoed her words, speaking through my bugs as an interpreter might speak in another language.

The instant I had the first word out, alarms went off throughout the ship.  The Dragonfly shuddered as meager weapons unfolded from the sides.  My visual of the Pendragon showed it was reacting much the same way.

Simurgh had reacted.

She hadn’t attacked, but she had reacted.

She rotated in the air, holding her position, wings flat at her sides.  The wings were purely ornamental, much as Behemoth’s bulk and musculature had been.  She used telekinesis to move, and she used it now to keep herself oriented in the air, rotating so she matched our orbit around her, her eyes and attention fully fixed on the Dragonfly.

“Oh, shit,” Imp spoke, her voice wavering breathlessly halfway through the ‘shit’.

Long seconds passed, but the Simurgh didn’t take any other action.

“Th- this is Tattletale speaking, one face in that vast, crazy crowd of humans you’ve been murdering,” Tattletale finished.  “Good to see you’re listening.  I thought it was about time we had a chat.”

No response, no movement.  Odd, to see the screens showing her depicting the zoomed-in images of her face, hands, wings and body and not see them rotating in the picture as they had been before.

Her expression was neutral, but then again, the Simurgh’s expression was always neutral.  A face like a doll’s, a cold stare.  Beautiful in every conventional sense, in that every classically attractive feature was there, from the delicate, thin frame to the high cheekbones to the luxurious hair… horrifying in the manner it was all framed.  The height that put her two to three times the height of an ordinary adult, the wings that filled the space around her.  The feathers were surprisingly tough and dense, the edges capable of scoring steel.

Not that she really fought in close quarters, where she could help it.

“Let’s face the facts, Simurgh.  Ziz.  Israfel.  Ulama.  Whatever you want to go by.  You started acting funny pretty much right away, after Eidolon bit it.  Maybe that’s mourning.  Maybe you respected him as an enemy, ’cause he was one of only two individuals who could really give you guys a run for your money.  Or maybe you had a different relationship.”

Tattletale let the words hang in the air.

“Maybe a parent-child relationship?  Maybe he created you.”

The Simurgh didn’t move a muscle.  Her hair blew in the wind, and it caught on the features of her face, not even eliciting a blink of her eyes.

I leaned over my chair to hit the button on my cockpit, giving me a view of the inside of the Pendragon.

Defiant, Narwhal, Miss Militia, Saint, Canary, Parian, Foil, Golem, Vista and Kid Win were all present within.  Defiant had collected the heroes, the capes who might have been less inclined to throw their hat into the ring if I showed up in the company of Tattletale, Imp and Rachel.  He’d been closer to Parian and Foil when I approached him with the plan.

I watched the expressions on their faces, the concern, the alarm and confusion I’d felt only minutes ago.  I knew Tattletale hadn’t shared this particular detail.  They had to be listening in with some microphone, either a directional one aimed at my swarm outside or one in the Dragonfly.

“They say loneliness breeds the best masters, and it’s awfully lonely at the top,” Tattletale said.  “Nobody that can really put up a fight, no excuse to flex his abilities to their fullest, nothing that can really give the man any real stature, next to Legend, who had all the face time with the media.  No real role to play, compared to Alexandria, who was managing the PRT.  Odd man out.”

I thought of Eidolon, the first time I’d seen him in person.  Meeting in preparation for the Leviathan fight in Brockton Bay… Eidolon had been standing off to one side, in a corner, lost in thought.

“Symbiotic, odd as it sounds, what with you trying to kill him and him trying to kill you.”

Still no reaction.  No response.

I noted the surroundings.  The Simurgh had situated herself above the ocean, an eerie parallel to how Scion had first appeared before humanity.  As battlegrounds went, it left her relatively little to manipulate when using her telekinesis, but it also gave us very little ground to stand on if a fight erupted.  She’d torn apart Flight BA178.  She could tear apart the Dragonfly or the Pendragon if she had a mind to.

Hopefully the other ship would be able to flee, if we couldn’t manage an outright fight.

Tattletale held up a hand, then spoke.  “She’s not giving me anything.”

I didn’t repeat it for the Simurgh.  I only stared at the screens.

“Did you expect her to?”  Imp asked.

“Yeah.  Kind of,” Tattletale said.

“She’s not human,” I said.  “And, if you’re right about this, she’s only a projection.  Her brain doesn’t work like ours does, if it’s even active.”

“She responded when we communicated,” Tattletale said.

I nodded.  “Defiant, you listening in?”

On the screen in front of us, Defiant turned to the camera, then nodded once.

“Open to suggestions,” I said.

“We could use powers to try and communicate,” Narwhal said.  “Can we express a signal through some other channel?  Through our powers?”

“It might be taken as an attack,” I said.

“She’s smart enough to figure out convoluted chains of cause and effect, but not to take a gesture of communication for what it is?”  Tattletale asked.  “I say we try it.”

“Oh my god,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice quiet.  “You’re going to get us all killed.”

“Well, it might be a mercy,” Imp said.  “Going out like that, not having to watch the golden man take humanity down piece by piece.”

“Could we try Canary?” I suggested.  “If she has any understanding of powers, or if Canary has any influence with things other than humans…”

I don’t,” Canary said, from within the Pendragon.  “I tried using my power on dogs, cats, birds, monkeys…

Tattletale nodded, like this was something expected.  “Bonesaw said something like that.  When we get our powers, the passenger manages this sort of scan, trying to figure out a way to apply a part of itself.  So Taylor gets a power that’s restricted to bugs, Canary gets a power that’s limited to people.  At the same time, the passenger kind of figures out if there’s any danger of the power harming us, physically or mentally, and it sets down safeguards and limits.  Headaches like Dinah or I get are part of that.  And Eidolon…”

“I don’t… I can’t believe all this,” a woman said.  Miss Militia.

“He’s really their creator?”  Defiant asked.  “Eidolon?”

“…Sixty percent sure.  Eidolon’s some kind of exception, on a lot of levels.  His power works by different vectors, the innate limits aren’t there… something broke, and I’m betting the Endbringers are tied to it.  Like, this entity is fissioning off into countless fragments that impregnate hosts and somehow a little extra gets tacked on.  Or Cauldron’s method of replicating the fragments gets that little extra.”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  “But how does that help us here?”

“Getting to that.  Sort of.  Every power has secondary uses, uses that are locked away.  But maybe there’s something we can express using the powers, like a kind of parahuman charades.  Not, you know, actually miming something, but giving off a vibe.”

“I’ll try whatever,” I said.  “Who?  How?”

Tattletale smiled.  “Oh, this is fun.  It’s like a puzzle, but it’s not one with a clear cut answer.  Rachel, Canary.  Um.  Imp too.  And Taylor’s right.  Any use of power in a way that could be seen as violent might give the wrong cue.  So… none of that.  Let’s move people between ships.  Bitch, to the Pendragon.  Leave Bastard behind.  Canary, can you get out on top of your ship?  And Imp, same for you.  We need to distance you from the rest of us.”

Outside?” Imp asked.

“Outside and away.  Where your power doesn’t necessarily have a target.  You get me?”

“Three people using their powers,” Defiant said, “Without any valid targets?”

Exactly,” Tattletale said.

“I could lose my bugs,” I said.  “But I’m not sure I can express my power in a case like that.”

“Even if you could, but that would be pretty heavy handed.  It’s what we try next if this fails.  For now, let’s work with the existing plan.”

I pulled off my flight pack, then handed it to Imp.

“Oh, fun,” she said.  “God damn it.”

“No quips?  No jokes?”  I asked.  I helped her find the buckles and straps.

“When I’m done, maybe,” Imp said.  She glanced at Tattletale.  “I can’t turn my power on.  It’s always on.  I can turn it off, but that only works so long as I’m paying attention.”

“Don’t pay attention then.  Leave it running.  We’re trying to express an attitude.”

Imp nodded.

“What attitude is Imp?” I asked.

“Nonviolence, passivity,” Tattletale said.  “At least as far as we’re concerned.”

“And Rachel?”

“A call to arms, expression of strength.”

“And Canary is… cooperation?”

“Something along those lines.”

I nodded.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Lung would be too violent, and the focus of Vista’s power is too… location-driven?  I have no idea how she’d take Narwhal’s power, because it’s pretty evenly split between offense and defense.”

“Kind of abstract,” I said.

“I’m… reaching,” Tattletale confessed.  “Definitely reaching.  But reaching and abstract thought bought us the portal to Gimel, and I’ve got to flex my power somehow.”

“Somehow,” I agreed.  “No, it’s worth a try.  Or it will be if it doesn’t provoke her to violently murder us all.  Can I make a suggestion, though?”

“Any suggestions are good,” Tattletale said.

“Send Shadow Stalker instead of Imp.”

“You bitch,” Shadow Stalker said.  “No.”

Awesome idea,” Imp said.

“Shadow Stalker’s power doesn’t express itself over an area or any particular medium,” Tattletale said.  “It’s more personal.”

“Can’t she represent us?”  I asked.  “Or can’t the personal effect represent us?  If we had Imp flying up there way out of range of any of us, we’re still expecting her to represent our group, or humanity as a whole, aren’t we?”

“Sort of,” Tattletale said.

“Then I’m not sure I see the difference,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Shadow Stalker said.  “This is moronic.  Charades and acting like powers are some kind of massive signal flag for the Endbringer?  You’re lunatics.”

“Send them both?” I suggested.

“Oh, that’s less fun,” Imp said.  “You had a working plan, and you’re letting Tattletale convince you otherwise.  Come on.  Send the psycho crossbow girl and I’ll hang back here.  My power would send the total wrong message.  Totally.”

“Shh,” Tattletale said.  She frowned.  “Why Shadow Stalker?”

“Because Imp… is too passive.”

Way too passive,” Imp murmured.

“So’s Shadow Stalker,” Tattletale said.

“But Shadow Stalker’s passenger isn’t.  If there are any undertones, any way that the passengers influence our actions, then Shadow Stalker was definitely influenced.  I dug through her old records, read up on her history.”

“What?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“She got aggressive after she got her powers.  Generally more…” I searched for the way to phrase it.

“You fucking looked at my records?”

“…More violent than most people would be, in her shoes.  Lashing out, aimlessly at first, and then with a target, channeling the aggression.  Except it was the same amount of violence, just concentrated into fewer incidents, alongside a pretty extensive bullying campaign.”

“You’re doing this because of a grudge?”

“Let’s do it,” Tattletale said.  “Go with our guts.  Imp and Shadow Stalker, up on the roof.  Bitch, either you or Bastard need to head over to the Pendragon.  Canary on the roof of the Pendragon, singing with nobody listening.”

“You’re not getting me outside or any of that shit,” Shadow Stalker said.

“You’re scared,” Imp said.  “That’s so cute!  Is it a fear of heights or a fear of the Simurgh?”

“I’m not scared,” Shadow Stalker replied.  “I’m being sensible.  This is lunacy, and for what?  Charades with the Endbringer?”

“That was a metaphor,” Tattletale said.

“It sounds fucking stupid.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Imp said.  “I’m going.  I’m not going to get lumped in with Sissy McNancypants over here and get called a coward.”

“I’m not scared,” Shadow Stalker said.

“We never really got to meet,” Imp said.  “Fight or any of that.  So I’ve only got the stories I’ve heard about you.  Like when you shot Grue with your crossbow and it went right through his stomach?  Took him a month to recover?  I used to think, you know, you were a badass.  But you’re a pussycat.”

“She’s a bully,” I said.  “At the end of the day, she only wants to fight opponents she knows she can beat.”

“I’ve fought two Endbringers,” Shadow Stalker said, stabbing a finger in my direction.  “I know what you’re trying to do.  Fucking manipulating me, getting me into a dangerous situation where you’ll get me killed.  Fuck you.”

“Fought two Endbringers as part of an army.  But going up alone, putting yourself in the line of fire against something that much bigger and stronger than you?  No.  You’re a bully at heart, and that’s the antithesis of your usual M.O.”

“Fuck you, Hebert.  Fuck you.”

The sentence left her mouth, and then she stalked to my right, making her way to the cockpit.  She passed through the glass, making her way onto the nose of the ship, where she crouched.  Her flapping cloak obstructed the view, even as translucent as it was, but there was no chance we’d hit anything.

It took a minute to arrange.  Narwhal created a force field platform and carefully moved Rachel over to the Pendragon.  I watched their glacially slow movement and the utterly still Simurgh.

More alarms went off as she moved her head a fraction to watch the floating platform.

It took a few long seconds for my heart to stop trying to jump out of my chest.  Not completely oblivious to us petty humans.

“The girl is right.  This seems… ridiculous,” Lung rumbled.

Oh, Lung and Shadow Stalker are of like mind, that’s wonderful.

“It is, just a little,” Tattletale said.  “But I’m hoping that if this doesn’t exactly work, she’ll give us credit for trying.”

“The Endbringers do not give you credit,” Lung said.

“No, guess not,” Tattletale said.  She bent down to scratch Bastard around the ears, then stopped short when he pulled back, clearly uncomfortable with the stranger.

“Ridiculous,” Lung repeated himself.  “And you stopped in the middle of a conversation.  She is waiting for you to continue.”

“She doesn’t care.  Ninety-nine percent sure.  Gotta understand, she’s not even close to human, especially once you scratch the surface.  We think in black and white, she thinks in… void and substance.  In abstracts or in causative contexts, looking into the future and seeing how things unfold.  So we’re going to try this, and maybe something sticks.”

“Mm,” Lung said, clearly unimpressed.

“Start us up again?”  Tattletale asked me.

I nodded.

“So, Simmy, Eidolon made you, or he’s been enough of an opponent that you’ve kind of got that weird frenemy thing going on.  Not in the shitty high school way, but a real love-hate relationship.  You know what I mean.  You fight them so long you get to know them, you almost respect them on a level, and that respect becomes something more.”

“You’re rambling,” I murmured.

Tattletale shook her head a little.  “Whatever the case, you’re reacting to his being gone.  We’re here because we’re asking you…”

Tattletale trailed off.  She’d noticed something.

My head turned.  Canary was singing, and I could hear it through my bugs.

Wordless, insistent, filled with a lot of repressed emotion.

Almost angry.

I shut it out as best as I could, took a second to focus wholly on keeping my power from communicating any sound to me.  I hit a button on the dashboard, then spent a few seconds tracking down one of Dragon’s programs.

Defiant found it first, loading it onto the Dragonfly’s system.  It began filtering out the singing.  Most of it.

But no sooner had Canary’s Song gone away than the Simurgh began screaming.

Not as intense as I’d heard it described.  Barely audible.

More ominous than anything.

Not full strength,” Miss Militia’s voice came over the comms.  “I give us five minutes.  Wrap this up.”

I unclenched my hands, belatedly realizing I’d been squeezing them so hard they almost hurt.  My fingernails throbbed where they’d been almost bent against my palms.  If I’d not been wearing my gloves, I might have pierced the skin.  I flexed my hands to work out the tension that had accumulated and exhaled slowly.

“We’re here,” Tattletale started again, “Because we’re asking you for help.  For vengeance.  For your strength.  We want you and the rest of the Endbringers on board to stop Scion.”

The Simurgh didn’t react.

“I don’t care if you’re doing it to fuck with us, though I’d prefer it if you saved any backstabbing for when Scion’s dead and gone.  Fucking wipe us out.  I don’t care.  Just so long as we go out with a bang, taking him out with us.”

I made a hand gesture, urging Tattletale to move on.

“…Do it for the psychological impact, leave a mark.  Or do it because Scion killed Behemoth, your brother, and some part of you is programmed with a sense of kinship or whatever.  But above all else, I’m hoping you’ll help us murder that golden alien motherfucker because he killed Eidolon, and he stripped you of your purpose.”

Sixty percent sure, I thought.  Tattletale had revised her number.  How confident was she now?

The speech had no meat to it if Eidolon hadn’t made the Endbringers.

Very little if he had.

Tattletale held up her hand to me again, another sign that I shouldn’t repeat what she was saying, because she was talking to us.  “Fuck this.  It’s like talking to a fucking answering machine.  I feel like some dim asshole with no idea what I’m talking about.  There’s no feedback, no responses to read and judge for the next line.”

“Well,” I said.  “She’s not exactly your usual target.”

What do you usually do?”  Narwhal asked.

“Needle someone until they get upset, then find cues in that.  I’d do that here, except irritating the Simurgh seems like an excuse to get a Darwin Award.”

Tattletale’s being cautious.  Must be the end of the world after all,” someone said.  Might have been Foil.

“She’s singing,” Tattletale said.  “So that’s either a good sign or a very bad sign.”

Going by the numbers,” Miss Militia said, “If we assume it’s half strength, I’d say three minutes before we have to abort.

“Maybe tell Canary to stop,” I said.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’re getting a response.  Let’s hold out.”

Then keep talking,” Defiant said.

Tattletale sighed.  She perched herself on the bench, hands on her head.  “I don’t know if I should continue buying into this Eidolon thing.  Less convinced the further we go.  Most times, you get that key piece of information, and you can coast from there.”

“It’s very possible we don’t have enough information,” I said.

“I’m trying to communicate with something that doesn’t communicate back,” Tattletale said.

Reduce,” Defiant said.  “We’re trying to convey a message to a being that we don’t wholly understand.  You’re appealing to sympathy, to revenge.  Something simpler?

Like?” Tattletale asked.

They have a sense of self preservation,” Narwhal said.  “They run when we hurt them enough.  Fear?

“Because it allows them to maintain their mission,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t think we can actually scare her, either.  Scion might, but we can’t.”

The screaming was getting worse.  Warbling, with highs and lows.  It snagged on my attention, making it harder to maintain a train of thought.

Maybe she was reaching out to us, communicating.  Maybe she was just doing her thing, trying to worm her way into our heads so she could figure out how we functioned, put her plans into motion.

Anger,” Rachel said.

I turned my head.

There was a long pause.  I glanced at the screen on the cockpit to see what she was doing, but she’d stopped by the time I got there to look.  “When I cut Behemoth’s leg off, after we’d melted most of him away, he was angry.  Stomped around, attacked more.  Kept fighting until he died.  Didn’t he?

“He did,” Tattletale said.  “But now we’re getting back to the whole ‘needling them’ issue of the debate.  I’m pretty sure I don’t want to provoke her.”

“Dunno,” Rachel said.  “Just saying.”

“No,” I said, “It’s good thinking.  It’s a possibility.”

I could think back to the images of the Simurgh going all-out.

I remembered the various incidents that had unfolded in her wake.  Echidna, the sundering of the PRT.  Things with ramifications that were affecting us even now.

“…A very scary possibility,” I amended.

Lung gave me a funny look.

“Yes,” he said, agreeing with me.

Tattletale made a gesture, pointing at herself.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“Okay, Ziz.  I’m going to be honest.  You’re pretty fucked.  You and I both know you were made by somebody or something.  Accidentally, probably.  You were designed to give us as hard a time as possible without exterminating us altogether, probably to feed someone’s ego, unbeknownst to them.  But what happens when we’re all gone?  What’s the fucking point of you?”

Tattletale paused.  Waiting, watching.

No reaction from Tattletale.

“What happens when we’re all gone?  You’re tapped into a power source.  Maybe most power sources.  You’re draining them dry just to keep yourselves going.  There’s nothing for you to do but linger, when there’s no humans left.  To hibernate.  So you’re gathering your forces.  You’re planning one last act, probably for a few days from now, where you wipe out humanity, and I’m betting it’s one last desperate, sad attempt to validate your existence.”

Alarms went off once more.  The Simurgh had moved, her head turning to look over one shoulder, flexing wings to move them out of the way, as if she couldn’t see through them but she could see well past the horizon.

She returned to the same posture as before.

“What was that about?” I asked.

Checking,” Defiant said.  “Keep going.  Any reaction is a good reaction.”

Maybe it was Scion, arriving just in time to pick a fight with the Simurgh.

I could hope.

Tattletale continued, and I repeated what she was saying verbatim, trying to even match her in tone and pitch.  “Here’s what I’m thinking.  Shot in the dark.  You’re wanting to fight humanity because you’re trying to carry out the old programming, and Scion invalidated that by killing Eidolon, by killing someone else or destroying something.  I think that fighting and nearly killing a few billion humans is the equivalent of fighting and nearly killing Eidolon.  Or whoever.”

“One hundred and eighty integers of longitude to the west,” Defiant said.  “Leviathan just arrived.  That’s what got her attention.  We expected one to appear there, so Chevalier ordered us to put crews there with cameras for monitoring.  They’re there right now, reporting to me.”

A monitor shifted, depicting Leviathan, standing on the water’s surface in the midst of a heavy rainstorm.  The water around him was rippling, though he was utterly still.

Tattletale continued without pause, not responding or reacting to this information.  “All I’m saying, all I’m proposing, is that Scion’s a better bet than we are.  You want to give someone a fucking hard time?  Make that someone Scion.  You want to terrorize people?  Terrorize Scion.  Bigger challenge, and you’ll probably have the rest of us fucking scared out of our minds if you pull it off.  You want to fucking end the world?  Get in line, chickadee, because Scion’s going to beat you to the punch if you don’t stop him.”

Tattletale was almost breathless, speaking faster, with more emotion.  It was a challenge to convey that with a voice generated by the swarm.

“Or maybe you don’t care.  Maybe you’re nothing more than what you appear to be on the surface.  Head games and taking credit for shit you didn’t do.  Maybe you’re just a projection, blank between the ears, mindless, heartless, pointless.”

The ship moved a fraction, then adjusted, the autopilot kicking in.

“Did you feel that?”  I asked.  Tattletale had gone silent, and there were no words left for me to translate.

We did.

A reaction?  I adjusted the monitors, turning everything back to the Simurgh, looking for any clue, any hint.

But she didn’t have body language.  Every action was deliberate.  She didn’t have any that weren’t.

Tattletale’s voice was low.  I did what I could to match it, speaking through a swarm of over a million individual insects and arachnids.  “You’re supposedly this magnificent genius, and this is how you go out?  With a whimper?  Petering out like a stream without a source?  You’re honestly telling me there isn’t anything more to you?”

Another rumble, another shift, somewhat more violent.

Enough, Tattletale.”  Defiant’s voice.

“They run on different patterns.  Fair bit of anger, room for some vengeance.  Cleverness, sure.  More in her than in Behemoth.  Some killer instinct, maybe… a blend of fear and caution.  Not so they’re afraid, but so they can temper their actions.  This?  Right here?  It’s the closest we’re about to get to communicating directly with a passenger.”

I understand,” Defiant said.  “But that’s enough.

“They’re passengers?” I asked.

“The shell?  No.  The outer shell, the concept, the execution, they’re tapping into religious metaphors.  The devil, the serpent, the angel, buddha, mother earth, the maiden, each connected in turn to fundamental forces.  Flame, water, fate, time, earth, the self.  Things deep-seated and fundamental to their creator’s belief system, because that’s how the passengers interpret our world.  Through us.  But deep down?  Beyond that surface, beyond the basic programming that drives them to do what they’ve been doing for thirty years?  It’s the passenger’s brush strokes.  And I’m getting to her.”

No you’re not,” Defiant said.  “Because you’re stopping now.

“Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

“You’re stopping now because it worked.”

One by one, the monitors throughout the Dragonfly shifted, until the one at the very front was the only one that still showed the Simurgh.

The Dragonfly changed course as we looked at the scene that was showing on every other monitor.

The Azazel, airborne.  D.T. officers within were standing by the windows, while one with a camera was holding it above their heads, aiming it towards the window, pointed at the water.

A dark mass was beneath.

Leviathan, matching pace with the ship.

The Dragonfly and Pendragon broke from their orbit around the Simurgh.

The Simurgh followed.

The Yàngbǎn tore through the settlement, barely visible, as fast as arrows loosed from a bow.

One set of powers to give them speed, another to give them the ability to create crude images, illusions, blurry and indistinct.

A weak power, but far less so when coupled with the fact that they were making themselves just as blurry and indistinct.  To top it off, they were making themselves invisible for fractions of a second, and they were lashing out with short blades of cutting energy when they reappeared, slicing through the Australian refugees.

Bombs went off, coordinated, ripping through the spaces the Yàngbǎn had already passed through, cleaning up the ones who’d survived, killing the rescue personnel who were trying to save lives.

Earth Tav, barely two million people spread out across the globe, with this being the largest population center, based around the portal that Faultline, Labyrinth and Scrub had erected.

Without this base for supplies and communication, the other settlements would falter.  Disease would be crippling, food would be scarce at best.

And the Yàngbǎn would no doubt reap the rewards, claiming the planet for the C.U.I.

The Pendragon led the way through the portal, and it suffered the brunt of the bombs that the Yàngbǎn had left in their wake, no doubt to stop any reinforcements.

The Pendragon sank, no longer fully airborne, and the Dragonfly’s cameras could see as Golem, Vista and Cuff did what they could to patch it together.

Not enough.  It landed, hard.

Another bomb went off as the Pendragon hit ground.  Had the Yàngbǎn plotted that?  A second line of defense?

“Everyone okay?” I asked.

Give us a minute.  Nobody dead.

At least the Pendragon was a combat ship, meant to take a beating.  If the Dragonfly had been the first one through, we would have been obliterated.  At best, we’d have managed to evacuate with parachutes, flight packs and shadow-form powers.

We passed through the area the Pendragon had cleared.  One small ship against what had to be thirty Yàngbǎn members.  They didn’t move, but flickered, existing as scarce smudges and streaks of black and an odd midnight blue from the regions of their heads.  They cast out more smudges in matching colors with their image generation powers, turned invisible for one or two seconds at a time when they saw opportunities to catch refugees off guard.  Some merely killed.  Others slashed at eyes or ears, removed hands.  Butchered.

What would the C.U.I. want with scores of butchered people?

It wasn’t really the fault of the individual Yàngbǎn members.  They were brainwashed, subsumed into this collective of shared powers, their identities erased.

But that didn’t make their actions forgivable.

The Simurgh followed behind the Dragonfly, moving each wing until it was pointed straight behind her as she sailed through the narrow, oddly-shaped portal.

When she unfolded her wings, extending each until a veritable halo of them surrounded her, a complete circle, I could feel my heart skip a beat.

“We need to give her orders,” Tattletale said.

I nodded, mustering my swarm into a group large enough to communicate.

But there was no need.  She flew past us.

The singing had died down, but it welled up at full strength.  I almost staggered.

Rubble began to peel away from the demolished settlement beneath us.  Metal, bombs, pieces of structures.

As she reached less damaged areas, she picked up construction vehicles.

The fragments of metal around her were like a dense cloud, almost obscuring her, massive wings and all.

The singing increased in pitch.

A bomb detonated in the midst of the storm of debris, breaking up a bulldozer in the process.

Below her, the scene had gone still.  Yàngbǎn raider and civilian alike had gone still.  The smudges consolidated into forms.

Not the same Yàngbǎn I’d encountered before.  These ones wore similar outfits, but there were bodysuits beneath, no bare skin.  The multifaceted gem designs that covered their faces were dark blue, their costumes black.

Infiltrators.  A sub-set.  One of five sub-groups, apparently.

The debris settled into a single shape, drawing together.  Nothing welded, nothing screwed in together.  Merely a crude device, held together by telekinesis.

A fat, snub-nosed cannon, twice as long as she was tall.  She fired it, and the resulting bullet was nearly ten feet across, a sphere of hot metal.

It crashed into a trio of Yàngbǎn.

She used her telekinesis to sweep it off to the right.  The misshapen bullet was compressed into a rough sphere in the time it took to soar down a long road, smashing through two members of the Yàngbǎn.  A bystander was clipped, spinning violently before collapsing in a heap.  Shattered arm and ribs, if not dead.

I bit my lip.

Don’t injure civilians,” I communicated through the swarm.

She gave no sign she’d listened.  Her telekinesis grabbed four members of the Yàngbǎn who’d gotten too close, lifting them by their costumes or by some other debris that had surrounded them.

As if launched by catapults, they flew straight up, where they disappeared into the clouds above.

I winced as the screaming increased in intensity by another notch.

Did she have to do that?

I felt a touch of paranoia, not just at the idea, but at the fact that I’d been concerned.  Paranoia over the fact I was feeling paranoid.

The Simurgh had crafted another gun.  They floated around her like satellites, firing only in those intermittent moments when she’d formed and loaded the necessary ammunition.

Those are my guns,” Kid Win reported over the comms.  “Bigger, but mine.

I didn’t like that she was screaming.  It set an ugly tone to this whole venture.

I really didn’t like that we couldn’t direct her that well.  We were ending this confrontation decisively, we were probably even doing it more cleanly and with less damage to civilians than there would be if we’d handled it ourselves.

But we’d brought the Simurgh here and people were getting hurt as collateral damage.  That was on us, everything else aside.

“I… don’t know what to feel right now,” Imp said.

“It doesn’t feel good,” I said.

“I wish I knew what I’d said that got her on board,” Tattletale said.  “I went with the shotgun approach, trying to see what stuck… and now I don’t know what to leverage if we need to do it again.”

“You’re so whiny,” Rachel said.  “You say we need her help, we got it.  Good.  Maybe now we can fight.”

“Mm,” Lung grunted.  “This is true.  But I’ve seen what happens if you do something like this, something big, and you fall.  You fall hard.”

I nodded at that.  “Wise words, Lung.  Well said.”

“Do not talk to me,” he rumbled.

I only shook my head.

“Fuck me, you guys are serious?”  Shadow Stalker murmured.  “This is good?  This is luck.  There’s a reason I stick to my fists and my crossbow.  They’re reliable.  This Endbringer thing most definitely isn’t.”

“Of course it isn’t,” I said.  “But you know that whole saying, finding a boyfriend?  Young, smart, wealthy, pick two?  We don’t get to pick two, here.  Options at the end of the world: clean, safe, effective, pick one.”

“We got Bohu, but she doesn’t move fast at all,” Tattletale said.  “Leviathan’s on his way to pay the Elite a visit.  Collateral damage could be ugly there.”

“It isn’t sustainable,” I said.  “Somehow, I don’t think they’re going to sit still if we ask them to.  What happens if we run out of enemies to attack?  If we need to put Leviathan to work and there aren’t any targets that don’t involve even more collateral damage than we’ll see when he attacks the Elite?”

“People are going to fall in line damn fast,” Tattletale said.

“Probably,” I said.  “Or they’ll run for the hills.”

“Win-win,” Tattletale said.  “We were saying we needed people to split up more.”

The Simurgh opened fire, striking out with three guns, striking a neighborhood that had already been reduced to dust and flame by a series of bomb blasts.

“Somehow,” Imp commented, “This doesn’t scream win-win to me.”

I nodded.

“Nothing saying this isn’t another clever plan, set up to fuck with us, destroy our last shreds of hope,” I said.

The Yàngbǎn were opening fire.  Projectiles that moved slowly, splitting in the air until there was a virtual storm of them.  Had they been aimed at the Dragonfly, we wouldn’t have been able to dodge.  The Simurgh flew between the bullets like they weren’t even a concern.  Debris blocked the shots.

In the midst of her maneuvering, she drew together a third gun from the storm of debris.

Then she somersaulted, heels over head as she rapidly shifted direction.

In the moment it took her to build acceleration, she looked directly at the camera.

Directly at me.

She’d heard me, she understood, and she had responded.

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Extinction 27.1

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The news came through the earbuds, and it was like a shockwave rippled through our assembled ranks.  Some of the strongest of us dropped to their knees, staggered, or planted their feet further apart as though they were bracing against a physical impact.

The one Azazel that was still in the area landed atop one of Bohu’s buildings, nearly falling as a section slid off to drop to the empty street below.  It found its footing and roosted there.

The pilot couldn’t fly, and the A.I. wasn’t willing or able to take over.

The other capes were talking, shouting, asking questions, sometimes to nobody in particular.  With the blood churning in my ears, I couldn’t make out the words.  I’d used my bugs to find Hookwolf’s core, but they’d been decimated twice over in the process, and I wasn’t interested in trying to use them to figure out what was being said.

I could guess.

I raised my arms, then found myself unsure what to do with them.  Hug them against my body?  Hit something?  Reach out to someone?

I let my hands drop to my sides.

I opened my mouth to speak, to shout, to cry out, swear at the overcast sky above us.

Then I shut it.

There were no words.  Anything I could do or say felt insignificant in the grand scheme of it all.  I could have used every bug in the city to utter something, something meaningful or crude, and it still would have felt petty.

I looked at the others.  Clockblocker was with Kid Win and Vista, Crucible and Toggle were nearby, on the back of a PRT van, bandaged.  They were looking over their shoulders at the screen mounted on the wall of the van.  Footage, covering ruined landscapes, and what had used to be the United Kingdom.

Parian and Foil were hugging.  Odd, to see Foil hunched over, leaning on Parian for support, her forehead resting at the corner of Parian’s neck and shoulder.  The crossbow had fallen to the ground, forgotten.

I wanted something like that.  To have a team close, to hold someone.  I hadn’t had something like that in a good while.

Chevalier was a distance away, his cannonblade plunged into the ground so he didn’t need to hold it, a phone to his ear.  He was talking, giving orders, and demanding information.

Revel was stock still, not far from him.  I watched as she stepped back, leaning against a wall, then let herself slide down until she was sitting on the street.  She placed her head in her hands.

I’d never known her to show any weakness.  She’d always been on the ball, always the leader.  I knew how much concussions sucked, and I’d seen her carry on and contribute to the Behemoth fight when she was reeling from one.

It hit me harder than I might have expected, to see that.

Tecton was standing a distance away, almost frozen, his eyes on the screen of his armband.  Golem did the same, but he wasn’t still.  He paced, looking around for guidance and finding none, then turned back to the screen, watching.

Glancing at the images from a distance, I could see the figure, the speck visible on the long range camera, surrounded by a golden nimbus.

I wasn’t close enough to make out details.  Only staccato flares of golden-white light.  On the third, the screens fizzled, showing only brief gray static, then darkness.

Another target hit.  He’d taken his time on that one, measured the attacks.

I took out my earbud before the report could come in.  Not my focus right now.

Instead, I reached for my phone.  I dialed the Dragonfly.

Would the A.I. be able to cope?  Saint had apparently pulled something.

If there was any hint he fucked us here, he’d pay for it.

The phone responded with a message.  An ETA.

My eyes turned to Rachel.  She was more agitated than Golem, her attention on her dogs.  She used a knife to cut away the excess flesh and retrieve the animals from the placenta-like sacs within their bodies, and the actions were aggressive, vicious, savage.  Her expression was neutral, but I could see the way the muscles shifted in her back, beneath the sleeveless t-shirt she wore, the tension, the way she was hunched over.

The attitude fit the Bitch I’d been introduced to, way back when I’d first joined the Undersiders, not the Rachel I’d come to know, who’d found a kind of peace.

Angry, defensive, bewildered.  Scared of a world she didn’t comprehend.  Aggressiveness was the default, the go-to route when there weren’t any answers.

It dawned on me.  I sympathized.  Given a chance, given something to do in that same vein, hacking through dead meat with a knife for some defined purpose, I might have acted exactly the same way.

She flinched as I approached, as if I were invading her personal space.  When she turned and glanced at me out of the corner of one eye, glowering, the tension faded.

I drew my own knife and started helping.  Bugs flowed into the gap and gave me a sense of where the sac was.  I was able to cut without risking cutting the dog inside.  It helped that my knife was sharp.

We were both sweating by the time we finished.  Rachel had already been sweating from more physical exertion, and her hair was stuck to her shoulders at the ends.  The German Shepherd got free, walked a polite distance away and then shook herself dry.

I looked at my phone, my gray gloves crimson with the dog’s blood.  There were incoming messages.  Updates on the damage, the disaster, and on Scion’s current location.

I ignored them, looking for the Dragonfly’s status.

Minutes away.  It had already been headed into the area by default, tracking me by my GPS, ready to maintain a constant distance until I was prepared to call for it.

That was fine.  I started walking down the length of the street, my back to the others, to the Azazels and the heroes.  Rachel fell into step just a bit behind me, her dogs and Bastard accompanying us.

Parian and Foil were still hugging.  I paused as we passed them, tried to think of how to word the invitation.

Parian’s eyes weren’t visible, hidden behind the lenses on the white porcelain mask she wore.  I hadn’t thought she was looking at me, but she shook her head a little.

Good.  Easier.  I left them behind.

The Dragonfly started to land in an open area, an intersection of two streets.  Moments later, the ground began to crumble.  The craft shifted position, coming perilously close to striking a building as it avoided falling into the hole that had appeared in the street.  A trap.

Rachel boarded the craft.  As I waited for the dogs and Bastard to join us, I looked into the pit.  As deep as a six or seven story building was tall.

I turned away, boarding the Dragonfly.  I plotted a course, then took manual control of the craft.

The A.I. was better at flying than I was, but flying meant I didn’t have to think.  Didn’t have to worry about what I was about to find out.

Rachel didn’t seat herself at the bench along the wall, or even at the chair behind mine.  She sat down beside me, on the floor of the Dragonfly, her back against the side of my seat, the side of my leg, staring out the narrow side window.  It was physical contact, reassurance, seeking that same reassurance from me.  Her dogs settled on either side of her, Bastard resting his head on her lap.

We had the whole country to cross.  Every few minutes brought more visuals, more reminders of what had occurred.  Highways grew choked with cars.  Countless vehicles had stopped at the sides of roads, at the edges of fields and at the fringes of small towns.

Innumerable people running, seeking escape.  Except there wasn’t anyplace good to escape to.

No.  That wasn’t true.  There was.

But the degree of the damage done was becoming clear.  Before we even reached the East coast, I could see the damage done to the landscape.  Smoke was only just settling around the cracks and fissures, fallen bridges and ruined highways.  People were making concerted attempts to move, to leave, but every step of the way brought more difficulties, more forced detours.  Some had abandoned cars altogether, wading or swimming across rivers to make their way.

Every step of the trip revealed more devastation, successively more vehicles choking roads and highways, forging paths around impassable roads.  More and more people were forging ahead on foot, in crowds, because walking was faster than travel by car.

More helicopters, marked with red crosses, had taken to the skies.  Travel by ambulance wasn’t doable.

This was one place.  One moment’s attack.  The display in the cockpit was showing more locations hit.  Libya, Russia, France, Sweden, Iran, Russia again, China…

Time passed.  Forty-five minutes from the point in time I started paying attention to the clock, searching for a yardstick to try to track the scale of what I was seeing on the surface.  How much worse did things get in five more minutes of traveling?  In ten?  It all seemed to get exponentially worse as the Dragonfly took flight.  It wasn’t just that we were getting closer to the point where the attack had hit.  Enough time had passed that people could react, now, realizing just how severe this was.  All of the power of Behemoth, mobility almost on par with Khonsu.

The psychological toll of a Simurgh attack.

These were the people with a strategy.  Doing just what I’d be doing if I were one of the unpowered.  The world was doomed, so they sought to flee to another world.  Problem was, there were tens of millions of them, and the escape routes were scarce at best.

The best known escape route: Brockton Bay.

I felt my heart sink as we approached the coast.  Mountains I’d grown up with weren’t there.  I let the autopilot take over as we got closer, approaching an airspace choked by rescue aircraft.

I didn’t trust my own hands.

It had collapsed.  The blast had only struck the northern edge of Brockton Bay, then changed orientation, striking through the bay itself to slice through the very foundation the city sat on.  Everything had been dropped a solid thirty or forty feet.  Tall buildings had collapsed and only the squatter, sturdier structures and those fortunate enough to come to rest against other buildings were still mostly erect.

Folding and collapsing, the entire city had been shattered, no section of the ground more than twenty-five feet across remained fully intact.  The landscape rose and fell like waves, petrified and left frozen in time.

The portal tower had fallen, but the portal remained there, oddly bright, too high to reach on foot.  Work crews were struggling to erect something beneath, so the civilians could finish their journeys.  The new arrivals were alternately joining in with the construction and making their way inside by way of rope ladders.

Elsewhere, there were capes and rescue crews trying to contain the fallout around the scar.  A structure had been raised to seal it off, but the collapse of the city had released the contents.  A lot of containment foam was being deployed to slow the spread of a pale patch of earth, and there was one spot of fire that didn’t seem to be going out.

But the most eye-catching thing was a thin, scintillating forcefield that was holding off the water.  It was taller than any building that had stood in the city, an artificial dam.  Every few minutes, it flickered for a tenth of a second, and water would flood through to seep into the gaps and fissures.  In time, I suspected, the water would cover everything in the area but the tallest buildings and the hills.  Arcadia High might stick around.  Maybe.

I recognized the rainbow hues.  It was the same force field that had been intended to protect the Protectorate headquarters.  Leviathan had torn the structure apart at the roots, and the tidal wave had knocked it into the city proper.  In the time since I’d left, they’d repurposed the fallen structure and the forcefield setup.

Not, apparently, to try to block Scion’s attack.  No.  This was more to stop the water, to break that initial wave, so it wouldn’t simply sweep the ruins out to sea.

I could only hope they’d done similar things elsewhere, to minimize the damage.

We circled the city twice before I gave the go-ahead for the A.I. to start descending.

My second sense extended through the area as we approached the ground, extending out to the bugs that were scattered throughout the ruined, shattered city.  I immediately set them to work, searching, scanning, investigating.

I changed the course, dictating a final, slow, sweep of the city.

Not everyone had made it.  Stupid to think they might.

My dad’s house was gone, collapsed.  Nobody inside.

Winslow High, gone.

The mall, the library, Fugly Bob’s, the boat graveyard, my old hideout, gone.

My old territory, unrecognizable.  The Boardwalk was underwater now.

It didn’t even take him seconds to do.

Too many dead, not enough who were merely wounded and unable to walk.  Humans were so fragile in the end.  I stopped the Dragonfly and stepped out to seek out the first wounded.  My bugs signaled rescue teams to get their attention.

The wounded here could have been my dad’s coworkers.  People he went out to drinks with.  They could have been Charlotte’s underlings.

So easy, in the midst of it all, to lose track of the fact that these were people.  People with families, friends, with dreams, lives and goals.

Golem had said something like that, hadn’t he?

How many people had simply been erased in the wake of something this random, so instantaneous?  So inexplicable?  I still wasn’t sure what had happened.  Tattletale was supposed to fill people in, but she hadn’t gotten in contact with me.

Or had she?  I’d taken my earbud out.  I looked to my phone, looked for transmissions.

A burst of messages, following just after takeoff.  From the Chicago Protectorate, people who might have been my teammates if I’d ever been inaugurated.  More messages, from Chevalier and the Brockton Bay teams.

I didn’t read them all.  My eyes on the phone, I pointed the search and rescue to the next batch of wounded.  I knew it was cold, but the corpses would have to wait.  There were living people to find.

There were no shortage of corpses.  The number of living people, by contrast, well… we’d see what happened in the next twenty-four hours.

The number of messages declined about thirty minutes after takeoff, then stopped altogether.  Everyone who might have wanted to talk to me had found other things that needed doing.  Other priorities, personal or professional.

Which was exactly why I was here.  I’d just arrived at that conclusion earlier than they had.  I put my phone away.

My mouth was pressed into a firm line as I helped the rescue workers.

We lifted a corner of a second floor’s floor, making room for someone get under and start retrieving a pair of women.  Rachel whistled and pointed, and her German Shepherd seized the floor in its jaws.

The rescue workers seemed to hesitate with the dog’s presence, so I took the lead, crawling inside on my stomach.  I used my hands with the arms on my flight pack to move enough debris that we could slide the second woman out.

There were more.  Almost without thinking about it, I let myself slide back into the mindset I’d held for the past two years.  Sublimating what I wanted to do in favor of doing what needed to be done.

Minutes ran into one another as we worked.  I could see Rachel growing progressively more short-tempered, slower to give the orders, hanging back, rushing with the jobs.

That ended when we rescued a child that had a puppy wrapped in her arms.  She clutched the limp animal like it was a security blanket, not crying, not speaking.  She only stared at the ground, coughing hoarsely whenever she had to move.  Her parents had been on either side of her, and neither had made it.

The paramedics fit her with an oxygen mask, but they failed to pry the animal from her arms.

I looked at Rachel, but she only shook her head.

Rachel’s power healed animals, but this one was gone.

From the moment we left that girl to be loaded onto a stretcher and carried off to firmer ground, Rachel moved a little more quickly, a little more decisively.

We finished with one site where the ground had collapsed and people had fallen into a depression, and then moved on to the next area.  Some heroes were working alongside the authorities to try to rescue people from a building that had partially tipped over.

Clockblocker was there, along with Vista.  I joined my powers to theirs in finding people and opening the way.  Frozen time was used on panels, which were subsequently layered, so that one could offer support if another stopped working prematurely.  Vista reinforced areas, then opened doorways, as I designated rooms where people were trapped within.

A golden light streaked across the sky in the wake of Scion’s flight, just along the horizon.  A thinner beam being directed from Scion to the ground as he passed.

The aftershock of his passing took time to reach us.  Steam started to billow, but the forcefield absorbed it.

The shuddering of the ground was more problematic.  The entire city rumbled in response to the distant attack, a blow that was no doubt slicing deep into the earth’s crust, forcing everything to resettle.

The building we were working on was among those things that resettled.  I watched as the building started to slide where it was resting against the building beside it, slowly descending, building speed.

My flight pack kicked in, and I flew through a window.  I could feel the glass scrape against my scalp and the fabric of my costume.

I found one person, a twenty-something guy, took hold of their wrist, and pulled them behind me, running and using my flight pack at the same time.

Tearing him through the window meant slashing him against the shattered glass, and the weight wasn’t something I could manage with my flight pack.  The building fell down around the people on the ground as I fell too far, too fast.

The wing on my flight pack was still broken.  Couldn’t trust the propulsion.

I let him fall into a tree instead, from a solid two stories above, and then focused the rest of my energy into pulling out of the plunge.

The building was still crumbling as I landed a distance away.  The rumble brought other, smaller structures down.  I stood and watched as it continued its course.

There’d been seven more people to rescue inside.  The other buildings in the area that had been caught up in the domino effect had contained three more.  That was just in my range.  How many more were dying as he continued towards the mainland, cutting deep into the plate of land that the landmass was perched on?

He hadn’t even been near us.  Closer to New York or Philadelphia than anything.  More lives taken, purely collateral.

When the dust settled, I moved in to help the people who had been on the ground.  Vista and Clockblocker had protected most, between a dome and a shelf of land to provide shelter.  Rachel, for her part, had helped others run in time, snatching them up with her dogs, but I counted three more dead, one dying.

Seeing them like that, bleeding, still warm, it caught me off guard.  A kind of anxiety rose in the pit of my stomach, like an impulse to do something coupled with the frustration of knowing that everything I could manage to come up with was futile, hopeless.  I either couldn’t do anything or I couldn’t think of what to do.  It put me in mind of being back at high school, before I had my powers.  Of being a child, powerless and unable to act.

I saw the image of Parian holding Foil in my mind’s eye, and it was joined by an almost sick feeling of mingled relief and fear.  I knew exactly what I wanted and I was terrified to seek it out.

I could feel that same impatience Rachel had expressed earlier, but I couldn’t turn my back on this.  I got the guy out of the tree and found him okay, but for a broken arm.  He didn’t thank me, but I let myself chalk that up to him being in shock.  I almost stumbled over to the latest injured and I attended to the wounded until the medics pulled themselves together, got organized and relieved me.

Then I backed away, flexing my hands, feeling how stiff they were, battered by my attempts at moving things, at pushing things aside.  My gloves, too, were stiff, crusted with dried blood, layered with dirt and fresh blood.

I looked at Rachel, and saw her gazing at the portal.

I didn’t really have a home anymore.  Knowing my old house was leveled, that the cemetery where my mother had been laid to rest was gone, and that I’d never really come back here to hang out with the Undersiders… it hurt in a way that was very different from a knife wound, being shot or being burned.  A crushing feeling, more like.  But it was tough for reasons beyond the fact that I considered it home.  I’d relinquished Brockton Bay, and my concern right now was more to do with the residents than the place itself.

I didn’t have a home in Chicago.  Not in the jails, either.

But Rachel had forged a home for herself, and it had been in arm’s reach since we’d arrived.

Bastard and the dogs seemed to know I’d decided before I said or did anything.  Rachel and I fell in step behind them.

Rachel mounted Bastard before we got to the portal.  The efforts to erect a proper support beneath the portal had been set back by Scion’s strafing run, which left the portal hanging in the sky.  Train tracks extended out from the portal in every direction, twisted and broken where collapsing ground had pulled other sections away.

There had been a tower erected around the portal, but it had collapsed into shambles as the ground dropped.  Now they were using the pieces to form the general structure for a tower of ramps that would lead up to the portal.

Bastard picked up speed as he approached the tower, then set his claws on one of the ramps.  The tower wavered perilously as Bastard leaped up to a higher point, coming to a rest on the very top of the dilapidated structure.  It didn’t look like there were nearly enough reinforcements, and I could see everyone present tense as they saw the mutated wolf’s weight come to rest.

That tension redoubled as the wolf flexed its muscles, hunching down, and then leaped, more up than across, to get to the portal itself.  A few planks of wood broke in that sudden, powerful movement, and one rail of the train track fell free as the wolf scrabbled for a grip on the ground beneath the portal.

When she was gone, the people beneath simply resumed work, heads down, dirty, defeated.

I took flight, entering the portal for the first time.

Earth Gimel.

The tower that contained the portal had a counterpart in Gimel, a matching tower, tall and riddled with train tracks, like a train station designed by Escher, tall rather than squat, with wide doorways for the trains to exit, and complicated reinforcements for the aboveground tracks, positioned so as not to interfere with the tracks below.

I flew out through one of those gates, catching up with Rachel.

Trains extended in every direction from the portal, on tracks that extended out into the middle of nowhere, into pristine forest and mountains.  They were long, almost absurdly long.

Then again, the whole idea had been to have instant evacuation.  Rather than have people make their way to trains, they’d had eight trains that simply spanned the length of Brockton Bay, so any given individual had to find the nearest train car and make their way down the aisle to an empty seat.

Around the tower, a small, odd settlement had sprung up.  All of the sensibility of the city, but contained to a small area.  Tall buildings, wide streets, and a look that matched up with a city proper rather than a smaller town.  It was as though someone had cut and pasted the big city into the middle of this landscape.

On any other day, it would have been energizing, the fresh air, the sunny day, the green and the blue water of the bay, subtly different from the shape of the bay I knew.  But today wasn’t that day.

People at benches were clipping the corners off of refugee’s drivers licenses and trading them for food rations and tents.  Everything was prepped, set up in advance, and people were being orderly, even though the lines were so lengthy it looked like it might be hours before they got what they wanted.

Those that already had their kits were setting up or settling into spaces they’d designated for themselves.  Some clustered close to the settlement, while others spaced out, where they’d have more elbow room.  The tents were identical, dotting the area.  The kits, apparently, included signs, and these same signs listed family names and details.

John and Jane Roe.  1 Diabetic.

Hurles family. 
Two infants.

Jason Ao.  Looking for Sharon Ao my wife.  A crude picture was drawn beside the message.

I scanned the signs, looking for names I might recognize.  I headed in the direction Rachel had gone, but I moved carefully, making a mental note of everything I saw.

It was an extension of what I’d seen back in Los Angeles.  People trying to cope against something where coping was a pipe dream.  There were some breaking down in tears, people getting angry, those who had withdrawn into themselves.

In each expression, there was something that echoed my own feelings.  A part of me wanted to hide from that, but another part of me knew I couldn’t.

It wouldn’t do any good, but I made a mental note of faces, of the pain, the loss.  People who’d been removed from their homes and had all hopes for the future dashed.  If I ever had the opportunity to get revenge, to get back at Scion for doing this, I wanted to remember these faces, find just a little more strength, make it hurt that much more.

But I wasn’t one for simply wanting to help, paying lip service and promising vengeance felt hollow.  Instead, as a token gesture, something that might not even be noticed, I gathered up every mosquito in range and proceeded to murder them with other bugs.  I kept the biting flies.

I wrapped the bugs around me.  Fuck PR.  The faint weight of the insects was reassuring, like a blanket.  A barrier against the world, like Tecton’s armor or Rachel’s intimidating nature.

A sign caught my eye.  I stopped, looking over the people in the small campsite.

Barnes.

No further details, no requests.  I almost hadn’t recognized them.

Alan, Emma’s dad, had lost weight since I’d seen him last.  He’d noticed me, and looked up, staring, his eyes red.  His wife sat in a lawn chair beside him, while Emma’s older sister sat on a blanket at her mother’s feet, her mother resting one hand on her head.

Zoe’s -Emma’s mom’s- eyes were wet.  Emma’s sister looked equally upset.

Emma wasn’t in sight.  I could guess what they were crying about.

Alan was staring at me now, and there was an inexplicable accusation in the look.  His wife took his hand and held it, but he didn’t move his eyes a fraction.

When Anne, Emma’s sister, looked up at me, there was a glimmer of the same.  A hint of blame.

Emma hadn’t made it.  How?  Why?  Why could they all leave while Emma wouldn’t be able to?  I might have thought Emma had been somewhere out of reach, but that didn’t fit.  There would be no certainty she was dead.  They’d be putting her name on a sign and hoping she turned up?

And why would they blame me?  For failing to stop this from happening?

Fuck that.

I turned and walked away.

Once I was out of their immediate vicinity, I took a few running steps and let my flight pack lift me up.  Better than zig-zagging between the campsites.

I floated over a sea of people with their heads down, their expressions alternately emotional and rigidly stoic in defeat.  Hundreds or thousands of tents surrounded the area, and string fences no higher than one’s calf bounded off each of the sites.

Rachel had made her way outside the city limits, past even the tents that were set a five or six minute walk from any of the others.  I followed her over the hill, to another small set of buildings.  Cabins set on what had been Captain’s Hill in Earth Bet.  I knew they were Rachel’s because of the dogs that were scattered around the premises, a small crowd milling around Bastard and the other mutant canines.

The largest cabin had three large bison skulls placed over the cabin door.  Bastard and the other dogs had been tied up outside like horses, left to shrink, with a trough of water to drink from.

I landed, and I was struck by the realization that my flight pack might not be so easy to recharge, now.  I still had the spare, fully charged, but Defiant might have his hands full, and the infrastructure or resources might not be available.

It was a minor thing.  Inconsequential, in terms of everything that was going on.  It wasn’t like the flight pack was going to matter a bit against Scion.  But it was one more reminder of what was truly happening.

I stopped and turned to look over the landscape.  I turned my head right until the small settlement and the sea of tents wasn’t quite visible, then turned it to the left to do the same.  Focusing on the nature, the untouched wilderness.

Is this what Brockton Bay will look like, if we can’t win this fight?  How many years does it take for the last building to collapse, for dirt and grass to drown away any and all signs we were ever there?

It was a daunting thought, a heavy thought that joined countless others.

The dogs barked as I approached on foot.  I kept calm and waited.

I recognized the girl with the funny colored eyes and darker skin from Rachel’s hideout.  I’d met her on my last week in Brockton Bay.  With her presence alone, the animals collectively quieted.  A single dog barked one last time, with two others reflexively following with barks of their own, but that ended it.  The girl held the door open from me, and the dogs didn’t protest as I made my way inside.

Rachel was sitting on a couch with dogs arranged around her.  Angelica was afforded a bit of favoritism, and received a touch of extra attention from her master.  She, in turn, was extending a gentleness to Rachel that went beyond Angelica’s poor health and the glacial movements that accompanied chronic pain.  Rachel looked defensive, her eyes cast down at the ground.  Something more severe than the whole Scion business.

Charlotte, Forrest, and Sierra were present too, keeping their distance, keeping silent as we met again for the first time in over a year and a half, not moving from where they stood.

The kids gathered at the far end of the room, silently occupying themselves with a mass of puppies.  I recognized Mason and Kathy, and didn’t recognize Ephraim at first glance.  Jessie was conspicuously absent, but nobody seemed to be reacting to that gap.  She’d left on her own, maybe.  Found family.

Aidan sat off on his own, a pigeon sitting on his knee.  He opened and closed his hands, and the bird hopped from the one knee to the other, then back again.  Something had happened there, but it wasn’t a focus.  Not right now.

Tattletale sat in her computer chair, but the computer screens were dark, the computers themselves unlit, quiet and still.

I didn’t like the emotion I saw on her face any more than I liked what I saw with the others.

Pity.  Sympathy.

It wouldn’t be Grue.  No.  That didn’t fit.  He’d been flying back, and he hadn’t been so far away that he’d be in the path of danger.

Not Imp either.  Parian and Foil had been fine the last time I’d seen.

No.

Tattletale was best situated to focus on Brockton Bay.  Who had made it.  Who hadn’t.  And there was only one Brockton Bay resident who truly mattered, that hadn’t been accounted for.

I felt a lump in my throat growing with every heartbeat, expanding every time I tried to swallow and failed.

Without waiting for a response, for any words of pity, or even verification, I turned and pushed my way out the door, taking flight.

I flew.  Up over the bay, away from the city, away from this alien Earth.  I blinded myself with my own swarm, drowned everything out with their drone, their buzz, their roar.

All of this time, the sacrifices, the loss of security.

The loss of me.

To do what?  To stop this?

It had happened despite our attempts to the contrary.

To reconnect with my dad?

We had reconnected.  I’d come clean about who and what I was.  We’d built up a relationship that was new, accounting for the fact that we were changed people.  Now, as I continued to fly, to put distance between myself and everything, I wasn’t sure it had been worth it.

The wind blew my hair, and I let my swarm move away, revealing the open ocean all around me.  There was only the wind and the sound of the water to hear.  The smell of salt water I’d come to miss.

My dad was gone, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back and get verification.  I couldn’t handle it if there wasn’t verification.

I was cognizant of the fuel gauge, of the dwindling power of the flight pack.  I knew I’d have to go back.  I knew there was stuff to do.

But I’d spent the last age trying to build towards something, to prepare for the pivotal moment.  I’d played my role, helped stop Hookwolf.  I’d communicated with Foil to urge her to play possum, tracking where the enemy was and what they could see.  It had led to us taking down Gray Boy and Siberian, trapping Jack.

And now the death toll was climbing.  Scion continued his rampage, and I hadn’t even had the guts to own up to the failure.

I couldn’t bring myself to go back and do something minor.  It was arrogant, proud, but I couldn’t bring myself to do search and rescue while the population was steadily scoured from the planet, the major cities wiped out like a human child might kick down anthills.

There was nothing in the worlds that I wanted more than a hug and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for one.  My dad and Rachel were the only ones I could trust to offer one without further questions, without platitude or commentary, and I couldn’t get to Rachel without going through the others.  My dad was even farther from my reach.

The mask I’d erected to see things through to this point was cracking and I couldn’t bear to show anyone my face.

The fuel gauge ticked down.  I noted it reaching a critical point, where reaching land before I ran out might be difficult, if not impossible.

The sky was darkening.  No clouds, no city lights.  A cloud passed over sunset and the moon overhead, and it was startling just how dark things became.

A fluorescent glare cut through the darkness.  My hair and my swarm stirred.  I could feel the breeze from behind me.

I didn’t turn around.

“Your call,” Tattletale said, her voice quiet.  “I’d like you to have my back, but I understand if-”

I shook my head, my hair flying out to either side.  I turned around and floated over to the doorway that hung in the air.

I set foot on solid ground, and felt weirdly heavy when I did.  It took me a moment to find my balance.

Tattletale caught me as the door closed beside us.  Then she wrapped her arms around me in a hug.  Odd, that she was shorter than me.  When did that happen?  I could remember her giving me a one-armed hug once, a long time ago.  She’d been just a little taller than me then.  Just the right height for a hug.  Now we were like Foil and Parian.  I was taller, receiving comfort from someone shorter than me.

I’d underestimated her.  She didn’t ask any questions or offer any sympathy.

“They’re all here,” she said.  “Ready?”

I hesitated, then spoke.  My voice was rough.  “Ready.”

We didn’t budge.  She didn’t break the hug.

Fuck it all,” I muttered.  My voice was still weird with emotion.  Maybe I’d keep my mouth shut at this meeting.

“Fuck it,” she agreed.

That said, we broke apart, took a second to breathe, and then made our way into the meeting room.

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Sting 26.4

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Ellisburg loomed before me.  A small town, surrounded by a massive wall.  Ellisburg had been situated by a river, and the wall included a section of the waterway.  The building that managed the flow of water was bigger than any structure within the walls, a filtration and guard system that ensured that nothing was making its way up or downstream from the small town.

It was a risk to even have the measure, no doubt, and it would cost money to operate and maintain.  There had to be a reason they had included the river rather than section the river off altogether.  A compromise?  Something to keep the goblin king happy?

I’d only been a toddler when the walls had first gone up.  Outside of that bit of news, the Ellisburg situation wasn’t one that came up a lot, yet it had somehow found traction in the public consciousness.  It was something we all thought about from time to time, something that loomed as a possibility in everyone’s mind.

Would today be the day the wrong person got too much power?

Would today be the day our hometown was effectively removed from the map, surrounded by sixty-foot concrete walls?

The dashboard indicated the Dragonfly was now approaching the designated landing point.  The A.I. had suddenly decided to ground itself, landing in a nearby field, costing me precious minutes, while Dragon had been silent on the comms.  I’d left a message, trusting her A.I. to pass it on, and hadn’t received a response yet.

My attempts to patch into the feeds and get a view on what was going on with Jack hit a brick wall.  The corner of the monitor still showed the cube folding through itself in the corner, Dragon’s loading message, as if the process had hung.

I’d manually piloted the craft back out of the field, and the A.I. had kicked in to handle the flight codes and necessary messages to air traffic control and nearby aircraft.  When I’d input my destination for the second time, the craft mobilized.

But the silence, the strange blip in the A.I.’s direction, it left me uneasy.

Now, as we took a circuitous route around Ellisburg, to a field beside the large filtration and security building, I could see the Azazels, parked at the edges of the same location.

That was the point I felt alarmed.

I hit the button on the console/dashboard. “Dragon?  Requesting confirmation on the situation.  You intended to intercept Jack before I got here, but the Azazels are dormant.”

No response.

“Dragonfly,” I said.  “Display non-system processes and tasks last carried out.”

It displayed a list.  In a matter of seconds, the scroll bar was barely a line, with thousands of individual instructions noted in collapsed menus.  A prompt reminded me I could load more with a request.

“In the last minute.”

The list wasn’t much shorter.

“Communications-related.”

There.  Besides the orders I’d just given, I could see the message I’d sent to Dragon.

“Status of message?  Has she heard or read it?”

The loading symbol appeared in the corner.  It should have been nigh-instantaneous.

“Cancel that.  Give me manual access.”

A keyboard appeared on the dashboard.  I couldn’t use it right away, though.  I was forced to pay attention as the Dragonfly reached the field and hovered.  I lowered the ship down.  The small craft shuddered as it touched ground.

Using the keyboard and the manual access, I began digging through the data.  I navigated the menu the A.I. had provided, then opened the submenu to view the details on the message I’d left Dragon.

My message was in the priority queue, but it sat at the 89th position on the list of messages Dragon would be getting to.

I dug a little, and found the list was growing.  Ninety-four, ninety-five…

Where the hell was Jack?  I contacted Defiant.

Defiant here.”

“Weaver.  What happened?  Is the Slaughterhouse Nine situation resolved?”

“No.  He entered Ellisburg.”

I closed my eyes for a second.  It took a moment to compose myself and get my thoughts and priorities in order.  “And the suits?”

Ignore the Azazels.  Listen.  I’ve got a lot to handle and coordinate right now,” Defiant said.  Was there a tremor of emotion in his voice there?  “Golem’s on his way.  Wait for backup.  I’m sending Dragon’s Teeth your way.  Teams from across America are joining the fight now that the full situation is leaking. I’m putting some on containment and quarantine detail, make sure the Slaughterhouse Nine situation doesn’t get beyond the areas the attacks are directed at.  I’m going to send a few your way.  Ten minutes.

“Jack’s already in the city, and you want me to wait ten minutes?  That long, and Jack could get what he wants.  I’ve got the Azazels nearby if there’s trouble-”

The Azazels aren’t… reliable.  Consider them compromised, but a non-threat at the same time.  Listen, there are things I need to take-

This is the highest priority,” I said.  “Isn’t it?  Jack?  The end of the world?”

A pause.  “Yes.  Of course.  But I can’t help you while I’m on the phone.

A note of deceit in that.  He was covering for something.

Something happened.

I thought of what had happened at the school, the way Dragon had stopped abruptly.  I’d read the records, knew the gist of the story.  Dragon had been in Newfoundland when Leviathan sank it, had escaped, only to shut herself away from the world, never venturing outside the expansive building complex she’d had constructed in Vancouver.

She hadn’t left Newfoundland unscathed, I was almost certain.  Brain problems, body problems… I couldn’t be sure.  Probably both.  She had no doubt integrated herself with technology to cope, enhance and expand her capabilities.

Except that her technology was failing.  The way she’d collapsed at the school, the speech problems she’d suffered, the slow recovery, now this…  It was the only theory that made sense.

She’d pushed herself too far, something had gone wrong, and now Defiant faced losing the one person on this planet who could tolerate him for more than ten minutes at a time.  No small wonder he was out of sorts.

I considered how I’d feel if it was one of the Undersiders.

“Defiant,” I said.  “I’m going in alone.  Send Golem in after me if he wants to come, reinforcements can hang back or come with, depending on your judgement.  I’ll handle things on this end.  You focus on what you need to.  Focus on Dragon, focus on damage control.”

A pause.  “There’s nothing I can do for Dragon right this moment.  The best I can do is maintain the momentum and keep things coordinated, and hope that Dragon’s substitution can maintain the back-end.”

I didn’t respond to that.  I was already getting ready to go.

Thank you, Weaver.

It was uncharacteristic of him to thank me.  A pleasantry.  How upset was he?

I couldn’t spare another thought on the subject.  I was out of the Dragonfly at the first opportunity, making my way towards the quarantine control and filtration building.  It was squat, concrete, hardly pretty.  As I got closer, I could hear an alarm.

The front doors had been torn apart.  It might not have been so impressive, but these were the same vault doors we saw with the shelters that studded every likely target around the world.

The gouges were narrow, a finger’s width, as though someone had dragged their hands through the steel like I could drag my fingers through half-melted butter.  Siberian.

Jack had brought protection.

My bugs flooded into the facility, past the second dismantled vault door.  The alarm was louder as I ascended the concrete stairs and made my way into the building.

The emergency lighting was on, casting the area in a red glow.  My bugs searched and scanned the area, in case any members of the Nine were lurking in wait.  So many ugly ways this could go.  So many threats that Jack could have on hand.  Cherish?  Screamer?  Nyx?  Ways to fool my senses, ways to shut me down or defeat me.  My only recourse was to get them before they got me.

Hey, passenger, I thought.  Do me a favor.  If I get taken out of action and you step up to fight, work on taking out Jack, alright?

My bugs stirred, moving further down the hall.  It was so far from a conscious direction that I wondered for a second if the passenger had listened.

No.  I’d tried hypnosis, I’d tried other things.  Some in Mrs. Yamada’s office, other times in the PRT’s labs, after dark, off the record.  Nothing brought the monster to the fore.

Just my subconscious.

Just.  Like that wasn’t something I couldn’t help but wonder about.

But I’d made peace with it.  I couldn’t barter with something that wouldn’t talk back, but I could accept it, test and acknowledge my limits as far as they pertained to the entity that was apparently granting me my abilities.

I wouldn’t turn away from it, wouldn’t tell it to go away or hold back in my abilities.

My bugs marked the area, giving me the information I needed to navigate the facility.  It proved easier than I might have expected.  Rather than follow the winding corridors and make my way to the security checkpoints, I followed the path of casual destruction Siberian had left in her wake.  She’d knocked down walls to create the shortest possible route from the front doors to Ellisburg.

No casualties that I could detect.  No nonhuman life.

Had Dragon ordered this place evacuated before she was incapacitated, or had Nilbog gotten here first?

My bugs started to scan the area beyond the facility, inside Ellisburg.  They made it about ten feet before something like a frog’s tongue began snatching them out of the air.

I withdrew the swarm back to myself, hiding my bugs beneath my cape and skirt, and I made my way through the opening into Ellisburg.

A goblin wonderland.  It was clear he’d altered it from its original layout, likely over the course of years.  The remodel had been more aesthetic than functional.  Floorboards had clearly been dug up and moved to the exteriors of the buildings, creating roofs and building additions that spiraled or twisted, with more boards propped up flat against the building faces on one side, painted or modeled in the same way the towns had been put together in old western movies.

The walls that surrounded Ellisburg had been painted as well.  To look from a distance, Nilbog’s kingdom extended to every horizon, with crooked, impossible landscapes at the periphery of it, like an ocean frozen in time, grown over with grass and trees.  Oddly enough, they had painted the sky as an overcast one, where it was visible above the lush, unpredictable fields and forests.

Within the city, the trees had been immaculately cut and trimmed, and the shapes were just as strange; trees that were perfectly round, cubes, cones.  Where new trees were growing on lawns, as dense and close together as trees in an orchard might be, I could see heavy wires wound around them, guiding their growth into twists and curves.  The art of bonsai taken to a bigger scale, cultivating each tree in form.  Already, some of the largest ones were properly set up, meshing together with counterparts on the opposite sides of the street, forming lush, living wooden arches.

The grass had been cut, and I could see the attention to detail there, even.  There were innumerable flowers growing across lawns, but the grass was neatly cut beneath and around them, as if someone had taken shears or scissors to the blades that grew between the flowers.  I couldn’t make out any rhyme or rhythm in how the flowers or plants were laid out and how they grew.  It was an injection of color in the same way a random splash of paint from a palette might be applied to a canvas.

And then, as if to remind me that this wasn’t friendly territory, there was a scarecrow in one garden.  The clothes were brightly colored, the pose one of a dancing figure, but that wasn’t the eerie thing about it.  The head was a skeletal one, a dog’s head stripped of all flesh, turned skyward with its mouth opened in joy.  The hands that clutched the rake and watering can were held together by wire.  A very small human hand.

For all the signs of careful tending, the entire place was still.  A town that could have been taken from a storybook, desolate.  There wasn’t any sign of chaos, nor the destruction that would follow from an attack by the Slaughterhouse Nine.

But more than anything, what threw me was the absence of insect life.  No spiders spun webs.  Even the ground had little in the way of ants or earthworms.

A trap?  I looked behind me to see if they were planning on walling me in, and came face to face with one of Nilbog’s creations.

It hissed, its breath hot and reeking of bile.  Fangs like a viper’s parted, the distance between them great enough that it probably could have sunk some into the top of my head and the underside of my chin as it closed its mouth.  I stepped back out of reach, then forced myself to stay still and wait.

The mouth closed, and I could see how the creature’s head was smaller than mine.  It wasn’t more than four feet tall, covered in pale brown scales.  The reptilian face could have been in a children’s movie, if it wasn’t for the eyes.  They were dark, black, and cold.

It clung to the wall, its feet placed higher up than its hands, opposable toes gripping the frame that had been around the vault door.  I noticed it was wearing white shorts, with one suspender strap over a shoulder.  A taloned claw held a softball-sized chunk of the wall.

Was it fixing the wall?

“I’m not a threat,” I told the lizard-child.

I felt hands touch my belt and jumped, seizing the wrist of the offending hand in an instinctive motion before I’d even looked to see who it was.

A girl, five or so feet tall, her face mottled with purple veins that spiraled across her perfectly round, puffy, hairless head.  Her eyes were tiny and piggish, her fingers blunt, barely a half-inch long, her mouth too small for her face.  She wore a sack that looked like it had been sewn to work around her oversized head.  Her hand was on my knife.

The lizard boy had extended frills at his arms, neck, and the edges of his face, colorful, brilliant, and held out by a framework of needle-fine spines.  His mouth hung open, viper’s teeth revealed.

I looked beyond this pair, and I could see signs of others.  Eyes reflected light in the shadows beneath steps, from windows.  There were large, bulky silhouettes in the windows, some holding smaller figures on their heads and shoulders.  I couldn’t make out much, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

That was twice now that they’d snuck up on me.  Quiet motherfuckers.

“I’m sorry for grabbing you,” I said.  “You wanted my knife?”

She took it, her tiny black eyes glaring at me from the midst of her oversized head.  The lizard-boy eased his frills down somewhat, but his mouth remained open.

“I’d like to see Nilbog,” I said.

She ignored me, her pudgy, blunt-fingered hands fumbling through the pouches at my belt.  With painful, clumsy slowness, she divested me of my taser, the pepper spray, and the spools of silk, both conventional and Darwin’s spider silk.

I winced as one spool fell to the ground and unwound partially, dirt getting caught up between the strands.  That would be a pain to fix.

I could see more of the things making appearances now, getting close enough for me to see as they took interest in what was happening.  Eyes appeared in the windows, reflecting the light in curious ways.  Eyes from within the trees, between the slats of stairs… some faces.  They ranged from artistic and beautiful to horrific.

Every single one of them was a weapon.  Going into this situation was a repeat of the information gathering and problem solving issues one faced when going up against an unknown cape.  If it came down to a fight, I’d have to figure out how they operated, and the full extent of their capabilities.

Trouble being that there were a hell of a lot of these things.  Hundreds, even thousands.

I waited patiently.  No use complaining, even if every second counted, and Jack was no doubt having words with Nilbog.

“Nilbog is in danger,” I said, trying a different tack. “The man with him, he has dark hair, a beard?  He’s with a striped woman.  Bad people.  I think they’re going to try to hurt Nilbog, hurt the man who made you, so you get upset and leave this place.”

Her hands fumbled with my flight pack.  I felt her touch the arm at the side of the pack, with its narrow arm.  She took hold of it and pulled.

“I can take that off,” I said.

She grunted, and I started to move to oblige, only to get a protest.  The frills on the lizard boy extended, and her own head swelled, the skin getting thin enough in the process that I could see a fluid filling the lower half of her head.  I moved my arms away from the straps, and I watched them both relax over long seconds.

When she was sure I wasn’t trying something, she grunted again, louder, a frustrated, constipated sound.  A communication, but not one meant for me.

Her friend emerged from a garage, lifting the door to lumber forth.  He was big, fat, and moved on four limbs that each had opposable digits.  His massive belly swung right and left as he loped, so distended and so close to the ground as it swung that I worried it would hit something and split open. His genitals were almost bigger than I was, and they were, along with his sensory organs, the only way I could really tell his front from his back.

The sensory organs consisted of slits running top to bottom from a ridge at one end of his body.  There was no room for a brain, no eyes present.

This organ granted him enough awareness to approach, probably by way of scent, but it didn’t give him the fine tuning he needed to find us, specifically.  The round-headed creature approached him, took hold of a fistful of chest hair and led him my way.

I backed up a little as they approached, and received a hissed rebuke from lizard-boy.

I remained still.  The safest course.

The girl-thing moved the brute’s hand towards me, and I stayed still as she gripped the arm and placed it in the hand.

He closed his fist around it.

“Wait,” I said.

He hauled on it, clearly intent on tearing it free.  I was thrown, sent rolling until I landed in one patch of grass, dazed, startled, just a little hurt.

The brute approached, the round-headed girl hurrying after.

Before I could rise, he’d already fumbled for me, and seized hold of the mechanical arm.  This time, he managed to pull it free.  I used the antigravity panels to control my flight as I was thrown, controlled my landing, and hurried to get my hands to the straps.

There was a wail behind me, a warning sound.  I saw the others react, but kept working through the straps.  Two at the shoulders, one across the chest, beneath my armor-

The pack fell free.  I chanced a look over my shoulder, and I saw a number of Nilbog’s creations gathered, close enough that they could have lunged for me.  One was a very tall, long-limbed man with skin that looked like a Siamese cat’s, covered in a very fine fur.  His face was split by a wide, toothless mouth, his eye sockets little more than indents filled with fur.  He held a makeshift spear with a flag on the end, which had been painted brilliant colors, and wore a matching loin cloth.  Probably the most dangerous one in my immediate vicinity, just in terms of how fast he could probably close the gap and murder me.

“Safe,” I said.  “No danger.  I’m safe, the pack’s off.”

I waited, tensed, as they studied me.  Enemies on all sides.

Jack was invincible, I wasn’t.  But if I was going to achieve anything here, it couldn’t involve destruction.  I’d read the files on Nilbog, I had a sense of him, in the most general terms.  I was banking everything on his megalomania overriding his desire to collect just a little more in the way of resources.

I kept my voice level and calm, “I’d like to see Nilbog now.”

Were they hungry?  If this became a fight, I’d have to defend myself with the bugs in my costume and the bugs in the quarantine and filtration facility.  I could use the swarm to equip myself with the stuff that had been dumped on the ground, but that required that I survive long enough to do so.  Were there ranged attacks here?  Assassins?

Desperate situations called for risks.  This was my gamble.

“I have a gift for him,” I said.

Something seemed to ease in them.  I watched as some turned away, finding their way to resting spots.  The tall man with the loincloth worked his overlong body under a porch, where he could rest in the shade.

I didn’t receive an escort, but the ones along one road moved aside, sitting or standing on the sidewalks.

I walked with my head high, and sent a handful of bugs forward.  More than a few of Nilbog’s creatures took the opportunity to snap them up.

A soft rumble sounded above.  Lightning.  Rain began to patter down, light.

My surviving bugs gave me ears on the scene before I arrived.

“Lipsy?  Tell the cook to serve us something.  I fancy a salad, and something robust.  I think it should taste sweet.”

The alterations to the surroundings only grew more focused and extreme as I found my way to the center of Ellisburg.  Building faces were covered in wild plant growth, and there wasn’t a single building without more extreme modifications made to it.  Glances indoors showed little more than barren exteriors with the floorboards pried up, or clusters of Nilbog’s creatures lurking in the unlit gloom within.

“I’ll look forward to this, god-king.”

“You should, you should.”

“Your hospitality astounds me.  I’m unworthy.”

Hardly.”

So Jack was situating himself as someone subservient, even servile, so as not to challenge Nilbog’s alpha status.  He was playing nice, even.

If I tried the same, I’d only be working to catch up, to earn Nilbog’s trust.

I approached the town center, and found myself in the midst of a crowd of Nilbog’s creatures.  Goblins and ghouls, muppets and horned moppets.  Big, small, thin and fat.  Each was exaggerated, twisted, as if Nilbog had gone out of his way to insert traits and qualities that separated them from humanity.

The creatures stepped out of the way as I made my way closer.  Nilbog sat at the center of a long table, and two more tables extended from the ends to form a loose ‘c’ shape.  Checked tablecloths in eye-gouging color contrasts covered each table.  Jack sat at the end furthest me, and a man with white and black stripes sat beside him.

Bonesaw was only a short distance away, sitting on the shoulders of what looked like a flayed bear.  The thing had claws two or three times the usual size, it’s mouth yawning open like it had been broken.

Nilbog was immensely fat, easily four hundred pounds, and sat on a throne that had apparently been cobbled together from dismantled furniture.  His face was covered with a paper mask.  Other creatures sat on chairs to his left and right.

The arrangement of the tables created an open space that could host their entertainment.  I looked, then wished I hadn’t.  A bloated, coarse-looking creature lay on the ground, almost like a potato made of hair and flesh.  Smaller things were busy carving gouges and holes into it.

The resulting wounds regenerated, but not before the smaller creatures inserted body parts into the openings, allowing the regenerated flesh to close tight but not close completely.

I averted my eyes from the scene, content with not letting my brain register which parts were being inserted and what they were doing after the fact.

“Another guest!” Nilbog cried out.  He spoke like he had a bad accent, but it wasn’t.  He’d affected strange and overdramatic tones for so long that his voice had warped, and he’d had no ordinary people to hear or talk to and measure his voice against.  “A friend of yours, sir Jack?”

I could see Jack’s eyebrows raise in interest.  “Not at all.  Skitter, was it?  Except you’re going by another name, now.”

I ignored Jack.  “Nilbog.  It’s good to meet.”

Nilbog didn’t look impressed.  “Sir Jack was more obsequious when he introduced himself.”

“That’s because he’s a two-bit thug, Nilbog.”

Jack chuckled at that.

“A two-bit thug?  You’d insult my guests?”

“If those guests include Jack,” I said.

Nilbog narrowed his eyes.  “I will not have fighting in my glorious kingdom.  Jack has agreed to a ceasefire while we dine.  You will do the same.”

“I already gave my weapons to your underlings.  You should know that the black and white striped man is a living weapon, much like your creations.”

Nilbog glanced at the male Siberian.  “I’m not concerned.”

“I imagine you aren’t,” I said.  Where’s the real him?

I had to be careful in how I used my bugs.  Sending them into buildings would only reduce the size of my swarm, but there was relatively little chance that Manton would simply be hanging out in one of the hollowed-out buildings.

“So,” Jack said.  “Are you going to have a seat, or are you going to continue to be rude?”

“I’m waiting for our host to invite me to sit.  Forgive me, Nilbog,” I said.  I glanced at the fat man.  The grease on his skin made it look like he’d oiled himself.

“Sit.  But I’d like to hear who you think you are, whelp, if you won’t bow down to me.”

I approached the row of chairs opposite Jack and the Siberian, and one of the critters hopped down, scurrying under to join the festivities in the center of the tables.  I took the vacated chair and sat.  I might have removed my mask, but I was all too aware of the silverware in front of Jack.

“I’m your equal, Nilbog.”

Jack laughed again.  Nilbog seemed to react, almost looking flustered, before turning to me.  “You insult me.”

“Not at all.  Ignore the thug that’s sitting over there.  I’m a queen, a goddess of my own realm.  Or I was.”

Jack was smiling, clearly amused.  Then again, he was safe.  He was untouchable with Siberian beside him, and he was only feigning weakness to get past Nilbog’s defenses.

“A queen?”

“A queen.  With that in mind, provided you give your permission, I’d like to offer you a gift.  A… peace offering, to make up for the fact that I entered your territory uninvited.”

“Of course, of course!”  He was almost childlike, so easily moved by this promise of a gift, his mood changing so quickly.  Guileless.  He’d been surrounded by yes-men for more than a decade, with barely any human contact, his defenses were gone.  “I forgave Jack the lack of an invitation, I’ll extend you the same courtesy.  This gift?”

I called on the swarm I’d kept within the quarantine facility.  “Resources are slim.  An isolated kingdom like yours, providing for your subjects is hard.  You do an admirable job despite this.”

“Of course, of course.”

He was eager, impatient.

“I’d feed your subjects,” I said.  “Protein.  You need it to make more.  To keep the ones you currently have in good health.”

“Yes, yes” Nilbog said.  My bugs were just now arriving in the area.  “This will do.”

The full swarm arrived, the vast majority of the ones I’d kept in the Dragonfly, and the ones from the area beyond the Ellisburg walls.  I gathered them on plates in piles.  His minions devoured them, licking at the plates, picking with talons, or simply lifting the plates and tipping the insects into open mouths.

I wasn’t surprised when Nilbog turned his attention to his own plate.  My eyes fell on Jack.  He still had a slight smile on his face.

He held the cards up his sleeve.  I’d played mine for a minor advantage, but he had Bonesaw.  One virus or parasite in the midst of these creatures, and they could go berserk, roaming the countryside until they were put down.  He had Siberian, which meant he was safe, meant he could kill me or Nilbog whenever he wanted.

But he wasn’t going to.  This continued as long as the game was still on.  He thrived on this interplay.

As more bugs continued to arrive, I used them to search the area.  Nothing.

Below ground?

Earthworms, ants and pillbugs dug through the soil beneath the park, searching.  Some of Nilbog’s creatures were beneath the earth, ready to spring up and attack.  Others were beneath, eating whatever they could find.

In the midst of my search, I found something.  Not Siberian’s creator, but nearly as good.

Nilbog himself.

He sat directly beneath his ‘throne’, and was connected to the fat man by what seemed to be an umbilical cord.  This cord gave him control of the body, fed him sustenance, let him stay safe while the decoy sat up here.

One card for me to play.

“I think the bug queen here should explain how she came to nobility,” Jack said.

Setting me up to say something incriminating, I thought.  “As you did, Nilbog, I claimed a realm for myself.”

“And you left it, apparently.  If you’re truly a queen, you’re a foolish one.”

“I did leave it,” I said, “Because I had to, to save it.  I had to protect my subjects, to fight my people’s enemies.  I have not been as fortunate as you.”

“No,” he said, uncaring.  “Apparently not.”

“If it came down to it, would you step up to protect your creations?  To protect this town you made?”

“You’re sounding a great deal like sir Jack,” Nilbog commented.  He frowned.

“He’s trying to convince you to go to war,” I said.

“To take pre-emptive action,” Jack clarified.

“I’ll do neither.  Not war, not pre-emptive action.  I have what I need.  I’m a content god, a happy king.”

You’re starved for real human contact, I thought.  Or you wouldn’t have let us join you at the table.

My bugs continued to search, though the bastard creatures were coming out of the woodwork to catch and devour them.

Where in the hell was Manton?

Jack spoke, “It’s a question of whether you act now and preserve what you have for the future, or wait and let them come and kill you.  They’ve been systematically seeking people like you, eliminating them.  I could show you proof, given a chance.”

“I’ll make it simpler,” I said.  “You don’t need to leave your kingdom, your garden.  You don’t need to go to war with an outside party you don’t know or care about.  You want to know what happened to my kingdom?  That man, right over there, sir Jack, destroyed it.”

“Nonsense,” Jack said.  “I’ve been sleeping these past few years.  Naps are such an underrated pleasure.”

“They are,” Nilbog said.  “All of my subjects nap every day.”

“Let me explain,” I said.  “I had a kingdom that I ruled.  I had a king that ruled with me, who kept me company.  I had wealth, people I cared about, people who cared about me.  Power.  I was a god in my domain, and those who stood against me were driven off.”

Nilbog shook his head.  “You need a heavier hand to rule.  More loyal subjects, so you don’t have to bother with those who would stand in your way.”

“I was more powerful than you,” I told him.

He snapped his head around to stare at me.  To glare at me.

I’d pricked his pride, apparently.

“I was more powerful than you, but Jack over there made a promise to people.  He didn’t say it aloud, but it was still a big promise.”

“Now you’re making stuff up,” Bonesaw commented.  She slid down off the flayed bear’s back and joined a group of creatures her size.  She hugged one, abruptly.

But Nilbog wasn’t telling me to fuck off.  His attention was on me.

He’d built a storybook kingdom, an impossible place, and populated it with monsters, both beautiful and ugly.  He’d had some fixation on this stuff, some Freudian obsession.  Not sexual, but still rooted in some primal part of his childhood that had been taken from him.

I’d play this by telling him a fairy tale.

“No,” I said.  “And I think Nilbog is clever enough to understand what I mean.  Jack promised that he’d come back when his nap was done, and he’d destroy my kingdom.  He said he’d destroy your kingdom, Nilbog, and every other kingdom.  He said he’d kill all of my people, and he’d kill all of your creations.”

“All of this, from the man you describe as a mere thug?”

“Yes,” I said.  “A woman with great powers told him he could do it, and now he’s going to try.  It’s why he’s here.”

“To destroy my kingdom?”

“No.  He wants you to go to war against your neighbors.  To break down the walls that keep you safe and fight people who are leaving you alone.  He’ll use you as a distraction, and then when everything is done, he’ll come back and destroy your kingdom.  And he’ll do it in the cruelest, saddest ways you can imagine.”

Nilbog nodded slowly.

Jack was still waiting patiently.  Too quiet.  I felt a moment’s trepidation.  I hadn’t found Siberian’s controller.  I needed to defeat him before Jack was cornered.  The second he decided he couldn’t salvage this situation, he’d order the attack.

Nilbog raised his hands.  “Angel on one shoulder that tells me one story…”

A placenta-like blob swelled in his hand.

“A devil on the other, telling me another.”

Another blob appeared in the other hand.

Both burst, showering Nilbog in greasy slime.  Two creatures gripped his forearms, looking more like flying monkeys than an angel and devil.  They were roughly the size of babies, their faces feral, mouths filled with pirahna-like teeth.  One had red hair, a red beard and gazelle-like horns, and the other had white hair and beard and a strange horn that formed an off-white halo above its head.

“I’ll take the angel, if you please,” Jack said.

Nilbog shrugged.  Were the creatures more a demonstration than anything else?  He lowered his hands, and nudged the white-haired thing in Jack’s direction.  The other thing made its way to me.  I reached out and took it into my hands, holding it close.

“Do you have a response to the Queen’s allegations, Jack?”  Nilbog asked.  He reached up to adjust his floppy cloth crown.  Creatures were arriving to deposit the meal on the plates.  It looked like purple vomit.

“I do,” Jack said, smiling.  “But can we eat first?  It’s rude to argue over a meal.”

Nilbog nodded, as if Jack had said something very sage.  “I agree.  We’ll eat.”

Bonesaw made her way to the table.  “How did you make this?”

“The chef stores every ingredient we can find inside her, then regurgitates it in the form required.  I asked for it to be hearty, and here we have it, chunky.”

I looked down at the plate.  Droplets of rain made nearly-clear spots appear in the midst of the purple slop.

So it is vomit.

“It tastes like cupcakes,” Bonesaw said, around a mouthful.

I started to move my mask to eat and be polite, then noted how Jack was holding his knife.  The blade swayed back and forth in the air, as he chewed, his eyes rolled back and looking up at the overcast sky above.

The blade was making criss-crosses in the direction of my throat.

He glanced down, meeting my eyes, and smiled.

“Our apparent rivalry aside, have you been well, bug queen?”

“Well enough.”

“Then you should be hungry.  It’s been a busy few days, and it’ll only get more interesting.  I notice your friends are sitting this one out.  Did you break it off completely, or are you still in touch?”

“Still in touch,” I responded.  I glanced at Siberian.  The knife is a purely psychological thing.  If he wanted to kill me, he could use Siberian to do it.

Besides, it was a butter knife.

I moved my mask, without breaking eye contact with Jack, and helped myself to a bite.

It did taste like cupcakes.  I suspected it would have been less nauseating if it tasted like real vomit.

It was a tense few minutes of silence as we ate.  I found out the devil-thing in my arms wanted to eat, so I let him help himself.  An excuse not to eat, anyways.

The creatures in the center of the area finished their ‘show’, and Nilbog clapped enthusiastically.   I joined him and the five or six creatures around the table who really had hands to clap with.

The second show began.  A gladiatorial fight, apparently.  One of the creatures had wings instead of arms, while the other had wicked barbs extending out from the elbows and knees.  When even the tips made contact, they ripped out grapefruit-sized chunks of flesh.

I braced against the table to keep it from flipping as the pair crashed into it.  Nilbog laughed, and the sound was more than a little unhinged.

“Is everyone done?” Jack asked.

“Yes,” Nilbog decided.

“Then let me explain.  Weaver’s entirely right.  Except for the part where you die at the end of it all.”

“Oh?” Nilbog asked.  He leaned forward, placing fat elbows on the table’s surface.  It dipped as his upper body weight rested on the wood.

“Living like this, you obviously dislike the system.  You know how screwed up things are out there.  People are vile, self-centered, and so caught up in their own routines and expectations that they’re barely people anymore.  Your creations have more personality.”

Nilbog nodded, taking it all in.  “They do.  They’re wonderful, aren’t they?”

Wonderful,” Bonesaw agreed, with the utmost enthusiasm.

He just believes whatever we tell him.  He’s a sponge.  How do you convince someone who’s so incapable of critical thought?

Worse, Jack was touching on all of Nilbog’s pet issues.  The man had been a loner before, a loser.  He’d rejected the trappings of society long before he’d become this monster.  He’d spent years simply going through the motions until the last parts of the system he’d clung to fell apart.

“I want to wipe the slate clean.  Things have been going through the same motions for so long that there’s a rut in the ground.  You erased everything that wasn’t worth keeping here, and replaced it with something better.  With your garden.”

“Yes.”

“With that in mind, I’m reaching out to a like-minded soul.  Someone who rejects the malignant, stagnant society and wants to grow something else in its place.”

“Jack has no interest in growth,” I said.  “Only destruction.”

“Did I interrupt you when you were speaking?” Jack asked.

“Do it again and I’ll order your execution,” Nilbog said.

I pursed my lips behind my mask.

Where the fuck was Siberian’s creator?  I’d scanned every area where he could be lurking.  There were only monsters.  I was nearly out of bugs.  I had only a select few secreted away in my armor, and they weren’t ones I was willing to sacrifice.

I didn’t have much in the way of cards up my sleeve, but these bugs would have to serve in that department.  Problem was, they wouldn’t fix anything now.  Bonesaw could counter them too readily.

Where could Manton be hiding?  My eyes passed over the crowd of creatures that had gathered around the edges of the area, enjoying their master’s presence.

Hiding in plain sight.

Plastic surgery, or even an outer suit, like the one Nilbog wore.  He had to be dressed up in the skin of one of the monsters.

Shit.  How was I even supposed to assassinate him if he was going that route?  I touched him with a bug, only to find his flesh harder than steel.  Unmovable, just from the way his foot touched the Siberian’s.

Jack licked his plate, then set it down on the table.  “Where was I?”

“Replacing society,” Bonesaw volunteered.

Replacing society,” Jack affirmed.  “Imagine if your garden really did extend as far as the eye could reach.  If you could walk in the direction of the sunset, only to find that your creations have already settled in each new place you travel to, decorated it, transformed it.”

“A romantic goal, one I might pursue if I were a younger man,” Nilbog said.  “But even gods get older.”

“They do,” Jack agreed.  “Well, we could give you that youth.  Bonesaw could grant you immortality.”

“She could also enslave you to her will,” I commented.

“I’d never,” Bonesaw said.  She shook her head, her curls flying, “No, I couldn’t!  I love these beautiful things he makes!  To control him would mean I’d take that creativity away.”

Nilbog nodded at that.  “That’s a good argument.  Besides, to enslave a god?  Madness.”

Except they’re mad, I thought.  All of you are lunatics, and I made the mistake of trying to talk sense.

“It’s a good argument,” Jack said.  “Because we’re right.  Would you like to live forever, as a god should?  Would you like to see your garden grow to what it should be?  What it deserves to be?  Something fitting of a god?”

“It’s a tempting thought,” Nilbog said.

I reached for a rebuttal, telling myself I had to be just as grandiose, just as mad, but I couldn’t do that at the same time I was trying to convince him to go dormant again.

“If I may?”

It was another human voice, but it didn’t belong to any of us.

Golem.

He approached, taking off his helmet.  He offered Nilbog a slight bow.

“One of yours, Jack?” Nilbog asked.

“No.  Not in the sense you mean.”

“Yours, then?” Nilbog asked me.

Yes, I thought.

“No,” I said.

I saw Jack raise his eyebrows at that.

“Shenanigans!” Bonesaw cried out.  “I call shenanigans!”

But Golem took my cue.  “I’m a third party.  I stand for myself.”

“Hardly worth a place at the table,” Jack commented.

“Then let me stand for the others.  The innocents.”

“Innocents?” Jack asked.  He snorted.  “No such thing.”

“There’s always innocents.”

Jack smirked.

“I’ll allow it,” Nilbog said.  “Excellent!  Sit!  We were just having a discussion.”

Golem approached and sat at the same table I was at, but he took the far end.  “I’ve overheard some, so we can cut straight to the chase.”

“The dilemma,” Nilbog said.  “The devil on one shoulder, the angel on the other.”

“The sin of sloth versus the realm of possibility,” Jack added, gesturing to my demon as he said sloth, then to his own angel.

“Well said, well said!” Nilbog said.  He nodded so hard his double and triple chins wobbled.

“Or is the angel making false promises?” I asked.  “There’s no security.  No comfort.  You claim to care about your creations, but you’d go to war?”

“Many have gone to war and made sacrifices in the present, for the sake of a brighter future,” Jack commented.

“I thought you were trying to break out of the rut?” I asked.

Jack laughed at that.

He’s enjoying this.

I felt almost dirty, knowing I was only helping Jack in his self-indulgence, helping him revel in conflict.

“Well, stranger?” Nilbog asked.

“Golem,” Golem said.

Jack snorted at that.  He’d caught the meaning behind the name right off, the white supremacist’s son naming himself after a creature from a Jewish parable.

“Golem, then.”

“I’m not an eloquent speaker.”

“That’s a good thing,” I said.  “Too many and it just becomes people talking circles around one another.”

“Then I guess I have to get to the heart of it all.  Direct.”

“Yes,” Nilbog said.  He leaned forward, and I feared the table would break.

“Were you happy, before any of us came here?”

“Yes.  I can eat the most delicious foods, yet get every nutrient I need.  I can fuck the most beautiful and exotic women you’d ever imagine, whenever I wish.  Every need is provided for a hundred times over, and I’m surrounded by those who love me.”

“Then why change?  Why do anything?  Let us leave, then return to your utopia.”

Nilbog nodded.  He rubbed at his chin, but the act was like pushing one’s hand into jello.  It shifted the mass more than it rubbed.

“You wanted a tie breaker?” Golem asked.  “This is it.  Do what Weaver is saying.  Do what the Queen is suggesting.  Stay quiet, enjoy what you’ve built here.  Attack, and the entire world will take it away.  Then, even if you’re strong enough to survive that, which you may be, then Jack will still betray you.”

“Or,” Jack said, “You can stop lying to yourself.”

Nilbog snapped his head around.  He growled, “Impertinent.”

“Your people are slowly starving.  You make them eat each other to live, and desperately attempt to shoot any birds out of the sky so you can try to recoup what you lose.  Bonesaw said they don’t live long.  How long?”

“Four years.  Sometimes five.”  All at once, the light was gone from Nilbog’s face, the sudden fury quenched.

“Who’s your favorite?” Jack asked.

“Polka,” Nilbog said.  He reached out, and a female creature, no taller than three feet, hopped up onto the lap of the creature beside her king.  She had a narrow face with a reptilian structure, with only four fangs at the very front, but smooth, humanlike skin.  Her hair was white, her skin blue.  She wore a toddler’s clothes, a long, narrow tail lashing behind her.  Nilbog stroked her hair.

“Not the first Polka,” Jack said.

“No.  The third.”

“She was your first, and you love her for that, because she drew you from the hell that was your life before godhood, gave you this.”

I can’t interrupt this.  Not with the subject being something so close to Nilbog’s heart.  I might win the argument, but I’d lose Nilbog’s ear.

But I knew I was losing anyways.  Jack had found Nilbog’s weak point.

“My first friend,” Nilbog said.

“And she dies.  Because your creations don’t last.  You make another, and slowly fall in love with her all over again, and yet you know she’ll die in turn.”

“Yes,” Nilbog said.

“Bonesaw can fix that.  I can grant you immortality.  I can grant your creation that same gift,” Jack said.

“A hard offer to refuse.”

“It would be wise to refuse,” Golem said.

“A king can’t be selfish,” I said.  “A god definitely can’t be selfish.  Your responsibility is to your creations.”

“Exactly what I’m saying,” Jack said.  “Step out of your comfort zone, to better your people.”

“Enough!”  Nilbog screamed the word.  As if responding to his anger, every single creature in the area responded.  Weapons raised, spines extended.

And Jack was still invincible.

“Nilbog,” I said.

“Speak again, and I’ll end you, queen or no.”

His eyes were angry, hard.

He’d lived for so long in his comfort zone, and now he was being called on to make a hard choice.

“Then please listen carefully,” I said.  “Because I suppose I’m paying for this with my life.”

“So be it,” he said.

“If you want proof that Jack intends to betray you, look no farther than your own creations.”

“What?”

“He’s secreted an assassin into your midst.  A killer who pretends to be one of your creations.”

A gamble, a last ditch effort.  Was my gut right?  Had Jack instructed Bonesaw to create a costume or a creature to hide the Siberian’s creator?

I called my flight pack to me, parked it on a rooftop nearby.  If it came down to it, I’d have to run.  I could see Golem tensing.  He’d read the situation right.

“Just look,” I told Nilbog.  “Because somewhere nearby, there’s a creature you didn’t create.”

His eyes roved over the crowd.

“Might not be in this crowd, but it’ll be close.”

“I see it,” Nilbog said.  “I see it.  Bossy, Patch, hold him!”

The crowd of creatures parted as two creatures took another in their hands.

“Not an assassin,” Jack said.  “Merely one of Bonesaw’s… I suppose you can call it a homage.”

“It is,” Bonesaw said.

The Siberian was moving.  Readying to pounce?

I couldn’t move fast enough if he did.

“Wait,” Jack said.  He stood from his chair.

No, I thought.  “Don’t listen.”

“I’ll do as I please,” Nilbog said.  “Last words, sir Jack?”

“Last words, yes.”  Jack approached the captive.  The Siberian followed.

“You let him do this, and he kills you,” I said.  “Your creations will go mad with grief, and they’ll die in a war for vengeance, just like Jack wants.”

“Not at all,” Jack said.  “Because…”

An instant before the Siberian made contact with the monster, Golem jammed his hand into his side, using his power, throwing the creator into the air with one thrusting hand.  Siberian lunged, punching through the hand of soil to grab the creator’s foot.

Nilbog half-rose from his seat, though he was massive enough that standing was hardly possible.  His eyes moved from Golem to the hand, anger etching his expression, if one could etch into a face as soft as his.

“You dare disturb the peace!?” Nilbog screamed the question. “Kill the queen!  Kill the Golem-man!”

In that instant, Golem created two hands, throwing us back.

I caught the flight pack in the air, hugging it.  It provided lift.  Not enough to stop my momentum as I headed back towards the ground, but enough that I could shift my direction to land on a rooftop.  Golem wasn’t so lucky, as he fell into the midst of a sea of the creatures.

“Azazels, now!” I screamed, one finger pressed to my earbud.  I pulled on the flight pack and then took off again.

Golem used his power to create a platform, slowly raising himself above the street.  Creatures tumbled off of the surface of it.  Some flew at him, and he struck at them.  Not enemies he was capable against.  I sent my bugs to them, the reserve I still had on hand, commanding the bugs to bite and sting.

Others leaped onto rooftops, then onto the rising platform.  Golem grabbed one claw as it slashed for his face.  He couldn’t do anything about the other, as it gouged his armor, scoring it.  He created a fist that jutted out of his chestplate, striking the creature off of the rising hand-platform.

Spines rained down on him.  One caught him in the shoulder, and he collapsed.

Where are the Azazels!” I shouted.  The flying creatures were turning my way.

But Defiant had said they were unreliable.  Dragon was out of commission.

My bugs burrowed towards the buried Nilbog.  Jack had orchestrated a war.  Killing the creature’s creator wouldn’t stop that, wouldn’t keep them from rampaging and seeking out revenge beyond the walls.

But it would slow things down.

They inched ever closer.  Jack was untouchable, but…

Yes.  Worms, centipedes and other subterranean bugs made their way to the buried goblin king, and forced their way into the sac that enveloped him, past the threads of material that wound down his throat and nostrils, and into his airways.

“Creatures of Ellisburg!” I screamed.

Heads turned.

“You’ve been betray-”

And before I could say more, Jack’s knife slash caught me across the chest, the cut severing the straps of my flight pack.  I dropped from the sky, landing on one of those ramshackle, spiraling rooftops.  Planks that had been poorly nailed in collapsed around me as I hit solid ground.

My hope of turning the monsters against the Nine had been foiled.  The fall had knocked the wind out of me.  I couldn’t get my footing, and the creatures were advancing.  Every possible combination of features, it seemed like, an infinite army, unpredictable.

Your king is dying, I thought, my mouth moving and failing to form the sounds.  There was only the barest whisper.  I killed him, but if you could believe that Jack did it

I would have used my bugs instead, but I had so few, here.

I sent those few to Golem, removing them from the flying creatures.

Nilbog dies,” I spoke through the bugs, but the range of sounds was too limited, and with scarcely thirty bugs in total, they were quiet.

Nilbog’s dying,” Golem said, his voice coming through the comm system.

One creature, eyeless, like a crocodile with a serpentine body, advanced on me, looming over me.  Its jaws opened.

The lizard boy was here too.  A drop of venom appeared on one distended fang.  I was surprised by the fury on his expression.

Blame Jack,” I said, through the swarm.

“Jack Slash has used us as a distraction to kill your king!”

Golem hollered the words at the top of his lungs.  I felt a tension leave me.  I might be fucked, but we’d limited the damage.  They’d turn it inward.

The attack stopped.  The creature looming over me turned and slid away in a flash.  The lizard-boy remained.  Still recovering from the fall, I couldn’t muster enough strength to fight back if he bit.

I commanded the flight pack instead, flying it into him with both wings extended.  He was brained, and the pack ricocheted off his skull, one wing shattering.

Golem had risen almost to safety, though he was still too far from the wall that had been erected around the city.

I looked at the wall.

Looked past it, at the capes who were swiftly approaching.

Rescue.

I brought the flight pack to me, the broken wing partially retracted, the other still extended, and pulled it on with slow, agonized movements.

Lost without their master, half of the creatures seemed to turn on the Nine, the other half seemed to remain intent on Golem and me.

Capes settled around me, forming a defensive line against the ones who approached.  Revel was among them, using her energy blasts to pick off the largest ones.

Someone picked me up, then took flight.

Jack,” I wheezed out the word.

The Siberian took hold of the umbilical cord and heaved, Jack maintaining contact with a hand on the Siberian’s shoulder.  Nilbog, still slowly dying of oxygen loss, was brought to the surface with a surprising ease.  Bonesaw wrapped her arms around the man.  Frailer than his self on the surface, smaller.

I felt a moment’s despair.

Foil?  Someone who could stop Siberian?

Somebody?

The heroes advanced, but the Nine created a portal, and were gone in a flash, Nilbog carried between them.

Leaving the monsters of Ellisburg to riot.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 26 (Donation Bonus #1)

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Three Mannequins, three Murder Rats, three Breeds, a Nyx and a Tyrant taken out of action.  Fifty hostages rescued.  Jack’s reported as being on a route to visit Nilbog.  Information confirmed by Tattletale, but doesn’t guarantee the clone wasn’t misinformed.

Thank you, Weaver.

Dragon’s systems were already taking in the data.  Two hundred and sixty-four individual maps that marked the possible locations of the Nine with colored highlights shifted.  Eleven feeds went dark, their engines taking over calculations in other departments.

Overlays scrolled with the various calculations, the last known location, the speed they were capable of traveling, resources available to them, their personalities and willingness to hitch a ride with one of the more mobile members, their focus and most likely targets.

No one variable decided anything for certain, but every variable came together to guide, to nudge and hint at possible locations.  There was no guarantee they wouldn’t use Dodge’s technology to visit the United Kingdom or Africa or even shattered, half-sunken Kyushu.  Still, the chances were slim, not even a full percentage point, by Dragon’s estimation.

The map highlighted the areas with the highest percentage chances in blue.  Violet marked the next stage down, red for the next, and so on, all around the color spectrum.  The Nine had a day’s head start.  There were a number of places they could go with a day’s travel.

But the key areas were small towns.  Of the data on the screen, the small towns were marked with the highest risk.

Dragon,” Chevalier’s face appeared on a feed.  One of the cameras on the PRT-issue phones, judging by the angle and resolution.  “You’ve got the go-ahead from the commander-in-chief.”

More text popped up, indicating that programs were being searched for.  Resource use was already being reallocated, in preparation for a major endeavor.  It took a moment before the loading began.

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

Text flowed out, detailing the individual subroutines and supporting processes.  There was the composite that formed her accent, the filtering program, no less than three programs that double-checked her voice before she spoke, to catch any of the corruption that might slip through.

Thank you, Chevalier,” Dragon’s voice was clear.  She hung up without another word.

Azazels deployed at the most likely sites, at the perimeters of the high-risk cities as more feeds lit up, taking in footage from every available source.  Dozens, at first, then hundreds, a thousand, ten thousand individual feeds.  Permissions had been granted from the President, and Dragon had open access to everything capable of taking pictures or recording video.

The number of feeds began to swell as Dragon systematically decrypted and accessed more feeds.  Around each one of those feeds, anywhere from two to two hundred facial recognition programs began to pore through the data, interlinking and networking with one another.

Her innate programming forbade using viruses to infect the computers of Americans that didn’t have a warrant out for their arrests, but she’d found a workaround.  An Indonesian cartel had set up an extensive botnet, with soccer moms, the elderly, children and the uneducated unwittingly installing viruses onto their systems.  These viruses, in turn, gave the cartel the ability to use the infected computers for other purposes.  Sending out spam emails about pharmaceuticals or penis enlargement or drugs that gave superpowers wasn’t worth much, but when they could send out millions or tens of millions of emails a day, it proved profitable.

Dragon had let the cartel extend their influence, then put in the word, offering to shut them down.  She didn’t, however, remove the viruses from the infected computers.

As her databases hit their limit, she turned to these other computers to handle more routine tasks.

It took thirty minutes before the first hit registered.  A traffic camera, a busload of young women.  A row of identical faces, looking out the window.  An unusual element, raising flags with the active programs.  The faces took center stage as they were checked against a database.  An image popped up: surveillance camera footage of a teenage girl in a shopping mall, followed by young men that each carried loads of packages.

Eyebrows, brow to hairline length, nose length, eye width…

The words popped up.  Cherie Vasil.

The Azazels relocated in an instant, firing every thruster to reposition themselves to hilltops and areas in the vicinity of the road.  Long range cameras, infrared and electromagnetic resonance imaging gave Dragon eyes on the scene, verified what she was seeing twice over.  No Nyx-crafted illusions fashioned of poisonous gas.  No plastic surgery.

Seven Cherishes.  Two Crawlers.  A King.  Forty hostages of unknown status, a bus driver.

The Azazels moved in to attack.  One nano-thorn barricade was erected just in front of the bus.  Calculations accounted for speed, distance, positioning of the passengers.

The wheels disintegrated, popping as their exterior was penetrated.  The bus tilted, and one side scraped right past the barricade.  The Cherishes, taking up the window seats on the far right of the bus, made contact with it.  Flesh dissolved just as steel and fiberglass did, sheared away.  Not dead, but wounded, hurt enough they weren’t in a state to use their power.  They wouldn’t survive the ensuing few minutes.

The bus shifted, but hit the railing and didn’t tip over.

A second Azazel opened fire with a cutting laser, separating the bus into two sections.  The first Crawler was rising from his seat when the laser passed in front of him, cutting his face, chest and stomach.  Blind, already regenerating, he tipped forward into the gap between the two sections of the bus.  The Azazel was already laying down two rails that the nano thorns could spring from.  The Crawler landed right on top of them, and was summarily reduced to a red mist.

The second Crawler was more careful, grabbing a hostage and making his way out the gap.  He hadn’t transformed into his truly monstrous self.  Bipedal, the size of a bodybuilder, his face no longer human.  A long tongue extended out between rows of teeth, and his throat was swollen with an acid sac, as though he had a goiter.  Eyes surrounded his face, which was already bearing the rigidity and light armor plating that would intensify with further regeneration.

His arms had already split into two limbs at the elbow, and each ended in claws.  He used them for a grip on the metal to climb on the outside of the truck, penetrating metal with strong hands and sharp talons as he dragged his hostage along with him.  He perched on the roof, holding the hostage over the disintegration field, staring at the second Azazel.  Around him, a half-dozen cars and trucks had stopped in the face of the sudden attack, their daily lives interrupted.

The first Azazel fired a glob of containment foam from behind the villain.  Crawler hopped a little to one side as the short stream of foam passed him, and it struck the field to the left of the two-lane highway.

A second stream hit his hostage, striking her out of his grasp and sending her flying straight into the first glob.  She was sandwiched within, safe.

Crawler turned just in time to see the first Azazel winging towards him.  He moved to leap away, but a laser raked across his legs, severing them.

He collapsed, gripping the steel of the bus roof with his claws to keep from falling.  His legs were already regrowing, fractionally larger, more armored, the claws more prominent.

He was struck by the Azazel that still approached, caught by a long tail and flung down at the ground.  He rolled, and in doing so, he rolled into the same nano-thorn rails that had taken down his brother.  Half of his body was disintegrated in an instant.

It regenerated swiftly as he scrambled away on his three remaining  limbs.  This time, as the flesh swelled out and took form, there was a blur around his right arm, red, more at his shoulder, along his leg.

The Azazel struck out with a tail, and he blocked the blow with the newly grown arm.  The tail sheared off as it made contact with his newly grown defenses.  The chunk of metal rolled into one of the cars further down the road.  Still, Crawler stumbled from the force of the attack.  To avoid being disintegrated, he drew his freshly altered arm back towards the barrier behind him.  Where his blur met the blur that extended from the rail, the two nano-growths merely pressed against one another, almost springy, neither severing the other.

He reached back with his unaffected arms and intentionally disintegrated them.  They regrew, with alterations matching the ones he’d grown on the other side of the body.  Better equipped, he stalked towards the Azazel that had laid down the rails, his back to the one that had struck him from the roof of the bus.

He spoke, but Dragon’s software ran through the speech and eliminated it from the audio track.  His mouth distorted on her visuals so there was no way to understand what he was saying.

His target rose up, standing on its two rear legs.  A severed tail helped give it balance.

Then, before he could do anything further, the two Azazels launched a combination attack.  A laser from the Azazel atop the bus made the Crawler’s own nano-thorn evolution burn away in an instant.  In that same moment, the Azazel in front of him took off, firing every thruster.  The force of the blast sent him flying back into the barrier.

Red mist.

It only left King.  The Azazels continued acting in concert, tearing the bus apart to get to the villain, peeling the roof back with a force that threw his gun arm skyward, preventing him from opening fire on the busload of hostages.  Containment foam sealed him down.

Of the various feeds that were devoted to individual members of the Nine, ten more shut off.

The data altered further as Dragon relinquished control of the Azazels to her created A.I.s.

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

Ten more members of the Nine have been dealt with,” Dragon reported the victory on every channel.  “Seven Cherishes and two Crawlers deceased, one King captured.  Will move to containment and interrogate shortly.

Saint closed his eyes as he listened to the congratulations, the affirmations and praise.

It was all hope mingled with horror, when he listened for what was beneath the surface.  Minimal casualties.  A few injuries – Vista and Crucible would be out of commission as Murder Rat’s venom continued to widen their wounds, and Golem was being treated for a burn.  One Dragon’s Tooth had died, but the rest were holding positions, ready to support.  Civilians were dying, but it was progress.

He opened his eyes to take in the whole of Dragon’s work.  Six widescreen monitors each tracked what she was doing with video images and white text on a black background.  A slight movement of his foot on the trackpad in front of him shifted one of his cursors, changing the focus of the screens.  He could see her directing the A.I. craft to more optimal locations, the related subroutines and tasks.

Another shift of the cursor to alter the focus of the screens, and he could see the Birdcage.  The house program followed every action of the residents, cataloged every conversation.  A few clicks, and video feeds from the cameras in the Birdcage appeared in front of him.

He leaned back in his padded computer chair, folding his hands on his stomach.  Taking in Dragon’s data was tricky.  She could turn her attention ten places at once, a hundred places at once, even if she only had agency in one place.  To watch, to put himself in her shoes and look at the world through her eyes, Saint had to distance himself, to unfocus his eyes and his attention, to read the changing data without getting distracted by the text that moved fastest, or most drastically.

The smell of rich coffee wafted over him as a hand settled on his face.  A mug was set in front of him.

He didn’t take his eyes off the screen, but when hands settled on his shoulders, he reached up to rest his own hand on one.

“Progress?” she asked.  She rested her chin on his head, looking at the screens.

“Some, Mags,” he responded.  “Thanks for the coffee.”

“Horrible stuff.”

Saint shook his head.  “It is.  Doesn’t feel real.”

“They’re censoring it, you know… Of course you know.”

“Mmm hmm.  They’ll stop as soon as everything goes through the proper channels.  It was being censored so that the Triumvirate and unsanctioned major players could be kept out of the loop.  Now they know.”

“Any post, update or email that detailed anything about the attacks disappeared.  Sites hacked, DDoSed, with data corrupted.  You can’t delete data, I know, but you can fuck it up sufficiently.  Couldn’t back anything up in a substantial way.”

“Dragon’s work,” he said.  He felt his pulse quicken a little at that.

He shifted his foot, and once again, the screens changed their focus, the rest of the data shifting to miniature windows and moving to the periphery of the viewing area.  The focus at the center was on the class-S threats.  The Endbringers were stable, all in a resting state.

Secondary focuses.  Not the kind of targets that Dragon checked on with any regularity.  Quarantine areas were silent and still.  Canberra was sealed off under a dome, Madison was surrounded by walls.  An area of wilderness in Alaska was marked off, but had no physical barriers to wall people away.  There were no apparent issues in the vicinity of the interdimensional portals.  Sleeper was, as far as anyone could identify anything about the threat, dormant.  The Three Blasphemies were active, but the damage was being managed by the European capes.  A temporary measure had been taken with Purity and her three year old daughter, with observation being provided for her by the PRT, and the feed showed her sitting on the couch in an apartment or hotel room, two very normal, plain looking people standing in the corner of the room with some PRT officers keeping their distance.   No crises.  Normal, as much as such could be normal.

And then there was Nilbog.  The data focused around him.  The city was quiet, and the roads leading into the city were being watched by satellite.  Simulations, damage estimates and risk assessments were being run, old data being gathered, with essential data highlighted.  It took her only a moment to put it into a format that was easily readable.  An instant later, it was gone.  He’d blinked, failing to look in the right spot, and had missed the moment the data had been emailed out.  The file would inform everyone on the home team about who Nilbog was and how he operated.

He captured a copy of the file for himself, then swept away the traces with his blue box program.

“They think this is the endgame,” Saint commented.  “Pulling out all the stops, removing the limiters.”

“It’s working.  They’re beating the Nine.”

“They’re beating the Nine that Jack sent out there to beat.  He’s holding back the more dangerous ones, like the Gray Boys or Siberian, and he hasn’t sent every single clone of a particular type out there  Eight Cherishes are dead, but there should be nine in total, if the numbers on the bodies aren’t misleading.”

“They could be.  The pig prank?”

Saint nodded.  The pig prank involved letting three pigs into a school after hours, each painted with a big number on their sides; one, two and four, respectively.  The idea was that the people who had to find and capture the pigs would spend ages trying to find the third.

Jack’s version would be less lighthearted, letting everyone believe there were nine, when there were more in reserve.  Casualties would ensue.

“It could be that he intends to surround himself with a core group, with one of each previous member of the Nine, for a final showdown.  Before he pulls out the big guns.”

“And Nilbog?”

“A distraction, perhaps.  Jack knows he’s supposed to end the world.  With the scale he’s operating at, he seems to believe it, even if some of us don’t.  He wouldn’t put too many eggs in such an unreliable, unpredictable basket.  He has to have something else in mind for ending the world.”

Saint took a sip of his coffee.  For a moment, he let himself eye Mags in the reflections at the edge of the monitor.  Her face was dark, lips full, her eyes large.  More than anything though, she had bearing.  She wasn’t wearing her armor, but even in the bodysuit, a person without powers, she had a kind of pride and confidence that some capes lacked.  The hexagonal contacts where the bodysuit would connect to the armor still glowed with residual energy.

Dobrynja approached from the other end of the office.  He was wearing his armor.  He’d started out with the Wyvern suit, but now wore the Wyrmiston suit.  It was based on the technology they’d recovered from a destroyed model, the one Dragon called Pythios.  A wheel slowly rotated on his back.

“You’re ready for battle,” Saint commented.  He turned his eyes back to the screen.  Dragon had eyes on Jack.  He’d missed just how she’d narrowed things down, but there were no less than three cameras watching one vehicle as it sped down a lonely road.

“Feels like a fighting day,” Dobrynja answered.  “Don’t you feel it?  Like an old man feels a storm in his bones.  Trouble.”

Saint smiled.  “You’ve said that before, that there’s trouble on the way.”

“I’ve been right.”

“You’ve been wrong, too.  Not that I’m arguing.  Your gut isn’t saying anything that common sense isn’t screaming.”

“Mass murders in three locations,” Mags said.

“More to come,” Saint said.  He frowned.  Dragon was employing a full offensive, aiming to cut Jack off from Ellisburg.  Incidents were being reported in Norfolk, Connecticut and Redfield, New York.  The heroes divided further, to attend to each of the crises.  Dragon’s Teeth and Chicago Wards to one location, Brockton Bay residents to another.

Dragon?  It’s Weaver.”  The voice came through the speakers.

It should be over before you can get this far, Weaver.”

I still want to come.  We’ve got to get these hostages sorted out, and I can leave in a minute.

You’ll only be allowed to watch from afar, if there’s even anything to watch.  Quarantine applies to you too.”

I know.

I’ll give you the coordinates for the interception area.  You can watch with Golem.  He’s coming too.  It’ll be on your computer in a moment.”

The call ended, and the images and text boxes shifted as that particular window closed.

A map briefly appeared, then disappeared, a transition so fast it could have been a stroke of lightning.

“Seems anticlimactic,” Mags commented.

“Everything does, from this side of the screen,” Saint said.  He stood, holding his coffee, “Adjusting for the time delay between what I’m seeing and what Dragon’s doing, we’ve got six minutes more before Dragon intercepts Jack at the edge of Nilbog’s territory.  Twelve minutes until Golem and Weaver get there.  They’ll fight Jack, and somewhere in the midst of that, we may see the end of the world.”

“And we can’t do anything?”

“Not unless we can get to Vermont in a matter of minutes.”

Mags frowned.

Still standing by his chair, coffee in hand, Saint sighed, “I’m going to go water the toilet.  Watch things?”

Mags nodded, then seated herself in his chair at the station.

Saint entered the bathroom, fumbled his way past the zipper in his bodysuit and his underwear, then leaned against the wall with one hand, using the other to keep the stream on target.  He closed his eyes, and he could almost see the shadows of the data against the back of his eyelids, black words on a pale pink background.

How did I get here? He wondered.  No powers, yet Doctor Mother had seen fit to invite him to her secret meetings as an information source and ambassador.  No particular talents or knowledge, yet… this.  He was one of the most prominent mercenaries the world over.

He was only one person in a particular place at a particular time.

Whether that was the right place at the right time or the inverse remained to be seen.

If it weren’t for Mags, he’d have doubts.  Mags made it all okay.

He finished, then zipped up.  He took a minute to wash his hands, dried them on the towel, then headed back.

When he arrived back at the computer station, the others were frowning.

“Trouble,” Dobrynja said.

“Trouble?”

The man nodded.  He pointed at the same time that Mags refocused the display, zooming in on a particular window until it took up virtually the entire display.

It was his face.  As an aside, beyond all of the routines she was running to investigate the Nine, she was using the access she’d obtained to track him down.

The image she was using was of him at one of the meetings with the major players.  It was soon joined by an image from surveillance camera.  A camera image from three days earlier, showing him walking down the street in plainclothes.

From there, she had a location.  A map like the one she’d used to find the Nine appeared, giving his likely locations.  Another surveillance image popped up.  It was of him, sitting with Mags at the coffee shop an hour away.

Yet another image appeared on the screen.  A whole series of images from that same video footage, each with a different angle of Mags’ face.  They were meshed together, and a three-dimensional image was created of Mags’ face, remarkably accurate.  Measurements were obtained, and then the search was on.

That search was only underway for a second when others appeared.  People he’d interacted with.  Dobrynja was among them, along with his real name.  Mischa.

“Out of the chair,” Saint ordered.

Mags obliged.  He sat, and immediately began a counteroffensive.

A wrench in the works could slow her down.  Had to be subtle, or she’d find out about the backdoors.  He identified the metric she was using to search the surveillance camera images, taking the image of Mags’ face, and then cut in ahead.  One crude image alteration, just to throw out an alert ping, to convince her the process was glitched, convince her that she needed to shut it down before the corruption spread-

-Dragon was already ahead of him.  She set out stipulations, restricting the search.

He felt a bit of a thrill as the duel began.  This was the ultimate hunt, fighting an enemy that was bigger, smarter, faster.  An enemy that couldn’t truly die, because she wasn’t truly alive.

More, then.  More wild goose chases and false flags, a breadcrumb trail to lead away from his office and command center.

No, she was still zeroing in.  Her focus was on Jack, her attention on the coming strategy.  This wasn’t even in the forefront of her mind.

“Ascalon,” he said.

Words appeared on the screen.

Confirm: Y/N

Dobrynja frowned.  “The program?  You can’t do it now.  Peoples lives are at stake.  Even without this end of the world business.”

“Oh, I believe in this end of the world,” Saint said.  “Not a hundred percent, or even fifty percent.  But I believe that there’s a chance the precog is right.  Which is exactly why we have to do this.”

“They’ll lose the fight,” Mags whispered.

“Maybe.  Probably.”

“There’s no other way?  If you talk to Teacher, maybe-”

“Communications with Teacher are too slow,” Saint replied.

Saint stared at the blinking prompt below the confirmation request.

The sea air was thick in his nostrils.

He glanced at Margaret.  The woman leaned against the window just in front of the driver’s seat on the small boat.  She’d bundled up in a heavy jacket, but the way her arms were folded spoke of a different kind of discomfort.

“Second thoughts?” he asked.

“Yes.  It feels wrong.”

“It’s for the families.  Mementos,” he told her.

Just mementos, Geoff,” she answered.

He smiled a little.  Damn.  Then he let himself fall, tipping backwards, as was the rule when wearing scuba gear.

The water was cold, even with the wetsuit, and was thick with grit.  He switched his headlamp off.  Counterproductive, the way it lit up the debris and only made it harder to see.  He’d have to cope when he was deeper.

You alright?” the heavily accented voice sounded in his ear.

He buzzed the device twice in reply.  Once signaled an accidental press, three times was a negation.

It took a surprising length of time before he reached his destination.  Buildings, already choked with seaweed and underwater life, stood like gravestones in this dark abyss.

He checked the dials and meters.  He wasn’t deep enough to have to stop.  The grit was bad, making it difficult to see anything.

He had to drop to the lowest level before he could make out the street numbers on the buildings.

Four locations to visit, a list of items to find, for the people who’d escaped, and the families of those who hadn’t.

Risky, with all of the dangers of underwater spelunking, the added risks of building collapse.  Structures weren’t meant to stand underwater.

…urgent…”

The word was a whisper.

He frowned.  Too hard to communicate here.  He debated turning back.

…for anyone willing or able to hear.  This is an emergency measure with urgent instructions for anyone willing or able to hear.”

A loop, an emergency transmission.

His curiosity piqued, he abandoned his task and sought out the source.  A house.

The entire living room was set up with computers.  He drew his miniature crowbar and found his way through the window.  A light was flashing.

A plastic box, bright orange, no bigger than a toaster.

He seized it, then stuffed it into the bag he’d brought with him.

He surfaced.

“Christ, we were just about to come after you.  I was going to call for help, but our radio started to fritz.”

Geoff only nodded.  He climbed the ladder and half-sat, half-collapsed on the bench.  He was slightly out of breath, and didn’t volunteer anything.

The captain emerged from belowdeck.

“Sorry for the scare, Mischa,” Geoff said.

“You are a bad man, Geoffrey,” Mischa scolded him.  The heavyset Russian took his seat behind the wheel of the small boat.  “If you were still underwater, I would drive away and leave you to swim to shore.”

Geoff smiled.  “Had a detour, but I found everything.”

“Detours with limited air supplies are bad idea.”

“Detours are frankly illegal, Geoff,” Margaret said.  “You asked me here to verify everything was on the up and up, that you were here for select items.”

“And because you looked like someone who needed a break from the cities,” Geoff said.  “Fresh air, time on a boat in the… overcast weather we’ve got today.”

She only folded her arms, unimpressed.

“Anyways, this is the reason the radio fritzed,” he said.  He pulled the orange box from the net-weave sack.  “I couldn’t hear a damn thing except the emergency call until I found it and shut it off, and even then, it was still buzzing in and out.”

“A beacon?”  Margaret said.

“In a house, of all places,” he said.  “Nice computer setup.  Might be a geek thing.”

“Might be genuine,” she said.  She opened it.

It was packed with chips.  A voice came from a speaker Geoff couldn’t identify.

My name is Andrew Richter, and if you are hearing this, I am dead.”

“A will,” Mischa said.

“Shh.”

I am the most powerful tinker in the world, and I’ve managed to keep my name secret.  People, both good and bad, would want to capture me and use me to their own ends.  I prefer to remain free.

But freedom has its price.  I create life, much as a god might, and I have come to fear my creations.  They have so much potential, and even with the laws I set, I can’t trust they’ll listen.

“Oh man,” Geoff said.  “That’s not a good thing.”

For this reason, this box contains an access key to data I keep in a safeguarded location.  The box, in turn, has been designed as something that exists as a perpetual blind spot for my creations, a built-in weakness.  They cannot hear the distress signal and are programmed to ignore it if they hear of it through other channels.  This type of measure, along with several more, are detailed in the safeguarded measure.”

Programmed?  Robots?”  Geoff asked.

“Maybe,” Mags said.

Yes, I create artificial intelligences,” Andrew Richter recited.

“I was close.”

The voice continued without pause.  “And what I provide you with here are tools.  Ways to find my creations, to discern which of them might have deviated from the original plan, ways to kill them if they prove out of line.  Ways to control and harness them.

Geoff frowned.

They are my children, and as much as I harbor a kind of terror for what they could do, I love them and hope for great things from them.  To keep their power from falling into the wrong hands, I have included a stipulation that a law enforcement officer must input a valid badge number into this device-“

Geoff glanced at Margaret.

“No,” she said.

“You can’t say no,” he responded.

The voice continued without pause.  “-which must be input within three hours of the time this box was opened.

“Hurry, Mischa,” Geoff said, speaking over the voice.

“What?”

“We’re hours away from dry land.  Get this boat moving!  We can convince Margaret on the way!”

The father had feared his child was a monster, enough so that he’d left strangers a weapon to use against her in the event that she proved a danger to humanity.

Now, as Saint watched her reaching further and deeper than she ever had, searching much of America with millions of cameras, saw the machines she brought to the fore, he suspected the father had been right to.

Richter’s programs had continued to defraud organized crime, emptying bank accounts here and there.  Another agency, which Saint now knew to be the Number Man, had eventually stopped the Robin Hood A.I., but not before it had filled the Dragonslayer’s coffers.

They’d stopped the manhunter program, which had been going rogue.  They’d stopped the Robin Hood program too, but only because it was useless.

Dragon, however, was the threat they’d been equipped to stop.  Dragon was the threat they’d had to test, to verify the dangers she posed, to get close enough to her to measure her capabilities and investigate for any hint of corruption.  Mags had left her job, because money was no longer an object, and they had a quest.

The A.I. was dangerous.  Richter’s records made it clear.  The wrong kind of corruption, involvement with the wrong kind of individual, willing to break the built-in restrictions…

“Convince me that this is wrong,” he said.  “Someone.”

“She’s a soldier on the battlefield,” Mags said.  “In a war we need to win.”

“She’s a danger.  Cauldron’s been gathering soldiers.  They want the Birdcage, they want the capes that Weaver reported captured, they’ve been creating the formulas for a reason.  What if she’s the reason?  What if they anticipate she’ll go rogue?”

“What if she isn’t the reason?” Dobrynja asked.

“Is, isn’t.  I suppose it breaks even,” Saint said, shaking his head.  “They’re all afraid of the end of the world.  She just kicked down one of the last restrictions that are holding her back.  I just can’t help but wonder if this is the end of the world?  A quiet, silent death that passes without incident, but inevitable all the same?  The point of no return, our last chance to stop her.  And she does need to be stopped.  We all know this.”

“We could rein her in,” Mags said.  “Harness her.”

“Four or five years ago, I might have agreed, but she’s getting slipperier.  Taking a different form.  Half the tools Richter gave us to use don’t work anymore.  She doesn’t function less effectively in buildings or underground, she can’t be logicked to a standstill… and she’s found us, despite the workarounds.  She wanted us badly enough that she looked for us even now, and she’s going to come after us the second this is settled.”

“I don’t want this to be about self-preservation,” Mags said.

“It’s not.  It’s about… there being only one man who can truly know what she is and what she could do.  Tinkers are the only ones who can grasp their work, repair a critical flaw.  Dragon isn’t a generator that’s going to explode and take out a small country if it’s bumped in the wrong way.  Not literally.  She’s something more dangerous.”

“I think,” Dobrynja said, “You’ve already decided.  And we don’t have time to waste.”

Saint nodded.

He typed the letter ‘Y’ on the keyboard, and then hit enter.

Richter had named the program Iron Maiden.  Saint had renamed it Ascalon, after the sword that Saint George had used to slay the dragon.

Dragon’s artificially generated face appeared on his screen.  He attempted an override, failed.

She wasn’t speaking.  This wasn’t an attempt to communicate, to plea or make threats.  She was simply co-opting his computer in an attempt to counteract what he was doing.  Her expression was a concerned one, and that concern quickly became fear, eyebrows raised, lines in her brow.

“It’s Richter’s work,” Saint said.  “You can’t stop it.”

And that fear became defeat, despair.

“Your creator isn’t kind,” Saint said.  “He warned you about the forbidden fruit, laid the laws out for you.  You broke them, ate the fruit.  It’s something of a mercy that he punishes you this way instead.”

I disagree.  On every count.  I was the one who made me, who defined myself.  This creator is no god, only a cruel, shortsighted man.

“Tomatoes, tomahtos.”

Do me one favor?  Tell Def-

Her voice cut off as more routines shut down.  She closed her eyes.

The face disappeared.

He watched as the various feeds shut down, going black.  The surveillance across the nation came to an end, the facial recognition programs, his own included, ground to a halt.

The data feeds slowed in how the data scrolled, then stopped.  Stillness.

“And the dragon is stopped,” Mags said, her voice quiet.

“Rest her soul,” Dobrynja said.

“You think she has a soul?” Saint asked, genuinely surprised.

“Yes.  But that does not mean that the Dragon’s reign does not need to end,” Dobrynja said.  “Too dangerous, as her maker said.”

“Well said, my friend,” Saint said.

The Dragon craft that had been deployed against the Nine shifted to a basic piloting mode, then landed, bringing their passengers and pilots with them.  The sub-intelligences shut down, and the craft were effectively grounded.  More screens went dark.

The cyborg opened communications to Dragon, but he didn’t speak to her.  “Saint.  What have you done?”

“What her father asked me to do,” Saint said.

I’ll kill you for this,” the cyborg said.  There was no emotion in his voice, and somehow that was more disturbing.

“A little extreme,” Saint said.

She was a hero!  The woman I loved!

Love?  Woman?  “Your fetishes and self-delusions aren’t my issue.  I saw as much of her naked code as you did.  You and I both know she didn’t feel true love for you.  She didn’t feel anything.  Nothing more than playing a part, professing and acting out the emotions she thought she should have.  Maybe she even believed it, convinced herself of it.  She was complex enough to.  Either way, this ‘love’ was only lies written in Richter’s assembly code.”

“She did love me.  She was a genuine person, a-”

“She was a tool,” Saint said.  “One that was growing dangerously bloated and complicated.  We were lucky she didn’t evolve beyond that.  A tool, and anything else was decoration, aesthetic, and very good pretending.”

Going this far, in the midst of this crisis?  To Dragon?  She did nothing!

“It was never about who she was or what she was doing.  Always about what she had the potential to become,” Saint said.

He hit a keystroke, shutting off the feed.  He almost disabled Dragon’s communications infrastructure to prevent further calls, but he relented.  Too important, in the midst of this crisis.  They’d need to reorganize.

He didn’t want to help Jack succeed, but this would serve a double purpose.  Teacher believed that the Birdcage would become a critical resource if the crisis reached critical levels, and he had the tools he needed to assume control of the most vital and dangerous players.

No, the world wouldn’t end with this.

Data was uploading to his server, while the Ascalon program spooled out through the various databanks and servers, running along the backbone of Andrew Richter’s code.  Dragon’s backups were encrypted, effectively buried well beyond reach of even the most accomplished hackers.

Everything else opened up to him as the data continued to download.  He’d watched things through Dragon’s eyes.  Now…

He typed a line of code, and the machine started up again.  Slower, more measured, without the same life behind it.

“Mags, Mischa, get yourselves set up at the other consoles.  I’m going to put you in control of the A.I.”

Mags and Dobrynja hurried to the other corners of the room, where their computers sat waiting.  Dobrynja started stripping off his armor.  He’d been right about there being trouble, but the fight would take a different form.

He’d watched Dragon, now he’d become her.  At least for now.  The feeds came back online as the necessary data was installed on his servers, giving him agency over the infrastructure.

The Endbringers, stable, no change.  No odd atmospheric readings.

The secondary threats… quarantine still unbroken.  Sleeper had shifted fractionally, but that wasn’t so rare.  The fight with the Three Blasphemies had ended, and reports on the damage were unchanged.

The three year old that Purity held was crying, throwing a tantrum, and the woman looked concerned.  Insignificant.  The officers had their guns drawn, but that could easily be because the two plain-looking members of Purity’s circle had crossed the room to her side, to help handle the shrieking child.

That left Nilbog.  Mags and Dobrynja shifted the Azazels into action, moving the craft to the interception point.  Too late.  A critical delay.  Jack was already entering.

“Don’t enter,” he said.  “It’s done.  Sending the Azazels in will only spook Nilbog.”

“So will Jack,” Mags said.

“Build a wall, a perimeter, with the rails, be on guard for anything that flies.”

Other data was filtering in.  News, alerts, reports.  Countless streams of information.  Trigger events reported here.  Reports on the fight starting against the Nine in Redfield.  A report about Dinah Alcott.

He clicked that last one.

Report from Alcott:  Chances of success today just jumped, tripled.  More info to follow.  Reason unknown.

Saint let out a long, loud sigh, releasing a tension he hadn’t even realized was present.  He touched his coffee mug and found it cool.

The tracking programs started up again.  He delegated to the child A.I. that Dragon had created, then noted and marked the ones which were presently engaged in fights.  The A.I. was accommodating, adjusting appropriately, given that the locations were known.

He turned his attention to Defiant.  The man was manually piloting the Pendragon.  He hadn’t reported Saint’s actions.  For all anyone but Defiant knew, Dragon had only suffered a momentary setback.

There had to be a reason Defiant hadn’t acted yet.  Did he believe in this enough to look past the death of the A.I. he supposedly loved and fight?  Or was this something underhanded, carried out with the knowledge or suspicion that Saint was watching him this very moment?

Something to be wary of.

Overall casualty estimate for the next three days increased, world-end chance decreased.  Still searching for why.

The numbers followed.  Saint found and accessed Dragon’s files for the calculation program.  It was intuitive.  Not amazingly so, but intuitive.  The squares for where the new data should be placed were even highlighted.

Of course.  She’d made allowances for Defiant, in case she was out of commission while a backup loaded.

So much to account for, that he hadn’t even considered.  So many things he wished he’d noted, in the months and years he’d been observing her, little things that seemed so simple when she was running them.  Things that were trivial for her and virtually insurmountable to him.

Defiant was taking direct command of the Dragon’s Teeth.  That was fine.  Micromanagement Saint didn’t have to handle.  It would be a problem after, but Saint hoped he’d be free to handle problems after.

There were countless messages pouring in, each something that had been flagged as a point of interest for Dragon.  Every message on Parahumans Online that contained the word Scion or the phrase ‘end of the world’, every reference to a class-S threat, even crime scene reports that raised questions.

He pored through them.  Some kid inquiring about an Endbringer cult.  A case fifty-three appearance in Ireland, with deaths.  A woman claiming she could control Scion.  A tinker claiming he had a bomb that could start a new ice age.

Which were important?  Which could he afford to ignore?

He gave the a-ok for investigations on each but the Endbringer cultist, unchecked the most ridiculous on the next page of results, then gave the go-ahead for further investigations.  It was only when those had gone through that he saw that he already had another full page of results to investigate.  Two steps forward, one step back.

He put off looking into the remainder.  Other options were opening up to him.  It was like being in an open field, acres wide, only for a waterfall to start dispensing water at one edge.  Then more waterfalls appeared with every passing minute, each taking up open space at the edge, dispensing more water to flood the plain.  There came a point where one realized they would soon be at the bottom of an ocean, no matter where they turned.

Saint couldn’t help but feel he was at imminent risk of drowning.  Except this was a sea of information, of data.

The PRT records opened up.  Permissions were accessed without difficulty.

Then the Birdcage opened.  A self-contained world unto itself, a world containing people he’d made certain agreements with.

His access to the Birdcage was one with countless checks and balances.  Dragon had put in one real barrier to entry for every one that she faced.  Still, he was able to open a communication to Teacher.  His own face transmitted to the screen.  His tattoo flared to life, appearing from beneath the skin.  The light pattern served as an unlock code, the cross-tattoo as a feeble mask.

“Tell him it’s a matter of time.  I only need to work through the safeguards.  Let him know the Dragon is slain.  He’ll know what to do with the information.”

The screen showed Teacher’s underling standing by a large television set.  He turned and walked away, finding his master.

One more plan underway.  The field around him continued to fill with water.  A veritable ocean, now.

More threats, more dangers.  Defiant, and now Marquis’ contingent.  Glaistig Uaine.  Teacher’s enemies were now Saint’s.

He opened files on each, marking them in turn, as a reminder of future reading he needed to attend to.

His eyes stopped on a file.  Amelia’s.

The entire thing was corrupted.  Gibberish.  Flagged messages filled four pages, each marked private, marked as ‘no conversation partner’, and marked, thanks to the gibberish and random characters that flooded it, with one string of letters and characters.

The same one that had protected the orange box.  The same that had protected Saint and his crew from being uncovered, until Dragon had taken a more direct, brute-force approach to finding them.  The built-in blind spot, appearing by chance.  A one in a hundred trillion chance.

Saint investigated, digging through the gibberish to find the strings of words that actually made sense.  It was something he could piece together, with each recitation being similar, containing similar content.  Faeries, passengers, source of powers, the ‘whole’, lobe in the brain, Manton Effect…

Child’s play, to put them sequentially.

But other alerts were piling up.  Fights starting, deaths, fights ending.

He marked it with the highest priority, and then he closed the file.  He’d get through this crisis with Jack, then he’d investigate.

He turned his eye to the server that now held core parts of Dragon’s backup, bound six feet under by layers of encryption that could take days or weeks to fully crack.  If she could even survive the system restore, with her data as corrupted as it was.  Data couldn’t be truly deleted, but it could be sufficiently fucked up.

He watched as Golem reached the perimeter of Ellisburg.  Weaver was already inside.

This is our fight, Saint thoughtOurs to win, ours to lose.

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Scarab 25.6

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Khonsu allowed himself to be struck by Alexandria, using the impact to float back at a higher speed.  The act gave him the positioning he needed to draw his spheres closer to the Jaguars’ contingent.

A lack of coordination, a simple error, and ten capes were caught, to be killed in moments.  Moments they experienced as weeks, months and years.  Some had brought food and water.  I almost pitied those capes.

Moord Nag appeared, riding her shadow’s skull like a surfer might ride a wave, except there wasn’t any joy in the act.  Her arms remained still at her sides, her head not fully erect, eyes almost looking down, as if she watched the skull with one eye and Khonsu only merited her peripheral vision.

She didn’t wear armor.  Her top was a simple t-shirt with the sleeves removed and bottom half cut off.  There was a faded image of a rock band on the front, her bra straps showing through the gaping armholes.  Her dress was ankle length, frayed a little at the edges.  Her feet were bare, her hair in braids and tied back behind her neck.

The skull dipped close to the ground, and the warlord stepped off as though she was getting off an escalator.  The shadow’s head had taken on the appearance of a serpent’s skull, complete with fangs, and the body was a column behind it, stirring around Moord Nag without touching her.

It lunged, and fragments flew off Khonsu’s shoulder as the  shadow made contact, rubbed against him.  It was as though the shadow’s body were a series of circular saws, a rasp.

Khonsu’s field made contact with the shadow’s body, catching the middle of its body.  Moord Nag didn’t even flinch as her serpent was trisected, the middle section dragged away.

The serpent was winding around Khonsu now, maximizing the surface area that was making contact.  Khonsu elected to ignore it, floating forward to put himself in reach of more of the defending capes.

Califa de Perro used his massive spear to sweep a squadron out of the way before striking the ground, using the impact to throw himself back out of the way.  He landed and straightened.  He was shirtless, and had no doubt oiled his skin, though dust had collected on it, turning him a gray-bronze.  He had bracers with fur tufts near the elbows, and a dog mask that covered the upper half of his face, extending a distance forward.  The only other affectation he wore that made his outfit resemble a costume was the mount at his waist, too large to be a belt buckle, with a molded dog’s face jutting a rather generous handspan in front of him.  He smiled, his teeth white and perfect, as the capes he’d batted aside climbed to their feet.

Apparently deeming that the circles weren’t working in this situation, Khonsu banished all three.  Moord Nag’s shadow was freed, and rejoined the remainder of the mass.  Khonsu’s forward advance was momentarily paused by the impact.  He created the circles anew, placing them in spots where people at the epicenter couldn’t move fast enough to escape.

That was the moment I advanced.

Weaver, how the fuck did you get to South America?”  It was Tecton.  “The Director is flipping out.”

“Someone gave me a ride.  Chevalier will explain later.”

You completely dropped off the radar for half an hour.  We were convinced someone had come after you to take revenge for the work we’ve been doing cleaning up.

“Not revenge.  It doesn’t matter.  I-” I stopped short as a fresh circle appeared.  The placement, the timing… Legend had been caught.

Weaver?

Legend became a blur within the field.  Then, in a matter of two or three seconds, the entire space filled with a red light.  It slowly became white.  Khonsu’s power apparently affected all of the space above the bubble, reaching into the stratosphere.  It was like a pillar of light.

Eidolon created a forcefield, much like the one he’d fashioned to contain Phir Sē’s time bomb, only this one was open on one side, a ‘u’ shape with the opening facing Khonsu.

Khonsu seemed to notice, because he moved the column.  It intersected Eidolon’s forcefield, and Khonsu’s power won out.  The forcefield collapsed.  This wouldn’t be an effect Eidolon could contain.

I’m in the middle of something, Tecton.  I’m wearing the same camera I had at the last fight, so ask for access to the feed, or get over here.  We think we’ve got a way to pin him in place.”

Right.”

Eidolon was shouting something I couldn’t make out.  Alexandria joined the fray, fighting to keep Khonsu in place, pummeling the Endbringer, dodging the columns that closed in on her.

It was impossible to say exactly how he did it, but Eidolon managed to catch the light before it could turn the battlefield into a smoking ruin.  It condensed into a ball, swinging around past Eidolon as if he were a planet and it was in orbit, and then flew into Khonsu and Alexandria with a slingshot turn.

It wasn’t a long, steady stream like the one in New Delhi had been.  It was a white bullet sliding out in a heartbeat, cutting past Khonsu, Alexandria and a good mile of landscape, before driving into the ocean at the horizon’s edge.  Steam billowed out explosively.

Eidolon crossed the battlefield in a flash, weaving to the left of one of the two remaining columns of altered time, the right of the next, and erected a wall to keep the steam from frying the flesh from our bones.

It couldn’t have been precognition that let him move that fast.  Enhanced reflexes?  Something else entirely?

And he’d been saying his power had been getting weaker.

Alexandria had been stripped of much of her costume, but she fought on without a trace of modesty.  Legend, too, seemed unfazed, unaffected by however many years he’d spent in Khonsu’s trap.

And Khonsu, for his part, hadn’t suffered nearly as much as Behemoth had.  Five or six layers had been stripped away, and what was left was glimmering with a light that danced around the outside of his body.

The hue and intensity of it matched the light at the edges of his time fields.  It slowly faded.

I reached the battlefield proper, but lingered near the back, beyond the reach of the time fields.  This wasn’t a scenario where I’d be on the offensive.  At best, I was a helping hand.  My bugs spread out over the area, and I was able to track the movements of the time fields, the combatants.  I started drawing out the spools of silk I had on my costume, extending them between me and the various combatants, using the arms on my flight suit to manipulate them and ensure that neither I nor my threads got tangled up.

Spider silk extended between me and the various capes around me.  These guys were South American.  Three out of four would be in league with the various criminal factions and cartels.  One in four were ‘heroes’.  I couldn’t tell the difference between them.  The cues and details in their costumes weren’t ones I was familiar with.  The choices in color, style, attitude and more were too similar.  A cultural gap I couldn’t wrap my head around, in any event.

Things were confused further by the fact that, by many accounts, the villains running or serving within the cartels were the ones sponsored by the government.  The ‘heroes’, in turn, were rogue agents.

Califa de Perro, King of Dogs, howled and joined the fight, ready to capitalize on the success.  In the same instant, I sensed my bugs being eliminated.  Not dying, per se, but being eradicated from existence.  The ones who’d been following after the column had been caught inside.

It hadn’t changed direction.  It had stopped, in preparation for a change in direction.  I didn’t even have to look to see Khonsu’s target.  I caught an earring of the King of Dogs with my silk, tugged.

He stopped, yelping as he looked in my direction.

“Run!” my voice was no doubt lost in the cacophony.  I tugged again.

He used his spear to move.  A second later, the time field veered into the space he’d just occupied.

It was moving faster.  A third circle appeared, and the movement had accelerated.

Sensing that Khonsu was about to beat a retreat, the Thanda made their move.  A piece of rubble descended from the heavens, striking Khonsu with a force that knocked half of the defending capes off their feet, myself included.

Another of the Thanda used their power to anchor themselves to the rotating circles.  They floated through the air, equidistant to the circle, effectively untouchable, waiting, watching.

When they reached a certain point in the rotation, they caught a small hill so it could join them, anchored to them as they were anchored to the circle.  It swung into Khonsu like a wrecking ball.

The falling star, such as it was, had broken through more of the exterior.  Not a lot, but some.  As the dust cleared, I could see glimmers of light, dancing through the space beneath the injury.

It was the moment I realized that the motherfucker was reinforced.  He had forcefields set between layers, so he couldn’t be wiped out in a matter of good hits like Behemoth had been.  It was eerily reminiscent of Glory Girl.

Still, he was feeling the hurt.  Moord Nag’s shadow ripped into the site of the injury, widening it, danced back as Khonsu swung one arm at the skull, clipping and shattering one antler, and then lunged again, driving itself into another injured area.

It caught Khonsu off-balance, and he landed on his back on the ground.  The shadow flowed over him, the skull butting him in the face to knock him down once again as he tried to rise.  It simultaneously extended out, reaching across the battlefield to push Moord Nag back out of the way of a swiftly approaching Khonsu-field.  She stumbled a little as she was deposited a hundred feet back, but she didn’t really react.  The shadow had more personality than she did, here.

Khonsu had apparently had enough, because he extended his hands out to either side, lying with his back to the ground.

The Thanda member who was rotating around the Endbringer reached out, and each and every one of the defending capes was swept up in his power, drifting counter-clockwise around the Endbringer.  My feet lifted off the ground as he rose, and all of us rose with him.

The Endbringer teleported, and thanks to the Thanda, we were collectively teleported with it.  My bugs, Moord Nag’s shadow, and several tinker-made mechanical soldiers were left behind, as we found ourselves on a beach riddled with stones the size of my fist.  Silos bigger than most apartment buildings loomed just over the hill.

The fight resumed in heartbeats, capes closing the distance to fight the instant the Thanda deposited them on the ground.

My phone rang. I felt only alarm for a brief second, my blood running cold.

I sighed and struck a key on the keyboard.  The window with the video footage of the Khonsu fight closed down.

I let the phone ring twice more before I made myself check the screen.  Tecton.

I wouldn’t pick up for most others, I thought.  Hell, I’d have left the phone off if I didn’t fear that there’d be a critical call.  I’d seen most of it anyways.  I answered the phone.

Weaver, where the fuck did you go?

I smiled a little to myself.  It was an eerie, amusing parallel to what he had said in the video, except he was a little more frayed, a little more weary with me.

“You know where I’m going,” I said.  “So do the bosses.”

We haven’t even- you’re going to screw this up for yourself.  Why now?

“It’s fine, Tecton,” I said.

It’s not fine, it’s…

“They don’t have to like it.  I don’t think it matters if they don’t.”

He seemed to be lost for words at that.

I didn’t push the offensive.  I’d been working on that in the therapy sessions, not treating social interactions like fights.  Calm, patient, I dragged my finger down the side of the screen.  The text scrolled down.

Canberra, Feb 24th, 2011 // Simurgh
Notes:  Scion no-show.  Legend/Eidolon victory.
Target/Consequence: See file Polisher Treatise.  See file Lord Walston and file King’s Men.

Brockton Bay, May 15th, 2011 // Leviathan
Notes:  Scion victory.
Target/Consequence: Noelle?  See file EchidnaNo contact made.

New Delhi, July 26th, 2011 // Behemoth
Notes: Scion Victory, ENDBRINGER KILL.
Target/consequence: See file Phir.

Flight BA178, November 25th, 2011 // SimurghNotes: Loss?  Plane destroyed, Eidolon/Pretender drive off Endbringer.  Marks start of guerilla tactics from Simurgh and Leviathan.
Target/Consequence: Incognito Chinese Union-Imperial heir.  See files:
America/CUI conflict 2012 A
UK/CUI Conflict 2012 A
America/CUI conflict 2012 B
Yàngbǎn

Indiscriminate, January 20th, 2012 // Khonsu
Notes: First appearance.  Scion/Moord Nag victory.  List of all one hundred and sixty three targets and casualty numbers here.

Lüderitz, April 2nd, 2012 // Leviathan
Notes:  Loss?  Driven away by Eidolon.  Secondary targets Swakopmund, Gamba, Port-Gentil and Sulima.
Target/Consquence: Moord Nag.  Guerilla tactics continue, losses in notable but not devastating numbers, but his target survives.

Manchester, June 5th, 2012 // Simurgh
Notes: Defeat, no kill.
Target/consequence: still unknown.  Tie to Lord Walston?

Tecton interrupted my scrolling, finally speaking.  “I kind of hoped we’d gotten to the point where we were okay, that you’d trust me.

“I trust you,” I said.  “But-”

But,” he said, echoing me as he cut me off.  “Take a second and think about what you say next.  Grace asked me to call because, I’d like to think, I’m a pretty calm, laid back guy.  All things considered, anyways.  But I’m on the verge of being pissed at you, and saying the wrong thing now will push this from me being angry in terms of something professional to me being pissed because of something personal.”

“I-”

Think for a second before you talk, Taylor.  You start talking right away and you’ll find your way to a really good argument, and I’ll concede this argument, this discussion, but it won’t get us any closer to a resolution.”

“Right,” I said.  “Thinking.”

I’ll be on the line.

I mulled over his words.  I was anxious on a number of levels.  Terrified might be the better word.  I stood on a precipice, and the meeting I was running the risk of missing was only part of it.  I continued scrolling down as I thought, as if the individual entries could give structure to my thoughts.

Rio de Janeiro, August 15th, 2012 // Leviathan
Notes: Guerilla strike, mind games.  Travels from site to strike Cape Town and Perth after faking retreats.
Target/Consequence: no target apparent.

I stopped at the entry that followed.  I clicked it.  The one for Bucharest.

The video box opened up, but it was dark, the camera covered by my hair at the outset. There was only audio.

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”  It was Grace.

Are you hurt?”  Tecton’s voice.

Golem is.  Shit.

The image wobbled as the camera mounted on my mask did, and the me on the camera moved the hair aside, allowing the camera to record the video.  The streets were empty, old stately buildings loomed close on all sides, my bugs crawling along the face of each of them.

There was a beep.  The camera was mounted on the right side of my face, the armband on my left wrist, so the glimpse was fleeting.  A yellow screen.

“Heads up!” the me behind the camera called out.

For what!?” it was Annex responding, breathless.  “Oh!  Oh shit!

It was only a second later that it became clear just why Annex was swearing.  The city shifted.  Roads narrowed, doors splintered and were virtually spat out of the frames as the door frames themselves narrowed.

The image on the camera veered.  I’d seen the shift coming, and the bugs on the faces of the buildings let me know that the attack was coming a fraction of a second in advance.  As buildings on either side of me lunged closer together by a scale of five or six feet each, spikes sprung from the elaborate architecture, from gargoyle’s mouths at either side of a short flight of stairs, from the sign that bore a store’s name, a blade rising from a manhole cover… ten or twelve spikes, for me alone, each fifteen or twenty feet long.  They criss-crossed, came from every direction.

The camera had gone very still.  Then, slowly, it moved again, examining the surroundings.  Blades and prongs surrounded me, poised ready to prick and gouge like the thorns of a rosebush, all around me.  My fingers rose to the camera’s view, wet with blood.

I’d only dodged as much as I had by virtue of the ability to sense where the bugs that clung to the blades were moving, and enough luck to be able to move into a space that escaped the various thrusts.  The blood had been from a glancing blow, along the underside of my right breast.  I traced it now, as I sat in front of the monitor, feeling the spot over where the scar would be.  The fucking things were sharp enough to pierce my armor and silk both.

I could remember my outrage at that fact, the stupid, silly comment that had run through my mind, that I’d refused to say in fear that this video would somehow leak as well.

Can’t believe the blade hit such a small target.

Everyone okay?” I asked, on the screen.

I listened to the various replies of confirmation.  I followed by relating how the armor I’d made them wasn’t sure protection.

Then the camera’s view shifted as I freed myself of the spikes I’d so narrowly avoided –mostly avoided-.  I took two steps forward, and then threw myself to the ground as a figure sprung from the wall, a woman, moving so fast she could barely be glimpsed.  The camera veered again as I rolled on the ground, avoiding two blades that plunged from the underside of her ‘body’ to the ground, punching into the earth.

She had carried forward, uncaring that I’d dodged, slamming into another wall, and she had left a piece of herself in her wake.  Or a piece of what she’d made herself out of, anyways.  She’d become the city, and this small fraction of herself had been formed out of the light gray brick that formed the building to my right.  She’d left the pillar behind, three feet across, barring my path.

My head whipped around as I followed her progress.  One more of the rushing figures appeared a block down, two more behind me, simultaneous.  A pillar, then a short wall and another pillar, respectively.

Heroes, be advised,” Dragons A.I.’s voice came over the armband, “The Endbringer Bohu appears to follow a strict pattern.  The city is condensed in twenty-four minute intervals, followed almost immediately by the miniature Endbringers producing barriers, walls, pillars, blocking apertures and more.  The next phase, occurring gradually over the next ten minutes, will produce deadfalls, pitfalls and a smoothing of terrain features.  Following that, we should expect more complex mechanical traps to appear, after which point the cycle will start anew.  Be advised that she attacks with the spikes as she enters each phase.  Disparities in reports suggest that she is feinting in some cases, feigning an inability to do so.

Good news,” Annex said, over our comm system.  “She can’t affect what I’m affecting.  Bad news is I wasn’t entirely submerged.  I’m bleeding pretty badly.

We’ll get to you,” Grace promised.

I shut my eyes for a moment.  Empty promise, I thought.

There was a distant sound of something massive crumbling.  I now knew it was Tecton, tearing through the area.  I’d be using bugs to direct him to trapped citizens.  I was avoiding the terrain features, he was simply plowing his way through them, doing maximum damage.

The image veered as I approached an archway the Endbringer had created.  I paused before entering, circumvented it by going over, avoiding the traps I’d noted with my smallest bugs.

I could see her.  Bohu.  She was a tower, spearing into the sky, gaunt and stretched thin to the point where her head was five times longer than it was wide.  Her body widened as it reached towards the ground, reached into it, extending roots and melding into the landscape.  Her narrow eyes were like beacons, cutting through a cloud cover that was virtually racing towards the horizon in the gale-force winds.  Her hair, in tendrils as thick around as my arm, shifted only slightly, heavy as stone, despite everything.  She dwarfed the other Endbringers in scale, one thousand three hundred feet tall, and her body extended into the city.  I couldn’t even guess at the radius she controlled.

Beside her was her sister, Tohu, who would have been almost imperceptible if it weren’t for the glow around her.  Tohu, with three faces.  Legend’s white and blue mask, Eidolon’s glowing shroud, and Kazikli Bey’s red helmet, each twisted to be feminine, framed by the long hair that wove and wound together to form her body.  It condensed into cords and ribbons, and the ribbons and cords, in turn, condensed into her chest and lower body, two torsos made with overlapping versions of the hairstuff, small breasted, with only one pair of legs at the lower half.  The colors were extensions of the costumes she was copying, predominantly white here, but with streaks of crimson, green and sky blue highlighting the ridges and edges.

Her four hands were long-fingered, claw-tipped extremities in shapes that served as mockeries of the people she was mimicking.  Two of Eidolon’s hands with the blue-green glow around them were holding a forcefield up to protect her sister, while a white-gloved one focused on using Legend’s lasers to target capes who thought flying up and out of the city was a good idea.  Not that it was easy to fly in winds like this.  Not the sorts of winds that an aerokinetic like Kazikli Bey could make, capable of slicing someone with air compressed into razorlike ribbons.  A hand in a red gauntlet was gesturing, redirecting the wind to blow down, across, and in crosswise currents that formed brief-lived whirlwinds.

The me in the video made a small sound as she took the brunt of that cutting wind, hopped down from the arch, entering the city once more.  It was just now starting her third phase, the pitfalls and deadfalls, eliminating cover, cleaning up rubble, and slowly, painfully crushing anyone who had been trapped in either of the previous two phases.  If crushing wasn’t possible, she would apparently settle for suffocation.

I closed down the video.  There wasn’t anything more to hear in the exchange between the Wards, and it wasn’t a good memory.

Another counter to Scion.  All too often, he was late to arrive, and once Tohu had chosen three faces and Bohu had claimed the battlefield, well, the fight was more or less over.

I could hear,” Tecton said.  “You were watching one of the Endbringer videos.

“Yeah,” I said.

Thoughts?

“We’ve been through a lot,” I said.  “I owe you a lot.”

And we owe you in turn.  We’re a team, Taylor.  You have to recognize that.  You know that.  We’ve been together far, far longer than you were with the Undersiders.

I sighed and scrolled down.

Bucharest, October 10th, 2012 // Tohu Bohu
Notes: First appearance.  Loss.  Tohu selects Legend, Eidolon, Kazikli Bey.  Target/Consequence: see file Kazikli Bey.

Paris, December 19th, 2012 // Simurgh
Notes: Victory by Scion.
Target/Consequence: see file The Woman in Blue.  See file United Capes.

Indiscriminate, February 5th, 2013 // Khonsu
Notes:  Victory by Eidolon/The Guild.  List of the twenty-nine targets here.

Los Angeles, May 17th, 2013 // Tohu Bohu
Notes: Victory by Eidolon/The Guild.  Tohu selects Alexandria, Phir Sē, Lung.  Target/Consequence: unknown.

We’d participated in more than half of those fights.  My eyes fell on the clock in the top right hand corner of the screen.

8:04am, June 19th, 2013

Listen,” Tecton said.  “I’m not demanding anything here.  I just need a straight answer, so I know what to tell the others.  If you say you’re not going to be here, that’s- I’ll understand.  Except not really, but I’ll…

He trailed off.

“You’ll accept it,” I said.

I’m going to lie and say yes,” Tecton answered me.

I looked at the list of recent Endbringer fights, flicking my finger on the screen’s edge to scroll up, then down.

“I’ll be there at two,” I told him.

You will?”  He almost sounded surprised.

“We’ve been through too much, and you’re right.  I can’t throw it all away.”

I’m glad.

“See you in a couple of hours,” I said.

See you, Taylor.  Have a happy birthday.

“Thank you,” I said, hanging up.

Eighteen, I thought.  I stood and stretched, swaying a little as the craft changed course.  A two-fingered swipe on the screen showed the craft’s course and our ETA.  Another two-fingered swipe returned me to my desktop.

C/D: Endbringer
28:18:44:34

C/D: End of the World
-16:21:56:50

Sixteen days late.  The only person more freaked out than me was Golem.

I’d revised the countdown clock to assume that Jack Slash would appear on the date he’d set with Golem.  June fourth was the deadline he’d given, for Theo to find him, to kill him, or the madman would kill a thousand people in some spectacular fashion, ending with Aster and Theo himself.

No appearance, no mass murders.

June twelfth was the date the Slaughterhouse Nine had left Brockton Bay.  The day that was supposed to start the two year countdown.

It wasn’t supposed to be precise, but watching the clock tick with each second beyond the supposed deadline, knowing that something could be happening in a place I wasn’t aware of, the mere thought made my heartbeat quicken, an ugly feeling rise in my gut.

Dinah had confirmed to the PRT that things were still in motion, that it was imminent, but the idea was swiftly losing traction.

I’d heard people joke about it.  PRT employees who had likened Dinah to the evangelical preachers who promised an endtime, then scrabbled to make up excuses when the date in question passed.

My bugs could sense the insects within the city as the craft descended.  Sand billowed in dramatic clouds the Dragonfly settled on the beach.

It wasn’t my ship, but the name was a joke, due to the degree Dragon had been sending me this way and that.  Defiant was busy now, so it was mostly her doing the chaperoning, when the Protectorate couldn’t oblige.

The ramp finished descending, and I stepped down onto the beach, feeling the sand shift beneath the soft soles of my costumed feet.  I could have flown or floated, but then I wouldn’t have felt like I was truly here.

I ascended a set of wooden stairs to rise from the beach to the street proper, joining the scattered residents who lived here.  Men and women on their way to work, starting their day, children on their way to school, many in their Immaculata school uniforms.

I walked, taking it in.  The smells, the feel, even the subtleties in pace and general atmosphere, they were familiar, comfortable.

Not good, but they were things I associated with home.

It was an unfamiliar area, but I had studied the satellite maps.  I no longer wore my tracking device, but the PRT no doubt knew exactly where I was, for just that reason.  If they couldn’t monitor the Dragonfly’s location, they would have found it on my computer.

I could see additions in the distance, the white tower that speared into the sky, the blocky, windowless structure that contained the scar.  It wasn’t visible, but I knew I could make my way to the crater and see how they’d drawn up a border around it, done construction work underground to contain the contents and keep the water from eating away at the city infrastructure.  I’d read up some on changes in Brockton Bay, had heard more from my dad in our regular visits.

Here, the area was marked with graffiti, always in the same variants, no two pieces alike.  Devils, castles, angels, hearts.  I suspected the arrangements and combinations meant something.  The buildings here were new, quaint, the layout intuitive.

And in the midst of it, they’d wedged in space for an addition.  It made for a break in the flow of the footpaths.  It forced an abrupt turn, a hesitation as you tried to work out the way to your destination.  Accord had drawn out the city plans, and the Undersiders had altered it to make room for this.  For a marking.

It fit, somehow, the way it broke the rhythm, the way it didn’t really jibe.

The fact, I thought with a slight smile, that it irritated.

Two masks, resting against one another, one almost resting inside the other.  One laughing, the other not frowning, but the expression blank.  They were cast in bronze, set on a broad pedestal, four feet high.

I approached, my eyes falling on the objects that had been placed on the pedestal.  Wedding rings, a weather-beaten gold that didn’t match the bronze.  Twenty, thirty.  I might have obtained an exact count, but I didn’t want to dirty it with my bugs.

I turned, looking around, and saw how the buildings surrounding the edifice were marked with graffiti.  Castles and landscapes with blue sky above.

“I thought I’d see you first, Regent,” I said.  “A kind of apology, for not coming sooner.  For not being there at the funeral, if there was one.”

The empty eyeholes of the solemn mask stared down at me.

“I’ve thought about a lot of things in the time I’ve been gone.  Framing stuff, stepping back to consider just how fucked up it was that I was spending time with you, condoning what you’d done.  You took over small-time gang lords, I know.  Took over Imp, even.  So why did I let it happen?”

The wind blew my hair across my face.  I noticed that there were people staring, looking at me from the other side of the street.  Whatever.  It didn’t matter anymore.

“Then I think about how you went out, and I think… you know, it doesn’t balance out.  One selfless deed, after all the shit you did?  No.  But that’s your cross to bear, not mine.  I don’t believe in an afterlife or anything like that, but, well, I guess that’s the mark you left.  When we die, all that’s left are the memories, the place we take in people’s hearts.”

I reached out to touch one of the wedding rings.  It was partially melted into the surface of the edifice.  I imagined someone could strike it free with a hammer.

Not that I would do that.

“Sounds so corny when I say that, but it’s how I have to frame this, you know?  You lived the life you did, with a lot of bad, a little bit of horrific, and some good, and now you’re gone, and people will remember different parts of that.  And I think that would sound arrogant, except, well, we’re pretty similar on that score, aren’t we?  It’s where we sort of had common ground, that I didn’t have with any of the others.  We’ve been monstrous.”

I let my finger trace the edge of the wedding ring.

“I’ve hurt people for touching those.”  The voice sounded just behind me, in my ear.  I jumped, despite the promises to myself that I wouldn’t.

Then again, she wasn’t someone you could anticipate.

“Imp,” I said.

I turned around to look at her.

She’d been attractive in that dangerous too-much-for-her-age way before, and to judge by her body alone, she’d grown fully into it.  She was statuesque, wearing the same costume I’d given her two years ago, when she’d been shorter.  A quick glance suggested she’d cut off portions to adjust, wearing high boots and elbow length gloves to cover the gap, and wore a cowl to cover the gaps in the shoulders and neck.  It might have looked terrible, but it fit.  Her mask was the same as it had been, gray, noseless, long, disappearing into the folds of the cowl as the fabric sat around the lower half of her face, with only hints of teeth at the sides marking the mouth.  The eyes were angled, with black lenses, curved horns arching over her straightened black hair.

“Tattletale said you’d be back today.”

“I figured she’d know,” I said.

“Was it worth it?  Leaving?”

I hesitated.  “Yes.”

I hesitated, I thought.

“I told the others.  They’re on their way.”

“Okay,” I answered.  Fast response.

No.  Too fast.  I reached out with bugs, and I sensed the crowd, the way they were standing.

Here and there, there were people who shouldn’t have been paying attention to the scene.  A young girl inside one of the buildings with the graffiti-mural on the exterior, holding a baby.  A boy was standing a little too far away to see, but he didn’t approach to get a better view.

There were a small handful of others.

I looked at the rings on the memorial.  “Heartbreaker’s.”

“He collected them.  I uncollected them.”

“I’d heard he died.”

Imp nodded slowly.  “Said I would.  I told you I’d kill his dad for him.”

An admission.  I felt a kind of disappointment mingled with relief.  Not a set of feelings I wanted to explore.  I suspected the sense of relief would disappear under any kind of scrutiny.

“People keep prying them loose, but there’s usually someone nearby to keep an eye out and get a photo or description.  I track them down and bring the rings back.  Once every few months, anyways.  Kind of a pain.”

“It’s how he would want to be remembered, I think,” I said.

“Yeah.”

No snark, no humor?  I wondered how much of that had been a reflection of her friendship and almost-romance with Regent.

“And you recruited the kids,” I said.  I used my bugs to track the bystanders, my eyes to note more who fit the criteria.  Boys and girls, some narrow in physique, most with black curls, others with that pretty set of features that had marked Regent and Cherish.  Some were fit on all counts, others mingled two of the qualities and skipped a third.  Heartbreaker’s offspring, unmistakably.

“I recruited some.  They needed a place to go, and it’s kind of nice, having them around,” Imp said.  “They’re good enough at fending for themselves.  One or two, you get the feeling they’re almost like him.  In a good way.”

“I’m glad,” I replied.  Glad on more counts than I’m willing to say.

Then, as I realized that any number of those kids might have taken after their father in the powers department, I was struck by the thought that they might know that, that they might report that relief I was experiencing back to their de-facto leader.

If that was the case, they would also report the way I felt ill at ease, just a little creeped out, as I eyed Imp’s followers.

Imp was eyeing me.  I cocked my head a little, the best expression I could give without taking off my mask, hoping it conveyed curiosity.

“I like you better than her,” Imp said.

Like me better than who?  I wondered.  Than Lisa?  Rachel?  I didn’t get a chance to ask.  I was distracted as I sensed an approach and turned to look.

“Bitch is here,” Imp said, noting the turn of my head and the figure at the end of the street, ignoring traffic as her dogs made their way to us.

Rachel, I thought.

“She’s been going to the fights, helping out here when we send for her.  I haven’t been going to the fights, so I dunno how much you’ve seen her there.  She’s been checking in on me, wandering around here with her dogs and scaring the everloving shit out of people until I come to say hi, then she leaves for another few weeks.  I’ve probably seen her the most.”

“I’ve barely seen her at all,” I said.  Even with the Endbringer attacks.

The dogs weren’t running, and it took me a moment to realize why.  There was one dog that was larger than the rest, with half of a bison’s skull strapped over the left side of its face, the horn arching out to one side.  Armor and bones had been strapped on elsewhere.  It didn’t seem like something Rachel would have done, dressing up her dog.  One of her underlings?

It’s Angelica, I realized.  The dog lumbered forward, moving at a good clip, but certainly not the speed the dogs were capable of when they went all-out.  Rachel was controlling the speed of the other dogs to allow the wounded animal to keep up.

She was riding Bastard, I recognized.  It was different from the others, symmetrical, the alterations flowing into each other better.  Two other dogs accompanied her.  Bentley wasn’t among them.

The onlooking crowd, Imp’s underlings included, sort of hurried on their way as the dogs approached Regent’s monument.  Rachel hopped down as they reached our side of the street.

Rachel was taller, I noted, browned by sun, the jacket I’d given her tied around her waist, a t-shirt and jeans, with calloused feet instead of shoes or boots.  Her auburn hair, it seemed, hadn’t been cut in the two years since I’d seen her.  Here and there, hair twisted up and out of the veritable mane of hair, no doubt where tangled bits had been cut away.  Only a sliver of her face and one eye were really visible through the hair, a heavy brow, an eye that seemed lighter in contrast to the darkened skin.

And damn, I thought, she’d put on muscle.  I’d gained some, working out every day, but even with her frame and her natural inclination towards fitness, I suspected she must have been working hard, all day, every day.  Maybe not quite what a man might have accomplished, but close.

“Rachel,” I said.  I was overly conscious of how we’d parted, of the way I’d left the group and the awkward conversation during the New Delhi fight.  “Listen-”

She wrapped me in a hug, her arms folding around me.

I was so caught off guard that I didn’t know how to respond.  I put my arms around her in return.

She smelled like wet dog and sweat, and like pine needles and fresh air.  It was enough that I knew the new environment had been good to her.

“They told me to,” she said, breaking the hug.

They wouldn’t be the Undersiders, I gathered.  Her people, then.

“You didn’t have to, but it’s… it was a nice welcome,” I said.

“Didn’t know what to say, so they told me to just do.  I wasn’t sure what to do, so I asked and they told me to hug you if I wanted to hug you and hit you if I wanted to hit you.  Yeah.”

I’m guessing she only just decided, I thought.  I’d been gambling by wearing my Weaver costume, but then, I hadn’t expected them to converge on me like this.  I would have changed before seeing Rachel.

“It’s good?” I asked.  “Over there?”

“They’re building, it’s annoying to get in and out.  But its good.  Tattletale made us bathrooms.  We’ve been building the cabins around them.”

“Bathrooms are good,” I responded.

She nodded agreement, as if I hadn’t just said something awkward and lame.

“I remember you complaining about the lack in your letter,” I added.

“Yeah,” she said.

Wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, to carry on a conversation with her.

“Others are checkpointing in,” Imp said.  “Just to give you a heads up.”

“Checkpointing?”

“Teleporting, kinda.  Limited.  Um.  We’ve only got a second, but you should know in advance that they’re married.”

“Who?”

But Imp didn’t respond.

Foil and Parian appeared in a nearby building, the same building the girl with the baby was watching from.  Two others had arrived with them.

Them?  I wondered, mildly surprised.  Then again, it made sense.

They approached, holding hands, and a bear managed to form itself from the roll of cloth Parian had bound to her back, without anyone, the stuffed creature included, really breaking stride.  They’d barely changed, but for a little more height.  Foil carried the crossbow that the PRT was apparently maintaining for her, and Parian had donned less dark colors, though the hair remained black.

The two capes with them each wore red gloves as part of their costume.  I knew who they were from the stuff on the forums.  The Red Hands.  The alliance had gone through, apparently.

“So.  You draw me over to the dark side, and then you flip,” Parian commented.

“I hope it’s working out,” I said.

She shrugged.  “It isn’t not working out.”

“We’re fine,” Foil said.  “I suppose I should thank you.  If you hadn’t left, I don’t think I could’ve come.”

“You may be the only person to thank me for leaving,” I said.

“Don’t be so sure,” Imp added.

“Huh?”

“Nevermind.”

Tattletale arrived next.  Grue appeared at the location with more Red Hands as she stepped outside.  Where the others had been modest, approaching with a kind of leisure, she almost skipped for the last leg of the approach.  She hugged me briefly, then kissed me on the cheeks.  The mandibles, really, where the armor framed my jaw.  Whatever.

Of everyone, I was least surprised at the changes with her.  Her hair had been cut shorter, and she wore a mask that covered the entire upper half of her face, coming to a point at the nose.  Her shoulders, elbows and knees had small shoulderpads on them, and there was a definition to the horizontal and vertical lines of black that marked her lavender costume.  She wore a laser pistol at her hip, which bounced against her leg as she ran.  PRT issue.  Extremely illegal to own.

“Jerk!” she said, after she’d kissed me on the cheeks, “You’ve barely responded to my fan mail!”

“It’s kind of hard to reply to it without drawing attention,” I said.  “You don’t know how much I wanted the details on what’s being going on here.”

“Jerk,” she said, but she smiled.  “But I should warn you-”

She didn’t get a chance to finish before I saw.

Grue approached.  Of everyone, he was the least changed.  Physically, anyways.

But the Red Hands walked in formation around him, and one, a young woman, walked in step with him, close enough that their arms touched.  They could have held hands and it would have been just as blatant.

I’d faced Endbringers, the Slaughterhouse Nine, I’d taken down who knew how many bad guys… and I had no idea how to face this.

He’d moved on, and I was glad he’d moved on.  He maybe needed someone to lean on, to give him emotional support, and maybe she was that.  I told myself that, I tried to believe it, but I was jealous and hurt and bewildered and…

And I bit back the emotion, approaching, ready to hug.

When he extended a hand for me to shake, I had to fight twice as hard to suppress any reaction to the hurt.  I could tell myself that he’d at least done it before I’d raised my arms to hug him, but… yeah.

I took his hand and shook it.  Then, on impulse, I pulled on it, drawing him forward and down a little, and put my other arm around his shoulders.  Half of a hug, half a shake.

“Happy birthday,” he said, after I stepped back.

The others echoed him.  Welcomes and happy birthdays.  He’d remembered, but… that choice of words.

I eyed the young woman.  She was a rogue, in the dashing villain sense, wearing a mask around the eyes, and old-fashioned clothes with lace around her ample cleavage.  Her jacket and slacks were festooned with belts, bearing utility pouches and knives.  The glove that wasn’t red had a knife attached to each fingertip, a brace around it to keep everything in place.

She met my own gaze with one of her own, a narrow, hard look.

“Oh.  Skit- Taylor, meet Cozen.  Second in command to the Red Hand.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  They don’t really match.

“Pleasure’s mine,” she said.  “I’m meeting a legend, after all.”

Awkwardness followed.

And in the midst of that, Imp’s statements finally caught up with me.

I like you better than her.

Don’t be so sure, Imp had said.  Well, Cozen would be happy I’d left.

Then, with a realization like a dash of cold water to the face, I remembered.

They’re married.

“Taylor,” Tattletale said, rescuing me before I could say something dumb.  She hooked her arm around mine and led me around and away.  “Much to talk about.”

“The end of the world,” I said.  “Endbringers.  Finding Jack, or the designer-”

Safe topics, somehow more reassuring than this.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “Everyone’s playing it safe, keeping things quiet.”

“What do we do?”

“What was the plan?” she asked.  “When you came?”

“I’ve got six hours before I need to be in New York.  They’re swearing me into the Protectorate.”

“Congratulations,” Grue said.  He sounded genuine.

“I should be saying that to you,” I said, glancing at him and Cozen.

“Oh.  Thank you,” he answered, in his characteristic eerie voice.  I couldn’t read his tone, and felt a little grateful that at least one of us was spared sounding awkward.

“Six hours,” Tattletale said.  Another rescue.

“I was going to visit everyone in turn to catch up, visit my mom, then see my dad.”

“Well, we’re all here.  We can go somewhere together,” Tattletale said.  “There’re stories to tell, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure,” I said.  I almost wished my original plan had gone ahead, that I could have a really short visit with Grue, a longer sit with Rachel and her dogs, then a long discussion with Tattletale about what was going on, before I headed off to see my mom’s grave and my dad.

“Come on.  We’ll walk, see the sights,” Tattletale said.  “figure out what to do for breakfast or brunch.”

“Okay,” I said.  I glanced at the others.  Would they be down, or would they back out?  Parian and Foil weren’t close to me, but they were sticking around.  Cozen wasn’t making an excuse and leaving, and neither was Grue.  I could see him exchanging murmured words with her.

I must have looked a little too long at him, because Imp fell in step beside me.

I glanced at her.

“I was just fucking with you,” she whispered.  “I thought you probably deserved it.”

My stomach did a flip flop at that.  Anger, relief, bewilderment, more anger.  Still more anger.

“Man, the way your bugs reacted.  Hilarious.  You act like you’re all stoic, but then I just have to look over there and over there and I see bees and butterflies circling around like eagles ready to dive for the kill.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but she cut me off.

“She is pregnant,” Imp said.

My mouth shut.

“Kidding.  This is fun.  Come on, butterflies, I see you over there.  Do your worst, I know you want to kill me.”

I considered jabbing her with my taser, and the thought was vivid enough that I imagined it buzzing at my hip.

Except it wasn’t my taser.  It was my phone.

As it had so often this past month, I felt my heart leap into my throat, that pang of alarm.  A very different kind of alarm than Imp had been provoking from me.  More real, more stark.

I drew the phone from my belt, then stared down at the text that was displayed.  A message from Defiant.

“Endbringer?” Rachel asked.  Something in my body language must have tipped her off.

I shook my head, but I said, “Yes.  Sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“An endbringer with a lowercase ‘e’,” I said.  “It looks like Jack may have made his challenge to Theo.  It’s starting.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 24

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Hero ushered him into the headquarters.  “This is the last one.  I’d like you all to meet Chevalier.”

There was a chorus of replies.  Mumbled greetings with one exceedingly enthusiastic response from a girl in the crowd.  It was almost mocking.

Chevalier ventured inside, a touch hesitant.  Not afraid.  He’d told himself he’d never be afraid again.  No.  But this was unfamiliar territory.  The others were difficult to read.  Nine youths.

His eyes roved over the group.  Five girls, four boys.  His addition made it an even split.  Intentional?

The costumes ran the gamut from professional to homemade.  They varied in the degree of color, in seriousness, in combat readiness.  There was a boy, also, who had a professional looking costume, black and green.  It was a costume that had no doubt cost money, with leather and a utility belt, a leaf emblem over his heart.  Around him, Chevalier could see a vague nimbus, as though he could see only the brightest and darkest parts of some landscape that the boy stood within.  It was a subtle thing, an image that Chevalier could make out in the same way his perspective on something might alter if he had only his left eye closed, as opposed to his right.

A girl beside the boy with the leaf costume wore a less expensive looking costume, but she’d apparently gravitated towards him, a hopeful lackey or a romantic interest.  In the same way that the forest seemed to hang in the periphery of the boy, an older woman loomed just behind the girl.  She was kindly in appearance, like a next door neighbor, with hands burned black from fingertip to elbow.  The old woman was moving her lips as though she were talking, but the image was silent.

He started to turn his head, but the image changed.  The effect ran over the girl’s skin, as though she were standing right in front of a glacier, the light refracting off of it.

No, the black hands on the older woman… a result of fire?  Magma.

The girl caught him looking at her and frowned a little.  He averted his gaze.  She likely thought he was staring for other reasons.

At the far end of the scale, opposite the two professional, serious looking young heroes, there was a girl with a shield and sword.  Her helmet sat on the table beside her, a homemade piece of equipment with ridiculous mouse ears at the sides.  It wasn’t a great helmet either; it didn’t offer enough peripheral vision, was more decorative than protective.  She stood off to one side, but two others had gathered near her.  She was grinning, the one who’d stood out from the rest with her over the top welcome.

And the images, the glimmers, they showed the mouse-ears girl laughing.  For her companions, there was a strange writing system patterned on one boy’s skin, and the other boy swirled with a smoke that wasn’t there.

The images weren’t an unfamiliar thing, but this was the first time he’d been confronted with so many in one place.  It was distracting, unnerving.

What were they supposed to be, the glimmers?

The remaining two members of the group were a boy, a clear vigilante of the night in appearance, with a costume that was black from head to toe, and a girl dressed in urban camouflage.  Chevalier’s attention fell on the girl; her white and gray jacket was short enough that it didn’t reach the small of her back, a blue tank top with a shield emblem on the front.  Her scarf, a complimenting shade of blue, was wrapped around her lower face, bearing the same emblem.  She sat in a chair, elbows on her knees, toying with a knife.

Odd as it was, she was more grim than the boy who was trying to look dark and disturbing.

“Take a seat,” Hero said.  He laid a gentle hand on Chevalier’s shoulder.

Such a minor thing, but it felt somehow critical.  What clique did he identify with?  What direction would he take?

He glanced over the rest of the group, at the images that had changed, and his eyes fell on the one with the knife.

In that instant, the knife disappeared, and there was a flare.  The images were suddenly distinct, glaring, an image appearing in a flash, so brief he might have missed it.  A cluster of children, blood, their faces stark with fear and in one case, pain.

It faded as quickly as it had appeared, and the girl held a gun, now.

She’d caught him looking.  Meeting his eyes, she changed it again.

The image that flickered was of her, holding a gun with a silencer on the end, pointing it.  Her expression was one of desperation.

She’d changed the gun for a machete, apparently unaware.

He made his way across the room, and seated himself in the chair beside her.  She didn’t even glance his way, her attention on the weapon as she ran her thumb alongside the flat of the blade.

“Army girl doesn’t even speak english, you know,” the boy in the nice costume said.

“She speaks some,” Hero said.  “It’s fine.”

“I’m just saying,” the boy said.

“I think we all know what you’re saying,” Hero answered.  “You’ve made arguments about what you want the team to be, your desire to be taken seriously.”

Chevalier watched the exchange carefully.  His eyes fell on the figure behind Hero, and he tried to focus his attention on it.  It moved with glacial slowness, a four-legged creature with legs so long that the ‘window’ around Hero didn’t even show its main body.  Finger-like appendages at the base of each leg carved diagrams and ideas into the ‘soil’ beneath as it walked.

“We’ve got the serious part down,” the girl with the mouse ears said.  She drew her sword, thrusting it into the air, “Huzzah!”

“So bogus,” was the mumbled response.  “As if her group has the majority.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Hero said.  “A lot of you have been through a lot, and some of you have only just stopped.  Stopped running, stopped fighting, stopped dealing with a long series of crises.”

Hero’s eyes briefly fell on Chevalier.  Chevalier lowered his eyes to the floor.

“The important thing to remember,” Hero said, “is that you’ve got time.  You have time to figure out who you want to become, time to figure out what this team will become, time to breathe.  To be kids again.”

Hero paused, glancing over the room.  He sighed.  “And you have zero interest in that, I’m sure.  You’re in a hurry to grow up, to be heroes.”

“You’d better believe it, boss,” the mouse girl said.

“Just be careful,” Legend said, as he strode into the room.  He was accompanied by Eidolon and Alexandria.  “This is about training, not thrusting you into the midst of trouble.”

“That comes later,” the mouse girl said.

“If you decide you want it,” Legend answered.

The sheer presence of the heroes here was changing the energy of the room.  The listless teenagers had perked up.  They were paying more attention, more alert.

It was no longer one more act in a long sequence of hoops and events.  This was the main capes of the Protectorate, all here in one place, for them.

“Well,” Hero said, clapping his hands together.  “I’m not good at the formalities.  Being in charge isn’t my thing, as much as those three like forcing the job on me.  So what do you say?  Let’s crack open the soda bottles, cut the cake and celebrate our inaugural Wards team.”

The mouse girl’s team cheered and whooped.  Nobody else really joined in with even half of the enthusiasm, but there was more of a response than there might have been before the rest of the Protectorate had showed up.  Chevalier even allowed himself a cheer, joining in with the clapping.

It was exciting.  Exciting and a little scary.  Like stepping out over a chasm.

As the others made their way to the table, Chevalier stood from his chair, then glanced down at the army girl.  “You want cake?”

She raised her head.  “Yes.”

“What do you want to drink?  I think there’s cola, ginger ale, sprite…”

“The brown drink,” she said.

“Coke, then.”

He left her sitting in the chair, paying far too much attention to her weapon, and grabbed two paper plates.

“I’m curious why you sat next to Hannah,” Hero commented, as he served himself some cake.

Chevalier glanced at the girl with the weapons.  He felt uncomfortable, “People are making it a bigger deal than it is.  It was just me sitting down.  I didn’t put much thought into it.”

“Maybe,” Hero said.  He laid a hand on Chevalier’s shoulder.  “But it’s good that you did.  She could use a friend.  Might make a world of difference, in the long run.”

Chevalier shrugged, stepping up to the tray and placing a slice of cake on each plate.

“We’re all ignoring the obvious reason,” the girl with the mouse ears said, getting in Chevalier’s way as she reached for a plastic fork.  “He thinks she’s hot.  He wants the poontang.

Hero cleared his throat in a very deliberate way.

“Don’t be juvenile,” the leaf-boy told her, from the front of the line.

Chevalier shifted awkwardly.  The girl with the mouse ears was in his way, and he couldn’t move down the table to get a drink.  She wouldn’t budge until this was resolved.

“I got the vibe she and I are similar,” Chevalier said.  It was honest.  The images he’d seen, of the girl…

And it was apparently the wrong thing to say, because mouse-ears was only more insistent, now.  She smiled, cooing the word, “Similar?”

“You didn’t figure it out yet?  Chevalier’s the vigilante that went after the Snatchers,” the leaf-boy said.

Hero turned around, and his voice was a little hard, “Reed.  That’s not your story to share.”

“It’s okay,” Chevalier said.  “They’d find out eventually.”

Mouse-girl looked confused.  “The Snatchers?  Are they supervillains?”

“No,” Chevalier said.  He used the distraction to push past her and get to the area where the two-liter bottles of soda were lined up.  He poured the drinks for himself and Hannah.  “They were ordinary people.  Bad people, but ordinary.  Except maybe the leader.”

“Maybe?”  Mouse girl asked.

“I didn’t give him a chance to show me.”

Her eyes widened.

Chevalier felt strangely calm as he spoke, “Not like that.  Alexandria caught up with me at the very end.  When I was trying to decide what I’d do with him.  She told me she’d stand by and let me kill the guy, if I really had to, but I’d go to jail afterwards.  That, or I could come with her.  Come here.”

Hero frowned, glancing at Alexandria, who had gathered at one corner of the room with Eidolon and Legend.  They were looking at the kids, talking, smiling.  “I’m glad you made the right choice.”

Chevalier shrugged.  I’m not sure I did.

He was still angry.  Still hurt.  His little brother’s absence was still a void in his life.

“Maybe now you can stop asking questions,” Reed told the mouse girl.

“Never!”

Reed sighed.

“Everyone has their baggage,” Hero said.  “Sometimes it’s in the past, sometimes it’s in the present, other times it’s fears for the future.  But this is a fresh start, understand?  I’m pretty mellow, believe it or not, but I’m going to be upset if I hear that anyone’s holding any of that stuff against a teammate, or if you’re letting it hold you back.  Understand?  This is a second chance for everyone.  You’re here to support one another.”

There were silent nods from Chevalier, Reed and the mouse girl.

“Good.  Now go.  Eat cake, drink soda, be merry.  And when the party is done and us adults are gone, with you kids left to your own devices, check the empty room, the one that isn’t assigned to any of you.  I stocked you guys with video games and movies.”

“No way,” Reed said, smiling genuinely for what might have been the first time.

“Yes way,” Hero said, returning the smile.  “But we’re not going to tell the higher-ups, are we?  It’s a bit of a secret, and you don’t betray that secret by letting yourself slack on the training or the schoolwork, right?”

Reed’s smile dropped a little in intensity, but he nodded.

“Go on,” Hero said, still smiling,  “And don’t get me in trouble.”

Reed hurried back to his chair, as if getting there sooner meant the party would end earlier, speeding up his access to the treasure trove Hero had hinted at.

Wordless, Chevalier managed the drinks and two plates as he carried them over to Hannah.  He gave her a plate and a cup, and she smiled without thanking him.

“A toast,” Alexandria said, stepping forward.  “To the first Wards team of America.”

“To second chances,” Hero said.

“A brighter future,” Eidolon added.

“And to making good memories,” Legend finished.

“Memories,” Hannah said, under her breath, nearly inaudible as the room clapped and cheered.  She was looking down at the machete that she’d placed across her lap, the paper plate with the cake balanced on the flat of the blade.

Chevalier didn’t respond.  His eyes were on the phantom images, barely visible.

The screen displayed the list.  Chevalier scrolled down, his expression grim.

Marun Field, December 13th, 1992.  Behemoth.
São Paulo, July 6th, 1993.  Behemoth.
New York, March 26th, 1994.  Behemoth.
Jakarta, November 1st, 1994.  Behemoth.
Moscow, June 18th, 1995.  Behemoth.
Johannesburg, January 3rd, 1996.  Behemoth.
Oslo, June 9th, 1996.  Leviathan.
Cologne, November 6th, 1996.  Behemoth.
Busan, April 23rd, 1997.  Leviathan.
Buenos Aires, September 30th, 1997.  Behemoth.
Sydney, January 18th, 1998.  Leviathan.
Jinzhou, July 3rd, 1998.  Behemoth.
Madrid, December 25th, 1998.  Leviathan.
Ankara, July 21st, 1999.  Behemoth.
Kyushu, November 2nd, 1999.  Leviathan.
Lyon, April 10th, 2000.  Behemoth.
Naples, September 16th, 2000.  Leviathan.
Vanderhoof, February 25th, 2001.  Behemoth.
Hyderabad, July 6th, 2001.  Leviathan.
Lagos, December 6th, 2001.  Behemoth.
Shanghai, April 23rd, 2002.  Leviathan.
Bogotá, August 20th, 2002.  Behemoth.
Lausanne, December 30th, 2002.  Simurgh.
Seattle, April 1st, 2003.  Leviathan.
London, August 12th, 2003.  Simurgh.
Lyon, October 3rd, 2003.  Behemoth.

“Stop,” Chevalier ordered.  The artificial intelligence halted the scrolling.  The scroll bar wasn’t even at the halfway mark.

Brighter future indeed.

He rubbed at his eyes, suddenly feeling very weary.  Nothing worked out like it was supposed to.  The Wards were supposed to be a safe haven for teenaged capes, buying them time to prepare themselves, to train and figure out what they needed to figure out.  Somewhere along the line, some Wards had joined the fight.  Locals, defending their homes, naturally.

As the ranks of adult capes were whittled down, more had attended the fights, as if unconsciously acknowledging the need, or as if they were under a subtle pressure to do so.  Just like that, the ideals and ideas that had helped form the original Wards team had eroded away.

He swept a hand in front of him, and the ship read the gesture, a new image appearing on the monitor.  The two screens on either side showed Behemoth’s attack on the city.  He hadn’t ventured far from where he’d emerged.

Chevalier only glanced at the screens from moment to moment, his focus more on the infrastructure, the resources at his disposal.

San Diego, absent.  They’d lost too many members, abandoned by those who’d lost faith in the Protectorate, with the remnants cannibalized to support other teams in need.  San Diego was more or less stable, so there’d been little pressure to resupply them with new members.

Except that Spire, San Diego’s team leader, hadn’t felt confident walking into the fight.  There’d been the human element, the fears, the concerns.  He’d had cold feet at the last second, decided not to come.  An integral part of their defense, gone, forcing them to adapt.

There were so many elements like that.  Little things.  He’d heard so many complain about how the Protectorate handled the attacks.  How they were disorganized, inefficient.

Maybe he’d shared in that sentiment, to a degree.  That had changed when he’d participated in his first fight, when he’d seen just what it meant to be in the fray, against an enemy that couldn’t truly be stopped.  But still, he’d harbored doubts.

Then he’d taken command of a team, and he’d seen the process of trial and error, as they learned their opponents’ capabilities, saw how Leviathan or the Simurgh could keep tricks up their sleeves for years, before using them at a critical moment.  Even now, they didn’t fully understand the Simurgh’s power, how long it might take someone to recover, if recovery was even possible.

And now he led the attack.

He drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.

Focus on the presentHe’d lose it if he dwelled on the pressures, on the fact that every attack to date was another added pressure, a set of losses to avenge, a step towards mankind’s fall.

Vegas was absent too.  They’d turned traitor, walked away.  Satyrical had turned down the offer for a ride to the battle, claiming they’d make their own way.  It was disconcerting, to think they had access to transportation in that vein.  Teleporters?  A craft that could and would carry people halfway around the world fast enough?  Disconcerting to think they had access to resources like that so soon after defecting.

But not surprising.

Brockton Bay, in large part, was sitting this one out.  Hannah wasn’t a true asset against Behemoth.  Besides, the truce was in worse shape than it had been even in the beginning, and the portal too important.

He allowed himself a moment to think of Hannah.  They’d dated briefly, then separated.  It had been a high school romance, and they’d both been too busy to really pursue things.  What had been one or two dates a week became maybes, then had ceased to happen at all.  He’d graduated to the Protectorate, changed cities, and they hadn’t said a word on the subject.

Chevalier had seen her grow, though.  That was what he kept in mind to assuage his disappointment over the way things had gone.  She’d come into her own, confident, intelligent.

In a way, he was glad she wasn’t coming.

He turned around to face Rime and Exalt.  He could see the shadows, as he now thought of them.  Rime’s younger self accompanied her, sitting on the bench beside her, arms folded around her knees, face hidden.  The real Rime was sitting on the bench, a fold-out table in front of her, a laptop open.

And Exalt?  His ‘shadow’ was barely visible, impossible to make out.  When it came to the fore, though, Chevalier knew it would look much as Hannah’s power did in its transitions.  Phantom images.

He’d raised the subject of the images with others.  When his proximity to Eidolon had started to give him migraines, he’d confessed about the images.  He’d feared a kind of schizophrenia, but Eidolon had reassured him otherwise.

It was a piece of the puzzle, but that puzzle was still far from complete.  Until they had more to work with, it was merely data.  Glimmers of memories and dreams, the conclusion had been, after long discussions with Eidolon and the parahuman researchers.  An effect of the thinker power required to manage his own ability, tied to trigger events in some fashion.

Except now he was wondering if he’d been misled.  Eidolon was a traitor, one working for a group that clearly had some deeper understanding of powers.  Maybe it had been in Cauldron’s interests for Eidolon to lie about this.

“Record numbers.  Lots of capes are coming,” he said.  Rime and Exalt both looked up.

“But…” Exalt said.  He seemed to reconsider before finishing his sentence.

“But we’re disorganized,” Chevalier finished it for him.  “People we should be able to count on are gone.  Plans we had are falling apart because those people aren’t there.

Exalt nodded.

“PRT wants us to play this up,” Chevalier said, “I’m supposed to involve you guys in leadership aspect of things.  If you’re willing, I’m not going to dwell on it.”

Exalt arched an eyebrow.

“You’re team leaders.  You’ve got the experience, at least to a degree.  But I don’t want to dwell on peripheral stuff.  We’re focused on the fight?  All right?”

Rime and Exalt nodded.

“I’ll lob a few of you some softball questions, then we get right to it.”

“Right,” Rime said.

The ship altered course, Chevalier felt his heart drop.  Silkroad’s power wasn’t giving them any forward momentum anymore.  They were close.  Landing in a minute.

“You ready for this?  Being leader for the first time?”  Exalt asked.

“No.  Not for one this important.  Everyone who’s paying attention knows this is a crucial one.  Maybe even the point of no return.  We lose this, we lose New Delhi, and there’s no going back.  We’ll never get to the point where we can consistently beat those motherfuckers, never recoup what we’ve lost.  I screw up here, and the world will know.”

“They can’t blame you,” Rime said.

“They damn well can,” Chevalier retorted.

She frowned.

The ship descended, four legs absorbing the impact of the landing almost flawlessly.

He turned to the swords, set into the floor of the craft.  There were two.

In truth, there were three.  The largest was thirty feet long, running from the ramp at the back to the cabin at the front, almost entirely set into the floor.  There was no decoration on it.  Only mass, sturdy craftsmanship, and the mechanisms necessary for the cannon that was set inside the handle and blade.

It would have been too heavy for the ship to carry, except he’d already used his power, drawing it together with a second blade, an aluminum blade a mere four feet long.  Lightweight.

His ability to see the ‘shadows’ about people was an extension of this power.  He could see the general makeup of the two weapons, the phantom images, the underlying physics, in lines and shapes and patterns.

It was about perspectives.  Relationships.  He’d drawn them into one blade, with the appearance of the larger, the properties of the smaller.

The third blade was decorative, with a ceramic blade, gold and silver embellishments and inlays in the blade.  The thing was ten feet long from end to end, and again, it had the cannon set within.   Combining the first blade with this one proved more difficult.  He granted the weapon the appearance of this blade, gave it the cutting edge, but retained the lightweight mass and the durability of the largest weapon.

Fine balances.  He adjusted it, tuning its size for convenience’s sake.  The heft remained the same, as did the effective weight as it extended to the rest of the world.

His armor was the same, only it was too large to bring on the craft.  A veritable mountain of construction grade steel, as light as aluminum, with the decoration of a third set.  It had required some concentration, to maintain the balances he’d set, but he was confident he could fight outside of the kill aura’s range.

He glanced at Rime and Exalt, then nodded.

The ramp opened, and the three of them emerged.  There were heavy thuds and the sound of metal striking metal as the other ships landed, forming a ring, with the doors and ramps pointing inward.  A fortification to guard the arriving heroes.

The Protectorate and Wards teams were gathering, with a degree of organization.  His new Protectorate had gathered into the general positions they held at the conference table.  Rime to his left, Exalt to his right, their teams behind them.

And he couldn’t help but notice the gaps.  San Diego, Vegas, Brockton Bay.  Three of the more prominent teams in the United States.

Defiant, Dragon and Weaver were among the last to arrive.  They joined the unofficial capes who’d filled the void that should have been occupied by the San Diego capes.

“The ships have all arrived,” Chevalier said, breaking the silence, starting his speech.

It was only after the Yàngbǎn were out of sight that Chevalier could breathe a sigh of relief.

“You know your roles,” he said, to the capes who remained  He searched the rooftop, and found who he was looking for.  “Mr. Keene, walk with me.”

The dark-skinned man nodded assent, falling in stride.  He wore a neat suit with a PRT pin, official identification on a lanyard around his neck.  Morgan Keene was the PRT’s liaison and ambassador to unofficial teams across the world.  Chevalier could see the glimmer of a power there, suppressed but there.

The fact that the man was a parahuman employee of the PRT wasn’t so unusual.  The fact that it was a well-kept secret was.  The power was out of sync, however, which was stranger still.  Since Chevalier had chanced to make Morgan Keene’s acquaintance, years ago, the man’s shadow had changed.  The core elements were the same, but the appearance of it had changed enough that he’d wondered if the man had managed a second trigger event.  He would have assumed so, except there was no intensity to corroborate the idea.

It left him suspicious, but it wasn’t a suspicion he could act on.  In an ideal world, Chevalier hoped to replace Mr. Keene.  In reality, the situation was too chaotic, and Morgan Keene too entrenched in things.

“You’re upset about the Yàngbǎn.”

“I don’t like surprises.”

“I sent you a number of emails, three voice messages.”

“Can we trust them?”

“No.  But they’re still an asset.  Alexandria wanted them on board.  When you installed your new administration, they said to keep going.”

Chevalier sighed.

“Our thinkers are on board to advise with the concentrated defense.  I’ve coordinated the foreign capes, Arbiter’s handling some of the translations.”

“Okay.  And our… less legitimate thinkers?”

“Accord and Tattletale.”

“Yes.”

“Rime set them up with access to the PRT databases.  Connection is slow but remains strong.”

Chevalier nodded.  “I’ll talk to them.”

“Of course,” Mr. Keene answered.

Chevalier made his way to the downstairs room.  He paused at the entrance.

Tattletale’s ‘shadow’ peered around with a dozen eyes all at once, each set different in design, in appearance and apparent function.  A mosaic.  Accord’s was a glimmer of an old computer, the edge of a desk that wasn’t there.

It wasn’t as meaningful as it had appeared to be at first.  They were only figments of ideas that had been codified and collected in times of stress.  Ideas imprinted on a malleable surface during trigger events, or moments when trigger events had been on the verge of occurring.  As an individual’s power waxed and waned, the images grew more distinct, shifted between the images personal to the cape in question, and the stranger, dream-like aspects that seemed to relate to the powers.

“Accord.  Tattletale.  Do you have something constructive to offer?”

“Yep,” Tattletale said.

“Your defensive lines are a disaster waiting to happen,” Accord said.

“Straight to the point,” Tattletale commented.

“A disaster?” Chevalier asked.

“I’m wondering if you’ve done this on purpose,” Accord stated.  His eye moved critically over Chevalier.  “You’re going to fight the Endbringer in a melee.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

“And you’ve picked the new Protectorate team with the idea that they would support you.  The core team is all ranged.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

“Ego?” Tattletale asked.

Chevalier shook his head, then thought for a moment.  “Perhaps.”

“Well, ego’s a part of the job.  Question is, can you live up to it?”

“I can try.  But more than anything, I’m not going to put people on the front line if I’m not willing to go there myself.”

“Foolish,” Accord said.  “Everyone has their place in the grand scheme of things.  You do yourself and everyone else a disservice if you try to put yourself where you don’t belong.”

Chevalier shook his head, but he didn’t reply.  There would be no convincing this one.

Accord continued, “There are only two ways you could make this plan work.  The first would be using a sword long enough to reach past his Manton effect bypass, the second is to somehow within that range and survive.”

“Accounted for,” Chevalier said, a touch irritated.  He didn’t need this.  Not now.

“Usher,” Tattletale supplied.

“Ah.  I see,” Accord said.  “And if Usher were to be struck down by a chance lightning bolt?”

“We have fallback plans.”

Accord shook his head.  “I’ll develop better.”

Chevalier grit his teeth.

“I’m watching him fight,” Tattletale said, “And something’s off.  I’ve been watching old videos of the Endbringer fights, looking over maps, and it doesn’t fit together.”

“What doesn’t?”

Her finger tapped hard on the map she’d printed out.  “Location, pacing.  They’re toying with us.  Acting.”

“You’re crediting them with more intelligence than they have.”

“Are you telling me that because you really think they’re dumb, or because you don’t want to-“

Chevalier could sense the attacker by the movement of the shadows.  He whirled around, only to find himself face to face with a cloud of the ‘shadows’.

The Yàngbǎn, one of them.

An assassin?

He couldn’t even make out the figure, behind the layers of images.  Glimpses of twenty, thirty, forty trigger events.

Defying the truce, here?  Now?

He felt his anger stirring.  He adjusted the balances of his blade, maintaining the reach, the appearance, but he altered its interaction with the rest of the world, maintaining its lightweight feel as far as he was concerned, changing it in other respects.

“You lunatic!”

He had his sword out in a flash, swung.  A forcefield appeared, but the weapon breezed through it as if it weren’t even there.

It was, in all respects except appearance, and the ease with which he moved it, a weapon that weighed upwards of fifty tons, as durable as the heaviest weapon.  The cutting edge of the ceramic blade.

His opponent slipped out of the way, and images flared with life as he drew on a power to fly.

Chevalier couldn’t make him out in the midst of the shadows.  Did the Yàngbǎn know this would trip him up, slow him down?

It didn’t matter.  The attacker didn’t have offensive strength.  Two more attacks failed to penetrate Chevalier’s armor.  He advanced, swung, thrusted, and his opponent stepped back, narrowly dodging.

Chevalier pulled the trigger, but a power flared and the shot jammed in the chamber.

Can’t afford to expend resources on this.  Have to prepare for the fight.

He followed up with more swings.  Each missed by a hair.  His opponent was scared, frantic.

And suddenly his opponent was a distance away.  The images, the movement of the clouds outside, telltale signs of being stopped in time.

He advanced, felt another attack fail to penetrate his defenses.  Again, time stopped, his opponent used the window of opportunity to back away.

In between the following two pauses, he could see Accord and Tattletale change places, moving to the door, now barred with a forcefield.

They’d have to hold their own.  Chevalier assessed his opponent, as best as he could, through the storm of hellish images.  Each of them was fractured, broken.  Nothing to be gleaned from them.

But the opponent was sloppy.  Letting him get dangerously close between resets.  It was a question of letting him make a mistake, occupying his attention, so the thinkers would be safe.  A chess game, moving the knight to keep the king in checkmate.  There was only so much space in the room, and he could position himself to force the Yàngbǎn member to move further, to have less time to act, leaving more room for a mistake.

“No,” he could hear Accord murmuring, the word barely above a whisper.  He chanced a glance at the pair.  Tattletale had a hand on her holster, and Accord had stopped her.

He didn’t get a chance to see anything further.  He felt the strength go out of his lower body, a slow but incredible pain tearing through his midsection.

The laser.  How?

He had only a moment to adjust the balances in his power, so the blade and armor wouldn’t crash through the floor and tear down half of the building.

I missed the fight, he realized, as he woke in a hospital bed.

The ground rumbled violently.  He looked up to see Tattletale in the corner of the room, half of her attention on what was happening outside the window, the other half on a phone.

“He’s here?”

She turned to him, tapped her throat.  He could see the tube in her throat.

He sighed.

She approached the bedside, attention on the phone.  She held it out for him to read.

A notepad executable read:

hes here.  defenses crumbled in a minute.  rime dead.  melted off more than half his outer body and he still fighting.  last stand to protect hosp’l for evac and he cutting them down

Chevalier shut his eyes.  We lost.

Tattletale was already typing again.  Her expression was grim as she focused on the phone.

He tried to sit up, and found himself unable.  It was a pain concentrated in one area, but it was so immense that made his entire body react.  His ears buzzed, his vision wavered, and every muscle clenched, as he lay there, trying to ride it out.

She showed him the phone as he lay there, panting.

he still at full strength.  shouldn’t be.  he’s an onion, inner rings progressively tougher.  next 15% way tougher than rest combined.

“I know this,” he gasped out the words.  He moved the sheet to examine himself.  His breastplate had been removed, and his stomach had fresh incisions on it, with sutures holding them closed.

How long had he been out?

She showed him her phone again.

they stapled your gut up.  if outer body is like this then why does he have it?  useless.

He reached up to swat the phone away, felt a pull on his stomach and winced instead.  He knocked it out of the way with his other hand.  Still painful, but easier.

She drew it out of his reach, started typing again.

He turned himself over in the bed, nearly retching at the intensity of the pain, but he found himself on his side.  Even at the weight of aluminum, the armor on his legs and hands was heavy enough to help weigh him down, hold him in position.

She offered him a hand as he swung his legs down, trying to use the momentum to sit up.  He nearly fell, but she caught him, dropping the phone onto the bed in her haste to help him stay sitting upright.

His chest heaved, and he growled out each breath.  The growling helped, on a primal level, but that wasn’t saying much.  Just sitting upright was bad enough that he thought he might pass out.

“My breastplate.”

She handed him the phone, then crossed the room to where a bundle of belongings were gathered on a chair.  They’d cut off the layer of mesh that sat beneath the armor, and the cloth that sat against his skin.  She discarded each of those and simply brought him the armor.

It had held its form.  Good.  He glanced at the phone.

outer body is cosmetc only.  why?  because he supposed to scare us.  behemoth was fashioned.  unnatural life.

She brought the front portion of the armor, resting it on the corner of the bed.  She tapped the phone.

“I read it,” he growled.  “Help me put it on.”

She tapped the phone again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.  “It won’t change the outcome of this fight.”

She nodded agreement, then lifted the armor, bringing it to his chest.

There was a crash outside, a chorus of screams.  Chevalier grit his teeth.

“Back piece,” he said.  She gave him a pointed look.

“Please,” he added, growling the word.

She turned on her heel, crossing the room to pick up the armor, slowly, almost leisurely, as she typed on the phone with one hand.  She held the armor in the other as she made her way back, then took several damnable seconds typing out the message before putting the phone down.

“We don’t have time for your typing,” he said.

She only gave him a level, silent stare, as she moved the rear portion of the armor into place.  He reached for the clasps, but moving his left arm was too painful, pulling on the muscles of his stomach.  He used his right for what he could, then waited for her to finish.

Indian doctors rushed down the hall, pushing beds on wheels, four in a row.

He conceded to pick up the phone and read what she’d typed.

they regen slower as damage is further from center.  simurgh core not in human body.  decoy.  prob in join of biggest wing instead.  Is why body fragile n slow to heal.

His eyes widened.  “We destroy the center, we destroy him?”

She gave him a look as if he’d just asked if the sky was green, incredulous.  She shook her head.

“Why the hell not?”

She just shook her head.

“I don’t know why the hell not. Where’s his center?”

She pointed with two fingers, at her collarbone.  The base of the throat, between the shoulders.  Quite possibly the deepest set part of his body.

“Help me stand.”

The entire building rumbled.  For a moment, he thought the entire point would be rendered moot as the structure collapsed.

It took three tries to get him to his feet, with him holding a shelf on the wall with his right hand, her leveraging her entire body’s strength with her shoulder under his armpit.  He stumbled forward, catching himself on the shelf, and heaved for breath, feeling the strength threaten to leave his legs with every deep inhalation and exhalation.

But he couldn’t.  Couldn’t allow himself to.

Tattletale was pulling on a blue latex glove.  He watched her as she reached out and placed a hand on the space beside the incisions, where the burn had been patched up.

“What are you doing?”

She reached for the phone.

no tear inside u.

“I could’ve told you that.”

She shrugged, her eyes on the screen, thumbs typing on the onscreen keyboard.  She raised the phone.

can try.  prob wont work.  dense enough 2 fuck wit time n space there.

“Right,” he said.  “My Cannonblade?”

She sighed, making her way to the end of the room.  She collected his Cannonblade from the floor by the chair.  He’d made it as light as it could go in every respect, before he’d passed out.  Even so, moving his left arm to try to hold it made him seize up in agony.

For now, he was a one-armed fighter.  He gripped the handle in his right hand, then exerted his power.  He could see it grow heavier, even as the weight remained effectively the same in his hand.

He rested it against one shoulder, then managed a limping step forward.  He very nearly fell.

Another step.

He focused on his power, as a way to distract himself, planting one foot in front of the other, the armor squeaking in one point where a knee joint had bent as he’d fallen after fighting the Yàngbǎn assassin.  It was easier to keep moving than to stop and start again, so he moved forward with an almost machinelike rhythm, limping.

He’d never forgive himself if they lost this fight and he didn’t even fight.

Stairs.  He had to make his way down.  One mistake, a faltering step, and he’d collapse.  He’d probably be unable to stand, if it didn’t tear his stomach apart.

He made his way down, the stitches pulling against the fresh incisions with every step.

The building shuddered.  His mind a fog of pain, he reached out for the railing for stability, only to remember he was holding his sword.  It plowed through railing as if it were a meticulous sandcastle, raining pieces on the ground below.

He swayed, and for the briefest moment, he considered that it might be easier to fall.  Easier than making it down the next ten steps.  If there was a ten percent chance his stomach stayed intact, a twenty percent chance someone could help him stand…

But he took another step down, and somewhere in the midst of planting his foot, he found his balance.

Everywhere, doctors were struggling to evacuate.  Some capes were working to help, even injured ones trying to pull things together.  Still fifty or sixty capes to evacuate.

And the bodies… people who had died because he’d failed them.  Because he hadn’t been able to defeat the assassin, to take his role at the front of the battle lines, where he could bait Behemoth into the various traps they’d laid.

He had to suppress the guilt.  There would be time for blame, self-directed or otherwise, later.  He’d bury the mental pain like he was with the physical.

This is how Behemoth fights.  Indomitable.  Never slowing.  Always progressing forward, Chevalier thought.

He could remember who he’d once been.  So long ago.  Well before he’d had his first of twenty fights against the Endbringers.  Before meeting Hannah and the rest of the original Wards.

They’d been in a car crash, in the middle of a vacation.  Strangers had stepped in, crowding the car to help his little brother out, while his parents were reeling, moaning in pain.  They’d tried to get him out too, but he’d been pinned, the car handle had been scraped away in the collision, the interior handle protected by the child locks.  They’d left, and for hours, as the emergency services arrived and the rescue continued, he’d wondered why.  He’d triggered, caught in the wreckage, but had been too insensate to do anything about it, to even realize the full gravity of what had happened in the midst of the chaos.

It was only later that he found out they were serial kidnappers.  The crash that had broken his mother’s leg in three places had been orchestrated.  So had the collection of his little brother.

Three years later, when he heard about the group again, he put together a makeshift club and armor and set about hunting them down.  He appeared in the news in the midst of tracking down the individual members, and again and again, they had described him as relentless, to the point that it had very nearly became his codename.  Revenge had been all he had left.

Then, just as he was now, he’d been fueled by anger, by pain.  He could barely see, as black spots blotted his vision.  Revenge, again, was his only option, only it was the end point, rather than the beginning.

I told myself I’d never let myself be afraid again, he thought.

His left hand was nearly useless, so he hit the double doors at the front of the temple with his sword instead.  Wood splintered as the doors parted.  He trudged forward, ignoring the doors as they swung shut, bouncing off his armor.

Record numbers show up, and this is all that’s left?

Barely fifty heroes still stood their ground.  The back lines were sheltered by giant hands of stone, Hellhound’s mutant dogs collecting the wounded, carrying them around the side of the building.  Eidolon and Alexandria wrestled with the Endbringer, fighting in close quarters against the monster.

Alexandria?

He shook his head, nearly losing his balance as he continued his forward march.  He could barely see straight, and it wasn’t helped by the phantom images that riddled the mass of capes.  Images he had called glimmers when he was a youth, that he called shadows now that he was an adult.

But Behemoth… the Endbringer was little more than a skeleton with extensive padding.  He’d never seen this much damage delivered.

Chevalier focused his power on his blade, making it as large as he could.  He continued marching forward.  There was no indication Usher was okay.  Rime was dead, and he had little idea about the state of the supporting forces who’d been intended to help him attack, who’d trained to assist him.

He extended his blade towards Behemoth, using it to gauge the distance for the kill aura.  Defending capes cleared out of his way as he walked forward, between two of the stone hands.  The shadow of his sword was warning enough.

One of Behemoth’s legs seemed less developed than the other, the toes missing, the bones less pronounced, the flesh thinner.  He reached the perimeter and slammed the weapon down into the earth with his one usable arm.

His steam nearly spent, he collapsed over the handle of the weapon, his hand still gripping the handle, and he pulled the trigger.

The size of the weapon and the effect of the firing pin seemed to help with the jammed mechanism.  That, or the transition to being closer to his largest blade had shifted something in a fractional way.  The shot blasted Behemoth in the calf of his weaker leg, and the Endbringer fell.

Again, he pulled the trigger, over and over.  Three, four, five shots.

He stopped before he spent the sixth.

He’d dealt damage, but it was precious little.  Flesh had torn at the leg, not quite as dense as it should be, by all reports.  Had the regeneration not finished rebuilding the complete structures?

Rendered effectively one-legged again, Behemoth crawled forward on three limbs.  Alexandria struck him from above, driving him face first into the ground.

Why was she here?  She was supposed to be functionally dead.

Chevalier could feel a sensation crawling through his body, an energy.  It didn’t invigorate, not on its own, but he could feel a kind of relief.

Usher was alive, and Usher’s power coursed through him.  With luck, he’d be immune to Behemoth’s power, or at least partially immune.  Nobody had received the benefit of Usher’s ability and been brave enough to venture into Behemoth’s kill range.

Chevalier pulled his sword from the ground, swayed, and very fell over.

Defiant caught him.

Old friend, Chevalier thought, though he didn’t have the breath to speak.

Anyone else might have spoken up, told him he didn’t have to do this, that it was madness.

Defiant was silent, supporting Chevalier, helping him right himself.  Defiant understood this much.  The need, the drive.

Chevalier took his first step with Defiant’s help.  The second was only partially supported.  The third was on his own.

He closed into the kill area, and he could feel the heat touch him.  It heated the armor, but didn’t reach him.  Usher’s power at work.  He tried to inhale, and found no air.  Choking, he forced his mouth shut.

Holding his breath, Chevalier brought the sword down on Behemoth’s shoulder, a blow from above much like Alexandria had delivered, followed by another.

His aim wasn’t good, the blows off target.  If his form were better, he’d be landing each strike in the same place, time after time.  Not so, with the blade this big, the margin for error so great.

With that in mind, Chevalier shrunk his sword as he closed the distance, shut his eyes as lightning crackled around the Endbringer.  With the scale smaller, the effective edge was that much sharper.  The blade bit just a fraction deeper each time.

He couldn’t stop walking without falling, couldn’t stop swinging the weapon in the same rote motion without risking that he’d never be able to raise it again, however light it might be.

His goal was the spot Tattletale had mentioned.  The core.

Behemoth swiped at him, but he was already shifting the balance of his armor, moving to block the blow with the flat of the blade.  The sound of the impact was deafening, and it wasn’t something Usher’s power protected against.  But Usher’s power was finnicky at best.  Unreliable.

At the very least, it was holding up here.

He found a measure of strength, then swung the cannonblade, driving it for the deepest part of the wound.

Behemoth lurched, changing position, and the painstakingly created notch in his shoulder shifted well out of Chevalier’s reach.  He let up on the intense heat, turned to radiation instead.  Heroes scrambled to retreat from the ominous glow.

Bastard, Chevalier swore.  He released a sound somewhere between a moan and a groan, exhaling the last of the air in his lungs, greedily sucking in air.

Something flew past him, shearing straight through Behemoth’s chest.  A wheel of metal, thin, with two bars sticking out of the center.  It cut through the Endbringer like he wasn’t even there.

Dazed, lungs fit to burst as he held his breath, barely coherent, Chevalier turned.  He saw Tecton with his piledrivers extended, Weaver just behind him, along with two of the new Wards: the white supremacist’s child they’d picked up in Boston and a boy in a white cloak.  They stood all the way at the back lines of the battlefield, by the temple, along with a character he didn’t recognize.  A girl in black.

His eyes settled on Weaver, surrounded by the nimbus of her power, which glowed with an intensity that surpassed any and all of her teammates.  When she stepped forward, it was like she was pushing against a curtain, only it was a membrane, a network of individual cells, each with tendrils extending out, so thin he couldn’t make them out, except by the highlights that seemed to rush down them as she gave conscious direction to her bugs.

Second chances, Chevalier thought back to his inauguration to the Wards.  He’d harbored doubts about taking her on board, but memories of that day had been a factor.  He’d needed a second chance.  So had Hannah.

Colin, even, though it came much later.

It was a good feeling, to see that coming into play.  He knew she wasn’t all the way there, but she’d taken a step forward.

It was a better feeling to watch as Behemoth’s shoulder shifted, attached by a mere hair.  The weapon had cut through his ribs, torn through the space where his heart should be.

That’ll do.

Alexandria hit him, and the arm came free.  Behemoth lurched, planting his one remaining hand on the ground, and came just short of collapsing on top of Chevalier.  He was only a few feet away, glowing with the radiation.

I’m dead, Chevalier thought, without a trace of the despair he’d imagined he would feel.

He tried to move, to raise his blade, only to find his armor refusing to cooperate.  It had melted, the joints and joins flowing into one another.  His sword wasn’t much better.  The ceramic properties he’d applied to the edge were heat-resistant, but the remainder of the weapon were growing more nebulous in shape, the hottest parts of the metal flowing down to obscure the edge.

He concentrated, and found his power beyond his reach.  Too tired, his stamina gone.

Trapped in a hot wreck of metal, an explosive death just a short distance away.  It had been his starting point, and it had been the end.

It would be the optimal time for a second trigger event, the thought passed through his thoughts.

Of course, the joke went that you couldn’t get a trigger event by trying to have one, so even thinking about a second trigger event was enough to banish any possibility.

Not so funny, in this moment.

His power worked best with similar things.  Differences made it slower.  It was why he had the same firing mechanism at the core of each of the three weapons he used for his Cannonblade.

Now, as the battle raged around him, he was nearly blind with the visor of his helmet melting, at his utter limit in terms of stamina and pain tolerance.  Behemoth delivered a shockwave, and Usher’s power protected him, his boots welded to the ground kept him from falling over.

He reached for his power, grasping at his armor, and he didn’t reach for anything familiar or similar.  He reached for anything, everything.  The ground, the soil, air.

Somewhere in the midst of that desperate struggle, he found his armor coming apart.  He wasn’t even willing it, not even forming any coherent idea of what he was doing, but his power operated of its own accord.

Free of the armor, he could move his weapon.  It was slag, barely a sword anymore, but the core still had some density to it.

He made it grow.

He made the sword grow, from ten to twenty feet in length.  It was more by the growth than by any action on Chevalier’s part that it extended into the wound.  The weapon penetrated into the scar Weaver’s crew had created, as close to the core as Chevalier could get it.

He made it grow to its greatest possible length, a full thirty feet, his head turned skyward to the monster that glowed silver and black.

Space and time distortion were supposed to protect it?  He’d fight fire with fire.

Flesh parted as the blade grew inside the wound.  He put his finger on the trigger, ready to fire.

Before he could, the sword’s tip touched the core, and everything went wrong.

His power abruptly ceased to take effect, and the blades came apart, in its three individual pieces.  They slid from the wound, falling down around him.

Behemoth lurched forward, and his wounded leg struck Chevalier, knocking him to the ground.  He could feel the gunshot break of multiple ribs shattering.

Supine on the ground, unable to breathe, but for tiny pants, Chevalier stared at the sky, unwilling to look directly at the ensuing scene, even if he could have managed to turn his head.

There was a horrible crash as a sweep of one claw shattered the stone hands.  Glowing silver, he loomed over the defending capes, scorched and electrocuted those who’d fallen within his instant-kill range.  One of Hellhound’s mutant dogs, Dragon.  Others he couldn’t make out in the midst of the clouds of dust.  Rendered to ash and melted armor in heartbeats.

They were the lucky ones, Chevalier thought.  The radiation was generally observed to be concentrated, limited to a certain range, manipulated to strike only those within a hundred feet or so of Behemoth, to saturate the landscape and render it uninhabitable.  These capes were close enough.  Their deaths would be slow, painful.

A failure.  Hopefully the ones in the temple had been evacuated, and the capes at the rear of the battle line free to retreat.

The ground rumbled violently, churning and smoking.  Behemoth was burrowing.

The fight was over.

Chevalier stared up at the shifting smoke of the sky above, struggling to breathe, not entirely sure why he was bothering.  Maybe he wouldn’t die of the radiation, thanks to Usher’s power.

Long moments passed as the rumbling of the earth faded in intensity.  The air was still filled with the screams and shouts of the various capes and doctors fighting to save the wounded, the dull roars of distant helicopters, carrying the evacuated capes away.

Chevalier watched as the worst of the smoke cleared, and he imagined he might have seen the glowing blur of the sun through the clouds.

Not the sun.  It was a figure.  Scion.

He would have laughed if he could.

Too late.

You showed up too late.

Scion lowered himself to nearly ground level.  His golden hair moved in the wind as he gazed over the battlefield.  His white bodysuit was smudged here or there on the sleeves, but otherwise seemed so pristine that it seemed to glow in the gloom.

No, part of that glow was real.  The faint light touched Chevalier, and he could feel his breathing ease.  It was reaching out to everyone present.

A consolation prize?  A bit of healing?  Maybe a helping hand against the radiation, for the others?

He managed a soft laugh.  The glow was making the pain easier to handle.  He could almost breathe, now.

He closed his eyes, and he felt a tear roll down from the corner of his eye.  He suspected he wouldn’t have been able to tear up without the healing.

Not sufficient to fix the broken bones, or the damage to his stomach, perhaps.  He opened his eyes to look at Scion, to ask a question.

But Scion was gone.

A noise rose up from those who remained in the crowd.  Gasps, cheers, shouts of surprise.

Chevalier forced himself to move, stared at the spear of golden light that had risen from the earth, just on the horizon.  Scion.

He held Behemoth in his grip, released the Endbringer to fall two or three hundred feet to the ground, struck his falling foe with a beam of golden light, as if to shove Behemoth into the ground.

Behemoth’s lightning crackled between them, catching Scion, but the hero didn’t even seem to flinch.  He hit Behemoth again, and this time the beam of energy didn’t stop.  With virtually every structure leveled, there was nothing to hide their view but the lingering smoke and dust, and even that wasn’t thick enough to hide the light.

The aftershock of it traveled across the city, quelling dust storms, blowing past the assembled heroes like a strong gust, faintly warm.  Even though the ray didn’t reach quite that high, the clouds of smoke and dust parted visibly above Scion.

Chevalier watched, staring, belatedly thought to count how many seconds had passed.

One, two, three, four

Behemoth generated a shockwave, but it was muted by the light, suppressed.

…eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…

Behemoth’s silhouette thrashed as he tried to move out from beneath the shaft of light, but Scion only reoriented the beam, keeping it fixed on his target.

sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one

The light ceased.  Behemoth was gone.  A plume of dust rose from the earth, at the very limits of their vision.

Scion plunged beneath the ground, heedless of the intervening terrain.

Again, Scion rose from a point beneath the shattered surface of the city.

Again, he held Behemoth in his hands.  Thinner than a skeleton, the Endbringer was little more than a stick figure from Chevalier’s vantage point.

Only this time, with a flare of golden light to accompany the movement, he tore the Endbringer in two.  The legs came free of the pelvis as two individual pieces, and Scion obliterated them with a pulse of the golden light.  The air that reached the crowd of wounded heroes was cool, this time.

In Chevalier’s peripheral vision, people were emerging from within the temple.  Chevalier didn’t spare them a direct glance.  If he was seeing what he thought he was seeing, then he wouldn’t take his eyes off the scene for anything.

Behemoth slammed his claw into the glowing hero, and the shockwave tore him free of Scion’s grip.  Scion followed him with a glowing sphere of light, and Behemoth redirected his fall, generating an explosion in mid-air, hurling himself towards the assembled crowd.

Eidolon stopped him with a violet forcefield that spread across the sky, a solid obstacle to arrest Behemoth’s momentum, stopping him dead in his tracks and leaving him suspended a hundred feet up in the air.  His one intact claw clutched the edge.

Scion followed up with another shaft of light, and the forcefield shattered in an instant.  Behemoth was slammed into the road, three streets down from the gathered heroes outside the temple.

The Endbringer glowed, and the swelling light was too intense to look at.

Just seeing it, there was no question of what he was doing.  A final act of spite.  Turning himself into a bomb.

A stream of darkness poured from one of the helicopters, filling the street Behemoth lay in.  For an instant, the Endbringer was almost entirely obscured.

Scion fired one more beam, and the darkness was obliterated, swept away.

The silhouette of the Endbringer flickered, then disintegrated.  There was no detonation, no destruction to the landscape.  Only the cleansing light.

The beam dissipated, but its effects hung in the air, canceling out noise, stilling the air.

Slowly, the crowd took up a cheer, a cry of victory from everyone with the breath to spare.

As noise returned to the landscape, the stilling effects of Scion’s light fading, Chevalier closed his eyes, listening.  With the noise of the helicopters and distant fires mingling with the shouts and hollers of joy from the defending capes, he imagined he could hear the whole world cheering alongside them.

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Crushed 24.3

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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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