Prey 14.4

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“Me?”  Tattletale quirked an eyebrow.

“Sure,” Chariot said.  Just behind and to one side of him, Glory Girl was glaring at Tattletale.  She looked like she was ready to hit people.  It was the kind of latent hostility I was used to seeing in Bitch.

“Not terribly fair to my teammates, if it’s just a one-on-one conversation.”

“Are you going to take this or not?” Chariot asked, his hand still extended in her direction.

“No real point,” Tattletale shrugged.  She tucked her hair behind her ear and turned her head.  “Already have one.”

Battery stepped forward, glancing over at our team, “This one is already set to the encrypted channel, it’s faster if-”

Tattletale interrupted, “Uplink three-three-five, encryption forty-two mod three-four-two-one-zero-zero-six-six-three-one-zero-”

“You have access to our channel,” Battery growled, interrupting Tattletale’s spiel of numbers.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Have for a while now.”

Battery raised one hand to her ear.

“Yeah, Battery,” Tattletale grinned, “Let’s do as the Director says and get down to business.”

Battery drew a phone from her belt and tapped her fingers on the keypad for a moment.  She gave Tattletale a dark look as she held the phone out.

A woman’s voice said, “Not like you to tip your hand, Tattletale.”

“Director.  Are we really going to pretend you didn’t know I was listening in?  You’ve been putting out misleading details to screw with my information gathering.  Done quite a good job of it, if I may say so myself.  Very subtle, all of it just right enough that even I was thrown off.  Couldn’t trust much of it.”

“Thank you.”

“And you did catch me off guard here.  I didn’t expect you to contact me.”

“You’ve been busy, your groups.  Fighting Burnscar in the Docks, I gather that didn’t go so well,” the Director said, pausing.

I didn’t even want to think about that.  I hadn’t been back to check on my people or my territory since then.  We had been busy.

“Then you ambush the Nine, capturing two, one of whom you enslaved, but you lose one of your own in the process.  You mount a rescue attempt.  I take it that you were successful?”

“Grue’s here,” Battery informed her.  “But he looks different.”

“So they were successful.  And now we find the Undersiders mounting a pincer attack, with this group targeting Siberian?  I suspect you’re crossing the threshold of fearlessness and entering into foolishness.”

That last comment nettled me.  I spoke up, “The Nine don’t really leave you alone once you’ve scored a win.  We had to seize our advantage.”

“I see.”

“And she has a weakness.  Siberian, I mean,” Tattletale said.

“Do tell?”

“She’s a projection.  Like Genesis is, as I’m sure you’re aware.  Like Crusader’s duplicates.  A quirk in reality that draws from her creator’s brain to create a body complete with all the physiological substructure.  Which is largely for aesthetic effect, and I’d guess it gives her real self something the brain is familiar with controlling anyways.”

“And the controller is vulnerable?”  There was a note of interest in the Director’s voice.

“Particularly vulnerable.  She can’t extend her invincibility over her real body.”

“I’m not sure I believe this.  The Nine would have discovered this and I doubt the baser members could resist taking advantage of such a weakness.”

“The power has range.  I suspect the creator can stay miles away and still manage some control, but ventures closer for voyeuristic purposes or because it offers more control and faster response times.”

“Much like Regent, hmm?”

Tattletale paused.  “So you know that.”

From the tone of the conversation, I would have expected a ‘No, you just told me.‘, but Tattletale wouldn’t have done that.  More likely that her power confirmed her thoughts.

“Shadow Stalker debriefed us.  What do we know about this woman who controls-”

“Man.  The person who projects Siberian is male.  But he creates a female body.  I think it’s tied into his trigger event.  Someone he lost.  If I had to guess, he sought revenge for her, but something happened.  A side effect of the power, or just a seriously unhinged mental state… he lost it.”

“I see.  Thank you for the information.  Unfortunately none of those possibilities are narrow enough that we can use them to track him down.”

“Not in the short-term.  In the long-term-”

“I don’t intend for there to be a long-term, Tattletale.  This ends today.”

Tattletale paused.  “What did you do?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re planning something.  Something you’re wanting to keep a secret, and it’s big.”

“Tattletale, you’ve been observing and gathering information on the PRT for some time now.  Do you think I’m a stupid woman?”

Stupid?  No.  Genius?  No.”

There was the sound of a dry laugh from the other end of the phone.  “No, I admit that’s true.  But I’d like to think I’m resourceful.  I’m fighting in a ring where my opponents are bigger, stronger, smarter, faster and better equipped than I am, and the cost of failure on my end is far greater than it is for any of you.  You understand?  I’m competent, and I wouldn’t waste my time trying to pull the wool over your eyes.”

“So?”

“No secrets.  I’d planned to bait you here with the same subtle offers of information you praised me for earlier, but you’re here anyways, so I’ll tell you what I’m planning.  In a matter of minutes, we firebomb the area where the main group of the Nine are situated.”

“That’s insane,” I spoke.

“Was that Skitter?”

“Yeah,” Battery replied.

“It’s necessary, Skitter,” the Director told me.

“It’s breaking the rules between capes.  The same rules that hold things together in an Endbringer event.  We’re fighting a common enemy.”

“True, but not the full story.  We made no agreement of cooperation, and so there can be no betrayal here.”

“My teammates are there, fighting the Nine, and they’re doing it for this city.  You’d be punishing them for that.”

“Legend did warn them that they shouldn’t.  He was told to, I quote, ‘suck shit’.”

That would be BitchOr maybe ImpProbably Bitch.

Tattletale quirked an eyebrow, “Did he specifically tell them they shouldn’t because you’re bombing the neighborhood?”

“Would you believe me if I said he didn’t get the chance?”

“I’d say fifty percent of it is that he didn’t get the chance, and fifty percent is that he didn’t try that hard.”

The Director offered a noncommittal ‘mm hmm’ in reply.

“And you’re telling us this because?”

“Because we’ve studied you.  We know what you prioritize, and I believe that you’ll enter the fray to save your teammates.”

“Or we could phone them.”

“Do you want to try?”

Tattletale glanced at me and Grue.  “No point, I guess.  You’re blocking unofficial communications in the area.”

“Yes.  We have to hamper communication between the Nine if we want to catch them off guard.  You understand.”

“I do, and that’s totally the entire reason you’re doing that,” Tattletale said.  She glanced over in the direction of the fighting.  “How long before the area is bombed?”

“Can’t say.  On the record, as with your teammates, we’re forbidding you from entering the area, but I expect you’re doing so anyways.  Against my recommendation.”

“Absolved of blame,” Grue spoke.  His voice was tight, his body tense.

The Director ignored him.  “The moment I heard you were in the picture, I told my subordinates to change the time.  They’ll inform me about the new time of attack as soon as I’ve hung up.  It’s not a perfect solution, but perhaps your actions from this point will reveal something about your power and its limitations.  But please understand that we just can’t risk that you’ll inform the Slaughterhouse Nine about the scheduled attack.”

“And there’s a chance we’ll be collateral damage, out of the picture and out of your hair after the Nine are gone.”

“How sad, that you see monsters where none exist.”

“Right.”

“It was nice to finally talk with you, Tattletale.  You should go help your teammates, if you’re going to.”

“Fuck you, Piggot.”

There was no response, and Battery deemed the conversation over, putting away the phone.

In the brief period of silence that followed, while we got ourselves ready, a voice broke through, “Victoria-”

“Don’t,” Glory Girl snapped.  “I didn’t tell anyone what you did, but that’s the last nice thing I’m going to do for you, understand?  We’re not teammates.  We’re not sisters.  We’re not friends.”

“I’m sorry, Amy,” Tattletale said, “But we’ve got to go.”

We were moving a minute later, leaving the squad of heroes behind.  Looking over my shoulder, I could see them getting in formation, clustering around Cache, who was regaining consciousness.  Only Glory Girl stood apart, her arms folded.

Wasn’t quite sure about the story there, but I was getting a sense of it.

I could feel Amy tapping my arm.

“What?” I had to raise my voice to be heard.

“Drop me off,” she spoke into my ear.

It took a few seconds to get the message to Grue and come to a complete stop.  Tattletale stopped Bentley a hundred feet ahead.  Trickster and Sundancer looked back with mild curiosity.  Their costumes didn’t reveal much about their expressions.

“Not thinking straight,” Amy said, “Not enough to go into a situation like this.  Don’t want to get bombed.  Um.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Still willing to help?”

She nodded.

“I’m going to send you the bugs I can’t use.  If you want to make more bugs that can relay my signal, that’d be great.  If you can think of something else… I need firepower.”

“And we’re going to be short on mobility if we need to make a run for it,” Grue said.  “Too many of us for two dogs that can carry people, unless we’re lucky and Genesis picked a form that works.”

We’d sent Regent’s group out with Shatterbird, Imp and Ballistic, with the idea that Genesis would meet them there.  They’d taken one of Coil’s trucks, since Bastard wasn’t old enough, big enough or trained enough to carry a rider.

“What am I supposed to make?”

“Figure it out, Amy.  If you can’t think of anything, the relay bugs are excellent.  Really.”

“Okay.”  She let me help her down.

“Skitter,”  Tattletale called out, “We should be close enough.  Want to pass them a message?”

I nodded.  I had six of the relay bugs, and it took only a minute to set them up so they formed a chain, extending my reach for an additional six city blocks in one direction.  Eight and a half in total.

I swept them outward, and the one at the furthest point lagged behind.  Still, it gave me the opportunity to cover a wide area.  Bugs mobilized throughout, and I began funneling the less offensive ones back toward Amy.  No-see-ums, earthworms, caterpillars and roughly half of the houseflies in the area began filtering back.  I maintained some of the dragonflies and other mobile bugs for the sake of getting a feel for the area.

I could sense Regent’s group, running to cover.  Ballistic was bombarding Crawler, relying on the impacts to drive the brute back.  Crawler was fast -and he was agile, with preternatural reflexes- but Ballistic was unloading on him with projectiles that moved faster than sound.  Crawler dodged only two in three, and Ballistic followed up on any successful hits with a series of shots to pound Crawler into the nearest available surface and pin him there.  Genesis had formed a body that was winged.  It resembled a pterodactyl with arms, a griffon or something in that vein.  She was making an effort to drop large chunks of rubble onto Crawler.  He was strong enough that it barely slowed him down, but time he spent hauling a section of wall off of himself was time for Ballistic to get his hands on material for another shot.  Shatterbird offered support with a constant hail of glass to harry Crawler and keep him from finding traction on the pavement.

Jack, Bonesaw, Mannequin… I found the former two in a parking lot.  My bugs sensed what I judged were Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders, tearing cars apart and converting the components into more spiders.  There was a group of people with her, shuffling behind them.

Mannequin was MIA.  That was bothersome.  He was able to detect and avoid my bugs, which meant he was a factor I had to keep in the back of my mind.

“Found them, except for Mannequin.  Amy?  Be careful.  I don’t know if Jack’s team is going to break the rules they set, but Mannequin could come after you.”

I was so used to dealing with my teammates, people who were experienced in this sort of thing, that I hadn’t expected much more than confirmation.  She looked legitimately scared at the prospect.

“Here,” I directed a ladybug into my palm and extended it towards her.  “Crush it, and I’ll come.  Or transmit some signal with my power.  You have my backup, understand?”

“Okay.”  She took it, but she didn’t look reassured.  The first bugs were flowing into her cupped hands.  I could feel nervous systems intermingling, two bugs becoming one, and that strange hollowness that told me I didn’t have a complete grasp on how they functioned, that there was a part of them that was beyond the reach of my power.

I drew out words with my bugs, on a surface of wall where Regent would be able to see.  ‘Evacuate.’

He ran his fingers through the bugs.  After a moment’s thought, I gathered them into a square, organized by rank and file.  It took me two tries, but I managed to make them move to form letters, then regroup.

He dragged his fingertip through the bugs to spell out a reply.  ‘Can’t.  We run we can’t keep crawler down’.

‘We’re coming,’ I wrote to him.

“Let’s go!”  I called out.  Tattletale turned in her seat and kicked Bentley to get him going.  Grue did the same for Sirius.

Having gathered as many bugs as I could, I drew my relay bugs back and spaced them around the perimeter of my own range, effectively extending it by a block in every direction.

“Have to stall Crawler long enough to make a run for it!”  I shouted.

“Have to do it in the next eight minutes!”  Tattletale called out.  Grue was getting Sirius to keep pace with Bentley, who was brawnier and slower.

“Bomb hits then?”

“Sometime after then.  Could be eight minutes and ten seconds, could be fifteen minutes!”

I swore under my breath.  Eight minutes made for a deceptively small amount of time.

The heroes were gathered.  I couldn’t set them apart.  With few exceptions, they each wore an identical costume with full body coverage.  There were subtle differences in height  and body shape, which let me identify the people at the extreme ends of the physical spectrum: Vista, who was the smallest, and Triumph, the most musclebound.  Weld wasn’t in the concealing costume, presumably to retain more of his shapeshifting capability.

Vista, Clockblocker, Weld, Flechette, Triumph, Miss Militia, Assault… Glory Girl, Battery, Cache and the ghostly bear were joining them.  That left two more I couldn’t place.  They moved in formation.

Might as well do what I could to help.  I drew out arrows and words on the ground, with names by each arrow to point them to Jack, Bonesaw and Crawler.  With the arrow length, I tried to indicate how far the distance was to each of the enemies in question.

They spent about ten seconds discussing it, then broke into a run, going for Jack and Bonesaw.  Good.

We reached the scene of the ongoing fight with Crawler.  Sundancer was off the dog and on the ground the second we could see him, creating her orb and increasing its size.  She was fireproof, but she didn’t have the ability to grant that benefit to others.  Once she was standing, the orb was free to grow.

There wasn’t much my bugs could do.  They settled on Crawler and found his flesh impenetrable.  I began preparing web nets, drawing lines of silk between my airborne bugs.  Amy’s relay bugs had afforded me the chance to pick up far more bugs than I otherwise might have.  My attention flickered over my swarm.

Nearly a million spiders.  They were only a relatively small percentage of the swarm itself.  I had more ants, termites, flies, aphids, gnats and beetles to form the bulk of my army.

I sent the more useless ones toward Amy.  Not so many that I overwhelmed her, but enough that she always had more at hand.

He’s big, he’s strong, he’s ridiculously tough, but he’s no Leviathan.

My spiders began weaving their threads into braids, the flying bugs directing them in and through loops of silk as the threads spooled out.  Where bugs couldn’t hover, they directed their flight into tight corkscrews to slow themselves.

I wondered if this was the most bugs I’d ever controlled.  The buzz of my power thrummed through me to the point that I was barely aware of myself and where I was standing.  It wasn’t just the number of  bugs, but the number of instructions.  Spiders were spooling thread, organizing by the amounts they had remaining.  Flying bugs were gathering in formations, carrying the slower bugs forward and maneuvering the spiders to spin webs.  Smaller bugs, the useless ones, I directed to Amy and formed into dozens of decoys.  Millions of instructions a second.

Estimates said that insects outnumbered people by two hundred million to one in worldwide population.  Part of that distribution was biased toward rainforests and other areas humans left uninhabited.

At the end of the day, that was just insects, and there were more creatures under my sway than the six-legged variety.  I could feel them in the earth, in the walls, beneath the pavement, even.  Even from the weeks after I’d left the hospital, I’d dismissed them as background noise, just sources to draw from in amassing my swarms.

Now, it felt different.  My range was extended, and it wasn’t because I was distracted, cornered, trapped.  As Crawler noticed us and shifted his position to keep us all in line of sight with his innumerable eyes, I had a few moments to think, to experience my power at its best.

We were so small.  Even in the scope of a single neighborhood, my power extending for roughly a thousand feet in every direction, it made us all seem tiny.  Even Crawler.

“Don’t use your orb on him,” Tattletale cautioned.  “Won’t do us any favors, and it’ll only make him stronger for the future.”

“Then what should I do?”

“There’s no civilians here.  Legend and the others have evacuated.”  I told her.  “The buildings are empty.

She nodded, apparently grasping my meaning.

“You go high, ‘Dancer, I go low?” Grue asked.

She nodded.

I held back as they advanced, ready to make their move.  Ballistic caught Crawler with a projectile, and the monster went sliding.  Shatterbird hit him with a wave of glass to keep him down, and Genesis swooped down to smash him over the head with the wreckage of a small car.

It did surprisingly little to keep him down.

Grue and Sundancer made their moves, Grue swamping Crawler in darkness while Sundancer brought her orb around into the face of the building.  With her miniature sun, she sheared through the concrete and metal, zig-zagging the orb through one floor.

The supports obliterated or melted, the building crashed down to the street with enough force that the rolling cloud of dust and was enough to drive us back.

He had to weigh several tons, but the building had him beat in that regard.

We hurried to gather.  Genesis landed.

“One minute, forty-five seconds,” Tattletale said, “More if we’re lucky.”

“Until?”  Regent asked.

“They’re bombing the area,” I explained.

Tattletale, Sundancer and Trickster found seats on Bentley’s back.  Bitch climbed up behind me.  Imp materialized, for lack of a better word, dropping the effect of her power.  That left her and Ballistic.

“Three people, two fliers?” Tattletale asked.

“Can carry one,” Regent said.  “Too tired to carry more.”  Shatterbird landed and wrapped her arms around him.

“I can try to carry the others,” Genesis’s voice sounded very normal considering her gargoyle-like face.  Bitch handed her a length of chain.

“One minute and fifteen seconds.  Not sure if it’s paranoia or my power, but I think the bomb’s going to hit closer to the deadline than not.”

Genesis gathered the chain into a loop.  As Imp and Ballistic found their seats and Genesis made motions to take off, there was the sound of shifting rubble.

“Damn it!”  Grue swore.  “Go!  Go!’

One minute, give or take.

We ran.  There was the sound of more rubble shifting out of place, and then a guttural laughter.  It sounded more like it came from multiple gargantuan people laughing in sync than it did from the one monster.

“More!”  His voice was even more unnatural, a jumble of individual sounds that only barely came together into something like a word.  Not so different from when I spoke through my swarm.  “Fight me!”

The impacts of heavy footfalls were audible as Crawler broke into a run, giving chase.  They were even tactile.  He was more than a hundred feet behind us, but I could feel his impacts shake Sirius.

As my bugs struggled to catch up, my swarm sense felt Crawler stop, rearing up on his two hindmost legs.  He caught at one corner of a building and tore, twisting his body to throw a chunk of brick.

“Look out!”  I shouted.

My words were too slow.  The rock collided with Genesis, catching one wing.  She collapsed to the ground, and both Ballistic and Imp fell the fifteen or so feet to the ground.  Imp shrieked as she landed.

No.

Crawler’s pause to grab concrete had bought me time to get my bugs into position.  They swept over Crawler, laying down braided ropes of silk joined by adhesive lines and thin gossamer.  Even caterpillars began offering their assistance, using the silk they produced for cocoons.

He was a big guy, but it was a lot of silk.

I could see how it hampered his movements.  There was even something approximating surprise on his face as he dropped down so all six legs were firmly on the ground, and his forelimbs didn’t extend as far as he’d expected.  He tried to run and found himself hampered further.

Crawler sported two or three tons of physical prowess, and his power had fine tuned him into a physical specimen like few others.  My bugs had millions of years of evolution to refine the quality of their silk and their ability to produce it.

For now, at the very least, I had the advantage.

“Genesis, can you run?”

Fuck.  No,” Genesis spoke.  “Made these claws for grabbing.”

True enough, her forelimbs and rear limbs were more like clawed hands than feet or hooves.

“Imp, Ballistic, run!”

It wasn’t enough.  We had too much distance to cover before we could be sure of our safety.  Or of Imp and Ballistic’s safety, anyways.  Even with another two minutes, or another five- well, people weren’t that fast as a rule, and neither Imp nor Ballistic were runners.  It looked like Imp had hurt herself in the fall.

“Tattletale!”  I shouted.  “Take Imp!  Bentley’s strong enough to take four!”

“Got it!”  She cried, steering Bentley around and their group scooped up Imp, pulling her up onto Tattletale’s lap.  Four people, but three of them were girls in good shape.

Sirius wasn’t as strong, and Grue was heavy, Bitch wasn’t exactly slight, and Ballistic was built like a football player.  Between the four of us, I doubted Sirius had it in him.  Not if we wanted to move fast.

“Grue!”  I called out.

“Don’t you fucking dare!”  He turned his head around.

I disentangled from Bitch’s grip, avoided Grue’s clutching hand and slid to the ground.  I didn’t land with both feet under me, so I tipped over and rolled.

“Ballistic, take my seat!”  I shouted, as I got my feet under me.  I glanced behind me at Crawler and broke into a run.

“Skitter!”  Grue barked the word.

“Just go!  I have a plan!”

Easier to lie when I was shouting, my face hidden.

They picked up Ballistic and bolted.

I was left behind in moments.

“Run, little girl!”  Crawler’s broken voice carried, a rumble so low I could feel it.  “I’ll get free!  I’ll catch you!  I’ll hold you down and lick your skin until it melts!  I’ll pluck your eyes out with the tip of my tongue!  I have your scent and you cannot ever stop me!  You cannot ever escape!”

Even the practiced motions of running couldn’t take the edge off.  Running had been my reprieve for so long, my escape long before I’d had costumes and the distractions of everything that was involved there.  It wasn’t doing anything to help the panic that was taking hold of me.

I wracked my mind for something, anything that might serve as an option.  Sewer?  Could I get down into the sewer or storm drain?

It was a possibility, though with the structural integrity of the city being what it was, it could just as easily be suicidal.

My bugs.  Could I lift myself up the same way I’d lifted up the small tools?  More silk, millions more bugs?

I couldn’t take the chance it wouldn’t work.

The one minute mark had surely passed.  I was on borrowed time, now, trusting my fate to luck.

Could Genesis form a new body in time?  It took her minutes, and I didn’t have that time to spare.  She would have to find me, too.

No.  Genesis couldn’t help.

And the heroes?  I searched in the direction of Jack and Bonesaw.  The heroes were fending off a group of people.  The group was larger than it had been the last time my focus was on them.  She was recruiting civilians?

The heroes were falling back, gathering in formation.  Cache was using his power, if I was judging right.  I felt some of my bugs disappear from existence as he used his power on members of his team.  Putting them in some extradimensional compartment.  The others around him, one member of the Wards, Ursa and Weld.

The good guys were preparing for an imminent bombing run.  Jack and Bonesaw were making a run for it, too.  They’d sensed something was wrong from the way the heroes were acting.

Their chances were about as good as mine.

Amy.  She was turning to run.  The others crossed her path, shouted a warning.

She used her power on the bug she was touching, making a final, haphazard connection.

My grip over the relay bugs had been tenuous.  This wasn’t much better.  One bug, and I couldn’t sense enough about it.  I didn’t have that innate grasp of its biology, of how it operated, or the instincts that drove it.

It would have to do.

I chanced a look over my shoulder and regretted it.  Crawler was bound tighter than ever, caught by my bugs, but the look threw me off-balance.  I stumbled, nearly falling over.

I managed to keep my feet under me, righting myself, but the movement of my leg made me aware of the strain.

Come on, come on.

We met each other halfway.  Listening to my power, it turned in midair, so its back was to me.  It skidded on the ground.

Six and a half feet long, five feet across and five feet tall.  A giant beetle.  It looked like she had used a Hercules beetle as a starting point, but built it broader, with larger, longer legs and two forelimbs with what looked like praying mantis style blades.  Sporting a black shell that looked almost ragged, the tips a gray-white, it also featured a single large horn that curved overhand, pointing down at the ground.

“Please,” I prayed.  I swung one leg over its thorax and gripped the horn.  It was an awkward posture, making me feel like I’d fall forward and face-plant on the ground with the slightest excuse.  “Come on.”

It ran on the ground, slower than me.  Its shell parted behind me, revealing an overlarge, complicated set of wings.  They began to beat, thrumming with sixty or seventy flaps a second, powered by an efficient machine of what I took to be a combination of biological hydraulics and musculature.

“Come on,” I begged it.

I felt it begin to lift.  I even pushed with my toes, as if that could give it what it needed.

We accelerated, my hair whipping behind me as we gained a dramatic boost in speed.  But our trajectory was almost directly forward, not up.  I kicked at the ground as we landed, as if that could lift us into the air.  It wasn’t working.

It dawned on me why.

My bugs normally had ingrained knowledge of how to function.  This was a new lifeform.  It had all the necessary parts.  Amy had probably scaled everything up, given it every advantage in design I could want, counteracting all the problems that came with being proportionately larger.

But at the end of the day, it didn’t know how to fly.

I used my power to control every movement.  I felt it accelerate again, and tilted our orientation.  I felt myself shift slightly as I found myself almost directly on top, my legs gripping the underside of his thorax, and I overcompensated.  We both crashed to the ground.  A ten or twelve foot drop for me.  My armor absorbed the worst of the impact, but I felt my forehead hit pavement.  I always thought of the concussion I’d suffered whenever I took a blow to the head.

“Come on!”  I growled the words, scrambling to my feet.  “Don’t be hurt, don’t be hurt.”

He was okay.  I could examine him with my power, I just couldn’t comprehend him in the same natural, instinctive manner.  It took attention, focus.  With my direction, he used a flutter of his wings and the points of his scythe-tipped claws to flip over so he was ready as I reached him.  I mounted him and tried again.  We repeated the takeoff process, faster this time.

We lifted off on the first try.  I controlled my breathing, focused my attention on him, tried to avoid that same reflexive compensation that came with a shift of my balance.

When I account for the wing compartments and the amount of space that the wings take up at the back of the shell, He’s not much bigger than a motorcycle.

Relating him to a motorcycle helped, giving me the confidence to lean gently into the turns he needed to make in shifting with the air currents.

A laugh bubbled out from between my lips, one part hysteria to two parts relief and three parts exhilaration.  I was higher up than some six-story buildings and I’d barely realized it.

Amy had heard what Grue said about our possible shortage of transportation and my lack of firepower.  She’d supplied something to serve in the time allotted, with the resources I’d provided.  She’d put this together in minutes.

Growing confident in the mechanics of flying, I swooped us down.  We were faster than the others on the ground, and we passed them with ease.  I loosened my deathgrip on the horn to extend one arm out to one side.  A wave, a salute.

That done, I pulled up.

Crawler, still bound, was unable to tear through the silk as fast as the millions of spiders were connecting it.  If there was only a way to stop the bombing, I could do something to pin him down, buy time for the heroes to arrange more permanent accommodations.

But there wasn’t.  I could feel the effects as Clockblocker froze Cache in time, then froze himself.  His suit, at least.  It was only the four of them – Clockblocker, Cache, Ursa and Weld.

The bomb was about to hit, and I could only guess if we were going to be out of the blast zone.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.9

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“With the shoulder bone connected to the,” she paused, “Hip bone…”

Bonesaw sang to herself as she drew a scalpel from her sleeve, investigated it, then laid it on the counter.

“And the hip bone connected to the… back bone.”

She drew a pair of forceps from beneath her dress, another two pairs of forceps were retrieved, joining the first.

“And the back bone connected to the… knee bone.  And the knee bone connected to the… hand bone.”

I was scared.  I could admit that.  I could barely think straight, I couldn’t move, and whatever she’d dosed me with was rendering me unable to use my power.  It was there, it wasn’t like what Panacea had done; it hadn’t shut it down entirely.  I could sense what my bugs did, and I could maybe give them crude instructions, but I couldn’t do anything even remotely complicated or delicate.

“And the neck bone connected to the-” She rocked her head to either side as she finished, “Head bone.”

I could see the open door of the refrigerator out of the corner of my eye, but couldn’t turn my head to get a better look.  Brian could see us from where he hung.

I didn’t want to go down without a fight.  I couldn’t give specific directions to my bugs, but if I tried, maybe I could give one.  Maybe, just maybe, I could rely on my subconscious to guide them, even if my conscious mind wasn’t up to it.

I controlled my breathing, in then out, and gave the order.

Attack!

If the commands could be analogous to words in my head, this was a shout.  There was no control, no guidance or direction.  I didn’t have the facility.  Still, every bug in reach, within a range of five or so city blocks in every direction, began to converge on our location, veering towards Bonesaw.

She noticed almost immediately, drawing the can of aerosol spray she’d used to wipe out the first swarm I’d set on her.  One hornet managed to sting her, and with my power as limited as it was, I couldn’t stop it from contracting its body in such a way as to inject its venom into her.  I wouldn’t have if I could.

The rest of the bugs died on contact with the spray, their bodies shutting down.

Except my order was a continuous directive, much as my calling my bugs to me had been when I’d passed out while fighting Bakuda.  It worked on its own, without my direction.  It was eerie to track their movements, to see just how much initiative they took without my conscious mind guiding them.  They spread out, navigated past obstacles, they organized into ranks and tried to attack her from behind, while she was spraying the ones in front of her.  Some of the flying insects were even dropping spiders onto Bonesaw.

“This is annoying,” I heard Bonesaw comment.  I couldn’t see her in my field of view, which was primarily limited to the floor, Imp’s mask and if I looked as far to my left as I could manage, the fridge that held Brian.  Few of the bugs were getting past that spray, and even the droplets of the spray that had settled lingered on Bonesaw’s skin, hair and clothing were enough to kill or incapacitate them on contact.

I was unable to respond to her statement.  I focused on breathing, and taking in every detail I could.  My eyes could still move, my fingertips could twitch, but nothing else.

“Just so you know, I’ve rendered myself immune to all those pesky little venoms and allergens,” she said.  “And I can turn pain off like I’m flicking a switch.  Don’t want to do that on a permanent basis, but it does make this easier to deal with.”

So I wasn’t even hurting her.  Damn it.

“It’s still annoying.”

I could feel my bugs congregating on her as she put the aerosol down and fumbled around inside her pockets.  Test tubes: I could feel the long, smooth glass. She dropped something into each, then stabbed the aerosol can.  The smoke that plumed out killed most of the bugs in the area.  I couldn’t follow what she did with the can and the test tubes.

“It’s interesting,” she said.  I felt small hands on me, and she heaved me over so I was staring at the ceiling, and at her.  Clouds of what looked like steam were rising around her.  From the test tubes?  It was having the same effect on my bugs that the aerosol had.  She’d erected some kind of gaseous barrier.

“See, there’s this part of the brain that people who study parahumans call the Corona Pollentia, not to be confused with the Corona Radiata.  It’s a part of the brain that’s different in parahumans, and it’s the part that’s used to manage powers, when the powers can be managed.  More specifically, there’s this part of the Corona they call the Gemma, that controls the active use of the power, the same way there are parts of the brain that allow us to coordinate and move our hands.”

She ran her fingers over my exposed scalp, massaging it, as if she were feeling the shape of my head.  “The size, shape and location of the Corona and the Gemma changes from parahuman to parahuman, but it tends to sit between the frontal and the parietal lobe.  Beneath the ‘crown’ of the head, if you will.  They can’t really lobotomize the Corona in criminals.  Some of that’s because the location and shape of the Corona depends on the powers and how they work, and trial and error doesn’t work with the scary bad guys who can melt flesh or breathe lasers.”

She tilted my head back and felt around the edges of my mask, trying to find the part where she could pull it off.   “I’m really good at figuring out where the Corona and the Gemma are.  I can even guess most of the time, if I know what powers the person has.  And I can pry it wide open, make it so the powers can’t be turned off, or I can temporarily disable it, or modify it.  The powder I blew into your face?  It has the same prions I put in the darts I shot your friends with.  Cripples the Gemma, but it leaves your powers intact.  Can’t experiment with your abilities if I’ve fried your whole Corona Pollentia, right?  Right.”

She angled my head and stared into my goggles with her mismatched eyes.  “Dealio is, the Corona’s way too small to be doing what it’s doing.  As parahumans, our brains are doing these amazing things.  The framework, all the details our minds are using to decide what works and what doesn’t, the sheer potential, even the energy we’re using, it’s too much for our brains to process, and it’s waaaay too much for a growth that’s no bigger than a kiwi.  All of that?  It’s got to come from somewhere.  And the other reason you can’t just carve out the Corona?  If you do, the powers still work on their own.  The person just can’t control them.  It becomes instinctive, instead.”

She began feeling around my mask for a seam, buckle or zipper, searching.  She talked as she grabbed the part of my mask that bordered my scalp and tried to peel my mask down towards my chin.  “So you can see why I find it very interesting that you still have the ability to control bugs, even when your Gemma is out of order.”

She gave up on pulling my mask down.  The armor panels made it too difficult, and the fabric wouldn’t tear.  She snapped her fingers, and one of her mechanical spiders stepped close.  She removed one of the tools at the tip of the spider’s leg – a small mechanical circular saw.  It buzzed like a dentist’s drill as she turned it on.  She began taking my mask apart, thread by thread.

“I’m ten times as excited to take your brain apart, now!  You might give me a clue about the passenger.  See, I think it’s something that’s hooked into your brain.  It was alive up until your powers kicked in, it helped form the Corona, then it broke down.  I’ve seen it at work when I’ve provoked and recorded trigger events, seen it die after.  But I’m pretty sure some kind of trace is still there, linked in, cooperating with us and tapping into all those outside forces you and I can’t even comprehend, to make our power work.”

Breathe in, breathe out.  I was having to consciously maintain my breathing.  Whatever her dust had done to me, it had also jammed up the part that handled the more automatic things.  My pounding heart wasn’t in sync with the speed of my breathing, and I was beginning to feel dizzy and disoriented.  Or maybe that was the powder.  Or fear.

“But I haven’t been able to find it.  It’s not physically there, or it’s so small that I haven’t been able to track it down.  If your ‘passenger’ is strong enough to let you work around a disabled Gemma, if your powers work without your say-so, maybe it’ll be easier to spot.”

Her progress through the fabric of my mask was slow.  She stopped to clear loose material from around the tool.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll put your skull’s contents back when I’m done looking.  Then we can get to the real fun.”

She peeled my mask off.

Breathe in, breathe out.  Don’t want to pass out.  Or maybe I should?  Maybe I didn’t want to be conscious for what came next.

Her scalpel slid across my forehead, so fast and precise that it barely hurt.  I caught a glimpse of her untangling her fingers and her scalpel from my long hair before the first dribbles of blood flooded down into my eyes.  It stung, and I was momentarily blind before I managed to blink the worst of it away.  I wanted to blink more, faster, but the response was sluggish at best.  I couldn’t tell if my contacts were helping or hurting matters.

I was put in mind of the incident just days before I’d gone out in costume.  The bathroom stall, the showering in juice.  It had started with cranberry juice in my eyes and hair.  How had I gotten from there to here?

“I can’t tell you how excited I am.  It’s like Christmas, opening a present!  Thank you!”  She bent down and kissed me squarely in the center of the forehead.  When she sat up, there was crimson all over her lips and chin.  She wiped most of it away with the back of her hand, uncaring.

She glanced at the circular saw, and it started up with that high-pitched whine.

Then it stopped.

“Clogged up with teensy-weensy bits of silk and whatever that armor’s made of, too slow.  But don’t worry!  I have a bigger saw somewhere else.  I was using it for one of the other surgeries I did earlier.  Let me see if I can find it.”  She stood, then stepped out of my field of vision.  My bugs couldn’t feel her, but I could tell that she was carrying one of the steaming, smoking vials with her, as bugs died on the other side of the room, then the hallway, then a nearby room.

I tried to move and failed.  My fingertips twitched, I could blink if I focused on it to the exclusion of everything else.  My eyes, at least, moved readily enough.

I couldn’t do anything.  Even an instruction as basic as ‘find Bitch’ was beyond my abilities at present.

Bonesaw had talked about this ‘passenger’.  My ally, my partner, after a fashion.  Was there some way to use it?  To put more power in its hands?

Help!  I tried, putting every iota of willpower into the command that I could.

Nothing.  Too vague.  Whatever aid my ‘passenger’ provided, it wouldn’t think of something I couldn’t.  My bugs didn’t respond.

It was the perfect time for a rescuer to show up.  My bugs had stopped going after Bonesaw because we weren’t aware about her current location, so they hovered in place, clinging to walls and feeling around for people who might be their target.  There was a chance that they would bump into someone else.  If a rescuer was coming, my bugs would see them.

There was nobody.  No people on their way.

None of my teammates were moving, either.

If I had the ability to use my power properly, I might have done something with the smoking vials that Bonesaw had left behind.  Used loops of silk to drag them away, perhaps.  I didn’t.  My power was clumsy, now, a brute force weapon at best.

And hell, I was just so tired.  Physically, mentally, emotionally.  So many burdens on my shoulders, so many failures that had cost so much.  We had fucked up here, had underestimated Bonesaw.  I’d gone with Trickster’s plan to set Hookwolf’s contingent against the Nine and buy us the chance to infiltrate and rescue Brian, even though I’d known the strategy had too many holes, too many unpredictable variables.  I’d been too tired to think of something else, too preoccupied and impatient because Brian was in enemy hands.

I would have resigned myself to a fate worse than death, but how did one do that?  How was I supposed to convince myself to give up?  It would be so easy, on a level.  It was alluring, the idea that I could stop worrying, stop caring, after so much pressure for so many weeks and months.  After so many years, if I counted the bullying.  I wanted to give up, but a bigger, more stubborn, stupider part of my brain refused to let me.

Bonesaw returned all too soon.  “Threads, Skitter?  These yours, or leftovers from before?”

Threads?  I hadn’t set any tripwires.  I should have, but I’d been more focused on a quick rescue mission than preparations for a potential fight.

My bugs felt movement.  Except nobody had entered the building, to the best of my knowledge.  It was in one of the hallways.  Big.

The huge stuffed animal I’d noted in the hallway.

Of course.  Parian’s creations had deflated without her power to sustain them, hadn’t they?  The stuffed thing was inflated, heavy, so she was here.  My bugs couldn’t detect her, but she was here.

“Outlet, outlet, need an outlet.  You’d think there’d be more in a kitchen, but nooooo,” Bonesaw muttered.  She passed through my field of view, holding a saw twice the size of the one she’d held before.

The stuffed animal moved forward clumsily.  My swarm’s contact with it was intermittent as it made its way towards us, then past us, venturing into a hallway.

“Gonna have to cut a hole in your skull, Skitter.  Unavoidable.  I’d go up through your nose, but I couldn’t reach the top of your brain with the equipment I have.  Going to make a little window.  Just big enough to get my hand through.”

She turned on the saw, and it screamed, a shrill whine on par with nails on a blackboard, but unending, ceaseless.

The stuffed animal was turning around, coming back down the hallway, towards us.

Have to stall her.

I looked up at her, then deliberately blinked three times in a row.

The saw stopped.

“Trying to say something?”

I blinked once, hard.

“Is that one blink for yes, two for no?”

I blinked twice.  Just to confuse matters.

“That’s confusing.  You’re not just trying to delay the part where I carve up your brain, are you?”

I blinked twice.

“Not getting what you’re trying to say.  One blink for yes, two for no, okay?  Now, do you actually have something meaningful to communicate?”

I blinked once, hard.

“Are you going to tell me to stop?”

I blinked twice.  She wouldn’t listen if I did, and then it would be right back to the surgery.  I trembled, but I didn’t take my eyes off her.

“Tell me when to stop.  Last requests, threats, your friends, um… science, art-”

I blinked once.

“Art?  Yours?  Mine?”

Another blink.  If anything would get her talking, it was her ‘art’.

“What do you want to know.  About your friend there?  It’s more research than anything else.  Or maybe about you?”

I blinked.  The stuffed animal was close.

“Art and you, huh.  You want to know what I’m gonna do when we’re done with my investigation?”

Why not?  Knowing had to be better than wondering.  One blink.

“I’m going to go all out.  Way I figure it, I set your Gemma lobe to attract bugs around you, then remove it, so you’ve got no conscious control over it.  But there’s a point to it!  I make some physical modifications to you, see.  Implant some of Mannequin’s equipment so you’ve got enough sustenance to keep you going, and sustenance to keep the bugs you bring to you alive.  You become a living hive, see?  We could even make it so they crawl inside you and build nests there.”

The stuffed animal pushed the door open and walked into the cafeteria.  The room darkened as it passed in front of a window.

Please don’t notice it.

“I’ve got a regular mod for your amygdala, to make sure you behave, and a frame I implant to your skeleton and heart to help control you, make you stronger, more durable.  I figure we’ll try to go for a cosmetic shift.  I have to say I admire this armor, so why not let take that to the logical conclusion?  We’ll give you an exoskeleton.  It’d be awesome.  Compound eyes, claws.  We’ll see how far we can go.  Won’t that be fun?”

The stuffed animal had stopped in the middle of the cafeteria.  Either it didn’t hear Bonesaw or something else had its attention.

I could feel that not unfamiliar sensation of darkness creeping in around the edges of my vision.  Was I passing out?  How much blood was I losing?

I blinked three times.  Stall.

“No, no.”  She stroked my hair, and my forehead lit up with a burning pain where she’d cut.  “We should get this done before you drop dead.  Don’t think I can’t see the changes in your breathing and pupil dilation.”

She started up the saw and pressed it against my skull.  The horror of what she was doing was compounded by the most god-awful noise, and a grinding vibration of my skull.

If it hurt, I didn’t register it, because the noise of the tool had drawn the stuffed animal’s attention.  It charged for us, slamming through the glass sneeze guard of the dining hall’s serving counter.  It struck Bonesaw, hard, and the saw slid across my head, cutting through my hairline.  I didn’t care.

My rescuer was some kind of cartoonish dinosaur made of black and blue fabric.  I could see the logo of this health club repeated several times over the stuffed animal’s exterior.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Bonesaw slowly stand.  The two combatants were at opposite points in my peripheral vision; Bonesaw stood to the far left, Parian’s creation to the far right.

“That’s really rude,” Bonesaw said, putting inflection on each word.  “I was having a nice conversation with Skitter, and you interrupt?”

She snapped her fingers, and mechanical spiders leaped from a spot I couldn’t see to latch onto the stuffed dinosaur, much as they’d done with me.

Needles, saws, scalpels and drills attacked the dinosaur, and it, in turn, smashed the spiders to the best of its ability.  Though it clubbed the spiders into pieces with its hands, feet and tail, it still continued to march steadily towards Bonesaw, moving over me and the others.

Bonesaw, for her part, was retreating, holding a pair of test tubes in one hand, dropping what looked like color-coded sugar cubes into them with the other.  She glanced around quickly, then lunged for a nearby counter, grabbing a bottle of water.  She upended it over the test tubes, going for haste over precision.  More than half of the water splashed around her feet.

Parian’s creation struck the villainess a second time.  Bonesaw was thrown into a metal shelf unit with enough force that she dented it.  One test tube slipped from her fingers.

The other, she whipped at the stuffed dinosaur.  It hit with enough force that it shattered on impact.

The dinosaur struck Bonesaw a third time.  Heavy as the impact was, Bonesaw was cornered and she couldn’t go flying as she’d done before.  My view of the scene was limited to the back of the Dinosaur’s head, and the occasional view of an stubby-fingered arm as it was drawn back for a haymaker punch.  It pounded her, one hit after another.

My heart sank as I saw the stuffed dinosaur begin to deflate.  It backed away from Bonesaw, and I saw a spreading area on its side where the fabric was thinning out, bleaching.  Once the first holes appeared in the fabric, the rest of the process was swift.  It crumpled almost explosively, revealing a figure inside.

Parian threw off the cloth that had covered her and used her power to rip away her sleeve and part of her dress where it was disintegrating; whatever had eaten at the fabric of her dinosaur armor was continuing the process with her clothing.

I could see Bonesaw too.  Her face was bloodied, her nose gushing blood, and her cheek was a ruined, abraded mess.  Whatever had eaten at Parian’s dinosaur had gotten on her too, devouring the edges of her dress, one sock and part of the shoe on the same foot.

Rude.”

“You killed my mom,” Parian’s voice sounded hollow.

“My teammates did most of the actual killing, so I don’t think I did, if that makes you feel any better.”

“My aunt, my best friend, my cousin… they were all here.”

“Wrong place, wrong time?” Bonesaw shrugged.  She slapped at a wasp that had managed to get in position to sting her.  She wasn’t in the area of her anti-bug smoke anymore.

“They told me to run, to protect the kids.  But they were supposed to escape while I handled that,” Parian sounded lost, dazed.  “I thought they’d get away, so I played dead.  I didn’t know.”

She wasn’t a fighter, I remembered.  She had held her own against Leviathan, but she didn’t have experience.  I wanted to scream at her, to make her stop talking, to do something to Bonesaw.

“If it makes you feel any better, some of them might still be alive.  We didn’t kill them all.”

Parian snapped her attention to Bonesaw, “What?”

“Some we left alive, so I could give them five-minute plastic surgery.  My spiders handled most of it.  Implants under the skin, some chemical dyes for hair…”

“Plastic surgery?”  Parian shook her head.  “What?  Why?”

“To make them look like us.  They’re all running around out there, drawing enemy fire and freaking out.  It’s funny.  And of course, it’ll take a dozen visits with doctors less talented than I to get something even resembling their old faces back.  Can you imagine how many people are going to double take when they look at them, before they’ve all been fixed?  Like, ‘Oh no, it’s Siberian!’, except it isn’t.”

Parian flung one hand in Bonesaw’s direction.  I didn’t see what happened next, but the bugs that were still drifting in Bonesaw’s direction to attack her were telling me that there were threads stretching between the two of them.  A bug settled on the point of a needle where it had impaled the side of Bonesaw’s neck.  Twenty or thirty needles with attached threads extending between them and Parian’s sleeve.

Bonesaw crunched something in her mouth, “You’re playing so rough.  Ow.  I think you broke one of my teeth, with your dinosaur.”

Parian ignored her.  A twist of her hands, and Bonesaw was lifted into the air, spread-eagled.  Bonesaw’s skin stretched where the needles pulled at it.  Parian advanced towards the villain.

Broken tooth?  No.  When I’d kicked Cherish earlier, hadn’t she said that Bonesaw had reinforced her teeth?  Surely the psycho would have done the same for herself.

She was lying.

And there was nothing I could do to alert Parian.

Parian picked up one of the scalpels Bonesaw had placed near me.  Her hand was trembling even after she had it in a white-knuckled grip.  “I don’t want to do this.  I never wanted to fight.  But I can’t let you walk away.  That’s the most important thing.  I’m willing to compromise what I believe in, compromise myself, to do that.”

Bonesaw rolled her eyes.

Wall!  Barrier!

My bugs left Bonesaw’s presence to form a barrier between her and Parian, but they were too few.  Too many had died against Bonesaw’s bug killing smoke.  Parian ignored them.

In one motion, Parian stepped close and stabbed the scalpel into Bonesaw’s throat.  Then she did it again, and again, stabbing over and over, hysterical.

It wasn’t enough blood.  I knew it, and Parian had to know it.

Bonesaw spat into Parian’s face.  Her own flesh burned as whatever chemical she had been holding in her mouth spilled down her lip.

Parian, for her part, dropped the scalpel, tore her mask off and staggered blindly in the general direction of the sink, her hands over her eyes.

No.

What I wouldn’t give for the chance to change this, to act, to offer even one word of assistance.

Bonesaw turned her head and spat again, some residual chemical directed at the threads. When that didn’t achieve the desired result, she repeated the process.  The threads snapped and she dropped to the ground.

“Burned mah tongue,” Bonesaw said, to nobody in particular.  Or to me?  She stuck it out to demonstrate.  It was scalded, blistered and covered with dead white flesh in much the same way her lip was.  She spat again.

Parian reached the sink, cranked on the tap.  There was no water.  She threw herself to one side, feeling along the counter for something, anything to wash out her eyes.

“You’re lucky I’m so nice,” Bonesaw said.  She lifted up the tattered bottom of her dress to dab at her lip and tongue.  I could make out test tubes, equipment and pouches, all belted to her thighs and stomach.  “If I was a less forgiving person, I’d make you regret that.”

Parian sagged to her knees, hands still on the counter, heaving for breath.

“But instead, I’ll leave you alone to think about what you’ve done,” Bonesaw said.  She plucked some of the needles out of her skin.  “I’ll finish with these guys, and later, I can show you what can do with a needle and thread.  It’ll be fun.  Common interests!”

“Making friends, Bonesaw?”

No.  Any vestige of hope I’d had disappeared.

Jack leaned over the counter.  Burnscar stood beside him, looking troubled.

“Jack!  Yes!  I’m having lots of fun!  These people are so interesting,”  Bonesaw smiled.

“You hurt yourself,” Jack frowned.  “Your mouth.”

“The doll-girl ambushed me.  But I’m okay.  I can fix myself after I’m done here.”

“You’ll have to finish fast.  We’re going.”

“No!”

“Yes.  The enemy’s recouping from the first few hits, and they’re stalling Siberian and Crawler.  Only a matter of time before they engage in one good flank and blindside one of us three.  We leave now, and all they remember is how hard we hit them and how little they could do.”

“But I have research!”

“Bring three.  We won’t be able to bring them all along, and you know they get messy if you leave them like that for too long.”

“Only three?”  Bonesaw pouted.

“Only three.”

“Then, um.  Skitter…”

I felt hands seize my feet and pull me away from my teammates.  Burnscar.  She held me under one arm, my head and arms dangling.  Beads of blood dripped down to the floor.

“Um, um.  Tattletale.  I want to see what her brain looks like, too.”

“Tattletale it is.”

“And Trickster!  Because Ball-of-fire girl killed Hack Job.  I want another.”

Hack Job?

“Trickster it is.  Finish off the rest.”

“Can I leave Brian there?  I have to show my art to people to get known.”

“Brian, is it?  Hm.  I think that’s a very good idea.”

“Yes!  Then we’ll go from first to last.  The girl with the horns.”

Imp?

The small circular saw started up with its high-pitched whine.

Then it stopped.  I could hear a strangled noise.

“Aw.  Look at his heart beating!  So fast!”

Burnscar turned, and I could tell they were looking at Brian.

Another strangled noise, trying and failing to form words.  It was so forced and ragged that it made my own throat seize up in sympathy.

“You don’t want to see your sister die, huh?  That’s sweet,” Bonesaw said.  “Maybe you should have taught her the basics.  Don’t have to see her if she’s going to walk straight into a modified wolf trap.  Did you know?  She turned off her power just so she could beg for help.  From us.  She’s not very bright.”

He made a sound that might have been a growl or a howl of rage, but there was no volume to it, and it was more high-pitched than anything else.

“Don’t worry!”  Bonesaw said, “I’ll take good care of your friends.”

I felt a hand pat my cheek.

“Come now, Bonesaw,” Jack said.

“It’s just so funny, watching him react.  His heart beat faster when I touched her.”

“It did.  But we should go.  Burnscar?  Torch the ones we’re not bringing.”

“I wanted to!”

“You had your chance, little b.  You got distracted.”

I could feel the heat of nearby flame as Burnscar manifested a fireball in one hand.

Darkness rolled over Burnscar’s feet, a carpet.  There was no direction to it, and very little volume.  It pooled on the ground and spread.

“Yes!  He’s doing it!  Can I look?  I just want to get the hard drive!”

“No.”

“But-”

I could feel my heart pounding, pounding, then stop.  The pain was gone.  I was gone too.  I had no body, only perception.

The scene was familiar.  At the same time, I couldn’t have said what happened next.  It was like a book I’d read years ago and promptly forgotten, too strange to commit to memory.

Two beings spiraled through an airless void, past suns, stars and moons.  They rode the ebbs and flows of gravity, ate ambient radiation and light and drew on other things I couldn’t perceive.  They slipped portions of themselves in and out of reality to reshape themselves.  Push further into this reality to ride the pull of one planet, shift into another to ride that slingshot momentum, or to find some other source of momentum elsewhere.  Ten thousand thousands of each of the two entities existed simultaneously, complemented each other, drew each other forward.  They shrugged off even the physical laws that limited the movement of light, moving faster with every instant. The only thing that slowed them was their own desire to stay close, to keep each other in sight and match their speeds.  Yet somehow this movement was graceful, fluid, beautiful even.  Two impossible creatures moving in absolute harmony with the universe, leaving a trail of essence in their wakes.

I focused on one of them, and I got the sensation that this wasn’t a scene I’d seen before.

I could see what it saw.  It was looking forward, but not in distance.  Ten thousand pictures at once.  Seeing situations where it arrived at its final destination.  Earth.  The farther forward it looked, the broader the possibilities.  It was looking for something.  Paring away the branches where the possibilities were few.  An Earth in a perpetual winter.  An Earth with a population of hundreds.  An earth with a population of more than twelve billion, that had stalled culturally, a modern dark age with a singular religion.

And it communicated with its partner.  Signals transmitted not through noise, but wavelengths transmitted across the most fundamental forces of the universe.  In the same way, it received information, it worked with its partner to decide the destination.

It viewed a world, one point in time in the present, and in a heartbeat, it took in trillions of images.  Billions of individuals, viewed separately and as a tableau.  Innumerable scenes, landscapes, fragments of text, even ideas.  In that one heartbeat, I saw people who were somehow familiar.  A young man, a teenager, out of place among his peers, men who were burly with muscle.  They were drinking.  He was tan, with narrow hips, his forehead creased in worry above thick glasses, but his mouth was curled in the smallest of wry smiles over something one of the men was saying.  A snapshot, an image of a moment.

It was my world, my Earth it was looking at.

Coming to a consensus, it transmitted a decision.  Destination.

The reply was almost immediate.  Agreement.

More signals passed between them, blatant and subtle.  A melding of minds, a sharing of ideas, as intimate as anything I’d seen.  They continued to communicate, focusing on that one world, on the possible futures that could unfold, committing to none, but explored the possibilities that lay before them.

They broke apart, the two massive beings that spiralled together, and I gradually lost my glimpse into what they were thinking, what they were communicating.  Whatever view they’d had of the future, they were losing it.  It was too much to pick through on their own.

Where have I seen this before?  I thought.

But somewhere in the course of forming and finishing the thought, I’d broken away from whatever it was I’d seen.  It was slipping from my mind.  The void I was in was not the world of the entities, but Brian’s world.  Brian’s power.

The darkness coiled around me, through me.  It was different, slithering past my skin to brush against my heart, tracing the edges of my wounds, the gouge in my skull that Bonesaw had made with her saw, slithering over and through my brain.

I could feel my power slip just a little out of my reach, my range dropping, my control over the bugs just a touch weaker.

But I could still see through my bugs.  I could still feel what they felt.  They’d gathered for the barrier I’d tried to erect between Parian and Bonesaw, and they’d dispersed in the time since, touching everyone present.  Burnscar had put out her flame, was cradling her hand to her chest.  I could feel Bonesaw and Jack, standing a short distance away.  I could feel Trickster, Sundancer, Tattletale, Parian, Ballistic and Imp.  I could feel Grue, hanging from the wall of the walk-in freezer.

I could feel another person, someone who hadn’t been there a moment ago.  A man standing in the darkness.

The man strode forward, uncaring about the darkness.  He caught Burnscar around the face with one broad hand, and he brought it down hard against the counter.  I was dropped to the ground.  Burnscar fell across me, limp and unmoving, and the man flickered out of existence.

The darkness slipped away, retracing its steps through my body, undoing its passage between my organs and joints, through and inside my blood vessels.

A clearing formed.  An expanse of dim light, lit only by one shaft of light that managed to come in through the corner of a window.  Burnscar’s head was pulverized, unrecognizable.  She lay limp, unmoving, dead.

“Interesting,” Jack said, looking down at his fallen teammate.

“Yes!  I’m almost positive I got this on record!” Bonesaw squealed.

“Which you’ll have to leave behind.  We’ll retreat.”

“I just need the hard drive!  I’ve been trying to get data like this for ages, and it’s a new system!”

Bonesaw started to head for the walk-in fridge where Brian was, but Jack grabbed her by the back of the neck.  “No.”

“It’s ‘kay!  Two seconds!  I’ll be right back!”  She slipped out of his grip, running into the freezer, opening one of the cases that looked Mannequin-made.

The darkness continued to dissipate around Brian, and I was aware as a masculine figure flickered into existence in the midst of the cloud, in one corner of the walk-in freezer.

It was Brian, but it wasn’t.  It was colored in monochrome, with one eye open, the other half-formed.  Markings in white covered his flesh, spiraling out from one pectoral, covering his chest and stomach.  His hands were white to the elbow, and he was sexless.  A ken doll with only more white patterns between his legs.

Or maybe he was white and the markings were in black?

Almost casually, he reached out and seized Bonesaw’s hands, which gripped the drive.  He raised her off of the ground, her feet kicking, and she grunted as his grip tightened.

“The things I put up with,” Jack said, seemingly unconcerned.  He whipped out his knife, slashing at the pseudo-Brian.  There was no effect.  “Hm.”

Grabbing a meat cleaver from the kitchen counter, he hacked at Bonesaw instead.  It took three swings to sever her arms at the wrists.  She hit the ground running, her stumps jammed into her armpits.  They disappeared over the counter of the dining hall, Jack helping Bonesaw up.

Monochrome Brian lunged after them, but the floor of the freezer shattered beneath one foot.  He lost his orientation, then flickered out of existence once more.

I could see Brian from where I lay, as I struggled to breathe with the one-hundred and whatever pounds that were piled on top of me.  He hung there, haggard, glaring at nothing in particular.  The man didn’t reappear, but the stream of incongruent events continued; I could see one of Brian’s ribs twitch like the limb of a dying insect.

With a glacial slowness, his body parts began retracting back into place.  The metal frames holding his intestines and organs into place bent, then gave way in the face of the inexorable pull.

It took a long time.  Five minutes, maybe ten.  But his skin crept back, tearing where it had been pinned to the wall, joining back together, then healing.  Even the scratches that had criss-crossed his chest since he’d fought Cricket began to mend.

The healing stopped before it was entirely finished.  I saw the figure appear again.  The monochrome, half-formed Brian.  Mercilessly, it tore out the metal studs that had impaled Brian’s limbs to the wall.  It caught Brian, then laid him carefully on the ground.

He couldn’t walk, so he dragged himself towards us.

He had another trigger eventTwo new powers?  Three, if I counted the way his power was diminishing my own?

He touched my hand, held it between his own.  I could feel something thrumming through me, willing me to take hold of it.

It took me a minute to figure out how.  The exposed bone of my forehead itched, then sang in an exquisite agony as it mended.  My skin was next.  My seized up muscles were last.  My power was last to mend, and I regained my control, though the diminished effect continued.

I clenched my fist, struggled into a standing position.  Brian hurried to Aisha’s side, grabbing her.

Four new powers?

I hadn’t heard about anything like this.

“Come on,” he said, his voice hoarse, “Don’t have long.  I-  Damn it!”

His darkness flowed out from his skin, heavier than I’d ever seen it, slow to expand, but it seemed to generate itself.  It slithered through me yet again.  Slithered through my bugs.

It was minutes before the darkness dissipated.  When it did, Tattletale was standing.  Parian was standing on the other side of the room, eyes wide.  The three Travellers were huddled together.

“What the hell was that?” I asked.  “Brian, hey-”

I stopped.  He was on all fours, his head hung, his cheeks wet with tears.

I reached out for him, but a hand seized my wrist.  Tattletale.  She shook her head at me.

While I backed off, Tattletale reached for Imp, whispered something in her ear.

Imp bent down and took off her mask.  In a voice far gentler than any I’d heard from her before, she said, “Hey.  Big brother?  Let’s get out of here.”

Brian nodded, mute.

Aisha could approach him, but I couldn’t?

He stood, refusing Imp’s offer for help in standing.  He clutched one elbow with one hand, the arm dangling; it wasn’t an injury, I was pretty sure.  He’d healed the worst of it.  It was something else, some kind of security in the posture or something like that.

Darkness boiled out of his skin, a thin layer.  It moved slower than it had before, thicker, more like tendrils sliding against one another than smoke.  Just like the arm he had across his chest, gripping his elbow for stability, it was a kind of barrier, armor or a wall erected against the world.  He walked slowly.  Nobody complained, despite the proximity of our enemies and the fact that the darkness he’d spread out had to have alerted Hookwolf’s contingent about our existence.

I watched Brian as I walked behind him.  I’d just been paralyzed, about to receive involuntary brain surgery.  Now, in a much different way and for different reasons than before, I was again unable to offer him a hand.  I couldn’t even talk to him without being afraid I’d say the wrong thing.

Even compared to being in Bonesaw’s clutches, I felt more helpless as ever.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“I was a lot more comfortable with the risky plan when it was something I thought of,” I said.

“You said calculated recklessness, right?”  Trickster asked.

“Part of that ‘calculated’ bit is control.  Keeping the chaos to a minimum, so we can anticipate and plan.”

Trickster leaned against the door of the vehicle.  “That may be a bit of a problem.”

“You think?”

The truck passed over a pothole.  Our teams were out in force, our members divided across three trucks.  I rode with Trickster, Sundancer and Tattletale.  Regent and Ballistic were in the second vehicle.  Bitch and her dogs rode in the third.

This was Tattletale’s first time venturing out of Coil’s base in a little while.  Her power was limited when she could only get information by what we communicated to her, and this was the kind of situation where we needed her at full strength.  If nothing else, it felt better to have another teammate on the field with us, with Grue’s absence.

“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful.  I know Grue isn’t your teammate.  You didn’t have to come to help.”

“We’re all in this together, right?” Trickster said.  “You mind if I smoke?”

I shrugged and Tattletale shook her head.  He rolled down the window and lit a cigarette, placing it through the mouth-hole of his hard mask.

That would be his way of dealing with stress.  We were all tense, and we all had our ways of coping.  Trickster smoked and stared off into the distance.  Sundancer fidgeted.  She frequently realized what she was doing and forced herself to stop, only to pick up something else.  Her leg would bounce in place, then she would stop doing that and start drumming her fingers on her kneepad in some complicated pattern.  It made me think of a pianist or a guitarist fingering the strings.  Tattletale watched people, her eyes roving over the rest of us.  Her cheek bulged slightly where she touched the tip of her tongue against the backside of the wound Jack had left her.

And me?  I retreated into my headspace, I supposed.  I was maybe similar to Tattletale in that I took note of each of the others, but my thoughts were less about simply observing than about cataloguing and mentally preparing.  What options did we have?  What tools, weapons and techniques did we have at our disposal?  Who was going to be backing me up during this operation, and how reliable were those people?

It was constructive, maybe, but exhausting.  There were so many angles to consider, and the stakes were high.  Brian’s life, Brian’s quality of life.  The rest of us weren’t in the Nine’s clutches, but it would take only one mistake before any one of us could be in the same boat, wondering just how horrible things were going to get for us.

Maybe fatigue factored in, but the more I thought on our allies, the less secure I felt.

The information Cherish had volunteered about Coil, true or not, had left me with lingering doubts.  I was also acutely aware of the distinct lack of chemistry and camaraderie among the Travelers.  They were keeping secrets, with no promises of divulging the information in question.

The last time we’d all been in a car with Trickster, he’d noted that there were two major problems that Coil was helping them with.  Noelle was obviously one.  A part of me could buy that there was something serious going on with her, something that necessitated the help of someone like Coil.  Another nagging part of me was thinking that there were still too many unanswered questions.  What was holding them together as a group?  How fragile was that tie?

Was this really what I needed to be dwelling on?

I thought over my arsenal and the options I had with my power.  I’d developed enough techniques that I was starting to have trouble keeping track of them all.  Should I name them?  It seemed like something out of a kid’s show, shouting out the names of the abilities as I used them.  ‘Firebug attack, go!’  ‘Silkwrap Strike!’

I shook my head a little.  I was tired.  My mind was wandering.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had more than five hours of sleep, and I’d barely slept at all last night.  Fear and adrenaline usually clarified things, so it probably said something that I was feeling a little dazed despite what we were going into.  Some of that was the constant aggression.  Since the Nine had made their presence known, I’d barely been able to relax and let my guard down.  After Mannequin had started killing people in my territory, taking even a moment to myself made me feel like I was insulting their memories, that I was failing the next batch of people who would become victims of my enemies.

“We should stop here,” Tattletale said.

That was apparently order enough, because the driver pulled over.  The long seconds of stillness after the truck had stopped said volumes.  We didn’t want to get out of the car, we didn’t want to face the Nine, deal with their traps as we tried to catch them in our own.  Two or three seconds passed with tension thrumming in the air, every one of our nerves on edge, ready to act, react, even now.

The sound of a slamming door from one of the other trucks was the little push we needed to move.  We climbed out of the truck and joined the others.  Bitch had been the first one out.  She had Sirius, Bastard and Bentley with her.  We ventured over to a fallen section of wall, peering over it to get a better glimpse of what would be the battlefield.

The final two members of our group arrived a moment later.  Shatterbird landed, stumbling, and Genesis began to materialize in a massive form.

We were close to the site of our last fight.  The Nine had been on their way to Dolltown, and we’d ambushed them, divided them, and then provoked them into extending out of position.  Having done that, we’d kidnapped Shatterbird as she lagged behind and then looped around to capture the wounded Cherish.

Now the Nine were inside Dolltown.  I could only hope the noise and fighting of our last encounter would have given most of the residents the time and the motivation to run.

“How’s she handling?” Tattletale asked Regent.

“Not the easiest power to use,” he muttered.  “It’s not a physical power, so I’m learning to use it from scratch.  Doesn’t help that she’s really, really, really pissed off.  I think she’s a serious control freak.  My control’s slipping a bit.”

“How much is it slipping?” I asked.  “Is there a chance you’ll lose control of her?”

“Always a chance.  But I think I’m okay, so long as she and I remain pretty close to each other.”

“Tattletale, Where are they?” I asked.

Tattletale pointed at a squat building a few blocks away.  It had the look of a small library, maybe, or a hardware store.  A place meant to accommodate a lot of people for one job. “Somewhere in there.”

“Then we wait,” Trickster said.  “And we cross our fingers.”

Waiting.  The last thing I wanted to do.

Using my bugs, I tried to scope out the area.  Please don’t let there be people here.

There were.  I had to be subtle, not giving the Nine any reason to suspect I was around, but even if I counted only the people who had bugs on them already, there were far too many people in and around Dolltown.

“Regent, can you stop Shatterbird from listening in?”  I asked.

“Sure,” he said.  Shatterbird shut her eyes and covered her ears with her hands.

I asked, “Tattletale, do you know where the Nine are, specifically?”

She shook her head.

“There’re people here.  I’m counting thirty or so, but there could be twice that many.  I haven’t even taken a serious look at the building the Nine are in, because I don’t want to alert them.”

“Ignore them,” Trickster said.  “This is risky enough without splitting our focus.”

“If I know where the Nine are, I can tell these people where to run, give them a chance.”

“It’s not worth the risk,” Trickster stressed.  He glanced at his teammates, “There’s still five or six of the enemy in the area.  If they see what you’re up to and get any advance warning we’re here, this all goes balls-up, and we suffer for it.  Grue dies for it.”

Regent nodded in agreement.

I looked at the others for help.  Tattletale remained quiet, and Sundancer, the one other person I’d hoped would be sympathetic, looked away.

“Those are people,” I said.  “Real people.”

“So’s Grue, and so are we.  We look out for ourselves first.  If we can take out members of the Nine, we’ll save more people in the long run.”

“The ends justify the means?  You realize that when this all goes down, they’re going to die?  Almost guaranteed?”  I’d directed Sundancer to attack a group of people who included bystanders, but they’d been goners already, dead for all intents and purposes.  This was something else.

“Thirty people for the sake of hundreds.  It balances out,” Trickster said.  “If we stick to the plan and if we’re successful.”

“I can’t agree with that.”

“Then make your call.  If you’re absolutely certain you’re not going to fuck us over and give away the plan, if you’re positive that the lives you might save are worth risking our lives and Grue’s, you can go ahead.  You don’t have anyone’s support here, and it’s all on you if you fail.”

Tattletale spoke, “If you’re going to do something, you better do it fast.”

She pointed, and every pair of eyes in our group turned to look.

Purity streaked across the sky, followed by Crusader and a floating rock carrying a whole contingent of their group.  The rest would be moving along the ground.

“Shatterbird, Genesis, go!”

Shatterbird took flight, calling up a storm of glass shards to accompany her.  She flew low to the ground, relying on the surrounding buildings and ruins to keep out of sight.

Genesis had finished pulling herself together.  Her form resembled Crawler, but with some additions.  Growths on her back resembled Bonesaw and Jack.  She tested her limbs, then looked at us.  At me?  I couldn’t tell.  She had too many eyes to tell.

Then she ran, stampeding off.  Not quite as graceful as the real Crawler, but that was one more area where we just had to cross our fingers and hope she could sell the ruse.

There was the dull rumble of a distant impact as Purity opened fire on Genesis.  Genesis dodged into a nearby alleyway, leading Purity and the rest of her group off to one side.  Shatterbird fired on Purity and her allies, guiding a torrent of glass shards toward the incoming enemies.  Not enough to kill, or even to maim.  It was enough to hurt and to piss them off.

Coil had informed Hookwolf’s contingent about the general location of the Nine.  Sure enough, they’d gathered, girded themselves for battle and marched on, hoping to overwhelm through sheer firepower and force of numbers.  Odds were good that it wouldn’t work.  It hadn’t in the past.

But, we were hoping, it would put the Nine in a position where they had to decide whether to hold their position or respond to the immediate proximity of this many enemies.

Shatterbird and Genesis were tasked with distracting Hookwolf’s forces and preventing them from mounting a direct attack on the Nine’s real position.  We couldn’t save Grue if Purity leveled the building.

So much hinged on how the next few moments played out.

“The Nine are distracted.  I’m going to help the people run.”

The lack of response was as damning as anything they could have said.

I waited until Purity fired again, then used the rumble as an excuse to stir various bugs into action.  I did a body count, placing bugs on people’s right feet, trying to calculate how many there were and how they were distributed.

There was a crowd inside the building with the Nine.  People huddled in a room with Crawler, who lay on the ground with his chin resting on his forelimbs, facing them.

I couldn’t find Grue.  Was he in that group?  No.

On the other side of the building, four people were gathered at one window.  A grown man, two grown women, one of whom was nude, and a child.  A man clad in hard armor crouched in one corner, working with tools.  There were enough cool bodies around them that I would’ve known who they were even if the body types hadn’t fit.

“Found them,” I said, pointing, “They’re watching.”

“They’re not stepping outside?”  Trickster asked.

I shook my head.

“Damn.”

I could see Menja leap from Rune’s floating rock and grow as she fell.  She was nearly thirty feet tall when she landed, the road cracking under her weight.  Rune leaped off the rock and landed on the husk of a building that hadn’t survived Leviathan’s attack.  A few seconds later, a large section broke off and lifted into the air.  She didn’t stay on top of it for long, choosing instead to gather more ammunition, moving on to other ruined walls and sections of building.

This would be a balancing act.  Unless the Nine didn’t plan on defending themselves or running, there would be something of a sweet spot.  A point where the enemy forces got close enough that the Nine were forced to act, yet not so close that anyone else was endangered.

Now that I knew where the Nine were, I could focus on the civilians.  I drew out messages for everyone who was hiding in their homes, along with arrows pointing them away from the Nine and Hookwolf’s army.  If someone decided they didn’t want to move, I nipped them with a biting insect or two to prod them.

Dozens of people made their way to safety, following my instructions and running for their lives as they headed out back doors or out of windows to avoid being seen.

There were still way too many people in the room with Crawler.  And I still had no idea where Grue was.  Slowly and carefully, I navigated my bugs through the rooms of the building the Nine had occupied: A makeshift dining hall with a kitchen, a room solely for storing garbage, then a small open shower with three stalls.  It had been some sort of office building with no computers, desks or cubicles.

Something big, firm and formed of cloth… one of Parian’s stuffed animals?  It lay prone on the ground, on the other end of the building from where the Nine were poised, so large and fat that it wouldn’t be able to fit through any of the doors.

I found another cluster of people on the top floor.  Three adult women and two children that ranged from toddler age to five feet or so of height.  Damn it, why did there always have to be kids?

“I can’t find Grue.”

“He’s in there,” Tattletale said.

“How sure are you?”

“Pretty darn sure.”

“Then how long before we can move on to the next phase?” I asked.  “I found some people, which solves one problem.”

“As soon as the Nine act,” Trickster said.  “Tattletale?”

“They’re not wanting to move.  Something about the hostages.”

“Hookwolf doesn’t care about hostages,” I told her.

“I know!  But the Nine are still holding back.”

“Regent-” I started.

“Don’t distract me,” he said, rushing through the words, “I can barely dodge all this shit they’re throwing at me.”

I followed his line of sight to Shatterbird.  Purity opened fire, and Shatterbird used a cone of glass to block the worst of the kinetic energy and refract the light.  Or something.  It didn’t work that well.  Shatterbird was knocked to the ground.  She managed to take flight just in time to avoid Newter, trapped the boy in a cage of glass shards, and then flung a barrage of tiny glass shards at Purity and her group.  I could see the glints of the shards catching the light as it flew through the air.

“Draw some fire towards the Nine’s location, if you can,” I said.

“I said don’t distract me!”

But he listened.  Shatterbird interposed herself between Hookwolf’s advancing group and the building holding the Nine and their hostages.  Purity fired, and again, Shatterbird’s glass couldn’t absorb the full brunt of the hit.  She was hammered down into the ground again, and what didn’t hit her struck the building, not far from where the Nine were peering through the window.

“Come on, come on,” I whispered.

The Nine reacted.  It just wasn’t what we’d hoped for.

Crawler stood and rumbled some words my bugs couldn’t make out, and the hostages fled.  The Nine made no move to try to stop them.  Just the opposite.  They revealed why they’d kept them on hand.

The hostages made their way out the doors and into the streets surrounding the building.  Purity was so distracted by Genesis and Shatterbird that she didn’t seem to notice what was happening at first.

Tattletale watched with her binoculars.  “Oh no.”

“Oh no?”  Trickster asked.

Tattletale looked at me, “Track their movements.  The Nine!  Don’t lose sight of the Nine!”

The hostages scattered in every direction, and some invariably headed towards us.  I saw what had concerned Tattletale.  Even though I knew where the Nine were, I was still caught off guard.

Bonesaw’s talents apparently included crude plastic surgery.  If ‘crude’ was even the right word.  Every hostage wore the appearance of one of the Nine.  The group that headed towards us had three Jacks, a Siberian and a Bonesaw.  Their expressions were frozen, their eyes wide with terror.  None of them were perfect, one was too heavy in physique to be Jack, and the Bonesaw had apparently been a short-statured woman who’d had her shins and forearms sawed to a shorter length and reattached.  The resemblance was close enough that someone could mistake them for the wrong person at a glance, and that was all the Nine needed.

“Decoys,” the word was hollow as it left my lips.

“And the Nine are moving out,” Tattletale reported.  “Leaving the front of the building.  Get ready!”

I used my bugs to draw a message for the people still hiding in another part of the building.

Crawler was the first to leave the building, charging out the front door, plowing through one or two of the Nine, and barreling towards Hookwolf’s army.

The other members of the Nine headed out.  A real Burnscar, Jack, Siberian and Mannequin at the tail end of their mass of fleeing decoys.

“Bonesaw’s not leaving,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter!  Now!”  Tattletale shouted.

Trickster hurried to my side, binoculars in hand.  I pointed, and I could feel a pressure building around me.  It was slower than his other teleports, more jarring.  It didn’t matter.  Our group was soon indoors.  Me, Tattletale, Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic.

The interior was rank.  They were smells I’d gotten to know since Leviathan’s attack.  Blood, death, and the dank smell of sweat.

Trickster had replaced all of the kids and the three adults that had been accompanying them.  He hadn’t brought Regent, because Regent was focused on Shatterbird.  That was part of the plan.  Leaving Bitch behind wasn’t.  I could understand it if it was because of a lack of mass to swap with, but my doubts about the Travelers and about Trickster specifically led me to ask, “You figure Bitch will cover our retreat?”

“And if one of the Nine is here,” Trickster said, his voice low, “We don’t need her dogs making noise.”

“Right.”  Okay.  Made sense.

I led the way, as I had the best sense of the layout.  Bonesaw was excitedly pacing back and forth.  The rest of the place was quiet.  “There’s only a few places Grue could be.  Confined spaces my bugs couldn’t get to.”

“Makes sense that they’d improvise a cell to contain him,” Tattletale said.

I nodded, swallowing.

Worn and damaged posters and fliers referred to yoga and pilates classes.  Makeshift signs and notices had been raised since this building had been used for the rich-person exercise classes.  These were more pragmatic, detailing chore schedules, contact information and watch rotations.

These people had been getting by, maybe in the same way I’d been trying to get my own people organized.  I felt a growing outrage at what had happened here, what had happened to my people.

Why?  What purpose did this chaos serve?

We checked a small sauna.  No luck.  No less than three storage rooms, sealed tight to keep vermin out, turned up empty.

The place I’d mentally labeled the dining hall turned out to be something of a restaurant.  More notices about food rationing covered menus and signs advertising healthy eating.

I headed around the long counter and into the kitchen.  Crates of supplies had been opened, the contents sorted into piles.  There were also other supplies that didn’t look regulation.  Several 5-gallon jugs of water that were designed to fit into water coolers were stacked in one corner, and neither I nor my bugs had seen any water coolers in here.

I stopped outside the walk-in freezer and stared at the handle.

“Skitter?”  Tattletale asked.

“There’s only three places left where Grue could be.  The other two places are the regular fridge over there and a closet in the basement that I think is too small to hold him and still let him breathe.”

“So if he’s not in here…”

“Right,” I said.  “Trap free?”

“As far as I can tell,” she replied.  “No, if they were going to trap it, they’d lock it first, chain it shut.”

Swallowing, I gripped the handle and hauled the door open.  It took me a second to process what I was seeing.

Brian was in there.  And he was alive.

I couldn’t have been unhappier at that realization.

There was no power to the walk-in-freezer, so it was warm.  The interior was maybe ten by twelve feet across, the walls were metal, with racks on either side.  Brian was hanging by the wall at the far end, propped up enough that his shoulders were pressing against the corner bordering the wall and the ceiling, his arms outstretched to either side like a bird hung up for display, his head hanging forward.

It was some sort of collaboration between Bonesaw and Mannequin.  He’d been partially flayed, the skin stripped from his arms and legs and stretched over the walls around him.  His ribcage had been opened, splayed apart.  An improvised metal frame held each of his internal organs in place, some several feet from their intended position, as if they were held out for display, others placed on the shelves of the freezer.  Cases covered in a ceramic shell seemed to be pumping him full of water, nutrients and other fluids that must have been helping keep him alive.

His head was untouched.  He looked up at us, and he looked harrowed.  The look in his eyes was more animal than person, his pupils mere pinpoints in his brown eyes.  Tiny beads of sweat dotted the skin of his face, no doubt due to the warmth of the room, but he was shivering.

“Oh.”  My voice was a croak.  “Brian.”

I took a step forward, and he seized up, his entire body twisting, his hands clenching, eyes wrenching shut.

“Get back!” Tattletale gripped me by the shoulder and forced me out of the freezer.

“I- what?”  I was having trouble processing.  “Trap?”

Tattletale had a dark look in her eyes.  “No.  Look closer at the walls and floor.”

Numbly, I did as she’d asked.  They looked like hairline cracks, spiderwebbing across everything from the walls to the shelving and even the ceramic cases that Mannequin had set up.  Except they were raised, over the surfaces.  “Veins?”

“Exposed nerves.  Artificially grown, connecting from him to the rest of the room.”

I stared up at Brian, and he stared back at me.

There was no way to help him.  I couldn’t even get inside the room to try to comfort him in the smallest ways, not without causing him unbearable pain in the process.

Brian moved his lips, but no sound came out.  He tried to raise his head, as much as the ceiling allowed, his eyes raised towards the sky.  There was a cauterised scar just above his collarbone.

“I could make it quick,” Ballistic said.

“No,” I told him.

“It’d be a mercy.”

“No,” I shook my head.  “No.  We have options.  Panacea-”

“Is nowhere to be found,” Tattletale told me, “And given what happened with Mannequin, she’s going to be as far as she can get from downtown.”

“Then Bonesaw,” I said, clenching my fists.  “Bonesaw can fix him.”

“She’s not going to fix him.  I doubt she’d do it on pain of death,” Tattletale told me.  “Skitter-”

“We’ll try,” I told her.  “At least try.”

I looked at the others.  Sundancer was on the other side of the kitchen, hands on the edge of the sink.  Ballistic had his arms folded.  Trickster leaned against one counter, silent, not looking at the scene.

“Every second you make him go on like this is cruel,” she said, her voice hard.

“So is every second you spend arguing with me.  I’m not negotiating, here.  I’m willing for him to suffer if it means there’s a chance we can help him.”

She met my eyes, looking like she wanted to slap me, yell at me, or both.  “Fine.  Then let’s hurry.”

I gave Brian one last look over my shoulder before I hurried off, leaving him behind.  The others followed.

I was using my bugs to track the positions of the Nine, where Siberian and Crawler were in the thick of the enemy.  Mannequin apparently wasn’t aware of my presence, so I had my first real opportunity of tracking his movements as he scaled walls and disappeared into manholes to emerge half a street away.  Burnscar used her fire to bombard the enemy and divide them.

Jack was more pragmatic, striking from hiding, threatening his decoys to get them to run out of cover and draw enemy fire, and using every hiding space that was available.  He was quick, smart, and devastating in how he operated.  No movement was wasted, and every time he emerged from cover and swiped his knife, someone suffered for it.  As far as I could tell, he was evading Night and Fog.  My bugs could detect some noise from him that I was parsing as a mocking laughter.  Maybe my imagination.  Probably my imagination.

I was getting a sense of what Brian had described, once upon a time; that anger and outrage that didn’t even come close to connecting with a fire inside, with burning rage or anything like that.  It was cold, dark, and numb.

We found her in one of the exercise rooms.  Yoga mats had been stacked together to serve as mattresses, forming a kind of sleeping area.  Most of the Dolltown residents who had been living in this facility were dead now, their cold bodies lying in pools of blood.  One of the culprits was at the window, clutching the frame.  Bonesaw.

I gathered my bugs, directing them her way.

“Wait!”  Tattletale cried out.

I turned to see her stagger.  I whipped around to see Bonesaw.  She was whirling around in response to Tattletale’s shout, her eyes wide.  There was a chain stretching from her wrist to the base of the window.

Not Bonesaw.  Decoy.

Tattletale crashed to the ground, followed soon after by Trickster.  Sundancer and Ballistic crashed to the ground a second later.

“Why won’t you go down!?”  The voice was petulant.

I followed the voice and saw one of the corpses move, rising to its feet.  Bonesaw unzipped the covering of dead flesh she’d covered herself in and shucked it off.  She was wearing a yellow sundress and yellow rubber boots with a short blue jacket, but her hair and each article of her clothing were stained dark brown with the blood that had been on the corpse.  A small tube was in one of her hands, “I shot you with three darts!  It’s rude!”

I glanced down.  Three pea-sized darts with flesh-toned feathering were stuck in the fabric of my costume.  One in my dress, one in a panel of armor on my chest, and another in the side of my stomach.

“Bonesaw,” I growled.

“Skitter, was it?  Bug girl!  I really want to find out how your power works!  I’ll take your brain apart and find the mechanism so I can copy it!  Is your costume spider silk?  That’s awesome!  You know the right materials to work with!  No wonder my darts didn’t work!”

“What did you do to them?”

“Paralyzed them, obviously.  Living flesh is so much easier to work with.”

Paralyzed.  I glanced at my teammates.  Why couldn’t I have finished their costumes?  Stupid.  I’d spread myself too thin.  I should have finished one costume, then moved on to the next.  Maybe then I would have saved someone.

“Oh, and I dosed them with a little something extra.  Because Jack said there’s no point in doing anything halfway.”  She gave me a sage nod, as if sharing some universal truism.

“You’re going to give them an antidote to whatever you injected into them, then you’re going to go to Brian and you’re going to fix him.”

“Brian?  Oh!  You mean the boy we put in the freezer!  I’m still trying to figure out where his power comes from.  The darkness comes from inside him, but what’s the source?  Besides the usual, I mean.  So I took everything apart to see, but he wasn’t cooperating.  I told him I’d make the pain stop forever if he would just show me, but he was so stubborn!”  She stamped one foot.

I’d let Brian’s name slip.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.  I wasn’t thinking straight.

“But no, I’m not going to do that,” she said.  “I don’t censor my art because it offends people.”

“I could convince you,” I told her.  My swarm flowed forward, and she backed away.  Her eyes, one green and one blue, flashed as she took in the breadth of the swarm, the composition of it.  She was probably already brainstorming some solution.

I wasn’t going to give her a chance.  I drew my weapons, one in each hand, and charged through the swarm, straight for her.

My bugs served to give me a half-second of early warning as they felt her jam one hand into the side-pocket of her dress.  I turned on my heel, the burn on my leg screaming in pain as I did it, and threw myself to the right as she brought one hand to her mouth and blew a billowing cloud of powder into the space I’d been occupying.

I got my feet under me and lunged forward again.  I didn’t get two steps before I was tackled to the ground.

It was a mechanical spider the size of a large dog.  It had been folded up inside one of the bodies.  Its legs latched around me.  There wasn’t much strength in them, and even with my less than fantastic upper body strength, I managed to pry the first two legs apart.

I had almost got the spider off me when another caught me from behind.  A third and fourth caught me an instant later, seizing my head and shoulders and my legs, respectively.

Bonesaw exhaled a second cloud of dust into my face.

I held my breath for as long as I could, but there was a limit.  When I did breathe, my chest seized up, and my ears immediately started ringing violently, a headache settling into place.  The muscles in my arms and legs locked up.

She sprayed an aerosol around herself, killing my bugs.  Not that it mattered.  My facility with my power was getting clumsier and clumsier as the headache increased in intensity.

No, no, no, no, no, no.

“Bring them,” she said.  The mechanical spiders leapt to obey.  Within moments, me, Tattletale, Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic were being dragged inch by inch towards the dining hall.  Towards Grue.

No, no, no.

It took long minutes for us to get there.  I could hear faint rumbles of the ongoing battle and Bonesaw’s humming.  It was all I could do to keep breathing.  It was like my body had forgotten how, and it demanded my constant attention to maintain that simple rhythm.

With the aid of her spiders, she stacked us like logs.  Ballistic and Trickster went on the bottom.

I couldn’t even grunt as the spiders leveraged me onto the pile alongside Tattletale.  I stared down at the mask of the third person below us.

Imp.  She’d got Imp.

Bonesaw crouched so her face was level with mine.  “This is going to be fun.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“We set up and act the second they stop moving,” Grue’s voice sounded through the walkie-talkie.  “Be ready to move the instant Cherish alerts them.  We maintain unbroken line of sight over the Nine and between our squads.  Notify us and change position if you lose sight of ’em.  Everyone knows what they’re doing?”

Various assents could be heard through the walkie-talkies.

“Maybe I should ask if anyone’s unsure about what they’re doing?” he asked.

There was no response.

“Good.  Hold positions.”

The strategy was mine, but Grue was more comfortable than I was as a battlefield commander.  I was okay with him taking charge here.  Preferred it.

I raised my binoculars.  Seven members of the Nine were strolling down the street.  Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian were at the head of the group, and Jack was using his knife to try to cut down anyone he saw who didn’t get under cover fast enough.  It was almost an idle amusement, rather than some mission or task he’d undertaken.  Most escaped, and he didn’t go to any particular effort to chase them down, as though he were conserving his strength.

Cherish, Mannequin and Shatterbird were in the middle of the group, Crawler behind them, trailing behind with languid, casually effective movements that resembled those of a cat.  At the very back of the group, trailing even behind Crawler, was a hulk of a man who I took to be Hatchet Face.  He looked like he was rotting alive, and there were grafts of flesh and mechanical replacement parts filling in the gaps.

The majority of my attention was on Cherish.  Through the lenses of the binoculars, I focused on her face.  I watched the movements of her eyes, her facial expressions, and the tension in her hands.  Nothing she’d done thus far had indicated she was aware of us. Her attention seemed more focused on the handful people Jack had cut down.  As they walked, she looked down at each of the wounded and dying with the detached interest one might have for a car accident by the side of the highway.  She hadn’t opened her mouth since we’d caught up with their group.

so wanted to jump in and save those people.  But it would be suicide.  Our priority was stopping the Nine.

Part one of the plan was simple.  Up until the point we engaged, we stayed as far away as we could while maintaining a visual and some ability to act.  We knew Cherish’s power was more effective as she was closer to her targets.  If there was any element of surprise to be had, we’d have it by striking from a distance.

I spared a glance at Mannequin, changing the focus of my binoculars to the man in white.  Again, he’d replaced his parts.  His form resembled what I’d seen the first time I’d encountered him.

I turned my attention back to Cherish.  Shatterbird was saying something to her, her lips moving in the rhythms of speech beneath the glass beak/visor that covered the upper half of her face.  She was using her hands to punctuate her words.  Cherish didn’t respond.  From the length of Shatterbird’s speech, I took it to be some kind of monologue or lecture.

“Hey,” Sundancer said from beside me, “Ten or so seconds until we lose them behind that building over there.”

A quick check confirmed she was right.  The direction their group was traveling would take them out of sight.  I picked up the walkie-talkie, “Moving forward.  You guys have eyes on them?”

“Yeah,” Grue reported.  That would be our second squad.

“Yep,” Trickster said, from the third.

I was already sitting side-saddle on Bentley, with Bitch ahead of me.  My burned legs didn’t afford me much grip with my calves, so we’d taken a loop of the chain that surrounded Bentley and wound it under and over my lap and around my waist to secure me in place, connecting it with a carabiner in case I needed to get off fast.  I put one arm around Bitch for further support, and scooted forward to make room for Sundancer.

“Go,” Bitch hissed the words the second Sundancer was in position.  Bentley lunged forward, leaping to the next rooftop and landing with enough force that I wasn’t sure I could have stayed seated if I’d been riding normally.

Bentley was more of a bruiser than the other two dogs, with his front half adding up to almost twice the mass of the rear.  It made him weaker at the long distance leaps than any of the dogs I’d ridden thus far, but his powerful upper body also made him a strong climber.  It also meant he had the raw strength to carry three of us and the pair of heavy metal boxes that we’d strapped to his sides.  Our progress wasn’t fast, but we did make our way up the side of the next building, Bentley’s claws digging into the windowsills as he slowly and methodically ascended.  From that building It was one more leap and a short climb to the roof of the tallest building in the area.  I released my deathgrip on the chains and got the binoculars and walkie-talkie out.

“In position on the Demesnes Soft Tower.  Location of the Nine?”

“Lord and Tillman,” Trickster answered me.

I found the intersection.  Once I had the right general area, it wasn’t hard to spot them.  Crawler was conspicuous.

“Found them,” I informed the others.

Our setup put Grue, Ballistic and Sirius directly behind the Nine, along with the metal cases of supplies we’d strapped to Sirius’ sides.  Trickster and Regent were mounted on Genesis, who had taken a form not unlike the dogs.  The trio were positioned to the Nine’s left.  By contrast, my group, with Sundancer, Bitch and Bentley, were positioned to their right.

Each of us were a little over a thousand feet away from the Nine, three city blocks, give or take.  It meant my allies were out of range of my powers.  It was a drawback, but I hoped it would balance out.

“They’re moving with purpose,” Tattletale sounded over the walkie-talkie.  Trickster was sending her ongoing video with a camera and directional microphone.  “I think they’re heading to Dolltown.”

“Dolltown?”

“Parian’s territory,” Ballistic said.  “She controls these giant stuffed animals.  Cordoned off an area in my district before I made my claim.  I haven’t gotten around to dealing with her yet, with the Nine and all.”

“They’re probably trying to bait the heroes out,” Tattletale said, “Killing in the streets, then attacking one of the safe territories that aren’t controlled by us.”

“ETA for them getting to their destination?” I asked.

“One minute,” Tattletale spoke.

“Moving up,” Grue reported.  “You guys maintain visual.”

Jack was still attacking everyone he spotted.  How many lives would be lost in the meantime?  Worse, would Cherish notice our presence, or would Jack look for civilians and spot one of us on a rooftop blocks away?

Going into this with the element of surprise was almost too much to hope for.

I put my walkie-talkie down, but I kept my eyes on Cherish.  She hadn’t spoken, and there was no change in her posture.

“Grue,” Trickster said, “Get in position fast.  I see the area where Parian marked off her territory.  If they’re going to stop, they’re going to stop here.”

I used the binoculars and found the area in question.  Yellow spray paint, rain coats and scarves had been used to form a line across a street.

Grue didn’t respond, but that could easily be because he was focusing on riding.  Just in case, I asked, “You have eyes on him, Trickster?”

“Yeah.  Grue and Ballistic are heading up to a spot where they can see everyone.  No danger.”

No danger.  It was a loaded statement.  Burnscar wasn’t here, but Tattletale was ninety percent certain that the pyrokinetic teleporter was off tracking down one of the ‘hero’ candidates or Hookwolf to give them their tests.

My heart was hammering in my chest, and I knew that between one of these heartbeats and the next, one of the Nine could spot us.  If it was Jack or Shatterbird, we could be dead or bleeding out less than a second later.

“Set up,” Grue ordered.

I unclipped the carabiner and hopped down.  Working alongside Bitch and Sundancer, I helped bring the boxes we’d strapped to Bentley’s side to the edge of the rooftop.  We hurried back, Sundancer giving me a hand up.  I almost didn’t feel the pain of my legs with the tension and adrenaline that thrummed through me.  Or maybe that was the industrial strength painkillers Coil had provided.

I didn’t want to think about the fact that the drugs I’d taken might be the same ones that he’d used to drug Dinah.

A quick sweep verified that the area around ‘Dolltown’ was largely empty of people.  The flooding was bad here, and only Parian’s place was really on high enough ground to be free of it.  Just to make sure, I asked, “Tattletale?  How many bystanders?”

“Going by the video feed?  Guessing there’s between eight and twenty people in the buildings around you.”

“Then I’m set,” I replied.  I strapped the ‘seatbelt’ chain around my waist and hips and reconnected the carabiner.  Other voices echoed mine, confirming they were ready.

Halfway across the roof, Sundancer began forming her miniature sun.  I checked on the others with my binoculars.  Trickster and Regent were crouched at the corner of one building, and Genesis was dissolving.  Good.

Grue and Ballistic were arguing.  I was pretty sure.  I could see Grue grabbing Ballistic’s shoulder with one hand and pointing at the Nine with the other.

“What’s going on, Grue?” I asked.

“He’s chickening out.”

He’s supposed to handle Cherish.  I glanced at the Nine.  No sign of anything from her.  She was standing apart from the rest of the group, her arms folded.

“She looks like someone I used to know,” Ballistic said, as if that was some kind of answer.

“Who?” Trickster asked.

“Sadie.  From seventh grade.”

“Nope,” Trickster replied.  “Not in the slightest.  Your head’s fucking with you.  Get the job done.”

“But-”

Trickster’s voice was as hard as I’d ever heard it.  “Now.  Remember the deal we made.  Our promise to each other and to Noelle.  Don’t fuck this up.”

Ballistic hesitated.  Through the scope of my binoculars, I could see him holding the foot-ball sized warhead in his hands.  “She’s a human being, someone with feelings, and tastes and-”

Regent was the one who cut him off this time, “And she’s someone that has forced parents to mutilate and kill their kids and she made them enjoy it.  Then she left them to live with the aftermath.”

Regent sounded remarkably calm given the situation.

“She’s my sister.  If anyone has a right to get sentimental, it’s me, and I’m saying it’s okay to off her,” he finished.

“I-”  Ballistic broke off.

I shifted my attention to the Nine.  Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw were moving past the yellow lines.  And Cherish… Cherish was turning to look in Grue and Ballistic’s direction.  I could see her almost bounce in place as she got her feet under her and started sprinting, her mouth opening.

“Cover blown!” I shouted into the walkie-talkie.  Taking my finger off the button, I called out,  “Trickster, Sundancer!”

Sundancer sent her sun soaring around to the Nine, taking the long route so it could cut them off.  In that same moment, Trickster pointed a sniper rifle at a corpse on the street and swapped Cherish’s position with it.

Part two of the plan, after finding them and getting into our positions, was to remove Cherish as fast as humanly possible.  If we accomplished nothing else, our goal was to do that and then make a run for it.  It would pave the way for future attacks and it would slow them down.

We’d left that task to Ballistic, with the idea that Trickster would take care of Jack.  Ballistic decided he didn’t have it in him at the worst possible moment, forcing us to shift roles.

Damn him.

Cherish was struck by Trickster’s shot, blood spattering the pavement.  Her teammates left her behind.

“Don’t have line of sight to Jack!” Trickster reported.

“Hit the others,” I told Sundancer.

“You mean kill them,” her voice was quiet, her fists clenched at her sides.

“Kill them, then.”  I could see the sun growing as it flew.  It was maybe eighteen feet in diameter now.

“Just… just tell me there aren’t any civilians there, no bystanders.”

I looked through my binoculars.  The remainder of the Nine were making a break for it.  Mannequin and Siberian stood still, watching Grue and Ballistic, Crawler was barreling towards them, and Shatterbird had taken to the air.  Jack and Bonesaw were taking cover around a corner to stay out of Grue and Ballistic’s line of fire.

The thing that had once been Hatchet Face scooped up the wounded and anyone he could catch and deposited them with his group.  Bonesaw had a scalpel out and was cutting the second the people were in her reach.  A throat slashed here, a stomach cavity opened there.  Intestines and muscle strung from one individual to another, connecting them together as their faces contorted in pain.  Some struggled to stand, to strike Bonesaw or push themselves away, but deft slices with the scalpel severed tendons and ligaments.  It was a kind of grim reversal, the adults utterly helpless and weak when faced with the child.

We’ll never have another shot like this.

“No,” I said.  I even managed to sound convincing.  “No civilians!  Go!”

“Then tell me where to move it,”  Sundancer’s eyes were closed.  “I can’t see that far.”

“Out further, left, left, left,”  the miniature sun slid twenty or so feet with every order I gave as I tracked the enemy’s position and the movements of the orb with the binoculars.  “Short bit left and then out!”

I couldn’t look directly at the thing, but I saw Mannequin and Siberian wheel around as the blinding light of the orb caught their attention.  Mannequin ran, and Siberian lunged forward.

The orb slid out into position around the mouth of the alley and then rolled over Jack, Bonesaw and Hatchet Face.

“Report!” Tattetale’s voice came from the walkie-talkie.  “I don’t have visual.”

“Sundancer just hit Jack, Hatchet Face and Bonesaw.”

“Where are the rest?”

“Crawler heading for Grue and Ballistic, Mannequin running down Tillman in Regent and Trickster’s general direction.  Shatterbird’s going for the bird’s-eye view.  I don’t think she’s seen any of us except Grue and Ballistic.”

“Siberian?”

“Missing.”

Shit.  Assume they’re all alive, then.  Sundancer’s power still in that area?”

Alive?  “It is.”

“Then keep it there!”

I glanced at Sundancer and she gave me a grim nod.

Crawler had reached Grue and was scaling the side of the building with surprising speed.  I’d taken him for a quadruped, but apparently his joints were modular.  His proportions were more simian, now, and he was climbing up the side of the building twice as fast as I could have run it if it were laid out horizontally.

Part three of the plan had been to hit them as hard as we could.  Trickster was using his rifle to take shots at Mannequin, but I couldn’t see if it was having any effect.  Ballistic finally decided to contribute, and fired a warhead at Mannequin.  Then he reached into the box he and Grue had unloaded from Sirius’s harness and grabbed two more.  He fired them into the smoke cloud that had expanded around Mannequin.

I could see Crawler reaching the edge of the roof, not twenty feet from Grue and Ballistic.

Part four of the plan?  Avoid direct confrontation.

“Trickster,” Grue said, the one word buzzing over the walkie-talkies.

Crawler disappeared, and an empty pickup truck toppled from the edge of the roof to the ground.  Crawler was back in the vicinity of the other Nine, not far from Sundancer’s burning orb.  Blocks away from Grue and Ballistic.

The monster lunged after Grue and Ballistic again, and was supported this time by Shatterbird, who conjured up a storm of glass shards to pelt the pair.  Ballistic retaliated by firing a warhead at Shatterbird, who prematurely detonated the explosive with a thick cluster of glass, shielding herself against the worst of the blast with another wall.  She drew more walls around herself and maintained her assault.

Bitch whistled, and Sirius started bounding across rooftops to head our way.  I could see Shatterbird turn and notice us.

That was fine.  I sent a payload of bugs her way; wasps and bees each carrying several spiders, and more expendable caterpillars and the like that were smeared in capsaicin.  I wanted to make absolutely sure she knew where we were and that she wouldn’t ignore us.

Crawler reached the base of the building only to be switched with yet another car, resetting his position a second time.  He roared in frustration, then turned toward the miniature sun, breaking into an all out run as he charged for it.

“Sundancer, switch off!”  I called out.

The orb disappeared, and Crawler crashed through the alleyway, only barely avoiding Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw.  The edges of the alley were unrecognizable, and the walls were on fire, but the trio were untouched.  Siberian had Jack draped over one shoulder  and another hand clasping Bonesaw by the back of her shirt, holding her high.  The pavement was a molten liquid beneath them.

I clicked the button on the walkie-talkie and informed the others, “Siberian’s granting her invulnerability to Jack and Bonesaw!”

Tattletale said something, but I missed it over the roar of noise that came with Sundancer using her power.  She was forming another orb.  Everyone else was busy with their own things.

Siberian was protecting Jack and Bonesaw.  That was both good and bad.  We’d planned this strategy under the assumption that Siberian would come for us and we’d use the dogs, Grue’s Darkness, my bug-decoys and Trickster’s teleportation to keep our distance from her until we decided we needed to make a run for it.  All of that was in line with part four of the plan, maintaining our distance and avoiding a toe to toe fight.  In the meantime, we’d intended to use our ranged abilities to take out Jack, Cherish, Bonesaw and Burnscar.

She was protecting them, which we hadn’t anticipated, but she couldn’t do that and come after us.

Or maybe she can.  I saw Siberian virtually toss Bonesaw in the air, the girl wrapping her arms around the woman’s neck as she landed.  Holding her two teammates, Siberian sprinted for Trickster and Regent.  She was fast, but it was a speed borne of her peculiar powers, more enhanced strength than augmented acceleration.  Not so different from Battery on that count.

Air resistance and inertia didn’t hamper her in the same ways.  More than that, whatever it was that made her invincible and untouchable to any outside force, she had the ability to snap it out to affect any surface she touched.  Her strength was virtually limitless, and the pavement didn’t shatter with her footfalls because she made it as untouchable as she was.

Shatterbird, meanwhile, was drawing closer, using the glass-storm to bar Ballistic’s access to the crate of explosives.  Grue’s power was serving to counter hers, and any glass that entered the darkness seemed to drop straight down like rain, bereft of her abilities.  Momentum still carried, however, and any glass shards that entered at a high enough velocity seemed to exit at roughly the same speed.

I wasn’t sure about Ballistic, his costume was among the best money could buy, but I wasn’t sure what that entailed.  Grue, at least, should be able to endure a beating.  Beneath his motorcycle leathers, he was wearing the costume I’d made for him and nearly finished.  It wouldn’t protect his head, but his helmet would serve in a pinch.

Even if they wouldn’t be cut to shreds, I wasn’t sure they would survive if Shatterbird detonated that case of rocket launcher rounds with a shard in the right place or a large enough impact.

“Bitch,” I spoke.  “The boxes!”

Bitch was sliding off of Bentley’s back, opening the first metal box and stretching out the contents.

The case was a piece of camping gear I’d noticed ages ago, when I’d first been buying things for my costume.  A watertight case for luggage with a metal frame inside that campers could stretch out to use as a drying rack for clothes and towels.

We didn’t have luggage inside.  No, the box held parts of the mannequins I’d been using for costume design.  Strung together with silk, two mannequins dangled from the frame.

Bitch adjusted the way one mannequin hung and headed over to set up the other case.

My bugs had reached Shatterbird and started attacking her.  Brown recluses, capsaicin, wasps, hornets and bees.  I’d never attacked someone like this.  Not someone who couldn’t heal.  I could see her thrashing, trying to stay aloft even as her concentration faltered.  The brown recluses were insurance of a sort.  If we happened to take out Bonesaw, it could mean Shatterbird was out of the equation as well.

The darkness Grue had generated around the rooftop disappeared all at once.  Grue and Ballistic crouched at the far corner.  Canceling the darkness was a signal.

The mannequins hanging from the first rack disappeared, replaced by the two boys.  Grue and Ballistic disentangled themselves from the metal frames and hurried to our side.

Trickster and Regent appeared soon after the other frame was up.  I could see Siberian on the rooftop.  They’d escaped just in time to avoid being caught in a melee with her.

Trickster rolled his shoulders, stretched his neck and adjusted his hat.

“Don’t waste time,” Grue growled.  “Do it.”

“Times like this call for a certain flourish,” Trickster said.  Trickster withdrew a small remote from his pocket and depressed the button.

The rooftops the other two teams had been situated on virtually shattered with the explosions.  The bazooka rounds had also carried a small collection of plastic explosives.  Since Trickster’s team had only needed the sniper rifle, their case held a hell of a lot more.

Part five done.  Baiting the hook, reeling them in, then hitting them as hard as we could.

It wouldn’t stop them, of course.  The only ones that explosion might have hurt were Shatterbird and maybe Mannequin, if he’d survived Ballistic’s attack and slipped around through some other angle.  Ideal world, it would also slow down Siberian.  More realistically, I was hoping that they’d get pissed, and they’d get sloppy.

I chanced a quick look through the binoculars.  Crawler was stampeding towards the site of the explosion, Cherish was still prone on the ground, bleeding out from Trickster’s sniper fire, and I couldn’t make out the others.

Wait, no.  I could see rubble shifting as Siberian shrugged it aside.  It was enough debris that Crawler would have been hampered, but even with her hands tied up in holding her teammates, she cast the chunks of concrete and brick aside with the same sort of ease that I might walk through a pile of balloons.  She shook her head, and her hair fanned out behind her, draping partially over Bonesaw, who was riding her piggy-back.

Jack wasn’t folded over her shoulder anymore.  He was standing, holding her hand, a wide smile spread across his face.  He said something, some exclamation, without dropping his grin for a second.

And Shatterbird?  I looked through the rubble that had been cast over the street around the building.  She was lying on the ground, struggling to her feet.  The glints of glass shards sparkled for a hundred feet around her.  I quickly tossed my binoculars aside.  They’d be a liability if she attacked us, now.

Here was the gamble.  We’d hurt them, injured their pride, we’d maybe killed Mannequin and we’d incapacitated Cherish.  If Ballistic had been on the ball, he would have blown Cherish to smithereens.  As it was, a stray bullet wouldn’t cut it.  Bonesaw’s known talents included the ability to raise the dead.

Grue used his darkness to form a dozen false-images of shadow-shrouded silhouettes on nearby rooftops.  I did the same with my bugs, but mine were animated, moving.

We’d have to run pretty damn soon.  There were seven of us, but only two dogs.  It was less than ideal.  I’d tried to get Bitch to bring another dog, but she didn’t feel any of the others were trained well enough to bear riders.

The remaining members of the Nine charged, Shatterbird rising from her position to fly straight for us, barriers of glass surrounding her.  Siberian carried Jack and Bonesaw with leaping bounds, while Crawler headed for us.

I crossed my fingers, watching intently.

Two ways this could go for the final phase of our plan.

Well, three ways.  But I was hoping the third possibility -my team getting caught and slaughtered- wouldn’t happen.

The first way this could play out was that Shatterbird’s flight over the buildings would make her faster than Crawler or Siberian, who had to climb or circumvent the obstacles.

When I’d brought this up during the meeting, assuming it would happen, it had been Tattletale who pointed out that I was maybe underestimating how fast Crawler and Siberian could be.  She was right.  Despite her ability to fly, Shatterbird was falling behind.

Which meant we went with plan B.

“You up for this, Grue?” I asked, “I could do it.  My plan, and I was first to volunteer.”

“No, you can’t run fast enough with those burns.” Grue replied, as he hurried to the side of the rooftop furthest from the Nine.  He glanced down. “Trickster, I’m ready!”

“Just need an opportunity,” Trickster said, watching the incoming members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  They were closing a little too fast for comfort.  Sirius had arrived, and we were all getting saddled.  Bitch, Sundancer and I on Bentley, and Regent, Trickster and Ballistic on Sirius.  At Regent’s orders, Sirius moved to Grue’s side.

“Sooner than later!” Grue said.

“Do you want to die?” Trickster asked.

“No, but I’m willing to break something!”

“Your call,” Trickster said.  “Three, two, one!”

Grue leaped from the edge of the roof.  In that same instant, Trickster swapped him with Shatterbird.

She tumbled for a second, got a grip with her flight, and then steadied.

Then Regent hit her with his power.  Shatterbird flew into the corner of the roof, was thrown off-balance and tipped into the gap between buildings.

And Grue?  I cast a glance backward.  He’d dropped out of the air where Shatterbird had been flying, landing on a rooftop a distance below.  I could see him struggling to his feet.

“Go, go!”  Trickster screamed the words.

Our mounts leaped down into the same gap where Shatterbird had fallen.  We made the usual zig-zagging descent down, leaping from wall to wall, and landed on either side of Shatterbird and Genesis.

Genesis looked like a cartoon caricature of a sumo wrestler, grotesquely obese and yellow skinned with eyes like black buttons.  She was hairless, unclothed and sexless, and her skin was translucent and oily.  Through the skin, I could make out the vague figure of Shatterbird, pounding on the walls of the stomach, her mouth opening in a scream that didn’t reach us.  Glass shards were stirring around her, a blender whir cutting at the insides of Genesis’s belly.

“She’s going to cut through,” I said.  “Bitch, Regent, get the chains.  I’ll try to stop her.”

Using my bugs, I formed words against the surface of Genesis’s belly.  ‘Stop’.

Shatterbird only intensified her attempts.

I gathered some black widow spiders and pressed them gently against the shiny, translucent skin.  They were absorbed, drifting inside, and were soon crawling around the inside surface.  Genesis obliged me by opening her mouth, giving me a direct route for the bugs to travel.

“Hurry,” Regent said.  He was winding the chain around the jello-like yellow hand.  Fingerless hands gripped the chain for further traction.

Shatterbird noticed the spiders.  Her eyes widened as the volume of deadly spiders trapped in the bubble with her increased.  I raked my finger beneath the message I’d drawn with the bugs, as if to underline it.  ‘Stop’.

She did.  Glass shards fell into a pool around her feet.

“Go!”  I shouted.

We ran, the two dogs side by side, pulling Genesis behind us like a chariot.

Drawing my bugs together, I covered us as best as I was able, creating other decoys, vague chariot-shaped lumps here and there, huddles of figures.

It would all be for nothing if they returned to Cherish, revived the girl and tracked us down.

“Left!” I ordered.

Bitch steered left.  Regent hadn’t heard, but as the tension on the chains pulled Sirius to one side, he caught on and turned as well.

My bugs served as a navigation system, feeling out the shapes of our surroundings so I could work out a suitable path.  We charged onward, with me giving occasional directions, until we found Cherish lying on the ground in a pool of blood.

“Get her!”

Bitch rode just to Cherish’s left, Regent rode just to the right, and Genesis rolled right over the girl.  Cherish caught like glue, suffered an unfortunate few seconds of being dragged over the road’s surface, and was then drawn into Genesis’ bubble of a body.

My bugs gave me a sense of the Nine’s locations, and my decoys gave them pause once or twice.  We could track them more easily than they could do the reverse, and we were soon far enough away that I couldn’t sense them.

We only slowed when we got to Coil’s underground base.  We parked the dogs and then headed for the series of barred and locked doors.  I glanced at Shatterbird and Cherish where they knelt in Genesis’ rotund body.  We weren’t really giving away information here. Crawler had apparently come this way, not so long ago.

It was a fifty-fifty chance whether Siberian and the other Nine would come this way.  Cherish wasn’t around to give them information, but she might have provided details at an earlier point that Jack or one of the others could use to connect the dots.  We’d cross that bridge when we got to it.

Coil was there to greet us with a Tattletale and a contingent of armed soldiers.  We waited patiently as one of the soldiers scanned Shatterbird with a plastic wand.  He looked at Coil and shook his head.

“This way,” Coil ordered.

How did he set this up so fast?

Shatterbird’s cell was large, twenty feet by twenty feet across, and the walls had the same textured black rubber soundproofing as the sound recording booths I’d seen in movies and on TV.  I couldn’t see the speakers, but there was a noise similar to radio static filling the room, so loud I wouldn’t be able to hear if someone spoke.

With our weapons trained on Shatterbird, we stood by while one of Coil’s soldiers reached into Genesis’s stomach and hauled her out.  She was chained to the ceiling with her arms stretched out to her sides, then divested of her costume, left only with a silk camisole and slip.  Coil’s people wheeled in an x-ray machine and a tank of containment foam.

Shatterbird glared wordlessly at us until we’d exited the room and the heavy vault door blocked our view of her.

“She will be cavity searched and x-rayed to identify any hidden weapon or any devices Bonesaw or Mannequin might have implanted in her,” Coil spoke, after the doors were closed and the white noise was blocked out.  “Regent, we have a protective suit waiting for you.  In the event that she does acquire something she can use her powers on, or if she has concealed anything on her person that is small enough to avoid radiographic detection, the suit will shield you until you’ve finished.”

Regent nodded.

“She was bitten by brown recluses,” I said.  “I’d give her a full physical examination every thirty minutes, to be safe.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know standard treatment for bites of that kind,” Coil said.

Brooks stepped out of the crowd of nearby soldiers.  “Sir?”

“Brooks.”

“I’m familiar with the treatment for the more dangerous spider bites,” he looked at me, “It’s a protein-based venom?”

So the jerk is useful sometimes.  I hadn’t liked Brooks since Lisa had introduced me to him, but I could respect someone who knew his job.  “Yeah.”

“Seems I can leave it to you, then,” Coil said.  Brooks nodded.  Coil added, “Failing everything else, it might serve as incentive to cooperate.”

“Or cause to get desperate,” Tattletale said.  “She might do something stupid if she thinks she’ll die or suffer lifelong effects if she doesn’t get back to Bonesaw.”

“Let’s not give her the opportunity.  Regent, how fast can you seize control?”

“A few hours.”

“Start now.”

Regent headed off to get changed.

“That leaves our unexpected guest,” Coil said.  “Cherish.”

Regent hadn’t yet escaped earshot.  He turned back to us.  “She’ll have a trap on her.  Small explosive looped around her neck with a lock and a deadman’s switch.”

“Thank you,” Coil said.  “Tattletale?  See to it at the first opportunity.”

“Not a problem.”

We approached Cherish and Genesis. Cherish knelt in the small pile of glass shards that sat at the very bottom of the bubble.  Her hands were pressed against the inside of the stomach, causing it to bulge like a small child in a womb.  She was awake, but bleeding severely.

Coil gave the order, “If anyone acts out of character, take them out of action as swiftly as possible and shoot the girl.”

There were nods all around.

Cherish’s mouth moved, but the sound didn’t reach us.

“I did not expect her, and I did not take measures for containing her,” Coil said.  “Keeping her on the premises may prove exceptionally dangerous.”

“The alternative being?” Trickster asked.  “Letting her go?”

“In the euphemistic sense.  Her value as a captive is minimal and we have no way to secure her until Regent can finish using his ability on her.”

“He’s resistant to her power,” Tattletale said, “But that goes both ways.  Don’t know how well he’d be able to control her.  She might break free.  Benefits of being family, I guess.”

“Then I would suggest, as Trickster said earlier, ‘letting her go’.  We execute her and remove her from the equation,”  Coil stated.

I looked at Cherish, and her eyes narrowed.  She knew exactly what we were saying.  Killing someone in cold blood?  A little different than killing someone on the battlefield.

“Not giving you the go ahead,” I said.  “But I’m not about to stop you.  I’m washing my hands of this.”

“The intent was to remove individuals from the Nine before they could conduct their round of tests, yes?  This seems to be the most expedient route.”

“Not disagreeing,” I said.  “But I didn’t sign up to be an executioner.  I manage my district and I help defend your city from outsiders, right?”

“Quite right.  No, I think your service this morning has been exemplary.”

I only barely managed to avoid bringing up the deal about Dinah.  No, it was premature, the wrong people were listening, and I was worried he would point out the fact that my territory had been torched by Burnscar.

Best to keep quiet for now.  Rebuild, re-establish myself as leader of my territory, then raise the topic.

Whatever happened, I needed his respect.

We turned our attention to our captive.  She had raised her hands above her head in a surrender position, despite the hole in her shoulder.

“Do we risk it?” Trickster asked.  “Letting her out?”

“Nothing she can’t do outside the bubble that she couldn’t do inside,” Tattletale replied.  Coil nodded, and that seemed to be signal enough.

Genesis began to dissolve, and in moments, Cherish spilled out, wincing as she cut her hands and knees on the glass that Shatterbird had detached from her costume and weaponized.

Tattletale bent down and looked at the device that hung around Cherish’s neck.  “Small explosive, combination lock.  A bit paranoid?”

“No such thing as too paranoid,” Cherish said, glaring.  “Between my brother and the crap that Bonesaw and the rest of the team want to subject me to, knowing I’ll die if I leave that thing alone long enough actually helps me sleep at night.”

“Can’t have that,” Tattletale said.  Changing the topic, she asked, “You like computers?”

“Computers?” Cherish startled.  She seemed to intuit what Tattletale was doing.  “Not saying.”

“Clever girl, but even that’s enough of a clue.  Let’s see… four, five, four five.”  Tattletale tugged on the lock.  “Nope.  Three, seven, three, seven.”

The lock popped open.  Cherish’s eyes opened wide.

“There goes your bargaining chip.”

“I’ve got more,” Cherish said, her chin rising a fraction.

“Do tell,” Coil said, dryly.

“Certain teammate of yours paid me a visit.  Imp, I think her name was?  So hard to remember.”

“What did you do to Imp?” I asked.  Grue is going to freak out.

Cherish smiled, “She decided to help me get back at the Nine.  They’re planning on inflicting a fate worse than death on me, you see.  There was a reason I pretended not to notice you were all waiting in ambush.  Thought maybe the brat passed on word somehow, until you used that sucker-teleport on me and shot me.  Suppose you’ll have to give me medical attention and keep me alive if you want the rest of the story.”

“And your other bargaining chip?” Trickster asked.

“Grue.  I can sense him with my power.  I can also sense my team.  They got their hands on darkness boy.”

I swear my heart stuttered mid-beat.

Cherish smiled, but her glare didn’t fade in intensity.  “My teammates and I already talked on the subject of Jean Paul, aka Hijack, aka Alec, aka Regent…  You got Shatter, and you got me.  We’re compromised.  No way they’re going to accept us back with open arms.  They’d kill us first.  So no, don’t get your hopes up.  My teammates aren’t going to agree to a hostage exchange.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 13½ (Donation Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Sam!  Sam!”  Celia’s voice was grating and nasal.

“I’m coming!”  The heavyset man grumbled, as he made his way into the living room.  Celia sat on the floor between the couch and the coffee table.  The white of her t-shirt and panties was a stark contrast to her dark skin.  Sam leered at the woman.  She was good-looking for her age, slim, though her breasts sagged behind her shirt without the benefit of a bra.

“You said you were five minutes ago, asswipe.  Takes you five minutes to find your wallet?”

“Needed to piss.  Your fatass friend was in your bathroom, so I pissed in your sink.”

Celia kicked under the coffee table to strike his shin.

Sam just smiled and stepped back.  “Kidding.  I went off the fire escape.”

“That’s not any better!”

“It’s all water and shit down there.  Any place that doesn’t smell like hot garbage smells like a toilet.  Here.  Stop bitching.”  He threw a plastic movie rental card at her.

She cut open a plastic wrapped block of powder and shook a small amount of the powder onto the coffee table.  She used the laminated card to cut it into lines, a set on each side of the table, with none in front of her.

“You’re not having any?”

“I told you.  I’m pregnant.”

“You’re too old to be pregnant,” Sam commented.  She kicked him again.

“Not that old!”

Jennifer emerged from the washroom and stopped in the doorway, staring at the scene.

“I didn’t think you’d actually use any of the stuff.”

“Jen, hon,” Celia said, “We’ve got enough to go around.  Even if we only sold half, we’d be made in the shade for five or ten years.”

“And you just took it?”

“Leaders of the Merchants got killed, everyone else decided to run off with what they could carry of the stockpiles.  Sam and I decided to play it smart.  Sam got his truck, and I guarded the stash from the other assholes.  Paid off.”

“I… what is it?”

“Little bit of everything.  Come, sit.  Try some.”

“What is it?”

Sam seated himself at the table, by one set of the lines of powder.  He picked up a pinch and put it on his tongue.  “H.”

“No way,” Jennifer said.  She dropped into one of the felt-covered chairs at the far end of the room.

Aisha had to hop out of the way so she didn’t get sat on.  She watched the dialogue between her mother, her mother’s boyfriend of the week and her mother’s new friend with a dispassionate expression.  Seeing this scene, she didn’t really feel much.  A little disappointment.  Embarrassment.  Disgust.

No, it was less this scene and more the discovery that her mother was pregnant that nailed her in the gut with a profound kind of sadness.

The first place her mind went, before joy at the idea of having a brother or sister, before anger at her mom for letting it happen and not using protection, was hope.

“Sam, do you have any papers?”

“Rolling papers?  I thought you were going clean.”

“It’s just weed.  I need to have something.”

“Isn’t that bad for the kid-in-progress?”

“It’s weed, dumbass.  Nothing they tell you about it is true.  Kid isn’t going to wind up addicted from birth or anything, ’cause it’s not addictive.  Right?”

“Sure,” he reached into his back pocket and slipped a packet to her, along with a dime bag.

Aisha bit her lip.  Maybe hope was the wrong word, because she didn’t really feel anything on the subject.  But she knew it would probably be better if her mom miscarried and the kid was spared this shit.

How much of Aisha’s problems were because of her mom’s lack of self-control and how many others were because of this environment?  She’d grown up with a mom who’d never mentally or emotionally aged past fourteen or fifteen.  A new man in the house every week or two, with his own idea of how things should work, Celia generally content to let him run things however he wanted.

Aisha tried not to think about the men.  It was like having a broken arm; so long as she didn’t move it, so long as she didn’t think about it, it was okay, a dull throb in the back of her mind.  Something she could ignore.  But even a stray thought could remind her that the arm was broken, and then it sometimes took days before she could get out of that head space.  There was no distraction that worked, because the fact that she was consciously looking for a distraction only reminded her of what she was trying to distract herself from.

Of course, there was no way to avoid the countless reminders in everyday life that would remind her of Guy, or Bridge, or Darren, or Lonnie.  Thinking about a broken arm was one such reminder.

Being ignored by her teammates and told to go to her room and play along for everyone else’s sake was another.  How many afternoons had she come home from school, only for her mom or one of her mom’s boyfriends to shoo her off or bribe her to leave the apartment for a bit?

Pissed her off.  She didn’t need that from her brother, too.

“Come on, Jennifer,” Celia urged her friend.  She took a long draw from the spliff she held in her fingers. “Oh fuck!  Sam, you jackass!  This isn’t just weed, is it?”

“Thought it was.”

“There’s a kick to it.  Amp or something.”  Celia took another puff.  “Amp.  Hey, Jen, join in. Have some of what Sam’s having.”

“But H is fucking scary,” Jen protested.

“So you hear.  But why is it scary?”

“It’s addictive.”

Aisha tuned out the sound of her mother and Sam cajoling the woman and walked over to the table.  Her mom didn’t notice her.  Nobody ever noticed her, and they noticed even less ever since she’d gotten her power.  It was like a dark joke, a grim comedy.  Just when she’d started to figure things out, grow up and catch people’s eye, the world went to hell and she got her powers.  Now she became invisible if she lost her concentration.

Not that it was invisibility, really.  It was memories.  People forgot her as soon as they saw her, to the point that they didn’t register her presence.  She could feel it, her power rolling over her skin, jabbing outward, invisible to sight, touch and anything else, making contact with the people around her and pushing those memories away.

And like her metaphor comparing her memories to a broken arm, her power seemed to respond to the attention of her subjects; the harder they tried to remember and focus on her, the faster she slipped through their minds.

The metaphor applied in another way, too.  Her power operated on its own, doing its thing, and if she very casually noted what it was doing, without pushing it forward or holding it back, she could feel it doing something else.  As if it was ready to push away memories that didn’t relate to her, exactly.  It never did.  Any time it built up enough that it came close to doing anything, she noticed, and it retreated like a turtle pulling its head into its shell.

Frustrating.  Her power didn’t do anything because she wanted it to.  It worked only if she surrendered to it, let it act on its own.  Pushing it to work harder had the opposite effect.

How easy would it be to just carry this stuff away?  She could hand it to Coil for some brownie points, and he could decide what to distribute.  It would be out of her mother’s hands, and money would become a limiter on her mother’s habit.  If the drugs weren’t around, maybe Sam would leave.

Maybe, if Aisha got rid of the drugs, her mom would have an excuse to get things back on track, somehow.  The city was paying people who joined the clean-up crews.  Three square meals, simple and bland but they gave the essential nutrients, and they gave you twenty dollars for nine hours of work.  Fuck around or slack off, and they just kicked you off the crew for the day, no pay.

Idle hopes.  Aisha had spent long years wishing her mom could pull it together, dating back to just after the divorce, when a bad day was still better than most good days were now.  Or maybe that was nostalgia and a child’s eye view.

No.  If she got rid of the drugs, it was more likely that someone would erupt in anger.  Sam or her mom, getting violent, verbally or otherwise.  It would do more harm than good.

She sat down on the coffee table, directly opposite her mother.  Reaching forward, she plucked the spliff from her mother’s lips and dropped it, grinding it under her toes.

Her mother blinked a few times, then reached for her rolling papers.

Aisha used her hand to cover the papers and whispered, “No.”

Again, the dazed blinking.  Her mother asked, “Sam?  Got any more papers?”

“I just gave you a full package.”

“The hell?  Maybe that hit me harder than I thought,” Aisha’s mother giggled.

Aisha stared her mother in the eyes.  She didn’t deactivate her power.  “Mom.  You gotta stop.”

“Where are the rest of the papers, Sam?” her mom asked, oblivious.

“Kitchen.”

“But I don’t want to get up.  I’m comfy,” Celia whined.

“You keep going down this road, your kid is going to be born without a face or something,” Aisha said, her voice quiet.  “You know how hard school was for me?  Even as far back as kindergarten, I couldn’t sit still.  Teacher tells me three things, and by the time they’ve gotten to the third, I’ve forgotten the first.  And Brian doesn’t have any of that.”

“Go get some papers, Sam.  Sam McSamsam.  Sammy-sam.  Samster-”

“I don’t want to get up any more than you do,” Sam growled.  “You’re not one of the talkative ones, are you?  I like it quiet.”

“Mom,” Aisha said, as if she could get her mom’s attention.  Ironically enough, she knew that if she deactivated her power, she’d have even less chance of talking to her mom.  It wasn’t just the horned mask and the black costume.  She’d never had anyone just sit down and listen to her.  Dad ignored her, mom was self-centered and Brian was too focused on what needed to be done that he ignored everything else.

“Mom.  You’re going to have some fucked up kid, and then you’re going to die of an OD before it’s even grown up.  It’s not fair that you leave some kid that’s more retarded than me, or some deformed freak for Brian to take care of.  Not fair on him, and it’s not fair on the kid to make them put up with the dick, either.”

“Fine,” her mother said, standing.  “I’ll get the papers myself.”

Aisha sighed.  Was it cowardice that kept her from confronting her mother, or the knowledge backed by years of experience that it wouldn’t make a difference?

Maybe, if everything with the Nine worked out and Coil got control of the city, maybe she could get her mom some help, or report her to the police.

But not now, not when things were like this, when she had to prove she deserved her place in the group.

Abandoning her mother to a noisy search of the kitchen, Aisha headed into her old room.

Her room smelled like sex, and faintly of urine.  Her mom had apparently had a party since Aisha had left.

Holding her breath, she opened her closet door.  She pushed past the clothes she’d stolen, shoplifted and bought, and past the old clothes she couldn’t or wouldn’t wear anymore.  Her closet was in layers, and each layer held clothes and trinkets from a different era.

Her girl guide stuff was in the very back, too wrinkled by years to wear.  Her dad had pushed her into that.  He’d wanted her to have structure.  After a year and a half, even he had pulled her out.  A bad fit.  She didn’t have the personality type for it.

Around the girl guide stuff, she found a small tape recorder and an old pair of binoculars.  After finding an old backpack that had never been emptied of the school supplies, she found some notebooks that had only been filled in about a third of the way.  She tore out those pages and tucked the notebooks under one arm.

Everything went into a compact black handbag, along with her taser and knives.

Small things.  Nothing she couldn’t have bought in a well stocked convenience store, maybe.  But she would operate best if she was relaxed, and having some personal items made her feel better.

That only left the problem of finding them.

They’d attacked the Merchants, and observing her mom had given her the chance to find out where.  It was a starting point.

It was worse than she’d expected.  She ducked under the police tape and pushed one officer out of her way as she stepped into the area.  Police cars and PRT vans had formed a broad perimeter, with police tape strung between them.  She momentarily wondered why they didn’t have the wooden barricades.  It was flimsy as security went.

It was drizzling, and the small amounts of rain did little to clean the streets of the blood that spattered it.  Water soaked into the white and brown sheets that had been draped over the bodies that still waited for someone to clean them up.  The brown, she realized, was dried blood.

Aisha picked her way through the fallen.  The worst of the carnage was at the edges, as if some invisible line had been drawn that nobody was permitted to cross, and in the center, where the masses of people had gathered before being murdered together.

She’d hoped for a lead.  A piece of evidence, or an overheard tidbit of information from the cops.

No such luck.

There was an overabundance of evidence.  By the time the cops processed everything here and managed to identify the bodies, the leaves would be falling off the trees and the Nine would be long gone, one way or another.  The cops weren’t talking, either.  They were working silently, or the things they were saying weren’t interesting.  Catching the Nine wasn’t their job.  If they found something worthwhile, they would pass it on to the local capes, probably.

No.  If there was something to be found, it wouldn’t be here.  She headed to the edge of the scene, where the police cars had all stopped.  There were still spots and spatters of blood here and there, and bloody footprints, but not much.  She walked around the police and the cars to check each set out.  In every case, it seemed, the bloodied victims had either fallen where they lay or disappeared.  Ambulances?

Having checked the area, she moved further down the street to see the next closed-off alleyway.  The same thing.  A few more bloody footprints, but nothing beyond that.

The third blockade offered something.  There was a spot where the blood was thicker, which didn’t match up with the other spaces.  The trail extended further than it did elsewhere.

Looking around, she spotted a smear of blood on the side of a building, three stories up.

Okay.  So maybe they’d gone this way.

The trail of breadcrumbs that the blood provided were slowly being eroded or masked by the light rain.  The water raised the oils from the cracks in the road, giving the ground a rainbow sheen.

The signs of blood faded too soon, and Aisha could only guess whether she had taken the wrong road, gone too far or if the rain had cleared it away.  She might have given up right then, but she saw a group of men standing outside of an apartment building.

It was only when she got close that she saw the badge clipped to the front of one of their jackets.  A detective.  There was blood on the door that led into the apartment lobby.

The elevator wouldn’t be working.  She headed for the stairwell, only to find more blood.  It was as though a body had been dragged.

Going forward was a stupid idea, she knew.  Brian and Skitter had gone into way too much fucking depth about the risks.   Still, that hadn’t stopped her before.

She got her taser and knife from her bag and made her way upstairs.

Third floor up, blood on the door leading into the hall.  More blood trailing down the hallway, stopping at one apartment.

She double checked that her power was active and pushed her way inside.

Only a few of the Nine were present.  Crawler slept with his ponderous head on paws that were crossed over one another, his back rising and falling with each deep breath.  He was large enough that the highest part of his back rose nearly to the ceiling with each breath he drew in through his nostrils.  Only half of the eyes on his body were closed, covered with thick, dark gray lids.

Shatterbird and Burnscar were on the couch, Burnscar stretched out with her head on the armrest, her feet propped up on Shatterbird’s lap.  She held a graphic novel on her stomach with one hand and created flames in the other, shaping them to match the people she saw as she flicked from page to page.  Shatterbird was sitting upright, a novel in her hands.

Bonesaw stood over the dining room table, with a mechanical spider-thing on the opposite side of the table, assisting her.  A young man was on the table itself, his wrists and ankles tied down.  His torso was open from collar-bone to crotch, his ribs splayed apart.  Bonesaw and her mechanical spider were elbow deep in the contents of his torso.

The spiders.

Aisha moved quickly aside as a spider moved from the kitchen, past her and to the table.  Whatever cameras or artificial intelligence it used, it didn’t seem to notice her.  It handed Bonesaw a diet cola that the little girl opened with bloody fingers and drank.

With a little more confidence, Aisha moved further inside, giving a wide berth to Crawler and Burnscar’s foot-high images of flame.

Holding her weapons, Aisha stood next to Shatterbird, at one end of the couch.

Aisha had never killed anyone, but here she was, holding a lethal weapon.  She could slice Shatterbird’s throat and they wouldn’t even realize she was there.

They would, she suspected, realize that Shatterbird was dead or dying.  There was a fifty-fifty chance, anyways, that it would force them out of whatever effect her powers had on their brains.  It had happened to her before.

Except that Shatterbird would kill her in her last moments, using the glass that had been swept to the corners of the room, or one of the others would.  Burnscar or Crawler could deal a hell of a lot of damage, even if they didn’t know who they were attacking.

Slowly, she walked over to Bonesaw, navigating around the drones.  Could she kill the kid?

On the one hand, Bonesaw was the one who kept the other members going.  Removing her would take a lot of problems off the board.  She could finish off Bonesaw and run for cover in the kitchen, out of Burnscar and Shatterbird’s line of fire.  From there, it was only steps to the front door and safety.

On the other hand, it was still murder, and it was a kid.  A kid that had a hundred kills under her belt.

A squeaking sound distracted her from her thoughts.  It was like air being let out of a balloon, but in shorter spurts.  Bonesaw?  No, the girl wasn’t making any noise.  The mechanical spider?  No.  Not the spider either.

Stepping as close to Bonesaw and the spider as she dared, Aisha investigated the sounds.  Where were they coming from?

Bonesaw smiled, “You’re going to have to speak up if you want me to hear you, Jonathan.”

Jonathan?

Aisha looked down at the body, and realized the heart was beating inside Bonesaw’s hands.  The man’s eyes were moving, and his lips moved as he struggled and failed to make words come up through his windpipe.

The surge of horror and disgust gave Aisha the strength to cast aside her doubts.

“Sorry kid,” she said.

She plunged the knife into Bonesaw’s bare throat.

Bonesaw screamed, shrill and loud, which caught Aisha off guard.  With a knife in her throat, the girl was screaming?

Reacting more on instinct than wit, Aisha pulled the knife out and then slashed it horizontally across Bonesaw’s throat.

She’d expected a spray of blood or gurgling.  Neither happened.  Bonesaw screamed again.

So she pulled the knife free and stabbed Bonesaw in one eye.  The blade scraped against the bone of Bonesaw’s eye socket.

Flame erupted and pieces of glass came to life around Aisha.  She backed away quickly as a wall of flame rolled over Jonathan on the table and divided her from Bonesaw.  There was a rumble and the sound of falling furniture as Crawler stood.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow!”  Bonesaw shrieked.  “It hurts!”

Why isn’t she dead?

Aisha yanked the knife out and then gripped her taser.

“Is it Jack?” Burnscar asked, looking around, then turning to the window, “What the hell?”

“It’s not Jack,” Bonesaw said.  She snapped her fingers, and the mechanical spider leaped on top of her, beginning to suture the wounds in her neck.  “I gave Jack the same safeguards I gave us, he would have succeeded if he tried it.”

Shatterbird scowled.  “Then who or what was that?  Crawler, do you know?”

Aisha backed toward the front door.  She stopped as Crawler appeared in the doorway that led from the kitchen to the front hall, looking through to see his teammates on the far end.  His voice was a mangled mess of sounds that only barely approximated anything like speech.  “I don’t smell anyone.”

Smells can’t find me, then, Aisha thought.  Still, she didn’t have her escape route.

“Torch the apartment and make a break for it?” Burnscar asked.  “We can meet up as a group later.”

“No.  Cherish has a hard time tracking Mannequin, and he won’t know how to find us,” Shatterbird said.

“I’m okay,” Bonesaw piped up.  She held one hand to her eye socket, which had trails of smoke rising from it.  “You don’t need to worry.  I can put my throat back together easy, after I get my kit out to check the sheaths for my vitals to make sure there’s no abrasions, and I’ve got spare eyes.  I could go with green eyes.  Or one green and one blue, or if I alter them, I could have-“

“Quiet,” Shatterbird cut in.  “It’s less about you being hurt and more about the fact that someone had the audacity to attack us here.  Burnscar, put out those fires.  We don’t want attention.”

The wall of flame shrunk and faded away.

“Really hope you don’t have another way of sensing me, big guy,” Aisha said to Crawler, ducking between his legs and stepping towards the door.  “I’m gonna make my exit now.”

None of the Nine reacted as she shut the door behind her.

Lesson learned.  The more ‘vulnerable’ members of the Nine weren’t as vulnerable as they looked.  Sheaths, Bonesaw had said?

Stepping into the lobby, she stopped in her tracks.

One of the detectives who’d been standing by the door was dead, his throat slit.  He laid in the center of the lobby.  Two more blood trails ran to the side of the lobby opposite the stairs.

Manager’s office?

Her weapon drawn, she reached for the doorknob, and collided with Jack as he strode out of the office.

“What’s wrong?” Cherish asked.

Aisha backed away.

“Nothing,” Jack said.  “You grab the last body and then find a mop.”

“Me?”

“I think I’ve been exceedingly generous, giving you a second chance.  You can repay me by doing the heavy lifting.”

“Ever the gentleman.”

“Go on, now.  I’ll wait here.”

Aisha watched as Cherish walked past her, grabbed the heavyset detective and began dragging him inch by inch toward the office.

She only remembered one other time when her heart had pounded this hard.  It had been when the fledgling Merchants had attacked her and her father.  It was another chance.  While they were separated, she could go after one.  But which?

She held the taser and the knife, adjusting her grip so she was secure.

Jack was the key figure.  Aisha knew she could attack him, knew she maybe should, but would she succeed any more than she did against Bonesaw?  Cherish might be able to lash out with some kind of blind fire, affecting the emotions of everyone nearby.

No.  Cherish was the newest member, wasn’t she?  There were better odds that Cherish didn’t have the protections that Jack and the others did.

Exhaling slowly, Aisha followed behind Cherish as the girl tugged the body into the other room.  She stepped inside and shut the door.

“Put the weapon away,” Cherish said, her voice quiet.

Aisha gulped, realizing the trap she’d just stepped into.  “You can hear me?”

A second passed, and there was no response.

“Put it away, or I’m going to leave you quivering in a corner, shitting your pants.”

“You can’t hear me.”  Aisha gripped her weapon and stepped closer.

Cherish whirled around, her eyes flitting right and left, searching for Aisha.  “I’ll scream.  He’ll come in here, and a couple swings of his knife, he can cut you down, invisible or no.”

“It’s not invisibility,” Imp said, uselessly.

“Put your weapon away,” Cherish said, her voice quiet and carefully measured, “We only have a few seconds before Jack gets suspicious.  Listen.  I want to strike a deal.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 12

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Which one of you dripping rectal cysts is brave enough for this one!?”

The cheer bubbled up from the crowd, until it reached a crescendo that he could hear from his aircraft/podium.  The wind ripped around him as he stood at the nose of the aircraft, his cape fluttering.  Squealer’s vehicle was like a helicopter made by someone who had never seen a helicopter before, who’d decided to add their own improvements to the design when they were finished – more whirling blades spaced equidistant around the thing.  Topping it off, it was roughly three times the typical size.

“Green armband means poison, and this is a poison half of you wastes of air have already tasted!  We’re gonna make it as bad as it gets!  The worst of bad trips!”

He held a bowl of pills that were dusted with assorted powders and raised it over his head, “One handful, then you take a nap in one of the coffins we have up here.  Moment the lid shuts, you’ll find out what’s in store for you.  Some have rats, some have spiders, some have nothing at all and some…”

A beam of light speared down from the base of the fat bodied helicopter, sending chunks of earth where it hit ground.  The moment it faded, a coffin fell into the hole that had formed, followed by a downpour of gravel.

“Get buried alive!”

The noise of the crowd was more bloodthirsty this time, unmasked and unashamed in their savagery.

“Hope you rancid pukes have friends to dig you up!  Put up with that shit while you’re on the trip of your life, and you get yourselves a green fucking armband!  For the rest of the night, everything is as free as your mother’s pussy!  For as long as you hold on to that baby, anything you buy direct from one of us head honchos is ten percent off!  So which-”

He stopped.  There was a thump as the microphone hit the surface near Skidmark’s feet and then a violent but all too brief noise as it struck one of the propellers at the side of the aircraft and was promptly annihilated.

Skidmark’s hands went to his stomach, where blood and organs were spilling out.  He turned to run, but more slices appeared in his arm, his buttock, his back and the back of his neck.  No longer in sight of the majority of the crowd, he continued to try to crawl away, only for his reaching fingers to be separated from his hand, flying away from him in a spray of crimson.

The aircraft lurched and began to turn, but this maneuver ended up spelling out Skidmark’s doom.  The surface beneath him was already slick with blood, and with only one hand’s worth of fingers to grip with, he slid.  He used his power to change the surface and force himself upward, but it was too little, too late.

He dropped into the blades of the spinning propeller and was puréed in a heartbeat.

Standing on a rooftop across from the aircraft, Jack flicked his wrist and snapped the blade of his straight-razor back into the handle.

Smiling thinly, he looked over his shoulder at his teammates.  Bonesaw sat astride Siberian’s shoulders, in the midst of braiding a lock of the feral killer’s hair.  Shatterbird and Burnscar stood on opposite sides of the group, the former holding a book in one hand, the latter with images in flame dancing a quarter-inch off her skin, showing people and familiar objects, many of the images replaying the scene of Skidmark’s demise in miniature.  Bonesaw’s automatons were spread out over the remainder of the roof, and one of her Frankenstein creations waited patiently at the far end of the roof.  Hack Job, she’d called it?  It had started to rot alive, and Bonesaw kept it out of the way so as not to offend the sensibilities of her teammates.  Cherish stood in Crawler’s shadow, pale, her hands clasped together.  Her shoulders were drawn in, as if she was afraid she would be struck any second.

Crawler, the most monstrous member of the group, loomed over the rest.  His chest was ten feet deep from front to back, his head the size of a small car.  He combined the most effective features of a bear and a panther.  Sinuous, flexible, bristling with quiet menace, but also brawny with muscle.  He had armor plates covering him, with scales where armor wouldn’t allow him optimum flexibility, and spines and coarse hair where the scales wouldn’t do.  Head to toe, he had the coloring of an oil slick, black by default, but scintillating with rainbow hues in just the right light.  A hundred black orbs studded the length of his body, set into the plates of armor.  Caustic venom virtually poured from a mouth that bristled with mismatched fangs, spattering precipitously close to Cherish and eating at the concrete rooftop.  Perhaps most unnerving of all were his six legs, each forking at the knee or elbow joint, with one larger limb ending in scimitar-like claws and a smaller set of limbs for each; tentacles for the rear four legs and a long fingered human’s hands for the forelimbs.

Jack spoke, with no small amount of irony.  “Looks like Skidmark’s hosting a party.  I think we deserve a night on the town, after waiting as long as we did to reveal ourselves.  Be sure to thank our hosts.  I’m sure our invitation was lost in the mail.”

Smiles spread across more than one face.

Crawler was the first one off of the roof, throwing himself into the night air to land in the dead center of the crowd.  The others followed quickly after, Shatterbird and Burnscar launching themselves to the far corners of the massed crowd, conjuring up storms of glass shards and flame to block their victim’s retreat.  Bonesaw’s creations poured over the edges of the rooftop to herd the remainder of the crowd and keep them contained to one area.

It was just four of them left on the rooftop.  Siberian, Bonesaw, Jack and Cherish.

Siberian reached out and gripped Cherish by the shirt collar.  More graciously, she extended a hand toward Jack.  He gripped it tight.

“Thank you,” he said.

Catching a ride with Siberian was something of an art form.  Cherish had yet to master it, not even biting her tongue or keeping the short shriek from escaping her lips as Siberian stepped off the edge of the roof.  Jack, for his part, allowed himself to go limp the second Siberian pulled at him.  The four of them collectively dropped, Bonesaw riding atop Siberian’s shoulders, gripping her hair to maintain her position.

They were spared the messy fate of being pancaked on the pavement by a quirk of Siberian’s nature, transferring to each of them.  Jack staggered, more because he’d let his whole body relax so he wouldn’t jar something when Siberian tugged at him, but he let go of his teammate’s hand and straightened.  Cherish dropped to her knees.

“Much obliged, Siberian.” Jack said.  “Go.  Have fun.”

Siberian reached up and set Bonesaw down, and then was gone, one footstep carrying her into the midst of the crowd.  She didn’t care if she hit anyone.  Anyone unfortunate enough to be in her way was pulverized, their limbs broken, chests shattered and necks snapped by the impact.  Even those in the general area were caught by the flying bodies and hurt just as grievously.

Bonesaw laughed, and it was a sound without reservations, not shaped by social constraint or culture or self-censorship.  It was the laugh of a child, free and without a care.  One of her mechanical spiders leaped onto her back, and wound several of its limbs around her chest.  Two limbs extended to connect to her wrists, so the mechanical arms mirrored the dimensions and length of her own.  The ends fanned out into an array of scalpels, needles, saws, and other instruments so one tool sat between each of her splayed fingers.  The smallest gestures of her hands forced instantaneous rearrangements of the tools, so another was ready for her to grasp and use.  Two more spiders lunged forward and pulled one of Siberian’s screaming wounded away from the rest of the crowd, dragging it inch by inch toward the advancing Bonesaw.

The crowd might have turned to fight her, but they lacked the courage.  They scattered.

Jack twirled his closed straight-razor around his fingers.  “Cherish, stand up.  You’re missing the show.”

Obediently, Cherish raised herself up.  She lifted her head just in time to see a blur of white and black against the night sky, followed by a large explosion from the side of Squealer’s flying aircraft.  It tilted and bounced against the side of a nearby building, scraps of metal shearing off to land in the midst of the crowd.  A series of small detonations that ripped forth from the interior of the aircraft cast just enough light for Jack and Cherish to see Siberian striding across the deck, one of the Merchants in her grip.  In a heartbeat, she’d torn the woman’s limbs from their sockets and buried her teeth in the woman’s neck.

Bereft of a pilot and working internal mechanisms, the aircraft crashed heavily in the midst of the crowd.  The Merchants who had gathered in the street for Skidmark’s festival of poison scattered, abandoning their fallen friends, trying to find an escape route or hiding place.  The screams of panic were twice the volume of any cheering they’d done earlier.

Siberian hopped up to the highest point of the wrecked aircraft, the twisted remains of a propeller that should not have borne her weight.  Her hair blew in the hot air that rose from the heap of burning metal.  She glanced around to see where she might do the most damage, spat out a gobbet of meat and then leaped off to one side, out of sight.  The propeller didn’t even move.

“Are you going to partake?” Jack asked Cherish.

“Why are you still talking like I’m a member of this team?  I tried to manipulate all of you, and I failed.”

“We’ll deal with your punishment at a later date.  Bonesaw is working on something.”

Cherish’s eyes widened.  “I knew she was… I read her emotions towards me… I knew she was thinking about something.  But hearing you say it out loud.  Oh god.”

“Rest assured, Cherie Vasil, you dropped out of reach of God a long, long time ago.” Jack smiled at her.

She turned away, looking over the scene, as if it could distract her from her thoughts and fears.

Crawler threw himself into the point where the crowd was thickest.  Bodies flew as he moved on his two rearmost legs and swept the other four claws and two tentacles through the ranks of the Merchants.  When everyone within his broad reach was dead or suffocating from the paralytic venom, he turned toward the wrecked aircraft and began advancing with a more measured pace.  Each of the hundred eyes along the length of his body blinked to clear away the blood and dust that had spattered him in his all-too-brief spree.

Jack watched as someone drew a gun and pointed it at Crawler, then reconsidered.  He turned it toward Bonesaw, and found himself face to face with Hack Job.  He was cut down a moment later.  Hack Job exploded in a puff of white dust, already having left to dispatch more gunmen that might harm Jack or his maker.

Another figure appeared next to Jack and Cherish.  Jack assumed it was Hack Job until he turned his head.

“Oh hoh,” Jack assessed the man.  “What happened here?”

Mannequin stood, headless, streaked in paint and dust that marred his white body with dark colors.  His right arm ended at the elbow, the remainder missing.

One by one, the other members of the Nine seemed to notice Mannequin’s appearance.  Shatterbird stepped back from the ruined husk of a massive suit of steaming armor and started flying their way, accompanied by a cloud of bloody glass shards.

Bonesaw turned away from her patient.  She spoke to the man, pushing him away.  She might have said something like ‘run’.

The man stumbled five or six steps before his body began to swell.  His right arm bloated up to three or four times the usual size, turning crimson, before it exploded violently, sending shards of bone and a spray of blood into the people nearest him.  He screamed, only for his cries to grow shorter and more frantic, as the rest of him reached that critical mass.  In another ten seconds, the remainder of his body detonated.

Bonesaw was already skipping over to the rest of their group, grinning wide, “Mannequin!  Aww!  Did the villain break you?  Poor baby.  Like a little girl with a ken doll.”

A blade sprung from Mannequin’s remaining hand.  Bonesaw tittered.

Behind the child tinker, those in the crowd who had been struck by the blood and flying bone of her first victim were starting to scream as their bodies swelled as well.

Jack frowned.  “Bonesaw.  You know my rule about epidemics.  You have to play fair with the rest of the group.”

“No epidemic!  I promise!”  She said, drawing a little ‘x’ over her heart, “Four or five cycles.  No more.  Each transition is going to have only about half the catalyst of the last, and eventually they’ll be able to fight it off.”

Shatterbird landed in their midst.  Behind her, a swell of orange light from Burnscar’s flames coincided with a peak in the crowd’s screams.  Mush’s titanic form of sand and debris had ignited, and he flailed madly.  Shatterbird ignored the chaos that her teammate was causing, studied Mannequin and then spoke in a voice that was dripping with judgement, “Mannequin failed.”

“It’s a shame you can’t see the disapproving look on Shatterbird’s face, Alan,” Jack commented, smiling.

Mannequin pointed the blade in his hand at Shatterbird, a threat and a warning.  Jack tensed, studying Shatterbird’s expression, waiting to see if this would start something.

“A loss is allowable,” Jack said, when the fight didn’t erupt.  “Most of us are more forgiving than Siberian, and allow a failure or two from our candidates during the rounds of testing, no?  It’s okay to let them win from time to time.  It gives them that spark of hope, so we can snatch it away and leave them all the more devastated.”

He looked at Shatterbird and she inclined her head in a barely perceptible nod.

“Which raises an interesting topic,” Jack said.  He spotted Siberian and indicated for her to approach.  Two corpses were stacked on her arm like meat on a kebab, and she cast them aside with a motion of her arm before approaching their circle.

Crawler was one of the two group members who had yet to rejoin the group.  He was engaged with a young man with a glow that suffused his hair and emanated from his eyes and mouth.  White flashes appeared with little accuracy and devastating effect, carving spherical chunks out of the brute.  This only encouraged the monster, and Crawler eagerly paced closer, his wounds closing together with a startling rapidity.  So few things could hurt Crawler these days that Jack rarely got to see the regeneration in full effect.  Crawler’s healing powers appeared to play out in fast-forward when compared to even the regenerators who could heal wounds in seconds.  Hundreds of pounds of flesh were replaced in one or two heartbeats.

One eruption of light hit Crawler in the dead center of his chest.  It made him pause, no doubt removing one of his hearts and some of his spinal cord.  The boy with the glowing hair pushed his power into overdrive, calling forth a series of flashes that exploded in close succession.  One caught Crawler in the face, revealing only a cross-section of his head, complete with a bisected brain, a skull six inches thick and the interior of Crawler’s mouth.  Crawler collapsed.

Siberian watched as the boy ran, then turned as if she intended to give chase.

“No,” Jack instructed.  “Let him go.  We need to leave some alive.”

He had other motivations, but he would remain quiet on that particular subject.

Crawler’s brain grew back to its full beach-ball size in one or two seconds, followed closely after by the healing of the skull, the reappearance of his facial muscles, then his skin, hair, spines, scale and armor plating, roughly in that order.  He shook his head like a dog with water in its ears and looked around, searching for his quarry.

“After, Crawler!”  Jack shouted, “You can fight him another time!  Group meeting!”

Crawler hesitated, then loped over to their gathered circle.  Burnscar lobbed a fireball high over their heads, and then dropped down from the airborne projectile to land in a crouch.

Somewhere in the background, there were the screams and explosions of the fourth or fifth cycle of Bonesaw’s work.  Of the crowd that had been gathered in the street, only stragglers remained.

“I wanted to give you all a chance to cut loose before we got down to business,” Jack said.  “It seems a teammate of two of our prospective members wants or wanted to strike a deal.  Cherish, do you happen to know if she is still alive?”

“Tattletale lives.  She’s very close to the buried girl right now.”

“Oh, you hear that, Crawler?  Your candidate and this Tattletale might be friends.”

“No,” Cherish said, avoiding eye contact with anyone in the group, “They barely know each other.”

“Too bad.” Jack shrugged, then he went on, “This Tattletale wants to play a game, leveling the playing field between us and the others.  If we cannot reduce our selection to a single candidate, we take the first to volunteer and we leave.  Our loss, and a hit to our collective reputation as a penalty.”

Why?  It’s a bad idea,” Cherish said, “She knew you’d want to do this, knew you’d set yourself up with a situation where you could fail.  Where we could fail.  There’s no reason to do it.”

Jack shook his head.  “Oh, but there is.  Limitations foster creativity.  Tell an artist to paint anything, and he may struggle, but tell him to create something specific, in a set amount of time, for a certain audience, and these constraints might well push him to produce something he might never have come up with on his own.  We grow and evolve by testing ourselves.  That’s my personal philosophy.”

“That’s not really a test,” Shatterbird spoke, “There hasn’t been a round of testing since I joined the group where we didn’t whittle it down to one candidate.”

“We could forego the final test, pitting them against one another.”

Shatterbird turned to him, “Ah.  But, again, the last test where we had to go that far was… mine?”

“True.  Would there be any complaints if we added another restriction?  Perhaps a time limit?  We take turns.  Three days each to carry out our tests.  A failure, such as the one that Mannequin evidently suffered tonight, and you’re penalized one day.  A successful test might add some hours to your deadline, while the removal of one candidate buys you an extra day.”

“That’s not very fair to the first few of us to go,” Bonesaw said.  “They’ll have to test more people in less time.”

“They also have an easier time removing candidates from the list.  More chances at a longer run.  In fact, just to be fair, we may have to adjust the time awarded for a successful test, so there’s less for the first few of us to have a turn.  Do you all trust me to decide on something fair?”

There were nods or noises of agreement from Bonesaw, Burnscar, Siberian and Shatterbird.

“Mannequin?”

Mannequin tapped one finger on the blade that still extended from the base of his hand, drawing forth a single ‘clink’.

“That’s five of you in agreement.  Crawler?”

The monster stretched, his musculature rippling.  When he spoke, his voice was a rumble of broken sounds that only barely resembled words, “No point.”

“Ah, you feel your only road to self-improvement is your power.  While I would love to return to this particular debate, I can agree to disagree so you all can get back to your fun.  Look at it this way.  Our usual method has our quarry running scared.  To even get them to fight, you have to corner them, which you are admittedly very good at doing.  Like this, however, they have reason to band together, to fend us off, and protect the candidates who decide to eschew our tests and face our reprisals instead.  More would fight you, and you’d have a higher chance of finding another individual who could harm you.”

Crawler tilted his head one way, then the other.  He rumbled, “Fine.”

“Which only leaves you, Cherish, our errant rookie.  You’re dejected because you know Bonesaw has a punishment in the works.  But you mustn’t lose heart.  You’ll still have a chance to redeem yourself, and maybe even escape reprisal for your juvenile stunt.  I think Mannequin should start us off, and he’ll be penalized one day from his time limit for his loss tonight.  And you’ll have to deal with the bug girl, to make up for this embarrassment.   Make her suffer.”

Mannequin tapped once on the blade.

“Cherish, you’ll go second.  Your last chance to impress us.”

Cherish nodded, as mute as her headless teammate.

“Good.  Two days, Mannequin, then three for our Cherish.  To be fair, we should have a rule that says you cannot take out a candidate until they fail your test.  So each prospective member must be informed about the test and what it requires, they must fail, and they must be eliminated or punished, until one remains.  For those of you who want to show how superior they are over their teammates…” he cast a sidelong glance at Shatterbird, “There are several paths to success.  Remove several candidates, conduct a full round of testing, see that your candidate succeeds above any of the others, or all of the above.”

“I like it,” Bonesaw said, “It sounds fun!  But what about Siberian?  How is she supposed to tell them the rules?”

“We’ll help her out on that front.  Same test as usual, Siberian?”

Siberian nodded.  She reached out to Bonesaw’s face and used her thumb to wipe away a  spatter of blood before licking the digit clean.

“In any case, we’ve hashed this out enough.  I’ll think it over tonight and have something proper to present to you and the capes of this city who will be our… opposition.  I can add some rules, to cover loopholes and keep this little event manageable.  Panacea, Armsmaster, Bitch, Regent, the buried girl and Hookwolf.  Burnscar didn’t nominate one, and I’ve already dispatched mine.  That’s six candidates, we need to remove five.  And when we’re done and we’ve established our superiority, we can kill this Tattletale, her friends, and everyone else, just to make our point.  Good?”

There were signs, nods and murmurs of agreement all around.

“Good.  Go.  Have fun.  Mop up the stragglers.  Don’t worry about leaving any alive.  They already know we’re here.  No more than five minutes before we leave.  We can’t have our grand battle with the locals so soon.”

His monsters returned to their carnage.  He watched them at their work and their play, noting all of the little things.  He knew all too well that Shatterbird pretended civility, but she got as restless as Siberian when things got quiet, and she would look up from whatever book she read every thirty, fifteen or ten seconds, as if waiting for something to happen, craving it.  Siberian would begin to look at her group members in a hungry way.  She didn’t need to eat, but she enjoyed the experience, wanted it the same way someone else might crave their morning coffee.  Stimulation.

Crawler, he knew, wouldn’t show any signs of boredom or restlessness.  When he lost patience with things, it was an explosive affair, almost unmanageable.

Keeping this group in line was a matter of balancing carrots against sticks.  A constant, delicate process.  Every member sought something from the others, however solitary they might strive to appear, carrots that Jack could use to keep them as part of the group and entice them to stay, to cooperate.  It was not easy: what served as a stick to one might easily be a carrot to another.

Shatterbird, who had deigned to observe for the moment, hovering over the scene, was an individual who craved validation.  She would be insulted to hear it spoken aloud, but she needed to be powerful in the eyes of others, civilian or teammate.  She could tolerate much, but an insult or a joke at her expense could push her over the edge.  As carrots went, a simple word of praise could satisfy her for a week, and an opportunity to shine could sate her for a month.  It was why he allowed her to ‘sing’ each time they arrived somewhere new, even as he found it repetitive and boring, brooking the same scenarios time after time.  Her stick was easy enough: the threat of physical harm, or the embarrassment of being made to lose control.  Were she to attack a member of the group, Siberian or Crawler would retaliate, and they would hurt or kill her.  It would be inevitable, unequivocal.  The idea of the shame she’d feel in that ignoble defeat held her back as much as anything.

Siberian watched as Bonesaw began excising and stitching together groups of muscle and collections of organs she and her mechanical spiders were harvesting from the fallen.  It was taking on a vaguely human shape.

Siberian was tricky.  He doubted anyone else in the group was even aware, but their most feral member harbored a fondness for Bonesaw.  Siberian had little imagination, and was perfectly comfortable rehashing the same violent and visceral scenarios time and again, but she nonetheless enjoyed Bonesaw’s work.  She saw a kind of beauty in it.  Even more than that, he sometimes wondered if Siberian didn’t reciprocate Bonesaw’s desire for family.  Bonesaw alternately referred to Siberian as an older sister or the family pet, but Siberian’s fondness for Bonesaw bordered on the maternal, like a mother bear for her cub.  Did anyone else in the group note how Siberian seemed to keep Bonesaw’s company, to assume she would accompany the young girl when she went out, and carefully kept Bonesaw in sight at all times?

Siberian’s stick was Bonesaw, the possibility of losing the girl’s company in one way, shape, or form.  Threats against the girl would be met with a fury like no other.  Boredom, similarly, would see Siberian stalking off on her own to amuse herself, a scenario that grounded the group until Siberian’s return hours or days later.  Such usually meant a hasty retreat as the heroes who had realized that they could not defeat Siberian came after the rest of the group.

Bonesaw wanted a family.  Her stick was disapproval, a revoking of any ‘love’ from those closest to her.  She was far younger, emotionally, than her outward appearance suggested.  She had bad dreams at night if she didn’t sleep in the embrace of one of her older teammates, usually Siberian.  When she didn’t sleep, or when her mood otherwise soured, she was as intolerable as any of the others, and among the most dangerous.

Crawler wanted to be stronger, and remained with the group because it put him in constant danger.  His other motivation was more subtle.  He was patiently awaiting the day Siberian might honestly and brutally attempt to take him apart.  The only stick Jack could wield was the possibility that the group might dissolve before that happened.  On the other side of the coin, the day Crawler decided there was no longer any threat that could evolve him further would be… troubling.  It was why Jack had ordered Siberian to let the boy with the glowing hair go.  Finding the lad again would give Crawler something to do, and it would give Crawler a taste for what Siberian had to offer.

Burnscar was more sensitive, in many respects.  She had to be managed, provoked or set up to use her power so she remained in a more dangerous mindset.  Too much one way, and she became depressed and scared, vulnerable.  Too much the other way, and she became reckless, potentially attacking him or one of the others and sparking disaster.

Mannequin had his mission.  Few things bothered him as much as seeing someone try to help others and succeed where he had catastrophically failed.  To keep Mannequin in line, Jack could remind Mannequin of who he had once been.  A simple casual utterance of the name ‘Alan’ served as effectively as a slap in the face to someone else.  He rarely needed such considerations; Mannequin was predictable, manageable.

And Cherish, who would not survive their stay in Brockton Bay… after a fashion.  Hope was her carrot, but she had only sticks waiting for her.  He met her eyes and knew she knew what he was thinking.  She was all too aware an ugly fate awaited her, but didn’t know what it was.  The fear helped curb her.  Still, he would have to watch his back.

Carrots and sticks.  A game of constant balance.  A thousand factors.  Even now, he was taking notes on their candidates, deciding what would work and what wouldn’t.

Armsmaster and Regent were abrasive enough that they would likely prick Shatterbird’s pride.  Bitch would be a risk at first, but he trusted his ability to manage her and stop any fights from erupting.

Siberian would become jealous of any growing relationship between Panacea and Bonesaw.

The buried girl was only a candidate because Crawler hoped she was strong enough to fight him.  Either she would fail to hurt him and he would grow tired of her, or she would succeed and he would have no reason to stay in the group.

That left him two candidates who might work.  He doubted either Hookwolf or Bitch had what it took to stay in the group long-term.  They would soon be replaced, killed by an enemy or a member of the group, but they would not upset his carefully staged balance while they remained members.

He could manipulate the outcome of this little contest, see that one of the two lasted to the end.  It would be hard, requiring the best he could employ in subtlety and head games.

The wind blew flame-heated air at his back, thick with the smell of smoke and the sweet tang of blood.

He smiled.  These challenges, after all, served as his own carrot.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“This is not an exit.  Kudos for the reference,” Tattletale said.

“I try,” Jack replied.  He didn’t say anything more, looking us over.  I felt a chill as his eyes stopped on me before moving on to Regent and the Travelers.

Shit, shit, shit, shit.  What options did we have?  Running?  Siberian was bound to be faster than the dogs, and none of them were big.  We’d be dead before Bitch got them to grow.  That was even without considering Jack’s ability to cut us down from where he stood.

Fight?  Again, Siberian was the biggest problem.  She could take all of us on and win.  I suspected the only people who could really go toe to toe with her would be Scion, Eidolon and the Endbringers, and even then, I wasn’t sure if they would really be able to stop her.  At best, Scion and Eidolon would survive and keep her from killing any civilians.  The Endbringers would hold their own, but civilians obviously wouldn’t be a concern.

Could we escape under a cover of my bugs and Grue’s darkness?  I didn’t think Siberian would be able to see us, and if we surprised them, ran back the way we came-

“What’s this?” Cherish asked, cutting off my train of thought. “Someone thinks she’s had a clever idea.  A bit of hope and inspiration there.”

“Who?” Jack asked.

“When I looked at her with my power, before, I called her the Worm.  She spent some time being as low on the food chain as you can get while still being able to move under her own power.  As low as someone can get while still having an identity of their own.  But she’s realized she’s poisonous, dangerous in her own unique way.  She’s useful, like a silkworm we harvest or an earthworm who works our gardens.  She’s even realized she’s not alone, so long as she looks for friends among other dirty… contemptible creatures.  Speaking of which, I forgot to say hi, little brother.”

“Fuck you, Cherie.”

Cherish smiled and stared at me, “The little worm found a nugget of self-worth, she just doesn’t want to look too closely at what that nugget is made of.  If she’s lucky, she’s one of the worms without eyes.  They might be keenly aware of their environment, but they’re happier blind.”

“Poetic,” Jack said.  “I take it Skitter is this clever worm?”

“Yup.”

“Skitter.” Jack looked at me.  “You do anything and Siberian attacks.  I’ll attack as well.  Whatever it is you’re thinking of trying, I’m betting the two of us can cut you down before it works.”

I swallowed, then took a small breath to clear my throat and ensure I wouldn’t stammer or come out sounding even slightly unclear.  “Alright.”

Bad plan anyways.  If we did try to escape under the cover of darkness, Siberian would probably reach us and cut at least some of us down before we got anywhere, even attacking indiscriminately.

“The same goes for the rest of you, but I’m sure you know that.  One or two of you could kill me right now, I’m sure, but you’d die horribly for your trouble, and I doubt any of you are that suicidal.”

Did he know about the role he was going to play in the end of the world?  It might change his stance and self-assuredness.

Jack looked at Cherish and she gave him a small nod.  He turned a winning smile towards us.  “How are our potential recruits doing?”

Recruits?  Plural?  Was he including Noelle?  No.  He would know she wasn’t anywhere near here, thanks to Cherish.

Bonesaw piped up, “I wanted to say hi and meet the people who might be joining the family.  Jack said that if I’m ready, I can tell you what my test is.  Except I haven’t decided.”

“Oh?” Jack looked at her, “I didn’t know you had any ideas yet.”

“I haven’t decided,” she told him, sounding annoyed at having to repeat herself.  “The test might be about challenging them, but I’m challenging myself too.  I don’t want to be boring, so I’m making myself come up with something original each time.”

“How admirable,” Jack said.

“And it has to be fair.  What I have in mind isn’t fair, and I’m worried it’s too similar to the test I gave Burnscar.  I need this to be fair.”

“Why does it have to be fair?” Cherish asked, “Unfair world, unfair test.”

“Because I like them both!  What better way to add to our family than to have two real siblings on the team?  They would fight all the time but they’d really love each other deep down.”

“Ha,” Regent made it more of a word than an actual laugh, “You really don’t know the Vasil family, munchkin.”

“And the dog girl!  I love dogs!  I’ve seen the pictures of them and they’re beautiful.”

I felt a chill.  All at once, Bitch’s presence behind me felt ominous.  She’d been picked by the Nine, and even when asked, she hadn’t said a thing about it.  Why?  And who had picked her?  The members of the Nine we hadn’t been able to nail down candidates for were Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian.

Siberian, I saw, was staring at Bitch.  When I turned to look at Bitch out of the corner of my eye, I saw her staring right back at Siberian, unflinching, holding the sleeping puppy in her arms.

“If I don’t make it fair then it’s like I’m picking one over the other and I don’t want to do that,” Bonesaw said.

“You’re a smart girl.  You’ll work it out.”  Jack turned to our group, where we waited in tense silence.  “A lot going on tonight.  All these meetings, and we didn’t get an invitation.  Almost enough to hurt our feelings.”

“Can you blame us?” Tattletale gave him a shrug.  “We were talking about how to kill you guys.”

I wasn’t the only member of our group to look at her in horror.

Jack laughed.  A little too hard for whatever it was he’d found funny about her statement.  “Of course, I already knew you were plotting against us, and you knew I knew.”

“Sure.”

“Here is what you need to know, Regent, Bitch.  Each of the Nine’s members get to put our recruits up to a test.  Some of us always give the same test, time after time, no matter the candidate.  Mannequin always asks candidates to alter themselves in a way that costs them something.  Siberian waits until half the candidates have been discarded and then hunts the remainder.”

“I hope she doesn’t catch you,” Bonesaw sounded disturbingly earnest as she spoke, “There’s no meat left for me to work with after she’s done.”

“As for me,” Jack said, “I tend to go last, when all the others have offered their tests and only one or two are left.  I like to mix things up, and unlike our dear Bonesaw, I have no interest in playing fair.”

“And if we fail?” Regent asked, “We die?”

“No, no,” Jack smiled.  “Nobody passes every test, and the punishment for failing a test is up to the individual who assigned it.  Sometimes death, yes.  Sometimes something different.  But it’s always worse.”

“What did my sister do for her tests?” Regent asked.

“Hey!” Bonesaw raised her voice, stabbing a finger in his direction, “No cheating!”

Bonesaw wasn’t the only one he’d irritated.  Cherish glared at him.

“Not cheating,” Regent said.  “Call it idle curiosity.  My sister got me in this mess, I figure it would be nice to hear what she had to go through.  You don’t even have to spoil the answers, I can agree not to copy anything she did.”

Jack laughed, “Ah, adding to the challenge?  Fair.  She killed Hatchet Face.  Crawler took that as his test completed in advance, didn’t think of her as worth his time.  Little Bonesaw, for her test, designed a parasite that would stay in her system for forty-eight hours and strip her of her powers for as long as it remained.”

“Because it’s not fair that Hatchet Face didn’t get to give his test.  And I wanted to break her out of her rut, so I made it so the parasite’s effects would be permanent if she didn’t drink lots of blood.”

“Of course,” Jack tapped the heel of his hand against his forehead, “That was an interesting little twist.  Of course, you didn’t tell her how much she needed to drink, or if a certain species counted…  Well.  It broke her stride, didn’t it?  Siberian went after her, starting on day two of Bonesaw’s parasitic infection.  Three days and three nights of cat and mouse.  To her credit, she did very well.  It came down to a hair.  Another ten minutes and Siberian might have caught her a third time.”

A dark look passed over Cherish’s face.

“Shatterbird likes the psychological tests, and she was in a hell of a mood after Cherish nominated herself for the team.  Our Cherie didn’t have five minutes to rest before Shatterbird drove her into a room and sealed her in.  No food, no light, barely any water.  The room was empty, but for one glass shard.  Always edging towards her, ready to prick, cut, slice and stab the second she stopped, the moment she tried to rest.”

I shivered.  Jack hadn’t said how long that lasted, but after three days and three nights without sleep, even a few hours like that would have been nightmarish.

There was a clue there, too.  Credit to Regent for getting Jack to let it slip. Shatterbird had more offensive range than Cherish, if she was able to trap the girl and use the shard without getting affected in retaliation.  It wasn’t much, but it was a tidbit of information, a piece for the puzzle.

“Burnscar’s test, she failed.  Afraid I’m not spoiling that one.  Doesn’t have the same impact if you know it’s coming.  That left only two tests for her to pass.  Go on.  Show them.”

Cherish glared at Jack.

“Show them,” he said.  There weren’t any hints of a threat or any anger in his tone, but she obeyed anyways.  She turned her back to us, grabbed the bottom of her shirt and pulled it off.

“Mannequin demands that a candidate changes themselves, and that it be hard.  Having just faced the punishment Burnscar gave for failing her test, Cherish wasn’t about to pay his.”

The tattoo stretched from beneath the waist of her low-rise jeans and up the length of her back.  The centerpiece was a large festering heart, done as realistically as any tattoo I’d ever seen.  It was all in shades of green, covered with ulcers, sores, patches of rot and live maggots.  The surrounding tattoos gave the appearance of torn skin revealing the bone and organs beneath, rats and roaches lurking behind ribs and atop her kidneys.  Framing the entire thing were words, not done in any elaborate script, but in scrawled letters that looked like they’d been carved into a surface with knives: epithets and invectives.

“She told the artists to make it so ugly she’d want to kill them.  If she didn’t, she promised to kill their loved ones and then kill them.  Took six artists in total.  Inspired.”

Cherish looked over one tattooed shoulder to fix Jack with a stare.  It was then that I noticed two things.  The first became clear as her skin stretched.  There was depth to the tattoos that you didn’t get with a two-dimensional image.  Her skin had been scarred and flensed to raise edges and give the images and words a permanence that simple ink wouldn’t have.

The second thing I noticed was her eyes.  It was like a light had gone out inside her, just standing there with that tattoo exposed.

“That was the hard one for you, wasn’t it?” Jack smiled.  “Even as tired, scared, hurt and desperate as you were after the other five tests, it was when you willingly defaced that young, unblemished body of yours that a little something inside of you broke, and you began thinking of yourself as one of us.  Liminality.”

“What was your test, Jack?” Regent asked.  I couldn’t tell if he was glad to know his sister suffered or sad for her.

“Oh, I knew it would be almost impossible to top Mannequin’s test.  He caught her at the exact right moment, struck the right nerve, and pushed her to her very limits.  Still, I think I managed to top it.  Turn around, Cherish.”

Like an automaton, she did.  More tattoos and scars covered her chest, just as expansive, just as unpleasant to look at.  Two nude women, their entwined limbs like the broken legs of a squashed bug, neither attractive in the slightest.  One was emaciated, the other morbidly obese, and both were old.  More tattoos of rotting and torn flesh framed the scene, and the words forming the border of the tattoos on the front were the opposite of the others, almost worse in their irony and desperation: ‘Take Me’.  ‘Please Desire Me’.  ‘Want Me’, and more vulgar variations of the same.

“I made her do the other six tests all over again.”

“I even brought back Hatchet Face for Crawler’s test again!” Bonesaw grinned.  “No surprise attack that time.  That was one of the three tests she failed in round two, I was so proud of him!”

Seeing Cherish’s shoulders draw together, her expression darken as memories came to mind, the ugly tattoos that guaranteed she would never be able to leave this behind and get a completely fresh start, never have a boy look at her body and just be hungry for her… I had to look away.  I knew she was the worst sort of person, I just didn’t know how much of that came before the tests.

“Well, sis,” Regent said, “I thought you were running headlong into a fate worse than death.  I stand corrected.  You’re already there, and you did it to yourself.”

She pulled on her shirt and snarled, “This is the part where I’d threaten to kill you, except they are going to do it so much better than I ever could.”

“Can’t do it yourself?” Tattletale cut in.  “Why do you have to rely on them?”

Cherish’s eyes narrowed.  “You’re trying something.  I feel smugness from you, too much confidence for where you’re standing.”

Jack smiled and caught the hairs of his beard between his thumb and index finger.  “Oh?  I’m still interested to hear your answer to her question.”

“Fuck that.  You’re getting predictable, old man.  You want to keep things amusing for yourself, you know you’re as smart as anyone else in the room, so you take the hard road so it won’t be too easy.  Why not have Siberian eat her?  Can’t you imagine the looks on her friend’s faces when they can’t do a thing to save her?  I bet it’d light a fire under their asses, rev them up for the tests.  Maybe they’ll even throw themselves headlong into it, to spare the rest.”

“Now who’s trying something?” Tattletale asked.  “She’s trying to manipulate you.”

Jack frowned and yanked out the hairs of his beard he was holding.  He flicked them away, “I know she’s trying to manipulate me.”

“Okay, except I just noticed something else, as I finished that last sentence.  Do you know she’s playing a long con?  She’s setting you guys up, using her power to pull your strings and make you attached to her.  Half a year to a year, she’ll probably have you wrapped around her little finger,” a slow smile spread across Tattletale’s face.

I could see Cherish’s expression change from anger and irritation to wide-eyed horror.

Jack pinched the bridge of his nose, looking down, and I could just barely hear him mutter the word, “Disappointing.”

“It was probably her plan from the start,” Tattletale said.  “She-”

All at once, Tattletale stopped talking, and I was blind.  In that same instant, something slapped against the fabric of my mask.  Wet.  I could taste it against the fabric of my mask.  Salty-sweet, with a faint metallic taste.

“You fucking bastard!” Grue shouted, his voice distorted by his power.

Blood.

I hurried to wipe it from the lens of my mask.  Everything I saw was obscured by the streaks that remained, almost black in the light.

Tattletale lay on the ground a little in front of me, both Regent and Sundancer crouched at her side.  So much blood, covering her face and Regent and Sundancer’s hands.

Jack toyed with the knife in his hands, while Siberian stood between him and the rest of our group, her eyes primarily on Ballistic.

Jack paced back and forth, two or three steps at a time, gesticulating with his knife.  “I was looking forward to Cherish’s attempt.  Bonesaw and I even had a plan in mind.  I wanted to see what she did, how she worked around Siberian’s immunity to her power… then the safeguards Bonesaw implanted in us would have kicked in and released us from her thrall, and oh, the look on her face.  To have seen that would have been so very worth all the trouble.  And that girl just spoiled it all.”

“You know,” Cherish said, shell-shocked.

“Clearly.”

“But my power – I didn’t sense anything as far as your planning, your emotional networking or-”

I dropped onto my knees so fast it hurt, and immediately began trying to help Tattletale, and Regent gave me the space, allowing me to take over.  Jack had cut her from her mouth to the edge of her jaw.  It had parted the skin at the corner of her mouth.  I must’ve been directly in the line of fire for the resulting blood spray.  How was I supposed to put pressure on a wound like this?

Jack was getting heated, talking mostly to himself.  “That was the whole point!  To see how long we could go without tipping her off.  Bonesaw helped with some surgery, even some artificial neural connections that Cherish wouldn’t be able to see.  So much work and preparation ruined.”

“I-” Cherish started, then stopped before she could finish the sentence.  Trying again, she asked, “What are you going to do with me?”

“Not a pressing concern,” Jack said, as if realizing she was there.

My power crackled at the edge of my consciousness.  I had to suppress it, before I gave them another excuse to attack us.  The majority of my attention was on Tattletale, on Lisa. I used my fingers to scrape as much of the blood out of her mouth and throat as possible, then adjusted the angle of her head so any further blood would flow down the side of her face or out of her mouth.

The fabric of my gloves afforded more traction than fingertips would have, but the amount of blood made everything slick to the point that I couldn’t be sure of what I was holding.  I had one hand inside her mouth, her teeth hard against my knuckles, my other hand pressing down from above to sandwich it and press everything as closed as I could get it.  She roused herself enough to pull away, no doubt because I was pulling the tear at the corner of her mouth open.

“Hold her head, Regent, don’t let her pull away.  And cloth,” I said, my voice small, “Need some kind of cloth to absorb the blood.”

First aid classes hadn’t prepared me for this.

There was a tearing sound, and regent handed me a strip of cloth.  I fumbled to put it into place at the corner of her mouth, where the bleeding was worse, then applied the rest along the cut.  The white cloth turned totally crimson in a second.

“More,” I said, keeping my voice quiet so it wouldn’t carry to the members of the Nine that were standing nearby.

“I wouldn’t bother,” Jack said.  “A wound like that, she’ll die of blood loss before you can do anything.”

“You asshole,” Grue growled.

“You really shouldn’t swear!” Bonesaw said.  “It’s crude!  If you agree to be good, maybe I could fix her for you.  Oh, and since her cheek’s already cut, I could change it around so her teeth are on the outside and she wouldn’t have all that skin and flesh just getting in the way.  And, and, I could make it really artistic and beautiful, and change her tongue so she can make all of the speech sounds you’d normally need lips to make, like puh, buh, muh, wah, vuh…”

Regent handed me more cloth, and I wadded it into place.  Tattletale wasn’t really moving, and I couldn’t be sure if it was because of the amount of blood she had already lost or just because it hurt too much.

I saw a flicker of light as Jack flicked his knife out, tossed it into the air and then caught the blade tip between his middle finger and the nail of his index finger.  He snapped it around so he gripped the handle.  “I suppose I should get around to the purpose of our meeting you here, Regent and Bitch.  Unless you want to pose your test to them, Bonesaw?”

“No.  Let me think about it for a little while.”

“Alright.  Well, it wouldn’t do if our candidates died before we even got around to the tests, so I came to offer you two a warning.  Two warnings, as it happens, for each of you.”

Why couldn’t he stop talking so we could take Tattletale somewhere where she could get the help she needed?  My hands were already cramping from trying to maintain pressure and the awkward angle that resulted from  the way I had her head tilted.

“Two of the candidates we chose are heroes, for lack of a better word, and Cherish reported that we may have trouble bringing them in close enough to introduce them to the tests.  Our dear Bonesaw has devised an incentive to encourage their cooperation.”

Bonesaw reached into her pocket and withdrew a small vial.

I felt Tattletale tense and looked down.  She was staring at the vial.

“Biological warfare?” Grue asked.

“Naturally.”

“What does it do?”

“Just in case all of our candidates fail to play along, I would strongly advise you to stick to bottled water.  No filtered water, no rainwater, none of that.  Not unless you’re feeling brave.  Just to be on the safe side, avoid getting your injuries wet as well.”

“And the second warning?” I asked.  I wanted him to finish.

“In…” Jack pulled out a pocket watch on a chain. “T-minus thirty-four minutes, Shatterbird is going to sing loud enough for much of the city to hear her.  She wants to make it known to everyone in Brockton Bay that we’re here, and since there’s no need to maintain surprise with our potential members, I said she should.  With this in mind, you would be well advised to stay away from anything made of glass or any beaches, and be sure to put away anything in your pockets with a screen.”

Dad.  The people in my territory.  I had to warn them, but…

I looked down at Tattletale and felt paralyzed.

“That’s the meat and bones of it,” Jack smiled, “It was nice to meet you two.”

I felt Tattletale move.  Her hand was fumbling at her belt.  Was she going for the gun in the largest pouch?  No.  A pouch near there, just as long, but thinner.

“Sundancer,” I hissed, “Help her.”

Sundancer did.  There were pens in the pouch.

“Help her find the paper,” I said.  Jack and his team had wrapped up and were walking away.

It was a notepad barely larger than a pad of post-its.  Tattletale took the pen that Sundancer held for her, clasping it in a closed fist.  She scrawled out one word.  ‘Deal’.

Then she looked up at me, her eyes wide.

“No,” I whispered.  “We have to get you help, and I have to go warn-”

She stabbed at me with the pen and clenched her teeth against the back of my hand, which must have caused her incredible pain.  I wasn’t sure if it was her pain and mine, but Cherish turned and gestured for Jack, who was already walking way, to stop.

“A deal,” I called out, “I don’t-”

Sundancer had ripped off the first sheet, and Tattletale was writing the next message.

I swallowed, “She wants to know what happens if… if more than one person is left at the end.”

“We pit them against one another,” Jack said.

The next word- I could barely make it out.  ‘Game’.

“She, um.  I think she wants to play a game?”

Tattletale gave me a single, slow blink of confirmation.  She was writing more.

“A game?” Jack asked.

I couldn’t make sense of it.  ‘If there more half left at end.’

“One second.”  I said.  Sundancer ripped off another sheet.  This was excruciatingly slow, trying to parse her shorthand and follow her line of thought.  “Tests.  If there’s more than half of the candidates left at the end of the tests, we win.  You leave with volunteer?  You could leave with whoever wants to join.  But you leave.”

“You expect that half of the candidates could pass the tests?  I’m intrigued.  I don’t think it’s possible, but I’m intrigued.”

“Brockton Bay has its share of badasses, Jack,” I said, my voice hard with repressed outrage.

“I don’t see what we get out of it.”

Tattletale had dropped the pen.  It was up to me to pick up the slack.

“It’s a challenge.  A game.  Changing the routine.  We can do whatever we need to, to keep as many candidates alive as we can.  You guys… do what you do.  It keeps things interesting.”  My eyes fell on Bonesaw, “And maybe it keeps things fair?”

Seconds passed.  I felt the tension ratcheting up another notch with each beat of my heart.  Every moment that passed was one step closer to Tattletale bleeding out or to Shatterbird using her power.

“I like that.  It might be a way to fix the test I want to give.  Let’s do it,” Bonesaw said, looking up at Jack.

He frowned.  “We’ll discuss it as a group.  I suspect we’ll have terms of our own to attach to this game.  Among other things, a steep penalty for when we win.”

And then he turned to leave.

I looked down at Tattletale.  Her eyes were closed.  My hands felt like two blocks of stone where I had them pressed to her injury; rigid, heavy, unable to move.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, barely audible to myself.  I looked up at Grue and said, louder, “I don’t know what to do.”

He didn’t have an answer for me, but he bent down to check on Tattletale.

It was Tattletale who gave me my orders.

“Guh,” she coughed out the word.  As Grue gently pulled my hands away to take over, she repeated, only slightly clearer, “Goh.”

Go.

I stood, wobbling slightly as I backed away from her.  She looked so fragile, lying on her side, blood pooling beneath her head, around her dirty blond hair.  And I was leaving her there.

“We can call Coil,” Ballistic said.  “He can send a car to get you where you need to be.”

I shook my head.  I couldn’t wait and trust that a car would arrive in time, or that it would get me where I needed to be.  There would be detours, areas a car couldn’t pass through.

I turned and I started running.  Out of the parking garage, past Cherish, Bonesaw and Jack.  They didn’t say anything, and they didn’t try to stop me.

I was a block away from them when I got my cell phone out and dialed home, but I already knew the response I would get.  The automated message came from the phone as I held it in one hand, heading directly north.

This phone number is currently out of service.  If you would like to leave a message…

Judging distances wasn’t a great strength of mine.  How many blocks, how far did I have to run to reach my dad?  Five miles? Six?  I was a practiced runner, but the streets here weren’t all in the best shape.  Some were flooded, others strewn with debris, still more suffering in both departments.  There were areas that were blocked off.

And I had less than thirty minutes.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Fuck!” Grue swore the second his boat hit land.

“Let me guess,” Regent remarked to Bitch, “He’s been swearing since we left.”

Bitch nodded.

The Travelers had already arrived.  They stood in a huddle by the water while Genesis disintegrated into several vague floating body parts.

“Coil just bent us over and fucked us,” Grue said.

“I dunno,” Tattletale answered.  “That might have been the only way for him to play things, with the way his power and operations work.”

“That would do a hell of a lot more to ease my concerns if I had any idea what his power was.”

Tattletale only offered an apologetic half-smile and a shrug to that.

I tried to help her out.  “Look, we do know that Coil is smart, he’s proud, and he’s at his best when he’s managing his enterprise.  Being cooped up, he’d be hit hard in all three areas.  Limited tools to work with, limited access to his people, and he’d be less powerful in a way that everyone would be aware of.”

“That doesn’t excuse how thoroughly he just screwed us, without even trying to help us out.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think he’s completely screwed us over.  We know Coil’s got at least one undercover agent, Trainwreck-“

Tattletale interrupted to say, “He’s got a whole lot more than one.”

“Thought he might.  Doesn’t it make sense that he’d assist us by being one himself?  I get the impression he likes the control it affords him and the amount of information he can get this way.”

“Maybe,” Grue conceded.

“We should focus on where we go from here,” I said.

“Agreed,” Trickster called out.

Genesis had finished disappearing, and Trickster was walking over to our group, followed by Sundancer and Ballistic.  He extended a hand for Grue to shake, then turned to Tattletale, me, Regent and Bitch to do the same.  Bitch didn’t take his hand, turning away to focus on her dogs instead.  Trickster took the snub in stride.  “If nothing else, I’m glad we get a chance to talk.  Unless things get a lot worse from here, I’m hoping we’ll all be working side by side for a little while.”

“Let’s hope,” Grue agreed.

Trickster said, “We just sent Genesis back in a more discreet form to listen in.”

“Imp is staying behind as well,” Tattletale informed him, “So we’ve got redundancy there.”

“Christ,” Grue snapped his head from one side to the next, as if he could spot his sister that way.  With a note of alarm in his voice, he asked, “Imp’s still there?”

“She’s okay,” Tattletale reassured him, “They won’t notice her.”

“They could.  We don’t know how consistently her power works, or if it works in a group that large, and we can’t be sure we know every power the people there have, if anyone has some extra senses that might bypass her ability.  Fuck!  This is the exact type of situation I wanted to keep her away from.  The whole reason I let her join this group was to keep her close enough that I could rein in this sort of recklessness.”

“She’s a bit of a rebel, but she’s not stupid,” Tattletale said, “Trust her to hold her own.”

“I wouldn’t trust myself to hold my own in her shoes,” Grue told her.  “Christ.  Skitter, can you send a few bugs over that way, tell me if she’s in one piece?”

I nodded, while Trickster slapped his forehead.

“The bugs,” he said, “I could have told Genesis to stick around while you scouted, wait, no.  Why send Imp if you have the bugs?”

“I can’t see or hear through the swarm, really.  Not well enough to listen in.”

“You did once,” Tattletale told me.

That surprised me.  “When?”

“After the fight with Bakuda.  You were doped up, hurt, you had a concussion, but you were able to tell us the kind of music someone was listening to, and he was way out of earshot.”

“Seriously?  And you didn’t tell me this?”

Grue shook his head.  “Just speaking for myself, I had a lot on my mind, between you and the others being in rough shape and the ABB setting off bombs across the city.  I completely forgot until just now.  Sorry.”

Tattletale nodded.

“That’s huge,” I said, “Do you know how much I could use something like that?”

“Why can’t you now?” Trickster asked.

“Bugs sense things so differently, my brain can’t translate what they see and hear into something I can process.  It’s all black and white blotches, high-pitched squeals and bass throbs.”  I paused.  “Imp’s perfectly fine, by the way.  At least, I can’t find her, but nobody’s reacting like they found a spy in their midst.”

Grue sighed, “Okay.”

“So this sensory part of your power, you stopped trying?” Tattletale asked.

The way she phrased that nettled me.  “In the three months between my getting my powers and first going out in costume, I saw zero improvement in that department.  None, zilch.  When I did start going out in costume, I was worried the useless sights and sounds might distract me at some crucial juncture.  Between that and the fact that it was like hitting my head against a metaphorical brick wall…”

“You gave up,” Regent said.  He was trying to get on my nerves, I knew it.

“I stopped trying.  But now that I know it’s somehow possible, I dunno.  I can start looking for a way.”

The degree to which it would expand my capabilities, it was tempting.  That kind of expansion of my sensory abilities could be a matter of life and death at some point.  I could theoretically listen in on most of the people in my territory.  Would I want to, though?  The invasiveness of that kind of creeped me out, and I had a pretty high creepiness tolerance.

“It might be like your range boosts.  Tied to your mental state,” Tattletale said.

“Except my range boosts are probably linked to me feeling trapped, and I somehow doubt I felt that way when I was doped up and waking up in that hospital bed or ambulance or wherever.”

“It’s something you can work through,” she said.  “And now that you know to look for it, you should push yourself to use that part of your power so you can see when it’s stronger or weaker.”

I nodded, and willed myself to tear down all the mental barriers and safeguards that walled my brain off from the sights and sounds the bugs wanted to send my way.

It was every bit as grating and annoying as I recalled.  This would take some getting used to.

“Listen,” Trickster said.  “Ballistic’s HQ is close by.  Since my group is going to be waiting for Genesis, and you guys will want to hang around and pick up Imp when she’s done, maybe you want to come by and we can discuss strategy in the meantime?”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Grue said.  “Thanks.”

Ballistic gestured toward a nearby street and we all started walking in that direction.

Grue started us off.  “Number one, we know that they were here to recruit.  Who were they recruiting?”

“Me,” Regent said.  That drew a few looks of surprise from the Travelers.  He elaborated, “My sister is their newest member, replaced Hatchet Face.  She did it to fuck with me more than out of a genuine desire to have me join.”

“Armsmaster is another,” I pointed out.  “According to Miss Militia, Mannequin wanted him.”

“The, uh, sixth member of the Travelers is the next recruit, I guess,” Trickster admitted.  “Crawler hit Coil’s place.”

“Sixth?” I asked.  “If there’s four of you, then-“

“We have two group members who don’t see any combat.  They spend most or all of their time at Coil’s headquarters.  I understand if that raises a lot of questions, but I –we– would really appreciate it if you guys could leave it at that for now.  I’m thinking we’ll introduce you to the others soon.”

“I’m okay with dropping it so long as you’re not withholding anything crucial,” Grue said.  “I’m happy to stay on topic as much as possible anyways.”

Trickster tipped his hat.  “Appreciated.  Looked like Hookwolf got hit.  His entire group did.  Shatterbird?”

“Yeah,” Tattletale replied.  “Can confirm that one.”

“Shatterbird, Crawler, Mannequin and…” I trailed off, looking at Regent for help in placing the name.

“Cherish.”

“If the condition of Faultline’s crew was any indication,” Tattletale said, “We can make an educated guess that Burnscar paid them a visit.  Thing is, I can’t even begin to guess who she visited.  Spitfire’s too nice, and none of the others really have the, I dunno, edge?”

“In any case, that leaves the people who Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw nominated.  Any ideas?”

I glanced across our groups.  Nobody moved to reply.

“Maybe they’re not done?” Sundancer spoke up, “Or maybe some of them aren’t picking new members?”

Maybe they’re not done,” Tattletale spoke, “But I think they are.  From what I’ve read on them, and from what my power is giving me, I have the distinct impression they all would have made some kind of move by now.  They either hit all at once, shock and awe, or they draw it out.  This is the former.”

“But are they all picking new members?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “No clue.  We know of four, at least.”

Ballistic led us into a parking garage.  We walked between rows of cars that had been pummelled by the floodwater.  Panels had been dented, windows shattered, and some of the cars had been lifted and pushed into one another.

Sundancer formed a tiny ‘sun’ and held it up for light, while Regent turned on the flashlight he’d brought.  We descended into the bowels of the garage, and stopped at the ramp between the second level down and the third.  It had collapsed, and both rubble and two or three cars sat in the water that flooded the floor below.

“This way,” Ballistic said.  He grabbed a length of pipe that stuck out where the ramp had collapsed and climbed down.  Trickster gestured and we moved to follow.

Clever, clever.  Out of sight from any vantage point on the level above, short walls had been set around the fallen ramp.  They ensured that the flooding and the wreckage were all contained to one area to sell the illusion, and kept everything else on the lowest level of the basement dry.  Cars had been removed, clearing the area for use as an underground base.

Ballistic pulled off his mask and tossed it onto the bed that sat in one corner.  He cleared a few dirty dishes from the table in the middle of the area and invited us to sit while he fetched some extra seats.

He had a bit of a heavy brow and a snub nose, and his short brown hair, damp with sweat, made me think of the jocks that always seemed to gravitate towards Sophia.  Still, he wasn’t a bad looking guy.  If a guy like him had asked me out in some alternate universe where Emma had never stopped being my friend and I’d never been bullied?  Just going by his looks, I might have said yes.

Trickster unmasked as well.  He definitely didn’t remind me of one of the jocks.  His hair was longer than many girls wore theirs, he had light brown skin and an unfortunate hook nose.  Combined with his intense stare, he gave me the impression of a hawk or some other bird of prey.

Grue, Tattletale and Regent all unmasked as well while they got themselves seated.  Trickster offered each of them a cigarette, then offered one to me.  I turned him down, as did the others.

“So what are we discussing here?” Sundancer asked from behind me.  I turned and saw a rather attractive blonde girl with a long neck and delicate features.  Her hair was expertly pinned up behind her head.  “I was under the impression that the Slaughterhouse Nine were pretty much unbeatable.”

“No,” Brian said.  “Some of them, maybe, but others are as vulnerable as you or me.  Thing is, Dinah told us that our odds against these bastards aren’t good.  Our chances of winning are pretty low, and it’s pretty damn likely we’ll get killed if we confront them head on.”

“So we don’t confront them head on,” Trickster said.

Feeling conspicuous as the only one with a mask on, I pulled mine off.  It took me a second to adjust to the blue tint that everything had after I’d spent over an hour looking through the pale yellow lenses of my mask.  I realized Trickster was setting up a laptop.  He placed it at one corner of the table, facing the rest of us.

“Oliver?”

“I’m here, Trickster,” a male voice came from the computer.

“Feel like patching in Noelle?”

“Sure.  She’s in an okay mood.  A little drowsy.  I’ll be right back.”

Trickster pressed a button on the keyboard and then turned to us, “Tattletale.  I’ll be as quick as I can.  Coil promised he’d get you to help us, but he’s taken his time introducing you to our group.  The cynic in me suspects there’s a reason, and the pessimist in me says that reason is that he’s already figured out what you’re going to tell us, and it isn’t going to be pretty.”

“Okay.”  Tattletale was all business.

“Noelle’s going to ask you for help.  Lie to her.  Tell her you’re already on it.  Roll with it if she gets angry, or if she gets impatient.  She’s sensitive.  I don’t know how your power works, really, but if you realize whatever it is that Coil doesn’t want us to know, don’t tell Noelle.”

“She’s the one Crawler visited?” I asked.

Trickster nodded once.

“Hello?’  A girl’s voice came from the computer.  Trickster hit a key, which I assumed was to take himself off mute.  He hit another combination of keys and a webcam feed snapped up to cover the screen.

Noelle had long brown hair and she wore a red sweatshirt.  She looked like someone who was ill.  She was horribly pale, she had dark circles under her sunken eyes, and her lips were chapped.  I was reminded of drug addicts in an early stage of addiction, where they were deteriorating because the drugs took a higher priority than taking care of themselves.  Was Coil drugging her too?

”Noelle, “ Trickster said, “You’ve asked to be included more.  I thought you’d be okay with this?”

She nodded.

“Left to right, we have Grue, Regent, Skitter, Bitch and Tattletale.”

There wasn’t a flicker of a smile or any interest on her face until she heard that last name.  “Tattletale?”

“Noelle,” Tattletale spoke, “It’s nice to finally meet you.  Listen, I’m working on your situation.  Coil’s filled me in on the basics and I’m chasing down some leads, but something’s come up with the Slaughterhouse Nine, and everything’s on hold until we can be sure they won’t try to kill us in the meantime.”

I could see Trickster tense.  Was Noelle so high strung or desperate that she’d throw a tantrum over being asked to wait?

“Coil was telling the truth,” Noelle said, in a small voice, “You can help?”

“Honestly?  I don’t know.  But I’m a fucking genius when it comes to getting answers, and Coil’s got all the resources in the world.  If there’s help to be had, we’ll give it to you.”

“How soon before you know?”

“No idea.  I don’t think it’ll be as fast as you want, but it’s doable, and it won’t take so long that you should give up.”

“Okay.”

“In the meantime,” Trickster cut in, giving Tattletale a thumbs-up gesture from a position outside of the laptop’s  field of view, “We need our old field commander’s brain on the Slaughterhouse Nine sitch.”

“A distraction would be nice,” Noelle smiled for the first time.

Field commander.  She used to be the leader of their group?  I wondered if I could dig up any information about her if I hunted far enough back.

I could see Brian fidget under the table.  He wasn’t liking the constant distractions from the subject at hand.

“Eight enemies,” Trickster said.  “Now, I’m not a serious player of the game, I’m sorry to any of you Undersiders who are irritated by the way I’m about to butcher it, but the way I see it, their leader is like the king in chess.  More raw power than a pawn, but in the end, he’s simultaneously the second weakest piece in the game and the one everything hinges on.  We take him down without getting massacred in the process, I think we win.”

“Jack Slash,” Noelle said.

“Right.  Siberian’s like the queen.  She’s fast, mobile, one of the strongest physically, and the bitch of the matter is, she can’t be taken off the board, and she can’t be contained.  A special queen, if you will.  Physically she’s an unstoppable force and an immovable object any time she wants to be.”

To my right, Bitch picked up the puppy and settled it in her lap.  It curled up and nestled against the cupped circle of her arms and hands.

“Then there’s Crawler, who visited us the other night.  Maybe not as fast or agile as Siberian, and he can be contained, but he can’t be taken off the board.  A special rook.”

“I’m wondering how far you can stretch this chess analogy, Trickster,” Ballistic commented.

Trickster ignored him.  “Shatterbird and Burnscar are like bishops.  They’ve got mobility, reach, and they can bury you damn fast if you don’t have the right kind of cover.”

“What about Mannequin?  Another rook?”  I asked.

“I’d peg him a knight.  He’s more close range, but he’ll catch you from an oblique angle, maybe slip past whatever defences you think you have.”

“Which leaves Cherish and Bonesaw,” Grue said.  “We’ll have to trust Regent to give us the details on Cherish.”

Regent nodded and tapped his finger against his chin, “My sister.  I don’t know if you could call her a third bishop or a knight.  Long range on her power, gets stronger as she gets closer.  Affects your emotions and as far as I’m aware, there’s no way to defend against it or to take cover.  If she decides she wants to hurt you or make you hurt yourself, she can find you and she’ll make it happen.”

“But she has no special defences,” Grue cut in.  “She’s vulnerable to pretty much any knife, gun or power we can hit her with.”

“Can we gang up on her?” Sundancer asked.

“She can affect multiple people at once,” Regent said.  “So it’s not that easy.”

“That means we have to beat her at her own game,” Trickster mused, “Track her, beat her in long-range warfare.”

“I could use puppets to go after her,” Regent said, “But she can paralyze them with the kind of uncontrolled physical reactions I can’t cover with my power.  I am immune to her, for all the good that does.”

“How far does her offensive range extend?” I asked.

“No clue.  I’d guess she can sense emotions across the entire city, which is how she’s finding people, but in terms of attack? I don’t have any basis to make a guess.  Farther than my dad, Heartbreaker, but not city-wide, no.”

“The ability to track us by our emotions is a good enough reason to take her out of action ASAP,” Trickster said.  “So long as she’s active, it’ll be that much harder to catch the others off guard.”

“Maybe…” I started, then I hesitated.  Feeling the pressure of everyone’s attention on me, I said, “…Maybe my power will outrange hers?  Not in terms of what we see and sense, but in terms of who can do more damage from further away?”

“It’s a thought,” Grue agreed, “Risky, but we don’t have many options.  Trickster, where does Bonesaw fit into your analogy?”

Trickster shook his head, “She doesn’t.  She’s relatively weak in terms of raw power, but her presence on the field threatens to change the rules.  She’s a medical tinker.  The medical tinker.  So long as she’s in play, we can’t be certain of our enemy’s attack power, we can’t know that any enemy we clear from the field will stay gone, and there could be harsh penalties if they catch or kill one of us.  It sucks to think about, but if Bonesaw got her hands on, say, Sundancer, I’d be a hell of a lot more worried than if Hookwolf or Skidmark did.”

Sundancer muttered something to Ballistic, but I couldn’t make it out.

“What about our side?” Noelle asked.

“Lots of playing pieces, not all cooperating, and we have one debatable advantage,” Trickster said, “We know in advance, pretty much for a fact, that if any of us, Undersider or Traveler, try to fight these bastards, we’re going to lose, and we’ll lose hard.”

“Tattletale say that?” Noelle asked.

“Coil did,” Trickster answered.

Odd.  So Noelle was staying with Coil, but she didn’t know about Dinah?  Another secret or white lie from her team?

“I can’t help but think of the Desecrated Monk scenario,” Noelle said.  I saw Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic all nodding.  When I turned to my team, they looked as confused as I was.  Was this Desecrated Monk someone the Travelers had gone up against at some point before they came to Brockton Bay?

“Go on,” Trickster encouraged her.

“The rules are unfair.  Half of our opponents are pretty blatantly cheating.  But we have to deal with them anyways.  So either we cheat back-“

“Which we can’t.”

“Or you guys handle it the way we did it before.  You don’t fight the way they want to fight.”

“Okay,” Trickster nodded, “So the first question we ask ourselves is how they want to play this.  What do they want?  In terms a five-year-old could understand.”

“They want their ninth member,” I said.

“Right.”

“They want to hurt, scare and kill people,” Tattletale put in her two cents.

“Why?”

“Reputation, entertainment,” Tattletale said, “These guys are monsters, and pretty much anyone who watches T.V., surfs the web, or reads the papers knows it.”

I saw it out of the corner of my eye.  Noelle’s expression shifted all at once from being animated and engaged to the same look she’d worn when the webcam feed first went live.  Disinterested, hurt, hopeless.

She’d been scouted.  Unlike Regent, it hadn’t been to mess with her.  It had been because a freak like Crawler legitimately thought she was one of them.

If Tattletale was sitting next to me, I would have kicked her under the table.

Noelle suddenly perked up, saying, “They want to hunt.  They’re predators.”

“Okay, how can we use that?” Trickster leaned forward to look at the screen.

“They want to be the predators, we make them prey,” Noelle said.  She was looking more animated again.

“Not sure that’s possible, but keep going.”

“It’s not possible because, um.  You described them like they’re chess pieces, and we’re thinking in terms of a chess game.  What if we changed the game?”

“I always preferred Go,” Trickster said, “But Go is about territory, give and take, less about aggression than an educational sparring match between two master swordsmen, each walking away with a new kernel of knowledge.  Go applies more to taking over the city than it does to this scenario.”

“Shogi?” Noelle suggested.

Shogi.  I got her meaning almost immediately, and I wasn’t alone. Tattletale, the Travelers and I all looked at Regent.

Regent, Bitch and Grue, for their parts, were left looking bewildered.

“Maybe you should clarify?” Grue suggested.

“Shogi is an Eastern variant of chess,” I said, “Some of the pieces move a little differently, though I can’t remember how.  But the big difference is that there’s a rule that says you can take any of the opponent’s pieces you’ve captured and place them on the board as your own.”

“More or less right,” Trickster said.

“So the question becomes,” Grue thought aloud, “Who can we beat in an indirect confrontation, capture and control?”

“Jack, Bonesaw-“ I said.

Grue shook his head.  “They know they’re vulnerable.  Either they’ll be watching their backs or the others will watch their backs for them.”

Regent said, “Siberian is out, and while we might theoretically be able to catch and contain Crawler or Mannequin, I dunno if we could keep them still long enough for me to use my power on them.  If I can.  Their bodies are different.”

I counted the enemies off on one hand, “Leaving Cherish-“

Regent shook his head, “She knows me, has measures in place.”

“Burnscar and Shatterbird,” I finished.

“The bishops,” Trickster said.

“Easier said than done,” Grue sighed.

Noelle’s face disappeared from the webcam, and a blond boy popped up in its place.  Oliver?  “Trickster, Genesis is waking up.  She’s done whatever you had her doing.”

“Long stint,” Trickster replied, “She’ll be groggy.”

“That means Imp is probably done too,” Grue spoke.

“She’ll need a ride back,” I finished his thought.

“Should leave her there for a bit as punishment for staying behind,” Grue grumbled.  Still, he stood and pulled on his helmet.  “But it’s not worth the grief she’ll give me.”

“Softie.” Tattletale grinned.

“Are you coming back?” Trickster asked.

“How long will it be before Genesis is able to brief us on the meeting?”

“Fifteen, twenty minutes?”

“Then we’ll be back to finish the strategy session,” Grue responded.

Trickster turned to his teammates, “Mind giving Noelle and me a minute to talk?”  Sundancer and Ballistic stood.

Joined by the two Travelers, we made our way up the disguised ladder to the second sub-level of the parking garage.  As one of the last to head up, I saw the adorable sight of Bitch managing the sleeping puppy, tucking it against her body with one arm so she could scale the ladder one-handed.

As she reached the top, I could hear Sundancer cooing, “It’s so cute.  Is it a he or a she?”

“He.”

“What’s his name?”

“Bastard.”

“I’m guessing you named him?” Regent asked, as I reached the top and stepped down onto solid ground.  I missed Bitch’s response.  Had she nodded?

“I was surprised you brought him tonight,” Grue said, being remarkably delicate about the fact that Bitch had undercut any presence our group had by bringing the cute ball of fluff.  It would have been better if he’d brought it up earlier, but he might have felt the same way I did about provoking Bitch before a major event, when she’d been so short tempered lately.

Bitch’s response was surprisingly verbose.  “Had to.  For the first year and a half, he’s going to be like a dog.  Need to train him as much as I can, get him used to me.  It’ll be too hard if I wait.”

Like a dog?” I asked.  In the corner of my eye, I could see Tattletale’s expression change as she looked at the dog, clearly realizing something.  As fast as I could turn her way to try and piece together what that was, something else got her attention.

“Shit,” she breathed.  She clutched at my arm with one hand and at Bitch’s with the other, stepping back to pull us with her.  Bitch pulled her arm from Tattletale’s grip, looking angry at the invasion of personal space.

“Oh fuck,” I muttered, as I saw through the darkness to spot what Tattletale’s power had noticed first.

Four of the Slaughterhouse Nine were stepping through the entrance of the parking garage.  The Siberian was in the lead, her waist-length hair blowing in the wind from outside, her eyes practically glowing in the gloom.  Behind her, Jack Slash held Bonesaw’s hand as the young girl skipped to make it so she only walked on the yellow lines that divided the lanes.  They were accompanied by a young woman who might’ve been eighteen or so years old, who bore a striking resemblance to Alec.  Cherish.  None of them wore costumes.  The Siberian didn’t wear anything.  She was as nude as the day she’d been born, her skin patterned with stripes of alabaster white and jet black.

Jack Slash noticed us, and his his eyes drifted around the arch that led from the parking garage to the wet outdoors.  He smiled, “This is not an exit.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11g (Anniversary Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

A teenager with a red streak dyed into her dark hair strode down the street in rubber boots.  Three hours past curfew, alone.

She drew a smartphone from the pocket of her jacket, then set to untangling the earbuds.  How did the damned things always get so knotted together?  They were like Christmas lights.  Not that she’d ever untangled Christmas lights, but she’d heard how Christmas lights got tangled.

Popping the foam-covered buds into her ears, she began thumbing through the music as she walked.

J’adore-

Sweet Honey-

Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…
Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…

Her head nodded in time with the beat, and she slipped the phone into her pocket.

She supposed she could have bought something to coil up the cord of the earbuds, or replaced the music playlist instead of deleting everything that didn’t appeal.  It wasn’t like she didn’t have money.  It was an option.  What stopped her was the fact that she had a pattern going.  Everything she owned and everything she used day-to-day was stolen.  The shirt on her back, her shoes, the music, her laptop.  She kind of wanted to see how far she could get before she caved and actually bought something.

Love me, you?
Love me, true?

Her boots splashed as she danced a little circle, murmuring the words.  The light drizzle had wet her hair, and she pushed it back out of her face, stretched her arms out and let the raindrops fall against her closed eyelids.

It wasn’t as though she was in a rush.

She’d walked long enough for six songs to start and finish before someone stopped her.

“Miss.  Miss!”  He was barely audible over her music.

She turned and saw a man in military gear, forty-something, his face heavily lined.  He wasn’t wearing a helmet, he had a short buzz cut, a bit of scruff on his cheeks and chin, and his face was beaded with droplets of water.  She pulled out her earbuds.

Crazed, kooky, cracked, crazy, 
Nutty, barmy, mad for me…

The crooning sounded artificial coming from the earbuds that dangled from her hand, nasal.

“What’s up?”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m excellent.”

“There’s a curfew during the state of emergency.  I don’t want to scare you too badly, miss, but there’re rape gangs, murderers and human traffickers on the street.  All people who would prey on a pretty young woman.”

“You think I’m pretty?” She smiled, stepping closer.

“I have a daughter about your age,” he replied, smiling tightly.

“That doesn’t answer my question.  Do you think I’m pretty?”  She stepped even closer, ran her finger down his chest.

“Yes, but-” he paused, gripping both sides of her jacket.  He pulled the jacket together, then did up her zipper all the way to the top, around the heavy box that dangled around her neck.  “That’s all the more reason for you to be careful, understand?  Do you have a home or a shelter you’re staying at?”

She didn’t reply.  Her brows knit together and she undid her jacket and stepped away from him.

He went on, “I can give you directions to the nearest shelter if you want. It’s new, just a little ways up Lord street here.  There may be space.”

“I’m staying with some people.”

“Do you need directions?”

She didn’t reply.  She studied him instead.

“If you’re willing to wait, I can give you a ride when I’m done here.  I’ll get relieved in five or ten minutes, but we could talk in the meantime.  You can sit in my jeep, and you’ll be dry.”

She hesitated.  “Fine.”

The man led her back to his jeep.  She sat in the passenger seat while he stood outside, his eyes on the surroundings, occasionally exchanging words with the person or people on the other end of his walkie-talkie.

After a few minutes, he climbed into the driver’s seat.  “The men who were supposed to take over the watch are late.  Something about fires downtown.”

She nodded.

Crazed, kooky, cracked, crazy,
Mental, dotty, whacked, loopy…

“Do you mind turning off your music?”

“I like it,” she said.  “I hate silence.”

“Well, I’m not about to deny someone their coping mechanisms.  Where do you live, or where did you live, before the attack?”

“Out of town.”

He raised one eyebrow, but he kept looking out the windows for possible trouble.  He put the key in the ignition and started the car so he could use the windshield wipers.  “Sounds like there’s a story there.  People don’t just come into town at a time like this, and if you were just visiting, you would have evacuated already.”

“Oh, we’re visiting because it’s a time like this,” she smiled.

“Thrill seeking?” his voice hardened.  “That’s not only stupid, it’s disrespectful.”

“The people I’m staying with?  They’re the Slaughterhouse Nine.  I’m one of them.”

“That’s not funny.”  His voice went hard, any gentleness gone.

“It’s really not,” she agreed with a smile.

He went for his gun, but he didn’t get that far.  She closed her eyes for a moment, listened for the music that came from his mind and body.  The jangling, dissonant noise of alarm, the throbbing percussion of mortal fear, every part of his body shifting into fight or flight mode.  The underlying notes spoke to his personality.  His love of his family, his fear that he was about to leave them behind, anger towards her, a momentary anxiety that he was overreacting.  She grasped this in the fraction of a second.

Reaching for that mortal fear, she wrenched it.  When that wasn’t quite enough, she pulled at it and twisted it until everything else was squeezed into the far edges.

He screamed, throwing himself as far away from her as he could get, his weapon falling between the seats.

Crazed, kooky, cracked, crazy,
Nutty, screwy, mentally diseased…

She twisted other parts of his emotional makeup until he was compliant, adrift in apathy, obedient.  “Stay.”

He stopped retreating.  He was still breathing hard from his momentary panic, but that would pass.

She leaned towards him and ran her hand along the top of his head.  It was like rubbing a toothbrush, spraying minuscule bits of water onto the wheel and dashboard.

“Good.”

He stared at her.  There was fear in the look, and she didn’t have the heart to erase all of it.  A little was good.

“I want to drive.  Switch seats with me.”

He nodded dumbly and climbed out of the jeep.  She made her way over to the driver’s seat, then waited for him to climb in before she peeled out.

The jeep cut through the shallow water that covered the roads.  Others had noticed her leaving, she knew, and were following in their own vehicle.  She could sense them, each a  fingerprint of emotions in deeply individual configurations.  The mix of personal pride and confidence that she sensed in them suggested they were military.  The soldiers that had been taking over for this guy?

Not much time to do it.  She searched through the feelings of her passenger, found the networks of brotherly love, trust, camaraderie, and adjusted each until the music was one of tension, suspicion, paranoia.  Then she set his fight or flight reflexes into high gear.

“Get the gun.”

He fished for it between the seats, picked it up.

Then he pointed the gun at her.

“No, stop,” she said.  Too unspecific.  Fuck.  Still need to work on that.  She hit him with as much doubt and indecision as she could manage to keep him from shooting her.  Then she stalled all of the ‘music’ that flowed to and from that one point in the very front of his brain.  She knew the music was her way of understanding and interpreting the biological processes that drove people’s emotions.  By listening for it, she knew what they felt, knew what the emotions were tied to, vaguely.

There would only be one thing in his short-term memory that was that important right now.  Her.  With that link severed, he would now feel nothing towards her, couldn’t summon up any self-preservation, anger or hatred.  Another tweak, redirecting the flow of emotion from his family to her, and he would feel an extreme aversion to the idea of shooting her, wouldn’t be able to shoot her any more than he could his own daughter.

He pulled the gun away, dropped it into his lap.  He crumpled over, his hands to his head, then moaned, “No.”

She was close to her destination.  She pulled the jeep to a stop and hopped out, the other jeep pulling up just a ten or so yards away.  Two soldiers got out.

“Hey!” someone shouted at her.

She turned her back to them, slipping her ear buds in.  The music had looped back to the first track.  She got her phone out and skipped forward a few times, pausing to delete one song.  She sang along, “Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…”

“Hey!”

She could sense her passenger climbing out of the jeep, hear the garbled murmurs of warning, questions.  There was a burst of fear from all three, then the sound of multiple guns firing.  She smiled.  The authorities would have a hell of a time figuring out what happened there.

She’d had her doubts about coming to Brockton Bay.  It had been a turn off to know that areas lacked power, that still more areas lacked working plumbing.  But Burnscar and Bonesaw had both been excited to come, and Jack Slash had bent to Bonesaw’s wishes, pushing for the group to come this way.  Crawler, Mannequin and Siberian had seemed fairly indifferent.  Not that Crawler or Mannequin showed much emotion.  She’d thought she had an ally in Shatterbird, at least, but the woman hated her, and the uptight bitch had gone along with the plans to visit Brockton Bay just to ruin her day.

But it was interesting, she had to admit.  The landscape of people here was so different.  So many people here were so insecure, so worried.  Most were on the brink of some kind of emotional breakdown, needing just one event, one piece of bad news before they broke down completely.  Others had already been broken, or they’d turned vicious and started preying on their fellows, seeking out vengeance on those who had wronged them in a past life.  In their pre-Endbringer life.

People here were so deliciously fucked up.

This kind of situation, ordinary citizens were doing things they’d never even have considered before.  Stealing, hurting their neighbors, bartering things they once considered precious for clothing, food, toilet paper and other essentials.  Emotions were raw, far closer to the surface, easier to manipulate.

Her music cut off.  She checked the phone.  An alert on the screen notified her that the battery was dying.

She swore.  No more time to waste.  She dialed a number, but didn’t hold the phone up to her ear.  Good.  Now she had fifteen minutes.

She reached out and started feeling for the outliers.  The emotional fingerprints that stood out from the rest.

The other seven members of the Nine were out there.  Not hard to find.  One or two were interacting with some other outliers.  The most fucked up people in this fucked up city.  She’d studied each of these unknown outliers over the course of a week, watching their emotions shift as they went out about their lives, sometimes visiting the areas they tended to hang around, to get a sense of their environments.  Slowly, she’d pieced them together, created profiles, discerned which ones had powers and described them to the other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Each had made their picks:

The buried girl.  The arrogant geek.  The dog lover.  The daydreamer.  The warlord.  The scaredy cat.  The broken assassin.  The crusader.

And all she wanted was a few minutes to pay a visit to hers.  She didn’t have to name that one.  He was familiar enough.  She smiled.

Two men sat on the steps outside the building.  She knew immediately that they were soldiers, but they weren’t official.  They wore black, and they wore body armor that she hadn’t seen before.

“No,” she stopped them from reaching from their guns with a mixture of doubt, apathy and anxiety.  Complementing her words with a heavy surge of depression, guilt and self loathing, she ordered them, “Kill yourselves.”

It wasn’t immediate, but their willpower wasn’t enough to stave off some of the strongest and most agonizing emotions they would have felt in their lives.  It was quick when their composure cracked, the guns flying to mouth and temple to fire.

She could sense the others inside the building, alarmed at the gunshots, moving toward the front.  Four more soldiers and four others who stayed back.  Not soldiers.

She didn’t wait for them to step outside.  She did the same thing she’d done to the guards stationed outside, crushing them with despair, overwhelming them with loathing and paranoia.  It was only slightly faster than it had been here.  Here, there had been an enemy for the soldiers to focus their negative energies on, to distract them.  It was surprising how important that could be.

Nearly a minute passed before the fourth gunshot sounded, marking the death of the last soldier here.

She tried the front door and stepped inside.  The inside was nicer than the outside, watertight, heavily reinforced.  A feminine looking teenaged boy with a mop of dark curls stood at the other side of the building.  He had two men and a woman guarding him.

“Jean-paul.  Ça va?

“It’s Alec now.  Regent in costume.”

“Alec,” she smiled.  “Still sounds French.  I approve, little brother.”

“Cherie,” he ran his fingers through his hair. “What the fuck?”

“If we’re changing our names, I’m going by Cherish.  I wanted to make an entrance.”

“Man.”

“You’ll find others.”

“Fuck,” he sighed.

She reached for the three people who stood between her and her brother, manipulated their emotions towards Alec.  Filled them with suspicion, paranoia, hate.

They didn’t budge.

“Cut it out, Cherie,” Alec said, “I’m controlling them.”

“If I remember right, you lose control if they’re hit by enough emotion,” she smiled.  She turned up the intensity.

“If I’m farther away.  Seriously, stop.  It’s irritating.”

One of the men fell to his knees.  His hands were clenched at his sides.  Beads of sweat rolled down the faces of the other two, tears appearing in their eyes.

“While I’m doing this, you can’t tell them to attack me.”

“Unless I’ve gotten stronger over the past few years,” Alec answered.  The man who was still standing reached for a knife and started walking towards Cherish.

She hit the knife wielder with fear and indecision, saw him stop.

For nearly a minute, they engaged in a tug of war over the three subjects.

“Seems we have a stalemate,” she said, finally.

“Did the dirty old man send you?” Alec asked.

She shook her head, “Daddy?  I went my own way.  After a bit.”

“How’s he doing?”

“Unfocused.  For the longest time, I thought he was building up to something.  Lots of kids, ensuring they had powers.  Thought he’d try to topple the other gangs and become ruler of organized crime in Montreal.”

“But?”

“But it didn’t happen.  Time passed, he never made a push for it.  Guillaume got his power, you know.  Ten or so of us kids, and three of us could control people one way or another.  Four if we count you.  We had what we needed to pull off something huge, and Daddy decided he wanted a celebrity among his girls.  Took us on a road trip to a film set in Vancouver, kidnapped this star, took her back to Montreal.  So petty.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised.”

“Heroes came after us, from both Vancouver and Montreal.  Half of what we had built and earned as the Vasil family just kind of got trampled in the fighting that spilled out from that.  All because Daddy wanted to bone someone famous.  I got fed up, left.”

“So you’re on your own.  And he didn’t send the others after you?”  Alec moved one of his subject’s legs so she would fall to the ground rather than point her gun at the man standing next to her.

“He did.  Guillaume and Nicholas.  Guillaume just has to touch someone and he can sense everything they do for a good while.  Nicholas just wallops you with pants-shitting waves of terror.  Literally thousands of eyes and ears looking for me, can’t fight when they do get close to me.”

“Right,” he said.

“Anyways, it got old real fast, them constantly finding me, constantly making me pack up and run somewhere else. Besides, the freedom to do what I wanted and go where I wished kind of lost its appeal when the boredom set in.  I would’ve done it even if my big brothers weren’t coming for me, but I joined the Nine.”

She looked at the multitude of small changes that crossed Alec’s expression and smiled.

“Well,” Alec said, after processing her statement, “That was dumb.”

“It’s exciting.  I decided I needed to earn a place on the team, both to scare our brothers away and to add some spice to my routine.  Took out Hatchet Face to do it.”

“I got the info on him a day or so ago, after I heard the Slaughterhouse Nine were in town.  Isn’t he immune to powers?  That’s pretty much what he does.  Super strong, enhanced toughness, big… and your powers just stop working when he gets close.  Or they go haywire.”

“He is immune to powers, but he didn’t get close.  See, difference between me and Daddy is that I have range.  I can use my power even if I can’t see the person I’m using it on.  Through walls, from the building next door.  Hatchet didn’t get close enough to me to turn off my power.  He tried, but it works both ways.  I was prepped to run any time my power stopped working, because it told me he’d found my trail or guessed where I was.”

“Ah.  I sort of remember that bit about your power.  The part that sticks in my head is that you don’t have long-term benefits.  It wears off, and your targets build immunity pretty quickly.”

Cherie shrugged.

“I’m not the best when it comes to strategy, but I’m thinking… I’m going to win here. Eventually.  You can’t run without me getting control over my people and sending them after you, you can’t use them to attack me, and if you stay, I can try doing this.”

Her arm jerked involuntarily.

“Remember me practicing my power on you when it was new?”

“I remember, little brother,” she frowned, looking at her arm.  “Daddy had us all practice on each other.”

“Well, I still remember how to hijack your body, pretty much.  Info that’s stored away in whatever corner of my brain makes my power work.  I’m thinking I could get control over you pretty fast if I tried.”

“Fuck,” she said.  “I think we’d both be happier if you didn’t.”

“Oh?  You going to tell me the Nine will come after me if I don’t let you go?”

She shook her head, then used one hand to brush the hair away from her face.  “No.  This.”

She reached inside her jacket, and Alec made her hand seize up, the fingers striving to bend the opposite way.

“It’s cool,” she said.  She winced with pain, then used her splayed hand to work a metal case the length of her forearm out into plain view.  It dangled from a thick cord that stretched around her neck.  “See this?”

“Yep.”

“It’s a bomb.  Very simple.  A block of explosives rigged to a timer.  Any time I call the right number, the timer will reset.  I did make the mistake of letting my phone battery die, but I figure I’ve still got a couple of minutes.  If you keep me here for any longer than that, I go kablooie.”

“Is that a threat?  Sounds like a win for me.”

“You’ll probably get blown up as well.  Or maimed,” she smiled.

“I could walk away.”

“And lose control over your minions as you get further away?  Please do.  I can make the call when you’re gone.”

His emotions were so muted.  Dim.  How much of that was Jean-Paul or Alec’s personality, and how much was his natural immunity, built up over years of exposure to Daddy?  She couldn’t get a sense of what he was feeling, which was disappointing.

However faint his feelings were, she could sense the slightest change.  A chime of attention.  He didn’t look at any of the puppets that he was struggling to control, but she could sense his attention flicker to the woman.  A thrum of confidence.

They both dashed towards the woman at the same moment.  In their hurry to get to her, they collided, falling to the ground as a trio.

The woman wasn’t in any shape to fight, but Alec did strike Cherie across the head, fairly ineffectually.  She retaliated by kicking him, then grabbed his wrist as he tried to draw the weapon he had in his pocket.  It was a gold-painted stick topped with a crown.  She couldn’t see why he wanted it, but he did and so she wasn’t about to let him have it for just that reason.

He changed tactics, rolling over to drive one shoulder into Cherie.  With his free hand he tried to reach for the gun holster worn by the woman.  That had been what caught his attention, gave him that surge of confidence.  Cherie fought with him, pulling him away, and then got one leg under him to roll him away.  She pinned him, holding his wrists to the floor.

“Got you, little brother.  You still suck at fighting.”

He stared up at her, panting for breath and looking half-bored at the same time.  He used his power, and she let go of his left hand to strike him across the face.  He stopped.

She smiled, “Thought you should know that things got pretty shitty at home after you left.  Daddy got really overprotective, angry.  It sucked.  Sucked worse when we couldn’t find you.”

“Sorry,” he said, in what she judged as the least convincing tone he could manage.

“My payback?  I’ve nominated you for the Nine.”

“Not interested.”

“Doesn’t matter.  You get nominated, you’re tested no matter what you want… and a few of the Nine don’t want to have two Vasils on the same team.  Shatterbird hates my guts, for some reason.  Crawler doesn’t respect me.  Jack thinks it would be boring.  So what I’m thinking is that this test?  The initiation?  It’s going to be a little harder for you.  They won’t be testing you to see if you’re mean enough, bloodthirsty enough, creative enough.  They’re just going to try to kill you.”

“Fuck,” Alec said, his eyes widening.

“Have fun with that,” she smiled, standing.  She had to leap back to avoid being stabbed with the gold-painted stick as she released his wrist.  “Now we’re even.”

“Fuck you.  That’s not even at all!  I leave home, so you arrange to have me killed by some of the scariest fuckers on this side of Earth?”

“Yep,” she smiled, smug.  It was good to see she could provoke him, get a response out of him.  Was that because she’d done it well, or had he gotten more emotional as of late?

He ran his fingers through his hair.  “Lunatic.”

“What I find really interesting is that you’ve got some connections.  A girlfriend, maybe?  No.  Nothing romantic.  You have friends?  A team?”

He stayed silent.

“Come after me, I go after them.  You may be immune, but they aren’t.”

“Fine.”

“And remember, I can always tell Daddy where you are.  He’s pissed you left.  Pissed left, but he’s too scared to come after me.  Not with the Nine having my back.”

“They don’t have your back, Cherie.”

She shrugged.  “Close enough.”

“No.  They’re going to kill you someday.  Probably sooner than later, when you’re no longer useful and they want the thrill of the hunt again.  You’ve probably seen what they can do.  Fates worse than death.  Just don’t ask for my help when you realize it’s happening.”

“Whatever.”

“You just screwed me over, Cherie.  Don’t know why you did it, but I think you did a pretty fucking good job of it.  You trying to be like Jack?  Trying to act like them, pretend you have a place there?  Rest assured, you screwed yourself ten times as bad as you screwed me.”

She scoffed at that.

“You’re way out of your depth.  As good as you think you are, they’re better.”

She smiled and shook her head, “We’ll see.  I’m gonna leave now.  You’re going to let me.  Cool?”

He sighed.  “Can’t really stop you or you’ll fuck with my team, right?”

“Right.  But first…”  She bent down and searched the woman who was sweating, panting, and twitching with the combination of Cherie’s emotional assault and Alec’s physical control.  She found the gun, and then found a cell phone.  She dialed the number to reset the timer on the bomb she wore.

She felt a touch relieved as the call went through.  That could have been a pretty lethal mistake on her part.  She’d have to break her rule and buy a cell phone charger.

“Bye, baby brother.”

“Go die horribly, sis.”

She smirked and turned to leave, putting a touch of extra sway into her walk as she made her way out the door.

She had this.  A few weeks, one or two months at the most, she could be one of the most dangerous people in the world, barring the obvious exceptions like the Endbringers.

What Alec didn’t know was that her power did have long-term effects.  Subtle, but they were there.  Emotions were like drugs.  People formed dependencies and tendencies.  If she hit someone with a minute amount of dopamine every time they saw her, it would condition them until she didn’t even need to use her power to do it.

Just a little while longer, she told herself, and I’ll have the Nine wrapped around my little finger.

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Interlude 11b (Anniversary Bonus)

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Theo clutched the remote control in both hands.  For five minutes, he hadn’t taken his eyes off the TV set.

For those same five minutes, the TV set had been off.

“Who’s a pretty baby?  Who’s a pretty little girl?  You are! Yes you are!”

Aster squawked in one of the little cries that foretold an incoming tantrum.  Theo clutched the remote control tighter.  He felt a throbbing pain where the corners of the remote bit into the heels of his hands.

“Oh, don’t cry, don’t cry!”

Theo’s throat was dry, every thud of his heartbeat seemed to make his hands shake and his vision waver.  He’d never been more intimately familiar with the television itself.  The shape and color of the TV set, the proportion of the screen to the outer frame, the little border of silver around the very edges, and the ‘Starry’ brand name logo at the very bottom.  He suspected it would be ingrained in his memory for the rest of his life.

Which might just be a very short span of time.

“Nope.  Don’t see the appeal.  Hey, boy.”

Theo’s heart leaped in his chest.  He tore his eyes from the television and looked up at the man who was cradling Aster.

“The baby needs to be changed.”

Theo nodded and stood.  He was reaching for Aster when the man threw the baby at him.  He had to scramble to catch her, almost let her slip through his arms, and only just barely caught her by pressing her against his stomach and pelvis.  She started screaming.

“Don’t drop her, now, or I’ll be very annoyed.”

Theo nodded, raising his voice to be heard over Aster’s shrieks, “Yes sir.”

“Must you keep calling me that?  Do I really look like a sir?”

Theo looked at the thirty-something man.  He wore a dress shirt that was open to show his muscled chest and stomach, and had the sleeves rolled up to expose his forearms.  His tight jeans were low slung, his limbs long, and his hair was longer and greasy.

The man’s beard had been trimmed, but scruff was growing in around the edges, obscuring the intricate pattern that had been trimmed into the inside border of the  facial hair.  A knife danced around his fingers constantly, making Theo flinch every time the blade turned to point toward him and Aster.

Jack Slash.

“My father told me I should address my betters as sir, sir.”

Jack laughed with the slightest touch of derision.  “Well, your daddy taught you well, didn’t he?”

True enough.  Theo wondered if this measure of respect played any part in why Jack had let him live this long.  “Yes, sir.  I’m going to go change the baby.”

“Yes.  Do.”

Theo’s hands shook as he adjusted his grip on Aster, hauling her up until her head was at his shoulder, even though that meant she was screaming in his ear.  He carried her to the changing table and set her down.

Kayden had reclaimed her old apartment after the catastrophe, found many of her possessions still there.  The man never let the front door out of his sight as he walked around the living room, and was soon behind Theo.  With the open window, Theo could hope the man was upwind of the aromatic diaper.  How long before the squealing of the baby, an offensive smell or something else set the psychopath off?

“How long until your mother gets back?”

That was something else.  That was the third time Jack had asked the question.  Was his captor’s patience running out?

“She’s not my mother,” Theo changed the topic.  He dropped Aster’s dirty diaper into the bin.

Jack walked up to Theo, until he was just behind the boy, his shadow cast long by the setting sun, stretching over Theo and the changing table.  Theo could feel the tension ratcheting up.  “I’m going to get upset if you lie to me.”

Theo didn’t take his eyes off the baby, forced his fingers to keep working on the diaper.  “Kayden is Aster’s mother, sir, my dad’s ex-wife.  She’s been taking care of me since my father died.”

“Of course, of course, now I understand.  I believe you,” Jack said, before chuckling.  He turned and walked away, leaving Theo breathing out a shuddering sigh of relief.  When Jack spoke again, there was no humor in his tone.  “Do you love her?  The mother of that baby?”

“Yes, sir.”  But I don’t like her.

“Good, good.  Does she love you?”

“No sir.  But she likes me.”

“Ohhhh?” Jack drew out the sound, and it was vaguely mocking.  “Do tell.”

“I- I take care of Aster for her.  I do my chores, I don’t talk back.  I don’t make life harder for her,” Theo began.  He swallowed, “But my dad treated her badly, and I think she sees him when she looks at me, and she’ll never let herself love me because of that.”  She has to look past the doughy face to see Dad in me, past the baby fat I never seemed to lose, but I have his genes, I look like him, beneath it all.

Do you have some of your father in you?”

Did he?  “I’d like to think not, sir.”

“I’m remembering now.  Kaiser.  His name in costume was Kaiser.  I met him once, don’t you know?”

“I didn’t know.”

“Years ago.  Allfather still ruled Empire Eighty-Eight then.  They held a big meeting between all of the factions.  We stopped by.  Great fun.  I don’t think they accomplished a thing that day.  We provoked a bidding war instead.  Group called the Teeth wound up hiring us to kill some members of the Protectorate team.  We did it, and then we wiped out the Teeth before leaving the city.”

The Slaughterhouse Nine must have been new, then.  People today would know better.  Hopefully.

Jack chuckled lightly, “I digress.  I do remember your father.  He was older than you are now when I saw him.  He talked in a way that made me think he was an athlete.”

“He was, sir,” Theo confirmed.  And he was disappointed I never followed in his footsteps.

“There were more teams in this city, then, more villains.  Not many heroes.  Lots of scary motherfuckers around, and yet I could probably count on one hand the people who made eye contact with me.  Even then, when my reputation was a fraction of what it is today.  Your father was one of those people.  Ballsy fucker.”

“Maybe he thought you’d respect him for it, sir?  He was always good at reading people.”  And making them do what he wanted.  Even me.

“Is that so?  I’d like to think I’m much the same.  A people reader.  But my interest is in the design of people. What makes them tick?  What holds them together?  All too often, it’s one little thing.  In architecture they call it a keystone.  The one stone that keeps the entire arch from collapsing.  The weak point.  And I’m very, very good at finding those weak points.  Can you guess what I’m talking about here?  Why I’m in this apartment?”

“Aster, sir?”

“And you say you’re nothing like your father.  You’re sharp, little boy.”  Theo couldn’t see Jack move, but again, the man’s shadow fell over him.  He felt himself shrink down, as if the shadow weighed on him.

“Thank you, sir,” he managed.

“Yes.  See, my compatriots are all busy with a task, tonight, you understand.  I bet on the wrong horse.  Come.”

Jack’s hand fell on Theo’s shoulder, and he flinched.  Still, he scooped Aster up and followed as Jack led him to the front of the apartment.  There was a trail of blood leading from the front door to the nearby bathroom.  Jack gave Theo a push on the shoulder, but remained outside the bathroom, where he could watch the front door.  Theo entered.

There was a man in the bathtub.  He’d seen Jack drag the man inside, had heard the taps running.  What he hadn’t expected was for the man to be alive.

The bathwater was crimson, and the man lay in a sea of things that had been taken from the freezer and dropped within.  He was Japanese, Theo noted, his hair cut short, his body bearing the lean muscle of someone who’d honed their body into a weapon, and he was unconscious, though breathing.

“Oni Lee,” Jack spoke from outside the bathroom.  “Our habit is to nominate a certain individual.  Then the others test them in their own ways.  If that individual passes the test, they are recruited to the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

Theo didn’t know how to respond, so he kept his mouth shut.  He rocked Aster in his arms, using one hand to shield her eyes from the scene.  Not that he thought she could make it out or understand what she was looking at, but it made him feel better.

“I had a little conversation with Oni Lee.  Found him living above a grocer’s, with the help of one of my teammates.  Someone shot out his kneecap, it seems, and he’s been restless ever since.  A few kills here and there, but perhaps a little harder when you can’t walk.  Need the right time, the right place.  I kind of respected that, and the fact that he was another fan of knives was a point in my book.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But we didn’t even make it to the test.  I told him we had tinkers that could fix him up.  He was interested.  Then I told him he’d have to prove himself, he asked me how.  Now, it isn’t always done, that a member of the Nine tests their own candidates, but I decided to anyways.  Something off about him, wanted to make sure he didn’t embarass me.  Told him to come up with something, and he couldn’t.  Do you know what tabula rasa is, boy?”

“No, sir.”

“Blank slate.  A piece of paper with nothing on it.  A formatted computer.  A tombstone without the name on it.  Seems that fellow can copy his body just fine when he teleports, but something in his mind gets left behind.  Once I realized it, picked up on the fact that he was little more than a robot wanting his orders, I informed him I had decided we had no need for his services, we fought, and… here we are.”

“I see.”  And Jack was in one piece, while Oni Lee was bleeding out into the bathtub.

“So.  Come on out of the bathroom, now.” Jack ushered Theo out of the bathroom with the dying man. “There we go.  Back to  the subject of Purity and the baby…  Aster?”

“Yes, Aster, sir.”

“We’re going to play a little game.  See, the moment Purity steps in that front door, I give her just a moment to take in the scene… and then snicker-snack, you and the baby die.”

Theo felt his blood run cold.  Tears appeared in the corners of his eyes.  I’m going to die.

“I’ll get to savor the expression on her face as she watches her keystone crumble.  I’ll get to see how she responds as that element in her life that supports everything else bleeds out on this nice white carpet.  Maybe say something to just twist the knife.” Jack mimed a lunging stab and then slow turn of his blade.

Straightening, Jack looked Theo over, “A pity she doesn’t love you, but if she likes you, at least, then it’ll have to do.”

Why did I tell him that?

“She’ll kill you, sir.”  Theo said.  Then he added a hurried, “No offense.”

Jack waved him off.  “She’ll try.  So many have, and they’ve all failed so far.  But it’s good that it’s a little dangerous, a little risky.  It’s no fun if I know how it’s going to play out.  Some unpredictability, it gives spice to life.  Maybe I’ll kill her right after I see the look on her face.  Maybe I’ll escape and leave her to wallow in her misery.”

Escape?  From a fifteen story apartment building, against a supervillain who can fly and level city blocks?

Then again, Jack had done worse things than murder the child of a cape like Purity, and he was still here.

“Sometimes,” Jack started, pausing as if he was constructing the thought as he spoke it, “I like to imagine the impact I’ve made on the world.  What possible realities am I pruning, what events am I setting in motion, each time I take a life?  If the flap of a butterfly’s wing can alter the course of a hurricane, what am I doing when I take a human life?  The life of a person who interacts with dozens of people every day, who would have a career, romance, children?”

Tears ran down Theo’s face.  He clutched Aster tight.

“Can you tell me who you are, Kaiser’s boy?  What am I doing to reality when I open you up from cock to chin and let your entrails spill onto the floor?”

“I-I don’t know,” Theo said, his voice quiet.

“Don’t shut down on me, now.  Here, I’ll make you a deal.  If you give me a good answer, I’ll make it quick.  Thrust my knife right through the center of your brain.  It’ll be like flicking a light switch.  You just stop, and there’ll be no pain.  It’ll be as dignified as death can be.”

“I-”  Theo shook his head.

“I’ll even let you relieve yourself in the bathroom beforehand so you don’t shit yourself so badly when you drop dead.  You’d have to be quick, unless you want to be on the toilet when she comes in, but it’s a chance few get.”

“I wanted to be a superhero,” Theo blurted.

Jack laughed abruptly enough that Aster was spooked and started screaming louder.  His laughs continued for several long seconds.

Theo went on, as if Jack were still listening, “I’m probably going to get powers, because I’m Kaiser’s son.  But I don’t want to be a member of Purity’s group, I don’t want to cleanse the world or try to fix things by killing or through hate.  Sir.”

“And you’d fight people like me, I suppose?”

Theo nodded.

Jack was still grinning.  “What would you do to people like me, then?  Let’s say you got powers.  Would you right wrongs, lecture schoolchildren on doing what’s right, and see bad guys like me carted off to the Birdcage?”

Somehow, knowing the inevitability of his own death gave him a measure of courage he had never had before.  Even so, it took all of the willpower he had.  Theo met Jack’s eyes for the first time.  The man’s eyes were a very pale blue, and there were lines at the corners.

Theo swallowed the lump in his throat.  “People like you?  I’d kill.  Sir.”

Jack broke into a second spell of hysterical laughter, and it was all Theo could do to keep Aster from squirming out of his grasp in her distress.

“Can’t-” Jack had to break off to let another small laugh pass, “Can’t say I can imagine that, boy.  You, as one of the vigilantes?”

Neither can I, Theo thought, but he remained silent.

“But you’ve piqued my interest, and if there’s any reason I do what I do, it’s because I find it interesting.”

Theo could see the cell phone on the coffee table in the living room light up and shift position as it vibrated.  It happened behind Jack, and the man didn’t appear to see or hear it.  The only person who called Theo’s phone was Kayden, and she’d been out getting groceries.  It was routine for her to call for him to open the lobby door, then come down to help bringing them up from the lobby…

She was coming up.  He was almost positive.  Could he distract Jack and give Kayden the opportunity to put the man down?

“I’ve changed my mind,” Jack said.

Theo stared, trying to fathom what the man was saying.

“Don’t let it be said that I can’t delay my gratification.  Listen carefully now, I’m making you a deal.”

Theo nodded, mute.

“I want to see this.  This picture you paint.  So I’m going to give you a chance to make this happen.”

Theo nodded slowly, but his thoughts were on Kayden’s approach.  How long until Kayden opened the door?  Would Jack attack her?  Attack Aster?  Despite what he was saying now?  Or would Kayden attack him and provoke something?

“How old are you?  Fourteen? Fifteen?”

“Fifteen, sir,” Theo said.  Hurry up, finish before she comes.

“Two years then.  Two years to get your powers, to train, to do whatever it takes to become the motherfucking badass you describe.  That should be long enough without risking that one of us gets offed by bad luck or picking the wrong fight.  At that two-year mark?  You hunt me down, you kill, disable or sneak past my Nine, whoever they are two years from now, you look me in the eyes, and then you try to kill me.  If you fail?  If you cannot find me?  If you chicken out?  Hmmm… what’s a good consequence?”

In his hurry to resolve this before the door opened, Theo made the first suggestion that came to mind, “You kill me.”

“That goes without saying.  No.  It should be meaningful.  What’s your name, boy?”

“Theo.”

“Fifteen year old Theo.  How many people’s lives will you touch in these coming two years, because I’ve spared your life?  Two hundred?  Five hundred?  A thousand?  How far will the flaps of your butterfly wings extend?”

Theo glanced at the phone.  It glowed and moved again.  Was Kayden in the lobby?

Jack went on.  “If you fail in this, I’ll kill nine hundred and ninety-nine people in your name.  I’ll even break my usual rules to get the body count that high, so it’s something special, beyond my usual habits.  Maybe a bomb, maybe poison.  I’ll come up with something.  I can target the people you love, those you’re closest to, people you’ve affected.  Aster there can be the nine hundred and ninety ninth, and you’ll be the thousandth.  Perfect.  Canceling out the impact you’ve made in the world, it’s poetic.”

Theo swallowed.  A thousand people?  Could he say no?  Could he refuse the offer?  Or would Jack carry what he threatened regardless?

“Well,” Jack spoke, smiling.  “I’ll be off.”

He stepped into the bathroom, turning away from the door for the second time in his entire ‘visit’.  When he emerged from the bathroom, he held the naked form of Oni Lee over one shoulder, a knife in his free hand.

“A treat for a teammate, this is,” Jack winked.  “Doesn’t need to be alive.  Just fresh.  Would you get the door, Theo?”

Theo hurried forward to open the door, shifting Aster in his arms to open it.

Kayden stood on the other side, groceries in hand.

Stern, she said, “Theo!  I called you twice.  Can you go down to the lobby and get the last two bags of groc-”

She fell silent as the door opened wider, revealing Jack.  In a moment, the bags in her arms were tumbling to the ground, and her hair, eyes, and hands were glowing with blinding light.

“Kayden,” Theo had to control his voice to keep it from shaking, “Let him go.”

“I had a wonderful conversation with young Theo here,” Jack spoke.  He rested his hand on top of Theo’s head.  Theo could feel the hard handle of the knife tap against his scalp.  “Very interesting.”

“What are you-” Kayden started, her voice rising with anger, but Theo lunged forward, gripping her shirt and shaking his head.  She looked down, confused.

Jack waggled a finger at her, “Don’t bother, Purity.  See, I’ve been studying you.  I go into every possible fight armed with knowledge.  You have a weakness.  A flaw in that power of yours.”

Theo could see Kayden tense, but she obliged when he pushed her away from the door and towards the end of the hallway furthest from the stairwell, stepping back.

“While reading up on you, I tried to put the newspaper clippings and online information in chronological order, and a funny thing happened.  Seems like your power is weaker some days, stronger on others.  I mapped it out.  You have some form of internal battery or fuel that drives your power.  After going days without using your power, you’re stronger.  After periods where there’s more sunlight, your power is stronger.  You absorb light of any kind, I suppose, and later spend it to use your abilities.”

Theo thought he might have seen a tiny flash of concern on Kayden’s face.

“It’s been an overcast week, and you’ve been using your powers a great deal, trying to put the Pure on the map.  So think very hard about what you want to do next.  Because if I’m right, and your power is spent, you might not succeed in killing me.  And I would retaliate by killing all three of you.”

“You’re underestimating me,” Kayden spoke, her voice hard.

“Then blast me away.  Turn me into a smear in your hallway, if you think you’re strong enough, quicker with your light than I am with a knife.  Prove me wrong,” Jack smiled.  He waited a few seconds, and the only noises in the hallway were Aster’s mewling complaints.

Jack stepped into the hallway and turned toward the stairwell.  “Thought so.  Be grateful.  That boy is the only reason you and your daughter are alive right now.  He’ll explain.  Train him.  Make him strong, make him vicious.  Let him take whatever path he needs to take.  You and your daughter owe him that.”

Kayden looked down at Theo, who glanced at Jack for just a second, then looked up at her and nodded quickly.  Urging her.  Jack wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t think he could get away.

“Alright,” she spoke.

Jack didn’t offer anything further.  His knife twirling in his fingers, he stepped toward the door by the elevators, kicked it open, and stepped inside.  As he made his way down, he whistled a merry tune, the sound echoing through the stairwell until the moment the doors shut.

Theo handed Aster to her mother.  He felt dazed at the magnitude of what faced him.  Two years.

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