Tangle 6.8

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We didn’t dally, stopping only to let Bitch direct her dogs into three separate vans Coil had waiting at the back of the garage.  Once that was done, we all rushed to the vehicle Coil had waiting, an armored limousine.  It wasn’t too different from a regular limousine, but the sides and top were flat, and the front end was squatter.  All in all, it gave the general impression of something exceedingly solid.

I wondered if it was too conspicuous.  It was distinctive enough that it Could make us too easy to track.  Coil didn’t seem like a stupid guy, though, and time was short enough that we couldn’t afford to take the time to debate it.  I climbed inside after Grue, keeping my mouth shut for the time being, and my eyes open for details.

The interior was all black leather, the windows tinted dark.  Coil’s black costume against the black background made him rather hard to make out as he settled into a chair at the far end, his back to  the driver’s seat.  If I squinted a little, it looked like only the snake stenciled on his costume was there, hovering in empty space.  We seated ourselves on the leather cushioned bench that lined one side of the limousine.  Trickster, the only Traveler to come with us, sat at the far end, facing Coil.

“My dogs-” Bitch started.

“Will be taken care of, I assure you,” Coil replied.  “You will find your dogs and the vans you used to arrive awaiting you when you depart.”

Bitch pursed her lips, looking angry, but didn’t say anything.

“I wish,” Coil told us, “To perform a small demonstration.  Because I would prefer to establish a few things before I move on to discussing the larger picture.”

He reached into a cup holder to his left and retrieved a roll of quarters.  He undid one end of the roll, then doled out a number of quarters into his palm.  “If you would catch these and place them on the backs of your hands.”

He flipped a coin in Tattletale’s direction.  She caught it and slapped it against the back of her hand, “Heads.”

“Heads,” Grue said, as he caught the next.

Coil double checked I was ready to catch it, then threw it my way.

“Heads,” I spoke, as I slapped it down.

And heads again for Bitch and Regent.

I leaned forward, reached behind me, and retrieved my coinpurse.  I found a silver dollar, showed Coil, and then flipped it.  I caught it and slapped it down.  Heads.  I nodded.

“Probability manipulation?” I asked him, “Enhanced luck?”

He shook his head, “No.  Just the opposite, Skitter.  I control destinies.  I decide outcomes.”

“That still sounds like probability manipulation to me,” I said.

Tattletale leaned forward, to look past Grue and face me, “No.  Well, it is, but only in the biggest, bluntest sense.  But I can vouch that he’s telling the truth, vague as it is.”

“When I asked what his powers were, at the meeting, you said you didn’t know,” I accused her.

“No,” she shook her head, “I said I couldn’t say.  Which is true.  One of the contingencies for my getting to be part of the Undersiders and get the funding he offered was that I would keep the details a secret, and I’ve got to do that until he says otherwise, sorry.”

Coil placed his elbows on the armrests and steepled his fingers in front of his mouth, or where his mouth would be if his mask showed any part of his face.  “I feel that keeping potential enemies in the dark is a necessity.  To those ends, rather than risk having her as an enemy, I sought out your Tattletale and hired her, with enough incentive to keep her loyal and silent on the matter.”

“And us?” Grue asked.

“I won’t mince words, Grue,” Coil answered, “My choice to form the Undersiders was a gambit.  If you failed, got yourselves killed, injured or arrested, then that simply meant there would be less parahumans in this city for me to be concerned about.  That isn’t to say I didn’t assist you or that I attempted to steer you towards failure.  I did just the opposite.  All I mean to say is that I was prepared for the eventuality.”

Grue tilted his head slightly, “And if we succeeded?”

“Then you naturally find yourselves sitting here, proven to be capable,” Coil leaned back.  “Worthy to hear my proposal, as the Travelers already have.”

“I can’t help but notice you didn’t test them the same way you tested us,” Grue spoke, “We’ve worked for you for nearly a year.”

“The Travelers have an established track record.  With this in mind, I contacted them and requested they come to Brockton Bay.  They heard my offer, and I was hoping Trickster might give his reply tonight.”

All eyes turned to Trickster.  He didn’t hurry to reply.  He reached into the fold of his jacket, found a pack of cigarettes, tapped one out, placed it inside the mouth-slit of his mask and lit up.  He placed one hand on his hat to keep it in place as he rolled down the window to blow the smoke outside.

“If you’re not bullshitting, if you’re making a good faith attempt at providing a fix, we’re in,” Trickster spoke, not looking at Coil.

“Excellent,” Coil replied, not twitching a muscle.  There wasn’t an iota of surprise there.

“Fix?” I asked Trickster.

“That guy,” Trickster tilted his head in Coil’s direction, “Is offering my team a temporary solution to an ongoing problem, with promises that he’s going to look into a possible permanent fix.”

“Vague,” Regent spoke.  Trickster shrugged.

I couldn’t quite get a sense of these guys.  I spoke up, “This wouldn’t have anything to do with what your teammate said about you guys pulling a ridiculous number of jobs, like you’re trying to fill a bottomless pit with cash?”

He turned to one side to let out a long exhalation of smoke, then answered, “My teammate needs to keep her mouth shut about private business.”

Which, in no uncertain words, meant I should drop the subject, and that I was probably right.  Probably not my best call, raising a subject pretty much guaranteed to touch a nerve.

“So,” Grue spoke to Coil, “You’ve provoked our curiosity, which I’m sure was your intent.”

“Yes.  First off, let me show you what I desire,” Coil spoke.  He touched a button beside the cup holders to his left, and the windows rolled down.  I looked outside, and saw the darkness of a tunnel.  As we left the tunnel, we found ourselves overlooking the rest of the city.  The bay and the city both were spread out beyond us, a cityscape lit up by constellations of orange-yellow and white dots and the faint light of the moon above.

I looked back to Coil, and saw him gesturing to the open window.

“The city?” I asked him.

“The city, yes.  Desiring to take over the world is not only cliche, but unrealistic,” he replied, his voice sibilant, smooth.  “I will, for the time being, content myself with seizing this city for myself.  Cliche still, I might admit, but rare few do even this with any measure of success.

“Isn’t it kind of obvious you’re trying to do that already?” Regent asked him.

“Perhaps, but contrary to popular expectations, I do not aim to limit my control to the organized crime of Brockton Bay.  I would control everything.  Government, courts, law enforcement, business, and much more.”

“Ambitious,” Grue spoke.  I thought I might have heard a change in his tone of voice.  Doubt?

“Quite.  But rest assured, Undersiders, I am already moving into my endgame.”

“Endgame?” I asked.

Think, Skitter.  Who are the major players in this city?  What has changed?  The ABB is wiped out, with the very plan I proposed at the meeting.  Empire Eighty-Eight is reeling from the plays I made today, and I fully expect to finish them off in the coming weeks, hopefully with the assistance of you, the Travelers, and my other recruits.  The Wards and the Protectorate are in a tenuous position, now.  I took steps to ensure the public knows their heroes played only a partial role in stopping the ABB, and your actions tonight served to shake confidence in them further.  If the matter is pushed further, I expect there will be a restructuring of the group structure.  Perhaps members will be exchanged with other nearby Protectorate groups, someone else might be put in charge, new rules, regulations and quotas put in place.  Whatever the case, it will be some time before they regain their footing and re-establish their reputation.  By the time this occurs, I will be settled in my new role.”

He let that sink in.  “Who else is left?  New Wave isn’t in a position to take control.  They are powerful but too controversial, with even less trust from the public than the Protectorate.  The Merchants under Skidmark’s leadership are too weak and self centered to make a serious play.  Faultline’s group is mercenary, and conservative use of my power has made me an exceedingly wealthy man, leaving me the option of purchasing her cooperation if and when it is necessary.”

“There are scarce few who are in a position to impede me, as I make my play, and I’m not only speaking of capes.  I’ve quietly been purchasing properties throughout the Docks and will aggressively purchase more in the final stages of my plan.  Two of the three mayoral candidates for this June’s election were bought and brought to this city by me, much as I purchased my elite soldiers to aid me in controlling the streets and hampering the Empire’s business.  The city council has its elections in September, I will have similar agents placed throughout by then, as well.  When I say I am nearly finished, I am not speaking in ambiguities.  I am saying that the dominoes have been set up and the first of them are already falling.”

Well, I thought, there goes any doubt I had about the Protectorate not caring what was up with the Undersider’s sponsor.  Shit.  Was he really that close?

“Leaving only you and your role in this,” Coil finished.

“Which is?” Grue inquired, a challenging note in his voice.

“Taking over this city is pointless if I do not keep it, Grue.  I hand picked you Undersiders because I needed allies who were comfortable being situated in the North end, the Docks, the Boardwalk, the Trainyard, the outskirts to the North.  I picked you because I saw you had potential, yet you were not so high profile as to demand the immediate attention of authorities.  This freed you to be overlooked until you were more established.  It allowed you to grow both practiced and comfortable as a team, and to establish a reputation for yourselves.  In my efforts against Kaiser, I have not only been whittling away at his Empire, but I have worked to keep him occupied so you would not be sandwiched between two major factions in the early stages of your group.  You had only the ABB to deal with, and you held your own for nearly a year.  Skitter joining your group was sufficient to tip the balance.”

“So.  If you accept this deal, I would have you control the Docks and the surrounding area.  You’re not overly disliked, you’ve proven yourselves resourceful and capable.  I would have you guard against any parahuman trespassers and squash any gangs or groups in your territory, should they not submit themselves to my command and control.  If this project proved to be a success, I would have you be my agents in expanding to nearby cities.  But I digress, that is long term, only a possibility.”

“And what do we get in all this?” Regent asked.

Coil replied, “I expect that wealth and power go without saying.  Beyond that, I leave it to you to name your terms.  As I explained what I desire, I leave it up to you to decide what you would ask for, in exchange for your cooperation.”

Nobody hurried to reply.  We exchanged glances with one another, trying to gauge each other’s reactions.  Trickster finished his cigarette, tossed it out the window and rolled the window up.

Coil broke the silence, “Bitch.  I am aware of your collection of dogs.  More than one isolated building containing strays and dogs due to be euthanized.  Animals that you rescued, retrieved and gave shelter.”

All attention turned to Bitch.  She looked angry, opened her mouth to speak, but Coil interrupted her before she could.

“No.  I would not interfere with your business.  I respect your passion.  But at the same time, I know it likely pains you, that you have only so much time to spare, to visit these locations, to feed these animals you have rescued and give them the individual attention and care they need.”

Bitch glared at him.  If looks could kill.

“I could provide the resources you need, to fully equip the buildings and make them comfortable for the dogs.  Assistants to care for the animals and work under you as you see fit.  I would have the city give the same sort of funding to anyone who adopts a sheltered animal that is provided to foster parents, with oversight, of course, to ensure that the animals are being properly cared for, that the system is not gamed.  There would be no more dogs cooped up in shelters, awaiting euthanasia.  What would you say to that?”

“I’d say you’re fucking with me.”

He didn’t press the issue, instead, he turned to the next member of our group.  “Regent.  A hard young man to please, because you grew up wanting for nothing, and you expect largesse, luxury and idle entertainment as a matter of course.”

“What do you know about how I grew up?” Regent challenged him.

“I know what the Protectorate knows.  Not long after Lung was brought into custody, Armsmaster began pushing for details on your group.  Staff at the PRT offices were tasked with looking through old criminal records and reports of lesser known parahumans, trying to find parallels.  Find if perhaps a supervillain in another area perhaps moved to Brockton Bay, changing their names, costumes and methods.  They found you.”

“Ah,” Regent leaned back in his seat.  “Shit.”

“So I know who you are.  I know that you went out of your way to get out from your father’s thumb, and that it’s quite likely that a part of you is driven to prove yourself to him, to pursue success, power and status in our circles.”

“His father?” I asked.

“Not my story to tell,” Coil waved a hand, “I leave it for Regent to share at a later date, if he chooses.  All I mean to say is that I can give you that, Regent.  Status and notoriety, perhaps enough to rise above your old man.”

Regent nodded once, but didn’t say anything.  I would have liked to see his expression behind his mask.

“You must understand, Undersiders, I do not use fear as Lung did, or manipulation as Kaiser does.  I would have you work alongside me because you know I am the person that is best equipped to provide what you desire, and that nobody else can or will give you a better offer.”

“Which sounds nice, sure,” I countered.  Could I poke holes in this plan, maybe derail it? “But I haven’t quite forgotten that you just told us you were fully prepared for us to screw up somewhere along the way, and that you would have been perfectly okay with it happening.  You would’ve shrugged, said ‘less capes to deal with’ and you would have dropped us and walked away.”

Coil nodded, “This is true.”

“So if we screw up later, it’s going to be the same thing?”

“No,” Coil spoke. Then he paused for a moment.  “I understand your concern, but I have already informed you of a great deal, here.  If you were arrested, or if half your team perished in action, it would be dangerous to abandon you, because you could divulge key information.  This will continue to be the case.”

I nodded, slowly, “Except you could provide false information to us, or stop providing key info.”

“Look to Tattletale for the answer to that.  I may have purchased her assistance, but I expect you consider her a friend, and vice versa.  You could, I hope, trust her to verify that what I tell you is truth, and to know more about my plan that I divulge, in any case.”

So if I wanted to argue the point further, it’d look like I didn’t trust Tattletale.  I wasn’t sure I liked that, but I nodded.  “Alright.”

“Skitter,” Coil spoke.  “I came prepared, tonight, with offers in mind for the rest of your team.  I can help care for Bitch’s collections of rescued dogs, and help ensure less animals need rescue in the future.  Grue is relying on me for a personal matter, and he knows that my taking power can only ensure that things go his way without difficulty. You, and you alone, Skitter, have me wondering what you desire, at the end of things.”

Tattletale, to my left, leaned forward again, interest clear on her face.

I had to be convincing.  No way was I going to let something slip past the radar and alert Tattletale now.  So I gave it a serious think.

I kind of hoped someone would break the silence while I took the time to consider, maybe even distract from me, but nobody did.  Everyone patiently waited, putting me at the focus of all attention, a spot I hated being in, in or out of costume.

“The city,” I replied, being careful to be as genuine as possible, to avoid alerting Tattletale, “You want to control it.  Fine.  I want you to make it work.  Fix up the Docks so they aren’t a shithole.  Give people work.  Clean up the drug trade, or the hard drugs at least.  Straighten out the asinine bureaucracy of the government and schools and all that.  That sort of thing.”

Coil shook his head, “Not something I can offer you in good conscience, dear Skitter.”

He raised his hand to stop me before I could open my mouth.  Not that I was going to, but he did.  “What you’re talking about, I already intended to do, in large part. To give it to you as a gift would be little different than offering you an amount in cash, when I already intend to give you as much money as you require.”

“So you’re going to improve Brockton Bay,” I said, carefully.

“Don’t get me wrong.  I will not claim to be a good person – I assure you I am not.  That said, you are likely to discover I am a proud man.  I would consider it a catastrophic failure on my part if this city did not thrive under my rule, a tremendous blow to my ego.”

I nodded.

He continued, “Our desires on individual subjects may differ, however.  I would argue there will always be crime, always be drugs.”

“I’m not saying there won’t.  I’m just saying that there’s room for improvement.  When I was in grade six, more of my classmates could explain what a K-hole was than name a dozen countries.”

“I am not promising quick fixes, Skitter.  What I will tell you is that individuals like yourselves would control territories and be responsible for maintaining your own kind of order in those areas, with whatever means you saw fit.  Over time, people would adjust to this, crime rates would decrease.  I would simultaneously be controlling the flow of product into the city, reducing the distribution of the most problematic drugs, those that would lead to the most societal decay and crime, while making other, more benign product available in their place.  Crime and drugs cannot be conquered, but they are animals I believe I can tame.”

“And the city itself?” I asked.  I thought of my dad, “Fixing the ferry?”

“Yes.  Rest assured, if you were to accept my offer, I would fully expect you to contact me and speak up at any time you felt I was not following through in any department.  I might be a proud man, but I would rather you injure that pride, even provoke it intentionally, rather than let me be complacent.”

I nodded once, slowly.

“I have said my piece, then.  I leave you to consider it, Undersiders.  I recognize that this is not what you signed on for, in the beginning.  I know it might not have the same appeal in the scope of costumed hijinks, and I’m prepared for the fact that that this might lead you to refuse this offer.  All I hope is that if you do refuse me, if you decide you are more comfortable as simple uncommon criminals, that our prior arrangement will stand.”

“You’ve invested this much in us, and if we say no, we can just walk away?”  Regent asked him.

Coil spread his hands a bit, “What would you see me do?  Murder you?  Threaten you?  Orchestrate an arrest?  There is no guarantee any attempt on my part would be wholly successful, whatever I chose, and you may count it as a compliment that I would not want any of you escaping the attempt and coming after me as a dedicated adversary.”

He knocked on the window behind him.  Immediately, the limousine slowed down and pulled over.  As I glanced outside, I saw we were in the Docks.

“Think on the subject.  Discuss it and get back to me with your reply, the sooner the better, no later than a week from now.  Tattletale, it should be obvious, but I formally free you from all stipulations in your contract requiring you to keep my identity as your sponsor private.  You may give my contact information to your teammates.”

“Sure thing,” Tattletale replied.

“And before I forget, I arranged individual accounts for each of you with a supervillain banker by the name of The Number Man, as paying for tonight’s job in bills, naturally, was unfeasible.  My men will provide you with your account information and the instructions for accessing these accounts as you retrieve your dogs.”

Grue extended a hand, “I’m not sure what we’ll do, whether we’ll take this deal, but it’s been good working with you thus far, and I hope to continue.”

Coil took Grue’s hand and shook it, firm, “Likewise, Grue, Undersiders.”

We departed the vehicle.  We were on the West end of the Docks, judging by how far the water was, and how close we were to the mountains that surrounded the city.  Parked behind the limousine were three vans, each with two of Coil’s soldiers standing by, alert.

As we walked by the end of the armored limousine, a soldier passed out envelopes to each of us.

We continued walking, and Bitch opened each door we passed, letting the dogs out.  They were smaller, now.  Judas, the tallest, only came up to my shoulder.  Their external muscle, wet and wrinkled, hung off them like excess skin on a person who had lost a great deal of weight.  The interiors of the vans were spattered with more excess flesh, blood and bone that had been shed.  The final stage would be the dogs shucking off the last of the excess mass, revealing their normal shapes nested deep within, dry within a membrane, virtually untouched by the injuries they had sustained over the night.

As the last of the dogs, Angelica, was released and the vans and limousine pulled away, we headed back to the loft.  Each of us too busy sorting through our own thoughts and dilemmas to be distracted with conversation, so it was remarkably quiet.

I have it.  I’ve got what I need.

I just didn’t know how I felt about it.

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Tangle 6.7

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Leaping from rooftop to rooftop was not as awesome or efficient as it was on TV and in the movies.  Even if it was the dogs doing the brunt of the work, they weren’t the most graceful of creatures, they weren’t built to be ridden, and we didn’t have any saddles.  There was also the distinct issue of there being buildings of wildly varying heights, similar to how Brian’s neighborhood sported old Victorian style buildings amid apartments and condos.  As Judas hopped down from the side of a six story building, dug his claws into the side of a neighboring building to slow his descent, then jumped the rest of the way down to the asphalt of an alleyway, I was genuinely concerned the landings would dislocate my hip.

In short, I was grateful to be back on terra firma.

“Need a hand!” Bitch called out, a moment after Brutus set down.  She had a prone Tattletale lying across her lap and Brutus’ shoulders, and it looked like Tattletale was falling off, despite Bitch’s best efforts to hold on to her.

I reluctantly let go of Grue as he slipped down from Judas and rushed over to help.  I silently lamented having included the panels of armor on my chest and stomach, which had been a solid barrier between my body and his back as I clung to him on our retreat from the Forsberg Gallery.

Whatever my regrets, I wasn’t oblivious to the matter at hand.  I hopped down off Judas’ back and hurried over to help with Tattletale, just a step behind Grue.  It proved easier to slide her down to the sidewalk than to get her back up onto Brutus’ back.  Grue did the heavy lifting, while I focused on keeping her head and arms from hitting the ground or getting caught under her.  As I bent down to help ease her to the ground, I could already feel the stiffness in the muscles of my thighs, back and stomach.  I was glad I’d done my morning exercise earlier, because there was no way I was going to be able to go anywhere tomorrow.

I glanced around us.  Cars were zipping past on the streets at either end, but there weren’t many pedestrians, and none appeared to have spotted us, thus far.  My suspicions were that most people in the downtown area who were out and about would be near Lord Street, celebrating the end of the curfew.  People would be acting out their relief over the end of the ABB situation, making up for time they’d spent cooped up in their homes during the six nights of curfew.

“Anyone see capes following?” Grue asked.

“I didn’t see anyone, but I wasn’t really looking.  That’s usually Tattletale’s job,” Regent replied.

“She can’t give us any info like this,” Grue pointed out.

“Wait,” I told him.  I reached back into my utility compartment and fished out the changepurse.  I removed the tissues I’d wadded up inside to keep the change from rattling and found one of the three tiny white packets at the bottom of the bag.  I tore the packet open and held it under Tattletale’s nose.

“Smelling salts?” Grue asked.

I nodded.  “You asked if anyone had any after we put down Über and Leet.  I made a mental note to have ’em for next time.”

“I bet half of us did,” Regent replied, “The weird thing is that you actually followed through, dork.”

“What’s weird about that?” I asked, a bit defensively.

He was distracted from replying.  Tattletale stirred, turning her head to get her nose away from the smelling salts.  I moved them back under her nose.

She woke, mumbling, “Okay, stop.”

“Welcome back,” Grue told her.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“My stomach feels like someone ran it through a blender, and my arm hurts like hell, but I’m tougher than I look,” she said.  Not one second later, she groaned and huffed out a breath, “But I’m going to need help to stand.”

Grue and I helped her.  She was hurting, and moved at a glacial pace.  It was made more difficult by the fact that she apparently didn’t want either of us to touch her right arm.

“What’d I miss?” she asked, as if to distract from the fact that she was moving like an old woman.

“Tee el dee arr, you got bitchslapped and knocked out, it was down to Bitch and Skitter, and we still got away,” Regent shrugged.

Tattletale froze in her tracks.  Since Grue and I were still easing her to a standing position, I was forced to shift my grip to ensure she didn’t fall.

Shit,” she managed to fit more invective into that one word than some of the people from my dad’s work could manage in ten, and some of those guys were seamen. Tattletale turned her head, “That’s not-”

“Not true,” Armsmaster spoke, echoing her words as he rounded the end of the alley.

He looked worse for wear.  The lower half of his face had welts on it, not many, but some.  I’d instructed the hornets to sting so they weren’t coiling their abdomens, which meant they weren’t squeezing the venom sacs and injecting venom with every sting.  I’d only injected enough venom to make it hurt a little, to distract.  After I’d beaten my retreat, though, I knew some would have stayed on him, and a few would have stung him after I was out of range and no longer able to control the hornets.  The welts weren’t the bad part, though.  What caught my eye, though, were the six thin trickles of blood running down the lower half of his face.  Hornet bites weren’t necessarily capable of penetrating skin, as much as they might hurt, but there had been a lot of them, and if a few happened to bite in the same location, or if they caught the edge of an eyelid or nostril?  Maybe.  I noticed his Halberd in his right hand.

When I looked at our remaining escape route, Dauntless was at the other end of the alley.  Brockton Bay’s rising star.  It would have been easy to peg him as a tinker, but he apparently wasn’t.  His power let him, according to details he’d leaked when he’d appeared on TV and in magazines, imbue his gear with a little bit of power every day.  Thing was, every bit of power he parceled out had permanent effects.  Every day, he was just a little bit stronger than he’d been the day before.  A little bit more versatile.  It was expected that he would eventually surpass even the likes of Alexandria, Legend and Eidolon, the ‘triumvirate’ of the Protectorate, the top dogs.  That kind of made him a big deal in Brockton Bay, a hometown hero.

I didn’t follow that stuff, didn’t buy into the hero worship.  I’d always found the capes interesting, I’d followed the non-gossipy news about them, but with the exception of a phase around the time I was nine where I’d had an Alexandria t-shirt and had my mom help me find pictures of her online, I had never really got giddy over any particular hero.

Dauntless packed a few trademark pieces of gear.  He had his Arclance, a spear he held in one hand that looked like it was made of white lightning.  His shield, fixed to his left forearm, was a metal disc about the size of a dinner plate, surrounded by rings of the same kind of energy that made up the spear.  Finishing his current set of empowered items were his boots.  His feet looked like they were encased in the white crackling energy.  If rumor was to be believed, he was working on empowering his armor as well, but I couldn’t see any hints of that energy on the costume.  It was white and gold, and his golden helmet was in the Greek or Spartan style, with slits for the eyes, a band of metal covering his nose, and a slit running down lower half of his face.  A band of metal crested the top, like a mohawk.

You could see the frown crease Armsmaster’s damaged face as he turned his focus to me.

“I threw your Halberd off the side of the Gallery,” I spoke before he could.  “Did Dauntless fetch it for you?”

He didn’t voice a reply right away.  As if to demonstrate, he threw his Halberd straight up in the air.  It disappeared into a storm of glowing blue lines as it reached the peak of its ascent, simultaneously rematerializing in his hand.  Hadn’t I seen Kid Win bring his cannon to the site of the bank robbery in the same way?  A piece of borrowed technology?

“I’m not about to put so many eggs in one basket without sufficient safeguards,” Armsmaster told me.  His voice was tight with repressed anger.

No bugs.  Damn it, I had no bugs, again.  I’d emptied my armor of bugs when I attacked Armsmaster, and I’d left them and the rest of the swarm back at the Gallery when I made my retreat.

Surrender,” he intoned.

“Thinking about it,” Tattletale spoke.

“Decide fast,” Armsmaster growled.

“Why did you guys stop here?” Tattletale murmured to us, “We’re, like, half a block from the parking garage where we stashed our ride.”

“I wanted to make sure there were no pursuers before we peeled out,” Grue replied, “Good thing, too.”

“Right,” Regent’s voice was thick with sarcasm, “Because this is so much better than them finding us as we put the key in the ignition.”

“Guys,” I cut in, whispering without taking my eyes from Armsmaster, “Answers.  Solutions.”

“Get to the parking garage,” Tattletale told us.

“Our situation there won’t be any better,” Grue countered.

Get to the parking garage,” She hissed through her teeth, as Armsmaster took a step forward.

The alley was wide enough for two dogs to stand shoulder to shoulder, and I saw Bitch directing two of the animals to stand between us and Armsmaster before Grue blanketed everything but Armsmaster and the dogs in darkness.

The darkness didn’t last more than three seconds.  There was enough time for Grue to place his arm against my collarbone and shove me back against the wall, and then he removed the darkness around us.  There was a smell like burning ozone.  Had Dauntless used his spear?

It was immediately clear that Dauntless didn’t have much darkness around him.  He was holding his shield arm up, and it had formed into a bubble-shaped forcefield, extending in a ten foot radius around himself, touching both walls on either side of us.  The forcefield was serving to block off the darkness, and while I wasn’t sure, I suspected that the field was actually eating through any darkness that touched it.  It was making a continual sizzling, crackling sound that drowned out the traffic on the roads around us.

Dauntless advanced a pace, and the forcefield moved a corresponding distance closer to us.

After a second short advance from Dauntless, Grue had to back up a step to avoid touching the field of crackling white energy.  A step that closed the distance between us and Armsmaster.

“Armsmaster hates you,” Tattletale told Dauntless, raising her voice to be heard over the crackling sound the forcefield was generating, “He hates that you’re the next big thing, the guy that’s going to be better than him.  That you get the easy road to being a big name in the Protectorate, and he’s the one that has to stay up nights, reworking his stuff, compiling simulations, coming up with new ideas, training in the gym for hours and hours on end.  Every second of work he puts in, he gets more and more resentful of you.  Why do you think you were the one member of the team he sent off to patrol the city and watch over the Wards, instead of having you come to the party?”

Dauntless shook his head.  Then he raised his spear hand and tapped one finger against the side of his helmet.

“Ear buds,” Tattletale sighed, “Armsmaster told him to wear ear buds, so Dauntless can’t hear anyone but him.  That’s both brilliant and incredibly depressing.”

Dauntless advanced two steps, quickly, and all of us, excepting Bitch and Angelica, were in a position where we had to hurry to step back.  Regent was too slow, and his hand touched the bubble.  A brief arc of energy traced from the field to Regent’s hand as he pulled it back.

“Fuck!  Ow!”  Regent gasped.  “Enough of this shit!”

He raised his other hand, and Dauntless stumbled.  Regent then brushed his hand to one side, and Dauntless fell.  As Dauntless used both hands to ease his fall, the forcefield dropped away.

“Go!” Grue bellowed, dismissing his darkness.  Bitch whistled twice, hard, and the two dogs that were fighting Armsmaster hurried to follow.

Dauntless raised his spear to impede us.  Grue, leading our retreat, leaped over the crackling beam of lightning and brought both feet down on Dauntless’ helmet as he landed.  The hero didn’t recover before we were over and past him.

We were free of the alley.  Two of the dogs surged past us, getting in the way of incoming traffic so we were clear to cross the street.  Cars squealed to a stop as we moved.

We’d just crossed the threshold of the parking garage when Dauntless opened fire, striking Brutus no less than three times with jabs of his Arclance, then turning his attention to Angelica.  The weapon could extend as far as he needed, elongating faster than the eye could follow.  White sparks flew as it slammed into the animals, but the effect was minor at best.  The Arclance was something between a solid and an energy, combining traits of both.  It could hit hard enough, with an electrical charge to it to boot, but I suspected that using it on the dogs wasn’t so different from using a hand taser on a bull elephant.  They were too big, too tough.

Finding he wasn’t having much effect on the animals, Dauntless aimed for us.

Regent disrupted Dauntless’ aim, and the Arclance ripped over the windows of the building above the parking garage, bringing a rain of glass shards down on us as we made our way past the gate and into the garage.

Armsmaster exited the alley and spotted us.  Intent on closing the distance, he sent his grappling hook out to catch the metal ‘do not pass if you are above this height’ bar above the door of the parking garage.  The second the points of the hook closed around the bar, Armsmaster started reeling himself in, his metal boots skidding across the roadtop.

Bitch whistled, hard, and pointed to the bar.  Judas lunged for it, catching both bar and grappling hook in his jaws.  The chain holding the bar up snapped as Judas pulled, and Armsmaster’s skid was interrupted as Judas pulled back on the chain that extended between them.

Armsmaster shifted to a run, managing to keep his feet under him as his trajectory changed.  He extended his stick arm, and I saw a spray of blood fly from Judas’ mouth, the dog rearing back in reaction.  Judas let go of both the bar and the hook and backed away several paces, growling.  As the hook retreated, I saw it wasn’t in its grappling hook form, but the usual halberd-top, complete with blade, spearpoint, and no small amount of blood.

Armsmaster maintained his momentum, finished reeling in, then send the ball out again, his weapon back in flail-style.  He brought Judas down, then brought the flail in a wide sweep to keep the other two dogs at bay.  Dauntless continued his approach, stopping just behind and to the side of Armsmaster.

“My mapping program says there’s three ways out of this garage,” Armsmaster informed us, “The doors on the other two exits are locked, and I guarantee you won’t have time to crack the lock or break down the door before I catch up with you.  No more tricks, no more-”

He stopped mid-sentence, whipped his head to one side, then the other.  “Wha-”

And then he disappeared.

A yellow painted concrete pillar, the sort that was used to keep cars from parking in front of the stairwell doors, or to protect the ticket vending machine from any collisions, appeared in his place.  It hit the ground hard, then toppled onto its side.  At the same time, we heard a series of heavy collisions from behind us.

A steel giant with massive hands and a spout on its back that was spewing volumes of gray-black smoke had one hand closed around Armsmaster.  Repeatedly, methodically, it slammed Armsmaster against the hood of a car.

Ballistic, with his football player build and angular body armor, stepped out of the shadows between the cars to Dauntless’ left, just by the entrance.  A girl I recognized but hadn’t yet seen in person emerged from the right.  She wore clown makeup and a jester’s cap, with a teal and orange skintight costume complete with coattails.  Bells jangled from the tips of her cap, her coattails, her gloves and boots.  Circus.  Her costume, makeup and color scheme were different every time she went out, but the theme was always more or less the same.

Dauntless moved to retreat, but Sundancer intercepted him, stepping around the front of the building and placing her miniature sun in the center of the entryway to bar exit.

I didn’t have enough bugs to contribute, and had too little of an idea of what was happening, besides, so I stayed put and watched as the rest of the scene unfolded with surprising speed.

Armsmaster fought his way out from the giant metal hand, but found himself dealing with not just the machine, but a creature from the black lagoon, replete with crustacean armor and octopus tentacles in the place of arms and a face.  He managed to fend them off for a few brief moments, until he swung his weapon at the octopus creature and wound up with a car bumper in the place of the Halberd.  He didn’t have a grip on the bumper as it materialized, so he fumbled and dropped it.  Before he could recover from his surprise or his lack of a weapon, he found himself caught in the mechanical hand.  The steam powered giant resumed his methodical thrashing of Armsmaster against the now-battered car, with the octopus-crab man standing patiently by.

Circus threw a handful of knives at Dauntless, only to have them deflected when he encapsulated himself in his forcefield-bubble.  The second the bubble went up, though, I saw Ballistic reach down to touch the car parked beside him.  When he used his power on the car, you didn’t see it move.  Rather, in the blink of an eye, it was gone from where it had been, abruptly in a position where it was virtually wrapped around the upper half of the forcefield.  It started rolling off the other side before the forcefield gave way, then dropped to the ground a scant foot from Dauntless.

Circus hadn’t stopped moving.  As the car hit the ground, her feet found positions on the undercarriage, and she was up and over, leaping toward Dauntless.  She brought her hands back, and at some point I couldn’t see her hands, she got a two-handed grip on a large, colorfully painted sledgehammer, colored streamers trailing from it as she swung it in Dauntless’ direction.

Circus was one of those capes that had a whole pile of very minor powers.  The ones I knew about were some minor pyrokinesis, the ability to deposit items into thin air, to retrieve those items just as easily, and greatly enhanced coordination and balance to round off the package.  She was one of the more successful solo villains around Brockton Bay, a burglar and thief both quick and versatile enough to win or slip away if she crossed paths with a hero.  If I remembered right, she’d been offered a position on the Undersiders and had vehemently refused.

Which raised the question of what she was doing here, with the Travelers.

Dauntless parried Circus’ sledgehammer with his Arclance, and the Sledgehammer was gone in the next second, as though it had never existed.  At some point in the meantime, though, she’d managed to slip a lit torch into one hand.  She raised it to her mouth, and blew a large cone of flame in Dauntless’ direction.

He staggered back from the torrent of flame, raised his shield, and widened it into a forcefield bubble again.  Less than a second after the shield went up, Ballistic sent another car flying into it with enough force that the car rebounded into the ceiling, back to the ground and into the other side of the parking garage.  The shield failed, flickering out of existence, and Dauntless reeled.

Circus took the chance to close in, torch gone, sledgehammer out.  What followed was a brutal takedown, as Circus swung the sledgehammer twice, making it disappear rather than heftting it back for the next swing, which made the assault that much more relentless.  She ducked low to avoid his Arclance, then spun in a tight circle as she sidestepped around him.  As she rotated her body, the sledgehammer made an appearance once more.  She carried through with the spin with the weapon in hand, driving it hard against the center of Dauntless’ armored chest.

Dauntless fell, and the conflict was abruptly over, silent but for the crackle of Sundancer’s miniature sun, and a single honking horn outside.

The two giants, the machine and bizarre sea creature, approached us, with Trickster lagging behind them.  I could see the machine-guy’s face, a heavy cheeked caucasian with acne-scarred cheeks and long hair pulled back into a greasy ponytail, the upper half of his face covered in a metal mask and goggles, and now I could place him.  He was Trainwreck, a fairly thuggish villain that hadn’t made much of a name for himself.  I couldn’t say whether that was a suit or actually his body.  For all I knew, he was some sort of coal-driven cyborg, or an unfortunate individual that’d been transformed by his powers much in the same way Newter and Gregor had.

And of course, that left the odd one out, the sea-creature, who could only be Genesis, from the Travelers.

Trainwreck dumped a beaten and bloodied Armsmaster to the ground, beside Dauntless.  He took a second to examine the Halberd, which he held in his other hand, and then snapped it in his hands and squeezed the remains in his metal fist.  He dumped the resulting debris over the unconscious heroes.

I looked across the assembled group.  The Travelers and two villains that had never, as far as I knew, been on a team.  Nobody was saying anything.

A smooth, self assured voice broke the silence.  “I assumed, Tattletale, that when you asked to meet with me at the conclusion of your task, that you wouldn’t be bringing the heroes with you.”

A soldier in kevlar and a black balaclava was holding the stairwell door open for Coil.  Dressed in the same black bodysuit with the image of a white snake arranged across it, Coil joined us, walking slowly, his hands clasped behind his back, taking in the scene with an appraising eye.  Two soldiers followed behind him, guns in hand.

Coil.  I felt my pulse quicken.

Tattletale made a pained expression.  “Sorry.”

Coil glanced around some more, then seemed to come to a decision, “No.  I don’t think there’s anything to apologize for.”

He paused, and all I could think was this is it.  I’ve got what I need.

Coil spoke, more as though he were musing to himself than any of us, “I was feeling theatric.  The plan was for the Travelers, Circus and Trainwreck to step out from the shadows as I made an impressive entrance.  A shame it didn’t play out, but I suppose it had a tactical benefit.”

“Guess so,” Tattletale grinned.

“Well, it seems you were successful tonight.  Good.  There are no more pursuers?”

“Nope.”

“Emergency response?  Other heroes?”

“All at least two and a half minutes away, I think.”

“Then we’ll take our leave.  Undersiders, Trickster, I have a ride prepared, and I would like you to join me.  I believe we have much to discuss.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Tangle 6.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Surrender,” Armsmaster ordered us.

“No,” Grue retorted.

“You’re only going to embarrass yourself if you prolong this.”

“We have you outnumbered five to three, eight to three if you count the dogs,” Grue answered.  “I can see your buddy Velocity lurking over there.”

“What do you hope to accomplish?  I admit, it was clever to control the battlefield, to dictate each engagement so it occurred on your terms, and to use our own weapons against us… but those weapons no longer work.  None of your weapons work,” Armsmaster turned his head to look at where Miss Militia had Regent at gunpoint.  “Which means you can stop trying to use your power on me, Regent.  I’ve got a little blinking light in the corner of my H.U.D. telling me you’re trying something.  I’ve set up psychic and empathic shielding, to protect myself from you and Tattletale.”

I glanced at Tattletale.  He was psychically shielded against her?  How did that work?

Then I remembered.  When we’d gone up against Glory Girl and Panacea, hadn’t Tattletale said she read minds?  And now Armsmaster had bad info and was figuring he was immune.

“I don’t need to read you,” she told him, “You’re the only one with shields, so your teammates and the PRT staff don’t have any psychic shields up, and I can read them to get anything I need.  You’re not the best inventor, but like most tinkers, you’ve got a knack.  Yours just happens to be condensing and integrating technology.  Only works in your immediate presence, but still, you can stick way more technology in a space than has a right to be there… like your Halberd.”

Armsmaster frowned.  “You’re lying.”

Damn it.  I wish I could’ve told her he had a lie detector built into his helm.  But I couldn’t without explaining that I knew him.

Tattletale took it in stride, grinning, “Sure, fibbed about the reading minds bit.  Not about your weapon and power.  Let’s see… to deal with my buddy Grue, you’ve made that thing a fancy tuning stick.  Sensing vibrations in the air, translating them into images with that fancy helm of yours?”

Grue cracked his knuckles.  He’d gotten the message.  Darkness wasn’t going to do much.  Armsmaster, for his part, gripped his weapon tighter.  An unspoken threat to Tattletale.

“And the ass-end of that stick of yours is using the brass in between the floor tiles to help transmit an electrical charge to the area around you for fancy bug zapping.  Did you set that up before coming here tonight, knowing the way the floor would be put together?”

He didn’t reply.

“Guess not.  Happy coincidence that the setup you put together works as well as it does in here, then.”

Again, no reply.  She grinned a fraction wider.  She went on, “You can tell I’m lying, huh?  That’s awesome.”

Armsmaster’s weapon turned to point in her general direction.  She didn’t back down.

“So you’ll know I’m telling the truth when I say your team hate your guts.  They know you care more about rising from your position as the seventh most prominent member of the Protectorate than you do about them or the city.”

In the span of a second, the blade of the halberd broke into three pieces, reconfigured, and fired in grappling-hook style at Tattletale.  The tines closed together, forming a loose ball shape as it flew, striking her solidly in the stomach.  She crumpled to the ground, arms around her middle.

The head of the weapon reeled in and snapped back into place atop the pole.

“Bastard,” Grue spoke.

“Apparently, according to your teammate,” Armsmaster replied, seemingly unbothered.

I gathered my bugs, poising them near and above Armsmaster in case I needed them to act quickly.

Armsmaster turned his head in my direction, “Skitter?  You, especially, do not want to irritate me any more, tonight.”

The bottom of his Halberd tapped the ground, and the bugs perished.  I glanced at the floor as he did it.  Sure enough, the broad tiles had little lines of metal -bronze?- dividing them.

There was a flurry of action where Regent and Miss Militia were.  She appeared to drop the machine gun, and Regent took that chance to pull away.  He didn’t get one step before she regained her balance and dropped into a low kick that swept his legs out from under him.  Her machine gun dissolved when it was halfway to the ground, turning into a shimmer of dark green energy that arced back up to her hand.  It rematerialized into a gleaming steel machete.  Regent stopped his struggles the second she rested the point of the bladed weapon against the side of his throat.

Armsmaster watched it all unfold without twitching a muscle.  Even if he didn’t care much about his teammates, he apparently trusted Miss Militia to handle herself.

“Grue.  You’ve shown you can dismiss the effects of your power,” Armsmaster spoke, “Do so now.”

“Somehow,” Grue retorted, “I’m not seeing a major reason why I should listen.”

“Um, got a sword pressing against my neck here, guy,” Regent pointed out.

“…Not seeing a major reason,” Grue repeated himself.

Regent let out a little laugh, “Fuck you.”

Armsmaster dispassionately watched the exchange, then spoke, dead serious, “Look at it this way.  If there are witnesses, Miss Militia will have a far harder time selling the idea that she stabbed your friend in the throat in self defense.”

He glanced in the direction of his second in command, and Miss Militia gave a small nod in response.

Would she?  Probably not, I suspected.  Could we risk it?  That choice was up to Grue.

Grue glanced over at where Regent lay.  After a second, he made the darkness fade.  The people in the crowd were mostly huddled on the ground, trying to fend off the stinging and biting swarm.  The dogs lurked at the edges of the room, and Bitch was astride Angelica.  Velocity, in his red costume with the racing stripes down either side and two stripes meeting in a ‘v’ at his chest, wasn’t that far from her.  I suspected they had been squaring off.

I found Emma in the crowd.  Her dad was huddled over both of his daughters, as though he could shield them from any danger, and Emma’s mom was hugging her around the shoulders.

Somehow, that really pissed me off.

Armsmaster glanced my way, “And the bugs.”

Reluctantly, I pulled them away from the crowd.  I settled the flying bugs on the intact portions of the ceiling.  I glanced up at the bugs and sighed.  Then I glanced at Emma again.

This was really not how I wanted this to end.  Me arrested, my scheme a failure, Emma getting off scott free with a family, friends and no major consequences for all the shit she’d pulled?

“Sir,” I spoke, trying to sound confident.  Would Emma recognize my voice?  “Let me check on Tattletale.”

“You can do that once you’ve surrendered,” he spoke.  He changed his posture so his Halberd was pointed in my general direction.  I winced.  I did not want to get the same treatment Tattletale had received.  Or would he not do it with people watching?

My eyes darted in the direction of the crowd, to Tattletale, who didn’t look up to talking.  All eyes were on the scene.  Why had he gone out of his way to get an audience?  Could I use it?  What had he been so upset about, when I’d met him at the ferry?  What had Tattletale gone out of her way to stress to us about Armsmaster?

Reputation.

“I need to make sure you didn’t do any serious damage,” I spoke, just a hint of accusation in my voice.

“She’s fine.”

“I want to verify that for myself,” I said, standing.  How far can I push this?  “Please, she was surrendering and you hit her so hard.”

“You’re lying.”

“The fuck she is!” Regent joined in, “Tattletale walks up to you, ready to be cuffed, and you smacked her across the room, you fucking lunatic!”

I didn’t dare to glance at the crowd.  Armsmaster was the person we needed to get a reaction out of, here.

“Enough.  This is a fabrication,” Miss Militia spoke, her voice raised maybe a bit to carry to the rest of the room.

“Why do you think we’re so reluctant to surrender, if that’s the treatment we’ll get!?” Regent shouted, “It’s not like we’re not totally fucked!”  Miss Militia moved the machete to remind him it was there.

Armsmaster’s head turned toward me.  This was my huge gamble.  How would he respond?  If he called me out as a traitor within the Undersiders, would people buy it, would my team buy it, or would it only hurt his credibility?  He didn’t know that Tattletale would be able to tell it was truth.

“Miss Militia has a blade at my teammate’s throat,” Grue broke the silence, “I think it’s pretty clear you don’t pull your punches.”

Armsmaster turned to his teammate, “Perhaps a less lethal weapon would be more appropriate.”

Miss Militia’s eyebrows knit together in concern, “Sir?”

“Now.”  He left no room for argument.  Then, to ensure they still had control of the situation, he turned to his nearest available hostage.

Me.

I was flat on my back and couldn’t back away fast enough to escape, especially with my having to slip my arms from the straps that held the tank of containment foam to my back.  He pointed the head of his weapon at me as he strode over to me, the threat of his firing it serving to keep me subdued.  I glanced at Grue, but he was frozen, two of his teammates at the mercy of the city’s leading heroes.  Tattletale was struggling to her feet, but she couldn’t accomplish much.

Above Regent, the sword shimmered and turned into that black and green energy.  In that moment, Regent struck, drawing his knees to his chest, then kicking up and to the side to drive both of his heels into Miss Militia’s upper stomach.  A second later, he shoved both of his hands in the direction of her collarbone.

The black-green energy of her power continued to arc around her without solidifying as the contents of her stomach began violently heaving their way out of her mouth, spattering into the flag-scarf that covered the lower half of her face and overflowing onto the floor.  Regent had to roll to one side to avoid being bathed in vomit.

I took advantage of the distraction and brought every bug in the room down from the ceiling, sending a fair majority of them toward Armsmaster.  He swiped at his face to remove them, then lifted his weapon.  I grabbed for the pole with both hands before it could strike the ground, and pulled myself across the floor to situate my body between the pole and the ground.

It didn’t feel like I thought it might, the electrical charge.  As the end of the Halberd made contact with my body, it was as though someone had dropped a handful of live snakes onto my chest and they were writhing in place there, a single tendril rushing up the skin of my right arm and over my fingertips.  It didn’t hurt much at all.

And the bugs around Armsmaster didn’t die.  Very few of the ones on me, even, perished.

I’d known spider silk was insulated to some degree.  I was really glad that it was insulated enough.  Really, really glad my interference was enough to stop the energy from conducting through the area and zapping the bugs out of the air.

“Hm,” looming over me, Armsmaster made a noise of disapproval, “Not smart.”

“Bitch!  Dogs!” I hollered, “Grue!  Shadow me!”

Of all the times to lapse into caveman grammar.  Still, he smothered me and Armsmaster in darkness.

When Armsmaster managed to wrest the Halberd from my hands, I had enough bugs on him to tell he was bringing the bottom end of his Halberd down hard against the floor, away from me.  My bugs didn’t die, and continued to settle on the exposed skin of his lower face, crawl up under his visor.  The charge or whatever other stuff he had going on to direct it wasn’t conducting through the darkness.

Before he could strike at me, I headed in the other direction.  Staying in close proximity to Armsmaster wasn’t a good idea, with my power being one that worked at range, and him being the close-quarters combatant.  I felt him move away from me, clawing the bugs away from his mouth and nose, heading out the opposite side of the cloud of darkness to strike the ground, kill off the swarm I’d set on him and then turn his attention to the charging dogs.

I wasn’t two steps outside of the darkness when I had Velocity in my face.

Battery and Velocity were both speedsters of a sort, giving them the ability to move at a ridiculous pace.  They were very different kinds of speedster, though.  As I interpreted it, from all the stuff I’d read online and in the magazines and interviews, Battery could charge up and move at enhanced speeds for very short periods of time, sort of like how Bitch’s power pumped up her dogs, but concentrated into a few brief moments.  It was a physiological change, altering her biology and then altering it back before it became too much on her body.  The actual act of moving at the speeds these guys could manage was an incredible strain on the body.  There were only one or two parahumans on the planet who could manage that kind of movement without any workarounds or limitations, and Battery and Velocity weren’t among them.

Velocity, in contrast to Battery, was more like Shadow Stalker.  He changed states, and while I had no idea what this meant exactly, whether it was him shifting partially into another dimension or altering the way time or physics worked in relation to himself, I did know that it made him able to move very fast, without needing to rest like Battery did.  Fast enough that my wasps couldn’t really land on him, and those that did were dispatched before they could start stinging.

The drawback, though, was that while he was moving like that, he wasn’t hitting as hard, probably for the same reasons he wasn’t shattering his bones by hammering his feet against the ground ten times a second, getting torn to shreds by friction or running out of oxygen due to an inability to breathe.  His speed came with a reduced ability to affect the world around him and be affected by it.  He couldn’t hit as hard, couldn’t hold or move things as easily.  An effective loss of strength proportionate to how fast he was capable of moving.

So as fast as he was moving, having him hit me wasn’t much worse than getting punched by an eight year old.

Problem was, he was hitting me a lot.  His perceptions were ramped up, too, which meant he had the luxury of what must have been seconds in his own senses to see my reactions, calculate the best place to stick that next punch or kick to knock me off balance or inflict pain.  It was less like being in a fistfight and more like being caught in a gale-force wind that had every intent of screwing me over.

Velocity was forcing me to back up, stumble and overall just working to herd me in one direction – towards an open window.  Either he’d force me through and leave me hanging from the ledge, helpless to avoid arrest, or I’d have to give up or let myself be knocked to the ground instead, at which point it would be pretty much over.  Once I was down, he’d either keep up the onslaught until another cape could finish me off, or he’d turn off his power long enough to knock me over the head a few times with a chair or something.

Across the room, Grue was working with two of the dogs and Bitch to keep Armsmaster hemmed in, while one of the dogs and Regent were keeping Miss Militia out of action.

I couldn’t win this one on my own.

“Grue!” I hollered.  I got struck in the mouth three times before I could bring an arm up to fend Velocity off and speak again, “Need cover!”

He spared me a glance and a blast of his darkness.  In an instant, I was blind and deaf, with only my bugs to go by.

But Velocity was slowed down, and I had my suspicions that it wasn’t just the fact that he had to use his hands to find me before striking.  Grue had said that Shadow Stalker’s powers were somehow less effective in his darkness.  Could that apply to Velocity too?  Or was it just the extra resistance of Grue’s power versus normal air, combined with Velocity’s low strength?

My bugs were now successfully settling on him, oddly giving me a better sense of his movements than my eyes had, and I was directing them not to sting or bite, so he wouldn’t have an easy time finding them.  They began to cluster on him, and somehow I felt like that was slowing him down even more.

The onslaught had been softened, and he wasn’t half as effective at keeping me off balance, now.  He couldn’t effectively see my posture to know the optimal places to strike, so I was able to get my feet firmly on the ground.  I lashed out twice with my fists, but my hits lacked impact.  Something to do with his power, I suspected, as well as his ability to move fast enough to roll with any hits he felt connecting.

So I grabbed a weapon he couldn’t react to, my pepper spray, and directed a stream of it into his face.  Then I instructed the bugs I’d gathered on him to bite and sting.

The effect was immediate, and dramatic.  You’ve never really seen someone flip out until you’ve seen a speedster flip out.  He fell to the ground, stood, tumbled over a chair, then was up the next second, lunging for a table, blindly patting it down in the hopes of finding something to wash his eyes out with.  I felt him slow down dramatically, increasing his own strength enough to allow himself to check the cups and pitchers.

I had bugs on the table he was searching, and the only liquid there was wine.  Anticipating he would continue looking for some relief, I moved closer to the table nearest me.

Sure enough, he darted over to the same table and began searching.  I took one long step to my left, reached behind my back, and gripped the foam handle of my extendable baton with both hands.  Like a golf club, I swung it up and between his legs.

My rationale was that I needed to hamper his mobility, but I didn’t want to deliver any permanent injury, which was a possibility if I hit him in the knee or spine.  Besides, the Protectorate had top notch costume designers, and what male superhero with an expensive costume would go out without a cup?  Right?

Unless, the thought crossed my mind as Velocity keeled over, he’d foregone the cup for extra mobility and to reduce friction.

I’d find some way to make it up to him, after all of this was over with.

He pulled weakly against my grip as I brought his left arm and his right leg together, and cinched them together with a double-set of plastic handcuffs.  I then cuffed his right arm to the table in front of him.  Velocity was out of action, for all intents and purposes.

Though every impulse told me to get out of the darkness and get a look at what was going on, I stayed put, crouching and feeling out with my bugs.  With their legs and bodies serving as thousands upon thousands of tiny fingers I could use to feel out my surroundings, I got a sense of the situation.

Since doing whatever he’d done to Miss Militia, Regent had taken to standing guard over her.  He had one hand outstretched in her direction while she struggled on the floor, dry heaving now, with her limbs twitching.  Tattletale was with him, one hand still pressed to her stomach, but she was standing, watching the crowd for anyone who might step to Miss Militia’s rescue.

Which left only Armsmaster.  Except ‘only’ wasn’t the right word.  Bitch, her three dogs and Grue had Armsmaster surrounded, and even with that, I got the impression that he was in control of the situation.

He’d formed the head of his halberd into a loose ball again, and had the chain he used for the grappling hook extended partially so it could serve as a flail.  There was something of a stalemate as my teammates remained where they were, staying spaced out, just out of reach of the weapon.  Armsmaster, for his part, was standing in a loose fighting posture, holding the long pole of his Halberd as he swung the flail head in a loose figure eight.

Brutus growled at his quarry, moving a half step too close, and Armsmaster seized the opportunity.  The chain extended with a faint whirr and the flail moved with surprising quickness to collide with Brutus’ shoulder.  From Brutus’ reaction, I would have thought he’d just been hit by a wrecking ball.  Either Armsmaster was far stronger than he looked, or there was something about his weapon that was giving it a little extra oomph.  Given that he was a tinker, it could have been anything.

Armsmaster didn’t stop at felling Brutus.  As he finished giving the ball the necessary momentum, Armsmaster reversed his grip and lunged at Grue, swinging the bottom end of his weapon like a baseball bat.  Grue avoided the swing by stepping back and ducking, but wasn’t able to recover quick enough to avoid the follow-up.  Armsmaster kept moving forward, not pausing as he slapped the end of the pole back into one of his hands and rammed the midsection of the pole against Grue’s chest, hard.  Grue hit the ground with enough force that he almost bounced, and was driven hard into the ground a second time as Armsmaster brought the end of the pole down into his stomach.

Without thinking, I stepped forward out of the darkness, then stopped myself.  What help could I offer by jumping in there?

Bitch whistled for a dog to attack, but Armsmaster was already reacting, drawing his elbow against the chain to control the movement of the flail’s head.  He dropped the pole and grabbed the chain to pull the ball towards himself, caught it out of the air with his free hand and turning in a tight circle to preserve the momentum from flail-head’s flight, slammed it full force into Angelica’s ear.  Bitch had to skip back out of the way as Angelica collapsed to the ground where she’d been standing.

Without glancing down, Armsmaster put one armored boot underneath the pole as it rebounded against the ground, then kicked it straight up to chest level.  He caught his weapon in one hand and reeled in the chain.  The flail-head snapped back into a blade shape as it reconnected with the top of the pole.

Two dogs and Grue down, and he’d made it look effortless.

It struck me just what made Armsmaster a step above other tinkers, above other people with the ability to invent and perform mad science, and it wasn’t the insane amounts of training he had probably put himself through.  Tinkers tended to have a knack, a special quality specific to their work.  According to Tattletale, Armsmaster’s ability let him cram technology together and still have it work.  Other tinkers were limited in what they could carry and have access to at any given point in time, but Armsmaster?  He had a solution for every problem he’d been able to think of, without having to worry about economy of space, the weight of his hardware and the room on his utility belt, or whatever.  And with all of that, his main gear, his armor and Halberd, were still devastating and completely reliable in their own right.

While Armsmaster had his back turned to her, I saw Tattletale step to one side, surreptitiously.

Judas lunged, and in the same moment Armsmaster reacted, Tattletale made a move for the crowd, drawing her gun.

I glanced towards Armsmaster, and my view of him was blocked as Judas collapsed to the ground between us.  Through my bugs, I sensed him extend his weapon towards Tattletale, felt the recoil as the head of it rocketed off.  The grappling hook caught her gun hand with enough force to screw up her aim, and the tines of the hook closed around her arm.

He reeled in the chain at the same time he pulled it back toward him, and in doing so, flung Tattletale across the floor.  The tines let her go just in time to send her careening into one of the flimsy cocktail tables.  Armsmaster jerked the pole of his weapon to control the flight of the hook as it reeled back in, striking Tattletale’s gun out of the air and shattering it into pieces.

“No hostages,” he said, “No guns.”

Grue started to stand, fell, then managed to stand successfully on his second try.  The three dogs Armsmaster had dropped were taking longer to get upright.  Angelica shook her head violently, twice, paused, then did it again.

Armsmaster looked at Bitch, then slapped the pole of his weapon against the palm of his armored glove.

“Rachel Lindt, AKA: Hellhound.”

“Armsmaster, AKA: dickhole,” Bitch retorted.

“If this goes any further, I can’t promise those animals of yours won’t suffer permanent damage.”

I could see her eyes move behind the eyeholes of her mask as she cast a sidelong glance to her left to look at Brutus, then to her right, at Angelica.  Then she met his gaze, “You do lasting damage to any of them, we’ll find you and do ten times worse to you.  Trust me, old man, they know your smell, we can track you down.”

Again, the pole slapping against his glove with a sound of metal against metal.

His tone was measured as he asked her, “Why risk it?  You’ve already lost.  We had enough footage of your dogs that I was able to put together a simulation of their fighting patterns.  I know how they attack, how they react.  I know how you think in a fight, the commands you give, and when.  All of that is wired into my suit, into my heads up display.  I know what you and your beasts are going to do before you’ve decided on it.  None of you are walking away.”

“It’s not just me and the dogs,” Bitch spoke.

“Your friends?  I may not have a simulation set up for him, but I’m better than your leader, Grue.  Stronger, better armored, better equipped, better trained.  If your friend Regent turns his attention from Miss Militia for more than twenty seconds, she will shoot one or all of you, not that he could do anything to me if he bothered.  Tattletale?  Unconscious.  Skitter?  Not a threat.”

What was he doing?  Why was he so focused on getting Bitch to admit it was over?

Reputation, yet again.  He needed to salvage this situation, and the surest way to do that, to recoup his losses and come out of this looking okay, would be to get the meanest, toughest, most notorious of us to bend at the knee and concede defeat.

He really didn’t know Bitch, though.

She pulled her cheap plastic dog mask off and threw it to one side.  It was only a formality, really, since her face and identity were public knowledge.  Her smile, as it spread across her face, wasn’t the most attractive.  Too many teeth showing.

“Lung underestimated her, too,” she told him, looking at me.

Armsmaster turned to look, as well.

Seriously?  I mean, really, Bitch?  Passing the ball to me?  I didn’t have a plan.  There wasn’t much I could do, here.

“Velocity?”  Armsmaster queried me, casual.

I shrugged, miming his casual tone, while feeling anything but, “Dealt with.”

“Hm.  I think-”

As he spoke, I faced Grue and jerked my head in Armsmaster’s direction.  Armsmaster wasn’t oblivious, and took my cue as reason to drop into a fighting posture.  There was nothing he could really defend against, though, as Grue shrouded the two of us in darkness a second time.

The worst possiblity, that Armsmaster would tell the Undersiders what I was planning, was dealt with for the moment.  I doubted Armsmaster would continue to talk while under the effects of Grue’s power.

Which left me the problem of dealing with the guy.  I could sense the bugs I had on him moving, as he came through the darkness, towards me.  At the very least, if I could draw him away from the others, I could buy them time.

I ran for the glass door that led to one of the outside patios.  I glanced over my shoulder, and sure enough, I saw Armsmaster emerging from the cloud of oily shadow.  He spun on his heels to swing his flail into Judas, bringing the dog down as it emerged right after him, then whirled to face me again.  As I got outside, the chain reeled in, bringing the flail head back to the top of the weapon.  He paused.

Why?  There was only one reason he’d be staying back and reeling in like that, instead of closing the distance to get me in his reach.

I took a guess.  Knowing that the attack would come faster than I expected, from what had happened to Tattletale on the two occasions, I threw myself to the floor of the patio.

The ball came flying out of the end of his weapon, but my attempt to dodge did little good.  He whipped the chain to shift the sphere’s trajectory, and simultaneously opened it into its oversized grappling hook form.  The thing hit me in my side, with the tines passing over each of my shoulders and under my armpits.  I grunted with the impact, and as I tried to stand, I nearly slipped on the excess chain that spooled around me in the grappling hook’s wake.  I felt the claw of the hook tighten around my chest.

On the far side of the patio, Armsmaster planted his feet and raised his weapon to start reeling me in.

No, no, no, no, no.

I was not going down like this.

Not with Emma fucking Barnes and her asshole lawyer dad in the crowd.

I started to gather my bugs from inside, but stopped.  No use bringing them here, when Armsmaster could murder half the swarm with that souped up bug zapper he’d worked into his Halberd.  I moved my bugs into position indoors.

Still shaky from the hit, thankful for the armor I’d built into my costume, I managed to grab the excess chain below me and wind it around the patio’s railing behind me.  If Armsmaster wanted me, he’d have to come to me, dammit.  I wasn’t going to make this easy.

The chain grew taut, and Armsmaster tugged twice before deciding it would be less trouble to approach than to add to the property damage.  He closed the distance to me on foot, pausing only to free his chain from the patio railing.  He reeled in his chain to pull me the remaining two or three feet to him.

“Skitter.  I would have thought you would be quicker to surrender.”

Nobody else was in earshot.  “Whatever side I’m on, I don’t exactly want to go to jail.  Look, my offer stands.  I’ve almost got the last bit of detail I need from these guys.”

“Something you said you’d have weeks ago,” he replied.

“There’s no other way you’re going to salvage this, Armsmaster,” I stood as straight as I could with the grappling hook around me.  The damned thing was heavy.  Tattletale had gone out of her way, even got herself knocked out of action, to let us know how important Armsmaster’s status was to him.  I needed to use that.  “Only way you won’t look incompetent is if you can say I only got away because you let me.  That all of this tonight happened because you let it.  Because letting me get away with this meant I could get the info on who’s employing the Undersiders, on where the funding, equipment and information is coming from.  Then you clean up, and it’s two supervillain groups dealt with in the span of a week.  Tell me that doesn’t sound good.”

Armsmaster considered for a moment.

“No,” he answered me.

“No?”

“Don’t expect anything other than a prompt arrest for you and your companions for your antics tonight,” he shook his head, “A bird in the hand, after all…”

He gave me a little shake, as if to make it clear just who the bird was.

I took a deep breath, “You were right, Armsmaster.”

“Of course,” he spoke, absently, pushing me against the railing with one hand.  His grappling hook released me, reconfiguring into what I suspected was the same setup that had fixed Lung to the ground with bars of stainless steel, back in my first day in costume.  It was shaped like a rectangle, and there were two ‘u’ shaped bands of metal with electricity arcing around them, the tips of each ‘u’ glowing hot enough to melt against any surface.

“This was over from the moment we stepped into the room,” I finished.

Nearly seven hundred hornets exploded from underneath my panels of armor, all latching onto him, biting and stinging relentlessly, flowing underneath his visor, into his helmet, his nose, mouth and ears.  Some even crawled down beneath his collar, to his shoulders and chest.

I threw myself at the tail end of his Halberd, hugging my body around it.  With one hand he lifted me and the Halberd both, and slammed us against the ground.  Again, I felt those tendrils of electricity running over me, on top of the pain of having my stomach caught between the pole and the ground.  I was very thankful, the second time tonight, for the panels of armor I’d implemented into my costume design.

He repeated the process, lifting me two or three feet off the ground, then slamming the pole and me down again.  After the second time, I had to fight to place myself beneath the pole again in anticipation of a third hit, knowing he would weather the onslaught of hornets longer than I did this abuse.

Rescue couldn’t have come a second later.

Bitch, an unconscious Tattletale and Brutus were the first ones over the edge of the patio.  Brutus bumped against Armsmaster as he passed, knocking the man off balance and giving me the chance I needed to heave myself upright and pull the Halberd from his grasp.  I held it in my hands, and he was too distracted by the swarming hornets to even realize it.

I threw the Halberd over the edge of the patio and ran toward the door leading back inside.  I caught Grue’s reaching hand as he and Judas bounded through, so he could swing me up behind him.

As we leaped from the patio’s edge, I looked behind us and saw Angelica and Regent following.  Grue was banishing his darkness, to make the mess we’d created all the more clear for those of our audience that hadn’t yet managed to flee.  Our objective was to humiliate, after all.

For much the same reason, maybe as a bit of a spiteful ‘fuck you’ to Armsmaster, who’d made this all so much harder than it had to be, I left my bugs where they were, arranged on the wall to the right of the patio and the floor in front of it.  Half were gathered into the shape of two large arrows pointing to the patio door, one on the floor and one on the wall, while the other half were arranged into bold letters spelling out ‘LETS GO’.

I wrapped my arms around Grue, holding him tight as much in anticipation of our landing on a nearby rooftop as a farewell hug.

Chances were good that this was my last job as part of the Undersiders.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Tangle 6.5

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My legs hugged the sides of Judas’ body.  I could feel his breathing beneath me, the expansion of his body as his lungs filled, then emptied.  He huffed out a breath, and it steamed in the cool night air.

He stepped forward, just a little, and I got a glimpse of the world below us.  Thirty two stories down, the cars on the street were visible only by the yellow and red points of their headlights and taillights.  I felt Tattletale clutch me tighter, from where she sat behind me.  Judas’ front paw rested on the stone railing of the rooftop, clutched it hard enough that the points of his nails bit into the concrete.

Getting up here had been easy enough – Tattletale had cracked the employee access door and we’d taken the supply elevator to the roof.  Had someone been alerted to our presence?  Spotted us on camera?  Hard to say.  But time was short, and we’d already wasted enough time waiting for the dogs to finish growing.  The moment Bitch deemed them set, we would move out.

This plan had been terrifying when we’d just been talking about it.  Actually being on the verge of doing it?  Ten times worse.

Still time to think of a reason to back out.

Bitch’s whistle, one of those ones that make you wince when you hear them a hundred feet away, cut through the faint, ambient hum of the city below us.

Last chance, Taylor.

A second later, Brutus, with Bitch and Grue astride his back, stepped over the edge of the roof.  Judas shifted forward under me, then followed.

Falling from a height like that, you don’t get to scream.  The wind takes your voice from you.  If you happen to have something to hold onto, you cling to that for dear life and you pray, even if you aren’t a praying type.  My hands clutched hooks of bone on either side of Judas’ neck hard enough that I thought I might break either the bone or my hands.

Three stories down from the roof, there was a patio.  As Bitch whistled and pointed from her position below us, Judas kicked against the wall just behind us, pushing out and away from the building.  My heart rose into my throat and stuck there as I saw the edge of the patio below us, surely out of reach.  Had he pushed too early?  The next chance we’d have to touch a surface would be when we spattered violently against the road.

His instincts seemed to be better than mine.  His front claws reached down and gripped the patio’s edge.  Every muscle in my body tensed in my effort to not be thrown off him as we stopped, even with his powerful body absorbing the worst of the fall.  He gripped the ledge, then pushed against it while leveraging his back legs into place.  With every muscle in his body, it seemed, he leaped.  Not down, this time, but out.

Time seemed to stand still as we left the building behind.  The only thing below us was the street, twenty-nine stories below. The wind blew through my hair with a painful bite of cold. We’d crossed the event horizon, it was do or die from here on out.  That made it eerily easy to cast aside all doubts and hesitation and steel myself for what came next.

The Forsberg Gallery was twenty six stories tall and was one of the more recognizable buildings you could find downtown.  If I remembered right, it had been designed by Architecture students at the university, a few years ago.  I wasn’t really a fan of the design, which resembled the late stages of a game of Jenga, with each section formed in tempered glass with steel bars and girders providing the base skeleton.  The entire thing was illuminated by lights that changed according to the time of the evening.

In the blue-gray of the evening, the tower was pink and orange, echoing the sunset that had finished just an hour ago.  As the leap carried us over it, a pink tinted spotlight consumed my vision.

My lenses absorbed the worst of the glare, and a second later, I was able to make out what was happening again.  Brutus, a matter of feet in front of us, slammed into the glass of the roof, sending cracks spiderwebbing across it.  Grue virtually bounced from where he sat on Brutus’ back, losing his seat, hit the glass of the roof with his shoulder, and began to slide.  There was barely any traction to be had, not even on the steel girder that separated the massive panes of glass, and the only thing at the end of that slide would be a very long fall.

He reached out and grabbed ahold of the end of Brutus’ tail, pulling himself to a standing position at the same moment that Judas, Tattletale and I crashed into the pane of glass to their right.

The damage Brutus had done on impact was enough to ensure that we could break through rather than simply breaking the window.  There was a moment where you could hear the sound of straining metal, followed by the sound of a lot of shattering glass.

Together we all dropped into the center of the Forsberg Gallery’s top floor, joined by a downpour of glass shards.  Grue landed on his feet and stumbled back as Brutus landed just in front of him.  All around us, there were people in fancy dress and uniforms.  Suits, dresses… costumes.  People ran screaming and running for cover.  Heroes stepped forward, some trying to grasp the situation in the midst of the chaos, others putting themselves between us and the civilians.

A matter of heartbeats after we touched ground, Regent and Angelica plunged into the room, landing just behind us.  Regent lost his seat as Angelica landed, but managed to roll as he hit the ground, bringing himself to a crouch as he stopped.  He almost managed to make it look intentional.  Angelica stepped up to Bitch’s side, wearing the same harness we’d fitted her with at the bank robbery, but with two large cardboard boxes strapped to her sides, rather than bags.

I felt weirdly calm as my eyes swept over the room.  The Protectorate was gathered around the stage at the back of the room.  Armsmaster, Miss Militia, Assault, Battery, Velocity and Triumph.  Dauntless was MIA.

Not far away was the ‘kids’ table with some of the heroes of the hour.  Clockblocker, Vista, Gallant and Shadow Stalker, interrupted from their mingling with the rich kids, teen actors and the sons and daughters of the local who’s who.  The platinum blonde in the white evening gown that was giving me the evil eye?  That would be Glory Girl, out of costume.

Standing guard by the front of the room, raising their weapons in our direction, was an on-duty PRT squad.  Their very recognizable uniforms were chain mesh augmented with kevlar, topped with faceless helmets.  The only means you had to identify them with were the badge numbers printed across their vests in bold white numbers.   Four of the five had what looked like flamethrowers.  They weren’t firing yet – they couldn’t.  They were packing the best in nonlethal weaponry, but there were elderly people and children in the crowd, and according to Tattletale, that meant they were prohibited from opening fire on us for the moment.

The civilians… men and women in their finest clothes and jewelry.  A combination of the richest and most powerful people in the city, their guests and those willing to pay the exorbitant prices for the tickets.  The tickets started at two hundred and thirty dollars and had climbed steeply as they’d been bought up.  We’d initially considered attending as guests, for one plan of attack, before we decided that it was too dangerous to risk having our secret identities caught on camera, or to have something go wrong as we attempted to smuggle our equipment, costumes and dogs inside.  Once we’d decided that much, we’d stopped checking the cost of tickets, which had gotten as high as four hundred dollars a person.  The guests could use thirty dollars of the ticket price to bid on an auction, but it was still pretty exorbitant.

I recognized the mayor – the first time I’d seen him in person.  There was a guy who might have been a lesser known actor – I thought I recognized him, too.  The rest were just people, maybe a bit better looking than the norm, a bit better dressed.

And Emma.

I could have laughed.  She was standing there in the crowd with her parents and older sister, looking scared shitless in a little sky blue dress and blue sandals. Her dad was a high profile divorce lawyer.  I supposed it was possible he’d worked for someone famous or powerful enough that his family hadn’t needed an invitation or expensive tickets to get in.

It kind of sucked, knowing I was about to give her an awesome story to share with the rest of the school when her suspension was over with.  I was really, really hoping it wouldn’t be a story along the lines of ‘these idiotic villains just pulled a stunt so dumb it would put Über and Leet to shame, and got themselves arrested in a matter of seconds’.

Tattletale laughed, with a nervous edge, “Holy shit!  Not doing that again!  Fucking intense…” Her voice trailed off as Grue blacked out the crowd, leaving only the spot where we stood and the very edges of the room clear of the darkness.  She gave him a dirty look.

“Bitch, Regent, go!” He shouted, as he stepped my way, grabbed my hand and practically pulled me from where I sat on Judas’ back.  Tattletale hopped down, following a pace or two behind us.

The three of us ran for the front of the room, while Bitch whistled for her dogs and ran for the back.  I sensed it when Regent unhitched the two boxes that were strapped to Angelica.  The boxes were heavy and  hit the ground hard, splitting at the seams.  Better than I’d hoped.  I had my bugs flow out from the top of the box and the split sides, and ordered them into the crowd.

If a few more of the biting and stinging sort headed in Emma’s general direction, it wasn’t due to a conscious choice on my part.

If everything went according to plan, Bitch, Regent and the dogs could delay or stop anyone who ventured beyond the cloud of darkness.  Everything else, our success or our humiliating arrest, hinged on Grue, Tattletale and I.

My bugs reached the front of the room just seconds before we did.  I could sense their locations, and this in turn gave me the ability to identify where the people, the walls, doorway and furniture were.

I was moving with my knife drawn before Grue even banished some of his darkness to reveal a portion of the PRT squad that was stationed at the entrance.  As the cloud of black dissipated into tendrils of smoke, I was stepping behind one of the team members, drawing my knife against the hose that extended between the flamethrower-like device he held in his hands and the tank on his back.  It didn’t cut immediately, forcing me to try a second time.  As the knife severed the material of the hose, the PRT team member noticed me and drove his elbow into my face.  My mask took the worst of the hit, but getting hit in the face by a full grown man isn’t any fun with any amount of protective headwear.

I fell back through the doorway even as the tank began emptying its contents onto the floor.  It was a yellow-white, and as it poured onto the ground, it expanded like shaving cream.  The tank was probably close to three gallons, making for a hell of a lot of foam.

Grue leveraged all of his weight to bodily kick one of the squad members into the foam, then slammed the base of his palm into the next guy’s chin.  As the man reeled, Grue grabbed at the tank on his back and pulled it up over his head.  This not only pulled the man off balance, but the weight of the tank kept him that way.  Grue, his hands still on the tank, pulled the squad member’s helmeted face down at the same time he brought his knee up.  The pane of the helmet cracked, and the man didn’t even have the wherewithal to bring his hands up to soften the fall before hitting the ground.

A fourth squad member stepped out of the darkness, and Tattletale took hold of the nozzle of the man’s weapon, forcing it to one side before he could open fire.  I scrambled to my feet to help her.  As Tattletale began to lose the wrestling match over the weapon, I leaped over the still-expanding pile of foam, then went low as I landed to knock his legs out from under him.  He fell, hard, and Tattletale wrenched the weapon from his hands.  As he climbed to his feet, she pulled the trigger and blasted him in the face.  Grue banished enough darkness to reveal the final member of the team, and Tattletale buried him under a blasting of the foam.

I’d watched a discovery channel feature on this stuff.  The PRT, the Parahuman Response Team, was equipped with tinker-designed nonlethal weaponry to subdue supervillains.  This containment foam was standard issue.  It ejected as a liquid, then expanded into a sticky foam with a few handy properties.  It was flexible and it was porous when fully expanded, for one thing, so you could breathe while contained within it, at least long enough for rescue teams with a dissolving agent to get to you.  It was also impact resistant, so PRT squads could coat the ground with it to save falling individuals or keep heavy hitters from doing much damage.

The way it expanded, you could coat all but the strongest villains in it, and it would disable them.  Because of the way it denied you leverage and was resistant to impacts and tearing, even the likes of Lung would have trouble pulling themselves free.  Topping it all off, it was resistant to high temperatures and a strong insulator, so it served to handle the pyrokinetics and those with electromagnetic powers.

While the PRT member struggled ineffectually to remove his foam-covered helmet, I pulled the tank off him and helped Tattletale put it on.  Grue already had his on, and was getting a third one off one of the foam-captured PRT team members for me.

It was heavy, and I almost couldn’t handle the weight.  Rather than stagger around, I crouched and let the base of the tank rest against the ground.

Grue pointed to our left, and we aimed.  A second later, he made the darkness dissipate, showing the buffet table surrounded by the various Wards and Glory Girl flying a few feet above the ground.  They were swatting at the bugs crawling on them, but they weren’t so distracted that they didn’t notice the sudden emergence of light, or us.

“Glory Hole!” Tattletale heckled the heroine, before opening fire on her.  Grue directed a stream at Clockblocker, to the left, so I turned my attention to the person on the far right of the group.  Shadow Stalker.

I admit, I had a reason to be ticked at her, since she wrote a note for Emma’s dad, giving him fuel for that damned assault charge.  It was with a measure of satisfaction that I unloaded a stream of foam on her.

The stream was dead on, but she didn’t seem to give much of a damn as she evaded to one side.  I caught her square in the chest with another spurt, making her stagger a bit, but she didn’t fall or get caught in the stuff like the others.  Instead, she sort of ducked low, her cape billowing, and then rolled to one side, readying her crossbow as her feet touched the ground and she shifted to an all-out run.

Whether that was a tranquilizer shot or a real arrow, I was fucked if she hit me.

I went wide with my stream, aiming to catch her a little and either slow her down or mess up her aim.  She stepped on a bit of foam and was tripped up a little.  Tattletale added her firepower to mine, and with our combined streams, Shadow Stalker fell.  We took a second to bury her under the foam, and Grue added a measure of darkness to it.

“Next!” Grue hollered, pointing.  I hauled the heavy tank off the ground and moved closer to our next target before putting it down again and aiming.

This time, I deliberately moved a force of bugs into the area for some extra distraction.  The darkness dissipated, and it was the Protectorate this time, half of them.  Battery, Assault, and Triumph.

Battery was already charged up when Grue dismissed the impenetrable shadow that had covered them, and moved like a blur as soon as she could see where she was going.  She didn’t bolt straight for us, though.  Instead, she leaped to one side, kicked Assault square in the middle of the chest with both feet, and then careened off in the opposite direction.

Assault was a kinetic energy manipulator, and could control the energies of movement, acceleration and motion much like other heroes could manipulate flame or electricity.  He used the energy from Battery’s kick to rocket towards us, as Battery moved around to flank.

Grue directed a stream straight at Assault, but the first second of fire seemed to skim right off the man.  It did start taking hold after that, but the delayed effects gave Assault just enough time to slam into Grue and send him flying into the wall beside the Wards.  After that, the expansion of the foam kept him from moving much further.

Tattletale and I focused our fire on Battery.  The woman ducked and dodged out of the way of our streams, moving too fast to follow reliably with our eyes.  She seemed to stumble into a cocktail table, one of those round ones large enough for four people to stand around, but any clumsiness on her part was an illusion of the eye.  A heartbeat later, she had the table in her grip and was spinning in a full circle.

She threw the table like an oversize frisbee, and I pushed Tattletale in one direction as I flung myself in the other.  The table edge caught the weapon in Tattletale’s hands and knocked it from her grip with enough force to make Tattletale roll as she hit the ground.

Which left only me standing, against Triumph and Battery.  Armsmaster, Miss Militia and Velocity were nowhere to be seen.  I could have used my bugs to feel out for them in the darkness, but I had more pressing matters to focus on.

Battery was charging again, taking advantage of us being off balance to build up a store of power again.  Heck, she’d probably built her whole fighting style around it.  I could see the normally cobalt blue lines of her costume glowing a brilliant electric blue-white.  I focused my attention on her, drawing every bug in the immediate area to her while I tried to get myself oriented to open fire again.  Wasps, mosquitos and beetles set on her, biting and stinging.

For just a fraction of a second, I saw the glow of the lines of her costume dim, before igniting again.  She needed to concentrate, it seemed, and my bugs had served to distract.  As I pulled myself upright and opened fire, she was a step too slow in getting out of the way of the stream.  I caught her under the spray and started piling it on top of her.

A shockwave blasted me.  I was knocked off my feet for the second time in a matter of seconds and my ears were left ringing.

Triumph had a gladiator/lion theme to his costume, with a gold lion helm, shoulderpads and belt, and skintight suit elsewhere.  He had managed to claw enough bugs away from his face to use his sonic shout.  He was one of those guys that was big, muscular and tough enough that you’d avoid him even if he didn’t have that other power, and his other power was one that let him punch holes through concrete.

Grue aimed and fired a stream at him, but Triumph was surprisingly quick in slipping out of the way.  As Grue reoriented his aim, Triumph kicked over a cocktail table and grabbed it with one hand to use as a shield against the foam.  I tried to scramble to one side, to attack him from another direction, but he opened his mouth and unleashed another shockwave that sent me skidding across the floor, dangerously close to the piles of foam that had the Wards trapped.  As I tried to raise my nozzle in his direction to spray more containment foam at him, my vision swam and I saw double, and a high pitched whine threatened to drown out everything else.  I lowered the weapon, sent more bugs his way and focused on regaining my senses.

“Here!” Grue hollered.  He raised his hand.  Triumph inhaled, gearing up for another blast-

And Brutus barreled through the corridor Grue had parted through in the darkness to slam into Triumph like a charging bull.

Maybe a little harder than I would have hit the guy, had I been the humvee sized monster making the call.  Still, you couldn’t fault a dog for not knowing.

Just to my left, Shadow Stalker pulled her upper body free of the goop and began the slow process of working her crossbow free.  Not normally possible, but her ability to go into a shadow state apparently made her more slippery than most.

“No,” I growled at her. “Stay down.”  I buried her under more foam.

I pulled myself to my feet, wobbled, straightened up, wobbled some more, and then worked on keeping my balance.

“Skitter!” Grue roared, “Move!”

I didn’t waste any time in throwing myself to the ground.  Out of the corner of my eye, I only saw a blur of blue and silver where I’d been standing.

I had to flop over onto my back to see Armsmaster standing six feet away from me, leveling the blade of his Halberd in my direction.  The silver of his visor made precious little of his expression visible.  All I could see was the thin, hard line of his mouth.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, quiet enough that I was pretty sure Tattletale and Grue wouldn’t catch it.  I aimed his way with the foam sprayer.

In a flash, he whipped his weapon around so the butt end was facing me.  There was a muffled ‘whump’ sound, and I felt something like a wave of intensely hot air that made every hair on my arms, legs and the back of my neck stand on end.  I realized the trigger of the containment foam sprayer was depressed and nothing was coming out of the end of the weapon.  I tried again.  Nothing.

That would be an electromagnetic pulse screwing up the machinery.  Fuck.

Before I could organize my thoughts and warn Grue and Tattletale, Armsmaster flipped the weapon around in his hands like you saw military cadets doing with their guns during a march.  As it whirled around him, I heard that ‘whump’ sound twice in quick succession.

Somehow, I doubted he’d missed them.

“Call off your mutant,” he spoke, in that kind of voice that people obeyed.  “I promise you, it would only get hurt if it attacked me, and I’d rather not subject an animal to that, when it’s the master that’s to blame.”

“Bitch!” Grue called, “Call him off.  He’s right.”

From a point I couldn’t see, Bitch whistled.  Brutus moved back through the corridor Grue had made to rejoin her.

“You were moving like you could see in my darkness,” Grue spoke, a note of wariness in his echoing voice.

“I’ve studied your powers,” Armsmaster told us, tapping the butt of his weapon on the ground.  Every bug within fifteen feet of him dropped out of the sky, dead.  “This was over from the moment you stepped into the room.”

Miss Militia stepped out of the darkness beside the stage, with what looked like a machine gun in her hands, Regent as her hostage.  He didn’t have his scepter.

Fuck.

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Tangle 6.4

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“Thanks to a concerted effort by members of Brockton Bay’s Wards and Protectorate teams, the local gang, the ‘ABB’, or Azn Bad Boys, has fallen.”

Brian and I had arrived at the loft just in time to catch the bulletin on the news.  Lisa, Alec, Bitch and the three dogs were gathered on the couches.

“The heroes of the hour are the young members of the Wards, Clockblocker and Vista, who played a pivotal role in managing a crisis with a superbomb, allegedly used by the supervillain Bakuda in an attempt to hold the city ransom and guarantee her safety.  While experts on the scene refused to offer hard numbers, a local cape was quoted as stating the superbomb could have had a yield of nine thousand kilotons of energy.  This device, containing power on par with conventional nuclear bombs, was fashioned with household materials scavenged from the area, after fighting in the Docks and pressure from local authorities forced the bomb’s alleged creator to relocate to a derelict boathouse just days ago.  Were it not for the efforts of the Wards, this might have been a tragic day for our nation.

“As much as we might wish for a period of somber reflection, other local villains have shown little interest in putting recent matters to rest.  Less than an hour after suspected ABB leader Lung and alleged accomplice Bakuda were brought into custody, the head offices of Medhall Corporation were assaulted by armed forces, in an altercation that drew the attention of members of local Aryan villain group Empire Eighty-Eight.  This appears to have prompted a rash of more than six major incidents in the past hour-”

Lisa muted the TV, turning around on the couch to look at Brian and me.  “I’ll give you the cliff notes.  The Travelers just hit an art gallery and an airport in the span of an hour.  Coil and Empire Eighty Eight are apparently trying to make up for lost time and are just a hair away from open warfare on the streets.  The Merchants – Skidmark’s group – are taking advantage of the chaos and trying to do what the ABB did, but with local drugheads and hobos and zero control over their situation… they won’t get far, but I’m sure they’re having a grand old looting spree.”

“So the ceasefire is over,” I spoke.  Weren’t things supposed to get better with the ABB gone?  Why did I feel partially responsible for this?

“It’s like everyone was poised at the starting line, ready to move the instant the gun fired,” Alec said.

“Except us,” Brian pointed out.

“Not necessarily,” Lisa shook her head, “Five minutes after Medhall got hit, we got a message from the boss.  He’s got a job he wants us to do, maybe our biggest yet, but the timeline’s short.  It’s why I called you here.”

Brian folded his arms.

“Here’s the thing,” she said, “Morale is down.  The city is spooked, and things aren’t calming down the way people were hoping they would.  The fact that we all dodged a bullet with this superbomb thing?  It didn’t help.”

She typed on her laptop while she talked, “Topping it off, it doesn’t look good when the local news gets wind of the fact that a large part of the fighting against the ABB was being done by villains.  Get my drift?  So with the idea that they were planning a fundraiser around now anyways, the mayor’s promoting a function to help sell the idea that it was the good guys that were the major players here.  End result?  A fundraiser-slash-celebration involving the Protectorate, Wards, the PRT forces, cops and all those guys.  Tonight.  Most of the Wards and New Wave are gonna pick up the slack in the meantime, to keep the city protected, because the mayor’s prioritizing PR here.”

“I’m not liking the direction this is going, here,” I told her.

She picked up her laptop and set it on the back of the couch, facing me and Brian.  The page showed details on the celebration, had links to ticket vendors and sported an image of a bunch of people in tuxedos and gowns.   “The Protectorate and some of the Wards are going to be there with the upper crust of Brockton Bay, their friends and family, and anyone else willing to shell out the cash for a ticket.  The boss wants us to, quote, ’embarrass them’, unquote.”

There was something of a stunned silence.  I glanced at Bitch and Alec, and gathered from their expressions that they had already heard this.  In contrast to the situation we’d had with the bank robbery, though, they didn’t look all that keen.

Brian started chuckling.  After a bit, his chuckle became an all-out laugh.

I didn’t wait for him to finish before I said my piece, “Are you insane?  You want us to, what, crash a party, fuck with the people there and then scram before we get ourselves arrested by the-” I struggled to find the words, “By half the fucking heroes in Brockton Bay?!”

“Basically.”  Lisa said, raising her hands as if to get me to calm down, “Though it’s probably more like a third of the city’s heroes.”

“Right,” I said, “No offense, Lisa, I’m fond of you and everything, but you kind of underestimated the number of heroes that would show up to the bank robbery, too.  Don’t forget that a bunch of heroes came from out of town to help with the ABB situation, and they might stick around for the after-party.”

“True,” she admitted, “But still-”

“And the plan is to piss them off?” I asked, incredulous, “Not just them, either, but that party’s probably going to be attended by the mayor, the DA, the police chief… You’re aware that if we tried this and any of us got caught, it would pretty much be a first class trip to the Birdcage?”

“Sorry, Lise, this is a no,” Brian told her, still looking amused, “I’m perfectly cool with letting all the other groups go at it for a bit.  We did our part, and we’ve got nothing to lose in kicking back for a little while.”

“Yeah.  I don’t get the point,” Bitch said, scratching the top of Brutus’ head.

“You won’t find anyone more willing to get a little crazy than me,” Alec told Lisa, “But I’m with Bitch.  It’s a whole lot of risk, a whole lot of trouble.  For what?  Tweaking the good guys’ noses?”

“The boss is willing to pay,” Lisa said.  “With other considerations.”

“Considerations?” I asked.

“You have to understand,” Lisa sighed, “I don’t disagree with what you guys are saying, but what I can tell you is that this is a test.  The boss wants to see if we can pull this off, and if we can, we’re that much more valuable to him.  A lot more valuable.”

“Or maybe the test is whether we’re smart enough to turn down a doomed mission,” Brian pointed out.

“Maybe,” Lisa conceded, “I don’t think so, but I won’t deny that it’s possible.”

Brian asked her, “Can we turn this down?  I mean, he’s never forced us to take a job.”

“We could,” she didn’t look happy.

He frowned, “I think it’s four votes against, at the very least.  I’m assuming you’re going to vote for this plan, Lise?”

“Yeah,” she replied.

“Well, unless we’ve switched from a majority vote system, I guess you can tell the boss ‘thank you, but no’,” he said.  When she didn’t reply, he turned to me, “Want to see about putting that kitchen table and bedside table together?  I can treat you to a late lunch, if-”

“Two hundred and fifty!” Lisa interrupted him.

He gave her a look, “Two hundred and fifty…”

“Thousand,” she finished for him, dropping her arms to her side, almost defeated.  “Each.  Damn it.  I wanted to get you guys on board before I wowed you with the amount.  Sounds desperate when I say it like this, but I can’t let you walk away without letting you know what we’d be turning down.”

The sum gave us pause.

“Just to be clear… One million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, divided five ways,” Alec said, “For this?”

“Like I said,” Lisa smiled a little, “Biggest job yet.”

“If the boss offered us a quarter million dollars each to walk up to those guys and turn ourselves in, it wouldn’t be that different a scenario,” I pointed out.

“Sure it would,” Lisa retorted, “We actually have a chance at getting through this, free and clear.”

“A very, very small chance,” I pointed out.

“A chance,” she said.  “But if we do this?  If we prove to the boss that we’re worth his while?  We move up.  We get more money, we get more equipment, information, we get a voice as far as shaping his long term plans, all of which may translate to more respect in the cape community.”

“A voice?” I asked, “What do you mean?”

“Meeting with him, discussing what we do next, and why.”

My mind started racing with the implications of this.

“I’m changing my vote,” Alec said, “This much money, it sort of solves the problem I had with the job, which was that it was sort of pointless.  A quarter million dollars is pretty pointy.”

“Two for, three against,” Lisa said.  “Bitch?”

Bitch scowled, “Let me think.”

This was a chance to meet our employer, in the not too distant future.  Question was – did I want to take it?  I’d been procrastinating, avoiding the issue, trying not to think too much about my game plan, about turning these guys in when I had the last bit of information I needed about how they ran things, about where the money came from.  Now I had to make a call.

All along, I’d been telling myself that I’d turn them in.  Give the information to the Protectorate.  But my heart wasn’t really in it.  It would mean turning on friends.  While I didn’t dislike Alec or even Bitch, my thoughts were on Lisa and Brian.  I mean, well, Lisa was my first real friend since Emma.  As for Brian, I liked him, respected him.   I hated the idea of doing to them what Emma had done to me.  Betraying friends.

I’d given up the idea of gaining respect or prestige for turning them in.  I mean, I’d committed a felony, taken hostages, attacked other heroes, nearly killed a man, then carved that same person’s eyes out a couple of weeks afterward.

And I could live with that part, with not getting credit or accolades or whatever.  I could see myself flying under the radar for a while.  Perhaps playing the role of a vigilante avoiding the attention of both hero and villain, if I was really itching to get out in costume.  Or see if maybe, just maybe, I could try for the same deal that Shadow Stalker got, become a probationary member of the Wards.  I’d initially veered away from the Wards out of concern that it would be too similar to high school… but I’d changed in the past few weeks.  Stood up to Emma twice.  Three times, if you counted the meeting.  I had a little more backbone than I’d had a month ago.  I could picture myself laboring alongside a group of junior superheroes that resented me as a kind of penance for my villainous actions, and that was a pretty big change from before I’d even gone out in costume, when the very idea of joining them was hard to process.

The problem was, going down that road was a mess of maybes and possiblies, each step a mess of potential disasters.  What if I got arrested rather than offered probationary membership in the Wards?  What if the Undersiders escaped arrest and came after me?  Or my dad?

It came down to the people that were in the room with me.  It wasn’t just that I would be betraying them like Emma did to me.  Was I brave enough to go through what I had with Emma, with having people I liked and looked up to becoming my worst enemies?

And if I didn’t choose, didn’t decide… Well, if I put it off any longer, the only difference from staying for good by choice would be a fair sized measure of self delusion on my part.  The time I’d spent with Brian made that clear enough.

“I think… I might change my vote,” I voiced the thought aloud as I formed it.

There were looks of surprise from everyone present, excepting the dogs.  Lisa, especially, rocked back a little in reaction to my statement.

It took all I had to keep my facade intact.  At the end of the day, what scared me more than losing friends and having them hate me, more than having them come after me or my dad, was the idea that I would hate myself.  That I would hate myself one, five, ten or twenty years down the line, for betraying my principles and for making a bad call with wide reaching implications.  Hate myself for taking a road that might lead me going to jail with no chance of getting bailed out by Armsmaster, or going down a path that led to me hurting someone innocent as badly as I’d hurt Lung and Bakuda.

Sticking with the Undersiders was a short term gain, sure, but long term?  I had to stick with my original plan, and try to convince myself I was doing it for the greater good.

Alec raised his eyebrows.  “Really.”

“What?” I asked.

“You’re the last person I would have expected to change your vote, dork,” he said, “You’re careful, and this is the least careful job we’ve had yet.”

“Changing my vote is provisional on whether we can come up with a plan that has a decent chance of us escaping with our skin intact,” I clarified.

“Still, you’re usually Brian’s shadow, echoing him,” Alec said.

“Thanks, Alec,” Brian frowned.  Brian turned to me, his eyebrows knitting together in concern, “You sure?”

“Not totally,” I admitted, “And I’m sorry, for not backing you up.”

“You’re a member of the team, you’re allowed your own voice.”

“What changed your mind?” The question came from Lisa.

I had to avoid tripping any alarms with her.  The safest way to go about it would be to stick with the truth, or something very close to it.

“It bugs me that I don’t know who our employer is.  There’s some real ugly possibilities, and I’d rather know sooner than later, if they were the case.”  There, truth enough.

“I admit,” Brian conceded, “I am curious.  It’s… I don’t think I’m curious enough to want to take this job.”

“If the scrawny kid is gonna do this, I’m not backing down,” Bitch said.  “I’ll change my vote too.”

“Kid?” I asked her, “Scrawny, sure, but I’m probably a year younger than you, at most.”

Lisa stopped us, leaning to one side to put herself between Bitch and I.  “We have to stay on topic, since there’s only a few hours to plan and get ready.  We have four votes for, one against.  Looks like this is gonna happen.”

Brian sighed.

“Sorry,” I murmured my second apology.

He put his hand on my shoulder, “It’s okay.”

I noticed he didn’t move his hand off my shoulder right away.

Distracting myself, I asked Lisa, “So how do we pull this off?”

She began outlining a plan.

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Hive 5.10

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“Brockton Bay 911, what is your emergency?”

“Multiple injured,” I said, glancing at the nearest street sign, “Warehouse at Whitemore and Sunset.  Send police and capes, too.  These guys are ABB members.”

There was the briefest of pauses, “That’s Whitemore and Sunset?”

“Whitemore and Sunset, yes.  Listen, the leader of the ABB, a parahuman by the name of Lung, is incapacitated at the scene, but that won’t be entirely true for long.  He’s drugged and blinded, but the drugs will be out of his system before too long.”

“You’re a cape?” she asked, “Can I get your identification?”

“I repeat,” I ignored her, “He’s drugged and blinded, but only the blindness will be a factor when the first responders arrive on the scene.  Warn them to be careful.  You can also tell them that a second parahuman calling himself Oni Lee was present but fled after being injured.  He may still be in the area.”

“I understand.  The Protectorate will be informed before they arrive on scene.  I’ve got ambulances, police and PRT teams on their way.  Can I please get your identification?”

I hung up.

“I can’t believe you carved out his eyes,” Sundancer said.  We were walking briskly back to where we’d left Labyrinth.

“He’ll heal,” I pointed out, “Eventually.”

“You blinded someone who was helpless to fight back.  That’s kind of fucked up.”

I couldn’t say much to that.  Fucked up or not, it had been necessary.  I couldn’t have dealt with it if I’d known we left him there and he got back to business as usual by the end of the day.  I’d stopped him, best as I was able.

Okay, alright, I was willing to admit that maybe the means were a little suspect.  I’d fought alongside some fucked up people, I’d maimed him.  By letting Fenja, Menja and Kaiser go I’d sort of condoned what they’d done to Lung’s men.  But in the end, it was what I’d wanted to do when I’d wanted to be a superhero.  I’d taken down a horrible person.

I just hoped the heroes could clean up the mess and get Lung behind bars for good this time.

“Hey Bitch,” I said, “Why’d you come back?”  I couldn’t phrase it better without offending her, but I wanted to know was why she’d come back when she was supposed to be taking Newter and Coil’s soldier to a doctor.

Bitch was sitting tall astride Brutus.  She seemed to get my meaning, “The other soldier said he was a trained medic.  Told me he could handle it, so I came back to fight.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Got it.”

Bitch hadn’t been lying, I saw, as we approached the rest of our group.  Newter was bandaged and awake, while the other soldier was lying down, unconscious.  Maybe drugged for the pain.

“You made it,” Newter grinned.

“Barely,” I admitted, “You okay?”

“I’m tougher than I look,” he responded, “Benefit of my, um, unique biology.”

“Cool,” I replied, feeling lame for not having a better reply, but I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound like it was trying too hard or, worse, sound sarcastic.

“This fella says you guys probably saved my life,” Newter jerked a thumb toward the one of Coil’s guys that was awake.

“Honest, I’m having a hard time believing you’re up and talking right now,” the medic replied.

“Anyways, thanks,” Newter said, eyes moving from me to Sundancer to Bitch and back again.

“No problem,” I answered him, feeling lame for not having a better or more suitable reply.  Embarrased, I looked for a reason to change the subject.  “Look, we should get out of here in the next few minutes.  Capes, cops and ambulances are on their way to deal with the aftermath.”

“Alright,” Newter said, “But I have to ask… a small army of roaches dropped those off?”

He was smiling as he pointed to a spot near where he was lying.  A stack of paper bags were organized in a pile.

“I forgot I did that,” I admitted, “It didn’t feel right to leave the ABB’s money behind if we wound up retreating, so I had my bugs haul it out of there.  Everyone might as well take a bag.”

“We can take it?” Newter asked, “You sure?”

I shrugged in response.  The money didn’t matter much to me.  “Consider it a bonus, a thanks for helping.  It’s, um, not exactly divided to be fair, so no insult intended if any of them end up being a bag full of ones.”

“No complaints,” Newter said.  He reached out with his tail and used it encircle and pick up a bag.  Coil’s guy gave him a hand in standing up, and you could see him wince and huff out a breath at the effort.  He swayed a bit on his feet, then put a hand on Labyrinth’s shoulder to steady himself.  Sundancer grabbed a bag, and Coil’s medic/spotter grabbed two.

Labyrinth didn’t reach for one, so I walked over, grabbed one, and held it out for her.  She didn’t respond.

“I’ll hold that for her,” Newter offered.

“Is she okay?”

“She’s… pretty much normal.  For her, anyways.”

He claimed the bag, leaving three for Bitch and I, but nobody was complaining or pointing that out.

“You guys need a ride?” I asked.

Newter shook his head, then pointed to a manhole cover a ways down the road, “We’ll head back to one of our hideouts through there.  Familiar territory for me.”

“Is that a good idea, with your injury?  I mean, stating the obvious, but it’s gonna be pretty gross down there.”

He smiled, “Can’t get an infection.  My biology’s toxic to the bacteria and parasites, I think.  Never been sick, that I can remember.”

Of course.  Now I felt dumb for making Sundancer use the alcohol to sterilize him, and for going the extra mile with the sanitary pads, to ensure what I was using was clean.

“And you guys?” I asked Coil’s guy, “Ride?”

“We’ve got one, but thanks.”  The medic bent down, bound his buddy’s wrists, and then pulled the loop of arms over his head, so he was effectively giving his buddy a piggyback.  He took another second to arrange his guns, then headed through the same alley that Kaiser, Fenja and Menja had gone through before the fight started.

Sundancer was going the opposite way, so she said a brief goodbye and left.  Newter and Labyrinth were walking in the same direction as Bitch and I, so we walked together.

Labyrinth walked like she was in a daze, with Newter leading her along by the hand like she was a child.  It was interesting, not just to see that kind of interaction between them, but noting that her gloves looked like cloth, and that he was probably risking drugging her… unless she was immune.  A consequence of her ability?  He caught me looking, smiled and shrugged.

“Autistic?” I guessed.

He shook his head, “No, though we thought that, at first.  Seems she was a normal kid until her powers showed up.  Since then, she’s been off in her own little world, more or less.  A little worse right now, I think, after seeing me hurt.”

“That happens?” I asked, gesturing towards my head, unable to come up with an inoffensive and simple way of phrasing it.

He shrugged, “Sometimes getting powers fucks up your body,” he gestured to himself using his tail, which was still holding the paper bags, “Sometimes it fucks up your head.  Bad luck, but you deal with the cards you’re dealt.”

“Oh,” I replied.  I wasn’t sure how to respond.  A cold, quiet horror crept up on me.  My powers had something to do with my brain.  I could remember how crazy I’d felt right after my powers showed up, that torrent of nightmare images, signals and details from my bugs.  I still had bad dreams about it.  How close had I come to being like that permanently?

He grinned, “It’s cool.  She’s really fond of us, and we’re attached to her, too.  She has her lucid moments, when she’s let us know she’s cool with the status quo.  Sure, she has bad days when she’s dead to the world, but all of our powers have drawbacks, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I echoed him, though I couldn’t think of a drawback to my power that even came close.

“I think we’re okay where we’re at.  Eh, L?  You’ve been happy since we got you out of that place?”

Labyrinth kind of stirred from her daze and looked at him.

“Yeah,” Newter grinned, ” You can tell because the stuff she does with her power is prettier, these days.”  He gestured at the manhole cover, “This is where we part ways.”

Labyrinth glanced down where he was pointing.  A moment later, a tracery of silvery lines spiderwebbed out around the manhole cover, extending and forking like veins.  As the lines met and sectioned off parts of the road, those bits of road lifted and flipped over, revealing a white marble texture on their undersides.  When sufficiently surrounded by the expanse of cracked white marble, the manhole flipped over, revealing a silvery underside, and then popped open on an unseen hinge.  A spiral stairway of more marble or ivory led down into the depths.  The white walls had a faint glow to them.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Newter replied.  When he stepped down onto the stair, it was solid under his foot. He held up the paper bags as he said, “Thanks guys.”

“Sure thing,” I replied.  “Later.”

The manhole shut behind them, and almost immediately, the white around the manhole began to fade.

I looked up at Bitch where she sat on one-eyed Brutus.  Angelica and a still-dusty Judas stood just behind her.  She offered me a hand up onto Brutus’ back.

There were a lot of drawbacks to having a mask or helmet that didn’t cover my entire head.  If I’d sat myself down and put in the extra hours to finish my mask and expand the armored sections, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten that concussion that was proving to be such a pain in my ass.

The upside, though, was that it felt awesome to have the wind blowing in my hair as we rode down the empty streets.  The perfect wind-down from that crazy adrenaline rush that had come with going up against Oni Lee and Lung within minutes of each other.  I closed my eyes and let the tension flow out of me.

We rode like that for a few minutes.  Bitch took turns and moved sorta aimlessly as she headed East, towards the water and the beaches.  Maybe she was taking evasive action in case we were being followed, maybe she just wanted to ride.  I didn’t really care.

I was a little disoriented when we finally stopped.  Brutus padded through sand as he stepped down onto the beach.  Bitch hopped down, and I followed her cue.

It was still early afternoon, so the beach was deserted, and it wasn’t the sort of beach that saw much tourist use anyways.  A concrete wall separated the beach from the roadside above us, and a yawning hole with the rusty remains of what had once been a grate marked the exit of the various storm drains beneath the Docks.  Trash, rotted leaves and one or two needles had filtered down to the sand below the drain.

“Go home,” Bitch ordered the dogs.  One by one, they filed into the drain.  I guessed they would let the transformation subside before they returned to the loft on their own.

Then Bitch pulled off her mask.  She gave me a derisive look.

“What?”

“You gonna change?  Can’t walk back like that.”

“I don’t have a change of clothes with me.  Or stashed anywhere.”

“Well.  That’s fucking stupid,” she answered me.

“I wasn’t thinking ahead when I decided to go.  Sue me,” I challenged her.

“What’re you wearing under that?”

“Tank top and stretch shorts.”

She looked around.  “It’s not that cold.”

I sighed and unstrapped my armor enough to unzip my costume at the back.  I pulled it off – far easier than putting it on – and bundled it up so all the identifiable parts of the mask and armor were hidden by fabric.  The sand was damp and clammy under my bare feet.

When Bitch reached for my face, I startled.  She put one hand on the side of my face, and for just a fraction of a second, I thought something incredibly awkward was about to happen.

Then she wrenched my head to enough of a tilt that it was almost horizontal.

“You look like someone tried to hang you.”

“What?” I asked.

She touched the side of my neck, but it wasn’t possible to see that part of myself without a mirror.  I did realize what she was talking about, after a moment’s thought.  I pulled up the side of my tank top, and sure enough, there was a red-black bruise at my stomach and waist.  Hiking up my top a bit more, I found another at my ribs.  I knew there would be another up near my armpit, and one encircling my neck.

I had a giant fucking handprint on my body, courtesy of Lung.

I let out a long groan, touching my neck where I felt tender.  “No way I can hide this from my dad.”

My good mood was dashed to the winds as we started trudging back to the Loft.  It was made all the more unpleasant because I was underdressed and barefoot, and the ground was cold under my feet.

I shivered and hugged my arms to my body as best as I could while still keeping my costume bundled up and the paper bags of money in hand.

Something warm settled over my shoulders.  I looked at Bitch as she finished draping her jacket over me.  As she drew back, her eyebrows furrowed, glaring at me, I wrangled the bags and my bundle of costume so I could get my arms through the sleeves and do up the buttons.  It was a canvas down jacket with a fur-ruff collar, but it was the wrong size for me and it was heavy.  The pockets, I found, as I tried to jam my hands in there, were filled with stuff.  A mess of plastic bags, chocolate bars, protein bars, a juice box, pellets that ground together – what I guessed were dog treats or dog food.  Not exactly cape supplies.  All in all, it was almost uncomfortable.

But it was warm.

“Thank you,” I told her, floored by the gesture.

“You needed something to cover your neck,” she looked bothered, “People would stare.”

“Doesn’t matter.  Thank you.”  I offered a smile.

“You already said that,” she switched from looking bothered to looking angry, “It’s mine, I can take it back.”

“Of course,” I said.  Then to be safe, I offered, “Do you want to?”

She didn’t reply, leaving me absolutely baffled.  Why was it that when I thanked someone like my dad for giving me a gift, it felt like it sounded sarcastic or lame no matter how I tried to say it, but the one damn time I was ninety-five percent sure I sounded as sincere as I felt, it was with Bitch, and she didn’t buy it?

Worried anything I could say would rub her the wrong way, I defaulted to silence, as I found myself doing more and more often with her.  It wasn’t a short trip, and my feet still felt the heat leeching out of them as I took each step on the pavement, but the core of my body was warm, and that was enough to keep me going.  Like that, we made our way back to the loft.

She unlocked the door and let us in.  I shouted up for Brian and Lisa, but no voices greeted me in return.  The others weren’t back yet, which made sense, since Grue would have to pick up Tattletale and Regent before they got back, and it hadn’t sounded like Tattletale’s team was close to wrapping things up when I’d called.  Bitch led the way up to the Loft, and the second I was up there, I took off the jacket and wordlessly handed it to her.  She was still glaring at me.

What could I do, what could I say?  It seemed like everything I did pissed her off, sent the wrong signal.

I returned to my room in the Loft and dug through the shopping bags I still had in there, finding a loose pair of jeans and a long sleeved shirt to pull over my top.  No clean socks, sadly, but there were some covers laid out on the bed.  I grabbed some and dragged them behind me to the living room, where Bitch was watching TV.  She gave me the evil eye, but didn’t complain, as I got myself bundled up in the covers on the other couch.

She had the remote, and I was willing to let her have it.  She channel surfed relentlessly, settling on an action movie for five minutes, then started surfing again when the ads started, and didn’t go back to it.

It wasn’t too interesting to watch, but I didn’t mind.  I lay back, thinking back to the events of the day, the conversations, the tidbits of info.

I almost dozed off, when my lazy train of thought stumbled onto something that I was afraid I’d forget if I let myself go the rest of the way to sleep.  I forced myself to open my eyes and sat up a bit.

“Bitch?” I risked drawing her attention, hoping she’d calmed down a bit.  She looked at me.

“Um.  When we were talking, a little bit ago, I thanked you.  Did that sound sarcastic to you, or what?”

“You’re getting on my case again?”

“No,” I raised my hands to stop her, “Not what I was trying to do.  I’m just wondering.”

“Keep your wondering to yourself,” she snapped.  When she turned her attention back to the TV, her channel surfing was cranked up a notch.

“I’ll pay you to answer me,” I tried.

She looked at me.

“That money we grabbed.  You can keep all of it.”

Her eyes narrowed, “We’re supposed to split our take five ways.”

“We earned that, right?  The both of us?  I won’t tell the others if you don’t. And I’m saying you can have it all.  Not sure how much it is, but it’d be yours.”

“Is this a trick?”

“No trick.  Just answer my question.  You can even tell me to get lost after, I’ll go to my room and grab a nap or something.”

She leaned back, and put the hand with the remote in her lap, glaring at me.  I took that for consent.

“So, what I was asking before, when I said thanks, did you think I was sarcastic, did you think I was genuine, what?”

“Dunno.”

“You mean you didn’t know, or you can’t remember, or-”

“I said dunno.”

“Fine,” I sighed, “Whatever.  Money’s yours.”

“That easy?”

I shrugged.

“You said you’d get lost if I asked,” she pointed out.

I nodded, gathered the covers and retreated to my room.

I didn’t nap, though.  Instead, I stared up at the iron girders that framed the ceiling, deep in thought, thinking about the conversation with Newter about Labyrinth.

I was still sorting through my thoughts when the rest of the gang returned.

I ventured out of the room, still bundled in a blanket, to greet them.  Brian gave me a winning smile as he pulled off his helmet, and I got some attention for having the most noteworthy injury of the afternoon.

As Alec, Brian and Bitch started talking about their individual adventures, Lisa pulled me aside.  We wound up walking to the kitchen.  Lisa put a kettle on as she asked me, “You okay?”

“Not really hurt, ugly as this looks, and I think I’m feeling better about the school thing.”

“But you’re distracted by something.”

“I was talking to Newter.  You know Labyrinth’s kind of out of it, because of her power, right?”

“You want to know if there’s anything wrong with you, that you don’t know about?”

“No,” I shook my head, “Wait, is there?”

“Nah.  So what’s up?”

“Bitch.”

“Ahhh.”

“I’ve been thinking, but I don’t want to build up some theory in my head, make an assumption and embarrass myself.”

“Tell me what you’re thinking, and I’ll tell you if you’re wrong.”

“She’s really good at reading body language, right?  She could read Brian even when he was blurred by his darkness with a mask on.  It’s, what, some kind of minor power of hers?”

“Some of it’s natural ability.  Some of it’s, yeah, that her power adjusted how she thinks.  So she can communicate better with her dogs.”

“Right,” I glanced down the hall to where the others were talking.  Or rather, where Brian and Alec were talking and Bitch was standing there.  “That’s the thing.  What I’m thinking is… maybe when her power gave her the ability to understand dogs, it overwrote something else?  Fucked up her ability to deal with people?”

Lisa turned and got some mugs out of the cupboard.  She gave me an apologetic half-smile. “Yeah.  Something like that.”

“So, what, she can’t read expressions, or tone?”

“All the cues we give to others as a part of regular conversation?  She doesn’t get them, she probably couldn’t learn them with a year of concerted effort.  It’s not just that she doesn’t get it… the most basic interactions are messed up by the canine psychology that’s hardwired into her head.  You smile at her and ask her how she’s doing, her first thought is that you’re baring your teeth at her in anger, and she has to remind herself you aren’t.  But even after that, she’s probably wondering if you were being sarcastic, or condescending, or kind, or whatever.  She knows you aren’t shouting at her from your tone of voice, but we don’t always raise our voices when we’re angry, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“And she falls back on the one thing she does get, canine behavior, because it does work on a level.  Bids for dominance, eye contact, pack heirarchies and establishing territory, all adjusted and adapted to her human life.”

“So she’s not really a sociopath.”

“No, not so much.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”  I realized belatedly, that I sounded accusatory.  Maybe I was right to.

“Because she’d leave if she heard about it, and for reasons I don’t know, the boss wants her to stick with us.  She’s spent her whole life accepting the fact that she had a shitty childhood, and it made her into a screwed up person.  Her dogs are the only thing that’s normal and right for her.  If she found out that the reason she’s so messed up is the very same thing that makes her so close to her dogs?”

She let the thought hang.

“Got it,” I replied.

“So not another word of this, please, unless it’s absolutely necessary and you’re absolutely, one-hundred percent positive she’s not going to overhear.”

“Do the others know?”

“I don’t think it would change much, and I don’t trust those two to keep a secret.  Brian is… I don’t want to say too honest.  But he’s transparent, and Bitch can read him.  Alec would forget and let it slip as part of a joke.  He doesn’t get the gravity of stuff, sometimes.”

“Okay.”

She poured a cup and stirred it, then handed me a mug of Ovaltine.  She got the other mugs arranged on a tray, and carried it through to the living room.  I stayed where I was, to think.

I was reminded of a non-fiction book I’d read where a kid got halfway through high school before his teachers realized he was illiterate.  He did it by being the class clown, by acting out.  Was Bitch the same?  The violence and hostility could be a cover to distract from her own inability to interact, at least partially.  I guessed a fair bit of it was genuine, though.  She had had a crappy childhood, she had lived on the streets and had fought tooth and nail to get by and avoid arrest.

But at the end of the day?  As awkward as I felt in day to day interactions?  She was a hundred times worse off.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Hive 5.9

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Yeah, me,” I answered Lung, hoping I sounded more confident than I felt.

“Some history?” Sundancer murmured.

“I made his crotch rot off.”

She turned to stare at me.

“Accidentally.”

“How do you-” she started, then she stopped as Lung’s growl rose in volume enough to turn her head.

Angelica and Judas advanced steadily until they were on either side of me.

“Step down, Undersider,” Kaiser spoke from the opposite end of the room, “My girls and I have this in hand.”

“Do you?” I challenged him, not breaking eye contact with Lung, “Because Lung looks like he’s in pretty good shape there.  You know how this works, right?  He only gets stronger the longer you fight him.  If you haven’t finished him off by now, you’re probably not going to.”

Lung chuckled, low and gravelly.  He craned his neck to look at Kaiser, and I shivered.  His neck alone was nearly as long as my torso and thicker at the base, tapering down to a more or less normal sized head.  What was creepier was that he’d bent his neck in a ‘u’ shape to look behind himself.  It was a movement that a gymnast would have been hard pressed to perform with their back.  It wouldn’t be long before he just wasn’t recognizable as something who had once been human.

The six of his thugs that were gathered around him looked like they were almost as scared of him as they were of us.

“What would you propose, then?” Kaiser asked me.

“Sundancer and I will help out,” I told him.  I glanced at Sundancer, and she nodded.

Lung laughed again.  “Ooo?  Ug gurr?”

Before I could figure out what he’d just said to me, he lunged straight at me, passing between two of his people, moving on all fours.

I’d sent the flying insects and wasps into the room to help Bitch search for supplies, and I directed them straight for Lung as soon as I realized what he was doing.  Too little, too late.

Then Judas intercepted him.  The pair of them rolled and tumbled, and I couldn’t tell which of them was making which snarling or growling noise.

When the momentum of Judas’ pounce had stopped carrying them across the floor, Lung managed to get his footing first, and physically heaved Judas across the main floor of the warehouse.  Judas slammed into two sets of the long tables, sending clouds of white powder billowing around him.

When Angelica made her move, Lung was ready for her.  He caught hold of her snout and foreclaw before she could do any damage and leveraged her forward momentum to throw her too, straight at Judas.  There was an almost judo or akido kind of style to the throw, except I doubted either of them were human enough for normal moves and techniques to apply.  What was more likely, I thought, that his reflexes, flexibility and strength were on a level where that sort of thing came naturally to him.

In any case, my bodyguards, if you could call them that, had been tossed aside away like they were stuffed animals.  Lung didn’t drop to all fours again as he advanced toward me.  Instead, he flexed his right hand, and my eyes were drawn to the foot-long blades that tipped each finger.

“Sundancer?” I asked, quiet, “Help me out?”

“If I used my power, I’d probably hurt you worse than I hurt him.”

“That line is getting old fast.”

Lung lunged again, and I threw myself to one side, too slow, too short a distance.

With the sound of swords being drawn out of their sheaths, a barrier of blades and spears rose up from the ground between Lung and I.  I found traction on the asphalt with my hands and feet, and I managed to half-crawl, half run away from him.

Lung started to move around the barrier of blades, only to be blocked by another bristling growth.  He roared, then leapt for the rafters up at the ceiling.  I knew what he was doing almost right away, and ran for cover – once he had a grip up there, it would be a matter of using his grip on the steel girders that lined the ceiling to jump straight at me.  I wasn’t two paces before I knew there was no cover I could get to fast enough.

Except he didn’t get that far.  A square pillar of steel  as tall and long as an eighteen wheeler speared downward from the roof, straight at him.  It caught Lung in his midsection and shoved him down into the ground, hard.  A few seconds later, the weight of the block of steel tore it from the section of ceiling it was rooted in.  It didn’t hit anyone as it dropped down but I could guess it would’ve killed someone: I could feel the impact of it striking the ground in my bones.

I looked at Kaiser.  He was standing where he’d been when he walked into the room, hands clasped behind his back.

“Fenja, Menja,” Kaiser’s order wasn’t shouted, but it could be heard across the warehouse.  If you could call it an order.

But the two eighteen-foot tall valkyries seemed to know what he wanted.  They advanced towards Lung with their weapons drawn, and Lung’s people began backing slowly away.  I felt a pang of sympathy for Lung’s rank and file, mainly for the ones who’d been coerced into this.  They’d probably seen what Fenja and Menja were capable of, earlier, but they couldn’t run without risking their boss’ wrath.  Caught between a rock and a hard place.

Lung wasn’t quite down and out yet, though.  He started climbing to his feet, only to have a pyramid of criss-crossing blades spear up around him.  Blades appeared under and over his arms, just beneath his armpit, behind his knee, by his groin, with dozens more rising above and around him. Before he could find his way out, he was trapped.  Buried and hidden beneath the layers of steel.

Kaiser inclined his chin, looking toward the ceiling, and I saw a shimmer.  The tip of a blade began to emerge from one of the iron girders above, revealing itself at a glacial pace.  It was no more than a half foot thick, but nearly twenty feet wide.  I wasn’t sure if it was an optical illusion from the rippling energies of Kaiser’s power or not, but I thought maybe the ceiling was sagging under the weight of it.  If he wasn’t careful, he’d bring the roof down on our heads.

Then Kaiser lowered his head to face the area where Lung was trapped and the massive sword he’d manifested in the ceiling plunged down into the pyramid in a heartbeat.  Sparks showered as the gargantuan blade sheared through the trap.

But there was more hot metal that wasn’t a result of the impact.  When I looked again, I saw Lung had avoided the blade.  The side of the pyramid closest to me glowed a white-orange, the blades curling and sagging in the intensity of the heat.  He’d softened the metal enough with his pyrokinesis that he could use his monstrous strength and push his way free.  Enough, at least, to avoid being divided in two.

Lung roared as he climbed free.  As Kaiser raised more blades around him, Lung swung his claws and shattered the metal, sending the pieces sliding across the floor.

“Aiiihurrr,” Lung growled.

“You’re an animal, Lung,” Kaiser answered him, “Even without your power making you into… this.  Go down!”  As if to punctuate his statement, a spear of solid steel erupted from the wall and slammed into Lung, carrying him to the end of the room opposite where Judas and Angelica were.  Lung managed to grip the spear and move himself so the spearpoint wasn’t pressed against his chest when it punctured the concrete of the wall.

“Your people… animals.”  Kaiser intoned.

Not six paces away from me, one of Lung’s thugs let out a raw scream and collapsed to the ground.  Dagger-like blades had pierced the tops of his feet mid-stride.  As he used his hands to break his fall, another set of blades punched through his palms.  The screams of the other thugs echoed his.  He was on his hands and knees, unable to move with his hands and feet effectively nailed to the ground.

“Kaiser!” I shouted, “No!”

“Not your business, little girl,” Kaiser told me, turning in my direction.

I took an immediate step back, fearing blades would appear under my feet.

“This is wrong,” I said, as I watched a sliver of steel sprout out of the ground and rise with a controlled speed to the base of the thug’s throat.  He was forced to arch his back and raise his head to the absolute limits to avoid getting a very unnecessary tracheotomy.  I glanced at Lung.  He was watching what was happening, but I couldn’t read his alien expression.

“Wrong?” Kaiser chuckled, “As far as I’m concerned, the moment you need to fall back on morals to argue something, you’ve already lost the argument.  This is war.”

Lung moved for Kaiser, this time.  He virtually rolled to one side to avoid an outcropping of spearpoints angled in a way that he might have run himself through on them, then resumed his charge.

One of the giantess twins stepped in, kicking Lung into and almost through a wall.  Lung bounced back almost immediately, drawing on his pyrokinesis to direct a column of blue-yellow flame at her.  The other twin intercepted the fire with her shield.

A few seconds later, she was stumbling back and away from Lung and throw her shield away to avoid having the heated metal burn her arm.

Kaiser’s team wasn’t going to win this on their own.  As much as I despised stepping in and helping him…

“Sundancer, now would be a great time to use your power.”  I spoke.  As I said the words, I called on every bug that was in the area and sent them to Lung.

“It’s not- no.  I’ll burn them.”

“Then burn them!  If you don’t use your power, I can pretty much guarantee Lung will burn them worse.”

“Doubt it,” Sundancer replied.  But she raised her hands in front of her, and there was a brilliant flare of light, only a fraction of a second, but enough to leave a black-blue spot in the center of my vision.  There was a brief roaring sound as the light faded.

I turned my focus to my bugs as another flicker of light appeared, longer and stronger than the first, again, accompanied by that faint roar.

“Hey, Skitter, was it?” Sundancer spoke.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Get back.  Way back.”

I ran for it, pulling my mask up and bringing my fingers to my mouth in the best whistle I could manage.

Two seconds later, Angelica shoved her snout between my legs.  Had it been a movie, or if I’d been Bitch, maybe, I would’ve been able to slide or jump back and land on her neck or shoulders, ride on from there.  As it was, I half-fell, half-rolled over the top of her head and only barely managed to get a grip on a spike on her shoulder.  I clung to that as she ran, praying I wouldn’t fall and get trampled.

“Angelica, stop, stay!” I called out, hoping she knew the command, that she’d listen.  She did, slowing her pace to a walk, then stopping just by the loading bay door we’d come in.  Judas caught up and walked around her, until he was just in front of us.  He was still covered in the white dust, but it didn’t seem to be having any real effect on him.  I hopped down from Angelica’s side, ready to climb on her and jostle her into action if Lung made another attempt to come after me.  I wasn’t sure I could steer her, but with the prospect of Lung chasing me, I’d rather be moving totally uncontrolled at Angelica’s speed than anything my own two feet could offer.

Sundancer had managed to get her power going.  A ball of light, larger than a basketball, smaller than a beachball, sat between her hands.

Light?  That was it?

Then I saw the floor.

The warehouse had clearly been raised above a flat expanse of asphalt, maybe an old parking lot, and the surface had cracked and been patched a fair bit over the years.  It still bore the oil stains from the old days.

Directly below Sundancer, the floor was normal.  Starting around five feet from her, though, the ground looked wet, glassy.

The asphalt was melting.

She dropped her hands, and the ball of light rose.  Like it had a mind of its own, it darted towards Lung, zipping left and right and up and down as it moved.  I saw how it rose higher as it moved over Lung’s people, who were still nailed to the floor.  At one point, it moved only ten or so feet over one of the tables, and the plastic surface of the table seemed to crumple up in fast motion, turning black and smouldering with tongues of flame.

I scattered my swarm, all too aware they weren’t doing a thing to Lung, knowing they’d just die when Sundancer got her orb to Lung.

She didn’t make it touch him, but seeing what it had done to the table, I thought maybe that was a good thing.  Lung raised a hand towards the light and I could see the heat shimmers in the air.  She pushed it a little closer to him, and his legs buckled.

Kaiser was apparently unwilling to let Sundancer steal the show, because he brought a shaft of metal out of the wall behind Lung, shoving Lung toward the orb.  Sundancer moved the ball back, but just the second or so of close proximity to the ball was enough to take the fight out of Lung.  He fell to all fours, tried to move, and found the asphalt like a molten tar beneath him.

Wasn’t he supposed to be fireproof?  Or was that immunity only to the flames he made with his own power?  Or, I thought, was that ball of light -Sundancer’s miniature sun- that hot?

I was lingering at the exit, watching and waiting to see the outcome.  My bugs were prepared and ready, lingering as close as they could get without being wiped out by the superheated air.

Even with his superhuman constitution, even with his pyrokinesis to maybe take the edge off the effect, Lung was clearly suffering.  Just a matter of time, I realized, before he collapsed.  Probably, I supposed, much longer than one would think, with his regeneration.

Then the light of Sundancer’s orb winked out.

It took me a few long moments of blinking the spots out of my eyes before I could make out the scene in its entirety.

Lung was limp, his arms dangling at his sides.  He was still bent over, and he might have fallen face first into the tar, if it wasn’t for the spear of iron that was impaling him through the heart.

“What did you do!?” Sundancer shouted.

“Obviously,” Kaiser said, “I ended it.”

“It was already over!”

I was under the impression very few people really argued with Kaiser.  Fenja and Menja joined him, one on either side of him, and neither of them were sheathing their weapons or shrinking back to a normal size.  I took that to be a very bad sign.

I was so preoccupied with watching Kaiser that I almost missed what happened next.

It started as a flash of crimson in the corner of my eye.  I looked, and I saw Lung’s wings fully unfurled.  Like the wings of a bat, only they had silvery scales where the bat had fur, and the flesh that stretched between the ‘fingers’ of the wings was the deep, dark red of blood.

Lung grabbed the spear that impaled his chest and snapped it with his claws.  He stood, and his entire midsection seemed to arrange so he stood another foot or two taller.  Taking hold of the fragment that was still embedded in his chest, he slowly slid it out.  Once it free, he cast it aside.  It clattered to the floor of the warehouse.

We were so quiet, you could hear the ringing of the steel as it settled on the ground.

“Sundancer!  Run!” I shouted, breaking the stillness.  I sent my bugs swarming to Lung.  Anything to block his vision, distract him for even a second.

The events that followed seemed to happen in slow motion.  Lung repeated what he’d been trying to do as the fight opened, only nothing seemed capable of getting in his way, now.  He was faster, stronger, more maneuverable.

He lunged toward Kaiser, using his wings to carry him effortlessly above a growth of steel blades.  Reaching Kaiser, he slammed the man into the wall.  Kaiser went limp, but Lung repeated the process, banging him against the brick of the warehouse wall a half dozen times in the span of seconds.  When he was done, he flung Kaiser away like a toy.

Fenja had to drop her spear to catch Kaiser in her arms, which seemed to be exactly what Lung wanted.  Lung did the same ‘I explode’ trick he’d done to wipe out my bugs in my first encounter with him, only it was ten times the explosion, ten times as big.  The two giantesses staggered back, which gave Lung the opportunity to dart across the floor and drive his flattened, clawed hand into Menja’s belly like a knife.

As he withdrew his claw, she collapsed.

“Nessa!” Fenja screamed.

Lung ignored her and started walking towards Sundancer and I.  Fenja rushed to her sister’s side, still carrying Kaiser.

Sundancer began forming her miniature sun once more, with increasingly frequent flickers of light and fire gathering between her hands.

“No.” Lung boomed.  He raised his bloody claw, and the flame in Sundancer’s hands dissipated, slipping out of her grasp like greased eels.

She tried once more, and again, he thwarted her with an almost casual ease.

Before she could make a third attempt, Lung blasted her with a torrent of roaring flame.  For two, three, four seconds, the fire washed over her, consumed her.

When he stopped, there were tongues of flame dancing on the asphalt around her, even her costume had fire lingering on it, but both she and her costume were untouched.

She, at least, was fireproof.  Or she’d had to be, to avoid being burned by her own power.

She wasn’t, however, invincible.  As the flames of his attack dissipated, Lung was made visible again, revealed to be standing right in front of her.  He barely seemed to care she was there as he backhanded her aside.

Then he turned his attention to me.

Just me left, really.  I swallowed hard, drew my very underwhelming knife and stood straight, facing Lung.  Please don’t burn me, please, please.  Look at this knife and see it as an insult.  An excuse to trounce me physically.

Angelica started snarling at Lung.  She took a step toward him.

“No!” I ordered her, “Back!”

The snarls ceased, and she looked at me.

“Back,” I repeated.  When I took a step toward Lung, she didn’t follow.  A powder-covered Judas stood fifteen feet away, tense, but not approaching either.  Good.  No use in anyone else getting hurt.  There was nothing else she could do.

Hell, I was almost positive there was nothing else I could do.

My bugs gathered on Lung, but as far as I could tell, there was no skin, anymore.  No flesh to bite, nothing to sting.

Lung rumbled with a rough, guttural chuckle, and let a brief flame wash over him, wiping the swarm out of existence.

I dispersed the bugs in his vicinity that hadn’t yet had a chance to touch him and get burned for their trouble.  No point.  Detrimental, almost.

Then Bitch, riding Brutus, bounded down from the hole in the ceiling and crashed into Lung.

“Bitch!” I shouted, too late, “No!”

Once he got over the shock of the initial impact, Lung used one hand to grab Bitch from where she sat on Brutus’ back, and took hold of Brutus by the neck with his other.  Heaving his arm, and Brutus, to his left side, then to his right, Lung casting the dog head over heels through the air.

Judas and Angelica began to move forward, but stopped when Lung elicited a scream of pain from Bitch.

“Nnno,” Lung rumbled.

“Stop!” I shouted, stepping forward again, “I’m the one you want, aren’t I?”

It always sounded so good when you heard it in the movies.  As I realized what I’d just said, it only sounded stupid.

He advanced toward me, carrying Bitch like a careless seven year old might carry a cat.  I backed away, but his stride was long enough for him to close the gap effortlessly.  He grabbed me and hefted me into the air, lifting me above his head so he could look up at me.

“Ug hurrrrr.”

He couldn’t talk, so I couldn’t even fall back on the tired old cliche of getting him to monologue.  Fuck.

He had my neck encircled with thumb and forefinger, two claws at my ribcage and his ‘pinky’ finger at my midsection, just below my waist.  He squeezed a fraction tighter, and I groaned.  The fabric of my costume was preventing the edges of his claws from cutting into me, but it wasn’t reinforced to stop me from being crushed.

I directed a bug into his eye.  It stayed there, wings fluttering in staccato.  It was annoying enough for him to drop Bitch and deal with it.  He didn’t give her a chance to escape, though.  Before he dealt with the bug, he shoved her against the ground and stepped on her, holding her down with his clawed foot.  That done, he used the points of his claw to pick the bug from his eye socket.

He chuckled again, low, gravelly, as he examined the cockroach impaled on his clawtip.  “Auuhh-roagh?”  Cockroach?

He lowered his arm so I was at his eye level.  Then he squeezed again, weaker than the first time.  Shook me, not as hard as he could have.

Then his arm sagged again, until my toes were brushing the ground.  After shaking me, his grip had loosened, and he hadn’t really tightened it, so I managed to get my knee against the base of his palm and shove myself backward, push myself free.  My feet touched asphalt, and I backed up a few steps.

“Hurrrrrrrr,” he rumbled.

“Don’t fucking underestimate me,” I snarled in response.

I don’t know if he heard me.  I hadn’t even finished the sentence before I had to skip backward two steps to avoid being crushed beneath him as he collapsed face first to the asphalt.

“Bitch, you okay?” I asked.

She was picking herself off the ground.  She nodded.

“What happened?” she asked.

I sheathed my knife and reached for my cell phone with one hand.  My other hand, I extended with the palm up.  A cockroach settled on it.

“Wasn’t sure it would work, or if it’d be enough.  Took a bit of caterpillar, had a roach swab it in that pool of blood Newter left upstairs, and mashed the thing in Lung’s eye.  Big and tough as he is, a drug that strong in the mucus membranes of the eye?  So close to the brain?  Apparently it’s enough.”

Bitch folded her arms, looking down at Lung.  Then she looked up at me.

“Now what?”

It was a surprisingly apt question, coming from her.  Did we just leave him here?  He’d be all better in a matter of minutes.  There were options.  I just didn’t like any of them.

I dialed Tattletale’s phone, but it was Regent who answered.

“Hey,” he said.

“A, lemon,” I said.

“C, grass,” he replied, “You wouldn’t believe it.  We found one of Bakuda’s workshops.  The stuff she has here is crazy.”

“No time to chat.  I need to talk to Tattletale, fast.”

“She’s checking the place for booby traps.  Distractions probably aren’t a good idea.”

“It’s kind of important,” I said, looking down at Lung.

“Right.”

Two seconds later, Tattletale’s voice was on the other end, “Hey?”

“Quick question.  I have to be sure, which is why I’m calling you.  Lung heals, right?”

“Yeah.  Wait… Lung’s there?”

“Unconscious at my feet.  But I don’t know how long, so answer fast.  He heals?  He’s already healing what I did to him from last time, right?”

“Right.  He’ll heal pretty much anything, given time, provided he isn’t dead.  Lose an arm, he’d grow it back in a few months.”

“Thanks.  That’s what I needed to know,”  I said.  “Good luck with the booby traps.”  I hung up.

Then I looked down at Lung.  I drew my knife.

“Why the knife?” Bitch asked.  I think anyone else might have sounded concerned.  She just sounded curious.

“I’m ending this.”

I grabbed one of the larger spikes that framed Lung’s face and heaved it to one side so his accordion-like neck was outstretched, face upturned.

No time to be delicate about it.  I had no idea how strong the toxins in Newter’s blood were, or how fast Lung’s biology would process it.

I jammed the knife into Lung’s eye socket.  His head and consequently his eyes weren’t as large as you’d think, in proportion to the rest of his frame, but the tissue around it was tough.  I had to leverage the knife back and forth before I was able to pry his eyeball out.  It was hot to the touch as I held it in the palm of my hand, no bigger than a ping-pong ball.

The second eye was faster, though no less messy.

When I was done, I stood, sheathed my knife and backed away from Lung’s body. Shouldn’t I feel worse about this?  Shouldn’t I feel sick, or grossed out, or disturbed by the morality of it?  I didn’t even feel cold, the way Grue had described.  It just felt like something I had to do.

I glanced at the two eyeballs clasped in my hand, then put them out of my mind.  I surveyed the room.  Priorities?

I asked Bitch first, “The dogs are okay?”  If I placed them second to anyone else but her, or if I forgot to ask, I got the feeling Bitch would mind.

“They’ll heal when they turn back to normal.”

“Sundancer?” I asked.

Sundancer was lying on her side, one arm pressed against the shoulder Oni Lee had stabbed.  “I’m… okay.”

That was everyone I gave a damn about, leaving only Fenja, Menja and Kaiser.  I looked across the room and called out, “Fenja?”

The giantess nodded.

“Get your sister to a hospital, or whichever doctor your guys use.  Get your boss taken care of.”

She stood without giving me a response.  Her sister had shrunk enough for her to cradle in her arms.  Kaiser, for his part, was slung over her shoulder, limp.

“Oh, Fenja?”

She paused.

“I’ll leave it to you to make the call, but if you think Kaiser has a sense of honor, maybe point out it would be bad form to push the point on the dogfighting thing, after we dealt with Lung for him, saved his life.”

She nodded, then ducked through the opening in the wall.

I stepped toward Sundancer and offered a hand to help her up.  She flinched away.

Oh.  My hands were bloody.  I dropped the offered hand to my side.

“Let’s go,” I suggested.

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Hive 5.8

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I didn’t like leaving Labyrinth behind, after seeing her help turn the tide of our fight against Oni Lee, but I couldn’t use someone that couldn’t communicate with me.

Bitch, Sundancer and I all sat astride Brutus as he headed towards the warehouse once again.  My bugs lagged behind us.

“We should be fighting Lung,” Bitch growled, “Not helping the freak.”

“What?” Sundancer asked, “Why wouldn’t we help him?”

“His fault if he got hurt,” Bitch snarled.

“And if you got hurt?” Sundancer challenged her, “You’d want us to leave you?”

“Fuck no.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if you did.”

“We’re helping him,” I stated, firm.

“Yeah?  I’m the one telling this big lug where to go.”  She slapped her hand on the side of Brutus’ neck a few times.

I would have yelled at her, should have, maybe.  Instead, I just leaned forward until I was pressing against her back, and spoke into her ear, “We let him die, you think Faultline’s going to let it slide?  She might hurt or kill Tattletale or Regent in retaliation.”

My piece said, I leaned back and waited to see how she’d respond.  If that wasn’t enough to convince her, and I had no idea if it would be, I was ready to try jumping off Brutus’ back and seeing what I could do to help Newter on my own.

Bitch didn’t reply.  She didn’t take us around, over or through the building, either, though.  When we stopped, it was by the stairwell leading up to where Newter had fallen.

The business they had been into wasn’t prostitution or slave trading.  Long tables were arranged around the ground floor of the warehouse, with stools lined up beside them.  On those tables were shallow boxes with blocks and piles of a white powder.  Various tools – rulers, funnels, scales, measuring cups and no-name brand boxes of sealable plastic bags were arranged around each station.  Heroin?  Cocaine?  I didn’t know my drugs well enough to guess.  The center of the room had been left more or less clear, maybe so cars or trucks could pull in.

So the ’employees’ had been wearing little to no clothing, presumably, to keep the clothes clean of the white dust.  Or maybe to keep them from pocketing any drugs for themselves.

The building rumbled with an impact, and I was reminded of the business at hand.  Was I more distracted than usual, right now?  Was it the concussion?

Bitch had been right, before – the stairwell and what I could see of the the second floor was too low for both a dog and a rider.  I hopped off Brutus’ back, stumbling a bit as I landed, then headed up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

Newter was lying in a puddle of blood, in the midst of a bunch of thugs, who were all lying down, crawling or writhing, oblivious to my existence.

Seeing the thugs was enough to remind me of how dangerous it would be to touch Newter.  I was wearing gloves and leggings with padded soles, but would that be enough?  The dragline silk I’d used for my costume was mostly waterproof, but the weave itself was porous, and I was worried enough that touching his blood could mean a terminal overdose that I couldn’t risk it.

My approach stopped short of the puddle.  Newter had a knife wound just below his shoulderblade that traced around his side, as long as my forearm and deep enough that I couldn’t tell how bad the damage was.  He was breathing, but his breaths were shallow enough that I almost couldn’t tell.  I was here, I could bend down to touch him, but I was helpless to do anything.  Moments after I made contact with his skin, even with my gloves on, and I’d probably be on some hallucinogenic drug trip, flopping around like a fish on dry land.

Bitch and Sundancer approached from behind me, stopping at my side.

“Bitch, go downstairs, check the supplies they were using with the drugs.  Look for rubber gloves, saran wrap, anything like that.  If you can’t find anything, look in the bathroom, under the sinks.  I doubt there’ll be a first aid kit, but if you can find one, bring it.”

Bitch didn’t answer, but she headed down the stairs.  Just to be safe, as my bugs reached the building, I swept the flying ones through the rooms to help me look for first aid supplies and to keep an eye on Bitch and the rest of the building.

“What are we doing?” Sundancer asked.

“You’re staying with him.  See if you can get a response, talk to him.  I’m checking in there.”  I pointed to the office at the end of the hall.  Just in front of the door there was a gaping hole in the wall and a pile of debris – the mess Judas had made when he’d lunged through the side of the building to corner Oni Lee.

I had a dim recollection of what my bugs had sensed when they’d first entered the building and checked out the room.  I’d been more focused on the people and potential booby traps, but I remembered that it had been an office, with a desk and a curtained off area with a bed.  Maybe the bed was there so the guys in charge could take turns sleeping there, ensuring there was always someone to keep an eye on things.  Maybe it was for the half-dressed ’employees’, for taking advantage of them or so there was a place to put the ones that accidentally overdosed while working.

Entering the office, I confirmed my suspicions about the existence of the bed.  I began stripping the badly stained sheets off.

Was it odd that this place freaked me out ten times as much as nearly getting offed by Oni Lee?  Drugs had always spooked the hell out of me.  One of the first times I’d ever ridden a bus, when I was around five or six, I’d seen a methhead freak out, making enough of a ruckus that the driver had to stop and force him off.  I’d never really gotten over that first impression, where just the idea of being around someone that was high made me sort of anxious.

It wasn’t just that, either.  In grade school and junior high, I’d had classmates drop off the face of the planet, hearing only rumors and hints from other classmates or my teachers that there were drugs involved.  Either my classmates themselves getting caught up in things, or parents or siblings dragging the kid into their mess to the point that the kid couldn’t come to school.  One as bad as the other.  Almost from the beginning, I’d had this sense of drugs as this unstoppable black hole of fucked-up-ness that swallowed in anyone close to the addict.

Yet people did it.  It was something common and profitable enough that in an area like Brockton Bay where there were as many people unemployed as not, the ABB needed a money counting machine in this very office.  Profitable enough that they had an open safe with stacks of bills inside.

My bugs weren’t doing much, so I set them the task of collecting the money.  Within a second or two of my having the thought, the mass of roaches, centipedes, pillbugs and ants flowed into the piles of money and began pushing it all off the desk or into paper bags.  Houseflies and wasps gathered on the bills that tried to fly through the air and retrieved them.  It wasn’t perfect, it was a little clumsy, but it still caught me off guard just how well they were able to coordinate for something like that, without any conscious direction on my part.

I couldn’t let myself get distracted.  I could put my bugs on autopilot and have them finish the job while I focused on more important things.  Pulling off the bedsheets, I uncovered a plastic sheet.  The kind you used when your kids wet the bed.  Doped out drug addicts, too, maybe.  The top of the plastic sheet looked kinda grody, but I wasn’t in a position to be picky.  I pulled it off the mattress, balled it up in my hands and hurried back into the hall.

“Help me,” I ordered Sundancer.  With her help, I laid out the plastic sheet, bottom side up, at Newter’s feet.  By the time we had it flat and ready, Bitch was returning.

“Found two pairs of plastic gloves and some rubber gloves under a sink,” she said, “First aid kit, too, but it feels light.”

“Open it,” I said, taking a pair of plastic gloves.  It was awkward, fitting them over my normal gloves, but I managed it.  Sundancer just pulled off her costume gloves and put on the plastic ones.  She was caucasian, I noted, pale.  “Tell me what’s inside, fast.”

“Got some tape, bandages, thermometer, safety pins, rubbing alcohol, soap…”

“Needle, thread?” I asked.

“No.”

“Gauze pads?  Big bandages?”

“No.”

With our plastic gloves on, Sundancer and I managed to haul Newter onto the plastic sheet.  The moment she let go, Sundancer winced and reached up to her shoulder, but she stopped short of actually touching it.

I turned to my teammate, “Bitch, go downstairs.  Those people who were in here took their clothes off and my bugs say they stashed the clothes in a room below us.  Find me some purses, as many as you can grab, as fast as you can grab them.”

She didn’t move, this time.  She just glared at me.

“Fucking move!” I shouted at her.  She gave me the evil eye before she left again.

“Bandages are going to be too small,” Sundancer said, as I tried to wrestle Newter’s blood-slick tail onto the plastic sheet.

“Douse them in the alcohol, use them to clean the injury of blood.  Use the dry bandages to pat it dry so the tape can stick.  Don’t be afraid to get into the wound, just be gentle.”

She nodded, and began working on it.  I grabbed the tape and began fumbling with it.  Two pairs of gloves on, and I couldn’t lift off the end of it.  I grabbed my knife and used the edge it to get the job done.  Once I had the tape, I began holding the wound closed and taping crosswise across it.

I could only hope I was doing the right things, here.  A month of weekend first aid classes had not prepared me for this.

Bitch arrived with purses and practically threw them at me.  I could have gotten pissed, but Newter couldn’t afford for me to.  I began emptying the purses onto the ground beside me and sorting through the contents.  Pens, wallets, headphones, books, tampons, pictures, receipts, more receipts, change, keys, yet more receipts…

“What are you looking for?” Sundancer asked.

The third purse turned up what I needed.  Sanitary pads.  I tore one open and pressed it to the wound, then began taping it down.  Unasked for, Sundancer grabbed another and opened it so it would be ready for me.

“Sterile, absorbent, covers more area than the bandage can,” I got around to answering her question.  “If he lives, his teammates might give him a hard time, but it’s better than nothing.”

“You didn’t tape it down all the way,” Sundancer pointed out.

“Only three sides,” I agreed, “So it can breathe.”  I only vaguely recalled some instruction on that front.  I was hoping it was right.

If I failed here, what right did I have to call myself an aspiring hero?

When the wound was bandaged as much as I could manage, the three of us bundled him up in the sheet and lifted him.  Bitch and Sundancer had an injured arm and shoulder, respectively, so they both took his head and shoulders while I took his feet  With agonizing slowness, we carried him down the stairs.  then as carefully as we could manage with a body weighing half again as much as any of us, we draped him across Brutus’ shoulders.

A bone-jarring crash nearly undid all of our hard work.  Brutus nearly lost his footing at the impact, and I know I would’ve fallen if I hadn’t already been holding onto him.

A gauntleted hand as wide across as my armspan had crashed through the wall.  The whole building shuddered as another hand punched through the brick of the wall twenty feet from the first hole.  Fingers gripped the building, and pulled the entire section of wall out in one piece.

“Go!” I shouted at Bitch, “Take him to the others!  Call Tattetale, get the number for that cape doctor, get medical attention for anyone who needs it!”

She hesitated, opened her mouth to protest.

I raised my voice, “Do not fuck with me here!”

There was a rumble outside as the removed section of wall was thrown against the ground outside, hard.

Just an instant later, a half dozen ABB members retreated into the warehouse through the hole, taking cover from the giantesses.  They saw us and stopped short, wary, weapons ready but not raised or pointed at us.

Lung followed his thugs into the room.  He was bigger than I’d seen him yet at nearly fifteen feet in height, and was covered in layers of scales that left him barely recognizable as human.  Spearlike growths stuck out of his shoulders in what I realized were the beginnings of wings.  His mask had been torn off at some point, and the features of his face had been warped by his transformation.  The shape of his skull and face were more catlike than human, and his nose and mouth were a single X-shaped opening, bristling with pointed teeth that stuck in every direction.

I could see why he usually wore the mask.

“Bitch,” I murmured, “If you don’t leave now, I don’t think you’re going to get another chance.”

“But-”

“Which do you want more?  To fight, here and now, or to make sure Faultline and the other groups don’t have an excuse to do anything to our teammates?”

I saw her hesitate.  The fact that she even had to think about it… I could have slapped her.

Kaiser strolled in, unworried, unhurried.  Lung moved like he was going to lunge for him, then stopped just in time to avoid impaling himself on the narrow blade of steel that had erupted from the ground, pointed at his heart.  I wasn’t sure if it would have penetrated his covering of scales, but if I were Lung, I don’t think I would have gambled on it either.

Fenja and Menja reduced their size to fit through the hole they’d made in the wall, then grew again as they had the headroom.  They settled at a height of eighteen or twenty feet.  Fenja carried a sword and round shield, while Menja had a spear.  Or the other way around, whatever.

In the corner of my eye, I saw Bitch hop onto Brutus, then ride in the direction of the sniper team and Labyrinth, a wrapped-up Newter lying limp in front of her.  Judas and Angelica remained behind, not far from Sundancer and I.  Their entire bodies were taut with tension, their heads low, as they glared at the new arrivals.

Lung turned to survey the room.  His men were arranged in a loose circle around him, facing us.  His eyes settled on me.

“Ooo,” he rumbled, his words were distorted by the shape of his altered mouth, but it was easy enough to guess what he’d just said.  You.

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Hive 5.7

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“Lung’s there,” I echoed, as much to let Sundancer and Labyrinth know as to help myself process the idea.

“He’s with Kaiser.  I can’t get to them.  Kaiser blocked the door with giant knives.”

“Ignore Lung!” I stressed.  If Kaiser wanted to go it alone, he could reap the consequences.  “Priorities are Newter and Oni Lee!  Can you get upstairs to rescue Newter?”

“I can’t ride Brutus in there, I’d have to dismount.”

“Then draw him outside!  Watch your back!”

I hung up, shoved the phone into the compartment behind my back, and drew my baton and knife.

“What are you doing?” Sundancer asked.

“Oni Lee’s a freaking assassin.  I can’t leave Bitch on her own.”

I didn’t wait another second.  I bolted for the warehouse, drawing more bugs from the surroundings to help back me up.

Bitch, still riding Brutus, came rushing out the loading bay door, Judas only a step behind.  They skidded to a stop, facing the building.  Through the hole the explosion had made in the wall, I saw Angelica climbing up the stairs.

As Angelica reached the top of the stairs, Judas lunged up and through the windows at the opposite end of the second floor hallway, trapping Oni Lee in between them.

Oni Lee barely seemed to care.  I could see him in his black bodysuit with belts and bandoleers of knives on it, his mask with the demonic face and leering, fanged, ear-to-ear grin.  He glanced at one dog, then the other, then looked out the window.

I knew his power was a hybrid between duplicating himself and teleportation.  He could teleport, but when he did, he left a body behind that could act autonomously for a few seconds.  So when I saw him glance out the window, I followed his line of sight, and saw he had already appeared just behind Bitch, half-crouching on Brutus’ back, one hand on a hook of bone to help him balance.  There was a flash of steel in his other hand as he reached around her throat with a blade.

“Bitch!” I screamed.  It didn’t matter.  At the same time as I opened my mouth, a red dot and a mist of red appeared out of the back of his head.  A split second later, another dot and spray of red appeared on his back, around his heart was.  He fell on top of Bitch’s shoulder, limp, then collapsed to the ground.

A second later, he exploded into an opaque cloud of white ash, ten feet across.

I glanced over my shoulder, saw the dark silhouettes of Coil’s men lying down on the edge of the rooftop.  One had a pair of binoculars, the other was set up behind a long rifle with a prominent scope.  A sniper team.

Anyone else would be dead by now, but the fact that the body had exploded into dust meant it was just a clone, a leftover remaining behind after Oni Lee had teleported away.  He probably wasn’t remaining in one place for more than a second.  My bet was that he was appearing, immediately looking for a new target or vantage point, then making a quick exit, leaving the clone to do the deed.

I reached Bitch and cast a nervous glance over my shoulder for Oni Lee. “You okay?”

“Felt the fucking steel on my throat,” she rubbed her throat as if she was checking it was okay.  “Where’d he go?”

I saw Oni Lee for only a fraction of a second, as he fell from the roof of the warehouse, before he exploded into another cloud of white dust.  Another point for the sniper team.  Why had he been up there?  Who or what had he been trying to see?

“The snipers,” I breathed, whirling around.

Where the sniper team had been, there were four figures now.  I saw the rifle fall from the edge of the roof as the two soldiers struggled with a pair of Oni Lees.  Then, puff, the clones were gone, and there was enough white dust around them that they wouldn’t be drawing a bead on him again, even if they hadn’t lost the rifle.

But where had he gone from there?  I looked around, feeling the panic begin to set in.

Brutus made a roaring sound somewhere between a howl and a growl, not quite recognizable as either.  He reared like a panicked horse, and I saw Oni Lee drop from the side of his head, land in a crouch, and lunge for me, a knife in each hand.

I swatted at his hands with my baton, sending one knife flying through the air and breaking his stride.  It didn’t matter.  Less than a second later, he was dust.  He’d teleported.

Hands seized me from behind, in a rough nelson hold, pulling my arms out of the way as another Oni Lee materialized out of the dust in front of me, ready to capitalize on my inability to defend myself.

Knowing he wasn’t about to let go of me, I brought both my legs up in a kick at Oni Lee’s stomach.  They connected and he doubled over.

Brutus lunged forward, biting at him before he could recover.  Both the Oni Lee that was holding me and the one clasped in Brutus’ jaws turned to carbon ash, adding to the volume of the opaque, gritty white cloud that surrounded us.  As Bitch managed to get Brutus under control I saw his face.  One of his eyes was in ruins, and volumes of blood and other liquids were flowing from it.

“Fuck this,” I growled, drawing the bugs out from my costume, and retrieving the ones I’d had in the building.  I spread them around, reaching for him, hoping for some sort of early warning.

No sooner the thought crossed my mind than the silhouette of a figure appeared twenty feet to my right.  He whipped his arm in my direction, and I didn’t have any time to do much more than turn in his direction before something collided with my head.  I stumbled and fell over backwards.

In the instant I toppled over, I had the presence of mind to tuck my chin against my chest so I wouldn’t add to my concussion.  The armor covering my shoulders took the worst of the impact.

As I lay there, trying to parse what had just happened, I realized that a small knife was embedded in the armored section of my mask, cracking the lens.  A throwing knife?  I pulled it free and pulled myself to my feet.  I had enough bugs around me now that I could be sure he wasn’t attacking us.  That just raised the question of where he was.

“Bitch, you okay?” I asked.

“Fucker stabbed me in the arm!”

If that’s the worst injury we get away with today, we can count ourselves lucky.  I headed out of the cloud that surrounded us, hoping to get a better sense of the battlefield.

I got out just in time to see Oni Lee tackling one of Coil’s snipers off the edge of the roof.  Oni Lee disappeared in a cloud of white before he hit the ground.  I was pretty sure the sniper hadn’t.

Sundancer was crumpled over, Labyrinth holding her shoulders.

This was not going well.

Oni Lee appeared thirty feet away from me, standing just to my left and behind me.  My bugs gave me a sense of his position before anything else, and I threw myself to one side.  I thought maybe I saw the shape of one of his throwing knives pass through the air where I’d been standing, but I wasn’t seeing very well with a cracked lens on my mask.

At my command, The bugs that had alerted me to his position gathered on him and began biting and stinging.

Then I noticed something weird.  More bugs popped into existence in the midst of the cloud, near Sundancer and Labyrinth.  I felt the original bugs perish as they exploded into ash.

He was taking them with him.  I don’t think he could help it.

I could track his movements.

“Bitch!  Here!” I shouted.

She lunged out of the cloud, still astride Brutus, pulling up short to avoid trampling me.

“I can see where he’s teleporting,” I told her, “Get Judas and Angelica.”

She whistled, long and piercing.  As if in response, Oni Lee appeared just a few feet away.

“Behind you!” I pointed.

Brutus whipped around, snapping and snarling, and Oni Lee had to backpedal to escape being caught in the mutant’s jaws.  He disappeared just a second later.

“Get one dog near those guys,” I pointed to Sundancer and Labyrinth, “We should join them asap.”

She nodded, whistled, and pointed.  No sooner did Judas and Angelica arrive at our sides than Judas headed off to his next destination.  Bitch offered me a hand.

I gratefully took it, letting her help me up onto Brutus’ back.

As we approached Sundancer and Labyrinth, the sidewalks on either side of us dropped out of existence, leaving only a bottomless pit where they had been.

“The fuck?” I murmured.

Then the buildings began to rise in height, some leaning over the street and joining with the others in grotesque arches and bridges.  Brickwork stretched and extended into the alleyways, closing them off.

Then windows began to shrink and warp, leaving only flat expanses of brick, concrete and stucco for the building faces.  Under our feet, the road began to shift in color, with some patches becoming paler, and others darkening.  They sharpened in definition as they settled into an alabaster white and jet back.  A checkerboard?

Brutus had to leap out of the way as one of the squares of the checkerboard suddenly rose to a height of ten feet.  As if in response, other squares began to rise and fall, each to varying, almost random heights.

I was almost dismounted as another square appeared in a wall and slid out of the side of the building in a thirty foot long horizontal pillar.

We reached safe haven, an expanse of unaffected ground, thirty feet across, with two figures in the center.  Sundancer and… Labyrinth.

“This is you?” I asked Labyrinth, awed, as I climbed down off Brutus.

She didn’t reply.  Instead, she reached out and touched the side of my chin.

The images of arches, pillars and checkerboard patterns fell away like a house of cards.

“Hallucinations,” I spoke, as Labyrinth made a waving gesture towards Bitch’s head.  She looked at me and shook her head slowly.

“They’re not hallucinations?” I asked.

She didn’t reply.

“You can’t explain because you can’t or don’t talk,” I realized, speaking my thoughts aloud.

Oni Lee appeared a few feet away.  I whirled and pointed, “There!”

He was stumbling, moving to avoid something that wasn’t there.  He was still there, trying to get his balance, as I felt more bugs appear at another point on the opposite side of us.  Only he appeared fifteen feet in the air, fell, and landed in an awkward position, falling over.

“Bitch!” I pointed.

She whistled and pointed to send Angelica.  Oni Lee’s response was delayed, as if he couldn’t even see her approaching, at first.  I felt more bugs pop into existence a second before she set her jaws on him.

“There!”

Bitch sent Judas next.  Oni Lee’s reaction was even slower, but he had time to throw himself onto his back, flinging two throwing knives into Judas’ face and shoulder before he disappeared.

“Over there!” I pointed as he reappeared.

Bitch didn’t even have time to give a command before there was a sound like a champagne cork being popped.  Oni Lee screamed as one of his shins exploded in a spray of blood.

I felt him reappear somewhere else, collapsing to the ground, while his predecessor endured having the kneecap on its good leg shot out.

I followed the sound of a chamber being reloaded to spot Coil’s sniper.  He was lying on his side at the foot of the building, one arm outstretched to hold his rifle steady.  His right leg was bent the wrong way.

He’d been knocked off a three story building, had a broken leg at the very least, and had still managed to retrieve, load and fire his rifle?

If he was willing to be that professional, I could damn well play spotter for him.

“There!” I pointed in Oni Lee’s direction.  On the warehouse again.

There were two more muted popping sounds, and I could see Oni Lee spin in a pirouette of sorts as a shot clipped him, before he collapsed to the rooftop.

He exploded in a cloud of ash once again.  Except I hadn’t felt him appear anywhere.

“He’s gone,” I said, “Out of my range.”

Sundancer looked up at me, one gloved hand on her shoulder.  “Good,” she managed to answer.

“You okay?”

“He gouged my shoulder.  I’ll need stitches, but it’s not the worst injury I’ve had.”

“Okay.  Uh, man, Coil’s guy,” I spoke, trying hard to organize my thoughts and priorities with the adrenaline that was pumping through me, “You going to be alright?”

“Yeah,” he rasped, then he coughed.

I’d have to take him at his word.

“Labyrinth, watch him.  Make sure he keeps breathing and that his buddy knows where he is,” I said, “Sundancer, Bitch, we’ve gotta go help Newter.”

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Hive 5.6

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However effective Bitch’s power play might have been, it didn’t do much to help the tension between the factions making up our group.  It hadn’t been just Kaiser that got spooked and sprayed with blood.  Worst case scenario, if a fight broke out in the group, I was worried that hard feelings from that one thing could set others against us.

I decided to try to remedy that.  The Travelers seemed to be the only group present where there wasn’t some drama already mucking the waters.

“Hey,” I slowed my pace so I could talk to the girl from the Travelers, “What’s your name?”

“My codename?”

“Yeah.”

“Sundancer.”

“I’m going by Skitter.  Couldn’t decide on a name so the media sort of picked one for me.”

“You’re one of the Outsiders, right?”

“Undersiders.  I’m new to the team, honestly, but they’re alright.”

“Uh huh.”  She looked in Bitch’s direction.

“Not as bad as you’d think,” I said, smiling.  She couldn’t see me smile, with my mask covering my mouth, but I did hope she could hear the humor in my tone.  “How’s life among the Travelers?”

She seemed caught off guard at the question.  It took her a few seconds to decide how to respond.  “Intense.  Violent.  Lonely.”

The answer surprised me.  She chose the word intense rather than exciting, but that wasn’t the strangest part of her answer.  “Lonely?  I wouldn’t think that was the case, spending time with teammates.”

She shrugged, “There’s stuff going on that makes hanging out less fun than it should be.  I’m not going to explain it, so don’t ask.”

I raised my hands, palms up, stopping her, “Wasn’t going to.  I was just curious what it’s like for other teams, since I’m fairly new to this.”

She relaxed a bit at that.  “It’s not just the… I can’t think of a word better than drama… but drama sounds like such an understatement.  Whatever.  It’s not the other stuff that’s going on, it’s that we’re constantly moving, rarely spending more than a week in one place, you know?”

“I don’t,” I admitted.  I fudged the truth a little, just to be safe, “I moved twice as a kid, but I was too young to remember it.  For the most part, I grew up here.”

“It gets old, having to-” she stopped talking as I was suddenly pushed to one side.  The tip of Newter’s tail pressed against the center of my chest and moved me back, pushed me against the hood of a dilapidated old car.

“Hey,” I grunted, but he shook his head, pressed a finger to his lip.  His blue eyes bored into mine.  They were weird eyes.  No whites, just azure blue irises that extended from corner to corner, with rectangular, horizontal pupils.

I looked at the others, and they were all moving into cover.  Kaiser, Fenja and Menja had all ducked into an alleyway.  Bitch and her dogs were disappearing around the far corner of the same building, making only the scratching noise of claws against concrete.

Ahead of us, a trio of people in ABB colors crossed the street.  A guy and a girl who looked like they might have been gang members before Bakuda’s hardcore recruitment drive were talking.  A teen who was about my age trailed behind them, looking too scared and worn out to be anything but one of the new recruits.  They were all armed.  A machete dangled from the male thug’s hand, while the girl was toying with a handgun.  The scared looking kid had a baseball bat with nails hammered into it.  People really did that?  The nail-studded baseball bat?

Just behind them was the building that had to be our target.  It was a warehouse, dirty gray, with the letters ‘ABB’ spray painted on and around the loading bay door in red and green in an elaborate style.

When the patrol was gone, Newter spoke, “They’ve got patrols, and they’ve tagged the building.  That’ll be our target, today.”  He checked his watch, “Two minutes until it’s time to move.”

“My girls and I will circle around,” Kaiser stated from the cover of the alleyway, “Attack from another direction.”

“Hey, no,” I replied, “That’s not the deal.  We’re in groups like this for a reason, and that reason flies out the window if we split up like that.”

“I didn’t ask your permission,” Kaiser replied, his voice cool.  Without waiting for a response, he turned to leave, Fenja and Menja following him.

“Are we going to stop them?” I asked.

“I could catch up to them,” Bitch told us, as she rode Brutus back towards our group.

Newter shook his head, thin lips pressed into a line that only accented his strange appearance, “Not worth it, and dangerous to fight amongst ourselves in enemy territory.  We don’t have time, anyways.”

“Bitch, can you call Grue and Tattletale, let them know?” I asked.  “They can take measures if they need to.”

She nodded and got her cell phone out.

While Bitch made the call, Newter beckoned the others to gather in a huddle.  “Let’s talk plan of attack.  Skitter, Bitch, you two have the most experience dealing with these guys, so start us off.”

I glanced at Bitch.  She was busy with the call, and she had been out of action during our last encounter with the ABB, which left her kind of in the dark as far as Bakuda went.  It was up to me.

I silently cleared my throat, then I spoke up, “Bakuda likes to set traps, and if this place is important enough to patrol, it’s important enough to have some traps.  Let me send my bugs in first.  I can get the lay of the land, and the bugs will also confuse and distract anyone inside, which should make things easier on you guys.”

Newter nodded once, “Okay.  That’s step one.  Bitch, can you and your dogs hit the ground floor?  I’ll go in the second floor window.”

Bitch gave him a curt nod in response.

“The bugs won’t bite her?” Newter asked.

“No,” I answered, “Won’t bite you either.”

“They couldn’t if they tried,” Newter answered me, smiling.  Funny, if you looked past the odd appearance – the blue hair, the weird eyes, the orange skin and the tail, he was actually a pretty good looking guy.

“Sundancer, what can you do?” Newter asked.

“I guess you could say I’m artillery,” Sundancer replied, “But I’ve got the same problem Ballistic does – er, my other teammate.  I’m not sure I can use my power without hurting a lot of people really badly.”

“Then stay back with Labyrinth.  You two be ready to cover our retreat or move in if we run into trouble,” Newter replied.

“Sounds like you know what you’re doing,” I commented.

“Maybe some of Faultline has rubbed off on me.”  He smiled.  Then he glanced at his watch, “Twenty seconds.”

Newter glanced at the two soldiers Coil had sent, “You two, can you-”

“We’re taking a position on this rooftop, here,” the shorter of the two men replied, pointing up to the two story duplex next to us.  “We’ll support you with cover fire.”

“Uh, good.  Try not to kill anyone,” Newter said, checking his watch again, “Five seconds.  Skitter?  Start us off?”

I reached out to all the bugs I’d gathered, minus the ones I was keeping beneath my costume.  I directed them towards the side of the building we were facing.

The swarm swept in through windows that were open or broken and the one open door on the side of the building, flowing into the hallways.  I made sure to spread them out to cover every surface, feeling for anything that was out-of-place or unusual.  There were a fair number of people inside, which wasn’t a huge surprise, but my bugs were making a lot of contact with bare skin.  I realized the people gathered in the open area of the warehouse’s ground floor were nearly naked.  Stripped down to their underwear.  It was so unexpected that it threw me off my stride.

I shook my head.  I couldn’t afford to get distracted.  Bakuda probably used metals and plastics, and to the superfine senses of the bugs, that was an entirely different texture from the walls.  I tried to filter out the usual stuff and get a feel for just the plastic or metal things.  Just a few feet in from the entrance, I found two dome-shaped bulges on either side of the stairwell that led to the second floor, metal and plastic.

“There’s something there,” I said.  “Give me a second.”

I took a page out of Grue’s playbook and gathered a group of bugs together into a densely packed, vaguely humanoid shape.  I moved that collection of bugs through the doors and to the place where the little domes sat.

The explosion blew a fair sized chunk out of the exterior wall of the building closest to us.  The people inside, already nervous at the influx of bugs, started scattering, screaming, running for the exits.

“Holy shit!” Newter’s eyes went wide.

“Motion detectors, I think,” I said, “Or proximity activated.  My bugs wouldn’t normally set them off, had to fool them.”

The ground was too hard for landmines, so I focused on having the remainder of the bugs sweep through the rest of the building, skimming the surfaces and looking for more trouble.  I found two more, checked nobody was near, and used the same method to detonate them.  The plumes of flame, smoke and debris were visible from where we crouched.

“Twenty or thirty people on the ground floor, unarmed and half naked, ten in upstairs office, armed,” I said, “Route is as clear of traps as I can get it.  Go!”

Bitch lunged into action, Newter only a few steps behind.  He half-ran, half-crawled, his tail whipping around behind him, presumably to help keep his balance.

As Bitch had her dogs crash into and through the closed metal loading bay door, Newter intercepted the first few people to leave through the fire exit door on the side of the building.  He leaped to close fifteen foot gaps as fast as I could have thrown a punch, moving from one person to the next, dropping each of them in an instant.  Lots of women in that group, and I could confirm with my eyes what my bugs had told me – nine out of ten of the people in that group, a mix of Asian men and women, were only wearing their underwear.  Slave trafficking?  Prostitution?  Something darker?  I felt my skin crawl.

As he darted up the side of the building and slipped into an open window like a bolt of greased lightning, I felt Newter brush past several with my bugs.  Each bug that came into contact with him dropped off the wall or out of the sky, falling to the ground, alive but stunned.

I remembered reading about him on the web.  Information had been scarce, since Faultline’s crew weren’t the types of villain to appear in the papers or on TV, and the concrete details that were out there had been hard to pick apart from the speculation.  What I did know was that his bodily fluids were potent hallucinogens.  Even the sweat that accumulated on his skin was apparently enough to send someone off to la-la land, taking only a few seconds for it to be absorbed through the skin.

I focused my attention on tracking what was happening inside the building.  Newter was on the second floor, probably dodging gunfire as he moved closer to the group of people who had been in the upstairs office.  I had my bugs cluster around them, biting their hands and faces.  I sent them crawling into noses, ears and mouths to disrupt the aim of the people who might shoot Newter.

Kaiser, Fenja and Menja were attacking from the side of the building opposite us.  They had drawn the attention of most of the armed agents and patrols, leaving Bitch and her dogs stranded in the midst of one or two dozen unarmed, unclothed, panicked people.  From what my bugs were sensing, she was giving lots of commands to her dogs.

I realized, belatedly, that someone had blocked off the route Bitch might have taken to reach the fighting.  The edges of the offending barrier were thin, sharp.  Blades?  That meant Kaiser would be the one who had blocked her.  Was it intentional, or had he been cutting off the ABB’s escape routes?

I couldn’t sense what Newter was doing since my bugs couldn’t touch him, but I could feel the movement of the air that followed in his wake, I could track the locations of the bugs he came into contact with before they were brought down by the drugs, and I knew the men were collapsing as Newter moved into their midst and knocked each of them out with a touch.  One or two even collapsed without him touching them.  Something else?  Blood?  Spit?

Only one remained standing.  He and Newter circled one another.  My bugs weren’t having much effect on him, since he was wearing a bandanna or something over his face.

No, wait, there was a second person, just behind Newter.  How had I not noticed him?

Then the first disappeared, and I knew.

I grabbed my phone, accessed the contacts, and auto-dialed Bitch.

“Come on, answer, answer,” I whispered at the phone.

Then a handful of my bugs were stunned and a few more squashed as Newter collapsed on top of them.  I directed most of the bugs in the building to distract the attacker, hoping to buy Newter enough time to get away.  It wasn’t working – he wasn’t moving.

“Fuck! Answer, Bitch!”

“What’s wrong?” Sundancer asked.

“Newter’s hurt.”

Labyrinth put her hand on my shoulder, half-spun me to face her.  She didn’t say a word, her expression barely changed behind the cloth of her mask, but it was still the closest I’d seen to an emotional response from her.

I would have said something, but Bitch chose that same second to pick up.

“Bitch!  Second floor, Newter’s wounded, Oni Lee is in the building.”

There was a long pause before she replied, “Lung’s here too.”

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