Scarab 25.6

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Khonsu allowed himself to be struck by Alexandria, using the impact to float back at a higher speed.  The act gave him the positioning he needed to draw his spheres closer to the Jaguars’ contingent.

A lack of coordination, a simple error, and ten capes were caught, to be killed in moments.  Moments they experienced as weeks, months and years.  Some had brought food and water.  I almost pitied those capes.

Moord Nag appeared, riding her shadow’s skull like a surfer might ride a wave, except there wasn’t any joy in the act.  Her arms remained still at her sides, her head not fully erect, eyes almost looking down, as if she watched the skull with one eye and Khonsu only merited her peripheral vision.

She didn’t wear armor.  Her top was a simple t-shirt with the sleeves removed and bottom half cut off.  There was a faded image of a rock band on the front, her bra straps showing through the gaping armholes.  Her dress was ankle length, frayed a little at the edges.  Her feet were bare, her hair in braids and tied back behind her neck.

The skull dipped close to the ground, and the warlord stepped off as though she was getting off an escalator.  The shadow’s head had taken on the appearance of a serpent’s skull, complete with fangs, and the body was a column behind it, stirring around Moord Nag without touching her.

It lunged, and fragments flew off Khonsu’s shoulder as the  shadow made contact, rubbed against him.  It was as though the shadow’s body were a series of circular saws, a rasp.

Khonsu’s field made contact with the shadow’s body, catching the middle of its body.  Moord Nag didn’t even flinch as her serpent was trisected, the middle section dragged away.

The serpent was winding around Khonsu now, maximizing the surface area that was making contact.  Khonsu elected to ignore it, floating forward to put himself in reach of more of the defending capes.

Califa de Perro used his massive spear to sweep a squadron out of the way before striking the ground, using the impact to throw himself back out of the way.  He landed and straightened.  He was shirtless, and had no doubt oiled his skin, though dust had collected on it, turning him a gray-bronze.  He had bracers with fur tufts near the elbows, and a dog mask that covered the upper half of his face, extending a distance forward.  The only other affectation he wore that made his outfit resemble a costume was the mount at his waist, too large to be a belt buckle, with a molded dog’s face jutting a rather generous handspan in front of him.  He smiled, his teeth white and perfect, as the capes he’d batted aside climbed to their feet.

Apparently deeming that the circles weren’t working in this situation, Khonsu banished all three.  Moord Nag’s shadow was freed, and rejoined the remainder of the mass.  Khonsu’s forward advance was momentarily paused by the impact.  He created the circles anew, placing them in spots where people at the epicenter couldn’t move fast enough to escape.

That was the moment I advanced.

Weaver, how the fuck did you get to South America?”  It was Tecton.  “The Director is flipping out.”

“Someone gave me a ride.  Chevalier will explain later.”

You completely dropped off the radar for half an hour.  We were convinced someone had come after you to take revenge for the work we’ve been doing cleaning up.

“Not revenge.  It doesn’t matter.  I-” I stopped short as a fresh circle appeared.  The placement, the timing… Legend had been caught.

Weaver?

Legend became a blur within the field.  Then, in a matter of two or three seconds, the entire space filled with a red light.  It slowly became white.  Khonsu’s power apparently affected all of the space above the bubble, reaching into the stratosphere.  It was like a pillar of light.

Eidolon created a forcefield, much like the one he’d fashioned to contain Phir Sē’s time bomb, only this one was open on one side, a ‘u’ shape with the opening facing Khonsu.

Khonsu seemed to notice, because he moved the column.  It intersected Eidolon’s forcefield, and Khonsu’s power won out.  The forcefield collapsed.  This wouldn’t be an effect Eidolon could contain.

I’m in the middle of something, Tecton.  I’m wearing the same camera I had at the last fight, so ask for access to the feed, or get over here.  We think we’ve got a way to pin him in place.”

Right.”

Eidolon was shouting something I couldn’t make out.  Alexandria joined the fray, fighting to keep Khonsu in place, pummeling the Endbringer, dodging the columns that closed in on her.

It was impossible to say exactly how he did it, but Eidolon managed to catch the light before it could turn the battlefield into a smoking ruin.  It condensed into a ball, swinging around past Eidolon as if he were a planet and it was in orbit, and then flew into Khonsu and Alexandria with a slingshot turn.

It wasn’t a long, steady stream like the one in New Delhi had been.  It was a white bullet sliding out in a heartbeat, cutting past Khonsu, Alexandria and a good mile of landscape, before driving into the ocean at the horizon’s edge.  Steam billowed out explosively.

Eidolon crossed the battlefield in a flash, weaving to the left of one of the two remaining columns of altered time, the right of the next, and erected a wall to keep the steam from frying the flesh from our bones.

It couldn’t have been precognition that let him move that fast.  Enhanced reflexes?  Something else entirely?

And he’d been saying his power had been getting weaker.

Alexandria had been stripped of much of her costume, but she fought on without a trace of modesty.  Legend, too, seemed unfazed, unaffected by however many years he’d spent in Khonsu’s trap.

And Khonsu, for his part, hadn’t suffered nearly as much as Behemoth had.  Five or six layers had been stripped away, and what was left was glimmering with a light that danced around the outside of his body.

The hue and intensity of it matched the light at the edges of his time fields.  It slowly faded.

I reached the battlefield proper, but lingered near the back, beyond the reach of the time fields.  This wasn’t a scenario where I’d be on the offensive.  At best, I was a helping hand.  My bugs spread out over the area, and I was able to track the movements of the time fields, the combatants.  I started drawing out the spools of silk I had on my costume, extending them between me and the various combatants, using the arms on my flight suit to manipulate them and ensure that neither I nor my threads got tangled up.

Spider silk extended between me and the various capes around me.  These guys were South American.  Three out of four would be in league with the various criminal factions and cartels.  One in four were ‘heroes’.  I couldn’t tell the difference between them.  The cues and details in their costumes weren’t ones I was familiar with.  The choices in color, style, attitude and more were too similar.  A cultural gap I couldn’t wrap my head around, in any event.

Things were confused further by the fact that, by many accounts, the villains running or serving within the cartels were the ones sponsored by the government.  The ‘heroes’, in turn, were rogue agents.

Califa de Perro, King of Dogs, howled and joined the fight, ready to capitalize on the success.  In the same instant, I sensed my bugs being eliminated.  Not dying, per se, but being eradicated from existence.  The ones who’d been following after the column had been caught inside.

It hadn’t changed direction.  It had stopped, in preparation for a change in direction.  I didn’t even have to look to see Khonsu’s target.  I caught an earring of the King of Dogs with my silk, tugged.

He stopped, yelping as he looked in my direction.

“Run!” my voice was no doubt lost in the cacophony.  I tugged again.

He used his spear to move.  A second later, the time field veered into the space he’d just occupied.

It was moving faster.  A third circle appeared, and the movement had accelerated.

Sensing that Khonsu was about to beat a retreat, the Thanda made their move.  A piece of rubble descended from the heavens, striking Khonsu with a force that knocked half of the defending capes off their feet, myself included.

Another of the Thanda used their power to anchor themselves to the rotating circles.  They floated through the air, equidistant to the circle, effectively untouchable, waiting, watching.

When they reached a certain point in the rotation, they caught a small hill so it could join them, anchored to them as they were anchored to the circle.  It swung into Khonsu like a wrecking ball.

The falling star, such as it was, had broken through more of the exterior.  Not a lot, but some.  As the dust cleared, I could see glimmers of light, dancing through the space beneath the injury.

It was the moment I realized that the motherfucker was reinforced.  He had forcefields set between layers, so he couldn’t be wiped out in a matter of good hits like Behemoth had been.  It was eerily reminiscent of Glory Girl.

Still, he was feeling the hurt.  Moord Nag’s shadow ripped into the site of the injury, widening it, danced back as Khonsu swung one arm at the skull, clipping and shattering one antler, and then lunged again, driving itself into another injured area.

It caught Khonsu off-balance, and he landed on his back on the ground.  The shadow flowed over him, the skull butting him in the face to knock him down once again as he tried to rise.  It simultaneously extended out, reaching across the battlefield to push Moord Nag back out of the way of a swiftly approaching Khonsu-field.  She stumbled a little as she was deposited a hundred feet back, but she didn’t really react.  The shadow had more personality than she did, here.

Khonsu had apparently had enough, because he extended his hands out to either side, lying with his back to the ground.

The Thanda member who was rotating around the Endbringer reached out, and each and every one of the defending capes was swept up in his power, drifting counter-clockwise around the Endbringer.  My feet lifted off the ground as he rose, and all of us rose with him.

The Endbringer teleported, and thanks to the Thanda, we were collectively teleported with it.  My bugs, Moord Nag’s shadow, and several tinker-made mechanical soldiers were left behind, as we found ourselves on a beach riddled with stones the size of my fist.  Silos bigger than most apartment buildings loomed just over the hill.

The fight resumed in heartbeats, capes closing the distance to fight the instant the Thanda deposited them on the ground.

My phone rang. I felt only alarm for a brief second, my blood running cold.

I sighed and struck a key on the keyboard.  The window with the video footage of the Khonsu fight closed down.

I let the phone ring twice more before I made myself check the screen.  Tecton.

I wouldn’t pick up for most others, I thought.  Hell, I’d have left the phone off if I didn’t fear that there’d be a critical call.  I’d seen most of it anyways.  I answered the phone.

Weaver, where the fuck did you go?

I smiled a little to myself.  It was an eerie, amusing parallel to what he had said in the video, except he was a little more frayed, a little more weary with me.

“You know where I’m going,” I said.  “So do the bosses.”

We haven’t even- you’re going to screw this up for yourself.  Why now?

“It’s fine, Tecton,” I said.

It’s not fine, it’s…

“They don’t have to like it.  I don’t think it matters if they don’t.”

He seemed to be lost for words at that.

I didn’t push the offensive.  I’d been working on that in the therapy sessions, not treating social interactions like fights.  Calm, patient, I dragged my finger down the side of the screen.  The text scrolled down.

Canberra, Feb 24th, 2011 // Simurgh
Notes:  Scion no-show.  Legend/Eidolon victory.
Target/Consequence: See file Polisher Treatise.  See file Lord Walston and file King’s Men.

Brockton Bay, May 15th, 2011 // Leviathan
Notes:  Scion victory.
Target/Consequence: Noelle?  See file EchidnaNo contact made.

New Delhi, July 26th, 2011 // Behemoth
Notes: Scion Victory, ENDBRINGER KILL.
Target/consequence: See file Phir.

Flight BA178, November 25th, 2011 // SimurghNotes: Loss?  Plane destroyed, Eidolon/Pretender drive off Endbringer.  Marks start of guerilla tactics from Simurgh and Leviathan.
Target/Consequence: Incognito Chinese Union-Imperial heir.  See files:
America/CUI conflict 2012 A
UK/CUI Conflict 2012 A
America/CUI conflict 2012 B
Yàngbǎn

Indiscriminate, January 20th, 2012 // Khonsu
Notes: First appearance.  Scion/Moord Nag victory.  List of all one hundred and sixty three targets and casualty numbers here.

Lüderitz, April 2nd, 2012 // Leviathan
Notes:  Loss?  Driven away by Eidolon.  Secondary targets Swakopmund, Gamba, Port-Gentil and Sulima.
Target/Consquence: Moord Nag.  Guerilla tactics continue, losses in notable but not devastating numbers, but his target survives.

Manchester, June 5th, 2012 // Simurgh
Notes: Defeat, no kill.
Target/consequence: still unknown.  Tie to Lord Walston?

Tecton interrupted my scrolling, finally speaking.  “I kind of hoped we’d gotten to the point where we were okay, that you’d trust me.

“I trust you,” I said.  “But-”

But,” he said, echoing me as he cut me off.  “Take a second and think about what you say next.  Grace asked me to call because, I’d like to think, I’m a pretty calm, laid back guy.  All things considered, anyways.  But I’m on the verge of being pissed at you, and saying the wrong thing now will push this from me being angry in terms of something professional to me being pissed because of something personal.”

“I-”

Think for a second before you talk, Taylor.  You start talking right away and you’ll find your way to a really good argument, and I’ll concede this argument, this discussion, but it won’t get us any closer to a resolution.”

“Right,” I said.  “Thinking.”

I’ll be on the line.

I mulled over his words.  I was anxious on a number of levels.  Terrified might be the better word.  I stood on a precipice, and the meeting I was running the risk of missing was only part of it.  I continued scrolling down as I thought, as if the individual entries could give structure to my thoughts.

Rio de Janeiro, August 15th, 2012 // Leviathan
Notes: Guerilla strike, mind games.  Travels from site to strike Cape Town and Perth after faking retreats.
Target/Consequence: no target apparent.

I stopped at the entry that followed.  I clicked it.  The one for Bucharest.

The video box opened up, but it was dark, the camera covered by my hair at the outset. There was only audio.

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”  It was Grace.

Are you hurt?”  Tecton’s voice.

Golem is.  Shit.

The image wobbled as the camera mounted on my mask did, and the me on the camera moved the hair aside, allowing the camera to record the video.  The streets were empty, old stately buildings loomed close on all sides, my bugs crawling along the face of each of them.

There was a beep.  The camera was mounted on the right side of my face, the armband on my left wrist, so the glimpse was fleeting.  A yellow screen.

“Heads up!” the me behind the camera called out.

For what!?” it was Annex responding, breathless.  “Oh!  Oh shit!

It was only a second later that it became clear just why Annex was swearing.  The city shifted.  Roads narrowed, doors splintered and were virtually spat out of the frames as the door frames themselves narrowed.

The image on the camera veered.  I’d seen the shift coming, and the bugs on the faces of the buildings let me know that the attack was coming a fraction of a second in advance.  As buildings on either side of me lunged closer together by a scale of five or six feet each, spikes sprung from the elaborate architecture, from gargoyle’s mouths at either side of a short flight of stairs, from the sign that bore a store’s name, a blade rising from a manhole cover… ten or twelve spikes, for me alone, each fifteen or twenty feet long.  They criss-crossed, came from every direction.

The camera had gone very still.  Then, slowly, it moved again, examining the surroundings.  Blades and prongs surrounded me, poised ready to prick and gouge like the thorns of a rosebush, all around me.  My fingers rose to the camera’s view, wet with blood.

I’d only dodged as much as I had by virtue of the ability to sense where the bugs that clung to the blades were moving, and enough luck to be able to move into a space that escaped the various thrusts.  The blood had been from a glancing blow, along the underside of my right breast.  I traced it now, as I sat in front of the monitor, feeling the spot over where the scar would be.  The fucking things were sharp enough to pierce my armor and silk both.

I could remember my outrage at that fact, the stupid, silly comment that had run through my mind, that I’d refused to say in fear that this video would somehow leak as well.

Can’t believe the blade hit such a small target.

Everyone okay?” I asked, on the screen.

I listened to the various replies of confirmation.  I followed by relating how the armor I’d made them wasn’t sure protection.

Then the camera’s view shifted as I freed myself of the spikes I’d so narrowly avoided –mostly avoided-.  I took two steps forward, and then threw myself to the ground as a figure sprung from the wall, a woman, moving so fast she could barely be glimpsed.  The camera veered again as I rolled on the ground, avoiding two blades that plunged from the underside of her ‘body’ to the ground, punching into the earth.

She had carried forward, uncaring that I’d dodged, slamming into another wall, and she had left a piece of herself in her wake.  Or a piece of what she’d made herself out of, anyways.  She’d become the city, and this small fraction of herself had been formed out of the light gray brick that formed the building to my right.  She’d left the pillar behind, three feet across, barring my path.

My head whipped around as I followed her progress.  One more of the rushing figures appeared a block down, two more behind me, simultaneous.  A pillar, then a short wall and another pillar, respectively.

Heroes, be advised,” Dragons A.I.’s voice came over the armband, “The Endbringer Bohu appears to follow a strict pattern.  The city is condensed in twenty-four minute intervals, followed almost immediately by the miniature Endbringers producing barriers, walls, pillars, blocking apertures and more.  The next phase, occurring gradually over the next ten minutes, will produce deadfalls, pitfalls and a smoothing of terrain features.  Following that, we should expect more complex mechanical traps to appear, after which point the cycle will start anew.  Be advised that she attacks with the spikes as she enters each phase.  Disparities in reports suggest that she is feinting in some cases, feigning an inability to do so.

Good news,” Annex said, over our comm system.  “She can’t affect what I’m affecting.  Bad news is I wasn’t entirely submerged.  I’m bleeding pretty badly.

We’ll get to you,” Grace promised.

I shut my eyes for a moment.  Empty promise, I thought.

There was a distant sound of something massive crumbling.  I now knew it was Tecton, tearing through the area.  I’d be using bugs to direct him to trapped citizens.  I was avoiding the terrain features, he was simply plowing his way through them, doing maximum damage.

The image veered as I approached an archway the Endbringer had created.  I paused before entering, circumvented it by going over, avoiding the traps I’d noted with my smallest bugs.

I could see her.  Bohu.  She was a tower, spearing into the sky, gaunt and stretched thin to the point where her head was five times longer than it was wide.  Her body widened as it reached towards the ground, reached into it, extending roots and melding into the landscape.  Her narrow eyes were like beacons, cutting through a cloud cover that was virtually racing towards the horizon in the gale-force winds.  Her hair, in tendrils as thick around as my arm, shifted only slightly, heavy as stone, despite everything.  She dwarfed the other Endbringers in scale, one thousand three hundred feet tall, and her body extended into the city.  I couldn’t even guess at the radius she controlled.

Beside her was her sister, Tohu, who would have been almost imperceptible if it weren’t for the glow around her.  Tohu, with three faces.  Legend’s white and blue mask, Eidolon’s glowing shroud, and Kazikli Bey’s red helmet, each twisted to be feminine, framed by the long hair that wove and wound together to form her body.  It condensed into cords and ribbons, and the ribbons and cords, in turn, condensed into her chest and lower body, two torsos made with overlapping versions of the hairstuff, small breasted, with only one pair of legs at the lower half.  The colors were extensions of the costumes she was copying, predominantly white here, but with streaks of crimson, green and sky blue highlighting the ridges and edges.

Her four hands were long-fingered, claw-tipped extremities in shapes that served as mockeries of the people she was mimicking.  Two of Eidolon’s hands with the blue-green glow around them were holding a forcefield up to protect her sister, while a white-gloved one focused on using Legend’s lasers to target capes who thought flying up and out of the city was a good idea.  Not that it was easy to fly in winds like this.  Not the sorts of winds that an aerokinetic like Kazikli Bey could make, capable of slicing someone with air compressed into razorlike ribbons.  A hand in a red gauntlet was gesturing, redirecting the wind to blow down, across, and in crosswise currents that formed brief-lived whirlwinds.

The me in the video made a small sound as she took the brunt of that cutting wind, hopped down from the arch, entering the city once more.  It was just now starting her third phase, the pitfalls and deadfalls, eliminating cover, cleaning up rubble, and slowly, painfully crushing anyone who had been trapped in either of the previous two phases.  If crushing wasn’t possible, she would apparently settle for suffocation.

I closed down the video.  There wasn’t anything more to hear in the exchange between the Wards, and it wasn’t a good memory.

Another counter to Scion.  All too often, he was late to arrive, and once Tohu had chosen three faces and Bohu had claimed the battlefield, well, the fight was more or less over.

I could hear,” Tecton said.  “You were watching one of the Endbringer videos.

“Yeah,” I said.

Thoughts?

“We’ve been through a lot,” I said.  “I owe you a lot.”

And we owe you in turn.  We’re a team, Taylor.  You have to recognize that.  You know that.  We’ve been together far, far longer than you were with the Undersiders.

I sighed and scrolled down.

Bucharest, October 10th, 2012 // Tohu Bohu
Notes: First appearance.  Loss.  Tohu selects Legend, Eidolon, Kazikli Bey.  Target/Consequence: see file Kazikli Bey.

Paris, December 19th, 2012 // Simurgh
Notes: Victory by Scion.
Target/Consequence: see file The Woman in Blue.  See file United Capes.

Indiscriminate, February 5th, 2013 // Khonsu
Notes:  Victory by Eidolon/The Guild.  List of the twenty-nine targets here.

Los Angeles, May 17th, 2013 // Tohu Bohu
Notes: Victory by Eidolon/The Guild.  Tohu selects Alexandria, Phir Sē, Lung.  Target/Consequence: unknown.

We’d participated in more than half of those fights.  My eyes fell on the clock in the top right hand corner of the screen.

8:04am, June 19th, 2013

Listen,” Tecton said.  “I’m not demanding anything here.  I just need a straight answer, so I know what to tell the others.  If you say you’re not going to be here, that’s- I’ll understand.  Except not really, but I’ll…

He trailed off.

“You’ll accept it,” I said.

I’m going to lie and say yes,” Tecton answered me.

I looked at the list of recent Endbringer fights, flicking my finger on the screen’s edge to scroll up, then down.

“I’ll be there at two,” I told him.

You will?”  He almost sounded surprised.

“We’ve been through too much, and you’re right.  I can’t throw it all away.”

I’m glad.

“See you in a couple of hours,” I said.

See you, Taylor.  Have a happy birthday.

“Thank you,” I said, hanging up.

Eighteen, I thought.  I stood and stretched, swaying a little as the craft changed course.  A two-fingered swipe on the screen showed the craft’s course and our ETA.  Another two-fingered swipe returned me to my desktop.

C/D: Endbringer
28:18:44:34

C/D: End of the World
-16:21:56:50

Sixteen days late.  The only person more freaked out than me was Golem.

I’d revised the countdown clock to assume that Jack Slash would appear on the date he’d set with Golem.  June fourth was the deadline he’d given, for Theo to find him, to kill him, or the madman would kill a thousand people in some spectacular fashion, ending with Aster and Theo himself.

No appearance, no mass murders.

June twelfth was the date the Slaughterhouse Nine had left Brockton Bay.  The day that was supposed to start the two year countdown.

It wasn’t supposed to be precise, but watching the clock tick with each second beyond the supposed deadline, knowing that something could be happening in a place I wasn’t aware of, the mere thought made my heartbeat quicken, an ugly feeling rise in my gut.

Dinah had confirmed to the PRT that things were still in motion, that it was imminent, but the idea was swiftly losing traction.

I’d heard people joke about it.  PRT employees who had likened Dinah to the evangelical preachers who promised an endtime, then scrabbled to make up excuses when the date in question passed.

My bugs could sense the insects within the city as the craft descended.  Sand billowed in dramatic clouds the Dragonfly settled on the beach.

It wasn’t my ship, but the name was a joke, due to the degree Dragon had been sending me this way and that.  Defiant was busy now, so it was mostly her doing the chaperoning, when the Protectorate couldn’t oblige.

The ramp finished descending, and I stepped down onto the beach, feeling the sand shift beneath the soft soles of my costumed feet.  I could have flown or floated, but then I wouldn’t have felt like I was truly here.

I ascended a set of wooden stairs to rise from the beach to the street proper, joining the scattered residents who lived here.  Men and women on their way to work, starting their day, children on their way to school, many in their Immaculata school uniforms.

I walked, taking it in.  The smells, the feel, even the subtleties in pace and general atmosphere, they were familiar, comfortable.

Not good, but they were things I associated with home.

It was an unfamiliar area, but I had studied the satellite maps.  I no longer wore my tracking device, but the PRT no doubt knew exactly where I was, for just that reason.  If they couldn’t monitor the Dragonfly’s location, they would have found it on my computer.

I could see additions in the distance, the white tower that speared into the sky, the blocky, windowless structure that contained the scar.  It wasn’t visible, but I knew I could make my way to the crater and see how they’d drawn up a border around it, done construction work underground to contain the contents and keep the water from eating away at the city infrastructure.  I’d read up some on changes in Brockton Bay, had heard more from my dad in our regular visits.

Here, the area was marked with graffiti, always in the same variants, no two pieces alike.  Devils, castles, angels, hearts.  I suspected the arrangements and combinations meant something.  The buildings here were new, quaint, the layout intuitive.

And in the midst of it, they’d wedged in space for an addition.  It made for a break in the flow of the footpaths.  It forced an abrupt turn, a hesitation as you tried to work out the way to your destination.  Accord had drawn out the city plans, and the Undersiders had altered it to make room for this.  For a marking.

It fit, somehow, the way it broke the rhythm, the way it didn’t really jibe.

The fact, I thought with a slight smile, that it irritated.

Two masks, resting against one another, one almost resting inside the other.  One laughing, the other not frowning, but the expression blank.  They were cast in bronze, set on a broad pedestal, four feet high.

I approached, my eyes falling on the objects that had been placed on the pedestal.  Wedding rings, a weather-beaten gold that didn’t match the bronze.  Twenty, thirty.  I might have obtained an exact count, but I didn’t want to dirty it with my bugs.

I turned, looking around, and saw how the buildings surrounding the edifice were marked with graffiti.  Castles and landscapes with blue sky above.

“I thought I’d see you first, Regent,” I said.  “A kind of apology, for not coming sooner.  For not being there at the funeral, if there was one.”

The empty eyeholes of the solemn mask stared down at me.

“I’ve thought about a lot of things in the time I’ve been gone.  Framing stuff, stepping back to consider just how fucked up it was that I was spending time with you, condoning what you’d done.  You took over small-time gang lords, I know.  Took over Imp, even.  So why did I let it happen?”

The wind blew my hair across my face.  I noticed that there were people staring, looking at me from the other side of the street.  Whatever.  It didn’t matter anymore.

“Then I think about how you went out, and I think… you know, it doesn’t balance out.  One selfless deed, after all the shit you did?  No.  But that’s your cross to bear, not mine.  I don’t believe in an afterlife or anything like that, but, well, I guess that’s the mark you left.  When we die, all that’s left are the memories, the place we take in people’s hearts.”

I reached out to touch one of the wedding rings.  It was partially melted into the surface of the edifice.  I imagined someone could strike it free with a hammer.

Not that I would do that.

“Sounds so corny when I say that, but it’s how I have to frame this, you know?  You lived the life you did, with a lot of bad, a little bit of horrific, and some good, and now you’re gone, and people will remember different parts of that.  And I think that would sound arrogant, except, well, we’re pretty similar on that score, aren’t we?  It’s where we sort of had common ground, that I didn’t have with any of the others.  We’ve been monstrous.”

I let my finger trace the edge of the wedding ring.

“I’ve hurt people for touching those.”  The voice sounded just behind me, in my ear.  I jumped, despite the promises to myself that I wouldn’t.

Then again, she wasn’t someone you could anticipate.

“Imp,” I said.

I turned around to look at her.

She’d been attractive in that dangerous too-much-for-her-age way before, and to judge by her body alone, she’d grown fully into it.  She was statuesque, wearing the same costume I’d given her two years ago, when she’d been shorter.  A quick glance suggested she’d cut off portions to adjust, wearing high boots and elbow length gloves to cover the gap, and wore a cowl to cover the gaps in the shoulders and neck.  It might have looked terrible, but it fit.  Her mask was the same as it had been, gray, noseless, long, disappearing into the folds of the cowl as the fabric sat around the lower half of her face, with only hints of teeth at the sides marking the mouth.  The eyes were angled, with black lenses, curved horns arching over her straightened black hair.

“Tattletale said you’d be back today.”

“I figured she’d know,” I said.

“Was it worth it?  Leaving?”

I hesitated.  “Yes.”

I hesitated, I thought.

“I told the others.  They’re on their way.”

“Okay,” I answered.  Fast response.

No.  Too fast.  I reached out with bugs, and I sensed the crowd, the way they were standing.

Here and there, there were people who shouldn’t have been paying attention to the scene.  A young girl inside one of the buildings with the graffiti-mural on the exterior, holding a baby.  A boy was standing a little too far away to see, but he didn’t approach to get a better view.

There were a small handful of others.

I looked at the rings on the memorial.  “Heartbreaker’s.”

“He collected them.  I uncollected them.”

“I’d heard he died.”

Imp nodded slowly.  “Said I would.  I told you I’d kill his dad for him.”

An admission.  I felt a kind of disappointment mingled with relief.  Not a set of feelings I wanted to explore.  I suspected the sense of relief would disappear under any kind of scrutiny.

“People keep prying them loose, but there’s usually someone nearby to keep an eye out and get a photo or description.  I track them down and bring the rings back.  Once every few months, anyways.  Kind of a pain.”

“It’s how he would want to be remembered, I think,” I said.

“Yeah.”

No snark, no humor?  I wondered how much of that had been a reflection of her friendship and almost-romance with Regent.

“And you recruited the kids,” I said.  I used my bugs to track the bystanders, my eyes to note more who fit the criteria.  Boys and girls, some narrow in physique, most with black curls, others with that pretty set of features that had marked Regent and Cherish.  Some were fit on all counts, others mingled two of the qualities and skipped a third.  Heartbreaker’s offspring, unmistakably.

“I recruited some.  They needed a place to go, and it’s kind of nice, having them around,” Imp said.  “They’re good enough at fending for themselves.  One or two, you get the feeling they’re almost like him.  In a good way.”

“I’m glad,” I replied.  Glad on more counts than I’m willing to say.

Then, as I realized that any number of those kids might have taken after their father in the powers department, I was struck by the thought that they might know that, that they might report that relief I was experiencing back to their de-facto leader.

If that was the case, they would also report the way I felt ill at ease, just a little creeped out, as I eyed Imp’s followers.

Imp was eyeing me.  I cocked my head a little, the best expression I could give without taking off my mask, hoping it conveyed curiosity.

“I like you better than her,” Imp said.

Like me better than who?  I wondered.  Than Lisa?  Rachel?  I didn’t get a chance to ask.  I was distracted as I sensed an approach and turned to look.

“Bitch is here,” Imp said, noting the turn of my head and the figure at the end of the street, ignoring traffic as her dogs made their way to us.

Rachel, I thought.

“She’s been going to the fights, helping out here when we send for her.  I haven’t been going to the fights, so I dunno how much you’ve seen her there.  She’s been checking in on me, wandering around here with her dogs and scaring the everloving shit out of people until I come to say hi, then she leaves for another few weeks.  I’ve probably seen her the most.”

“I’ve barely seen her at all,” I said.  Even with the Endbringer attacks.

The dogs weren’t running, and it took me a moment to realize why.  There was one dog that was larger than the rest, with half of a bison’s skull strapped over the left side of its face, the horn arching out to one side.  Armor and bones had been strapped on elsewhere.  It didn’t seem like something Rachel would have done, dressing up her dog.  One of her underlings?

It’s Angelica, I realized.  The dog lumbered forward, moving at a good clip, but certainly not the speed the dogs were capable of when they went all-out.  Rachel was controlling the speed of the other dogs to allow the wounded animal to keep up.

She was riding Bastard, I recognized.  It was different from the others, symmetrical, the alterations flowing into each other better.  Two other dogs accompanied her.  Bentley wasn’t among them.

The onlooking crowd, Imp’s underlings included, sort of hurried on their way as the dogs approached Regent’s monument.  Rachel hopped down as they reached our side of the street.

Rachel was taller, I noted, browned by sun, the jacket I’d given her tied around her waist, a t-shirt and jeans, with calloused feet instead of shoes or boots.  Her auburn hair, it seemed, hadn’t been cut in the two years since I’d seen her.  Here and there, hair twisted up and out of the veritable mane of hair, no doubt where tangled bits had been cut away.  Only a sliver of her face and one eye were really visible through the hair, a heavy brow, an eye that seemed lighter in contrast to the darkened skin.

And damn, I thought, she’d put on muscle.  I’d gained some, working out every day, but even with her frame and her natural inclination towards fitness, I suspected she must have been working hard, all day, every day.  Maybe not quite what a man might have accomplished, but close.

“Rachel,” I said.  I was overly conscious of how we’d parted, of the way I’d left the group and the awkward conversation during the New Delhi fight.  “Listen-”

She wrapped me in a hug, her arms folding around me.

I was so caught off guard that I didn’t know how to respond.  I put my arms around her in return.

She smelled like wet dog and sweat, and like pine needles and fresh air.  It was enough that I knew the new environment had been good to her.

“They told me to,” she said, breaking the hug.

They wouldn’t be the Undersiders, I gathered.  Her people, then.

“You didn’t have to, but it’s… it was a nice welcome,” I said.

“Didn’t know what to say, so they told me to just do.  I wasn’t sure what to do, so I asked and they told me to hug you if I wanted to hug you and hit you if I wanted to hit you.  Yeah.”

I’m guessing she only just decided, I thought.  I’d been gambling by wearing my Weaver costume, but then, I hadn’t expected them to converge on me like this.  I would have changed before seeing Rachel.

“It’s good?” I asked.  “Over there?”

“They’re building, it’s annoying to get in and out.  But its good.  Tattletale made us bathrooms.  We’ve been building the cabins around them.”

“Bathrooms are good,” I responded.

She nodded agreement, as if I hadn’t just said something awkward and lame.

“I remember you complaining about the lack in your letter,” I added.

“Yeah,” she said.

Wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, to carry on a conversation with her.

“Others are checkpointing in,” Imp said.  “Just to give you a heads up.”

“Checkpointing?”

“Teleporting, kinda.  Limited.  Um.  We’ve only got a second, but you should know in advance that they’re married.”

“Who?”

But Imp didn’t respond.

Foil and Parian appeared in a nearby building, the same building the girl with the baby was watching from.  Two others had arrived with them.

Them?  I wondered, mildly surprised.  Then again, it made sense.

They approached, holding hands, and a bear managed to form itself from the roll of cloth Parian had bound to her back, without anyone, the stuffed creature included, really breaking stride.  They’d barely changed, but for a little more height.  Foil carried the crossbow that the PRT was apparently maintaining for her, and Parian had donned less dark colors, though the hair remained black.

The two capes with them each wore red gloves as part of their costume.  I knew who they were from the stuff on the forums.  The Red Hands.  The alliance had gone through, apparently.

“So.  You draw me over to the dark side, and then you flip,” Parian commented.

“I hope it’s working out,” I said.

She shrugged.  “It isn’t not working out.”

“We’re fine,” Foil said.  “I suppose I should thank you.  If you hadn’t left, I don’t think I could’ve come.”

“You may be the only person to thank me for leaving,” I said.

“Don’t be so sure,” Imp added.

“Huh?”

“Nevermind.”

Tattletale arrived next.  Grue appeared at the location with more Red Hands as she stepped outside.  Where the others had been modest, approaching with a kind of leisure, she almost skipped for the last leg of the approach.  She hugged me briefly, then kissed me on the cheeks.  The mandibles, really, where the armor framed my jaw.  Whatever.

Of everyone, I was least surprised at the changes with her.  Her hair had been cut shorter, and she wore a mask that covered the entire upper half of her face, coming to a point at the nose.  Her shoulders, elbows and knees had small shoulderpads on them, and there was a definition to the horizontal and vertical lines of black that marked her lavender costume.  She wore a laser pistol at her hip, which bounced against her leg as she ran.  PRT issue.  Extremely illegal to own.

“Jerk!” she said, after she’d kissed me on the cheeks, “You’ve barely responded to my fan mail!”

“It’s kind of hard to reply to it without drawing attention,” I said.  “You don’t know how much I wanted the details on what’s being going on here.”

“Jerk,” she said, but she smiled.  “But I should warn you-”

She didn’t get a chance to finish before I saw.

Grue approached.  Of everyone, he was the least changed.  Physically, anyways.

But the Red Hands walked in formation around him, and one, a young woman, walked in step with him, close enough that their arms touched.  They could have held hands and it would have been just as blatant.

I’d faced Endbringers, the Slaughterhouse Nine, I’d taken down who knew how many bad guys… and I had no idea how to face this.

He’d moved on, and I was glad he’d moved on.  He maybe needed someone to lean on, to give him emotional support, and maybe she was that.  I told myself that, I tried to believe it, but I was jealous and hurt and bewildered and…

And I bit back the emotion, approaching, ready to hug.

When he extended a hand for me to shake, I had to fight twice as hard to suppress any reaction to the hurt.  I could tell myself that he’d at least done it before I’d raised my arms to hug him, but… yeah.

I took his hand and shook it.  Then, on impulse, I pulled on it, drawing him forward and down a little, and put my other arm around his shoulders.  Half of a hug, half a shake.

“Happy birthday,” he said, after I stepped back.

The others echoed him.  Welcomes and happy birthdays.  He’d remembered, but… that choice of words.

I eyed the young woman.  She was a rogue, in the dashing villain sense, wearing a mask around the eyes, and old-fashioned clothes with lace around her ample cleavage.  Her jacket and slacks were festooned with belts, bearing utility pouches and knives.  The glove that wasn’t red had a knife attached to each fingertip, a brace around it to keep everything in place.

She met my own gaze with one of her own, a narrow, hard look.

“Oh.  Skit- Taylor, meet Cozen.  Second in command to the Red Hand.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  They don’t really match.

“Pleasure’s mine,” she said.  “I’m meeting a legend, after all.”

Awkwardness followed.

And in the midst of that, Imp’s statements finally caught up with me.

I like you better than her.

Don’t be so sure, Imp had said.  Well, Cozen would be happy I’d left.

Then, with a realization like a dash of cold water to the face, I remembered.

They’re married.

“Taylor,” Tattletale said, rescuing me before I could say something dumb.  She hooked her arm around mine and led me around and away.  “Much to talk about.”

“The end of the world,” I said.  “Endbringers.  Finding Jack, or the designer-”

Safe topics, somehow more reassuring than this.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “Everyone’s playing it safe, keeping things quiet.”

“What do we do?”

“What was the plan?” she asked.  “When you came?”

“I’ve got six hours before I need to be in New York.  They’re swearing me into the Protectorate.”

“Congratulations,” Grue said.  He sounded genuine.

“I should be saying that to you,” I said, glancing at him and Cozen.

“Oh.  Thank you,” he answered, in his characteristic eerie voice.  I couldn’t read his tone, and felt a little grateful that at least one of us was spared sounding awkward.

“Six hours,” Tattletale said.  Another rescue.

“I was going to visit everyone in turn to catch up, visit my mom, then see my dad.”

“Well, we’re all here.  We can go somewhere together,” Tattletale said.  “There’re stories to tell, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure,” I said.  I almost wished my original plan had gone ahead, that I could have a really short visit with Grue, a longer sit with Rachel and her dogs, then a long discussion with Tattletale about what was going on, before I headed off to see my mom’s grave and my dad.

“Come on.  We’ll walk, see the sights,” Tattletale said.  “figure out what to do for breakfast or brunch.”

“Okay,” I said.  I glanced at the others.  Would they be down, or would they back out?  Parian and Foil weren’t close to me, but they were sticking around.  Cozen wasn’t making an excuse and leaving, and neither was Grue.  I could see him exchanging murmured words with her.

I must have looked a little too long at him, because Imp fell in step beside me.

I glanced at her.

“I was just fucking with you,” she whispered.  “I thought you probably deserved it.”

My stomach did a flip flop at that.  Anger, relief, bewilderment, more anger.  Still more anger.

“Man, the way your bugs reacted.  Hilarious.  You act like you’re all stoic, but then I just have to look over there and over there and I see bees and butterflies circling around like eagles ready to dive for the kill.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but she cut me off.

“She is pregnant,” Imp said.

My mouth shut.

“Kidding.  This is fun.  Come on, butterflies, I see you over there.  Do your worst, I know you want to kill me.”

I considered jabbing her with my taser, and the thought was vivid enough that I imagined it buzzing at my hip.

Except it wasn’t my taser.  It was my phone.

As it had so often this past month, I felt my heart leap into my throat, that pang of alarm.  A very different kind of alarm than Imp had been provoking from me.  More real, more stark.

I drew the phone from my belt, then stared down at the text that was displayed.  A message from Defiant.

“Endbringer?” Rachel asked.  Something in my body language must have tipped her off.

I shook my head, but I said, “Yes.  Sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“An endbringer with a lowercase ‘e’,” I said.  “It looks like Jack may have made his challenge to Theo.  It’s starting.”

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Scarab 25.5

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Three days.

Nearly three days and we hadn’t managed to kill him.

A new target every thirty minutes, give or take.  Ten to twenty minutes for the defending forces to get their shit together.  The remainder of that time was our capes trying to hurt him.  Chipping away at him.

Sometimes we made headway.

Sometimes he crushed the bulk of the defending forces and then stood still, drawing those rotating columns of altered time to himself.  Not covering himself, but allowing the altered time effects to graze the outer edges of his body.  He’d heal, regenerating as much as half of the damage we’d done.

He hit major cities and small ones.  Villages, even, when he needed some elbow room to regenerate.  He’d hit a weapons stockpile in Russia, and nuclear weapons had been accelerated in time, the casings wearing down in that odd entropic, eroding effect that accompanied the time accelerations.  A nuclear detonation.  Heroes were still trying to minimize the damage.

He was teleporting less often than he had at first, and there were a number of heroes who were appearing regularly on the scene.  Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon, they were stepping up, though they’d started taking breaks, shifts.  Legend would skip one, then participate in the next two.  Alexandria would do two on, then two off.

They were tired, weary.  Everyone was.  How could you rest when he could appear where you were?  Six or eight hours of sleep meant he’d be changing location twelve to sixteen times, if not more.  And at the same time, that fatigue, it made it easier to make mistakes, and he wasn’t an opponent that let mistakes slide.

Tecton approached me, setting his hands on my shoulders.

“What?” I asked.

“You need to rest.  The others have managed it.”

“I’ve napped.”

Sleep.  You’re swaying on your feet.”

I wanted to protest.  My eyes fell on the others, and I could see how affected they were.  Scared, tired, helpless.  They were arranged around the Chicago headquarters, perpetually in costume, with no idea what to do with themselves.  Thirty minutes, and then that intense period of tension, waiting, wondering as it took the media or the PRT time to grasp just where he’d gone, to report the information.  If we were lucky, we got video footage, and we didn’t have to wonder if Khonsu had caught any of the big guns.

In a way, I’d grown used to being a little different from my peers, here.  I could be blasé about things that had them freaking out, confident.  I could put myself in the bad guy’s shoes because I’d been one, once.

Except here, I was no different.  Three days in, unable to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, feeling my heart plummet into my stomach every time Khonsu teleported, I was on the same page as the others.

“I only ever wanted to do something to help,” I said.

“I know,” Tecton said.

“Even at the beginning, even when I was undercover in the Undersiders, I wanted to stop the bad guys.  A lot of it was selfish, me wanting to escape, but I still wanted to work for the greater good.”

“Yeah,” Tecton said.  He let his gauntlets fall from my shoulders.  I turned around to look at him.  Our man of iron, his face hidden beneath his helmet.  He was standing firm, giving no indication of how affected he was.  It let him be strong, or appear to be strong, for our sakes.

“And then I decided to be a villain full-time, but my motivations were still sort of good, even if I wasn’t.  I knew the Undersiders needed help.  That there was something wrong with a lot of them, something missing in them.  And being a part of all of that, it was a way to help Coil, when I thought his plan was something good.”

“You’re not a bad person, Taylor.”

“I’m not… being good or bad was never a thing for me.  Not really.  It was all about the actions I was taking and why, instead.  I became a warlord and I took care of people.  I helped seize the city from Coil and we started implementing changes.  Again and again, I’ve escalated in terms of the kind of power I wield.”

“Do you think you’re more powerful now?  With the Wards?”  He sounded almost surprised.

“I… think so.  Yeah.  Maybe my hands are tied, I can’t be as direct or ruthless as I would otherwise be, but I can reach out to the villains and I can reach out to the heroes, and I can affect a kind of change.  I have resources.  Tools and information I might not otherwise have.”

“Makes sense,” he said, his voice soft.  “Taylor, you need to sleep.  I can hear it in your voice.”

“I just… why is it that I get more powerful over time, and yet I feel more and more helpless?”

“You ask too much of yourself,” Tecton said.  “You could have all of the power in the world, and you’d still feel like you should do more.”

“If he hits Brockton Bay-”

“Your father and friends will be okay.  Hell, our strike squad that we used against Behemoth was made up of Brockton Bay residents, wasn’t it?”

“If I have to watch people I care about getting hurt while I’m helpless to do anything, I’ll lose it.”

“It wouldn’t be constructive to lose it,” Tecton said.  “And you’re more likely to lose it if you’re tired.  Go sleep.”

I didn’t reply.  Instead, I trudged off to the quarters that had been set aside for me.  Roughly pie-shaped, with the door at the tip, it sat at the edge of the ‘hub’.  I had a bedroom upstairs, more personal, more of a home, but I didn’t want to be that far away.  I didn’t want to lapse into being Taylor Hebert, even in a moment of rest.  Better to keep thinking, keep considering options.

I lay down on the bed, pulling my mask off.  I didn’t put my glasses on.  My vision was blurry, but it didn’t do anything to block out all of the individual little lights, some blinking, that studded the interior of my quarters.  Laptops, batteries, alarm clock, the charging station with my spare flight pack inside, the television screen, the slat of light that filtered in beneath the door… so many little points of light.  If I hadn’t been so tired, I might have blocked the lights.  Using bugs wouldn’t work, as they’d wander, but a towel at the base of the door, books propped up against various devices…

I sighed and draped my arm over my eyes, my nose in the crook of my elbow.

I spent a long span of time in the twilight of near-sleep, trying not to listen to the murmurs of people’s voices in the main hub.  Idly, I wondered how much time was passing.  Where was Khonsu attacking now?

A lot of people crossed my mind, too.  Enemies, allies.  How were they dealing?  My dad had fired off emails, asked that I let him know before I joined the fight, and right after I got away safely.

For every cogent thought that crossed my mind, two or three stray thoughts followed.  The devastation, scenes burned into my mind’s eye.  People caught and left to die of dehydration in Khonsu’s fields.

Somewhere in the midst of that, I managed to drift off, the recollections becoming dreams, or something close enough to feel like it was an immediate transition.

My uneasy rest was interrupted by a touch to my shoulder.

My eyes opened, and I could see the vague shape of a woman standing over me.

Mom?

I was awake and alert in an instant, but she was already turning away.  Not my mom.  Dark haired, but too short.  Both of my parents were taller than her.

I only recognized her when I saw the doorway.  A rectangle of light, almost glaringly bright, just beside my closet.

“Hey,” I said, as I hopped up from my bed.

She didn’t respond.  She was already gone.

But the doorway remained open.

I had to cross the length of my quarters to see the interior.  A dark hallway, with only dim lighting cast by tubes recessed into the ceiling.  The woman in the suit wasn’t on the other side.

I accessed the various storage containers for the bugs I was keeping in the workshop upstairs.  Beetles navigated the trap that kept them from flying out, then made contact with various touch panels, opening the cages where the various individual species were kept.

As a mass, they flowed down the stairs and into the hub.  The Wards who were at the command center and watching the monitor stood, alarmed, as the mass of bugs made their way across the room to my quarters.

“Taylor.”  It was Tecton speaking, hurrying to the door of my room.

The bugs filtered into my quarters through the space where the walls joined, and beneath the door.

My swarm entered the hallway.  No traps.  The woman in the suit was standing off to one side.  I stood at the threshold, and glanced down at the tracking device that was strapped to my ankle.  What the hell would happen if I stepped through?

I supposed I’d find out.  I stepped through in the same moment Tecton opened the door.

The rectangular portal closed, and I was left staring at a wall.  I turned to see the woman in the suit.  She was tidy, her hair tied back in a loose ponytail with strands tracing the side of her face, and she held a fedora in one hand.  The hat was beaded with moisture.  Another excursion she’d made before reaching out to me?

I was going to speak, when I noticed another presence.  A non-presence.  It was a shift of air currents that seemed unprovoked, affecting certain bugs when it should have touched other bugs in front or behind them.

The topographical sense I got from the movements of my bugs suggested a woman’s form, nude.  It wasn’t entirely gone when another appeared across the room.  The way they moved in sync- not two people.  One person, if she could be called a person; a phantom, flowing through the space around me and the woman in the suit.

The woman in the suit extended the hand that didn’t hold her hat, directing me to a doorway.

I glanced at the woman, noting how there wasn’t a trace of the anxiety or exhaustion that everyone else seemed to show.  My swarm checked the path.

There were people I recognized on the other side.  I stepped through.

The area was dark, but there was ambient light from a series of panels.  Large panels, floor to ceiling, eighteen by five feet, had been erected in a general circle. Two accompanying panels, only two or three feet wide, were set up on either side of each larger panel, to cast light at a slightly different angle.  A bar sat at just below waist height, a semicircle, simultaneously a handrest and a way of indicating a boundary the designated parties weren’t to cross.

A different person or group of people at each station, lit from behind rather than the front.  The light from the other stations barely reached them, which meant their features weren’t well illuminated.  Distinct silhouettes, with only a few more reflective materials catching the light.

I ventured up to the panel closest to the door I’d entered.  Tattletale stood there, and I deigned to stand just behind her and to her left.  Grue, I saw, was leaning against the panel itself, his arms folded.  Tattletale glanced at me and smiled, and I could just barely make out the white of her teeth.

“Asked if they’d pick you up,” she murmured.

“Thank you,” I said.  “What is this?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked.

She turned her attention forward, and then she was taking it in.  I didn’t want to interrupt her, with the amount of information she was doubtlessly gathering.  It was obvious, considering the general presence of those who’d gathered, even if I could only recognize a handful.

Opposite us, Chevalier’s silhouette was unmistakable.  His cannonblade was too distinct.  Exalt stood to his left, and a cape I didn’t recognize stood to the right.  I wondered momentarily if it would count against me that I was standing here.  It hadn’t been by choice, exactly, but it wouldn’t look good that I was with the Undersiders.

Bugs helped me make out Dragon and Defiant at the station to Chevalier’s left.  Both wore their power armor, but apparently the presence of firepower wasn’t a concern, here.

For the most part, that was where my ability to recognize people stopped.

To my left, there was a man in power armor with his face bared.  The tattoo across his face reflected a dark blue-green in an odd way, as though he stood beneath a blacklight, flecks of light… only the fragments flowed.  No, they were traveling a circuit, instead.  Faintly blue, the glimmers traveled a circuit that marked the interior of an elaborate, stylized cross, his eyes unlit shadows in the midst of the two horizontal bars.

I could make out a station with a woman, black, accompanied by a massive shadow of a monster with an auroch’s skull for a head.  The woman’s head hung, her hair braided or bound into dreads, I couldn’t be sure.  I moved my bugs closer to check to see if she had any weapons, and her pet shadow reached out to block the swarm.  They died so quickly it was almost as though the shadow had killed before it made contact.

I decided to leave her alone.

Further down, hard to make out due to the angle of the panel that framed them, there was a small crowd.  A young girl stood at the forefront, and others were gathered around and behind her.  My bugs noted twelve people gathered in front of the panel.

Another station had only a woman and a man sitting at a table that had been set out.  The man had his hands folded neatly in front of him, and the light from neighboring panels was reflected on the large-frame glasses he wore. The woman leaned forward, elbows on the desk, hands clasped in front of her mouth.  Dark skinned, with some kind of pin in her hair.  My bugs traced their hips – the area least likely to be unclothed, and I noted the presence of ordinary clothing.  A button up shirt for him, a knee-length skirt and blouse with accompanying lab coat for her.

Three men in robes that bore a striking resemblance to Phir Sē’s were arranged to our right.

“One moment longer,” the woman in the lab coat said.

“Quite alright,” a man answered her, from the group of twelve.  “I’m really quite excited.  Been a rather long time since I’ve had a breath of fresh air.”

Hush, Marquis,” the girl at the front of that particular group spoke, and her voice was a chorus, a number of people speaking in sync, “I will not have you speaking out of turn.  Our hosts have been gracious to invite us, you will not offend them and besmirch my reputation by association.

“My sincere apologies.”

Marquis?  I had to search for the name for a moment.  Then I stopped.  That Marquis?

Another panel lit up, and the circle was complete.  My bugs found the people gathered in front, allowing me to investigate that crowd, who had silhouettes I couldn’t make out in the jumble.  A woman with a ponytail and a number of monstrous parahumans behind her…  Faultline.

The woman in the suit arrived in the room, crossing through the darkness at the center with the steady taps of her shoe heels against the hard floor.

She joined the man with the glasses and dress shirt and the woman with the lab coat.  It clicked for me.

Cauldron.  I was looking at the people behind Cauldron.  I felt a chill, despite myself.

“Ms. Alcott declined to join us,” the woman in the lab coat said.  “As did Adalid, who wanted to be ready to defend his home in case the new Endbringer arrived there.  The three blasphemies and Jack Slash were unreachable, but we would have far fewer problems if individuals like them could be reached so easily.”

Except you didn’t do anything about Jack when it counted, I thought.

“We reached out to a number of major powers and sources of information, and you are the ones who responded.  As useful as it might be to have the Yàngbǎn or Elite with us, I’m almost glad that we can have this discussion with only those who are truly committed.  Thank you for coming.  I go by Doctor Mother, and I am the founder of Cauldron.”

I could hear a growl from within Faultline’s group.  They were directly opposite Doctor Mother, as far away as they could have been.

Probably sensible, all things considered.  Cauldron was to blame for the case fifty-threes.  I suspected they could have handled themselves if anyone in Faultline’s group were to attack, but setting a distance between the two groups made sense.

“Look,” Tattletale said, abruptly, “Let’s cut past the formality bullshit.  I know a lot of you are big on that sort of thing, but we should talk nitty-gritty tactics sooner than later, especially considering the amount of squabbling that’s sure to happen.”

“Agreed,” Chevalier said, from across the room.

Mense sterf elke sekonde van elke dag. Babas sterf in die moederskoot en die kinders doodgeskiet soos honde. Vroue word verkrag en vermoor en nagmerries skeur mans uitmekaar om te fees op hul binnegoed,” the woman with the skull-headed shadow said, her voice quiet and level.  I was startled to see that it was a human skull, now.

“I gave you the ability to understand and speak English,” a man in the group of twelve said.  “It wouldn’t cost you anything to use it.”

Ek sal nie jou tong gebruik nie, vullis,” the woman replied, her voice still quiet, though it was flecked with anger, just a bit of an edge.

The man sighed, “Well, I could use my power on everyone else here, but somehow I don’t think the offer would be accepted.”

Another person in that group, a woman, spoke.  “She doesn’t believe in using English.  Her first statement was, to paraphrase, ‘People die every day’.”

“Helpful,” Tattletale commented.  “Enough with the bullshit and posturing.  We were brought here for one reason.  Well, a lot of reasons, but the main one that ties us all together is that we’ve got that monster rampaging around and we’re not making headway.  We whittle him down, he heals.  Scion attacks, he teleports, and the golden fool doesn’t follow.  So let’s be honest, let’s talk about this and introduce ourselves before we say anything so we’re not completely in the dark-”

“Some of us have identities to keep private,” the man with the cross on his face said.

“We can’t bullshit around about secrecy and all that.  We need to dust off our weapons and the schemes we’ve been keeping on the back burner and hit that motherfucker.  More than half of us have cards we’re keeping up our sleeves for a rainy day.  Someone needs to bite the bullet and play their card.  And then we need to talk about who plays the next card, when number five comes around.  Because there will be a fifth.  Or a fourth, if you count Behemoth or not.”

“Many of us are playing on a scale where a particular play would put us at a critical disadvantage,” the man with the cross on his face said.  “Acting now, at the wrong time, it wouldn’t only hurt us, but it would put bigger things at risk.  There’s doing wrongs for the greater good, and there’s doing noble deeds and dooming ourselves in the process.”

“You’re hardly so noble, Saint,” Defiant said, his voice a growl.

“I wasn’t speaking about me,” Saint retorted.

“Either way, this is why you’re here,” Doctor Mother said.  “To negotiate.  With luck, you can barter to guarantee your safety in the future, or ask favors of others, in exchange for whatever it costs you to use whatever weapons or resources you’re holding back.”

We can barter,” Faultline said.  Her voice was hard.  “Unless you’re saying the people who’ve been creating and hoarding parahumans en masse don’t have any cards to play.”

“Unfortunately, Faultline, we cannot.  Cauldron, to be specific, cannot.  I have provided this forum for discussion, we can help troubleshoot or support plans, or even provide assistance, but our cards must remain in place.  There is nothing any of you could offer us that would be worth what it costs to act.”

“Bullshit,” I said.  I could feel anger stirring.  “No way I believe that.  Even just that portal system you’ve got, that’s enough to change the tide of this fight.”

“Not an option,” Doctor Mother said.

“Because you’re afraid,” Tattletale said.  “There’s a fear that someone’s going to come after you, trace the portal back home.  But there’s another, bigger fear, isn’t there?”

“Yes,” Marquis said, from among the group of twelve.  “And I suspect I know what it is.”

“Contessa here has informed me you do,” Doctor Mother said, cutting him off.  She was gesturing towards the woman in the suit.  “Let me assure you, it would do more harm than good to reveal the details.  Especially here, especially now.”

“Shit on me,” Tattletale said.  “You bastards figured this out.  How the hell did a bunch of prisoners in a jail that’s dangling inside a mountain get to figure it out before I did?”

“Hands on experience,” Marquis answered.

“Panacea,” Tattletale said.

“Exactly,” Marquis said.  “Clever girl.  Well, I’m not looking to stir waves.  I can’t disagree with the good doctor, so I’ll keep my mouth shut.  Back to business.”

“Damn it,” Tattletale said, under her breath.  Louder, she said, “You’re sure that this doesn’t relate to our Endbringer situation?”

“It doesn’t,” Doctor Mother said. “The Endbringers are a puzzle unto themselves, independent of every other major variable.”

“That reeks of bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “I want to think you’re bullshitting or you’re absolutely wrong and they’re connected to everything, but I’m getting the feeling it’s not.  It’s bullshit because it’s true?”

“I think we’re on the same page, Tattletale,” the Doctor said.

“Can we progress this discussion?” one of the robed men asked.

“We can,” the Doctor said.  “Thank you for getting us back on track, Turanta of the Thanda.  Let’s open the floor to discussion.  Let’s start with the possibility that we might draw from the Birdcage.”

Freedom matters little to me,” the girl with the eerie voice said.  “The true end draws nearer.

“The end of the world, you mean,” I said.

The end of all things, queen administrator,” she said.

Queen administrator?  What?  “Isn’t that the same thing?  The end of the world and the end of all things?  Or do you mean the end of the universe?”

It doesn’t concern other celestial bodies.  It doesn’t matter.  This ends, one way or another.  We and ours will carry on, in some form, whether it happens today or three hundred years from now.

“How reassuring,” Tattletale quipped.  “You won’t help?”

I am safe where I am, whether it beyond the Endbringer’s reach here or deep beneath the mountain.  I will collect from among the dead, and I will keep them company until the faerie rise from the ruins.

Oh, I thought.  She’s completely out of her mind.

“There’s no way to barter for assistance from within the birdcage then?” Doctor Mother asked.  “Nothing you want, Glaistig Uaine?”

The girl, Glaistig Uaine, responded, “A hundred thousand corpses, each being one naturally gifted by the faerie.”

“We don’t have time to laugh about like this,” Turanta, the apparent spokesman of the cold capes said.

I am not joking, astrologer.  I would like to see their lights dancing in the air.  I have seen only glimmers, fragments of the performance.  To see it all at once… yes.

I heard someone in Faultline’s group swearing.  Newter, I suspected.

Honestly, I kind of agreed.  I clenched my fists, biting back the worst of my anger.  I managed to stay calm as I commented, “I’m getting a better idea of why things are as screwed up as they are.  We’ve got all of the major players here, and half of you are willing to do nothing while the world burns.”

“All of the major players who were willing to come to the table,” Doctor Mother said.

Not any better, I thought, but I held my tongue.  Doctor Mother had turned to the girl from the birdcage.  “If you participated in the fight, I can promise there would be a number of dead parahumans there.”

I fear that would not be enough.  It would need to be all together, for the greatest effect,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“We could provide that many over a period of ten years, if required, but we’d want more assistance than simply this one fight,” Doctor Mother said.  She stopped as the man with the glasses leaned close.  A moment passed, “Or we could provide that many twenty-seven years from now.”

I felt a bit of a chill.  They were so casually discussing this, as if it were possible.

I opened my mouth to cut in, but Glaistig Uaine spoke first.

No.  No, I don’t think I’ll accept.  My word is too vital to me, and you seem to want me to war with the abominations.  I don’t fear my own death, but I would rather be together with the others than be separated until the grand celebration.  I won’t fight.  I would only grant my advice, some power here and there.

Doctor Mother sat back in her seat.  The ominous silence suggested she was still considering it.

A hundred thousand lives, being mulled over so readily.

“That’s a shame,” Doctor Mother said, in the end.

“If I may?” Marquis spoke up.  “With your permission, faerie queen.”

Granted,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“There are others who wouldn’t mind being free again,” he said.  “Myself included.  We’d fight that monster if you gave us the chance.  All we’d ask is that you let a select few others out, and that you don’t create a portal that leads back to the Birdcage after the fact.”

“No,” Chevalier said, breaking his long silence.  “No, I’m sorry.”

“Some of the strongest parahumans are contained inside that building,” Marquis said.  “Glaistig Uaine is one, but there are others.  My daughter is another.”

“Your daughter was a mental wreck the last time anyone outside of the Birdcage saw her.  There are too many dangerous individuals in there.  She,” Chevalier said, pointing in the direction of the woman with the shadowy pet with the massive bird skull, “Has killed thousands of people.  That’s nothing compared to what some individuals in the birdcage have done.  We’d be letting the wolves run free again, in the hopes they deal with the lion.”

“If there is no other way to deal with the lion, and we know the wolves have been caught in our snare once before…” Saint said, trailing off.

“We know they can be dealt with.  We’re just lacking resources.  Opening the doors of the Birdcage has to be a last resort.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I could stand for it to be the first resort,” Marquis said.  He turned toward the Doctor, “I’m staying mum about what my daughter discovered.  The details we both know that must not be shared.  Surely that’s worth some goodwill.”

“It is,” the Doctor replied.

I glanced at Tattletale.  Her eyes were moving quickly, hungrily taking in details.

Chevalier sighed.  “Dragon?  Some backup.”

“I have to say no,” Dragon said.  “The prisoners must stay within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  If you intend to rescue them, I’ll deploy everything I have to stop you.  Neither of us can afford the losses at this juncture.”

“But if we did try,” Saint said, “And if we did free a handful of deserving individuals, you wouldn’t be unhappy, would you?”

There was a pause, telling.  It was enough of a delay for Chevalier to look from Saint to Dragon and give her a curious stare before she spoke.  “My view on who is deserving is far different from yours, Saint.”

“Those of us standing here.  Me, my daughter, Lung,” Marquis said.

“You cannot speak for all of us on that front,” a matronly woman spoke.  “One of my girls was unfairly imprisoned, another is on the verge of losing her mind, in captivity.”

“We all have people we’d see freed,” the man who’d spoken about granting the ability to speak English said.  “Let’s say two for each of us.”

“Thirty six in all,” Dragon said.  “One in five of the people currently in the Birdcage, almost.  Six more could potentially use the opportunity to slip out, through Stranger powers or other malfeasance.  Glancing over the notes my artificial intelligences have made regarding the facility, I can guess who some of the cell block leaders would choose to release.  No.  I harbor concerns about the Birdcage, but this is not the answer to that.”

“It would do more harm than good,” Chevalier said.  “And I say that with full knowledge of what we’re up against here, today.  The last three days.”

“Their opinions don’t decide this,” Marquis said.  “If it were solely up to our officers and jailer in the first place, then we’d be free already.  You, Cauldron, have the means to send us back or not.  It’s your authority that matters.”

Chevalier shifted his grip on his weapon, but he didn’t attack.  “We’ll bargain.  Marquis is offering assistance, but the PRT has influence.  We’ll deal with you, Doctor, if it means the Birdcage remains sealed.  With the ongoing inquisition against Cauldron capes, perhaps there are one or two you’d want to be ignored.  They couldn’t be promoted, that’s the PRT’s jurisdiction, and it would only draw attention to them that I couldn’t help them avoid.  Still, I could time a transfer, allow someone to slip through the cracks.”

“A few someones,” the Doctor said.  “Yes.  I’m sorry, Marquis.  Our clients must come first.”

“You’ll be twisting our arms and escorting us through the portal, then?”

“You’ll go willingly.  This place cannot sustain life.  It’s a facility in the middle of a wasteland, and your Earth is several universes away.”

“I see,” Marquis said.  “Unavoidable, I take it.  And if I were to share the particularly valuable information that you and I both know, that you don’t want me to share with others who are present?”

“I can’t believe I’m not getting in on this,” Tattletale whispered to me.

Doctor Mother didn’t reply.  She remained still, her eyes on Marquis, as the woman in the suit, who she’d called Contessa, leaned in close, whispering.

“You won’t,” the Doctor said, when Contessa had straightened and stepped back, standing guard behind the Doctor’s chair.

“I won’t?”

“You won’t.  Teacher would, hearing that, but Teacher has a secret he doesn’t want divulged, and he now knows we know.”

Marquis turned, his shadow shifting, presumably as he looked at Teacher.  He turned back, “Ah well.  I suppose I’ll just say we’re here if you need us.”

“If we need you that badly,” Chevalier said, “Then we’ve already lost.”

“Rest assured,” Marquis retorted, “I think you’re doing a very good job at getting yourselves to that juncture.”

“It’s a failure across the board,” I said, surprising myself by speaking.  “All of us, the Birdcage prisoners excepted, we’re not doing enough.  If we don’t come up with an answer or get someone to step up to bat and fight, then we’re doomed.  We’ve got the end of the world happening in twenty-thirteen, and we can’t even band together for this.”

“Complaining gets us nowhere,” Faultline said. “Besides, it’s not like this is small potatoes.”

“Okay then,” I said.  “Let’s talk resources.  If you’ve got parahumans or information, let’s hear it.  Let’s show a measure of trust and have Marquis or Cauldron share the tidbit of information they’ve gleaned.  Let’s talk options that don’t involve fighting.  Tattletale thinks these bastards are designed.  Where’s the designer?”

“Nowhere we can find,” Doctor Mother said.  “And we have the most powerful clairvoyance we know about, alongside the most powerful precognitive.”

“Does that mean there isn’t a designer?” Faultline asked.  “That Tattletale’s wrong?”

“Get fucking real,” Tattletale retorted.  “I’m confident on this count.”

“If they can’t find the designer-” Faultline started.

“There’s other possibilities.  Lots of powers confound precogs and clairvoyants.”

“Both at the same time?”

“Be constructive,” I cut in.

“We will assist,” Turanta said.  “Sifara, Bahu and I, others beneath us in our organization.  I cannot speak for my fellow brothers, but I will ask them because we all owe a debt.  Our brother died, but Weaver helped to make it not for nothing.”

“Phir Sē died?” I asked, surprised.

“At the hands of the First, very late.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“We owe you,” he said.  “As we owe some of the others.  It is your choice how you would use this.”

“You can pay me back by helping, here,” I said.  “You’d be paying us all back.”

“We have the means,” he said. “But this hurts us, because we rely on our enemies not knowing what we are truly able to do.”

“If this goes much further,” I said, “It might not matter.”

“This is true.  Of each of you but Weaver and Chevalier, we will ask a small favor, after.  Nothing dangerous or painful to give away.  Token gestures, most.”

“Favors make for a good currency,” the Doctor said.  “Granted.”

There were murmurs of assent from others.  The woman with the shadow pet didn’t respond, but Turanta didn’t press the issue with her either.

Dragon glanced at Defiant, but ultimately relented, accepting the terms.

The Doctor spoke “Moord Nag?  We could use your assistance.”

The woman and her shadow pet with its crocodile skull looked at Doctor Mother.  “Laat hulle almal sterf.  Ek is tevrede om die wêreld te sien brand en die vallende konings te spot.  Ek en my aasdier sal loop op die as van die verwoeste aarde.”

“She says no.  Let them all die,” the woman from the Birdcage said.

“Can I ask who she is?” Faultline asked.

Tattletale was the one to answer.  I think she got a measure of joy out of rubbing the fact that she knew in Faultline’s face, “Moord Nag.  Warlord based in Namibia.  As far as the current warlords in the area go, she’s had the longest lifespan at about eight years or so, and she’s gotten things to the point where most of the other bastards around there are kowtowing, asking permission to attack this city or occupy that area, to go to the bathroom or unite two groups in an alliance.”

Die badkamer?”

Us, basically,” Tattletale said, glancing at me.  She turned her head to look at Grue, “Only on a much, much bigger scale, and she did it alone.”

Ek het dit reggekry met aasdier,” Moord Nag responded.  “Nie alleen nie.

“With your pet monster, right.”

“She said she’d be willing to let the world burn, before,” the woman from the birdcage said.  “I don’t think you have an ally there.”

“From her attitude,” Saint added, “I don’t even see why she was invited.”

“I’ll ask you the same thing I asked the others,” the Doctor said.  “What would it take for you to fight, here?”

Ek kan nie krag spandeer sonder om die nag lande hulpeloos teen hul bure te los nie.”

“She can’t spend her power, not without-”

“We’ll supply what you need to replenish it,” the Doctor said.

“No,” Dragon spoke.  “No, you won’t.”

Ek sal nie-

“It would be appreciated,” the man from the Birdcage that had granted her the ability to understand English spoke.  “Reconsider.  Don’t underestimate our resources.”

Vyf duisend, lewendig, dit maak nie saak of hulle mag het of nie.  ‘N Fraksie van wat jy die gek aangebied het.

“No,” Dragon said, before the translator could speak.

“Yes,” the Doctor said, just as readily.  “I caught the number, I can figure out the rest.  You’ll get what you need.”

“I can’t stand by and watch this, not like this,” Chevalier said.

“How many more will die if we don’t act?” the Doctor said.  “The Thanda will counteract the Endbringer’s teleportation ability, at least for a time.  Moord Nag gives you much-needed clout.  Again, at least for a short time.”

“In exchange for five thousand lives?” Dragon asked.

“A small price to pay.  How many have died as we conducted this meeting?”

Jy praat asof dit saak maak. Die kontrak is verseël. Sal ons gaan nou,” Moord Nag said.

“What did she just say?” Chevalier asked.  Moord Nag was already walking away, stepping away from the panel and into the recessed passage beside it, almost completely hidden in shadow.  I could only make out the rodent’s skull, overlarge and pale in the darkness.

“The contract is settled,” Dragon said.  “She sees it as inviolable, now.”

“I like her,” Marquis commented.  “Mass murder aside, anyways.  Woman of her word.”

“We’ll find her,” Chevalier said, to the Doctor, “After the battle is done, before you deliver those people to her.”

“You promised us a favor, in exchange for our not letting Marquis and the other cell block leaders free,” the Doctor said.  “I could ask you to leave this be,” the Doctor said.

“No.  Not this.  Not five thousand people, fed to that woman’s pet.”

“Stop us, then,” the Doctor replied.  “Or try, as it may be.  That’s one Endbringer we should be able to drive away.  As Weaver said, we may have to evacuate the planet if this doesn’t work.  Faultline, your assistance would be invaluable on that front.  You’ve already created nine, I believe?”

“Three of which were supposed to be secret,” Faultline replied.

“It doesn’t matter.  We’ll pay for several more, at major locations, and we’ll arrange your transportation.”

Faultline stared at the woman.  “No, Doctor.”

“No?”

“Not your money.  Not you.”

“Shortsighted,” Saint commented.

“I think this is pretty big picture.  Money talks, and I don’t like how this money sounds.  She spends five thousand lives like someone else would spend change.  Cauldron made innocent people into monsters.  They took everything from them.  I can’t deal with that in good faith.”

She turned to Chevalier, “We’ll give you a discount.  Escape routes in major cities across America.  Leading to the world that the Brockton Bay portal goes to.”

Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll talk to my superiors,” Chevalier said.

“Good,” Faultline said, “that’s settled, then.”

“Leaving only the Endbringer that comes next,” I said.

“We won’t know what measures need to be taken until it makes an appearance,” Defiant spoke.

“Another meeting,” the Doctor said.  “Another day.”

I could feel my heart skip a beat at that.  I wasn’t sure I liked what this was becoming.

Then again, the nature of this meeting had been suggested from the start, with the shadows concealing identities.  Everything the PRT had been fighting to assure people that parahumans weren’t doing was happening here, in this room.  Scheming, trading lives like currency, and wielding incredible amounts of power, money and influence.

“But before we get that far,” the Doctor said, “Tattletale?”

“You asked me here for a reason,” Tattletale said.  “Multiple reasons.”

“The first being to give you an opportunity to check something for our mutual benefit.”

“You brought the major players in so I could see if anyone was the designer, the creator of the Endbringers.”

“And?”

“Nobody here.”

The Doctor nodded.  “I suspected.  They remain immune to precognition, but the designer wouldn’t be, I don’t think.  It’s good to double check, regardless.  Will you be attending if we hold another meeting, Chevalier?” the Doctor asked.

Others, the Thanda, were departing, now.  Grue had stepped away from the panel to step close to Tattletale, whispering something.

Then Grue walked past me, not even glancing my way, before disappearing into the corridor I’d used to enter.

Hurt, confused, I couldn’t speak to ask Tattletale why without possibly interrupting Chevalier, as he spoke in a steady, quiet voice.

“I don’t think I have a choice.  If I don’t come, then I’m left blind to what’s occurring behind the scenes.  I wouldn’t be able to intervene if you tried something like you did with the Birdcage.”

“That’s true,” Doctor Mother said.

“And I think that’s exactly what you wanted,” he said.  “You have that Contessa there, and she sees the road to victory.  You schemed this.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”  Chevalier asked.

“It’s not time for you to know,” she said.

Fuck that,” Tattletale cut in.  Most of the other groups were gone.  Faultline and her group lingered behind.  “I think it’s damn obvious what you’re doing.”

“A new world order,” I said.  Tattletale nodded in agreement beside me.

There were a few curious glances shot our way.  I could see the Doctor shift position.  Exasperation?  Annoyance?

I leaned forward, resting my hands on the railing in front of me.  Grue’s odd departure only fueled an anger that had been simmering, “I had a hell of a lot of time to think, in prison, in my downtime and during stakeouts.  There’s only one thing that really makes sense, as far as your motivations go.  It’s not the clues or what you’re doing, it’s what you weren’t doing.  Only Legend helped against the Slaughterhouse Nine, but he wasn’t in the know, from the looks of it.  You didn’t help Coil, and you didn’t help against Coil.  You only helped against Echidna when it looked like everything might go down the toilet.  But Alexandria steps in when I leave, confronts me after I’d surrendered to the PRT.  So I had to ask myself why.”

“I can imagine,” Doctor Mother said.

“We were guinea pigs,” I said.  “For what?  So you could be in charge?”

“Not us.  Never us,” the Doctor said.  “There’s a lot you don’t understand.”

Try us,” Tattletale said, almost snarling the words.

“All of this?  It’s small scale,” the Doctor said.  “Important?  Yes.  But it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.”

I clenched my fists.  “Five thousand lives, nothing.  Talking about a hundred thousand parahumans to be delivered after twenty-some years, nothing.  The lies you perpetuated with Alexandria, the schemes, Echidna, the human experimentation, the case fifty-threes, everyone you watched die just so your experiment with parahumans in charge of Brockton Bay wouldn’t be tainted…”

“We’ll go down in history as the villains,” Doctor Mother said.  There wasn’t a trace of doubt or hesitation in her voice.  “But it’s worth it if it means saving everyone.”

“You sound so sure,” Gregor the Snail spoke, from behind Faultline.  He had a heavy accent.  European-ish, in the same vein as Moord Nag.

“Do morals matter, if our alternative is a grim and hopeless end?”

“I would never question your morals,” Gregor said.  “I know you have none.  I merely wonder why you are so confident you will succeed in all of this, that you will save the world and you will achieve your new world order and your parahuman leadership.”

“We have a parahuman that sees the path to victory.  The alternative to traveling this path, to walking it as it grows cloudier and narrower every day, is to stand by while each and every person on this planet dies a grisly and violent death.”

“You know how the world ends,” I said, my eyes widening behind the lenses of my mask.

“Of course,” she answered, standing from her chair.  She collected papers and a tablet computer from the table in front of her.  She collected it into a neat bundle, and the man with the glasses took it from her, holding it under one arm.  Only then did she add, “We already saved it once.”

There were no responses to that.  Confusion and disbelief warred with each other as I stared at her silhouette.  The others seemed to be in similar straits.

“You had better hurry if you want transportation to the battlefield,” she said.  Then, with the man with the glasses and Contessa following, she strode from the dark chamber.

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Scarab 25.4

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Touché, PRT. 

You got me.

Touché.

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

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

I hit one instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glenn here.  You should have called earlier.”

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

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

I could believe it.  I didn’t respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” I said.

Did they prep you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a kindergarten teacher herding students around.

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

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

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

Exactly.

“Thank you, Glenn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Grace,” Tecton said.  “No swearing.”

Wanton snickered a little.

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

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

“No puking,” Wanton said.

“No puking is a good idea,” I agreed.

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

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

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

“One!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The updated costumes look good,” Koffi said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

More laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

“Except for Weaver,” Wanton said.

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

“What do you mean?” Jo asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you excited?” Jo asked.

Oh man, was I ever starting to dislike her.

“I’m really excited,” Tecton said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing the conversation back to me.  Again.

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

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

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

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

“Pretty generous.”

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

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

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

“Terrified.”

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

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

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

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

She loved that question?

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

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

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

“You’re bad, though.”

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

Cuff smiled at him.  “Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” Golem said.  “Yeah.”

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

“I hope I can,” Golem said.

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

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

“A classic hero?” Koffi asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Friends,” I asserted.

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

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

He gave me a sheepish grin.

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

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

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

Necessary on a level, but still scummy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was he just sitting back, waiting for an opening?

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

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

She tittered along with the audience’s reaction.

“No response?” Koffi asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Annex stood from his chair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stand by.

Disturbance recorded.

Possible Class S threat.

The others had identical messages on their screens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago Wards are to remain at current location.

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

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

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

“Japan,” Wanton said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s not a fighter,” I murmured.

“No,” Tecton agreed.

“What is he?” Grace asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similar to what we did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no reply from the others.

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

The timing, it was wrong.

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

But it didn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

No, no, no…” Cuff whispered.

In a minute, the capes were dead.

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

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

Temp. codename is Khonsu.

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

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re going?” she asked.

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

So much was wrong with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The craft hadn’t taken off.

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

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

No.  There was something more to Khonsu.

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

He’d teleported halfway around the planet.

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

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

Stand by.

“No,” I whispered to myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stand by until further notice.

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

“Fuck!” I shouted.  “Fuck it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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