Venom 29.3

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“We knew it would come to this,” Legend said.

I turned around.  My hands were full as I unbelted a tightly folded blanket and draped it over one of the wounded.

A surprising number of wounded, in the end.  Twenty or so injured from an aircraft that had been partially obliterated, eighteen more people who’d had their legs sliced off.  Nearly forty Dragon’s Teeth with mild injuries, their armor melted to their faces, chests, arms and legs.  Scion had tried his usual assortment of attacks, and they’d evaded them.  Enhanced strength from the costumes, predictive technology from the onboard artificial intelligences.

So he’d used a power they couldn’t dodge, a power they couldn’t block.  A light that radiated outward and melted the materials of their costumes.

Cauldron hadn’t been there to reinforce the group.  If they had been, it might have been a staging ground.  Instead, the group had folded and Scion had come after the portal that was closest.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When we were predicting what would happen with the Endbringers, we said that we’d be forced to regroup, consolidate our forces.  Every fight would result in losses, so we’d have to abandon positions, move people from an abandoned post to keep numbers up.”

“I can see that,” I said.

An outpost abandoned.  The world Defiant and Dragon had been looking after was being abandoned as a lost cause.  There were countless people still alive, but they were spread out, and there was no way to mount a proper defense with our forces spread too thin.

“If there’s an upside,” Legend said, his tone changing as if he were forcing himself to be less grim.  “Tattletale said we’re making headway.  It doesn’t look like it, but we’re taking chunks out of him.  The strongest of us survive, we regroup, see what works, we’re stronger when it comes to the next fight.”

Except he’s indiscriminate.  He’s killing the ones who can actually affect him, because he’s being reactive.  We’re not stronger by virtue of the strongest surviving and consolidating because the only difference between this fight and the next is that we’ll be less.

I kept my mouth shut.

“Defiant and Dragon will be joining you guys here, to make up for the ones you lost.  You’ll have Leviathan, at the very least.  Chevalier and I will be a matter of minutes away.”

A few minutes is too long, I thought.  But I didn’t want to state the obvious, didn’t want to argue.

I was trying to be good, trying not to raise any problems with a guy who could well be sensitive over the fact that I’d murdered one of his closest companions a few years back.

Besides, I knew that this pep talk was most likely Legend trying to reassure the wounded.  Maybe even him trying to reassure himself.

He took his time, putting fresh bandages on a wound.

“I’ve followed your career,” Legend said.  “I’ve seen you on the battlefields, fighting the Endbringers, old and new.  The bugs are noticeable.”

“I’m nothing special.”

“You rendered Alexandria brain dead,” Legend told me.  “That warrants attention.”

“Fair enough,” I said.  I managed to get another blanket unbelted from the arrangement of straps that kept it in a folded position and then draped it over someone.  Legend moved the end of the blanket, where it rested on the patient’s wounded foot.

“I wanted to know who it was that had killed Rebecca.  I kept an eye on everything you did in the Protectorate, looked for the details about your past.  I understand if that seems creepy…”

“I think I get it.  You were close to her.”

“I felt close to her.  In the end, though, there was a gap between my feelings and the reality.  Still is, I suppose.  Go through enough with people, build something from the ground up, you form ties.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I looked over my shoulder.  Mai, one of the kids Charlotte and Forrest were looking after, was there, alongside one of Rachel’s henchmen and a puppy.   Giving comfort to a child from the other settlement who’d been burned by the same effect that melted the costumes of the Dragon’s Teeth.  The burns weren’t horrible, but it made it hard to tell the child’s ethnicity or gender.

But the child was scratching the puppy behind the ear.  Rachel stood nearby, arms folded, stern and ominous.  I felt a kind of fondness, tempered by a kind of hesitance, like I couldn’t let myself hold on too tight to the friendship and familiarity because she could be dead by the end of the day.  Though it was sharper than it had been in the past, it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling.

Legend was looking at me when I turned back to him.  “Yeah.”

“It doesn’t always make for the most sound decisions.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I agreed.  I had to scoot out of the way as some doctors hurried by with fresh tools and equipment.  Removing the dissolved materials from burned flesh was something of a task, and there were a lot of people to help.

“I always knew there was something wrong, underneath it all, but there were bigger things to focus on.  You finish dealing with one Endbringer attack or a potential war with parahuman attacks on both sides, it demands all of your focus.  You’re left drained, dealing with the event or the aftermath, and then you need to recuperate, you have an organization to manage.  There’s never a moment where you can stop, take a deep breath, and then say, ‘now is the moment where I address that nagging doubt I had the other day’.  Now is the moment I call so-and-so out on that less-than-complete truth they used while we were elbow-deep in Indonesian cyborg super-soldiers.”

“I think I know exactly what you mean.”

“I think it’s very possible you do,” he said.

“But you can’t dwell on it,” I said.

“If you don’t give it the necessary attention, then how do you prevent it from becoming a cycle?”

“You don’t.  You look back at your reasons for making the choices when you made the choices, you recognize that you didn’t address or act on your suspicions and doubts because you had higher priorities at the time, and you make peace with it.”

“Have you?  Made peace with it?”

“I’m on my way there, Legend.”

“I’m not sure I want to go there,” he said.  “Give me a hand?  Hold his leg up?”

I nodded.

Gore.  A foot reduced to something unrecognizable.  The man would probably lose it.

But Legend still tended to the limb with care.  Almost gentle.  I tried to be as graceful in keeping the leg in the air.

The soldier made a noise of pain as Legend cleaned the foot, using a laser to sever a tag of flesh that was holding a piece of boot on.  I reached out and held the man’s hand.

“You came in here for a reason,” Legend said.

I looked up.

“It’s not about taking care of the wounded,” he said.  “You’re not devoting a great deal of attention to keeping an eye on Hellhound, either.  Yes, you could use your swarm to discreetly observe her, to discreetly observe anyone in your range, but I don’t think that’s why you came here.”

I started to respond, but the soldier’s leg started kicking, an almost involuntary nerve reaction.  I had to pull my hand from his to hold his leg as still as possible.

We eased it down until he was lying flat, his leg on the bed.  I pulled a blanket over him, as carefully as I could.

“You have a question, or questions,” Legend said, “But you’re not asking them because you’re worried about the response.  Either it’s something touchy, or there’s another reason why you’re holding back.”

I sighed.  “If you don’t have an answer for me, then I’m not sure I know what I’m going to do next.”

“So this is about something only I would know?”

“Basically,” I said.  “We don’t have access to that broad a pool of people, right now.”

“Okay,” Legend said.  “What do you need to know?”

“Cauldron’s portals.”

“Closed.  They’re created by a parahuman called Doormaker.  The Doctor told me he was blind and deaf to his surroundings, but I think it’s far more likely that it’s to do with another parahuman she partnered him with.  Someone who grants sensory awareness.  I think the Doctor gave Doormaker too much exposure to this parahuman and destroyed or atrophied his other senses.  One of those nagging doubts I never acted on.”

We passed by Rachel, Rachel’s minion and Mai.  I gave Rachel a little nod of acknowledgement as we stepped outside.

Then we stepped outside.  There was a shattered sign over the boarded-up windows.  Apparently Tattletale had made some business deals and tried to get things in place for this to become a city like any one in Earth Bet.  The pieces were there, but the furniture had yet to be installed, the food yet to be supplied.  An empty fast food place, now a makeshift hospital.

Eat fresh?  I thought.  Not likely.

I took in the scene.  Capes were still reeling from the attack, and again, it was the monsters and the lunatics that seemed to be standing, while others sat, recovering, catching their breath, mustering their courage.

Nilbog, engaged in conversation with Glaistig Uaine.

Four of the Heartbroken, with Imp and Romp.  A maskless Imp gave Bonesaw a glare as the girl hurried, in the company of Marquis and Panacea, to the fast food place Legend and I had just left.

Lung was alone, looking angry, frustrated, almost more agitated than he’d been before or during the fight.  His eyes were on Leviathan, who was down by the water, but I didn’t get the impression Leviathan was the source of the frustration.

Parian and Foil were together, Foil with her mask off.  They’d curled up in a space between two large bins of food, Foil resting her head on Parian’s shoulder, their hands and fingers entwined.

Tattletale was caught up in a conversation with Knave of Clubs, and fell under the Simurgh’s shadow.  The Simurgh, for her part, seemed to be busy building other tinker devices, drawing on the abilities of tinkers in the immediate area.

Vista was sitting on a rooftop, two stories high.  Her eyes were closed, her hands set behind her so she could lean back a bit.  Her face turned towards the sky.

There were other capes in the area, looking a little more serious, focused on business.  Chevalier was with Defiant and Dragon, Black Kaze, Saint, Masamune and Canary.  Some of them drifted off, making their way towards us.

“If it helps,” Legend said, “I don’t think Doormaker is dead.  There have been two interruptions in his power, to date.  One followed an earthquake.  He was unhurt, but his partner… well, it was a clue that a partner existed.  His doors all went down simultaneously the moment the earthquake hit the facility.  I don’t think his power is the type that would outlast him after death, if it was so easily interrupted while he was alive.”

“So he’s alive because the doors are still open in places.”

“Alive and unable or unwilling to use his power,” Legend said.

I nodded.  “So is it Cauldron running or is it another agency?”

I could see Legend’s expression change.  I’d heard him talk before, saying as much, but his face was what told me, above all else, that he was burdened by regrets.  “I wish I could say it was the latter.”

“But you don’t know.”

“I remain in the dark when it comes to Cauldron.”

“What about Satyrical?” I asked.  “He was investigating with his team, wasn’t he?”

“He was, but he tends towards radio silence, Pretender’s people have since well before the Vegas teams cut ties with the Protectorate.  They claimed it was because there would inevitably be a parahuman who could uncover them if they left channels open.  Now… well, isn’t that the way most things were?  Secrets, lies, conspiracies.”

“It is, but-” I tried to find a way to politely say what I was trying to say.

“But?”

“With all due respect, and I really do mean that because I respect you, I respect that you’ve participated in the fights, I get where you’re coming from…”

“You’re spending too much time couching what you’re saying,” Legend said.  “Rest assured, I can handle what you’re about to throw at me.  I think worse things to myself all the time.”

“I’m impatient.  That’s all.  Scion’s going to attack again, and I don’t plan to be here,” I said.

“You want a portal to get out of here,” Legend said.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t want an escape.  I want to act.”

“We’re acting,” Legend said.

“We’re reacting.”

“If you have ideas for something pre-emptive, I think we could all stand to hear it.”

I shook my head.  “Nothing definitive.”

“Even something that isn’t definitive.”

“I want to find Cauldron.  They have contingency plans we know they haven’t put into effect yet, and they have answers they’ve yet to provide.”

“Cauldron is very good at leading people to believe that they have the answers and then disappointing,” Legend said.  “Take it from someone who knows.  Ah.  I’m doing it again, aren’t I?  Like an old man.”

He smiled, and I smiled a little too.

“You’re an old man?”  Chevalier asked.  His group had just joined us.

“Taylor here was just very politely trying to tell me I’m wasting her time on reminiscing and regrets.”

“You have something better to do?” Defiant asked me.

Defiant,” Dragon said, admonishing him.  She was in her armor, but had her helmet off.  The face was real.  Plain, but real.

She’s an A.I.  A false person.  What else had Saint said?  She’s deceiving us?  It’s all an act?

“…came out wrong,” Defiant was saying.  Very deliberately, he said, “I am genuinely curious what you’re doing, Weaver.”

Dragon smiled a little, as if a private thought had crossed her mind.

The doubts Saint had seeded dissipated.

Ninety percent of them.

“I was telling Legend I want to go after Cauldron,” I said.  “A member of the Chicago Wards was saying that sending Satyrical to go investigate is like sending a fox to guard the henhouse.”

“Satyrical has definite ties to Cauldron,” Dragon said.  “If nothing else, Pretender maintains connections to the group.  If Cauldron is running, or if they are pulling something covert, then it’s very possible Satyrical is on board or is going to be brought on board.”

Chevalier shifted the Cannonblade to his other hand, then stabbed the point into the ground.  It looked different.  His armor looked different.  Gold and black, instead of gold and silver.  “It also means he and the Las Vegas capes are well equipped to know how Cauldron operates, and identify clues others would miss.  We sent them with others we could trust.  They’ve been reporting in on schedule.”

I opened my mouth.  Chevalier spoke before I could.  “-With stranger and master precautions in place.”

I frowned.

“You’re strong when it comes to improvising,” Chevalier told me.  “We’ve got a moment to breathe.  We think he’s hitting another world, one we don’t have access to.  We’re regrouping, figuring out who goes where, and we’re trying to set things up so we can mobilize faster.  I can’t tell you what to do.  I wouldn’t if I could.  But we could use you here.”

“We’re losing, here,” I said.  “Legend was being positive, but… I don’t think we can really delude ourselves that far.  He’s tearing us apart while holding back.  If we put up a fight or if we don’t hold back, he hits us harder, like he hit the Guild.  He can always top us, and he can always say he’s had enough and then just nuke the continent.  That’s not a recipe for an eventual win.”

“I don’t even think that’s the worst of it,” Tattletale said, finally having broken away from Knave of Clubs to join this conversation.  “He’s evolving, maturing.  If you can even call it that.  He was a blank slate, then almost like a baby, flinging destruction around like a baby practices moving their arms, as if to remind himself he could… and then he was like a child in this fight… except for the bit about Queen of Swords.  That suggested he’s almost entering an adolescent phase.  Something more complex than just raw fear and awe.  Loss, despair.  He’s going to start looking for ways to really hurt us.”

“Instead of just annihilating us?” Legend asked.  “Torture?”

“Mental, emotional, more involved physical torture.  Up until he hits adulthood.  Then he probably destroys us, completely and utterly.  I’d be surprised if we lasted more than two days, rate he’s developing.”

“You’re talking about him as if he were human,” Saint said.

“He is,” Tattletale said.  “It’s the only reason he’s doing this, and it’s the only way we have to truly make sense of him, and it’s his primary means of making sense of us.  Which is why he did it.  He’s got our general biological makeup.  He thinks, he feels, he dreams, he hurts, but it’s all buried so far under mounds and mounds and mounds of power and security, it doesn’t really supplant him.  It’s never been exposed to the real world, really, so the human side of him hasn’t matured or developed.”

“A weakness?”  Chevalier asked.

“Yes, but not a weakness we’re going to be able to exploit,” Tattletale said.  “He’s too careful, and he would have foreseen it.  Adapted around it, probably.  Be awfully stupid for something like him to adapt traits of their targets and adapt vulnerabilities at the same time.  Knowing this could help, but it’s not going to be the weak point we can target to finish him off.  That makes zero sense.”

“We know a lot of things like that,” I said.  “A lot of tidbits about his behavior or who he is or what he is.  But a lot of it isn’t reliable information.  He cared a lot about my clone decoys multiplying during the fight on the oil rig, but he didn’t give a damn this time.”

“He’s advancing, evolving.  His focus is changing,” Tattletale interjected.

“We know so many critical details,” I said, “And we need more.  We need a way of paring truth away from fiction, or determining what’s no longer true.  I don’t know for sure what we’re going to do to stop him, but I think any plans I have are going to start or end with Cauldron.”

I looked around the group.  Men and women, all in armor that made them stronger, bulkier or taller, it seemed.  Legend was comparatively small, but he had presence to make up for it, even as tired and worn out as he seemed to be.  Flying, casual flying as Legend tended to do, gave one a little more stature.

I wasn’t short, but it felt like Tattletale and I were mortals in the midst of giants.  Defiant, in particular, seemed somehow imposing.  His body language was familiar with the way he’d naturally set his feet apart, his hand on his weapon.

Even the place we were standing, it stirred memories.  We were at the north end of the Bay, even.

“Yes.  The plan makes sense,” Defiant said.  “I’ll trust you on this one.”

Dragon reached out to grab and squeeze his hand.

“What do you need?” Defiant asked me.

“I was thinking I’d bring some of the capes that can’t or won’t participate in the fight against Scion,” I said.  My eyes fell on Canary.

Me?”  Canary squeaked.

“Anyone, but capes like you,” I said.  “Support capes who can’t support in circumstances like this.  Strangers who can’t use their power on Scion.  Capes like that.”

“And if you can’t access Cauldron?” Chevalier asked.  “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but your actions when you assumed control of the Simurgh were… heavy handed.  You told an ex-teammate in the Wards that you weren’t intending to be a hero anymore.  I don’t want to tell you I won’t cooperate any more than I want to tell anyone I won’t cooperate, but you’d be asking us to put a fair amount of power in your hands by sending capes your way.  I… don’t know that I feel confident sending capes to you, if I don’t know how they’ll be put to use.”

“Would you allow me to talk to other capes?” I asked.  “You don’t have to send them my way, but maybe I could inquire?”

“I’m not going to stand in anyone’s way,” Chevalier said.  “I’m not the bad guy, here.  But I’ve got to lead this battle, and I’ve got to do what I can to make sure things don’t get worse.  If a cape needs to go, if they don’t have the courage to stand and fight, I’m not going to make them.  I’ll try to convince them otherwise, but I won’t make them.  And if they think they’ll be more useful elsewhere, I won’t stop them there, either.”

I nodded.  “I’ll settle for that.”

“What else?”

“Access to computers,” I said.  “Tools.  Resupplies.  The Dragonfly.”

He reached out of his pocket and withdrew a knife.  He reversed it and extended it to me, handle first.

I reached for the weapon, then saw Defiant pull his hand back.  “Be aware of the safety and the activation switch.”

I saw one of the switches, then took hold of the knife.

“Keep it away from heat.  If the growths start knuckling together, then it’s probably clogged at the air intake.  You can unscrew the cap at the butt of the knife and access the air intake there.  Bake it at roughly five hundred degrees to clear it, then thoroughly vacuum.  Pay attention to how long it takes the growths to hit maximum length… you’ll know because the colors at the ends are a lighter gray.  Three point seven seconds is the optimum time.  If it takes shorter then you’ll know something’s wrong with-“

“The knife won’t degrade too much in the next day,” Dragon said.  “And we have spares, thanks to Masamune.”

“You didn’t make this much of a fuss with my flight pack,” I said.

“I included documentation,” Defiant said.

“Thank you,” I said.  I found the holster for my old knife, then put it through the belt at my back, holstering the new knife.

“Where’s the Dragonfly?” he asked.  I pointed.

Dragon said something in Japanese to Masamune and Black Kaze.  There were two nods.

Defiant led the way to the Dragonfly, all business, Dragon, Canary, Tattletale, and me following.  He seemed almost happy to have something to focus on.  A problem that could be solved.

Did he genuinely trust me?  Was there a modicum of hope, here, with me mobilizing to go look into the Cauldron situation?

He continued to hold his weapon, though the fight wasn’t about to start.

I could imagine his outlook, the security the weapon afforded him, a hundred solutions in his hands.  The ability to defend himself, to defend others, to move out of the way of danger.  It made sense.

Dragon, conversely… what was her security blanket?

Different.  I couldn’t put my thumb on it.  But she’d lost to Saint, to the Dragonslayers.  She’d been taken captive, effectively killed.  Killed by a man who saw her as subhuman.

She’d been altered by Teacher.  Not so much she was a slave to him, but something had happened, and that was no doubt a large part of how she was disconnected from reality in the here and now.

I looked back at Saint, Masamune and Black Kaze.  Saint was taking a seat, his back to a chunk of destroyed aircraft, cross-legged.  Calm, relaxed.

“How can you stand to be near them?” I asked.

“Keep your enemies closer,” Dragon said, her voice tight.

“Don’t forget about the friends part,” I said.

She shook her head a little.  “I won’t.”

“When we were waiting for the fight to start, I went around, looking for people I needed to thank.  Important people to me, people who I wasn’t sure I’d get a chance to talk to again.  I missed a few important ones.  My dad… you two.  I know the only reason I got my shot at being a hero, the only reason I didn’t go to jail, was because you vouched for me, because you agreed to cart me back and forth and interrupt your schedule.  I probably didn’t even deserve it, but you backed me up.  I’m just… I’ve never been good at saying thank you and sounding as sincere as I feel.”

“I think we benefited as much as you did,” Dragon said.  “You needed to join the Wards to… make amends, shall we say?  It was the same for us.”

“For me,” Defiant cut in.

“I had my own regrets,” Dragon said.

“You had no choice.”

“Regrets nonetheless,” she said, again.  Her head turned towards Canary, and Canary smiled just a little.  Dragon then looked to me.

Was it possible for an artificial human to look weary?  To look wounded, in the sense that she was bearing some grievous injury from recent events?

We’d stopped outside the Dragonfly.  I bid the ramp to open, controlling the bugs in the operating mechanism.

Then, as it opened, I impulsively gave Dragon a hug.  Returning a favor she’d given me some time ago.

“Let’s get you set up,” Defiant said.

“Hook me in while you’re at it?” Tattletale made it a question.  “Whatever you need to do, so I can communicate with her and her peeps.”

“I’ll see to it.”

Tattletale glanced at me.  “Ops?”

“Please.”

We circled twice before coming in for a landing.  A cave just above water level, inaccessible except from the air.

The receiving party consisted of Exalt and Revel from the Protectorate core group, with half of the Vegas team.  Nix, Leonid, Floret and Spur.  Vantage was waving a rod around, listening to steady beeps.

“Oh god, finallySomething to take my mind off the beeping,” Floret said.  She was petite, her hair in carefully layered waves of pink, with green at the roots.

“Find anything?” I asked.

“No signs of any portals that have been opened in the past.  Harder than cracking Dodger’s gateways, apparently,” Vantage said.  “Or they gave us bad instructions.  How’re you doing, Weaver?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Wearing black,” he said.

“Is everyone going to comment on that?” I asked.

“It’s comment worthy.  How’d the fight… nevermind.  I can guess.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Grim group,” Floret commented.  “I know black’s ‘in’ with the end of the world, but damn.  Only one person with style.”

I looked over my shoulder.  Golem, in silver and gunmetal, his mask solemn.  Cuff, again, in a dark metal costume.  Imp, with her dark gray mask and black bodysuit that actually fit her.  Shadow Stalker, in a black, form-fitting bodysuit like the one I’d given Imp, along with a flowing cloak with a heavy hood.  All spidersilk, but the mask was hers, as was the crossbow.  Rachel followed, her jacket, tank top and pants black, only the fur ruff at her shoulders, where it flowed around the edges of her hood, was white.  Huntress and Bastard flanked her.  Lung was still inside the Dragonfly, but I knew he had only his mask and jeans on.  Barefoot, shirtless.

Canary was the only one, apparently, who met Floret’s standards.  Yellow body armor, her helmet in one hand, her hair and feathers free.

“I remember you,” Spur said.  He smiled.  Teeth that had been professionally done, no doubt.  He wasn’t bad looking, but not quite my type.  Spiky hair, and a costume that mingled barbed wire tattoos with real barbed wire, where his skin was exposed.  Mid twenties, with hair bleached to a near-white and acid washed jeans.  His mask was simple, black, covering the upper half of his face, with only a circle of barbed wire at the brow.  A trademark of thinker powers, to do the whole forehead thing.  A precog who was most effective in the midst of chaos and heightened emotions, and fairly competent otherwise.  “Bad Canary?”

Canary’s eyes widened.  “You remember my stage name?”

“You were famous,” he said.  “The whole trial thing.  You-“

Canary’s expression fell.

“-got robbed,” he said.

Dick,” Floret said.  “Like that’s how she wants to be remembered.”

“I remember the music too,” he protested.

“Yeah,” Canary said.  She rubbed the back of her neck, avoiding eye contact.  “It doesn’t matter anyways, does it?  Long time ago, and we’ve got better things to worry about.”

Vulgarishous,” he said.  “Ur-soundLineless?”

“You’re probably cheating,” she said.

“I could sing the lyrics,” he answered.

“It would make me sure you’re cheating.  I barely remember the lyrics.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Spur answered her.  “Eh, guys?  Back me up.  My power doesn’t give me a way to cheat, does it?”

“No,” Floret said.  “He’s genuine.  And none of us have ways to clue him in.”

I glanced at Revel, who only rolled her eyes a little.  Exalt looked bored.  He saw me looking and commented, “It’s fine here.  We’re using substandard tools to find a portal that used to exist, and we don’t know exactly where it was.”

Imp pushed her mask up until it sat on top of her head.  “Finding a transparent needle outside of the haystack.”

“Well put,” Leonine said.

“Don’t encourage her,” I told him.

He only smiled, which made Imp smirk at me in turn.

Spur was murmuring the lyrics to the song, and he was actually doing a good job of it.  Canary was trying to look like she wasn’t pleased as punch.  It was cute.  Cute and just a little ominous, considering who these guys were.

Some things had come to light after they’d departed their positions in the Protectorate and Wards.  Nothing definitive, but it raised questions that had yet to be answered.  Questions that would probably never be answered, now that evidence lockers and court records throughout Earth Bet had been obliterated.  Problems that had resolved themselves just a little too neatly.  People, both bad guys and witnesses, who’d disappeared.

“If I’m the lion, and you’re the goat…” Leonine was saying.

“I guarantee I’m more dangerous than you,” Imp retorted.

I could sense others in the group getting restless.

“We’ll let you know if anything turns up,” Revel said, as if she’d sensed it.  She smiled a little, a bit awkward, or apologetic.  “Don’t let us waste your time.  It’s the end of the world, spend it with people you care about.”

Her eyes moved to Cuff and Golem, who were hanging back.  The pair were the heroes of our group, so to speak.  They’d feel the betrayal of the Vegas capes more sharply, even now.  They looked at each other.

I did too.  Not that I counted myself as a hero.  But I’d been there.

“I could come with,” Exalt said.  “If you’re going back.  I’m only here to relieve Revel.  I’ll be able to participate in the coming fight.”

“Sure,” I said.  “But I’d like to hear the password.  From Revel.”

“Good thinking.  Belord, six-two, spauld,” she said.

“On my seventeenth birthday,” I said.  “What color was the cake?”

“Seriously?” she asked.  “Do you even remember?  I should get a brownie point for this one.  Because I care about my Wards.  It was white.”

“The frosting?” I asked.

“Blue,” she said, sounding just a bit put out.  “And you barely ate any.”

I nodded, satisfied.  “And… Leonine.”

Me?”  Leonine laughed a bit.  “What kind of shenanigans do you think we’re pulling?”

“He’s one of the Vegas capes,” Imp said, speaking very slowly, like I was mentally disabled.

“I know he’s one of the Vegas capes.  But I think I have to cover all of the bases.  Who was your kindergarten teacher?”

“You researched that?” Spur asked.  “Dug through our entire histories to find something obscure?”

He sounded offended.  Every head had turned his way.

“Do you have a problem with that?”  I asked.

He frowned, but he shook his head, sticking his hands in his pockets as he leaned against the wall beside Canary.  “No.  No problem.”

“Richie,” Leonine said.  “Mrs. Richie.”

“Great,” I said.  “Great.  Now let’s drop the fucking act.”

“I gave you the answer you wanted,” Leonine said, smirking.  “What the fuck?”

“Spur?” I said, “Raise your right hand?”

He did.  There were bugs on the fingers.

“He was moving his hand.  A one-handed sign language.  I assume everyone on your team knows it.”

“I was thinking of Canary’s music,” Spur told me.  He stepped forward, putting a hand on Canary’s shoulder as he did so.  She turned, so they were both facing me.  “Piano keys.  Mnemonic tool.  That is something our team uses.”

“You’re being a little crazy paranoid,” Imp said.  “Just a little.”

“They’ve been playing us since the start,” I said.  “The men were batting their eyelashes at you and Canary, probably the targets they thought they could work.  Revel… I’d think she’s under some kind of compulsion.”

“A lot crazy,” Imp said.  “Way crazy.”

“Maybe Tattletale can chime in,” I suggested.  “Tattle?”

Mostly right.  Exalt, Revel, Vantage, Leonine, Floret, all fakes.”

“No shit,” Imp said.  Her mouth dropped open.  “No way.”

“Jig’s up,” I said.  “We know.”

One by one, the Vegas capes changed.  Flesh altered, and they assumed identical appearances.

Six copies of Satyrical.  Leaving only Spur and Nix.

One of the Satyricals looked at the two who remained.  “Take care of yourself.  I’ll see you shortly.”

“I know,” Spur said.

Satyr looked at us, as if taking us all in.  “And you, I suppose, we’ll run into.  Sooner or later.”

Then the Satyrs died.  Flesh withered, and the Satyrs crumpled up.  They made bloody messes as they hit the ground, like overripe tomatoes might, but with teeth and the occasional bit of withered organ.

Self duplication, and each duplicate had shapeshifting abilities.

I bent down and picked up the devices from the heads of Revel, Exalt and Vantage’s clones.  Earbuds, phones…

“Revel,” Cuff said, her voice small.

“Where are the real ones?” Golem asked.

“With the real Satyr,” I guessed.

“And how did he know the passwords?” Golem asked.

He guessed the cake thing through cold reading.  White with blue, like Weaver’s costume.  Made sense.  That Taylor didn’t eat much… well, look at herThe rest… torture?  Coercion through other means?”

“Torture?” I asked.

Spur raised his chin a bit, but didn’t do or say anything to suggest otherwise.

“Ew.”  Imp said, under her breath, “Ew, ew, ew.  He’s like, forty?  And he was hitting on me.”

“Where’s the portal?” I asked Spur, ignoring Imp.

“No portal.  Or weren’t you paying attention?”

I looked at Nix.  “You know where this goes, if you don’t cooperate.  Circumstances are a little too dire.  We knock you out, your power fades.  So why don’t you drop the illusion and let us see the portal?”

“My power stays up while I’m out,” she said.

I drew my knife.  The one that wasn’t special.

“Woah,” Golem said.  He put his hand on my wrist.  “Woah, woah, woah.”

“She’s bluffing,” Spur said, unfazed.  “She’s scary, she’s got a reputation, but she’s bluffing here.  There’s no way she follows through.”

“I think you’re badly underestimating how pissed off I am,” I said.  I was surprised at just how right I was.  The mounting anger caught me off guard.  “Doing this, screwing around, stabbing people in the back, screwing with the system when we’re trying to save humanity?”

“We’re saving it too,” Spur said.  “Satyr, the others, they’ve got this situation handled.  Give them… two or three more hours, and the threats are going to be dealt with, Cauldron will be secure, or as secure as they can be, after you account for injuries and deaths at the hands of the invading group.  You go in there, you’re just going to muck up a delicate exfiltration operation.”

“Invading?” Golem asked.

“The deviants.  The case-fifty-threes.  Weld’s group.”

Weld?  No.  He’d been one of the only decent ones out there, during my stay in Brockton Bay.  Respectable, honest, kind.  He’d saluted me the first time we’d crossed paths, because we were both going up against an Endbringer.

Fuck it all.

Either Spur was fucking with me, or things were fucked.  Fuck it all.

“People like you are the reason we deserve to lose,” I said, gripping the knife.  “Every step of the way, it’s been people refusing to cooperate, refusing to talk plain truth.  From day one, even.  You’re the reason humanity deserves to get wiped out.”

“Great,” he said.  “You’re still not going to use that knife on either of us.”

It was said with the smug tone of someone who could see the future.

I glanced at Canary.  I could see the hurt on her face.

“I get it,” Spur said.  “See it coming.  If it helps, I do remember the music.”

Rachel stepped forward, giving me a little push to get me out of the way, and then slugged him.

He dropped, unconscious.

Golem set about binding him to the cave floor with hands of stone.

I looked at Nix.  “Her too.”

Golem reached into his costume, and hands of stone gripped Nix.

“To the ceiling,” I decided, at the last second.

“Sure,” Golem said.  Hands of stone emerged, passing Nix up.  She struggled a bit, but she was at an unsafe height by the time she realized what he was doing.

She was bound to the cave ceiling with armholds, leg holds and an arm set across her collarbone.

“What the hell?” she asked.

“I don’t think any of your friends have powers that can break those hands,” I said.

“The hell?” she asked, again.  She tested her bonds.  “The fuck?”

“You better hope we make it out okay,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“Pretty sure it’s to your left.  Start by going ten paces that way.”

I nodded.

We followed the directions.

The illusion broke, dissolving into harmless smoke, as we reached it and pressed hard enough against the wall in question.

With the barrier gone, I could feel the warm air from within, see a dark hallway without lights.

I looked at my teammates.

Maybe humanity deserves to lose, but these guys are why we’re going to win, I promised myself.

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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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Crushed 24.2

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If I’d had any doubt it was Alexandria, it was banished when she followed up the attack.  Behemoth started to rise to his feet, and Alexandria struck.  It wasn’t a punch with a great deal of wind-up, and she only crossed fifty or sixty feet before driving it home, but the impact was undeniable.

Behemoth absorbed the blow, and redirected it into the ground.  He didn’t move, as though the blow had never struck home, but the ground around him shattered like the surface of a mirror.  Fragments of rock and clouds of dust flew up around him, and a three-story building on its last legs tumbled over.  The damage to the ground made him sink a fraction.

I could see the change in the Endbringer’s demeanor.  Before, he’d been wading forward, as if Legend, Eidolon and the metal suits were little more than a strong headwind.  He was moving with purpose now, with an opponent that was veering in and out of easy reach, one he could hit, without Legend’s speed or Eidolon’s personal shield.

She had told me that they knew how to fight each other, and I could see that at play, here.  Part of the change in Behemoth’s approach might have been that interaction at play.

It was a fight involving four individuals who couldn’t hope to do substantial damage to their opponents.  The dragon suits and other capes were a peripheral thing.  Alexandria circled, just beyond the perimeter of Behemoth’s kill range, her teammates and their supporting cast bombarding him in the meantime.  They destroying the ground beneath his feet, trying to get him when his focus was elsewhere and his ability to redirect the energies of a given attack was reduced.

He couldn’t keep her in mind at all times.  She waited until he focused on a different combatant, heaving out lightning or creating flame to attack the ones in the air, and then she struck.  Nine times, he simply deflected the strike into the ground, as a rumble and a series of spiderwebbing cracks in the streets, or into the air as a shockwave.  Again and again, he came within a heartbeat of getting his hands on her in retaliation, not even flinching as she struck him, reacting with an unnatural quickness as he reached out, to try to pin her using his claws, to strike her into the ground or to time the collapses of buildings to briefly bury her, so he could close the distance.

The times her strikes did get past his defenses, her tiny form in the distance with the black cape trailing behind her lunging into his kill range to deliver a blow or a series of blows, Behemoth stumbled, caught briefly at the mercy of physics.

In a fashion, she was doing the same thing the lightning rod had been, buying all of the rest of us a small reprieve.  There was no guarantee, and there wouldn’t be any until he was driven off or we moved a hundred miles away, but she was making the rest of this just a little easier, reducing the destruction just a fraction unless he specifically took the time to work around her.

Was she being more cautious than she needed to be?  I saw her pass up on a handful of opportunities I might have taken in her shoes, when his back was turned, his attention sufficiently occupied.  Was she aware of something I wasn’t?  Was she a convincing fake?  Or was she just a little more afraid, after what my bugs had done to her?

However effective the distractions, he was still Behemoth, still implacable, a living tank that could roll over any obstacle and virtually any individual, unleashing an endless barrage of artillery at range.  He reached the lightning rod and shoved it to the ground.

I was reminded of my teammates, descended to the ground, where they were still getting sorted.  The chains that led from the dogs to the harness had tangled.

“What the hell was that?”  Tecton asked.

“Alexandria,” I said.

“You murdered Alexandria,” Regent commented.  “Remember?  You’re a horrible person, doing things like that.”

“You leave her alone!”  Imp said, uncharacteristically.  “She feels so bad she’s seeing things.”

“Can we try to stay serious?”

“Don’t be too hard on them,” Tecton said.  “Some people use humor to deal with bad situations.”

“It’s true,” Regent said, affecting a knowing tone.

“No,” Grue responded.  “They’re just idiots.  You two keep your mouths shut.  The adults are talking.”

Imp raised her middle fingers at him.

He turned to me, “It’s Alexandria?  You’re sure?”

“Can you ever be sure of anything?  Clones, alternate realities, healing abilities… there’s any number of possibilities.”

In the distance, a glowing orange sphere flew into the sky.  It reached a peak, then descended, crashing into the distant skyline.

I reoriented myself and flew up to the edge of the roof to peek at the battle.  Behemoth had melted down part of the metal arm and fashioned the melted metal into a superheated lump.  A second lump, cooler and not yet fabricated into an aerodynamic shape, was sitting beside him.  Alexandria tried to strike it away, but he caught it with one claw.  He superheated it, shielding it from Legend and Eidolon’s fire with his body, then heaved it into the air.  The projectile flared intensely as it left his kill range, following nearly the same path as before.

Lasers from capes in the distance sliced the second sphere into shreds before it could strike its intended target.

Grue tugged the chain.  He looked at Rachel, who only nodded.

And we were moving again.

I returned to my recon position, scouting to ensure the way was clear, keeping an eye on the fight and ensuring that there weren’t any attacks coming our way.

Behemoth was glowing, his gray skin tending more towards white, a stark contrast to his obsidian horns and claws.  The heroes were backing off a measure, and Behemoth was taking advantage of the situation to stampede forward, tearing past buildings and barricades.

“Grue!”  I shouted.  The noise in the distance was getting worse.  If Behemoth was continuing the path I’d seen him traveling, he was wading through a series of buildings.  Grue didn’t hear me.  I raised my voice, waited until the noise died down, “Radiation!  Use darkness!”

He did, and we were cloaked in it.  I continued navigating, using my bugs this time.  Only a small handful ventured forward at a time, checking for fires.  I was flying blind, scouting without the ability to see.

It delayed me when a fire did present itself, and I was delayed even further when I faced the issue of trying to communicate it to the team.

“Fire!” I shouted.  I knew he could hear me through the darkness, but he couldn’t hear me over the sounds of toppled buildings.  I was no doubt drowned out by the sound of the sled scraping against the road, the crashes in the background and the rushing of the wind.

I changed direction, aiming for the sleds, and flew forward.  A little off target.  Didn’t want to knock someone off the sled.  I made a slight adjustment with the antigrav, and landed on the front edge of the sled, between Grue and Rachel.  Grue very nearly let go in his surprise, and I caught the back of his neck to keep him from falling off the sled.

He left the darkness to either side of us intact and created a corridor.

“Fire!” I said, the instant I was able.  “Just over that hill!  Go left!”

He cleared more darkness, and we turned sharply enough that the sleds swung out wide.  I held on to the lip of the sled, but I let myself slide back, using the antigrav pack to keep myself from falling to the road.

The sudden movement had shifted the occupants.  The design of the sled made it difficult for anyone to fall out, but they’d slumped against one side, and one man was hanging halfway out.  With only one usable arm, he wasn’t able to maintain a grip.

The sled went over a series of bumps, and I reached him just in time to give him the support he needed, one hand and both feet on the lip of the sled, the other hand holding him.

Once they were on course, I helped ease him down to a better position.

He said something that I couldn’t understand, his words breathless.

I took off.

A shockwave ripped past us, harsher, briefer and more intense than a strong wind, not quite the organ-pulverizing impact it might be if Behemoth were closer, or if there were less buildings in the way.  I ventured up to a rooftop where I might be able to see beyond the darkness.

The shockwave had parted the clouds of smoke, but they began to close together once again.  I could make out a form, maybe one of the Indian capes, swiftly growing.  Ethereal, translucent, his features vague, the light he emitted only barely cutting through the smoke cover.  He slammed hands into Behemoth’s face and chest.

Behemoth parted his hands, then swung them together.  I didn’t wait for them to make contact.  I ducked behind cover before the shockwave could hit me directly.  All around me, the smoke was dashed out of the sky by the impact’s reach.  With the front of my body hugging the building, I could feel not only the shockwave, but the vibrations that followed it, as buildings fell and debris settled in new locations.

He delivered shockwave after shockwave, and I was forced to abandon the cover of the building for something a little more distant.

He wasn’t irradiated any more.  Or, at least, the glow wasn’t there.  He’d been buying himself a reprieve from the assault of the heroes, a chance to cover more ground.  Now they had resumed the counter-offensive.  The noises of the fight followed me as I got ahead of the Undersiders.

Another obstacle.  A crowd, this time.

I landed on the sled once more and ordered a stop.  It took a second for the dogs to slow down enough.

Locals stood in our way.  Some had guns.  They ranged the gamut from people a step above homelessness to businessmen.

“Leader?” one asked, his voice badly accented.  He was younger, very working class, which surprised me.  I’d anticipated that someone older and more respectable would be taking charge.

“Me,” I said, using a small boost from the flight pack to get ahead of the group.

“Stealing?” he asked me, his voice hard.

“No.  Injured.”

He gestured towards the sled, taking a half-step forward.  I nodded.

I didn’t like wasting time, but I was hoping he’d give the a-okay and the group would get out of our way.  I watched as he studied the people lying in the sled.

“We take,” he said.  “We have doctor, hiding place.  You go fight, help.  Is your duty.”

I could sense a group approaching from Behemoth’s general direction.  Two women in evening gowns, a girl in a frock, another girl in costume.

No time to dwell on decisions.  I asked the man, “You sure?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Cuff, Annex, kill the chains.  Leave sleds behind.  Wards, stay with me.  Grue, I’ll direct you guys to the Ambassadors.  Take the dogs.  Leave us some darkness for cover so we’re safe from any more radiation.”

It took only a few seconds to get organized.  By the time the Undersiders had departed, we had a team of people pulling the sleds.

Message from Defiant,” my armband declared.  “Alexandria confirmed gone from PRT custody.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“Message from Defiant.  Stay out of her way until we know more.  Behemoth’s approaching the first perimeter.  I will keep you posted.

“Tell him thank you.”

“It’s a good thing,” Grace said.  “Maybe not in the long run, but for now-”

“For now it’s an unknown factor,” I said.  “And there’s one really big known factor that’s tearing through this city, and we should be devoting all our attention to it.  To Behemoth”

“We can focus on both,” Tecton said.

“That’s how you get blindsided,” I told him.  I hauled on the chain, and the sled moved.  Cuff seemed to be doing the lion’s share of the work, standing between the sleds and ushering them forward.  Though it screwed up the direction the sleds were facing, making them veer left or right, it gave us enough momentum that we only needed to work on keeping it going.

We reached a squat building with signs featuring unintelligible writing and cars.  Some hurried forward and opened a garage door, and we kept the sleds on course to lead them inside.

Their ‘hiding place’ was an underground corridor, leading beneath and between two hoists for the cars.  Annex had to reshape the sled to fit, and we found ourselves on a general downward incline.  People shifted position to the sides of the sled to keep it from getting away from us and running over the people in front.

I saw the man who’d done the talking glance down at the wounded.  His eyes caught the light in a way that reminded me of a dog, or a cat.

Capes.  At least some of these guys are capes, I thought.  The ‘cold’ capes, the underworld’s locals.

It was an ominous realization, as we descended, to know that we were outnumbered by parahumans I knew nothing about, with unknown motives.

The armband’s crackling was getting steadily worse.  “Message from Grue.  Rendezvous is fine.  On way to your location.

“Message received,” I replied.

Message from Grue…

The voice devolved into crackling.

Too much ambient electromagnetic radiation, and the amount of ground that was between us and Grue probably didn’t help.

It was hard to gauge how deep we were getting.  We reached a point where a fissure made moving the sleds more difficult, but Annex, Tecton and Golem shored it up in moments.

We descended deep enough that I wasn’t able to access the surface with my bugs, then deeper still.

The more isolated we were, the more ominous the uncostumed capes around us seemed to become.  My bugs followed us down the corridor, just far enough back that the ‘cold’ parahumans couldn’t see them, close enough to help.

“This tunnel was made by a cape,” Tecton said.

Don’t bring it up, I thought, suppressing the urge to react.

“No,” the man with the eyes said.  He didn’t turn our way.

I reached out and touched Tecton’s arm.  He, naturally, didn’t feel the contact through his heavy armor.  Tecton continued, “I’m pretty s-”

My nudge became a shove as I moved his arm enough to get his attention.  He looked at me, and I shook my head.  Tecton didn’t finish the sentence.

“Oh so pretty,” Wanton offered.

“Don’t you start,” Tecton said.  “The Undersiders are bad enough.”

I could see the Wards change in demeanor as we descended well beneath the city.  Tecton’s head was turning now, scanning the people around us.  Wanton hunched over, as if the surroundings were weighing on him, a pressure from above.  Cuff had her arms folded, hugging her body, a defensive wall, however meager, against an attacker from above, and both Annex and Grace had gravitated closer to other team members, as if unconsciously adopting a loose formation.

Golem, odd as it was, seemed to fall more in line with Tecton and I, watching the surroundings, eyeing the strangers who accompanied us.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t afraid; everything else about him suggested he was.  It was more that he was wary in a natural, practiced way.

How had he picked that up?  He was supposed to be a rookie.

I held my tongue and used my bugs to scan the surroundings.

The area opened up into an underground living space, crowded with weary and scared people.  It was dim, with lights alternating between floor and ceiling positions, tight corridors with what seemed to be tiny apartments carved out of the rock.  My prison cell had more space than these quarters.  At least there was room to stand straight up in the jail.  These rooms were stacked on top of one another, two high.

But it was space nonetheless.

“Is it stable?” I asked Tecton.

“I can’t see enough to tell,” he said.  “Maybe?  Probably?”

“I don’t know if I can leave people here if it’s a deathtrap,” I said, as I eyed the people emerging from the rooms.

“Pretty risky up there,” Wanton said.

Up there there’s a chance.  I was counting hundreds or thousands down here.  My bugs could sense corridors, and I was left wondering if this was only one area of many.

Some of the residents stepped forward to help, hands on weapons or simply watching us, undecided on whether we were threats or not.

The leader, who I was mentally labeling ‘Cat’s Eyes’, said something, and they relaxed a fraction.  He said something else, and they started helping the wounded.  None used or displayed any overt powers.

“Done,” Cat’s Eyes said.  “You go.  Fight.”

Defiant had said we needed their assistance.  “We need your help.  You and any of the others with powers.”

He narrowed his eyes.  Except that wasn’t the sum total of the change in his expression.  His face hardened, drew tighter, high cheekbones somehow more prominent in the dim, lips pressed together.  “No.”

“No?”

“Not our duty.  Yours.”

“It’s everyone’s duty.”

“We handle enemy you don’t see, you costumes help enemies above ground.  Scare Prathama away.”

Like it’s that easy.  “We need your help.  Everyone’s help.”

“No.  We show ourselves, and all ends badly.  We fight subtle war.  Better to lose today and fight subtle war tomorrow.”

Better to let Behemoth win than to show themselves and lose whatever edge they hold against their current enemies?

“You see me, I am done.  Finished.  You see all of us, they are done.  No.”

Maybe India had its own share of capes, on the same scale as the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Cleverer capes who worked in the background.

Or maybe they were just deluded, too set in their ways, afraid to fight and searching for excuses.

“Go.  Defeat him,” he told me.

Grue was waiting.  Or Grue was coming down here, maybe, with Rachel and the others.  If they saw him, an intruder without invitation, would they act?

“Okay,” I said.  “We need a vehicle if, um…”

I trailed off as I mentally registered what my bugs were sensing.

A rush of cool, air-conditioned air in a space that had no right to have any, off to one side, the appearance of a person where there shouldn’t be any.

“Weaver?”

I’d stopped talking, my attention caught by this visitor.  She was close.  All of the details matched the person I’d sensed inside the Kulshedra.  The clothes, the hair, the dimensions, even the way she moved.

Purposeful, unhurried.

“It’s her.  The one who took Pretender.”

Everyone, myself included, tensed as she approached.  The foreign capes did it because she was an unknown variable.  The Wards and I did it because she was a known threat.

She was older, but not old.  Maybe my dad’s age, maybe a little younger.  Pretty, in a very natural way.  She didn’t wear any obvious makeup, and her black hair was somewhere between wavy and curly, a little longer than shoulder length.  Her features French or Italian, if I had to guess.  She wore only a simple black suit that had been tailored to fit her body, with a narrow black tie and a white dress shirt.  What got me were the eyes.  There was no kindness in them.

She spoke, but she spoke in a foreign language, and it wasn’t to me.

Cat’s Eyes hesitated, then gave her a reply.

“Who the hell are you?” I asked the woman.

She glanced at me, and her gaze went right through me, as if I were barely there.  She turned her attention back to Cat’s Eyes, said something else.

His eyes widened.

“You work for Cauldron,” I said.

“Maybe we shouldn’t taunt the bogeyman,” Wanton chimed in.

“Bogeyman?” Cuff asked.

“She’s a hitman,” I said.  “Takes out anyone asking too many questions about Cauldron.  Or she was.  Apparently she’s gone after a lot of powerful capes, walked away without a hitch.”

My bugs gathered.  I could see the underground capes reacting, preparing for a fight.

“No,” Tecton said, “The truce.”

“I don’t think she gives a damn about the truce,” I answered.

“Until she breaks it, we don’t break it.”

I didn’t take my eyes off her as I murmured, “Fun fact about life or death fights between capes.  You start letting your enemies make the first move, your mortality rate triples.”

“I gave the go-ahead for you to be acting leader,” Tecton said.  “Cool.  Lightning rod was fantastic.  But if we start a fight here and shit goes down, my ass is on the line too.”

“You’re vetoing my order?”

“You haven’t given an order yet, and no.  You’ve fought her, I haven’t.  But I’m advising you here.  Back off.  She hasn’t done anything aggressive.”

She will,” I said.

“Maybe,” he said.  “It’s your call.”

I didn’t give an order.  I watched instead.

She was speaking to Cat’s Eyes in a low voice.  He was nodding unconsciously as she spoke.

Then she met my eyes.

“Who the hell are you?”  I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said.  “Go, Weaver.  Take your team.  We have no business with you anymore.”

Anymore?”

She only stared at me in response.

Damn, being on the receiving end of that stare was like being opposite Alexandria or Faultline in a bad mood.  I was starting to settle on the idea of her being a thinker.

She looked at Cat’s Eye, “It’s time.  Tell them not to be afraid, and this will go smoothly.  Tell them to pass on the message so everyone hears.”

He nodded, then called something out in another language.  Others took up the call.

“Hold on,” I said, raising my voice.

They didn’t listen.  Why would they?  I barely had any clout.  The bugs around me were minor, all things considered.

I brought them closer, so they gathered at my feet.  She didn’t even flinch.

One by one, portals appeared, rectangular doorways that were so bright they were painful to look at.  The smell of flowers, fresh air and nature flooded into the underground.  Every pathway and every available surface soon had one.  Nearly a dozen in my field of view alone.  My bugs could sense two dozen more in my range.

“No!” I called out, once I realized what was happening.  I thought of what the Eidolon clone had said, about them experimenting on people, kidnapping people from alternate worlds.  “You can’t trust her!”

But the people here were scared.  Once the first few people tentatively made their way through, they ran for safety, running out into the open field, disappearing behind tall wild grass.

Cat’s Eye turned to leave.

I reached for him, to grab his wrist before he could disappear.

The woman in the suit deftly deflected my hand, batting it aside.

“What the hell is Cauldron doing?  Do you want to start a war?”

She shook her head.  “No war.  But we need soldiers.”

That was all the confirmation I needed.

“Wards!” I called out.  My bugs and my Wards converged on her.

It mattered surprisingly little.  She stepped away from me, which I took as an excuse to close the distance.  If she wanted to get away, I’d get closer.  I worked to close the distance, using both the flight pack and my own two feet to draw in.  She stepped back out of the way, just out of reach of my strikes.

She swept her hands by the sides of her belt, and she was suddenly armed, if I counted a stiletto knife no longer than my finger and a handkerchief as weapons.

In the moment my swarm drew close, she stabbed the knife into a wall-mounted fire extinguisher.  The pressurized contents spewed out in a plume, collecting on my bugs and blocking their path.  It disabled the largest ones and killed the smallest, eliminating a good ninety percent of the bugs I had in reach in an instant.  I was forced to back off, so I didn’t get the spray across my lenses or the fabric at my mouth.

She’d managed to avoid getting dirty, even.  I watched her from the other side of the spraying canister.  The direction of the plume and the hand with the handkerchief left her virtually untouched as Tecton drew close.  She danced back out of reach of his attack as he plowed past the spray.  Wanton had transitioned to the form of a localized telekinetic storm, and Annex had slipped into the ground, closing the distance to her.

If she was a thinker, someone relying on craftiness to win a fight, then I’d turn it into the kind of fight she didn’t want to participate in.  Tecton had power armor, Grace had super strength and Cuff had her metallokinesis.

I cranked up the flight suit and charged.  It was reckless, and it was hopefully the last thing she’d expect.  The goal was simple.  Close to melee, keep her occupied long enough for someone to trap her.  With that done, we’d call each of the people she’d just contacted and bring them back to safety.

Assuming she was someone along the lines of Victor or Über, a combat-oriented thinker, she’d try to do something like a Judo throw, redirecting my forward momentum to toss me to the ground.  I countered that particular maneuver by bringing myself to an almost complete stop before she could grab me, slipping to one side as Tecton closed the distance.

He punched, and she stepped back.  He extended the piledriver, a second punch without an instant of warning, and she evaded to one side.

A precog?

I wasn’t even finished the thought when she stepped around to Tecton’s side.  He tried to body-check her, but she had a hand up to rest on his side, using the contact to brace herself, to push against him and leverage herself away.  She crossed one leg over the other to maintain an upright position, then brought herself into arm’s reach of me.

Bugs exploded from the interior of my costume.  Spiders, hornets, wasps and beetles.  The only parts of her that weren’t covered by the suit were her head and hands.  The hands were clasped behind her back before the swarm reached her.  A sharp toss of her hair swept them out of her way as she invaded my personal space.

Her hands, protected from my bugs by the simple obstacle of her torso, reached out, avoiding the worst of my swarm.  One caught the concealed flap of my mask, where it overlapped the neck of my costume, and pulled it down.  The other pressed the tip of the stiletto knife to my jugular.

My team, just a moment behind me and Tecton in their intent to engage her, froze.

Fuck me, I had ten thousand bugs here, easy.  How had I not found an opportunity to even bite or sting her?

“Wards, back off,” she said.  “Grace, Cuff, I want you out of sight, or Weaver bleeds.”

The two girls looked at me, and I nodded.  They backed away and stepped around the corners.

“Send your bugs away,” she ordered me.

I started to open my mouth to protest, but she cut me off.  “No tricks.  You have two seconds.”

Something about the fact that she was a known killer and her no-nonsense tone suggested she really was going to follow through.  I banished the bugs.

“The hell is she?” Wanton muttered.

“She’s a precog,” I said, “Something in that vein.”

The woman didn’t respond.  The knife shifted locations, no longer touching my bare throat.

Was she distracted?  I controlled the insect-like limbs on my flight pack.  They were simple, weak, but they were also weapons.  The end of the claw stabbed for her face, for the general region of her right eye.

She turned her head, and it grazed harmlessly against her temple.  The blade of her knife turned around, and she caught it in the hinge of one mechanical arm.

I pulled away, but the knife being wedged in the gap of the joint gave her a measure of leverage over the mechanical arm.  She twisted it as though she were wrenching my arm behind my back.  The arm didn’t give any, and I was forced to bend over a fraction.

Golem reached out from one wall, trying to seize her hair or neck, but she used me as a body shield, blocking the reaching hand.  Annex struck from below, attempting to ensnare her feet, but she threw me down into the reaching tendrils.  In the process, she got ahold of my wrist, twisting it much as she had the mechanical arm.

“Coordinate!” I said, my voice tight.  I activated the thrusters on my flight pack in an attempt to tear way, but she wrenched me to one side, tilting my upper body while using one leg to block my lower body from following suit.  The end result was that the thruster only pushed me into the wall.  I managed to avoid slamming my head against the surface, but I was now pinned against a solid surface.  She still had my wrist behind my back.

Dodge this, I thought.  I commanded my bugs to attack from every direction.

The Wards were taking my order seriously, attacking simultaneously.  Annex was looming, a spectre in the ground, raising up to try to engulf her, Golem was beside a wall, already reaching into it, and Tecton was kneeling, pressing his gauntlets against the ground.  Cuff and Grace had heard my order, and were stepping into view, advancing from behind the others.

The woman laid her free hand over the hand she was twisting behind my back.  Then she pressed my own fingers down into my palm, hard.

The control mechanism, I thought.  Too late.  My bug was already moving towards the off switch when the thruster kicked in.  She swept my feet out from under me, and the thruster drove me into the ground.  The bug touched the off switch, but the impact had locked up the controls.

I hit Annex on my way down, buying the woman time to step back out of his reach.  The bug managed to turn off the thruster, but I was already sliding across the floor, right through the lower half of Wanton’s telekinetic storm body and straight into Tecton’s gauntlets.

The piledrivers fired into the ground a fraction of a second after I bumped into the gloves.  He’d likely aimed to place an effect directly beneath her, but my collision with the gloves had knocked his aim off by a fraction.  It was directed into a wall, creating a crack ten feet high.

The crack, in turn, summarily severed Golem’s outstretched hand of granite.

The woman pulled her suit jacket off and held it out, sweeping it through the air to catch the thickest collection of my swarm within.  She folded it closed, simultaneously breaking into stride, heading right for Wanton.  Grace and Cuff were just behind him, with Tecton directly behind them, and Golem and I off to one side.  Annex was still pulling his spacial-distortion body together into something more useful.

“Stand down, Wards!” I called out, before Wanton could make contact with her.  I was still pulling myself up off the ground.

The woman slowed her pace, coming to a stop.  Wanton materialized a few feet in front of her, swiftly backing away.  I dismissed the bugs that were closing in to attack.

“This goes any further, she’s going to stop going easy on us and she’ll murder someone, maybe murder all of us,” I said, not taking my eyes off her.  “Because it’s the only way she’d be able to stop the bugs from surrounding her, the only way to really stop Wanton once he closes the distance.”

She didn’t speak.

“What the hell are you?” I asked.  “What’s your power?”

She gave me a look, up and down, and then settled her eyes on mine.  Throughout the entire fight, she’d looked unconcerned.  She wasn’t even breathing hard.  Except for a fleck of foam from the extinguisher here and there on the bottom of her pants leg and at the very end of her shirtsleeve, she wasn’t even particularly dirty.

She spoke, “I win.”

“I gathered that much,” I said.

“What I mean is that I can see the paths to victory.  I can carry them out without fail.”

I felt my heart skip a beat at that.  She’d volunteered an actual answer?

“The fuck?” Grace asked.

“She’s lying,” Wanton said.  “That’s ridiculous.  It’s not even close to fair.”

Powers aren’t necessarily fair, I thought.

“It doesn’t matter,” the woman said.  “What matters is that there are other enemies you should be fighting.”

“Enemies, plural?” I asked.

“We’re approaching an endgame.  The end of the world, the sundering of the Protectorate.  Most of the major players know this, and the truce has effectively dissolved in every respect but the official one.  Those in positions of power are making plays.  Now.  Today.”

“And Alexandria showing up, that’s a part of that?”  I asked.  “Someone’s ploy?”

“Yes.”

“Cauldron’s or someone else’s?”

“Yes,” she said.  A noncommittal answer.

“And you’re telling us this why?” I asked.

“That should be obvious.”

“Okay,” I said.  I wasn’t sure it was that obvious.  “Just two questions, then.  Those people you just took-”

“Are gone,” she said.

Gone.  And there wasn’t a thing I could do to change that.  I was almost certain I couldn’t beat her, and I couldn’t utilize whatever it was that was managing the portals to get access to them.  At most, I could survive long enough to report this to someone who could.

“Gone temporarily or gone permanently?” Tecton asked.

“I don’t expect anyone on this Earth will see them again, barring an exceptional success on our end.”

“You can’t use your power to get those successes automatically, huh?” I asked.

She didn’t venture an answer.

“Right, that wasn’t my second question.  What I want to know is why the hell you haven’t used a power like yours to figure out how to beat the Endbringers.”

“My power is a form of precognition,” she said.  “Unlike most such powers, other precognitive abilities do not confuse it.  That said, there are certain individuals it does not work against, the Endbringers included.”

“Why?” Tecton asked.

“No way to know for sure,” she said, “But we have theories.  The first is that they have a built-in immunity, something their origins granted them.”

“And the other theories?” Golem ventured.  “What’s the next one?”

The woman didn’t respond.

I suspected I knew what the answer was, but declined to speak of it.  It would do more harm than good.

“So you’re blind here, useless,” Grace said, a touch bitter.

The woman shook her head.  “No.  I can consider a hypothetical scenario, and my power will provide the actions needed to resolve it.”

“And?”

“And we are doing just that,” she said.  “Doorway, please.”

She wasn’t speaking to us.  Another gate opened behind her, and it wasn’t to that sunny field with the tall grass.  There was only a hallway with white walls and white floors, a cool rush of air-conditioned air touching our faces.

“Doing just what, exactly?”  Tecton called out after her.

She turned back to us, but she didn’t respond.  The portal closed, top to bottom.

“Vehicles,” I said, the instant she was gone.  “I can sense some at the end of that path.  It’s the fastest way back up that ramp.  Go, go!”

Things had gotten worse in the thirty minutes we’d been gone.  Whole tracts of New Delhi had been leveled, and where the buildings had been tall and mostly intact while we collected the injured and met the ‘cold’ India capes, only half of them stood even a story tall now.  The other half?  Utterly leveled.

It was a small grace that the fires had burned intensely enough that they’d exhausted the possible fuel, and the smoke was mostly gone, but that wasn’t saying much.  I couldn’t take a deep breath without feeling like I needed to cough.  Ozone and smoke were thick in the air, and the residual charge in the air was making my hair stand on end.

The Endbringer’s path of destruction had continued more or less in one general direction, but beyond that, the damage was indiscriminate, indeterminate.  Behemoth’s location, in contrast, was very clear.  A pillar of darkness extended from the ground to the sky.  Plumes of smoke and streaks of lightning slipped through the darkness on occasion.

The Chicago Wards rode bikes that were somewhere between a scooter and a motorcycle in design.  The vehicles might have been indistinguishable from normal road vehicles, but Tecton had quickly discovered that they had some other features.  There were gyros that allowed them to tilt without allowing them to fall, and the engines were electric, with only the option of a generated sound, to appear normal.

Near-silent, the Wards zipped down the streets, zig-zagging past piles of rubble and fissures.   I flew above the group.

“Armband,” I said, touching the button.  “Status update.”

The ensuing reply was too distorted to make out.

Grue had gone ahead, though he’d no doubt had information on our whereabouts.  Bitch’s dogs probably could have sniffed us out.  He’d gone ahead.  Why?

“Armband,” I said, still holding the button, “Repeat.”

I thought there might have been an improvement, as we got closer, but it was miniscule enough that I might have been imagining it.

I dropped down, settling on the back of Wanton’s bike.  The wings were already tucked away, to minimize damage from the electromagnetic radiation, but I didn’t want to push my luck further.

We passed a cluster of dead capes, alongside a series of massive gun turrets that had been mounted on hills and rooftops.  The heroes had made a stand here, or it had been one defensive line of many.  A number had died.

Had it been foolish to descend to the cold cape’s undercity?  Should I have told them to take the wounded beneath, damn the consequences, so we could have helped more?

I hadn’t thought it would take as long as it had, hadn’t anticipated a fight with the woman in the suit.

I hoped I wouldn’t regret this, that the absence hadn’t cost our side something.  We weren’t the most powerful capes in the world, but maybe we could have made a small difference here or there.

I’d learned things, but did that count for anything in the now, with tens, hundreds or thousands of individuals dying where they might have lived if we’d stayed?  Another lightning rod?  Something to slow him down and give them a precious extra second to form a defensive line?

The second defensive line, another collection of the dead.  Whatever method they’d tried here, there was no trace left now.

We were getting closer.

The third perimeter.  A giant robot, in ruins.  As many dead here as there had been at the last two points, all put together.

And just beyond this point, Behemoth, in the flesh.  He glowed white, marking the radioactive glow, and Grue’s darkness wreathed him, containing it.  The ground beneath Behemoth was tinted gold, vaguely reflective, and geometric shapes were floating in the air, exploding violently when he came in contact with them.

With all of the obstacles he’d faced to this point, he looked less hurt than his younger brother had for his one-on-one fight with Armsmaster.  He didn’t limp, or slouch, his limbs were intact, his capabilities undiminished.  The tears and rents in his flesh and the gaping wounds here and there didn’t seem to have slowed him down in the slightest.

And with that, he managed to fight his way forward, out of Grue’s darkness, striking out with bolts of lightning.  Forcefields went up to protect the defensive line, but only half of them withstood the intensity of the strikes.

“Armband,” I said, and there was a note of horrified awe to my voice, “Status update.”

The A.I.’s voice crackled, but Grue’s darkness might have been suppressing the electrical charge, because it was intelligible.  “Chevalier is out of action, Rime is present commanding cape for field duty.  Legend is out of commission.  Capes are to assist defensive lines and fall back when call is given.  Earliest possible Scion intervention is twenty-two point eight minutes from the present time, estimated Scion intervention is sixty-five minutes from present time, plus or minus eighteen minutes.

I clenched my jaw.  I’d committed to doing something, but I had no idea what that could be.

I felt a sick feeling in my gut.

“Armband, status of Tattletale?”

Out of commission.

By all rights, I should have reacted, cried out, declared something.  I only felt numb.  This was falling apart too quickly.

“Status of the other Undersiders?”

Two injured.  Parian and Grue.”

Which would be why Grue wasn’t replenishing his darkness.  I closed my eyes for a second, trying to find my center, feeling so numb I wasn’t sure it was possible.

Citrine’s effect seemed to be maximizing the effects of Alexandria’s attacks, because Behemoth wasn’t able to channel them into the ground.

He swung his head in my general direction, and I could see the steel of Flechette’s arrows in the ball of his eye, clustered.  Holes marked the point where the bolts had simply penetrated.

Other capes had managed varying degrees of damage.  The Yàngbǎn had formed a defensive squadron, using lasers to cut deep into Behemoth’s wounds, and other capes clustered close to them, adding to the focused assault.

And yet he advanced.  Inevitable.

A blast of flame caught the defending capes off guard.  Their forcefields and walls of stone blocked the flame from reaching the capes, but did nothing to stop it from spreading as it set fire to nearby buildings, grass and the stumps of trees that had been freshly cut, if the sawdust was any indication.

As if alive, the fires reached forward, extended to nearby flammable surfaces, and cut off a formation.  They started to clear the way for retreat, and Behemoth punished them with a series of lightning strikes.

Golem was already acting, bringing stone hands up to block Behemoth’s legs, two hands at a time.  Tecton moved forward, striking the earth with his piledrivers.  Fissures raced across the road, breaks to keep any impacts from reaching too far.

“Antlion pit!” I shouted.

“Right!” Tecton reported.

And my team was engaging, finding the roles they needed to play.  Grace, Cuff and I couldn’t do much, but there were more wounded needing help getting out of the area.  Annex began reshaping the ground and walls to provide better cover.  Wanton cleared away debris from footpaths.

This particular front hinged on one cape, a foreign cape who was creating the exploding, airborne polygons.  I could see, now, how each explosion was serving to slow time in the area around the blast.  Had he actually been the inspiration for that particular bomb Bakuda had made?

Eidolon had added his own abilities to the fray.  He had adopted something similar to Alexandria’s powerset, fighting in melee, ducking in only long enough to deliver a blow, then backing away before Behemoth’s kill aura could roast him from the inside.  Eidolon was using another power as well, one I’d seen him deploy against Echidna.  A slowing bubble.

Cumulative effects.  Cumulative slowing.  Each explosion added to the effect, and Eidolon’s slowing bubble was a general factor to help them along.  What did it really do if you tried to walk forward, and the upper half of your leg moved faster in time than the bottom half?  How much strain did that create?  Was there a point where the leg would simply sever?

If there was, Behemoth hadn’t quite reached that point.  Either way, it seemed to be a factor in how slow Behemoth was moving.  He was getting bogged down.  Bogged down further as one foot dipped into Tecton’s antlion pit.

Until the Endbringer struck out, targeting one group of capes with a series of lightning strikes so intense that I was momentarily left breathless.

And the explosive polygons disappeared.

He lurched forward, and even a direct hit from Alexandria wasn’t quite enough to stop him.  The shockwave dissipated into the air, rather than the ground, and flying capes throughout the skies were driven back.

The Endbringer broke into a run, insofar as he could run, and nobody was quite in position to bar his way.  He ignored capes and struck out across the area behind them, hitting a building with two massive guns on it, a clearing, a rooftop with what looked like a tesla coil.  Fire, lightning, and concussive waves tore through the defensive measures before they could be called into effect.

We don’t have the organization.  Our command structure is downTattletale is gone, either dead or too hurt to fight.

He struck one area with lightning, and explosives detonated.  A massive forcefield went up a moment after they triggered, and the explosion was contained within, a cumulative effect that soared skyward.

For a solid twenty, thirty seconds, the sky was on fire, and the Endbringer tore through our defenses, making his way to a building with capes clustered on the roofs.  They weren’t, at a glance, our offensive capes.  They were our thinkers, our tinkers, the ones our front line was supposed to be covering.

The woman in the suit had declined to share the other reason her power wouldn’t let her simply solve the Endbringer crisis.

The answer I’d declined to share with the other Wards was a simple one.  She had the ability to see the road to victory.  Maybe, when it came to the Endbringers, there was nothing for her to see.

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Crushed 24.1

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Couldn’t catch up, not with the Undersiders mounted and us on foot.  I could fly, but I couldn’t abandon this team.  If Tecton hadn’t deferred leadership to me, I might have taken on a scouting role, flying ahead, notifying the Undersiders.

This was the worst environment for me.  There were bugs aplenty, but the area was thick with smoke, and there were fires everywhere.

Bugs weren’t going to contribute much.  They were getting roasted, by hot air and scorching smoke if not the fires themselves..

I flew from point to point.  Navigation wasn’t my strong point, so I focused on moving in straight lines, stopping at various vantage points where I was fairly confident I was out of Behemoth’s sight, physically reorienting myself, then flying to another point.

Each time I stopped, I took a second to try to grasp the situation.  The streets were flooded with people, and it was only getting worse.  The troops we had on the ground were struggling to make headway, and from my vantage point, I could tell that things were getting worse.

The approach had an added advantage in that it let me track where the fires were.  I collected bugs, took a moment here and there to analyze them, assess their capabilities, and guided them along my general route, keeping them as safe as I could manage.

There was a crash as a building toppled, sparks spilling out into the air.  I could hear screams, distant, as the crowd recoiled.  Through the bugs in their midst, I could sense the way they were scrambling for cover, for safety.  The nearest path that took them away from Behemoth was towards us.

Rickshaws turned around and made their way for the mouth of the narrow street, people pushed and shoved, and otherwise stampeded towards us.

I was in the clear, but my team…  I flew a short distance away to check everything was clear, then started to make my way back, still flying in short bursts.

Flitting here and there, I thought.

No, I thought, banishing the idea from my head.  Not flitting.  Never let that word slip in conversation.  Makes me think of fairies.  It’ll make Glenn think of fairies.

“Tecton!” I called out, as I returned to my roost.

He looked up at me.  Even with his heavy body armor, he was struggling with the mass of people who were pushing and squeezing their way past him.

I pointed, “Go through the building!  ASAP!”

He looked at the building, then raised his gauntlets.  The piledrivers slammed into the wall, punching out a rough, door-shaped hole.

He strode through, then did the same for another exterior wall.  The Chicago Wards flowed through.

“Not used to being allowed to make messes,” he said, his voice loud.  “This is just about the second time I can go all out!”

“Powers,” I said, flying down to ground level.  The smoke wasn’t as bad down here.  “You’ve had a few minutes to think, rookies, give me a quick rundown.”

“To think?” Cuff asked me.  “The hell?  You can think with all this going on?”

“You’re clear of the crowd,” I said.  The number of people here were only half that on the other street.  It was a herd mentality, lemming mentality.  They were too focused on getting away.

“It’s not just the crowd.  It’s-” she flinched as lightning struck somewhere in the distance.  “We could die any second, just like that.”

She was showing it the most, but I could see the fear in the other two, as well.  In everyone, but these guys in particular.

They’re new.  They’ve probably never been in a real life or death fight, let alone something like this.

Hell, I’ve never been in a fight quite like this.

It was ominous, the fact that the armbands were silent.  The A.I. wasn’t counting off a death toll, and I doubted it was because nobody with an armband was dying.  Maybe Chevalier had made a call, deciding that morale was low enough without an artificial voice reading out the names of the dead.

The only noises were the impacts and rumbles of Behemoth’s fighting against defending capes, the screaming and panting of people who ran past us, and the incessant crackle of nearby fires and crashes of thunder.

“We stand better odds if you pull yourselves together, fill us in, so we can use each other’s abilities to help,” I said.  “Come on guys, work with me.”

“I’m a breaker and shaker,” Annex told me, “Merge into nonliving material, warp space.”

“Warp it how?” I asked.

“Reshape it,” he said.  He was still half-walking, half-jogging, but he stretched a white-gloved hand out four feet, touching a sign.  His hand smeared against it as though it were more liquid than solid, coloring it the same white as his glove.  The sign oozed back into the wall, virtually disappearing, and Annex removed his hand, slowly reeling in the extended flesh.  The sign remained where it was, compressed against the wall, the surface flat.

“Okay,” I said, making a mental note.    “Okay, good.”

“While in there, I’m about as tough as whatever it is I’m controlling,” he added.

“Alright.  Golem?”

Golem had to stop running to demonstrate.  He dropped to one knee and plunged a hand into the street.

Ahead of us, there was a crash, a grinding noise.  A hand made of pavement was reaching out of the ground, five feet long from the base of the wrist to the tip of the middle finger.  The fingers seemed to move in slow motion as the hand pushed against stopped cars that were sort of in our way, shoving them to one side of the road.

The hand submerged back into the road as he withdrew his own hand from the street.

“Okay,” I said.  There’s synergy with Annex.  Maybe Tecton too.  “Anything I need to know?  Limitations?”

“Whatever I use my hand on, has to match the exit point, pretty much.  Asphalt for asphalt, metal for metal, wood for wood.”

I nodded.

“Bigger the thing I’m making, slower it comes out, slower it moves when I try to use my fingers.”

“Anything else?”

“Lots more, but mainly I can only use my hands, arms, feet and legs.  My face, but that’s not too useful.”

Cuff made a small noise as something crashed in the distance.

“Cuff?” I asked.  She didn’t reply.

“Cuff!” Tecton raised his voice.  It seemed to wake her up.

“What?” she asked.

“Your powers.  Explain.”

She shook her head, “Um.  The, uh-”

When she didn’t pull herself together enough to reply, Tecton set a heavily armored hand on her shoulder, “She’s a metallokinetic.  Shape and move metal, short-range, including the stuff she’s wearing.  Some enhanced strength and durability, too.”

“Yeah,” Cuff said, her voice quiet.  “Not half as cool as those guys.”

“It’s good,” I said.  I noted how she’d paired up with Grace.  Did Cuff’s presence have anything to do with the fact that Grace was wearing PRT-issue chainmail?  They didn’t give me the vibe that they were a pair in any friendship or romantic sense, but they were two bruisers, two girls in a group of mostly boys, and they were sticking together.  That seemed to be enough.

I was going to say something more, but a crash and the rumble of something falling down nearby stalled that train of thoughts.

“Oh fuck,” Cuff said under her breath, as lightning struck close by.  She was panting, and I suspected it wasn’t the exertion.   “Oh hell.  Why did I wear a costume made of metal?  I’m a walking lightning rod.”

“You’ve got a regulation suit between the metal and your skin, right?” Tecton asked.  “If it’s a type three or type four-”

“No suit,” Cuff said.  She tapped the metal at her collarbone, “Strongest if metal’s in direct contact with my skin.  Got a layer that’s almost liquid between this and me.”

“You didn’t think to change?” he asked.

“I didn’t think,” she said, her voice quiet, harboring a tremor.

Why the hell did she come, if she was going to be like this?

“Fuck,” Wanton said, “You are a lightning rod.”

“I don’t think you’re any safer or worse off than anyone else,” I said, trying to inject a note of confidence into the discussion.  I raised myself a step off the ground to get a better view of what lay ahead.  The ground was shaking, a steady, perpetual tremor.  “His lightning doesn’t follow regular channels.  We’re all lightning rods to him.”

Cuff didn’t respond.  I glanced down to see her frowning.

Not reassuring,” Wanton said.

“It’s the truth,” I said.  “We accept it, take it in stride and use it.  Can we change that fact?  Or use it to our benefit?”

“He’ll zap us to death with one hit, even if we protect ourselves,” Wanton said.  “Yeah.  There’s a benefit there.”

These guys aren’t the Undersiders.  Different strengths, different weaknesses.  The Undersiders were good at approaching things from an oblique angle, at catching people off guard, being reckless, even borderline fatalistic.  They had been more experienced than I was when I joined.  It was the other way around here.  Even Tecton, the oldest member of the group, the official leader, had less experience than I did.

I didn’t know them well enough to be able to guess what they brought to the fight.  I considered the various powers as I flew from point to point, scouting with eyes and careful use of my swarm.  Didn’t want to let any of the mobile ones get burned up.

The swarm included fruit flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches and house flies, identical or almost identical to the ones back home.  Surprising.  There were some smaller varieties of cockroach, nearly as numerous as the cockroaches in the peak of Brockton Bay’s worst months, some larger varieties of mosquito, flies I identified as the botflies that had come up in my research, and crickets.

No game changers, but I hadn’t expected any.  The spiders were badass here, at least.  The silk wasn’t so good, but even so, big spiders.

The Wards, their powershow to use them?  I thought. If I went by the PRT classifications, Tecton was a tinker with shaker capabilities.  Wanton was a breaker, someone who altered themselves or their relation to the world by some characteristic of his power, becoming a shaker effect, a telekinetic storm.  Annex was the same, only he became a living spacial distortion effect, a living application of Vista’s power.  Golem, no doubt a shaker.  That left Cuff and Grace.  I wasn’t sure how to peg Cuff, until I saw her in action, but she and Grace were both melee fighters in a fashion.

Of the six of them, four were shakers in some respect.  The classification included forcefields, effects like Grue’s, and powers that reshaped the battlefield, like Vista’s.

I’d been doing my reading on the PRT’s terminology, among other things.

“Battlefield control,” I said. “You guys have battlefield control.”

“Lots,” Tecton said.  “Aimed for it.”

I gave him a curious look, but this wasn’t the time for explanations.  I glanced at each of them in turn, so nobody would feel ignored, “We could try to slow him down, but I’m not sure that’s going to do much.  Instead, we’re going to meet up with the Undersiders.  I think there has to be something we can do with them.  Citrine, maybe Grue.  They’re versatile, and I’ve worked with them.   In the meantime, we’re doing damage control.  Seeing what we can do to keep Behemoth-”

Another lightning strike made the ground shake.  Cuff shrieked, and I grit my teeth.  We barely had two seconds of reprieve between flashes of lightning.  They lanced down from the dark clouds of smoke overhead, more red than yellow, and the thunder seemed more intense than it should be.  That wasn’t the worrisome part.  Behemoth was periodically hitting us with something bigger.  Bolts of lightning big enough to erase a small house from the landscape.

“-We’re going to do what we can to keep him from murdering people,” I completed my thought, belatedly.

“Right,” Tecton said.

“You know about earthquakes and architecture, Tecton?”

“Yeah.”

“What can we do about the shockwaves, or whatever else he’s been doing to make the ground shake?”

“I have ideas.  Not perfect, won’t hold for long, but ideas.”

“Good.  And we were talking about lightning rods,” I said.

“You said they don’t matter.”

“The drones Dragon used redirected his lightning.  Golem?  How big can you go?  Optimal conditions?”

“Depends on the amount of space at the destination.  I’d need a big piece of solid material, and I’d need time.”

“We’ll find an opportunity then,” I said.  “We’ll figure out a way to make this work.”

The crash of something being knocked or thrown through a building half a block away nearly made me jump out of my skin.  The others had ducked for cover, too late to have mattered if it had been real danger.

“Keep moving,” I ordered.

“Three of us are in heavy armor,” Tecton said.  “You can’t really run in armor like mine.”

“I get it,” I said, even as I knew the Undersiders were getting further away.  “Do the best you can.”

Mobility and transportations were problems.  I wondered if there were ways to fix that.  Even if we found Rachel and the others, I doubted we could put Tecton on a dog.  I couldn’t remember which, but I sort of recalled that Wanton or Grace had been a little shy of the dogs, too, so that option was out.

But if we could make this work…

Most people had evacuated at this point, with only a handful of stragglers occasionally passing us, giving us wary looks.

I drew arrows in the air to direct the remaining civilians away from the stampede of people, putting them on a general route where smoke didn’t seem to be heavy, and where I hadn’t been able to see or sense any fire.

Other heroes were joining the fray.  I saw Eidolon pass overhead, surrounded by what looked like a shimmer of heat in the air.  A forcefield?  Something else entirely?  If there were more with him, I couldn’t see them through the smoke.

I resumed my recon, continuing to expand the swarm that was keeping me company.  My range was extensive, now, with a radius of maybe one thousand, eight hundred feet.  That extended a fraction further as I zig-zagged over the area, picking up more bugs on the fringes and bringing them to me.

I stopped when I saw a short crane, three or four stories tall.  I turned around to meet the others, perching on the corner of a rooftop.  I pointed the way with ambient bugs, “Tecton, this way.  Take a shortcut, right through the building.  I don’t want to lose any time if we can help it.”

“Right,” he said.

It took only a minute for them to reach the crane.

“We’ve got two people who can distort metal,” I said.  “Annex and Cuff.  Maybe Wanton can help too.  Tear it down.  We’re making our lightning rod.”

“You sure?” Tecton asked.  “Because this makes a pretty good lightning rod on its own.”

I glanced nervously over in the direction where the smoke and lightning flashes were most intense.  If he shot us, right here, right now, and turned the crane into a tesla tower, this might be my dumbest move yet.  I perched on the corner of a building, where I still had a measure of cover, and watched the battle in the distance.  I could see Legend’s lasers through the smoke, hundreds at a time, radiating out from one central point, from Legend himself, and then turning sharply in the air to strike Behemoth.

Behemoth was using flame, which was some small reassurance, and he was occupied with the two remaining members of the Triumvirate.

“Yeah.  Do it.”

Both Annex and his costume merged into the base of the tower, and gradually climbed up to the point where the upper part still stood.  He could only ‘annex’ part of the object at one time, it seemed.  No surrounding a whole building.  He set about breaking the bonds, and the crane’s arm began to bend.  Cuff caught one end of it, then began heaving it towards the tower’s base.  The other half snapped off, and Annex helped guide it down, sliding it against the crane’s shaft.

It was costing us time, this project.  I felt impatient, was worried it wouldn’t work, and these would be wasted minutes we could be doing something else.

But they were making it happen, putting the pieces of our project together.  Cuff was walking around the crane’s base, effectively melting the metal, or reshaping it so it formed a flattened blob.  Annex tore the rest apart, so Cuff had more material to work with.

When Cuff was done, Annex slipped down to the blob and flattened it out further.

“A little thicker,” Golem said.

Annex ‘swam’ around the blob’s perimeter, shifting more material towards the center.  Cuff drew a blob of metal out of the pad and shaped it into a disk for Golem.

“A lot of synergy in this team,” I commented.

“Sort of aimed for that,” Tecton said.  “They took everyone willing to leave Chicago, to support other cities that lost more members, offered incentives to the rookies if they were willing to move to another city.  Your-parents-can-afford-not-to-work-for-a-year kind of incentives.  I drafted these guys because I thought their powers would work well together.”

“Drafted?” I asked.

“Yeah.  I mean, most teams are lucky if they get a few members with a good interaction, with some more on the fringes that they have to work around and fit into the mix.  We had a good setup with Raymancer, before he got too sick to move.  A strong, versatile ranged attacker with the rest of us situated to protect him, right?”

I nodded.

“After seeing the Undersiders at work, I started to think we need to be less mix-and-match.  Form teams with specific goals in mind.  New York sort of does that.”

“I know they have a team of ‘lancers’.  Forward vanguard, fast moving.”

“Exactly, and they’re also considered one of the better teams.  Maybe we all need to do that.  Except New York can do it because they’ve got a lot of capes.  Rest of us are making do.  Other team leaders are going for versatility, to cover every base.  I say fuck that.  We build around a concept, a game plan.  Once I decided on that, I went out of my way to ask for Annex, even though another team had already picked him up.  Made my argument, Chevalier gave the a-ok.”

“And where do I fit in?  Defiant said you were the one team that seemed interested in including me.  I guess I sort of fit into a shaker category, in a roundabout way.”

“That, and we’ve fought on the same side.  I saw what you managed with Clockblocker’s power and yours.  You stopped Alexandria, too, and all that other stuff we were warned not to bring up.”

I tilted my head to indicate mild confusion.

“They didn’t want us to mention how you’ve kicked ass as a villain.  Way Revel explained it, they wanted to see if you’d boast about it, to see just how badly you wanted a leadership role, where you’d get frustrated and how you’d act.”

I frowned behind my mask, but I didn’t comment.

“Anyways, the problem with this team going this route, focusing on the one thing, is we’re very weak against certain approaches, strong against others.  We need a certain kind of leader for that, and I know you pulled it off with the Undersiders.”

“I hope I can live up to that kind of expectation,” I said.

“I know it’s lame of me, that it might look like I’m trying something experimental and setting you up to take the fall if it fails-”

“No,” I told him.  “I don’t get that vibe.”

The ground tremored.  I worried briefly that the construction would tip, but it didn’t.  How long would it stand tall once it was at its full height?

“Good,” he said.  “Because that’s not what I’m doing.”

I was watching the others work, The pad of metal was about twenty feet across, now.  A circular disk with a flat surface on the top.  “Okay.  I think I can play ball, if that’s the case.  It’s good.  I like your line of thinking, about the team.”

He offered me a ‘heh’ before answering, “Of course.  I’m a pro when it comes to putting stuff together.”

“Putting buildings together,” Wanton chimed in, forming back into his real body.  Dust billowed around his feet.

“That’s my power, but I’m not limited to that,” Tecton said.  “You guys don’t need any help?”

“Save your juice.”

Golem started to put his hand into the plate of metal he’d been given, then hesitated, “I won’t be able to move my hand once it appears, if I go this big.  What shape should my hand be?”

“Middle finger extended,” Grace suggested.  “A big ‘fuck you’ to the Endbringer.”

“That’d look bad for the PRT,” Tecton told her.

“Tell them it’s the most efficient form,” she said, with a shrug.  “Have to make it as tall as possible.”

“No,” Tecton said.  “Index finger would work nearly as well, and New Delhi might take offense at a metal statue of an obscene gesture in the middle the disaster area.”

“A ‘v’,” Cuff suggested, making the gesture with her index and middle fingers.  Her voice was shaky, her confidence rock bottom.  “For victory.  Almost as good.”

“A ‘v’ for victory,” Tecton answered, “Good.  Thank you, Cuff.”

That’s really lame, I thought, but I held my tongue.  Too easy to become the bad guy, here, and it was a resolution to the stupid, petty argument, giving us the chance to move on.

Cuff smiled a little in response to the praise, though, then winced as Grace punched her in the arm.  I heard Grace mutter, “Spoilsport.”

Cuff’s smile returned to her face a moment later.

And maybe it’s good for Cuff, to have something constructive to offer.  She looked a touch more confident, smiling nervously as she followed Grace.  Cuff didn’t seem like she was growing numb to the sounds or vibrations of the destruction Behemoth was inflicting on us.

Golem started to push his hands into the plate.  The gauntlet’s fingertips were already emerging, a mirror-replica to Golem’s own gauntlet.  A hand half as wide as a house, slowly rising from the platform.

Annex dove into the ground, and circled the platform, binding it to the street.  He disappeared beneath the ground, then emerged a few seconds later, pulling his cloak tight around himself.  “Reinforcing, so it doesn’t fall over on us.  Also, brought a spike of metal into the ground.”

“I can help,” Golem said.  He reached his other hand into the ground, and a smaller hand fashioned out of pavement lurched out of the ground to rest against the base of the arm.  He withdrew his hand, leaving the pavement hand in place, then repeated the process, until six arms were supporting the spire.  “Not sure how well that works as it grows.”

“Good job, both of you” I said.  I held my breath as the wind brought heavy smoke past us, waited for it to dissipate.  There were too many variables to cover, and I wasn’t sure enough about this squad to believe I’d accounted for all of them.  “Can you move while carrying the plate?”

“Think so,” Golem said.

“Let’s go, then.”

“Starting to realize why all the capes are so fit, looking good in the skintight costumes,” Golem huffed, as we made our way towards Behemoth.  “So much running around, the training, constantly going places, never time to have… decent meal…”

He trailed off, too out of breath to speak.  I eyed him.  The armor made it hard to tell, but he might have been somewhat overweight.

The hand rose into the air, a virtual tower, as we made our way towards the battlefield.  Golem had to push his hand in gradually to achieve the effect, and it disappeared into the panel.

It was working, though.  For better or worse, they’d created a spire, a replica of Golem’s hand, spearing more than fifty feet in the air, with more room to grow.  Sixty feet, a hundred…

A lightning bolt lanced out from the midst of the cloud of smoke, striking the hand.

There were whoops and cheers from the Chicago Wards.  I managed a smile.

Another lightning strike, curving in the air, hit the hand.  Residual electricity danced between the two extended fingers.

It was working, and as much as it was a success in helping against the lightning, it was working to help morale.  To contribute something, anything, it mattered.

“Air’s ionized now,” Tecton said, as if that was a sufficient explanation for everyone present.  I got the gist of what he meant.  The lightning would be more likely to strike there again.  Lightning did strike the same place twice.

I took flight.  The Wards took my cue and followed on foot.

We found the Undersiders at the very periphery of the battlefield.  They had collected a group of wounded Indian capes and were draping them across the backs of one of the dogs.  Two uninjured Indian capes were looking very concerned, staying at the dog’s side.

I landed beside Grue.  He’d used his darkness to form a wall.  I wasn’t sure what it was for, but the smoke didn’t seem as bad here.

“Skitter,” he said.

I didn’t correct him.  You’ll always be Skitter to me, he’d written.  Or something like that.

“Got a plan?” I asked.

“Dealing with the wounded,” he said.  “Nothing else.”

I studied him.  I could see how defensive his body language was, his glower, the way he moved with an agitation that didn’t suit him.

Was he not holding it together a hundred percent?

“Where’s Tattletale at?”  I asked.  “I kind of got distracted as everyone was moving out.”

“At the command center with Accord.  She just contacted us through the Armbands.  They’re waiting to talk to Chevalier, fine tune the defenses.  Accord thinks he can layer the defenses to maximize the amount of time we buy.  Scion was occupied with some flooded farmlands in New Zealand, flew towards South America, last they saw.  Wrong direction.”

I nodded, my heart sinking.  It didn’t seem we’d be able to count on him.  Not any time in the immediate future.  “And Parian, Foil?  Citrine and Ligeia?  With Accord and Tattletale?”

“No.  Those four split off into another group.  They can put out fires, and Citrine can protect them from lightning strikes so long as they aren’t moving around too much.  Flechette’s using the opportunity to shoot him, for all the good it’s doing.  Our group wouldn’t be any use to them, so we’re doing what we can here, a little further away.”

“Got it,” I said.  “You have a way of communicating with them?”

He tapped his armband, then pressed a button.  “Relay this message to Citrine.  All well, Skitter and Chicago Wards just arrived.  Inform as to status.”

There was a pause.

Message from Citrine,” the armband reported, the voice crackling badly.  Then the crackling redoubled as the voice stated, “Status is green.”

“Any objection if we assist your group?” I asked him.

Grue shook his head.  He started to reply, but was cut off as Behemoth generated another shockwave.  A rumble drowned everything out, as every building without something to protect it fell.

“No objection,” Grue said, when the rumble had dissipated.  He echoed my question from earlier.  “Got a plan?”

“I wish,” I said.  “More lightning rods, maybe, if we get the opportunity.”

The smoke was clearing towards the battle’s epicenter.  Legend and Eidolon were a part of that, as were the craft that supported them.  The fires were dying out, extinguished or stamped out.

Behemoth wasn’t that tall, hard to make out above the buildings that still stood.  I chanced a look, and flinched as another bolt of electricity made its way to the lightning rod.

The path of least resistance.

Behemoth had noticed that time, or he’d decided to do something about it, because he lashed out at Legend and Eidolon once more, driving them back, and then made a beeline for the structure. He threw electricity outward, two bolts, continuous in their arc, and they briefly made contact with the tower.  A second later, they broke free of the tower’s draw.  He was paying attention to where he was shooting now, not simply striking across a distance with the goal of setting indiscriminate fires.

Fire roared around Behemoth as he got away from the area that had already been scorched and blasted clear of any fuel sources.  His dynakinesis fueled the flames, driving them to burn hotter, larger, and with more intensity.  With a kind of intelligence, the fires spread to nearby buildings, ensuring that no place was safe, nor untouched.

I could see the blaze making its way closer to us.  Not a concern in the next minute, maybe not even the next five, but we’d have to move soonish.

Legend and Eidolon hounded the Endbringer, Legend initially a blur that couldn’t even be pinned down long enough to strike, even with lightning.  As the hero flew, he filled the sky with a series of lasers that raked Behemoth’s flesh and targeted open wounds to open them further.  When Behemoth turned away to deal with Eidolon, Legend slowed, and the lasers grew in number and in scale.

“What’s with the hand shape?” Regent asked, as he poked his head out from cover enough to peek at the scene.

“A ‘v’,” Golem said, his voice small.

“I get it.  You’re calling Behemoth a big vagina.”

“It’s for victory,” Cuff said, sounding annoyed.

“That’s lame,” Imp said.

Really lame,” Regent echoed, “I prefer the vagina thing.”

“Way you dress,” Grace commented, “I wasn’t so sure.”

“Ohhhhh,” Imp cut in, she elbowed Regent, “Ohhhhh.  You going to take that?”

Regent only laughed in response, shaking his head.

“Is the little princess feeling brave?” Grace taunted Regent.  “Come on.”

“It’s for ‘victory’,” Cuff said, her feeble protest lost in the midst of the exchange, and in that instant, she sounded surprisingly young, vulnerable.

“No fighting,” I said, have to stop this before it escalates.  “Regent, stand down.  Grace, you too.”

Regent snickered under his breath.

“And no more banter,” Grue said.  “There’s more people to help.  Move.  With luck, those guys can keep him busy long enough for us to clear out.”

“Team’s mommy and daddy, reunited,” Imp commented, adding an overdramatic sigh. “So awesome.”

“I’ll point you guys to the wounded,” I said, not taking the bait.  “Go.”

“No saying or doing stuff that’ll get us killed, like saying goodbye or getting laid,” Regent commented.  “There are rules.”

“Get us killed?  What’s Weaver doing?” Cuff asked, sounded alarmed and confused.

Regent glanced at her, “I’m just saying, Grue’s already screwed, he’s not a virgin, he’s bl-”

Grue struck Regent across the back of the head.  The crown and attached mask were moved slightly askew, and Regent fixed them.  He told Cuff, “Regent’s being an idiot.  Ignore him.  Now go.”

“This way,” Tecton said, setting a hand on Cuff’s shoulder, “Opposite direction from Regent.”

Imp started to turn around to follow the pair, grabbing Regent’s wrist to pull him after her.  Grue stepped in her way and physically turned her back around.

“Sorry for our contribution to that,” Tecton said.  “Grace gets hard to handle when she’s stressed.”

“I understand.  Regent and Imp…” Grue started.  “Really have no excuse.  That’s pretty much the status quo.  They’ve been a little worse lately, but things haven’t settled down since…”

He trailed off.

“Since I left,” I said.

Grue nodded.

Tecton nodded.  “I get it.  Bygones.  We’ll be back.  You okay watching the injured on your own, or-”

“We’re good,” Grue said.

Tecton left, with Cuff at his side.  Only Grue and Rachel remained, along with the Indian capes who were standing by the wounded.  Rachel was giving water to the injured who were capable of receiving it, the conscious ones, people with broken legs and burned hands.

I made eye contact with Rachel.  I wanted to ask how she was doing, knew she wouldn’t like the implications that she wasn’t peachy.

“I want to fuck this bastard up,” she said.  “Last one killed my dogs.  Killed Brutus, Judas, Kuro, Bullet, Milk and Stumpy and Axel and Ginger.  When do we attack?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “We’ll try to find an opportunity.”

“And I get to do something,” she said.

“I…” I started to voice a refusal, then stopped myself.  “Okay.”

“Bitch, it’ll be easier to collect the bodies if you take the dogs to them,” Grue said.  “Why don’t you see to that?”

She glanced at me.  I resisted the urge to nod.  It would be an encouragement, without the complexities and ambiguities of speech, but it would also be supplanting Grue as leader, here.

Neither he nor she needed that.

“Sooner than later,” he added.

She nodded.  Anyone else might have taken that as rude, but she accepted it without complaint.  She led the dogs away, and the Indian capes followed, not wanting to part from people who might have been teammates or family members.

When everyone was gone, Grue approached me.  I felt myself tense up.  Despite the adrenaline that already pumped through me, my heart rate picked up as he closed the distance.

He held my arms just above the elbows, very nearly encircling his middle fingers and thumbs around them.  Large hands, thin arms.  I’d put on a little muscle mass over the past few months, or he’d be able to do it for real.

And he rested his forehead against mine, as if he were leaning against me, despite the fact that he was maybe half-again to twice my weight.

It had been a long time since I felt quite so insecure as I had this past week.  As Skitter, I’d had a kind of confidence.  As Weaver… I didn’t yet feel on steady ground.

But in this moment, somehow, I felt like I could be his rock.

I wanted nothing more than to reach up, to put my hands around his neck, remove his mask so I could tilt my head upward to kiss him.  To give him succor in basic, uncomplicated human contact, at a time he was on unsteady footing and couldn’t even say it aloud.  I stayed where I was, our foreheads touching, my back to the wall, arms to my sides.  The masks stayed on.

The storm continued in the distance, and a detonation marked what might have been the destruction of one of Dragon’s craft.  We didn’t move an inch.

“I miss you too,” I whispered.

He nodded in response, a hard part of his mask scraping against a part of mine.

I could sense the others gathering bodies, starting to make their way back here, to our rendezvous point.

“See,” Imp said, appearing right next to us, “This is exactly what Regent was talking about.”

“We weren’t doing anything,” I said.  I pulled away from Grue, annoyed.

“You were being sweet.  That’s probably a death sentence.”

“They were snuggling?” Regent asked, rounding a corner.

Christ,” Grue said, under his breath.  Firmer, he said, “Enough of that.”

Imp only cackled, and she kept cackling.  I was pretty sure she prolonged it just to be annoying, stopping and starting again until Rachel and the last of the Wards returned.

“Let’s talk plans,” Grue said.  “We’ve got a good roster here.  Two teams.  Almost three full teams, if we pick up Parian, Foil and the Ambassadors.”

He sounds more confident.  A little more balanced.  The agitation isn’t so obvious.

“There’s more wounded in the area,” I said.  “And we’re running out of space.  Each dog that’s loaded up with the injured is a dog you guys can’t ride.  Fires are getting closer, so we pick up everyone we can, load them onto makeshift sleds, then hurry back to a place where we can get them medical care.”

“It’s a plan,” Grue said.

“And,” I said, “We need to find a better use for our strongest members.  Citrine could be useful.  Grue?  If we get the sled going, you stay close to the wounded.”

He turned his head my way.

“We have about twenty here.  Six or so capes.  Maybe one’s got a power we can use.”

He nodded.  “I already checked most.  But I can use a power from the back of the sled without blinding anyone.  It works.”

“There’s a joke there,” Regent said, “But-”

Don’t,” Imp said.

“I wasn’t going to.  It’s crass, totally inappropriate, and I’m better than that.”

“You’re going to,” Imp said, stabbing a finger at Regent’s chest.  “You were going to say something about Grue going to the back of the bus, and you can’t let it go.  It’d be lame and really tasteless and too far, and it’ll start the sort of fight that isn’t fun or funny.  I’m calling it: you’ll hold it in until you can’t help but say it.”

“Well I’m definitely not going to say it now that you’ve spoiled it,” Regent said.  “No shock value, no people feeling bad because they inadvertently laughed at something fucked up.”

“You two go squabble somewhere else,” Grue said.  He glanced at me.  “There’s more bodies to collect?”

“Too many bodies,” I said, my voice sober, “Not many injured left who haven’t already been carried away by friends, family and neighbors, or who aren’t in such bad shape that they can’t move.  Maybe six more we could load up, if we’re going to get out of here in time.”

“Go,” Grue said.  “She’ll show you the way.”

Run,” I said.  They didn’t have to run, but it got rid of them sooner.

Children,” Grue muttered under his breath.

“Wards,” I said.  “If you aren’t making the sled, go get the rest.  I’ll help.”

My team left Annex and Cuff behind while we collected the wounded.

The one I was helping was a child, burned.  She wasn’t any older than ten.

She said something incomprehensible.  Another language.

“English?” I asked.

She only stared at me, unable to understand me any more than I understood her.  Her eyes were a little glazed over, but the pain in her expression and the fear suggested that the benefits of being in shock were receding.

A part of me felt like I should have helped her sooner, but it wasn’t a logical part of me.  There was so little I could do, and it didn’t matter if I did it before or now.  And maybe a small part of me was putting it off because it wasn’t going to be pretty.

“I’m not that scary,” I said, “Okay?”

I pulled off my mask.  “See?  Ordinary person.”

Her expression didn’t change.

“I’m going to have to move you,” I said, and the words were for me as much as they were for her.  I kept my voice gentle, “It’s going to hurt, but it’ll mean we can get you help.”

She didn’t react.  I studied her.  Blisters stood out on her arms and neck, and on the upper part of her chest.

I could maybe understand a little of Rachel’s anger at the loss of her dogs, seeing this.  Behemoth probably hadn’t even given a coherent thought to the pain he’d inflicted on this girl, on countless others, just like Leviathan had mindlessly torn through Rachel’s dogs.

Why?

Why did the Endbringers do this?  Were they part of the passenger’s grand plan?  Cauldron’s monsters, taken to an extreme?  Tattletale had said they were never human, but she’d been wrong before.

Or maybe I hoped they had been human because it was an answer, because the alternative meant I didn’t have enough data points to explain it.

With as much gentleness as I could manage, I moved bugs over the girl’s body.  She reacted with alarm rather than pain, and I shushed her.  The bugs were spreading possible infection, no doubt, but I suspected infection was inevitable, given circumstance.  Using the bugs let me know where the blisters were, where the skin was mottled with burns.

I took off my flight pack and flipped it over.

Like ripping off a bandaid, I thought, only it’s at someone else’s expense.

I lifted her, and she shrieked at the physical contact, at the movement of burned flesh against clothing and the ground.  I set her down on the flight pack, placing a hand on her unburned stomach to stabilize her.  I activated the left and right panels, gently, so it had a general lift without any particular direction, and I led her to the sled in progress.

Golem had already returned, and the three of them were combining powers to make the sled.  Cuff was feeding the chain Rachel had provided into loops at the front.

With Grue’s help, I eased the girl down from the flight pack, setting her with the other wounded.

“We’re going to hurt him,” I said, retrieving the flight pack.

“Behemoth?” Cuff asked me.

“We’re going to find a way,” I said, and that was all.  I met the little girl’s eyes.

Cuff followed my gaze.  “I guess I”m on board with that.”

“Why did you come?”  I asked.  “I mean, I get why we all came, on a level, but… no offense, you’re in a totally different headspace.”

“For my mom and dad,” she said.

I glanced at her, but she didn’t elaborate.

It took another minute to get the sled prepped and people mounted.  Rachel enhanced the size of her dogs so they’d have the strength to pull not only the wounded, but the two teams as well.  It meant they were slower, but it also meant moving nearly forty people with four dogs.  I took off, flying, leading the way and giving directions with bugs as they followed.

A crash heavier than any we’d had yet made the dogs stumble, falling.  It very nearly overturned the sleds.  Bitch had fallen from where she sat on Bentley’s back.  I stopped at her side to make sure she was alright, gave her a hand in getting back to her feet.  She accepted it without complaint or incident, but when she met my eyes, her glower cut right through me.

Was that her resentment at work or my guilt, that made me feel that way under her gaze?

Once I’d verified that no damage had been done, I rose just high enough to peer over the top of a building.

The lightning rod had tilted, leaning against an adjacent building, the supports Golem had raised had crumbled.  Behemoth, too, had fallen.

Eidolon and Legend hovered in the sky, flanked by four dragon-craft.

Another figure was there as well, hovering where Behemoth had been standing an instant ago.  The Endbringer had been toppled with one massive blow.

I touched the button on my armband, lowering my head beneath cover.

“Send this message to Defiant,” I said.  “You said she was dead.  You said you verified.”

The reply crackled so badly it was almost inaudible.  “Reply from Defiant.  I saw the body myself, we checked her DNA, her … readings, we matched against the mountings for her prosthetic eye … carbon dated it to verify.

He didn’t even need to ask who I meant.

I pressed the button, “Ask Defiant who the hell that’s supposed to be, if it’s not Alexandria.”

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Interlude 22 (Donation Bonus #1)

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March 2nd, 1997

“Okay,” Daiichi said.  His Japanese was easy, a lazy drawl.  He paused at the top of the flight of stairs, sneering a touch as he waited for his followers to ascend.  “If you don’t hurry, they’ll be gone by the time we get there.”

There were grumbles from the others.

“Why isn’t there an elevator?” Ren whined.  Of all of them, he was the heaviest, the black jacket of his school uniform straining across his shoulders.  He’d dyed his hair blond, but hadn’t yet found a good style to wear it.  Ren was Daiichi’s lieutenant; most thought that was because Daiichi put too much stock in Ren’s size, ignoring the fact that he was more fat than muscular.  People who knew Daiichi better speculated that it was because Daiichi wanted someone fat and ugly that could offset his own good looks.  Only those inside Daiichi’s group and the people who crossed them knew better.

“Only three floors,” Daiichi said.  “And we wouldn’t use it if they had one.  They could have someone watching.”

“With only two of them?”  Ryo asked.

“Can’t hurt to be safe,” Arata said.

Kenta was the first up the flight of stairs.  Daiichi clapped one hand on his shoulder.  Their leader asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” Kenta answered.  His heart pounded.

For others, for his neighbors and peers, conformity was safety.  To be the same as one’s peers, it reassured the self, reassured others.  Standing out was bad.

But Kenta stood out anyways.  He looked different.  People knew his mother was Chinese.  He was oddly tall for his age, his grades poor.  He could have struggled, but there was so little point.  He was competing with classmates who were already miles ahead of him, who were fighting to keep ahead of one another by studying after school, studying at night.

This was something else.  It was both thrilling and terrifying, to recognize those lines and ignore them.  To be brazen, to stand out on purpose.  Breaking rules, breaking convention.  He imagined it was like the rush that accompanied a fall to open water or hard ground.

“This is our springtime,” Daiichi said, and he managed to say it without sounding ridiculous.  At seventeen, he was older than any of them.

Springtime, Kenta thought.  Daiichi had it all planned out.  They would earn a reputation for themselves, then submit themselves to the Yakuza.  With luck, they would be accepted as low-level members of the ‘chivalrous organization’.  The freedom would be gone, in a way.  Their ‘springtime’, in a sense, referred to the brief period where they were free to do what they wanted, between the confines of school and membership in the Yakuza.

“There’s only two Chinese?” Ren asked, as they filed out of the stairwell and into the restaurant on the third floor.  The rooms here had thick walls and a wooden door, rather than the traditional paper.  They’d wanted privacy, maybe.  It didn’t matter.

“My cousin owns the building,” Daiichi said. “He said they paid with bundles of bills, and no other Chinese came in.  Some Western gaijin, but nobody threatening.”

Kenta looked back at their group.  Nine people for two men?  And they had an unfair advantage, besides.

“Go,” Daiichi ordered.

Kenta was stronger than Ren, so he was the one to kick down the door.  He moved aside to let fat Ren advance.  He wasn’t stupid, wasn’t ignoring the possibility the foreigners had guns. 

There was no gunfire.  Instead, he could hear someone speaking in English, very calm.

The woman is upset you did not take enough precautions,” A man said, in Chinese.  He sounded more alarmed than the English speaker.

Daiichi and Ren led the advance into the back room.  Kenta followed, looking over Ren’s shoulder to take in the scene.

There were five people in the room.  Two were Chinese, sure enough.  Businessmen, they seemed to be, kneeling on one side of a squat dining table that was neatly stacked with cash and ‘bricks’ of white powder in plastic wrap, as well as various dishes laid out with vegetables and meat.  A Japanese man sat at one end of the table, hands folded in his lap, eyes wide.

But there were two more gaijin in the room, kneeling opposite the Chinese foreigners.  A black woman in a white suit jacket and a knee-length dress, and a twenty-something woman with a European cast to her features, with dark hair and a black suit.

The black woman spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to Chinese.  “The woman recommends we stand back.  Her bodyguard will take care of the situation.”

“The woman in front is a bodyguard,” Kenta told Daiichi.

This was wrong.  The two women were too confident.

Daiichi drew a gun and pointed it at the woman.  Kenta felt his heart leap at the sight of the weapon.

Then Daiichi fired, a warning shot.  Kenta flinched despite himself.  He’d never heard a gunshot before.  Loud.

The men were cowering, trying to hide beneath the table.  The women hadn’t even reacted.

“One bodyguard?” Daiichi asked, sneering.  He made the first move.  He flared a brilliant green, then jolted as a phantom replica of himself leaped forth.

The phantom Daiichi flew across the room like living lightning, a trail of neon green smoke in its wake.

The bodyguard was already moving, her hand on a plate.  She turned it upside-down and threw it in a single motion, and it caught the air like a frisbee.  It turned in mid-air and crashed into the real Daiichi’s face.

He staggered, and the phantom he’d created dissipated a fraction of a second before reaching the bodyguard.  She shut her eyes as the residual smoke carried past her.

Kenta stared.  He’d never seen Daiichi’s ability fail him like that.

Daiichi raised the gun, and the woman raised one knife from the table, turning it around so she held the blade, the metal handle extended.  She held it out with one hand, pointing it at Daiichi’s shoulder.

Daiichi fired, and the knife went flying.  It ricocheted, spinning rapidly, striking the doorframe behind the bodyguard before flying over her head in a tall arc.  She caught it in her other hand, resuming the exact same position as before, then shook her right hand for a second.

She said something, murmuring it in English.  The knife, still held in front of her, had a dent on the end.

The black woman behind her said something else.

“What are they saying?” Daiichi asked.

“The woman in the suit just got permission to kill us,” Hisoka said.  “But the black one said not to spill any blood.”

“We should run,” Kenta said.

“You scared?” Daiichi asked.  “We have muscle.”

“So does she,” Kenta retorted.

Daiichi only smirked.

Can’t run, we’re going to get hurt if we stay…

Ren rolled his shoulders, then inhaled.

Wind rushed out of the room, and small objects were drawn towards Ren.  The intensity of the suction grew as the fat boy sucked in more and more air.

The bodyguard kicked one edge of the low table, and the wind caught it, helping it rise.  Money, plates and the bricks of white powder slid to the floor, sliding and rolling towards Ren.

Daiichi opened fire again, indiscriminate, but she didn’t even react.  Her knife blocked one shot that was directed more at the black woman, flying out of her grip, and the bodyguard walked between the rest of the shots without even dodging.  She seized a table leg in one hand.  It would have been too heavy to lift, but Ren’s suction was hauling it off the ground.  Two bullets bit into the thick wood.

Daiichi unleashed his power, creating another ghostly replica of himself, incredibly fast, stronger than he was.

The woman kicked the table, and it spun through the air as it flew towards Ren, clipping the ghost.  The phantom lost an arm and a chunk of its chest, got its bearings, then charged the bodyguard.  The damage to its chest was too grave, and it crumpled into neon green dust a pace away from her.

Ren was struck by the moving table, hit with enough force that he stumbled backwards into Kenta, Hisoka, and the other mundane members of the group.

Ren blew, and the table went flying across the room.  Kenta’s heart sank as he saw the woman, crouching low to the ground.  Her hand reached up to strike the flying table, altering its course as it flew towards the Chinese men.  It came so close to hitting them that Kenta thought it would be like the cartoons, where someone was cut but didn’t start bleeding until seconds had passed.

Except it hadn’t hit them, and the woman was too close to the ground to really be affected by the wind.

“Suck!” Daiichi shouted.

“Don’t!” Kenta said, though there was little point.

It was too late.  Ren had stopped blowing, buying her a second to move.  She stepped forward, closing the distance to the group.  Daiichi created a third ghost, rushing towards her, but she avoided the first strike.

Ren started drawing air in once more.  Daiichi’s spirit opened with a flurry of attacks, moving twice as fast as she was, but failed to land a strike.  The bodyguard took a step back and used the toe of her glossy black shoes to flick a brick of powder into the air.  She threw it, and the suction only added to its velocity as it soared to Ren’s right.

Daiichi’s spirit was fast enough to avoid the brick, but Daiichi wasn’t.  It bounced off his head, and the ghost dissipated again.  She kicked the table, and again, the suction caught it.  It flew into Ren’s shins, and he fell.

Thrice, both the ghost and Ren had been countered, almost casually.

Daiichi shouted, uncharacteristically angry.  Uncharacteristic, maybe, because he’d never lost a fight before.

The others pushed forward from behind Kenta.  Had they not just seen the fight?  They really thought they’d accomplish something?

But the force of the others charging forward from behind started him moving forward, and he was driven to keep advancing by the vague, incoherent idea of what might happen to him if he, the largest, physically strongest member of Daiichi’s group, turned coward.

He knew in an instant that it was a mistake.  Daiichi’s ghost, twice as fast and twice as strong as Daiichi himself, an expendable assailant, hadn’t accomplished anything.  Why would six or seven teenaged delinquents?

She tore through them, every movement precisely calculated to disable, to crush, blind, stun and stagger.  They were driven to stumble into one another, their weapons knocked from their hands.  She wasn’t any faster than any of them, not a martial artist, though there was a degree of elegance to what she did.  No movement wasted.

Her foot caught Kenta in the diaphragm.  She planted one hand on the back of his head as he winced from the blow, then pushed him face first into the ground.

His teeth bit into a brick of powder, puncturing the plastic itself.  Kenta tried to rise, but she stepped on the back of his head, driving him facefirst into the brick a second time, hard.

Someone else fell to the ground a short distance away.  Kenta turned to look, simultaneously coughed, and loose powder exploded around his face, filling his eyes.

The powder caked his nose, thick in his mouth, to the point that he couldn’t swallow.

Drugs weren’t a ‘big’ thing in the East, even among gangs.  He didn’t know the particulars of any powder or substance.  Only that they were bad, possibly lethal if too much was ingested.  He tried to spit it out, but couldn’t help but feel like he was swallowing more than he was removing.  The weight of the woman bodyguard was on his head, holding him there, suffocating.

He felt the rush of it taking hold, intense and seemingly without a ceiling to top it off.  His face in the dirt, in the dust, he was overwhelmed by the paradoxical sense of being like the king of the world.

That rush lasted too short a time.  He could feel the rush building until it felt like his heart was going to burst or vibrate itself into pieces.  He felt nauseous, as if he was going to throw up, but couldn’t bring himself to.

Kenta’s left arm started going numb.  He knew what that meant.

With a cold feeling in his churning gut, he thought, I’m having a heart att

He found himself out of his body.  He was an observer, an outside agent, without body or mind.  He couldn’t think.  He could only exist, as a part of some sequence of events.

Two entities, communicating in increasingly short bursts as they drew together.  Two entities, each unfolding and folding through realities, through multiple worlds at the same time.  Two entities, singing ideas through mediums he could barely comprehend.  Through light and heat and space and half-lives and gravity.

And they were looking.  Looking at a planet that was broad, more gas than solid.  A world of perpetual storms.  There were lifeforms in there, lifeforms in countless possible variations of that world.  Bloated bags of gas that flowed through and in the storms, in kalleidoscopic patterns.

He could see what they were focusing on, see them examining those possible worlds, declaring something.  Ownership here.  Claim there.  Territory elsewhere.

ack.

Kenta’s thoughts were confused as he felt the high seize him.  Three things overwhelming him at once.  The things he’d just seen, fleeing from his recollection.  His own body, dying in a violent, incomprehensible way.  The world beyond-

He blinked the dust out of his eyes, felt them burn, could only see shadows, could only hear the rush of blood in his ears.

The bodyguard had stepped away from him, freeing him to raise his head.  She’d staggered, and was being supported by the black woman.

He turned away, flipping himself over.  He could see the fat shape of Ren, on his hands and knees, Daiichi prone on the ground.

The bodyguard recovered faster.  She found her stride quickly enough.

She kicked at Daiichi’s throat, hard.  Ren, she struck in the nose with one boot.

The black woman said something in English.

S-she’ll take the cost of the lost product out of the deal,” the translator said in Chinese, his voice distant.

Kenta only lay there, his chest heaving.  He felt stronger, could feel his heart returning to some form of equilibrium.

But he knew he couldn’t win.  He lay there, doing his best to emulate the dying, as the Chinese men collected both cash and drugs in a bag, handing them to the black woman.

She spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to, “She would like to discuss delivery of the product on the way out.”

Kenta lay there long after the two women and the Chinese men had left.  He wiped caked powder from his face, though the effects had receded, the tingling and the rush long since faded.  Whatever had happened to him, the drugs did almost nothing, now.

He wiped his face with his shirt, then checked on his friends.

Daiichi, dead, suffocated, eyes bulging.  Ren lay there, eyes rolled up into his skull, his nose rammed into his brain, though the blood hadn’t leaked past the aperture of his nostrils.

Hisoka, suffocated on powder, as Kenta almost had.  Arata, gasping for air he couldn’t seem to pull into his lungs.  Ryo’s head had a dent in it, and his eyes were unfocused.  Jirou’s airway had been blocked, much as Daiichi’s had.  Both Takeo and Shuji lay dead with no apparent wounds.

All dead or dying, with no blood spilled.  Technically.

Kenta waited, holding Arata’s hand as the boy slowly died, then he straightened.

Idiots, he thought, with a degree of anger.  It had been foolish to escalate the fight after seeing what the woman was capable of.  He’d be more careful of who he fought in the future.

November 2nd, 1999

Lung toyed with a flame in one of his hands as he watched the great lizard-man’s rampage.

The Sentai Elite were battling the thing, assisted by the gaijin heroes.  Once every few minutes, someone passed him, flying, carrying wounded.  Lung didn’t care.  It was about timing.  If he was going to do this, he’d do it right.

A tidal wave rocked the area, and Lung had to hold on to a nearby building to keep from falling.  Heroes were swept up in the wash of water, and buildings were leveled.

The anticipation of a fight stirred inside him.  He could feel the scales beneath his skin, just itching to be brought to the surface.  The fire, too, was warm in the core of his body.

This was a fight that was worthy of him.  The trick was orchestrating it so he wouldn’t die before he got strong enough.  It was his biggest drawback.  The fight… the heroes were stalling in their own way as well.  He could tell by the way the heroes moved.  They fought in shifts.

Eidolon was fighting now.  He hurled globes of energy the size of small houses at Leviathan, and each one was sufficient to knock the creature away, flaying away the thing’s skin and simultaneously slowing it.  The hero’s own hydrokinesis deflected the lizard’s ranged attacks, diverting them skyward or off to one side.  Leviathan couldn’t attack from range, and couldn’t get close without getting pummeled.  He attempted to run, only for Japan’s foremost team, the Sentai Elite, to step into his way, blocking his progress.

“Are you fighting?”

Lung turned to look at the speaker.  A woman in a yellow and black Sentai costume.

“Yes,” he answered, his voice a rumble.  His power had granted him additional strength, durability, regeneration and control over fire even in his ordinary form, but the changes to his body had altered his voice.

She glanced at the fight, as if unsure whether she should be participating or talking to Lung, “You’re a yankee?”

“No.”

“You’re a villain?”

“I am me.”

Another tidal wave rocked the area.  This time, the water reached Lung, sweeping up to waist level and forcing him to hold the windowsill again to avoid losing his footing.  He caught the Sentai woman’s wrist to keep her from being washed away.

He could feel the scales beneath his skin stirring, threatening to rise, eager.

“Sumimasen deshita,” she said, once the water was mostly gone.

Lung only grunted a response.

“Why are you back here?”

“I’m waiting,” he answered.  “And you should be fighting.”

“I can’t do anything.  My power hurts people, but it doesn’t hurt him.  I’m not permitted to leave.”

The heroes were winning, slowly but surely.  Slowly more than anything.  Each tidal wave was doing catastrophic damage in the meantime.

I’ll fight, he thought.

With that very thought, his power started stirring into effect.  The scales began growing, slowly but surely, bristling like a sea urchin’s spines as they arranged themselves.  The very anticipation of the fight was serving to fuel his abilities.  When he changed, it would be rapid, accelerated by the sheer threat his opponent posed.

He abandoned his handhold and began striding through the flooded streets, towards Leviathan and the others.

He’d made a promise to himself.  He wouldn’t lose again.  Victory, it didn’t matter.  But losing?  He wouldn’t accept it, not like the loss he’d faced at the hands of the unnamed woman.

And that very thought, that certainty, it stirred his power further, as though it were something alive, something other.

Another tidal wave hit.  Leviathan disappeared in the midst of it, reappearing elsewhere.  Lung could hear the destruction as the beast clawed and tore through the base of one building that heroes were perched on.  He quickened his pace, felt himself growing stronger as he got closer.

The beast was otherwise occupied… this was the time.

“You’re going to die!” the Sentai in black and yellow shouted.

I’ll never die, Lung thought.  I might fall, but I’ll come back again and again.  I might falter, but I’ll return with twice the fury.

The waves were more frequent now.  Buildings here had been built to tight specifications, to remain standing in the face of earthquakes and tsunamis, but it wasn’t enough.  Barely a minute passed between the strikes, with each wave reaching further inland than the last, and only a handful of buildings stood at their full height, where there had been a city here only an hour ago.

It was in one of those brief moments of respite that the ground shuddered.  Lung nearly lost his footing.  When he looked up at the night sky, he could see that the tallest standing buildings were swaying, like fronds bending in the wind.

Somewhere he couldn’t see in the gloom, a building swayed too far and crashed to the ground.

Eidolon backed off, and Alexandria stepped in, flying into close quarters with the beast, battering him.  He tried to duck beneath the water, but she broke off to fly beneath, using her strength and the speed of her flight to part the water, cutting off his retreat.  He slowed as he entered open air, though slow wasn’t the word.  Legend caught him square in the chest, and Leviathan slowed long enough for Alexandria to catch him by the tail.

She flew straight up, holding the monster by the tail.  Between Leviathan’s dark scales and Alexandria’s black costume, they disappeared in the gloom.

Leviathan fell, and the resulting impact was oddly out of sync with his mass.  The water in particular seemed to react, a single ripple extending outward, clearing an area around him of any and all water.

Lung braced himself, felt the water collide with him with a force like a locomotive, was summarily dragged beneath, trapped, suffocating.

Scales pierced his skin, strength surged through him, and his pyrokinesis boiled around him, disrupting the water’s flow, rendering it to steam.

Other heroes were pushed back a hundred meters, but Lung was already standing, burning himself dry, advancing on the fight, where Eidolon was again engaging with Leviathan.

Another tidal wave struck, barely giving the defending forces time to recover from the last assault.  Lung lost his footing, lost another dozen feet of headway.

More scales were sprouting, they were growing en masse now.  His blood coursed through his veins at twice the usual speed.  Fire burned around him perpetually now.  He was naked, the burned rags of his clothes swept away by water, and he didn’t care.  He was in freefall, of a sort, but it wasn’t the ground waiting for him.  It was Leviathan.

His flame blasted out to pelt the Endbringer.  It didn’t do any substantial damage.

Lung ran, and it took him an instant to get used to his newfound strength, to find a stride and a rhythm.

The ground was shaking almost constantly, now.  The lasers, Eidolon’s strikes, the very impacts of the blows Alexandria delivered, the Sentai’s attacks, the barrages from assisting heroes.  A cacaphony of noise, light and violence.

He struck Leviathan, and was struck in turn, his bones broken, internal organs smashed.

He very nearly blacked out, but his rage won out.  He struggled to his feet, found one femur in two distinct pieces.  He knelt instead, resting his weight on one knee, the other foot planted on the ground, taloned toes biting into asphalt, and he directed a constant stream of fire at the Endbringer.

A flick of Leviathan’s tail sent him sprawling.

But Lung knew he’d reached a critical point.  His leg was already healing, the changes speeding up.  He stopped to hold his leg, pull the bones into what was more or less the right position, so they could bond.

Anyone who crosses me will pay twice over, he thought.

A Sentai in purple and green offered him a hand.  Lung ignored the man, standing on his own.  Again, a stream of fire, but the color was more blue than red.

The Sentai joined him, adding their ranged fire to his.  They had a man who mass produced their armor and weapons, each with wrist-mounted laser guns, rifles at their hips.  Sixteen or seventeen of them opened fire with both weapons at the same time.

Leviathan turned, struck.  Some Sentai used powers to soften or deflect the incoming scythe of water.

Leviathan charged, and Lung stepped forward to meet the brute, roared in defiance.

He wasn’t strong enough.  Leviathan knocked him aside, and Lung rolled, putting taloned hands and feet beneath him before rushing forward, shallow leaps that carried him over the water that was knee-high to the humans.  Barely halfway up Lung’s own calves.

He found handholds in the shallow wounds on Leviathan’s back and shoulders.  The abomination moved, and the watery echo that followed its movements crashed into Lung.  Not enough to unseat him.

The tidal wave that struck wasn’t enough either, nor Leviathan’s speed as the creature swam.  Lung dug deeper, clawed flesh away.  Deeper in Leviathan’s body, the flesh was only harder, the ichor making it slick.

Lung roared, burned head to toe as he clawed deeper still.  If Leviathan’s muscle was as hard as steel, Lung would burn hot enough to melt steel.

Leviathan surfaced, and Lung found his way up to the monster’s neck.  He tried to reach around, and his arm shifted, reconfiguring to be a fraction longer.  Lung’s legs, arms, and talons were growing as well.

Stronger, larger.  Another man might have been afraid of what he was becoming, but this was only continuing the freefall.  Freedom.

Leviathan shook him free, and Lung found no trouble in putting his feet under him.  His mouth strained, opened wider than it should have, four individual mouthparts flexing, bristling with teeth, his own lips buried somewhere deep inside, altered.

Water steamed and boiled around Lung’s calves as he stood as straight as he was able.  He’d changed more, his shoulders broadening, his chest heavy with muscle.  He had to rest his taloned hands on the ground to maintain his balance.  His senses focused on Leviathan like a laser, taking in everything, even the faint creaking of the monster’s movements and the Sentai’s muscles, and the infintesmally small burbles of ichor bubbling forth from Leviathan’s wounds.

The ground was rumbling constantly, to the point that the local heroes were starting to seem more concerned about the landscape than about Leviathan.

There was a crack, and Lung was put in mind of the gun Daiichi had fired, more than two years ago.  A loud sound, a wrong sound.

The ground shifted underfoot.  Heroes scrambled for cover, scrambled to run or save their friends, and water rushed forth.  Lung merely set his taloned toes in the ground, ignoring the water, the debris, and the people that flowed past him.

Leviathan charged him.

He can’t ignore me now, Lung thought.  He was only half the height of the Endbringer, but it was enough.  Fire against water, claw against claw.  Leviathan hit harder, but Lung healed faster.  Every second he fought without Leviathan tearing him in half was a second that was to his advantage.

The ground parted, and Lung could hear the water rushing in to fill the void.  The landmass had parted, and ocean water was streaming in from miles away.

Leviathan tried to drag him closer to the chasm, no doubt wanting to fight in that churning abyss.  Lung planted toes in the ground and resisted.

Alexandria was there in a heartbeat, helping, keeping Leviathan from finding his way inside.  She drove the monster back, bought Lung purchase.

She said something in English, but Lung didn’t know the language.  The only others who spoke Japanese or Chinese were gone, now.  They’d evacuated who they could, and the remainder were left to drown.  The only ones left were the indomitable, and for now, Lung was among them.  They fought to keep Leviathan from continuing his rampage, to keep him from carrying on until he’d wiped away all of Japan.  Lung just fought.

Fought for minutes, hours.  Fought until four wings extended from his back, and he burned so hot that the steel-like flesh just beneath Leviathan’s skin was blackening and charring to ash by proximity alone.  Until he was larger than Leviathan, until even Alexandria hesitated to get too close.

For that indeterminate period of time, Lung was king of the world.

But he began to weaken.  The lesser heroes were gone, washed away or helping others to evacuate, the greater heroes a distance away.

And Lung had nothing to fuel his power.  He was engaged in a fight of ten times the scale he’d been in before, and his power was leaving him.

The landmass disappeared beneath the pair of them, the shards of land drawn beneath the waves, and Lung was now fighting Leviathan in the monster’s home ground.

For an instant, he thought he would die.  But Leviathan, wounded, broke away and fled into the depths.

Lung only sank, too dense to float, growing wearier by the second as his power left him, the fight over.

He’d expected a feeling of satisfaction, but he knew he hadn’t delivered a killing blow, that he had been a long, long way from it, though he’d done more damage than anyone had in years.

His enemy couldn’t be killed.  Lung had become something more terrifying than the Endbringer, but there had been nobody to see.  None of the public to recognize him, to respect and fear him.

He sank, feeling a kind of despair.  Too tired to move, he touched bottom.

Alexandria found him in the depths and brought him to the surface.

August 13th, 2002

The walls of the C.U.I. prison loomed around him.

Lung fumed, but his power was denied him.  He paced, punched walls, burned the concrete with his power.  All around him, the area was pockmarked with the wounds that marked his periodic struggles.

They’d had him in regular cells before.  It had been a learning process for them.  He’d found that surviving in a prison like this involved being a true monster, so he’d bowed his head to one boss.  When this boss had discovered what he was capable of, he’d attacked another leader in the prison.  The ensuing war had ended with Lung being placed in higher security, until he fought the man who’d brought him food, very nearly escaping before Tōng Líng Tǎ, who never showed herself, encased him in a mountain of stone.

All in all, three years since he’d fought Leviathan.  Two years since he and his mother had come here to Chaohu.  A year and eight months since he’d been arrested by the Yàngbǎn.

A year and four months since Tōng Líng Tǎ had buried him here at the base of this pit, with the same routine.  Twice a day, he would get two packages with food.  Every day, he would pace, trying to tap into his abilities, finding them beyond his reach.  He would struggle, fume, scream, and wonder if he was going mad with the solitude.  Sometimes it rained, and he found himself knee deep in water.  Sometimes it was cold enough he couldn’t sleep.  Always, he was here, in a pit so deep that the hole at the top looked no larger than his handspan when he held his hand overhead.

Every seven days, Tōng Líng Tǎ used her powers on the walls.  The floor, she left alone, but the walls were wiped clean, her power to manipulate stone turning the four impossibly tall walls of Lung’s cell into flawlessly smooth surfaces.  She would absorb any and all of the trash that remained from his meals, any of the wildlife that had accidentally found their way into the pit, and all of Lung’s leavings, which he customarily left in one corner of his cell.

Every fourteen days, like clockwork, the Yàngbǎn opened communications.

Lung was waiting, waiting for Tōng Líng Tǎ to use her power.  Like a ripple traveling over the surface of water, he could see her power extend down the walls of his cell.  It touched the base of the wall and traveled along the floor.

Lung didn’t resist as the ground swept over his legs, trapping him from the knee down.

They appeared, descending from above, floating.  Two of them this time.  They made no mention of his lack of clothes or his shaggy hair.  Both wore identical uniforms, red jackets and pants, their red masks turning their faces into overlarge, featureless gemstones with coverings over their ears

At each of their shoulders, there was a number.  One-six and two-seven.  Not ones he’d met before.  No names.  No identities.

Will you join us?

Always, the same questions, always in Chinese.  He didn’t answer.

The American heroes approached you.  What deals did you strike?

Again, he didn’t answer.  He’d tried to tell them the truth, that he’d told the heroes to go away.  The Endbringers couldn’t die.  There was no point to fighting them.  Twice they had approached him with better deals, promising him the world, but he’d turned them down twice in turn.  He’d considered the idea of taking the third offer, but then he’d followed his mother to the C.U.I. states and lost touch with the Americans.

Not a real concern.

You will stay here until you answer our questions.”

I will join,” he told them.

They exchanged a glance between them.

He moved one hand and saw them flinch.  They wouldn’t burn any more than the other Yàngbǎn members had, but they still feared him.

It made him feel better than anything in the past long months.

The Yàngbǎn is the solution,” the taller of the two said.  “You agree this is truth?”

No,” Lung said.

That is a shame.”

I want out of here,” Lung told them.  “That is all.  If I must kneel, I will.”

We need to hear the right answers before we can go any further.  We will come again in two weeks time and we will ask you again.  If you give us the answer we require, we can move on to the next step.”

And, Lung thought, carry down the chain of questions, steps, and procedures until I fail.  You will break me and brainwash me until I am one of you.

Worst of all, they would take his powers, most of them, and give him others in turn.  This was the reason they imprisoned him, the reason they sought to break him.

He would risk it, and accept the offer.  He would do whatever they required of him, and then he would kill whoever he needed to and escape.

March 23rd, 2011

With every defeat, a matching ascent.

“The ‘Azn Bad Boys’ is a shit name,” Bakuda said.

Lung didn’t react, staring at her.

“Just saying.”

“It was the name of the group I joined when I came to America.”

“See, that’s what I don’t get.  You’re a badass, fine.  You tested the waters, took on a whole team of local heroes, and you walked away.  Right?”

“I fought Armsmaster, Dauntless, Miss Militia, Velocity, Challenger, Assault and Battery,” he said.  “Yes.”

“Except you’re small time.  You’ve got all this power, and what do you have to show for it?”

“Fear,” he said.

“I don’t fear you,” Bakuda said.  Her pale blue eyes stared at Lung, unflinching.

“You will,” he answered her.

She shrugged.  She paced, looking around the building.  Two of Lung’s whores sat on a couch, looking distinctly uncomfortable, as if they didn’t know how to hold themselves, the pose to take.

“There are two kinds of fear, Bakuda,” Lung said.  “The first is common.  Fear of the unknown.  A questioning fear.”

“Uh huh,” she said.  He could tell he had her attention.

“This is fear of unanswered questions.  If I fought him, would I win?  How is he going to hurt me?  Who or what is he?”

“And the other kind?”

“A fear of knowing.  Of realities.  If I fight him, I lose.  I know him, and I quiver to be in his presence.  I know he will hurt me and I know it will be the worst pain imaginable.”

Bakuda didn’t reply.

“I have found that the first is a weak fear.  It breaks.  It ends when you have answers, when others give you their support.  The other?  It is a fear that breeds itself.  It is a disease, and it only gets stronger when you fight it and fail.  I have situated myself here to engender that kind of fear.  The residents know me.  Those I want for my gang, I take.  My influence grows, and my enemies know not to cross me, because I always have my vengeance.”

“But the ‘Azn Bad Boys’?”

“A reminder, to my enemies, of what I’ve done before, what I could do again.”

Bakuda frowned.

“I defeated many gangs, many groups.  Some had powered members, others did not.  I recruited some.  Oni Lee was one.  The rest I killed.”

“And the heroes didn’t stop you?”

“The heroes see me as a double-edged sword.  They fear me.  They know what I am capable of when the situation calls for it, they know I am too strong to defeat as a group.  For now, I wait.  They leave me be because the only aggression they can see is that I inflict on other criminals, and I amass power, swelling in reputation.”

“And the fact that you, a halfbreed, recruited me, a halfbreed, and built a gang of a bajillion different races, it’s totally not a freudian thing, tying back to some childhood issues.”

“No,” Lung growled.

Bakuda only smiled.  “And what happens down the road?”

“I have enemies,” Lung thought.  “Those who have slighted me, those who have won.”

“Like Leviathan?”

Lung shook his head.  “Leviathan, I beat, if you can even call it an enemy.  It is a force of nature.  No, I speak of other enemies, insults old and new.  I will defeat each of them in turn, and then I will rule.”

The woman in the suit, the Yàngbǎn.

“So petty.  And you want me to help?”

“You will help,” Lung said.  “Because you think like I do.  In terms of power and fear.”

Bakuda took a seat at the end of the couch.  The two whores inched away from her.

She smiled at that.  “Alright.  You got me.”

July 14th, 2011

“…and that’s the gist of it,” Amelia said.

Lung watched Teacher’s expression change as he considered the idea.  The man seemed so ordinary, so unassuming.  To hear the man talk about it, he’d been one of the foremost criminal masterminds until the heroes trumped up charges against him.

“I might not be explaining it right,” Amelia said, “How my power works, hard to interpret.  But I think I’ve worked it out.”

“I can see where it makes sense to you,” Teacher said.  “But for those of us with no conception of these power granting entities, we don’t have enough solid ground to found the idea on.”

Amelia frowned.

Teacher shook his head.  “There’s holes in your logic.  The Endbringers?”

“I don’t see how they fit in,” she admitted.

“A developmental step forward?”

“No,” Amelia said.

“A step backwards, then?”

“No.  At least, I don’t think so.  Something else entirely.”

“To be frank,” Teacher said, “I don’t know whether to hope you’re right or wrong.”

“It’s both,” Amelia said.  “It’s bad, but at least we know how bad.”

“With nothing we can do about it until someone lets us out,” Teacher said.

Amelia frowned.  She rested her elbows on her knees, as she sat on the edge of Marquis’ bed.  Plastic crinkled with the movement.  The tattoo artist who was working on her arms had scrounged up plastic sheets from the meals that came down the shafts, sterilizing them and then taping them in place.  The freshest tattoos and the irritated flesh around the markings were blurry just beneath.

Panacea had complained about how idiotic it was, because she couldn’t get sick, but any artist had their rules and peculiarities, and Marquis had told her to accept them.

“Well,” Marquis said.  “It’s food for thought.  I’d suggest a breakout attempt, given how grave this all seems, but we know how that tends to go.”

“Yes,” Teacher agreed.  “Our deal stands?  You won’t replace my dentists or doctors?”

“That wasn’t the deal,” Marquis chided.  “We’ll price match.  A little competition will keep your employees honest.”

Teacher frowned.

“It’s the best deal I’m willing to-”

Marquis stopped short.  Lung turned to see Spruce at the entryway into the cell.

“Hey, boss,” Spruce said.

“What is it?” Marquis asked.

Spruce gave him a curious look before turning back to Marquis, “Big news. TV.”

Lung took his time walking down to the televisions.  Marquis, Spruce and Amelia made their way down, where a crowd had gathered to watch.  It was rare, that the same thing would be on all of the working televisions.

It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.

“What’s this?” Amelia asked.  She gave Lung a nervous glance as he approached.

“Alexandria bit it,” Cinderhands said.

With that, each of the new arrivals turned their attention to the screen.

“…will recognize Taylor Hebert, revealed to be Skitter in a controversial confrontation at the school just a week ago, a confrontation Alexandria ordered.  Taylor Hebert played a crucial role in stopping Alexandria in a moment of crisis, ending the fight.

“No shitting way,” Panacea said.

Lung remained quiet.

“She’s the one who arrested you, isn’t she?” Cinderhands asked, looking over his shoulder at Lung.

“No,” Lung said.  “We fought twice, I was arrested by others.”

“But she beat you?”  Cinderhands asked.

“Shush, C.H.,” Marquis said.

It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.

“Anyone else thinking that we really should get a chance to appeal our cases?”  someone in the crowd asked.  “If the organization is this fucked up, the arrests can’t count.”

“Yes,” Marquis said, his tone condescending, “I’m quite sure the Protectorate will be apologizing to the public, then they’ll throw open the Birdcage’s doors and let us all loose.”

“…hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency…

And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.

Panacea stared as the girl on the television stepped forward at Chevalier’s bidding, She removed the black sweatshirt and pants the PRT had issued her, revealing a costume of white and gray beneath.

Amelia’s hands went to her mouth.

Marquis glanced at Amelia.  Lung took that glance in all it’s import.  The two girls were opposite sides of the same coin.

Lung’s eyes fixed on the new heroine, then narrowed.

I admitted to reprehensible things.  I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.

“is it reassuring?” Teacher murmured.

Lung turned, realizing that Teacher was talking to him.  “Why would it be?”

“You lost to her, but she’s strong enough to defeat Alexandria.  Less of a wound to your ego?”

“I lost once,” Lung said.  “An underhanded trick, but a loss.  I’ll credit her that.”

“Mm hmm,” Teacher replied, wordlessly.

The girl continued, “I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable. Except there are bigger things.  More important things.

“She was stronger before,” Lung spoke his thoughts aloud.

“More powerful?  Likely,” Teacher said.  “Stronger?  I wonder.”

Lung shook his head.

I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.

“Noble,” Marquis said.  “Foolish at the same time, but the line between the noble and the fool is a thin one, or even a matter of perspective.”

“On this, we may agree,” Lung rumbled.

“I’ll endeavor to see that as something other than a veiled insult,” Marquis said.

This is what I want to do, above all else.  Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-  …When and if I do take up the job, you can call me Weaver.

The broadcast ended, with news reporters discussing the fallout, reiterating details.

The noise of it was broken down by singing, echoing through the Birdcage.  A dirge.

The yellow feathered girl who was in the truck, Lung thought to himself.

“That’s for Alexandria, I imagine,” Marquis said aloud.  “Undeserved, I think, but I imagine Lustrum gave her cell block a very good reason to honor the woman.”

“I wouldn’t have imagined you’d care,” Teacher commented.

“I don’t, really,” Marquis answered.  “But I have a lot of respect for people who keep to a particular code, whatever that code might be, and very little for traitors and wafflers.

“Like this new ‘Weaver’?” Teacher asked.

“I would defer to my daughter’s opinion on that.  She knew Weaver.”

Amelia frowned.  “She’s… both?  She’s stuck to her own personal code, even when it made her a traitor.”

“I see,” Marquis mused, rubbing his chin.

Lung frowned.  All nonsense, and none of it mattered.  That was out there, this was here.

“A word, Lung?” Teacher asked.

Lung nodded.  Anything to get away from this intolerable talk of morality and this singing.  His cell wouldn’t afford much relief, but it would be a touch quieter.

They departed, but Teacher led the way out of Marquis’ cell block, rather than to Lung’s cell.

“I believe I can be useful to you,” Teacher said.

“You have nothing to give me,” Lung said.  He bristled at the implication.

“You know how my power works, yes?”

“You make others smarter.”

“I turn others into lesser Thinkers, into Tinkers.”

“At the cost of their independence.”

“Yes.”

“Not something I want,” Lung said.

“You have strength, good instincts on a primal level, and all the potential in the world.  Yet you’ve failed here and there.  You’re here, after all.”

“And so are you,” Lung said.

Teacher nodded.  “Exactly my point.  Think on that for a moment.  We’re almost to my cell block, now.”

“You were captured because you lacked muscle,” Lung said, “I was captured because…”

Lung didn’t like the implication.  Of a lack of brains?

“Because of your incompetent underlings,” Teacher finished for him.  “Who escalated the feud with the heroes into a war while you were incarcerated, leaving you to sustain what they had started.  And, more apropos to our conversation, because your power has a drawback.  It requires a certain mental state.”

“Yes.”

“Amelia, Marquis’ girl, she won’t fix that.”

“I wouldn’t let her,” Lung said.

“Because it involves tampering with your brain,” Teacher said.  “My offer is… less invasive.  We can break down that barrier, give you the ability to control when you change.”

“At the cost of my identity,” Lung said.  “No.”

“A temporary cost to your willpower,” Teacher said.  He extended a hand, welcoming Lung into his cell block.

There was no conversation in Teacher’s cell block.  The residents were neat, tidy, and well groomed.  Some seemed functional, reading on their own or watching television.  Others were more disabled.  Lung could see one individual rocking in place, tapping something out on a table.  Another was walking in small, tight circles.

“My groupthink,” Teacher said.  “Rest assured, I wouldn’t subject you to something this grave.  We would dig deep enough to discover the true nature of your power, fast enough that you didn’t feel the side effects at their worst.  Then we would use what is effectively a hypnotic state to unlock your power as it truly should be, effectively a second trigger event.  If Amelia is right, the entity that grants you your power will resist… but we can get around that.”

Lung frowned.  “There is no point.”

“There is every point!  Come.  I’ll show you.  But first you need to tell me, are you and Marquis friends?”

Lung shook his head.

“Peers, then.”

Lung considered the word.  There were some that came up in English that he still wasn’t quite familiar with.  “Yes.”

“Then you’ll keep a secret?” Teacher asked.

“I will keep a secret,” Lung answered.

“Good, good.”  Teacher led Lung to one TV in the row.  “Trickster?”

Lung arched an eyebrow.  Trickster… the name rung a bell.  It didn’t matter.

“Connect,” Teacher said.

Trickster reached up to the power button on the television, then began a sequence of turning it on and off, with very specific pauses.  A code.

The sequence was still going on when Teacher said, “Stop.  Leave it on.”

The screen showed a face, the image grainy, flickering.  The face had a tattoo of a cross on it.

“Lung, meet Saint,” Teacher said.

Lung didn’t answer.

“He speaks when we give him something to say,” Teacher said.  “But I may have been too eager to find a way of contacting the outside world, and I’ve irritated him.  Saint explained what happened.  The PRT showed him Dragon’s equipment, asked if he could commandeer it, and Saint found an opportunity to insert a discreet backdoor.  He has a channel in, a way to observe, but our channel out is poor at best.”

“This matters nothing to me.”

“It matters a great deal,” Teacher said.  “Saint can see what Dragon sees, even if he’s blocked off from the Birdcage itself, while Dragon is occupied elsewhere.  It buys us a window of opportunity to communicate something, a message in code.  The program that Dragon has observing us with every moment tracks the activity of our televisions.  Turn it on, turn it off, and do it in a systematic enough way, and patterns emerge in a way that Saint can observe.  This allows us to coordinate.  He can’t rescue us, or empty the Birdcage, but, we could do something.  We could communicate with the outside world, and with the hypothesis that Amelia has posed… well, that’s a world changing set of information, don’t you imagine?”

Lung didn’t speak.

“The alternative, Lung, is that we unlock your power, and we use other information that Saint has collected through his backdoor.  We use it to leave the Birdcage.”

“To escape?”

Teacher shook his head.  “We wait, and we let things devolve to the point that they are willing to open the door and let us go, for the assistance we can give.  Dragon has files dictating scenarios in that vein.”

“They will not let us go free,” Lung said.  “Not the true monsters.”

“Most likely not.  It’s a question: do we gamble, or do we take a modicum of comfort in knowing we’ve perhaps saved the world a great deal of grief and maintained the status quo?  The way things are, if you’re not familiar with that particular phrase.”

Lung folded his arms.  “I have no attachment to the current state of things.”

“Then you agree?  I should tell Saint to bury the information, maybe push events here and there, if it means we could go free?”

Lung nodded.

“And your power?  If I-”

“My power will be left alone,” Lung said.  “It is enough.  If you want a bodyguard for a time after we’ve walked free, you will have it.  I will keep your secret about this Saint for now.”

“Alas,” Teacher said.  “But I’ll take the offer.  By the time this comes through, I’ll have a small army of parahumans at my disposal.  Some will be… under my sway, but I’d rather have your feral instincts to offset my own wit than have you as a slave.”

“I would kill you for trying,” Lung replied.  “You use your power on me, I will see you dead for it.”

“Very well,” Teacher answered.  He smiled.  “I’ll have Trickster pass on a message to Saint, then.  We’ll scrub Dragon’s records of this conversation, and any cases Amelia has talked of the power-granting entities, and we’ll leave a request, perhaps.  I have large sums of money stashed away.  That should be enough to convince Saint to perhaps set some events in motion, in the hopes that things sour just enough that they might open the Birdcage’s doors.”

Lung nodded.  “Do what you must.  I only care for our deal.  I walk free, I will assist you for a time thereafter.  The other things do not matter to me.”

“Very well.”  Teacher extended a hand, and Lung shook it.

Lung turned to leave.

As with the Yàngbǎn, he would stay with Teacher until he had what he needed: freedom.  Then the man would die.

The woman in the black suit, the Yàngbǎn, Skitter, and now Teacher.  People he would have his revenge on, at a later date.  People who had looked down on him, who had tried to manipulate him.

He could feel his power rippling under his skin.  Against Leviathan, he’d waited hours before engaging the beast, had fought longer than he ever had.  Now that he knew he might leave… this would be a two year buildup.

The scale of the event Teacher had spoken of?  That Amelia had alluded to?  Fear and power beyond anything he’d ever experienced, freedom without limits.  That very idea gave Lung a taste of that exhiliration he hadn’t experienced for so long.

Lung returned to Marquis’ cell block.  Marquis and Amelia were sitting at one table, drinking green tea and conversing with one another.

Marquis glanced at Lung, then poured out another mug of green tea without asking.  He gestured to the bench opposite, slid the mug in Lung’s direction.

Acceptance, the idea caught Lung by surprise.  He had a place here, odd as it was, as different as he and Marquis were.

Bakuda had taunted him over how he’d sought a kind of connection to others, how he’d recruited his gang to fill a void.  At the same time he found himself thinking of the restrictions he’d faced in school as a youth, the joys of rebellion, the Yàngbǎn and everything they’d threatened to take from him.

If there was a middle ground between acceptance and conformity, was this it?

“Marquis,” Lung spoke, carefully.

“Hm?” Marquis quirked an eyebrow.

Teacher is working to undermine everything you and your daughter are striving for, Lung thought.

“The tea is good.  Thank you.”

“Quite welcome,” Marquis replied, absently.

And Lung fell silent.

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Scourge 19.7

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The heroes found positions and opened fire on Echidna.  The difference in this and the fighting as it had been before was noticeable.  Small, but noticeable.  Capes weren’t communicating and teamwork was faltering as a result.  Capes like the red lightning girl and Chronicler were struggling to find people to use their powers on.

I didn’t want anyone else running or flying headlong into the thread, so I gathered my more harmless and useless bugs in a thick cluster around each piece of thread, until each thread appeared to be a black bar a half-foot across.

Clockblocker appeared at my side.  He was in fighting shape, though he didn’t look it with his damaged costume.

“Anything I can do?” he asked.  “Anything else set up?”

I shook my head.  “She dissolves the thread if it touches her flesh, and things are too frenetic.  Someone would get hurt.”

“Gotcha,” he said.

He didn’t move from where he was standing.  A minute passed as Echidna was bombarded.  She wasn’t quite at full fighting strength, she didn’t have many capes to clone, and she was apparently hesitant to charge or make any sudden movements with the possibility of there being more thread.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”  Clockblocker asked.

“That I had something in mind?” I asked.  “I guess a part of me thought that maybe if you figured out what I was doing, you wouldn’t have frozen the gun.”

“That’s not fair.  I don’t think I’ve given you any reason to think I’m vindictive like that.”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “Maybe I didn’t want you to give her a tell, or do something that Eidolon might notice.  I’m not sure why, not entirely.”

“So you’re not really doing anything that those guys out there aren’t.  When it comes down to it, you’re suspicious of us, just like we are of each other.”

“Maybe,” I admitted.  “It’s… a lot to take in.  What do you even do from here on out?”

“I don’t know,” Clockblocker said.

A series of neon green concentric circles exploded outward from a point in the sky above, rippling out to disappear over each horizon.  Eidolon had engaged one Alexandria-clone, and whatever he’d done seemed to have finished her off.  One left.

Echidna belched out a mass of clones, and I added my bugs to the firepower that the heroes threw their way.

Some slipped past the loose perimeter the heroes had established, and were promptly gunned down.

“I’m guessing Tattletale told you the particulars of my power?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“The range?  I’m surprised you knew it would work through interconnected pieces.  Hell, I barely knew I’d be able to push that far.  I guess that makes this one of the rare days my power’s working at peak efficiency?  But you somehow knew that?”

I glanced over my shoulder at Tattletale.  She was getting out of the van, and was joined by Faultline, Labyrinth, and four members of the Travelers: Sundancer, Ballistic, Genesis in her wheelchair and a blond boy who resembled but didn’t quite match Oliver in appearance.  Tattletale was exchanging words with Regent.  Getting an update?

“You’re not responding,” Clockblocker noted.

“I”m not sure what you want me to say.”

Yes, Clockblocker,” he added a falsetto note to his voice, bent one wrist to a ninety degree angle as he raised his hand to his mouth, “Of course we know more about how your powers work than you do.  How else would we kick your posteriors with such frequency?

He faked a high society woman’s laugh, where the laugh was said as much as it was uttered.  A cape nearby, one I recognized as Astrologer from the New York team, shot us a dirty look, before she returned to calling down projectiles from the sky.

“I don’t sound like that,” I commented, trying not to sound as irritated as I felt.

“I thought it fit pretty well for one of the wealthy crime lords of Brockton Bay,” he said.

I was a little caught off guard, to see this side of Clockblocker, or more that he was showing it to me.  Was it humor as a coping mechanism?  Or attempted humor as a coping mechanism, to be more on target?  I could believe it, from the guy who’d chosen Clockblocker as his cape name.  But to let me see anything other than the hard-nosed defender of the peace was something different.  A show of trust, letting his guard down some?

Or maybe it was just a coping mechanism, and he had a hell of a lot to cope with.  Only an hour ago, he’d probably felt he had his whole future laid out for him, a career in the Wards transitioning into a career with the Protectorate, with funds, fame and every side benefit and piece of paper he might need to mask his real identity.  Now nobody had any idea how that would work out.

Another circle exploded across the sky.  Alexandria-clone-two was down.  Legend and Eidolon descended in Echidna’s direction, keeping a healthier distance.

Whatever Eidolon had been hitting the clones with, considering the area it was covering and the fact that it was apparently taking Alexandria out of action, it suggested a kind of attack that couldn’t be used near the ground, because it might have leveled whole sections of the city.

Tattletale caught up to me.  The others in her retinue hung back.

“Was that you two?” she asked.  She pointed at Echidna, where the right and left sides of the monster’s body weren’t quite lined up.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You realize that if you pull off the dramatic sacrifice, Grue won’t be able to take it?  He’s relying on you to be his crutch for the time being.  You can’t kick it out from under him mid-step.”

“He’s stronger than you’re saying,” I murmured.  I eyed Clockblocker, all too aware that he was listening in.  Tattletale was aware, too, which meant she was trying to communicate something.  “Can we finish this discussion elsewhere?”

“Why don’t I just leave you alone?” Clockblocker offered.  “I wanted to make myself available in case you wanted to repeat the maneuver, but you’re saying that’s not so doable.”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “But thank you.”

“Signal me if you need me,” he answered.

Alexandria had a steel, fire-scorched girder in her hands, retrieved from a fallen building nearby.  She wasn’t flying, but she walked forward, relying on the girder’s size and sheer presence to clear her way through the assembled capes.

Her back was straight, her chin raised, as her subordinates stared.  Her black costume, it was fortunate for her, served to hide the worst smears and stains from Noelle’s vomit.

She swung the girder at Echidna like someone else might swing a baseball bat, and Echidna was knocked off her feet and into a building face.  The girder didn’t bend like the traffic light had.  This was a piece of metal intended to help support buildings.

Echidna opened one mouth, no doubt to vomit, and Alexandria flipped the metal around, driving one end into the open mouth and through Echidna, the other end spearing out of the monster’s stomach.

Before Echidna could react or retaliate, Alexandria flew straight up into the air, joining Legend and Eidolon.

As attacks went, it wasn’t a game changer.  Something else?  A symbol?  A gesture to us?

Echidna roared, lunged, only to hit a forcefield.  The field shattered and she stopped short, the girder rammed further through her.

To say we were at full strength would be a lie.  Too many had been injured.  Still, we’d pinned her down.  I could see Noelle atop Echidna’s back, craning her head to look at me.  Through some signal or some shared knowledge, Echidna was following Noelle’s recommendation, avoiding sudden movements, enduring every attack that came her way rather than risking running headlong into more frozen silk.

In fairness, she still had something of an upper hand.  None of our attacks were slowing her down, not really.  She was healing faster than we hurt her, and our side was getting tired, burning resources.  We weren’t sustaining casualties, but we weren’t winning this fight either.

With our current disorganization, it was only a matter of time before she popped out another clone that was capable of turning the tables.

“We need to finish her,” I said.

“Sundancer could do it, probably, but she would need convincing.  Labyrinth’s going to set up while we wait for Scrub,” Tattletale replied.

“Where is he?”

“Bit dangerous to have him riding along in a car.  We put him in another, and he nuked the engine.  We rigged a sled, and he should arrive in a bit, depending on how many times they need to stop and replace the chain,” she said.

“He’s going to open the door?”

Open is probably the wrong word.”

“What’s the right word?”

“I’d say it’s more like using a battering ram than a doorknob.”

“With dimensions,” I said.

Through dimensions.  Knocking down the door, not knocking down the house.”

“I’m not seeing the difference between the two,” I said.  “What’s to say a given area is one thing over another?”

That,” Tattletale said, “Is Labyrinth’s job.”

I could see Labyrinth.  Faultline was right next to her, apparently talking her through the process.  Arches and high walls rose like cresting waves, locking into place as they met one another.  It amounted to what looked like a church, if only four paces in diameter.

“You think that’ll be easier for Scrub to punch through.”

“Positive,” Tattletale said.

“How do you punch through to the right place?”

That, Tattletale said, “is something we’ll have to trust to luck and an educated guess.”

“Not reassuring,” I said.  “What’s going on?  I’m worried.  Nearly getting yourself shot, twice?  Provoking the Triumvirate?  Spending however much it costs to bring Faultline into the city, after the financial hit you took pulling the soldier gambit on Coil?  Now this?  The dimensional hole?”

“It’s how I operate.”

“Yeah, you’ve been reckless before, got cut by Jack, provoked Glory Girl.  But this is turning the dial to eleven.”

“We came out ahead in the end, both times.”

“It wasn’t necessary.  There were other ways around either of those situations.”

“Not as much as you’d think,” Tattletale said.

Echidna roared again, each of her mouths making a slightly different noise, combining into a discordant noise that made almost everyone present wince.  Weld tore his way free of her side, two capes in his grip.

Still five captives inside, I noted.  I saw Weld climb free and drop to the ground.  He wasn’t going back in for more.

Tattletale took me by the arm and led me back and away from the fighting, to where we had more privacy to speak.  I used bugs to guide some capes at the back lines toward some clones who’d flown into an alley.  It was odd, to be playing a part in a high-speed chase while standing still, but the capes were closing the distance on their quarry nonetheless.

“I’m just looking for answers,” I told her.  “This dimensional hole, provoking the heroes, apparently spending a lot of money I’m pretty sure you don’t have.  I… I can kind of get that you’re feeling a bit aimless, a bit unfocused.  Maybe that comes across as recklessness.  I’m feeling like that too.  We beat Coil, and so much of what we’ve done over the past while, it was with the end goal of doing just that.  So I get if you’re not sure of where to go from here.”

“Except you’ve been talking to the heroes, and you’ve had that to help center yourself, figure out where you stand,” Tattletale said.  “I haven’t.”

“That’s it?  You need to talk to someone?”

“No.  That’s not what I’m saying,” she said.  She sighed.  “Yes.  Kind of.  It’s only part of it.  Who the hell am I going to talk to that grasps things on a level I do?  Do you really expect me to find a therapist and sit down and not pick him apart faster than he can decipher me?”

“You could talk to me,” I said.

“Not when you’re part of the problem, part of what I’d need to work past.”

“That’s not fair,” I told her.

“No, it isn’t,” she admitted.

Echidna spat out volumes of clones at the defensive line.  The reaction was only a little slower than it should have been.  Squads still weren’t operating as squads.  Legend and Eidolon were offering support fire from above, but they were standing apart from the rest, in a much different way than Tattletale and I were.

“It’s not you,” Tattletale said.  “It’s more about my relationship with you.”

“This isn’t the point where you confess your undying love for me, is it?”

She snorted.  “No.”

“Then what?  Or is this just going to be another secret you keep?”

“All of the good secrets are getting found out anyways, or so Regent said.  I suspected they would be, for the record.  Part the reason I dished like I did was to put us in a good position in case the juicy stuff did come out.”

“Not sure I buy that,” I said.

“You don’t have to.  It was only a part of it.  And I understand if a more in-depth explanation is overdue, but I need to turn it around in my head some, get it to the point where I can share it without it coming out wrong.”

“Your trigger event?” I asked.

“That’s a part of it.  But can we please put that off until after we’ve torn a hole in reality and stopped the pseudo-Endbringer?”

“Just tell me this isn’t another educated guess.”

“It’s not.  Except for the bit where we might be able to find the right universe.”

“When you’re saying it’s not an educated guess, is that because you’re sure or because it’s an uneducated guess?”

“I’m mostly sure.”

I sighed, loud enough for her to hear.

She grabbed my hand and pulled me in the direction of the van she’d brought.  Labyrinth’s church had expanded considerably, and Scrub was very deliberately keeping his distance, keeping the company of Gregor the Snail, Newter, Shamrock and Spitfire.  They looked a little the worse for wear, with burns, scrapes and bandages.  Had Tattletale pulled them away from a job?

“Hey, F,” Tattletale said, smiling.

Faultline didn’t return the smile.  “You’re aware that I’m going to track you down, beat you to a pulp and leave you tied up for the authorities to collect if we don’t get our payment?”

“You’ll get your payment the minute I have access to a computer Shatterbird hasn’t toasted,” Tattletale said.  “No sweat.”

“I’m harboring serious doubts,” Faultline said.  She glanced at Echidna, “But I can look at this situation, and I understand if there’s a rush here.  How does this work?”

“Really simple,” Tattletale said.  “We should get Labyrinth clear, though.  Then I’ll show you.”

Faultline gave her a look, then hurried to Labyrinth’s side, dodging a wall that was erupting from the ground to fit into the greater structure.  The ground surrounding the temple-like tower had changed, with an ornate inlay of what looked to be artificial flowers.  The petals were gold leaf, the stems the black-gray metal of iron.  The thorns, I couldn’t help but notice, were real, like needles, sticking out of the ground.  Dangerous ground to tread.

As Faultline led Labyrinth to safety, I put one hand on Tattletale’s shoulder to get her attention.  “You sure?”

“I’ve got a theory.  With the clues on the passengers that we got not so long ago, about the powers, the idea of how the things work, I’m getting a sense of the bigger picture.  I think I could spend a decade working it out, but the basics of it?  I think there’s a lot of powers that are a lot more versatile than their owners are aware, because they never get the opportunity to leverage it.”

Above us, Legend followed through on one cape’s attacks, opening a wound in Noelle’s side.  Grace leaped in as the laser stopped, grabbed a cape that had been exposed by Legend’s attack, then kicked herself free, bringing the cape with her.

Another cape exhaled a cloud of what might have been acid vapor in Noelle’s direction, apparently to slow the healing of the wound.  It didn’t make much of a difference.

“Based on what?” I asked Tattletale.

“It’s all part of a whole,” she replied, absently.  Her focus was on the others.  “Scrub!  Get closer to the tower!  Everyone else, get back!  Labyrinth, don’t use your power any more!  Hold off!”

Heads turned.  People had no doubt noticed the tower, but now something was happening.

Scrub stepped closer, and one of his explosions ripped through the air.  Another followed shortly after, intersecting one area of altered road.

Like a gas in the air that had been ignited, the entire thing went up in a heartbeat.  In an instant, it was a white void, as undefinable as Grue’s darkness, perceivable by the edges, but with zero depth or dimension.  He’d shunted out the entire structure, as well as everything that had altered on the ground, but nothing had come back.

The door had been kicked out of the frame.

To look at it, I’d almost expected a rush of wind as the void on the other side sucked everything into it, like the vacuum of space.  There was only the sensation of a breeze as the air flowed into it.

Alexandria landed next to us, with enough force that I nearly lost my footing.  Every set of eyes that wasn’t on Echidna was on us, now.

“What did you do?”

“Made a hole,” Tattletale said.

Apparently.  You didn’t ask?  You didn’t consider the ramifications of this?  Close it now.”

“Who said we could close it?” Tattletale asked.

“You’re a fool,” Alexandria said.  She set one hand around Tattletale’s neck.  She could have killed Tattletale with a squeeze, but she didn’t.  A threat.

“I’d be careful,” a cape growled, from the periphery of the scene.  I didn’t recognize the man.  He wore a costume in orange with red metal claws.  Alexandria turned to look at him, and he added, “Wasn’t so long ago that your partner called us all fools.”

In the background, Echidna screeched.  She fought her way forward through the crowd, but the battle lines were holding, now.  Our side hadn’t been surprised, this time, and the only capes in her reach were capes she couldn’t absorb.  The rest were staying well back.

She wasn’t an Endbringer, in the end.  It would be impossible to trap any of them like this, to get an advantage.  They had other tools, ways to exert pressure that were entirely independent of their own abilities.  Behemoth generated storms and background radiation, Leviathan had the waves, the Simurgh had her scream.

“That wasn’t him,” Alexandria said.  “It wasn’t Eidolon who said that.”

“Close enough,” the cape said.  “Let her go.  You can’t throw around authority you don’t have.”

“As of this moment, I am still Chief Director of the PRT, and I am the leader of the Protectorate team that overlooks the second largest city in the United States.  That hasn’t changed.  At the end of the day, I’ll face any consequences I have to, but for now, I’m still in charge.”

“Your authority doesn’t mean anything if they don’t accept it,” Tattletale said, staring Alexandria in the eyes.  “Put me down.”

“I can’t let this go any further.”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Tattletale said, “There’s no further to go.  It’s pretty much gone.  All that’s left is to find out whether this is a useful trick we just pulled or a really useful trick.”

“Useful?”  Alexandria asked.

“Worst case scenario, it’s a place we can dump Echidna.  A place where she won’t be able to hurt anyone.”

“Or?”

“Or Labyrinth figures out that she can work with this.”

The hole blurred, colors consolidating into forms.  I could see Faultline standing by Labyrinth, arms folded.

“Labyrinth… the shaker twelve,” Alexandria said.

“That’s the one,” Tattletale said.  “Mind letting go of my throat?”

Alexandria let go, but settled her hands on Tattletale’s shoulders.  The implied threat was still there, just not so imminent.

“It’s deep,” Labyrinth said.  Her voice was faint, as if from far away.  “There’s so much there.  Worlds that I didn’t make.”

“All parts of a whole,” Tattletale mused.  “Okay, Labyrinth.  The world we’re looking for isn’t very deep at all.  In fact, it’s very, very close to the surface.  When you push into that world, it’ll feel easier.  Like a path that someone’s already walked, more than once.”

“There’s two like that.”

I would have missed it if it weren’t for my bugs.  Alexandria reacted, stiffening, a slight straightening of her back.

Behind us, Echidna roared and threw herself against the barrier of ice and forcefields that surrounded her.

I turned toward Alexandria.  “What?”

“I didn’t say anything,” she responded.  Her hands still rested on Tattletale’s shoulders.

You didn’t have to, I thought.  But I wasn’t sure how to use the information, and I didn’t want to distract anyone from the subject at hand.

“Look,” Labyrinth said.  “One’s like this…”

The image shifted.  I wasn’t the only one who walked around to get a better view through the window.  The landscape on the other side the window was different, the grassy hills that had been Brockton Bay before settlement, the distant beaches.  There were houses, but they were squat and blocky, half-overgrown.

Again, the slightest reaction from Alexandria.

“…And here’s the other.”

Another landscape.  A city, like Brockton Bay, with different buildings.  Intact, undamaged.  It looked like a back road, one that didn’t get much in the way of traffic.  Apparently the streets in that Brockton Bay were in different places.

“Earth Aleph,” Tattletale said.

The Travelers’ world?

“Are you insane?” Alexandria asked.  “There’s sanctions, treaties, truces.  If you open this hole to Earth Aleph, it could mean a war between universes.”

“If that war was possible,” Tattletale said, “We’d have had it already.  The possibility of a whole other world of resources is too much to pass up.  Sure, our side has more raw firepower, by a factor of a hundred, but their side has just as many nukes.  It’s a zero sum war.”

“You don’t understand what you’re getting into.”

“What I understand is that accidents happen, and everyone in earshot will call this particular interuniversal portal as an accident, because it keeps things peaceful.  I also understand that this keeps Brockton Bay on the map.  Any other circumstance, people are going to keep trying to scrap this city, to accept that it’s too costly to rebuild, that the criminal element holds too much power.  They’ll throw bill after bill out there until the right combination of people are in power, the right hands can be greased, and Brockton Bay gets bulldozed and paved over.”

“It still could,” a cape said.

“Oh, sure, theoretically,” Tattletale said.  “But there’s really two options here.  Either we spread the word, and a whole sub-industry explodes around this simple little doorway, accessing and trading information between worlds, research, a mess of other stuff, a city full of residents who’ve put up with disaster after disaster get work, get their homes rebuilt, and ultimately get their second chance.”

“Or we keep this a secret,” I finished her thought, “And we get none of that.”

“Or we keep this a secret,” Tattletale agreed, “We do what Alexandria wants, and everything stays hush hush, just the way the big bad secret organization likes it.”

I could see the capes around us paying attention.  Ten, fifteen capes, from cities all across America and Canada.

“You have no idea what you’re doing,” Alexandria said.

“Fucking you over?”

“You’re putting everything at stake.  All of us, this world.  Even if we ignore the chance of our very first interdimensional war-”

“Traitor!” someone shouted from the sidelines, cutting her off.

Alexandria turned her head to try and identify the culprit.  I got the impression she wasn’t used to people insulting her.  There were more capes nearby.  Miss Militia had backed up, but was keeping her eyes on the spot where Echidna was trapped.  On the far side of the clearing where the gateway stood, Gregor the Snail escorted a bound Sundancer and Ballistic to the periphery of the area.

“I can’t help but agree with Alexandria,” Faultline said.  “This is reckless.”

“More than a little,” Tattletale agreed.  “But I’m not sure you heard the full story.  I only heard it secondhand, and I was with you from the time your helicopter arrived.  When we last ran into Newter, you guys were looking for dirt on Cauldron.  You still looking?”

Faultline’s eyes narrowed.  “Why?”

“No less than ten minutes ago, Eidolon’s evil double admitted full culpability.  The Triumvirate, much of the upper levels of the Protectorate.  Kidnapping people from other universes, experimenting on them to figure out some power-inducing formulas, dropping them here.  Might help you to understand why people are giving Alexandria the evil eye.”

Faultline glanced at Alexandria.  “A little too easy, to find out like this.”

“It’s not the full story,” Tattletale said, “Not by half.  But it should inform your call on whether to side with her or not.”

Faultline frowned.  “That’s not… no.  Maybe she is the person behind the scenes.  Fine.  But that doesn’t change the fact that she might be right.  Better to have Labyrinth find another universe to link to.  Maybe one where a mountain is blocking the other side of this gateway, if we can’t close it.”

“Why do you have to be so reasonable?” Tattletale asked.  “That’s the worst of both worlds.”

“It’s not war,” Faultline retorted.

“Stop,” Chevalier said.  People parted to give him room to enter the clearing.  “There’s other concerns.  The deal that was described to me was that the Travelers would do what they could to eliminate Echidna.  Failing that, we find a way to move her through the gap and deposit her in a place where she can do no harm.  That’s our first priority.”

There was a murmur of agreement.

“Want to go home, Sundancer?  B-man?” Tattletale asked.  “Genesis?  Oliver?”

Ballistic, Genesis and Oliver stared at the opening.  Sundancer was shaking her head.

“What?”

Sundancer spoke, “I… it’s not home anymore, is it?  I’m not me.  Can’t go back to the way things were.  I’ve killed people.  Accidentally, but I’ve killed.  I have powers.  If I went there, I wouldn’t be Marissa.  I’d be… Sundancer.  I’d be famous.  If anyone found out about me, or if there was something in the media that goes between worlds, that clued them in…”

“They don’t have to know,” Tattletale said.

“I don’t… I don’t know if I can.”

I spoke up, “Are you talking about going home, or killing Noelle?”

“She’s… she was my best friend.”

“She’s not Noelle anymore,” I said.

Sundancer shook her head.

“Go,” Tattletale said.  “She’s not happy like this.  You do this, then you go home.  You give your mom a hug, fabricate an excuse to explain why you disappeared, and then go back to life as normal.  Never use your powers again, if you don’t want to.  See if you can eventually convince yourself that none of this ever happened.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“No.  But it’s a hell of a lot better than staying here, isn’t it?”  Tattletale asked.

“She’s my friend.”

“Was,” I said.  “It’s a big difference.”

Sundancer looked at the mound of ice, rock and forcefields.  Echidna was thrusting her clawed hands through the barriers, only for them to be reinforced.

“Are there… does she have anyone inside her?”

“There’s-” Tattletale started.  I flew a bug into her mouth and down her throat, and she choked.

“No,” I lied.  “I’ve been keeping track with my bugs.  Weld and the others got everyone out.”

Saved everyone they could.  If Weld had backed out and nobody else was able to free the small handful that were still trapped, that was it.

Nobody was correcting me.  They knew, but they weren’t correcting me.

Sundancer hung her head.  She started approaching Echidna, her hands cupped in front of her.

“Move!”  Chevalier shouted.  “Clear out of the way!”

Capes began to retreat.  Final patch-up jobs were thrown onto the mound of rock, forcefields and ice before the respective capes turned and ran.

It took Sundancer a long few seconds to form the miniature sun.  When it was formed, she held it over her head, letting it grow with every passing second.

I had to back away as the heat reached me.  I could note how the ice was melting, even though it was a hundred feet away.

Echidna roared and threw herself against her temporary prison.  Rock and melting ice tumbled away.  She began to claw free, until her upper body was exposed.  Capes opened with ranged fire, tearing into her forelimbs and limiting her mobility.  Alexandria dropped Tattletale and cast off her cape, before flying in and helping to hold Echidna in place.

“Marissa!”  Echidna screamed, her voice guttural, voiced from five different mouths.  “Mars!  It’s too soon!  I want to kill them!  I want to kill them all!  Kill this world!  Destroy this universe that did this to me!  Not yet, Mars!”

The sun flew forward, melting pavement as it traveled, before it enveloped Echidna, Alexandria and the prison of ice and stone.

It hung there for nearly a minute, deafening with its sizzling and crackling.

The sun flickered and went out. Echidna wasn’t there any more.  Only sections of her feet were still in contact with the ground, bones and claws scorched black, crumbling and decaying like any part of her did when disconnected from the core that supplied her with power.

Alexandria was there in the midst of it, panting for breath.  Her costume had burned away, and only the metal pieces remained, including helmet, belt and metal underwear, each so hot they were melting and running over her skin.

But Sundancer was already turning away, not wanting to see it for herself.  She pulled off her mask and threw it aside.  Blond hair tumbled down around her shoulders, half-covering her downcast face.

Piece by piece, she removed her costume, not caring in the slightest about the watching crowd.  Each discarded piece sank into the melted ground around her or smoked on contact with it.  When she’d finished, she wore only her camisole and terry shorts.  The ground was still shiny and smoking from the sheer heat as she approached, left cool and solid in her wake.

She stepped into the portal, without a word, and then looked around, confused.  She took another few steps, and passed around the side of the portal as though it were merely a corner, out of sight.

The other Travelers went through next.  Oliver and Genesis didn’t look like anything but ordinary people, with no costume or monstrous form, respectively.  They merely passed through.

Ballistic hesitated for long seconds.  “Trickster?”

“We have him in custody.  He’ll go to the Birdcage,” Chevalier said.

“Good.  Because we don’t want him,” Ballistic said.

He walked through the portal, still wearing his costume.

“Can you close it?” Faultline asked, when Ballistic had disappeared from sight.

“No.  Not really,” Labyrinth said.  “I can pick a different world.  So there’s no war.  Or do like you said, find a place where a mountain covers the hole.”

“Feel free,” Tattletale said, grinning.  “In fact, that might even be more useful.  Can you imagine how significant Brockton Bay might become, if we had a whole unpopulated world to get to, harvest for resources, and Brockton Bay was the terminal you had to pass through?”

Faultline frowned.  “You used us.”

“I hired you.  Not my fault if you didn’t ask for enough money.

Faultline put her arm around Labyrinth’s shoulders.  “Can you find a world without people?”

“I… yes.  There’s one with lots of trees.  I’m looking all over, and I can’t find anyone at all.  Not even on the other side of the oceans.  Only animals.”

“That’ll do,” Faultline said.  She looked at Tattletale, “Not for you.  Only because I couldn’t stand to let her be responsible for an Endbringer finding a defenseless world.”

“Much obliged, whatever the reasoning,” Tattletale replied.  She flashed a smile.

Faultline only frowned and turned to usher Labyrinth away.

“Wait,” someone called out.

Weld, with the red skinned boy and Gully beside him.  They caught up with Faultline’s crew.

Whatever words they exchanged, I didn’t get a chance to hear.  There was no way that the ‘monsters’ could serve the Protectorate.  Faultline was a known element, someone who had, as far as everyone was aware, always been good to the people I was now thinking of as the Cauldron-made.

I couldn’t even begin to guess where they’d go from there, but they’d have stuff to talk about, no doubt.

I’d mentioned to Tattletale that I’d felt adrift, after letting Dinah go.  Untethered, I think, was the word I’d used.  Everyone here now felt like that, to some degree.  The future had never been quite this uncertain.

I saw Alexandria standing by the sideline.  Eidolon had gathered her heavy cape where she’d tossed it aside and was helping to drape it around her shoulders.  I wasn’t the only one looking, but she was oblivious, uncaring.  She still stood with all the confidence in the world.

She was barely covered, with one hand pinching the cape shut in front of her, traces of now-cooled metal lacing through her hair, the eyebrow and eyelashes of her one good eye.  It highlighted the lines at the corner of her eye, a finer metal finding its way into the crevices.  Her other eye held only a scarred over ruin with cooled metal pooled in the deeper recesses.  There were nubs of melted metal rods, no doubt there to help hold a high-end prosthetic in place.  Tinker-made, if she’d been hiding her injury to play the role of the PRT’s Chief Director.

Without Echidna to divide our number, our ranks were free to line up in a rough semicircle around Alexandria and Eidolon.

“Nobody can know what happened today,” Alexandria said, utterly calm.

Someone scoffed.  “You want us to keep your secret?

“Not the secret,” she said, unfazed by the scoff.  “Echidna.  Four capes were inside her when she was scoured away.  More were injured or killed in the course of the fight, or in Shatterbird’s attack.  We can’t cover that up.  We shouldn’t.  They were good capes.  But we can’t tell the whole story.”

“You don’t get to say that,” the ice-generating cape said.  “You have no place, saying that.”

“I won’t argue,” Alexandria said.  “Everything we did, we did for the right reasons.  I understand it’s ugly, without the context.”

Someone at the front spat in her face.  Alexandria didn’t even blink.  She let the spit run down around the ruined pit where her eye had been, much like she had with the molten metal.

“If word were to get out about the clones, the ramifications would be too damaging.  We’ve spent decades cultivating an illusion, that we’re heroes.  Decades shaking the idea that we’re killing machines.  The nature of this fight threatens to reveal just how much damage even the more mundane of us parahumans could do to the common people.  That’s not only the clones and what they did, but how we dealt with the clones, in turn.  We can’t shatter the image that the Protectorate has so painstakingly built, or the entire world will turn on us.”

“And the Protectorate?” Miss Militia asked, her voice hard.

“What of it?”

“The involvement with Cauldron.  It won’t stand, not like this.”

“It has to,” Alexandria replied.  “Too much depends on the Protectorate, even internationally.  If it crumbles, then the whole world suffers for it.  Other teams around the world would go without the resources we provide.  If it means keeping the Protectorate intact, I will step down.  I’ll tender my resignation as Chief Director of the PRT, effective the moment I can reach my desk.  I’ll consent to being watched until the moment I can step down as Alexandria, if you are uncomfortable with me continuing to serve the Protectorate in costume.  Eidolon, I’m sure, will do the same.  Myrddin’s death will be excuse enough for our retirements.”

“What about Legend?” Miss Militia asked.

Alexandria raised her head, staring up at where Legend hung in the air, unmoving.

“He was only aware of the most basic elements.  That Cauldron sold powers, but not how we tested them.  He did not know of our relation to the Nine.”

“He made excuses for you,” Miss Militia said.  “Lied.  We can’t trust him any more than we can trust you.”

“I’m aware.  But what he does next is ultimately up to him.  I am only telling you what I know, and I know he did not know as much as Eidolon and I did.”

“That’s not good enough,” a cape said.  “You’ve committed crimes against humanity.  You bastards should be tried.”

“Do that, and the whole world pays.  Every cape would come under scrutiny, both from other parahumans and from the public.  Teams would dissolve, faith would falter, and I sincerely doubt we’d last through the next two Endbringer attacks in that kind of a state.”

All around me, capes exchanged glances.  I could hear angry murmurs, my swarm could sense fists clenching in anger.

“And the captives?  The people from other worlds Cauldron kidnapped?”  Miss Militia asked.

“Anyone with clearance should know that the number of people with physical mutations has declined steeply.  We’ve stopped experimenting.”

“Or so you say,” Tattletale cut in.

“I do.  Tell me I’m lying, Tattletale,” Alexandria said.

Tattletale shook her head.

“You need us,” Alexandria said.  “If not for the assistance we can provide in the face of class-S threats, then for the image, for the idea.  I’m trusting that each of you are sane enough, reasonable enough, to understand that.  You could come after us, but I assure you it wouldn’t be worth it.”

“And Cauldron?” someone asked.

“As I said, we’re only barely involved.  If you want to try going after them and get justice for what happened to the captives, feel free.  Just know that we can’t help you there.  We can’t give you access or information, because they’re out of your reach, and in the wake of all this, they’ll be out of our reach too.”

I felt numb.  She was everything I despised.  Authority, the institution, the self-serving people in power, the untouchable.  All around me, I could hear angry voices, each trying to drown the others out.  Chevalier was among them, Miss Militia was quiet.

Tattletale was quiet, oddly enough.

“I-” I started, but the voices drowned me out.

My swarm buzzed with noise.  People startled and jumped as the bugs moved, shifting from the various positions where I’d more or less hidden them at elbows and in armor plates.

I stepped out of the crowd, toward Alexandria, and then turned my back to her, facing the capes.  So many eyes on me.

“She’s right,” I said, my swarm carrying my voice for effect.

Voices rose in anger, and again, I had my swarm move, buzzing violently, until they stopped.

“I’m not a public speaker, so I’ll make it short.  I’ve got a long history with the Protectorate, a hell of a lot more experience being angry with them.  I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for them, and that’s not a good thing, not entirely.  But Alexandria’s right.  Not about Cauldron, or the human experimentation.  I don’t know anything about that.  But she’s right that we shouldn’t make any rash descisions.  Talk it out with your teammates before you make a call.  Maybe the various team and squad leaders should convene, form a unanimous decision.  I don’t know.  But… don’t let your anger push you to do something that affects everyone.  Please.”

A second passed.

“You’re not with the PRT, are you?” a cape asked.

“No,” I said.

“So you don’t have to wake up tomorrow and go to work, pretend like everything’s normal?”

“No.”

“Work beside someone, wondering if they lied about their trigger event?  If they maybe got their powers from a bottle, something made only because some psychopaths,” he spat the word out at Alexandria, “Decided to experiment on innocent people and sell the results at a profit?”

“No.  I don’t really have to wonder about that.”

“Then where the fuck do you get off, telling us what to do, then?”

“Calm down, Jouster,” Miss Militia said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You’re right.  It’s not my place,” I said.  I looked at Miss Militia and Chevalier.  Clockblocker was just a little ways behind them.  “Thanks for hearing me out.  Good luck.”

Atlas flew to my position.  I drew my bugs around me and took flight, rising well into the air and hiding myself in the mass of bugs before pausing to adjust to a sitting position.

I saw Legend hovering in the air.  His fists were clenched, and he was looking down.  He looked agonized.

If I’d had any idea what to say, I might have approached him.  I didn’t.

With a command, I directed Atlas away from the discussion that could decide history, maybe even the fate of the world.

I sat on the railing of my balcony, Atlas’ body hidden behind the towel-covered railing, serving as a footrest while I fed him a much-needed meal.  Unfolded pieces of paper sat in each of my hands.

I couldn’t stand to be there any longer.  I’d said what I could, for what little it was worth, but I was too tired, the stakes were too high, and Jouster had been right.  The consequences might have been world-spanning, but it was ultimately up to the Protectorate to decide what happened next.  I didn’t like feeling that helpless.

Beneath me, some kids from my territory were carrying boxes of treats I’d ordered two days ago.  They’d take more than their fair share, but they’d distribute the treats to the other people in my territory, people who had likely gone a good little while without a chocolate bar or bag of chewy candy.

There hadn’t been any clones in my range as I zig-zagged my way to the North end, no signs of swarm activity.  I’d stopped by home, checked things over with my bugs, and my dad was there, more or less fine.

I’d go home in just a little while.  It wasn’t a peaceful place, though.  This was.  My territory, being with people I’d taken care of, people I’d protected and fought for.  My heart was easier here than it was around my dad.

I was aware of the approaching figure, twisted around to get a look at Lisa.

“Can I come up?”

I pointed at the door, followed her movements as she navigated her way past Charlotte and up the stairs.  She reached the balcony and stepped out to hop onto the end of the railing opposite me.

“I own the land the hole to the other universe is on,” Tattletale said.  “Or Coil’s fake name does, and I can finagle that so I have control over it.”

I nodded.  “The meeting?  Did they decide?”

“Legend left first.  Then Alexandria and Eidolon.  The heroes were still talking when I left.”

“Okay,” I said.  That didn’t mean anything, not exactly, but it was better than the alternative.  The longer they talked, the more tempers would cool.

Perversely, I almost hoped that Cauldron had the clout to silence a few angry voices.  I could only hope that they were few and far enough between that the story wouldn’t reach the public.

“Rex,” Tattletale said.

“Hm?”

“His name was Reggie, but he got into sports in high school.  They started calling him Rex, until everyone used the name.  I don’t mean this to be insulting, but you were kind of opposites in a lot of ways.  He was this popular guy, charming.”

“Your boyfriend?”

She laughed, a short sound.  “My brother.”

“Oh.”

“My family was well-to-do, I think that’s come up.”

“Yeah.”

“When you’re that rich, when you have people working under you who do the chores and handle the stuff that you’d normally do with your family, sometimes it’s hard to stay a family, you know?”

Not really, I thought, but I nodded.

She gave me a funny look, but she didn’t call me on it.  “It gets to this point where, you know, your cool older brother only spends time with you because it’s his duty as a sibling.  And when you realize that, it sort of hurts.  Makes it insulting.  I think I caught on to that around the time I started high school.  I stopped accepting those token offers of siblinghood.  We were brother and sister, we lived in the same house, went to the same school.  Our paths crossed, but we didn’t interact.  We were strangers.  He was caught up being the popular senior, and I kind of resented him for it.”

“For not being a brother?”

Lisa shrugged.  “Don’t know.  More for acting like a brother than not being a real brother.  For being the popular kid, being the favorite child, heir to the family businesses.”

“What happened?”

“I started noticing, he was in rough shape.  The smiles seemed fake, he’d get angry easier.  Was bottling something up inside.”

“What was it?”

Lisa shrugged.  “I’ve dwelled on it so long I’ve imagined possibilities and derailed my train of thought.  Even with my power, I can’t guess.”

“And something happened?”

“He slowly got more and more distant.  He’d fake more smiles, get a little more angry, a little more reckless.  And then one day he offed himself.”

Just around the corner, some kids were screaming and shouting as they played.  One boy was pelting another with chocolate pellets.  The victim shrieked in pain.

My bugs swept over the boy with the chocolates, and the pair froze.  They looked around, trying and failing to see me, then ran for the nearest alleyway, fight forgotten.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“So am I,” Lisa sighed.  “I’ve spent so long trying to figure it out, but I couldn’t.  You’d think the star athlete might be gay, but it wasn’t that.  Something else.  I let on to my family that I’d noticed something, after, and they started blaming me.  They were grieving, but that doesn’t excuse it, does it?”

I shook my head.

“Calling me stupid, an idiot,” Lisa looked away.  “It got to be too much, like I was in a pressure cooker, everywhere I went, it was about him, and there was always this feeling, like everyone was aware that I’d known something and hadn’t spoken up, hadn’t done something to help.  I think I had my trigger event while I was asleep, tossing and turning and dreaming about it all.  And then, boom, I wake up and I start figuring stuff out, with killer migraines on the side.  Maybe if I’d caught on that it was powers sooner, I might have been more secretive, but my dad caught on.  Did a complete turnaround.  Faked affection, hid the real feelings, all to get me to use my power for the family’s benefit.”

Lisa shrugged.  “I was already seeing too much ugly, even before the powers.  Seeing more of it?  Seeing when people were being fake, when everything else was still screwy because of Rex’s suicide?  It was too much.  I took more money than I should have from my parents and I ran.”

“And Coil eventually found you.”

She nodded.  “And I eventually found you.  I took one look at you, and I had a grasp of what was going on.  Didn’t take too long for me to notice that you had that same air around you that Rex did.  Maybe I did what I could to save you because I couldn’t save him.”

“Earlier, you said that you couldn’t talk to me about the problem because I was the problem.”

“I saw it when you pulled the trigger, offed Coil.  You saved Dinah, and you described how you felt adrift in the aftermath of it.  But you found a new focus.  You could fight Echidna.  Save the city.  Me?  When you shot Coil, I realized I was done.  I’d helped you out of the same trap of despair Rex had been in.  Don’t know if the road I helped you down was a good one or a bad, but I’d finished.”

“But why be reckless?  Why take the risks?”

“Because I did what I had to do, I helped you, and I still feel like the stupid, self-obsessed little child that let her big brother die.  It wasn’t conscious, but maybe I felt like I needed to up the stakes.  Pull something dramatic.  Show that, with these crazy smart capes like Alexandria and Faultline around, I could still be the smartest person in the room.”

“And do you feel like the smartest person in the room?”  I asked.

She stared out over the cityscape.  “Maybe- maybe when the interuniversal trade takes off.  Can you imagine?  With me and you as the top dogs?  The whole world will pay attention to us.”

I hopped down from the railing, walking around Atlas as I made my way to Lisa.  I wrapped my arms around her, and she returned the hug.

I crumpled the papers in my fists.

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Scourge 19.6

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The Eidolon-clone apparently wasn’t worried about the mass of armed heroes that were mobilized against him.  No, his concern was being naked.

He touched Alexandria, and she flickered.  When the flickering died out, she was dressed in a costume; a long white cape, a white bodysuit with high boots and elbow length gloves and a stylized helmet that let her long black hair flow free.  The tower on her chest was a tumbled ruin.  The ruined lighthouse.  A mockery of her other self, the colors reversed.

I really wasn’t liking the implications for that flickering power.  Healing, the costume…

Legend shot the Eidolon-clone before he could do anything more.  A laser tore into the Eidolon’s chest cavity, slashed out to carve into Echidna’s foremost leg, causing it to buckle mid-step.

The Alexandria-clone floated up, interjecting herself between Legend and his targets.  He adjusted the beam’s orientation, and she moved to block it.  He divided it in two shots that she couldn’t block, and she charged him.  Legend broke off to flee.

I could see the Eidolon flickering to heal himself as Echidna charged the rest of us.

Our battle lines did what they could to slow her down, which didn’t amount to much.  She was massive, now, to the point that cars were trampled beneath her or sent rolling on impact.

Chevalier put himself directly in harm’s way.  He held his cannonblade out to one side, and I could see it swelling in size.

There were a hundred feet between them, seventy-five, fifty-

The sword was growing with every moment, as well.

He brought the blade down to the ground, a razor’s edge biting deep into pavement, the blade’s point directed at Echidna.  Then he pulled the trigger.  The fact that it was impaled in the ground kept the recoil manageable, and the fact that it was as large as it was meant that the effect was that much more impressive.

Echidna leaped to the side as the cannonball ripped out of the weapon.  Not quite fast enough, she wasn’t able to avoid the worst of it.  Three of her eight legs, all on one side of her body, were turned into flecks of gore.  She hit the ground and her momentum carried her forward, skidding.

Chevalier didn’t flinch as she hurtled towards him.  Instead, he waited until her trajectory brought the right part of her into harm’s way, then shot out more of her limbs.  The impact of the hit brought her to a halt, spinning until her back was to him, only two of her monstrous claws intact.

A female hero threw out small ice crystals in Echidna’s direction, and they expanded explosively into virtual glaciers on impact.  Maybe the intent was to give Echidna less room to regenerate.

Chevalier withdrew the twenty-five foot long blade from the ground and chopped at Noelle – the upper body that jutted out of Echidna’s back.  He severed her from the monster at the stomach, turning the blade mid-swing to catch the body on the flat of the weapon. He swatted her away, separating the girl from the monster.

The impact of Noelle’s landing was enough to kill, but she didn’t die.  She flailed weakly for long seconds before she started falling apart.

Echidna caught Chevalier with a tongue.  He cut the tongue with his blade, and walked around her, blade poised, as if he were trying to find a place to strike.

I realized he was trying to find a way to rescue the people inside.  Alexandria, Eidolon, and seventeen of the capes who’d volunteered to fight this thing.  Had he directed the cannon blast with the same intent?  To avoid harming the people within?

Chevalier was struck.  He turned, and was hit again.  He was under siege from one of the nigh-invincible clones, with the burning hands.  The guy was digging his hands into a car at one side of the street, coming up with hunks of white-hot metal and flinging them.

He scraped them off, but more attacks were incoming.  One cape threw a stone, and though the speed and arc of the thrown rock didn’t seem to amount to much, it shattered one of the glaciers the ice-cape had erected.

Chevalier used his cannonblade to block another rock and a lump of molten metal from striking home.  From above and behind him, the woman with the ice shards began raining her attacks down on the clones, encasing them in ice.

I joined in, sending my swarm forth into the fray.  They flowed from the battlefield around me, finding paths to travel between the crags of ice and the capes.  Cockroaches tore into the membranes of eyes.  Hornets found flesh to bite that was close to arteries and veins, stings dug into the most sensitive flesh, and ants worked together to scissor and tear flesh more efficiently.

More bugs moved in the Eidolon-clone’s direction.  The flying insects faltered, their usual mechanisms for movement failing them.  Then they started falling out of the air.

They were suffocating; it was a vacuum.

He’d chosen his powers, and by the looks of it, he’d dressed himself in a mirror of his other self’s costume.  A costume with a black hood, loose black sleeves and a pale red-orange glow emanating from each opening.

The flickering.  Was that some variant on Scapegoat’s power?  More broad?  Paging through realities to find the state he wanted to be in?  Uninjured, dressed?

There were a lot of ugly possibilities with that one.  Could he affect how he was accessing powers?

He took one step, and was carried off the ground.  It wasn’t flight so much as floating.  Combine that with the vacuum around him… It had to be aerokinesis.  Manipulation of air.

Miss Militia took a shot at him, and he reeled.  There was a flickering, and he was back in the position he’d been in a moment before, uninjured.

She changed guns, and unloaded two assault rifles in his direction.

Her hits were on target- at first.  His armor absorbed the worst of it, and he undid the damage he’d taken with more flickering.  The bullets gradually moved off target, grazing him instead of striking vital areas.  A moment later, they stopped hitting entirely.

The effect he was using to alter their trajectories hit the rest of us a moment later.  I felt Atlas’s wings beat against nothing for just a moment before we caught air again, steered him through a sudden, unexpected headwind that dissipated as fast as it had started, and then found a spare moment to pull up, putting distance between myself and the Eidolon clone.

My bugs gave me a sense of his effect’s perimeter.  The storm effect had a diameter of roughly three-quarters my own range, no doubt allowing him to sense where people were by the movements of the air.

The vacuum extended roughly a hundred feet around him, the air condensing into threads that found him and flowed into his mask to sustain him.  Even the clones on his side were suffering, falling to their hands and knees or running to get away.  He was indiscriminate, and far more dangerous because of it.

He was approaching the battlefield where we’d engaged the clones, where many of our heroes had fallen.  If the vacuum extended over them, they wouldn’t last long.  I wasn’t sure what kind of effect it would have, but even the smallest push could mean the difference between life and death, and this wasn’t necessarily small.

“Rachel!” I shouted, but the wind kept my voice from reaching anyone.  It didn’t matter.  I could use my bugs, too, not as a collective effort, but with ten thousand voices in a hundred ears.  “Rachel!  Get over here and fetch the wounded!  Everyone else!  Get your teammates back!  He’s surrounded by a vacuum!

Heroes kicked into action, hurrying to collect the injured.  Rachel was occupied trying to herd the clones at the far edges of the battlefield, but she heard my order and broke away from the skirmish.

We still had to manage those clones, though.  A few Kudzu, and none of the forge-guys.  If they got away-

I contacted the ice dispenser.  She was trying to cover Echidna in more ice, but the wind was blowing the shards away.  “Need your help to contain clones.  This way.”

My bugs pointed the way.  She hesitated, tried to shout something to Chevalier, but went unheard.  She decided to follow my instruction, flying in the direction I’d indicated with the bugs.

Okay, so she was one of Chevalier’s people.  I told Chevalier, “Your ice cape is dealing with clones.

He only nodded.  He at least knew she didn’t have his back, now.

People were moving too slowly as they dragged and carried teammates away.  Worse, there were only so many able bodies.  Only three or four out of every ten heroes were down, all in all, but some required two people to move, and there were those like Tecton that required enhanced strength to budge.  Eidolon was getting dangerously close, now.

People screamed and shouted in alarm as Rachel reached the fallen.  She barely paused as she stopped momentarily by each body, pointed, and screamed the name of one of her dogs.

It’s okay,” I communicated, though it was getting harder with what Eidolon was doing with the air.  “Rescue operation only.

The dogs followed her instructions as much by mimicking Bentley as by anything else, it seemed.  I knew they weren’t well trained, and there was a reason she didn’t bring these dogs on every excursion.  It would look bad if we killed a hero in the process of rescuing them, but we were risking that simply by moving the wounded.  It had been reinforced over and over in the first aid class I’d taken, never to risk moving anyone who was injured.

Then again, this wasn’t exactly a typical situation.  Better to remove them from near-certain death.

With Rachel rescuing the wounded, the Eidolon-clone didn’t have any easy targets in reach.  Instead, he turned and floated toward Echidna.  Ice was chipped and whittled away by what must have been sharp blasts and currents of condensed wind, with fragments flying toward him, twisting in mid air and whipping back at the chunks of ice they’d come from, helping to chip away.  Enough cracks formed that Echidna could use her two remaining limbs to leverage herself to her feet.

The meaty, frost-crusted ruins where her legs had been blown away by Chevalier were healing over, bulging where muscle and bone were growing within the stump.  Bone penetrated the flesh where her claws and armor were.

And on top, Noelle was already more or less regrown, her arms wrapped around her upper body in a straightjacket of flesh, her eyes closed and face turned toward the sky.

Chevalier took aim and shot, and the cannonball veered in midair, slamming into Echidna instead of Eidolon’s clone.  One of Echidna’s growing limbs was destroyed, but so was the glacier that had encased it.

The Eidolon hit Chevalier with a focused blast of wind, and the hero went flying, the air in the Eidolon’s range shifting to reduce resistance and carry him further.

Chevalier was out of my range before he hit ground.

Legend and Alexandria still fought above us.  I could, when he passed into my range, note how he got faster the longer he flew, giving him the ability to put distance between himself and Alexandria, but he couldn’t stop to take aim and shoot without losing that acceleration and giving her a chance to close the gap.

The result was that he was flying in loops and circles, using the turns to find opportunities to take aim and fire on her.  She dodged most, but the hits that did land bought him distance and time to stop and laser down clones who were attempting to escape.

If any of them slipped away, it could be disastrous.  One clone could track down their original self’s family and murder them, or even go after innocent civilians.  My bugs were blinding them, finding weak points, but there were some that my bugs couldn’t touch that Legend was succeeding in taking out, like the forge-man.

Myrddin was below Legend and Alexandria, recuperating from holding Echidna at bay.  He took to the air, flying up to Echidna and the Eidolon-clone from behind.

He pointed his staff at the Eidolon, and his target disappeared.

The air the Psycho-Eidolon had compressed expanded all at once, sending Myrddin flying off course and Echidna rolling sideways, over a line of parked cars.  For the moment, the vacuum was gone.

Myrddin set himself down on the ground.  He wasn’t using his power against Echidna or the clones, which suggested that his reserves were low.

The Eidolon-clone reappeared.  He turned and spotted Myrddin.  The two started fighting, the Eidolon trying to close the gap and trap Myrddin in his vacuum, which was considerably smaller in area than before, but growing every second.  He hampered the self-professed wizard’s flying with headwinds and gusts, and sharp blasts of wind that Myrddin deflected or dodged.  Myrddin, for his part, attacked relentlessly, pummeling the Eidolon with explosions of energy alternating with scattered releases of whatever he managed to suck in while close to the ground.

Echidna was mending, and with Chevalier down and our heavy hitters more or less out of the running, I wasn’t sure we could stop her.

We needed to stall.

One tinker had machines rigged on the ground, with forcefields erected in layers, one behind the other, five between himself and Echidna.  I’d glimpsed him at work before, knew it wouldn’t hold if she really hit the things.  They were dangerous or lethal to the touch, if the experiences of my swarm was any indication, but little more than an annoyance for Echidna.

The ice cape was back, having dealt with the clones.  She began laying down more glaciers around Echidna, but with the monster being more able-bodied than before, it was only a temporary barrier.

We needed something more effective.

My eyes roved over the fallen, both those that had been rescued and the ones that still lay on the ground, injured or dead.  Weld had Kid Win and Scapegoat, and I saw a burly cape dragging Tecton behind him.

No.  This wasn’t a case where we needed brute force.  Echidna was liable to win any case of hand-to-hand combat that wasn’t against a full-on Endbringer.

Maybe she could even come out ahead in a close-quarters fight against the likes of Leviathan or the Simurgh, if she was capable of absorbing them.

Scary thought.

I recognized so few of the capes around me.  There was a girl who was emanating red lightning that wasn’t harming the allies she struck, apparently accelerating them to a faster speed instead.  I had seen her somewhere, but had no idea who she was.  A boy was fading in and out of reality, grabbing capes and then disappearing with his rescuee in tow.  He’d reappear a moment later, a few paces away, before fading out of existence.  He wasn’t teleporting, he merely wasn’t here when he was walking, some of the time.

Rachel arrived with a number of fallen capes in tow.  I flew low to the ground and helped lower them to the nearest solid surface.  One dog had bitten too firmly, not knowing its own strength, cracking body armor and maybe a rib.  I didn’t mention it – it was obvious enough that people would catch on before he was in terminal danger, but we didn’t need people turning on Rachel or getting distracted from the matter at hand.  The man was alive, and that was better than if he’d been caught in the vacuum.

Psycho-Eidolon went on the offensive against Myrddin, shoving the hero against a wall and then holding him there by pummeling him with repeated blasts of wind.  The Eidolon got close enough to catch Myrddin in the vacuum, and the bugs I had on Myrddin started to perish with surprising speed.

Myrddin, for his part, stopped fighting entirely, trying only to escape.  The Eidolon caught him and knocked the staff from his hand, then pinned him against the wall, choking him with the vacuum.  I knew it was supposed to take around two minutes to suffocate, but that presumed one was able to hold some air in their lungs.

Myrddin’s struggles were getting weaker by the second, almost from the instant he was in the Eidolon’s range.

The Eidolon’s grip slipped from Myrddin’s neck and he careened into the ground, hard.  Again, air billowed out around him, thrusting Myrddin into the wall once more, but supplying him with much needed air.

I could see Regent, turned towards that particular bout of fighting.  Had he been responsible?

It wasn’t enough to revive Myrddin.  He fell to the ground, only a short distance from the Eidolon, and slumped down into a prone position.  One hand pressed against his chest, and he went limp.

The Psycho-Eidolon stood, and Miss Militia opened fire, joined by several other capes.  The Eidolon was driven back, forced to flicker to recover from the blasts.  Again, his armor was absorbing the impacts.  It would be the best stuff money could buy, if it was a functional copy of what his other self wore, and it was healing every time he did.

Then, as before, he found a way to divert the incoming fire away from himself.  The bullets and laser blasts stopped, no doubt because the heroes didn’t want the Eidolon redirecting any of their fire towards Myrddin.

My bugs flowed in, carrying a length of cord.  I bound the Eidolon’s neck as he walked up to Myrddin’s unconscious form, but there wasn’t anything significant to tie the cord to.  I chose a car’s side-mirror.

He stopped short, a pace away from the fallen hero, then flickered.  The cord came free of his neck as though he weren’t even there, and he bent down over Myrddin.  I swore under my breath and tried to bind him again, knowing how ineffectual it would be at this point.

It was Wanton who moved to stop the Eidolon, turning into a virtual poltergeist, with debris and dust flying around him.  He barely slowed as Eidolon directed a blast of wind his way.

The Eidolon flickered, and a knife with a wavy blade appeared in his hand.  Before Wanton could reach him, he gripped Myrddin’s mask, raised the hero’s chin towards the sky, knife held ready.

His hand convulsed, and he dropped the knife.  Regent.

An instant later, he flickered, rendering his hand untouched, the knife back in position.  He thrust it into the soft underside of Myrddin’s chin.

Wanton hit him a moment later, tearing the dagger from the Eidolon’s hand and using it to cut and bludgeon the clone.

Myrddin was dead or dying, I couldn’t even guess if Chevalier was okay or not, and two of the three members of the Triumvirate had been turned against us.  We were swiftly running out of big guns.

The red lightning girl hurried past me, helping mobilize a group of heroes with more wounded.  We had maybe forty to fifty capes on our side, with twenty that were no longer in any shape to fight.

I saw Gully with two heroes cradled against her body with one arm, the other arm holding her shovel, planting it in the pavement like it was a walking stick.

One of the heroes was Clockblocker.  The face of his mask had been shattered, revealing the softer padding beneath.  I didn’t recognize the other cape, a guy with green dyed hair and a domino mask.

“Stop,” I told her.  “Is he okay?”

“Ramus is, but I think the clock boy is going to die,” she said.  She glanced over her shoulder at the Psycho-Eidolon.  He’d broken away from Wanton, and was working on mending the damage, one part of his body at a time.

If there was a limitation to his self-heailng, it was that.  It was healing by degrees, weaker against all-around damage.  If my bugs could have gotten to him, that might have done some damage, but they’d have to get past his armor, which looked like the all-concealing sort, and there was the not-insignificant matter of the vacuum.

“Clockblocker,” I said.  “You there?”

He turned his head toward me.  I could barely make him out over the wind.  “You’re still here.”

What did he mean by that?  Was he surprised that I was still alive?  That I hadn’t run?  I wasn’t sure how to respond.

Craved a fight,” the words reached me despite the winds that were tearing across the battlefield.  It wasn’t my bugs speaking, either.  “I hoped you’d challenge me.

Eidolon.  He was echoing his sentiment from earlier, that had driven him to fight Echidna alone, except it was twisted, warped, the original reasoning forgotten.

Do I need to get you angrier?  Do I need to push you harder?  I could torment you, inflict pain on your teammates until you’re forced to throw all caution to the wind and come at me with everything you’ve got.  Or I could attack you on another level.  Would you like me to tell you a story?

Echidna belched out another set of clones.

There was one forge-man, two identical to the one I’d seen flinging stones at Chevalier.  And an Alexandria.  They lurched to their feet, but they didn’t attack.  They were letting Eidolon speak.

We founded Cauldron.  The Triumvirate.  The Number Man.  William Manton.  The Doctor.  We sold people powers.

“No,” Clockblocker said.  Other murmurs came from the crowd.

It meant more people with powers to fight the Endbringers, that was the lie we told ourselves.  But we created the Siberian and Shatterbird, in a roundabout way.  We created the Gray Boy, selling him powers, finding ourselves unable to stop him when he went out of bounds.  There were countless others.  Echidna is just the latest in a long series of grave mistakes.”

Nobody moved.  I suspected that if anyone attacked him, they’d be seen as a Cauldron sympathizer, trying to shut him up.  I could see Noelle: her arms had separated from her torso, but she left them limp at her sides, her long hair in her face as she stared up at him.

We made the PRT, pretended to let ourselves be run by the unpowered, but we put Alexandria in charge.  We manipulated media, manipulated nations, in the interest of power.  We ventured into alternate worlds to kidnap people, experimented on them to refine our formulas.  And the failed tests?  The people who turned out wrong?  We cast them out, tossed them out as a bonus to anyone willing to pay a little more for an enemy that was guaranteed to lose against them.”

The Eidolon moved, facing one of the monstrous parahumans I didn’t know.  A boy with crimson skin and hair.  The clone spoke, “That’s all you were, monsters.  Little more than the cheap towels that are on offer for a few extra dollars when you buy something on a shopping channel.

Legend shouted something, but the wind kept his voice from reaching us.  He had to fly to avoid the Alexandria-clone’s unending pursuit.

The other, naked Alexandria took flight and went after him.

It said a lot that nobody moved to help.

I glanced at Gully, saw her already disfigured face contorted with emotion.

“He’s lying,” I said, to her.  “Twisting the truth to make it sound worse than it is.”

Gully only made a small noise in response.

“He couldn’t make all that up,” Clockblocker said.  Were it not for the bugs I had near his mouth, I wasn’t sure I would have caught what he was saying in the face of the wind.  “… kernel of truth.”

It’s all been a ploy from the start,” the Eidolon-clone said, his aerokinesis carrying his words to our ears, “Every single one of you were deceived.  For every one of you that bought your powers, there were innocents who died or became monsters for the sake of that formula’s research.  No matter what good you might do, it will never make up for that.  And the rest of you?  Conned, brought in with promises of ideals and saving the world.  You’re fools.

And with that, he let the wind die down.  There was a crunching noise as Echidna shifted her weight, but that was followed only by silence, the sound of murmurs.

“We just lost,” Clockblocker said.

I looked at him, saw Gully hanging her head.

He wasn’t wrong.  We were suffering losses, and we hadn’t achieved anything.  Echidna was as strong as she’d ever been, stronger than she’d been at the outset of the fight, and she kept on acquiring clones that cost more than we could afford to put down.  Alexandria and Eidolon were only the tips of the iceberg.

“It’s a big hit to morale, but-”

“No,” Clockblocker cut me off.  “We lost.  Not this fight.  Maybe we can still win it, won’t deny it’s possible, with Scion maybe showing up.  But the big picture?  There’s no coming back from this.  Without the Protectorate, without all the work that it does to organize heroes around the world, there’s no getting everyone working together.  The amount of anger?  The suspicion, wondering if a teammate took the formula or not?  How can we go up against the next Endbringer that shows up?”

“We’ll manage,” I said.  “We’ll find a way.”

He barked out a cough, groaned.  “Fuck, don’t make me laugh.”

“Laugh?”

“Never took you for an optimist.”

Was I?  Or was it just that the heroes were reeling just a little more in the wake of these revelations.  I wasn’t surprised, and I was betting the other Undersiders weren’t either.

Advantage: us.  We villains were the only ones who could really think straight in the wake of all this.  Except Tattletale, Grue and Imp were elsewhere, and Regent and Rachel weren’t really in a position to do anything major here.

I stared at the scene, Legend doing his best to fend off two Alexandrias, and Eidolon looking down on us, the crowd of fools.  I could see Echidna, standing still, surveying it all, much as I was.

No, not Echidna.  Noelle.

“I need your help,” I told Clockblocker.

“Can’t fight.”

“Don’t need you to fight,” I told him.  I reached behind my back, drew my gun.  I pressed it into his hands.  “If and when she comes for me, aim for the back of my head.  It’s unarmored, anything else might mean I survive, and I don’t want to be hers.  Not again.”

“Hers?” he asked.  “What are you doing?”

I paused.  “Wait until the last second.  Just in case.  You can call that more optimism, I guess.”

“Skitter?”

I moved my bugs away from the heroes around us and into the air, a cloud capable of getting attention.

If I was going to do this, I was going for optimal effect.

Back when this skirmish had started, I’d wondered if I’d be willing to make a sacrifice if it meant coming out ahead.  Even when the idea of throwing away one life for the greater good had crossed my mind, it had been with the notion that it would be me paying the price.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t, ask someone else to do it.

Fuck it.  I wasn’t about to back down now, not with the stakes this high.

With the swarm swirling through the air, and the fact that I was the only person moving in this otherwise still tableau, all eyes were on me.  Noelle’s included.

“Noelle!” I screamed her name.  My swarm augmented my voice, carrying it much as the wind had carried Eidolon’s.

She turned toward me.

“It is you, isn’t it?  It’s Noelle, and not Echidna?”

She didn’t respond.  My swarm drifted between us, partially to help obscure me, to cloak me from her vision if she charged me.

“At the start of all this, you offered a deal.  Any of your captives for one of us Undersiders.  Is that deal still open?”

I saw her shift position, planting her massive claws further apart.

“You’re dead anyways,” she said.

You’re not wholly wrong.

“Follow through with the deal, maybe you get to kill me yourself.  And maybe the other heroes here will turn the other Undersiders in for a chance that they can walk away alive.”

“You’re saying you’ll let your team die?”

“My team can fend for themselves,” I said.  “Right now?  I’m offering you me, in exchange for Eidolon.  That’s all.”

“The one who deceived them?” she looked out over the crowd.  “What makes you think they want him?”

“They don’t,” I said.  I made sure that everyone present could hear as my bugs carried my voice.  “But they need him.”

If there was any salvaging this, any way of recovering from this terminal hit to morale and avoiding the scenario Clockblocker had outlined, I had to make sure that everyone recognized how essential it was that we kept the big guns on hand for future Endbringer attacks.  Regardless of what they’d done in their pasts.  If it came down to it, I was willing to put myself on the line.  I’d die to drive the point home if it came down to it.

Noelle spat Eidolon out.  He landed, covered in puke, wearing his costume.  He recovered faster than the other heroes had, faster than I had.  He took to the air, flying toward the other members of the Protectorate.

A pair of flying heroes moved closer together, barring his path.

Through the bugs I had placed on the two flying heroes, I could hear him.  A single utterance, monosyllabic.  “Ah.”

He turned, surveying the scene, then started to fly towards Legend.  The other Eidolon moved to match his flight, and the original stopped.  If he moved to help, he’d only be bringing his clone into the fight with him.  He settled above a building, on the other side of the street from his mirror opposite, keeping a wary eye on Legend and the chase that the two Alexandria clones were giving.

“Now’s the part where you run,” Noelle told me.

“I’m not running.”

“You’ll try something.  Because you’re a coward.  You don’t have it in you.  You’re selfish.  You killed Coil when you knew we needed his help.”

“I killed Coil because he was a monster,” I said.  I didn’t let my voice carry, but it didn’t matter.  Others had heard what she said.  “But I’m not running.”

I sensed Rachel kick Bentley, stirring him to action.  Some of my bugs barred her path, forcing her to pull short and stop before he’d moved two paces.

“How do I finish you, then?” she asked.  “Should I puke on you and let them tear you apart while everyone watches?”

“Someone might try to save me,” I said.  “They’re still heroes, after all.  Takes a lot to stomach watching a girl get beaten to death.”

“Then I kill you myself,” she said, and there was a growl to her voice.  That would be Echidna chiming in, at least in part.  “They’ll see what you’re made of when you break and start running, and they can’t stop me from tearing you apart.”

That said, she charged.  The ground shook with her advance, and the heroes only stood and watched, no doubt considering the possibility that I was right, that they could negotiate their way out of all this.

I closed my eyes, using my bugs to stop Rachel from intervening for the second time.

I took a deep breath.  Every instinct I had told me to run, to find shelter, to survive, or take cover.  But I had to do this.

Instead, I used my bugs to whisper to Clockblocker, “Use your power.”

There was only one thing for him to use his power on.  He froze the gun.  Along with the gun, he froze the length of thread I’d attached to the weapon.

The thread, in turn, was held aloft by the bugs that flew as a curtain between Noelle and I.

I kept my eyes closed, relying on my bugs to feed me input, dissociating from my real self, because it kept me still, and that kept Echidna on course for the thread that extended vertically through the curtain.

Spider silk was, generally speaking, about two to three times as thick as the thinnest part of a safety razor.  That was still pretty thin, especially when Clockblocker’s power rendered it immobile, utterly unyielding even as a monster with three times the mass of an African Elephant crashed into it.

She tried to pull to a stop as she made contact with the thread, but her momentum carried her all the way through.  The bracing of her foremost limbs against the ground only helped to force the separation of the two halves.

Severed, the two pieces of her body crashed down to either side of me.  Despite my best intentions, I stumbled a little at the impact.

Hit the Eidolon-Clone,” I spoke to Miss Militia through my bugs, hurrying to step away from Noelle’s bisected form.  “Hit him hard.

The Eidolon-clone moved one arm in our direction, only to stop short.  A thread that had draped his arm was now a rigid barrier, connected to the same thread that I’d positioned between Noelle and I.  He tried to retreat, only to find the thread I’d circled around his neck holding him firm.

He started to flicker, no doubt to escape.  One arm free.  Then another.

Miss Militia hefted her rocket launcher.  Our Eidolon was already flying to Legend’s rescue as she pulled the trigger.  The Eidolon-clone wasn’t quite free when the warhead hit home.  For extra measure the explosion drove him against the threads that had draped his body.

If I’d been good at the punchlines, I might have thrown one out there.  The best I could come up with was, Flicker that.

Watch the two pieces,” I communicated through my swarm, still backing away from Noelle.  “Tattletale said there’s a core to her, that’s supplying the regeneration.  Whichever half regenerates is the half with the core.  We narrow it down, then we destroy it.  We can win this.

I could see Echidna’s body swelling, growing huge with tumorous bulges as she sought to rebuild her other half.  Still, she was nigh-immobile, and the heroes were free to unload every offensive power they had on her.  Wanton and Weld advanced, tearing into her, pulling people free and seeking something that might be her core.  She was regenerating faster than they were dealing damage, but every passing moment saw one cape freed, more ground covered.

Her other half was decaying at the same time.  The captives that were trapped in her flesh were revealed as it dessicated, and capes freed each person in turn.

She lurched, then forced herself into contact with her decaying other half, reconnecting to it.  She was minus eleven captives, by my count, Alexandria among them, but she was reforming.  I wouldn’t be able to bait her like that again, but I might be able to contain her.

I glanced at Clockblocker.  Gully had carried him to Scapegoat, who had roused from unconsciousness, and he was getting care.  He looked at me, offered me a curt nod.

I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I did the same.

Behind me, bugs could sense the approach of a containment van.  Tattletale, I could hope, with Faultline’s crew, perhaps.  Chevalier was perched in the fortified turret on top, his sword resting on one shoulder.

We can win this fight, I mused, and this time I could believe it.

But I was all too aware of the movement of a particular contingent of capes.  Having deposited Clockblocker, Gully distanced herself from the other heroes, approached Weld and the red-skinned boy.  The Cauldron-made, standing apart.

Across the battlefield, I was aware, there were very few people standing shoulder to shoulder.  People were distanced from one another as though their personal space was ten feet across, avoiding eye contact, with no conversation, and I wasn’t seeing any upturn in morale.  There wasn’t a cheer to be heard, and squad leaders weren’t giving orders to their subordinates.

I could only hope this divide wouldn’t prove as telling as the one I’d delivered to Noelle.

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Scourge 19.5

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The Grue Echidna had created turned his attention to the rest of us.  His power massed around him and then flowed forth like a tidal wave of crude oil.  I was already atop Atlas, rising into the air.  I couldn’t avoid the fact that Scapegoat was in the truck, and if we were separated-

I flew after the wave of darkness, tracing its path as it met Scapegoat’s van and making my best guess at where it would wind up.

The darkness hit a wall, and the van materialized, solid once more.  More heroes were deposited two or three city blocks away from where they’d been standing.

My heart was pounding in my chest as I blinked a few times and double checked that I hadn’t gone blind.  If the Grue had cut off Scapegoat’s power, or if he’d delivered enough of an impact to disrupt it, it could have left me in worse shape than before.

I could see, and I could breathe.  Scapegoat was safe inside the containment van.

He’d scattered us.  Our tight battle lines were now spread out over city blocks, and people were having a surprising amount of trouble getting their bearings.  One of the team leaders managed to get his squad organized, pointing them in the right direction, before Echnidna’s Grue hit them again.

There was a limit to what I could do.

I gathered my bugs and started working out how to stop the Grue.

I had cords pre-prepared.  I spliced a number together into a hundred-foot long line, then had my bugs fly the cord out.

A minute later, my fastest flying bugs were winding the cord around the Grue’s neck, while others were biting and stinging.  He barely even noticed, beyond swatting at the insects wherever they landed.

I needed something to tie him to.  A telephone pole?  It wouldn’t stop him or even hamper him in what he was doing to disrupt our fighting lines.  If he could teleport himself, then it wouldn’t even hamper him at all in the long-term.

Legend, Eidolon and Alexandria moved into the fray, accompanied by a number of other flying heroes.  They were coordinated enough that they had to have planned it out in advance.  Alexandria went in first, circling around and then swooping down to strike Echidna across one back leg.  She stuck on contact.  Through a combination of her own strength and one of Legend’s lasers, she got free before Echidna could turn and envelop her.

Eidolon was making his move before Alexandria was even free.  He cast out a bubble that swelled as it moved through the air.  By the time it reached Echidna, it was twice as big around as she was, enough to reach from one sidewalk to the other.  The colors around her became muted, and her movements slowed to a tenth of the speed.

It was a time-distortion effect.  Legend took the opportunity to emit twenty individual laser beams.  They each flowed out as a steady, unfaltering stream, and turned in mid-air to punch into Echidna.  Each was meticulously placed to drive through the center of her body and avoid the places where her victims were being absorbed, or even cut her victims free.

One beam turned down and took a sharp right to strike the ground just to the teleporter-Grue’s right.  It slashed towards him and he used his darkness to teleport himself to safety, cutting the cord I’d created in the process.

I commanded my bugs to collect the thread and cart it to the destination he’d teleported to.  It was futile to try to tether a teleporter, I knew, but if I could find a way to trip up his abilities, tie his ankles together at a crucial moment… something, it might help.  Beyond that, I’d have to hope the venom brought him down.

Echidna tried to move to one side, but Legend’s beams followed unerringly, swelling in size and number.  Thirty, forty, fifty… each cutting their way through her flesh as though she were made of little more than snow.  Smoke or steam billowed around her as her flesh charred and boiled.  The lasers might have been affected by the time distortion, but that didn’t matter when the lasers were moving at the speed of light in the first place.

She feinted right, then lunged left, but Legend’s aim didn’t err in the slightest, and Eidolon’s slowing effect drifted after her.  Still, Echidna moved faster than Eidolon’s slowing effect did.  Slowly but surely, as pieces of her flesh were carved away and left to fall to the ground, she made progress toward the effect’s perimeter.

Alexandria flew low to the ground, striking and catching hold of a traffic light.  In one second she was a blur, the next she appeared to be moving as fast as a person did when they ran.  Charging into the effect’s area, Alexandria made a beeline for Echidna.

The swing was slow motion, but Echidna was too.  Alexandria struck her with the metal pole, and Echidna moved like she’d been hit full strength.  Her front claws were lifted off of the ground by the force of the blow, and she reared up, the canine faces contorting in pain and anger.

The lasers moved around Alexandria, passing within centimeters of her.  She didn’t even flinch as she lowered herself to the ground behind Echidna, used her hands and one knee to correct a bend in the pole, and then stabbed it into one spot on the back of Echidna’s leg where a hero was trying to get free.  Legend’s cutting lasers and the leverage of the pole pried him free.  Alexandria caught him before he hit the ground and threw him.

Other heroes saw and positioned themselves before he reached the edge of the effect.  He resumed normal speed and the heroes caught him.

Echidna’s Grue blanketed the area in darkness, and Legend opened fire on the area where the darkness had originated from; the ground floor of a nearby grocery store.  My bugs identified the Grue on the far side, and with a moment to get arranged, they connected the ends of cords.  A little shorter than a hundred feet, now.  If I tied it to a section of a nearby window, and he tried to run, it could maybe yank him off his feet, but that didn’t amount to much.

The Grue teleported Echidna to him, freeing her from Legend’s attack and the slow effect.  The darkness carpeted them and bought her a second to breathe and regenerate.

Had to remove the Grue from consideration.  I tried to visualize what would happen next, anticipate their next move.  Noelle would throw herself into the fray again.  Either he’d use his teleportation to do it or…

I tied the other end of the cord to a piece of bone plate that stood out on Echidna’s side.

Eidolon was pointing to the building that Echidna had materialized behind, pointed two fingers at it with a thumb extended in a gesture much like a gun.  Legend took the signal and opened fire, unleashing countless lasers into the ground floor of the building.

The Psycho-Grue took shelter, ducking to one side of a nearby dumpster.  At the same time, Echidna did just what I’d hoped for: she bolted.  The cord went taut, and the Grue was pulled off his feet by the suddenness and force of her movement.

I hadn’t tied it into a proper noose, but the cord was around his neck.  I’d read somewhere that nooses tended to kill because they broke the neck rather than by suffocation, provided they were tied right and there was enough of a drop.

This wasn’t a drop, but it was a tough cord around his neck, and the creature on the other end weighed no less than fifteen tons, maybe twice that.  She’d accelerated from zero to fifty in an instant, and he went limp almost immediately, dead or completely disabled in a heartbeat.  My bugs cut the cord and held it ready.

Echidna hadn’t used her power yet.  She’d absorbed enough capes, but something was holding her back.  I wondered if her regeneration drew on the same pool of flesh-generation that made the clones and she couldn’t make clones while healing the kind of heavy damage the Triumvirate was dishing out.  Maybe there was some other drawback.

The ‘shoulders’ of her lower body scraped and dragged against the sides of buildings as she stampeded through the back alleyways.  She kicked a dumpster and sent it careening as she ran, brushed against a fire escape with enough speed and force that it was ripped from the brick wall.

She was very nearly out of my power’s reach when Myrddin cut her off.  He waved his staff and a group of heroes materialized around him.  Tecton and Chevalier were among them.

The heroes around me were trying to get sorted into squads again.  I was aware of someone driving the van that held Scapegoat.  Taking him in the wrong direction.

I drew arrows with my bugs on the dashboard and prayed that whoever the cape was behind the wheel, they were aiming in the right direction.

Seeing how the heroes were struggling to get organized, suffering for the lack of armbands to help them navigate and get essential information, I decided in an instant that I needed to guide more than just the van.

I began drawing out arrows and letters.

I drew out an ‘E’ with an arrow pointing in Echidna’s direction, a hundred times in a hundred places.  Above Echidna, I set swarms of insects to flying in formation, tight circles and figure-eight loops, vertical or horizontal.  Letters and words formed.  Echidna, Myrddin, Chevalier.  Did the ‘e’ go after the ‘i’?  Couldn’t remember.  Was supposed to be ‘i before e, except after c’, but there were more exceptions to the rule than there were correct uses.

Shaking my head to stir myself awake, I tried to refocus, paying attention to the primary site of the fighting.

Echidna charged Myrddin and the heroes that accompanied him.  He used his staff to draw something into the air.  My bugs could feel a vibration, see the white blur of a light source.

The sign he’d drawn exploded outward, striking Echidna on her right side.  It was enough to alter her course, and her shoulder slammed into the corner of one building.  Her body dragged against the building’s face until that she had to stop and pull away.

Chevalier pointed his sword at her, fifteen feet long, and pulled a trigger.  A blast erupted down the center of the sword’s mass, and a cannonball caught one of Echidna’s monstrous heads between the eyes.  Through the composite vision of all my bugs, I could get a sense of the damage that had been done, the spray of gore.

I was too tired to be focusing on my bugs to this degree.  My awareness of my real self was faltering.  I was unconsciously updating the positions of the arrows to allow the heroes to home in on Echidna, but I also had to work to keep myself close to Scapegoat, and I wanted to make sure I knew where Bitch and the others were.  Atlas was following my unconscious commands, but that meant I was straying a dangerous distance from Scapegoat.  Had to be safe.

The arrows I’d drawn for each of the heroes were working, though.  Heroes were moving towards Echidna with purpose, now, and the van with Scapegoat inside was moving in the right direction.  I caught some squad captains giving orders.  A cape that could speak over distances was relaying information to Myrddin and Chevalier.

Tattletale was on the ground, but she didn’t advance toward the scene of the fighting.  She had gotten her hands on a cellphone, and was speaking steadily into it, relaying information. I only caught some of it – I couldn’t devote that much focus to her.  It was about Noelle.

Chevalier and Myrddin made an effective duo.  Chevalier’s power had made his armor virtually impervious, his cannonblade massive, each effectively many times as dense and/or many times as large as they should be, but he was still able to treat them as though they were the normal size.  He swung his sword as though it were barely there, and when he found an opportunity to strike out with a gauntleted fist, the effect was always far greater than the hit deserved.

Not so different from Fenja and Menja, only his gear was the focus, not himself, and he was a little more versatile.

Myrddin, for his part, coupled versatility with raw power to devastating effect.  He had a bag of tricks and switched from one to another without hesitation.  Echidna spewed a stream of bodies and gore, and Myrddin drew a dark sign into the air, suctioning the incoming matter into it.  I sensed Chevalier and Tecton slamming their weapons into the nearest surfaces to avoid being pulled in, catching hold of allies who weren’t so capable.  Then my own bugs were yanked toward the crevice and violently crushed against all of the other debris, leaving me momentarily blind in that area.  More of my bugs flowed in, giving me time to see Chevalier delivering a series of powerful sword strikes and cannon shots at Echidna, not letting up.  He paused, throwing himself into a side-alley as Noelle tried to stomp on him, and Myrddin released the matter he’d suctioned in as a condensed bullet of gore, dust, crushed bodies and dead bugs.

Perhaps the strongest thing about the partnership between the two heroes was how well it accommodated others.  Heroes with ranged powers were free to unload on Echidna while the other two fought, and heroes like Tecton could offer further support, destroying the ground beneath her feet.  She was big enough now that he couldn’t trap her, but he could make her stumble, or bring concrete from the nearby buildings raining down on top of her.

The Triumvirate flew straight over Echidna, and Legend opened with a laser beam I could see from three blocks away.  He killed some of the bugs I’d been using to draw words in the air in the process.  That was as much my fault as his.

Echidna was more or less trapped, forced to back away, but unable to fully turn around with the walls of the alley on either side of her.  Eidolon threw down another slowing bubble behind her, and Alexandria dropped to ground level to stand behind Echidna and stab the metal pole of the street light through the knee of one of Echidna’s back legs.

There was nothing for me to do beyond helping to organize the others.  I made sure to draw arrows and words high enough above the buildings that anyone approaching the scene would be able to tell that Alexandria and Chevalier had Echidna flanked.

Atlas carried me above the scene, a distance away from the Triumvirate, but still close enough to see into the alley.

Echidna was sustaining a beating, and there were only four directions she could go.  She could go up, which was the only route available to her that didn’t involve going through a solid surface, but that involved running face first into the laserbeam that Legend was firing straight down from above.  Going down involved tearing through pavement and whatever was below the road.  Even if there was a storm drain or some other underground space to enter, she was doubtlessly sustaining too much damage to take the time to get that far, and she was too big to fit, unless the area was cavernous.

That meant she was bound to head either left or right, through walls of brick or concrete.  I was careful in how I positioned my swarm, putting them on walls so I could tell if she knocked one down on her way through, while keeping the bugs out of her likely path.  Cloned bugs were the least of our problems, but I wasn’t about to contribute to her arsenal.

I’d drawn heroes closer to the scene of the fight with my directions.  Now I had to communicate the danger.

I spoke through my bugs, moving each closer to the capes.  The swarm was spread out, which made the resulting voice thin and reedy to the point that I wasn’t sure if it was audible over the noise of the fighting in the alleyways.

Incoming,” my swarm buzzed.

More than a few heroes jumped at that.

Look for my signal,” I said, “She’ll have to go through the walls to escape.”

Many of the squads were in or around the alleys but not actually participating in the fights.  With arrows and the movement of my swarm, I did my best to indicate the ways to the walls she might head for, and I drew exclamation marks on the faces of the buildings next to her.

It didn’t take her long to reach the limit of her patience.  She tried to advance on Chevalier, only to get driven back by Tecton, Myrddin and one or two ranged capes.  Backing up meant running into Alexandria, who was stabbing and swatting with the pole that had held the traffic light.

One claw ripped through brick and wood, and she plunged into the building to her left.  She was tall enough that she had to hunker down, and she was still shoving her way through the flooring that separated the first and second floors.  Her route put her on a path for where the fighting had originated, where the majority of the heroes were now waiting.

She could wade through brick and concrete and leave a building folding in on itself in her wake, but dealing with a mass of capes proved more difficult.  Forcefields blocked her movements, and a half-dozen heavy hitting capes like Grace were waiting to blindside her.

A heartbeat after the first wave assault passed by, Chronicler’s replicas of the melee assault group tore through Echidna a second time.

Echidna fell over, and was in a position to see Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon overhead.

Some capes had stayed in the fray, including types like Weld and Wanton, who couldn’t be absorbed and couldn’t be affected by the capes with ranged attacks.  They joined in with the Triumvirate’s attacks on the fallen foe.

She vomited, but it wasn’t the same as before.  Her vomit this time was thick with bodies, to the point that it didn’t spray.  The vomit tumbled from her four mouths as a sludge that met or exceeded her total body weight in sheer volume.  Worse, where it had maybe been ninety percent liquid and ten percent people, before, the numbers had inverted.

Legend raked a laser across the piling, writhing, reaching bodies, but Echidna was getting to her feet, throwing herself into the building behind her.  She’d done enough damage with the last maneuver, and her return trip brought a wall crashing down.  Powers of all kinds were brought to bear as the capes on the ground did what they could to save themselves and their teammates.

I could have stayed, helped with the wounded, but the van with Scapegoat was moving on, and I was worried about what might happen if Echidna managed to get away.  She was wounded, but regenerating, and bodies kept pouring forth from her mouth.  It would be best to leave the wounded and dying to the less mobile capes.  I was more useful in the fray, though that didn’t say much.

She was moving at a good pace.  Only the fastest were able to match her in speed, and few of those were also capable of slowing her down so the rest of us could catch up.

A trail of clones flowed in her wake.  All of them were capes, and even though they were unclothed and unarmored, some were taking more than a few hits to finish off.  Worse, at least one of the people she’d caught was a cape in much the same vein as Prism had been.  A self duplicator.  It amounted to scores of bodies, where one in twenty were capable of copying themselves, and maybe three or four in twenty were tough or borderline invulnerable.

I joined in with the other heroes who were fighting to kill or mop up the clones before the psychotic things could get organized.  They were lumped together as a tangle of limbs, heads and torsos, and each was tacky with the fluids of the vomit.  My swarm made contact, and began ruthlessly doing as much damage as I was capable of.

Myrddin caught up and hit her with one of his ‘spells’.  Echidna promptly disappeared in a clap of thunder, and Myrddin went very still, floating in the air.

From his controlled breathing and lack of celebration, I could only assume that Myrddin was concentrating.  Echidna wasn’t dead and gone, only held at bay for the time being.  I was willing to bet it was the same effect he’d used to carry Chevalier, Tecton and his other teammates into the fight in the alleyway.

In the meantime, the rest of us were left to dispatch the clones as quickly as possible.  They were frailer looking, with features missing.  There were clones without ears, clones without noses, clones with missing fingers.  Half finished, their skin was so thin as to be translucent, and most lacked hair or their hair was so sparse as to barely matter.  The skin of most broke and bled where my bugs bit, as though it were little more than wet paper.

If my swarm was made up of countless tiny surgeons, doing strategic damage, Rachel’s dogs were the opposite.  Bentley plowed through the ranks of the clones like a living bulldozer.  He wasn’t running full-bore, but he wasn’t slowing down at any point either.  The other dogs followed, each roughly the size of a pony, chained to Bentley’s harness.  The dogs fought among themselves in their struggles to attack and wound the clones, but I could see Rachel doing what she could to ensure that none of them were killing.

She’d done the same with Bastard.  It made sense, in a way, that she didn’t want them to get accustomed to killing before they were fully trained.

The clones weren’t wholly helpless, though, fragile as they might be.  They did have powers.  Through the bugs of my swarm that lingered on the combatants, I could track the fallen.  Two heroes down, injured or dying, another deceased.

We were outnumbered, and we couldn’t afford to lose one person for every twenty clones that fell.  Echidna had created at least a hundred clones in the course of her last getaway.  She would create a hundred more when she reappeared, if we didn’t find a solution.

Legend found a position to open fire from, and sent a barrage of lasers down toward the trail of bodies, while Alexandria followed the direct path that Echidna had taken, darting left and right to strike out and kill even the tougher capes in a single hit.

In the midst of the chaos, a speaker began blaring at the top of one containment van.  The same voice that had come from the armbands.

The following information has been disseminated, and remains unconfirmed.  Echidna is in a rage state.  The monster is in control, not the girl.  Seventeen capes are currently within her.  Her rate of regeneration and production of clones is derived from a central core within her lower body that produces an endless quantity of biological material.  A body part severed from the core will die.  Destroying the core in entirety will destroy her…”

Tattletale, I thought.  She’d passed on the info she’d gleaned.

Scapegoat was out of the van and shouting.  Weld was among the capes that came to his assistance.  He held a female clone in his iron grip, with one hand over her mouth.

Tecton and Wanton moved to help, and Scapegoat looked up at me, gesturing.

Pointing at the ground.

Would have been easier if he’d just said it.  I found a clear spot on a rooftop and landed.

The second I was settled, Scapegoat laid his hands on the clone Weld had caught.

As before, the sensations hit me.  Phantom sensations of every possible texture and experience rippling across my entire body.

This was why he’d told me to land.  He’d been worried I might lose control of my power, maybe losing control over Atlas and fall.

I just had to endure.  I could control my bugs to some extent, though flight wasn’t so possible.  One of the clones had broken away from the fighting, and my bugs were both attacking her and pointing the pursuing capes in the right directions.  She split off into four copies.  The heroes killed three of the four, only for the survivor to split off into a quartet once again.

If I’d been thinking about containment, I might have set triplines at each of the major intersections, cutting them if and when heroes passed through.  As it was, I couldn’t stop her retreat, and could only try to blind her, choke her and distract while they closed the distance with my direction.

But she was fragile, like most of her fellow clones.  Mandibles tore her paper-thin skin, and more bugs found her jugular.

Just like that, she died with blood spouting from her throat.  She created duplicates of herself, but they were created with the same injury.

The capes caught up to her.  One murmured, “Kudzu.”

“…s not her, Jouster,” another said.

Elsewhere, Regent was dispatching other clones.  He deftly tripped up the more mobile ones and closed the distance, then executed them with a quick stab of a knife.

The sensations kept hitting me.  It was a deeper sensation now.  Tastes, vision, hearing… everything under the sun, fragments of a million different sensations.  Picking through the noise was nearly impossible.  I had to find refuge in my swarm’s senses, disassociate from my body…

If I hadn’t been trying so hard, I might have missed it.  It was more subtle than the first time I’d heard it.  A keening noise that my own ears couldn’t hear.  Even many of the insects were unaware.

Using my swarm, every bug in the four block range, I buzzed out the alert.

Shatterbird!

Some capes reacted fast enough.  Helmets with visors were torn free, intact armbands and cell phones discarded.  Some erected forcefield barriers.  I was tearing off my mask, bundling it in the fabric that hung around my legs.

There were others too caught up in the fighting, yet others dependent on hardware with silicon chips that they couldn’t shirk so quickly.

It wasn’t as strong as her last big attack; there was less glass in the city to carry the effects.  Still, I could hear the resounding crash of everything glass in this half of the city breaking.  A tidal wave of destruction rolled past us, leaving countless injured in its wake.  The attack was weaker, but not necessarily weak.

Tecton had been left immobile, components of his suit destroyed.  The clone and Scapegoat were down, struck by the glass from the van’s windshield.  Chevalier had been caught by something, a fragment of glass that had penetrated a slit in his visor, and he was struggling to fight three clones and avoid hitting his teammates, all while partially blind.

I checked myself.  I could breathe, I wasn’t blind.  All despite Scapegoat’s disabled state.

Had he transferred the conditions to the clone?  Was I in the clear?

I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t sure I could afford to take the risk and stray beyond that one-hundred and fifty foot range of his.

The direction the attack had come from…  Shatterbird had stayed behind, used her power from the base.  I’d assumed it was because Echidna had eaten her, but it was all too possible that they’d found another route.  Inducing temporary unconsciousness?  Or perhaps Echidna had eaten her and then spat her out right away, to induce enough weakness that Regent couldn’t use her.  I’d have to ask Regent for details, and that wasn’t an option.

No, there were bigger worries.  Battle lines had broken, and simply by virtue of being more numerous than we were, many clones were still standing.  It made only a small difference, but it was still an advantage for their side: the clones weren’t wearing or carrying anything glass.  An advantage of being naked.

The big heroes were trying to get organized.  Myrddin was still keeping Echidna out of the fight, the Triumvirate were exchanging quick words as they tried to figure out whether they should stay for when Echidna popped back into existence or help with the clones.  Legend shot as he talked, and Eidolon was casting out blue sparks that flew forth.

Clones were advancing on Scapegoat and Tecton.  Weld was there, but he wasn’t quite enough.

I stood on Atlas’ back as he descended to the road, shaking my mask to let the glass fall free before carefully pulling it back on.  Weld glanced at me and nodded as I appeared at his left, helping to form a defensive line.

Weld’s hands started to change into long blades, and with the reach they afforded him, he was able to defend more ground.

I stepped off Atlas and let him stand on his own, his scythelike forelimbs raised.  He wouldn’t be that good in a fight, but the clones were fragile, and two more weapons was better than nothing.  My knife and baton slid free of their respective slots in my compartment, and I whipped the baton out to its full length.  It offered me a little more reach, an excuse to take one more step away from Scapegoat’s body and the frozen Tecton.  In this fashion, Weld, Atlas and I formed something of a triangle.

Being on the ground, it added a kind of reality to the situation.  On a technical level, I was more aware of the bodies when I used my powers, more aware of the enemy numbers.  Here, though, I could see only the crowd.  Hero and clone were fighting, the ground was littered with the dying, the maimed and the dead.  There were countless people who needed help, people who I couldn’t personally reach.

My bugs could reach them.  I did what I could, trying to blind the right people, to injure and maim clones where I could ferret out vulnerabilities.  Most of the vulnerable clones were already out of the fight, leaving us with only the more troublesome ones.  The duplicators, the durable and the mobile.

I was fighting a duplicator.  Another Kudzu, like the one I’d killed earlier, unless there was another Asian duplicator with a Japanese-sounding name.  She was vulnerable, but she knew how to fight.  Better than I did.  My advantage was my weapons and my armor.  Hers was her relentlessness.

My baton crushed one skull like an overripe pumpkin, my knife caught another in the chest, pushing past bone like it was a willowy tree branch rather than anything more solid.  I kicked her in the chest to help pull my knife free, and suffered a painful kick to the side of my knee before I was able to retaliate.  I fell, tried to strike the offending Kudzu with my knife, but she caught my wrist.  A swing of my baton was caught as well.  I got my feet under her and thrust my head into hers as I returned to a standing position  Her face was softer than my mask was.

She fell, and the fourth Kudzu formed three new doubles before I could advance and attack her.  One kicked me hard enough that I had to lean against Tecton’s armor to get my balance.  My swarm had hurt the one Kudzu who’d stayed back, and the new doubles were feeling the same pain, but they were still fresh, weren’t tired or hurt from previous rounds.

Weld fought with an invincible man who was smoking, his hands hot enough that they were heating Weld’s flesh.  The man grappled him, and Weld’s attempts to strike him were having little effect.  The man dug his fingers into Weld’s chest, and white-hot metal dripped to the ground.  He was digging for organs.

I hated to spare bugs when I was fighting the Kudzu-clones, but I sent some Weld’s way.  They coated the man, and found some flesh they could damage.

“His back, Weld!” I shouted.  “His front half is tough, but everything that isn’t facing you is vulnerable!”

A Kudzu took advantage of my distraction to club me.  I retaliated by stabbing her, a nonfatal blow.

Weld pulled one arm free, reached behind the man, and started sawing into the back of his head.  Serrated edges formed on the blade, to allow for a better cut, Weld found something vital, and the man slumped to the ground.

He turned to help me with the Kudzu.

A scattering of Legend’s laser bolts tore through our surroundings, though he was blocks away.  Three of the Kudzu I was fighting were hit by Legend’s shots, and Weld lunged forward to stab the fourth.  The least hurt of them vibrated and split off into a fresh set of quadruplets.

Clones of clones, I thought.  I could only swear in my head.  My lungs weren’t suffering like they had been earlier, but I was short on breath nonetheless.

Overall, our side was winning, but we weren’t winning fast.  Nearly a third of us had fallen when Shatterbird hit, and more were losing in this chaos that followed.

Which made this the moment, fittingly, when Echidna popped back into existence.

Eidolon and Legend had been doing what they could from range, and now they were forced to deal with Echidna, leaving the rest of us to deal with the remaining clones.

Legend started using a massive laser to tear into the piles of clones that spilled forth from her mouths.

One Kudzu-clone shouted.  “Cover me!  I got this!”

Roughly a quarter of the remaining clones broke away from their individual engagements, including the Kudzu I was fighting.

Fuck me, they’re cooperating.

Our side did what they could to stop them, but these clones were still in the fight because they were hard to kill.  My bugs attacked the Kudzu, and I gave chase to stab one, then another in the back, before my hurt knee gave out and I fell to a kneeling position.  Bitch and her dogs threw themselves into the ranks of the clones, tearing and rending, but it wasn’t enough.

Chevalier wasn’t far from me.  His cannonblade detonated, painfully loud in my ear, and four or five clones died with each shot.  Legend’s lasers tore into their ranks, and Eidolon threw down a slowing field to stall for time.

It was too little, too late.  They were making a beeline for Echidna, for Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon and Myrddin.

The Kudzu who’d shouted got close to Echidna, and a tongue circled her throat.  She was reeled in, and stopped herself at Echidna’s mouth, bracing herself in position.

Chevalier took aim and shot.  A miss.

Miss Militia’s rifle shot was on target, punching through the front of the Kudzu’s throat.

But the Kudzu’s death wasn’t instantaneous, and she had time for one last gesture.  Echidna vibrated, and then split off into four copies.

Four copies of Noelle.

My breath caught in my throat in the moment I processed the reality of what had just happened.  I managed to huff out a small shuddering breath.

They were withering and dying like Kudzu’s obsolete clones were, slowly but surely, right off the bat, but there were still four of them.

This was Echidna’s greatest weapon.  Ballistic had talked about her sense for tactics, but that was Noelle, really.  This was Echidna, and she was too gone for much of that.

No, the variations that naturally occurred in powers laid out a range of capes.  Virtually every power was offensive, just about every power had some use.  That was the norm, the standard.

But exceptions existed.  They were the Bonesaws, the Crawlers, the Echidnas, the Legends, Alexandrias, Eidolons and Dragons of the world.  By sheer fortune, they’d stumbled onto powers that set them head and shoulders above everyone else.  Having the right variant, being in the right situation to use that power.

If one in a hundred capes met that kind of standard where they were just that much more versatile or powerful, then Echidna could make a hundred capes, and chances were good that one of those would be exceptional in that way.

An Echidna-double turned and charged straight for us, stampeding through the clones to get to the troops on the ground.  Forcefields went up, Chevalier unloaded cannon blasts to stall her advance, and we all did our best to retreat.  I took to the air with Atlas.

The other two Echidnas, including the original, started fighting the big name heroes.  Tongues lashed out, and Legend severed them with cutting lasers.  The clones vomited geysers, spitting out no clones with the fluid, and Alexandria bore the brunt of the blow.

Eidolon was creating blue sparks that floated around him, but when Alexandria began to lose in her struggles to keep the vomit from reaching her comrades, he switched to using a slowing field instead.  He cast it down around two of the Echidnas.  The one he didn’t catch vomited, and he threw up a small forcefield to ward off the attack.

A narrow tongue was hidden in the midst of the vomit, a concealed attack.  Prehensile, it snaked out and caught him by one arm.

Eidolon was pulled in, and clipped the forcefield he’d raised with enough force that he was momentarily stunned.  The forcefield and slowing fields disappeared, and Alexandria was caught off guard by the sudden increase in her opponent’s speed.  

Caught against its back, she started to tear herself free with the help of one of Legend’s cutting lasers.  A spray of vomit forced Legend to abandon his efforts to save his teammates and retreat for his own safety.  He cleaned up the clones that the original Echidna was still producing.

A second later, one of the Echidna-doubles leaped on top of the other, sandwiching Alexandria between her and the other Echidna-double.

The real Echidna closed her mouths, and the vomiting stopped.  She stepped on the tongue that had a hold on Eidolon, then stepped on the caught Eidolon.

Legend did what he could, but even with the three Echidna-doubles looking more like the walking dead than anything else, he couldn’t do enough lasting damage to any of the brutes.  Miss Militia and Chevalier contributed some ranged fire, as did the heroes on my side of the battlefield, but the Echidna-doubles used their bodies to block the worst of the incoming fire.

Echidna bit deep into her double, tore at flesh until she found the morsel caught between their bodies.  Alexandria.  I could see the muscles in her throat working as she swallowed.

Each of her doubles made a final reckless charge before falling to pieces.

A hush of sorts descended on everyone present.

Two of our best, caught.

Echidna reared back a little, then spat, as though she were coughing out a morsel of food she’d been choking on.

An Alexandria.  Had to be, with that long black hair.  The woman stood, and I could see how she was missing an eye.  She brushed her hair to one side, so it covered half her face, and I could hear a murmur.

“Director Costa-Brown,” someone in the crowd murmured.

The Head of the PRT and Alexandria were one and the same.

I couldn’t bring myself to care.  I wasn’t sure if it was just that I was in shock, that I was more focused on the fight that was looking a hell of a lot less winnable, or a simple lack of surprise that the PRT would have been so corrupt and imbalanced as to have a major balancing factor missing from their ranks.

Miss Militia took aim with her rifle and shot.  The bullet sparked as it clipped Alexandria’s forehead.

Alexandria shook her head.

Another cough, another spit.

Eidolon.  I couldn’t tell if he was unattractive by nature or if it was just mild deformations.  He looked so small, so below average.

He found his feet.  Miss Militia shot him twice, and he fell back against Echidna’s leg.

He flickered, and the wound was smaller, another flicker, and the wound almost disappeared.  Each flicker was stronger than the last in how it reversed the damage.  He staggered to his feet again.

“Go!” Chevalier screamed, breaking the frozen silence.  “Before he’s at full strength!”

We charged.  There was no other choice.  If we didn’t win noweveryone lost.

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Scourge 19.4

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“I was perfectly happy,” Scapegoat said, “Being able to tell myself that hey, the news is blowing things out of proportion.  There’s no way Brockton Bay is as scary as they’re making it out to be.  Dragon suits get sent in and are promptly forced out, but really, the mayors telling Washington it’s safe enough.  The media got something wrong, or they’re making little problems sound bigger than they are.  See the piles of dead bodies where this girl-”

“Echidna,” Tattletale supplied.

“Where Echidna spat out clones.  Okay.  I can live with that.  An unusual power and strong parahuman.  Could be an exaggeration.  See the destruction, the ruined buildings and the streets that still haven’t drained a hundred percent.  More or less what I expected from the news.  The girl with the mutant dogs?  Bug girl?  Still manageable.  But she opens her mouth,” Scapegoat pointed at Tattletale, “And pop goes my bubble of happy self-delusion.”

“You want to tear a hole in reality?” Tecton asked Tattletale.

“I do.  I want to use Scrub’s power in conjunction with another power that draws heavily on accessing other worlds.  It’s why I contacted Faultline’s crew.  They’re our best bet.  Myrddin might work, but he’s unlikely to cooperate.  Scapegoat could work too, but I think it’d take too long, and it might need a human sacrifice, having Scrub hit someone who was heavily affected by the goat’s power.”

Regent nudged me.  “With Grue gone, it’s your job to lay down the law.  No human sacrifices.”

He’d mimicked Grue’s tone of voice, with a forced lowness.

No human sacrifices?  Did I really want to veto any possibilities, when we were faced with threats like the Endbringers and Echidna?

“You’re not saying no,” Regent commented.

“Tattletale,” I said, “What’s the point?  Why open a hole like that?”

“It’s a place to put Noelle, for one thing.”

“We can stop her other ways,” I said.  “She’s not invincible.”

“Yet,” Tattletale said.

“Yet.  We can put her down.  With Legend, Eidolon and Alexandria alone, we should be able to do enough damage that she can’t keep regenerating.”

“Maybe.  It was hard enough before.  We’ve got big guns, now, but it’s going to be rough.  It’ll be a lot easier if we have the Travelers on our side, and we’ll have that if we can give them what they want.  A way home.”

“A way home?” Tecton asked.

“Cauldron’s the group responsible for plucking people from their realities, wiping their memories and leaving them changed, marked with a tattoo,” Tattletale said.  She glanced at Gully.

I did too.  Gully’s eyes were wide behind the curtain of braids.

“And the Travelers, far as I can figure, are the same.  Only they still have their memories, and they weren’t altered in appearance.  It’s like Noelle got her entire group’s share,” Tattletale said.

Gully slammed her shovel into the ground, but she didn’t say anything as seconds passed.

“You want to tear a hole in reality to send them home?” Tecton asked.

“It’s the best bargaining chip we have, short of a cure for Noelle.”

“How do we even know which world it is?”

“We don’t, but we can ask,” Tattletale said.  “What I’m getting at is that this is our best weapon, our best bargaining chip and our best tool.  If I’m right, if Im close to right, then this is a way to shut powers off at the source.”

“Assuming you have a way to kill or break the connection with these things you’re describing,” Tecton said.

“I’m assuming we can get our hands on some weapon of mass destruction,” Tattletale said.

“Too many potential disasters,” Tecton said.  “Listen, I get it.  I’ve been where you are.  There’s a lot of tinkers and some thinkers who’ve been where you’re at right now.  Who’ve had that brilliant idea with the power to change the world, for better or for worse.  Most of us stop at that line.  We have to.”

“This isn’t changing the world,” Tattletale said.  “This is going to the heart of every single damn problem we’ve been facing and surgically removing the most dangerous parts.  We can access the places where the powers are coming from and shut them off.  It’s an answer.”

If you can manage the risk,” Tecton said.  “And I don’t think surgically is even close to being the word you want.  With tears in reality, it’s equivalent to using explosives with a yield you can’t even guess at.”

“I’m a good guesser,” Tattletale said.

“And this is the part where I cut in,” I said.  “We’re short on time, and I have stuff to see to.  Why don’t you guys talk this through, and I’ll collect supplies with Scapegoat in the meantime.”

“Go for it,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll come,” Rachel told me.  “Too much fucking talking.”

“We can’t let Scapegoat leave in the company of two known, dangerous villains,” Tecton said.

“Send someone with us,” I said.

“Gully and Wanton, then,” Tecton said.  “If that’s alright, Gully?  We’ll watch your prisoners.”

“I’ll ask,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Atlas isn’t far from your territory,” Tattletale said.  “Head a little north, and you should find him with your range.”

I nodded.

Gully gave me a thumbs up, her phone still pressed to one ear, and we headed to the van.  Wanton was the only one who could fit in the driver’s seat and who had a license.

With Gully and Bitch both in the back, I figured it would be safest to ride with them.  Rachel was managing better these days, but a fight between her and one of the heroes could spell disaster.

It took a minute for all the dogs to climb into the back of the vehicle.  I used the time to gather my bugs in nearby buildings, where I could collect them on my return trip.

Rachel wasn’t feeling talkative, Gully seemed lost in thought, and both Wanton and Scapegoat were in the front.  That left me to get a discussion going, and I was too tired to bother.  I closed my eyes, arranging my bugs into an arrow on the dashboard of the van.  They rearranged themselves into a right turn sign to steer him toward Lord street, and from there it was relatively smooth sailing.

Someone had given the order for evacuation, and people were being directed to the shelters.  We had only two indications that things would get any worse.  Tattletale’s gut, which wasn’t a sure thing, and Dinah, who’d indicated that there was a good chance a large portion of the city would suffer at Echidna’s hands.

Or, even, not specifically at her hands.  With our luck, it would be Tattletale’s plan that leveled half the city and we’d find out that Echidna was permanently trapped beneath the rubble, not even a consideration.

Twice, I nodded off, my head starting to drift forward, before the sudden movement of my bugs stirred me fully awake.  The interior of the van was warm, dim and the vibration was oddly soothing.

The third time I drifted off, my bugs didn’t catch the movement.  My head leaned back against the wall of the van, and I slipped into the twilight state of near-sleep.

It was the appearance of Atlas that brought me back to my senses.  I signaled for Wanton to stop the van.

He was inside a garage, so still I thought he might be dead.  Without ingrained instincts, he had only the barest minimum of processing.  Enough to breathe, at least.

He hadn’t eaten in twelve hours.  I was sure to feed him a supply of the less essential bugs from the area, moving them straight into his open mouth.  I could reach my lair, and drew out every single one of the bugs I had stored there, calling them to me.

He would be weak, I noted, but at least he wasn’t hurt.  Coil had probably ordered for Atlas to be left alone for much the same reason that he’d carted the giant beetle to this area.  Doing otherwise could have clued the other Undersiders into what was really going on.

Wanton opened the back of the van, and I stepped outside.  Gully emerged as well, likely due to curiosity as much as anything else.

Atlas, at my bidding, found his way past the closed and unlocked door, made his way outside and flew to me.

When the giant beetle dropped out of the sky to land just beside the van, Wanton briefly shifted into his other form, and Gully raised her shovel protectively in front of her.

My bugs flowed over Atlas’ carapace, and I used my hands as well, checking there was no damage.  Scrapes and gouges on his underside.  Had they lifted him into a truck to transport him?  My gloved fingertip ran along the length of his scythe-like foreleg.  Maybe I needed to take the time to give him more care, sharpen the natural weapons, tend to his shell…

I blinked a few times.  I was tired, and my lack of focus was dangerous.  Time was short.

“Are your dogs well enough to run?”  I asked Rachel.

She was still in the truck, sitting on one of the benches that were built into the side.  She hopped down to the street, the dogs milling around her.  “Probably.”

“Then let’s go,” I said.  I stepped onto Altas’ back, but I didn’t take a seat.  I let him rise into the air, and I drew all the bugs in the area to me.  I didn’t settle into a sitting position until I was obscured from view.

I couldn’t move too far away from Scapegoat.  I was tethered to him by an invisible, intangible cord, about one hundred and fifty feet long; about half a city block.

Still, provided I was directly above him, it let me fly about eight or nine stories above the ground.  I wasn’t untouchable, but I was safer.

“…Hear me,” Wanton spoke.

My bugs spelled out the word ‘yes’.

“Creepy,” he said.  “I need …rections.”

There were two possibilities that sprung to mind as far as what that last word might be.  I guessed it was ‘directions’ and pointed him back to Lord street.  I wanted as many of the good bugs as I could bring, but I was limited in how many Atlas could carry and I doubted the others would be keen to see them packed into the back of the truck.

Instead, I drew out lines of thread, ferried the slower moving bugs onto my back, and loosely bound them.  Bugs strung out on silk cords, like kindergarteners did with popcorn on thread.  The rest found shelter in the folds, compartments and creases of my costume.

I kept close to the ground as I followed.  Had to stay close to Scapegoat and I couldn’t trust that Atlas had enough energy to carry me until we’d flown a bit and I could see how his stamina was.

My hair and the tatters of my costume flapped behind me as we flew, clumped together in parts with the fluid that I’d been soaked with while inside Noelle.  I had bugs crawl over both to devour and separate the worst of it.  The ones on the threads that trailed behind me with the faster flying insects were surviving, which was key.

The little tasks kept me awake, if not entirely focused. I was caught off guard when I let the van miss a turn.  If a good shot of adrenaline didn’t wake me up, I might be at a disadvantage in the coming fight.

I got that kick of adrenaline sooner than I’d wanted.  We reached the clearing where the others had been and found it empty.  The Travelers, Tattletale, Regent, Scrub and the heroes were gone.

I landed, and the van doors opened.  Bitch stopped just beside me, Bentley at full size and the other dogs standing maybe three feet tall at the shoulder.

“Gully, you have an armband.  Have the heroes communicated anything?”  I asked.

“No.”

“Can you do me a favor and see if anyone has answers on where Tattletale and the others are.  For now, we should head back to the perimeter.”

“You’re giving orders?” Wanton asked.

“Consider it a suggestion,” I said.  Gully had been pleased at the semi-promotion, with being put in charge.  I could concede to let her call or confirm the shots if it kept her happy.  “It’s Gully’s choice.”

She glanced at me.  “It’s sound.  I’ll use the armband while Wanton drives.”

We reached the perimeter around the destroyed building before she got a reply, and we found Tattletale in the company of some of the major heroes.  Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon weren’t present, but that wasn’t a huge surprise.  They apparently had secrets to keep.

More than one cape turned their attention to me as I approached.  They didn’t shoot, though.  I was relieved at that.  It would be a bad way to go, getting gunned down out of the air by heroes with twitchy trigger fingers.

I had to pause while the van stopped to pass through a contingent of heroes.  Rachel sort of strode through without really asking for permission.

It wouldn’t be winning us any points with the good guys, ignoring courtesy, but the fact that Tattletale and Regent had disappeared from our rendezvous spot and that they were now in the midst of a group of twenty-seven heroes.  They weren’t at gunpoint, not really, but the implied threat was apparent.

I waited until Scapegoat was out of the van and hobbling toward the crowd before bringing Atlas in for a landing.  I rose to a standing position so I wouldn’t be sitting down when the bugs parted to reveal me.

“What’s going on?” I asked.  My bugs passed through the crowd, not getting in anyone’s way, not touching on faces or bare skin where I could help it, but giving me a way to track everyone nearby.

It was Tecton who answered me.  “Tattletale wasn’t willing to drop her idea.  I suggested taking it to our superiors, and she agreed.”

“It’s too dangerous,” Myrddin said.  He stood by with Miss Militia and Chevalier beside him.

“It’s our best option,” Tattletale said.

“It’s a plan that puts everyone involved at an immense degree of risk, and it costs us time we don’t have.”

“We have a little time,” Tattletale retorted.  “I don’t see any movement there, do you?”

“We can’t even guarantee it’ll work,” Myrddin replied.

“Are you saying that because you consider yourself the resident dimension manipulator or because you’re afraid it’ll lead to a big revelation about Cauldron?”

I could have imagined it, but I could have sworn my bugs were aware of a collective intake of breath.  Not everyone present, not even one in five… but people did react.

How far did this reach?

“What are you talking about?”  Myrddin asked.

“No?  I’m not seeing anything from you.  Guess you’re in the clear,” Tattletale replied.

“Tattletale,” Miss Militia cut in, “This isn’t the time for games, making accusations in the hopes of finding information.”

“I agree,” I said.  “Stick to the topic at hand.”

“It’s not a game,” Tattletale said.  She looked at me, and she wasn’t smiling.  “And I don’t see how we can discuss it if we ignore the elephant in the room.”

Try,” I told her.

“What’s going on?” Chevalier asked.  Of everyone in the immediate area, he had the most presence.  He wore gleaming gold and silver armor, but it was the massive, ornate cannonblade that made him so imposing, with a blade that was twelve feet long, three feet wide and capable of growing larger, resting against his shoulder as though it were as light as a feather.

“Rest assured, Chevalier, this is a discussion for another day,” Miss Militia said.  “One I’m definitely interested in continuing, but not when it threatens to distract us.”

“If you’re sure,” Myrddin said.

“Trust me.  Please,” Miss Militia replied.

“Cauldron is led or backed up by the Tr-”

Miss Militia struck Tattletale, cutting her off before she could finish the sentence.  It was only as Miss Militia dropped to her knees, setting one knee on Tattletale’s throat, that I saw she’d had a gun in her hand.  She gripped Tattletale by the cheeks, pinching her mouth open, and slid the gun into her mouth.

I could sense Rachel striding forward, saw Regent moving to raise one hand in Miss Militia’s direction.  My arms went out to either side of me: one to bar Rachel’s advance, another to catch Regent’s wrist.

“Don’t be foolish, Tattletale,” Miss Militia said.  “Why would you risk everything like this?”

Tattletale glanced at me, then mumbled something incomprehensible around the gun barrel.  Her cheekbone was bleeding where she’d been struck.

Miss Militia looked up at me.  A gun materialized in her other hand, identical to the one that was jammed between Tattletale’s teeth, but she didn’t point it at me.  “Do we have a problem, Skitter?”

“Not unless you pull the trigger,” I said.  “We aren’t going to start a fight with this many people around.  It would be suicidal.”

I looked Tattletale in the eye as I said that last word.

“Is she a clone?” Myrddin asked.

“I almost wish she was,” I replied.  “No.  It’s the real her.”

“Can you tell me why she’s doing this?” Miss Militia asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Yes, but not in entirety.”  We were tired, but that wasn’t it, it wasn’t all of it.  Couldn’t be.  It wouldn’t account for the almost suicidal edge to her actions in just the last half hour.  There was something else going on.

“Tattletale,” Miss Militia said, “I’m going to remove the gun.  Think very carefully about what you say.  Deliberately attempting to divide our ranks could be seen as a violation of the truce, and I will push for the kill order if it goes that far.”

Tattletale nodded.  She winced as the gun was removed.  “You can’t put a kill order on the other Undersiders.  They aren’t responsible for anything I’m saying.  Heck, two of them aren’t even here.  You’d be killing innocents.”

“I don’t think anyone here thinks any of you are innocent,” Miss Militia said.

“They’re relative innocents?” Tattletale tried.

“Quiet,” Miss Militia said, her voice tight.

“I’ll be quiet when you tell me you won’t punish others because of me.”

“Just be quiet,” Miss Militia said.

“M.M.,” Chevalier said, his voice low, “I won’t gainsay any of your decisions, and with this being your city, you have the say unless one of the Triumvirate supercedes your order… but you’re attacking a girl when she was only talking, and there are a lot of eyes and ears here.”

“You’re saying it doesn’t look good,” Miss Militia said.  Her eyes were fixed on Tattletale.

“Not for your career.”

“I don’t give a flying fuck about my career,” she replied.  “I care about all of us getting out of here in one piece.”

“And you think she’ll put all of us in danger if she opens her mouth?” Chevalier asked.

“Yes.  I think Tattletale can do a catastrophic amount of damage if she opens her mouth,” Miss Militia said.  “You’ve read her file.”

“I have,” Myrddin said.

“Is the information she wants to share pertinent to this crisis?”  Chevalier asked.

“Not immediately,” Miss Militia said.  Tattletale cleared her throat, apparently asking for permission to speak, but Miss Militia gave her a tight shake of the head in response.  “Not as far as I’m aware.  I’ve discussed much of it with Skitter.”

“If I may,” I spoke up.  Innumerable sets of eyes turned my way.  I let go of Regent’s hand and dropped the hand that was still held up in front of Rachel.

“What is it?” Myrddin asked.

“I can try to explain.  You can send away the rest of the capes, I explain to you three, and you decide if and how much information to disseminate to your underlings.  I’ll try to be more delicate than Tattletale was, avoid the more sensitive parts.  I don’t agree with Tattletale’s plan, but it’s too dangerous to make calls without knowing the key details, and some of this stuff is need-to-know, if we’re to have any chance of getting the Travelers or Noelle to cooperate.”

Myrddin looked at Miss Militia, and she nodded.

Myrddin raised his voice.  “I’d like everyone who isn’t immediately involved in this discussion to find something else to do.”

Some people started shuffling away.  Aside from heading straight towards the site where helicopters were still laying down containment foam or walking face first into the containment van Wanton had parked, there were only two directions to walk, and one group of people weren’t moving.

Gully.  One of the twins was tugging on her arm, but she wasn’t budging.

“Gully,” a cape I didn’t recognize spoke, “Get a move on.”

“I want answers,” she said.  “The Undersiders have them.”

“And Chevalier will contact me with what he feels we need to know, and I’ll pass that on to you and your squad,” the cape said.

“That’s not enough,” she said.  “I don’t want the condensed version.  I want to hear why I’m like this.”

A murmur ran through the crowd, and I noted that some of the capes who had reacted before were standing out more.  One was breathing harder, another was fidgeting where she’d been calm before.

“This kind of insubordination is what goes on your file and costs you promotions,” the cape said.

“I’ve been passed up for promotion so many times I’ve already gotten the message.  Monsters don’t get to be team captain.  Your argument doesn’t have any weight to it, Lono.”

Weld approached her.  Their eyes met, and Weld came to a stop, turning around so that he stood just to her right.  He didn’t say a word.

Miss Militia stared at him, and he didn’t even flinch.

“This is a critical situation,” Myrddin said.  “We’re on the brink of another potential conflict with an S-class threat.  If the Undersiders have information we can use, information that could be sensitive, we need you to clear out.”

“I’ve spent years like this,” Gully said.  “It’s not just me, either.  There’re others.  Weld…”

“Hunch,” Weld added.  “Gentle Giant, Sanguine.”

“Weld and Hunch, Gentle Giant and Sanguine,” Gully said.  “And the others who weren’t even lucky enough to find the Wards or the Protectorate before they found themselves in trouble.  It’s not just for me.  We need to know for them.”

“This isn’t the time or place.”

“With all due respect, spend a day in my shoes, Myrddin.  Just one, and then tell me again, that I have to wait one day, one hour, even one minute longer for an explanation.”

The ground shuddered, and I thought at first that it was her, but she looked surprised.

It was Noelle.  Echidna.  She was active and fighting her way free.

“We’re out of time.  Enough of this,” Myrddin said.  “Gully, Weld, join your teams.”

Gully planted her shovel in the ground, put one foot on top of the blade, and folded her hands on the handle.

“We could share with them,” Miss Militia said.  “I know Weld is an exemplary hero, and we could trust him to keep necessary information to himself.”

“I might agree,” Chevalier said, “If it weren’t for the dramatic flair Gully was displaying.  I don’t trust that she will stay quiet on the subject.”

Another shudder.  Heroes were running to adopt battle lines, forming a circle around the construction lot with the ruined building.  The invincible, the power immune, masters with durable pets and forcefield makers were positioning themselves at even intervals around the circle.

“We don’t have time.  Myrddin,” I said. “You and I can both fly.  If we go to a nearby rooftop-”

“Fuck me,” Tattletale said.  “So much wasted time.”

She grabbed for Miss Militia’s gun.  When Miss Militia didn’t let go, Tattletale took one step closer and pressed her forehead against the gun barrel.  “Do it.  Kill me.  You’ve seen a lot of people die in your lifetime.  People important to you, dying because of an idea.  So kill me because I believe this idea should be heard by people who care.  Close the damn circle.”

Why? I thought.

“The Triumvirate,” Tattletale said.

Miss Militia stared at her, but didn’t pull the trigger.

“The… Triumvirate?” Gully asked.

“I’m in deep shit anyways,” Tattletale said.  “For saying what I already have.  We all are.  Sad fact is, I have better chance of surviving if it’s all out in the open.  The Triumvirate is Cauldron.  Eidolon, Legend, Alexandria.  They started it, or they’re so involved in it that it’s incestuous.”

“Fuck me,” Regent muttered.

I couldn’t even breathe.  I was waiting for Miss Militia to pull the trigger.

“They made me like this?” Gully asked.  “Why?”

“Not sure.  A warning, maybe, to people who didn’t pay their bills.  Or they figured that while they were brainwashing you, they’d implant you with a built-in weakness, something a paying customer could exploit.”

“That’s it?  That’s your answer?”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I wasn’t sure if I was apologizing because it was insufficient or because I’d let Tattletale take things this far.

The ground shook, more violently than before.  The air was filled with the thrum of the helicopters that were flying overhead.

By contrast, he flew so silently that I almost missed him setting down.  I didn’t have bugs in the area, and my eyes were trained in the general direction of Gully and the wreckage of Coil’s collapsed base.

Legend, landing in the midst of us.

“You heard,” Tattletale said.  She didn’t sound surprised.

“Lipreading,” he murmured.  “I can see very long distances.  Put the gun down, Miss Militia.  The cat’s out of the bag.”

“You’re admitting it,” Chevalier said.

There was another rumble, shaking the ground so hard that most of us lost our balance.  Legend stayed perfectly upright, no doubt using his flight to hold himself a hair above the ground.  He turned to check the fighting hadn’t started.

“It’s true?” Gully asked.

“We started Cauldron in the early days,” he said.  “They had a way to give people powers, and each of us were desperate for our own reasons.  We should have had trigger events, but we weren’t lucky enough to have the potential.  Nobody deluded themselves about the risks.  We knew that it was all too possible to die or become a monster.”

“But you did.  You made monsters,” Gully said.

“Everyone who took a dose went into it with their eyes open,” he said.  “They refined the process, and we reduced the chance to a single digit of a percent.  Two, three percent, if that.  And at the same time the numbers were decreasing, we were realizing how badly we needed the heroes that Cauldron could provide.  Capes without traumas to drive them toward villainy.  Cauldron turned it into a business, producing heroes and acquiring funds from the wealthy to redirect to Endbringer recovery and further research into powers.  We knew it wasn’t ideal, that some would turn to villainy, but with the appearance of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the damage the Endbringers were doing, we had to do something.”

“How do the Travelers factor in?” Miss Militia asked.

“They got ahold of a dose meant for another group of people.  They weren’t screened, they didn’t follow the necessary procedures, didn’t get the psychological or physical checkups… and even with that, we had no idea that the formulae could produce anything like this Echidna.”

“But the Travelers are from another world,” I said.  “Aren’t they?”

“The Simurgh,” he said, simply.  “Madison, Wisconsin, one and a half years ago.  She opened a dimensional gate.  You were there, Myrddin.  You met Trickster and Echidna.”

Myrddin’s eyes widened.  “The hospital room.”

The ground rumbled again.  A burned husk of a building at the far end of the street toppled with a crash.

“But… if Cauldron’s not taking people from other worlds,” Gully said.  “What-”

“It’s not Cauldron,” Legend said.  His voice was flat, without affect.  He met her eyes.  “Manton worked for Cauldron, before an incident with his daughter led to a psychotic break and a break with the organization.  He left with samples that he passed on to others.  One of those people sold them for personal profit before Cauldron found him.  Another was responsible for the case fifty-threes.  We thought it was Manton, but it wasn’t.”

He glanced at Tattletale, and she cocked her head a little to one side.

Why?” Gully asked.  “Why do that?  Why make us like this?”

“I’d give you answers if I could.  Some people abuse others for the sense of power it gives them,” Legend told her.  His voice sounded hollow.  “To change someone’s body and mind completely and irrevocably?  It could be the same impulse.  The appearance of the case fifty-threes has stopped or slowed dramatically.  It’s little consolation, but we think the person who did this to you is be dead or completely out of formula.”

“That’s no consolation at all,” Gully replied.  The ground shuddered.

“It’s worth noting,” Legend said, “That we tracked Manton down.  He and Siberian’s master are the same person.  Dragon and Defiant have a bead on the Nine.  They expect a confrontation to start soon.”

But I could only think of when Legend and I had been looking down at the Nine from above.  He’d recognized the Siberian’s master then, and he hadn’t told me.

Was he omitting facts now, in the same way?  Was he lying like he had then?

“The Siberian is Manton?” Myrddin asked.

Legend nodded.  “And Manton is ultimately responsible for the case fifty-threes.  I know it’s not the explanation you each hoped for, but it’s the reality.  Understood?”

There were nods all around.  I wasn’t sure if anyone else saw, or if they knew her well enough to say, but Tattletale was smiling, and it wasn’t the one she wore when she was being friendly and easygoing.  It was the one she’d had before she’d unloaded on Panacea, back at the bank.  The one she’d had before she revealed to Coil just how she’d screwed him over.

I directed a bug to fly across her face, brushing the skin.  She flinched and looked at me.

I only stared at her, willed her to be quiet.  Saying anything would be disastrous here.  I wasn’t sure how much of what he was saying was truth, but Legend had just stepped in here, pacified the situation.

Tattletale shrugged with one shoulder, a fractional movement that only my swarm really noticed.  The smile disappeared from her face.

“Sure,” she said, a little belatedly.

The rumbling continued, steadier now.

“Is that the essence of what you wanted to tell us?” Myrddin asked me.  “What Legend said about Cauldron?”

“Only thing I’d have to add is that the Travelers came from another Earth.  Except for Trickster, they’re more or less on our side here.  Tell Ballistic, Sundancer and Genesis that we can get them home, and they’ll help.  They have the kind of firepower we need.”

“We’ll-”

My bugs sensed Echidna clawing her way to the surface.

“Armband!”  I interrupted Chevalier.

“What?”

“Warn them.  She’s here!”

It was too late.  The Grue that was accompanying Echidna emerged from the hole she’d dug.  He raised his hands, and I could see the wave of darkness rolling out from the entrance to a parking garage to sweep over the assembled heroes.

She wasn’t beneath the fallen base.  With her shapeshifting and the teleporting Grue’s help, she’d found her way through a side tunnel, clawed or punched her way up into a nearby parking garage, a place where she could stage her attack.

Echidna materialized out of the darkness the Grue had created.  She was nearly twice the height she’d been before, to the point that the human body on the top was miniscule, a speck by comparison.  A human figure atop a broad three-story building.

Her legs were more robust, now.  There weren’t any feeble limbs like the ones my bugs had glimpsed or touched.  Her lower body was plated in a crust of bone, and two more heads were just emerging from her front, one with the beginnings of a mouth, the other with two large eyes and a lump that would become a snout.  She’d developed.

There were no less than ten capes within range of her claws as she appeared.  Ten capes that were caught in her flesh the very instant the fighting began.

I’d placed bugs on Legend to track his movements, and they went with him as he took to the air and fell into formation with Alexandria and Eidolon.  Those same bugs allowed me to sense the smallest movement of his head, as he directed a slight nod toward his longtime comrades.

If I’d been suspecting that he’d been lying before, that clinched it for me.

In his shoes, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t have done the same.

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Scourge 19.2

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I wanted nothing more than to stop, to look after Grue and lick my wounds, but I couldn’t let the heroes come to one of their deeply misinformed conclusions at my expense.  Not when they were talking about murder.

It took me two attempts to get to my feet.  I didn’t like looking anything less than my best when surrounded by so many people who were judging me, and I felt pretty far from my best.  My bugs formed a cloak, strategically covering me much in the way that Grue did with his darkness.

I noticed how Miss Militia and Weld went silent as I approached.  Other heads turned, but nobody moved to stop me.  If anything, they edged out of my way.  They didn’t clear a path, exactly, but a number of them found reasons to walk away, shift position or avoid looking at me as I moved through the perimeter they’d formed.

For an instant, I felt like I was among the students at the school.  Only this time, instead of drawing attention, with people approaching me and bumping into me, I was pushing them away.  Instead of that incessant tolling, there was only quiet, the sound of the wind, a vehicle in the distance, and the buzzing of the insects that cloaked me.

A part of me wondered how much of that was my reputation beyond Brockton Bay, and how much was my innate creepiness.

“Skitter,” Weld said, when I reached him and Miss Militia.

“Thank you for the rescue,” I said.  “I can’t really sum it up in words, but… it was pretty damn heroic.  I owe you.”

“Imp got in touch with me, with a message from Tattletale.  The two of them made a pretty convincing argument.  You’re okay?”

I offered a curt nod.  I wasn’t, but it wouldn’t do to say so.  Silence was a very effective tool, I was finding, because it spoke volumes and rarely put me into a less advantageous position.  The more I talked, the more I risked revealing just how exhausted and battered I was feeling.

“Catastrophic, was the word Imp used,” Weld said, “when describing just what might happen if a clone got your power without any of your restraint.  Not to mention the issues posed by the psychotic Grues.  Your clones could commit mass murder on the scale of hundreds, but his threaten to lose us the battle.”

“And we suspect at least one survived,” Miss Militia said.

I nodded.  “There’s other capes who are just as dangerous as us.  Think in terms of the damage some heroes could do.  You?”

Weld looked at Miss Militia.  She nodded.  “If anything, this situation is very illuminating, in terms of how bad some parahumans might be in a worst case scenario.  There are some powers that are tame at first glance, but utterly disastrous if left unchecked.”

“I take it I have one of the tame powers?” I asked.

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “I wouldn’t say that.”

There was a pause in the conversation.  I wasn’t going to argue with or agree with her point, and neither she nor Weld were volunteering further information.

“Your team took off your armbands,” Miss Militia said.

“Yes,” I replied.

“You’re playing very loose within the scope of the rules, with the consequences I outlined.”

“That’s somewhat related to what I came here to talk to you about,” I said.

“Go on,” she said.

“The clone told you things,” I ventured.  “I wanted to address them before you jumped to conclusions.  Or, at least, I wanted to address one major point.”

“You were conscious?”  Weld asked.

I nodded.

Weld spoke, “I understand if your clone was lying.  Psychological warfare, creating division in the ranks.  I’d be willing to believe the clone is capable of it, in light of our past experiences with you.  No offense.  But I still had to tell my boss.”

I didn’t respond right away.  He was giving me a way out.  I tried to get a sense of Miss Militia’s body language, using just my bugs: her arms were folded.  It was a moment where I desperately wished I could see and get a better read on her.

I’d always hated those parts in the TV shows and movies, where everything could be resolved with the simple truth.  It was why I’d never been able to watch romantic comedies.  It grated: the sitcom-esque comedic situations which would be resolved if people would only sit down, explain, and listen to one another, the tragedies which could have been prevented with a few simple words.

I didn’t want to be one of those tragedies.

“Thomas Calvert was Coil,” I said.  I kept my voice low enough that only the two of them would hear; I didn’t need to provoke a riot.

“Beg pardon?” Weld asked.

Miss Militia’s arms unfolded.  She hooked her thumbs in her belt, silent.

“Thomas Calvert got powers,” I said, “The ability to create a parallel reality where he could nudge things to unfold in different ways.  He used those powers to make a lot of money with no risk, hired high power mercenaries, and then hired both the Travelers and us.  The Undersiders.”

Miss Militia shifted position, leaning against a wall with her arms folded.  “A lot of what you say fits with what we know about Coil, but I’m not seeing where Thomas Calvert comes in.”

“His power meant anyone working under him could operate with less risk.  Our plans were that much more likely to work, because we got two chances any time he was able to give us his attention.  With that, we took over the city.  At that point, he’d exhausted the use of the ‘Coil’ persona, so he staged his own death.  He staged the deaths of those reporters, rigged the whole scene and set it up so it would play out like it did.  And in the end, a body double was set to die in his place.  His hired woman gets elected mayor in the aftermath, Piggot loses her job, and Thomas Calvert becomes head of the PRT.”

“You’re giving him a hell of a lot of credit,” Miss Militia said.

“He’s spent years rigging this.  If you dig, you’ll probably be able to find some traces of it.  Maybe the reporters who were on the scene only started working at a certain point, after he put them in position.  Maybe you can follow the money trails.  But he set everything up.  Think about it.”

I raised one hand, counted off my points.  “Through the Undersiders and Travelers, he would control all illicit activity in Brockton Bay, slowly moving on to the neighboring cities.  Through his money, power and his activity as Coil, he would control local business and industry.  Most of the construction companies that are rebuilding, all of the areas that are being bulldozed and rebuilt, he owned the land, he owned the businesses.  He could do it all at a loss because he was able to get money in other ways.  He was prepared to control the government through his puppets, and he controlled the heroes through his newly acquired position in the PRT.  All in all, he was set to have an absolute grip over Brockton Bay and all of the major aspects of the city.”

“And you murdered him?” Miss Militia asked.  “Your clone was telling the truth?”

“I think,” I said, and I had to pause to get my thoughts in order, “that this dialogue of ours is going to play out far better if I don’t answer that question.”

“Because you murdered him,” Weld said.

I didn’t answer.

“I’ll have to discuss this with the higher-ups,” Miss Militia said.  “The de-facto truce we’ve formed should protect you until this is all over, but I’ll make a strong recommendation that you be left alone for the time being.  It might help.”

“I wouldn’t,” I told Miss Militia.

“Wouldn’t what?  Make my recommendation?”

“I wouldn’t tell the higher-ups.  We took off the armbands because Tattletale had a feeling… complicated to explain.”

“I would really like you to explain,” Miss Militia said.

The problem with explaining was that it threatened to offer insight on Tattletale’s power.  Worse, it might get the Chicago Wards in trouble, and they’d been decent.

Maybe changing the subject… “Tattletale had ideas that Eidolon’s motives weren’t entirely pure.  And I don’t think they were.  When we got closer, I overheard Eidolon talking to Noelle.  He knew a few things that suggested he already knew what Coil was doing.”

Eidolon?” Weld asked.

Miss Militia put a hand on my shoulder, and ushered me away from the perimeter where the heroes were walking around and getting prepared.  I was pretty sure nobody was able to hear, but I didn’t object.  She leaned close and spoke an order in my ear, “Explain.”

This explanation was having the opposite effect I’d intended.  It threatened to get me and the others in deeper trouble.

“Do you know what Cauldron is?” I asked.

“A rumor,” Miss Militia said.  “It was an idea that cropped up around the time the first major parahumans did, and occasionally a person or group will use that idea and claim some greater conspiracy or a power connection.  In every case, it is investigated and thoroughly debunked.”

I frowned behind my mask.  “If you don’t think Cauldron’s responsible, how do you explain the monstrous parahumans?  Like Gregor the Snail or Newter?”

“Or me?” Weld asked.  He was just behind us.

“Or you,” I said.  “I’ve run into too many situations that involve Cauldron to buy that it’s a series of hoaxes.  The Merchants had vials that granted powers, and a suitcase detailing some contract with Cauldron.  I read some of it, before Faultline’s crew absconded with the rest of it.”

“Did you actually see someone drink and gain powers?”  Miss Militia asked.

“No.”

“It’s a name that’s acquired enough momentum and prestige that people will occasionally use it to their advantage.  Nothing more,” Miss Militia said.

“Then why did Eidolon say that Coil was involved with Cauldron, and that Cauldron was responsible for Noelle?”  I asked.

Miss Militia pursed her lips.  “I don’t know.  It could be that you’re lying.”

“If I was going to lie, I’d pick something more believable.”

“Or you’re picking something so unbelievable that it’d take ages to sort through the data.  In the meantime, this situation gets resolved and we let you walk away unharmed.  I have talked to my team, and I’ve seen your records.  You tend to do that.  Protect yourself in the present with details and arguments that would take a long time to verify.”

“I’m not looking for an argument,” I said.  “If you don’t believe that Calvert was Coil, then that’s fine.  I just wanted to put all my cards on the table.”

“Except for actually admitting to the murder,” Weld said.

“Right,” I said.

“Assuming we believed you, what are we supposed to do with this knowledge?”  Miss Militia asked.

“For now?” I asked, “Nothing.  Operate as you would otherwise.  But keep your eyes open, with this information in mind.”

“And if we do?  If we keep our eyes open, thoroughly investigate this allegation about Calvert and Coil, and we still decide to arrest you, will you agree to come peacefully into custody?”

I shook my head.  “No.  I don’t think so.”

“So it’s really selfishness that brings you here,” Miss Militia said.  “You don’t expect to change the way you operate, and you expect to get away with acknowledging that you murdered a man, if not outright admitting it… but you want us to change how we handle our end of things, based on your hearsay.”

“If you want to see it as self-serving, that’s your call,” I said.  “Maybe that’s how you work.  But I don’t have high aspirations, now.  I saved Dinah.  I want to protect the people in my territory, and stop the forces that might hurt them, be it the Slaughterhouse Nine, Coil or Echidna.  Maybe you won’t believe me when I say so, but I’m not trying to argue in my own defense here.  I won’t confirm or deny what the clone said, but nothing I’m saying here really gives me an alibi or leverage to escape this situation.”

“You’re giving us excuses to soften the impact of the crime you committed,” Miss Militia said.

“I’m not admitting to anything,” I pointed out.

“You know what I mean.”

“Maybe they are excuses, kind of.  It’s one way of looking at it.  Another way is that maybe now you can maybe be more wary when talking to Eidolon, or pay more attention when you start looking into Calvert’s daily life, see if anything points to Coil.  He wasn’t stupid, but you don’t devote that much time and energy to something without some blurring of the lines.  I don’t gain much if you do that, but you could stand to benefit.”

“Maybe,” Miss Militia said.

“Are you speaking from experience?” Weld asked.  “When you talk about blurring the lines between identities?”

I turned toward him, remembered that he’d seen my face.  “That would be telling.”

“Could be,” he answered.  “It’s something I’m interested in.  I never had the benefit of a secret identity.”

“Overrated, as far as I can tell,” I told him.  I thought of my dad.  Was he the victim of a blurring of the lines?  Or just a casualty in a long series of events that had affected the whole city?  Or both.

“This seems like a good time to cut in,” Tattletale said.  She approached from around the corner, turned her head in Miss Militia’s direction, “May I steal Skitter from you?”

Miss Militia waved a hand to one side, silent.

Tattletale was leading me off when Miss Militia spoke up.  “I don’t know if you’re speaking the truth…”

She trailed off.  I opened my mouth to speak, then shut it.  Silence was safer.

“…But if you are, I appreciate it.  It’s not like me, to demand evidence, to suspect everything, but I have to.  My teams can’t afford for me to give anyone or anything the benefit of a doubt.”

“Being in charge is hard,” I said, without turning her way.

Tattletale gestured in the direction we were going, then walked beside me as we left Weld and Miss Militia behind.  Whatever warped disease Noelle had dumped into me to weaken me and leave me unable to fight back after I’d been vomited out was steadily wearing off.  That was only a part of the overarching problems, though, and I still felt drained.  My stamina was pretty rock bottom, and the recent fight hadn’t helped.  I was hungry, thirsty, and I wanted to crash for fifteen or thirty minutes.

Oddly enough, though she no doubt felt far more spry than I did, it was Tattletale who fell a half step behind me as she walked to my left, and it seemed very deliberate in how she did so.

She’d done something very similar when we’d been on the rooftop, a subtle maneuver to help portray me as the leader and as someone to be respected.  Tattletale was scary in her own way, in a very different way than I was scary, but scary.  That she was showing deference or whichever would suggest something, even if people didn’t consciously realize it.

The alternative interpretation was that she’d been hurt more in the fight than she was letting on.

“Skitter,” Tattletale said, “Meet Scapegoat.”

My bugs passed over the young hero, and he didn’t flinch.  He would be one of the Wards, unless his stature was misleading.  His costume was a robe, though closer to Myrddin’s in style than Panacea’s.  My bugs traced beneath the robe to detect armor that suggested the costume was intended to be worn into a fight.  He wore a mask attached to his head by a band that felt like metal, apparently designed to flip up.  Two curling horns were attached to the band, at the sides of his forehead.

“Scapegoat?” I asked.  “A healer?”

“No,” Scapegoat said.  “But I can fix you.  Sort of.”

“What do you mean by ‘sort of’?”

“What I do is fragile.  It’s not healingYou’ll stop hurting, the wounds will disappear, but it’s a delicate balance, and the duration is limited.”

“I’ll take what I can get,” I said.

“When the duration expires, unless certain conditions are met, the injuries come back.  Sometimes not as bad, sometimes worse.  And they’re usually slower to heal.”

“What’s the duration?” I asked.

“Anywhere from one hour to six hours.”

“And the condition?”  I asked.

“Longer you go without breaking the effect, the better the chance the injuries stay gone.”

“Sit,” Tattletale said.  I sat.

Scapegoat touched my hand.  I felt a wave of sensations rushing over me.  Being hot, being cold, vibrations, the feeling of different fabrics and skin contacting mine, all at once.  The feeling of my costume against my skin became intense, sharp, even overwhelming.  I jumped and pulled away.

“It’s okay,” Tattletale said.

I nodded, gave Scapegoat my hand once again.

Tattletale explained, “Scapegoat’s effect operates on a quantum level.  He’s digging through potential realities to find unhurt versions of you, versions of you that are close enough to who you are right now that everything fits together seamlessly.”

“Except the injuries,” I said.  Sensations were rippling over me, each simultaneous, and the simple contact of my costume against my skin or the ground under my feet was so intense that it felt electric.

Tattletale nodded.  “Except the injuries.  For the time being, he’s patching you together with unhurt parts from the versions of Skitter from the other realities and other possibilities, and his own body serves as a bridge for that.”

“Is this safe?” I asked.  I had to grit my teeth as the effect continued to intensify.

“Relax,” Scapegoat said.  “More agitated you are, the weaker the effect.”

Relax.  I reached out to my bugs, trying to feel what they felt, see what they saw, hear what they heard, and displace myself from my body.  It was a method I’d tried many times before, almost meditative.

“It doesn’t take much for the effect to break,” Tattletale said.  “A heavy impact, a new injury or a major shock.  If that happens, all the injuries come back.  Probably worse.”

I’d planned to comment on how hard it was to relax and distract myself from the sensation when the meaning of Tattletale’s words struck me.

“How the hell am I supposed to fight if I can’t get hurt?”

“Play safe.  And stay within a hundred and fifty feet of Scapegoat.”

I frowned.  “I don’t think I can operate like that.”

“I can stop,” Scapegoat said.  “If you’re feeling ungrateful.”

“You’re barely functional,” Tattletale told me, ignoring him.

“A lot of it’s just the way that her puke makes you feel sick.  It’s wearing off.”

“You’re saying you’d rather keep going the way you are?” Tattletale asked.  “Ribs, lungs, exhausted, battered…”

“If it means being able to fight without having my hands tied, maybe.” I said.  And not feeling like this.  Scapegoat’s process sucked.

“But you can’t fight.  Not in this shape.”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Scapegoat said.  “It’s too late to undo it.”

All at once, the sensations stopped.  My entire body seemed to vibrate like a silent tuning fork might, in the absence of the sensations.  My ears were ringing, and spots swelled behind my eyelids.

I opened my eyes, and I still couldn’t see.  No.  It was different.  There wasn’t a white haze.   I wiped at the lenses of my mask, and dried bile and blood flaked off, leaving them more or less clear.

I blinked a few times, then took a deep breath.

I could see, and I could breathe.

“She’s fucking blind!?”  Scapegoat yelped.

I looked down at Scapegoat.  His costume was all white and gold, his mask an alabaster goat’s head fixed to a golden band, his robe white, and the chain around his waist more gold, with a goat’s head buckle.  He was on his knees on the ground, and the yelling had elicited a coughing fit.

“Could’ve sworn I mentioned it,” Tattletale said.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Oh.  He takes on whatever injuries he removes from others.  The eyes you’re using right now are essentially a blend of his eyes and the ones he was able to find by paging through alternate Skitters.  Kind of.  Hard to explain.”

“How the fuck am I supposed to operate like this?” Scapegoat rasped.  He started coughing again.

“You visit my other teammates, make sure they’re ship-shape,” Tattletale said, “Then we accompany you, and we create a situation where you can use the offensive effect of your power.”

“Fuck me,” Scapegoat said.

“It’s temporary,” she said.  In a lower voice, she added, “And I’m paying you well.”

A corrupt hero?  Or just an enterprising one?  I wondered.

I was also wondering if Tattletale had the funds for this.  She’d just paid off Coil’s soldiers, and as far as I knew, she was committing to keeping his enterprises going, but she wouldn’t have all of his funds, nor all of his contacts.  It came perilously close to emulating Coil’s fatal mistake.

Other junior heroes were gathering around us, as Scapegoat continued coughing and wheezing.  The one that caught my eye at first was a girl with a flower motif to her costume, her hair pink and styled in waves like a rose’s petals, which was impressive given how she’d probably just gotten out of bed before arriving.  Others included a boy in green with a sledgehammer, a guy with plate armor with fins at the side of the visor, a boy with a candle on his tan costume, and a pair I recognized as Grace and Wanton.

“Problem, S.g.?” the girl asked.

“Hate my power, hate my power, hate it, hate it, hate it,” Scapegoat rasped.  Wanton and Grace gave him a hand in standing.  He was still making his way to his feet when Grace turned to me.

“You’re blind?” she asked.

“I was,” I said.

“It happened after we parted ways?”

“No,” I said.

She gave me a funny look.

I kept my mouth shut, deciding to let her draw her own conclusions.  She looked down at Scapegoat, and I changed the subject.  “You’re okay?  No lasting effects from Noelle?”

“Ship shape,” she said.  I wasn’t sure she was telling the truth; Grace looked a little worse for wear.  Her hair looked wet, and the fluids that Noelle had been spitting out had congealed into the cracks and folds of her costume, with colors ranging from black to red to bilious yellow.  I wasn’t sure how she’d looked before, but she looked tired.  Was it waking up before sunrise, or had she been affected emotionally?

I probably didn’t look much better.  At least my costume was black and gray.  The muck wouldn’t stand out.

I felt better, though.  Enough that I felt almost euphoric.  Aches and pains I’d stopped paying attention to long ago were gone.  It did a lot to help me disassociate from the images and scenes I’d seen inside Noelle.

Tattletale might have been right.  Maybe working with Scapegoat was necessary.  If making this permanent was an option, I was willing to do what it took to preserve the effect, keeping Scapegoat close and keeping myself in one piece.

It wasn’t something I had a lot of experience in, playing safe.

“Let’s go find the others,” I said.  I didn’t like how Grue was acting when I left him behind.  “Grace, Wanton, are you coming with?”

“The orders we got stand until we hear different,” Grace said.  “We’re supposed to accompany you.”

“Good.  Then let’s see about getting Bentley and putting him on the dog’s back.”

Tattletale shook her head.  “Too many impacts, with him lumbering around like he does.  Either you or he take too heavy a hit, and we’re back where we started.”

“What if we find a containment van and put him in the passenger seat?” I asked.

“The last van didn’t fare too well,” Tattletale said.

“We’ll use containment foam to keep him safe and in one piece if we have to,” I told her.  “I hope it doesn’t come to that.  Let’s go.”

I started to move to pick Scapegoat up off the ground, but Tattletale stopped me, putting one hand on my wrist.

“Treat yourself like you’re made of glass,” she said.  “No heavy exertion, don’t get hurt, don’t strain yourself.”

“That’s a little extreme,” I said, but I didn’t touch Scapegoat.

It took two people to help Scapegoat to walk.  Grace walked on one side of him, Tattletale on the other.  When he’d taken on my injuries, had he received a more crippling variation?

I was hungry to observe and absorb every tidbit of information I’d been missing.  I could see the heroes gathered, all eyes on the wreckage of the building.  PRT officers were treading the perimeter, spraying volumes of containment foam onto the rubble.

Eighty heroes, if my bugs were counting right.  Maybe eight in all were in the air.  It made it easy to find Eidolon.  Like Grace, his costume had been tinted by the film of dried fluids.  He was a few stories above the ground, and his cape flapped around him in the strong winds.

It was hard to make capes look good.  They had a way of clinging to the body, or flowing the wrong way, getting caught around an arm… it took a measure of majesty to make it work.  Eidolon could pull it off.

Ironic, that the slang for a parahuman was ‘cape’, and so few of us wore them.

I’d worn a short cape, not so long ago, barely long enough to reach the small of my back.    I’d adopted it more for utility than style, to give me more concealed area to hide my bugs and for the marginal extra protection it afforded me.  I didn’t have it now, and I was somewhat glad.  I might have felt more self-conscious, seeing Eidolon up there.  I’d wind up worrying if I really had the ability to make it look good, when I needed to focus on projecting confidence.

There weren’t many villains here, and now that I could see, I was getting evidence to my previous concerns about being watched.

We reached the Undersiders, and I knelt beside Grue.  Imp was beside him, and both Regent and Bitch were standing nearby.  Regent gave me a nod, and I nodded back.

“Sorry to do this,” I said.  I looked at the three heroes that had accompanied us, “But I’d like to have a private conversation with my teammates.”

The bugs flowed from my costume and the surroundings, forming a moving curtain that separated me from Grace, Wanton and Scapegoat.  I gradually widened it, forcing them to back up.

Wanton let Grace support Scapegoat and tried to venture forward into the swarm.  He snorted and backed up as bugs crawled into his nose, ears and mouth.  I gave him a few seconds to experience the sensation, then removed them.  He didn’t try a second time.

“What’s going on?” I asked, keeping my voice low.

“He’s gone quiet,” Imp said.  “Not responding much.  He flinched when I tried to touch him.”

“Being inside Echidna, you see things,” I said.  “Variations on your trigger event, or ugly moments from your life.”

“Oh,” Imp said.  “Oh.

I looked at Grue.  He was staring off into space, with darkness gathered in thick ropes around him, to the point that I couldn’t make out how he was sitting.  He did that instinctively, I’d noted.  The more he withdrew into himself, suppressed his emotions, the more his darkness manifested around him.

If it was this bad, then I wasn’t sure what I could do.

I knelt beside him, and even with the darkness that wreathed him, I could sense him pulling away.

“Imp,” I said.

“What?”

“You should take him home.”

“But… I can help.”

“I know,” I said.  “You’ve helped a lot already.  But he can’t stay here.  Not like this.  If he relived his trigger event, he’s going to need reassurance from you.”

“His other trigger event was about you,” Imp said.  She sounded almost accusatory.

“Maybe,” I said.  I stared into the black lenses of her mask.  “Do you want me to take him? Because I will.  I’ll leave, Tattletale can lead the Undersiders, and you can stay and focus on assassinating clones.”

She drew her knife, turned it around in her hands, as if she were considering it.

“Whatever you do,” I told her, “Make the call fast.  If you aren’t staying, I want to get moving fast.  I need to collect bugs before the fighting starts up again.”

She glanced down at Grue, then she looked at the others.  Regent and Rachel were watching us carefully.

For my part, I looked at Grue.  I wanted nothing more than to walk away.  I’d be okay being partially blind, waiting weeks or months to see if maybe my senses came back, if it meant holding him, helping him through this, giving him whatever support he needed so badly.

I could so vividly recall the vision I’d seen of Mannequin, and all the people I’d cared about struggling to get to safety.  Everyone had been counting on me, and I’d been failing them.  Odd, that the recollection was somehow reassuring to me in this brief moment.

In the same moment, I turned to Imp and Imp turned to me.  The black lenses of her mask met my yellow ones straight-on.

“You’re the leader,” Imp said, and that was answer enough.

I reached out and took Grue’s hand.  He flinched, trying to pull away before I got a firm hold.  I managed it anyways, seized his hand between mine.

“Grue,” I said.  I kept my voice firm, but quiet.  “It’s Skitter.  Taylor.  I need you to listen.”

He didn’t budge an inch.  I squeezed his hand.  “Listen.  You’re going with Aisha, understand?  I think I know the kind of thing you saw.  What you experienced.  But you need to remember the important part, okay?  You didn’t fail.  You did what you wanted to.  You saved her, you saved me, and you saved yourself.”

He tugged, trying to pull his hand away, and I held fast.  The darkness was swelling around him.

“There’s only one more part left.  Just like you did then, you need to walk away.  Leave the scene behind.  It’s the best thing you can do.  You turn your back, and you walk away from where all the ugliness happened.  Understand?  Go with Aisha.  You two go home together.”

I stood, and I pulled on his hand at the same time.  He resisted.

“Take her home,” I said.

This time, when I pulled, he worked to climb to his feet.  I took his hand and placed it firmly in Aisha’s.  I watched them walk away, hand in hand, and when I couldn’t see them with my eyes, I sensed them with my power, followed the movements with the blotchy vision of my bugs.

The bugs I’d formed into a barrier drifted in my direction and congregated on me.  The younger heroes were a short distance away, and Tattletale was with them.

They were watching as reinforcements arrived.

Alexandria and Legend had joined Myrddin, Chevalier and Eidolon.

The big guns.  We were finally treating this like a class S threat.

When I approached Tattletale, the other Undersiders followed me: Regent and Bitch with a litter of dogs of varying size trailing around her, chains clinking where they were attached to collars and harnesses.

Tecton was on the other side of the crowd, looking somewhat worse for wear.  Grace and Wanton started making their way toward him, and I followed by necessity, because they were helping a blind Scapegoat hobble along.

Our trip led us past the collection of major heroes, and the crowd that had gathered around them.  Glancing at them, I could see Tattletale in my peripheral vision, a smile spreading across her face.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  I’d seen that kind of smile, had seen it on Emma’s face, often enough, just before she pulled something.  It wasn’t directed at me, though.  I reached out for Tattletale’s arm, but she was already speaking.

“Cauldron,” she said.  The word just loud enough for the heroes to hear.

Eidolon managed to feign ignorance, not even moving a muscle, and Alexandria barely moved, nothing out of the ordinary for someone who’d heard a voice calling out.  Legend, though, turned our way, looking straight at Tattletale.  His lips pursed a fraction, and then he looked away.

Tattletale’s grin widened a fraction.  She murmured to me, “All three know.”

In which case we just added three people to our list of possible enemies.

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