Cockroaches 28.5

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At least she’s stopped screaming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yo,” I responded.

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

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

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

Building something?  I looked up.

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

“What is she-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True,” I agreed.

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

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

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

Imp shrugged.  “So?  What do we do?”

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

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

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

“It worked,” he said.

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

“Only that many,” Defiant said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Tattletale asked.

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

I stopped there.

What?” Tattletale asked, again.

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

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

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

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

“Right?” I asked.  “So you agree?”

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

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

“If there’s an issue…”

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

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

“Better safe than sorry,” I said.

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

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

There were nods all around.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” I said.

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

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

“This is crazy,” she said.

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

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

Canary nodded.

“Holding up okay?”  I asked.

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

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

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

“Foil and Parian,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  I get that,” Canary said.

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

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

Canary’s eyes went wide.  “Oh.  Oh!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She cackled again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lung,” I said, almost absently.

“You know him?” Canary asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

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

“What did Lung do?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sappho?

Canary blushed again.  “I… uh.”

“I mean, seriously,” Imp said.

“Ease up,” I warned her.

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

“And you never got any?”

“I had somebody, but like I said…”

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

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

The remainder were fertilized, bearing eggs.

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

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

“Let’s go,” he said.

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

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

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

A pleasant idea, nothing more.

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

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

Information about Lung.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defiant had called it a Gladius.

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

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

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

Threats and conflicts, within and without.

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

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

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

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

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

We relaxed.

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

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

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

The Dragonfly passed through the portal.

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

Defiant pulled the craft up.

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

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

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

Two days to make this.

Leviathan had taken less than an hour to demolish it.

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

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

Even through the rain, his five eyes glowed.

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

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

In any substantial numbers, I thought.

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

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

She frowned.

Grew things exponentially.”

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

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

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

“Twice?”  Miss Militia asked.

Tattletale pointed.

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

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

I swallowed.

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

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

“Time to face the music,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

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

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

It was in that same moment that the Simurgh descended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death throes?

She’d hit his core.

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

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

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

Leviathan went utterly still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could see his shape distort.

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

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

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

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

Fins.  Leviathan had fins.

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Mother turned to face us.

“Wha-  The-” she stuttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My tech?”  Defiant asked.

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

“Mecha-Leviathan?” Imp murmured.

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

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

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

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

Fuck you,” Tattletale retorted.  “Cope.”

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Contessa would have changed their minds.”

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

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

“They were attacking civilians.”

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

“They broke the truce,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

Her eyes fell on Lung.

Were they serious?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tattletale smiled a little, but didn’t talk.

“How good of you,” Defiant said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Essentially,” the Doctor said.

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

Dinah, standing beside Faultline, nodded slowly.

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

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

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

There were heads nodding.

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

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

Too many people ready to stab us in the back.

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

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Extermination 8.5

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Lady Photon and the eighteen year old Laserdream landed beside Armsmaster, making a small splash as they touched down.

You could see the family resemblance.  They weren’t supermodel good looking, but they were attractive people, even with their hair wet and plastered to their heads and shoulders by the rain.  Both wore costumes with a white base color, had heart shaped faces, full lips and blonde hair.  Lady Photon’s costume sported a starburst on her chest, with several of the lines extending around her body, or down her legs, going from indigo to purple as it got further from the center.  Her hair was straight, shoulder length, held away from her face by a tiara shaped much like the same starburst image on her chest.

Her daughter had a stylized arrow pointing down and to her right, on her chest, with a half dozen lines  trailing behind it, over her left shoulder, one line zig-zagging across the others.  The entire design gradually faded from a ruby red to a magenta color in much the same way her mom’s did.  Similar rows of lines with the zig-zag overlapping them ran down her legs and arms.  She didn’t dye her hair in her ‘color’ like her younger brother did -had, past tense-, or wear the tinted sunglasses, but she did wear a ruby red hairband over her wavy hair, to ensure she always had a coquettish sweep of hair in place over one eye, and to pull the magenta, red and white color scheme together.

More than anything else, though, the two of them had the look of people who had seen half their immediate family brutally and senselessly torn apart over the course of one terrible hour.  As though they’d had their hearts torn out of their chests and were somehow still standing.  It wasn’t that I had seen anyone in those circumstances before, but that look existed, and they had it.

It was painful to look at.  It reminded me of when my mom had died.  I’d been in a similar state.

Lady Photon – Photon Mom to Brockton Bay residents and the local news media – bent down by Armsmaster.  She created a shaped forcefield tight against his shoulder, lifted him with a grunt.

“Take him,” Lady Photon’s voice was strangely hollow, though firm.

“No.  I’m a better flier, and more likely to hurt that thing in a fight.  I’ll take the girl and help against Leviathan.”  Laserdream had a little more life in her voice than her mother did.

The girl.  Like I didn’t warrant a name, or it wasn’t worth the effort to remember.  A part of me wanted to stand up for myself, a larger part of me knew this wasn’t the time or place.

After a long few seconds of deliberation, Lady Photon nodded.  She looked like making that decision aged her years.

Laserdream and her mom looked at me.  I felt like I should say something.  Give condolences?  Tell them that their family had died well?  I couldn’t think of a way to put it that didn’t tell them something they already knew, or anything that wouldn’t sound horribly offensive or insincere coming from a villain.

“Let’s go get that-” I stopped, both because I suddenly felt that something like motherfucker was too crass, and because I wanted to bend down to pick up Armsmaster’s Halberd, the one with the disintegration blade, grabbing the pole of it with my good hand. “Let’s go get him,” I stated, lamely.

It took some doing for Laserdream to lift me without pressing against my broken arm or touching the blade. She wound up holding me with an arm under my knees and the crook of her elbow at my neck.  She held the Halberd for me.  I resigned myself to being cradled – there was no dignified way to be carried.  She had morning breath, a strangely mundane thing – she’d likely been woken up at half past six in the morning by the sirens, hadn’t had time to brush her teeth or eat before coming here.

She took off, smooth.  It felt like an elevator kicking into motion, except we kept going faster, had the wind in our faces.

My first time flying, if you discounted the experience of riding a mutant dog as it leapt from a building, which was sort of half-flying.  It wasn’t half as exhilirating as I’d thought the experience would be.  Tainted by the sombre, tense mood, the sting of the rain and the bitter chill that went straight through my damp costume and mask.  Each time she adjusted her hold on me, I had to fight that deep primal instinct that told me I was going to fall to my death.  She was adjusting her grip a lot, too – she didn’t have superstrength, and I couldn’t have been easy to carry, especially soaking wet.

My power’s range was almost double the usual, and I had zero clue as to why.  I wasn’t about to complain.  Using Laserdream’s armband and my right hand, I passed on details.

“He’s at CA-4, heading Northwest!”

The roads beneath us were damaged, shattered.  When Leviathan had shifted the position of the storm sewers, he’d gone all out, and he’d gone a step further than just the storm sewer – he’d also torn up the water supply network for the city.  The occasional pipe speared up between the slats in the sidewalk, fire hydrants were dislodged, and the water that poured from these was barely a trickle now.  That might have meant too much was leaking from the damaged pipes to give the water any pressure.

As he’d beaten a path deeper into the city, he had found opportunities to do damage on the way.  A police car had been thrown through the second story of a building.  A half block later, as he’d rounded a corner, he had elected to go through the corner of a building, tearing out the supporting architecture.  The structure had partially collapsed into the street.

We passed over a gas station he’d stampeded through, and Laserdream erected a crimson forcefield bubble around us to protect us from the smoke and heat of the ongoing blaze.

“BZ-4,” I reported.  Then I saw movement from the coast, called out through the armband’s channels, “Wave!”

I was glad to be in the air as the tidal wave struck.  The barrier of ice and the wreckage at the beaches did a lot to dampen the wave’s effect, but I watched as the water streamed a good half-mile into the city.  Buildings collapsed, cars were pushed, and even trees came free of the earth.

No cape casualties announced from Laserdream’s armband, at least.

We passed over the Weymouth shopping center.  It had been devastated by Leviathan’s passage, then had largely folded in on itself in the wake of the most recent wave.  From the way the debris seemed to have exploded out the far wall, it didn’t look like Leviathan had even slowed down as he tore through the building.  That wasn’t what spooked me.

What spooked me was that I’d been through the Weymouth shopping center more than a hundred times.  It was the closest mall to my house.

When I sensed Leviathan turning south, towards downtown, I didn’t feel particularly relieved.  There were enough shelters and enough space in the shelters to handle virtually every Brockton Bay resident in the city proper.  From what I remembered, not everyone had participated in the drills that happened every five years or so, choosing to stay home.  It was very possible that some shelters near the residential areas might prove to be over capacity, that my dad, if he arrived late, might have been redirected to another shelter.  One closer to downtown, where Leviathan was going.  I couldn’t trust that he was out of harm’s way.

“He’s at or near BZ-6, heading south.”

The area we were entering had been further from the heroes with the forcefields, where waves hadn’t had their impact softened or diverted by the the PHQ’s forcefield or the larger, heavier, blockier structures of the Docks.  Entire neighborhoods had been flattened, reduced to detritus that floated in muddy, murky waters.  Larger buildings, what I suspected might have been part of the local college, were standing but badly damaged. Countless cars sat in the roads and parking lots with water pouring in through shattered windows.

Laserdream changed course, to follow Lord street, the main road that ran through the city and downtown, tracing the line of the bay.

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

“The wreckage goes this way,” she responded.

I looked down.  It was hard to tell, with the damage already done, the water flooding the streets, but I suspected she was right.  One building that looked like it should have stood against the waves thus far was wrecked, and mangled bodies floated around it.  It could have been the tidal wave, but it was just as likely that Leviathan had seen a target and torn through it.

“Maybe, but he might have been faking us out, or he detoured further ahead,” I said.  I pointed southwest.  “That way.”

She gave me a look, I turned my attention to her armband, tried to discern where Leviathan fell on the grid.  Around the same moment I figured it out, I felt him halt.  “BX-8 or very close to it!  He’s downtown, and he just stopped moving.”

“You sure?” came Chevalier’s voice from the armband.

“Ninety-nine percent.”

“Noted.  We’re teleporting forces in.”

Laserdream didn’t argue with me.  We arrived at the scene of the battle a matter of seconds later.  Familiar territory.

I had been near here a little less than two hours ago.  The skeleton of a building in construction was in view, a matter of blocks away, an unlit black against a dark gray sky.  Beneath that, I knew, was Coil’s subterranean base of operations.

Parian had given life to three stuffed animals that lumbered around Leviathan.  A stuffed goat stepped forward, and sidewalk cracked under a hoof of patchwork leather and corduroy.  A bipedal tiger grabbed at an unlit streetlight, unrooted it, and charged Leviathan like a knight with a lance couched in one armpit.  The third, an octopus, ran interference, disrupting Leviathan’s afterimages before they could strike capes and wrapping tentacles around Leviathan’s limbs if he tried to break away.  Parian was gathering more cloth from the other side of a smashed display window, drawing it together into a crude quadruped shape, moving a series of needles and threads through the air in an uncanny unison that reminded me of my control over my spiders.

Leviathan caught the streetlight ‘lance’ and clawed through the tiger’s chest, doing surprisingly little damage considering that it was just fabric.  After three good hits, the tiger deflated explosively.

The octopus and goat grappled Leviathan while Purity blasted him with a crushing beam of light.  By the time he recovered, Parian was inflating the half-created shape in front of her, so it could stumble into the fray.  She turned her attention to repairing the ‘tiger’.

I was curious about her power.  Some sort of telekinesis, with a gimmick?  She had a crapton of fine manipulation with the needles and threads, that much was obvious, but the larger creations she was putting together – whatever she was doing to animate them with telekinesis or whatever, it left them fairly clumsy.  Did her control get worse as she turned her attention to larger things?  Why manipulate cloth and not something stronger, sturdier?

I wondered if she was one of the capes that thought of what she did as being ‘magic’.  Her power was esoteric enough.

A slash of Leviathan’s tail brought down two of the stuffed entities, and Hookwolf tackled him to ensure the Endbringer didn’t get a moment’s respite.  Leviathan caught Hookwolf around the middle with his tail, flecks of blood and flesh spraying from the tail as it circled Hookwolf’s body of skirring, whisking blades.  Leviathan hurled Hookwolf away.

Browbeat saw an opening, stepped in to pound Leviathan in the stomach, strike him in the knee Armsmaster had injured.  Leviathan, arms caught by Parian’s octopus and goat, raised one foot, caught Browbeat around the throat with his clawed toes, and then stomped down sharply.

Browbeat deceased, BW-8.

Leviathan leaned back hard, making Parian’s creations stumble as they maintained their grip, then heaved them forward.  The ‘octopus’ remanied latched on, but the ‘goat’ was sent through the air, a projectile that flew straight for Parian.

Her creation deflated in mid air, but the piles of cloth that it was made of were heavy, and she was swamped by the mass of fabric.  Leviathan darted forward, held only by her octopus, and the afterimage rushed forward to slam into that pile of cloth.

Parian down, BW-8.

All of the ‘stuffed animals’ deflated.

The girl with the crossbow and Shadow Stalker opened fire, joined by Purity from above.   Laserdream dropped me at the fringe of the battlefield with the Halberd before joining them, flying above at an angle opposite Purity’s, firing crimson laser blasts at Leviathan’s head and face.  Leviathan readied to lunge, stopped as a curtain of darkness swept over him, the majority dissipating a second later, leaving only what was necessary to obscure his head.  It took Leviathan a second to realize he could move out of that spot to see again, a delay that earned him another on-target series of shots from our ranged combatants.  Grue was here, somewhere.

It wasn’t much, I didn’t have many bugs gathered here yet, but I was able to pull some together into humanoid forms.  I sent them moving across the battlefield towards Leviathan.  If one of them delayed him a second, drew an attack that would otherwise be meant for someone else, it would be worth the trouble.

I looked around, trying to find Brandish, Chevalier, Assault or Battery, or even someone tough.  Someone that could take the Halberd and make optimal use of it.

One of crossbow-girl’s shots, like a needle several feet in length, speared under the side of Leviathan’s neck, out the top.  Shadow Stalker’s shots, at the same time, failed to penetrate Leviathan’s hard exterior.

“Flechette!  I’m getting closer!” Shadow Stalker called out, looking back at her new partner.

“Careful!” the crossbow-girl – Flechette, I took it – replied, loading another shot.

Shadow Stalker timed her advance with a pounce on Hookwolf’s part.  Empire Eighty-Eight’s most notorious killer latched onto Leviathan’s face and neck, blood spitting around where the storm of shifting metal hooks and blades made contact with flesh.  Shadow Stalker ran within twenty feet of the Endbringer, firing her twin crossbows.  The shots penetrated this time, disappearing into Leviathan’s chest, presumably fading back in while inside him.

Flechette fired a needle through Leviathan’s knee, and the Endbringer’s leg buckled.  He collapsed into a kneeling position, the knee striking the ground.

Leviathan used his claws to heave Hookwolf off his face, tore the metal beast in half, and then threw the pieces down to the ground, hard.  One landed straight on top of Shadow Stalker, the other almost seemed to bounce, rapidly condensing into a roughly humanoid form before it touched the ground again, landing in a crouch.  Hookwolf backed away, the blades drawing together into a human shape, skin appearing as they withdrew.  He brought his hand over his head and pointed forward at Leviathan.  A signal for the next front-liner.

Shadow Stalker down, BW-8.

I didn’t recognize the next cape to charge in to attack.  A heroine in a brown and bronze bodysuit.  She flew in low to the ground, gathered fragments of rock and debris around her body like it was metal and she was the magnet, then went in, pummeling with fists gloved in pavement and concrete.

You could tell, almost right away, the woman didn’t have much training or experience.  She was used to enemies that were too slow to move out of her way, who focused their attention wholly on her.  Leviathan ducked low to the ground, letting the heroine pass over him, then leapt for Flechette.  In the very last fraction of a second, the girl flickered, and was replaced by the brown-suited cape, who took the hit and stumbled back, fragments of rock breaking away.  Flechette dropped out of the sky where the cape had been, landed hard.  It took her a few seconds to recover enough to fire another bolt at Leviathan, strike him in the shoulder.  Trickster had just spared brown-suit from making a fuck-up that got someone killed.

The boy with the metal skin formed one hand into an oversized blade, as long as he was tall, managed a solid hit at Leviathan’s injured knee as the Endbringer whirled around to face Flechette.

Leviathan slapped the teenage hero down, swiped at one of my swarm-people, then was forced down onto all fours as Purity struck him square between the shoulderblades with a column of light.  A metal shelving unit shot from the interior of a store, Ballistic’s power, I was almost positive, and made Leviathan stumble back.

We had the upper hand, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  More than once, in the past hour alone, the Endbringer had demonstrated that any time the fight was going against him, he’d pull out all the stops and do something large scale.  A tidal wave or tearing up the streets.

We did not have what it took to withstand another wave.  No forcefields, no barriers.

I had one of my gathered swarms explode into a mass of flying insects as they got close enough to Leviathan, make their way against the drenching rain to rise up to Leviathan’s face.  Many clustered in the recessed eye sockets that looked like tears or cracks in his hard scaled exterior.  Others crawled into the wounds other capes had made.

Briefly blinded, he shook his head ponderously, using his afterimage and one swipe of his claw to clear his vision.  He scampered back as his sight was obscured yet again by one of Grue’s blasts.

He lunged forward, stumbling into and out the other side of the cloud of darkness.  A swipe of his tail batted the metal-skinned boy away.  Another strike dispatched Brandish, who was moving in to attack with a pair of axes that looked as though they were made from lightning.

Brandish down, BW-8

Flechette fired one needle into the center of Leviathan’s face, between each of his four eyes.  It buried itself three quarters deep, speared out the back of his head.

He reared back, as if in slow motion, stumbled a little.  His face pointed to the sky.  He teetered.

Yeah, no.  Much as I’d like to to be, there was no fucking way it was going to be that easy.

That top-heavy body of his toppled forward, and it was only his right claw, slamming down to the pavement, that stopped his face from being driven into the ground.  The impact of his claw striking the ground rumbled past us.

The rumble didn’t stop.

“Run!” I shouted, my cry joining the shouts of others.  I turned, sloshed through the water to get away, not sure where to get away from, or to.

Leviathan and the ground beneath him sank a good ten feet, and water swirled and frothed as it began pouring to fill the depression.  He used his arm to shield himself as Purity fired another blast from above.  As the ground beneath him continued to sink, the water lapped higher and higher around him.

The Endbringer descended, and the area around him quickly became a massive indent, ten, fifteen, thirty, then sixty feet across, ever growing.  The force of the water pouring into the crater began to increase, and the ground underfoot grew increasingly unsteady as cracks spread across it.

I realized with a sudden panic, that I wasn’t making headway against the waves and the ground that was giving way underfoot.  The growing crater was continuing to spread well past me, rising above me as the ground I stood on descended.

“Need help!” I screamed, as water began falling atop me from a higher point, spraying into me with enough force that I began to stumble back, fall.

The ground in front of and above me folded into a massive fissure.  The movement of the cracked sections of road created a torrent of water that washed over me, engulfed me and forced me under.  The impact and pain from the force of the water on my broken arm was enervating, drew most of the fight out of me when I very much needed to be able to struggle, get myself  back above the surface.  I tried to touch bottom, to maybe kick myself back up, but the ground wasn’t there.  Feeling out with the pole of the Halberd, I touched ground, pushed, failed to get anywhere.

A hand seized the pole of the Halberd, heaved me up, changed its grip to my right wrist and pulled me up and free of the waves.

When I blinked my eyes clear of water, Laserdream was above me.  She faced the epicenter of the growing depression in the ground, flying backwards.  Her other hand clung to an unconscious Parian.  It seemed like the two of us were too much for her to carry alone, because she hurried straight for a nearby rooftop, carefully lay Parian down.

We hadn’t set down for more than ten seconds before the building shuddered and began to collapse.  The ground beneath the building cracked and tilted, no doubt because the underlying soil and rock was being drawn away by churning water.  The flooding in the streets was diverted into the deepening bowl-shaped cavity Leviathan was creating, filling it.  It was almost a lake, now, three city blocks across and growing rapidly. Only fragments of the taller buildings in the area stayed above the waves; some buildings were already toppled onto their sides, others half-collapsed and still breaking apart as I watched.  Some capes were climbing out of the water and onto the ruined buildings, with the help of the more mobile capes.  Velocity and Trickster were working in tandem, Velocity running atop the water’s surface to safe ground, trickster swapping him for someone who was floundering, rinse, repeat.

As our footing dropped beneath us, Laserdream reluctantly grabbed at my hand and Parian’s belt, hauled us back up into the air.

Above me, her armband flashed yellow.

“Armband!” I called up to her. “Tidal wave?”

“Can’t see unless I drop you,” she responded, over the dull roar of the waves beneath us.  With a bit of sarcasm and harshness to her tone, she asked me, “Do you want me to drop you?”

Right, I’d kind of messed with her cousins at the bank robbery.  She counted me as an ally, here and now, but she wouldn’t be friendly.

Myrddin and Eidolon moved from the coast to the ‘lake’ in the upper end of Downtown.  I saw and sensed Leviathan leap from the water like a dolphin cresting the waves, moving no less than two hundred feet in the air, toward the pair, lashing out with his afterimage in every direction.

I didn’t see how it turned out, because Laserdream carried Parian and me away.  I could sense the Endbringer through the bugs that had made their way deepest into his wounds, the ones that had found spots where his afterimage couldn’t flush them out each time it manifested.  With my power, I could track him beneath the water.  He was moving so fast that it was almost as though he were teleporting, finding the drowning and executing them.

Scalder deceased, BW-8.  Cloister deceased, BW-8.  The Erudite deceased, BW-8.  Frenetic deceased, BW-8.  Penitent deceased, BW-9.  Smackdown deceased, BX-8.  Strider deceased, BW-8

“Setting down again,” Laserdream said.

“But if there’s a tidal wave-”

“I don’t see one.”

I joined her in looking toward the coast.  The water was as stable as it had been since the fight started.

“If it’s a trick-”

With a little anger in her voice, a hard tone, she spoke, “Either we set down or I drop you.  I can’t hold on much longer.”

“Right.”

She carried me two blocks away from the crater.  The ground was wet, but no longer submerged, the road was torn up, shattered, covered with debris.

Laserdream checked her armband, “It’s one of the shelters.  They sprung a leak, need help evacuating.  I’m going.”

Dad.  It could be my dad.

“Bring me,” I said.

She frowned.

“I know your arms are tired.  Mine is too, and I was just hanging there.  I can’t tell you how thankful I am that you’ve done this much to help me, but we have to stick together, and you can fly low enough to the ground that you can drop me if you have to.”

“Fine, but we’re leaving the doll kid here.”

She laid Parian down in a recessed doorway, then pressed the ‘ping’ button on the girl’s armband.

I held the Halberd out while Laserdream walked around behind me.  She wrapped her arms around my chest and lifted us off.  Uncomfortable, and she was jarring my broken arm, which hurt like a motherfucker, but I couldn’t complain after just having asked to come.

Myrddin down, BX-9.

Laserdream carried us around the edge of the ‘lake’ that was still growing, if not quite so fast as it had been.  I saw others gathered at the edge of the water, forming battle lines where Leviathan might have a clear path to make a run for it. If he wanted to make a run for it.  As it stood, he was entirely in his environment, in the heart of the city, where he could continue to work whatever mojo he needed to bring more tidal waves down on our heads.  To my bug senses, Leviathan was deep beneath the waves, moving rapidly, acting like he was engaged in a fight.  Against Eidolon?  I couldn’t tell.  Every darting, hyperfast movement dislodged a few bugs, made him harder to detect.

The shelter was set beneath a smallish library.  A concrete stairwell beside the building led belowground to the twenty-foot wide vault door.  Fragments of the building and the ledge overhanging the stairwell had fallen, blocked the door from opening fully.  Making matters worse, the door was stuck in a partially ajar position, and the stairwell was flooded with water, which ran steadily into the shelter.  Two capes were already present, shoulder deep in the water, ducking below to grab stones and rising again to heave them out.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, as Laserdream set us down, I immediatelly sent out a call to summon bugs to my location, just to be safe.  “Do we want to shut the door or open it?”

“Open it,” one of the capes in the water said.  He ducked down, grabbed a rock, hauled it out with a grunt.  “We don’t know what condition they’re in, inside.”

Laserdream stepped forward and began blasting with her laser, penetrating the water and breaking up the larger rocks at the base of the door.

I was very nearly useless here.  With one hand, I couldn’t clear the rubble, and my power wasn’t any use.  There weren’t even many crabs or other crustaceans I could employ in the water around us, and the ones that did exist were small.

Then I remembered the Halberd.

“Hey,” I stopped one of the capes that was heaving rocks out of the stairwell, “Use this.”

“As a shovel?” he looked skeptical.

“Just try it, only… don’t touch the blade.”

He nodded, took the Halberd, and ducked beneath the water.  Ten seconds later, he raised his head, “Holy shit.  This works.”

“Use it on the door?” I suggested.  He gave me a curt nod.

Enemy location unknown, I could hear the cape’s armband announce.  Defensive perimeter, report.

There was a pause.

No reports.  Location unknown.  Exert caution.

“I’m going to try cutting the door off,” the cape spoke.  He descended beneath the water.  I could barely make out his silhouette.  Laserdream ceased firing as he made his way to where the heavy metal door was, stepped around and set to burning long channels in the side of the stairwell.  I realized it was intended to give the water in the stairwell somewhere to flow that wasn’t towards the people inside.

The door tipped into the stairwell and came to rest against the opposite wall, resting at a forty-five degree angle, sloping up toward the railing.  The water in the stairwell flowed inside, an unfortunate consequence.  The cape with the Halberd set to using the blur of the Halberd to to cut lines into the back of the door and to remove the railing, so there was sufficient traction for people walking up and out of the door.

I stepped down to investigate, sent a few bugs in to get the lay of the land.  The interior of the shelter was surprisingly like what Coil’s headquarters had been like, concrete walls with metal walkways and multiple levels.  There were water coolers and a set of freezers, bathrooms and a sectioned off first aid area.

It was clear that one of the waves or Leviathan’s creation of that massive sinkhole in downtown had done some damage to the shelter.  Water was pouring in from a far wall and from the front door, and twenty or so people were in the first aid bay on cots, injured and bloody.  A team of about fifty or sixty people were moving sandbags to reduce the flow of water into the chamber from the cracked back wall.  A second, smaller team was blocking off the room with the cots, piling sandbags in the doorway.  In the main area, people stood nearly waist deep in water.

“Everyone out!” Laserdream called out.

Relief was clear on people’s faces as they began wading en masse toward the front doors.

My dad was taller than average, and I hoped to be able to make him out, see if he was in the crowd.  As the group gravitated toward the doorway, however, I lost the ability to peer over the mass of people.  I didn’t see him.

I hung back as people filed out in twos and threes.  Mothers and fathers holding their kids, who otherwise wouldn’t be tall enough to stay above water, people still in pajamas or bathrobes, people holding their dogs above water or with cats on their shoulders.  They marched against the flow of water from the stairwell, up the back of the vault door and onto the street.

Mr. Gladly was near the back of the crowd, with a blond woman that was taller than him, holding his hand.  It bugged me, in a way I couldn’t explain.  It was like I felt he didn’t deserve a girlfriend or wife.  But that wasn’t exactly it.  It was like this woman was somone who maybe liked him, heard his side of things, validated his self-perception of being this excellent, ‘cool’ teacher.  A part of me wanted to explain to that woman that he wasn’t, that he was the worst sort of teacher, who helped the kids who already had it easy, and dropped the fucking ball when it came to those of us who needed it.

It was surprising how much that chance meeting bugged me.

A shriek startled me out of my contemplations.  It was quickly followed by a dozen other screams of mortal terror.

Impel deceased, CB-10Apotheosis deceased, CB-10.

I felt him arrive, a small few bugs still inside him, though most of the rest had been washed away in his swim.  There were so few I’d missed his approach.

Leviathan.

People ran back inside the shelter, screamed and pushed, trampled one another.  I was forced into the corner by the door as they ran into the shelter, tried to make some distance between themselves and the Endbringer.

Laserdream down, CB-10.

And he was there, climbing through the vaultlike door, so large he barely fit.  One claw on either side, he pushed his way through.  Stood as tall as he could inside the front door, looking over the crowd.  Hundreds of people were within, captive, helpless.

A lash of his tail struck down a dozen people in front of him.  The afterimage struck down a dozen more.

No death notice from the armband for civilians.

Leviathan took a step forward, putting me behind him and just to his right.  He lashed his tail again.  Another dozen or two dozen civilians slain.

Mr. Gladly’s girlfriend was screaming, burying her face in his shoulder.  Mr. Gladly stared up at Leviathan, wide eyed, his lips pressed together in a line, oddly red faced.

I didn’t care.  I should feel bad my teacher was about to die, but all I could think about was how he’d ignored me when Emma and the others had had me cornered.

One hand on my shoulder to steady my throbbing broken arm, I slipped behind Leviathan, hugging the wall, slipping around the corner and moving up the vault door with padded feet.

It was a dark mirror to what Mr. Gladly had done to me.  What Emma and her friends had done, I couldn’t say for sure that I would have had the mental fortitude to put up with it if I hadn’t gotten my powers – and for all he knew, I hadn’t.  I couldn’t know whether I could have dealt with everything that had followed the incident in January, if I could have made it this far if I hadn’t had my powers, these distractions.  In every way that mattered, Mr. Gladly turning his back on me, back there in the school hallway, a time that felt so long ago, could have killed me.

A fitting justice, maybe, leaving him in that shelter with Leviathan.

I saw Laserdream lying face down in the water, bent down and turned her over with my good hand and one foot, checked she was breathing.

The two capes, who I took to be Impel and Apotheosis, were torn into pieces.  I ran past them.  Ran past the civilians who Leviathan had struck down, ripped apart.

I stopped, when I found the Halberd, picked it up.  Found Impel’s armband, bent down and pressed the buttons to open communications, “Leviathan’s at the shelter in CB-10.  Need reinforcements fast.”

Chevalier replied, “Shit.  He must have gone through some storm drain or sewer.  Our best teleporter’s dead, but we’ll do what we can.”

Which left me only one thing to do.  I had to be better than Mr. Gladly.

I ran past Impel and Apotheosis, passed Laserdream, and reached the shelter’s entrance once more.

Leviathan was further inside, crouched, his back to me.  His tail lashed in front of him.  Terrified screams echoed from within.

It was agonizing to do it, but I moved slowly, to minimize the noise I made, even as every second allowed Leviathan more time to tear into the crowd.  To move too fast would alert him, waste any opportunity I had here.  A backwards movement of Leviathan’s tail arced through the air, fell atop me, forcing me down into the water.  Gallons of cold water dropping down from ten feet above me.

I swallowed the scream, the grunting of pain that threatened to escape my throat, stood again, slowly.

With only one hand, I didn’t have the leverage to really swing the Halberd.  I had to hold it towards the top, near the blade, which meant having less reach, having to get closer.

When I was close enough, I drew the blade back and raked it just below the base of his tail.  Where his asshole would be if he had human anatomy.  Easiest place for me to reach, with him crouched down like he was.

Dust billowed and Leviathan reacted instantly, swiped with one claw, fell onto his side when the damage to his buttocks and the hampered mobility of his tail screwed with his ability to control the movement of his lower body.  His claw swipe went high.  His afterimage was broken up by the the wall above the door, but enough crashed down in front of and on top of me to throw me back out of the shelter, into the toppled shelter door.  I was pushed under the water, the Halberd slipping from my grip.

I climbed to my feet at the same time he did, but I had a clear route up the back of the shelter door while he had to squeeze through the opening.  I was on the street and running well before he was up out of the stairwell.

I gathered my bugs to me, sent some to him, to better track his movements.  As he climbed up, I gathered the swarms into decoys that looked human-ish, sent them all moving in different directions, gathered more around myself to match them in appearance.

With the effects of my slash of the Halberd combined with the damage Armsmaster had already done, Leviathan didn’t have the mobility with his tail he otherwise would.  When he attacked my decoys, he did it with slashes of his claw and pouncing leaps that sent out afterimages to crash into them.  A swipe of the claw’s echo to disperse one swarm to his left, a lunge to destroy one in front of him.  Another afterimage of a claw swipe sent out to strike at me.

Water crashed into me, hard as concrete, fast as a speeding car.  I felt more pain than I’d ever experienced, more than when Bakuda had used that grenade on me, the one that set my nerve endings on fire with raw pain.  It was brief, somehow more real than what Bakuda had inflicted on me.  Struck me like a lightning flash.

I plunged face first into the water.  My good arm on its own wasn’t enough to turn me over – the road just a little too far below me.  I tried to use my legs to help turn myself over.  Zero response.

I’d either been torn in two and couldn’t feel the pain yet or, more likely, I’d been paralyzed from the waist down.

Oh.

Not like I really should’ve expected any different.  Neither case was much better than the other, as far as I was concerned.

My breath had been knocked out of me at the impact, but some primal, instinctual part of me had let me hold my breath.  I lay there, face down in two or three feet of water, counting the seconds until I couldn’t hold my breath any more, until my body opened my mouth and I heaved in a breath with that same instinctual need for preservation, filled my lungs with water instead.

The lenses of my mask were actually swim goggles, it was a strange recollection to cross my mind.  I’d bought them from a sports supply store, buying the useless chalk dust at the same time.  Durable, high end, meant for underwater cave spelunkers, if I remembered the picture on the packaging right.  Tinted to help filter out bright lights, to avoid being blinded by any fellow swimmer’s headlamps.  I’d fitted the lenses from an old pair of glasses inside, sealed them in place with silicon at the edges, so I had 20/20 vision while I had my mask on without having to wear glasses beneath or over it, or contact lenses, which irritated my eyes.  I’d built the armor of my mask around the edges of the goggles so the actual nature of the lenses wasn’t immediately apparent, and to hold them firmly in place.

Even so, when I opened my eyes, looked through those lenses for their original purpose, all I could see was mud, grit, silt.  Black and dark brown, with only the faintest traces of light.  It disappointed me on a profound level, knowing that this might be the last thing I ever saw.  Disappointed me more than the idea of dying here, odd as that was.

Through my power, I sensed Leviathan turn, take a step back toward the shelter, stop.  His entire upper body turned so he could peer to his left with his head, turned the opposite way to peer right.  Like a dog sniffing.

He dropped to all fours, ran away, a loping gait, not the lightning fast movement he’d sported when he first attacked.  Still fast enough.

My chest lurched in a sob for air, like a dry heave.  I managed to keep from opening my mouth but the action, the clenching of every muscle above my shoulders, left my throat aching.

Two seconds later, it hit me again harder.

Two blocks away, Leviathan crashed down into the water.

Another lurch of my throat and chest, painful.  My mouth opened, water filled my mouth, and my throat locked up to prevent the inhalation of water.  I spat the water out, forced it out of my mouth, for all the good it would do.

I’d left the fat cape to die like this when the wave was coming.  Was this karma?

Something splashed near me.  A footstep.

I was hauled out of the water.  I felt a lancing pain through my midsection, like a hot iron, gasped, sputtered.  Through the beads of water on my lenses, I couldn’t make out much.

Bitch, I realized.  She wasn’t looking at me.  Her face was etched deep with pain, fury, fear, sheer viciousness, or some combination of the four.

I followed her gaze, blinked twice.

Her dogs were attacking Leviathan, and Leviathan was attacking back.  He hurled two away, three more leapt in.

How many dogs?

Leviathan pulled away, only for a dog to snag his arm, drag him off balance.  Another latched on to his elbow, while a third and fourth pounced onto his back, tearing into his spine.  More crouched and circled around him, looking for opportunities and places to bite.

He clubbed one away with a crude movement of his tail, used his free claw to grab it by the throat, tear a chunk of flesh away.  The dog perished in a matter of seconds.

Bitch howled, a primal, raw sound that must have hurt her throat as much as it hurt to listen to.  She moved forward, pulling me with her, lifting me up.  When I sagged, she gave me a startled look.

I looked down.  My legs were there, but there was no sensation.  Numb wasn’t a complete enough term to explain it.

“Back’s broken, I think,” the words were weak.  The calm tone of the words was eerie, even coming from my own mouth to my own ears.  Disconcertingly out of place with the frenzied, savage tableau.

Leviathan wheeled around, grabbed another dog by one shoulder, dug a claw into the dog’s ribcage and cracked  it open, the ribs splaying apart like the wings of some macabre bird, heart and lungs exposed.  The animal dropped dead to the water’s surface at Leviathan’s feet.

Bitch looked from me to the dog, as if momentarily lost.  In an instant, that look disappeared, replaced by that etching of rage and fury.  She screeched the words, “Kill him!  Kill!”

It wasn’t enough.  The dogs were strong, there were six of them left, even, but Leviathan was more of a monster than all of them put together.

He heaved one dog off the ground, slammed it into another like a club, then hurled it against a wall, where it dropped, limp and broken.

With that same claw, he slashed, tore the upper half of a dog’s head off.

“Kill!” Bitch shrieked.

No use.  One by one, the dogs fell.  Four left, then three.  Two dogs left.  They backed away, wary, each in a different direction.

Bitch clutched me, her arms so tight around my shoulders it hurt.  When I looked up at her, I saw tears in the corners of her eyes as she stared unblinking at the scene.

Scion dropped from the sky.  Golden skinned, golden beard trimmed close, or perhaps it never grew beyond that length.  His hair was longer than mine.  His bodysuit and cape were a plain white, stained with faded marks of old, dirt and blood, a strange juxtaposition to how perfect and unblemished he looked, otherwise.  There was no impact as he landed, no great splash or rumble of the earth.  Leviathan didn’t even seem to notice the hero’s arrival.

Leviathan struck at one of the remaining dogs with a broad swing of his tail, caught it across the snout.  It dropped, neck snapped.  A short leap and a slash of the claw dispatched the last.

Scion raised one hand, and a ball of yellow-gold light slammed into Leviathan from behind, sent the Endbringer skidding across the length of the street, past Bitch and I.

Leviathan leaped to his feet, reared around, swung his claws at the air ferociously.  Water around him rose, rushed towards Scion, a wave three times as high as Bitch was tall.  Three times as tall as I might be if I could stand.

Scion didn’t move or speak.  He walked forward, and ripples extended from his footsteps, soared past us with some strange motive force.  The ripple touched the wave, and the tower of water collapsed before it got halfway to us, dropping straight down.  Liquid as far as the eye could see was being flattened out into a disquieting stillness by the ripples of Scion’s footsteps, like a great pane of glass.

Leviathan lunged up to the side of a half-ruined building, leaped down to a point three-quarters of the way between himself and Scion.  His afterimage slammed into the hero.

Scion turned his head, shut his eyes, let the water wash over and past him.  When the attack was over, he squared his head and shoulders, facing Leviathan head on, raised a hand.

Another blast of yellow-gold light, and Leviathan was sent sprawling.

I saw the ripples and waves of Leviathan striking the ground wash past us.  Saw, again, how the ripple of Scion’s footstep seemed to wipe out and override that disturbance, returning the water to a perfect flatness.

Leviathan grabbed a car, twisted his entire upper body to toss it in the style of an olympic hammer-throw.  The car hurtled through the air, and Scion batted it aside with the back of one hand.  The vehicle virtually detonated with the impact, falling into a thousand pieces, each piece glowing with golden-yellow light, disintegrating as they splashed into the water.

Scion raised one hand, and there was a brilliant flash, too bright to look through.

When the spots faded from my vision, I saw that one of the damaged buildings was emanating that same light the pieces of the car had, was toppling, tipping towards Leviathan.  Scion, fingertips glowing, started his slow advance as the structure was pulled atop the Endbringer.  The ripples of his footsteps erased any disturbance in the water from the building’s collapse

Leviathan heaved himself out of the rubble, turned to run, only for water to rise and freeze solid in one smooth movement, forming a wall as tall as Leviathan was, a hundred feet long.  He paused for a fraction of a second, to gauge which way he might go, poise himself to leap over.  Scion caught him with another golden-yellow blast before he could follow through.

The movement of the water and the creation of the ice hadn’t been Scion.  Eidolon approached, flying close, raising one hand to create a ragged mess of icicles where Leviathan was to land.  Some impaled the Endbringer, but by and large, they shattered beneath him, left him scrabbling for traction and footing for long enough that Scion could shoot him again, send him through the barrier of ice as though it were barely there, tumbling.

Scion paused, turning to look at Eidolon, his eyes moving past Bitch and me like we weren’t even there.  His eyes settled on the hero, the most powerful individual in the world staring at the man who was arguably the fifth.

His expression was so hard to read.  I knew, now, what people had meant, when they said they thought his face was a mask, a facade.  Though it was expressionless, though there was nothing I could point to to explain why I felt the way I did, somehow I sensed disgust from him.  Like nobility looking at dog shit.

Scion turned away from Eidolon to focus on the enemy once more.  He blasted the Endbringer again.  Floated up and moved past Bitch and me faster than I could see, to strike the Endbringer a fraction of a second after the blast of light struck, stopping there in midair to blast Leviathan a second time as the Endbringer was still flying through the air at the punch’s impact.  Everything about Scion and his actions was utterly silent. His movements or attacks didn’t even stir the air.  Only the effects, Leviathan striking the water, the breaking of ice, generated any movement, shudders or sounds.

Eidolon froze the water around Leviathan’s four claws, giving Scion the opportunity to land another blast.  Leviathan turned, raised a spraying wall of water to cover his retreat.  Scion sent out one blast of his golden light to strike the wave, following up with a second blast before the first even made contact with the water.

Seeing the second blast coming, Leviathan leaped to one side.  No use – the blast of light curved in the air to head unerringly for him, struck him down.  Edges of the Endbringer’s wounds glowed golden yellow, drifted away into the air like flecks of burning paper caught in the updraft of hot air.  A fist imprint near the base of Leviathan’s throat glowed with edges of the same light, the wound continuing to spread and burn as I watched.

A tidal wave appeared in the distance, at the furthest end of the street, near the horizon.

Scion sent out a blast of golden light the size of a small van, darting to the center of the wave, disappearing into a speck of light before it made contact with the distant target.  The middle third of the wave buckled, fell harmlessly into a splash of water, all momentum ceased.  The other two sides of the wave curved inward, bent, to bear unerringly towards us.

Another blast of golden light, and one side was stopped, stalled.  A third blast was spared for Leviathan, who was getting his hands and feet firmly on the ground, crouching in preparation to run.  The Endbringer was knocked squarely to the ground.

Scion stopped the third wave in its tracks with a fourth blast, but the water was still there, and it still bowed to gravity.  The water level around us rose by a dozen feet, momentarily, slopping as gently over us as physically possible, like a lap of water on the beach.

When the flow of water was past us, I could see a fifth blast of light following Leviathan, who had used the cresting water to swim away.  He was making his way to the coast.  Scion rose, flew after his target with a streak of golden light tracing his movement.  Eidolon followed soon after.

Ten, fifteen seconds passed, Bitch holding me, averting her eyes from the corpses of her dogs, jaw set, not speaking or moving.

A teleporter appeared beside Laserdream, a distance away.  He looked at us, startled, glanced at his armband.

“You okay?” he called out.

“No,” I tried to shout back, but my voice was weak.  Bitch spoke for me, “She needs help.”

“Bring her here, I’ll take her back.”

Bitch carried me, dragging me by my collar to where Laserdream lay.  I grunted and groaned in pain, felt those hot pokers through my upper back and middle, but she wasn’t the type for sympathy or gentleness.

The teleporter touched one hand to my chest, another to Laserdream, who turned her head to look at me.

There was a rush of cool air, and we were in the midst of chaos.  Nurses, doctors, moving all around us.  I was lifted and placed on a stretcher, hauled up by four people in white.  There were shouts, countless electronic beeps, screams of pain.

I was placed on a bed.  I would have writhed with the pain of being shifted if it weren’t for my general inability to move.  There was a heart monitor on one side, a metal rack with an IV bag of clear fluid on the other, thick metal poles beside each, stretching from floor to ceiling.  Curtains loomed on either side of me, making for a small room, ten feet by ten feet across. The emergency room, triage or whatever was in front of me, past the foot of the bed, a dozen more cots, doctors doing what they could for the massed injured, civilian and cape alike.

All around me, nurses moved with a rote efficiency, to put a clip on my finger, and the heart monitor started beeping in time with my own heartbeat.  One put some sticky glue on my collarbone, pressing an electrode down there.

“My back, I think it’s broken,” I said, to no one in particular.  Nobody in particular replied.  All of them too busy with set tasks.  People seemed to approach my bedside and leave to go attend to another patient elsewhere.

“Your name?” someone asked.

I looked to the other side of me.  It was an older woman in a nurse’s uniform, pear shaped, gray haired.  A man in a PRT uniform stood behind her, holding a gun on me.

“Skitter,” I replied, confused, feeling more scared by the second.  “Please.  I think my back’s broken.”

“Villain?”

I shook my head.  “What?”

“Are you a villain?”

“It’s complicated. My back-”

“Yes or no?” the Nurse asked me, stern.

“Listen, my friend, Tattletale, do you know-”

“She’s a villain,” the PRT uniform cut me off, touching his way through some blackberry device with his free hand.  “Designation Master-5, specifically arthropodovoyance, arthropodokinesis.  No super strength.”

The nurse nodded, “Thank you.  Handle it?”

The man in a PRT uniform holstered his gun and stepped up to the bed.  He grabbed my right wrist, clasped a heavy manacle around it, fixed it to a vertical metal pole by the head of the bed.

“My other arm’s broken, please don’t move it,” I pleaded.

He gripped it anyways, and I couldn’t help but scream, strangled, as he pulled it to one side, clasped a manacle down on my wrist, hooked the other side of the manacle to the second pole.

“What-” I started to ask a nurse, as I forced myself to catch my breath, stopped as she turned her back to me and pulled the curtain closed at the foot of the bed, walked past it.

“Please-” I tried again, looking to the PRT uniform, but he was pushing his way past the curtain, leaving my company.

Leaving me chained up.  Alone.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.4

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I got my orders and left behind a bizarre scene where Armsmaster was working hand in hand with Kaiser, of all people.  Kaiser worked to build the same sort of trap that he’d imprisoned Lung in, some time ago, creating bars of metal between and around each of Leviathan’s limbs, a cage tight to the body.  Rune and another telekinetic were working to bend the metal from Kaiser’s shaken barrier around Leviathan’s limbs and face.

It wouldn’t last.  Leviathan was too big, his tail extended a long distance behind him, and it was thin and supple enough to slip through almost any barrier Kaiser could erect, strong enough that it could bend metal.  Leviathan would get free, there could be no illusions on that front.

While Kaiser worked, Armsmaster was simultaneously ensuring that he could maximize the damage delivered the second Leviathan moved again.  Gingerly, he worked with the grenades the Protectorate had liberated from Bakuda, the same explosives Miss Militia had been firing at Leviathan, and hooked them up as motion activated or proximity mines.  A complicated affair, I imagined, when your target could start moving any second, and when you couldn’t fully know or understand what the individual bombs did.

In the end, though, it was still our best bet to do one final measure of damage against Leviathan before he was free to wreak havoc once more.

There were a little more than fifty of us left.  Hookwolf, Fenja, Menja, Genesis, Aegis and Manpower were among the fifteen or so standing combatants that remained and were able to go toe to toe with Leviathan.  Parian, the girl in the doll costume, had formed some massive stuffed animals – a lion and a pig that stood as tall as Leviathan’s shoulder.  Tougher than they looked, according to her.  I had my doubts.  I mean, it wasn’t just that they were stuffed animals, but according to Parian, this was her first fight.

Too many others were capable of delivering the hurt, but were too fragile: Browbeat, Shadow Stalker, Lady Photon, Purity, Laserdream, Brandish and others I didn’t know.  The Ward with the crossbow, some guy with crimson skin.  There was a light show in the sky above as Kid Win teleported in pieces of the cannon he’d had at the bank robbery, manifesting them onto a hovering platform set directly in front of Leviathan.  He’d get anywhere from a few seconds to a minute’s worth of concentrated fire with the gun firing on the highest settings, directing a beam through a gap in the bars to where Narwhal’s razor sharp forcefield had opened a gap in Leviathan’s neck.

Beyond those first few moments after Leviathan woke up, it woul be anyone’s guess.

I hurried away from the site Armsmaster had indicated to me, my right hand on my left elbow, keeping my arm from moving too much.  Sector CC-7, a block and a half South, a block West.  So strange, to think that this was an area I’d walked through a dozen times, on my way to or from the Loft.  Now I was looking at it as a battlefield, trying to figure out what routes Leviathan would take.  What things I had to watch out for – the grates leading down to the storm sewers, the rain barrel on top of one of the buildings that might or might not be intact enough to retain any water in it.  Puddles.

Stuff I could use…  hardly.

It wasn’t like there was any weapon I could deploy, no feature of the terrain I could use to deliver the critical blow.  This was Leviathan.  A creature that had killed more people in the last 12 years than I had even seen in my entire life.  Seen in person, anyways.

I was scared.  A huge part of me wanted to just close my eyes and hope Leviathan didn’t come, that I wouldn’t have to deal with him.  It would be nice to join the three hundred and fifty thousand other Brockton Bay residents that were trusting the heroes to handle things, find a peace of sorts in surrender and helplessness.  Except I couldn’t.  I’d seen firsthand how Leviathan had taken down some of the strongest capes.  I couldn’t find refuge in that kind of trust anymore.  My mental and emotional resources were better spent on figuring out how to help than they were on hope.

I was hurting, too.  The only thing keeping the throb of my arm from consuming my attention was the fear.  It was a kind of grim cycle:  the pain reminded me of why I should be scared, but the emotion and the adrenaline kept the pain as this intensely unpleasant background chatter in my brain, where it might have crippled me otherwise.  It was a teetering balance that had me on edge in a way I’d never experienced to this degree.  There were probably people who lived for that hypervigilant, heart-racing, brain-going-in-overtime experience.  I wasn’t one of them.

Priorities.  Back to what I was thinking about – there obviously wasn’t anything to be found here that would win me a fight against Leviathan or even hurt him.  Ridiculous to think that way.  Any advantages to be gained would be ones that kept me alive.

I wiped the beads of water from my lenses with my glove, which only seemed to divide each of them into a mess of smaller droplets.  Leviathan was bigger than me, stronger, faster, tougher.  I had to think like a mouse who might run into a murderous cat at any moment.  Like prey.  Use my small size.  Hide.  I needed a position that kept me out of sight, gave me a good vantage point, but left me free to make a run for it.  A spot where I had an escape route if things got bad.  To top it off, in the event Eidolon couldn’t stop the wave, I could also do with cover.

It was the sort of street you saw often enough in the Docks.  Large buildings lined either side, like giant boxes made of concrete or brick.  I could have maybe found a fire escape to climb up, in the hopes that I’d be out of reach of the wave, but my experience with Lung back on day one had taught me better.  The higher ground was an advantage, sure, but if your opponent could get up or down from that location faster and more easily than you could, that stopped being an asset really damn quickly.  If there was anything that was going to be useful, it would be on ground level.  I saw a rusted van that had sat in front of an old workshop since I’d first passed through this area, all tires flat, windows broken, interior gutted.  A chain link fence stretched between two buildings, but someone had cut the wires that connected the fence to the frame, so half of it was curled back and waving slightly in the wind and rain.

No, those things weren’t useful.  Larger scale?  There was an old roof supported by two pillars, attached on one side to a building, a carport, perhaps.  The roof was mostly intact, corrugated steel with a smallish hole in one lower corner, which meant the area beneath it was largely dry, but for a small puddle.  It was also exposed on three sides, which meant I couldn’t stay there.  My bugs could.  It was a place they could keep dry until I needed them.

I’d been acutely aware of my bugs since the battle started, and for the second time I could remember, I found my power was responding far more effectively as I called for them.  My reach extended further, my bugs were fractionally more responsive.  The last time this had been the case, it had been when I teamed up with Bitch, Sundancer and Newter and wound up fighting Oni Lee and Lung.  I couldn’t explain it, but I wasn’t going to complain.  I needed every small advantage I could get.

As they began gathering under the carport, my mind returned to that notion of being successful ‘prey’.

When I’d originally designed my costume, I’d picked the darker colors, made sure that the varieties of chitin I used to make the armor were spaced out so the individual shading would retain some ‘speckling’ after being painted, all for a reason.  Camouflage.  I’d known I’d have my bugs all around me.  I’d known I would be standing in the midst of them while they gathered into swarms, would have them crawling on me from time to time.  So I’d picked darker colors and made my armor mottled to blend in with the bugs that were, obviously, specks.

Just hiding inside my swarm wouldn’t be enough.  Too easy for him to attack just the one cluster, tear through me.

So I gathered more than one smaller swarm, clustering them in areas where it was dry.  The interior of the rusted van, under eaves, in doorframes and on a roof, under a large rain barrel.

Then, struck by a little inspiration, I condensed the nine swarms into human-ish shapes.  Black silhouettes crouched, stood tall with arms akimbo, leaned against walls, leaned partially outside the driver’s side window of the van.  In the gloom, through the rain, it was deceptive.  Deceptive enough?  I couldn’t be sure.

I felt the bite of cold air.  A chill breeze, going straight through the soaked fabric of my costume.  When I looked down to where the long road sloped to the edge of the water, I saw the reason for the chill.  Eidolon was flying at the coast, focusing blue rays on the water around the shattered boardwalk and debris at the water’s edge, hardening the waves into irregular sheets and glacier-like formations of ice.

Dangerous.  I could remember seeing on TV that they’d tried something like this a few years ago.  A Tinker using an ice engine, I think.  I didn’t know exactly how or why, but judging by the fact that they hadn’t used the tactic again, I got the impression It had turned out really badly.

My guess was based on the notion that hydrokinesis was the movement of water, and ice was just water in another form.  It wasn’t that Leviathan would levitate the chunks of ice.  Nothing so blatant.  Rather, when a tidal wave did break through the ice, rolled up onto the battlefield with frozen shards and chunks caught up in the current, Leviathan might move those chunks a little faster in the wave’s passage, make them hit a little harder, and give them a tendency to strike where they could do the most damage.

That was my suspicion, anyways.  The heroes didn’t exactly dish out the full details at press conferences, afterward, so I could only make an educated guess.

Either way, it was a delaying tactic.  Holding off the damage, in the hopes that we could end this or get reinforcements before Brockton Bay became another Newfoundland.

We were hoping for Scion.  The first cape, the golden skinned man.  The guy that could go toe to toe with an Endbringer and win, if things hadn’t already gone too far south.  If Behemoth hadn’t already turned the area into a radioactive, magma-ridden wasteland.  If Leviathan hadn’t built up enough momentum with his waves.  If the Simurgh… Ok, the Simurgh was different, I had to admit.  The issue with her wasn’t so much winning the battle.  It was what came after.  Win every battle against her, lose the war, more or less.

The problem with waiting on Scion was that the guy wasn’t exactly in touch with the rest of us.  There was speculation he had at least one human contact – someone that had given him clothing and a costume, at least – but he never bothered to stop long enough for anyone to pass on any requests, to tell him to go to X place when we gave him Y signal.  He rescued people twenty-four-seven, three hundred and sixty five days a year, handling crises only as they came to his attention, which meant that sometimes an Endbringer came and Scion was wholly occupied with saving sinking ships, stopping landslides and putting out housefires.  I wondered what he was doing now.

My swarms were in place, which left me having to decide where to hide.  The carport was too in the open, none of the eaves left me a good enough escape route, and as for the space under the rain barrel on the roof, well, I wasn’t that stupid, and I’d already dismissed the roof as an option anyways.

I started toward the rusted van.  I was halfway there when I reconsidered.  As comforting as it might be to have the safety of metal around me and to be more or less concealed, it posed some of the same problems as the rooftops.  If things turned sour or if an unexpected situation arose, I’d be trapped.

After a moment of tense consideration, I reluctantly decided on the carport, hunkering down in the gloom and hoping the shadows there would help conceal me.  It offered me an escape route – around the back of the building, or through the side door, it gave me cover from the rain and any debris, and it gave me concealment.  I’d have to cope with the lack of cover from any incoming waves or Leviathan himself.

Secure in the amount of bugs around me, I collected the ones that could go out in the rain and manage reasonably well.  Primarily roaches.  I sent them out in the general direction of where Leviathan and the others were.  The better a sense I had of any imminent encounters, the better I could react.

Manpower deceased, CD-6.  Aegis deceased, CD-6, my armband spoke, at the same moment my bugs reached the area around where Leviathan had been.

He was awake again.

Aegis would have been covering an aerial route, keeping Leviathan from heading to the rooftops, which meant Leviathan went up.  I had the mass of roaches ascend, trying to get a sense of his location.  I tried to use my armband to help gauge the direction he was traveling, but since I couldn’t move my arm, it was difficult at best.

Fenja down, CC-6.  My head snapped up.

I found them.  Fenja and Menja were duking it out with Leviathan.  Both were nearly as big as he was, which was saying a fair bit.  I knew their power warped geometry to make them bigger, simultaneously reduced the effective size of incoming attacks by an inversely proportionate amount.  Six times as tall and a sixth of the hurt, on top of the benefits of being bigger.

Fenja deceased, CC-6.

It wasn’t doing them a lot of good.  Not Fenja, anyways.

I saw a light as Kid Win rose above the level of the buildings, fired a painfully bright beam down at the EndbringerAfter the laser petered out, he rose up higher again, to keep out of reach.  He was in the middle of firing another beam when the laser flicked around nearly three hundred and sixty degrees, spun by a massive impact.

Kid win down, CC-6.

And then Leviathan was in view, entering the same street I was on.  As if to herald his coming, a massive wave crashed hard against the barrier of ice Eidolon had erected around the wrecked Boardwalk, the spray seemingly reaching nearly to the stormclouds above.

One shoulder was bloated, five times the normal size, twisted, like it was covered in elephantine tumors, bleeding openly.  He was injured in other places, had a hole through the side of his stomach, a larger blackened wound at the base of his neck, and a fifth of his face was missing, torn off below the cheekbone.  He didn’t seem to be suffering much.  He held Kaiser’s upper torso in the one claw, tossed it casually to one side.  The man’s legs were nowhere to be seen.

Wait, what?  I hadn’t heard the report on Kaiser’s death.  I checked my armband, where my arm hung immobile at my side.

It was dead, offline.  Black screen.

I didn’t have another second to worry – Leviathan was extending one claw in my general direction.

The water that had pooled shallowly beneath the carport trickled his way, as if it were moving downhill, gathered in a rising bulge of water on the street in front of the carport, swelling to five feet in height, fifteen feet across.

Unsure what to do, I remained absolutely still.

A movement of his claw, and the bulge broke, spilled to one side as an onrushing wave.  It swept beneath the rusted van, suddenly rose to heave the vehicle in Leviathan’s direction.  The van rolled once, skidding toward the Endbringer, threatening to strike one leg out from under him.  He stopped it by punching it through the roof, into the front end of the van.  He stabbed the other claw through at the same point, tore the van into two halves that he tossed to either side of him.

A flick of his tail, and he sent a blade of water slashing through the air at the rain barrel, slicing through the swarm and stilts.  The barrel crashed to the rooftop, and water cascaded out.  A twisting movement of his claw, and that cascade of water flowed off the roof in a small, controlled wave, moving like a speeding car, straight towards the carport on the other side of the street, toward me.

I caught a glimpse of Leviathan rearing back in reaction to something as I legged it, left my swarm behind as I ran perpendicular to the wave’s direction, away from Leviathan.  I leaped as I felt it make contact with the swarm, felt it slam into my legs a fraction of a second after.

I’d cleared enough ground that the angle of the hit didn’t throw me straight into the side of the building.  I was thrown a distance, rolled on my side, on top of and over my probably-broken arm.

Pain consumed me.  I writhed, my good hand pressing on my bad arm.  I gagged, pulled my mask up to throw up, as if my body was trying to find some way to rebel against the pain.  I tried to climb to my feet, but I was too weak, dizzy, and my good arm gave out.  I landed face first in dirty water.

I had no idea how long it took me to pull myself together.  It could have been two minutes, it could have been ten seconds.  I managed to climb to my feet.  Stumble back toward the carport, staying to the shadows.

As I approached the corner of the building, I saw Armsmaster fighting toe to toe with Leviathan, a Halberd in each hand.  One was similar to the one he’d used the night we attacked the fundraiser, capable of unfolding into a grappling hook, the other was simpler, a dull stainless steel from tip to butt end, with no decoration or style to it.  The head was surrounded by a strange blur that seemed static, unmoving around the blade and point.

Leviathan slapped his tail at Armsmaster’s legs, and Armsmaster leaped over it, swiped out with the blurry Halberd.  It carved a chunk out of Leviathan, left a cloud of dust that the rain quickly drove down into the expanse of water beneath them.  The Endbringer reared back in pain, and Armsmaster stepped forward, leaped up higher than any normal human could, and caught Leviathan just above the knee with the Halberd, driving the blade nearly a third of the way to the bone.

Leviathan retaliated, swiping at Armsmaster, but the hero planted a foot on the uninjured part of the knee, and kicked himself back and out of the way.  The afterimage followed him, and he swiped at it with the other Halberd.  The blade erupted with a flame like a giant purple blowtorch, turning the worst of the afterimage into steam before it could crush him.  He turned his back so the steam didn’t billow against the exposed flesh of his face.  Some remains of the afterimage struck his armor, but he slid back and rolled with the impact, keeping his feet on the ground the entire time, enabling him to leap and roll to one side as Leviathan’s tail came down from behind and directly above him.

Leviathan was badly injured.  Ichor poured from six large wounds that hadn’t been there when he’d arrived on the street.

“You dumb brute,” Armsmaster growled.  He was panting for breath.  “Every fight you’ve done so far, that we’ve got on camera?  I’ve watched it, put it through programs.  I’ve got a computer on my back that’s relaying to a supernetwork, noting your every move, using subsonic pulses to read every aspect of the street, the surrounding buildings, every feature of the terrain.  I know exactly what you’re going to do next – you’re going to try to catch me from behind with a wave.”

Leviathan lunged, swiped with the oversized claw.  Armsmaster rolled to one side, then swung both Halberds behind him to intercept the wave that was coming from behind, vaporize it.

“You don’t even speak English, do you?  Or you’d know what I was saying, you’d know I already won.  The others helped, slowing you down, stopping the waves.  But this victory, this killing blow?  It’s going to be mine.”

Leviathan lunged, stopped, letting his water echo get ahead of him, then lunged again, a half second later.  Armsmaster leaped out of the way of the echo, drew his knees to his chest to avoid a claw swipe while he was still airborne, and sent his grappling hook between Leviathan’s feet to pull himself to the ground in a flash.  He skidded with the momentum, right between Leviathan’s legs, and raised the blurry Halberd to strike Leviathan between the legs, against the first ten feet of Leviathan’s tail.  The tail was turned to dust where the blade made contact, the plumes of it briefly obscuring Armsmaster.

“This cloud around my blade?  Nanotechnology.  Nano-structures engineered to slide between atoms, sever molecular bonds.  Cuts through anything.  Everything.  Like a sharp knife through air.”

Leviathan whipped his tail at Armsmaster.  Armsmaster stepped out of the way, slapped at the tail with the broad side of the blade.  More dust, another chunk of flesh gone, ichor pouring from the injury.  He ducked the echo as though it were an idle afterthought.

Leviathan turned to run.  Armsmaster sent out one blade like a grappling hook, circled the smaller of the Endbringer’s claws with the chain.  Leviathan moved, oblivious or uncaring, and Armsmaster waited until the slack was out of the chain, pressed a button.

The chain and Halberd ceased moving, and even Leviathan’s strength ceased to move it.  Rather than pull away, the Endbringer skidded, fell on his back, wrist still held by the chain.

A half second later, the chain went briefly slack, then rigid again as Armsmaster reeled himself in. He drove the blurry blade straight into Leviathan’s face with all the force of his forward momentum.  He pulled it free, slashed again, then freed the chain and used it to pull himself across the street, out of reach of Leviathan’s violent response.

Armsmaster called out, “Let’s see how quickly you respond to classical conditioning.  Every time you try to run, I’ll do something like that.”

Leviathan had no reply.  He simply climbed to his feet, swiped a claw through the air.  Armsmaster parried the afterimage that sailed through the air toward him, using the purple flame.

“For the record, that last trick was a temporal stasis trigger, with thanks owed to the cooperation of a subordinate of mine.  Drains my battery reserves, but you don’t understand that, do you?”

Leviathan lunged, and Armsmaster fired out the grappling hook, stopped it in mid air by freezing it in time.  Leviathan ran himself through on the chain, the thing spearing deep into his neck and out the back of his torso.  Uncaring, the Endbringer continued to charge at Armsmaster.

Armsmaster let the chain go slack, ducked a swipe of the tail, leaped forward and to one side to avoid the claw that followed.  Another small hop and roll ensured he moved right beneath the afterimage, and he made two swipes with the blurry Halberd at the back of Leviathan’s thighs as he passed behind the Endbringer.  His chain reeled in, pulled free of Leviathan’s neck wth a spray of blood, came down and across Leviathan’s hip to snap back to the top of the Halberd.  He fired it off again to get himself more distance, pulling himself across the street, spinning to face Leviathan once more as he stopped.

He passed one Halberd to the other hand, so he held two, wiped some frothing spittle from his mouth with his gauntlet.  “I am going to be the one to take your head, abomination.  I can only hope you know mortal terror in your last moments, know what you’ve inflicted on so many others.”

Leviathan stood, straighted itself, touched its claw to its ruined face, then its neck.  The amount of blood it was losing – it seemed somehow more than Leviathan should have been able to contain within himself.  I mean, he was big, but this was a lot of blood.

For several long seconds, Leviathan didn’t move.

“Delaying, buying time for a tsunami?” Armsmaster laughed, and Leviathan cocked his head at the display of emotion.  “No.  Three point four minutes before the next big wave breaks through the ice.  Dragon’s probes are giving me the data on that.  This will be over before then.”

He stepped forward, then stepped again, waiting for some cue from Leviathan.  On Armsmaster’s third step, Leviathan took a small step back, lashed his tail behind him.

“Finally scared?” Armsmaster taunted.  “Good.”

Nausea and pain was welling up in me again as I watched from the corner of the building, under the carport, threatening to override my sense of awe.  It was all I could do to keep quiet, keep from distracting Armsmaster, or distracting Leviathan and throwing some wrench in Armsmaster’s data.  The last thing I wanted was to become the hostage that made Armsmaster hesitate for the fraction of a second that cost him -cost us all-  the fight.

Armsmaster went on an all-out offensive, slashing as fast as his arm could move, cutting leg, knee, tail, leg again, moving out of the way of Leviathan’s attacks as though it were easy.  For ten seconds he continued, relentless.

“I should thank you, monster,” Armsmaster spoke, after he’d just finished a backflip that had carried him near enough to Leviathan’s torso to strike the creature across the lower belly.

Leviathan lunged, dropping to all fours, as if trying to swamp Armsmaster with a huge volume of water by way of his afterimage.  Armsmaster was already casting his grappling hook out, pulling himself out of the way.  In the final moment before he pulled away, his other Halberd swung up and into Leviathan’s neck, making a wound mirroring the spot where Narwhal’s forcefield had cleaved deep, the one Kid Win had undoubtedly opened wider with his laser turret.  Armsmaster reeled the hook back in.

The Endbringer turned, as if to run, only for the loop of the grappling hook’s chain to pass under his ‘chin’.  Armsmaster heaved himself up and onto the Endbringer’s back, drove the Halberd into one side of the neck, lengthening the cut he’d just made.  He stepped on the top of the Endbringer’s head, leaped down, catching the Endbringer across the face with the Halberd as he descended.  Leviathan collapsed, going spread-eagle.

Armsmaster slashed at Leviathan’s forearms as the Endbringer started to clmb to his feet.  More damage done, though it didn’t stop Leviathan from rising.  While Armsmaster pressed the attack, his armband hissed with a message I couldn’t make out.  I glanced at mine – still broken.

“This will be over before then,” Armsmaster echoed an eariler statement, speaking more to himself than to the armband or Leviathan.

Leviathan hopped backwards to create some distance, staggered a little as the more injured of his two legs failed to take his weight, used his smaller hand to stop from falling a second time, poising himself on three limbs.

Armsmaster used his grappling hook to haul himself close, readying to make another slash for the neck.  He changed his mind as the ground rumbled, pulled the hook free to latch it on a garage door.  Countering his forward momentum, he swung himself to one side of the road, staying out of Leviathan’s reach.

The ground rumbled again, brief, intense, stopped.

Armsmaster touched a hand to the side of his visor, and I thought I saw his lips crease in a frown before he turned his head away from me.

Another fierce rumble, and a crack appeared like a seam down the center of the street, a straight line as far as I could see in either direction.

Leviathan raised his claw, and the road suddenly split, heaving upward as a concrete pipe wide enough to fit a man crested from the pavement like a whale rising from the waves.  A second later, water gushed forth, veering toward Armsmaster.

The storm sewers.

Armsmaster hesitated, then threw his grappling-hook-Halberd forward into the onrushing waves like a javelin.  The gush of water froze in time, and he leapt forward, stepping on the furthermost extensions of the immobile spray in a parkour-style ascent over the water and the pipe.  The water resumed its regular motion as Armsmaster took his final leaping step off the top, heading straight for Leviathan.

Leviathan moved faster than he had in the last minute, caught the blade in his claw.

Dust rose from the claw as the blade sank deep, blood poured out, but the blade remained fixed in place.  Armsmaster tugged, failed to dislodge it.  He tried to pull away, but I could see Leviathan had caught onto his hand and wrist with his clawtips, while the Halberd sat embedded in his ‘palm’.

“How!?” Armsmaster roared.

I didn’t hesitate a moment in sending out my bugs.  Three swarms, shaped like people, more as a general cloud.  The bugs all sagged beneath the drenching rain, the ones on top taking the brunt of the downpour.

Leviathan planted one foot beside Armsmaster for balance, reached out with his free claw, and pressed the tips against the side of Armsmaster’s throat and torso.  Still holding on to Armsmaster’s hand and wrist, he pushed against the side of the man’s body.  Armsmaster screamed, a frantic noise that seemed to redouble in urgency with every breath.  He tipped over and fell with a splash.

The Endbringer stood, showing none of the frailty or pain it had been displaying seconds ago.  The injuries were there, to be sure, his head hung at an angle because of the way the weight of his head hung on the intact portions of his neck, but he wasn’t suffering, had no trouble putting his full weight on his more injured leg.  Had it been an act?

The Endbringer dropped Armsmaster’s arm and Halberd, where the weight of the metal armor and device pulled them beneath the water.  A lash of his tail dispatched two of my three swarms.  He watched, seeming not to care, as the third ran up to him, smashed against his leg.  The bugs spreading out, burying themselves deep into his injuries. I was hoping to find some weakness, devour him from the inside out, but the bugs might as well have been biting on steel.  Nothing budged beneath their jaws, their stings couldn’t penetrate.

He turned, crouched, bolted West, away from the coast, full speed.

I hurried to Armsmaster’s side.

“You,” he groaned.  His left arm was gone at the shoulder, torn out of the socket.  Blood poured from the wound.  “You’re dead.”

“Hey, you’re not making any sense.”

“He killed you.”

Had my armband announced my death when it glitched out and died?  Assumed total destruction of my unit, and me with it?

“I’m alive.  Listen, I’m going to try and find your arm, my armband got broken, maybe something got dislodged when Leviathan broke my arm.”

He only groaned unintelligbly in response.

I ran over to the general area where Leviathan had dropped Armsmaster’s arm.   I tripped over the crack that ran down the middle of the street, got my feet under me to keep running, and began feeling through the water.

I came within inches of touching the submerged blade, turning my hand to molecular dust.

Finding the arm, I picked it up.  Heavy, almost too much to hold in one hand.  It wasn’t just the weight of the armor or the fact that it was a muscular, full-grown-man’s limb – the gauntlet had been crushed around the pole of the Halberd, crumpled like tinfoil.  With the arm and weapon in a bricklayer’s grip that was painful to maintain, I hurried back to Armsmaster’s side, dropped them near him.  I shook him, hoping to get him alert, to no avail.

With my only working hand, I pried the Halberd free of his glove, rested his arm across his chest, and pressed the button.

“Armsmaster down!  CC-7!  Leviathan is heading West…”

I felt the bugs I’d clustered in Leviathan’s wounds change direction.  The compass point between West and Northwest was what?  More Wests than North.

“Cancel that!  He’s going West-North-West from my location!”

My voice echoed back to me in the Armband’s tinny voice a half-second after I’d finished.  Armsmaster’s armband changed to display a red dot, tracking Leviathan’s movements, or the closest approximation the system could guess.

“Roger, sounds like he might be heading for one of the shelters, lots of people packed into a space where they can’t run, vulnerable,” someone replied, “Medical help incoming.  Whoever this is, you can track Leviathan?”

“Yes, as long as I’m within a few blocks of him.”  Again, the system relayed my message. Affirmative.  Range restriction of ‘a few blocks’.

Did it really need to reword what I said?

“Can you fly?  Chase him?”

“No.”  Negative.

“Then I’m sending a flier your way, to ensure you stay close enough.  We need eyes on this bastard, and you’re them.”

“Got it!”

There was only silence after that.  Teeth clenched, shivering, I pressed my good hand as hard as I could manage against the ragged mess of Armsmaster’s shoulder, trying to slow the blood loss.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.3

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As tough or invincible as a given cape might be, most were still hemmed in by the restrictions and boundaries of physics.  Getting hit by something that weighed nearly nine tons sent men, women, boys and girls in costume flying, if it didn’t kill them outright.

Leviathan’s echo added surprising quantities of water to the battlefield.  Every step and movement he made, he filled the space he’d just left with water.  How much water did it take to displace something as big as he was?  However much it was, he created something like three times that amount when he took a single step forward, when you accounted for the space his body moved through.  A hard amount to eyeball, because it had the same momentum his movements had, and some of it crossed great distances as he lunged and clawed his way through the front line of capes.

Sham down, CD-5.  Acoustic deceased, CD-5.  Harsh Mistress down, CD-5.  Resolute deceased, CD-5.  Woebegone down, CD-5

I had to help, somehow.

I pressed both buttons on the armband and spoke into it, “Direct me to the wounded I can help.  I do not have mobility powers.  I am not very strong.  I do have basic first aid training.”

There was a pause, then a female voice, synthesized, just sharp enough to be heard over the noise of lasers, guns and rain, “Acknowledged.”

The response both relieved and terrified me.  I’d halfway expected that to fail.

My armband beeped and flashed, and I saw a red dot on the map, along with an arrow at the edge of the square screen.  As I moved my arm, the arrow adjusted to keep pointing the same way.  It was directing me to near where Leviathan was.

Lashing out with tail and claws, he was advancing steadily through the ranks of defenders.  The occasional strike from a strong hero or one of the ranged combatants slowed him, made him stumble, if it hit in the right spot or pushed him off balance.

I hesitated to get closer.  I hated myself for doing it.  I was here for a reason, to do something.

Legend fired a salvo of lasers at Leviathan, and the beams turned at right angles to strike Leviathan in precise areas, knocking his feet from under him, slamming him down into the road, catching him under the chin.  Leviathan raised a hand, and a geyser of water rose to block more incoming lasers.  Legend’s lasers simply turned at angles to circle around Leviathan, strike the Endbringer from behind.  They left Leviathan so hot that his flesh glowed a yellow-orange around the areas they struck him.

I took the opportunity, found some measure of courage and hurried forward to my target.

There was a leg, half floating, weighed down on one end by a metal boot on the foot.  Someone in a leather costume lay on their back, barely conscious, bleeding from a gash that had opened them from the left hip to their right shoulder, a cloud of blood spilling out in the filthy water that came halfway up to our knees, an inky black color in the gloom.

Icouldn’t help them, as much as it pained me to ignore them, move on.  I had to trust that the armband would direct me to someone I could help.

I found the person my armband was directing me to, some teenage boy with a metallic bird design to his costume, the helmet that covered the upper half of his face looked like a bird’s head, maybe an eagle.  I knelt by him.

There was a crash as Leviathan whipped his tail toward Legend, a blade of water soaring through the air to strike the hero out of the air.  The onslaught of lasers interrupted, Leviathan shifted from a crouch on one side of the road to being the midst of the defending heroes in one fluid motion, resuming the carnage in the span of a heartbeat.

Fierceling deceased, CD-5.  Adamant down, CD-5

He was way too close to me for comfort – a single leap on his part would close the distance to me – but freaking out over it wouldn’t help anyone.  I could only hope that the front line would hold for long enough for me to help this person.

“What can I do?” I asked the bird-costume.

“Leg,” he said, voice strained, “Help me stand.”

His left leg, I realized, was smashed into pulp from the knee down.  I crouched, helped him get his arm over my shoulders, and used my legs to heave both of us into a standing position.  The bird-costume was below average in weight for a teenage guy, but it wasn’t exactly easy.  He was wearing armor.

I might not have been able to get both of us up to a standing position like that if it weren’t for my weeks of running.

He leaned on me heavily with each step forward, and we retreated from the front lines.  Someone with the ability to fly landed not far from me to pick up the man with the gaping wound across his torso, flew off with him.  Two seconds later, a teleporter blinked into existence near us, touching two fallen capes, and disappeared with them and a bathtub’s worth of water.

I wanted to apologize for not having a better power to help this person, but the breath would have been wasted.  It was hard work to help him along, to slog through the water.

The fight was ongoing, with a dozen heroes in Leviathan’s vicinity, more than twenty others shooting at him from range whenever there was a clear shot.  Yet more were on the fringes, to keep him from slipping past the combatants and to take the place of the fallen.  It wasn’t enough – the damage we were doing was negligible and his long strides were advancing him further and faster than the rest of us could back away through the water.  Trash and debris threatened to trip us up with every step we took.  He forced a fighting retreat, moving quickly and often enough to avoid being caught by any concentrated fire.

Our progress was agonizing.  Move too slowly, and we fell behind, move too fast as we waded through the trash-ridden water, and we risked falling, lost precious time.  Had to find the middle ground, and we weren’t moving fast enough even if we did find that sweet spot.  Hell, it would have been kinda difficult even without my burden.

Chubster down, CD-5. Good Neighbor deceased, CD-5.  Hallow deceased, CD-5.

It was Alexandria who speared forward to confront Leviathan.  He saw her coming, ceased his onslaught to rear back and then lunge ahead to meet her.  When they were only fifteen feet apart, he stopped, let his water echo rush forward to meet her.

Anyone else might have been staggered in the face of several tons of water moving forward at the speed of a locomotive.  Alexandria intertwined her fingers, swung her arms forward as though she were holding a baseball bat, and cracked her hands against the image a second before she disappeared headlong into it.  There was a sound like a bomb going off, water spraying everywhere, followed by an earthshaking crash as Alexandria used the crook of her arm to catch Leviathan around the neck and heaved him backwards and onto the ground.

Most of the capes took the chance to retreat and expand the gap between themselves and the Endbringer, firing lasers or sonic blasts or whatever else at him as they retreated.

It was so strange to think I was just like the rest of these people.  Even after all this, the last few long weeks to get used to being in costume, it felt like I was the bystander.  Maybe it was that my power was ineffectual here, in the water and the rain, maybe everyone felt that way.

A flier with fringes of ribbons down the sides of her arms, legs and body landed next to me, “Give him to me.”

We transferred the bird-boy to her grip, and they were gone in an instant.  My armband flashed and pointed me toward the next target.

A series of explosions and a massive collision marked Dragon firing a full salvo of missiles and entering close quarters combat with Leviathan.  Alexandria was gone – no, wait, she was rising from the water, where Leviathan had been holding her down.  Standing, staggering, falling again.  Had he been drowning her?

Dragon began breathing out a stream of what might have been plasma in Leviathan’s face.  From his increased struggles and frenetic clawing at her, I gathered he didn’t like it.  Still, it was doing surprisingly little damage to him.

Leviathan found a point to get a solid grip on Dragon’s armor, and tore off a plate.  His next swipe took off another, and it careened a good twenty feet before landing with a heavy splash, close enough to me that I was caught in the spray.

I hurried to the next target on my armband.  It was a woman witih a white costume, white hair and what was probably skull paint on her face.  It was hard to tell, and not just because of the rain smudging the make-up.  Nearly half her face was torn off.  Glanced by one of Leviathan’s claws, maybe, or caught by the lash of water from his tail.

“Hey,” I shook her gently by the shoulders, “You awake?  You alert?”

Maybe a stupid question.  I didn’t even know if she could talk with her face like that.

A small wave sloshed against us, she sputtered and turned her head, didn’t respond.  That was a ‘no’ to at least one of my questions.  I suspected her condition was a combination of shock and blood loss as much as anything else.

Too heavy for me to lift, and I didn’t have first aid supplies.  Fuck, I could have kicked myself for that.  Anything I did have – epipens, smelling salts – were probably spoiled by the water and the septic conditions.  Not that they would have helped.

I looked up, looked around.  Spotted what I needed.  Someone was manifesting green fireballs in his hands, lobbing them at Leviathan, where they exploded violently.

I rose, hurried to him, keeping low so I didn’t walk face first into anyone’s laser blasts or gunfire.  “Your fire, is it radioactive? Is it anything special, extra dangerous?”

He gave me a look, lobbed another fireball, “It’s fire, it combusts if I concentrate it.”

“Okay.  Great.  I need your help.”

He nodded.

I showed him the woman.  “Blood loss is a problem.  She needs the wound cauterized.”

His eyes widened, “I can’t do that!  Her face-”

“-Is half scraped off.  She’s not going to care about a burn.  There’s nothing close to a clean bandage anywhere here, and she’s going to die if we don’t stop the blood loss.”

Looking a little sick, he nodded, wreathed his hand in flame and then pressed it against the woman’s face.  She pulled away, made a gurgling noise.  I gripped her head and shoulder to keep her in position.

“Come,” I said, after he pulled his hand away, “Help me move her.”

Greenfire – I wasn’t sure on his name, and it didn’t seem the time to ask – hooked one arm under her armpit, I used both hands under the other one, and we hauled her off to one side, into an alley, propped her up sitting.

“I’ll stay here,” Greenfire said, “Keep an eye on her.  You go.”

I nodded, pressed both buttons on the armband and spoke, “Next!”

As we emerged from the alley, there was a massive explosion, five times what had followed when Dragon launched her missiles at Leviathan.  Leviathan reeled – He had a shallow burn along one side of his neck, more on his face, one of the four glowing orbs of eyes were dim, but it wasn’t as much damage as I might have suspected.  He lashed his tail violently, as if in anger, or maybe he intended to use the echo of his tail’s lashing to strike down others, I couldn’t be sure.

It was a contingent of lesser heroes that joined the fray, now.  It was as though the tougher fighters were staggering their attacks, to ensure that just the right amount of force was being exerted to keep Leviathan on his heels, taking the maximum amount of damage while being prevented from taking out too many capes at once.  These three were clearly members of the same team, flying in formations, moving in sync.  Two of them had super strength, and were gripping at the damaged areas of Leviathan’s flesh, tearing, pulling away as he lashed out in response, while the third had a massive battleaxe with what looked like a chainsaw setup on each blade, opening more wounds.  The damage was superficial, only taking off slices of Leviathan’s hide, but surely stripping away his hard exterior would help in the long run?

The armband directed me to someone that was already getting assistance.  An obese cape in armor, getting CPR from a man with a princess-bride style mask over the upper half of his head, a goatee, a chainmail lined mantle and a shotgun three times the normal size.  He didn’t know what he was doing – the fat man’s chin was almost touching his collarbone.

When I moved to take over, Shotgun Westley left without a word, wiping his mouth and unslinging his gun as he ran back to the fray.  I was irritated.

Hew down, CD-5.

It was my first time giving CPR for real.  So much harder than it was in the class, on so many levels.  I don’t know if it was the fat man’s powers, his weight, his armor, or some combination of the three, but it took incredible effort to actually fill his lungs.  Just doing it made me want to gag.  He’d vomited a little at some point, and though I’d wiped it away as best as I could when I was done checking his mouth for blockages, the taste lingered.  The taste of salt water only accented that flavor, sort of the same way table salt did with a cooked meal.

Strapping Lad down, CD-5.  Intrepid down, CD-5.

I was aware of Narwhal stepping into the fray, in my peripheral vision.  She raised her hands, manifesting a dozen forcefields like oversize crystal shards around her, then flicked them forward.  Like guillotine blades, the forcefields raced toward Leviathan, faster than the eye could follow, sunk into his flesh.  Those that glanced off stopped mid-air to turn around, edges against his body, getting in the way of his legs moving.

There was a horrendous crash, I looked up, pausing to catch my breath, saw the remains of a car falling apart around Leviathan.  Another crash, a piece of rubble turning to dust from the speed of the impact.  I couldn’t see through the bodies, but I had an idea of who it was.  Ballistic.

A dumpster hit Leviathan in the upper body with the speed of a bullet, and he folded backward, his shoulders hitting the ground while his legs and feet were still held against the ground by a mess of razor blade forcefields.  Narwhal sent another forcefield flying into his neck, and it cut as deep as any attack had yet.  Blood spilled down from the opened wound, thick, more like ichor than anything I was used to seeing.

I heaved another breath of air into the lungs of the fat man, he sputtered, coughed up a mouthful of dark water.  I knew I was supposed to follow up on the CPR, but there was no way I could move or roll this guy.

Unable to do anything but wait and see if he recovered, I raised my head to watch the continuing battle, feeling just a touch dizzy.

The ranged attack continued.  Miss Militia had a bazooka as long as she was tall, and was firing a series of warheads into Leviathan.  She wasn’t reloading, either.  Between shots, the weapon crackled with energy, fresh ammunition loaded into the chamber by her power.  One projectile fired off each second.

There was the girl with the crossbow, who had been with Shadow Stalker.  She had a teammate next to her, handing her the needle-like bolts from a quiver, was loading them into the large crossbow and firing them as fast as she was able.  More than any other attack, the bolts were stabbing deep into Leviathan.

The attacks were actually having an effect.  He was on the defensive, now, and he was hurting.

We’re winning, I thought.

A flash to my left caught my eye.

It was my armband.  The screen was ringed by a square of yellow, a yellow triangle with a black exclamation mark pointing in Leviathan’s general direction.

People were shouting.  Screaming, Narwhal was moving forcefields up in between us and Leviathan, other forcefields were going up.

“To me!” someone near me shouted.  I turned to look, saw Shielder from New Wave.

Tidal Wave.

The fat man’s eyes weren’t even open, he moved too slowly as I shook him.

There was no helping it.

I gave the fat man one backwards glance, and bolted for Shielder. I mouthed an apology I didn’t have the breath to utter, more for my conscience than for the man I hadn’t saved.

Shielder waited until the last second to erect his cerulean bubble around himself.  I caught a glimpse of one cape, a step too slow, getting trapped on the outside, a half second before the wave hit.  Crushed against the exterior of the solid-light forcefield by the onrushing waters.

I’d been in an earthquake before.  A three on the Richter scale, brief.  I’d been at home, and a check of the house afterward only found a few books knocked off the shelf, a mirror fallen from the wall in the front hall.  This was a hundred times more intense, the water rolling over us, against the nearby buildings, making the ground shudder.

For one brief moment, we were submerged, currents running past Shielder’s bubble.  water in front of us, to either side, behind and above.  Outside the translucent bubble, I saw a massive dark shape zip past us, saw Shielder fall to his knees, as though the force of the water against the bubble in Leviathan’s wake was nearly more than he could bear.

Heavy casualties, please wait, a chorus of identical voices announced, coming from the armbands of those ten or twelve of us in the bubble.  Telling us that we’d just taken losses so heavy that the Dragon’s computer system couldn’t or wouldn’t list them all.

The water surging around us stopped abruptly, evaporated into a mist in a second.  Swirling, the mist began drifting.

Myrddin, working with Eidolon. They stood in the center of the road, Eidolon turning the water into mist, while Myrddin gathered it.  Myrddin’s wooden stick was held aloft, and the mist was forming a sphere the size of a beachball at one end.

Ok, I could almost buy the wizard angle, seeing that.

Leviathan leaped from the roof of a nearby building, landing in the midst of one group that was still reeling from the wave, started tearing through them.

The armbands remained ominously silent, even as I watched the casualties.

Myrddin pointed his staff and launched that orb at Leviathan.  It hit harder than anything yet, and the brute was sent flying into the interior of a nearby building.

“Seal him off!” someone shouted.  Chevalier.  “Make him come back our way!”

Forcefields went up around the exterior of the building.  The building itself bulged and warped as Vista exerted her power, thickened the walls, made the middle floors of the building draw together slightly, a slight hourglass shape.  I saw her, wet and worn out, one hand raised, shouting something I couldn’t make out at one of the out-of-town Wards.  The Ward was speaking into his armband, replaying some message.

Depart from the rooftops, buildings may come down imminently, my armband announced.

Flying capes left the roof of the building, each carrying someone.  They were still leaving as Leviathan lunged through the side of the building and the forcefields that had been reinforcing the walls.  He tried to retreat, was stalled by more forcefields.  I saw a figure on the far side.  Bastion.  The hero who had been in the news over his racist tirade.

Bastion bellowed, “Do it!”

Leviathan lunged, crashed through one barrier, making it shatter like glass, only for another to appear immediately after.  He turned to head our way, was stopped by another.

“Fucking do it!” Bastion called out, barely audible.

The building above him bent and the midsection, unable to support the upper floors, crumbled.  The upper half of the building crashed down atop Leviathan and Bastion.

Vista turned, wrapping her arms around the Ward next to her, burying her face in his shoulder.

“Move forward!” Armsmaster called out, “He’s going to want to escape to recover!  We can not let him!”

Leviathan had more than halved our ranks with the wave.  I could see people face down in the water.  Others were crumped up, their bodies contorted, broken, still.

And the damage to the city was just as bad, in a different way.  I stared at the wreckage, the block and a half of shattered buildings, and saw a looming mess of arches and massive iron beams and girders, unable to comprehend what it was.

It dawned on me.  The PHQ.  The headquarters of our local superteam, tourist attraction, torn from whatever fixtures had rooted it in place, smashed to ruins against our coastline.

The Armband spoke.  Losses are as followsDebaser, Ascendant, Gallant, Zigzag, Prince of Blades, Vitiator, Humble, Halo, Whirlygig, Night, Crusader, Uglymug, Victor, Furrow, Barker, Elegance, Quark, Pelter, Snowflake, Ballistic, Mama Bear, Mister Eminent, Flashbang, Biter…

The names kept coming.  I almost wanted to cover my ears, but not knowing for sure was worse.

…Cloister, Narwhal, Vixen, The Dart, Geomancer, Oaf, Tattletale

The recitation continued, but I was numb to them.  Tattletale?  I started, looked around, as if I could find her.  Where had she been?

No, what I suddenly really wanted to know was what the armband meant by losses.  Were all those people dead?  Was Tattletale dead?  Why wasn’t the armband directing me to help someone?  Was there no point, or were our numbers so reduced we couldn’t afford to?

I could hope it was the latter, but having seen some of the injuries I had, it didn’t make me feel better.  It was almost worse, thinking that Tattletale might by lying somewhere, bleeding out or unable to breathe, not getting help.

“Be ready!” Armsmaster called out.

Leviathan heaved himself up out of the building’s remains in one motion, used his tail to pick up and fling a mess of broken wood, concrete and rebar at us.  Aegis threw himself into the cluster of projectiles, but two capes were struck down by smaller chunks.  A third was folded in half by the arc of water from Leviathan’s tail.

Brigandine deceased, CD-5.

I couldn’t afford to dwell on what might have happened to Tattletale.  I wiped beads of water from the lenses of my mask with my gloved hands, pushed my hair out of my face, and made a note of my bugs.  There were scant few in the way of bugs that could navigate in this storm.  Myrddin had banished the water from the wave, somehow, but the downpour was making the streets flood fast enough that I didn’t trust anything to crawl.  No, my power was dead useless, here.

Leviathan turned around, lashing his tail behind him to cast three lashes of water our way, then crouched.

“He’s running!” someone called out.

Leviathan dashed away from us, fast, only to skid to a stop and turn a corner for cover as Legend, Lady Photon, Laserdream and a half dozen other heroes opened fire from the skies above.

Others had picked themselves up, were moving into the side streets and alleys to follow, intent on cutting him off.  I looked around, glancing over at the injured and wounded, knowing Tattletale was among them.

Eidolon was staying behind, raising his hands, and green sparks began rising from the ground, clustering around Eidolon and the fallen, obscuring them.

A second later, he and half of the bodies that had been scattered around the battlefield disappeared, the sparks blooming outward in twenty small firework explosions.

I took that as my cue to join everyone else in the pursuit.  Eidolon could help the wounded.  I couldn’t, really.

I ran after the others, nearly tripping into a pothole in my hurry.  My armband showed a green icon for Leviathan, and I followed it.

Rounding a corner, I came up at the rear of a small crowd, perilously close to the Endbringer.

Fog was blocking one route, while Sundancer stood at another, her superheated orb between her and Leviathan.  The remaining capes were divided between the other two possible alleys Leviathan might have moved through and the air above him.  Legend was hammering Leviathan down to the pavement with a series of laser blasts.

“Care!” Miss Militia cried out, “Fire in the hole!”

She fired a shot from her grenade launcher, grabbed another grenade with a blinking LED from her vest and loaded it into her gun.  Why?  She’d shown with the bazooka that she didn’t need to load ammunition, hadn’t she?

Then I realized why.  It wasn’t the kind of ammunition you found in normal guns.  The first shot exploded into a mess of golden sticky ribbon, familiar, though it somehow escaped my memory where I’d seen it.  The second exploded in midair, near Leviathan’s shoulder, leaving the tips of the scales and one gaping wound glinting like crystal.  As Leviathan moved to recoil, the edges of the crystal separated from his flesh and seeped with that dark ichor.

The third was a modified explosive I recognized.  It bounced off the ground between Leviathan’s foot and the hand he had planted on the ground, landed a ways behind and to the side of him, and exploded much like any other grenade might.  What I recognized was the shimmer in the air around it, a near perfect sphere encompassing the surrounding area, catching Leviathan’s leg, the end of his tail, part of his waist and stomach.

The explosion made Leviathan rear back, and the water that followed in his wake moved slower in that bubble, slowed down with each passing second.

Leviathan himself wasn’t as affected, and he had one foot and an upper body outside of the bubble to help him pull himself free.  He raised his leg free of the golden string goop and up out of the sphere, lashed his tail toward the crowd I was at the back of, catching three people, entwining the tip around their arms, legs and necks.  He flicked them into the center of the time distortion bubble, where they got caught, unable to make their exit fast enough to avoid being frozen in time.

Jotun deceased, CD-6.  Dauntless deceased, CD-6Alabaster deceased, CD-6.

He lashed his tail, sending out a scythelike blade of water toward the other group, turned and leaped.

Miss Militia down, CD-6.

Fenja and Menja moved to attack him, each tall enough to be at his shoulder level, but Leviathan was quicker.  He darted backward, gripped the side of a building, and turned to run up the wall.  He used his tail to radically adjust the angle of his ascent, hooking it on an open window and swinging himself forward over the edge of the roof, before anyone on the ground could get a bead on him.  Debris fell where his tail had pulled through a section of the wall.

Though he’d disappeared from my line of sight, I saw his afterimage continue rising.  Shielder, floating in the air with the help of his sister, used a forcefield to stop the pair of them from being pulverized.  The shield flickered out of existence a fraction of a second later.  His reserves were exhausted, after helping save me and others from the last wave.  He wasn’t strong enough to take a hit from Leviathan or his afterimage.

Legend fired a barrage of lasers at Leviathan, but the Endbringer was quick to hop to one side, landing on the roof’s edge.  He made a sudden, standing leap a good eighty or a hundred feet into the air, tail extending to reach for the airborne heroes.

The whiplike tail struck Legend, and there was a firework display of light and sparks, Legend tumbling out of the sky, head over heels.  In the same movement, the tail reached for Laserdream and Shielder.

Legend down, CD-6,  The armbands announced, just in time to coincide with Legend hitting the ground.

Laserdream put her own shield up, and I could remember how Photon Mom, Laserdream and Shielder all had the same basic powers.  The difference between them was that while Photon Mom’s powers were well rounded, Shielder had a far, far, better forcefield, almost no flight ability and weak laser blasts.  Laserdream was the opposite… her lasers and flight were good enough, but her forcefield, not so much.

Leviathan wrapped his tail around the spherical forcefield that surrounded the siblings, bringing it and the pair down toward the roof as he fell.  When they were halfway down, the constriction of the tail broke through the forcefield, snaked around Shielder’s body and Laserdream’s arm.

The Endbringer landed on the roof with a shuddering impact and a showering of detritus, crashing through the roof.  He bounded up to the edge of the roof, lunged off it.

I could see it like it was slow motion.  Laserdream’s hand glowed and she fired, using the concussive force of her laser to get her trapped hand free, flew up and back out of the way as Leviathan continued to fall.

Shielder, still in Leviathan’s grip, had his upper body brought down against the ragged edge of the building in passing.

Shielder deceased, CD-6

Laserdream’s ragged scream was like something distant, something I was barely aware of, because Leviathan was landing back in the area where the two alleys met.  He leaped in Sundancer’s direction, caught the ground with the claws of his hands and feet to halt his momentum.  His echo surged forward, some striking the superheated orb, where it blossomed into massive clouds of steam.  The rest went low, catching Sundancer below the waist, sweeping her legs out from under her in one violent rush.  She flipped forward, her upper body colliding with the ground.  The miniature sun winked out of existence.

Sundancer down, CD-6.

Turning on the spot, Leviathan moved his claw, creating a wave with all of the water he’d generated since entering the alley, driving it into one of the two gathered groups.  As those capes stumbled and fell back, Leviathan leaped over the time distortion bubble, landing at the front of the other group.  The group with some of the local wards, Velocity, some of Empire Eighty-Eight, and out-of-town capes I couldn’t name.

The group I was at the rear of.

Someone stepped up to grab him mid-lunge – some woman I didn’t recognize, who Othala was touching.  She was granting this woman some form of invincibility that let her take a hit and not get knocked away by Leviathan.

Invincible though she might be, she couldn’t do anything to stop the afterimage from crashing against and around her, through our assembled ranks.

I was shoved back – not by the water itself, but the tide of bodies that were struck, crushed and thrown by the afterimage.  As I was pushed backward, hard, I was spun by an impact at my shoulder.  My arm slammed against a windowsill, and it exploded with a sharp, jarring pain.  I landed on my back, saw someone else get sent head over heels over the crowd, colliding against the wall with an audible cracking sound, landing limp as a rag doll, a matter of feet from me.  He had a trumpet and a flag on his chest.

Escutcheon deceased, CD-6Herald deceased, CD-6.

Kaiser – I hadn’t even seen him in the group – erected a latticework of blades across the front of the alley, between us and Leviathan.  It wasn’t enough.  Leviathan tore through them like I might tear through a wicker basket.  Edged pieces of steel spun through the air and clattered to the ground.

Kaiser changed tactics, creating columns of steel instead, each three or four feet across, harder to shatter.  They were slower to emerge, but they bent rather than broke.

Leviathan responded by pushing.  He exerted his full strength on the barrier of blades and the columns, leaning against them.  The walls broke around the base of the columns, and the pieces of steel fell.

A stab of pain from my arm reminded me I was hurt.  Fuck, it hurt a lot.  It throbbed, and each throb seemed to be worse than the last.  I felt shaky as I used my good arm to stand.

Leviathan didn’t make noise.  I kept expecting a roar, or hiss, or something, but Leviathan was dead silent.  I somehow imagined a victorious howl as he broke through the barrier, crouched, and lunged into the crowd.

He stopped, and I thought he was using his afterimage, halting so it could rush forward, but even the watery echo stopped a second after it appeared, only the very edges of it continuing forward to crash violently against the sides of the alley.

For several long heartbeats, it was nearly quiet, but for the sound of rain, people’s noises of pain, mine included, and the sound of one of Kaiser’s iron columns ripping free of the wall and falling atop a pile of blades.

It took me a second to realize what had happened.  Leviathan hung frozen mid-pounce, and his emerging afterimage similarly stood there, frozen in time.  In the midst of the afterimage was Clockblocker, half-immersed in water.

“Someone get him out of there!  He’s going to suffocate!” I shouted, my voice made that much more edgier and strained by the pain I was in.  My voice, though, coincided with no less than five other cries, all rising to be heard over everyone else.  Trap Leviathan, contain him, use more of those grenades to get him before he got free.  Someone was even shooting arcs of lighting at Leviathan’s frozen form.  Too many commands from too many people who hadn’t fought with or against Clockblocker, who didn’t know how his power worked, who had conflicting ideas on what we had to do.

This chaos would fuck us over, keep us from accomplishing anything before Leviathan got free.  We needed order, and most of the people who could have given it to us were out of action or nowhere nearby.

The armbands.  Armsmaster had said it prioritized orders based on need.

My left arm hung by my side, and I couldn’t even bring myself to raise it.  Just gravity and the weight of my hand pulling down on it was excruciating.  The idea of pressing the buttons was too much.

I reached for the person next to me, grabbed her wrist.  Some woman with a crescent moon on a blue costume.  She gave me a startled look with a lost, shellshocked expression.  When I first pressed against the  communications button, she moved her arm, as if she thought I was guiding her movements.

“Stay still!” I snarled at her.  When I pressed again, depressing the two buttons with my pinky finger and thumb, she held her arm firm.

I shouted into the armband, “Clockblocker down, CD-6!  Need a teleporter to get him free, stat!”

The time freezing effect of Clockblocker’s power lasted anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes.  How long had we spent, here, since Clockblocker had given us this momentary reprieve?  It was hard to judge the passage of time with the adrenaline, the frenetic pace of the ongoing battle.

Trickster appeared in the place of the blue moon Woman, tipped his hat at me.

“Clockblocker, in there,” I pointed with my good hand.

Trickster frowned, looked around.

“I apologize for desecrating your body, brave hero,” he spoke, looking down at where the cape with the trumpet icon on his chest had flopped, dead.  “You do good work even in death.”

Was he mentally cracked?  Was he serious or was he playing around?  I suspected the latter, but kidding around and wasting time in a situation like this?

In a second, the cape was replaced by an unconscious Clockblocker.  The pane of his helmet was cracked and leaking a trail of blood.  I bent down to examine him, was pushed out of the way by someone else.  Some woman with a costume that outlined her bones, like a really good version of the skeleton costumes you saw on Halloween.  She began using her fingers to check Clockblocker’s neck, and I couldn’t help but suspect she was a doctor.

“Listen!” the voice that cut through the shouts and the frantic chatter was authoritative, strong.

Armsmaster.  He had Myrddin, Eidolon and Chevalier just behind him.  People turned to listen, myself included.

“He’s torn through our front line, he’s taken down some of our best, and he’s deliberately targeted and eliminated most of the capes who were in Bastion’s group.  We have precious few left who can take a hit from this creature and survive it, and we’re running low on those who can wall off another tidal wave or block his path.

“We’re not going to be able to go on with Plan A.”  The words hung in the air.

“This brute is hurt, but we don’t have the resources to hold him down while we hurt him any more.  We’re too tightly packed, like this, and it’s too easy for him to take us down in droves.   Two or three more minutes of this, and there won’t be any of us left.”

Armsmaster turned, looked up at where Leviathan stood, frozen.  He pointed up at the Endbringer with his Halberd.  “We spread out.  The second this beast is free, he’s going to look for a way out, to run and heal up what we’ve done to him.   So we cut him off, we slow him down and keep him from getting to any areas where he can do real damage.

“Eidolon is going to leave, do what he can to minimize the damage from the waves and ensure the rest of the city doesn’t get leveled while we’re fighting here.  The rest of us are going to slow Leviathan down best we can, take any opportunities we can to hurt the motherfucker.  In just a second, we’re going to organize you guys, put the toughest and strongest closest to this bastard, space out the people who can hurt him, get the weakest ones positioned to pass on word if they see him slip past us.

“This is our plan B.  We stall, from here on out we prioritize survival over putting this abomination down, and we fucking pray that Scion notices there’s an Endbringer around and shows up before this city and everyone in it is a memory.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 8 (Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“I think we’ve got a stray, Tasha.”

Tasha frowned as she looked up from her cell phone, and looked to where Daniella, behind the register, was pointing.  Her lip curled in distaste.

It was a girl, fourteen or fifteen, with dirty blond hair – both in the sense of being greasy and in color – tipped with streaks of blue.  Her clothes looked like they had only barely made the cut for the goodwill bin, and had been worn for weeks or months since she’d gotten them.  The girl was pretending to look through a collection of jackets that were still left over from last spring.  People like that weren’t supposed to be able to walk around the Boardwalk and bother people.

“I’ll handle it,” Tasha told Daniella.

She quietly cleared her throat, straightened her back and approached the girl with a fake smile plastered across her face.  “Can I help you?”

“I’m good,” the girl shoved one jacket to the other end of the rack, and Tasha couldn’t help but imagine a fingerprint being left on the leather.  She wouldn’t be able to get that image out of her head until she evicted the kid and chedcked over the jacket herself.

It bugged Tasha that the girl hadn’t left.  Most cleared out when confronted, well aware they were in the wrong place.

“I’m going to be blunt, then.  You can’t afford these jackets.  That one you just pushed aside?  That’s a design by Fendi.  It’s over four thousand dollars.”

“No shit?  It’s ugly.”

Tasha pursed her lips, glanced at the other customers in the store.  A pair of college-age girls, a woman and her boyfriend.  Nobody seemed to have heard the vulgarity, or the crass insult.

Leaning close, Tasha hissed, “Do I need to call security, you little idiot?”

‘Security’ served as a euphemism for the enforcers on the Boardwalk, paid uniforms who patrolled the streets and the stores, keeping an eye out for the homeless, gang members and shoplifters.  Their methods were as blunt as methods got.  Victims generally weren’t in a position to go to the cops and complain, or the police simply overlooked the enforcer’s activities.

“I really hate being called stupid,” the girl spoke, meeting Tasha’s eyes with a glare.

“You must be new around here if you aren’t-“

“Shut the fuck up,” the girl interrupted her, with enough force and hostility that Tasha stopped mid-sentence.  “Breathe in my face again and I’m gonna gag.  Your breath smells like vomit and a halfhearted attempt at covering up the smell with candy.”

Unconsciously, Tasha’s hand rose toward her mouth.  She stopped and folded her arms, as if to prevent her hand from straying again.  She tried to gather her composure, tell off the girl, but the girl was already speaking.

“Your boyfriend is cheating on you, Tasha Fowler, sleeping with your best friend.  Pretty fucking ironic, given how unattractive your friend is, and your continued attempts to puke yourself thin and make yourself pretty for him.”

Tasha felt a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“If you hurry and run the entire way, you can catch them in the act.  But you can’t waste a second.”

“How do you…?”  Tasha asked, but the girl was already looking through jackets again, clearly not listening.  Tasha glanced at the door.

“Go!” the girl suddenly barked at her.  Startled, Tasha moved toward the door, and then she kept moving, running.

As the saleswoman left the store, the door banging closed behind her, Daniella stared first at the door her coworker had just escaped through, then at the ratty little girl.

The girl turned her head, pretending to examine a jacket, so she could hide a vulpine smile that spread across her face.

They arrived on site in a clap of thunder.  She almost lost her footing, but Grue offered her a steadying hand.

The downpour immediately drenched every part of her that had still been dry when the tidal wave crashed into the lobby.  She used her hands to pull her soaking hair back out of her face, combing it back into place with her fingertips.

“He’s down there, Tattletale,” Grue spoke.

“Yep,” she replied.  Leviathan was in the midst of the shattered Boardwalk, pushing one section of the wooden walkway out of his way with the tip of his tail.

“Bigger in person,” Regent spoke.  His normally loose fitting shirt clung to him.  After moving his arms and watching the water dripping off of the soaked sleeves, he pulled it off, so he wore only the closer-fitting mesh armor he’d had on beneath.

Tattletale grinned.  Sometimes you couldn’t do anything else.  “We are so fucking out of our depth.”

“Everyone is.  Even Legend,” Grue replied.

“Listen,” she said, “If I die-“

“None of us are dying,” Grue spoke, his voice hard.

Odds are one of us is going to.  Statistically speaking,” Tattletale pointed out.  “As there’s only four of us…”

“Three.  Bitch isn’t here and Skitter’s not in the group,” Grue spoke.

“Right,” Tattletale answered.  She looked for Skitter and spotted her in the jumble of people, on her hands and knees in the receding waters from the tidal wave.  The girl stood, coughed a few times, water spraying from the fabric of her mask, then turned her attention to surveying the scene in that peculiar way she did.

Skitter was so focused on the scene that she didn’t even seem to notice the bugs congregating around her.  More than one out-of-town cape gave her a weird look when a bug flew by, to settle on a wall or somebody’s shoulder, but the girl was oblivious.  Maybe she was so used to being self conscious and imagining people avoiding her or looking at her funny, she couldn’t see it when it was real.  Funny, that Skitter had turned her ability into such an effective tool for sensing and assessing her environment, yet she was so unaware of some things.

She’d be better at using my power than I am.

Skitter had a piece of wet paper hanging off her shoulder, some trash that the wave had picked up, but there was nobody to point it out or pick it off.  She was alone.  Tattletale felt a pang of sympathy.  She’d never been able to stand being isolated, had always had her family, with roommates, friends and fellow squatters living with her after she’d run away.  Taylor, though, seemed to gravitate towards solitude.  She pushed people away, and when it came down to the nitty-gritty, when their group had found out the details with the kidnapped girl, Taylor had left.  Tattletale couldn’t imagine doing the same thing, and she had strong suspicions Taylor was closer to the others than she was.  It was a damn shame that things had gone that way, because she been blossoming as a person, lately, actually connecting to others.  To Bitch, even, of all people.

Tattletale couldn’t help but feel regret, too.  She had to admit the schism was at least partially her own fault.  Not paying attention, not getting the right info.  Tattletale couldn’t help but feel she should have been watching out for this sort of thing, knowing that it would take so little to spook the most sensitive member of their group.

She’d grown lax.  It had been easy to, with the knowledge and comfort of the fact that Coil’s power gave them something of a safety net.   But when she’d phoned, informed him, her fingers crossed, he’d told her that he was already focusing on other things.  He could only make the call on one series of events with his power, after all, and in the wake of the Endbringer’s arrival, he had greater priorities.  The opportunity had been lost.

If I die,” she spoke, leaving no room for further argument, “An envelope should arrive in the mail for me, a week or two after I’ve bitten it.  I wrote it.  It’s got all my passwords and account numbers for the money I’ve set aside, so far.  You guys take it, give some to Taylor if you run into her.”

“Alright,” Grue spoke.  Tattletale quirked an eyebrow at him.  She’d expected more resistance.

“And if you happen to get yourself killed, we’ll make sure Aisha gets what she needs.  Just so you know.”

He didn’t voice a response, but he nodded once.

She cast another glance Skitter’s way.  She should’ve asked, before they parted ways.  Would Taylor want her dad to know what she’d been up to?  It was impossible to say.  Taylor wouldn’t want her dad to know about her villainous activity, but to at least have him know she’d gone out as part of a huge sacrifice like this?  Maybe.

“Get Ready!” Legend cried out.

Tattletale grinned, turning her full attention to the Endbringer from beneath the waves.  It was crouching, preparing to charge.

Using her power wasn’t a switch she turned on.  It was letting the walls come down, letting the information start pouring in.  It meant a killer migraine if she used it too much, especially on people or living things, but if she had a headache three hours from now, it would be a damn good thing.  It would mean she was alive.

Getting rid of the saleswoman had been easy-peasy.  The bit about the cheating boyfriend had been an outright lie.  In a similar vein, the part where she’d mentioned the best friend had been an educated guess, but the salesgirl, Tasha, wasn’t the type to have a friend prettier than her.   The way she’d obsessed over her phone and the revelation about the eating disorder were clue enough that the woman had been deeply insecure.  By the time she realized she’d been played, she would still feel compelled to hurry home and check.  Probably bad karma to leverage that sort of weakness, but it meant getting one obstacle out of the way.

The woman had been a bitch anyways.

Lisa watched out of the corner of her eye as the cashier picked up the phone, her eye on attitude, posture, body language, volume of speech.

Worry; calling coworker, not getting response.
Quiet, hushed; hiding anxiety from customers.  Wants to convey professionalism, confidence.
Anxiety, wants to convey professionalism: new to the job, only started two weeks ago.  Doesn’t know how to open safe: not much money in register.  Doesn’t know how to close store alone.  Still no response desperately needs break for bathroom and to sneak a smoke not allowed to smoke on the job looks bad for customers and manager has hard stance on it making clothes smell.

Lisa closed her eyes briefly, took a small breath to center herself.  This power was new, untrained.  It had a way of running away from her, overwhelming her and leaving her bedridden with headaches if she wasn’t careful.  People were too random, too chaotic, too complex.  She could only push herself like this for an hour or two every few weeks before she started to suffer.  It was getting better over time, as far as her tolerances, but the rate of improvement was agonizingly slow.

No, she had to focus on the essential detail: the girl behind the counter wasn’t calling security.  This was good.  And given the other bits of information Lisa had picked up, she could be sure the cashier would probably be calling other coworkers before getting someone to kick her out of the store.

Which meant Lisa could do what she came here to do.  She turned her attention to the man that sat on the leather covered bench by the change rooms.  Thirty-something, wearing fashionable clothes and a nice jacket that was perhaps a bit too big for him, hair recently cut.  He waited with his attention on his smartphone, while his girlfriend or wife tried on something.  Deserving of a little more scrutiny.

Expensive clothes, expensive phone; wealthy.
Confident, patient despite being in a position many guys hated; mature, adult.  Clothes style match his personal tastes, not the type to dress according to girlfriend’s tastes. Tall, athletic: exercise habits developed in military but not currently enlisted this ties into confidence and patience he’s used to waiting and-

She stopped.  Needed to get back on track.  Just needed a starting point to get at the stuff he’d keep secret.  Confidence, military.  How would he pick a four digit number?

Confident and military trained; goes out of his way to keep numbers random.  Looks early thirties; born late 70’s.  Tendency to go with higher number to start.  8 or 9, mid-range number like four, five or six, then high, low, no repeating numbers.  Dressing in darker jacket, pants, trimmed beard, conservative; number will be even-even-odd-odd or odd-odd-even-even.

“Something else,” she murmured to herself, as the flow of information began to slow.  If it slowed enough, it meant that there weren’t enough points of reference to generate new data, it could even mean her power would start supplying information based on speculation or falsehoods.  She chanced a look at the cashier, but the girl was studiously ignoring her, for the time being.

She looked back to the man.  Shoes were nothing special.  No logos or brand names on anything he wore, that she could see… but he was using his left hand on the touchscreen of his phone.

Southpaw; tendency to go for numbers on left side of keypad, eight, then four, seven, then one or three.  One.  8471.

Good.  And his wallet…

Southpaw, confident; wallet in left jacket pocket.

He was distracted.  She abandoned the coat rack and approached the man, being careful to stay directly behind him, in his blind spot.  His jacket was unbuttoned, and the end with the pocket was draped beside him on the bench, the pocket facing her.  Easy grab.

Wallet in left jacket pocket; intended to help mask presence of gun holstered at left hip.

She turned a hundred and eighty degrees on the spot and walked back the direction she’d come.  Concealed gun?  Not worth it.

Her retreat stopped when she saw the man that was entering the store.  Maroon uniform, cap, belt.  One of the enforcers from the Boardwalk.  Shit.

She glanced at the cashier.  She didn’t need her power to read the girl’s look of surprise and relief to know that the girl hadn’t made the call.  Bad luck?  She looked at the enforcer.

Moving with purpose, going out of his way to avoid looking at her; most definitely coming for her.

Had it been the girl she’d scared off, Tasha?  Probably not.  Did it matter?  She turned and looked for another exit.  The boyfriend with the smartphone was standing up, saying something to his girlfriend in the changing room, walking towards the clothes rack.

Placing himself in way of exit, position of hand; preparing to draw on her if she gets too close to making a run for it.  In cahoots with the enforcer.

Which could only mean one thing.  She looked back at the enforcer that was getting closer to her.

Working with the ‘boyfriend’; Not an enforcer.  Ex-military.  Has gun.

To top it off, the girlfriend was leaving the changeroom, talking cheerfully to her boyfriend as he pulled a dress off a rack.  Her hand was too close to her oversize bag, which was open.  That one was a gimmie.  A team of three, each with guns, all of whom were after her.

Trap.

“No kidding,” she muttered to herself.  How had they tracked her down?  She had been careful to stay out of sight of security cameras, and she had avoided poaching at the same location more than once.  She’d used a different ATM each time she drained some rich schmoe’s bank account, hidden her face from the hidden cameras at each.

She bolted, shoving a display of sunglasses on top of the enforcer, ducking around to his right, out of his reach.

It was a miscalculation, he didn’t care about the sunglasses.  He pushed the rack to the ground, hard, and closed the distance with a single long step.  He had superior reach, strength.  His fist swung in one fluid movement with his step forward, striking her in the stomach, just below her ribcage and off to one side.

Striking solar plexus; trained in martial arts, striking to inflict maximum pain, disabling-

“Urggunnnh,” she swore, as she crumpled to the ground.

“Oh my god, oh my god, what the fuck did she do?!  The merchandise!” The cashier shrieked, shrill.  “I’m going to be in so much trouble, oh my god.”

“Phone the security office after I’m gone,” the not-enforcer spoke, “My supervisor will take it out of my pay.”

“Oh my god,” the cashier spoke, hands over her mouth, oblivious to his words.

“He-” Lisa began to speak, then grunted and choked as she was heaved up to her feet by the back of her shirt.  The not-enforcer twisted the fabric of her shirt until his hand was knotted up in it, the collar tight against her throat.  “He’s not…”

She gave up before going any further with her protests.  It didn’t matter.  Nobody would believe her.  A ratty young teenager from the poor part of town, being paranoid about the cops?  Nobody would step in for her, here.

“I’ll talk to her,” he spoke.  “Let’s see.”  He patted her down with his free hand, brusque, not giving a second’s thought to the fact that she was a girl and a minor.  He reached his hand into her back pocket and when he pulled it out, he had a small knife clasped in it.  Not hers.  He placed it on the counter.

The cashier stared at the knife, eyes widening, then she turned her attention to the merchandise.  Ignoring him.  What the enforcers did wasn’t something that few bystanders were willing to dwell on.  But these people wouldn’t step in.  Not for a potentially dangerous teenager that had been carrying a concealed weapon.

Had he been a real enforcer, Lisa would be scared enough.  There were stories.  People having their fingers broken for shoplifting, being beaten insensate, and there were even tales of the rare girl or boy getting raped by the really twisted fucks.  When the enforcer was done making sure the offender in question wouldn’t come back to the Boardwalk, they left the bloodied person in the back of an alley, worked with another to stick them in a dumpster, or if it was late enough that nobody would see, they would toss them off the side of the boardwalk.  A fifteen to twenty foot drop, depending on the tides and the location of the drop, onto sand or into water that was freezing cold for half the year.

He marched her out of the store, heaving her to the right to keep her from bumping into the doorframe.

He wasn’t an enforcer though.  And he had a gun.  The looming punishment was a little more final than what the enforcers tended to pull.

Has gun; has killed before.

He might kill her.  It wasn’t like she hadn’t done something worth killing over.  She’d drained people’s bank accounts, pocketed the funds.  Thousands of dollars, sometimes.

A spot of light hung in the center of her vision.  She’d pushed too hard with her power.  She’d have to conserve the use of her power, now, or the migraine would knock her out cold when it arrived in force.

There were people all over the Boardwalk.  The tourists watched with idle curiosity while the locals averted their eyes.  Such a contrast there – the locals knew what was up.  It was just inconvenient to pay attention to it.

He forced her into a side street, then rounded a corner so they were behind the row of stores.  He shoved her against a wall, held her there.

She spoke, “Tell me what they’re paying you, I’ll double it.  I won’t have the money right away, but-“

“Not negotiating,” the enforcer spoke.

A few long seconds passed.  She pushed the welling nervousness down, did her best to offer him a smile with her face smushed against the brick.  She asked him, “What’s next?”

“For now, we wait.”

Waiting she could live with.  Waiting wasn’t getting shot and left for some store employee to find as they took out the trash.

It took a minute before the boyfriend and girlfriend rounded the corner.

“Marcus, you know that’s no way to handle a lady,” the ‘girlfriend’ spoke.  She had a posh English accent.  When she spoke again, the accent remained, but the upper class lilt was gone, her voice serious, “Turn her around.”

Marcus, the ‘enforcer’, hauled on Lisa’s shoulder, flipping her around, before planting his palm on her collarbone and pushing her back against the wall.

The ‘boyfriend’ was holding a phone to his ear.  He handed it to the English woman.

“You have a phone call.  We advise you take it,” the woman smiled at Lisa.

Lisa accepted the phone and held it to one ear.

“‘Sup?” she injected playfulness and good humor she definitely didn’t feel into her voice, grinned for the benefit of the three adults with guns.

“I apologize for the manner of our meeting, I hope my soldiers were not too rough on you, Lisa Wilbourn,” the voice on the other end was smooth, calm, unruffled, “Or is it Sarah Livsey?”

“Either or,” she replied,  “Lisa these days.”

“As you wish.  I have been watching you for some time, Lisa Wilbourn, I have become aware that you are something special, and I would like to buy your services.”

Word choice, buy vs. hire: large amounts of money involved.
Word choice, buy vs. make an offer: not really a negotiation.

She glanced at the weapons the three hired guns had in hand.

“I’m listening.”

Leviathan whipped his tail around, slamming it through the ranks of capes.  Immediately after, a lash of water followed in the wake of his movement, cutting down yet another line of gathered heroes and villains.  The armbands announced the losses to the defending side with every attack Leviathan made.  Tattletale hung back, further than even the ranged attackers, and watched.

Steady blood flow from small wounds, asynchronous movement; has blood but no comprehensive cardiac system
No cardiac system, no mouth, no nose, no apparent ears: nonstandard nervous system.

“Educated guess says your power doesn’t work so hot on him,” she told Regent, as the two of them backed away.

“Fuck, no.  If I can do something, my power’s probably gonna backfire like crazy, and I think that bastard’s quick enough that he’s not about to fall flat on his face.”

Tattletale glanced at where Skitter was hurrying to assist one of the wounded.  Even knowing Taylor was out of earshot, she was careful to lower her voice, “And I guess your secret weapon isn’t going to work either?”

“Take two or three times as long, probably, if it worked at all,” Regent grumbled.  “Fuck, I’m useless.”

“Then use that first aid training Grue made us get, help out, and keep an eye out in case your power’s needed.”

Alexandria flew toward Leviathan like a black arrow.

Leviathan charged forward as if to meet the heroine in a head on collision, then stopped abruptly.  His ‘echo’, like a model of himself shaped out of water, continued forward with the same momentum he’d had while sprinting forward.  The heroine used her hands to break the surface tension of the water with a deafening crash, plunged through the water and out the other end, toward Leviathan.  She caught him around the neck and slammed him down against the road hard enough that even Tattletale, at the rear lines of the battlefield, had to adjust her footing as the impact rocked the ground.

Whatever advantage Alexandria had gained, it didn’t last long.  Leviathan’s tail snaked up and around the heroine’s neck, catching her.  He whipped her into the ground, beside him, up into a wall, then back down.  This time, he held her beneath the water, using one claw to help pin her.

Dragon, racing forward through the air with an earsplitting roar, launched the full complement of missiles she had on her suit.  Before the munitions even struck Leviathan, Dragon was shedding the jet engine atop her, the missile launchers, and other extraneous devices, much as a space shuttle cast off pieces of itself as it launched.  The suit collided with Leviathan a half second after the missiles exploded against his torso and shoulders, and steel claws gripped his limbs.

The ‘face’ of her armored suit opened up and began discharging a blue-white flame into his face.  The ‘flames’ didn’t move like flames should, spilling off him and down into the water, where they pooled on the road and continued to burn – after a fashion – beneath the water.  Leviathan, for his part, began tearing into Dragon, clawing away layers of armor with each swipe of his claws, almost uncaring as to the liquid fire that was spilling over him..

Between the smoke from the missiles and the steam that arose where the liquid fire touched water, Tattletale was having trouble seeing the battle.

Tattletale pressed the two buttons on her armband, “Give me a flier to get me to a better vantage point.  Moderate priority.”

It took only ten seconds before one of the Silicon Valley capes arrived.  The man with the jetpack gripped her wrists and carried her up a dizzying height to the roof of the nearest building, five stories tall.  She moved to the edge, being careful to stay out of the way of the other capes that were already set up, raining bullets, flames, lasers and other projectiles down on Leviathan at every opportunity.  The Endbringer was still battling Dragon, had dug deep enough through metal and armor to reach the center of her suit.

Dragon ejected, skidded to a stop eighty feet away, a smaller suit of armor with thin arms and legs, each tapering down to points.  The suit Dragon had left behind glowed red, orange, white, then exploded violently around Leviathan, as though every crevice had been packed with high explosives.  Leviathan reeled, lashed his tail, and then lunged back toward the gathered capes.  He was intercepted by three flying capes this time, who harried him with superstrength and the case of one hero, an oversized battle axe.

Dragon enters battle with suit packed with explosives, risky, current suit has insufficient room for arms and legs: Suit unmanned.

Remotely controlled?  Tattletale raised an eyebrow.  She hunkered down to to watch the fight, mentally opening those doors that let more information flow.

Leviathan, nonstandard cardiac, nervous systems: irregular biology.  No standard organs or weak points.  No brain, heart or center of operations for rest of his body.
Irregular biology, no vulnerable organs: body divided into layers, extending down to hyperdurable core body, each layer down is slightly more than twice as durable as previous. Exterior skin is hard as aluminum alloy, but flexible, lets him move.  3% deeper in toward core of arms, legs, claws, tail, or .5% in toward core of head, trunk, neck, tissues are hard as steel.  6% in toward core of extremities or 1% toward core of main body/head, tissues strong as tungsten.  9% toward core of extremities, 1.5% toward core of main body, head, tissues strong as boron.  12%-

She had to stop, start again.  Her power did that, if she didn’t focus, kept giving her a steady flow of information but not information she could use.

Leviathan had dispatched the three flying heroes and was dueling with Narwhal.  Ballistic from the Travellers was providing supporting fire, sending trash, dumpsters, rubble and pieces of the street careening into Leviathan.

Another try.

Durable layers to body, no conventional organs, irregular biology: Tissues mend from the inside out, layers expanding to fill wounds and integrating into surrounding structures.  Not human.

Knew that much.

Not human: Never was human.

That gave her pause.  But she could imagine Grue shouting at her, “Something we can use!” and that was nudge enough to get her to focus her efforts.  “Weak points.”

No vulnerable organs, hyperdurable tissues: simple organs exist at core of torso, where there is highest amount of surrounding tissues.  Optimal thickness of layer and narrowness of body part at upper arms, just before shoulder joint, and upper thighs, just below hip joint.

Something she – everyone – could use.  She pressed the button for the communicator on her armband, “He’s got weak points, sort of.  He’ll take the most damage at the arm-“

She was cut off by a blared warning from the armband, and a shuddering rumble of the roof she and the squad of ranged combatants had gathered on.  The rumbling only intensified with each passing second.

“Wave!” someone screamed.

Forcefields went up, and being as high as they were, they were out of reach of the worst of it.  She could see it, a tide of water several stories high.  The impact was reduced to a manageable level  only by the shattered Boardwalk and fallen buildings at the end of the road, the uphill slope.

The crash when when the wave rolled against the side of the building was enough to knock over nearly everyone on the roof.

Structure, building age, strength of wave; building will hold.

Hope the people on the ground are as fortunate.

Except another problem became immediately clear.  Without the interference of the most durable front line combatants, Leviathan was able to move freely.

The building shuddered, one wall of the building began to crumble, and Leviathan climbed fast enough that his momentum carried him twenty feet above the rooftop.  He landed in the midst of them, and the roof crumbled beneath his mass.  Two people closest to him were swallowed up as the roof disintegrated underfoot, tumbling towards Leviathan.  He adjusted the position of his feet and one hand, to place them at the still-intact portions of the roof’s edge, where the structure was strongest.

Only a second after he’d landed, the water that followed in his wake crashed down on the roof, splashing out to push everyone present ten or fifteen feet away from Leviathan, tearing the gaping hole in the roof open even further.  Tattletale gripped the edge of the roof to keep from being pushed over, choked as water forced itself into her nose and mouth.  A less fortunate cape screamed as she fell.

This would be a good fucking time to act, Regent.

Wave; Regent briefly incapacitated.

“Fuck,” she muttered.

Hadn’t Taylor been in a situation like this when they’d met?  With Lung?  How had she coped?

Right, she hadn’t.  We stepped in.  Great.

The armband was still rattling off the casualties from the wave.  As Tattletale coughed, tried to clear her mouth enough to breathe, Leviathan lashed out with the one claw that wasn’t planted against the walls of the building, easily striking two heroes down.  From the damage done, it was painfully obvious that they weren’t invincible or anywhere close to it.  A third person gravely injured by the crushing flow of water that followed in the wake of his claw, momentum and a lack of attachment to Leviathan’s own body letting it extend well beyond his reach.

Some cape wearing armor studded with stone imagery retaliated, some sort of power that let him generate matter, like chunks of rock or metal pouring out in a stream, spraying into Leviathan’s face, making the creature pull back.

Leviathan retaliated with a whiplike lash of his tail, bisecting the man.  Of the twelve or so that had been on the roof a minute ago, only three remained.

Not even looking her way, Leviathan raised one claw in Tattletale’s general direction.  The water on the roof shifted, surged toward Tattletale in an isolated wave as tall as she was, lifting her, pushing at her.

The sting of the spray and the salt of the water blinded her.  There was a brief dizzying moment where she realized she couldn’t tell which way was up.  She realized she was falling.

Stupid, the thought was an accusation, biting, directed wholly at herself.

She was the last to arrive.  She grinned as she joined the group that had gathered by the entrance to the Trainyards.  So these are the people Coil found.

“You aren’t wearing a costume, and you’re late,” spoke the tallest of the three present, his voice echoing as if from someplace more distant than he was.  He was covered in darkness that smouldered like a low flame, obscuring him, drifting off in faint wisps.  At times, she could see the image of a skull in the midst of it.  Intriguing.

Darkness generation; muffles sound.
Muffles sound, light: inhibits radiation, microwaves, radio frequencies, miniscule effects on the transfer of kinetic energy-

“Don’t have one,” Lisa replied, before she could get lost in the flow of information and took too long to respond.

“You’ll have to get one.”

Orders, demands, statements, condemnations, use of skull in costume: solo operator, organized, careful to divorce emotion from action & agenda.  Falls back on order, rules, self discipline in times of stress.

“I was sort of thinking I’d take a backseat role, serve as your contact, the gal on the other end of the phone, keeping you guys on track, feeding you info.”

“Fuck that,” the only other girl in the group spoke, jabbing a finger at her, “If you’re taking an equal share, you’re gonna get your hands dirty too.”  One of the dogs that accompanied the girl growled, as if to punctuate the statement.

Word choice, ‘too’:  haunted by demons.
Swearing: Antisocial.

Unhappy with status quo:  seeking to change things, seeking money, power, prestige.
Antisocial, swearing, clothes prioritizing function and comfort over style:  not seeking human connections, prefers company of dogs.  Powers relate to dogs.
Powers relating to dogs, not seeking human connections, antisocial, inner demons: powers side effects disconnected standard human empathy and understanding, no longer grasps full extent of human relations, signals, signs, cues-

Tattletale shrugged, admitted, “My power isn’t so good in a direct confrontation.”

“Figure it out,” the darkness generator told her.

“Alright, can do,” she assured him.  As much to test his patience and see his limits, she grinned and offered the words, “Should be fun.”

The darkness generator folded his arms .

Folded arms: Irritation, doubt.

She glanced at the one person who hadn’t spoken yet.  Hard ceramic mask with a blank expression frozen on it, a coronet set atop black hair, renaissance era clothing.  Only his eyes were visible.

“Barrels of fun,” the boy spoke, in a tone that might have been sarcastic, or might have been disinterested.  His eyes met hers.

Disinterest or affected disinterest, lack of engagement, lack of pupil dilation or contraction coinciding with eye contact:  limited emotional depth, deeply repressed emotions and/or depression.  Sociopath.

Odd as it was, she felt better, knowing these things.  She liked to think that everyone had roughly the same measure of fucked-up-ness in them, some weird or offensive element.  Knowing that it was so close to the surface, or relatively close in the darkness manipulator’s case, it was almost reassuring.  It meant that she didn’t find out something ugly days, weeks or months down the line.

Which was a set of memories she was not keen to dwell on.  She pushed that thought & the emotions that boiled up with it out of her mind and grinned as though she found Regent’s comment amusing.

The darkness generator made a noise, which she realized was a sigh.  He spoke, “Alright.  We do this team thing, we’re going to do it properly.”

“Of course,” she smiled wider.  As much to irritate him as anything else, she added, “How hard could it be?”

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Extermination 8.2

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There was a quiet murmur through the room at Legend’s words.  One in four dead.  And that didn’t mean the rest of us would get away unscathed.

“I’m telling you your chances now because you deserve to know, and we so rarely get the chance to inform those individuals brave enough to step up and fight these monsters.  The primary message I want to convey, even more than briefing you on the particulars of his abilities, organizing formations and battle plans, is that I do not want you to underestimate Leviathan.  I have seen too many good heroes,” he paused for a fraction of a second, “And villains, too, die because they let their guard down.”

Legend paused, glanced out the window.  The storm clouds had reached the beach, and torrential rain stirred the water into a froth.  Not just rain, but buckets of water.

“We think of Leviathan as the middle child; he was the second of the three to arrive.    He is not the physical powerhouse Behemoth is, nor the cunning manipulator that the Simurgh so often proves to be.  That said, I would advise you to think of him as having many of the strengths of both siblings at once.  You’ve seen the videos on television and the internet.  You know what he is physically capable of.  I want to be clear that despite the image he might convey, he is not stupid, and he can display a level of cunning and tactics that can and will catch you off guard.

“I will tell you what you may not know from the videos.  He feels pain, he does bleed, but few attacks seem to penetrate deep enough past the surface to seriously harm him.  He is like the other two Endbringers in this respect.

“What sets him apart is his focus on water.  You’re likely aware of his afterimage, his water echo.  This is no mere splash of water.  At the speeds Leviathan can move, surface tension and compressibility make water harder than concrete.  He also has a crude hydrokinesis, the ability to manipulate water, and there will be water on the battlefield.  We believe that this is what lets him move as fast as he does when he is swimming.  Faster than he is normally, far faster than any speedster we have on record.”

He went on, “Were it just that, this fight might still warrant a show of force like what we’ve gathered here.  But things are more serious than that, which brings me to our primary concern.  As much as Dragon and Armsmaster’s advance warning might give us the opportunity to make this a good day, other issues threaten to make it just the opposite.

“I spoke of Leviathan as a hydrokinetic.  I can’t state this enough – Leviathan is primarily a hydrokinetic on a macro scale.  There is no better illustration than the days where Leviathan won.

“Newfoundland,” he spoke.

I knew exactly what he was speaking of, and mouthed the date as he spoke it, “May ninth, 2005.  Nearly half a million dead.  The Canadian island simply gone, after the shelf of land holding it up cracked in the face of what we now understand were incredible pressures beneath the water level.

“Kyushu, the night of November second and the morning of the third, 1999.  His sixth appearance.  Nine and a half million killed when the region was swamped with tidal waves from every direction while Leviathan disrupted prearranged evacuation attempts.  Nearly three million evacuees rendered homeless, a nation sundered.

“These were errors, grave mistakes from defending heroes.  We had but one strategy at the time – to hem him in, minimizing the effects of growing waves and casualties until Leviathan was beaten into a retreat or Scion arrived.  These areas, however, were too vulnerable.  Waiting let Leviathan build up the strength of his attacks, and we lost.”

He paused.  “We have since classified the locations the Endbringers target as either hard targets or soft targets.  The hard battlefields are where we stand our ground, buy time, wear him down.  The soft ones are locations where we cannot afford to do this.”

The television screen showed a cross section of Brockton Bay as seen from ground level.  The West end of the city was bordered by hills, and the terrain sloped gradually from the base of the mountain down to the water.  Directly below the image of the buildings that marked the city’s location, there was a large cavern, bordered by rock on all sides except the part nearest the beach, which was sand.  It was marked blue – filled with water.

“Brockton Bay, this location, is a soft target.  The city was originally founded at this location because of the proximity to the coastline for trade routes and an aquifier that provided the first settlers with access to fresh water.  This aquifier, essentially an underground lake beneath the city, is our weak point.  From the moment Leviathan shows himself, we expect Leviathan will stir and manipulate this underground reservoir to erode the surrounding sand, silt and rock.  Add the tidal waves from above, with the resulting tremors and impacts…”

I doubted anyone failed to understand what would follow.  A section of the city, perhaps most of the city, could collapse into the aquifier.

He paused, “We have to end this fast.  Each wave he brings on top of us is stronger than the last.  This means we have two priorities.  First, we cannot let him out of our sight.  From the moment the battle is initiated, we hem him in, sustain an offensive onslaught.  If we let him slip past our defensive lines, precious time will be wasted chasing him, getting him in another situation where we can contain his movements.

“Our second priority is that we need to find ways to hurt him.  If you cannot, if your attacks are deflected or prove otherwise useless, work to support those who can.  It is vain to hope to kill him, but he can be whittled down enough that he will flee back to the ocean, and if we hurt him enough, it may delay the time before he is capable of making another attack elsewhere.”

Legend frowned.  The windows were rattling with the force of the rain against them.  It was almost impossible to see through them with the water that streamed down, and the overall gloom beyond.

This is what the Endbringers are.  As of yet, we’ve been unable to stop them, unable to get through even one confrontation without grievous losses, be it civilian casualties, the loss of a city, or the loss of the lives of some of the bravest and strongest of us.  And they will keep coming, one after another, winning these small victories, and winning some major ones.

“You are doing a good thing.  The greatest thing.  This is why we are tolerated, why society allows and accounts for the capes that walk the streets and fight in its towns.  Because we are needed for situations like this.  With your assistance, we can forestall the inevitable.  Your efforts and, if you choose to make them, your sacrifices, will be remembered.”

He looked to Armsmaster.

Armsmaster spoke, authoritative, less impassioned, but confident, “The Wards are handing out armbands of Dragon’s design.  These are adjustable to slide over your arm and should be tightened around your wrist.  The screen on the top of the armband notes your position on a grid, as well as Leviathan’s last updated location.  Use this.  You’ll also note there are two buttons.  The button to the left lets you send messages to everyone else wearing an armband.  It will not, unless you are a member of the Protectorate or otherwise a veteran of these fights, directly communicate what you say to everyone else wearing an armband.  Dragon has a program screening messages and passing them on through the network based on priority, to cut down on unnecessary chatter that could distract from crucial information.  If you must bypass this three to five second delay, speak the words ‘Hard Override’ before conveying your message.  Abuse of this feature will lose you the ability to send any further messages.”

“The second button is a ping.  Use it in the case of an emergency, to alert others if you are in danger or hurt.  If it is not an emergency, but you want assistance, such as a flier to get you to another vantage point or you see an opportunity to turn the tables, press both buttons, tell the armband what you want.  Dragon’s program will prioritize your needs, with assistance being directed your way if others are not occupied with more pressing matters.  The armband tracks your condition and will automatically send a ping if you are badly injured or unconscious.”

Legend called out, “Capes!  If you have faced an Endbringer before, stand!”

I watched as the rest of the Protectorate, about a third of the out-of-town Wards, Bambina, half of a commercially sponsored cape team and the Travelers stood.  I couldn’t help but notice Armsmaster lean over toward Miss Militia, whisper something in her ear, and point at the Travelers.  Miss Militia shook her head.

“When in doubt, follow the orders of the Protectorate first!  We have trained, organized and planned for this!  The others who are standing, now, are the ones you listen to if we aren’t contradicting their order!  They have been through situations much like this, you go with their instincts!

“We are splitting you into groups based on your abilities!  If you are confident you can take a hit from Leviathan and get up afterwards, or if you have the ability to produce expendable combatants, we need you on the front line!  You will be directed by Alexandria and Dragon!”

As a share of the crowd moved toward one corner of the room, Armsmaster stepped down from the podium to approach Tattletale, Grue and Regent, “Where’s Hellhound?”

“At least call her by her real name,” Tattletale glared up at him, “She’s not here.  You knocked her dogs around enough to know they aren’t that tough, and that means you’re implying they’re expendable.  Be glad she wasn’t around to hear that and figure that out.”

Armsmaster opened his mouth to respond, but broke off when Legend called out his name.

“Armsmaster and Chevalier will be leading the hand to hand combatants who do not fit in Alexandria’s group!  Anyone who thinks they can harm or hamper Leviathan in close quarters, you’ll be assisting and reinforcing the front line!”

Armsmaster strode away from the Undersiders, and I saw Assault, Battery, Brandish, Night and Fog move to join that group, among others.  Smaller than the first group, but I suppose it took a certain amount of bravery to be willing to get close to an Endbringer when you weren’t invincible or close to it.

The boy with the metal skin began to pass through my row.  He handed me an armband from a bag, and I slid it over my hand and cinched it in place.  A flat, square screen showed a satellite view of the building we were in, and the surrounding parking lot and beach.  A display read: ‘State name’.

I pressed the communicator button and spoke, “Skitter.”

My name appeared on the display, with a yes and no display in the corners over the respective buttons.  I confirmed it.

Legend was still organizing the groups.  “-forcefields, telekinesis, whatever your power, if you can interrupt Leviathan’s movements or help reduce the impacts of the waves, you’re the backup defense!  Bastion will direct you!”

I was also all too aware that the size of the group that was still sitting was dwindling, and I had no place to go.

“Movers!  We need fliers, teleporters, runners!  You’ll be responding to pings!  Rescue the fallen, get them to emergency care, assist any others where needed!  Myrddin will give you your orders!

“Long ranged attackers, with me!  If you fall in more than one category, go with the group where you think you’ll be the greatest assistance!”

Did I count as a long ranged attacker?  No, my power wouldn’t hurt Leviathan.  I turned to look at those of us who were still seated.  I recognized Grue, Tattletale, Regent, Othala, Victor, Panacea and Kaiser.  There were a half dozen more who I’d never seen before.  People from out of town.

“The rest of you-” Legend was interrupted by shouts.  Bastion bellowed, pointed, and the people in his team moved.

Layers of forcefields went up around the far wall in front of and behind the front windows, and they weren’t enough to take the hit.  The building rocked with an impact, the forcefields to the left collapsed, and the water began to rush in, carrying chunks of brick, glass and the metal windowframes into the lobby.

One of the television screens toppled in the onrushing flood.  The other two showed a flickering series of images, a half second of each.  The coast of Brockton Bay being struck with a wave.  The ferry, the harbor down at the south end of town, the boardwalk, all smashed by the initial wave.  I saw a glimpse of a tall figure in the middle of one shot, little more than a blur behind the spray of water and the rain.

There was a loud groan, and the ceiling at one corner of the room began to descend swiftly toward the ground.  Narwhal flicked two fingers up in that direction, and shored the ceiling with some forcefields, but I saw other portions of the ceiling begin to sag, gallons of water pouring through the gaps in the ceiling tile.

“Strider!” Legend bellowed, over the noise and chaos, “Get us out of here!”

A voice sounding from the armband, female, synthesized, except I couldn’t make it out over the noise.

The air was sucked out of my lungs, and there was a noise like thunder.  My entire body was rattled down to the core, and I thought I might have been struck by lightning.  I was outside, I realized, on my hands and knees in what I first took to be the middle of a shallow river.  The rain that pounded down on us was more like a waterfall than any rainstorm I’d been in.  The taste of the salty ocean water filled my nose and mouth.  My soaked mask clung to my lower face, forcing me to hang my head to keep my breaths from pulling more water into my mouth.  A few coughs and heavy exhalations cleared the worst of it away.

We’d arrived in the middle of a road, one I’d crossed several times when going to the loft or leaving it.  It was still dark out – either the sun either hadn’t started to rise yet, or the storm was enough to obscure it.  The ‘river’ that I was kneeling in was the ebb of water from the first tidal wave, receding downhill toward the beach and the ocean.  It brought waves of trash, litter, broken windows, wooden boards and dead plants with it.

I looked around, saw the other heroes and villains composing themselves, climbing to their feet in the knee deep rush of water.  A few fliers were conveying our ranged combatants up to the rooftops.

At the end of the road, downhill, was the Boardwalk, or what was left of it.  From what I could see through the downpour, the wooden pathways and docks had been shattered by the initial wave, to the point that many were standing nearly straight up, or were buckled into fractured arches.  Water frothed and sprayed as it rushed back against the ragged barrier that had been Brockton Bay’s high end shopping district.

He was there, too.  I could see his silhouette through the rain and the spraying water that was the tidal wave’s aftermath, much as I had on the television set.  Thirty feet tall, the majority of him was was muscled but not bulky.  His hunched shoulders, neck and upper torso were the exception, bearing cords of muscles that stood out like steel cables.  It gave him a top-heavy appearance, almost like an inverted teardrop with limbs and a tail.

His proportions were wrong – his calves and forearms seemed too long for his height, his clawed fingers and digitigrade feet doubly so.  He moved with a languid sort of grace as he advanced through the spraying water.  His arms moved like pendulums, claws sweeping against the water’s surface, while his upper body swayed left and right, as if to give counterbalance to his great height.  His tail, forty or fifty feet long and whiplike, lashed behind and around him in time with his steps, perhaps borne of the same need for balance that gave him his teetering gait.

Gallons of water poured around him in the wake of his movements, roughly the same amount of mass as the body part that had just occupied the space.  This ‘afterimage’ streamed down him and splashed violently against the water he waded through.

As he got closer to the heroes and villains that were organizing into lines, shouting something I somehow couldn’t hear over the buzz of fear and adrenaline, I could almost make out his face.  It was something you never really saw in the videos or pictures.  He had no nose or mouth, no ears.  His face was a flat, rigid expanse of the same scaly skin that covered the rest of him, like the scales of a crocodile’s back.  The hard, featureless plain of Leviathan’s ‘face’ was broken up only by four cracks or tears – one on the right side of his face, three on the left.  In each of those dark gaps, the green orbs of his eyes glowed with a light that pierced through the rain.  His head moved faster than the rest of him, twitching from one angle to the next like someone’s eyeball might flicker left, right, up and down, taking us all in, uncannily out of time with the rest of his body.

“Get ready!” Legend howled the words.

It was hard to say whether Leviathan heard the command or if Legend had spotted some tell, but Leviathan dropped to all fours at the same time Legend gave the command. With Legend’s cry still ringing in the air, Leviathan moved.

He was fast.

Fast enough that his clawed hands and feet didn’t touch the road beneath the water – after the initial push, his forward momentum was enough to let him run on the water’s surface.

Fast enough that before I could finish drawing in a breath, to scream or shout something or gasp in horror, he was already in the middle of us, blood and water spraying where he collided with the lines of assembled capes, and the armbands were beginning to announce the hopelessly injured and deceased.  Carapacitator down, CD-5.  Krieg down, CD-5.  WCM deceased, CD-5.  Iron Falcon down, CD-5.  Saurian down, CD-5…

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Extermination 8.1

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The crush of bodies was a tide that Tattletale and I had to push through.  There were a thousand or more scared people in our immediate area, surging against and around us.  Even our costumes didn’t give people much pause or reason to give us space.  Thoughtless in their panic, the crowd was guided only by the barricades of policemen and police cars that had been established at the intersections to guide the masses to the shelters.

Everybody had been informed, in the pamphlets that came in the mail and in schools, about emergency procedures.  There were multi-level shelters spaced around the city, enough for people to hunker down in for a few hours.  They’d all been told that they could bring our larger pets if the animals could be trusted to behave.  They could bring only necessary medical supplies and what they could have on their person.  People weren’t allowed to use their cars, unless they were in one of the areas on the periphery of town.  Too easy for there to be an accident in the panic and hurry, leaving everyone else stuck in a traffic jam when disaster arrived.

But people were stupid.  A chronic condition of our society, that so many people somehow thought they were special, the exception to the rule.  In this panicked crowd, every rule was being broken.  There were people with luggage on wheels, one kid carrying a lizard in a glass cage.  People were pushing and shoving, shouting and swearing.  Pets were reacting to the ambient stress with barks and snarls, dashing around and getting others tripped or tangled up in leashes.  Tattletale and I passed two cars that were even making their way forward in the midst of stampede, inch by inch, honking their horns the entire time.  Between the air raid sirens and the honking horns, I couldn’t make out the words people were shouting.  I could barely think.

We reached a trio of police officers, who had used their cars and yellow tape to cordon off two sides of an intersection.  I could see the eyes on the officer nearest me widen in recognition.  He was about to say something, but the officer next to him put a hand on his shoulder, reached in the window of the police car.  He pushed pieces of paper into each of our hands.

I glanced over it, found what I needed, and gave him a curt nod.  Tattletale grabbed my hand and pulled me away.

The paper, labelled at the top with the words ‘Parahuman Response’, contained a picture of our destination in black and white and directions on how to get there.  It wasn’t far – the area which divided the Docks and Downtown, a short distance East from the mall where Brian and I had gone.

The closer we got to our destination, the more the crowd thinned out.  We saw another crowd moving toward a different shelter as we got close, but we could avoid that by detouring around that particular set of streets.

As we got close enough for me to wonder what direction to take, I saw the streak of smoke as an huge armored suit plunged down from the sky, just a block away.  It was clue enough for Tattletale to pull me forward to follow it.  Reaching the end of the street, we saw our destination on the other side of a nearly empty four lane road.

The building was fairly nondescript.  Six stories tall, it featured dark brown brick and dark tinted windows, and sat alone on a grassy hill.  A nearly empty parking lot sat between us and the building, and a stretch of beach sat on the far end.  People in PRT uniforms stood guard around the parking lot and entrance, and four of the five vehicles in the parking lot were PRT vans, with turret-mounted hoses and armored exteriors.  As good an indication as any that this was the meeting place.

Past the hill and to the left was Dragon, in a mechanical suit that was as large as two PRT vans put together, four legged, with what looked like a single jet engine on top, still smoking from her recent flight.  On either side of the engine or oversized jetpack or whatever it was, were two shoulder mounted missile launchers, each pre-loaded with four missiles longer than I was tall.  She was facing the water, unmoving, like a gargoyle standing guard.

I saw what she was watching.  A stormcloud in the distance.  It hung over the water with an opaque curtain of rain descending down from it.  It was gradually getting closer.

As we approached the parking lot, a squad of PRT officers blocked our way.  I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Were any of these the same people we’d attacked at the Protectorate’s fundraiser?  I couldn’t tell, with their helmets and tinted faceguards covering their faces.

With a sound like a muffled thunderclap, a half dozen people appeared in the center of the empty lot.  When I saw who they were, I was awestruck.  That wasn’t hyperbole or whatever, I was using the word awestruck in the original, zero-embellishment sense of the word.

Alexandria stood at the head of the crowd that had just arrived.  Her head turned from one side to the other as she surveyed her new surroundings, the long, straight black hair that spilled from the back of her helmet sweeping from one side to the other.  She was everything that made you think ‘superheroine’; athletic, tall, muscular, but still feminine.  Her costume was black and light gray, with an image of a tower in the center of her chest, and she featured a wide, heavy cape that flowed over her shoulders and draped onto the ground beside and behind her.  Alexandria. 

Her team – people I recognized but couldn’t necessarily name – followed behind her in a loose formation.  Only one man in a blue and black uniform and cap stayed behind in the middle of the parking lot.  He looked around for a few moments, then disappeared with a crack and a whoosh, smaller than the one that had brought the entire group there.

Tattletale and I circled around the parking lot, to avoid getting in the way of any incoming teleporters.  We were nearly to the door when we heard another group arrive behind us, the same way Alexandria had come.  Teenagers, this time.  I couldn’t place them, but the brighter colors of their costumes led me to suspect they were heroes.  The man who’d teleported them in said something I couldn’t make out over the the wailing air raid sirens, and they quickly set to marching in our direction.

Leading them out of the parking lot was a shirtless, muscled boy with metal skin, eyes and hair and a strange texture to his shoulders and spine.  Among other things, I noticed the tines of a fork sticking out near his neck, and what might have been the wires of a chain link fence half melted into his opposite shoulder.  But where that strange half-melted-metal texture didn’t cover him, his metal body was exceedingly detailed and refined.  His ‘skin’ was a dusky dark gray metal with the slightest of swirls of lighter metals in it, and his ‘adonis’ musculature was perfectly etched out in the metal, with silver lines tracing his muscle definition like veins of metal in raw ore.  His eyes, too, were silver, and two lines ran from the corners of them down his cheekbones and to the sides of his jaw.

He clapped one heavy hand down on my shoulder as he passed me and offered me a tight smile.

It seemed we were allies, at least for the time being.

Tattletale and I followed his group into the building.

Folding chairs had been set into rows and columns in the center of the lobby, facing a trio of widescreen television sets, which in turn were backed by a series of large windows overlooking the beach.  Through the windows, we had the perfect view of the looming storm.

As daunting as the approaching clouds were, what drew my attention was the crowd.  There were people filling the lobby.  Only a few were local.

Empire Eighty-Eight was here, at the back corner of the room.  I saw Hookwolf there, half covered in a layer of his metal hooks and barbs.  I didn’t see Cricket or Stormtiger.  He glared at Tattletale and I.

The Travelers were all present, I noted, the only other local team of villains to show.  Faultline’s crew was absent, and I couldn’t help but note that Coil wasn’t around.  He wasn’t a front lines kind of guy, but he’d at least supplied his soldiers for the ABB situation.

The local heroes were present in force.  I wasn’t surprised – skipping this fight, as a hero, let alone a team of heroes, would be unforgivable to the public.  Aegis was talking with the metal skinned boy who’d arrived at the same time as Tattletale and I.  A large group of fifteen or so other teenagers were gathered and talking amongst themselves.  There was some joking, the occasional laughter, but it felt forced, strained.  False bravado.  I was assuming they were all Wards, from at least three different cities.

The kids from New Wave were near the Wards -Glory Girl, Panacea, Laserdream and Shielder- but they weren’t really joining in with the conversation the Wards were having.  I could see Glory Girl and Gallant standing together; she was holding his hand.  Panacea was sitting backwards on a chair just beside where Glory Girl stood, her arms folded over the chair back, chin resting on her wrists.  She glared at the two of us, though the look was mainly directed at Tattletale.  Near Panacea, the adults of New Wave had pulled the folding chairs into a rough circle so they could sit while they talked in a bit of a huddle.

The Protectorate was present, and it wasn’t just the locals, but the big guns.  Armsmaster, standing a little taller and looking more confident than I’d seen before, with not one but two Halberds connected to his back, was having a quiet conversation with Miss Militia and Legend.  It took me a second to absorb that picture.  That was the head of the Protectorate, the leader of the largest team of capes in the world.  What’s more, he was right in front of me, having a conversation with someone I’d talked to.  Ridiculous as that sounded, it affected me.

Legend sported a skintight blue costume with a design in white that fell somewhere between flame and electricity in style.  He had a perfect physique – one I didn’t mind giving a second glance-over – a strong jaw and wavy brown hair.  If Alexandria was the flying bruiser that just about every other flying bruiser strove to match up to, then Legend was at the head of the pack when it came to being flying artillery.  His firepower was on par with Purity’s, if not outright surpassing her, and he was far, far more versatile.

Knowing I’d seen two members of the leading three figures of the Protectorate, I looked for the third.  I glanced past Myrddin, from Chicago, with his brown burlap robe and wooden staff, Chevalier, in gleaming silver and gold armor, carrying his cannonblade, and Bastion, who had earned a great deal of bad press, lately. Someone used a cell phone to catch Bastion using the word ‘spic’ several times as he yelled at a kid who only wanted to take his picture.  He was studiously ignoring Kaiser, who was standing nearby, staring at him, taunting him without speaking or doing anything.

It was only at the back corner of the room that I found the third member of the Protectorate’s triumvirate.

Eidolon stood behind one of the large television sets, staring out the window.  He wore a blue-green skintight suit that expanded into a voluminous hood, cape and sleeves that draped over his hands.  The interior of the hood and sleeves wasn’t shadowy, but illuminated with a soft green light.

Debating the relative strengths of various capes was common enough, in the schoolyard and elsewhere.  If Alexandria and Legend fought, who would win?  Would Boston’s Protectorate win against Brockton Bay’s team?  What if you removed Boston’s weakest members until the sides were even in number?

When the question inevitably got to who was the strongest, the ‘big five’ were generally ruled out, in the sense of ‘well, yeah, but besides them‘.  Scion got counted as a part of that group because the powers he did have were head and shoulders above just about everyone else’s.  Eidolon was almost the opposite, because he had every power, though he could only hold on to a handful at a time.  Then there were the Endbringers, because they mandated situations like this, where even Scion or Eidolon plus multiple teams of capes weren’t necessarily enough.

Sure, some loyal people might argue that Legend was better than Eidolon, or maybe even some other cape like Dragon or Alexandria.  Generally speaking, though?  Eidolon was a top dog.

I looked away from Eidolon, to check out the rest of the crowd.  There were a few other unofficial teams of heroes, including Haven, the Christian team from the bible belt, and two teams with corporate sponsorship that were being very careful to not interact with one another.  Some sort of bitter rivalry, there.

A scattered few independent heroes and villains were around as well.  Few I could name.  I saw a girl dressed up like an old fashioned doll.  Parian.  She was local, and she wasn’t hero or villain.  A rogue, who only used her powers for business or entertainment.  She could sometimes be seen doing some promotion for a store downtown, giving life to some massive stuffed animal or a store mascot.  She’d done an interview in a magazine I’d read back before I had powers, and I knew she was a fashion student, though she wasn’t revealing just who she was until after she was more established.  She looked as though she were trapped in a conversation with a curly haired, dimple-cheeked villainess that looked no older than eight, who wore a frock that was maybe from the same period as Parian’s.  The pseudo-child was Bambina, if I was remembering right.

Parian was rescued by one of the out-of-town Wards, a girl in a skintight costume with a visor covering her eyes, nose and ears, with a quiver of what looked like giant needles and a massive crossbow.  The Ward said something to Bambina, who scowled and managed to look cute while doing it.  Then the heroine ushered Parian over to where she’d been talking with Shadow Stalker.  What in the world could that group talk about?  I might not have been alone in thinking that – Shadow Stalker seemed unimpressed with the new addition to their group, judging by her body language.

Tattletale spotted the Undersiders before I did.  I’d been looking for Bitch and the dogs as things that would stand out in the crowd, but they weren’t present.  Tattletale squeezed my hand and gave me an apologetic smile before letting go, patting me on the upper arm, and crossing the room to head over to where Grue and Regent sat.

The two boys glanced my way, then turned their attention to Tattletale.  Ignoring me.

That… really stung.

It was sort of inane, that I was concerned over something like that, given the seriousness of the present situation.  We were here because we faced the very real possibility of facing down one of the Endbringers.  I shouldn’t be worried about broken friendships.

But I was worried about it, stupidly.  I felt like I was back in school, the only kid left when everyone else had found their groups, and a hit to my confidence was not what I needed on a day like this.  I looked for a place to sit, and settled for a chair in the overall vicinity of the Undersiders and the Travelers.

Sundancer glanced at me, noted my presence, then she seemed to go out of her way to avoid looking at me again.  That caught me off guard, because I’d somehow let myself believe I’d left our cooperative battle against Lung with a good impression.  It seemed she wasn’t so willing to look past the fact that I’d carved out Lung’s eyes.

Feeling more and more like an outsider, more out of place, I watched as others filed into the room.  More of the Protectorate, and a small few members of the Guild.  Narwhal turned heads as she entered the lobby.  She stood seven feet tall, with a curtain of glossy, pale hair extending almost to the backs of her knees.  She was unclothed, not even wearing a skintight costume on her long limbed body, but it somehow wasn’t obscene.  Her skin was layered with fine crystal scales that caught the light and scintillated with faint rainbow hues.  A single horn stood out from the middle of her forehead, three feet long.  She ignored stares as she found a space to lean against a wall near the front of the room.  She had her chin against her chest with her eyes closed, as though she were resting, or concentrating.  Or maybe it was a habit she’d picked up when standing straight meant stabbing the average ceiling with her horn.

Yet more were continuing to arrive when Armsmaster and Legend turned away from their conversation and walked up to the front of the room.  The din in the room quieted, and every set of eyes was on them.

Legend cleared his throat.  He had the kind of voice that you listened to, “We owe thanks to Dragon and Armsmaster for their early alert.  We’ve had time to gather, and that means we have just a few more minutes to prepare and brief for Leviathan’s arrival, instead of jumping straight into the fray as we arrive.  With this advantage, some luck, teamwork and hard effort from everyone, I hold out hope that this could be one of the good days.”

A pre-battle speech from Legend.  It almost made the lousiest, most painful and dangerous situations I’d put up with since putting on my costume worth it.

“But you should know your chances going in.  Given the statistics from our previous encounters with this beast, a ‘good day’ still means that one in four of the people in this room will probably be dead before this day is done.”

Or not.

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