Snare 13.3

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How the hell was that motherfucker that fast?

He wasn’t even trying to avoid my bugs, so I had a sense of where he was as Grue, Bitch and I tore down the street on our dogs.  I rode behind Grue on Sirius, my arms on his shoulders, while Bitch rode Bentley, Lucy’s corpse lying across her lap.

We’d lost a couple of minutes as we helped Bitch retrieve Lucy’s real body.  It was eerie to see.  When the dogs grew, they really appeared to be adding mass, literally growing and stretching.  Somewhere in the transformation, after they weren’t recognizable as the animals they had once been, their real bodies were reformed inside a placenta-like sac.  Mannequin’s gunshot had opened a hole in Lucy’s chest and penetrated that membrane to kill the real dog within.  We’d used my knife and Grue’s raw strength to help pull the dog free in a grim sort of anti-childbirth.

It might be seen as a waste of precious time in a crucial moment, but I doubted we would have had Bitch in our corner otherwise, and without her, we wouldn’t have a ride, so to speak.

I’d consoled myself with the fact that we had a pair of massive, muscular steeds that could outpace any car you’d see on the street, and Mannequin was limited to his two legs.  The thing was, somewhere around the point where he stopped trying to evade my tripwires and my bugs and picked up speed, when he really started moving, I realized he was actually faster than the dogs.

Mannequin covered a lot of ground with his long legs and seemingly endless energy, and he didn’t have any injuries.  The dogs, Bitch and Grue did.  Mannequin had been aiming at the animals more than he’d aimed at Grue or Bitch, so the damage to my teammates was more or less limited to a few flecks embedded in the legs, buttock and feet.  The injuries were small, but one in Bitch’s stomach worried me.  There were way too many vitals that could be hit with that location, and it was bleeding worse than any of the others.

She wanted to press on, and I wasn’t about to try and change her mind.  I wouldn’t be able to stop her, for one thing, and I did want to help my people.

Mannequin moved in a straight line, onto rooftops, down to the ground, or halfway down and through windows that had been stripped of glass, emerging from the far side.  My bugs swarmed him where I could get them to, trying to snag him with lines and threads of silk and hamper his movements, but I could only get him with a small few at a time.  He was approaching the edge of my effect’s reach, and I knew I’d lose track of him shortly.

Once I did, I wasn’t sure I’d catch him again.  He could apparently see my bugs and since our last confrontation he’d gained the ability to see the spider silk I was placing on him or in his vicinity.  It was remarkably high-resolution vision for someone who hadn’t been able to notice that I didn’t have a pool of blood spreading out beneath me during our last fight.  Or was his inability to see that because he was calibrated to see the small things?

It wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t find him or catch up to him.

“He’s veering left!” I shouted to my teammates, “Faster, Sirius!  He’s getting away!”

I could feel a tremor in Sirius’ body, like the momentary tremor of a twitching muscle, but in every muscle.  My legs spread a fraction further apart as he grew larger, his ribs expanding further in either direction.  The increase in his speed was small but noticeable.

I cast a glance over my shoulder at Bitch.  Her mask had fallen off at some point when we’d been retrieving Lucy or during our ride.  She looked drawn, the lines of her mouth and the bones of her face that much more prominent.  Had I failed to notice she was like that before, was it pain from her injuries that did it, or was it anger?

Whatever it was, I suspected this use of her power was drawing on reserves she didn’t have.

Mannequin disappeared into the penthouse floor of an apartment building, and I positioned bugs at the very periphery of my range to prepare lines of thread and to gather so they could land on him as he emerged.

Somehow, I couldn’t say how, he emerged from a lower floor, mere seconds after he’d entered the building.  He brushed past a small handful of insects, and then he was out of reach of my swarm.

“He’s out of my range!” I shouted.

Nobody responded.  I had to double-check that Bitch hadn’t fallen from Bentley’s back.  She didn’t look any better than she had a moment ago, and she looked out of breath.  I expected the pain of her injuries was taking its toll.  As for Grue, I couldn’t really see anything but the back of his head and his shoulders while I clung to his waist.  I didn’t get the sense that he was about to pass out, either.

No use in responding when you couldn’t spare the breath and everyone knew what the answers would be.  We’d search for him at the last place we’d seen him.  My territory.

Giant paws pounded on the wet pavement as we raced for our destination.

How the hell were we supposed to fight him?  If we could even find him?

He’d have some countermeasure for my bugs and my cocoon strategy.  There was no way he’d let himself get caught up in the same trap twice.  Grue’s power didn’t affect him.  Bitch’s dogs did affect him, but they weren’t bulletproof.

That was without factoring in any additional weapons he had.

One arm around Grue’s waist, I drew my phone from my utility compartment and dialed Genesis from my contact list.

“Genesis here.  What?”

“Mannequin en route to my territory for some kind of revenge against me for our last fight.  How fast can you pull a body together?”

“Two minutes.”

“He’ll be there in five.  Clear people out of the way, and put together a form that can take a beating and hamper him.”

“On it.”

Sierra was the first and only contact I’d entered into the phone beyond the ones Coil had put in prior to giving them to us.  I contacted her next.

“Sierra here, boss.”

“Clear people out of the area, and contact everyone you gave a phone to, telling them to hide and take cover.  Mannequin’s coming back to make trouble.”

“Got it.”

I hung up.  With the jostling movement of the dog’s running, I didn’t trust my ability to put the phone away in the compartment, so I held it in one clenched fist.

During the six or seven minutes it took us to cross from Ballistic’s territory to my own, my teeth were clenched so hard I thought I’d break something, my neck and shoulders so tense they felt more like stone than flesh.

I valued my ability to come up with answers, but my mind was empty.  I wasn’t sure how I’d deal, and the worst part of it was that it wasn’t me that was necessarily going to pay the price.

As we entered my territory, I felt strangely composed for the anxieties that tore through me, a little detached from things.

My bugs swept through the territory, and I did my best to recall where tripwires had been set and figure out which had been broken.  I checked on my people, using bugs to make sure they were standing and that they were somewhere safe.

Could I sweep through my territory using squadrons of flies with dragline silk stretched out between them, to the point that he couldn’t slip past them?  It would take time to set up.

No.  There was no need.  As I approached the heart of my territory, near my barracks, I found him, standing in the middle of the road.

“There!” I called out to my team.  We changed direction and charged toward the street in question.  We stopped when he came into our view.

Mannequin stood in the center of the road, his back to us.  Half a dozen of my people were lying on the road, unconscious or dead.  I couldn’t see any blood.  There were a couple more people in nearby buildings that had fallen as well.  How had he reached them?  Why hadn’t Genesis and Sierra been able to get everyone out?

A quiet horror ran through me like ice water.

Genesis, too, was on the road, in the process of dissolving.  She’d taken on the form of something like a stegosaurus crossed with a scorpion, all brawn and armor plating, with a long, prehensile, wickedly spiked tail.  He’d beaten her.

Very little of the silk I’d laid on him was still intact.  My bugs settled on him, and began to draw out more silk, binding him.

He turned our way, and his mouth opened like a ventriloquist dummy or a christmas nutcracker.  It jiggled up and down, silently, mocking.  Laughter without sound.

“Fucker!” Bitch screamed.  Then she whistled, with a volume and pitch that could make crowds stop in their tracks.  Bentley charged.

The bugs I had on Mannequin began to die.

That took me a precious second to process.  “Bitch!  It’s a trap!”

She turned to look over her shoulder, and Bentley took some cue from that, because he turned slightly.  Maybe that helped, because she hauled him into a hard left turn, wheeling around.

Whatever it was that Mannequin was doing, it spread fast, knocking my bugs out of the air and reaching out past Bitch and Bentley before they realized the threat and started running away from him.

“Get back!” I shouted.

Bitch urged Bentley into a run.  They made it four steps before Bentley collapsed.

Tumbling to the ground, Bitch landed and couldn’t sustain her own weight with her injured leg.  She landed flat on her stomach, and then began making retching sounds as she gasped for air and continued to crawl forward.

Mannequin’s mouth continued jittering up and down, and he took a step closer to us, his hands upturned at his sides.

Gas.  Colorless, scentless, swift to spread and it incapacitated in seconds.  If my bugs were any indication, it also killed its victims shortly after.

I looked around, hoping and praying for some sort of outside assistance.  Nothing.

It was down to me, Grue, Sirius and Bastard.

Bastard looked unnerved.  His master and alpha were out of action.  He took a step forward, then back.  He was unnerved by Mannequin, and I suspected he could smell the gas.

“Bastard!” I said.  He whipped his head around to look at me.

Here’s hoping that Bitch trained him well.

“Get your master!  Go!  Fetch!” I pointed at Bitch.

Bastard turned, started forward, and then stopped.

“Go!  Fetch, fetch!”

He bolted.  Mannequin continued walking slowly towards us.  He didn’t move as Bastard approached and picked Bitch up by the back of her pants.

It would be so easy for him to simply shoot Bastard and slow him down long enough for the gas to take effect.  He didn’t.

“Bastard, come!  Come on!”

The puppy ran back to us.  There was nothing we could do for Bentley.

I hopped down and grabbed Bitch as Bastard came back to us.  He growled as I approached, but he didn’t protest as I took Bitch into my arms and dragged her back toward Grue and Sirius.

Grue didn’t dismount, but I doubted he would have managed well if he had, given his injured leg.  I tried to ignore Mannequin’s steady approach as I propped Bitch’s limp form up against Sirius’ side long enough to lift her arms up to Grue’s waiting hands.  Together, we hauled her up so she was lying astride Sirius’ shoulders, just in front of Grue.

“Gas,” I muttered.  “There’s a cloud of gas around him.”

“Fuck me,” Grue said.  “I’d hoped we could at least hit him.”

I looked at Bastard.  Too small to ride.  He was the size of a pony, but he wasn’t built for riding in the same way, and the spikes and bony plates that covered him were too densely packed for me to find any sort of flat patch to sit on.  I reached for the chain that trailed from his muzzle.

He growled again, vicious.

I was taken aback for half a second.  Then anger set in.  I barked, “Enough!” and I snatched up the chain.

He growled again, and I hauled on it.  The way it was rigged, it looped around his snout so it would tighten around the end of his nose when the chain was pulled.  It was like a choke collar, but focused more on the sensitive snout than on the throat.  He recoiled and tried to pull away, and I tugged again.

This time, he went still, resisting less.

“You’re with me, puppy,” I said, pulling on the chain as I backed away from Mannequin.  “Grue, take Bitch and get to cover.  I can’t see inside your darkness so long as that gas is wiping out my bugs, and he isn’t bothered by it, so remove it as fast as you apply it, but try to push the gas away or displace it or whatever.”

“We need a plan to win this,” he said.

“Priority one is surviving until we think of one,” I replied.  “Genesis will be back in action in a few minutes.”

“A few minutes is a long time.”

“I know,” I looked at Mannequin again.  He’d closed his mouth and was standing still.  I pointed.  “You go that way, I go this way.  Keep an eye on the sky.  If there’s trouble, we signal each other.”

He nodded once.

“Go!”

We split, and Mannequin broke off, chasing Grue.

I headed the opposite way.

Think, Taylor, think!  Mannequin was a smart guy.  Everything he did would be calculated to achieve some specific goal.

Why was he here?  He wanted to hurt me.  He wanted to hit me where it hurt, and he’d done it.  He’d killed no less than ten of my followers.  Charlotte and Sierra could easily be among them.

He had let us find him because he wanted to bait us into a trap.  It had worked against Bitch, for the most part.  She wasn’t dead, I hoped, but she was out of action.

What about the small stuff?  The little things?  After he’d caught Bitch, he hadn’t shot her, and he hadn’t shot Bastard when the puppy was making its rescue attempt.

Why?

He could have been conserving ammunition.  What was that term for ‘the simplest answer is often the correct one’?  It didn’t matter.  It was possible.

I moved my bugs closer to Mannequin, to test his presence for gas.  Only a few perished.  There wasn’t much, if any.  His mouth was closed.  He was catching up to Grue.  Grue must have noticed, because he directed Sirius up into an alley and towards a roof.

Mannequin stopped and raised one arm, then fired.  My bugs felt the concussion of the shot, but no reaction from Grue and Sirius.  There was a pause, then another shot.  Again, no reaction.  Two misses.

Okay.  So Mannequin was shooting now, when he hadn’t been before.

Were there other clues?  What had changed after he’d closed his mouth?

He’d started running, for one thing.

So he hadn’t been running, he hadn’t been shooting…  What had been holding him back?  It could have been him trying to look intimidating, but he could have achieved the same ends by shooting Bastard and making me watch Bitch die.  He could have been just as scary running towards us as fast as he’d sprinted from the ambush site to my territory.

The gas.  If the gas was coming from his mouth, and he was being careful in how he moved, that meant there was something about the gas.  I even had an idea about what it was.

Maybe he hadn’t wanted to blow himself up.

He’d been invested in terraforming, once upon a time.  Making inhospitable environments hospitable.  Chances were he was loaded down with custom-made organisms that were primed to generate the gas he was using, maybe even storing it in a compressed form.  Given his tinker abilities, they could be advanced enough to account for the sheer volume of the gas.  It could even be how his guns operated: with compressed, combustible gas used to fire the shot.

There was no way to say for sure, but my gut told me I was right or I was pretty close to the mark.  His actions, both the obvious and minor ones, make a complete, logical sense if I assumed he was spewing out massive volumes of flammable gas.

Could I even take advantage of that?  The amount of gas he seemed to be putting out would make for a devastating explosion.  It could potentially hurt him, but I couldn’t say if the shockwave or the blast itself would kill me or any nearby innocents.  If there was enough gas, it could even damage or destroy nearby buildings.  Some of the structures around here weren’t exactly sound.

If nothing else, it gave me a clue about what to watch for.  It also gave me a last-ditch weapon if things really went south.  I ordered my bugs into the building I’d designated as my people’s barracks and collected some small items with silk and clouds of bugs working in unison.

A spear of darkness soared towards the sky.  When it lost momentum, it began billowing outward and drifting slightly with the wind. A signal.

“Come on, Bastard!” I ordered.  I bolted for Brian’s location.  I crossed the street, glancing at the fallen Bentley, and I headed toward an alley.

My bugs crossed paths with me, and the items made their way into my hands.  A cheap plastic lighter and a packet of matches.  I stashed the matches between my belt and my hip and slid the lighter into a small pocket in my utility compartment.

I really hoped I wouldn’t have to use them.

Entering the alley, I swept through the area with my bugs, directing them to extend outward with lines of silk between them.  They were gathered close enough to one another that Mannequin wouldn’t be able to avoid them.

I found Mannequin and the black smudge of Grue’s form at the opposite end of the alley.  Sirius and Bitch were a distance away, both sprawled at the base of a building, covered in rubble.  I wondered how this scenario had unfolded.  How had Mannequin hit them that hard?  Grue had reached the roof, the last I saw, and I’d missed what came next because I hadn’t wanted to lose precious bugs from my swarm by getting them gassed.  Whatever had occurred, Mannequin had turned the tables and brought them back to the ground, hard.

Mannequin looked at me, and his mouth was open, engaged in that same shuddering up and down movement as before.  I raised one hand to the fabric that covered my nose and mouth and backed away.  Were Bitch and Sirius close enough to be getting gassed too?  I could feel bugs crawling on them.  Both were breathing, though Bitch’s breaths were rapid and hoarse.  My bugs were alive, as well, which meant they were safe where they were.  A quick test with my bugs told me the cloud around Mannequin was small, with a radius of about four or five feet.  There was no gas around me, either.  The bugs on me weren’t suffering, and they’d be the first to die or feel symptoms.

But Grue?  Grue had surrounded himself in a thick cloud of darkness, to the point that I couldn’t make out his arms and legs in the midst of it.  From what I could gather, he was getting some benefit from it, and was pushing the gas away.  How long could he sustain that, though?  Was the darkness filtering it out, or was he holding his breath, slowly suffocating?

“Mannequin,” I said, sounding a million times more calm than I felt.  “You’re going to back off and you’re going to let him go.”

He cocked his head to one side.

I raised the matchbook and, after checking again that my bugs were gas-free, lit it.  A handful of my bugs carried it into the air.

“Or I light you up,” I said.

Could I?  I believed I could.  Maybe it was fatigue speaking.  Maybe it was the grim recognition of the fact that Mannequin had spoiled any hopes I’d had of winning Coil’s respect and saving Dinah when he’d murdered the people in my territory.  He’d singlehandedly destroyed my reputation and dealt a grave blow to the thing that had been driving me forward.  Maybe a teeny-tiny part of it was hopelessness, knowing that I couldn’t  beat him otherwise.

So yeah, if he was going to snatch my hopes of saving Dinah from me, if Bitch and Grue were about to die anyways, I could turn the tables and blow us all up.  I might not save Dinah, but I could save all the people Mannequin would murder otherwise in the course of his career.  No bluffing.

He stepped back, and I realized his foot had been on Grue’s chest.  I watched as Grue stood and then began limping toward me.  Bastard growled and tugged on the chain I held.

I was in the process of reaching out for Grue to help steady him when I saw Mannequin move.  He closed his mouth, raised one hand, and I could see a hole appear in the base of his palm.  The barrel of a gun.

“No!” the word was as much a grunt as anything else as it came from my throat, too choked for me to say anything normal.  I grabbed for Grue as I’d planned and I shoved him to the ground.

In a movie, that might have been the heroic sequence that occurred in slow motion, where the lunatic villain missed the pivotal shot by a hair and blew himself up in the process.  We’d be left bloody but victorious.

But Mannequin didn’t fire.  He was too collected to do any of that.

He adjusted his aim, directing his hand-gun to where I’d pushed Grue to the ground.

“No!” I said, and the sound wasn’t a grunt this time.  I stepped in the way, putting myself between Mannequin and Grue, arms spread, half-kneeling.  Bastard tugged on the leash again as he stepped forward, and I almost fell on my face.  I could let him go and sic him on Mannequin, but he’d almost certainly die like Lucy had.

“Bastard, back,” I said, tugging him to one side.  I wasn’t about to let a dog take a bullet for me.

Besides, a part of me suspected that Mannequin was going to let me live so he could make me watch while he killed my friends and followers.

I stared at his blank, featureless face, praying my instincts were telling me the truth.

Then he shrugged, and my heart fell.

Three things happened all at once.  The first and most painfully obvious was that I got shot full in the chest.

The second was that I realized Grue was using his power to shroud us in darkness.  He’d probably started the second Mannequin shrugged.

The third was the explosion.

Long, disorienting seconds passed in the aftermath.  The pain hit me like a summer rain.  There was a second of nothing at all, I realized it was starting, and then I was treated to buckets of it.  I writhed, my ribs screaming in agony, trying to find some position where the pain would be less and failing.  I felt like a hot poker was being shoved into the spot on my ribs where I’d taken the hit the previous night.

“Hey, hey,” Grue said, “You’re okay.  You’re in one piece.”

I shook my head, unable to catch my breath.  Each time I inhaled, it seemed to double the pain.

“You gotta stand, T-  Skitter.  Stand up.”

More through Grue’s efforts than my own, I was helped to my feet.  Every movement exacerbated the pain in my chest.

I gingerly touched the site of the gunshot.  Flecks of what looked like glass fell as I ran my hand over the cloth.  Still couldn’t breathe.  The explosion had ignited every piece of rubbish at this end of the road that stood taller than the inch-high water level.  Grue and I weren’t, thankfully, blazing.  My hair hadn’t been ignited either, and perhaps most importantly, we hadn’t been pulverized by the shockwave.  It hadn’t been a huge explosion, but it had been substantial enough.

I looked for our opponent, and I saw Mannequin virtually unscathed, lying in the shallow water.  The blast had knocked him sprawling, but he’d disconnected his parts so only lengths of chain attached each.

An application, perhaps, of that martial arts principle.  How did it go?  An oak is broken by the hurricane’s winds, but the supple willow only bends?  He was already pulling himself together.  There was barely a mark on him.

“Run,” Grue said.

I was about to voice an agreement when I saw Bastard lurch to his feet.  The chain leading to his muzzle wasn’t in my hand.

Bastard pounced on Mannequin, taking one of the villain’s arms in his jaws.  Clenching, he began whipping Mannequin around like a rag doll.  Twice, Mannequin’s lower body was bludgeoned against the nearby wall.

Yeah, didn’t expect us to be that tough, did you?

Mannequin turned the tables in a second.  Between one of Bastard’s shakes and the next, the villain stopped flopping around.  I realized he’d ejected the knives from his toes and staked them in Bastard’s neck and snout for leverage.  His one free hand dangled at his side.

Moving was agony, but I was lurching towards them in a half-run before I fully realized why.  Mannequin raised his free hand and pointed it at Bastard’s left eye.

I caught his arm and hauled it back in the same moment he fired.  Bastard repaid my kindness by whipping Mannequin to one side, striking me.  Both Mannequin and I fell sprawling to the ground.

No sooner had I fallen than Grue was there to help me up.  He was slower than I was with that granular buckshot in his leg, so he’d only just caught up.

Mannequin on the ground, Bastard off to one side, largely untrained with no master and nobody holding his chain, Grue and I both helping one another stand.

That vibrating mouth of Mannequin’s was going again, puffing gas into the air, maybe to buy himself some breathing room from the dog.

“Bastard, stay,” I said.  What commands had I heard Bitch give her dogs?  “Off!”

Couldn’t say whether Bastard obeyed or if he just didn’t want to attack anyways.

I had to check twice to see that there wasn’t anything burning in Mannequin’s immediate vicinity.  No stray garbage to ignite the gas, sadly enough.

I looked behind me, and saw that the flames were raging.  Even the water’s surface was on fire.  How?  Had there been some chemical nearby, or something in the gas that transferred to the water’s surface?  Our avenue of retreat was shrinking.

Whatever.  I reached behind my back and retrieved two items.  The change purse was the first.  I popped it open.  A variety of quarters, dimes and nickels, all kept in place with wadded tissue, and a few small paper packets of smelling salts.

It was stupid to be carrying change around, really, but I’d wanted to have some on hand since it had crossed my mind during my first night out in costume.

I grabbed a tissue and tore it, once, then twice, until I had a series of strips.  Then I ignited them with the lighter, the item I’d grabbed with my other hand.  Dragonflies gripped the burning tissues in the instant I let them fall from my fingers.

Mannequin shut his mouth, stepping back.  Half of the tissues went out or were dropped by the burned dragonflies before they got close enough.  Which meant that the other half made it.

The gas ignited for a second time, but I didn’t get to see it.  Grue shielded us with his darkness once more.  Whether it was to dampen the shockwave or keep us from being blinded by the light or something else, I didn’t know.  I could only trust that it worked.  The darkness dissipated, we were standing, Mannequin wasn’t.

A whistle from Bitch’s direction and a signal that was too brief for me to catch sent Bastard forward.  With Bitch’s condition, I couldn’t imagine how she handled it, but she managed to pump Bastard up.  He grew to half-again the size he’d been, roughly as large as a small car, and when he bit down on Mannequin’s arm this time, he broke the material.  He adjusted his grip until he had Mannequin’s lower body and legs in a hold, but the material there proved sturdier.

Two arms in two fights, I thought, with a grim satisfaction.  The flames at our back were getting a touch too close for comfort, so I stepped forward, supporting Grue.  His arm around my shoulder, we approached as close as we dared to Bastard’s mayhem.

Sirius was hauling himself out of the rubble, with Bitch in the arch that formed with his front legs, chest, and the ground.  She stood, shaky, still breathing funny, making rhythmic facial motions like she was swallowing convulsively or gagging.

Grue limped over to Bitch’s side.  She couldn’t stand without Sirius’s support, but Sirius was shoring up the rubble with his body.  Grue gave her the support she needed and the pair of them made their way towards us.  Sirius stepped away from the wall and the rubble he’d been holding up tumbled to the ground, and he returned to his master’s side.

“Bastard,” Grue said.  “Monster.  Freak.”

Grue took Bitch’s hand and placed it on my shoulder.  She didn’t pull away.  Once he was sure we were both standing, he stepped away.  Bending down with an excruciating slowness, Grue picked up a piece of rubble that had to have weighed fifty or sixty pounds, roughly cone-shaped.

Bitch seemed to follow his line of thinking.  “Sirius, hold!”

The dog lurched forward and placed both front paws on Mannequin’s body, pinning his arm and chest. Bastard growled at the one who was intruding on his quarry, and Sirius growled back.

Bastard quieted.  It seemed he didn’t fully realize that he was bigger, more dangerous and less injured.  He was too used to being the puppy, with Sirius as the full-grown one.

Grue limped around the scene until he stood over Mannequin’s body.

“Ignore the head,” I said, quiet.  “Nothing important in there.  I’m not joking.  It’s a decoy.  Get him in the chest.”

Grue nodded and hefted the chunk of rubble until it was over his head, point facing forward.

Would it puncture?  Hard to say.

Worth a try.

“Do it,” Bitch growled, beside me.  “Killed Lucy.”

“Bentley too, maybe,” I said, quiet.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know if he made it.  There was no way to save him.”

“Do it,” she repeated herself.

Grue didn’t get a chance.  An eruption of fire tore through our surroundings.  Not an explosion.  There was no shockwave, and barely any noise.  It was more like a push, intensely hot and brief.  We were knocked sprawling, dog and human alike.  The agony in my ribs hit me worse than ever as I was knocked flat onto my back in the water and a huff of air was struck from my lungs.

“No,” Grue said.  “You can’t interfere!”

The Protectorate?

It would be disastrous if the Protectorate-

No.  I fixed my eyes on the scene.  Much worse than the Protectorate.

Burnscar tapped her finger to one side of her nose.  “I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“You can’t assist him.  They’re your rules.”

“Jack’s rules, not mine.  But fine,” Burnscar said.  Something about the tone in her voice: it sounded casual, but there was something in it that reminded me of Shadow Stalker and Sophia.  It wasn’t angry like Shadow Stalker was, but it had the same emptiness.  I just hadn’t really picked up on it in the past.

Burnscar gave Mannequin a hand in getting to his feet.  Cracks marred his lower body, and his left arm was a mess of cracked ceramic and pale gray organic pulp.  I heard her murmur something.

Mannequin shook his head.  Burnscar said something else.

He raised one hand, and Burnscar slapped it in a lazy high-five.

She turned towards us.  “There.  He just tagged me in.  Forfeited his turn.”

She cracked her knuckles, and every flaming piece of debris on the street became a pillar of fire, stretching vertically for the sky.  The fire snaked over the surface of the water to cut off our avenues of retreat.

“My go.  I’m taking round two.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Brian was waiting for me as I passed through the door and into Coil’s underground base.  He held a paper out to me.

Sirs and Madams,

The terms of engagement are as follows:
1.  Three days to each member of the Slaughterhouse Nine so we can conduct our tests.  Tests will be performed one after the other, with eight rounds in total.
2.  A successful test or the removal of a candidate who has failed a test will earn the tester bonus time.  3-12 hours for a successful test depending on the number of candidates remaining and 24 hours for an execution.
3.  Should a tester suffer a sound defeat at the hands of any individual during their allotted time, they will be penalized one day of allotted time.
4.  Each tester operates independently, with no hands-on assistance from other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Assistance may be bought, bartered or otherwise rendered in a hands-off manner, possibly including medical assistance, information, provided equipment and suggestions.
5.  Candidates may receive assistance, hands-on or otherwise, from Brockton Bay residents only.  We are fully aware that Legend and his teammates are in Brockton Bay.  Should they interfere with a tester, all candidates will lose the protection of any rules, all terms offered here will cease and the threat implied in point eight will be carried out.  This only applies to confrontations with the active tester.
6.  The Slaughterhouse Nine will handle the punishment of any members of their own team, in the event of failures, the inability of the tester to perform at least a partial round of testing or killing a candidate without notification.
7.  Should the defending parties have two or more candidates remaining when the eighth round of testing concludes, the Slaughterhouse Nine will depart Brockton Bay without incident and refrain from returning for three years at a minimum.
8.  If and when the Slaughterhouse Nine do eliminate five of the six candidates, or if any candidates leave the city, the Slaughterhouse Nine are prepared to penalize the city for their failure.

Mannequin is the first to carry out his round of testing.  He has two days remaining.

We will be in touch.

“Where is everyone?” I asked, handing the paper back to him.

He pointed down the hall.

“Christ,” Brian said, shaking his head as he walked, rereading the terms.  He opened the door for me.

Coil was inside, at the end of a long table.  The Undersiders sat at one side of the table, with Circus sitting at the farthest edge, beside Coil.  The Travellers, minus Noelle, sat along the other side.  I took note of the blond teenager who wasn’t even wearing part of a costume.  Oliver.  Coil was the opposite, as fully covered as ever.  Everyone else was costumed but they had their masks and helmets off.

I got my first good look at Lisa since I’d left her bleeding in Ballistic’s headquarters.  The scar ran from the corner of her mouth to the corner of her jaw, and dark stitches ran down the length of it.  The slang term for this kind of injury was a Glasgow smile or a Chelsea smile, but the term seemed ill-fitting.  Where Lisa often had a grin on her face, the cut pulled the corner of her mouth down into a perpetual lopsided-frown rather than a smile.

Bitch gave me a dark look as I entered, but many of the others were smiling.

“The people in my territory are singing your praises, Skitter,” Ballistic said.

“My territory too,” Alec added.

“I didn’t do anything that special.  My power did the work.”

“And you kicked Mannequin’s ass,” Trickster said.  He leaned back in his chair, balancing on two of the legs, his feet on the table.  “You had a busy night.”

“Honestly, I didn’t kick his ass.  He got some of my people, he thrashed me, I got a piece of him.”

“No,” Lisa said, her voice quiet.  She couldn’t really move one corner of her mouth when talking, so her words came out slightly slurred.

I saw her work her tongue in her mouth and then take a sip of water, wincing.  Brian had updated me: the cut had probably damaged one or more of her salivary glands, and she’d have dry mouth until it healed.  Maybe forever.  The really scary part was that she might have suffered some nerve damage as well.  How much of that half-frown was because of the direction of the cut and the way the stitches pulled, and how much was because her nerves were damaged enough that her face was drooping?

She caught me looking and gave me a wink.  She took another gulp of water and cleared her throat before speaking again.  “They took one day from Mannequin because they thought he lost.”

“If the enemy thinks they lost,” Brian said, “That’s a good enough reason to think you’ve won.”

I privately disagreed, but I didn’t say anything.  I pulled up a chair and sat at the corner of the table furthest from Coil, wincing at the pain in my ribs as I bent down.

“So,” Brian said, “You intend for something like this to happen when you made your suggestion, Tattletale?”

Lisa shrugged, “Sorta.  Thought he’d take the bait, didn’t know how far.”

“It’s not all advantageous,” I said, thinking aloud.  “Yes, we’re now in a position where we could win, with some planning or luck, and the plan we were hashing out at our last meeting might be easier, now.  But we’re also facing pretty heavy consequences if we fail… heavier consequences.  And there’s a lot of places where this could go wrong.  We don’t even know who all the candidates are.”

“Me, Bitch, Armsmaster, Noelle, probably Hookwolf and someone in Faultline’s crew?”  Alec said.

“No.  Jack said they picked two heroes.  Hookwolf, yes.  But their last pick is a hero, not one of Faultline’s,” Lisa said.

“And we can’t say for sure who this person is or what actions they plan to take,” I said.  “Too much hinges on everyone else’s willingness to cooperate and play by the rules, and the stuff that happened at the last meeting of the city’s villains makes me skeptical.”

Brian nodded.  “It’s important that we find this person, make sure they play along, so we don’t wind up losing before this game of theirs even starts.”

“There’s other problems here,” I said, “We can’t forget what Dinah said about Jack.  If he leaves town, it could mean disaster.  If we win, we could all lose in the long run, because it’d mean he left town and Dinah’s prophecy would come true.  Hell, a lot hinges on whether the Protectorate is on the same page as us.  If they arrest him and take him out of town…”

“It could mean the end of the world.”

“Right,” I said.

“Hookwolf has proposed an all-out attack,” Coil spoke for the first time since my arrival.  “He wants to gather the more powerful members of his alliance together into an army and attempt to overwhelm the Nine and kill Jack Slash in the chaos.”

“That won’t work.”  Brian shook his head.  “These guys specialize in dealing with crowds, and they’re experienced when it comes to that sort of thing.”

“Hookwolf believes our local capes are collectively strong enough to do what other groups couldn’t.”

“Maybe they are, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  We should be focused on what we can do,” Brian said.

“You guys are better set up for information gathering and escapes,” Trickster said.  “We could take them on, depending on who it is and how small the group is, but I don’t know how well we’d do in those circumstances.”

“We should mix up our teams, then,” Brian said.  “Just between us, we’ve got three candidates.  Noelle, Regent and Bitch.  Three targets.”

“Crawler couldn’t reach Noelle where we’ve got her stashed,” Trickster said, “I’m not sure what the others could do.”

“What about when Siberian comes after Noelle?” I asked.  “Will the same measures stop her?”

“Probably not,” Trickster replied.

“This would be a lot easier if you’d tell us more about her,” I pointed out.  “Unless you think she can hold her own against the Nine, we’re going to be helping protect her.”

Trickster frowned.  “There’s not much to say.  She’s in containment, and if she doesn’t stay where she is, things would get worse, fast.”

“So she’s dangerous, and she’s not entirely in control of her power?”

He tilted his chair forward until it was flat on the ground and set his elbows on the table, hands clasped in front of his mouth.  He glanced down the table at his teammates.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought maybe he glanced briefly at Coil.

With a resigned tone, he told us, “She’s dangerous enough that if Siberian got to her, I think she’d make it out okay.  The rest of us wouldn’t.”

The table was silent for a moment.  I could see something in the faces of the Travelers.  Pain?  It wasn’t physical, so perhaps it was emotional?  It could be fear, guilt, regret, or any number of other things.

Trickster’s words reminded me of what Sundancer had said back when she and I had fought Lung.  Sundancer had held back in using her power because she was frightened about hurting bystanders or killing the people she attacked.  Her power was too hard to use without hurting someone.  Ballistic was the same.  Was Noelle another case of the same thing?  That same too-powerful ability, only on a greater scale?

Brian sighed.  “We’ll deal with Noelle’s situation when it comes up.  We have three targets they’re going to be coming after, with a fourth if we consider that Mannequin’ll be after Skitter.  If we split into two groups, then we can maintain enough offensive power to defend ourselves against the ones like Mannequin, Burnscar, Jack or Shatterbird.”

Sundancer cut in, “Which makes me wonder…  Sorry if this is a crummy idea, but what if we waited for Jack’s turn, and then tried to kill him?”

“No guarantees there,” Brian answered her.  “I think we’ll have to be proactive in going after him.  Maybe we can use Hookwolf’s distraction, maybe he’ll get cocky and make a mistake.”

“Doubt it,” Tattletale said, “He’s lasted years doing what he does.”

I couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

“Besides, he goes last,” Tattletale finished.

“To get back to what you were saying, you were proposing dividing the teams?” Coil spoke.

“Yeah,” Brian said.  “Bitch has offensive power of her own.  Skitter does too.  If there’s no complaints, we could play this largely geographically.  Maybe me, Imp, Bitch and Skitter?  If you guys can put your differences aside?”

“No problem,” I said.

“Whatever,” Bitch answered, noncommital.

It was only when Brian mentioned Imp that I realized Aisha was present.  I’d almost missed her.  I wanted to believe that it was because she was sitting at the end of the table and there were four of my teammates between us, but I couldn’t be sure.  It would be damn nice if there was some sort of gradual immunity to her power.

“And maybe someone else who isn’t raw offense?  Circus?”  Brian suggested.

Coil spoke before Circus could reply.  “No.  I pulled her off of a task as a precautionary measure, as I had one aspect of my long-term plans derailed last night with Trainwreck’s demise at the Nine’s hands.  I would rather she did not fall to an unfortunate coincidence of the same nature.”

“What happened?”  Sundancer asked.

“They’ve eliminated the Merchants,” Coil said.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.  The Merchants were scum of the worst sort.  It wasn’t just that they polluted everything they touched and did some reprehensible things.  They reveled in it.  They wanted to be the lowest of the low.  On the other hand, it was a point for their side.  Seven or eight parahumans we no longer had to fight the Nine with.

“Also, I would prefer her involvement in my operation stay under wraps.  She can defend Noelle and myself for the time being.”

“Then Trickster?  Or Genesis?”  Brian asked.

“I would rather stay close to Noelle,” Trickster said.  “If Genesis is willing, that would be fine.”

“And that leaves Ballistic, Sundancer, Trickster, Noelle, Regent and Tattletale for the second group.  We stay together, we keep an eye on our territories to watch for trouble from Hookwolf’s contingent, and we keep an eye out for opportunity.  Tattletale?  You’re good watching the downtown areas?”

Lisa nodded.

“And Skitter has the sensory abilities to check areas of the Docks where the Undersiders have territory.”

“I’ll need to visit each area in turn.  Unless we have some people to pass on messages, and a means of communication.”

“I arranged a delivery,” Coil said.  “You’ll each be provided with a satellite phone before you leave, with mobile phones to use when the towers are in operation again.  It won’t be immediate, but I have shipments of new generators, appliances, laptops and other necessities on the way.  With the information Hookwolf has provided us about Shatterbird’s power, I think we could shield the most necessary pieces of equipment with soundproofing in case of a repeat incident.”

“My bugs did hear something just before the blast hit,” I said.  “Is her power ultrasonic?”

“Something like that.  Tattletale believes that Shatterbird’s power causes glass to resonate at a very particular frequency, where it generates that same resonation in other pieces of glass with the aid of her power, perpetuating the effect until it runs out of large pieces of glass to affect.”

“And,” Lisa said, “She probably has a reason for hitting the entire city like she does.”  She took another drink of water.  “Big pieces of glass help transmit the signal, maybe smaller shards help her in another way.  Probably helps or allows more delicate movements.”

“I’m not saying I’m not happy to be getting more concrete information on how they operate.  I just wish it was against the ones we don’t have any idea how to stop.  Like Crawler and Siberian,” I said.

“We use the same strategy we used to fight Aegis,” Brian said.  “When fighting an opponent who won’t go down, you run, you distract, you occupy them with other things, and you contain them to buy yourself time to do what you have to do.”

He was right.  It just wasn’t ideal.  Avoiding or containing them was easier said than done, for one thing, and it was less an answer than a stopgap measure.

“We’ve addressed the most pertinent crisis, then,” Coil said.  “Is there anything else?  Any ideas or requests?”

“I had an idea,” Aisha said.

No,” Brian said.  “I know what you’re about to say, because we talked this over.  It’s a bad idea.”

“Let’s hear it,” Trickster spoke up, leaning forward.  Brian scowled, and Aisha smiled wickedly.

“The biggest threat from these guys is that they could strike at any time, from any direction.  So why don’t we spy on them?  We find out where they are, and then we keep tabs on their movements.  I can handle one shift, Genesis does the next.  They won’t notice me, and Genesis can stay concealed.”

“It’s far too risky,” Brian said.  “You joined this team so I could stop you from getting yourself killed.”

“It would be nice to know what they’re up to,” Trickster cut in.

“They won’t even know I’m there.”

“You think they won’t know you’re there,” Brian said.  “There’s a distinction there.  It’s important, and it could either lead to a minor advantage-”

“A huge advantage,” Aisha said.

“-Or it could lead to you being turned into a human test subject for whatever fucked up idea Bonesaw had recently,” Brian finished, ignoring her.

“No!  I got a power, and it’s a useful power.  Except you don’t want me to use it, because you think it’s going to stop working all of a sudden, or someone is going to see me-”

Dragon saw you,” Brian said.  “And you’re only alive because she doesn’t kill people.”

Looking at Brian and Aisha, I knew this discussion would get worse before it got better.  I cut in before either of them said something regrettable.  “Imp.  It’s a good idea, but they do have a way of sensing you.  Cherish can sense emotions, and if Dragon is any indication, your power primarily works through sight, hearing and touch.  Like Grue’s.  She can probably find you and track you down.”

“We don’t know that,” Aisha said.

“It’s a pretty good educated guess, I think.  I know you want to be useful, but we can make more use of you if you’re with us, going up against someone like Mannequin or Shatterbird, who are far less likely to be able to see you.  Help us defend ourselves.”

“This sucks!”

“Imp,” Grue said, as he glanced at the others at the table and frowned, “We’re in the company of our employers and our peers.  Let’s stay professional and discuss this after.”

Professional?  You asshole, you’re the one who’s refusing to use my talents because I’m your sister.  I’ve been on the team longer than Skitter was when you guys were robbing a bank and fighting the ABB.”

“You’re younger, and she’s more level-headed-”

“Enough,” Coil said.  It served to shut them both up.

For a few seconds, anyways.  Aisha scowled.  “Enough is right.  I’ll see you guys later.”

“Hey!”  Brian stood from his seat.

I think I wasn’t the only one to look up at him and wonder why.  He looked at us, similarly confused, and then sat down just as quickly as he’d stood.

Lisa looked pensive.  I nudged her and asked, “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she replied.  Then she looked at Coil, “Hey, while you’re asking for suggestions, I have an idea?”

“Anything helps.”

“You think you could get your hands on some surveillance hardware?  Skitter’s working on some new costumes, and I was thinking we could have something like small cameras mounted on our masks or helmets.”

“I can inquire with my usual suppliers.  Why?”

“Well, we’ve got one teammate that’s sort of hard for the rest of you to keep track of, and I think it might help.  And if nobody objects, I’m kind of wanting to take a less hands-on approach from here on out.  I’ve batted a pretty low percentage as far as injuries over the last few months of action… Glory Girl, Bakuda, Leviathan, now this incident with Jack.  If I had a means of communication and the gear to give me some eyes on the scene, I think I could be more useful.”

Coil looked at Brian.

“I gave you a hard time about your having to take the same risks as the rest of us, back when you first joined, but I think you’ve done your share.  So long as you’re contributing,” Brian said.

Coil nodded. “I’ll see what we can prepare.”

Lisa smiled a little, using only the one side of her mouth.

Our canine mounts raced through the streets with impunity.  The glass that covered the roads, the lack of windows, windshields or working dashboards in the few cars that still ran all contributed to the glacial pace of traffic.  There was little for the dogs to watch out for, no moving vehicles and few bystanders.  Every stride the dog took made the bag I was carrying bang against my hip and made every injury I had explode with pain.  I clenched my teeth and endured it.  There weren’t many other options.  I could hardly complain to Bitch.

Bitch was well in the lead, and there was a kind of aggression to how she rode.  She pulled ahead, evading cars by only a couple of inches, forcing them to swerve, and she goaded Bentley faster with kicks and shouts.

We hadn’t raised the topic of Bitch and her nomination for the Nine.  I think the others hadn’t wanted to add tension and the possibility of argument or violence to the already complicated situation.  I know I hadn’t.  My last real interaction with Bitch was when we’d parted ways after the fight with Dragon.  I’d told her we were even, but there had been some anger and hurt feelings on both sides.  I was the last person she wanted to have grilling her.

Bitch made Bentley slow to a walk as she reached my territory.  It still took us a good thirty seconds to catch up.

Using my power, I signalled Sierra and Charlotte.  Grue, Bitch and I climbed down from our dogs and then led them forward.

“Mannequin slipped by you once,” Grue said.  “You going to be able to keep an eye out?”

“I had some ideas, but I’m running low on resources,” I said.  “Let me see what I can do.”

Genesis began to appear a short distance away, near Bitch.  A blurry, beige and yellow, vaguely human-shaped figure coalesced into being.  The shape then sharpened into features and alter in hue until there was the figure of a teenage girl, vaguely cartoonish.  By the time we reached her, she looked indistinguishable from a regular girl.  She had auburn hair, freckles, and thick glasses.  A small smile touched her face as she stretched her arms and legs.

“Everything good?” Grue asked her.

“Good enough.  I’m going to keep this shape until Coil’s people can deliver my real body.  Then I’ll need to recuperate some.”

“Sure.”

Bitch scowled at me.  Bastard, her puppy, stood beside her.  He had received the brunt of her power, and looked roughly as large as an adult great dane.  The features were different from her usual dogs.  The spikes had more symmetry to their arrangement, and the muscles looked less like tangles.  It tugged briefly on the chain that led from her hand to its collar, and she pulled back sharply.  It didn’t pull again, though it was easily powerful enough to knock her over.

My people met us as we entered the neighborhoods where my lair and the barracks we’d set up were.  Sierra and Charlotte were in the lead, the three ex-ABB members behind them.  The O’Daly clan stood at more of a distance, all either members of the family, friends or romantic partners.  Other, smaller families filled in the gaps.  My ‘gang’ numbered nearly fifty people in total.

“Holy crap,” Genesis said.

“It’s why we wanted to set up base here,”  Grue said.  “Skitter’s the most established of us.”

“I’ve been focusing on structural repairs and building when I’m not helping my teammates,” Genesis said.  “I don’t have many threats to get rid of, and it was the best way for me to be productive.  And meanwhile you’re further than I expected to get in half a year.”

I couldn’t bring myself to feel proud.  “I guess I’m motivated.”

Genesis whistled, looking around.  There were some looks of confusion as she strode forward into the crowd.  I suppose it was unusual for a teenage girl to be in the company of three known supervillains and a mass of monstrous dogs.

“Sierra,” I said.  “Status?”

“We’re nearly done with the second building.  There isn’t a lot of elbow room, so we’ve been cleaning up the road.”

“Good.  No trouble?”

“Not that I know of.”

I pulled the bag from over my shoulder and handed it to her.  “Distribute these to the people in charge of the various groups.  Work it out so you can pass on messages quickly, and get any necessary information to me asap.”

“Okay.”  She grunted as she took the bag.

“Genesis,” I spoke.  “You said you were doing some rebuilding?”

She slapped her stomach, “Made some mortar, just a matter of sticking stuff back where it’s supposed to be, if it’s obvious enough.”

“Want to see what you can do, before your body gets here?”

She nodded and headed off.  My minions rapidly backed away from her as she began dissolving.

“Charlotte?”

“Yes?”

“How set up is the building you guys were working on?”

“Mess is cleaned out, but we haven’t moved much in.”

“That should be fine.”

“We ready?” Grue asked.

I turned to face him and Bitch.  “Just about.  Bitch, there’s a space set aside that we can use for your dogs.  We’ll patrol through the various territories in an hour or so, stop by your territory and pick up some supplies for them, and you can bring your dogs here.”  I had to resist adding an ‘if that’s okay’.  Firmness would work best with her, even if it did carry the risk of provoking her.

“Fine.”

“Good,” Grue said.  “Let’s go rest and eat.  We can wait for Genesis and the other gear Coil’s dropping off.”

I had enough bugs nearby to start setting up my early warning system.  With the assistance of a horde of flying insects, I began guiding spiders through various points of my territory.  They drew out lines of silk across alleyways and doors, windows and rooftops.  I couldn’t spare the spiders, so I placed ants on each line.  They would feel it if there was a vibration, not as well as the spiders, but well enough.

Ten thousand tripwires for Mannequin to navigate past.

My expectation was for the lines to maybe give me an early warning of Mannequin’s approach, sometime in the coming hours, maybe in the dead of night.

I didn’t expect to find him in the span of a minute.  A figure on a nearby rooftop was striding through the webs and avoiding the bugs.

I stopped.  “Mannequin.”

Everyone else froze.  Even the dogs seemed to mime their master’s stillness.

But he was already leaving, moving with surprising swiftness as he pushed through another few lines of webbing at the edge of the roof furthest from us.  A second later he was on the ground, moving through an alleyway.

“We could go after him,” Grue asked.

“We couldn’t catch him, I don’t think,” I said, “And he may be trying to bait us into a trap.  Or maybe he wants to loop around while we give chase and kill my people.  Shit, I didn’t think he’d come so quickly.”

“We weren’t exactly inconspicuous.”

I frowned.

Mannequin was on guard for a trap, enough that he’d probably noticed the tripwire and decided to retreat.  Mannequin and I had an estimation of one another, now.  Neither of us wanted a direct confrontation.  Both of us would be wary of traps or trickery.  He was a tinker, he would have prepared something to ward against the tactic I had employed last time.  Topping it off, amassing people to please Coil had the unfortunate side effect of making me more vulnerable to Mannequin’s attacks.  He could hurt me without even getting close to me, the second I let my guard down and gave him an avenue for attack.

The only ambiguous advantage we had over him was that he was working with a time limit.  He needed to test Bitch and get revenge on me, in addition to dealing with all of the other candidates, and he had less than forty-eight hours to do it.

I wasn’t so sure that was a good thing.  It was beginning to dawn on me what we were in for.  Forty eight hours of being on the edge of our seats, unable to sleep deeply, constantly watching for attack from Mannequin or from Hookwolf’s contingent.

When we were done, we faced seventy-two hours of the same thing.  We’d be that much more tired, that much more likely to make a mistake.  Then we’d have to do it again.  And again, and again.  Eight rounds in total.  From my altercation with Mannequin, I knew we wouldn’t make it through even the first few encounters without some loss, some injury or casualty.  By the time the eighth round of testing rolled around, what kind of condition would we be in?  What condition would my territory be in?

I’d initially seen Tattletale’s deal with Jack as a good thing, a miniscule chance at success, with some drawbacks and negative points.

The more I dwelled on it, the more daunting it seemed.

“You okay?” Grue asked me.

“A little spooked,” I admitted.

He set a hand on my shoulder.  “We’ll make it.”

Speaking from the perspective of someone who had gone toe to toe with these guys, I wasn’t so convinced.

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Plague 12.2

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I’d spent nearly sixteen years in Brockton Bay, living a half-hour’s walk away from the ocean and I couldn’t remember ever being on a boat.  How sad was that?

I mean, I was sure I’d been on a boat before.  My parents had to have taken me on the ferry when I was a baby or toddler.  I just didn’t remember any of it.  My parents were introverts, by and large, and their idea of an outing had been more along the lines of a trip down the Boardwalk, a visit to the Market or going to an art gallery or museum.  Maybe once in a while we’d go to something more thrilling like a fair or baseball game, but no… this was the first time I could remember being out on the water.

It was exhilarating, the boat ride.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair, the slight turbulence as the boat bounced on the short waves.  It wasn’t that different from how I had enjoyed riding Bitch’s dogs, and there was none of that primal, deep-seated worry that the hulking monster I was riding would turn around and snap my face off.  I’d almost think I had been destined to fly, based on how thoroughly I enjoyed myself, and that it was only bad luck that I’d gotten other powers instead… except I remembered flying with Laserdream as the Endbringer attacked, and  that hadn’t been the most enjoyable experience.  That might have been a special circumstance; I’d been dealing with the fact that I’d had a broken arm, I’d recently puked my guts out, I’d been soaking wet, and an Endbringer had been working on wiping my hometown and everyone I cared about from the face of the planet.

That day would almost feel like something that had happened in a dream, if I hadn’t spent every hour of every day since living in the aftermath.

Coil’s people had dropped us off along with two sleek motorboats, depositing them at the water’s edge.  Grue was in one boat with Bitch, her three dogs and a puppy she had on a long chain.

I wasn’t sure if the puppy conveyed the image we wanted, but with her attitude towards me lately, I wasn’t willing to comment and risk her going off on me.  She’d remained angry after I’d called her out on her screwing me over and setting me up for Dragon to arrest, but she’d left me more or less alone.

The puppy was cute.  It was skittish, especially around people, which seemed a little odd.  It wasn’t the kind of dog I’d expect Bitch to favor.  Too young, not vicious or intimidating in appearance.  On the other hand, skittish as it was, it had an aggressive streak.  It constantly hounded Bentley, nipping at his flanks, then spooking and running away the second the bulldog looked at him.  It had made for a fair amount of noise when we’d been getting the boats into the water.  One for Bitch, her dogs and Grue, one for the rest of our group.

Our boats weren’t out on the ocean.  We traveled through the area downtown where Leviathan had collapsed a section of the city.  It was now more or less an artificial lake.  The water was fairly still, lapping gently against the ruined roads and collapsed buildings that surrounded the crater, but with the speed these boats were capable of going, even waves a half-foot high made us ramp slightly off one and then crash down onto the next with a sudden spray.

Tattletale was at the back, steering the thing.  It seemed counter-intuitive, with the boat going the opposite direction she pushed or pulled the stick.  Still, she seemed competent at it.  Better than Grue, which I found slightly amusing.

From time to time, I was finding myself in a strange emotional state.  As I stayed alert for it, I was able to catch those moments, try to pick them apart for what they were.  The high-end motor whirred and the boat bounced over the waves, the wind and water getting in my hair, all while we headed into the most ridiculously dangerous and unpredictable situation we’d been in for weeks. It was one of those moments; I felt almost calm.

For a year and a half, I’d spent almost all of my time in a state of constant anxiety.  Anxiety about schoolwork, my teachers, my peers, my dad, my mom’s death, my body, my clothes, trying to hold conversations without embarrassing myself, and about the bullies and what they would do next.  Everything had been tainted by the constant worries and the fact that I’d constantly been preparing for the worst case scenarios and maybe even setting up self-fulfilling prophecies in the process.  I’d spent every waking moment immersed in it.  Either I was stressing over something I’d done or something that had happened, I was concerned with the now, or I was anxious over what came in the future: distant or near.  There was always something.

And that was before I’d ever put on a costume and found myself caught up in my double-crossing plan against the Undersiders and everything that had stemmed from that.  Before Dinah and running away from home, before I’d decided to go villain.  Stuff that made some of what I’d been worried over before seem trivial.

So why could I feel calm now?

I think it was that realization that there were moments where I was helpless to act, oddly enough.  This boat?  Speeding across the Endbringer-made lake?  I had to be here.  There was no other option, really.  As I clutched the metal rim of the boat with one hand while we soared forward, the wind in my hair, I could accept the fact that I couldn’t do anything in this time and place to get Dinah out of captivity sooner.

With that in mind, I surrendered myself of that responsibility for the present.  Much in that same way, I cast off all the other worries, great and small.

A light flashed ahead of us.  Three blinks, then two.

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

Regent raised a flashlight and flashed it twice, paused, then flashed it twice again.

There was one flash in response.

Grue slowed his boat as we reached our destination.  Our meeting place was in the center of the lake, one of the buildings that still partially stood above water, leaning to one side so a corner of the roof was submerged, the opposite corner peaking high.  Tattletale didn’t slow our boat like Grue had his, and instead steered the boat in a wide ‘u’ to ride it up onto the corner of the roof.  Regent and I hopped out to grab the front of the boat and help pull it up.  When Grue rode his boat aground as well, a little more carefully, we helped him too.  Bitch hopped out and spent a moment using gestures and tugs on the puppy’s leash to get her dogs arranged and settled.

Hookwolf and his Chosen had situated themselves at the corner of the roof that stood highest from the surrounding water.  Hookwolf stood with his arms folded, densely covered in bristling spikes, barbs, blades and hooks, only his face untouched by the treatment, covered by his metal wolf mask instead.  Othala, Victor and Cricket were sitting on the raised edge of the roof behind him.  Stormtiger floated in the air just beside Cricket, and Rune had levitated three chunks of pavement into the air behind the group, each the size of a fire truck, like weapons poised at the ready.  She sat on the edge of one of the chunks, her feet dangling over Victor’s head.  Menja stood just behind Rune on the floating piece of shattered road, twelve feet tall, fully garbed in her valkyrie armor, a shield in one hand and a long spear in the other.

I almost missed it in the gloom, but when I did spot it, it was almost impossible to ignore.  On every patch of skin I could see in the Chosen’s group, scars and scratches had just barely healed over.  There were still faint indents and lines of pale skin that marked where the deep lacerations had been.  The little scars made patterns across their skin, some spraying out from a single point, others running parallel to one another, going in the same direction like a snapshot of rainfall imprinted on their skin.  With that many scratches and scars, they must have been hit hard.

Faultline’s group was gathered to one side.  Faultline, Newter, and the new member Shamrock wore more concealing costumes than their usual.  Faultline’s face was covered in a tinted visor, and her arms and legs were covered in opaque gloves and leggings.  Labyrinth and Spitfire were fully decked out in their usual concealing robe and fire-retardant suits, respectively.  Only Gregor showed skin.  The barnacle-like growths of spiral shells that covered his skin had multiplied on one side of his body, until there was more shell than skin.  The skin around it was crimson enough that it stood out in the gloom.  It looked tender.

I saw a flash of light above us, and spotted Purity in the air high above the rooftop, using her power to create a flare of light, extinguish it, then create it again.  There was an answering series of flashes from across the water.  It was a different set of signals than the ones she’d set up with us.  It made sense for the light signals to be different from group to group, so Purity could keep track of who was coming and where from.  The main reason we’d agreed on this meeting place were the seclusion it offered, and the fact that it was just hard enough to access that the Nine wouldn’t be able to approach without us knowing.  Hopefully.

All at once, an incoming boat made its presence known.  As though a switch was flipped, there was the sound of something that sounded like the combined noise of radio static coming from a bank of speakers, an eighteen wheeler with the muffler off and an onrushing train.  It wasn’t just noise – the vehicle flickered with flashes of electricity and lights that people could probably see from anywhere downtown.

Seeing it approach, I had no doubt it was a tinker contraption.  It was the size of a small yacht, but it looked outfitted for war, with what looked like tesla coils crossed with old school tv antennae fueling its forward momentum and sending arcs of electricity dancing over the waves in its wake, as though it was riding on a current of lightning.  Various guns had been placed haphazardly around the upper deck, each manned by a Merchant.  Skidmark stood at the highest deck with Squealer, the driver.

Squealer had apparently never grasped the concept of elegance in design.  From what I’d read and heard, she went for size, augmentations and additions when she built her vehicles.  She was kind of the polar opposite of Armsmaster in that regard.

The hull of their boat scraped against the edge of the building, nearly running over the boat that Grue and Bitch had come in on.  All of the lights shut off, and the Merchants descended onto the roof.  Skidmark, Squealer, Mush, Scrub, Trainwreck, the telekinetic whirlwind lady with the long hair and one other.

Another reason for this meeting place had been subtlety, keeping out of sight and off the radar.  The Merchants apparently hadn’t gotten the message.

“Hey!” Hookwolf growled, “What part of keep a low profile don’t you fucking understand?”

Skidmark smirked, raising his chin to give it an arrogant tilt, “We did.  My Squealer built a box that cancels out light and noise at a certain distance.  Nice and in your face up close, almost invisible and silent when far away.  Isn’t that right, baby?”

Squealer just smiled.  It probably wasn’t as sexy or cute as she thought it was.  Aisha, when left to her own devices, was a pretty girl who dressed trashy.  Squealer, I felt, was more of a trashy woman who dressed trashy.

“Hey, Faultline,” Skidmark’s smirk dropped off his face as he realized who else was present.  “What the motherfuck were you doing, fucking with my party!?”

“You had something we needed.”  Faultline’s response was as measured and calm as Skidmark’s question wasn’t.

“Who hired you, bitch?  Tell me and my Merchants won’t come after you in revenge.  All you’ll have to do is return that shit you stole or pay me back for it.  Maybe you can spit-polish my knob for a little goodwill.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Then forget sucking my cock.  Pay me back and tell me who hired you and we’ll call it even.”

She shook her head.  It was more the kind of head shake that accompanied an eye roll.

Skidmark went on, “You’re mercenaries.  Don’t tell me you don’t have the cash.  I’ll only ask for five mil.  One for each vial you took.”

Fautline didn’t answer him.  Instead she looked at Hookwolf and asked him, “Did we really need to invite him?  Does he contribute anything to this discussion?”

“He has nine powers on his team,” Hookwolf responded.  “Ideology isn’t important.”

“He doesn’t have an ideology.  He’s just an idiot.”

“Enough of that,” Hookwolf snarled, his voice hard with a sudden anger.  “We don’t fight amongst ourselves.  Not on neutral ground.  Both of you shut the fuck up.”

Faultline shook her head and leaned over to whisper something to Shamrock.  The Merchants settled themselves on the side of the roof opposite our group.  Skidmark gave Grue the evil eye.  Was he still resentful over what had happened at the last meeting?  Being denied a seat at the table?

Another series of flashes served to alert us, indirectly, of incoming arrivals.  The Travelers appeared soon after.  Trickster, Sundancer, Ballistic each stood on the back of some kind of turtle serpent.  I couldn’t make out Genesis’s form in the gloom.  What little light was available came from the moon and Purity’s radiance from where she floated above us.  I could have used my bugs to get a feel for the shape Genesis had taken, but my habit was generally to place my bugs on clothing where they wouldn’t be noticed, and Genesis was effectively naked.  I didn’t know anything about them, but they were our allies.  I didn’t want to irritate her and upset anything between our two groups.

Coil was the last of us to arrive, maybe because he’d wanted to be fashionably late.  The two soldiers who’d driven his boat stayed behind.  Purity set down by where the boats had landed, followed by Fog and Crusader, who I hadn’t seen in the dark.  Night stepped out of the lake, between our parked boats and onto the roof, water streaming from her cloak.  Had she been the just-in-case measure if an incoming boat hadn’t known the signal?  She would be invisible in the pitch black gloom beneath the water’s surface, which would mean she wasn’t in her human form.

The way the Travelers and Coil had positioned themselves, we’d formed a haphazard ring.  From the top of the roof, going clockwise, the arranged groups were Hookwolf’s Chosen, Faultline’s crew, us, the Pure, Coil, the Travelers and the Merchants.

“It seems everyone is here,” Coil spoke, taking in the collected villains.  Forty-ish of us in all.

“Not quite everyone,” Hookwolf replied.  “Victor, Othala.”

Othala touched Victor, and Victor raised one hand.  A fireball appeared in it, then disappeared as he clenched his hand.  He repeated the process two more times.

“Who are you signalling?” Purity’s asked.  Her hand flared with light, ready to fire.

“It would be a grave and stupid mistake if you invited the Nine,” Coil told Hookwolf.

“We’re not stupid,” Hookwolf said.  Three answering flashes appeared over the water.  I heard the faint noise of a boat motor.  Everyone present on the roof readied for a fight, turning towards either Hookwolf or the incoming boat.  I used my power to call on local crabs, and to draw out the bugs I’d stored in the boat, keeping them close to me.

There were three more flashes, close, and Victor responded again.  In moments, the boat arrived.  It wasn’t the Nine.  It was the good guys.

Miss Militia was first out of the boat, and Battery activated her power to haul the boat up onto ‘land’ in a flash before stepping up to Miss Militia’s side.  Triumph, Weld and Clockblocker rounded out their group.  Our circle made room, though half the people present seemed to be tensed and ready to use their powers with the slightest excuse.

“It seems we have a problem,” Miss Militia spoke, as her group took her place between the Pure and us Undersiders.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “Two problems, actually.”

“Two?” Purity asked.

Hookwolf pointed at the Travelers, then pointed at Grue and the rest of our group.  “They’re being cocky, think they’re being clever.  Figure we should get all this out in the open, at least so you’re aware.  You too, Coil, Miss Militia.”

“Perhaps you’d better explain,” Coil responded.

Hookwolf pointed at each of us in turn, “Grue has been making attacks against my people in the upper downtown area.  Howling has been heard in the Trainyard.  Bitch.  Regent was sighted in the college neighborhoods.  Skitter made a move to take over the Boardwalk and claim it for herself.  Tattletale is either abstaining, or more likely, putting herself in the middle of the Docks and keeping her head down.”

“So?” Tattletale asked.

Hookwolf ignored her.  “Downtown we’ve got Ballistic attacking my people in the upper downtown neighborhoods, north of this lake here.  Sundancer was spotted in the shopping district, Genesis at the downtown coast, near the south ferry station. Trickster has been driving looters out of the heart of downtown, the towers.  You seeing the pattern?  All of them alone.  Most of them making moves to take a piece of the city for themselves.”

“We already knew they were talking territory,” Miss Militia responded, “This isn’t a priority.  The Nine-”

“They haven’t taken territory,” Hookwolf snapped back, “They’re taking the city.  Split it up all nice and proper between them, and now they’re taking advantage of the distraction the Nine are giving them to secure their positions before we fucking catch on.”

Grue looked at Trickster, and there was some kind of unspoken agreement between them.  Knowing Grue, I was certain he was deliberately ignoring Coil.  No use volunteering more information than necessary.

Trickster spoke, “We didn’t know the Nine were around before we put this into motion.”

There was a flicker of surprise on Purity’s face.  “So Hookwolf is right.  You are taking over.”

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

What was Hookwolf’s game?  Had he brought everyone here under a different pretext so he could ambush us on this front?

“This isn’t of any concern to us,” Miss Militia spoke, stern.  “The only reason we’re here is to get information on the Slaughterhouse Nine, their motives, and strategies for responding.”

“That might help you in the next week or two, but a month from now you’ll be regretting it,” Hookwolf told her.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think we have any other choice,” Miss Militia replied.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “They want us to lose our territories to them while we busy ourselves dealing with the Nine-”

“That’s not our intent,” Trickster cut him off.

“Pigshit,” Skidmark muttered.  He looked angry.  Even Purity had a hard cast to her face, or what I could see of it through the glare of her eyes and hair.  These were people who thought highly of themselves.  Whether that self-esteem was deserved or not, they didn’t like being played for fools.

All at once, this meeting had become about us versus them.  The Travelers and the Undersiders against everyone else.

Hookwolf said, “Then agree to a truce.  So long as the Nine are here, you’re hands off your territories, no fighting, no business.  We can arrange something, maybe you all stay at a nice hotel on the Protectorate’s tab until this is dealt with.  That’ll mean we can all focus on the real threat.”

Stay in a hotel until the Nine were dead, arrested or driven out of town.  He couldn’t seriously expect us to do that.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Coil answered, after a moment’s consideration.  “Perhaps now is an opportune time to share this information:  I have sources that inform me that should Jack Slash survive his visit to Brockton Bay, it bodes ill for everyone.”

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

“I’ll be more specific.  Should Jack Slash not die before he leaves Brockton Bay, it is very likely the world will end in a matter of years,” Coil spoke.

“Bullshit,” Skidmark answered.  The others were showing varying reactions.  I doubt many bought it.

“You contacted us to say something very similar a couple of days ago.” Miss Militia said, “But I have the same questions now that I did then.  Do you have sources?  Can you verify this?  Or provide more information?”

Behind her, Weld reached into his pocket and withdrew his smartphone.

“More information?  Yes.  I have sought further details and pieced together a general picture of things.  Jack Slash is the catalyst for this event, not the cause.  At some point in the coming years, Jack Slash kills, talks to, meets or influences someone.  This causes a chain of events to occur, leading to the deaths of anywhere from thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the world’s population.”

That gave everyone pause.

Coil went on, “If Jack Slash is killed, the event is likely to occur at some point in the more distant future instead.”

“Dinah Alcott,” Weld spoke.  All eyes turned to the metal-skinned boy.

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

“Thursday, April fourteenth of this year, Dinah Alcott was kidnapped from her home and has not been seen since.  Dinah had missed several weeks of classes with crippling headaches in the months before her disappearance.  Investigation found no clear medical causes.  Police interviewed her friends.  She had confided to them that she thought she could see the future, but doing so hurt her.”

“You think Dinah is Coil’s source.  That makes a lot of sense.”  Miss Militia turned from Weld to Coil, and her voice was heavy with accusation, “Coil?”

“I did not kidnap her.  I offered Dinah training and relief from the drawbacks of her abilities on the contingency that she immediately cut off all contact with her family and friends and provide me a year of service.”

He lied so smoothly, flawlessly.  What really rattled me was hearing him refer to her as Dinah for the first time.  Coil added, “She took a week to decide, then contacted me during one of her attacks.”

Of course, the heroes weren’t about to take his word for gospel.  Miss Militia’s lips pursed into a thin line.  “Could I contact her to verify this?”

“No.  For one thing, I have no reason to let you.  Also, the process of gaining control of her power requires that she be kept strictly isolated from outside elements.  A simple phone call would set her back weeks.”

“So Coil has a precog,” Hookwolf growled, “That explains how he always seemed to fucking get the upper hand when he pit his mercenaries against the Empire.”

Coil clasped his hands in front of him, “I knew you might come to these conclusions if I volunteered this information.  You all should already know I am not a stupid man.  Would I weaken my position if I did not wholeheartedly believe that what I was saying was correct?  Jack Slash must die, or we all die.

“And to maximize our chances for this to happen,” Hookwolf added, “The alliance of the Travelers and the Undersiders must concede to our terms.  They hold no territory until the Nine are dead.”

Coil deliberated for a few seconds.  “I think this makes the most sense.”

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

Coil’s response caught me off guard.  He was throwing us to the wolves to maintain his anonymity in things.  I felt my heart sink.

It made sense, on a basic level, and I could see why the other groups were agreeing.  I mean, our territory wasn’t worth risking that the world ending.  Coil was apparently willing to delay his plans, or pretend to delay his plans while he carried them out in secret.  But I would be giving up my territory, condemning Dinah to more days, more weeks of captivity.

really didn’t like that idea.

“Easy decision for you guys to make,” Trickster said, chuckling wryly, “You’re not giving anything up.  In fact, if we went with your plan, there’d be nothing stopping you from sneaking a little territory, passing on word to your underlings to prey on our people, consolidating your forces and preparing them for war, all while we’re cooped up in that hotel or wherever.”

He was right.  I could imagine it.  Not just weeks, but months lost.  We’d just lost the element of surprise thanks to Hookwolf outing us here, and the local villains and heroes were now all too aware of the scale of what we were doing.  Add the fact that they would get a breather?  A chance to regroup and prepare?  To retaliate?  Regaining any of the ground we lost while we helped hunt down the Slaughterhouse Nine would be excruciating.

In those weeks or months it took to retake territory and slog ahead with constant opposition, there could be further delays.  It would mean that my plan to efficiently seize the Boardwalk and surrounding Docks would fall apart.  I’d have to pull away from my people and my neighborhoods to help the others fight off attacks.  I wouldn’t be able to offer exemplary service to earn Coil’s trust and respect in the mess that ensued.  The opportunity to free Dinah would slip from my grasp.

Worst of all, there was no reason for it.  We’d claimed more of the city as our territory than they had assumed, and now Hookwolf was building on that, giving them reason to worry we had other sinister motives.

“No,” I murmured, barely audible to myself.  I could see some of the other Undersiders -Grue, Tattletale and Bitch- turn their heads a fraction in my direction.

“No,” Grue echoed me, his voice carrying across the rooftop.

No?” Coil asked, his voice sharp with surprise.  Was there condemnation in there?  It was  very possible we weren’t going the route he wanted.

Grue shook his head, “We’ll help against the Nine.  That’s fine, sensible.  But Trickster is right.  If we abandoned our territories in the meantime, we’d be putting ourselves in an ugly situation.  That’s ridiculous and unnecessary.”

Trickster nodded at his words.

“If you keep them you’ll be putting yourself in an advantageous position,” Purity intoned.

“Don’t be stupid, Undersiders, Travelers.” Faultline cut in, “You can’t put money, power and control at a higher priority than our collective survival.  If Coil’s precog is right, we have to band together against the Nine the same way we would against an Endbringer.  For the same reasons.”

“And we will,” Trickster said.  “We just won’t give up our territory to do it.”

“Because you’re hoping to expand further and faster while the Nine occupy the rest of us,” Hookwolf growled. “We agree to this like you want, and you attack us from behind.”

“We haven’t given you any reason to think we’ll betray a truce,” Grue told him, his voice echoing more than usual, edged with anger.  The darkness around him was roiling.

“You have.  You’re refusing the terms,” Purity said.

Hookwolf was manipulating this.  He wasn’t as subtle about it as Kaiser had been, it was even transparent, what he was doing.  Dead obvious.  At the same time, the scenario he was suggesting was just dangerous and believable enough to the Merchants, to his Chosen, and to the Pure that they couldn’t afford to ignore it.  Coil couldn’t talk sense into them without potentially revealing his role as our backer.  Even the heroes couldn’t counter his argument, because there was that dim possibility that he was right, that they would lose control of the city to villains if we continued to grab power.

Which was admittedly the case.  Dealing with the local heroes was one of our long-term goals, for Coil’s plan.

We were fighting for Coil’s plan and Coil wasn’t helping.  He remained silent, inscrutable, sticking to the situation that worked best for him and him alone.  Damn him.

“You’ll be earning the enmity of everyone here if you refuse,” Hookwolf said.  Was there a hint of gloating in his tone?

“We’ll be ruining ourselves if we agree, too,” Grue retorted.

“I strongly recommend you agree to this deal,” Purity said.

“No, I don’t think we will,” Trickster said.

“No,” Grue echoed Trickster, folding his arms.

That only provoked more argument, along many of the same lines.  It was clear this was getting nowhere.

I turned to Miss Militia, who stood only a few feet from me.  When I spoke to her, she seemed to only partially pay attention to me, as she kept an eye on the ongoing debate.  “This isn’t what we need right now.  Hookwolf’s made this about territory, not the Nine, and we can’t back down without-”  I stopped as she turned her head, stepped a little closer and tried again, “We, or at least I have people depending on me.  I can’t let Hookwolf prey on them.  We all need to work together to fight the Nine.  Can’t you do something?”

Miss Militia frowned.

“Please.”

She turned away from me and called out, “I would suggest a compromise.”

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

“The Undersiders and Travelers would move into neutral territory until the Nine were dealt with.  But so would the powered individuals of the Merchants, the Chosen, the Pure, Coil and Faultine’s Crew.”

“Where would this be?  In the PRT headquarters?” Hookwolf asked.

“Perhaps.”

“You were attacked as well, weren’t you?  Who did they go after?”

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

That was some small shock to everyone present, though I might have been less surprised than some.  Armsmaster as a prospective member for the Nine.

“What you suggest is too dangerous,” Faultline said.  “We’d all be gathered in one or two locations for them to attack, and if Armsmaster was attacked, we could be too.”

“And their whole reason for being here is recruitment,” Coil spoke, “Perhaps the plan would work if we could trust one another, but we cannot, when many here were scouted for their group, and may turn on their potential rivals to prove their worth.  We would be vulnerable to an attack from within, and we would be easy targets.”

“We could make the same arguments about ourselves,” Grue pointed out, “If we agreed, we’d be sitting ducks for whoever came after us.”

“I think the Protectorate can help watch and guard nine people,” Coil replied, “I’m less confident of their ability to protect everyone present.”

So Coil wasn’t willing to play along if it meant losing his ability to stay where he was, but he was willing to make life harder on us, his territory holders.  Did he have some plan in mind?  Or was he just that callous?  Either way, he was an asshole.

“No.  I’m afraid that compromise won’t work,” Hookwolf said, squaring his shoulders.

Miss Militia glanced my way.  She didn’t say or do anything, but I could almost read her mind: I tried.

Hookwolf wasn’t about to give up anything here.  He had us right where he wanted us, and he was poised to kill two birds with one stone: The Nine and his rivals for territory.

“It seems,” Hookwolf said, “The Travelers and the Undersiders won’t agree to our terms for the truce.  Merchants, Pure, Faultline, Coil?  Are you willing to band together with my group?”

Purity, Coil and Skidmark nodded.  Faultline shook her head.

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

“We’re mercenaries.  We can’t take a job without pay.  Even a job as important as this.”

“I will handle your payment here as I did for the ABB, Faultline,” Coil said, sounding just a touch exasperated.

“And Miss Militia?” Hookwolf asked, “A truce?”

“Keep the business to a minimum, no assaulting or attacking civilians,” Miss Militia said, “We still have to protect this city, there’s no give there.  Don’t give us a reason to bother with you, and we’ll be focused wholly on the Slaughterhouse Nine in the meantime.”

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

The leaders of the new group crossed the roof to shake hands.  In the process, things shuffled so that our group, the Travelers and the heroes were near the bottom of the roof.  The heroes moved off to one side, as if to guard us from any retaliation, making the separation in forces all the more obvious.

“You guys are making a mistake,” Grue said.

“I think you have things the wrong way around,” Hookwolf said.  “Nobody wants to break the peace at neutral ground, so perhaps you should go before things get violent?”

Tattletale asked, “You won’t let us stick around and discuss the Nine, who they attacked, what our overall strategies should be?  Even if we aren’t working together as a single group?”  She paused, looking deliberately at Faultline, “You know, the smart thing to do?”

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

There was little else to be said or done.  We’d lost here.  I turned and helped push our boat into the water, then held it steady as everyone piled in.  Tattletale had started the motor, and we were gone the second I’d hopped inside.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11a

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A howl tore through the air.  It wasn’t the howl one would expect from a dog.  It was ragged, with a guttural undertone that hinted at the size of the one doing the howling.

Before the howl had even finished, more took up the cry in answer.  A second howl, then a third.  More joining in, all at once.  Seven or eight.

Bentley raised his head and joined them, his tail wagging on his undersized hindquarters, almost prancing on the spot in his excitement.  Water splashed around paws as wide around as bike tires as he landed, spraying Bitch.

His enthusiasm was infectious.  She bared her teeth in a wide grin, then whooped, adding her voice to the cacophony.  She hopped up his side, gripping ridges of hard muscle and bony growths so she could throw one leg over his other shoulder.  A spike of bone scratched her upper thigh, beneath her skirt, but she didn’t care.  It was nothing.

“Go, Bentley!” She urged him.  He surged forward like an arrow loosed from a bow.

She could feel the heat of his body underneath her, the rippling movements of his muscles as he ran.  She could smell him, like dog breath and the coppery tang of blood, that faint sweet smell of meat on the verge of going bad.  She could smell herself, her body odor.  She hadn’t washed in two days, but she liked her own smell.  She liked that her belongings and her place all smelled like her.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t take care of herself.  She would, just like she took care of her dogs.  Just as she groomed each of them twice a week or more, she would tend to herself.  But what did some scruff on her legs matter when she was treading down flooded streets or caked in mud up to her knees half the time anyways?  What did some body odor mean, if she didn’t even like the people who were around to be offended by it?

Barker, Biter and the others would be at the locations she had assigned them.  She had given them the most menial of tasks.  Grooming the dogs, feeding the dogs, picking up shit, checking the dogs for sores, cuts, ear infections and ticks like she’d showed them.  She had a good number of dogs in her care, now.  Most had been taken from kennels that hadn’t been in a state to help the animals since Leviathan attacked.  She was eagerly anticipating the moment someone complained.

Barker or Biter would be the ones to whine about the task first.  They had powers.  They had expected to be in charge, to be her lieutenants.  The looks on their faces when she’d given them their tasks had made her day.  Nothing like putting someone in their place.

If they didn’t complain by the time they were through checking and taking care of all of her dogs, maybe they would start when the next batch arrived from the shelters, and they were told they had to do all of those dogs on top of starting afresh with all the ones they had done before.

The moment someone did complain?  Or if they let one tick, one rash or one ear infection slip?  She could make an example of them.  Humiliate them, scare them, insult them.  If she did it well enough, they’d leave.

If she did it really well, they would all leave.

Then she could be alone for a while, alone with her dogs.  Nobody would be able to nag her about the fact that she hadn’t given the henchman thing a try.  Fuck it.  She already had all of the assistance she needed.  The best, most loyal kind.

Lucy appeared from a nearby street, making her excitement known with a noise that was half bark and half something else.  She ran alongside Bentley.

“Good girl!”  Bitch laughed, “Come on!”

Lucy responded by huffing out a noise that might have been a bark.  Her footfalls splashed out of sync with Bentley’s, and they were soon joined by others.  Ink, Magic, Roxy, Buddy, Bruno and Socks.  None of the others were as large as Lucy and Bentley.  This would be their first run.  A taste of her power.  She would give them a little more each time, keep an eye out for the ones who listened, give more training to the ones who needed to be kept in line by the bigger and more obedient dogs.

But this was her territory.  Her space.  Finally a place where she could do what she wanted.  Here, she was free, and that meant she could be dirty.  She could go where she wanted, hurt anyone who got in her face.  She could roam free with her dogs and try her power on them without worrying about people getting hurt.

Which wasn’t to say that people wouldn’t get hurt, of course.  Just that it was her territory, and she was allowed to make the call.  Anyone who hadn’t gotten the message already deserved what they got.

Bentley and the rest of her pack drew towards the source of the howling.  Sirius stood outside an apartment block, filling the evening with that mournful, haunting sound that carried through the air.

She hopped down from Bentley’s back, and used the back of her hand to wipe away some of the sweat, mucus and blood that had transferred from his back to her inner thigh.  “Sirius!  Good boy!”

He wagged his tail, and the tip of it made trails in the water.

“Sirius, guard!” she pointed toward the front door of the building.  “Bentley!  Guard!” She pointed at the little emergency exit at the side.  The two dogs moved to their respective positions.

“Sit!”  Her dogs all sat.  She noted Magic was a little slower than the rest to obey.  Would Magic have listened if the other dogs hadn’t been here?  If she hadn’t been following along with the others?  Bitch made a mental note.

“Stay…” she ordered, drawing out the word.  She could see the group of dogs freeze.

She had a routine with her dogs.  The first priority was making sure they were healthy.  That meant grooming and possibly shaving them, getting their records and shots updated if they hadn’t come from the shelter, cleaning their ears, and ensuring they were kept away from the other dogs so she could check the color and consistency of their shit and track any changes.  Shit revealed a lot about the dog it came from, from the obvious of diet to general health to mood.  An unhappy dog had unhealthy shit.

The second step was training, and every dog got some dedicated attention.  ‘Sit’ was the first command they learned, followed closely by ‘stay’, ‘off’, ‘fetch’ and ‘come’.  Depending on the dog, it could take a couple of days before they had it down solid.  These commands were absolutes.  If a dog didn’t listen to each of those, it wasn’t allowed to go out, and it didn’t get any use of her power.

Once a dog had those commands down, it opened the door to other orders.  A dog that would stay put while she demonstrated with another would be that much more inclined to follow suit.

If only humans were as reliable, as easy to train.

“Dogs, attack.”  The word was quiet, but every dog present was waiting for it.  Bentley and Sirius stayed at their positions, but the rest of the dogs surged into the building, the larger ones leaping through the boarded up windows, the smaller ones surging in the front door.  Growls and barks that were twisted by the unnatural shapes of their throats overlapped into a single noise.

She waited outside the building, one hand on Bentley’s neck.  He wanted to go, she knew it from the tension, but he was obedient.  Good.  This was a test for him.

Another howl sounded, far away, startling her.  If her dogs were here with her… oh.  Only one dog would be elsewhere.  She listened as the howl came again.  Yes.  Angelica’s howl reflected her size and the degree to which Bitch had used her power on her.  More than Bentley, Sirius and Lucy.

She whistled for them to come back, long and loud, and her dogs came tearing back through the building.  She checked, and she couldn’t make out any blood that didn’t belong to the dogs.  Good.  Better to terrorize and inflict light wounds than to maim or murder.  If the people in that building stayed in her territory, she would be surprised.

She climbed onto Bentley’s back, then whistled twice.  Come.

A jerk of the chain collar around Bentley’s neck and a kick to his sides spurred him into action.  The others followed, some yipping or barking with excitement.

Did other people experience anything close to this?  Did Taylor, Brian, Lisa or Alec?  She felt like she was one with Bentley as she caught quick breaths between his jarring footfalls.  Water splashed onto her skin and his.  Her legs pressed against his body, and she could feel the expansion and contraction as he huffed out breaths.  She trusted him, and he trusted her absolutely in return.  It varied from one dog to the next, but the same was true with the others that were following in Bentley’s wake.  They believed in her, and if they didn’t love her yet, she knew it would come in time, with her patience and continued care of them. What did Lisa have that compared to that rush, this security?  What did the others have?

Why, Bitch wondered, are they happier than me?

Unbidden, the answers came to mind.

She remembered living with her mother.  She couldn’t even remember the woman’s face, but that was little surprise.  Mom had worked anywhere from three jobs to none, but she spent little time in the apartment.  When she was home, she was either drinking in her room or partying with friends.  Little Rachel’s questions or attempts to get attention were met with anger, rejection.  She would be pushed away or locked in her room.  Better to stay quiet, watch for an opportunity.  If her mother passed out drunk, bills could be taken from her wallet, secreted away for later purchases of bread, peanut butter and jam, milk and cereal or orange juice at the corner store.  If there was a party, and if she was successful in keeping from getting underfoot, she could often snatch a bag of chips, a box of ribs or chicken wings, to eat under her bed or on the roof.

So she got by.  Until the day her mother didn’t come home.  The food in the cupboards had disappeared, even the cans of pineapple, pears and nuts in foul-tasting syrup that had been left behind by the apartment’s previous residents.  Desperate, terrified to leave the apartment in case the fifteen minutes she spent looking for food were the same fifteen minutes her mother stopped by, she’d turned to trying to cook the rice, standing on a chair to reach the sink and stove-top.  After pouring the rice into the water that had been sitting on the hot stove, she’d accidentally brought her arm down on the arm of the pot, and tipped it all over herself.  In retrospect, it was a blessing that she hadn’t known that the water should be boiling.  Still, it was hot enough to turn her skin pink and leave her screaming enough to drive the neighbors to call nine-one-one.

Then the foster homes.  Home one, where the parents were kind, but lacked the patience to deal with a little girl who child protective services had labeled a borderline feral child.  Her foster-sister there had been a mongoloid that stole things, breaking or ruining what she couldn’t take for herself.  Rachel had responded the only option she could think of, attacking the girl who was three years older and fifty pounds heavier, leaving the girl bloody and sobbing.

They found a new home for her rather quickly, after that.

Home two, where the parents were not kind, and she had four foster siblings rather than the one.  Three years there, a long series of lessons on what she’d done to the idiot sister from the first home, taught with the roles reversed.  An education in violence of every kind.

Unable to keep the feelings bottled up within her, she screamed until she couldn’t breathe any longer.  Then she took a deep breath and screamed again.  Even though she screamed until it hurt, it was tiny and insignificant compared to everything she wanted to convey.

Home three had been the breaking point.  Two foster siblings, a single foster-mother.  She’d overheard her caseworker saying that the new foster-mother would be a disciplinarian, the only person that might be able to turn Rachel into a civilized human being.  Bitch’s opinion, years later, was that this had been a retaliation, a punishment inflicted on her by the caseworker for the countless trips to school or the home to deal with Rachel.

She hadn’t believed that her foster mother could be more of a disciplinarian than her second set of foster parents.  Realizing the nature of her situation had been unpleasant.  The foster-mother brooked no nonsense, and had a keen eye for every failing and mistake on her children’s part, quick to punish, quick to correct.  If one of her children spoke with their mouths full, she would snatch that child’s plate away and dispose of the contents into the trash can.  Never the carrot, always sticks.  Rachel was made to attend school, then after-school make up classes, with piano every other day, as if she couldn’t be bad if she didn’t have the time.

But Rachel hadn’t been equipped for these things, would never be equipped for school or manners or piano.  She fought back, challenged her foster-mother’s authority at every turn, and when she was punished for this, she fought back twice as hard.

She might have gone insane if it wasn’t for Rollo.  She’d stumbled onto the mangy, hostile puppy in an alley between her after-school classes and home.  After earning his trust with scraps of her lunch over the course of days and weeks, she brought him home and chained him up at the very back of the expansive backyard, out of sight of the house.

She had stayed quiet when her foster-mother complained about the neighbor dog’s barking, feeling a confused mixture of smugness and terror every time it came up.  Her lunch money went towards buying the dog scraps of food, guessing at what he needed, and this sacrifice of her lunches coupled with the frequent lack of dinner left her getting headaches and her stomach growling constantly during school.  She would wake up at four in the morning to visit him and play with him, and the lack of sleep left her so tired she would drift asleep in the middle of class.

But a dog couldn’t be chained to a tree, not for twenty-two hours out of every day.  She’d seen him grow increasingly agitated and unhappy, to the point that she couldn’t play with him without him hurting her.  So she’d untied him to take him for a walk.  He’d slipped free and headed for the house.  Her blood running cold, she’d chased after him.

When she caught up to him, she found him in the pool; she couldn’t swim, and he couldn’t climb out.  She’d pleaded with Rollo to come out of the pool, tried to run around the pool’s edge to get to him so she could pull him free, but he’d been scared, and swam away from her.

Then the plastic cover of the pool began to slide closed.  When Rachel had looked to the house, she’d seen her foster-mother standing on the other side of the sliding glass door that opened into the backyard, her finger on the switch.  Slowly, gradually, despite her screams and banging on the locked door, the cover had slid over Rollo’s head, trapping him.  For nearly a minute, there was the bulge beneath the cover of Rollo’s head as he swam in tight circles, his sounds of distress muffled.

Her foster-mother’s punishments always matched the crimes.  There could be no doubt Rachel knew the dog from her pleading and shouts, and having a dog was against the rules.  Or maybe it wasn’t even that.  Maybe it was the fact that she was making a disturbance at five in the morning, or the realization that the barking that had plagued her foster mother for so long was Rachel’s fault.  Whatever the reason, the dog was to be disposed of, much in the same way as a plate of dinner was thrown out for holding a fork the wrong way or sitting at the table with her legs too far apart.

She’d woken to her power in that moment of panic.  Fed by her power, Rollo had grown enough to tear through the cover.  He’d then torn through her foster mother.  The shrill screaming of her foster siblings indoors had drawn his attention, and he went after them too, pouncing on them like any excitable dog might do with a mouse or rabbit.  He’d torn through door frames and walls, and an entire section of the house and collapsed in on her foster family.  In one fell swoop, she lost the closest things she had to a home and family.  It hadn’t been perfect, it had been nightmarish at times, but she’d had so little for so long, she found herself clinging to the scraps she did have.  She ran, then, and she kept running for a long time after that.

Her breath hitched as she drew in a breath.  She shook her head violently, to shake away the tears.  She had stopped screaming, but her dogs were making up for it as their voices had joined hers and continued long after she’d stopped, almost drowning out Angelica’s howls.

So many bad memories.  Memories she wished she could purge from herself, scour from her brain with fire and bleach and steel bristled brushes.

She was unhappy because humans were pack animals, she decided.  Taylor and Lisa and Brian could smile and laugh because they had their pack, they had their family members and they had each other.  Alec was more of a loner, but he could still joke and laugh with Brian.  They had their pack, their dynamic.  She wasn’t really a part of it.

Bitch knew that she wasn’t a lone wolf by choice the way that Alec was.  There was a void there, some part of her that craved that human connection because she was a human and that’s what humans needed.  The way things had played out, things she had no control over, she’d never had a chance to figure out how to deal with people, how to invite them in to fill that void.  Friendships and family, conversations and jokes, being close to others and knowing when to speak up and when to stay quiet?  They were treacherous things, littered with complicated nuances, bad associations and worse memories.  Even if she somehow got something right, she always managed to fuck it up sooner than later.  Easier to leave it alone, easier to stay back and not try.  And if they got in her face, if they challenged her and didn’t let her keep them at arm’s length?  It was easier to fall back on what worked and what she knew than it was to try to guess how to respond.  Violence.  Threats.  It earned her respect, if nothing else.

Then Taylor had made overtures at friendship.  Taylor had invited herself into that place, that void, and had stayed when Bitch fucked up.  The scrawny kid had stood her ground instead of running when Bitch called her out on something.  And maybe, just a little, in some small way, Bitch had gotten a glimpse at what she’d been missing out on.

Only to find out it was a ploy.  An act, so that Taylor could get the group’s confidence.

And now the others had forgiven her?  So easily?  She could see them fawning over the little traitor.  And there was nothing she could do about it.  They liked Taylor more.  They would keep Taylor on the team and make Bitch leave if it came down to it.  She knew it in her gut.

So she’d done something stupid.  She’d tried to get rid of her teammate, and she’d done it in a way that haunted her.  More than anything, more than all of the people she’d hurt, the people she’d accidentally killed, or the days she’d scrounged in the trash for food when she’d been homeless, wandering the cities on her own, she hated herself for what she’d done to Taylor.  She had acted like the people who haunted her memories, using what should have been a position of trust to try to hurt someone.

And she didn’t know what to do about it.

A gunshot startled her from her thoughts.

“Go!” she shouted.  “Go!”

More cracks of gunfire echoed through the night as her pack arrived on the scene.  Angelica was there, her form hulking and rippling with muscle to the point that she couldn’t move as fast as she otherwise might.  That was fine.  Angelica couldn’t move as fast these days, anyways.  Not since Fog had hurt her.  She was more comfortable like this; she was big, strong and able to move without pain.

Angelica flinched and backed away as the shots came, striking her flesh.

There was another shot, and Bitch saw a flash from the window, a glimpse of a face.  Her face twisted with rage.  “Attack!”  her voice was shrill.  She leapt off Bentley’s back so he could go too.  “Fetch them!  Fetch!  Go, go!’

As they’d done at the previous location, her dogs tore through the building.  This time, though, they came back with people in their jaws.  Arms, legs and torsos in fanged grips.  Men, women and children.  Some screamed where the dogs didn’t know their own strength and bit too hard.

She found the man she’d seen in the window and stalked over to him.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” the man repeated the word.

“You insulting me?  You trying to act big?’

“What?”  The man’s eyes widened.  Was he staring at her, challenging her?  Was it a fear response?  Was he rallying to fight, trying to get a wider sense of his surroundings?  She could only guess.

“No,” he said, his eyes moving around, as if searching for help.

Defiance?  Sarcasm?  A lie?

“I don’t think you realize how badly you fucked yourself.  You.  Shot.  My.  Dog.”  She looked at Angelica.  Her baby wasn’t acting too hurt, but he’d shot her.  He could have killed her, if the bullet landed in just the right place.

She kicked him in the face, and his head rocked back.  Blood fountained from his nose.

“I didn’t know,” he managed, huffing out air, blood spraying at his words, where it had run down to his lips.  “Didn’t know she was yours.  She was scary, I- I reacted.”

Was he lying?  She couldn’t tell.  She’d grown up with so many good liars, it felt like everything that sounded honest was a lie.  If he was lying, and it was obvious, she’d look weak if she fell for it.  Others might not get the message about this being her territory, about her dogs being off-limits.  If he wasn’t lying… well, he’d still shot Angelica.

Nobody hurts my dogs.”

“Please.  I have a wife, kids.”

As if family somehow made you better than someone else?  The idea nettled Bitch.  Life experience had taught her that it was all too often the opposite.  People were assholes, people were monsters.  The exceptions were all too rare.  Far too many of those same people started a family just because they thought it was what they should do, and then they were assholes and monsters to a captive audience.

She kicked him again, in the stomach.  He screamed as the kick made his arm, still in Ink’s jaws, wrench the wrong way.

“Angelica,” she ordered.  She kicked him in the stomach again.  “Paw!”

Angelica stepped forward and placed one paw the breadth of a truck tire down on the man’s pelvis.  He howled in agony, his words rapid, desperate and breathless, “Heavy oh god please stop please let me go make it move itscrushingme!”

She looked at him with distaste.  It bothered her that the only time she could be absolutely sure what someone meant, what someone wanted, was in circumstances like this.

“Angelica,” she ordered, ducking beneath Angelica’s outstretched limb, kicking him in the kneecap, “Take it.”

Angelica bent and gripped the man’s legs in her teeth, twisting his body further.  His body was pressed to the ground by her paw, his arm and legs pulled up and away from it.

She stepped close to Angelica, burying her face in the slick muscle and hard tissues that layered the dog, wrapping her arms as far as they would go around Angelica’s shoulders and neck.  Just as her dogs came to trust her as she cared for them, fed them, and nurtured them, she grew closer to them as they shared experiences with her, as they learned and accepted their training.  Angelica was one of the dogs she was closest to.  The only dog she was this close to.  Brutus and Judas had passed, the only dogs she had been with for years.

Her heart broke a little every time she thought about it.

And this man?  This family man?  He’d thought he could take Angelica away from her?

Without looking at him, her head still pressed to Angelica’s neck, she gave the order, “Hurt him.”

She felt the vibration rattle through Angelica’s head and neck as bone snapped and crunched between her teeth.  The man shrieked, there was no better word for it, and others in the vicinity echoed his shrieks with their own.

She gave the hand signal and an order, “Drop him.  Dogs, drop them!”

Angelica let the man drop.  His shins were cracked, the ends of his legs bent at odd angles.  One by one, the other captives were dropped to the ground.  Each of the man’s noises of pain was a little smaller and quicker than the last.

“Why can’t you fuckers get it through your skulls?” she called out.  “This is my territory!”

“We didn’t know,” someone said.  A woman who was clutching a bloody arm to her chest. Her daughter beside her.

“You fucking challenging me on this?”

“No!  No.  We- we just… how were we supposed to know?”

“Are you retarded or something?  It’s obvious,” Bitch couldn’t believe the woman’s stupidity.

“How were we supposed to know!?” the woman raised her voice, sounding plaintive.

“The howling.  If you can hear the howling, you’re too fucking close.  Leave.”

“You could probably hear that halfway across the city!”

“No fucking shit,” Bitch retorted.  The woman was challenging her authority.  She had to respond to it, or the woman would keep talking, Bitch would say or do something that made her look stupid, and others would stand up to her.  Best to stop that sooner than later.  “Socks!  Come!”

The woman shrank back, clutching her daughter, as Socks advanced to Bitch’s side.

“Stop,” a voice ordered.

Bitch turned and saw two capes.  From New Wave, weren’t they?  Brandish and Glory Girl.

Brandish spoke, “Glory Girl, call your sister.  At least one of those people needs medical attention, fas-”

She stopped as Bitch whistled as hard as she could.  Barking and snarling, her massed dogs charged the heroes.

After being ambushed and taken captive by the ABB, she’d learned her lesson.  Hit first, assess the situation later.  Besides, what was she going to do?  Talk to them?

Brandish flicked her hands out, and beams of light drew into vague sword shapes.  As the dogs stampeded towards her she flicked them out to double the length.  They drew closer, almost reaching her, and she reconsidered, banishing the weapons to condense herself into a beachball-sized ball of orange-yellow light. The dogs hit her, there was a spray of sparks, and the ball was sent careening down the street and through the wall of a building.

Glory Girl was flying over the stampeding dogs, a cell phone pressed to her ear, in Bitch’s general direction.  Ink and Bruno leaped to the side of a building and then leaped from that point toward Glory Girl.  She struck Socks across the head, sending him flying to the ground, and Bruno slammed into her, knocking the phone from her grip.  She brought her knee up into the dog’s side and pushed herself away before he could drive her down into the ground.

The heroine went for Bitch, who had only Angelica at her side.  Angelica positioned herself between enemy and master, and Glory Girl hit the dog broadside.  Angelica barely reacted, turning instead to snap at Glory Girl.  Her teeth rebounded off the heroine’s outstretched arm, and Glory Girl darted backward, to hover in the air.  Catching her breath?  Watching the situation?

That wasn’t how you were supposed to fight.  Bitch whistled hard, then shouted, “Magic, Lucy, Roxy!  Come!”

As the three dogs barreled toward her, she used her power.  She felt it extend outward like a vibration from deep inside her.  She felt that power shudder and reverberate, as if to let her know it was making contact with them.  She could see the effect.  Could see them grow larger, see bone and muscle swell and shift.

“Attack!”

In moments, Glory Girl was contending with four dogs.  Angelica advanced implacably, Bitch following at a walking pace.  The other three were attacking from every direction, cutting off escape routes, leaping onto the side of the building, leaping down, running behind her, or flanking her from the sides.

“Mom!” Glory Girl shouted, a note of panic in her voice.

“Run!” Brandish called out her response.  She was facing much the same situation, unable to attack with the relentless pressure the dogs were putting on her.  Instead, she changed herself into that ball form where she couldn’t be touched or hurt, flying away with every hit she took, or controlling the direction so she could make her way for an escape route.  She managed to find enough pause to lash out at one dog and shout, “Get the wounded!”

Glory Girl caught Roxy around the snout as the dog lunged for her, and threw her down at Lucy.  She used the momentary reprieve this granted her to fly straight for the man who’d shot at Angelica, who lay in a heap on the ground.

She stopped mid-flight.

A woman stood over the man’s mangled body, her long hair blowing slightly in the wind.  Which seemed wrong.  With the light rain, her hair should have been wetter.

Glory Girl looked over her shoulder to see the dogs, looked back to the injured man and the woman, and then flew straight up, disappearing into the gloom of the night sky.  She’d left him behind.

The barking and snarling ceased as the fight drew to a close.  Each of the dogs returned, and Bitch noted a few injuries.  A shattered plate of bone here, a gouge where Brandish’s blades had made contact there.  Surface damage.  It was only the damage that penetrated deep, past the layers her power applied, which risked hurting the dogs or doing permanent damage.  Nothing so serious.  Bitch breathed a sigh of relief.

She stalked forward, her dogs joining her to form a loose circle around the woman.  The crazy bitch was naked from head to toe, and her skin and hair were painted in alternating stripes of white and black, like a zebra… no.  Paint would have washed off, and dye wouldn’t be so crisp around the edges.  It was a natural coloring.

When the woman looked up at Bitch, her eyes were yellow and bright, reflecting the ambient light like the eyes of a dog or cat might.  She smiled, and there wasn’t a trace of tension in her body, as though she’d just woken up in a safe place.

“Who the fuck are you?”

The woman didn’t reply.  She crouched down beside the man, then shifted her position so she was sitting sideways, her legs stretched out beside her.  Her fingertips traced the man’s injuries, almost lovingly.

“Answer me,” Bitch ordered.

The woman reached over and pressed her index and middle fingers to the man’s eyes.  Pressing down, she penetrated the orbs, sliding her fingers down until they were two knuckles deep.

“Hey!  Fuck off!”

The woman removed the fingers.  Vitreous fluids and blood flowed from the open wounds in the man’s eye sockets.

The woman turned towards her.  She didn’t meet Bitch’s eyes, instead looking down at Bitch’s feet.  It struck Bitch that the woman was making herself small, was being inoffensive.  It made her feel better, strangely.

Slightly calmer, her words measured, she called out, “I’m going to ask you again.  Who the fuck are you?”

“Siberian,” the woman spoke, her voice barely above a whisper.  Barely audible.

“What the hell are you doing here?  This is my territory.”

“I’ll leave soon.  I just wanted to talk.”  Again, the whisper.

Talking, always talking.  “Not interested.  Go.”

Siberian looked down at the man, who was still writhing and twitching, making small noises of pain.

“Go!”  She shouted.  The woman didn’t budge.  Bitch glanced at her dogs to see who was the biggest, the least injured.  Lucy.  “Lucy!  Attack!”

Lucy pounced on Siberian.  Bitch saw Siberian stretch out her arm, saw Lucy’s jaws clamp down on the limb.

There was no reaction.  Lucy tugged, the full force of her body behind the movement, and the woman didn’t move a hair.

With great care, Siberian stood.  She looked at Lucy, her bright eyes roving over the dog’s face and the length of the dog’s body.

“Beautiful,” she whispered.  She pressed her lips against Lucy’s nose in a kiss, as if uncaring that the dog had seized her arm between jaws that could crush a motorcycle.  Lucy snorted in response.

Then she looked at Bitch.  This time, she made eye contact, and despite her whisper, there was no-nonsense in her tone.  “Your dog lets go of me now, or she gets hurt.”

The confidence in the tone, the authority, the fact that the woman’s eyes didn’t waver in the slightest, they made it abundantly clear to Bitch that the woman was telling the truth.  She was certain enough about it that it was worth weakening her position here.  “Lucy, off.  Come.”

Lucy let go and backed off, moving to Bitch’s side.

“They’re beautiful,” Siberian whispered, looking at the dogs.

Bitch nodded mutely in response.

Siberian approached her, walking with a great deal of care.  There was grace in her movement, and she walked on her tiptoes, each foot carefully placed a measured distance in front of the other.  Her eyes shone through the curtain of her white and black hair.

Bitch felt a moment’s trepidation.

“What…” She regretted opening her mouth the instant she did, but it was already too late.  “do you want?”

You.”

“I don’t understand,” she tried to inject more confidence into her answer.

“They told me I should pick someone.  Someone they can test.  I read about you, I heard about you.  I want you on our team.”

“Team?”  She hated the short answers that were coming out of her mouth, the way that they were uncertain and they put her on weaker footing.

The woman’s response carried over the flooded street, through the growls that slowly ratcheted up from the dogs as the stranger approached their owner, “The Nine.  We have only eight, not enough.  So some of us are picking people.  Then we test them.  I picked you, and I like what I’ve seen.  I’ve been watching you for weeks, now.”  She smiled again.

Has to be a lie, Bitch thought.  Her dogs would have noticed someone following her, wouldn’t they?

The woman was only a few paces away.  The question was, should Bitch retreat and put herself in an even weaker position, or did she stand her ground?

She stood her ground.  The woman stepped closer, within arm’s reach, then another two paces, until her chest pressed against Bitch’s body.  She met the woman’s gaze, unflinching, until Siberian wrapped her arms around her, holding her close, resting her chin on Bitch’s shoulder.

Aren’t you tired of pretending?”, the woman whispered in her ear.

“What?”  Bitch tried to pull away, so she could ask the woman the question to her face, but the limbs were unmoving, more resisting than steel bars would have been.

“Acting like one of them.  Playing and losing their games, decorating yourself in their clothing and their symbols, following their rules?”

“I-” Bitch paused, “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The pause was telling.  She knew it was telling.  The woman understood her, she knew.

The woman understood her.  The thought clicked.  The way the woman moved, her body language, everything, she was making sense to Bitch in a way that so few people did.

The idea left Bitch shaken.  How?  Why?  Was it some power?  From the start, she’d known what the woman wanted to express as easily as she did with her dogs.

“You’re an animal, Bitch.” The woman gave special treatment to that last word.  Bitch stiffened.  The woman pulled away, one hand remaining to caress the side of Bitch’s face.  Her eyes were lowered again, Bitch noted.  She was smiling lightly, her lips pressed together, teeth hidden.  Playful, gentle.  Bitch let herself relax.  It hadn’t been meant as an insult.  The body contact was intrusive, but she could grit her teeth and bear it, at least until she figured out who this person was and how she could fight back.

“We’re all animals,” Siberian murmured.  She walked over to Bentley, and Bitch hurried to give the dog the hand gesture for ‘stay’, then ‘off’ before the woman moved to touch him.  “Some more than others.  You and I, more than others.”

“Philosophy shit?”

Siberian smiled, her hands tracing Bentley’s snout, the exposed muscles and horns.  “Philosophy shit.  Yes.  Touché.  An idea given meaning because people think it should have meaning.  But it’s just words, isn’t it?”

“Sure.”

“Join me.  Stop pretending to be like them.  You know you’re bad at it.”

“I’m fine where I am.”

“Mmm,” the woman smiled, her eyes lowered.  She clasped her hands together and pressed them to her chin, squishing her breasts up against her chest.  She turned, taking in the neighborhood, assessing Bitch’s territory.  “Maybe for now.  You have freedom to run, to do as you like.  It’s nice.  But you’re going to chafe at it sooner or later.  You’re going to realize that you’re still in a cage they made.  You’re still following their rules, in the end.”

Bitch looked around the empty, flooded streets as Siberian was doing.  She didn’t answer.

“Maybe you can be happy like this.  A dog, collar around your neck, a fenced in territory.  You’ll never really understand what they’re all talking about.  The best you can hope for is a pat on the head when you’re good, when you do as you should, maybe some companionship whenever you’re a good girl.  But maybe that’s what you want.

“As opposed to what?”

“Being wild.  Being free.  Truly free.  It’s exhilarating,” Siberian breathed.

Bitch frowned.  Words that sounded nice, but that was all they were.  Just words.

“I’m going to give you two presents, Bitch,” Siberian whispered.  “One will be waiting for you when you go back to your… what do you call it?”

Bitch didn’t answer.

“Let’s call it your den.  I like that.”

Siberian closed the distance to Bitch with a surprising speed, her steps less controlled, carrying her long distances forward as she zig-zagged over the flooded street.  Before Bitch could react, or before the dogs could step in, she was next to Bitch, stopping.  Siberian put a hand on her collarbone.  Bitch was lifted into the air and pushed down into the water, soaked, landing hard enough that the air was forced out of her lungs.

As she struggled to breathe, Siberian whispered, “The second gift is special, a treasure for a kindred spirit.”

Bitch coughed, struggled, but she couldn’t move the hand.

“As of this moment, you’re the only one to hear me speak and live afterwards.”

She kissed Bitch on the forehead, like a mother would with a child.  Bitch tried to twist away, and only succeeded in getting water in her eyes and nose.  She sputtered as she struggled to draw air into her empty lungs.

When she could see again, Siberian was gone.  Her dogs were looking up at a nearby rooftop.

Shaken, she gestured for Bentley to come to her, and climbed up onto his shoulders.

Coughing, snorting water from her nostrils, she gave the order, “Home.”

Her thoughts were chaotic as she rode Bentley down the streets, a dull roar of too many things all at once, all too important to be ignored.  At the same time, she didn’t want to think about them, didn’t want to put those pieces together, because she wasn’t sure she liked where they would lead.

The gift Siberian left her.  Some of her henchmen were at her den.  More important, some of her dogs were there.  Every minute the trip took left her more worried.

She hopped off Bentley as they arrived at the building, shoving the doors open.

Blood.  Trails leading to Barker and Biter, who were on the ground floor, unconscious, still breathing.  One of the girls, the one with veterinary training that Coil had sent to her, was sitting in one corner, nursing an arm that dangled at the wrong angle from the elbow, sobbing.

This was recent.  Siberian had done this in the time it took Bitch to get here.

More blood, one of the boys, a dog groomer with years of experience, lying beside the kitchen counter, his shirt wadded up and pressed to his face.  Around the shirt, she could see the four parallel tracks where Siberian’s fingernails had left gouges running across his face.

None of the dogs were hurt.  She had to double-check them to see.  Most were cowering in the corners.  Some had retreated up the stairs.

The blood had a pattern to it, as though Siberian had painted a picture with the spray.  A line drawing from each of the injured to the center of the room, where a box sat, faintly dusted with flecks of blood.

She was nervous as she opened it, but she couldn’t not.

A furry bundle tried to escape, and she stopped it.  It bit for her fingers.  She pulled her hand back, gripped it by the throat and forced it down to the ground, making her dominance clear.

A husky puppy?  No.  The physical makeup was wrong.  The smaller ears, longer limbs, and markings around the jowls and muzzle.

wolf pup. Where had Siberian found this?

There was a card in the bottom of the box, stained with urine.  Bitch picked it up with the very tip of her finger and thumb.  She’d never properly learned how to read, so she had to work out the individual sounds, moving her lips to try to piece it together.

“Ah… air yoh… you.  Air you a…”  That letter, she didn’t recognize it.  After it was… “oll… wolf.”

She gave up.  She could guess, anyways.

Are you a wolf, or are you a dog?

The rule was to call Coil at a time like this.  To let him know what had happened.  She found her phone in one of her jacket pockets and she fumbled with the keypad to find him in her contacts.  Her finger hovered over the button.

What was she holding on to?  Who was she protecting?  Her friends?  Were they really her friends?  It wasn’t that she wanted to betray them, she wasn’t about to repeat that mistake, but…

She couldn’t articulate the thought, but it was Taylor’s face that flashed into her mind’s eye when she put the phone away.

Maybe she would see what this test was about.  She wasn’t about to back down.  But in the end, she‘d make the call about where she went and what she did.

“You,” she told the man with the gouges in his face, “Go to a doctor.  Take anyone here that needs it.  But I don’t want you telling Coil, I don’t want you using his doctors.  Got it?’

The man looked up at her, staring for long seconds.  Finally, he nodded.  She didn’t know if he would, or if he’d be able to hide it, but if he did inform Coil, it would at least be an excuse to get rid of him and the others.

She looked down at the wolf pup, who was still struggling to bite at her fingers.  She let it go, waited until it tried to attack her again, and pushed it down onto its side once more.

“Little bastard,” she smiled.

Almost without thinking about it, she used her power.  Just the smallest amount.  She felt almost none of the vibrations or shudder she experienced as a visceral feedback on her power with the other dogs.  It was only when she saw his skin splitting that she realized it was actually working.  Faster, quicker, with so little of the temporary exhaustion she so often experienced on her end.

Was it easier with him?  What did that mean?

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The residual foam on my glove made my hand sticky as I reached into the compartment at my back and grabbed my baton.  It took me two tries to get my thumb onto the button so I could whip it out to its full length.

I strode towards Bitch, weapon in hand.  Tattletale hurried to catch up to me, turning to keep an uneasy eye on the ongoing fight with the Protectorate.

“Hey, Skitter!” Tattletale grabbed my shoulder.

I whirled to face her, hand clenching my baton.  I could see the change in her expression as some piece fell in place for her.

Shit,” she swore, “Hey, listen-”

She didn’t get a chance to finish.  White smoke billowed around us.  My first thought was that our adversaries were using some sort of bug spray.

The way today was going, it would be just my luck.

I held my breath and hurried out of the cloud, Tattletale following, and searched for the source.  Assault was taking on Regent and Imp, while Grue and Shadow Stalker were dealing with Battery and Weld.  Bitch and her dogs, on the other hand, were facing down Triumph.  Not the matchup I would have chosen, taking on the guy with the sonic shout using dogs with sensitive hearing.

I almost went after Bitch right then and there, but self-preservation won out over any desire for retribution.  As Tattletale and I made our way around the cloud, I spotted Miss Militia.

A black-green energy crackled in her hand, and she lobbed a grenade my way.  I scrambled back, only for it to turn out to be another canister of smoke, billowing out between Miss Militia and me.

Why the smoke?

The bees I had in the smoke were acting funny.  I was surprised to find out why.  I’d known that beekeepers used smoke to pacify the bees before collecting the honey.  My assumption had been that it acted as a tranquilizer, putting them to sleep.  In reality, it was forcing them to revert to instinctual behavior.  It made them want to eat and feed and to flee.  For those near enclosed spaces or even the corners of walls or the foundations of buildings, it made them adjust their wingbeats to divert the flows of oxygen.

If she’d been intending to use the smoke to screw with my insects, she’d underestimated my power.  I canceled out the instincts and sent the bugs through the smoke, blind, feeling out for her.  I found her running towards us, through the smoke.

“She’s coming!” I shouted.

In retrospect, that was a mistake.

Much as I might have warned Tattletale and the others, I’d also informed Miss Militia on my location.  I turned to run, but she was already raising her gun to fire with an ear-shattering crack.

From the way it cut past my bugs, and the wake of disturbed air the pellets left behind them I could only guess she’d just grazed me with a shotgun.  I collapsed sideways to the ground, and the pain came a heartbeat later, radiating over half of my upper body, from my shoulder to my right butt cheek.  I was guessing it was nonlethal ammunition – it could well have been lethal, for the sheer degree of hurt it delivered, if my costume had prevented it from penetrating.

Before she could shoot again, I directed my bugs to her hands and eyes, hoping to incapacitate her.  I still had a small few of the capsaicin-loaded bugs, and sent them all her way.

As hard as it was to see in the smoke, there was still faint light.  That light disappeared the instant Grue used his power.

Miss Militia was staggering and reeling as her hands and face lit up with stings and burns.  The gun wasn’t in her hands anymore, which meant we weren’t at risk of getting shot.  I sent more bugs across to the other members of the Protectorate, to try to disable them.

Tattletale fumbled around and found me in the darkness, clasped her hand around the same hand I held the baton with, and helped me to my feet.  She gave me her support as we limped away.  Nothing seemed to be broken, judging by what I felt.

The darkness disappeared after we’d traveled across the street.  Grue greeted us.  “Dragon?”

“Kaput, thanks to Tattletale,” I spoke.

He looked back the way we’d come, “Damn that smoke.  Listen, Tattletale, head down this street, wait for us.  Skitter and I are going back in to find and retrieve the others.”

I supposed that would be another benefit of using the smoke.  If you didn’t expect to be able to see, then it didn’t hurt to deny your enemy that same privilege.  Miss Militia had been thinking about this.  If her team wasn’t so sparse on members, she could have done a lot more damage.

“My bugs are telling me they’re over there, there and there,” I pointed in the direction of our teammates.  “That’s all I can do for you.  I kind of got shot, not sure I’m up to running around.”

His head snapped around to face me, “Shot?”

“I’m okay, it was nonlethal.  I think,” I assured him, “Go!”

He did, glancing over his shoulder to look at me before disappearing back into the midst of the darkness.

Tattletale and I made our escape.  We got three blocks away before we found a spot to hide.  Tattletale got out her phone and began sending messages, presumably to Grue and Coil.

Our hiding place was the lobby of an apartment building.  Boards had been placed over the windows, and there were signs that some people had camped out here, not long ago.  It was otherwise similar to Grue’s apartment complex.  Less tidy, obviously.

“You okay?” Tattletale asked me.

“That question seems to come up a lot.”

“I’m sorry.  I knew the gun would inevitably overheat, and what little I could read off of Dragon told me she’d deal with that above anything else.  I didn’t think you’d be stuck there, too.”

“No.  Your gun thing there saved my skin.  The real problem was…” I trailed off.  I still had the baton in my hand – the residual containment foam meant I’d probably have to peel the glove away from the weapon.  I clenched the weapon tight.

We sat in silence for nearly ten minutes before the rest arrived as a massed group.  Shadow Stalker was limping, and two of the dogs were their normal size, draped across Bentley’s back, but everyone was more or less intact.

Bitch’s eyes widened fractionally as she saw me.

I was already standing, barely feeling the hurt from where I’d been grazed.  Blood pounded in my ears, and I could feel the buzz of my insects.

“How-” she started.  I didn’t let her finish.  My baton held in both hands, I struck her in the upper thigh.  When she didn’t fall, I let go of the baton and backhanded her.  She toppled, and protests and shouts echoed around me.

It hurt.  Damn it, I’d never really hit someone with my hands before.  I wondered if I’d managed to break something.

There were still bugs on some of my teammates.  I could sense them approaching, Grue and Imp moving to stop me.  I ducked out of the way of their hands before they could grab me, and then held up my baton, menacing them.  I cast a momentary glance towards Shadow Stalker, then augmented my voice with the buzzing and chirping of my swarm, “Don’t.”

“What the hell are you doing!?” Grue roared.

“Ask her,” my response was barely above a growl.

Grue glanced down at Bitch, who was rubbing her chin, opening her jaw wide, as if testing it.

I dropped down to a crouch so quickly that my knee slammed into the ground.  I grabbed the upper end of the baton and pulled it over Bitch’s head, forcing the bar between her teeth, pulling back hard.

Grue moved to stop me once more, and I shook my head.  He hesitated, then stopped.

Bentley was pacing towards me, snarling at the attack on his owner.  I met his gaze with my own, unflinching, and he didn’t lunge to attack, maybe because he didn’t want to hurt his master in the process.  I didn’t break eye contact with the dog as I spoke with the swarm buzzing in accompaniment, “Regent, this isn’t for Shadow Stalker’s ears.”

“Got it,” Regent spoke.  Shadow Stalker moved to the bench by the elevators, sat down, and buried her face in her arms, covering her ears.  Regent informed me, “She can’t hear much of anything, now.”

“Bitch,” I pulled on the bar, eliciting more struggling from Bitch, “Just tried to fuck me over in the fight with Dragon.  Shoved me into the foam.”

Bitch made a muffled noise, then jabbed me in the side, where I’d been grazed by Miss Militia’s shotgun.  It hurt, and in the interest of keeping her from doing it again, I shifted my position so I could force Bitch onto her back against the ground, her head pinned down by my baton.  She could still hit me and jab me, but my shins could take a lot more abuse than her jaw could.  I belatedly realized I’d taken my eyes off Bentley, but he didn’t maul me.  When I looked up, I saw Tattletale had a grip on his chains.

“You’re a coward, Rachel,” I spoke, “You just did the very same thing you hate me for almost doing.  You stabbed me in the back.  You fucked over your own teammate.”

She mumbled something around the bar.  The look in her eyes made me seriously worry she would kill me when I let her go.

“I’m in a position to hurt you now, and I’m pissed enough to do it,” I spoke, my voice low.  “But I won’t.  This vendetta against me ends, now.  You got your shot at me, you fucked it up.  If you’re still mad at me, you fucking better cope, got it!?”

She snarled out two muffled words.  I suspected they were rude.

When I spoke next, I bent low and whispered the words for her and her alone, “When you’re tossing and turning and trying to sleep, remembering what I did and said here and getting pissed off about it?  Remember that you were the weak one.  You embarrassed yourself, fucked up, you were the weakling, the wuss who couldn’t even confront me face to face.  And knowing you like I do?  I’m betting it’s going to gnaw at you.  That’s as much a punishment as I could inflict, I think.  That’s on you, not me.

“You said it yourself, a while back.  It’s a mistake to underestimate me.  You want another shot at it, it had better be really damn good.  Because if it isn’t, I’m going to survive, I’m going to get away.  And then I might break your jaw for real.  For starters.”

I stood, removing the baton from her mouth and stepping away, to give her room to stand.  Leaning against the wall, I pressed the button and collapsed the baton into the handle.  I stared at her.

Working her jaw, she stood and glared at me.  She either didn’t have a response for me, or she did and her jaw hurt too much for her to try giving it.  None of the others were jumping into the middle of this.

In the face of the silence, I offered one final comment, “I think I’ve already covered what happens if you want to continue this vendetta.  Now I’m going to offer you a deal.  Number three, I think, and my deals with you are usually pretty fair, if I may say so myself.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I fucked up, you fucked up, whatever.  Insult for insult, blow for blow, I’d like to think we’re even.  So now I’m going to trust you to have my back.  I’m going to put myself in more situations where you have a prime chance at fucking me over, backstabbing me, catching me at my most vulnerable.  Because we can’t function as a team any other way.

“I’m going to treat you like a damned teammate, Rachel, but I’ll go one step further.  You think you can put this behind you and satisfy yourself with what you tried to pull earlier tonight?  Cool.  Because if you’re willing, I’ll come with you to help take care of your dogs.  I’ll bring fucking lunch, if you want it.  That’s the deal I’m offering you, pissed as I am right now.  I’ll be your damn friend.”

She looked away, down at the ground, scowling.

“Take it or leave it.”

She decided to leave it, apparently.  Bitch stomped away, slamming the door the moment Bentley passed through it, leaving the rest of us standing there in the rubbish-strewn apartment building.

Grue sighed audibly and looked over our group, “We’d better go.  We should decide what we’re going to do with Shadow Stalker, now.”

“We could keep her,” Imp spoke.

Regent shook his head, “Nope.  There are drawbacks to this, and one of them is that I lose control of anyone I’m controlling while I sleep.  Better to get rid of her on my terms than have her trying to shoot me in the throat while I take a nap.”

“And it’s kind of fucked up,” I spoke.

“I thought you were all-in,” Regent said.

“I am.  But that doesn’t mean I’m an idiot,” I retorted.  “This kind of mind control-”

“Body control,” Regent interrupted, his tone bored, “Her mind still belongs to her.”

“Semantics.  This kind of mind control is pretty high up there on the scale of fucked upness.  People are going to respond to that.  It might be the nudge they need to start responding to us with lethal force.  Think of how different tonight would have played out if Dragon and Miss Militia hadn’t held back.”

“Sure,” he shrugged.  “Whatever.  I don’t know why you’re arguing with me.  I agree, we should get rid of her.”

“What did you do, back in the old days?” Tattletale asked.

“Kept three people I used regularly, with my sister’s help.  But this is fine.  Look, watch.”

Shadow Stalker stood, lowering her hands and arms from around her head, and walked over to the door.  She faced Regent.

“I’m letting you go,” he spoke.

And then he did.  She dropped to all fours on the ground, grunting.  A second later, she was loading her bolt, spinning to point her crossbow at him.  She stopped before firing.

“There’s a catch,” he spoke. “My power?  Once I’ve figured someone out?  It’s a lot easier to control them, after.  Any time you come near me, I can do this.  I can use my power and retake control in the blink of an eye.”

He had her raise her crossbow and point it at her temple.  It was a tranquilizer dart, but the meaning seemed pretty damn clear.

“Next time I get control?  I’m keeping you for a full day.  Maybe two, if I feel like pulling an all-nighter.  And here’s the funny part,” there was no humor in his voice, “I’m going to do it even if I’m in civilian clothes, if my power tells me you’re in range.  You won’t even know when it’s coming.  You’re now a liability to the Wards, and you won’t ever know when or where I’m going to get control again…

“Unless you leave.  Skip town.  Join another team.”

She nodded, slowly.  The movement was jerky, which was peculiar.  Was he giving her limited control of her own movements?

“Now let’s walk you off to the other end of the city before I release you.  I don’t think you’re quite stupid enough to try and follow us, but I think my teammates would be more comfortable if they were sure.”

Shadow Stalker turned and walked through the door.

Regent looked at us, shrugged.  “Good enough?”

“She might be mad enough to come after someone else in our group, but yeah.  Good,” Grue said.  “Let’s go deliver the stuff.”

We didn’t meet Coil in the underground base, and the people surrounding him weren’t all the same uniformed mercenaries that had made up his entourage in our prior meetings.  The meeting place was at the south end of the Docks, near the border to the downtown area, and it was closer in appearance to the refurbished, ramshackle building where I’d reunited with the Undersiders than anything else.

The building was an old quadruplex, and it had been reinforced with metal panels, sandbags and plastic sheeting to keep the interior crisp and dry, much as the other building had.  Small rooms with bunk beds filled half of the lower level, with a bathroom, kitchen and living room taking up the rest.

Finding the lower level empty, we headed to the second floor and found an open space supported by two metal pillars.  There were a half-dozen mercenaries with Coil, as well as a collection of people who looked like they had come from every walk of life.  Teenagers, professionals, and two guys that might have been capes – one thin, short guy with brown skin and a tattoo around his mouth, depicting a mess of sharp teeth penetrating the skin of his cheeks and lips.  The other was burlier, shirtless, and wore a rusty, old fashioned looking mechanical rigging around his hands, with a bear-trap jaw plate.  The frame seemed set up to hold metal claws around his fingertips while allowing his hands the full range of motion.   He had a spiked collar of much the same style.

Coil sat in a black leather armchair, with a laptop set on the table beside him.  Dinah was there, too.  She sat at the base of the chair, on a cushion just beside Coil’s feet, picking at the threads of her white dress with a dazed single-mindedness that told me she had probably received her ‘candy’ pretty recently.

“Undersiders.  Tattletale informed me you were successful, despite complications.  May I see it?”

Tattletale stepped forward and handed Coil the USB thumbstick.  He plugged it into the laptop, then turned the computer so the middle-aged man to his left could type away.

“Data’s corrupted, sir.  Looks like the download was interrupted at the ninety-seven percent mark.”

“Can you fill in the blanks?” Coil asked him.

“Probably.  Will take some time.  There’s encryption.  Good encryption.  Maybe a few days, with the full team working on it?”

“Most likely it is Dragon’s work,” Coil spoke. “Let’s assume it’ll take a week, minimum.  Perhaps Tattletale will be able to assist.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Priority number one, I want the data on the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

I felt a chill, but didn’t say anything.  Was he intending to hire them?  It would be a huge mistake in my book, if he was.

Regent asked the question for me, “The Slaughterhouse Nine?”

“At least some of their members have been seen in town, preying on the locals, disrupting recovery efforts.  The recent chaos makes the city a playground for them,” Coil spoke.  “One of my teams is bound to run up against them soon.”

“How likely is it?” Tattletale asked.  She tilted her head in Dinah’s direction.  “Can you ask her?”

“I suppose.”  Coil put his hand on Dinah’s head, stroked her hair, then slid his hand down the side of her face until he could place his fingertips under her chin, raise her head to look at him, “Pet?”

It was disturbingly intimate in a way I’d rather not think about.  No, not intimate.  That was the wrong word for the impression I was getting.  Possessive.  I looked away.

“Yes?” Dinah asked.

“Likelihood that one of my groups encounters the Slaughterhouse Nine?”

“Who?”

He moved to take the laptop, and the middle-aged man stepped back to let him.  He typed for a few seconds, then turned it around so Dinah could see.  It was a gallery of images.

“Bonesaw.” he spoke.  The girl on the screen looked barely older than Dinah, maybe the same age as Aisha.  The image showed her wide-eyed, a spray of dried blood painted her face at a diagonal.

“Shatterbird.”  A dark-haired, brown-skinned woman with a helmet covering the upper half of her face, in a beak shape.  I was reminded of Iron Falcon, the boy I’d tried to help, who’d died in the Endbringer attack.  From what I’d read, Shatterbird usually used her power as the Nine arrived in a city, to maximize panic and terror.  I supposed they were flying under the radar for now.  Fuck, I’d have to do something about my costume, just in case.

“Crawler.”  No portrait, this time.  It was a still from a surveillance camera, a misshapen silhouette, not even humanoid, in a shadowy area.  I’d come across stories about him when I’d been researching possible superhero names for myself.  Not pretty.

“Mannequin.”  Another long-distance shot.  The figure was standing by Bonesaw in the photograph, with other hulking figures within the shadows of the background.  He stood almost twice her height, and he looked artificial.  His body was in pieces, each section wrapped in a hard shell of ceramic or plastic or white-painted metal – I couldn’t be sure.  His joints were a mix of loose chains and ball joints.  A Tinker with a body-modification fetish.  I couldn’t say how much of the transformation was his own power and how much was Bonesaw’s work.

“The Siberian.”  A woman, naked from head to toe, her body painted in alternating stripes of jet black and snow white.  She had gone up against the Triumvirate – Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon – on a dozen occasions, and she was still around to talk about it.  Or around, at least.  From what I’d read, she didn’t talk.

“Burnscar.” Younger, maybe an older teenager or a young-looking twenty-something.  She looked almost normal, with her dark hair badly cut, but then I saw the vertical row of cigarette burns marking each of her cheeks, and a faint glow to her eyes.

“Hatchet Face.”  This was one I hadn’t even heard of.  The man didn’t wear a mask, and his head was shaved.  He looked like he had been beaten, burned and just plain abused so often that his face was as much scar tissue than flesh, and he didn’t look like he’d been handsome to begin with.

“Jack Slash.”  Jack looked like someone on the attractive side of average, his dark hair cut short and styled with gel.  His beard and moustache were immaculately trimmed so that each had a serrated edge, and his shirt was wrinkled, only half buttoned so his hairless upper chest showed.  He had kind of a Johnny Depp look to him, though he had more of a widow’s peak, a longer face and lighter eyes.  Good looking, if you looked past the fact that he was a mass murderer.  He held a small kitchen knife in the photo.

There were parahumans who were fucked up before powers entered the picture, like Bitch, and there were parahumans who became monsters after they got their powers, like Bakuda.  Then there were the really dangerous ones, the people who had probably been monsters before powers were even on the table, and then they got worse.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, you had Bonesaw, who was like some kind of artist, as psychopaths went.  The sort of person that drew other lunatics to her, just because they wanted to see what she would do next.  Even that wouldn’t normally work as a dynamic, but as I understood it, Jack somehow managed to play them off one another and keep the group more or less intact.  He was familiar enough with the psychology of his group and just plain charismatic enough to keep them from killing one another.

Which wasn’t to say they didn’t.  There were only eight members in their group at present, and the turnover rate was pretty damn high, because they had a tendency towards recklessness, infighting and showy displays.  They thought nothing of descending on an elementary school, just because they could.  When the heroes came for them, they came with lethal force.

“Mmm,” Dinah said.

“What is it, pet?” Coil murmured.

“It’s him.”

“Who?”

She pointed at the screen, at Jack Slash.  “Him.”

“You’re going to have to explain it to us, pet.  What about him?”

“He’s the one who makes everyone die.”

I shivered.  What?

“Everyone here?”

Dinah shook her head, her hair flying out to either side.  “Everyone.  I don’t understand.  Can’t explain.”

“Try,” he urged her.

“Sometimes it’s in two years.  Sometimes it’s in eight.  Sometimes in between.  But if he’s alive, something happens, and everyone on Earth starts to die.  Not that everyone doesn’t die anyways but they die really fast when that something happens, all one after another, and in a year almost everyone is dead.  So I said everyone, if that makes sense and a few live but they die pretty soon after anyways and-“

“Shh, pet.  I think we understand what you’re saying.  Quiet now, unless you think of something important.  We need to consider this.”

Silence reigned for a few long seconds.  You could have heard a pin drop.

“His power isn’t all that, I don’t think,” Grue spoke, slowly, as if considering the words as he spoke.  “Space warping effect, so any blades he’s holding have an edge that extends a horrendously long distance, all with the optimal force behind the swing.  Swings his knife, cuts through an entire crowd.  Doesn’t make sense that he’d be able to murder everyone on Earth.”

“Unless he somehow cuts the planet in half,” Tattletale mused.

That was disquieting.

“No,” Dinah spoke.  “He doesn’t.”

“I think we need more numbers if we’re to understand this, pet.  What is the likelihood that he succeeds in this?  To one decimal point.”

“Eighty three point four percent.”

“You said if he’s alive.  What if we killed him?  Now?  To one decimal point.  If I use my power.”

“Thirty one point two percent chance someone kills him before he leaves the city, if you use your power.  It doesn’t happen until fifteen years from now, if you do.”

“So it still happens?” Coil asked.

“Yes.  Always happens.”

Tattletale spoke up, “He’s the catalyst for something else, then.”

“Is it always successful, pet?  This something that kills everyone on Earth?”

She shook her head, “Not always, not all the way.  Sometimes more people live.  Sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands, sometimes billions.  But millions or billions always die when it happens.”

“If I were to send the Travellers?  How likely would they be to kill him?”

“My head hurts.”

“Please, pet, this is important.  To one decimal point.”

“Twenty two point six percent.  Thirty point nine percent chance some of them die.”

“And the Undersiders?”

“Eleven point nine percent chance they succeed.  Fifty five point four percent chance they die if they fight those people.”

Coil sighed, then straightened.  He looked at the middle-aged man, handed him the computer, “I strongly recommend you get what information you can on the group.  Any detail in the PRT records could be invaluable.  Lose sleep if you have to.”

The man took the laptop, swallowed, and then offered a quick bob of his head.  The others in the assembled group around Coil looked just as alarmed by what they’d overheard.

“We should contact the local heroes,” Grue spoke.  “Let them know what’s up.”

Coil nodded, slowly, “I’ll look into it.  That said, I think the numbers illustrate one thing.  You are not equipped to fight that group.  If you encounter them, you-“

“Sixty percent,” Dinah muttered.

“Sixty percent, pet?”

“Sixty percent chance the Undersiders encounter some of those people.”

Coil turned to look at us.  “So you’re likely to encounter them.  When that happens, you run.  Cede any territory, abandon any job.  I would rather you were alive than successful in a job.”

“Got it,” Grue spoke.

“In the meantime, we move on to the next phase of my plan,” Coil spoke.  “You may be wondering about this location, how it is similar to the new headquarters I provided you.  I have outfitted these areas to be your stations, points from which you will operate, work to seize and keep territory.  I have several more.  If you’re amenable, I would have each of you take one of these stations for yourself.  Grue, this would be your station, shared with Imp, which I assume is alright?”

Grue looked around, “Big place and a lot of beds for two people.”

“More on that later.  Rest assured, I can provide staff, help.  I expect you’ll wish to find and recruit people of your own.  Contact me about funds – I will ensure that anyone you hire is paid well.”

Grue nodded.

“Regent?  Your territory is near Grue’s, close to the water.”

Regent nodded.

“Bitch is absent?”

“Interpersonal stuff,” Grue replied.  “She’ll be back.”

“A shame.  Your other headquarters, where I moved your collective belongings, that will be her station.  Barker and Biter here showed up for the Endbringer fight, and I got in contact with them.  They, alongside these three young individuals,” he gestured to the two parahumans, and three college-aged kids who looked rather intimidated, “Will work under her.  Barker and Biter profess to be fearless, and should have little difficulty managing the dogs, even when Bitch’s abilities are at work.  The men and the young lady I’ve provided have some degree of training in veterinary medicine or handling dogs.  Let her know this.  She is free to accept them or refuse them as she sees fit.”

Grue looked over the five people who would be Bitch’s henchmen, nodded.

“Tattletale, I’ve set up quarters near Lord Street, in one of the ABB’s old locations.  I assume your teammates will want to be in contact, and this area is both accessible, and it can reach any other area readily.  The area is already furnished with computers, and you’ll find staff there, people who are capable at gathering information, be it from media, computers or the streets.  You’ll also find a small force of mercenaries that I’ve assigned to you, so you can act on that information where you see fit.”

“Cool.”

“Skitter, I have set up quarters near the south end of the Boardwalk.  Reconstruction and repair work is still ongoing there, but if you will be patient, it may well be one of the more lucrative locations when things are up and running again.”

I nodded.  That wouldn’t be far from my old home, close to our old hideout.  Did that mean something?  Did he know who I was, or had Tattletale suggested it?  I felt uneasy about that.

“Regent, Grue, Imp and Skitter, I realize I have not detailed any employees to you to begin with.  I leave it to you to start this task for yourself, to decide what you need and how you intend to operate.  Once you have decided this for yourselves, let me know, and I will endeavor to help you fill in the blanks in your individual operations.

“As you leave, you’ll receive emails on the locations of your individual headquarters.  For the time being, all I require from you, for now, is that you establish order and assume some measure of control over your territories.”

There were nods all around.

“Your payment for tonight’s job will be in your accounts shortly, with a bonus for the obstacles you faced.  Any questions?  Any topics you would like to raise for discussion?”

“A few questions, but I figure I’ll see what’s up with this new role we’re taking,” Grue replied, “Then I’ll ask them.”

“Good.”

“I’ve got something I’d like to talk to you about,” I spoke, augmenting my voice with the swarm’s noises to mask it.  “In private.”

“Yes.  That’s fine, I was hoping to have a private conversation with you anyways.  Anyone?  Anything else before we part ways?”

Nobody had anything further to say.  Grue and the others turned to leave, and the crowd around Coil followed them soon after.  One of Bitch’s henchmen – Barker, was it? – leered at me as he passed, dug his hand into his groin in some sort of scratch or a lewd gesture.

Lovely.  He’d get along great with Bitch.

When the group had left the room, I could hear noises downstairs, as they moved about the house.  Or maybe it was Grue, checking his new place.  I was left alone with Coil and Dinah.

I wasn’t sure I liked that our group was being split up like this.  The timing seemed bad.  I’d sort of been hoping I could repair the divide, and that would be hard if we were each in our own territories, doing our own things.

I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

“I heard about the incident at the hospital, following the Endbringer attack.”

I nodded.

“Tattletale told me that you know I was fully informed about your true nature.”

“Yeah.”

“Did she explain how?”

I shook my head.  She’d told me about his power in confidence.

“Well, I suppose I may share that detail at some point in the future.  You understand my desire to keep certain things private?”

“Yeah, no.  I get it.  It makes sense, it’s smart.”

“Mmm,” he murmured.  He turned to his pet, stroked her head like one might with a dog or a cat.  She stared down at her dress, picked at a thread that was sticking out, stretching it out long.  The thread snapped, and she let it drift from her hand to the ground.  Then she started picking at another.  Coil interrupted my observations, “So.  You wished to discuss something?”

“Yeah.  I’ve made a decision.”

“Do tell.”

“Before, back in the limousine, you asked me what I wanted out of all this, what I desired from my deal with you.”

“Yes.”

“I asked you to fix the city, you told me you planned on doing that anyways, that I should ask for something else.”

“And you’ve decided.”

“Yeah,” I took a deep breath.  “Dinah.  Your… pet.”

“You want me to release her.  I’m afraid-“

I hurried to cut him off, “No.”

He stopped, tilted his head slightly.

I swallowed, felt an ugly feeling in my gut, “I know she’s invaluable to you.  I know how useful her talent is, and the lengths you went to in getting ahold of them.  I don’t like it, but I get it.”

He didn’t respond.  He just stared at me, his mask lacking eye holes, just black cloth stretched over eye sockets.

“I… All I’m asking is that you let her go when you’ve done it.  When you take this city, when you succeed in your plan, you release her to go home to her family.  If you do that, I’ll work for you.  I’ll try harder than anyone, to get this city under your control, and then I’ll work for you for as long as you’ll have me, afterward.”

“I’m afraid, Skitter, that this deal doesn’t quite balance out.  I intend no offense, but my initial impression is that my pet is far more valuable to me than you are.”

No.  My heart sank.

“But I can accept it,” he spoke.  “Provided you prove to me that your talents are worth losing hers.  I admit, the active assistance you can provide might prove more useful when the city is firmly in my grasp, when I have less to be concerned about in terms of day-to-day operations.”

I nodded, numbly.

“Anything else?”

I shook my head, then turned to leave, wordlessly.

When I went downstairs, Tattletale and Regent were already gone.  Maybe they were checking out their new places.  Grue and Imp were in the ‘living room’, opening crates of stuff to see the supplies they had available.

I wasn’t up to talking to them, or explaining the recent conversation.

Leaving the building without a word, I sloshed through the water.  I realized my fists were clenched, and my glove was sticking to itself, thanks to the residual containment foam.  Annoying.  I wondered if I could scrub it off.

When I peeled my fingers away from the glove, I realized my hand was shaking.

I took a deep breath, to calm my nerves.  I could do this.  Whatever I had to do, I was going to help that girl.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The four engines mounted on the shoulders of Dragon’s armor shifted position, each aiming at a different point within the lobby.  Tattletale was the first of us to turn and run, the rest of us moving to follow as Dragon opened fire.

All in all, Dragon unloaded four streams of containment foam into the lobby, each of the shoulder mounted turrets  gushing like firehoses.  Only flecks of the spray struck us, but they expanded into blobs of foam the size of golf balls and softballs.  Each blob was tacky, sticky, and any attempt to wipe it away just smeared it and exposed more surface area to the air, making it expand more.

If we’d started running a fraction of a second later, we might have been screwed.

Weld moved to block our retreat, but Shadow Stalker stepped up to fight him with one of the dogs, Bentley, joining her.  It made for a pretty effective combination, as Weld couldn’t swing hard enough to hurt the dog without risking hurting his teammate.  The way Regent was having Shadow Stalker fight, there was no self preservation or defense, which worked out to being a more effective combat style than anything else, in its own way.  I was pretty sure Weld had never fought someone who was actively trying to get hit.

I’d been drawing my bugs closer to the building since we arrived, and I brought them into the fray as Dragon continued to lock down the lobby with the spray.  The first tactic I tried was blocking the spray with the bugs.  I didn’t intend to stop the spray, exactly, but I hoped that I could cause the bugs to catch it & drop down atop Dragon, sticking to her.  It didn’t work – the spray was too strong, and the bugs were blasted much too far away.  Only one or two landed on her, and even then, I doubted the positions were that ideal.

Instead, I adjusted my tactics.  The idea was the same, but I didn’t want to sacrifice bugs for the purpose of clogging her systems or blocking her guns if it would be that ineffective.  I gathered some bugs on anything that looked like a sensor – glass panes or openings in the armored vehicle, and I set the rest to gathering on the shattered glass that littered the floor of the lobby.  The feet of the insects and arachnids had setae, or small hairs, which branched further into setules.  These fibers, in turn, harnessed Van der Waals forces to cling even to surfaces as slick as glass.

I’d been reading up.

I didn’t use this grip to stick to the surface, but instead employed it to collectively lift and pick up the glass.  Six or seven bugs could lift a decent-sized piece of glass if they were on the ground, while anywhere from twelve to thirty could fly with one if I managed it right.

I had a few hundred to employ, with more still arriving.

With this glass, I did my best to catch and block the outlying flecks and drips of spray as it flew through the air, at the periphery of the streams.

The spray knocked some pieces of glass from the air, and struck some bugs, causing the group to lose their collective grip and drop the glass.  That was to be expected.  Others, though, caught the foam on one of the flat panes of the glass.  As more bugs rose with the glass between them, I organized them into loose walls and barriers, to maximize the area they were catching and to overlap so that less bugs were exposed to incoming spray.

“She’s got a disadvantage,” Tattletale spoke, her voice low, “This suit is meant to fly to serious crises at a moment’s notice, deal with dangerous foes.  She’s packing too many lethal weapons.”

“That’s a disadvantage?” Regent asked.

“She’s not about to kill us.  Bad PR, especially for a notable hero traveling into another country to fight virtual unknowns like us.  So we only have to worry about her nonlethal weaponry, and she doesn’t have many.”

I nodded acknowledgement, but my focus was elsewhere.  As I judged that enough bugs had caught the foam on one pane of their individual pieces of glass, I directed them to carry the glass down to Dragon.  As I positioned the bugs, the glass stuck to lenses, vents of hot air, vents where air was rushing in, and the smaller joints near segmented areas.

Dragon didn’t seem to notice or care.

“Can she see me?” Imp asked.

Tattletale started to speak, but stopped when one of the streams changed direction to spray closer to us, forcing us to retreat in a hurry.  I glanced at the gift shop.  Would it be a good idea to retreat in there?  The walls were glass, which was both good and bad in that both Dragon and our group could break through it.  The problem was that we risked being trapped if we headed in there.

“No way she got here this fast,” Tattletale spoke, “She’s based in British Columbia, on the other side of the continent.  This has to be remotely controlled, like the one she used to fight Leviathan, which means the only eyes on you are digital, and-”

“She’s not,” Regent interrupted.

“What?” Tattletale asked him.

“There’s someone in there, I tried using my power on her, experimenting, and I felt some kind of nervous system.  Too much material between me and it for me to do anything with it, and I wouldn’t really try it while I’m controlling Shadow Stalker anyways.  I’d probably backfire.”

Shadow Stalker was still fighting Weld.  As Dragon turned a stream toward them, Weld reacted fast enough that I suspected he had some line of communication to her.  He backed out of the way, and Shadow Stalker and the dog both moved in the other direction, with a stream splashing where they had been brawling a second before, blossoming into a pile of foam as tall as they were, separating the two groups of combatants.

Most of my first wave of bugs had either been shot out of the sky by errant bits of spray or had placed their initial pieces of glass and were going back for more.  This wasn’t a K.O. hit, and Dragon was too good to let something this minor stop her, however it might delay or hamper her.  The real issue was that this was too slow, and we were on a tight time limit.  Less than a minute, and the Protectorate would arrive.  Their team was smaller with recent deaths and Armsmaster’s ‘retirement’, and I hadn’t heard about any new recruits.

Then again, I hadn’t heard about the Ward’s new recruits, and here Weld was, being annoyingly persistent.  I was assuming he was the new leader, given his tone with Shadow Stalker.  I wondered if being ridiculously tenacious was a job requirement for being in charge of the Wards.  It made sense to have a commander who wouldn’t be removed from the field by an errant attack.  You wanted someone who would stay in the thick of it for the whole fight.

The gift shop jutted out from the wall of the lobby some, the glass panes arranged to showcase more of the pictures, action figures and memorabilia with three broad windows than they might with one.  This layout gave us some cover from Dragon’s attacks.  Even when the force of the spray served to break the windows, the expansion of the foam at the edges of the frame soon blocked the worst of it off.  If anything, it was closing the windows off.  Only the pane of glass facing us was left unbroken and largely free of foam.

Sensing this, Dragon started to advance further into the lobby.  Her broad, mechanical feet began hissing with vapor, and the goo my ground-borne bugs were hauling towards her began to run, losing its consistency and stickiness.  She set one foot down directly on a pile of foam, and lifted it up again with no difficulty.  It was clear: the foam wouldn’t hamper her.

“So she’s piloting that thing, then?” Imp asked.  “My power works on her?”

“We can’t be sure,” Tattletale spoke, “Don’t risk it.”

Dragon advanced another step, circling our relative cover from the window to spray inches closer to us.  The way it was piling up, there would be no way to go over it, and the route we had available for going around the far end of it was rapidly closing.  We were getting hemmed in, our backs to the wall by the window.

“Imp!” Tattletale shouted, “No!”

I looked at her, confused, but I didn’t have time to figure it out.  A flare of orange light caught my attention.  Dragon’s mouth had opened wide, and she was spewing something like an ignited accelerant into the lobby.  With this fluid, she drew a three-foot wide line of flame onto the lobby floor, stretching from just below her to the stairwell door by the front desk.  She’d cut off our escape route.

Weld leaped into and through the flame, his hook hands swinging wildly.  Some of the accelerant had landed on him, making him burn, but he didn’t seem to mind.

He turned ninety degrees and lunged forward in response to something I couldn’t see or hear, then swept his hooks out in a frenzied series of blind attacks.  On the third swing I saw Imp duck beneath the attack, then stumble back out of his reach, towards us.

“The fucking fuck!?” she shouted.

“Dragon can see you, you twit, and she’s relaying directions to Weld!” Tattletale shouted at our new member, “And what the hell were you hoping to accomplish over there!?”

“I could’ve figured something out,” Imp pouted.

Tattletale didn’t have a response to that.  Instead, she hauled her gun up and then fired a short burst at Weld.  He backed up into the wall of flame, oddly enough, and Tattletale stopped firing.

Two of Dragon’s shoulder turrets were now being set to the task of controlling the flame and keeping it from spreading across the lobby, to the front desk or up to the ceiling.   Twin jets of chemical spray kept the fire limited to the areas Dragon wanted it.

“Doesn’t she care about property damage?” I asked.

“She prefers to keep her data secure and pay out of her own pocket for any damage.  Betting this place is slated for some major renovations anyways, given the state of things,” Tattletale explained.  The foam was inching closer to us as Dragon prowled further into the lobby.

More of my bugs set sticky pieces of glass down on top of lenses and sensors.  That was apparently enough for Dragon, because she stopped spraying the foam altogether and started using the two turrets that weren’t dedicated to fire management to deploying the same vapor that shrouded her legs.  It surrounded her, and the work I’d done to stick things to her began to come apart as the foam turned runny.

A wave of darkness swept over her.  Grue was awake, and had formed a loose group with Shadow Stalker and the dogs.  All but one of the dogs were normal sized, now, with no sign or trace of their mutations.

They still faced the hurdle of passing by Weld, but a blast of darkness and an abrupt change of direction faked out the young hero, letting Grue slip by.

“Dragon’s here!?” he shouted, aghast.

“Yeah!  But we got the stuff, had to wait for you!”

“Go through the gift shop, We’ll meet you outside!”  He charged right behind the spot where Dragon was still within the cloud of darkness, and out the front door.  Shadow Stalker simply passed through Weld and bolted for the door, running faster than the Ward’s leader could, while the smallest dogs stayed just out of his reach, bolting after Grue.  Bentley, the only dog currently under the effects of Bitch’s power, a little beaten and battered, came running towards us, far, far too eager for something that large and strong.

Bitch grabbed his collar before he could leap up to greet her, redirected his momentum, then wrenched him toward the window.  “Go!” she shouted, pointing.

Bentley eagerly plowed through the remaining display window, knocking over DVD racks as he landed in the shop.  We followed him in.

The shop had everything cape related, from movies showcasing individual members of the teams to books, magazines, figurines, toys and posters.  The layout of the shop made it awkward as a battlefield.  The shelves, racks, stands and display cases forced visitors into a winding path as they navigated the shop.

The window looking out on the street was smaller than the display windows, and was covered by metal bars.  Tattletale began unloading the lightning cannon on the bars.

Dragon lunged out of the darkness, then spotted us, her shoulder turrets orienting in our direction.  We ducked behind a heavy wooden magazine stand filled with cape magazines and tourism pamphlets as Dragon opened fire with two streams of containment foam.

Tattletale maintained the electrical assault on the bars even as she joined us in taking cover with her back to the magazine stand.  The gun she was holding began to whine, with a pitch so high I could barely hear it.  Bentley reacted, though, turning his head one way, and then the other.  It made Bitch’s job of holding his collar and ensuring he stayed behind cover twice as difficult.

The bolts holding the bars to the window frame melted before the bars themselves did.  One side swung free, then the entire assembly dropped down on top of a bookshelf.

The entire room shuddered as Dragon forced her way through the display window.  One gigantic metal talon slammed down on the bookshelf, annihilating most of our cover, and we scrambled to find shelter behind the remaining stands.  Her back legs began working their way towards us, the front of her body staying stationary.  This made her back arch, and her head and shoulder mounted turrets gradually shifted to point downward.  It would be seconds before she was spraying the foam down from directly above us.

The whine of Tattletale’s gun reached a crescendo, and a blindingly bright arc of electricity flew from the side of the barrel to skip along the floor.  I worried it would ignite something, but it winked out before it could.

Tattletale lunged for the shelf next to the magazines, grabbing a head-and-torso model of Miss Militia.  She jammed it in between the trigger and the trigger guard of her gun, forcing the trigger into a depressed position.  Then she lobbed the setup over the back of the shattered bookshelf.  The lightning licked the wall and the ceiling before the gun crashed to the floor.  Dragon lurched back to get away from it.

“Go!” Tattletale shouted, setting her feet below her, then leaping between the twin streams of foam that Dragon turned toward us.  She came only an inch shy of making contact with the heap of foam that Dragon had created.

Dragon heaved herself over and beyond the electrical surge the gun was still pumping out, chasing Tattletale, swiping with one mechanical claw.  I got the sense she was pulling her punches to avoid murdering my teammate, because the attack was slow.  Tattletale slipped past, stepping onto the bookshelf to clear the window.  Or maybe it had something to do with the bugs I had gathered on her sensors.

With Tattletale’s escape, Bitch, Imp, Regent, and I were left in the gift shop.  Dragon’s lunge for Tattletale had put her directly in our path to the window, and an uneven pile of containment foam surrounded her, in the middle of the room.

Regent and Imp made a break for it.  Imp ducked around to the left, coming within a hair of being caught by the spray Dragon turned her way, then used the cover of the bookshelves to stay out of the line of fire as she ran for the window.  Dragon half-turned away from the rest of us in pursuit.  Regent moved as if he were going to try to move beneath Dragon using the distraction Imp had provided, clearly intending to step on her metal foot.  He changed his mind when a crackle of visible electricity flashed down the mechanical limb.  He turned a hard right, picking up a piece of bookshelf, and used the wood to block the majority of the spray as he passed beneath one of the stray streams.  From there, much as Imp had, he had a clear route.

Dragon moved to bar more of the window with the bulk of her body, her back arching.  Her upper body and head now pointed almost down at an angle, the streams from her shoulders reorienting to block off the escape routes available to Bitch, her dog and me.

So I did something risky and borderline stupid.  I lunged forward and stepped onto the metal foot of Dragon’s armored suit, like Regent had been planning to do until he discovered it was electrified.

I had known the same spider silk I’d used for my costume was insulated against electrical charges, had even put that into practice in my fight against Armsmaster during the fundraiser.  This was something altogether different.

I could feel the faint tendrils of electricity snake over the surface of my body, though I only stepped on the metal foot once.  I couldn’t tell if the source of the electricity was the gun Tattletale had rigged and thrown – Dragon’s tail was close enough to it for the electricity to flow to her – or if it was from Dragon’s body itself.

Though the footing was unsteady, I was careful not to touch the metal leg with my upper body, and even turned my head away, risking throwing myself off balance, so my hair wouldn’t make contact with it.  As I understood it, the biggest danger the electricity posed was that my body would become part of a circuit.  If the circuit included vital organs, I’d be a goner, and that kind of closed circuit could happen if the electricity could run from my hand and through my heart on the way to my foot.

The gamble and assumption I was working with was that electricity followed the path of least resistance.  Insulated costume vs. vapor in the air?  It would travel through the vapor.  Insulated costume vs. metal leg?  It would travel down the leg.

Either way, I was glad when I didn’t burn my foot or have it get fried or go numb.  I was damn glad I didn’t die.

With all of this consuming my attention, I was caught off guard when something large brushed against me while I was mid-leap.

The impact threw my airborne momentum off, drove me to one side.  My first, most immediate, thought, before I even considered the source of the attack, was where I was about to land.  It was reflexive, but I sent a spray of bugs out from the armor near my glove, scattering them onto the area just in front of me.

Before I had even figured out what my bugs were sensing, I reacted to their signals.  I slammed my arm out, rigid, my hand splayed, and felt a jarring pain as I tried to absorb my entire body weight with one arm and force myself away.  I felt a lack of traction as my hand made contact with something soft and squishy.  My maneuver was too minor to make a real difference, but I managed to buy myself a precious few inches.

My hand, arm and shoulder were caught in the containment foam.

I tried to raise myself to see Dragon looming above, but the foam offered only a rubbery resistance.  It had set with the contact, bonded to my costume.  I was pinned face down on the ground.

What I did see, as I raised my head as high as I was able?  Bitch was astride Bentley, who’d grown large enough to ride, and they were standing near the window leading into the street.  I could only see her eyes behind the plastic of her mask, and everything else was communicated through her bearing, her posture, the angle of her head.  I’d seen something similar when I’d first met her.

It hadn’t been Dragon that knocked me into the foam.

Dragon turned her upper body to strike at Bitch.  As she moved, her back leg was close enough that some of the vapor was getting on me, slowly liquefying the foam.  It was too slow to matter.  Dragon had me.

Her stainless steel jaws snapped for Bentley, but the dog was already slipping out the window.  Bitch had dismounted and was running to one side, heading off in a different direction to exit at the far end of the window.

Which left me in the gift shop with Dragon.

“I have a sworn responsibility to protect that data,” she said as she turned her attention to me.  She sounded surprisingly normal.  Her voice was clearly digitized, but it was still too human to match the massive metal frame.

“Can’t help you there.  One of my teammates has it.”

“Where are they taking it?”

I stayed silent.

“Your teammates left you behind.  I’ve read the file on what happened after the Endbringer attack.  Hard feelings?”

“Something like that.”

“If they aren’t going to be loyal to you, why protect them?”

Because someone else was depending on it.  But I wasn’t going to say that out loud.

The whine of the lightning gun increased by an octave.  I saw Dragon’s upper body shift in reaction.

“Move the insects away from my suit, now,” Dragon ordered me.

“Why would I-”

“Now,” she ordered, and there was an urgency in her tone that banished any suspicion on my part that there was a ruse or that somehow it might serve my interest to disobey.  I withdrew my bugs, but I kept them poised to return if needed.

Dragon moved back, and her body coiled around the spot where the gun had fallen, segments meeting to loosely interconnect with one another, forming a dome-shaped encasement.  Two shoulder turrets began dispensing foam directly downward, into the dome.

“Count yourself fortunate, Skitter.  I’ve never killed a criminal without explicit permission and all the filed paperwork, and I’m not about to start with you.  I’ll be in contact.”

“What?”  I had to raise my voice to be heard over the high pitched whine.  I couldn’t figure out what she meant.

“Think about what I said.  Take a close look at those priorities of yours.”

The vapor had melted enough foam that I could pull myself free and stand.  I got five paces away before the whine ceased.  A second later, lightning began to spill from the gun in overtime.  Dragon’s body served to block the vast majority of it, but a few arcs slipped through the cracks in her body.

The full meaning of her words struck me the moment the gun detonated.  A large portion of her suit was destroyed, as was one of the limbs.  Dragon fell to one side.

She’d saved me?

Regent had said Dragon was inside, piloting it, hadn’t he?  I stepped closer, trying to see if she was okay.

Regent was right.  There was someone – something – in the suit of armor.

It looked like a fetus, the features were crude, barely humanoid in any sense of the word.  The eyes were half-formed, and it had no nose, only a beak-like mouth.  The head was half-again as large as the body below the neck.  Wires wove in and out of orifices.

It turned to look at me, then made a low mewling sound.  The metal around it began to glow red-hot, then white-hot.  Burns consumed the thing and the flesh changed to a charred black texture as the metal of the frame began to melt and dissolve.  Whatever had happened with the Dragonslayers, it seemed Dragon was dedicated to eliminating all traces of her work when her suits were damaged.

But was that Dragon?

No.  She’d seemed to know she was sacrificing her suit, but she’d also said she was going to get in contact with me in the future.  I backed away, then ran for the window.

So what the hell had I just seen?

Had that been someone who was physically affected by their powers?  I wasn’t even sure if it was human.

I had a growing, uneasy feeling that this wasn’t related to powers and trigger events in the conventional sense.  I pushed it out of my mind.  I had something more pressing to focus on.

I set my foot on the bookcase, then stepped up and through the window to exit the building.  I could see the others dispatching two members of the Protectorate.  Tattletale hurried towards me, said something about the explosion, that she thought I’d be out by now.  I barely registered it.  My attention was on one person as I strode forward.

Bitch.

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Parasite 10.4

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I could detect a definite note of irritation in Dragon’s voice, despite how she’d synthesized it to mask her tone, inflection and speech patterns.  “You were tampering with my system,” she accused us.

In the dim light the monitors shed, I could see Imp trying the door by the stairs.  It didn’t open.  I gave it a try and verified it had sealed shut.  I wasn’t entirely sure why I’d expected a different result.  Maybe I’d been hoping Imp had been making a horribly timed joke?  It wouldn’t be beyond her.

“We were, but we’re done now, so we’ll be on our way,” Tattletale called out, her voice raised to be picked up by whatever microphones Dragon was using to listen in on us.  I could see her pulling the USB drives from the computer.

Dragon informed us,  “I’m reading the files and notes we have on you as we speak.  Tattletale, it seems you have a penchant for needling your opponents.  Rest assured, if you intend to try it, I won’t rise to the bait.”

Imp hefted her fire axe and struck just beside the handle of the door.  The door itself was hollow, but it was made of something like fiberglass, and the axe only made a small hole, a half inch across and less than two inches long.  She struck again, slightly higher.

“So few think they will,” Tattletale said with a grin.  “So.  I guess you’ve locked us in here, huh?”

“Yes.  You’ll get out, perhaps, but not before reinforcements arrive.”

“We’ll see,” Tattletale answered.  She began moving toward the Wards’ quarters.  She looked from one security camera to the next, as if trying to figure out if she was being watched.  I did have my bugs covering the lenses of the cameras I’d been able to find, but that wasn’t to say that they could have something more concealed.

It was kind of creepy, that the kids here were observed constantly like that.

“You tried to steal official data, and you put a virus on my system.  Epeios’ work, I believe.  I’m more insulted by the fact that you went to that hack than I am about the virus.”

“Had to slow you guys down somehow,” Tattletale called out.  She motioned to me, and I hurried toward her.  Imp let go of the axe to rub and shake her hand.  Regent grabbed the weapon to take over the job of hacking at the door.

I followed Tattletale into one of the rooms at the other end of the Ward’s headquarters.  Pieces of technology littered the area.  There was a small bed in one corner so littered with pieces of junk, screws, scraps of metal and unfinished projects that I doubted the occupant had used it to sleep in a long time.

Kid Win’s room, had to be.

“Gear up,” Tattletale said.

“What?”

“Taking a tinker’s stuff to keep is a bad idea, what with GPS signals and tracking and all that, but at the very least, we can use this to get out.”  She swept her arm over the room, where stuff lay on every surface.

Dragon’s voice echoed through the chamber, “I can hear you, Tattletale.  Do not use a tinker’s devices.  Power supplies can overload, weapons and equipment can misfire.  Only the tinker who made it can verify the devices as safe and operate them properly.”

“Right, sure,” Tattletale called out with a note of sarcasm in her voice.  “Because it’s not like there’s any high profile mercenaries out there who’ve made a career off of using a tinker’s stuff.”

Dragon didn’t reply.  Had Tattletale found a sore spot?  I knew the Dragonslayers were mercenaries who had taken the parts of one of Dragon’s armored suits to outfit themselves as high tech mercenaries.

Tattletale looked up and glanced around the room, then whispered to me, “Don’t worry about misfires.  I think my power will help us spot those.”

I wanted to believe her, but she’d been wrong before.  It would be Murphy’s law for her power to go awry here, with us blowing our faces off or something.

Still, I didn’t stop her from picking up a gun without a handle.  She pointed it at the wall and pulled the trigger that sort of dangled beneath the gun.  A yellow dot appeared on the wall, then started smoking.  She glanced over her shoulder, and when I turned to see what she was looking at, I saw a matching dot on the wall.  She moved the gun, and the dots both moved.

“Laser with invisible beam.  Ricochets,” she murmured.  “Doesn’t burn that hot, wouldn’t do any damage to anything or anyone.  Wouldn’t incapacitate our opposition or get us out of here.”  She put it aside.  “Look for something better.”

Dangers aside, borrowing Kid Win’s stuff wasn’t a bad idea.  At the speed Regent and Imp were cutting through the door handle, I figured it would be minutes before they were through.  We had to get out of here before the Protectorate arrived.  Even with their numbers cut by recent casualties and injuries, that would be very, very bad for us.

I uncovered three guns that looked like they might work.  Tattletale looked them over.  “Nonlethal flamethrower that probably didn’t pass review, some kind of forcefield barrier cannon and some kind of gun for fighting bigger foes.  Nothing too dangerous, but don’t point them at any of the rest of us until you’ve tested ’em out.”

Nodding, I lifted the one that was five feet long, needle-thin and spearlike.  I worked to get it out of Kid Win’s quarters and aimed it at the largest chair, by the computers.  I depressed the trigger, and a blue flame the length of my forearm spat out the end, consuming the chair.  The seat bent under the heat, melted plastic pooling on the floor, an acrid smell assaulting my nostrils.  The flames that licked the remaining material cast some extra light on our surroundings.  It was pretty thorough destruction for less than two seconds of sustained fire.

How the hell is that nonlethal?

I hurried over to the door, and both Imp and Regent backed away to let me fire.  I pulled the trigger… nothing.

“He took the power and fuel supply from that to use for something else, put crap components in there instead!  Let it recharge!” Tattletale shouted across the room, “Almost one minute before you can shoot again!”

Fuck.

Dragon would have overheard that, but she didn’t comment.  Instead, a sprinkler system kicked into gear, misting down from the ceiling.  Though the quantity of water was low, the effect on the burning chair was immediate, and the flames disappeared with surprising quickness.  What little of the moisture soaked into my mask tasted faintly bitter.

Then Dragon shut off the monitors, plunging us into absolute darkness.

I left the weapon with Imp and hurried over to the other guns, using the few bugs I had with me to ‘feel’ my way, sensing their locations and identifying anything I might trip over.  The second gun, though it had looked more complete than any of the others, had two triggers on the front and two by the handle.  I tried various combinations and got nowhere.

The last gun was heavy.  I hefted it with both hands, then told Regent and Imp to move aside as I aimed it at the door.  Didn’t want to waste any first shots if this was going to take forever to recharge as well.  The gun vibrated, rattled, and shuddered for a full five seconds before it fired.  The shot didn’t cast any light, but it struck the door with enough force that the entire door buckled outward.  I hit the door with my shoulder, and the upper hinge came free.  There was a light in the stairwell, shedding some meager light on us.

“Tattletale!” I called out.  “We got through!”

By the time Tattletale reached us, Regent and I had brought the door down.  The lock was still extending from the handle to the frame, but we’d taken the door off its hinges, and we were free to pull the door open from the other side.  We hurried into the stairwell and began heading back upstairs.

“Fight upstairs is going south, we need to step in, fast,” Regent spoke.  I felt out with my bugs to get a sense of where each of the combatants were, then nodded a hasty agreement.  I began taking the stairs two at a time, though the gun I carried had to weigh a good thirty or forty pounds.

We were halfway up when we came across a pair of unconscious PRT officers.  I looked at Tattletale.

“Imp did this,” she told Regent and me.  “She went ahead, remember?”

It took me a few seconds to realize who she meant.  Damn it, having to keep track of Imp and having her power throwing me off my stride was getting to be annoying.  The team prior to now had a kind of synergy, with the way my bugs and Tattletale’s power let us deal with Grue’s darkness, and how the dogs could smell opponents through it.

We found Imp at the top of the stairs, aiming the spearlike gun.  The blue flame poured out, melting a large hole in the fiberglass.  We crouched in the stairwell as Imp opened the door.  I was so distracted by the sight of the PRT uniforms waiting for us in the hallway that I didn’t see where Imp went.

The reaction wasn’t as strong or immediate as I would have expected, given the burst of flame and the door opening.  A side effect of Imp being the one to carry it out?  One person shouted and alerted the others.  Regent used his power on the one closest to him, causing him to stumble sideways into his comrades. Their ranks descended into chaos.

I readied the few bugs I had on my person, then hefted my borrowed gun.  I backed down a stair as I asked Tattletale, “This thing is nonlethal, right?”

She didn’t have an answer for me.  Instead, she yelped out, “Back!”

She practically pushed me down the stairs, and I caught a glimpse of her covering her ears, shutting her eyes.  Despite the fact that I was on the verge of landing face first on the landing of the stairwell, I didn’t use my hands to stop myself.  I turned to take the impact with my shoulder, tucked my chin to my chest and covered my ears.  Regent jumped out of my way as I landed, his arms pressed against the sides of his head.

It had to have been a grenade.  The blast ripped through the upstairs hallway, and left me gasping even from inside the stairwell.  Tattletale was up before I was, hauling me to my feet and up the stairs, Regent followed just behind us.

The grenade had been of the nonlethal variety, but not quite a flashbang.  The gathered soldiers were reeling, stunned, and Imp was crouched by the only one who was still conscious.  She drew a taser from her sleeve, tagged him, then stood.  She had one of the PRT’s grenade launchers slung over one shoulder, the flamethrower-thing in one hand, and the taser in the other.  She handed off the grenade launcher to Regent, then put the taser away, holding the flamethrower.

To reach the hallway where Grue and the elevator were, we had to head out past the gift shop and around the front desk.  Everyone we’d left behind was still there, friend and foe, but things hadn’t gone well in our absence.

We found Bitch and Shadow Stalker backed against the elevator at the far end of the hallway.  The three dogs were spread out between them and Weld, limp and unmoving.  They’d shrunk down almost to their normal size.  I had to watch for a few seconds before I could see the rise and fall of Sirius’ chest and verify he was alive.

Weld stood beside Grue, binding a length of cord around our leader.  The way he was positioned, Bitch wasn’t able to get by, and I could only assume that Regent had Shadow Stalker there because Bitch lacked the means to defend herself solo.  The elevator, naturally, wasn’t running.

I lifted the heavy gun, then aimed it at Weld and Grue.

“Where did you get those guns?” Weld asked, squaring his shoulders as he turned to face us.

“Borrowed ’em,” Tattletale smirked.  Then she fired the gun she was carrying.  An arc of electricity crackled between the nozzle of her gun and Weld.  Seemingly unconcerned, he started running towards us, metal feet pounding on the tile.

Tattletale backed up one step, and I took that as my cue to back up three. This guy could hit hard, and none of us was capable of going toe-to-toe with him.

There was no need to worry, as the lightning gun’s effects added up and Weld collapsed to the ground before he got halfway to us.  Tattletale stopped firing, and I could see that the metal of Weld’s body was glowing with the heat he’d absorbed.  She stepped closer and swung her gun at him, smacking him across the face with the barrel.  It stuck, and she swiftly backed up.  I wouldn’t have thought he was that hot, that the metal would bond.

Weld staggered to his feet and tore the gun away with both hands, leaving a melted mess that extended from his cheekbone to his forehead on one side of his face.  Gun removed, he started reforming his hands into sticks, four feet long, with the ends curved into blunted hooks.

I raised the gun that had nearly knocked the door off its hinges and pulled the trigger, aiming it at both Weld and Grue.  Nothing.  Whether it was due to a lack of charge, a malfunction, or whatever, it just didn’t work.

Weld began to charge us, and he was nearly to us when Imp stepped in his way and tried to fire.

“Don’t-” Tattletale started.

As with my gun, the flamethrower didn’t work.  Weld clobbered her just as she was beginning to utter a swear word, catching her with both hands to fling her aside.  She tumbled into a sign.  That put him only a few paces from me.

Shadow Stalker was already running toward us.  She entered her shadow state to leap forward, interjecting herself between us and him before going solid.  There was no grace in her movement as she threw herself at him, no particular technique she employed.  They slammed into one another, and she went limp, her body getting tangled up in his legs as he trampled her to the ground.

A short distance from us, Regent fell to one knee, grunting slightly.  A backfire?  Or something else?

More out of an attempt to minimize the damage to Shadow Stalker than actually being bowled over, Weld fell.  I did as Tattletale had done before, and struck Weld with the metal of my gun’s barrel.  As I’d hoped, he was still hot enough that the gun bonded to the metal of his body, I could help to hamper his movements.  Rather than hit him in the face, I struck him across one arm, so the gun made contact with both his forearm, where the hook-hand started, and his bicep.  My hope was that it would limit his range of movement.

Tattletale, Weld and I hurried to back away as he began to climb to his feet, Tattletale recovering her lightning gun.   I could see her debate striking him again, but she seemed to decide it would be better to keep her distance and hold on to it.

I could see Shadow Stalker materialize behind Weld, with Bitch approaching from the other end of the hallway.  One of the dogs, the setter whose name I couldn’t quite remember, had climbed to her feet to join Bitch.  Grue was still out of action.

Weld started laughing, the noise just a little off, coming from someone who I suspected didn’t even have to breathe.

Tattletale caught some meaning in his laughter a second before Regent did.  Tattletale, Regent and Shadow Stalker all simultaneously turned toward the front of the building.  Regent and his puppet uttered a whispered “Oh shit” in unison.

The floodwater and moisture were stirred into an whirlwind flurry around the metal frame by turbines and jets, pushing water and debris a distance away as it set down.  As the engines turned off, the water slopped back into place, lapping around four metal legs.

It was squat, the frame low to the ground, with a snakelike head, and a segmented, sinous body.  It had four legs and a long tail that trailed on the ground in a zig-zagging shape, segmented much as the body had been.  It would have been intimidating enough on its own, but the four engines that were mounted on its upper body, extending out of each of its shoulders in two places, were some combination of a weapons array and a propulsion system.  They bristled with turrets and missiles.  It opened its mouth briefly to vent off some vapor and I could see more weapons contained within.  Foremost among them was some kind of massive cannon.

That explained why Dragon had been so quiet.  When she’d talked about reinforcements, Dragon had been talking about herself.

“Okay,” Tattletale spoke as she backed up, moving her gun to point it at Weld, then Dragon and then back to Weld again.  “Good news, that’s a model Dragon designed for speed, meant to get places fast.  Like, say, if she wanted to get an armored suit from Toronto to Brockton Bay to personally take a hand in dealing with a group of teenage villains.  It’s not really that serious a combat model.”

I looked at the weapons that bristled from Dragon’s shoulders.  If I didn’t know Tattletale’s power, I wasn’t sure I’d believe her.

“Well, that’s good,” Regent replied, “Except it can still totally kick our asses.”

Tattletale didn’t disagree.  “Best tinker in the world?  Probably.”

I glanced behind us, where Weld was standing with excruciating slowness.  He was already cooling off.  The dog by Bitch’s side was growling, now.

Tattletale continued, “The bad news is that the Protectorate is about a minute away, Grue’s still out of action, and there’s pretty much no chance we’re going to get out of here before then.”

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Parasite 10.3

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We burst into action the moment Weld called out his warning.

Bitch drove her shoulder into the PRT uniform that held her back, then backed towards the front desk.  Weld had already changed his hand into what looked like a baseball bat with four sides to it, long enough to reach from his wrist to the ground.  Studs the size of golf balls ran down each of the four faces, with a blunted spike on the end.

Weld and Flechette were variables we hadn’t planned for.  It was unfortunate, but Weld in particular was also very well equipped for the task of keeping us from retreating back to the front door.

Weld swung at Shadow Stalker, but his club passed through her.  Fearless, she stepped close and punched the metal arrowhead of one of her crossbows into his right eye.  He stepped back a few steps, one hand going to his eye, and she threw herself at him, bringing her knees to her chest and then kicking out.  Her feet slammed into his chest, and pushed him further back.  Weld only staggered back a short distance, and it was Shadow Stalker who landed hard on her back.  Kicking a five-foot-nine-inch block of metal had to hurt, but Regent doesn’t exactly have to be careful with Shadow Stalker’s body.

Bitch slipped past the pair of them, reaching the front door.  I could hear her whistle at a volume that I doubted I could scream.

Grue and Regent were already free of their cuffs, the three PRT uniforms closest to them lying down on the ground.  Tattletale was grinning at the four wards at the end of the hall closest to the elevator – Kid Win, Clockblocker, Flechette and Vista.  The laughter didn’t belong to Tattletale, however.  It was cackling, sounding like someone having way too much fun.

Flechette shouted, “They’ve got someone with the Stranger classification!”

We did?

The Wards recovered fast enough.  Vista was working to distort the ends of the hallway, the front doors, and the elevator at the end of the hall into impassable terrain.  Flechette fired a shot at Grue, pinning him to the ground, quickly loaded and fired a second, rooting his feet to the ground.

Flechette was loading for a third shot when a girl in black clothing with a horned demon mask and black scarf struck her weapon with a fire axe, splitting the metallic string and knocking it from her hand.

The girl with the horns was on our side, wait- I could almost remember her.  Some relation to Grue.

Then it slipped from my recollection, and I was distracted by the fact that Flechette was disarmed, her weapon broken.  How had that happened?

I couldn’t afford to worry about it.  I had to focus on contributing.

I released the bugs from beneath my costume, drawing them out from beneath the panels of my armor and the compartment at my back where I kept my equipment and weapons.

I’d known I wouldn’t be able to bring many bugs, and that it would be difficult to get more on site with a clean, sturdily built structure like this one.  I could gather a swarm, but it would be a few minutes before the bugs arrived en-masse.  I might have started sooner if I hadn’t been so concerned about alerting someone and giving us away.

The nine hundred and seventy bugs that poured forth were roughly equal numbers of bees, wasps, spiders, mosquitoes and cockroaches.  It was a smaller number than it sounded like, and their deployment was slower because of the way I had them arranged, stingers and abdomens carefully kept out of contact with one another.

I hadn’t come without a plan.

The bugs found their way to Vista, Flechette, and Kid Win, the only young heroes with exposed skin, at roughly the same time as they managed to get beneath the masks and protective clothing of the two PRT uniforms that were holding me.

At first the teenaged heroes swatted at themselves and backed away, as was usual.  The ‘fun house mirror’ distortion at the exits stopped spreading as Vista’s concentration broke, and Flechette dropped one of the small lengths of pointed metal that she’d been withdrawing from her belt.

Then Kid Win cried out, his words raw and barely intelligible because he was also screaming as he shouted them, “It burns!”

Capsaicin was the chemical that made hot peppers burn your tongue.  It was also the active ingredient in pepper spray.  I’d used pepper spray a few times, myself, and I’d had it accidentally used on me when I’d been out in costume, rather recently.  At the time, I’d stepped in to help fight back a crew of the Merchants up near the old Boardwalk.  They’d been aiming to loot the stores, and a contingent of people who’d created an armed force in the ruins of the upscale shopping district had stepped up to fight them off.  One of the defenders had sprayed a looter, and caught me in the effect as well, maybe intentionally.

I’d stepped back and let my bugs do the work while I recovered.  After the fight had wrapped up and I’d headed back to a shelter in my civilian guise, I’d been left to consider the fact that my bugs were vulnerable to the pepper spray.  By all rights, I should have been alerted to that fact the night I sprayed Velocity at the fundraiser, but I hadn’t been able to keep that many bugs on him, then, and I’d had many, many other distractions at the time.  It had escaped my attention.

While sitting up all night at the shelter, with kids crying and wailing and assholes making noise to intentionally piss off the other hundred people in the room, I’d had time to think.  The next morning, I’d woken up, donned my costume and started experimenting to see if I could protect my bugs somehow.  Pepper spray was only one thing.  I was bound, sooner or later, to go up against someone who used some kind of bug spray or gas on my tiny minions.

Had I found a solution?  Not so much.

I had discovered that I could use hair spray to coat the abdomens and stingers of my bugs, and then dip said abdomens and stings into some of the capsaicin. With a bowl of each in liquid form and two single file lines of bugs, I could dose a fair number before I went out in costume.  It did wind up killing some of the less durable ones eventually, either through the hairspray obstructing breathing or the capsaicin getting on the bug, but the end result was that I’d stumbled onto a weapon while trying to experiment with defenses.  I had figured out how to use my bugs as a delivery mechanism, smearing pepper spray onto fresh stings and bites.  I could jam their abdomens into people’s noses, mouths and eyes to cause intense burning and pain to the point that it made them nauseous.

Flechette screamed, falling to her knees, her hands to her face.  One of the PRT uniforms that was holding me let me go to stagger blindly toward the front desk.  I struggled to get away from the other one, but he held me tight even as he bent over, threatening to topple to the ground with me beneath him.

So yeah.  It worked.

Clockblocker had been in the lead of the group as we’d all headed toward the elevator, and had been delayed by the fallen PRT uniforms and his collapsing teammates.  His costume covered his entire body, preventing the bugs from getting to him, so once he got past his allies, there wasn’t much to get in his way.  He charged straight for Grue, and Grue responded by shrouding his immediate vicinity in darkness, though he couldn’t do much else.  One of Flechette’s bolts had nailed the sides of one of his boots to the ground – the other shot had missed, maybe because she couldn’t see his foot and hadn’t wanted to put a spike through his actual flesh.

Clockblocker closed the distance and plunged into the darkness after Grue.  He emerged out the other side, and the darkness dissipated behind him, revealing Grue, frozen in time.  Even the shadows smouldering around Grue’s body faded, revealing his motorcycle leathers and the helmet with the skull-face molded into it.

Which was bad.  It could be up to ten minutes until Grue was back in action, and we couldn’t necessarily afford to babysit his body until he reanimated.

The other PRT officer that was holding me broke away when a girl with a horned mask drove the wooden end of a fire axe into his shoulder.  Regent made Clockblocker stumble, and the horned girl shoved the PRT officer into the boy.  They both fell in a heap.

“Hey!” A girl shouted.  I looked and saw a horned girl crouched by one of the fallen PRT officers, holding the foam sprayer.  Imp.  Right, it was Imp.  She looked at Tattletale, “It won’t fire!”

Tattletale hurried over, grabbed the fallen officer’s arm, and lifted it over to the handle of the gun.  She put his finger on the trigger and aimed the gun at Clockblocker, unloading spray on top of his upper body just as he managed to heave the fallen officer off of himself.

Flechette threw a dart into the foam canister, and both Imp and Tattletale backed away as foam began spilling out of the hole, rapidly expanding to partially cover the uniformed officer.  After a moment’s pause, she threw a spike of metal into every other canister on the other fallen guards.  One even erupted into a pressurized spray, jetting up at an angle to hit the wall, creating a growing barrier a few feet in front of me, partially blocking me from reaching the rest of the combatants.

Before Flechette could turn her darts on us, Regent reached out, causing her to fumble and drop it.  A second later, he grunted and fell to all fours.  Nothing I could see had touched him.

A backfire?  So easily?

I was already turning to check when a primal scream tore its way from Shadow Stalker’s throat.

She’d been fighting with Weld, and Weld almost fell over when he swung and she didn’t enter her shadow state.  He couldn’t stop all of his momentum, but he stepped close and let his upper arm hit her instead.  They stumbled together, Shadow Stalker continuing to scream like she was trying to empty her lungs of every last trace of oxygen.

She raised her crossbow in my general direction, then moved, almost staggered, one step to the side.  From her new vantage point, she targeted Regent; her movements weren’t fluid, and her shot flew past him.  It hit Tattletale instead with a glancing blow, raking across her collarbone to penetrate her shoulder at a shallow angle.  Tattletale was spun off-balance and fell.

Shadow Stalker moved to load her crossbows, but her movements were jittery and jerky to an even greater extent than they had been a second ago.  She stopped midway through the motion, her head turning as she looked from one hand to the other, and then looked up at Weld, who was in close proximity to her.

“H-h-help.”  She stuttered.

A fraction of a second later, Regent was in control again, and Shadow Stalker was attempting to repeat her maneuver from earlier, driving an arrowhead into Weld’s other eye, moving quickly and with as much grace as ever.  He swatted her hand aside, and she entered her shadow state to avoid his follow-up swing with his club.

A series of crashes and the sound of breaking glass showering onto tile announced the arrival of Bitch’s dogs.  They had barreled their way through the bulletproof glass that led into the lobby.  Weld spun to face them, and Shadow Stalker abandoned her fight with him, using the opportunity to finish reloading her crossbows and fire one at Vista, who was hunkered down on the floor, my swarm all over her.  At least the girl wouldn’t be in further pain from what my bugs had done.  I could inflict pain if it meant getting a job done properly.  That didn’t mean I liked doing it.

“Shadow Stalker is conscious in there!?” Weld shouted, his back to us, attention on the three advancing dogs.  None of the dogs were as big as they could get, Bitch couldn’t manage them if they were too large, but it was still the equivalent of three rather agile bears or three unnecessarily burly jungle cats joining the fight, each with some added natural protection in the horned growths of bone and calcified muscle.

“Since a little while ago,” Regent answered.

That was disturbing.  I didn’t have a better way of putting it.  I’d almost been paralyzed by Leviathan in the Endbringer attack, but even before that, the idea of being left conscious but unable to move of my own volition had always spooked me.

I’d never had a relative in the hospital suffering from anything like that, and I couldn’t remember seeing any movies or shows on television that might have put the idea in my head at an impressionable age.  Still, it was one of the first places my mind went when I thought about worst case scenarios and horrific fates.  It had been in my thoughts more over the past two or three years, and the idea had been showcased in more than one nightmare over the past two weeks.

Maybe it was more general than that.  Not a fear of paralysis, specifically, but of helplessness.

The dogs started fighting with Weld, and it didn’t seem to be a fight they would win.  They were faster, they had the advantages of numbers, I even suspected they were stronger.  Despite that, when it came down to it, Weld was a walking, talking statue.  They could hit him hard enough to knock him down, but they couldn’t set their teeth into his flesh or deal any lasting damage.  When Weld hit them, by contrast, the hits were most definitely felt.

Still, their intervention did allow us to turn our focus to the others.  Vista was out of action, as was Clockblocker.

“Help Skitter!” Tattletale ordered, sounding urgent as she turned her attention to the remaining Wards that stood between us and the elevator.  Who was she talking to?

Then I felt hands at my back.  I flinched, but they held firm.  A second later I felt my cuffs come undone.  Imp.  Right.

I was getting the distinct impression that it was easier to recall her and react as if she were present if I hadn’t been actively trying to pay attention to her.  It was almost as if actively trying to commit her presence to memory had the opposite effect.  Except how was I supposed to put that knowledge into practice, if acting on that knowledge counted as recognizing her presence?

I didn’t get a chance to work it out, because Imp was gone from behind me a moment later, and we were faced with the issue of dealing with Flechette and Kid Win and the fact that our movements were getting more and more limited by the growing piles of adhesive, nigh-indestructible foam.

Kid Win had pulled himself together enough to draw a small blue pistol from his waist.  I tensed, bending my knees and shifting my weight to the balls of my feet so I could move the instant he aimed at me.

He didn’t fire it, though.  Instead, he slapped his chest, and the armor there opened up, revealing a circular depression.  He slammed the little blue gun there, where the weapon stuck like it was glued in, or maybe because of a magnet.  The chest portion of his armor closed up.

He staggered to his feet, swatted at his face, then looked like he immediately regretted doing that, judging by his pained grunt and gritted teeth.  His costume started to light up, glowing with a silvery light where it had been gold, before.  Two pear-shaped pieces of metal that had been attached to the armor on his shoulders raised into the air, floating.

Abruptly the pieces of metal jerked so the smaller ends pointed at us, and they each belched out blue sparks the size of softballs.

Imp appeared as she ducked out of the way of one, while Regent avoided the other.  Tattletale was still on the ground, one hand to her shoulder, and the shots passed well over her.

I didn’t see the need to dodge – the shots weren’t fast moving, and both seemed ready to collide with the walls on either side of me.  What I didn’t expect was for their trajectory to slow, then stop altogether, before they hit the wall.  Picking up speed, they headed back toward Kid Win.

“Heads up!” I shouted.  Imp and Regent turned just in time to avoid the boomeranging projectiles, but the distraction nearly cost them as the guns above Kid Win’s shoulders blasted off another two ‘sparks’.

“What the hell!?” Imp shouted.  The returning sparks had fallen into a lazy orbit around Kid Win.  Two, then four, then six sparks orbited him, with more joining the mass.  As the seventh and eighth sparks joined the ring that spiraled around Kid Win, arcs and flashes of electricity began to dance between them, making it into a loose ring that encircled him.  He advanced a few steps.

My bugs were dying in droves with the residual electricity, but Kid Win, at least, was largely incapacitated, his eyes swollen nearly shut, with some bugs gathered over and around his eyes to further obscure his vision.

I’d read up on the Wards, when I first got my powers, I knew they weren’t allowed to use lethal weapons.  Shadow Stalker had to use tranquilizer darts instead of real arrows, though she violated that rule often enough, and this device of Kid Win’s, no matter how intimidating, wouldn’t be allowed to do any sort of serious injury.

“Shadow Stalker!” I shouted, “Charge Kid Win!”  Expendable assets.

“Can’t!” she and Regent shouted in unison, “It’ll disrupt my control!”

Hearing that, Kid Win turned and fired a pair of sparks in their general direction.  The sparks flew further and faster, and they reached far enough that I actually had to dodge those.  One slammed into the spray of foam that the canister was blasting into the wall, while the other sailed toward Shadow Stalker, but stopped a few feet short and then looped back toward Kid Win.

That left one option.

Bitch wasn’t around, which left it to me.  I whistled, hard, getting the attention of the dogs.  When the dog with the squarish, almost snoutless head turned my way.  He’d be the bulldog puppy, Bentley.  I took a step toward Kid Win, pointed at the young hero, then shouted, “Get him!”

A ragged, horn encrusted tongue lolling out one side of his mouth, Bentley eagerly tromped past Weld, who lashed out with his club but only grazed Bentley’s rear flank.  Recklessly, the dog charged Kid Win, slamming into him, taking the full brunt of the ring of vibrantly blue electricity.

The dog and the boy crashed to the ground together, and skidded far enough toward the elevator that they collided with Flechette, who had retreated from the storm of blue sparks, her back to the elevator.    Bentley stood, flashes of brilliant blue light crackling at the chain that was rigged around his muzzle.  He limped strangely, but it wasn’t due to any injury.  From what I could tell, he’d stepped in some of the foam as he ran, and his foot was sticking to the floor.  More foam had splashed his shoulder.  In any event, the two teenage heroes were down, and it looked like the sparks had done more to incapacitate them than it had the puppy.

“Good boy!” I called out, “Good Bentley!”  His tail, shorter than any of the other dogs, wagged at the attention.

Shadow Stalker, Imp and the two remaining dogs had Weld on his heels, Imp doing her best to smack him in the face with the fire axe and have the metal obscure his vision.  Bitch slipped past the melee.  I looked away, tried to figure out a simple way to get by the spout of foam that was still sputtering out of the hole Flechette’s dart had made in the tank while still avoiding the flailing PRT uniform that was kneeling a short distance from me.

The next thing I knew, I was being slammed into a wall, hard.  For one moment I thought it was Weld, but I heard the snarling of the dogs and the noise of impacts.  I knew Weld would have hit me harder.

No, it was Bitch.

“You do not give orders to my dogs!” she growled in my ear.  “You do not get a say in whether they are good or bad!  Do that again and I will order them to chew you up and spit you out!”

“Bitch!” Tattletale shouted, I could almost see her out of the corner of my eye, cringing at the pain shouting caused her.  She still had the crossbow bolt sticking out of her shoulder, “Not the time!”

Bitch made a feral noise as she broke away from me, releasing me from my position against the wall.  I turned around to see her grabbing the flailing soldier and throwing him on top of the foam canister that was still spraying in fizzing spurts.  She walked on him to head toward the elevator.  Reluctantly, I followed.

Tattletale got Imp’s help in dragging Vista to the elevator door.  Regent took over and helped Imp hold Vista there, their fingers prying her eyes open until the retinal scan finished, then dragged her inside.

“Come on!” Tattletale urged us.

I looked back at Grue.

“Bitch, the dogs and Shadow Stalker will be here to protect him!” she called out.

I considered a moment, then nodded.  I joined the rest of the group in the elevator, and we headed down to the lowest floors.

“Cameras,” Tattletale spoke.  I nodded, and sent bugs into the room, found the surveillance cameras that were spaced at regular intervals around the room, and covered the lenses with bugs.

We exited the elevator, stepping into the Ward’s headquarters.  The room was vast, with a high domed ceiling that probably made this floor three stories deep.  A computer console with a dozen monitors sat to our right, and the far end seemed to be walled off into several smaller rooms.  The signs at the doors to the left implied they led off to the bathrooms.

To think that, if things had gone a little differently, I might have wound up here.

Tattletale was at the computer in an instant, reaching into her belt pockets to retrieve a series of USB thumb drives, which she slid into the available ports of the computer.  The monitors went to a blue screen.  As she typed, the word ‘JPIGGOT’ appeared on each monitor.  When that word disappeared from the screen, she typed a password, a row of asterisks appearing on the screens, twelve or thirteen characters long.

Then gibberish filled the screen.  Some looked like code, much looked like random numbers, letters and symbols, even hearts, spades and smiley faces.  Some of the snippets of code appeared to be file names.

“This should be every document the PRT has on file for their teams, barring the most secure documents, which wouldn’t be kept accessible, even in this isolated network.”  She handed me a pad of gauze from her belt.

“How long?” I asked.  I snapped the feathered end off the crossbow bolt, then pushed it out the other side.  The arrowhead wouldn’t take to being pulled out backward.

“Two minutes.”

“But we may have to wait up to ten, depending on when Clockblocker’s power wears off.”  While I talked, I held the gauze to her shoulder with one hand and took the offered tape with the other.  There was a rip in her costume, and I opted to tear it a little wider and put the gauze beneath before taping it on, to let the skintight fabric hold it firm.

“Bad luck he got one of us, yeah.”  Tattletale made a face, “Regent, let us know if there’s movement from Grue up there, through Shadow Stalker.”

“We’re going to have to fight our way through their reinforcements if we wait too long,” Regent said.

“Probably.  But not the Protectorate.  The only one who could get here fast enough to matter would be Velocity, and he’s dead.”

“They could have new members like the Wards did,” I said.

Tattletale frowned, “True.  They recruited those guys fast.  Especially since they’ve been here a few days.”

“Either way, we should make a quick exit,” I advised.  “Fast as we can manage, anyways, with Grue being stuck like he is.”

As the screen filled with more gibberish, reaching the point where there was more white text than blue background, we prepared to make our exit.

“Elevator’s down.”

“Of course it is,” Tattletale sighed, “There are stairs, through the door by the little window, where the tourists look in,” Tattletale said.  She waited with one hand poised over the USB drive.

A half second before the last blue dot on the screen disappeared, the entire room plunged into darkness.  The computer screens went black.

Silence reigned for a few heartbeats.  It wasn’t Grue’s power, though.  I could hear my own breathing.

“Someone cut the power?” Imp asked.

“No,” I heard Tattletale, “Separate power source, buried deeper beneath the building.  Same with the computers, there’s nothing upstairs or even in the city that could turn them off.  They’re hooked up to that power source, they’ve got internal batteries, and the only external connection is by satellite linkup.  They might terminate our connection to the computer database via the satellite feed, but not the lights.”

“So this is bad?” Imp asked.

A computer generated face appeared on the computer screens, illuminating us and our immediate surroundings with the pale glow the image cast.  I didn’t recognize the face, but I could guess.

Dragon.  She was onto us.  Yeah, that was pretty bad, as these things went.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

3 Days Ago

I drew in a deep breath, then exhaled, long and slow.

“I got your back,” Lisa told me.  I nodded.

With a push, the door swung wide open.

The inside of the building didn’t match the exterior.  It was situated in one of the low-lying areas of the Docks, where the flooding had yet to fully dissipate.  The buildings around here were in such bad shape that nobody was willing to use them for shelter or venture inside to take things.  On the inside, however, the place was reinforced with girders and beams.  Pieces of sheet metal sat between the thick metal shafts and the exterior wall, with holes cut to accommodate the windows.  Handles on the metal shutters suggested that the plywood could be moved aside in a pinch.  At ground level, there were stacked sandbags of a slightly different make from the usual, with plastic stapled over each pile.

The place hadn’t yet been organized.  A pair of beds sat in one corner, surrounded by assorted pieces of furniture.  The building’s interior was dry, crisp, and brightly lit.  It might have appeared sterile, if not for the spray paint on much of the sheet metal, and the tracks of dried mud on the ground near the door.

Our arrival was met by the furious barking of a half-dozen dogs.  A set of gates ringing the front door stopped them from attacking us.  Brian was sitting on the far end of the room, beside Aisha.  He wore his regular sparring uniform, and Aisha wore much the same thing, though she was wearing shorts instead of yoga pants.

His little sister?  Here?

Alec was sitting cross-legged on a pile of furniture, a bowl of colorful cereal balanced on one knee.  A long cut ran from just beneath his ear to his shoulder, beneath his shirt.  He was watching a TV that was plugged into an extension cord that hung from the ceiling.  He’d turned my way at the barking of the dogs, and I almost missed him uttering the words, “You gotta be kidding.”

One of the dogs apparently recognized me, because it stopped at the gate and wagged its tail.  A part of me took that as a good sign.  Then Bitch appeared, immediately wheeling on me, water flying from her damp hair.  She’d probably just come from the shower – she wore loose fitting army pants and a black tank top that had darker spots where beads of water had soaked into it.  A towel hung around her shoulders.  As she saw me, emotion hardened the lines of her face.  Her hands clenched as she strode toward me.  I saw the aggression in her body language, squeezed my eyes shut and tried to relax.  I remembered what Brian had said during our sparring, about how tensing up would only make you more vulnerable.

If that was true, I was really glad I hadn’t tensed up.  She was sturdily built and she didn’t hold back in the slightest.  She kicked down the dog gate, and an instant later, her fist connected with my cheekbone to send me sprawling to the ground, my tailbone absorbing most of the impact.  I’d been knocked around by Lung, Glory Girl, Bakuda and even Leviathan.  Some of those guys hit magnitudes harder than Bitch did, but it still hurt like hell.

It spoke volumes that while Lisa stepped forward so she could defend me, Grue and Alec didn’t.  The dogs tentatively passed through the open gate, but hung back in deference to their master.

“I-” I broke off mid-sentence – opening my mouth to speak had caused the pain in the right side of my face to come to bear, full force.  “I deserved that.”

Bitch delivered a swift kick to my shoulder, making me grunt and fall flat onto my back.  “Deserved that too.”

“Point made,” Lisa told her. “Stop.”

“Fuck you,” Bitch snarled.  She pointed at Brian.  “It’s irritating enough that he wants to start giving orders and calling himself our leader, I’m not putting up with it from you, too.  I do what I want, and what I want is to beat her face in.”

Bitch turned, strode to the pile of furniture, and then lifted one of the loose shelves that had been removed from the bookcase.  It was  a piece of wood chipboard about three feet long and a foot deep.  Lisa moved to put herself between Bitch and me and stave off Bitch’s attack.  She turned to Brian, “Hey, a little help, here?”

Brian frowned, “Why did you bring her here?”

“To talk,” Lisa said.  When Bitch tried to move around to her left, Lisa shifted her position to stay in her way.  I sat up, used my legs and hands to put some distance between Bitch and I.

“She was going to fuck us over!” Bitch shouted.

I shook my head, but Bitch and Lisa’s movements left me unsure if Brian had seen.  I called out, “No!  I wasn’t!”

Brian stepped forward and put a hand on Bitch’s arm.  She scowled but lowered her improvised weapon.

He leveled a serious look at me, “Lisa said you were, and when it comes down to the two of you, I’m going to choose her.  What Armsmaster said made too much sense, and a few of the little things about you suddenly made a lot of sense.”

“No, I- I mean, I was going to betray you-”

“I’m going to fucking kick her teeth in!” Bitch shouted.

“Past tense!” I raised my voice, “I changed my mind!”

Bitch made a deeper noise, low in her throat.  Aisha and Alec approached, which contributed to the loose half-circle of people and animals  around Lisa and me.  Tension hung heavy in the air.

“You changed your mind,” Brian didn’t sound as though he believed me.

“Dealing with Armsmaster?  Realizing what an asshole he was?  It was kind of a wake up call.  I’d already begun to think of you guys as my friends.  And what we were doing, it wasn’t so bad.  Most of our fights were against Lung’s gang…”

Barring Lisa and Aisha, every set of eyes on me was glaring.  I climbed to my feet, flinched a little as Bitch shifted position, fearing another attack.  My cheek was radiating pain, like someone was driving a nail into it.  My shoulder didn’t hurt half as much, but it wasn’t exactly fun, either.

“I-I changed my mind after we raided the fundraiser and talked to Coil.  I went home, and when I started thinking about sending that email to the Protectorate, I realized I couldn’t.  It would have meant explaining things to my dad and leaving you guys.  I couldn’t do either.”

“That wasn’t all that long ago, and it sounds pretty thin to me.”

I raised my arms, in a bit of a helpless gesture, then let them flop back to my sides.  “It’s the truth.  I’m not good at this, at talking to people or convincing them.  All I can do is tell you how things were from my perspective and hope you’ll see I’m sincere.”

He folded his arms, “Is that all you came to say?”

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed, “And I’d like to be back on the team if you’ll have me.  Please.”

His eyebrows rose, “I seem to recall you leaving in a huff after our last conversation with Coil.  What’s changed?”

“You have to understand, I was angry at myself as much… more than I was angry at you guys.  For letting that thing with the little girl happen, for not connecting the dots.  But I’ve thought about it, talked to Lisa, and I’m open to talking about it if you’re willing.”

“And why should we believe you, in all this?” he challenged me.

“I can vouch-” Lisa started to speak.

“Taylor can answer for herself,” Brian cut her off.

I floundered for an answer.  I got the distinct impression that they wouldn’t be satisfied if I couldn’t provide one.  A knot of ugly emotions gathered in my stomach, building as I felt the condemnation of these people I’d been so close to, not so long ago.

Realizing that much gave me an idea.  It wasn’t much, though.

I turned to Brian, “You remember when we were on the way to your apartment, what happened?”

“Which?  That thing with the bully, or-”

“After that.  The, um, awkward conversation.”

“Hey, dork,” Alec cut in, “He’s not the only one you have to convince.  You can’t omit details and leave us in the dark here.”

“Yeah!” Aisha added.  Brian gave her an annoyed look.

I looked at him, then looked down at the ground, feeling heat spread across my face.  The flush in my cheeks made the side of my face throb.  I hated feeling humiliated, felt way too many ugly emotions rising in a long-conditioned response, a spark of anger at the forefront of them.

Stiffly, I replied, “I… let Brian know I was interested in him.  Romantically.  It was the truth.”

“Ahhhh,” Alec responded.

I knew it!  Totally knew it from the second I saw you at his apartment!”  Aisha cackled.

I stole a glance at Brian and saw his expression hadn’t changed in the least.  When he spoke, he did it with a small shake of his head, “You could have been doing that to get me to let my guard down.”

“Bullshit,” Alec retorted.

“What?” Brian turned toward Alec.

“I said bullshit,” Alec repeated himself.  “Taylor said it herself, she sucks ass when it comes to lying and being smooth.”

“She lied well enough when she was keeping her undercover act a secret.”

“I didn’t lie, exactly,” I said, quiet, “I just didn’t tell you.”

Nobody answered that statement.  I felt dumb for saying it, however true it may or may not have been.

Alec added to his earlier comment, “I don’t ever pay attention to that team drama shit, and I picked up on the fact that she liked you.  It was so obvious it was irritating.”

It was strange, Alec was standing up for me.  He was insulting me while he did it, but he was still backing me up.

“That could have been an act,” Brian stressed.  “And even if it wasn’t, it doesn’t mean anything in the end.”

“You don’t really believe that,” Lisa replied, “You’re pissed at us.  I don’t blame you.  I’d be pissed at us, too.  But you’re only calling her a liar because it’s a hell of a lot easier to be angry at her if you think the person you befriended was a fake.”

Brian sighed, loudly. “Don’t turn your power on me.”

“Who says I am?”

Chancing a look at Bitch, I saw she was pacing back and forth, each set of paces short and restless.  She didn’t seem to have calmed down any.

I wasn’t feeling much better myself.  I said as much, “All I want is for things to go back to the way they were.”

“It’s not that easy,” Brian replied.  When I met his eyes, he looked away, his brow furrowing.

When had things been good?  What point in time was I so eager to return to, where I hadn’t been wracked by guilt or nervousness?  By the time I got over my fear of getting caught, I’d run away from home and cut ties with my dad.  Then, before I could come to terms with that, I’d found out about Dinah, which had affected me more than anything else.  I’d terrorized hostages, maimed a supervillain, hurt superheroes, but it was Dinah that left me lying awake at night, feeling helpless, feeling like I was the scum of the earth.

And I couldn’t help her from the outside.  That, more than anything, was why I was here.  I wasn’t strong enough to fight Coil on my own, I couldn’t go to the heroes and rely on them to handle it, not with Coil’s power giving him two attempts to escape, two attempts to any  counterattacks, two attempts to track down the person who’d informed on him and deal with her, and take his pick of the outcomes he wanted.  That wasn’t even getting into the more complex uses of his abilities, only using one of his concurrent realities to try something, doing it over and over again until he got a result he wanted to keep.  I couldn’t beat him in any kind of confrontation.

Lisa had convinced me.  I would only solve this by getting in Coil’s good graces, talking to him as someone he could respect and listen to.

I couldn’t do that without convincing these guys to let me back on the team.

“No,” I answered Brian, “You’re right.  It’s not that easy.  But if you’ll have me, I’m willing to work my ass off to make it up to you.  I’m pretty good as a member of this team, you know it.  If you want to monitor my every move, fine.  Any restrictions you want to put on me, fine.  I’ll even give up my pay from Coil and any jobs we do.  Whatever you want.”

He shook his head, then asked me, “Why?  Why come back?”

“Because I’ve been to the shelters, I’ve walked the streets and seen what the Merchants and Chosen are doing out there.  I want to resolve this thing with Dinah.  Whether I like it or not, I know that the fastest way to get to that point where everything’s okay again is working with Coil.”

Lisa spoke, “I want her back on the team, obviously.  If we’re voting, that’s where my vote is going.”

“Mine too,” Alec said, “You’re wound up, Brian, maybe it’s Taylor being gone, maybe it’s Aisha and your dad getting attacked, maybe it’s the general situation with the city, but it’s getting miserable to be around you.  Taylor was always the one who was on the same page as you, she’d be someone you can work with and talk to, at least.  You’ll be happier in the long run if she’s around.  And we’ll be happier if you’re not so fucking crabby.  ‘Sides, if she’s giving up her pay, then it doesn’t even cost us anything.”

“It costs us a lot,” Brian said, his voice low, “If mistrust and tension fucks up our team chemistry, especially if we start fucking up in the field, because of it.”

“So you’re voting no?” Lisa pressed him.

“Do I get a vote?” Aisha cut in, before he could respond.

“No,” Brian and Lisa refused her in unison.  Aisha made a face, but didn’t seem too bothered.

“I don’t want her on the team,” Bitch spoke.

Brian shook his head, “I don’t know what to tell you, Rachel.  Alec’s right, for once.  We need her.  We need the firepower, out there, at the very least.  Looking at this objectively, I think I’d have to say we should keep her.”

“Which is three votes for, one against,” Regent noted.

Bitch threw the piece of chipboard she was carrying into the wall, hard.  One of the dogs started barking in response or in alarm.  She spat in my general direction and then stalked over to the far end of the room, her dogs trailing after her.  The metal stairs clanged with the impacts of her boots as she ascended to the next floor.

Lisa hesitated, then followed after.  Alec glanced at us, then put a hand on Aisha’s shoulder and led her away, leaving Brian and me alone.

“Thank you,” I said, quietly, to Brian.

Brian shook his head, “Don’t thank me.  Alec’s right when he says that we’ll probably get over this.  Maybe we’ll even become friends again and get to the point where we can talk about it.  But that isn’t going to happen today, and definitely not right here and now.”

“Okay,” I replied.  But he was already walking away, leaving me standing alone at the entrance.

I had told myself I would rise above the likes of Sophia and Armsmaster.  I was all too aware of their flaws, and first and foremost among them was arrogance, pride.

So I’d swallowed mine.

Now

There were so many ways this could go wrong.

Tattletale held a pair of binoculars and scanned the building in front of us.  “There’s movement.  We’re good to go.”

“Go,” Grue ordered.

Hitting the target wasn’t so hard.  My bugs flowed in through windows and Bitch took the entrances.  Angelica had free rein, slow as she was, while the other dogs stayed on leash.  Grue hung back with Tattletale, Regent and me, while Imp moved forward, not charging in, but staying close.

The tricky part would be balancing this.  Too far one way or the other, and this got really ugly, really fast.

Our targets were looters, and they were well armed, though bullets were getting to be in shorter and shorter supply.  Coil had sources, and the Chosen did as well, but these guys were from the Merchants.  They were vagrants, addicts and people who subsisted by mooching off the system.  When the system had failed, they’d latched on to the only group that would take them.  More had joined because it was safer and easier to be among the thugs, looters, scavengers and thieves than it was to be among the victims.  Safety in numbers.

They weren’t strong or trained, and I couldn’t call them brave.  That said, they were bolstered by a kind of desperation.  I’d seen it before, when I set my bugs on some of my enemies, how some panicked or saw the futility in fighting the swarm and others just fought on heedless of the damage they were taking and the pain they were feeling.

That same desperation posed an issue as far as our plan.  If we gave them a chance, they wouldn’t hesitate to hurt or kill us.

They’d raided countless homes and businesses, taken everything of value they could uncover.  Phone lines were down everywhere, police response times far slower with the roads in the condition they were.  The looters had amassed a small fortune in stolen possessions, and intel said they were storing it here.  As reasonable a target as any.

My bugs drove the bulk of the looters out into the street.  Between Grue’s darkness and Bitch’s dogs, those same looters were driven back and cornered, hemmed in by the snarling beasts.

The second we had the situation under control, Shadow Stalker dropped out of the sky, a crossbow in each hand.  Tattletale and Grue were darted a second later.  She reloaded in a second using the cartridges that had been set on her gloves, then darted Imp and me.  By the time the dart embedded in the armor of my costume, Tattletale and Grue were slumping to the ground.

The fabric of my costume blocked the dart, so I didn’t go down.  I drew my baton, snapped it out to its full length, and charged her.

She backed away, loading and firing another series of bolts at Regent and the dog closest to her.  By the time I reached her, she’d fired a second dart into the dog, then shot Bitch.

My baton passed through her, of course.  She walked through my arm, stepping right behind me, and then drove her knee into my side.  I grunted and fell over, and she retrieved and slammed a dart into my shoulder before I could recover.

Take it easy, Regent.

Bitch managed to scream an order to her dogs before she ‘passed out’, “Go!”

The three newer dogs hesitated, but Angelica didn’t.  She huffed out a snarl as she passed them, and the others took her lead and joined her in stampeding down the street until they disappeared from sight.

I laid in the water, aware of how cold it was, trying to ignore how dirty it was.  My lenses afforded me an advantage in that I could watch what was going on without my open eyes giving anything away.  I saw Shadow Stalker touch her ear, then murmur something.  Tattletale had gone over everything Regent needed to know as far as that particular routine and the orders to give.

It took three minutes for the PRT to arrive.  I saw the green and white flashing lights and heard the splashing before anyone stepped into my field of view.

“Holy shit,” one of the PRT uniforms spoke.

“Restrain them and throw them in the van,” Shadow Stalker ordered him.

“Jao, get the containment foam,” one uniform spoke.  The captain?

“They’re tranquilized,” Shadow Stalker spoke, sounding disinterested, “Don’t waste resources.”

“Protocol states we use containment foam, especially when there’s an unknown.”

“The girl with the horns?  Mover three, teleports through shadows,” Shadow Stalker lied.  “None of them can escape restraints on their own.”

“But if Grue uses his power-“

Shadow Stalker turned, then fired another dart into Grue.  “Satisfied?”

We’d drained the darts of the sedative, of course.  Still, I was betting Grue would have words for Regent after this was over and done with.

The uniform didn’t back down, “No.  I want to know why you don’t want them fully contained.”

“Because I’ve been up since five in the morning, it’s well past midnight now, and I’m going to have to start doing fucking paperwork the second we get these guys in a cell.  I’m not allowed to walk away until they’re in custody, so if I let you foam them, I’m going to have to wait another half an hour to an hour for the solvent to get mixed and brought to them, five or ten minutes for it to work.  Fuck that, they’re down.  Listen to the hero who just took down a whole fucking team and get them in the truck.”

There was no reply to that, but a moment later, someone picked me up and started carrying me.  I maintained deep breaths, kept my body limp.  A few bugs congregated on me and the uniforms moving us, and I didn’t do anything to dismiss them.  Maybe they would distract the uniform from the fact that any of us were still conscious.

 I was placed on the cool metal floor of the containment vehicle, my hands cuffed behind my back.  A few seconds later, someone was thrown over top of my upper body.  Too light to be Grue or Bitch.  It would be Imp or Regent.

The metal doors slammed shut and locked with an audible shift of internal machinery.

So many ways this could go wrong.

We had safeguards, of course, including but not being limited to Coil’s assistance.  Still, there was something profoundly unsettling about allowing myself to be cuffed and imprisoned.

“No ears on us,” Tattletale murmured, “We’re good so long as we keep our voices down.”

“PRT is having words with the remaining ‘witnesses’ who stuck around to grab loot after the dogs ran off,” Regent informed us with a whisper.  “They’re backing up the story we wanted to sell.”

We’d passed one hurdle, at least.  The act could have gone either way – if we didn’t sell it well enough, we could have wound up with the PRT arresting us for real.  If we timed it wrong or if one of the looters decided to attack us while we were pretending to be tranquilized, something ugly might have happened.

“You hit me way too hard,” I murmured.

“Muscle memory,” Regent replied.  “Blame her, not me.”

“You alright, Imp?” Grue asked.

“Duh,” she replied.

It was a good few minutes before the truck bucked into motion.  Out of unspoken agreement, we stayed quiet, just to be absolutely sure that the driver wouldn’t hear us.  It was maybe ten or fifteen minutes before we arrived.

“We’re at their headquarters,” Regent spoke, his voice hushed.

“Then we’re in good shape,” Grue answered.

“Weld and the Wards are coming out to meet Shadow Stalker.  Heads up.”

The back door of the van opened.  I could feel cooler air enter the enclosed space.  There was an audible click of a gun, as if they were anticipating an attack the moment the doors opened.

“Wow,” one of the boys commented.  I was guessing it was Kid Win or Clockblocker.  “How’d you pull that off?”

“They were distracted, I picked them off.  That little freak that saw me with my mask off was wearing armor, so I had to resort to CQC,” Shadow Stalker made it sound matter-of-fact.

“Riiiight,” one of the other boys said, sarcastic.

“You’re quiet, Weld,” a girl’s voice.  Vista?

Who was Weld?

“Basking in how fucking awesome I am?” Shadow Stalker gloated.

“Maybe later.  For now…” the accented male voice spoke, “Just satisfy my curiosity.  You know the passwords we memorize each week, and you know why we memorize them, right?”

“Yeah,” Shadow Stalker replied.

One of the other boys spoke, “For any interaction with any flagged shifter or,” the boy paused, “master.  Oh.”

“So,” Weld said, “Keeping in mind that Regent is the highest rated Master in the city, I’d like for you to give us this week’s password.”

There was a pause.

“Comanche Six-six-two,” Shadow Stalker spoke.

Another pause.

“Alright,” Weld confirmed, “Pick ’em up and haul them into the holding cells.”

It was all I could do to stay still and not show my relief.  Tattletale had anticipated this much, had drilled Regent on it, but she had been wrong in the past.

Imp was lifted from on top of me, and Tattletale was picked up next, from right beside me.

I was among the last to get lifted off the floor of the truck.  Shadow Stalker held me until a pair of PRT uniforms could haul me to my feet and lift me by my armpits, my feet dragging on the ground, my head hanging.  I chanced a partial opening of my eyes, knowing my lenses would hide them, to sneak a sidelong peek at this ‘Weld’.  Metal skin, metal hair, and a strange melted-junkyard texture to his shoulders.  I’d crossed paths with him before the Endbringer event.

He spoke, his voice quiet enough that it was probably intended for just him and Sophia, “Where are the dogs?”

“Tranquilized them, they didn’t go down.  Ran when Hellhound dropped.”

Weld nodded, “This is good work, but it doesn’t excuse or make up for what happened earlier.”

“Whatever,” Shadow Stalker replied.

“No.  This is serious.  You assaulted a team member.  I’m not about to let that slide.”

On one level, I wasn’t surprised to hear that.  I knew, cognitively, that she had that kind of personality.   But emotionally?  I hadn’t really believed it.  It caught me off guard to hear she was that big a problem in the Wards, as well.

A few seconds passed before she finally asked, “What are you going to do?”

“After these guys are securely in custody, we’re going to have words with the Director.  She wants you on this team, for whatever reason, so I don’t expect your probation will be broken, but there’s going to be consequences.”

“Fuck,” Shadow Stalker said.

And you’re going to apologize to Kid Win.  I don’t ever want you assaulting him again.”

Shadow Stalker paused.  “Stop fucking testing me.  I’m too tired for this.  It wasn’t Kid Win.”

Weld nodded.  I blinked a few times in surprise.  Tattletale hadn’t gone into this, hadn’t anticipated it. Weld had just tried to trip up Regent/Shadow Stalker, and Regent had anticipated it.  A bullet dodged.

I saw we were passing by a front desk.  I’d never been in the building, but I had passed by it a few times.  It was surprisingly empty.  There weren’t many PRT uniforms around, either.

“Who was it, then?” Weld asked.  It took me a second to parse what he meant.

Shadow Stalker groaned, “Fuck off!  It’s me.”

“Hey,” he turned, putting one hand on her shoulder to stop her mid-stride.  “Who was it?”

She glanced at the group.  Clockblocker, Kid Win, Vista, and the girl from the Endbringer fight who called herself Flechette.

“Clockblocker,” she guessed.

Weld didn’t move an inch, and my gut told me Regent/Shadow Stalker was off the mark.  My heart sank.

Clockblocker and Kid Win stopped walking and looked our way curiously.

“Heads up!  Trap!” Weld shouted.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Creepy crawlies riddled the building’s interior, and I hadn’t even used my powers to bring them here.

No power meant the building was dark.  The city, and consequently the building, were flooded, which meant it was moist.  With exceptions for some of the luckier areas, pretty much every service was suspended, which meant no mail and no trash pickup.  Trash bags were accumulating anywhere that people lived, here included, and when they had run out of trash bags, people had started littering, throwing their trash out the windows or leaving it in hallways instead.  To top it off, the weather was getting warmer.

For bugs, all of these converging details made the city into a paradise.

I walked in the lead of the group, with Imp a step behind me and to my right.  The two of us held flashlights, but Imp was barely paying attention to hers.  She held a knife much like mine, and she dragged the point against the wall as we walked down the hallway, carving a groove into the paint.  Her flashlight spent more time pointed at her feet than in front of us, leaving me the burden of lighting our way.

I stopped, turned the flashlight on an open apartment door.  “Here, maybe?”

Grue grunted, adjusted the position of the unconscious body he had draped over one shoulder, “Scout it.”

Bitch nodded, letting Angelica off the chain, pointing at the door.  Of the four dogs she had with her, only Angelica was still under the influence of her power, standing three times her usual size.  Despite the invigorating effects of Bitch’s attentions, the dog moved slowly as she loped into the apartment.  It was painful to look at her – she was moving as though she were ten years older than she was.

The other dogs pulled at their chains, wanting to follow.  Bitch made angry clucking noises, then ordered them to sit.  They were slow to obey, but I think something about the look in Bitch’s eyes told them they’d better listen.  One of them reared back as I sent more bugs into the interior to investigate.

Bitch had been short-tempered lately.  The loss of two of the dogs she was closest to?  It played a large part in that.  She’d lost eight dogs in total, and Angelica had only lived because she had been too hurt to be brought along.  Problem was, Angelica wasn’t recovering from those injuries, and from what I gathered, she might not ever recover completely.  Bitch was forced to rely on a single crippled, obedient dog and three dogs that were in the peak of health, but impatient and untrained.

Of course, I couldn’t deny that a big part of her attitude was me and the fact that I was here.

Angelica returned to the doorway, looked up at her owner, and then returned to the apartment.

“No problems,” Bitch spoke, translating Angelica’s body language for everyone present.  Grue looked at me, and I nodded confirmation.

I led the way inside, using my flashlight to scan the area.

The apartment had been ransacked, but it wasn’t the kind of ransacking that suggested the looters had gotten to it.  No, it was the very thorough removal of everything valuable that could be carried away by a family of three or four.  There were two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen with room for a small table and accompanying chairs.  There was a smaller bed in one room and a king sized bed in the other.  Dresser drawers, cabinets and bedside tables were all open, clothes strewn around the rooms.  The occupants had left in a hurry, and I was guessing they probably hadn’t expected to come back or find much of their stuff here when they did.

Tattletale grunted as she dropped one box beside the couch, where it landed on something with a crunch. “City’s trying to restore order one area at a time.  May be doing more harm than good.  This building’s been declared uninhabitable, which isn’t exactly doing anyone any favors, because most places in the city are just as bad or worse, and a lot of people don’t have anywhere else to go.  Anyways, they’re kicking everyone out, trying to clean up as best they can, get rid of that trash, do what they can about the infestation of rats and bugs.  Might still be a few people around, but I doubt anyone’s going to be poking around enough to find us before eleven or so tomorrow morning.”

“Then we have time to do what we need to do,” Grue spoke.  He used one foot to drag one of the dining room chairs out from beneath the table, placing it in the center of the kitchen.  I hurried to his side to hold the seat in place as he hefted the limp body from over his shoulder and set it down.  Shadow Stalker nearly tipped over, but together we caught her and leaned her back.  Her head lolled.

Regent put down a second, smaller box next to the one Tattletale had brought.  I switched positions with Tattletale – she began searching Shadow Stalker, removing crossbows, cartridges of ammunition and two small knives.  She found a phone with a touch screen, then reached beneath the unconscious girl’s hood to pluck a wireless earbud from the girl’s ear.  After rubbing it on Shadow Stalker’s cloak to clean it, she put it in her own ear and started fiddling with the smart phone.  After a few seconds she pronounced, “GPS hasn’t been activated.  They probably won’t turn it on to look for her until she fails to return from patrol.”

“Can you stop them from activating it?”  Grue asked.  “Or maybe we could have Skitter’s bugs or a dog carry that piece somewhere else?”

Tattletale shook her head, “I can turn it off.  Give me a minute.”

Regent and I had already started hauling extension cords out of the box Regent had been carrying, untangling them and feeding them over to Grue.  He began winding a cord around our captive, starting with loops around her wrists and arms, going up her arms to her chest, then back down to bind her body to the chair.  We handed him the next cord, and he did much the same thing with Shadow Stalker’s legs.  As he worked the bindings up her extremities, he kept his index and middle fingers on her, wrapping the cord over top of them.  When he was done with the loops at one spot, he moved his hand up further, then repeated the process.

“Copping a feel, Grue?” Imp mocked, as she let herself half-spin and collapse lengthwise on the couch.

“Making sure it isn’t tight enough to cut off her circulation.”

“Ah.  You an expert on that stuff?  I didn’t take you for a bondage freak,” she stretched.

He sighed, “Just get the generator.”

“I just lay down.”

“So stand up and then get the generator,” he ordered.

She made a show of slowly standing and, with exaggerated motions, dragging herself over to the box Tattletale had brought.  She retrieved a black plastic portable generator that wasn’t much bigger than a microwave oven.  She acted like it was ten times heavier than it was as she hauled it over toward the spot where Sophia sat.

Grue, for his part, ignored her.

Once the wires were in place, he used duct tape to secure them, then he got two more chairs, laid them on their sides and taped them to her chair.  He was almost done when Imp finally concluded her charade with the portable generator.  The LEDs at the ends of the extension cords lit up as we plugged each cord in to the generator, glowing a dim orange.  Grue stood, then pushed the refrigerator away from the wall so he could unplug it and plug the appliance into the generator.  I couldn’t be sure if it was to ensure a steady current  through the wire or because he wanted a working fridge.

I’d finished unpacking the wires, so I picked up the empty box and entered the living room to put one box inside the other to minimize the mess.

Bitch had claimed the sofa for herself, reclining with two dogs up beside her.  She was rubbing her forearms, which were probably strained from controlling the more unruly dogs with the chains.  She glared up at me, and there was something ugly in her expression.

I couldn’t blame her for being angry.  Her dogs, some of her closest friends in the world, had died because she had been saving me, only for her to find out shortly afterward that I had been a traitor.  Maybe saving me hadn’t been her primary motivation, but it seemed she’d used the past week and an unhealthy dose of simmering anger to revise her perception of things so I was to blame for what had happened.  It wasn’t getting better, either.  She seemed to get angrier with every hour spent in my company, and I was worried I’d have to face the brunt of it very soon.

“She’s awake,” Tattletale called out.  I hurried to the kitchen, leaving Bitch where she was.

Our captive hadn’t budged an inch.

“She’s sitting there, pretending to sleep in the hopes that we’ll say something.  It would be clever, might even work, if I wasn’t here,” Tattletale said, with a bit of a wry tone.

Shadow Stalker’s head rose and swiveled as she surveyed the full extent of her bindings.  Then she glanced at us.

After a long pause, she spoke, “Electrical cords.”

“Strongly advise you to avoid using your power to pass through them,” Tattletale answered, “And in case you’re thinking of dropping straight down through the floor, don’t.  We’ve got extra lying under the chair.”

The heroine leaned hard to one side, looked down.  “Hm.”

“You’ll be a little groggy,” Tattletale grabbed the last remaining chair from beside the kitchen table to sit down opposite the vigilante ‘heroine’.  “The fight took a lot out of you, and we tased you, and I took the liberty of sticking you with one of your own tranquilizer bolts.”

“You don’t hold back,” Shadow Stalker commented, seemingly unfazed by her circumstances.  She tested the strength of her bonds, experimentally.

“Says the person who tried to slit my teammate’s throat,” Regent spoke.

Shadow Stalker looked at me, the eyes behind her mask moving to my throat.  “Tough costume.”

She doesn’t even deny it.  I can’t believe I’ve gone to high school with this lunatic.  I resisted the urge to respond, shrugged instead.  Too easy to get into an argument, too easy to let something slip and reveal who I was.

“Well, you fuckers got me,” she cocked her head to one side, “What’s next?”

We all turned to look at Regent.  Regent, in turn, gave Shadow Stalker a serious look.  He ran his fingers through his dark hair.  Tattletale stood from the chair, and Regent sat, putting himself four feet away from the heroine.  His mask was a plain white, a half-smile perpetually frozen on the smooth, unadorned face.

Her eyes went wide behind the eyeholes of her mask, and she pulled hard against her bonds, “No!  Fuck!  Have you seen his files?  You don’t know-”

“We have an idea,” Tattletale interrupted.

“Fuck you!”  Shadow Stalker shouted.

“Guys, do me a favor?” Regent asked, not taking his eyes off Shadow Stalker.  He smacked his scepter into the palm of one hand, “Gag her, then give us some privacy?”

“You sure?” Grue asked, as Tattletale moved over to Sophia’s side, bent down to get some excess cord, and lifted up her mask just enough to wind the cord into her mouth.  The duct tape made a tearing noise as she freed a length from the roll.  I could still make out the swearing on Shadow Stalker’s part as she tugged at her bonds and rocked her seat.  The setup Grue had created by duct taping the other two chairs to her helped ensure she couldn’t throw herself to the ground and maybe break the chair in the process.

“I’m cool.”  Regent shifted the position of his stool a half-foot to his left, so he could lean back against the corner of the refrigerator.  He brought one of his feet up onto the seat of the stool and rested his chin on his knee.

“Just as long as you’re sure,” Grue spoke.  “How long?”

Regent glanced at Grue, then looked to Shadow Stalker, “Depends on her.  Could be fifteen minutes, could be three hours.”

Shadow Stalker grunted, long and loud.

Grue began ushering us out of the room, and we obeyed, except for Imp, who seemed to need a little bit of an extra nudge – Grue blocked her view of Regent and our captive with his body and put a hand on her shoulder to push her toward the door.  Following, I cast a backward look over my shoulder, saw Shadow Stalker’s arm twitch.  She winced, mumbled a swear word around her gag.

Grue shut the kitchen door behind us, and for a moment, all was dark, quiet and still.

Bitch and her dogs were all lying together on and around the couch, Bitch’s hand on Angelica’s head, where the dog lay just below her.  Only Angelica’s eye was open – Bitch and the other three dogs had their eyes closed.  Angelica’s excess flesh had been shed and deposited on the floor as she shrunk down to her natural size.  It looked like Bitch had kicked most of it one corner of the living room; blood and other fluids streaked the carpet between the base of the couch and the corner.

“Can we watch TV?” Imp asked Grue, “We could get one of the extension cords and-”

“No.”

“Or plug in one of the lamps so we can-”

“No,” he repeated.  “We’re here for another few hours.  We do nothing that could draw attention.  That includes having lights, flickering or otherwise, shining through the window of an apartment that’s supposed to have no power.”

“What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

“Sleep,” he glanced at Bitch, who was trying to do just that, “While the rest of us stand watch.  Or go looking for a candle or flashlight and read somewhere the light won’t show through a window.”

“Fuck reading.  We could find a movie and watch-”

“No movies, I just told you why we can’t turn on the TV.  Why would a movie be any better?”

“We could cover one of the windows!”

“I want everyone keeping an ear out for trouble.  You agreed to follow my orders, didn’t you?  No TV, no lights.”

They glared at one another, Imp’s chin defiantly raised so she could meet Grue’s ‘eyes’ – the dark sockets of his skull-faced helmet.

“One of the people who lived here was a teenager, a little younger than you, Imp,” Tattletale cut in, “Go find the bedroom, see if there’s anything interesting.  Anything left behind will probably get stolen before the family gets back, so you could keep some stuff for yourself, if you find anything good.”

“Yes!” Imp spun on her heel and strode off to the other end of the apartment.  Bitch opened her eyes and furrowed her brow in irritation at Imp’s outcry, or maybe at the recent argument, but she just shut her eyes and made a deliberate attempt at returning to sleep.

Grue waited until Imp disappeared from sight before groaning, “It’s tiring, dealing with her.”

“All of us irritated each other when we first joined the team.  Give it time.  We’ll find a rhythm.” Tattletale reassured him.

Grue turned his head my way, but he didn’t say anything.  I wondered if he had been about to say I was the exception, then changed his mind.

Instead, he spoke, “I’m going to lie down for a bit in the master bedroom.  Tattletale, Skitter, you keep an eye on things.  Wake me when you need a relief.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Tattletale answered him.  I couldn’t bring myself to reply, and stayed quiet instead.

As Grue was leaving, Shadow Stalker screamed from the kitchen, a strangled, muffled noise.  Grue paused, waited a moment, and then continued in the direction Imp had gone, opening and closing the door at the end of the short hallway.

I hugged my arms against my body.  Glancing toward the balcony showed that none of the windows were broken or open.  It wasn’t because I was cold.

“You okay with this?” Tattletale asked.

“All-in,” was all I could say.

She smiled a little, almost apologetic. “All-in.”

We were doing this to Sophia, I told myself.  The same girl who had abused, insulted and tormented me almost every school day since I’d started high school.  She’d punched, kicked and shoved me.  Had ruined my belongings, insulted me, thrown food at me, humiliated me, and had goaded others into doing much the same things.  She was the one who had pushed me to that do-or-die point where my powers manifested.  If that wasn’t enough, she had tried to kill me less than an hour ago, not because I was a criminal that deserved the death penalty, but because I had seen her unmasked.  I was inconvenient.

And with all that in mind, I couldn’t be sure that she deserved this.

Tattletale got her MP3 player and put an earbud in the ear that didn’t have Sophia’s device in it.  The other earbud dangled from the cord, faint music playing from it.  Grabbing a blanket from the arm of the couch, she curled up in one of the armchairs.

I took her cue, pushing one chair across the carpet so it was by the sliding glass door leading to the balcony.  I didn’t settle in right away.  First, I exercised my power.

There were definitely enough bugs in the building for me to use.  I found the spiders in the building, and set them to preparing webs, stringing strands across every doorway, hallway and stairwell for every floor in the building.  I directed buzzing houseflies and mosquitoes into every apartment, including the one we were in, and placed at least one bug on every person I found still inside the building – a trio of unwashed men in the basement, among the storage area where residents kept the stuff they couldn’t have in their apartments, a pair of teenagers that lay on the roof, holding hands, an older man near the top floor, alone, and one family of five on the second floor.

After a moment’s consideration, I set spiders to stringing webs around the balconies as well.  When capes were in the cards, I couldn’t afford to ignore the possibility of grappling hooks, rappelling, teleportation or flight.  The spiders would sense any movement of the webs, and I could sense what the spiders did, in turn.

I found a book on a shelf that looked readable, then sat down sideways in the chair, so my back was against one armrest and my legs hung over the other, the kitchen door in front of me, the balcony behind.  There were no lights in the apartment or out on the street, but the heavy clouds weren’t blocking the moonlight for the time being, which afforded me the opportunity to read, looking up after every page or two to double-check that things were quiet and still.  It might have been peaceful, if not for Shadow Stalker’s occasional grunt or scream from the direction of the kitchen.  On occasion, she went into her shadow state for a fraction of a second, then reverted back before the wires passed through her.  Regent hadn’t called out, so I assumed all was well.

Bitch’s bulldog, Bentley, was lying on the couch with his head nestled in Bitch’s armpit.  I was on chapter three of my book when he began snoring, surprising me with how steady and loud the noise was.  Sirius, the lab I’d met on a prior occasion, lay between Bitch’s legs, his head lying across her belt buckle.  A setter was curled up at the base of the sofa with Angelica – I couldn’t remember its name.

Bitch looked so peaceful, here.  It was strange seeing her relax and rest so easily when, day-to-day, even before recent events, she seemed to be on edge to a degree that would drive most people to insanity.  It wasn’t aggression or anxiety, exactly, but some combination of the two.

Tattletale was playing some game on her mp3 player, I saw.  The mosquitoes I’d placed discreetly on Brian’s back told me he was turning over constantly.  He was as restless and agitated in relaxation as Bitch was when awake.

Imp, I could sense, was taking apart the teenager’s room, finding CDs and DVDs and holding them up by the window, maybe to see them in the light, as I was with my book.  I hadn’t known her to rest in the three days I’d known her.  I could almost believe she was one of the capes that didn’t need to sleep, but the theory would have felt a lot more tidy if I could connect it better to one of her powers.

I turned my attention back to my book, looked up again when I heard a bang from the kitchen, a grunt and a scream.  The bugs I’d placed on Regent didn’t show anything amiss, but I couldn’t really get anything from the contact with Shadow Stalker.  She was violently flickering in and out of her shadow state, now, and the slow speed with which she was returning to normal seemed to suggest she was fighting the urge to use her power.  Regent was standing, but he hadn’t called for help, so I started to read again.

When I’d read the same page four more times and realized I hadn’t actually taken in any information, I dog-eared the page and closed my book.  I focused on each person in the building in turn, followed by a double checking of the spider webs, the others here in the apartment-

I stopped short.  Regent was sitting, unmoving, and in the last ten seconds or so, Shadow Stalker had disappeared from the chair.

“Fuck!” I shouted, standing.  How?

Bitch climbed up off the couch, and Tattletale stood, looking to me, eyes wide.

When I realized why her eyes were wide, I let the bugs flow from beneath the panels of my costume.  I knew in an instant that Shadow Stalker was behind me.

Deftly, she grasped my wrist, knocked me to the ground, and then pointed her crossbow straight at my eye, the arrowhead clinking against the lens of my mask.  Which definitely wasn’t bulletproof or arrowproof.

For several long seconds, we remained there, unmoving.  Brian and Imp appeared in my peripheral vision, but they stopped when they saw Shadow Stalker.

Shadow Stalker started laughing, then stood, holstering her crossbow.  I felt Regent stand in the other room.  When the kitchen door opened, he was laughing as well – the exact same cadence as Shadow Stalker.

He ran his fingers through his hair, and Shadow Stalker moved one hand, as if to do the same thing, but the hood she wore stopped her.  She stepped away, and her movement seemed uncannily out of character; maybe a bit of a slouch, a bit of swagger, that hadn’t been there before.  Her eyes met mine.

“Totally got you, Dork,” she chuckled.

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