Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus)

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Darkness.  Almost a physical presence, bearing down on her as though she were deep underwater and the weight of all of the water above her was pressing against her head and shoulders.

Some of that was fatigue, some of it was hunger, some was thirst.  She had no idea how much time had passed.  She might have been able to guess from her period, but her body had decided such would be a waste of precious resources.  It hadn’t come, and she had no idea how many weeks or months it had been.

Darkness, so absolute she couldn’t tell if her eyes were open or closed.  As she breathed, it almost felt like the dark was pressing down on her, making exhaling harder with every breath.  It didn’t help that the room smelled like an open sewer mingled with body odor.

Reaching out, she fumbled, felt the dim warmth of skin.  An arm so thin she could wrap her hand around it, middle finger and thumb touching.  Her hand slid down the arm and her fingers twined with those of a hand smaller than hers.  The physical contact seemed to put the physical sensations of air on her skin into a kind of context.  The sense of pressure faded.

“I’m hungry,” the girl beside her spoke.

“I am too.”

“I want to go home.”

“I know.”

There was the sound of a key in the lock, and her heart leapt.

The light felt like knives being driven into her eye sockets, but she stared anyways.  A man, tall, tan and long-haired, entered the room, a lantern in one hand and a plate of food in the other.

He set down the food and then turned to leave.

“Thank you!” she called after him.  She saw him hesitate.

The door slammed shut after him.

“You thanked him?” The words were accusatory.

She couldn’t justify it.  Her heart was pounding.  She stared at the plate.  Soup and bread: enough food for one person, barely enough for two.  She could have said she did it in the hopes that he would feed them more often, but she wasn’t sure she would be telling the truth.

“Let’s… let’s just eat,” she spoke.

“I knew you were here when I was a block away,” Alan spoke.  “The number of lights on in these offices is asking for troublemakers to notice and come by.  And the doors were unlocked.”

Carol looked up in surprise.  Composing herself, she answered, “I’m not concerned.”

The man laughed, “No, I imagine you aren’t.”

“You’re back?”

“For a little while, at least.  The partners asked if I could come by in case we had to close up shop in a hurry.”

“In case the city is condemned?”

“That’s it.  What are you doing?  Are those the files from downstairs?”

Carol nodded, glancing at the crate of paperwork marked ‘1972’.  “We’ve been saying we would copy them over to digital format the next time business got slow.  It won’t get much slower than it is now.”

“The idea was that everyone in the office would pitch in,” Alan answered.

“Everyone in the office is pitching in.”

“Except you’re the only one here,” Alan said.  His brow creased in worry, “What’s going on?  Are you okay?”

She shook her head.

“Talk to me.”

Carol sighed.

He sat down on the corner of her desk, reached over and turned off the scanner.  “Talk.”

“When I agreed to join New Wave, Sarah and I both agreed that I’d keep my job, and I’d strike a balance between work and life in costume.”

He nodded.

“I felt like I had to keep coming, even after Leviathan destroyed the city.  Keep that promise to myself, keep myself sane.  This filing helps, too.  It’s almost meditative.”

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to stay in the city, with everything that’s gone on.  I heard things in the news, but it really didn’t hit home until I came back.”

Carol smiled a little, “Oh, it hasn’t been pretty.  Addicts and thugs thinking they can band together to take over the city.  The Slaughterhouse Nine-”

Alan shook his head in amazement.

“My husband was gravely injured in the attack, you might have heard.”

“Richard mentioned it.”

“Head injury.  Could barely feed himself, could barely walk or speak.”

“Amy’s a healer, isn’t she?”

“Amy has always insisted she couldn’t heal brain injuries.”

Alan winced.  “I see.  The worst sort of luck.”

Carol smiled, but it wasn’t a happy expression.  “So imagine my surprise when, after weeks of taking care of my husband, wiping food from his face, giving him baths, supporting him as he walked from the bedroom to the bathroom, Amy decides she’ll heal him after all.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I.  But we can’t ask Amy, because she ran away from home while Mark called to let me know he was okay.”

“Something else happened?”

“Oh, quite a bit happened.  But if I got into the details of the Slaughterhouse Nine visiting my home, the ensuing fight destroying the ground floor, Bonesaw forcing Amy to kill one of her Frankenstein mutants and inviting her to join the Nine, I think that would derail the conversation.”

Alan opened his mouth to ask a question, then shut it.

“This is strictly confidential, yes?” Carol stated.  “Between friends?”

“Always,” he replied automatically.  After a moment’s consideration, he said, “Amy must have been terrified.”

“Oh, I imagine she was.  Victoria went looking for her after she ran away, returned home empty-handed.  I think she was even more upset than I was, with Amy taking so long to heal Mark.  She was almost inarticulate, she was so angry.”

“Your daughters are close.  The sense of betrayal would be that much stronger.”

Carol nodded, then sighed.

“Quite a lot to deal with.  I can understand why you’d need some quiet and routine to distract yourself.”

Carol fidgeted.  “Oh, that wasn’t even the worst of it.  Victoria’s been flirting with the notion of joining the Wards, and she went out to fight the Nine just a few days ago.  Apparently she was critically injured.  She was carried off for medical care and nobody’s seen her since.”

“Carried off by who?  Or whom?”

“The Undersiders.  Who have dropped off the face of the map, in large part.  I’ve tried finding them on my patrols, but all reports suggest they’ve spread over the city in an attempt to seize large tracts of territory.  It’s a big city with a lot of stones to overturn and dark corners to investigate.”

“So Victoria’s missing, now?”

“Or dead,” Carol said.  She blinked a few times in rapid succession, fighting the need to cry.  “I don’t know.  I was patrolling, searching, and I felt my composure start to slip.  I feel like shit for doing it, but I came here, I thought maybe if I took fifteen minutes or half an hour to center myself, I could be ready to start searching again.”

“I wouldn’t beat yourself up over it.”

“She’s my daughter, Alan.  Something’s happened to her, and I don’t know what.”

“I’m sorry.  Is there anything I can do?”

She shook her head.

“I could call some people, if we organized a search party-”

“Too dangerous when you’re talking supervillains and the numbers of armed thugs on the streets.  Even civilians are likely to attack first and ask questions later, if confronted.  Besides…” she picked up her cell phone from the corner of her desk.  She showed him the screen, “Cell towers are down.  No service.”

He frowned.  “I- I don’t know what to say.”

“Welcome back to Brockton Bay, Mr. Barnes.”

“Carol, wake up.”

Carol stirred.  She was sleeping so much of the time now.

There was a man in the doorway.  Her heart leapt in her chest.

Then he moved the lantern.  A stranger.

“Time’s up,” he spoke, his voice heavily accented.

“Don’t understand,” Sarah spoke, her voice thin.

“Where’s… where’s the other man?” Carol asked.  She felt almost ashamed she didn’t have a better name for him.

“Quiet,” the man snapped.  He moved the hand that wasn’t burdened with the lantern, and Carol could see a knife.  She gasped, or maybe moaned.  It was hard to tell what it was supposed to be, because it was involuntary and her voice caught, making the sound come out more like a yelp or a reedy shriek.  She shrank back.

“No, no, no,” Sarah squeaked, shaking her head.

Time’s up.  Sarah had to know what he meant, now.

They’d spent so long in the darkness, in their own filth.  They’d eaten so little, grown so weak, and now they’d die.  And the thing that upset Carol most was that they would never understand why.

“No!”  Sarah shrieked, her voice raw.

The light was so bright it momentarily blinded Carol.  She covered her face with her arms.  When she looked up again, the man was on his hands and knees.  And her sister… Sarah was standing.

Except standing was the wrong word.  Sarah was upright, and her legs were moving, but her toes were barely touching the ground.  She wasn’t supporting her own weight.  She advanced on the man, raising one hand.

Again, that blinding light.  It didn’t burn the man, nor did it cut him.  He reacted like he’d been punched instead, stumbling backward through the doorway.  She hit him again, over and over, wordless cries accompanying each attack.  Carol saw only glimpses of the man’s bloodied body in the split-seconds the light hung in the air.  He was being beaten, pulverized.

She couldn’t bring herself to protest.  For the first time in long weeks or months, she felt a flicker of hope.

Darkness reigned over them for a few seconds as Sarah stopped to catch her breath.

Carol tried to stand and found her legs were like spaghetti noodles.

She was so busy trying to maintain her balance that she almost didn’t see.

The man who’d brought them the food.  He stepped into the doorway and raised one hand.  A gun.

The report of the handgun was deafening after such a long time in the quiet room.

But they weren’t hurt.  Sarah had raised her hands, and a glowing, see-through wall stood between them and the man.

He’d tried to attack them?  Carol couldn’t understand it.  He was the one who’d taken care of them.  When he’d appeared, she’d been happy.  And now it felt like that had been ruined, spoiled.

She felt betrayed and she couldn’t understand why.

Again, the gun fired.  She flinched, and not because of the noise.  It was like she’d been slapped.

Then silence.

Silence, no hunger, no pain, no sense of betrayal.  Even Sarah and the wall of light she’d put together were gone.

A flat plain stretched out around her, but she had no body.  She could see in every direction.

A crack split the ground.  Once the dust had settled, nothing happened for a long time.

More cracks.

It’s an egg, she realized, just in time to see it hatch.

The egg’s occupant tore free from the crack, unfolding from a condensed point to grow larger with every moment and movement.

Others were hatching from the same egg, spreading out like sparks from the shell of a firework.  Each unfolding into something vast and incomprehensible within seconds of its birth.

But her attention was on the first.  She felt it reach out and connect with another that shared a similar trajectory.  Still more were doing the same, pairing off.  Forming into trios, in some cases, but most chose to form pairs.

A mate?  A partner?

Each settled into a position around the ruined egg, embracing their chosen companions, rubbing against, into and through one another as they continued to grow.

The egg vibrated. Or did it?  No, it was an illusion.  There were multiple copies of the egg, multiple versions, and they each stirred, deviating from one another until subtle double images appeared.

Then, one by one, they crumpled into a single point.  The egg at the center of the formation of these creatures was the last, and for the briefest of moments, it roiled with the pressure and energy of all of the others.

Then it detonated, and the creatures came alive, soaring out into the vastness of the void, trails of dust following in their wake, each with a partner, a companion, traveling in a different direction.

And she was back in the dark room, staring at the man.

The betrayer.

The memory was already fading, but she instinctively knew that whatever had happened to Sarah had just happened to her.

His gun was spent, which was good, because Sarah had fallen to the ground in the same instant Carol had, and the wall of light was gone.

Carol advanced on him, her emotions so wild and varied and contradictory that she’d seemed to settle into a kind of neutrality, a middle ground where there was only that confused sense of betrayal.

A weapon appeared in her hands, forged of light and energy and electricity.  Crude, unrefined, it amounted to little more than a baseball bat.

When she struck him in the leg, the weapon sheared through without resistance.  That’s good, her thoughts were strangely disconnected from everything else, because I can’t hit very hard right now.

He screamed as he fell to the ground, his leg severed.

She hit him again, then again, much like Sarah had with the other man.  Except this wasn’t simply beating him to a pulp.  It was more final than that.

When she was done, the weapon disappeared.  Sarah hugged her, and she hugged her sister back.

When she cried, it wasn’t the crying of a thirteen year old girl.  It was more basic, more raw: the uncontrolled, unrestrained wail one might expect of a baby.

There was a knock on the door.  She looked up.

It was Lady Photon.  Sarah.  “What are you doing here?  I’ve been looking all over.”

“I needed a few minutes to myself to think.  Get grounded.”

Lady Photon gave her a sympathetic look.  She hated that look.

“Why did you want me?”

“We found Tattletale.  In a fashion.  We made contact with her and struck a deal.”

Carol didn’t like the sound of that, but she wouldn’t say that out loud.  It would bother her sister, start something.  “What was she asking and what was she offering?”

“She wanted a two-week ceasefire.  The Undersiders won’t give any heroes or civilians any trouble, and we ignore them in exchange.”

“That gives them time to consolidate, get a firmer hold on the city.”

“Maybe.  I talked to Miss Militia about it, and she doesn’t think they’ll accomplish anything meaningful in that span of time.  The Undersiders have their hands full with white supremacists and some leftover Merchants, the Protectorate and Wards aren’t part of the ceasefire and they’ll be putting pressure on the Undersiders as well.”

“I’m not so optimistic,” Carol commented.  She sighed again.  “I would have liked to be part of that negotiation.”

“We didn’t know where you were.  But let’s not fight again.  The important thing is that Tattletale pointed us in the right direction.  We think we know where your daughters are.”

Daughters?  Plural?

Carol couldn’t put a name to the feeling that had just sucker-punched her.

“Give me thirty seconds to change,” she said, standing from her chair.

“Stand down,” Brandish ordered.

“Now why would I want to do that?” Marquis asked.  “I’ve won every time your team has challenged me, this situation isn’t so different.”

“You have nowhere to run.  We’ve got you where you live,” Manpower spoke.

“I have plenty of places to run,” Marquis replied, shrugging.  “It’s just a house, I won’t lose any sleep over leaving it behind.  It’s an expensive house, I’ll admit, but that little detail loses much of its meaning when you’re as ridiculously wealthy as I am.”

The Brockton Bay Brigade closed in on the man who stood by his leather armchair, wearing a black silk bathrobe.  He held his ground.

“If you’ll allow me to finish my wine-” he started, bending down to reach for the wine glass that sat beside the armchair.

Manpower and Brandish charged.  They didn’t get two steps before Marquis turned himself into a sea urchin, bone spears no thicker than a needle extending out of every pore, some extending twelve or fifteen feet.

Brandish planted her heel on the ground to arrest her forward movement and activated her power.  In an instant, her body was condensed into a point, surrounded by a layered, spherical force field.  It meant she didn’t fall on her rear end, and she could pick a more appropriate posture as she snapped back into her human shape.

Manpower wasn’t so adroit.  He managed to stop himself, slamming one foot through the mahogany floor to give himself something to brace against, but it was too late to keep him from running into the spears of bone.  Shards snapped against his skin and went flying.

Lady Photon opened her mouth to shout a warning, but it was too late.  Flashbang fell to one knee as a shard bounced off the ground near him, reshaping into a form that could slash across the top of his foot.  Brandish caught only a glimpse of the wound, primarily blood.  She didn’t see anything resembling bone, but Marquis apparently did.

There was a sound like firecrackers going off, and Flashbang screamed.

The needles retracted.  Marquis rolled his shoulders, as if loosening his muscles.  “Broke your foot?  How clumsy.”

Lightstar was the next to go down, as one splinter that had embedded in a bookshelf branched out to pierce his shoulder.  Fleur caught him before he could land on top of more of the bone needles.

Brandish shifted her footing, and the slivers of bone that scattered the ground around her shifted, some reshaping into starbursts of ultrafine needle points, waiting for her to step on them.  She knew from experience that they would penetrate the soles of her boots.

Lady Photon fired a spray of laser blasts in Marquis’ general direction, tearing into bookshelves, antique furniture and the rack of wine bottles.  Marquis created a shield of bone to protect himself, expanding its dimensions until it was taller and wider than he was.

He’s going to burrow, Brandish thought.  He’d done it often enough in the past, disappearing underground the second he’d dropped out of sight, then attacking through the ground, floor or rooftop.

“Careful!” she shouted.

Lady Photon spent the rest of the energy she’d gathered in her hands, spraying another spray of lasers at Marquis’ shield.  Then, as they’d practiced, she prepared to use her forcefield to shield Flashbang, Fleur and Lightstar.  Brandish and Manpower could defend themselves.

A barrier of bone plates erupted around one corner of the room, rising just in time to keep some of Lady Photon’s salvo from striking a closet door.  Marquis emerged from the floor a short distance away, driving a spike of bone up through the ground and then deconstructing it to reveal himself.

“What are you protecting?” Lady Photon asked.

“I’d tell you, but you wouldn’t believe me.”  He glanced around, “I don’t suppose we could change venues?  I’ll be good if you are.”

“Seems like we should take every advantage we can,” Manpower said.

“If you’re talking purely about increasing your odds of victory, yes.  But should you?  No, you really shouldn’t.”

This isn’t his usual behavior, Brandish thought.  His power let him manipulate bone.  If it was his own, he could make it grow or shrink, reshape it and multiply it.   It made him, in many respects, a competent shapeshifter.  His abilities with the bones of others were limited to a simple reshaping, and there was a nuance in that the longer his own bone was separated from his body, the less able he was to manipulate it.  Every second he was wasting talking was a second that the bone splinters he’d spread over the area would be less useful to him.  He was putting himself at a disadvantage.

Well, only in a sense.  They still hadn’t touched him, and two of their members were out of commission.  Three, if she counted Fleur being occupied with a wounded Lightstar in her arms.

But the fact remained that Marquis wasn’t pushing his advantage.  The way his power worked and his very personality meant he was exceptional when it came to turning one advantage into another.  Or turning one advantage into three.  It was in his very nature to trounce his enemies, to grind them into the ground without an iota of mercy or fair play.

Was he distracted?

If he was, it was barely slowing him down.  She felt something clutch her from behind, covering her eyes.  When she tried to tear it free, she found it hard, unyielding.

She dropped into her ball form and then back into her human form, taking only a second to break free of the binding.  She caught the offending article in one hand before it could hit the ground.

It was a blindfold of solid bone, but it had been a skull of some sort beforehand.  Probably something that had sat on a bookshelf behind her.  Stupid to overlook it.

In the seconds it had taken her to deal with the blindfold, Marquis had trapped Lady Photon, binding her in a column of dense bone that had likely sprung around her from the floor or ceiling.  From the glow that was emanating through the barrier, she was apparently trying to use lasers to cut her way out.  She was strong enough to do it in one shot, but she couldn’t do that without risking shooting a teammate if the shot continued through.

That left Marquis to duel with Manpower, striking the hero over and over with a massive scythe of bone that extended out from his wrist.  Manpower was strong, and he was durable thanks to his electromagnetic shield – sparks flew as the scythe hit home over and over.  Even so, the hero didn’t try to fight back.

It took her only a moment to realize why.  Each swing of the scythe was calculated so that if the movement followed through, it would strike either the crippled Flashbang or Lightstar.

And Flashbang can’t shoot because Marquis will just armor himself before the sphere detonates.  Lightstar is injured, Fleur needs her hands free to strike, and Lady Photon’s incapacitated.

“Brandish!”  Manpower shouted.  “Same plan, just the two of us!”

Right.  Their battle plan wasn’t useless, now.  Just harder to pull off.

This would take some courage.

She charged forward, manifesting energy in the shape of a lance, driving it toward Marquis.

He cast a glance her way and stuck one foot out in her direction.  His toes mutated into a jagged, uneven ripple of bone that stretched out beneath her.  Unable to maintain her footing, she had to cancel out the lance, using her hands to brace her fall.

Spikes of bone poked out of the ground in a circle around her, rising to form a cage.

She created twin knives out of energy, slashing out to cut through the bars.

The hardest part would be what came next.  Brandish threw herself in the way of the scythe’s swing.

Marquis’ weapon virtually exploded into its component pieces, blade, join and shaft flying past her.

“Careful now,” Marquis chided her.  “Don’t want to get decapitated now, do we?”

No longer on the defensive, Manpower charged the villain.

Marquis surrounded himself in plates of bone that resembled the petals of a flower blooming in reverse, and sank into the ground.

Any other day, Brandish would have followed him into the room below.  A wine cellar, it seemed.

Instead, she turned and charged for the closet, creating a sword out of the crackling energy her power provided, slashing through the plates of bone that had surrounded it, then drawing the blade back to thrust through the wooden door-

Marquis emerged between her and the closet door.  She plunged the sword into his shoulder without hesitation.  She could smell his flesh burn, the wound cauterized by the same energy that formed the blade.

“Damnation,” Marquis muttered the word, sagging.

She let him fall, and then pressed the sword to his throat.  If he gave her an excuse, she would finish him.

She stared down at him.  That long hair, it was such a minor thing, but there was something else about him that stirred that distant, dark memory of the lightless room and the failed attempt at ransom.  Her skin crawled, and she felt anger boiling in her gut.

It took some time for the others to recover, getting their bearings and ensuring their wounds weren’t too serious.

“What were you so intent on protecting?” Manpower asked.  “This where you stash your illegitimate gains?”

Marquis chuckled.  “You could say that.  The most precious treasure in the world.”

“Somehow I missed the news report where you stole that,” Lady Photon replied.

“Stole?  No.  It would be better to say a devoted fan and follower gave her to me.”

Her?”  Brandish asked.  But Lady Photon was already reaching for the door, pulling it open.

A girl.  A child, not much younger than Vicky.  The girl was brown hair, freckle-faced, and clutched a silk pillow to her chest.  She wore a silk nightgown with lace at the collar and sleeves.  It looked expensive for something a child would wear.

“Daddy,” the girl’s eyes were wide with alarm.  She clutched the pillow tighter.

“Brigade, meet Amelia.  Amelia, these are the people who are going to take care of you now.”

Brandish was among the many faces to turned to stare at him.

He chuckled lightly, “I expect I won’t last long without medical care, so I’ll hardly be turning the tables on you and making a break for it.  You’ve won, I suppose.”

“What do you mean by taking care of her?”  Lady Photon asked.

“I have enemies.  Would you like to see her fall into their hands?  It wouldn’t be pretty.”

“They don’t have to know,” Manpower spoke.

“Manpower… do try to keep up.  The dumb brute stereotype persists only because people like you insist on keeping it alive.  They’ll always know, they’ll always find out.  You put that girl in foster care and interested parties are going to find out.”

“So you want us to take her?” Brandish asked.  She couldn’t keep the incredulity off her face.

“No,” the girl said, plaintive.  “I want you!”

“Yes,” Marquis said.

“The motherfucker has a kid?” Lightstar muttered the question, as if to himself.  “And she’s, what,  five?”

“Six,” Marquis answered.

Six.  Vicky’s age, then.  She looks younger.

“She’ll go to her mother,” Lady Photon decided.

“Her mother’s gone, I’m afraid.  The big C.  Amelia and I were introduced shortly after that.  About a year ago, now that I think on it.  I must admit, I’ve enjoyed our time together more than I’ve enjoyed all my crimes combined.  Quite surprising.”

His daughter, Brandish thought.  The resemblance was uncanny.  The nose was different, the brow, but she was her father’s daughter.

The idea disturbed her.

She couldn’t shake that dim memory of the nameless man she’d killed on the night she got her powers.  She hated Marquis in a way she couldn’t articulate, and if the memories that recurred every time she crossed paths with him were any clue, it was somehow tied to that.

She wondered if it was because she liked him on a level.  Was her psyche trying to protect her from repeating her earlier mistake?

“Little close for comfort, Brandish dear,” Marquis spoke.

She looked down.  She’d unconsciously pressed the blade closer.  When she lifted it, she could see the burn at the base of his throat.

“Thank you kindly,” he spoke.  There was a trace of irony there.

That cultured act, the civility that was real.  Marquis was fair, he played by the rules.  His rules, but he stuck to them without fail.  It didn’t match her vision of what a criminal should be.  It was jarring, creating a kind of dissonance.

That dissonance was redoubled as she looked at the forlorn little girl.  Layers upon layers, distilled in one expression.  Criminal, civilized man, child.

“You can’t take him away,” the girl told them.

“He’s a criminal,” Brandish responded.  “He’s done bad things, he needs to go to jail.”

“No.  He’s just my daddy.  Reads me bedtime stories, makes me dinner, and tells me jokes.  I love him more than anything else in the world.  You can’t take him away from me.  You can’t!”

“We have to,” Brandish told the girl.  “It’s the law.”

“No!” the girl shouted.  “I hate you!  I hate you!  I’ll never forgive you!”

Brandish reached out, as if she could calm the girl by touching her.

The girl shrank back into the closet.

Into the dark.  She felt as if she was separated from the child by a chasm.

“Let’s call the PRT,”  Manpower said.  “We should get Marquis into custody stat.”

“Wouldn’t mind some medical treatment, if you could rush that?” Marquis asked.

“…And medical treatment,” Manpower amended his statement.

Brandish walked away.  The others would handle this.  She would wait outside to guide the responders into the manor, past the traps Marquis had set in place.

She was still waiting when Lady Photon came outside, holding the little girl’s hand.  Lady Photon seated the girl in the car and shut the door.

Lady Photon joined Brandish on the stone stairs.  “We can’t let her go into foster care.  It’s not just the danger his enemies pose.  Once people found out she was Marquis’ child, they’d start fighting over who could get their hands on her.”

“Sarah-” Brandish started.

“Then they’ll kidnap her.  They’ll do it to exploit her powers, and she’s bound to be pretty powerful if she inherits anything like her father’s abilities”

“Then you take care of her,” Brandish replied, even as she mentally prayed her sister would refuse.  There was something about the idea of being around Marquis’ child, that uncanny resemblance, having those memories stirred even once in a while, even if it was just at family reunions… it made her feel uneasy.

“You know Neil and I don’t have that much money.  Neil isn’t having luck finding work, and all our funding from the team is going into the New Wave plan, which won’t happen for a few months, and we have two hungry mouths to feed…”

Brandish grasped her sister’s meaning.  With a sick feeling in her gut, she spoke the idea aloud.  “You want Mark and I to take her.”

“You should.  Amelia’s Vicky’s age, I think they would be close.”

“It’s not a good idea.”

“Why are you so reluctant?”

Brandish shook her head.  “I… you know I never planned to have kids?”

“I remember you saying something like that.  But then you had Vicky.”

“I only caved to having Vicky because Mark was there, and I had to think about it for a while.”

“Mark will be there for Amelia too.”

Brandish could have mentioned how Mark was tired all the time, how his promise had proved empty.  She might have mentioned how he was seeing a psychiatrist now, the tentative possibility of clinical depression.  She stayed silent.

“It’s not just that,” she said.  “You know I have trouble trusting people.  You know why.”

The change on Lady Photon’s face was so subtle she almost missed it.

“I’m sorry to bring it up,” Brandish said. “But it’s relevant.  I decided I could have Vicky because I’d know her from day one.  She’d grow inside me, I’d nurture her from childhood… she’d be safe.”

“I didn’t know you were dwelling on it to that degree.”

Brandish shrugged and shook her head, as if she could shake off this conversation, this situation.  “That child deserves better than I can offer.  I know I don’t have it in me to form any kind of bond with another child if there’s no blood relation.”

Especially if she’s Marquis’.

“She needs you.  You’re her only option.  I can’t, and Fleur and Lightstar aren’t old enough or in the right place in their lives for kids, and if she goes anywhere else, it’ll be disastrous.”

Brandish decided on the most direct, clear line of argument she could muster, “I don’t want her.  I can’t take her.”

Brandish glanced at the kid that they’d stowed in the team’s car.  The child was standing on the car seat, hands pressed against the window.  Her stare bored into Brandish as though little girl had laser vision.

The window was open a crack, Brandish noted.  The girl could probably hear everything they’d been saying.  Brandish looked away.

Lady Photon did as she’d so often done, ignoring reason in favor of the emotional appeal.  “You grew to love and trust Mark.  You could grow to love and trust that little girl, too.”

Liar.

Brandish stared at the teenaged girl.  Amy couldn’t even look her in the eye.  Tears were streaming down the girl’s face.

“Where’s Victoria?”  Brandish made the question a demand.

“I’m so sorry,” Amy responded, her voice hoarse.  She’d been crying long before anyone had showed up.

Brandish felt choked up as well, but she suppressed the emotion.  “Is my daughter dead?”

No.

“Explain.”

“I- I don’t- No-” Amy stuttered.

She could have slapped the girl.

“What happened to my daughter!?”

Amy flinched as though she’d been struck.

“Carol-” Lady Photon spoke, her voice gentle.  “Take it easy.”

They stood in the mist of a ruined neighborhood.  Amy had stepped outside within a minute of their arrival, blocking the door with her body.  There was no resistance in the girl, though.  It was more like the obstruction was a way of running, of forestalling the inevitable.

The girl hugged her arms against her body, her hands trembling even as they clutched her upper arms.  Her teeth chattered, as if she were cold, but it was a warm evening.

Was the girl in shock?  Carol couldn’t muster any sympathy.  Amy was stopping her from getting to Victoria.  Victoria, who she’d almost believed was dead.

“Amy,” Lady Photon spoke, “What’s going on?  You won’t let us inside, but you won’t explain.  Just talk.”

Amy shivered.  “I… she wouldn’t let me help her, she was so angry, so I calmed her down with my power.  She’d been hurt badly, so I wrapped her up.  A cocoon, so she could heal.”

“That’s good.  So Victoria’s okay?”  Lady Photon coaxed responses from Amy.

Of course she’s not okay, Brandish thought.  What about this situation makes you think she could be okay?

“I… I had to wait a while before I could let her out, so I could be sure she had healed completely.  I-“

Amy stopped as her voice cracked.

“Keep going,” Lady Photon urged.

Amy glanced at Brandish, who stood with her arms folded, stone-faced.

If I change my expression now, if I say or do anything, I’ll lose it, I’ll break, Brandish thought.  Her heart thudded in her chest.

“I didn’t want her to fight.  And I didn’t want her to follow, or to hate me because I used my power on her again.”

Again?

“So I thought I’d put her in a trance, and make it so she’d forget everything that happened.  Everything that I did, and the things that the Slaughterhouse Nine said, and everything that I said to try to make them go away.  Empty promises and-“

Her voice hitched.

“What happened?” Brandish asked, for the Nth time.

“She was lying there, and I wanted to say goodbye.  I- I-“

Something in Amy’s voice, her tone, her posture, it provided the final piece, clicking into place, making so many things suddenly come together.

Brandish marched forward, fully intending to walk right past Amy.  Amelia.  His daughter.  She could never be my daughter because she’d never stopped being his.

A cornered rat will bite.  Amy realized what Brandish intended and reached out, a reflex.

A weapon sprung into Brandish’s hand.  Not so dissimilar from the first weapon she’d made, an unrefined bludgeon of raw lightstuff.  She moved as if to parry the reaching hand and Amy scrambled back out of the way, eyes wide.

Where to go?  Brandish glanced to the rooms to the left, then down the hall in front of her.  She looked back and saw Amy with her back to the wall.  She moved toward the staircase, glanced back at Amy, and saw a reaction.  Fear.  Trepidation.

Before Amy could protest, Brandish was heading up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

“Carol!”  Amy shouted, scrambling up the stairs.  There was the sound of her falling on the stairs in her haste to follow,  “Stop!  Carol!  Mom!

Only one door was still open.  Brandish entered the room and stopped.

She didn’t move as Amy’s spoke from behind her.  “Please, let me explain.”

Brandish couldn’t bring herself to move or speak.  Amy seemed to take that silence as assent.

“I wanted to see her smile again.  To have someone hug me before I left forever.  So you wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore.  I- I told myself I’d leave after.  Victoria wouldn’t remember.  It would be a way for me to get closure.  Then I’d go and spend the rest of my life healing people.  Sacrifice my life.  I don’t know.  As payment.”

Lady Photon had made her way upstairs.  She entered the room and stopped just in front of Brandish.  Her hands went to her mouth.  Her words were a whispered, “Oh God.”

Amy kept talking, her voice strangely monotone after her earlier emotion, as if she were a recording.  Maybe she was, after a fashion, all of the excuses and arguments she’d planned spilling from her mouth.  “I wanted her to be happy.  I could adjust.  Tweak, expand, change things to serve more than one purpose.  I had the extra material from the cocoon.  When I was done, I started undoing everything, all the mental and physical changes.  I got so tired, and so scared, so lonely, so I thought we’d take another break, before I was completely finished.  I changed more things.  More stuff I had to fix.  And days passed.  I-“

Brandish clenched her fists.

“I lost track.  I forgot how to change her back.”

A caricature.  A twisted reflection of how Amy saw Victoria, the swan curve of the nape of the neck, the delicate hands, and countless other features, repeated over and over again throughout.  It might even have been something objectively beautiful, had it not been warped by desperation and loneliness and panic.  As overwhelming as the image and the situation had been in Amy’s mind, Victoria was now equally imposing, in a sense.  No longer able to move under her own power, her flesh spilled over from the edge of the mattress and onto the floor.

“I don’t know what to do.”

Betrayal.  Brandish had known this would happen the moment Sarah had talked about her taking the girl.  Not this, but something like it.  Brandish felt a weapon form in her hand.

“Please tell me what to do,” Amy pleaded.

Brandish turned, arm drawn back to strike, to retaliate.  She stopped.

The girl was so weak, so powerless, a victim.  A victim of herself, her own nature, but a victim nonetheless.  A person sundered.

And with everything laid bare, there was not a single resemblance to Marquis.  There was no faint reminder of Brandish’s time in the dark cell, nor of her captor.  If anything, Amy looked how Sarah had, as they’d stumbled from the house where they’d been kept, lost, helpless and scared.

She looked like Carol had, all those years ago.

The weapon dissipated, and Brandish’s arms dropped limp to her sides.

“I’m sorry,” the digitized voice spoke.

Carol watched Amy through the window.

Amy seemed to have changed, transformed.  Could Carol interpret that as a burden being lifted?  Relief?  Even if it was only because the very worst had come to pass, and there was nothing left for Amy to agonize over?  There was shame, of course, horrific guilt.  That much was obvious.  The girl couldn’t meet anyone’s gaze.

“Everyone’s sorry,” Carol spoke, her voice hollow.

“You were saying something about that before,”  Dragon said.  “Are you-?”

She left the question unfinished, and the fragment of it on its own was a hard thing to hear.

Carol stared as Amy shuffled forward.  The cuffs weren’t necessary, really.  A formality.  Amy wasn’t about to run.

“It’s your last chance,” Dragon prodded.

Carol nodded.  She pushed the door open and stepped into the parking lot.

Amy turned to face her as she approached.

For a long minute, neither of them spoke.

Prisoner 612, please board for transport to the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center,” the announcement came from within the truck.

The armed escort would be waiting.  No court- Amy had volunteered, asked
to go to the Birdcage.

Carol couldn’t bring herself to speak.

So she stepped forward to close the distance between herself and Amy.  Hesitant at first, she reached out.

As if she could convey everything she wanted to say in a single gesture, she folded her daughter into the tightest of hugs.

She couldn’t forgive Amy, not ever, not in the slightest.  But she was sorry.

Amy swallowed hard and stepped back, then stepped up into the truck.

Carol watched in silence as the doors automatically shut and locked, and remained rooted in place as the truck pulled out of the parking lot and disappeared down the road.

Numb, she returned to the office that looked out on the lot.  Dragon’s face displayed on a computer screen to the left of the door.  The computer chair was unoccupied.

“That’s it?” Carol asked.

“She’ll be transported there and confined for the remainder of her life, barring exceptional circumstance.”

Carol nodded.  “Two daughters gone in the blink of an eye.”

“Your husband decided not to come?”

“He exchanged words with her in her cell this morning.  He decided it was more important to accompany Victoria to Pennsylvania.”

“I didn’t realize that was today.  If you’d asked, I could have rescheduled Amy Dallon’s departure.”

“No.  It’s fine.  I prefer it this way.”

“You didn’t want to see Victoria off to the parahuman asylum?”

“Victoria is gone.  There’s nothing of her left but that mockery.  Mark and I fought over it and this was what we decided.”

“I see.”

“If it’s no trouble, could I watch?”

“What are you wanting to watch, specifically?”

“Her arrival?  I know the prison is segregated, but she’s still-“

“It isn’t.  There’s a bridge between the male and female sections of the Baumann center.”

Carol nodded.  “Then I have to see.  Please.”

“It’s going to be the better part of a day before she arrives.”

“I’ll wait.  If I fall asleep, will you please wake me?”

“Of course.”

Dragon didn’t venture a goodbye, or any further condolences.  Her face disappeared from the screen, replaced by a spinning logo, showing the Guild’s emblem on one side and the Protectorate’s shield on the other.

Carol waited patiently for hours, her mind a blank.  She couldn’t dwell on the past, or she’d lose her mind.  There was nothing in the present, and the future… she couldn’t imagine one.  She couldn’t envision being with Mark without Victoria.  Couldn’t imagine carrying on life as Brandish.  Perhaps she would continue filing.  Something simpler than criminal law, something lower stress.  At least for a little while.

For an hour or so, she occupied herself by reading the pamphlets and the back covers of books.  Reading a novel was too much.

Somewhere along the line, she nodded off.  She was glad for the sunlight that streamed in through the window, the glare of the florescent bulbs overhead.  Recent events had stirred her old fears of the dark.

It didn’t feel like hours had passed when she was woken by Dragon’s voice.  “Carol.”

She walked over to the screen.

It was a surveillance camera image.  The camera zoomed in on a door.  An elevator door, perhaps.  It whisked open.

“Would you like sound?”

“It doesn’t really matter.  Yes.”

A second later, the sound cut in.  An announcement across the prison PA system: “-one-two, Amy Dallon, AKA Amelia Lavere, AKA Panacea.  Cell block E.

Carol watched as the girl stepped out of the elevator.  She pulled off a gas mask and let it drop to the floor.  A small crowd was gathering around her, others from her cell block checking out the new resident.

How long would it take?

She would have asked Dragon, but her breath was caught in her throat.

He appeared two minutes later, as a woman who must have been the self-imposed leader of Cell block E was talking to Amy.

He looks older.

Somehow Carol had imagined Marquis had stayed as young and powerful as the day they’d last fought.  The day she’d met Amy.  But there were lines in his face.  He looked more distinguished, even, but he looked older.

Not the bogeyman that had haunted her.

And that’s Lung behind him.

Was Lung an enforcer for Marquis?  It was hard to imagine.  Or were they friends?  That was simultaneously easier and harder to picture.  But it was somehow jarring, as if it instilled a sort of realism in an otherwise surreal picture.

Lung and Marquis moved forward, and the women of the cell block moved to block Lung’s advance, letting Marquis through.

Marquis stopped a few feet away from his daughter.  Their hair was the same, as were their eyes.

The day I cease seeing her as his daughter and see how she could be mine, he takes her back, she thought.

“I’ve been waiting,” he spoke.

That was enough.  She had the answer she’d wanted, even if she hadn’t consciously asked the question.

She left the office, stepping outside into the too-bright outdoors, leaving the reunion to play on the screen.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuff I could use…  hardly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was awake again.

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

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

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

Fenja deceased, CC-6.

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

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

Kid win down, CC-6.

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

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

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

It was dead, offline.  Black screen.

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

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

Unsure what to do, I remained absolutely still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For several long seconds, Leviathan didn’t move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ground rumbled again, brief, intense, stopped.

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

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

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

The storm sewers.

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

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

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

“How!?” Armsmaster roared.

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

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

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

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

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

I hurried to Armsmaster’s side.

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

“Hey, you’re not making any sense.”

“He killed you.”

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

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

He only groaned unintelligbly in response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did it really need to reword what I said?

“Can you fly?  Chase him?”

“No.”  Negative.

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

“Got it!”

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

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Buzz 7.9

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“You going to be okay?” I asked, as Grue zipped up his jacket.  With his t-shirt removed, he was wearing the leather jacket over his bare, freshly stitched skin.  I couldn’t imagine it was remotely comfortable.

“I’ll be fine.  Let’s end this ASAP.  Bitch?  The dogs.”

I winced.  I wasn’t looking forward to riding.  It was too soon after our previous escapade, and I was still sore.

Bitch whistled and pointed, and we headed out the front door of the church.  The moment we were outside, Grue hauled himself up onto Judas’ back, and I could see him hunch over for a moment in pain.

“Seriously, are you going to be-”

“I’m fine, Skitter,” Grue spoke.  He was creating darkness around himself, and his voice had that hollow quality to it.  “Just drop it.”

The ‘drop it’ line hit a little too close to home, echoing what I’d said at the mall after Brian’s rejection, and once or twice after that.  I was made acutely aware of that little rift I’d generated in what had been a fairly easygoing friendship.

Regent and Bitch were climbing onto Brutus, while Tattletale was examining her phone.  That left two dogs to ride.

I looked at where Grue sat, and decided it would be less awkward if I didn’t ride with him.  I approached Angelica, extended my hand for her to sniff, then climbed onto her back.

“Tattletale,” Grue spoke.  “I thought we were in a hurry.”

She put the phone away, then climbed up behind Grue.

“Coil?” I guessed.

“Yep.”

“And he’s saying?”

“To be careful.”

Grue gave a hand signal, Bitch whistled to give the dogs the order, and we rode.

Angelica was happy to follow the others, which freed me from the burden of getting her to follow my instructions.  That only left me the task of holding on and ignoring the ache in my leg muscles and stomach.

Tattletale was able to give us a general idea of which direction Purity was, using her power, and it only took us a few minutes to spot the telltale pillar of white in the distance.  Purity’s light, not aiming at a building, but lashing out.

As we got closer, the situation became clearer.  Purity, a flare of white against the backdrop of the gray sky, was surrounded by other figures, easy enough to make out with their predominantly white costumes.  New Wave.

The leader of New Wave had named herself Lady Photon, but in the wake of New Wave’s founding, and the revealing of their secret identities, the media had latched on to the idea of a superheroine mom and dubbed her Photon Mom.  It was apparent to anyone who followed cape news that the name really bugged her.

Lady Photon’s daughter and niece were in the air with her.  Laserdream and Glory Girl.  Mother and daughter shared the same general powers; flight, the ability to raise forcefield bubbles around themselves, and the ability to project lasers from their hands.  As a consequence, their fight with Purity was something of a light show.

Below, it seemed, there was an all-out war.

As she targeted Glory Girl, one of Purity’s blasts of light slammed into the edge of a rooftop.  Debris showered down, but was deflected by a bright blue forcefield.  That would be Shielder’s power at work.  He fought alongside Flashbang and Brandish, and I could identify Krieg, Victor, Othala and Alabaster in their immediate vicinity.  Further away were Night, Fog, Panacea, Vista and Clockblocker.

“Around!” Tattletale pointed over Grue’s shoulder.

Wordlessly, Grue steered Judas into a turn.  Bitch, astride Brutus, a bit ahead of Judas, looked over her shoulder and turned to join them.  Angelica was happy to follow after.  Together, we detoured left to a side street running parallel to the ongoing battle.

“Why?” I called out.

“Safer!” Tattletale replied, without turning to face me.

A crash behind me made me duck.  Manpower, a powerful seven foot tall athletic figure decked out in white and yellow, had been thrown through a brick wall.  Maybe more than one.  He seemed unhurt, but he was a fairly durable guy.  Personal electromagnetic shielding, if I remembered right.  He was still struggling to his feet after we left him behind.

“What’s our plan!?” I shouted, raising my voice to be heard as one of Purity’s blasts crashed down to the street to our right.

“Get her attention!” Grue replied.  He pointed,  “Up!”

Bitch whistled, and Brutus surged forward in our pack.  Brutus turned partway into an alley and leaped.  He latched his claws on one wall of the building, half turned, then leaped across to the neighboring building.  Zig-zagging upward, he ascended to the roof in a span of seconds.

Oh hell no.

Judas followed, and Angelica was only a heartbeat behind.  If I’d thought our travel over the rooftops on our last escapade had been rough, this was sadistic.  Or masochistic.  It depended on where I assigned the blame.

We reached the rooftop just in time to nearly be squashed by a huge chunk of building that dropped from the sky like a meteor.  Angelica lurched under me as she leaped to one side.

New Wave’s fliers and Purity weren’t the only ones in the air.  Aegis was also up there on the side of the good guys, but Purity had backup from Crusader and Rune.

Crusader was flanked by a half dozen translucent replicas of himself, each armed with a ten foot long spear.  He could use his power to generate ethereal simulacrums of himself, a legion of ghosts, if you wanted to be dramatic.  I was more willing to peg them as some sort of semi-sentient forcefield molded in his shape or some telekinetic energy infused with fragments of his ego.  Whatever.  The important thing was that his images could carry him up into the air, letting him fly, and they could pass through walls, armor and other solid barriers to impale you with those spears of theirs.

Rune was the source of the debris that had struck us, which was rising back into the air as I watched.  A teenage girl in the service of Empire Eighty-Eight, Rune was a powerful telekinetic capable of lifting nearly a ton.  Several things weighing up to a ton, judging by what I saw.  She hovered in the air, crouched atop a piece of building as big as a garbage truck, with more similarly sized pieces of rubble orbiting her.  The drawback to her power was that she needed to touch things before she could move them with her mind, but that seemed fairly inconsequential right this moment.

The pair of villains were running interference for Purity, distracting and trapping the heroes to set them up so Purity could blast them out of the sky.  Purity was too high up for us to interfere with, which meant we had to find another way to get her attention.

Regent handled that for us, sweeping his arm to one side.  Rune slipped from her position on her floating piece of balcony.  Another gesture from Regent, and the girl was left hanging from the side.

“Don’t kill her,” I told him.

“Right,” he looked up at the girl.  Seeing her struggle, he shouted, “Better make sure you can land somewhere safe!  I’m dropping you in three seconds!”

The rock drifted in our general direction, and we backed the dogs up.  When Rune was over the rooftop, Regent swept his hand to one side and brought her down to a painful landing.

“Fuckers!” the teenager in the cowl and robe screamed, “I’ll squash you!”

The big pieces of rubble in the sky above drifted our way.  One suddenly stopped levitating and dropped.

We were already kicking the dogs into motion, leaping to the neighboring rooftop, when the debris struck with a series of crashes that suggested the debris had punched through the roof and even the one or two floors below it.

Crusader was apparently too occupied covering for Rune’s sudden absence to come after us.  That meant that all we had to worry about was keeping from being crushed by Sabrina the teenage nazi.

Note to self:  I apparently wasn’t one of those capes that was good at the repartee, banter or name calling.

One piece of debris soared over our heads, then plunged to stab downward through the roof in front of us.  The dogs were agile enough to leap out of the way.

In the heat of the moment, we didn’t anticipate it rising again.

The debris thrust up through the edge of the building’s roof, and the dogs had to skid to a halt to avoid treading on crumbling rooftop.  With the damage the building had sustained, our footing grew unstable.  The ground sloped, Angelica scrabbled for a grip, and then the section of roof beneath us began to slide down toward the street.

Brutus pulled clear easily enough, but the continued drifting of the piece of debris forced Bitch to direct him down toward the alley, off the rooftop.

The rest of us had a harder call to make.  We were sliding off a precipice, and it was a good ten story drop to the street.  The nearest and only available rooftop to leap to was the one we’d just left, which was in ruins.

Judas, I saw, managed to clutch the edge of the sliding raft of rooftop and get the leverage for a jump.  Brian, Tattletale and Judas reached the alley, where they could rebound off the walls until they reached relative safety.

I was about to urge Angelica to do the same, when that drifting debris of Rune’s shifted position to block off the alleyway.  Another of Rune’s pieces of building approached from her direction, promising to smash us if through some miracle, the section of roof Angelica and I were standing on didn’t break free.

But we had another option.  If I could only convince Angelica.

“Go!” I shouted at her, kicking my legs.  She pushed forward, and the movement only accelerated the decay of the fractured rooftop beneath her paws, prompting it to slide and tilt.

Angelica ran toward the building to our right.  To the right of the alley.  She clearly intended to leap to the building face, use her claws to dig into position there… and there would be nowhere to go from there.  Even if she could hang there indefinitely, or scale the wall back to the street, Rune would scrape us off the wall with a levitated piece of rubble.

I grabbed a horn at the side of her head and hauled on it, pulling her left.  She resisted, hauled right, but I tugged again.

“Go!” I shouted at her.

She lunged straight for the floating piece of debris.  Her claws latched on it, and for a moment, we hung there, Angelica in an undignified pose with her upper body hanging onto the thing, back legs dangling.

It drifted downward, slow at first, then faster, as though Rune couldn’t support the weight of us and the chunk of building.  Angelica scrabbled for a grip, pulled her body up and forward, and found the footing to leap.

We reached the alley, Angelica found footing on the wall, and then made her way safely to the ground.

As we landed heavily, I fell from Angelica’s back.  My hands were stiff from the deathgrip I’d just maintained, and my legs were a wreck.

Still, hard to complain.

“You okay?” Tattletale called out.

“Yeah.  You guys?”

“Not so hot,” Grue replied.

He was leaning against a wall, with Tattletale at his side.  Darkness radiated from every part of his body but his chest, and I could see how  he’d unzipped his jacket to investigate the damage.  He was bleeding from the cuts on his chest.

“Fuck, I knew you weren’t good to go!” I struggled to my feet and rushed to his side.  “You pull your stitches already?”

“Other things to worry about!” Regent called out.  “Incoming.”

I looked, and sure enough, Night and Fog were striding into the alleyway.  Night sported high heeled boots that clicked as she walked, and there was the gender difference, but the two were otherwise very similar.  Cloaks, cowls, no logos or other decoration.  Gray for him and black for her.

“Retreat,” Tattletale spoke, “Just don’t turn your backs to them.”

Fog moved forward, his limbs and legs dissolving into a cloud as he advanced on us.  His pace was slow, only a little faster than we moved walking backward.

Bitch had to whistle twice to get a growling Angelica to retreat.  The dog seemed set on protecting her master, attacking this threat, and was slow to obey.

The fog reached her, and we heard a strangled yelp, an unnatural sound from the throat of an unnatural animal.  I saw Bitch start forward.

“No!” I caught her shoulder.

I might have argued, told her why she couldn’t or shouldn’t attack, how useless it would be against a man that turned to a sentient gas.  I didn’t get a chance.

While our attention was on Angelica, Night took the opportunity to blindside Brutus.  He was thrown bodily into our group with enough force to to bowl us and even Judas over.  Night just stood there, standing straight, heels together, one arm outstretched in front of her.  I hurried to my feet, my legs and knees aching, putting one hand on Brutus’ shoulder to steady myself.  It was then that I saw the damage she’d done to him.

A dozen gouges criss-crossed his side, each wider than my handspan.  One of the gouges had even shattered some of the protective bone plating.  Brutus exhaled slowly, shuddering.

She’d done that?

I sent my bugs at the woman, but the delay Night had created had bought time for Fog to get close.  His mist blocked the path to Night, reduced the woman to a faint silhouette, and where the cloud passed, my bugs were crushed alive in midair.  The mist swelled forward, and we backed up as best as we were able.

I checked our escape route.  It was blocked by none other than Night herself.  Had she teleported?  Cloned herself?  No, it wasn’t cloning.  I couldn’t see her silhouette anymore.

“What the fuck is this woman?” I asked, “Tattletale?”

“You know how the Manton effect could maybe be a psychological block that comes parceled with our powers?”

I nodded, once.

“Okay, well, imagine that this woman got powers that let her turn into something so wrong that she’s got some sort of mental block that keeps her from transforming if anyone can see.  Maybe because she’s so ashamed of being seen like that.  When nobody’s looking, though, she’s a monster.  Lightning fast and all sharp.”

“That’s…”

“Not even remotely close to the truth,” Tattletale confessed.  “But it’s the best I can offer you.  Don’t take your eyes off her.”

“Right.”

I began massing my bugs.  I was going to need to catch Night off guard, debilitate her enough to take her down before she retreated to safety.  Swarm her, swat her down, then we’d figure out how to deal with Fog.

A bit optimistic, but it was a plan, anyways.

Night reached into her sleeve and retrieved a canister.  I recognized it immediately.

A flashbang grenade.

“Tattletale?”

“I see it,” she murmured her response.  “Grue, we’re going to need you to cover this shit.”

I felt a ton of weight suddenly press heavily against my back.

“Grue!” Tattletale shouted.

Grue had fallen against me, and he slid from that position to staggered to the ground at my side, landing with his hands and knees on the ground.

“Blood loss,” Tattletale intoned.  “Fuck, Grue, pay attention, you’ve-”

Night pulled the pin from the flashbang and threw it high into the air above us.

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