Scourge 19.6

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The Eidolon-clone apparently wasn’t worried about the mass of armed heroes that were mobilized against him.  No, his concern was being naked.

He touched Alexandria, and she flickered.  When the flickering died out, she was dressed in a costume; a long white cape, a white bodysuit with high boots and elbow length gloves and a stylized helmet that let her long black hair flow free.  The tower on her chest was a tumbled ruin.  The ruined lighthouse.  A mockery of her other self, the colors reversed.

I really wasn’t liking the implications for that flickering power.  Healing, the costume…

Legend shot the Eidolon-clone before he could do anything more.  A laser tore into the Eidolon’s chest cavity, slashed out to carve into Echidna’s foremost leg, causing it to buckle mid-step.

The Alexandria-clone floated up, interjecting herself between Legend and his targets.  He adjusted the beam’s orientation, and she moved to block it.  He divided it in two shots that she couldn’t block, and she charged him.  Legend broke off to flee.

I could see the Eidolon flickering to heal himself as Echidna charged the rest of us.

Our battle lines did what they could to slow her down, which didn’t amount to much.  She was massive, now, to the point that cars were trampled beneath her or sent rolling on impact.

Chevalier put himself directly in harm’s way.  He held his cannonblade out to one side, and I could see it swelling in size.

There were a hundred feet between them, seventy-five, fifty-

The sword was growing with every moment, as well.

He brought the blade down to the ground, a razor’s edge biting deep into pavement, the blade’s point directed at Echidna.  Then he pulled the trigger.  The fact that it was impaled in the ground kept the recoil manageable, and the fact that it was as large as it was meant that the effect was that much more impressive.

Echidna leaped to the side as the cannonball ripped out of the weapon.  Not quite fast enough, she wasn’t able to avoid the worst of it.  Three of her eight legs, all on one side of her body, were turned into flecks of gore.  She hit the ground and her momentum carried her forward, skidding.

Chevalier didn’t flinch as she hurtled towards him.  Instead, he waited until her trajectory brought the right part of her into harm’s way, then shot out more of her limbs.  The impact of the hit brought her to a halt, spinning until her back was to him, only two of her monstrous claws intact.

A female hero threw out small ice crystals in Echidna’s direction, and they expanded explosively into virtual glaciers on impact.  Maybe the intent was to give Echidna less room to regenerate.

Chevalier withdrew the twenty-five foot long blade from the ground and chopped at Noelle – the upper body that jutted out of Echidna’s back.  He severed her from the monster at the stomach, turning the blade mid-swing to catch the body on the flat of the weapon. He swatted her away, separating the girl from the monster.

The impact of Noelle’s landing was enough to kill, but she didn’t die.  She flailed weakly for long seconds before she started falling apart.

Echidna caught Chevalier with a tongue.  He cut the tongue with his blade, and walked around her, blade poised, as if he were trying to find a place to strike.

I realized he was trying to find a way to rescue the people inside.  Alexandria, Eidolon, and seventeen of the capes who’d volunteered to fight this thing.  Had he directed the cannon blast with the same intent?  To avoid harming the people within?

Chevalier was struck.  He turned, and was hit again.  He was under siege from one of the nigh-invincible clones, with the burning hands.  The guy was digging his hands into a car at one side of the street, coming up with hunks of white-hot metal and flinging them.

He scraped them off, but more attacks were incoming.  One cape threw a stone, and though the speed and arc of the thrown rock didn’t seem to amount to much, it shattered one of the glaciers the ice-cape had erected.

Chevalier used his cannonblade to block another rock and a lump of molten metal from striking home.  From above and behind him, the woman with the ice shards began raining her attacks down on the clones, encasing them in ice.

I joined in, sending my swarm forth into the fray.  They flowed from the battlefield around me, finding paths to travel between the crags of ice and the capes.  Cockroaches tore into the membranes of eyes.  Hornets found flesh to bite that was close to arteries and veins, stings dug into the most sensitive flesh, and ants worked together to scissor and tear flesh more efficiently.

More bugs moved in the Eidolon-clone’s direction.  The flying insects faltered, their usual mechanisms for movement failing them.  Then they started falling out of the air.

They were suffocating; it was a vacuum.

He’d chosen his powers, and by the looks of it, he’d dressed himself in a mirror of his other self’s costume.  A costume with a black hood, loose black sleeves and a pale red-orange glow emanating from each opening.

The flickering.  Was that some variant on Scapegoat’s power?  More broad?  Paging through realities to find the state he wanted to be in?  Uninjured, dressed?

There were a lot of ugly possibilities with that one.  Could he affect how he was accessing powers?

He took one step, and was carried off the ground.  It wasn’t flight so much as floating.  Combine that with the vacuum around him… It had to be aerokinesis.  Manipulation of air.

Miss Militia took a shot at him, and he reeled.  There was a flickering, and he was back in the position he’d been in a moment before, uninjured.

She changed guns, and unloaded two assault rifles in his direction.

Her hits were on target- at first.  His armor absorbed the worst of it, and he undid the damage he’d taken with more flickering.  The bullets gradually moved off target, grazing him instead of striking vital areas.  A moment later, they stopped hitting entirely.

The effect he was using to alter their trajectories hit the rest of us a moment later.  I felt Atlas’s wings beat against nothing for just a moment before we caught air again, steered him through a sudden, unexpected headwind that dissipated as fast as it had started, and then found a spare moment to pull up, putting distance between myself and the Eidolon clone.

My bugs gave me a sense of his effect’s perimeter.  The storm effect had a diameter of roughly three-quarters my own range, no doubt allowing him to sense where people were by the movements of the air.

The vacuum extended roughly a hundred feet around him, the air condensing into threads that found him and flowed into his mask to sustain him.  Even the clones on his side were suffering, falling to their hands and knees or running to get away.  He was indiscriminate, and far more dangerous because of it.

He was approaching the battlefield where we’d engaged the clones, where many of our heroes had fallen.  If the vacuum extended over them, they wouldn’t last long.  I wasn’t sure what kind of effect it would have, but even the smallest push could mean the difference between life and death, and this wasn’t necessarily small.

“Rachel!” I shouted, but the wind kept my voice from reaching anyone.  It didn’t matter.  I could use my bugs, too, not as a collective effort, but with ten thousand voices in a hundred ears.  “Rachel!  Get over here and fetch the wounded!  Everyone else!  Get your teammates back!  He’s surrounded by a vacuum!

Heroes kicked into action, hurrying to collect the injured.  Rachel was occupied trying to herd the clones at the far edges of the battlefield, but she heard my order and broke away from the skirmish.

We still had to manage those clones, though.  A few Kudzu, and none of the forge-guys.  If they got away-

I contacted the ice dispenser.  She was trying to cover Echidna in more ice, but the wind was blowing the shards away.  “Need your help to contain clones.  This way.”

My bugs pointed the way.  She hesitated, tried to shout something to Chevalier, but went unheard.  She decided to follow my instruction, flying in the direction I’d indicated with the bugs.

Okay, so she was one of Chevalier’s people.  I told Chevalier, “Your ice cape is dealing with clones.

He only nodded.  He at least knew she didn’t have his back, now.

People were moving too slowly as they dragged and carried teammates away.  Worse, there were only so many able bodies.  Only three or four out of every ten heroes were down, all in all, but some required two people to move, and there were those like Tecton that required enhanced strength to budge.  Eidolon was getting dangerously close, now.

People screamed and shouted in alarm as Rachel reached the fallen.  She barely paused as she stopped momentarily by each body, pointed, and screamed the name of one of her dogs.

It’s okay,” I communicated, though it was getting harder with what Eidolon was doing with the air.  “Rescue operation only.

The dogs followed her instructions as much by mimicking Bentley as by anything else, it seemed.  I knew they weren’t well trained, and there was a reason she didn’t bring these dogs on every excursion.  It would look bad if we killed a hero in the process of rescuing them, but we were risking that simply by moving the wounded.  It had been reinforced over and over in the first aid class I’d taken, never to risk moving anyone who was injured.

Then again, this wasn’t exactly a typical situation.  Better to remove them from near-certain death.

With Rachel rescuing the wounded, the Eidolon-clone didn’t have any easy targets in reach.  Instead, he turned and floated toward Echidna.  Ice was chipped and whittled away by what must have been sharp blasts and currents of condensed wind, with fragments flying toward him, twisting in mid air and whipping back at the chunks of ice they’d come from, helping to chip away.  Enough cracks formed that Echidna could use her two remaining limbs to leverage herself to her feet.

The meaty, frost-crusted ruins where her legs had been blown away by Chevalier were healing over, bulging where muscle and bone were growing within the stump.  Bone penetrated the flesh where her claws and armor were.

And on top, Noelle was already more or less regrown, her arms wrapped around her upper body in a straightjacket of flesh, her eyes closed and face turned toward the sky.

Chevalier took aim and shot, and the cannonball veered in midair, slamming into Echidna instead of Eidolon’s clone.  One of Echidna’s growing limbs was destroyed, but so was the glacier that had encased it.

The Eidolon hit Chevalier with a focused blast of wind, and the hero went flying, the air in the Eidolon’s range shifting to reduce resistance and carry him further.

Chevalier was out of my range before he hit ground.

Legend and Alexandria still fought above us.  I could, when he passed into my range, note how he got faster the longer he flew, giving him the ability to put distance between himself and Alexandria, but he couldn’t stop to take aim and shoot without losing that acceleration and giving her a chance to close the gap.

The result was that he was flying in loops and circles, using the turns to find opportunities to take aim and fire on her.  She dodged most, but the hits that did land bought him distance and time to stop and laser down clones who were attempting to escape.

If any of them slipped away, it could be disastrous.  One clone could track down their original self’s family and murder them, or even go after innocent civilians.  My bugs were blinding them, finding weak points, but there were some that my bugs couldn’t touch that Legend was succeeding in taking out, like the forge-man.

Myrddin was below Legend and Alexandria, recuperating from holding Echidna at bay.  He took to the air, flying up to Echidna and the Eidolon-clone from behind.

He pointed his staff at the Eidolon, and his target disappeared.

The air the Psycho-Eidolon had compressed expanded all at once, sending Myrddin flying off course and Echidna rolling sideways, over a line of parked cars.  For the moment, the vacuum was gone.

Myrddin set himself down on the ground.  He wasn’t using his power against Echidna or the clones, which suggested that his reserves were low.

The Eidolon-clone reappeared.  He turned and spotted Myrddin.  The two started fighting, the Eidolon trying to close the gap and trap Myrddin in his vacuum, which was considerably smaller in area than before, but growing every second.  He hampered the self-professed wizard’s flying with headwinds and gusts, and sharp blasts of wind that Myrddin deflected or dodged.  Myrddin, for his part, attacked relentlessly, pummeling the Eidolon with explosions of energy alternating with scattered releases of whatever he managed to suck in while close to the ground.

Echidna was mending, and with Chevalier down and our heavy hitters more or less out of the running, I wasn’t sure we could stop her.

We needed to stall.

One tinker had machines rigged on the ground, with forcefields erected in layers, one behind the other, five between himself and Echidna.  I’d glimpsed him at work before, knew it wouldn’t hold if she really hit the things.  They were dangerous or lethal to the touch, if the experiences of my swarm was any indication, but little more than an annoyance for Echidna.

The ice cape was back, having dealt with the clones.  She began laying down more glaciers around Echidna, but with the monster being more able-bodied than before, it was only a temporary barrier.

We needed something more effective.

My eyes roved over the fallen, both those that had been rescued and the ones that still lay on the ground, injured or dead.  Weld had Kid Win and Scapegoat, and I saw a burly cape dragging Tecton behind him.

No.  This wasn’t a case where we needed brute force.  Echidna was liable to win any case of hand-to-hand combat that wasn’t against a full-on Endbringer.

Maybe she could even come out ahead in a close-quarters fight against the likes of Leviathan or the Simurgh, if she was capable of absorbing them.

Scary thought.

I recognized so few of the capes around me.  There was a girl who was emanating red lightning that wasn’t harming the allies she struck, apparently accelerating them to a faster speed instead.  I had seen her somewhere, but had no idea who she was.  A boy was fading in and out of reality, grabbing capes and then disappearing with his rescuee in tow.  He’d reappear a moment later, a few paces away, before fading out of existence.  He wasn’t teleporting, he merely wasn’t here when he was walking, some of the time.

Rachel arrived with a number of fallen capes in tow.  I flew low to the ground and helped lower them to the nearest solid surface.  One dog had bitten too firmly, not knowing its own strength, cracking body armor and maybe a rib.  I didn’t mention it – it was obvious enough that people would catch on before he was in terminal danger, but we didn’t need people turning on Rachel or getting distracted from the matter at hand.  The man was alive, and that was better than if he’d been caught in the vacuum.

Psycho-Eidolon went on the offensive against Myrddin, shoving the hero against a wall and then holding him there by pummeling him with repeated blasts of wind.  The Eidolon got close enough to catch Myrddin in the vacuum, and the bugs I had on Myrddin started to perish with surprising speed.

Myrddin, for his part, stopped fighting entirely, trying only to escape.  The Eidolon caught him and knocked the staff from his hand, then pinned him against the wall, choking him with the vacuum.  I knew it was supposed to take around two minutes to suffocate, but that presumed one was able to hold some air in their lungs.

Myrddin’s struggles were getting weaker by the second, almost from the instant he was in the Eidolon’s range.

The Eidolon’s grip slipped from Myrddin’s neck and he careened into the ground, hard.  Again, air billowed out around him, thrusting Myrddin into the wall once more, but supplying him with much needed air.

I could see Regent, turned towards that particular bout of fighting.  Had he been responsible?

It wasn’t enough to revive Myrddin.  He fell to the ground, only a short distance from the Eidolon, and slumped down into a prone position.  One hand pressed against his chest, and he went limp.

The Psycho-Eidolon stood, and Miss Militia opened fire, joined by several other capes.  The Eidolon was driven back, forced to flicker to recover from the blasts.  Again, his armor was absorbing the impacts.  It would be the best stuff money could buy, if it was a functional copy of what his other self wore, and it was healing every time he did.

Then, as before, he found a way to divert the incoming fire away from himself.  The bullets and laser blasts stopped, no doubt because the heroes didn’t want the Eidolon redirecting any of their fire towards Myrddin.

My bugs flowed in, carrying a length of cord.  I bound the Eidolon’s neck as he walked up to Myrddin’s unconscious form, but there wasn’t anything significant to tie the cord to.  I chose a car’s side-mirror.

He stopped short, a pace away from the fallen hero, then flickered.  The cord came free of his neck as though he weren’t even there, and he bent down over Myrddin.  I swore under my breath and tried to bind him again, knowing how ineffectual it would be at this point.

It was Wanton who moved to stop the Eidolon, turning into a virtual poltergeist, with debris and dust flying around him.  He barely slowed as Eidolon directed a blast of wind his way.

The Eidolon flickered, and a knife with a wavy blade appeared in his hand.  Before Wanton could reach him, he gripped Myrddin’s mask, raised the hero’s chin towards the sky, knife held ready.

His hand convulsed, and he dropped the knife.  Regent.

An instant later, he flickered, rendering his hand untouched, the knife back in position.  He thrust it into the soft underside of Myrddin’s chin.

Wanton hit him a moment later, tearing the dagger from the Eidolon’s hand and using it to cut and bludgeon the clone.

Myrddin was dead or dying, I couldn’t even guess if Chevalier was okay or not, and two of the three members of the Triumvirate had been turned against us.  We were swiftly running out of big guns.

The red lightning girl hurried past me, helping mobilize a group of heroes with more wounded.  We had maybe forty to fifty capes on our side, with twenty that were no longer in any shape to fight.

I saw Gully with two heroes cradled against her body with one arm, the other arm holding her shovel, planting it in the pavement like it was a walking stick.

One of the heroes was Clockblocker.  The face of his mask had been shattered, revealing the softer padding beneath.  I didn’t recognize the other cape, a guy with green dyed hair and a domino mask.

“Stop,” I told her.  “Is he okay?”

“Ramus is, but I think the clock boy is going to die,” she said.  She glanced over her shoulder at the Psycho-Eidolon.  He’d broken away from Wanton, and was working on mending the damage, one part of his body at a time.

If there was a limitation to his self-heailng, it was that.  It was healing by degrees, weaker against all-around damage.  If my bugs could have gotten to him, that might have done some damage, but they’d have to get past his armor, which looked like the all-concealing sort, and there was the not-insignificant matter of the vacuum.

“Clockblocker,” I said.  “You there?”

He turned his head toward me.  I could barely make him out over the wind.  “You’re still here.”

What did he mean by that?  Was he surprised that I was still alive?  That I hadn’t run?  I wasn’t sure how to respond.

Craved a fight,” the words reached me despite the winds that were tearing across the battlefield.  It wasn’t my bugs speaking, either.  “I hoped you’d challenge me.

Eidolon.  He was echoing his sentiment from earlier, that had driven him to fight Echidna alone, except it was twisted, warped, the original reasoning forgotten.

Do I need to get you angrier?  Do I need to push you harder?  I could torment you, inflict pain on your teammates until you’re forced to throw all caution to the wind and come at me with everything you’ve got.  Or I could attack you on another level.  Would you like me to tell you a story?

Echidna belched out another set of clones.

There was one forge-man, two identical to the one I’d seen flinging stones at Chevalier.  And an Alexandria.  They lurched to their feet, but they didn’t attack.  They were letting Eidolon speak.

We founded Cauldron.  The Triumvirate.  The Number Man.  William Manton.  The Doctor.  We sold people powers.

“No,” Clockblocker said.  Other murmurs came from the crowd.

It meant more people with powers to fight the Endbringers, that was the lie we told ourselves.  But we created the Siberian and Shatterbird, in a roundabout way.  We created the Gray Boy, selling him powers, finding ourselves unable to stop him when he went out of bounds.  There were countless others.  Echidna is just the latest in a long series of grave mistakes.”

Nobody moved.  I suspected that if anyone attacked him, they’d be seen as a Cauldron sympathizer, trying to shut him up.  I could see Noelle: her arms had separated from her torso, but she left them limp at her sides, her long hair in her face as she stared up at him.

We made the PRT, pretended to let ourselves be run by the unpowered, but we put Alexandria in charge.  We manipulated media, manipulated nations, in the interest of power.  We ventured into alternate worlds to kidnap people, experimented on them to refine our formulas.  And the failed tests?  The people who turned out wrong?  We cast them out, tossed them out as a bonus to anyone willing to pay a little more for an enemy that was guaranteed to lose against them.”

The Eidolon moved, facing one of the monstrous parahumans I didn’t know.  A boy with crimson skin and hair.  The clone spoke, “That’s all you were, monsters.  Little more than the cheap towels that are on offer for a few extra dollars when you buy something on a shopping channel.

Legend shouted something, but the wind kept his voice from reaching us.  He had to fly to avoid the Alexandria-clone’s unending pursuit.

The other, naked Alexandria took flight and went after him.

It said a lot that nobody moved to help.

I glanced at Gully, saw her already disfigured face contorted with emotion.

“He’s lying,” I said, to her.  “Twisting the truth to make it sound worse than it is.”

Gully only made a small noise in response.

“He couldn’t make all that up,” Clockblocker said.  Were it not for the bugs I had near his mouth, I wasn’t sure I would have caught what he was saying in the face of the wind.  “… kernel of truth.”

It’s all been a ploy from the start,” the Eidolon-clone said, his aerokinesis carrying his words to our ears, “Every single one of you were deceived.  For every one of you that bought your powers, there were innocents who died or became monsters for the sake of that formula’s research.  No matter what good you might do, it will never make up for that.  And the rest of you?  Conned, brought in with promises of ideals and saving the world.  You’re fools.

And with that, he let the wind die down.  There was a crunching noise as Echidna shifted her weight, but that was followed only by silence, the sound of murmurs.

“We just lost,” Clockblocker said.

I looked at him, saw Gully hanging her head.

He wasn’t wrong.  We were suffering losses, and we hadn’t achieved anything.  Echidna was as strong as she’d ever been, stronger than she’d been at the outset of the fight, and she kept on acquiring clones that cost more than we could afford to put down.  Alexandria and Eidolon were only the tips of the iceberg.

“It’s a big hit to morale, but-”

“No,” Clockblocker cut me off.  “We lost.  Not this fight.  Maybe we can still win it, won’t deny it’s possible, with Scion maybe showing up.  But the big picture?  There’s no coming back from this.  Without the Protectorate, without all the work that it does to organize heroes around the world, there’s no getting everyone working together.  The amount of anger?  The suspicion, wondering if a teammate took the formula or not?  How can we go up against the next Endbringer that shows up?”

“We’ll manage,” I said.  “We’ll find a way.”

He barked out a cough, groaned.  “Fuck, don’t make me laugh.”

“Laugh?”

“Never took you for an optimist.”

Was I?  Or was it just that the heroes were reeling just a little more in the wake of these revelations.  I wasn’t surprised, and I was betting the other Undersiders weren’t either.

Advantage: us.  We villains were the only ones who could really think straight in the wake of all this.  Except Tattletale, Grue and Imp were elsewhere, and Regent and Rachel weren’t really in a position to do anything major here.

I stared at the scene, Legend doing his best to fend off two Alexandrias, and Eidolon looking down on us, the crowd of fools.  I could see Echidna, standing still, surveying it all, much as I was.

No, not Echidna.  Noelle.

“I need your help,” I told Clockblocker.

“Can’t fight.”

“Don’t need you to fight,” I told him.  I reached behind my back, drew my gun.  I pressed it into his hands.  “If and when she comes for me, aim for the back of my head.  It’s unarmored, anything else might mean I survive, and I don’t want to be hers.  Not again.”

“Hers?” he asked.  “What are you doing?”

I paused.  “Wait until the last second.  Just in case.  You can call that more optimism, I guess.”

“Skitter?”

I moved my bugs away from the heroes around us and into the air, a cloud capable of getting attention.

If I was going to do this, I was going for optimal effect.

Back when this skirmish had started, I’d wondered if I’d be willing to make a sacrifice if it meant coming out ahead.  Even when the idea of throwing away one life for the greater good had crossed my mind, it had been with the notion that it would be me paying the price.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t, ask someone else to do it.

Fuck it.  I wasn’t about to back down now, not with the stakes this high.

With the swarm swirling through the air, and the fact that I was the only person moving in this otherwise still tableau, all eyes were on me.  Noelle’s included.

“Noelle!” I screamed her name.  My swarm augmented my voice, carrying it much as the wind had carried Eidolon’s.

She turned toward me.

“It is you, isn’t it?  It’s Noelle, and not Echidna?”

She didn’t respond.  My swarm drifted between us, partially to help obscure me, to cloak me from her vision if she charged me.

“At the start of all this, you offered a deal.  Any of your captives for one of us Undersiders.  Is that deal still open?”

I saw her shift position, planting her massive claws further apart.

“You’re dead anyways,” she said.

You’re not wholly wrong.

“Follow through with the deal, maybe you get to kill me yourself.  And maybe the other heroes here will turn the other Undersiders in for a chance that they can walk away alive.”

“You’re saying you’ll let your team die?”

“My team can fend for themselves,” I said.  “Right now?  I’m offering you me, in exchange for Eidolon.  That’s all.”

“The one who deceived them?” she looked out over the crowd.  “What makes you think they want him?”

“They don’t,” I said.  I made sure that everyone present could hear as my bugs carried my voice.  “But they need him.”

If there was any salvaging this, any way of recovering from this terminal hit to morale and avoiding the scenario Clockblocker had outlined, I had to make sure that everyone recognized how essential it was that we kept the big guns on hand for future Endbringer attacks.  Regardless of what they’d done in their pasts.  If it came down to it, I was willing to put myself on the line.  I’d die to drive the point home if it came down to it.

Noelle spat Eidolon out.  He landed, covered in puke, wearing his costume.  He recovered faster than the other heroes had, faster than I had.  He took to the air, flying toward the other members of the Protectorate.

A pair of flying heroes moved closer together, barring his path.

Through the bugs I had placed on the two flying heroes, I could hear him.  A single utterance, monosyllabic.  “Ah.”

He turned, surveying the scene, then started to fly towards Legend.  The other Eidolon moved to match his flight, and the original stopped.  If he moved to help, he’d only be bringing his clone into the fight with him.  He settled above a building, on the other side of the street from his mirror opposite, keeping a wary eye on Legend and the chase that the two Alexandria clones were giving.

“Now’s the part where you run,” Noelle told me.

“I’m not running.”

“You’ll try something.  Because you’re a coward.  You don’t have it in you.  You’re selfish.  You killed Coil when you knew we needed his help.”

“I killed Coil because he was a monster,” I said.  I didn’t let my voice carry, but it didn’t matter.  Others had heard what she said.  “But I’m not running.”

I sensed Rachel kick Bentley, stirring him to action.  Some of my bugs barred her path, forcing her to pull short and stop before he’d moved two paces.

“How do I finish you, then?” she asked.  “Should I puke on you and let them tear you apart while everyone watches?”

“Someone might try to save me,” I said.  “They’re still heroes, after all.  Takes a lot to stomach watching a girl get beaten to death.”

“Then I kill you myself,” she said, and there was a growl to her voice.  That would be Echidna chiming in, at least in part.  “They’ll see what you’re made of when you break and start running, and they can’t stop me from tearing you apart.”

That said, she charged.  The ground shook with her advance, and the heroes only stood and watched, no doubt considering the possibility that I was right, that they could negotiate their way out of all this.

I closed my eyes, using my bugs to stop Rachel from intervening for the second time.

I took a deep breath.  Every instinct I had told me to run, to find shelter, to survive, or take cover.  But I had to do this.

Instead, I used my bugs to whisper to Clockblocker, “Use your power.”

There was only one thing for him to use his power on.  He froze the gun.  Along with the gun, he froze the length of thread I’d attached to the weapon.

The thread, in turn, was held aloft by the bugs that flew as a curtain between Noelle and I.

I kept my eyes closed, relying on my bugs to feed me input, dissociating from my real self, because it kept me still, and that kept Echidna on course for the thread that extended vertically through the curtain.

Spider silk was, generally speaking, about two to three times as thick as the thinnest part of a safety razor.  That was still pretty thin, especially when Clockblocker’s power rendered it immobile, utterly unyielding even as a monster with three times the mass of an African Elephant crashed into it.

She tried to pull to a stop as she made contact with the thread, but her momentum carried her all the way through.  The bracing of her foremost limbs against the ground only helped to force the separation of the two halves.

Severed, the two pieces of her body crashed down to either side of me.  Despite my best intentions, I stumbled a little at the impact.

Hit the Eidolon-Clone,” I spoke to Miss Militia through my bugs, hurrying to step away from Noelle’s bisected form.  “Hit him hard.

The Eidolon-clone moved one arm in our direction, only to stop short.  A thread that had draped his arm was now a rigid barrier, connected to the same thread that I’d positioned between Noelle and I.  He tried to retreat, only to find the thread I’d circled around his neck holding him firm.

He started to flicker, no doubt to escape.  One arm free.  Then another.

Miss Militia hefted her rocket launcher.  Our Eidolon was already flying to Legend’s rescue as she pulled the trigger.  The Eidolon-clone wasn’t quite free when the warhead hit home.  For extra measure the explosion drove him against the threads that had draped his body.

If I’d been good at the punchlines, I might have thrown one out there.  The best I could come up with was, Flicker that.

Watch the two pieces,” I communicated through my swarm, still backing away from Noelle.  “Tattletale said there’s a core to her, that’s supplying the regeneration.  Whichever half regenerates is the half with the core.  We narrow it down, then we destroy it.  We can win this.

I could see Echidna’s body swelling, growing huge with tumorous bulges as she sought to rebuild her other half.  Still, she was nigh-immobile, and the heroes were free to unload every offensive power they had on her.  Wanton and Weld advanced, tearing into her, pulling people free and seeking something that might be her core.  She was regenerating faster than they were dealing damage, but every passing moment saw one cape freed, more ground covered.

Her other half was decaying at the same time.  The captives that were trapped in her flesh were revealed as it dessicated, and capes freed each person in turn.

She lurched, then forced herself into contact with her decaying other half, reconnecting to it.  She was minus eleven captives, by my count, Alexandria among them, but she was reforming.  I wouldn’t be able to bait her like that again, but I might be able to contain her.

I glanced at Clockblocker.  Gully had carried him to Scapegoat, who had roused from unconsciousness, and he was getting care.  He looked at me, offered me a curt nod.

I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I did the same.

Behind me, bugs could sense the approach of a containment van.  Tattletale, I could hope, with Faultline’s crew, perhaps.  Chevalier was perched in the fortified turret on top, his sword resting on one shoulder.

We can win this fight, I mused, and this time I could believe it.

But I was all too aware of the movement of a particular contingent of capes.  Having deposited Clockblocker, Gully distanced herself from the other heroes, approached Weld and the red-skinned boy.  The Cauldron-made, standing apart.

Across the battlefield, I was aware, there were very few people standing shoulder to shoulder.  People were distanced from one another as though their personal space was ten feet across, avoiding eye contact, with no conversation, and I wasn’t seeing any upturn in morale.  There wasn’t a cheer to be heard, and squad leaders weren’t giving orders to their subordinates.

I could only hope this divide wouldn’t prove as telling as the one I’d delivered to Noelle.

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Scourge 19.5

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The Grue Echidna had created turned his attention to the rest of us.  His power massed around him and then flowed forth like a tidal wave of crude oil.  I was already atop Atlas, rising into the air.  I couldn’t avoid the fact that Scapegoat was in the truck, and if we were separated-

I flew after the wave of darkness, tracing its path as it met Scapegoat’s van and making my best guess at where it would wind up.

The darkness hit a wall, and the van materialized, solid once more.  More heroes were deposited two or three city blocks away from where they’d been standing.

My heart was pounding in my chest as I blinked a few times and double checked that I hadn’t gone blind.  If the Grue had cut off Scapegoat’s power, or if he’d delivered enough of an impact to disrupt it, it could have left me in worse shape than before.

I could see, and I could breathe.  Scapegoat was safe inside the containment van.

He’d scattered us.  Our tight battle lines were now spread out over city blocks, and people were having a surprising amount of trouble getting their bearings.  One of the team leaders managed to get his squad organized, pointing them in the right direction, before Echnidna’s Grue hit them again.

There was a limit to what I could do.

I gathered my bugs and started working out how to stop the Grue.

I had cords pre-prepared.  I spliced a number together into a hundred-foot long line, then had my bugs fly the cord out.

A minute later, my fastest flying bugs were winding the cord around the Grue’s neck, while others were biting and stinging.  He barely even noticed, beyond swatting at the insects wherever they landed.

I needed something to tie him to.  A telephone pole?  It wouldn’t stop him or even hamper him in what he was doing to disrupt our fighting lines.  If he could teleport himself, then it wouldn’t even hamper him at all in the long-term.

Legend, Eidolon and Alexandria moved into the fray, accompanied by a number of other flying heroes.  They were coordinated enough that they had to have planned it out in advance.  Alexandria went in first, circling around and then swooping down to strike Echidna across one back leg.  She stuck on contact.  Through a combination of her own strength and one of Legend’s lasers, she got free before Echidna could turn and envelop her.

Eidolon was making his move before Alexandria was even free.  He cast out a bubble that swelled as it moved through the air.  By the time it reached Echidna, it was twice as big around as she was, enough to reach from one sidewalk to the other.  The colors around her became muted, and her movements slowed to a tenth of the speed.

It was a time-distortion effect.  Legend took the opportunity to emit twenty individual laser beams.  They each flowed out as a steady, unfaltering stream, and turned in mid-air to punch into Echidna.  Each was meticulously placed to drive through the center of her body and avoid the places where her victims were being absorbed, or even cut her victims free.

One beam turned down and took a sharp right to strike the ground just to the teleporter-Grue’s right.  It slashed towards him and he used his darkness to teleport himself to safety, cutting the cord I’d created in the process.

I commanded my bugs to collect the thread and cart it to the destination he’d teleported to.  It was futile to try to tether a teleporter, I knew, but if I could find a way to trip up his abilities, tie his ankles together at a crucial moment… something, it might help.  Beyond that, I’d have to hope the venom brought him down.

Echidna tried to move to one side, but Legend’s beams followed unerringly, swelling in size and number.  Thirty, forty, fifty… each cutting their way through her flesh as though she were made of little more than snow.  Smoke or steam billowed around her as her flesh charred and boiled.  The lasers might have been affected by the time distortion, but that didn’t matter when the lasers were moving at the speed of light in the first place.

She feinted right, then lunged left, but Legend’s aim didn’t err in the slightest, and Eidolon’s slowing effect drifted after her.  Still, Echidna moved faster than Eidolon’s slowing effect did.  Slowly but surely, as pieces of her flesh were carved away and left to fall to the ground, she made progress toward the effect’s perimeter.

Alexandria flew low to the ground, striking and catching hold of a traffic light.  In one second she was a blur, the next she appeared to be moving as fast as a person did when they ran.  Charging into the effect’s area, Alexandria made a beeline for Echidna.

The swing was slow motion, but Echidna was too.  Alexandria struck her with the metal pole, and Echidna moved like she’d been hit full strength.  Her front claws were lifted off of the ground by the force of the blow, and she reared up, the canine faces contorting in pain and anger.

The lasers moved around Alexandria, passing within centimeters of her.  She didn’t even flinch as she lowered herself to the ground behind Echidna, used her hands and one knee to correct a bend in the pole, and then stabbed it into one spot on the back of Echidna’s leg where a hero was trying to get free.  Legend’s cutting lasers and the leverage of the pole pried him free.  Alexandria caught him before he hit the ground and threw him.

Other heroes saw and positioned themselves before he reached the edge of the effect.  He resumed normal speed and the heroes caught him.

Echidna’s Grue blanketed the area in darkness, and Legend opened fire on the area where the darkness had originated from; the ground floor of a nearby grocery store.  My bugs identified the Grue on the far side, and with a moment to get arranged, they connected the ends of cords.  A little shorter than a hundred feet, now.  If I tied it to a section of a nearby window, and he tried to run, it could maybe yank him off his feet, but that didn’t amount to much.

The Grue teleported Echidna to him, freeing her from Legend’s attack and the slow effect.  The darkness carpeted them and bought her a second to breathe and regenerate.

Had to remove the Grue from consideration.  I tried to visualize what would happen next, anticipate their next move.  Noelle would throw herself into the fray again.  Either he’d use his teleportation to do it or…

I tied the other end of the cord to a piece of bone plate that stood out on Echidna’s side.

Eidolon was pointing to the building that Echidna had materialized behind, pointed two fingers at it with a thumb extended in a gesture much like a gun.  Legend took the signal and opened fire, unleashing countless lasers into the ground floor of the building.

The Psycho-Grue took shelter, ducking to one side of a nearby dumpster.  At the same time, Echidna did just what I’d hoped for: she bolted.  The cord went taut, and the Grue was pulled off his feet by the suddenness and force of her movement.

I hadn’t tied it into a proper noose, but the cord was around his neck.  I’d read somewhere that nooses tended to kill because they broke the neck rather than by suffocation, provided they were tied right and there was enough of a drop.

This wasn’t a drop, but it was a tough cord around his neck, and the creature on the other end weighed no less than fifteen tons, maybe twice that.  She’d accelerated from zero to fifty in an instant, and he went limp almost immediately, dead or completely disabled in a heartbeat.  My bugs cut the cord and held it ready.

Echidna hadn’t used her power yet.  She’d absorbed enough capes, but something was holding her back.  I wondered if her regeneration drew on the same pool of flesh-generation that made the clones and she couldn’t make clones while healing the kind of heavy damage the Triumvirate was dishing out.  Maybe there was some other drawback.

The ‘shoulders’ of her lower body scraped and dragged against the sides of buildings as she stampeded through the back alleyways.  She kicked a dumpster and sent it careening as she ran, brushed against a fire escape with enough speed and force that it was ripped from the brick wall.

She was very nearly out of my power’s reach when Myrddin cut her off.  He waved his staff and a group of heroes materialized around him.  Tecton and Chevalier were among them.

The heroes around me were trying to get sorted into squads again.  I was aware of someone driving the van that held Scapegoat.  Taking him in the wrong direction.

I drew arrows with my bugs on the dashboard and prayed that whoever the cape was behind the wheel, they were aiming in the right direction.

Seeing how the heroes were struggling to get organized, suffering for the lack of armbands to help them navigate and get essential information, I decided in an instant that I needed to guide more than just the van.

I began drawing out arrows and letters.

I drew out an ‘E’ with an arrow pointing in Echidna’s direction, a hundred times in a hundred places.  Above Echidna, I set swarms of insects to flying in formation, tight circles and figure-eight loops, vertical or horizontal.  Letters and words formed.  Echidna, Myrddin, Chevalier.  Did the ‘e’ go after the ‘i’?  Couldn’t remember.  Was supposed to be ‘i before e, except after c’, but there were more exceptions to the rule than there were correct uses.

Shaking my head to stir myself awake, I tried to refocus, paying attention to the primary site of the fighting.

Echidna charged Myrddin and the heroes that accompanied him.  He used his staff to draw something into the air.  My bugs could feel a vibration, see the white blur of a light source.

The sign he’d drawn exploded outward, striking Echidna on her right side.  It was enough to alter her course, and her shoulder slammed into the corner of one building.  Her body dragged against the building’s face until that she had to stop and pull away.

Chevalier pointed his sword at her, fifteen feet long, and pulled a trigger.  A blast erupted down the center of the sword’s mass, and a cannonball caught one of Echidna’s monstrous heads between the eyes.  Through the composite vision of all my bugs, I could get a sense of the damage that had been done, the spray of gore.

I was too tired to be focusing on my bugs to this degree.  My awareness of my real self was faltering.  I was unconsciously updating the positions of the arrows to allow the heroes to home in on Echidna, but I also had to work to keep myself close to Scapegoat, and I wanted to make sure I knew where Bitch and the others were.  Atlas was following my unconscious commands, but that meant I was straying a dangerous distance from Scapegoat.  Had to be safe.

The arrows I’d drawn for each of the heroes were working, though.  Heroes were moving towards Echidna with purpose, now, and the van with Scapegoat inside was moving in the right direction.  I caught some squad captains giving orders.  A cape that could speak over distances was relaying information to Myrddin and Chevalier.

Tattletale was on the ground, but she didn’t advance toward the scene of the fighting.  She had gotten her hands on a cellphone, and was speaking steadily into it, relaying information. I only caught some of it – I couldn’t devote that much focus to her.  It was about Noelle.

Chevalier and Myrddin made an effective duo.  Chevalier’s power had made his armor virtually impervious, his cannonblade massive, each effectively many times as dense and/or many times as large as they should be, but he was still able to treat them as though they were the normal size.  He swung his sword as though it were barely there, and when he found an opportunity to strike out with a gauntleted fist, the effect was always far greater than the hit deserved.

Not so different from Fenja and Menja, only his gear was the focus, not himself, and he was a little more versatile.

Myrddin, for his part, coupled versatility with raw power to devastating effect.  He had a bag of tricks and switched from one to another without hesitation.  Echidna spewed a stream of bodies and gore, and Myrddin drew a dark sign into the air, suctioning the incoming matter into it.  I sensed Chevalier and Tecton slamming their weapons into the nearest surfaces to avoid being pulled in, catching hold of allies who weren’t so capable.  Then my own bugs were yanked toward the crevice and violently crushed against all of the other debris, leaving me momentarily blind in that area.  More of my bugs flowed in, giving me time to see Chevalier delivering a series of powerful sword strikes and cannon shots at Echidna, not letting up.  He paused, throwing himself into a side-alley as Noelle tried to stomp on him, and Myrddin released the matter he’d suctioned in as a condensed bullet of gore, dust, crushed bodies and dead bugs.

Perhaps the strongest thing about the partnership between the two heroes was how well it accommodated others.  Heroes with ranged powers were free to unload on Echidna while the other two fought, and heroes like Tecton could offer further support, destroying the ground beneath her feet.  She was big enough now that he couldn’t trap her, but he could make her stumble, or bring concrete from the nearby buildings raining down on top of her.

The Triumvirate flew straight over Echidna, and Legend opened with a laser beam I could see from three blocks away.  He killed some of the bugs I’d been using to draw words in the air in the process.  That was as much my fault as his.

Echidna was more or less trapped, forced to back away, but unable to fully turn around with the walls of the alley on either side of her.  Eidolon threw down another slowing bubble behind her, and Alexandria dropped to ground level to stand behind Echidna and stab the metal pole of the street light through the knee of one of Echidna’s back legs.

There was nothing for me to do beyond helping to organize the others.  I made sure to draw arrows and words high enough above the buildings that anyone approaching the scene would be able to tell that Alexandria and Chevalier had Echidna flanked.

Atlas carried me above the scene, a distance away from the Triumvirate, but still close enough to see into the alley.

Echidna was sustaining a beating, and there were only four directions she could go.  She could go up, which was the only route available to her that didn’t involve going through a solid surface, but that involved running face first into the laserbeam that Legend was firing straight down from above.  Going down involved tearing through pavement and whatever was below the road.  Even if there was a storm drain or some other underground space to enter, she was doubtlessly sustaining too much damage to take the time to get that far, and she was too big to fit, unless the area was cavernous.

That meant she was bound to head either left or right, through walls of brick or concrete.  I was careful in how I positioned my swarm, putting them on walls so I could tell if she knocked one down on her way through, while keeping the bugs out of her likely path.  Cloned bugs were the least of our problems, but I wasn’t about to contribute to her arsenal.

I’d drawn heroes closer to the scene of the fight with my directions.  Now I had to communicate the danger.

I spoke through my bugs, moving each closer to the capes.  The swarm was spread out, which made the resulting voice thin and reedy to the point that I wasn’t sure if it was audible over the noise of the fighting in the alleyways.

Incoming,” my swarm buzzed.

More than a few heroes jumped at that.

Look for my signal,” I said, “She’ll have to go through the walls to escape.”

Many of the squads were in or around the alleys but not actually participating in the fights.  With arrows and the movement of my swarm, I did my best to indicate the ways to the walls she might head for, and I drew exclamation marks on the faces of the buildings next to her.

It didn’t take her long to reach the limit of her patience.  She tried to advance on Chevalier, only to get driven back by Tecton, Myrddin and one or two ranged capes.  Backing up meant running into Alexandria, who was stabbing and swatting with the pole that had held the traffic light.

One claw ripped through brick and wood, and she plunged into the building to her left.  She was tall enough that she had to hunker down, and she was still shoving her way through the flooring that separated the first and second floors.  Her route put her on a path for where the fighting had originated, where the majority of the heroes were now waiting.

She could wade through brick and concrete and leave a building folding in on itself in her wake, but dealing with a mass of capes proved more difficult.  Forcefields blocked her movements, and a half-dozen heavy hitting capes like Grace were waiting to blindside her.

A heartbeat after the first wave assault passed by, Chronicler’s replicas of the melee assault group tore through Echidna a second time.

Echidna fell over, and was in a position to see Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon overhead.

Some capes had stayed in the fray, including types like Weld and Wanton, who couldn’t be absorbed and couldn’t be affected by the capes with ranged attacks.  They joined in with the Triumvirate’s attacks on the fallen foe.

She vomited, but it wasn’t the same as before.  Her vomit this time was thick with bodies, to the point that it didn’t spray.  The vomit tumbled from her four mouths as a sludge that met or exceeded her total body weight in sheer volume.  Worse, where it had maybe been ninety percent liquid and ten percent people, before, the numbers had inverted.

Legend raked a laser across the piling, writhing, reaching bodies, but Echidna was getting to her feet, throwing herself into the building behind her.  She’d done enough damage with the last maneuver, and her return trip brought a wall crashing down.  Powers of all kinds were brought to bear as the capes on the ground did what they could to save themselves and their teammates.

I could have stayed, helped with the wounded, but the van with Scapegoat was moving on, and I was worried about what might happen if Echidna managed to get away.  She was wounded, but regenerating, and bodies kept pouring forth from her mouth.  It would be best to leave the wounded and dying to the less mobile capes.  I was more useful in the fray, though that didn’t say much.

She was moving at a good pace.  Only the fastest were able to match her in speed, and few of those were also capable of slowing her down so the rest of us could catch up.

A trail of clones flowed in her wake.  All of them were capes, and even though they were unclothed and unarmored, some were taking more than a few hits to finish off.  Worse, at least one of the people she’d caught was a cape in much the same vein as Prism had been.  A self duplicator.  It amounted to scores of bodies, where one in twenty were capable of copying themselves, and maybe three or four in twenty were tough or borderline invulnerable.

I joined in with the other heroes who were fighting to kill or mop up the clones before the psychotic things could get organized.  They were lumped together as a tangle of limbs, heads and torsos, and each was tacky with the fluids of the vomit.  My swarm made contact, and began ruthlessly doing as much damage as I was capable of.

Myrddin caught up and hit her with one of his ‘spells’.  Echidna promptly disappeared in a clap of thunder, and Myrddin went very still, floating in the air.

From his controlled breathing and lack of celebration, I could only assume that Myrddin was concentrating.  Echidna wasn’t dead and gone, only held at bay for the time being.  I was willing to bet it was the same effect he’d used to carry Chevalier, Tecton and his other teammates into the fight in the alleyway.

In the meantime, the rest of us were left to dispatch the clones as quickly as possible.  They were frailer looking, with features missing.  There were clones without ears, clones without noses, clones with missing fingers.  Half finished, their skin was so thin as to be translucent, and most lacked hair or their hair was so sparse as to barely matter.  The skin of most broke and bled where my bugs bit, as though it were little more than wet paper.

If my swarm was made up of countless tiny surgeons, doing strategic damage, Rachel’s dogs were the opposite.  Bentley plowed through the ranks of the clones like a living bulldozer.  He wasn’t running full-bore, but he wasn’t slowing down at any point either.  The other dogs followed, each roughly the size of a pony, chained to Bentley’s harness.  The dogs fought among themselves in their struggles to attack and wound the clones, but I could see Rachel doing what she could to ensure that none of them were killing.

She’d done the same with Bastard.  It made sense, in a way, that she didn’t want them to get accustomed to killing before they were fully trained.

The clones weren’t wholly helpless, though, fragile as they might be.  They did have powers.  Through the bugs of my swarm that lingered on the combatants, I could track the fallen.  Two heroes down, injured or dying, another deceased.

We were outnumbered, and we couldn’t afford to lose one person for every twenty clones that fell.  Echidna had created at least a hundred clones in the course of her last getaway.  She would create a hundred more when she reappeared, if we didn’t find a solution.

Legend found a position to open fire from, and sent a barrage of lasers down toward the trail of bodies, while Alexandria followed the direct path that Echidna had taken, darting left and right to strike out and kill even the tougher capes in a single hit.

In the midst of the chaos, a speaker began blaring at the top of one containment van.  The same voice that had come from the armbands.

The following information has been disseminated, and remains unconfirmed.  Echidna is in a rage state.  The monster is in control, not the girl.  Seventeen capes are currently within her.  Her rate of regeneration and production of clones is derived from a central core within her lower body that produces an endless quantity of biological material.  A body part severed from the core will die.  Destroying the core in entirety will destroy her…”

Tattletale, I thought.  She’d passed on the info she’d gleaned.

Scapegoat was out of the van and shouting.  Weld was among the capes that came to his assistance.  He held a female clone in his iron grip, with one hand over her mouth.

Tecton and Wanton moved to help, and Scapegoat looked up at me, gesturing.

Pointing at the ground.

Would have been easier if he’d just said it.  I found a clear spot on a rooftop and landed.

The second I was settled, Scapegoat laid his hands on the clone Weld had caught.

As before, the sensations hit me.  Phantom sensations of every possible texture and experience rippling across my entire body.

This was why he’d told me to land.  He’d been worried I might lose control of my power, maybe losing control over Atlas and fall.

I just had to endure.  I could control my bugs to some extent, though flight wasn’t so possible.  One of the clones had broken away from the fighting, and my bugs were both attacking her and pointing the pursuing capes in the right directions.  She split off into four copies.  The heroes killed three of the four, only for the survivor to split off into a quartet once again.

If I’d been thinking about containment, I might have set triplines at each of the major intersections, cutting them if and when heroes passed through.  As it was, I couldn’t stop her retreat, and could only try to blind her, choke her and distract while they closed the distance with my direction.

But she was fragile, like most of her fellow clones.  Mandibles tore her paper-thin skin, and more bugs found her jugular.

Just like that, she died with blood spouting from her throat.  She created duplicates of herself, but they were created with the same injury.

The capes caught up to her.  One murmured, “Kudzu.”

“…s not her, Jouster,” another said.

Elsewhere, Regent was dispatching other clones.  He deftly tripped up the more mobile ones and closed the distance, then executed them with a quick stab of a knife.

The sensations kept hitting me.  It was a deeper sensation now.  Tastes, vision, hearing… everything under the sun, fragments of a million different sensations.  Picking through the noise was nearly impossible.  I had to find refuge in my swarm’s senses, disassociate from my body…

If I hadn’t been trying so hard, I might have missed it.  It was more subtle than the first time I’d heard it.  A keening noise that my own ears couldn’t hear.  Even many of the insects were unaware.

Using my swarm, every bug in the four block range, I buzzed out the alert.

Shatterbird!

Some capes reacted fast enough.  Helmets with visors were torn free, intact armbands and cell phones discarded.  Some erected forcefield barriers.  I was tearing off my mask, bundling it in the fabric that hung around my legs.

There were others too caught up in the fighting, yet others dependent on hardware with silicon chips that they couldn’t shirk so quickly.

It wasn’t as strong as her last big attack; there was less glass in the city to carry the effects.  Still, I could hear the resounding crash of everything glass in this half of the city breaking.  A tidal wave of destruction rolled past us, leaving countless injured in its wake.  The attack was weaker, but not necessarily weak.

Tecton had been left immobile, components of his suit destroyed.  The clone and Scapegoat were down, struck by the glass from the van’s windshield.  Chevalier had been caught by something, a fragment of glass that had penetrated a slit in his visor, and he was struggling to fight three clones and avoid hitting his teammates, all while partially blind.

I checked myself.  I could breathe, I wasn’t blind.  All despite Scapegoat’s disabled state.

Had he transferred the conditions to the clone?  Was I in the clear?

I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t sure I could afford to take the risk and stray beyond that one-hundred and fifty foot range of his.

The direction the attack had come from…  Shatterbird had stayed behind, used her power from the base.  I’d assumed it was because Echidna had eaten her, but it was all too possible that they’d found another route.  Inducing temporary unconsciousness?  Or perhaps Echidna had eaten her and then spat her out right away, to induce enough weakness that Regent couldn’t use her.  I’d have to ask Regent for details, and that wasn’t an option.

No, there were bigger worries.  Battle lines had broken, and simply by virtue of being more numerous than we were, many clones were still standing.  It made only a small difference, but it was still an advantage for their side: the clones weren’t wearing or carrying anything glass.  An advantage of being naked.

The big heroes were trying to get organized.  Myrddin was still keeping Echidna out of the fight, the Triumvirate were exchanging quick words as they tried to figure out whether they should stay for when Echidna popped back into existence or help with the clones.  Legend shot as he talked, and Eidolon was casting out blue sparks that flew forth.

Clones were advancing on Scapegoat and Tecton.  Weld was there, but he wasn’t quite enough.

I stood on Atlas’ back as he descended to the road, shaking my mask to let the glass fall free before carefully pulling it back on.  Weld glanced at me and nodded as I appeared at his left, helping to form a defensive line.

Weld’s hands started to change into long blades, and with the reach they afforded him, he was able to defend more ground.

I stepped off Atlas and let him stand on his own, his scythelike forelimbs raised.  He wouldn’t be that good in a fight, but the clones were fragile, and two more weapons was better than nothing.  My knife and baton slid free of their respective slots in my compartment, and I whipped the baton out to its full length.  It offered me a little more reach, an excuse to take one more step away from Scapegoat’s body and the frozen Tecton.  In this fashion, Weld, Atlas and I formed something of a triangle.

Being on the ground, it added a kind of reality to the situation.  On a technical level, I was more aware of the bodies when I used my powers, more aware of the enemy numbers.  Here, though, I could see only the crowd.  Hero and clone were fighting, the ground was littered with the dying, the maimed and the dead.  There were countless people who needed help, people who I couldn’t personally reach.

My bugs could reach them.  I did what I could, trying to blind the right people, to injure and maim clones where I could ferret out vulnerabilities.  Most of the vulnerable clones were already out of the fight, leaving us with only the more troublesome ones.  The duplicators, the durable and the mobile.

I was fighting a duplicator.  Another Kudzu, like the one I’d killed earlier, unless there was another Asian duplicator with a Japanese-sounding name.  She was vulnerable, but she knew how to fight.  Better than I did.  My advantage was my weapons and my armor.  Hers was her relentlessness.

My baton crushed one skull like an overripe pumpkin, my knife caught another in the chest, pushing past bone like it was a willowy tree branch rather than anything more solid.  I kicked her in the chest to help pull my knife free, and suffered a painful kick to the side of my knee before I was able to retaliate.  I fell, tried to strike the offending Kudzu with my knife, but she caught my wrist.  A swing of my baton was caught as well.  I got my feet under her and thrust my head into hers as I returned to a standing position  Her face was softer than my mask was.

She fell, and the fourth Kudzu formed three new doubles before I could advance and attack her.  One kicked me hard enough that I had to lean against Tecton’s armor to get my balance.  My swarm had hurt the one Kudzu who’d stayed back, and the new doubles were feeling the same pain, but they were still fresh, weren’t tired or hurt from previous rounds.

Weld fought with an invincible man who was smoking, his hands hot enough that they were heating Weld’s flesh.  The man grappled him, and Weld’s attempts to strike him were having little effect.  The man dug his fingers into Weld’s chest, and white-hot metal dripped to the ground.  He was digging for organs.

I hated to spare bugs when I was fighting the Kudzu-clones, but I sent some Weld’s way.  They coated the man, and found some flesh they could damage.

“His back, Weld!” I shouted.  “His front half is tough, but everything that isn’t facing you is vulnerable!”

A Kudzu took advantage of my distraction to club me.  I retaliated by stabbing her, a nonfatal blow.

Weld pulled one arm free, reached behind the man, and started sawing into the back of his head.  Serrated edges formed on the blade, to allow for a better cut, Weld found something vital, and the man slumped to the ground.

He turned to help me with the Kudzu.

A scattering of Legend’s laser bolts tore through our surroundings, though he was blocks away.  Three of the Kudzu I was fighting were hit by Legend’s shots, and Weld lunged forward to stab the fourth.  The least hurt of them vibrated and split off into a fresh set of quadruplets.

Clones of clones, I thought.  I could only swear in my head.  My lungs weren’t suffering like they had been earlier, but I was short on breath nonetheless.

Overall, our side was winning, but we weren’t winning fast.  Nearly a third of us had fallen when Shatterbird hit, and more were losing in this chaos that followed.

Which made this the moment, fittingly, when Echidna popped back into existence.

Eidolon and Legend had been doing what they could from range, and now they were forced to deal with Echidna, leaving the rest of us to deal with the remaining clones.

Legend started using a massive laser to tear into the piles of clones that spilled forth from her mouths.

One Kudzu-clone shouted.  “Cover me!  I got this!”

Roughly a quarter of the remaining clones broke away from their individual engagements, including the Kudzu I was fighting.

Fuck me, they’re cooperating.

Our side did what they could to stop them, but these clones were still in the fight because they were hard to kill.  My bugs attacked the Kudzu, and I gave chase to stab one, then another in the back, before my hurt knee gave out and I fell to a kneeling position.  Bitch and her dogs threw themselves into the ranks of the clones, tearing and rending, but it wasn’t enough.

Chevalier wasn’t far from me.  His cannonblade detonated, painfully loud in my ear, and four or five clones died with each shot.  Legend’s lasers tore into their ranks, and Eidolon threw down a slowing field to stall for time.

It was too little, too late.  They were making a beeline for Echidna, for Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon and Myrddin.

The Kudzu who’d shouted got close to Echidna, and a tongue circled her throat.  She was reeled in, and stopped herself at Echidna’s mouth, bracing herself in position.

Chevalier took aim and shot.  A miss.

Miss Militia’s rifle shot was on target, punching through the front of the Kudzu’s throat.

But the Kudzu’s death wasn’t instantaneous, and she had time for one last gesture.  Echidna vibrated, and then split off into four copies.

Four copies of Noelle.

My breath caught in my throat in the moment I processed the reality of what had just happened.  I managed to huff out a small shuddering breath.

They were withering and dying like Kudzu’s obsolete clones were, slowly but surely, right off the bat, but there were still four of them.

This was Echidna’s greatest weapon.  Ballistic had talked about her sense for tactics, but that was Noelle, really.  This was Echidna, and she was too gone for much of that.

No, the variations that naturally occurred in powers laid out a range of capes.  Virtually every power was offensive, just about every power had some use.  That was the norm, the standard.

But exceptions existed.  They were the Bonesaws, the Crawlers, the Echidnas, the Legends, Alexandrias, Eidolons and Dragons of the world.  By sheer fortune, they’d stumbled onto powers that set them head and shoulders above everyone else.  Having the right variant, being in the right situation to use that power.

If one in a hundred capes met that kind of standard where they were just that much more versatile or powerful, then Echidna could make a hundred capes, and chances were good that one of those would be exceptional in that way.

An Echidna-double turned and charged straight for us, stampeding through the clones to get to the troops on the ground.  Forcefields went up, Chevalier unloaded cannon blasts to stall her advance, and we all did our best to retreat.  I took to the air with Atlas.

The other two Echidnas, including the original, started fighting the big name heroes.  Tongues lashed out, and Legend severed them with cutting lasers.  The clones vomited geysers, spitting out no clones with the fluid, and Alexandria bore the brunt of the blow.

Eidolon was creating blue sparks that floated around him, but when Alexandria began to lose in her struggles to keep the vomit from reaching her comrades, he switched to using a slowing field instead.  He cast it down around two of the Echidnas.  The one he didn’t catch vomited, and he threw up a small forcefield to ward off the attack.

A narrow tongue was hidden in the midst of the vomit, a concealed attack.  Prehensile, it snaked out and caught him by one arm.

Eidolon was pulled in, and clipped the forcefield he’d raised with enough force that he was momentarily stunned.  The forcefield and slowing fields disappeared, and Alexandria was caught off guard by the sudden increase in her opponent’s speed.  

Caught against its back, she started to tear herself free with the help of one of Legend’s cutting lasers.  A spray of vomit forced Legend to abandon his efforts to save his teammates and retreat for his own safety.  He cleaned up the clones that the original Echidna was still producing.

A second later, one of the Echidna-doubles leaped on top of the other, sandwiching Alexandria between her and the other Echidna-double.

The real Echidna closed her mouths, and the vomiting stopped.  She stepped on the tongue that had a hold on Eidolon, then stepped on the caught Eidolon.

Legend did what he could, but even with the three Echidna-doubles looking more like the walking dead than anything else, he couldn’t do enough lasting damage to any of the brutes.  Miss Militia and Chevalier contributed some ranged fire, as did the heroes on my side of the battlefield, but the Echidna-doubles used their bodies to block the worst of the incoming fire.

Echidna bit deep into her double, tore at flesh until she found the morsel caught between their bodies.  Alexandria.  I could see the muscles in her throat working as she swallowed.

Each of her doubles made a final reckless charge before falling to pieces.

A hush of sorts descended on everyone present.

Two of our best, caught.

Echidna reared back a little, then spat, as though she were coughing out a morsel of food she’d been choking on.

An Alexandria.  Had to be, with that long black hair.  The woman stood, and I could see how she was missing an eye.  She brushed her hair to one side, so it covered half her face, and I could hear a murmur.

“Director Costa-Brown,” someone in the crowd murmured.

The Head of the PRT and Alexandria were one and the same.

I couldn’t bring myself to care.  I wasn’t sure if it was just that I was in shock, that I was more focused on the fight that was looking a hell of a lot less winnable, or a simple lack of surprise that the PRT would have been so corrupt and imbalanced as to have a major balancing factor missing from their ranks.

Miss Militia took aim with her rifle and shot.  The bullet sparked as it clipped Alexandria’s forehead.

Alexandria shook her head.

Another cough, another spit.

Eidolon.  I couldn’t tell if he was unattractive by nature or if it was just mild deformations.  He looked so small, so below average.

He found his feet.  Miss Militia shot him twice, and he fell back against Echidna’s leg.

He flickered, and the wound was smaller, another flicker, and the wound almost disappeared.  Each flicker was stronger than the last in how it reversed the damage.  He staggered to his feet again.

“Go!” Chevalier screamed, breaking the frozen silence.  “Before he’s at full strength!”

We charged.  There was no other choice.  If we didn’t win noweveryone lost.

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Scourge 19.4

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“I was perfectly happy,” Scapegoat said, “Being able to tell myself that hey, the news is blowing things out of proportion.  There’s no way Brockton Bay is as scary as they’re making it out to be.  Dragon suits get sent in and are promptly forced out, but really, the mayors telling Washington it’s safe enough.  The media got something wrong, or they’re making little problems sound bigger than they are.  See the piles of dead bodies where this girl-”

“Echidna,” Tattletale supplied.

“Where Echidna spat out clones.  Okay.  I can live with that.  An unusual power and strong parahuman.  Could be an exaggeration.  See the destruction, the ruined buildings and the streets that still haven’t drained a hundred percent.  More or less what I expected from the news.  The girl with the mutant dogs?  Bug girl?  Still manageable.  But she opens her mouth,” Scapegoat pointed at Tattletale, “And pop goes my bubble of happy self-delusion.”

“You want to tear a hole in reality?” Tecton asked Tattletale.

“I do.  I want to use Scrub’s power in conjunction with another power that draws heavily on accessing other worlds.  It’s why I contacted Faultline’s crew.  They’re our best bet.  Myrddin might work, but he’s unlikely to cooperate.  Scapegoat could work too, but I think it’d take too long, and it might need a human sacrifice, having Scrub hit someone who was heavily affected by the goat’s power.”

Regent nudged me.  “With Grue gone, it’s your job to lay down the law.  No human sacrifices.”

He’d mimicked Grue’s tone of voice, with a forced lowness.

No human sacrifices?  Did I really want to veto any possibilities, when we were faced with threats like the Endbringers and Echidna?

“You’re not saying no,” Regent commented.

“Tattletale,” I said, “What’s the point?  Why open a hole like that?”

“It’s a place to put Noelle, for one thing.”

“We can stop her other ways,” I said.  “She’s not invincible.”

“Yet,” Tattletale said.

“Yet.  We can put her down.  With Legend, Eidolon and Alexandria alone, we should be able to do enough damage that she can’t keep regenerating.”

“Maybe.  It was hard enough before.  We’ve got big guns, now, but it’s going to be rough.  It’ll be a lot easier if we have the Travelers on our side, and we’ll have that if we can give them what they want.  A way home.”

“A way home?” Tecton asked.

“Cauldron’s the group responsible for plucking people from their realities, wiping their memories and leaving them changed, marked with a tattoo,” Tattletale said.  She glanced at Gully.

I did too.  Gully’s eyes were wide behind the curtain of braids.

“And the Travelers, far as I can figure, are the same.  Only they still have their memories, and they weren’t altered in appearance.  It’s like Noelle got her entire group’s share,” Tattletale said.

Gully slammed her shovel into the ground, but she didn’t say anything as seconds passed.

“You want to tear a hole in reality to send them home?” Tecton asked.

“It’s the best bargaining chip we have, short of a cure for Noelle.”

“How do we even know which world it is?”

“We don’t, but we can ask,” Tattletale said.  “What I’m getting at is that this is our best weapon, our best bargaining chip and our best tool.  If I’m right, if Im close to right, then this is a way to shut powers off at the source.”

“Assuming you have a way to kill or break the connection with these things you’re describing,” Tecton said.

“I’m assuming we can get our hands on some weapon of mass destruction,” Tattletale said.

“Too many potential disasters,” Tecton said.  “Listen, I get it.  I’ve been where you are.  There’s a lot of tinkers and some thinkers who’ve been where you’re at right now.  Who’ve had that brilliant idea with the power to change the world, for better or for worse.  Most of us stop at that line.  We have to.”

“This isn’t changing the world,” Tattletale said.  “This is going to the heart of every single damn problem we’ve been facing and surgically removing the most dangerous parts.  We can access the places where the powers are coming from and shut them off.  It’s an answer.”

If you can manage the risk,” Tecton said.  “And I don’t think surgically is even close to being the word you want.  With tears in reality, it’s equivalent to using explosives with a yield you can’t even guess at.”

“I’m a good guesser,” Tattletale said.

“And this is the part where I cut in,” I said.  “We’re short on time, and I have stuff to see to.  Why don’t you guys talk this through, and I’ll collect supplies with Scapegoat in the meantime.”

“Go for it,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll come,” Rachel told me.  “Too much fucking talking.”

“We can’t let Scapegoat leave in the company of two known, dangerous villains,” Tecton said.

“Send someone with us,” I said.

“Gully and Wanton, then,” Tecton said.  “If that’s alright, Gully?  We’ll watch your prisoners.”

“I’ll ask,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Atlas isn’t far from your territory,” Tattletale said.  “Head a little north, and you should find him with your range.”

I nodded.

Gully gave me a thumbs up, her phone still pressed to one ear, and we headed to the van.  Wanton was the only one who could fit in the driver’s seat and who had a license.

With Gully and Bitch both in the back, I figured it would be safest to ride with them.  Rachel was managing better these days, but a fight between her and one of the heroes could spell disaster.

It took a minute for all the dogs to climb into the back of the vehicle.  I used the time to gather my bugs in nearby buildings, where I could collect them on my return trip.

Rachel wasn’t feeling talkative, Gully seemed lost in thought, and both Wanton and Scapegoat were in the front.  That left me to get a discussion going, and I was too tired to bother.  I closed my eyes, arranging my bugs into an arrow on the dashboard of the van.  They rearranged themselves into a right turn sign to steer him toward Lord street, and from there it was relatively smooth sailing.

Someone had given the order for evacuation, and people were being directed to the shelters.  We had only two indications that things would get any worse.  Tattletale’s gut, which wasn’t a sure thing, and Dinah, who’d indicated that there was a good chance a large portion of the city would suffer at Echidna’s hands.

Or, even, not specifically at her hands.  With our luck, it would be Tattletale’s plan that leveled half the city and we’d find out that Echidna was permanently trapped beneath the rubble, not even a consideration.

Twice, I nodded off, my head starting to drift forward, before the sudden movement of my bugs stirred me fully awake.  The interior of the van was warm, dim and the vibration was oddly soothing.

The third time I drifted off, my bugs didn’t catch the movement.  My head leaned back against the wall of the van, and I slipped into the twilight state of near-sleep.

It was the appearance of Atlas that brought me back to my senses.  I signaled for Wanton to stop the van.

He was inside a garage, so still I thought he might be dead.  Without ingrained instincts, he had only the barest minimum of processing.  Enough to breathe, at least.

He hadn’t eaten in twelve hours.  I was sure to feed him a supply of the less essential bugs from the area, moving them straight into his open mouth.  I could reach my lair, and drew out every single one of the bugs I had stored there, calling them to me.

He would be weak, I noted, but at least he wasn’t hurt.  Coil had probably ordered for Atlas to be left alone for much the same reason that he’d carted the giant beetle to this area.  Doing otherwise could have clued the other Undersiders into what was really going on.

Wanton opened the back of the van, and I stepped outside.  Gully emerged as well, likely due to curiosity as much as anything else.

Atlas, at my bidding, found his way past the closed and unlocked door, made his way outside and flew to me.

When the giant beetle dropped out of the sky to land just beside the van, Wanton briefly shifted into his other form, and Gully raised her shovel protectively in front of her.

My bugs flowed over Atlas’ carapace, and I used my hands as well, checking there was no damage.  Scrapes and gouges on his underside.  Had they lifted him into a truck to transport him?  My gloved fingertip ran along the length of his scythe-like foreleg.  Maybe I needed to take the time to give him more care, sharpen the natural weapons, tend to his shell…

I blinked a few times.  I was tired, and my lack of focus was dangerous.  Time was short.

“Are your dogs well enough to run?”  I asked Rachel.

She was still in the truck, sitting on one of the benches that were built into the side.  She hopped down to the street, the dogs milling around her.  “Probably.”

“Then let’s go,” I said.  I stepped onto Altas’ back, but I didn’t take a seat.  I let him rise into the air, and I drew all the bugs in the area to me.  I didn’t settle into a sitting position until I was obscured from view.

I couldn’t move too far away from Scapegoat.  I was tethered to him by an invisible, intangible cord, about one hundred and fifty feet long; about half a city block.

Still, provided I was directly above him, it let me fly about eight or nine stories above the ground.  I wasn’t untouchable, but I was safer.

“…Hear me,” Wanton spoke.

My bugs spelled out the word ‘yes’.

“Creepy,” he said.  “I need …rections.”

There were two possibilities that sprung to mind as far as what that last word might be.  I guessed it was ‘directions’ and pointed him back to Lord street.  I wanted as many of the good bugs as I could bring, but I was limited in how many Atlas could carry and I doubted the others would be keen to see them packed into the back of the truck.

Instead, I drew out lines of thread, ferried the slower moving bugs onto my back, and loosely bound them.  Bugs strung out on silk cords, like kindergarteners did with popcorn on thread.  The rest found shelter in the folds, compartments and creases of my costume.

I kept close to the ground as I followed.  Had to stay close to Scapegoat and I couldn’t trust that Atlas had enough energy to carry me until we’d flown a bit and I could see how his stamina was.

My hair and the tatters of my costume flapped behind me as we flew, clumped together in parts with the fluid that I’d been soaked with while inside Noelle.  I had bugs crawl over both to devour and separate the worst of it.  The ones on the threads that trailed behind me with the faster flying insects were surviving, which was key.

The little tasks kept me awake, if not entirely focused. I was caught off guard when I let the van miss a turn.  If a good shot of adrenaline didn’t wake me up, I might be at a disadvantage in the coming fight.

I got that kick of adrenaline sooner than I’d wanted.  We reached the clearing where the others had been and found it empty.  The Travelers, Tattletale, Regent, Scrub and the heroes were gone.

I landed, and the van doors opened.  Bitch stopped just beside me, Bentley at full size and the other dogs standing maybe three feet tall at the shoulder.

“Gully, you have an armband.  Have the heroes communicated anything?”  I asked.

“No.”

“Can you do me a favor and see if anyone has answers on where Tattletale and the others are.  For now, we should head back to the perimeter.”

“You’re giving orders?” Wanton asked.

“Consider it a suggestion,” I said.  Gully had been pleased at the semi-promotion, with being put in charge.  I could concede to let her call or confirm the shots if it kept her happy.  “It’s Gully’s choice.”

She glanced at me.  “It’s sound.  I’ll use the armband while Wanton drives.”

We reached the perimeter around the destroyed building before she got a reply, and we found Tattletale in the company of some of the major heroes.  Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon weren’t present, but that wasn’t a huge surprise.  They apparently had secrets to keep.

More than one cape turned their attention to me as I approached.  They didn’t shoot, though.  I was relieved at that.  It would be a bad way to go, getting gunned down out of the air by heroes with twitchy trigger fingers.

I had to pause while the van stopped to pass through a contingent of heroes.  Rachel sort of strode through without really asking for permission.

It wouldn’t be winning us any points with the good guys, ignoring courtesy, but the fact that Tattletale and Regent had disappeared from our rendezvous spot and that they were now in the midst of a group of twenty-seven heroes.  They weren’t at gunpoint, not really, but the implied threat was apparent.

I waited until Scapegoat was out of the van and hobbling toward the crowd before bringing Atlas in for a landing.  I rose to a standing position so I wouldn’t be sitting down when the bugs parted to reveal me.

“What’s going on?” I asked.  My bugs passed through the crowd, not getting in anyone’s way, not touching on faces or bare skin where I could help it, but giving me a way to track everyone nearby.

It was Tecton who answered me.  “Tattletale wasn’t willing to drop her idea.  I suggested taking it to our superiors, and she agreed.”

“It’s too dangerous,” Myrddin said.  He stood by with Miss Militia and Chevalier beside him.

“It’s our best option,” Tattletale said.

“It’s a plan that puts everyone involved at an immense degree of risk, and it costs us time we don’t have.”

“We have a little time,” Tattletale retorted.  “I don’t see any movement there, do you?”

“We can’t even guarantee it’ll work,” Myrddin replied.

“Are you saying that because you consider yourself the resident dimension manipulator or because you’re afraid it’ll lead to a big revelation about Cauldron?”

I could have imagined it, but I could have sworn my bugs were aware of a collective intake of breath.  Not everyone present, not even one in five… but people did react.

How far did this reach?

“What are you talking about?”  Myrddin asked.

“No?  I’m not seeing anything from you.  Guess you’re in the clear,” Tattletale replied.

“Tattletale,” Miss Militia cut in, “This isn’t the time for games, making accusations in the hopes of finding information.”

“I agree,” I said.  “Stick to the topic at hand.”

“It’s not a game,” Tattletale said.  She looked at me, and she wasn’t smiling.  “And I don’t see how we can discuss it if we ignore the elephant in the room.”

Try,” I told her.

“What’s going on?” Chevalier asked.  Of everyone in the immediate area, he had the most presence.  He wore gleaming gold and silver armor, but it was the massive, ornate cannonblade that made him so imposing, with a blade that was twelve feet long, three feet wide and capable of growing larger, resting against his shoulder as though it were as light as a feather.

“Rest assured, Chevalier, this is a discussion for another day,” Miss Militia said.  “One I’m definitely interested in continuing, but not when it threatens to distract us.”

“If you’re sure,” Myrddin said.

“Trust me.  Please,” Miss Militia replied.

“Cauldron is led or backed up by the Tr-”

Miss Militia struck Tattletale, cutting her off before she could finish the sentence.  It was only as Miss Militia dropped to her knees, setting one knee on Tattletale’s throat, that I saw she’d had a gun in her hand.  She gripped Tattletale by the cheeks, pinching her mouth open, and slid the gun into her mouth.

I could sense Rachel striding forward, saw Regent moving to raise one hand in Miss Militia’s direction.  My arms went out to either side of me: one to bar Rachel’s advance, another to catch Regent’s wrist.

“Don’t be foolish, Tattletale,” Miss Militia said.  “Why would you risk everything like this?”

Tattletale glanced at me, then mumbled something incomprehensible around the gun barrel.  Her cheekbone was bleeding where she’d been struck.

Miss Militia looked up at me.  A gun materialized in her other hand, identical to the one that was jammed between Tattletale’s teeth, but she didn’t point it at me.  “Do we have a problem, Skitter?”

“Not unless you pull the trigger,” I said.  “We aren’t going to start a fight with this many people around.  It would be suicidal.”

I looked Tattletale in the eye as I said that last word.

“Is she a clone?” Myrddin asked.

“I almost wish she was,” I replied.  “No.  It’s the real her.”

“Can you tell me why she’s doing this?” Miss Militia asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Yes, but not in entirety.”  We were tired, but that wasn’t it, it wasn’t all of it.  Couldn’t be.  It wouldn’t account for the almost suicidal edge to her actions in just the last half hour.  There was something else going on.

“Tattletale,” Miss Militia said, “I’m going to remove the gun.  Think very carefully about what you say.  Deliberately attempting to divide our ranks could be seen as a violation of the truce, and I will push for the kill order if it goes that far.”

Tattletale nodded.  She winced as the gun was removed.  “You can’t put a kill order on the other Undersiders.  They aren’t responsible for anything I’m saying.  Heck, two of them aren’t even here.  You’d be killing innocents.”

“I don’t think anyone here thinks any of you are innocent,” Miss Militia said.

“They’re relative innocents?” Tattletale tried.

“Quiet,” Miss Militia said, her voice tight.

“I’ll be quiet when you tell me you won’t punish others because of me.”

“Just be quiet,” Miss Militia said.

“M.M.,” Chevalier said, his voice low, “I won’t gainsay any of your decisions, and with this being your city, you have the say unless one of the Triumvirate supercedes your order… but you’re attacking a girl when she was only talking, and there are a lot of eyes and ears here.”

“You’re saying it doesn’t look good,” Miss Militia said.  Her eyes were fixed on Tattletale.

“Not for your career.”

“I don’t give a flying fuck about my career,” she replied.  “I care about all of us getting out of here in one piece.”

“And you think she’ll put all of us in danger if she opens her mouth?” Chevalier asked.

“Yes.  I think Tattletale can do a catastrophic amount of damage if she opens her mouth,” Miss Militia said.  “You’ve read her file.”

“I have,” Myrddin said.

“Is the information she wants to share pertinent to this crisis?”  Chevalier asked.

“Not immediately,” Miss Militia said.  Tattletale cleared her throat, apparently asking for permission to speak, but Miss Militia gave her a tight shake of the head in response.  “Not as far as I’m aware.  I’ve discussed much of it with Skitter.”

“If I may,” I spoke up.  Innumerable sets of eyes turned my way.  I let go of Regent’s hand and dropped the hand that was still held up in front of Rachel.

“What is it?” Myrddin asked.

“I can try to explain.  You can send away the rest of the capes, I explain to you three, and you decide if and how much information to disseminate to your underlings.  I’ll try to be more delicate than Tattletale was, avoid the more sensitive parts.  I don’t agree with Tattletale’s plan, but it’s too dangerous to make calls without knowing the key details, and some of this stuff is need-to-know, if we’re to have any chance of getting the Travelers or Noelle to cooperate.”

Myrddin looked at Miss Militia, and she nodded.

Myrddin raised his voice.  “I’d like everyone who isn’t immediately involved in this discussion to find something else to do.”

Some people started shuffling away.  Aside from heading straight towards the site where helicopters were still laying down containment foam or walking face first into the containment van Wanton had parked, there were only two directions to walk, and one group of people weren’t moving.

Gully.  One of the twins was tugging on her arm, but she wasn’t budging.

“Gully,” a cape I didn’t recognize spoke, “Get a move on.”

“I want answers,” she said.  “The Undersiders have them.”

“And Chevalier will contact me with what he feels we need to know, and I’ll pass that on to you and your squad,” the cape said.

“That’s not enough,” she said.  “I don’t want the condensed version.  I want to hear why I’m like this.”

A murmur ran through the crowd, and I noted that some of the capes who had reacted before were standing out more.  One was breathing harder, another was fidgeting where she’d been calm before.

“This kind of insubordination is what goes on your file and costs you promotions,” the cape said.

“I’ve been passed up for promotion so many times I’ve already gotten the message.  Monsters don’t get to be team captain.  Your argument doesn’t have any weight to it, Lono.”

Weld approached her.  Their eyes met, and Weld came to a stop, turning around so that he stood just to her right.  He didn’t say a word.

Miss Militia stared at him, and he didn’t even flinch.

“This is a critical situation,” Myrddin said.  “We’re on the brink of another potential conflict with an S-class threat.  If the Undersiders have information we can use, information that could be sensitive, we need you to clear out.”

“I’ve spent years like this,” Gully said.  “It’s not just me, either.  There’re others.  Weld…”

“Hunch,” Weld added.  “Gentle Giant, Sanguine.”

“Weld and Hunch, Gentle Giant and Sanguine,” Gully said.  “And the others who weren’t even lucky enough to find the Wards or the Protectorate before they found themselves in trouble.  It’s not just for me.  We need to know for them.”

“This isn’t the time or place.”

“With all due respect, spend a day in my shoes, Myrddin.  Just one, and then tell me again, that I have to wait one day, one hour, even one minute longer for an explanation.”

The ground shuddered, and I thought at first that it was her, but she looked surprised.

It was Noelle.  Echidna.  She was active and fighting her way free.

“We’re out of time.  Enough of this,” Myrddin said.  “Gully, Weld, join your teams.”

Gully planted her shovel in the ground, put one foot on top of the blade, and folded her hands on the handle.

“We could share with them,” Miss Militia said.  “I know Weld is an exemplary hero, and we could trust him to keep necessary information to himself.”

“I might agree,” Chevalier said, “If it weren’t for the dramatic flair Gully was displaying.  I don’t trust that she will stay quiet on the subject.”

Another shudder.  Heroes were running to adopt battle lines, forming a circle around the construction lot with the ruined building.  The invincible, the power immune, masters with durable pets and forcefield makers were positioning themselves at even intervals around the circle.

“We don’t have time.  Myrddin,” I said. “You and I can both fly.  If we go to a nearby rooftop-”

“Fuck me,” Tattletale said.  “So much wasted time.”

She grabbed for Miss Militia’s gun.  When Miss Militia didn’t let go, Tattletale took one step closer and pressed her forehead against the gun barrel.  “Do it.  Kill me.  You’ve seen a lot of people die in your lifetime.  People important to you, dying because of an idea.  So kill me because I believe this idea should be heard by people who care.  Close the damn circle.”

Why? I thought.

“The Triumvirate,” Tattletale said.

Miss Militia stared at her, but didn’t pull the trigger.

“The… Triumvirate?” Gully asked.

“I’m in deep shit anyways,” Tattletale said.  “For saying what I already have.  We all are.  Sad fact is, I have better chance of surviving if it’s all out in the open.  The Triumvirate is Cauldron.  Eidolon, Legend, Alexandria.  They started it, or they’re so involved in it that it’s incestuous.”

“Fuck me,” Regent muttered.

I couldn’t even breathe.  I was waiting for Miss Militia to pull the trigger.

“They made me like this?” Gully asked.  “Why?”

“Not sure.  A warning, maybe, to people who didn’t pay their bills.  Or they figured that while they were brainwashing you, they’d implant you with a built-in weakness, something a paying customer could exploit.”

“That’s it?  That’s your answer?”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I wasn’t sure if I was apologizing because it was insufficient or because I’d let Tattletale take things this far.

The ground shook, more violently than before.  The air was filled with the thrum of the helicopters that were flying overhead.

By contrast, he flew so silently that I almost missed him setting down.  I didn’t have bugs in the area, and my eyes were trained in the general direction of Gully and the wreckage of Coil’s collapsed base.

Legend, landing in the midst of us.

“You heard,” Tattletale said.  She didn’t sound surprised.

“Lipreading,” he murmured.  “I can see very long distances.  Put the gun down, Miss Militia.  The cat’s out of the bag.”

“You’re admitting it,” Chevalier said.

There was another rumble, shaking the ground so hard that most of us lost our balance.  Legend stayed perfectly upright, no doubt using his flight to hold himself a hair above the ground.  He turned to check the fighting hadn’t started.

“It’s true?” Gully asked.

“We started Cauldron in the early days,” he said.  “They had a way to give people powers, and each of us were desperate for our own reasons.  We should have had trigger events, but we weren’t lucky enough to have the potential.  Nobody deluded themselves about the risks.  We knew that it was all too possible to die or become a monster.”

“But you did.  You made monsters,” Gully said.

“Everyone who took a dose went into it with their eyes open,” he said.  “They refined the process, and we reduced the chance to a single digit of a percent.  Two, three percent, if that.  And at the same time the numbers were decreasing, we were realizing how badly we needed the heroes that Cauldron could provide.  Capes without traumas to drive them toward villainy.  Cauldron turned it into a business, producing heroes and acquiring funds from the wealthy to redirect to Endbringer recovery and further research into powers.  We knew it wasn’t ideal, that some would turn to villainy, but with the appearance of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the damage the Endbringers were doing, we had to do something.”

“How do the Travelers factor in?” Miss Militia asked.

“They got ahold of a dose meant for another group of people.  They weren’t screened, they didn’t follow the necessary procedures, didn’t get the psychological or physical checkups… and even with that, we had no idea that the formulae could produce anything like this Echidna.”

“But the Travelers are from another world,” I said.  “Aren’t they?”

“The Simurgh,” he said, simply.  “Madison, Wisconsin, one and a half years ago.  She opened a dimensional gate.  You were there, Myrddin.  You met Trickster and Echidna.”

Myrddin’s eyes widened.  “The hospital room.”

The ground rumbled again.  A burned husk of a building at the far end of the street toppled with a crash.

“But… if Cauldron’s not taking people from other worlds,” Gully said.  “What-”

“It’s not Cauldron,” Legend said.  His voice was flat, without affect.  He met her eyes.  “Manton worked for Cauldron, before an incident with his daughter led to a psychotic break and a break with the organization.  He left with samples that he passed on to others.  One of those people sold them for personal profit before Cauldron found him.  Another was responsible for the case fifty-threes.  We thought it was Manton, but it wasn’t.”

He glanced at Tattletale, and she cocked her head a little to one side.

Why?” Gully asked.  “Why do that?  Why make us like this?”

“I’d give you answers if I could.  Some people abuse others for the sense of power it gives them,” Legend told her.  His voice sounded hollow.  “To change someone’s body and mind completely and irrevocably?  It could be the same impulse.  The appearance of the case fifty-threes has stopped or slowed dramatically.  It’s little consolation, but we think the person who did this to you is be dead or completely out of formula.”

“That’s no consolation at all,” Gully replied.  The ground shuddered.

“It’s worth noting,” Legend said, “That we tracked Manton down.  He and Siberian’s master are the same person.  Dragon and Defiant have a bead on the Nine.  They expect a confrontation to start soon.”

But I could only think of when Legend and I had been looking down at the Nine from above.  He’d recognized the Siberian’s master then, and he hadn’t told me.

Was he omitting facts now, in the same way?  Was he lying like he had then?

“The Siberian is Manton?” Myrddin asked.

Legend nodded.  “And Manton is ultimately responsible for the case fifty-threes.  I know it’s not the explanation you each hoped for, but it’s the reality.  Understood?”

There were nods all around.  I wasn’t sure if anyone else saw, or if they knew her well enough to say, but Tattletale was smiling, and it wasn’t the one she wore when she was being friendly and easygoing.  It was the one she’d had before she’d unloaded on Panacea, back at the bank.  The one she’d had before she revealed to Coil just how she’d screwed him over.

I directed a bug to fly across her face, brushing the skin.  She flinched and looked at me.

I only stared at her, willed her to be quiet.  Saying anything would be disastrous here.  I wasn’t sure how much of what he was saying was truth, but Legend had just stepped in here, pacified the situation.

Tattletale shrugged with one shoulder, a fractional movement that only my swarm really noticed.  The smile disappeared from her face.

“Sure,” she said, a little belatedly.

The rumbling continued, steadier now.

“Is that the essence of what you wanted to tell us?” Myrddin asked me.  “What Legend said about Cauldron?”

“Only thing I’d have to add is that the Travelers came from another Earth.  Except for Trickster, they’re more or less on our side here.  Tell Ballistic, Sundancer and Genesis that we can get them home, and they’ll help.  They have the kind of firepower we need.”

“We’ll-”

My bugs sensed Echidna clawing her way to the surface.

“Armband!”  I interrupted Chevalier.

“What?”

“Warn them.  She’s here!”

It was too late.  The Grue that was accompanying Echidna emerged from the hole she’d dug.  He raised his hands, and I could see the wave of darkness rolling out from the entrance to a parking garage to sweep over the assembled heroes.

She wasn’t beneath the fallen base.  With her shapeshifting and the teleporting Grue’s help, she’d found her way through a side tunnel, clawed or punched her way up into a nearby parking garage, a place where she could stage her attack.

Echidna materialized out of the darkness the Grue had created.  She was nearly twice the height she’d been before, to the point that the human body on the top was miniscule, a speck by comparison.  A human figure atop a broad three-story building.

Her legs were more robust, now.  There weren’t any feeble limbs like the ones my bugs had glimpsed or touched.  Her lower body was plated in a crust of bone, and two more heads were just emerging from her front, one with the beginnings of a mouth, the other with two large eyes and a lump that would become a snout.  She’d developed.

There were no less than ten capes within range of her claws as she appeared.  Ten capes that were caught in her flesh the very instant the fighting began.

I’d placed bugs on Legend to track his movements, and they went with him as he took to the air and fell into formation with Alexandria and Eidolon.  Those same bugs allowed me to sense the smallest movement of his head, as he directed a slight nod toward his longtime comrades.

If I’d been suspecting that he’d been lying before, that clinched it for me.

In his shoes, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t have done the same.

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Scourge 19.2

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I wanted nothing more than to stop, to look after Grue and lick my wounds, but I couldn’t let the heroes come to one of their deeply misinformed conclusions at my expense.  Not when they were talking about murder.

It took me two attempts to get to my feet.  I didn’t like looking anything less than my best when surrounded by so many people who were judging me, and I felt pretty far from my best.  My bugs formed a cloak, strategically covering me much in the way that Grue did with his darkness.

I noticed how Miss Militia and Weld went silent as I approached.  Other heads turned, but nobody moved to stop me.  If anything, they edged out of my way.  They didn’t clear a path, exactly, but a number of them found reasons to walk away, shift position or avoid looking at me as I moved through the perimeter they’d formed.

For an instant, I felt like I was among the students at the school.  Only this time, instead of drawing attention, with people approaching me and bumping into me, I was pushing them away.  Instead of that incessant tolling, there was only quiet, the sound of the wind, a vehicle in the distance, and the buzzing of the insects that cloaked me.

A part of me wondered how much of that was my reputation beyond Brockton Bay, and how much was my innate creepiness.

“Skitter,” Weld said, when I reached him and Miss Militia.

“Thank you for the rescue,” I said.  “I can’t really sum it up in words, but… it was pretty damn heroic.  I owe you.”

“Imp got in touch with me, with a message from Tattletale.  The two of them made a pretty convincing argument.  You’re okay?”

I offered a curt nod.  I wasn’t, but it wouldn’t do to say so.  Silence was a very effective tool, I was finding, because it spoke volumes and rarely put me into a less advantageous position.  The more I talked, the more I risked revealing just how exhausted and battered I was feeling.

“Catastrophic, was the word Imp used,” Weld said, “when describing just what might happen if a clone got your power without any of your restraint.  Not to mention the issues posed by the psychotic Grues.  Your clones could commit mass murder on the scale of hundreds, but his threaten to lose us the battle.”

“And we suspect at least one survived,” Miss Militia said.

I nodded.  “There’s other capes who are just as dangerous as us.  Think in terms of the damage some heroes could do.  You?”

Weld looked at Miss Militia.  She nodded.  “If anything, this situation is very illuminating, in terms of how bad some parahumans might be in a worst case scenario.  There are some powers that are tame at first glance, but utterly disastrous if left unchecked.”

“I take it I have one of the tame powers?” I asked.

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “I wouldn’t say that.”

There was a pause in the conversation.  I wasn’t going to argue with or agree with her point, and neither she nor Weld were volunteering further information.

“Your team took off your armbands,” Miss Militia said.

“Yes,” I replied.

“You’re playing very loose within the scope of the rules, with the consequences I outlined.”

“That’s somewhat related to what I came here to talk to you about,” I said.

“Go on,” she said.

“The clone told you things,” I ventured.  “I wanted to address them before you jumped to conclusions.  Or, at least, I wanted to address one major point.”

“You were conscious?”  Weld asked.

I nodded.

Weld spoke, “I understand if your clone was lying.  Psychological warfare, creating division in the ranks.  I’d be willing to believe the clone is capable of it, in light of our past experiences with you.  No offense.  But I still had to tell my boss.”

I didn’t respond right away.  He was giving me a way out.  I tried to get a sense of Miss Militia’s body language, using just my bugs: her arms were folded.  It was a moment where I desperately wished I could see and get a better read on her.

I’d always hated those parts in the TV shows and movies, where everything could be resolved with the simple truth.  It was why I’d never been able to watch romantic comedies.  It grated: the sitcom-esque comedic situations which would be resolved if people would only sit down, explain, and listen to one another, the tragedies which could have been prevented with a few simple words.

I didn’t want to be one of those tragedies.

“Thomas Calvert was Coil,” I said.  I kept my voice low enough that only the two of them would hear; I didn’t need to provoke a riot.

“Beg pardon?” Weld asked.

Miss Militia’s arms unfolded.  She hooked her thumbs in her belt, silent.

“Thomas Calvert got powers,” I said, “The ability to create a parallel reality where he could nudge things to unfold in different ways.  He used those powers to make a lot of money with no risk, hired high power mercenaries, and then hired both the Travelers and us.  The Undersiders.”

Miss Militia shifted position, leaning against a wall with her arms folded.  “A lot of what you say fits with what we know about Coil, but I’m not seeing where Thomas Calvert comes in.”

“His power meant anyone working under him could operate with less risk.  Our plans were that much more likely to work, because we got two chances any time he was able to give us his attention.  With that, we took over the city.  At that point, he’d exhausted the use of the ‘Coil’ persona, so he staged his own death.  He staged the deaths of those reporters, rigged the whole scene and set it up so it would play out like it did.  And in the end, a body double was set to die in his place.  His hired woman gets elected mayor in the aftermath, Piggot loses her job, and Thomas Calvert becomes head of the PRT.”

“You’re giving him a hell of a lot of credit,” Miss Militia said.

“He’s spent years rigging this.  If you dig, you’ll probably be able to find some traces of it.  Maybe the reporters who were on the scene only started working at a certain point, after he put them in position.  Maybe you can follow the money trails.  But he set everything up.  Think about it.”

I raised one hand, counted off my points.  “Through the Undersiders and Travelers, he would control all illicit activity in Brockton Bay, slowly moving on to the neighboring cities.  Through his money, power and his activity as Coil, he would control local business and industry.  Most of the construction companies that are rebuilding, all of the areas that are being bulldozed and rebuilt, he owned the land, he owned the businesses.  He could do it all at a loss because he was able to get money in other ways.  He was prepared to control the government through his puppets, and he controlled the heroes through his newly acquired position in the PRT.  All in all, he was set to have an absolute grip over Brockton Bay and all of the major aspects of the city.”

“And you murdered him?” Miss Militia asked.  “Your clone was telling the truth?”

“I think,” I said, and I had to pause to get my thoughts in order, “that this dialogue of ours is going to play out far better if I don’t answer that question.”

“Because you murdered him,” Weld said.

I didn’t answer.

“I’ll have to discuss this with the higher-ups,” Miss Militia said.  “The de-facto truce we’ve formed should protect you until this is all over, but I’ll make a strong recommendation that you be left alone for the time being.  It might help.”

“I wouldn’t,” I told Miss Militia.

“Wouldn’t what?  Make my recommendation?”

“I wouldn’t tell the higher-ups.  We took off the armbands because Tattletale had a feeling… complicated to explain.”

“I would really like you to explain,” Miss Militia said.

The problem with explaining was that it threatened to offer insight on Tattletale’s power.  Worse, it might get the Chicago Wards in trouble, and they’d been decent.

Maybe changing the subject… “Tattletale had ideas that Eidolon’s motives weren’t entirely pure.  And I don’t think they were.  When we got closer, I overheard Eidolon talking to Noelle.  He knew a few things that suggested he already knew what Coil was doing.”

Eidolon?” Weld asked.

Miss Militia put a hand on my shoulder, and ushered me away from the perimeter where the heroes were walking around and getting prepared.  I was pretty sure nobody was able to hear, but I didn’t object.  She leaned close and spoke an order in my ear, “Explain.”

This explanation was having the opposite effect I’d intended.  It threatened to get me and the others in deeper trouble.

“Do you know what Cauldron is?” I asked.

“A rumor,” Miss Militia said.  “It was an idea that cropped up around the time the first major parahumans did, and occasionally a person or group will use that idea and claim some greater conspiracy or a power connection.  In every case, it is investigated and thoroughly debunked.”

I frowned behind my mask.  “If you don’t think Cauldron’s responsible, how do you explain the monstrous parahumans?  Like Gregor the Snail or Newter?”

“Or me?” Weld asked.  He was just behind us.

“Or you,” I said.  “I’ve run into too many situations that involve Cauldron to buy that it’s a series of hoaxes.  The Merchants had vials that granted powers, and a suitcase detailing some contract with Cauldron.  I read some of it, before Faultline’s crew absconded with the rest of it.”

“Did you actually see someone drink and gain powers?”  Miss Militia asked.

“No.”

“It’s a name that’s acquired enough momentum and prestige that people will occasionally use it to their advantage.  Nothing more,” Miss Militia said.

“Then why did Eidolon say that Coil was involved with Cauldron, and that Cauldron was responsible for Noelle?”  I asked.

Miss Militia pursed her lips.  “I don’t know.  It could be that you’re lying.”

“If I was going to lie, I’d pick something more believable.”

“Or you’re picking something so unbelievable that it’d take ages to sort through the data.  In the meantime, this situation gets resolved and we let you walk away unharmed.  I have talked to my team, and I’ve seen your records.  You tend to do that.  Protect yourself in the present with details and arguments that would take a long time to verify.”

“I’m not looking for an argument,” I said.  “If you don’t believe that Calvert was Coil, then that’s fine.  I just wanted to put all my cards on the table.”

“Except for actually admitting to the murder,” Weld said.

“Right,” I said.

“Assuming we believed you, what are we supposed to do with this knowledge?”  Miss Militia asked.

“For now?” I asked, “Nothing.  Operate as you would otherwise.  But keep your eyes open, with this information in mind.”

“And if we do?  If we keep our eyes open, thoroughly investigate this allegation about Calvert and Coil, and we still decide to arrest you, will you agree to come peacefully into custody?”

I shook my head.  “No.  I don’t think so.”

“So it’s really selfishness that brings you here,” Miss Militia said.  “You don’t expect to change the way you operate, and you expect to get away with acknowledging that you murdered a man, if not outright admitting it… but you want us to change how we handle our end of things, based on your hearsay.”

“If you want to see it as self-serving, that’s your call,” I said.  “Maybe that’s how you work.  But I don’t have high aspirations, now.  I saved Dinah.  I want to protect the people in my territory, and stop the forces that might hurt them, be it the Slaughterhouse Nine, Coil or Echidna.  Maybe you won’t believe me when I say so, but I’m not trying to argue in my own defense here.  I won’t confirm or deny what the clone said, but nothing I’m saying here really gives me an alibi or leverage to escape this situation.”

“You’re giving us excuses to soften the impact of the crime you committed,” Miss Militia said.

“I’m not admitting to anything,” I pointed out.

“You know what I mean.”

“Maybe they are excuses, kind of.  It’s one way of looking at it.  Another way is that maybe now you can maybe be more wary when talking to Eidolon, or pay more attention when you start looking into Calvert’s daily life, see if anything points to Coil.  He wasn’t stupid, but you don’t devote that much time and energy to something without some blurring of the lines.  I don’t gain much if you do that, but you could stand to benefit.”

“Maybe,” Miss Militia said.

“Are you speaking from experience?” Weld asked.  “When you talk about blurring the lines between identities?”

I turned toward him, remembered that he’d seen my face.  “That would be telling.”

“Could be,” he answered.  “It’s something I’m interested in.  I never had the benefit of a secret identity.”

“Overrated, as far as I can tell,” I told him.  I thought of my dad.  Was he the victim of a blurring of the lines?  Or just a casualty in a long series of events that had affected the whole city?  Or both.

“This seems like a good time to cut in,” Tattletale said.  She approached from around the corner, turned her head in Miss Militia’s direction, “May I steal Skitter from you?”

Miss Militia waved a hand to one side, silent.

Tattletale was leading me off when Miss Militia spoke up.  “I don’t know if you’re speaking the truth…”

She trailed off.  I opened my mouth to speak, then shut it.  Silence was safer.

“…But if you are, I appreciate it.  It’s not like me, to demand evidence, to suspect everything, but I have to.  My teams can’t afford for me to give anyone or anything the benefit of a doubt.”

“Being in charge is hard,” I said, without turning her way.

Tattletale gestured in the direction we were going, then walked beside me as we left Weld and Miss Militia behind.  Whatever warped disease Noelle had dumped into me to weaken me and leave me unable to fight back after I’d been vomited out was steadily wearing off.  That was only a part of the overarching problems, though, and I still felt drained.  My stamina was pretty rock bottom, and the recent fight hadn’t helped.  I was hungry, thirsty, and I wanted to crash for fifteen or thirty minutes.

Oddly enough, though she no doubt felt far more spry than I did, it was Tattletale who fell a half step behind me as she walked to my left, and it seemed very deliberate in how she did so.

She’d done something very similar when we’d been on the rooftop, a subtle maneuver to help portray me as the leader and as someone to be respected.  Tattletale was scary in her own way, in a very different way than I was scary, but scary.  That she was showing deference or whichever would suggest something, even if people didn’t consciously realize it.

The alternative interpretation was that she’d been hurt more in the fight than she was letting on.

“Skitter,” Tattletale said, “Meet Scapegoat.”

My bugs passed over the young hero, and he didn’t flinch.  He would be one of the Wards, unless his stature was misleading.  His costume was a robe, though closer to Myrddin’s in style than Panacea’s.  My bugs traced beneath the robe to detect armor that suggested the costume was intended to be worn into a fight.  He wore a mask attached to his head by a band that felt like metal, apparently designed to flip up.  Two curling horns were attached to the band, at the sides of his forehead.

“Scapegoat?” I asked.  “A healer?”

“No,” Scapegoat said.  “But I can fix you.  Sort of.”

“What do you mean by ‘sort of’?”

“What I do is fragile.  It’s not healingYou’ll stop hurting, the wounds will disappear, but it’s a delicate balance, and the duration is limited.”

“I’ll take what I can get,” I said.

“When the duration expires, unless certain conditions are met, the injuries come back.  Sometimes not as bad, sometimes worse.  And they’re usually slower to heal.”

“What’s the duration?” I asked.

“Anywhere from one hour to six hours.”

“And the condition?”  I asked.

“Longer you go without breaking the effect, the better the chance the injuries stay gone.”

“Sit,” Tattletale said.  I sat.

Scapegoat touched my hand.  I felt a wave of sensations rushing over me.  Being hot, being cold, vibrations, the feeling of different fabrics and skin contacting mine, all at once.  The feeling of my costume against my skin became intense, sharp, even overwhelming.  I jumped and pulled away.

“It’s okay,” Tattletale said.

I nodded, gave Scapegoat my hand once again.

Tattletale explained, “Scapegoat’s effect operates on a quantum level.  He’s digging through potential realities to find unhurt versions of you, versions of you that are close enough to who you are right now that everything fits together seamlessly.”

“Except the injuries,” I said.  Sensations were rippling over me, each simultaneous, and the simple contact of my costume against my skin or the ground under my feet was so intense that it felt electric.

Tattletale nodded.  “Except the injuries.  For the time being, he’s patching you together with unhurt parts from the versions of Skitter from the other realities and other possibilities, and his own body serves as a bridge for that.”

“Is this safe?” I asked.  I had to grit my teeth as the effect continued to intensify.

“Relax,” Scapegoat said.  “More agitated you are, the weaker the effect.”

Relax.  I reached out to my bugs, trying to feel what they felt, see what they saw, hear what they heard, and displace myself from my body.  It was a method I’d tried many times before, almost meditative.

“It doesn’t take much for the effect to break,” Tattletale said.  “A heavy impact, a new injury or a major shock.  If that happens, all the injuries come back.  Probably worse.”

I’d planned to comment on how hard it was to relax and distract myself from the sensation when the meaning of Tattletale’s words struck me.

“How the hell am I supposed to fight if I can’t get hurt?”

“Play safe.  And stay within a hundred and fifty feet of Scapegoat.”

I frowned.  “I don’t think I can operate like that.”

“I can stop,” Scapegoat said.  “If you’re feeling ungrateful.”

“You’re barely functional,” Tattletale told me, ignoring him.

“A lot of it’s just the way that her puke makes you feel sick.  It’s wearing off.”

“You’re saying you’d rather keep going the way you are?” Tattletale asked.  “Ribs, lungs, exhausted, battered…”

“If it means being able to fight without having my hands tied, maybe.” I said.  And not feeling like this.  Scapegoat’s process sucked.

“But you can’t fight.  Not in this shape.”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Scapegoat said.  “It’s too late to undo it.”

All at once, the sensations stopped.  My entire body seemed to vibrate like a silent tuning fork might, in the absence of the sensations.  My ears were ringing, and spots swelled behind my eyelids.

I opened my eyes, and I still couldn’t see.  No.  It was different.  There wasn’t a white haze.   I wiped at the lenses of my mask, and dried bile and blood flaked off, leaving them more or less clear.

I blinked a few times, then took a deep breath.

I could see, and I could breathe.

“She’s fucking blind!?”  Scapegoat yelped.

I looked down at Scapegoat.  His costume was all white and gold, his mask an alabaster goat’s head fixed to a golden band, his robe white, and the chain around his waist more gold, with a goat’s head buckle.  He was on his knees on the ground, and the yelling had elicited a coughing fit.

“Could’ve sworn I mentioned it,” Tattletale said.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Oh.  He takes on whatever injuries he removes from others.  The eyes you’re using right now are essentially a blend of his eyes and the ones he was able to find by paging through alternate Skitters.  Kind of.  Hard to explain.”

“How the fuck am I supposed to operate like this?” Scapegoat rasped.  He started coughing again.

“You visit my other teammates, make sure they’re ship-shape,” Tattletale said, “Then we accompany you, and we create a situation where you can use the offensive effect of your power.”

“Fuck me,” Scapegoat said.

“It’s temporary,” she said.  In a lower voice, she added, “And I’m paying you well.”

A corrupt hero?  Or just an enterprising one?  I wondered.

I was also wondering if Tattletale had the funds for this.  She’d just paid off Coil’s soldiers, and as far as I knew, she was committing to keeping his enterprises going, but she wouldn’t have all of his funds, nor all of his contacts.  It came perilously close to emulating Coil’s fatal mistake.

Other junior heroes were gathering around us, as Scapegoat continued coughing and wheezing.  The one that caught my eye at first was a girl with a flower motif to her costume, her hair pink and styled in waves like a rose’s petals, which was impressive given how she’d probably just gotten out of bed before arriving.  Others included a boy in green with a sledgehammer, a guy with plate armor with fins at the side of the visor, a boy with a candle on his tan costume, and a pair I recognized as Grace and Wanton.

“Problem, S.g.?” the girl asked.

“Hate my power, hate my power, hate it, hate it, hate it,” Scapegoat rasped.  Wanton and Grace gave him a hand in standing.  He was still making his way to his feet when Grace turned to me.

“You’re blind?” she asked.

“I was,” I said.

“It happened after we parted ways?”

“No,” I said.

She gave me a funny look.

I kept my mouth shut, deciding to let her draw her own conclusions.  She looked down at Scapegoat, and I changed the subject.  “You’re okay?  No lasting effects from Noelle?”

“Ship shape,” she said.  I wasn’t sure she was telling the truth; Grace looked a little worse for wear.  Her hair looked wet, and the fluids that Noelle had been spitting out had congealed into the cracks and folds of her costume, with colors ranging from black to red to bilious yellow.  I wasn’t sure how she’d looked before, but she looked tired.  Was it waking up before sunrise, or had she been affected emotionally?

I probably didn’t look much better.  At least my costume was black and gray.  The muck wouldn’t stand out.

I felt better, though.  Enough that I felt almost euphoric.  Aches and pains I’d stopped paying attention to long ago were gone.  It did a lot to help me disassociate from the images and scenes I’d seen inside Noelle.

Tattletale might have been right.  Maybe working with Scapegoat was necessary.  If making this permanent was an option, I was willing to do what it took to preserve the effect, keeping Scapegoat close and keeping myself in one piece.

It wasn’t something I had a lot of experience in, playing safe.

“Let’s go find the others,” I said.  I didn’t like how Grue was acting when I left him behind.  “Grace, Wanton, are you coming with?”

“The orders we got stand until we hear different,” Grace said.  “We’re supposed to accompany you.”

“Good.  Then let’s see about getting Bentley and putting him on the dog’s back.”

Tattletale shook her head.  “Too many impacts, with him lumbering around like he does.  Either you or he take too heavy a hit, and we’re back where we started.”

“What if we find a containment van and put him in the passenger seat?” I asked.

“The last van didn’t fare too well,” Tattletale said.

“We’ll use containment foam to keep him safe and in one piece if we have to,” I told her.  “I hope it doesn’t come to that.  Let’s go.”

I started to move to pick Scapegoat up off the ground, but Tattletale stopped me, putting one hand on my wrist.

“Treat yourself like you’re made of glass,” she said.  “No heavy exertion, don’t get hurt, don’t strain yourself.”

“That’s a little extreme,” I said, but I didn’t touch Scapegoat.

It took two people to help Scapegoat to walk.  Grace walked on one side of him, Tattletale on the other.  When he’d taken on my injuries, had he received a more crippling variation?

I was hungry to observe and absorb every tidbit of information I’d been missing.  I could see the heroes gathered, all eyes on the wreckage of the building.  PRT officers were treading the perimeter, spraying volumes of containment foam onto the rubble.

Eighty heroes, if my bugs were counting right.  Maybe eight in all were in the air.  It made it easy to find Eidolon.  Like Grace, his costume had been tinted by the film of dried fluids.  He was a few stories above the ground, and his cape flapped around him in the strong winds.

It was hard to make capes look good.  They had a way of clinging to the body, or flowing the wrong way, getting caught around an arm… it took a measure of majesty to make it work.  Eidolon could pull it off.

Ironic, that the slang for a parahuman was ‘cape’, and so few of us wore them.

I’d worn a short cape, not so long ago, barely long enough to reach the small of my back.    I’d adopted it more for utility than style, to give me more concealed area to hide my bugs and for the marginal extra protection it afforded me.  I didn’t have it now, and I was somewhat glad.  I might have felt more self-conscious, seeing Eidolon up there.  I’d wind up worrying if I really had the ability to make it look good, when I needed to focus on projecting confidence.

There weren’t many villains here, and now that I could see, I was getting evidence to my previous concerns about being watched.

We reached the Undersiders, and I knelt beside Grue.  Imp was beside him, and both Regent and Bitch were standing nearby.  Regent gave me a nod, and I nodded back.

“Sorry to do this,” I said.  I looked at the three heroes that had accompanied us, “But I’d like to have a private conversation with my teammates.”

The bugs flowed from my costume and the surroundings, forming a moving curtain that separated me from Grace, Wanton and Scapegoat.  I gradually widened it, forcing them to back up.

Wanton let Grace support Scapegoat and tried to venture forward into the swarm.  He snorted and backed up as bugs crawled into his nose, ears and mouth.  I gave him a few seconds to experience the sensation, then removed them.  He didn’t try a second time.

“What’s going on?” I asked, keeping my voice low.

“He’s gone quiet,” Imp said.  “Not responding much.  He flinched when I tried to touch him.”

“Being inside Echidna, you see things,” I said.  “Variations on your trigger event, or ugly moments from your life.”

“Oh,” Imp said.  “Oh.

I looked at Grue.  He was staring off into space, with darkness gathered in thick ropes around him, to the point that I couldn’t make out how he was sitting.  He did that instinctively, I’d noted.  The more he withdrew into himself, suppressed his emotions, the more his darkness manifested around him.

If it was this bad, then I wasn’t sure what I could do.

I knelt beside him, and even with the darkness that wreathed him, I could sense him pulling away.

“Imp,” I said.

“What?”

“You should take him home.”

“But… I can help.”

“I know,” I said.  “You’ve helped a lot already.  But he can’t stay here.  Not like this.  If he relived his trigger event, he’s going to need reassurance from you.”

“His other trigger event was about you,” Imp said.  She sounded almost accusatory.

“Maybe,” I said.  I stared into the black lenses of her mask.  “Do you want me to take him? Because I will.  I’ll leave, Tattletale can lead the Undersiders, and you can stay and focus on assassinating clones.”

She drew her knife, turned it around in her hands, as if she were considering it.

“Whatever you do,” I told her, “Make the call fast.  If you aren’t staying, I want to get moving fast.  I need to collect bugs before the fighting starts up again.”

She glanced down at Grue, then she looked at the others.  Regent and Rachel were watching us carefully.

For my part, I looked at Grue.  I wanted nothing more than to walk away.  I’d be okay being partially blind, waiting weeks or months to see if maybe my senses came back, if it meant holding him, helping him through this, giving him whatever support he needed so badly.

I could so vividly recall the vision I’d seen of Mannequin, and all the people I’d cared about struggling to get to safety.  Everyone had been counting on me, and I’d been failing them.  Odd, that the recollection was somehow reassuring to me in this brief moment.

In the same moment, I turned to Imp and Imp turned to me.  The black lenses of her mask met my yellow ones straight-on.

“You’re the leader,” Imp said, and that was answer enough.

I reached out and took Grue’s hand.  He flinched, trying to pull away before I got a firm hold.  I managed it anyways, seized his hand between mine.

“Grue,” I said.  I kept my voice firm, but quiet.  “It’s Skitter.  Taylor.  I need you to listen.”

He didn’t budge an inch.  I squeezed his hand.  “Listen.  You’re going with Aisha, understand?  I think I know the kind of thing you saw.  What you experienced.  But you need to remember the important part, okay?  You didn’t fail.  You did what you wanted to.  You saved her, you saved me, and you saved yourself.”

He tugged, trying to pull his hand away, and I held fast.  The darkness was swelling around him.

“There’s only one more part left.  Just like you did then, you need to walk away.  Leave the scene behind.  It’s the best thing you can do.  You turn your back, and you walk away from where all the ugliness happened.  Understand?  Go with Aisha.  You two go home together.”

I stood, and I pulled on his hand at the same time.  He resisted.

“Take her home,” I said.

This time, when I pulled, he worked to climb to his feet.  I took his hand and placed it firmly in Aisha’s.  I watched them walk away, hand in hand, and when I couldn’t see them with my eyes, I sensed them with my power, followed the movements with the blotchy vision of my bugs.

The bugs I’d formed into a barrier drifted in my direction and congregated on me.  The younger heroes were a short distance away, and Tattletale was with them.

They were watching as reinforcements arrived.

Alexandria and Legend had joined Myrddin, Chevalier and Eidolon.

The big guns.  We were finally treating this like a class S threat.

When I approached Tattletale, the other Undersiders followed me: Regent and Bitch with a litter of dogs of varying size trailing around her, chains clinking where they were attached to collars and harnesses.

Tecton was on the other side of the crowd, looking somewhat worse for wear.  Grace and Wanton started making their way toward him, and I followed by necessity, because they were helping a blind Scapegoat hobble along.

Our trip led us past the collection of major heroes, and the crowd that had gathered around them.  Glancing at them, I could see Tattletale in my peripheral vision, a smile spreading across her face.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  I’d seen that kind of smile, had seen it on Emma’s face, often enough, just before she pulled something.  It wasn’t directed at me, though.  I reached out for Tattletale’s arm, but she was already speaking.

“Cauldron,” she said.  The word just loud enough for the heroes to hear.

Eidolon managed to feign ignorance, not even moving a muscle, and Alexandria barely moved, nothing out of the ordinary for someone who’d heard a voice calling out.  Legend, though, turned our way, looking straight at Tattletale.  His lips pursed a fraction, and then he looked away.

Tattletale’s grin widened a fraction.  She murmured to me, “All three know.”

In which case we just added three people to our list of possible enemies.

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Migration 17.7

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Noelle screamed, her back arching.

“Well,” Krouse said, as he reached for the tubing that led from the bag of blood to her arm.  He pulled it out, then removed the tape that had held it in place. “That’s bound to get someone’s attention.”

The heart monitor was erratically shifting from a series of fast beeps to flatlines.  His own heart skipped a few beats until he realized that it wasn’t flatlining for good.  A steady blare marked an alarm going off.

He stood and blocked the door of the room with the chair he’d been sitting on.  Noelle screamed again, a howl, almost ragged.

Had he screamed that much?  Or taken that long?  He felt a twinge of anxiety.

Someone shoved against the door of the room, but the chair held fast.

Krouse wasn’t too worried.  He had his power, so if it came down to it, it was merely a question of-

A landscape stretched around him.  It was a smaller planet than Earth, he sensed, to the point that the curvature of the planet was noticeable as he looked over towards the horizons.  He realized he was looking at multiple horizons simultaneously.  They weren’t his senses.

Even with the world being smaller, he shouldn’t have been able to see the horizon.  Not unless these senses he was using were more refined, or the atmosphere was thinner.  Somehow things were degraded, blurred around the edges, but it didn’t impact his ability to see, only to draw together a complete mental picture.  A film reel with the damaged frames removed, only it wasn’t a sequential reel.  There was depth, in more ways than one.

He could focus on the ground, note how craggy it was.  Where the larger expanses of landmass had pressed together, it had cracked and separated in dramatic ways.  The compressed soil of gravel and rocky material formed zig-zagging cliffs and deep chasms.

He could focus on the grove of crystalline figures.  They were more like stalagmites than people, glassy, and the planet rotated thrice in the time it took them to move a discernable distance.  Still, they were communicating, vibrating with subsonic hums that played off of the others, complicated ideas.

He tried to discern the hum, but ran into the degradation, the distortion of the frames that had been spliced together, for lack of a better term.  He was jarred into the next available scene.  Two crystalline figures, moving steadily towards one another.

He could tell how they were different from the others.  They were bigger, and they traversed ground that didn’t bear the clusters of ‘dead’ crystal that the others left in their wake like a slug’s moist slime.  They weren’t restricted to the equator where things were hottest.

They closed the distance between them, made contact-

I’ve seen this before.  From another angle.  It’s a replay.

No time had passed, but he was dazed, caught off guard as the chair’s legs skidded on the tile.  It fell to the ground and the door swung wide open.  A man in uniform charged into the room.  The butt of a rifle caught Krouse in the stomach, and he collapsed.

“What the hell are you doing!?” the uniform screamed at him.

Krouse coughed and groaned as his stomach rebelled against the violence.  His eyes and his power roving across his surroundings.  Something he could swap for the uniformed officer or for the gun.  With his eyes, he eyeballed mass, eyeballed size and likely volume, tried to match it to what he was feeling from the gun or the officer.

The officer kicked him.

Swap the lamp for the gun?  No, the lamp was too lightweight.

He resolved to switch himself and the officer, grabbing air to compensate for the volume.  The difference was larger than it was with him and Cody, it required extra seconds.

He grunted as the officer kicked him again.

He had a grip.  He winced as a kick caught him in the side of the head, closed his eyes-

Again, he was somewhere else.  He saw energy condensing, two figures intertwining, and the summary birth of countless entities, as if from the birth of a star, only they were alive.

No, he thought.  Need to focus.  This is because of Noelle.  I’m getting caught up in whatever’s affecting her.  A sympathetic reaction.

He forced himself to look away, tried to focus on his power, instead.

Nothing.  His body wasn’t there.

He struggled further, tried to banish the visions, to focus on the empty void rather than the countless creatures that were radiating out from the detonation.

The vision chose its own time to end.  That was the downside.  The upside was that he wasn’t quite so disoriented when he came crashing back down to reality.

His power still had a grip on the man in uniform.  Krouse forced a swap.

It didn’t change the situation much.  He was still lying on the ground, the uniform still standing, but Krouse was now behind his opponent.

The confusion the teleportation had generated bought him a second.  He got on his hands and knees and then threw himself at the man’s legs, driving his side and his shoulder into the back of the knees.

The officer fell, and Krouse hurried to his feet.

The gun was a problem, and he hadn’t seen anything he could swap for it.  Everything in the hospital was either too lightweight, too miniscule, or both.

Noelle screamed.

This is taking longer than mine did.

Krouse rolled over to grab for the gun.  He only succeeded in getting a grip on it, but he couldn’t wrest it from the uniformed man’s arms.

The alarm continued to blare, the heart monitor seizing up as it ranged from high intensity to ominous low beeps, and Krouse was losing his wrestling match over the gun.  He knew if he lost it, he’d probably get shot.  The use of his power had been the only way to avoid being beaten into unconsciousness, but he suspected it also raised the stakes.  Given a chance, the officer would kill him in self defense.

The man was pulling with such force that his face contorted into a sneer of muscle strain.  Krouse wasn’t so strong, nor quite so tenacious.  He felt the gun slipping from his fingers, felt himself reaching the point where the pain in his hands was overcoming his desire to keep the man from getting the rifle.  He knew he’d get shot if it happened, or struck in the head with the butt-end of the weapon, but the pain…

He reached out, and he found something.  He wasn’t thinking in the right terms.  Was still thinking too much about shape and not about mass.  The heavy wool blanket that was draped over Noelle had roughly the same mass as the gun.

But he had to be looking at both to swap them.  Krouse let the gun go, backed away as rapidly as he could as he got to his feet.  The uniform was standing, moving his hands to get a grip on the trigger and barrel-

-And the gun was gone, replaced by a blanket.  Krouse tackled his unarmed opponent, knocking him to the ground, grabbing at his wrists.

Krouse closed his eyes and slammed his forehead into the lower half of the uniformed man’s face.  He headbutted the guy once more.  Blood welled on his own forehead, where a tooth bit too deep into the skin.  His opponent got one hand free, punched Krouse in the ribs, three times in quick succession, each blow stronger than Krouse might have expected.

I’m going to lose this fight.

Using his power to get a sense for where it was, Krouse reached over to the gun, got a grip on the rifle and swung the end of it into the uniformed man’s face.  He kept swinging until the officer stopped putting up a fight.

He managed to climb to his feet, blinked slowly as he looked down at the uniformed man. Not a cop, not a soldier, something else.  The guy’s face was a mess of blood, and his gaping mouth had at least two broken or missing teeth.

There were nurses and doctors in the hallway, staring.  Krouse stepped towards the door, and they ran.

Noelle was still struggling, thrashing.

“Come on, Noelle,” he whispered.  “Best thing you can do for me is stay alive, here.  Don’t let this be where I accidentally kill you.  Can’t live with that.”

He paused.  There were other footsteps coming down the hallway.

“And if it’s not asking too much, hurry it up some?”

When he’d disconnected from reality and seen whatever he saw in the visions, how much had he seen?  Was she halfway done, only a tenth of the way?

Krouse moved the chair to block the door, then dragged the man he’d bludgeoned into place so the unconscious body would keep the chair in place and the door closed.

“Come on,” he said.  “Come on…”

For the third time, he found himself someplace else.  All of the memories and thoughts of the hospital room and Noelle thrashing receded as he found himself plummeting, felt the heat of entering the atmosphere, and didn’t care in the slightest.  Emotion didn’t factor in, from this perspective.

A waterless, lifeless earth loomed beneath him, stretched out until it consumed his senses.

The impact didn’t hurt any more than the atmospheric entry had.

-And he was back in the hospital room.  He staggered, nearly fell, but managed to keep his balance.

“How much more, Noelle?’

She was panting, not screaming, sweat beading her brow.

“I… I’m… I think it’s over,” she said.  Her voice was stronger.

“Feel better?’

She touched her stomach, pushed herself to a sitting position with her arms.  Her eyes widened.  “Yes.”

Krouse felt a smile stretch across his face, so broad it hurt.  “Fantastic.  Feel different?”

“No… not really.”

“Well, you only got half a dose.  If you get any powers, they’re liable to be pretty weak.  Could be that you burned up whatever juice is in that stuff, healing the damage.”

“Maybe.”  She touched the hospital gown.

Krouse looked away, feeling somehow abashed.  “You’ll want to get dressed.  I saw your stuff in the cupboard, with the sheets.”

He found the half-full cup and tipped the contents into the vial, then slid the vial into the canister.  As Noelle climbed out of the bed, Krouse turned his back to her to give her privacy, screwing on the cap and closing the canister with the remaining formula.

Someone banged on the door, hard.

“There’s more of these guys.  Thought the process would be faster,” Krouse said.

“Can we get away?”

“Depends on how much backup they get.  The more the better.”

“Don’t you mean-”

“Nope,” Krouse said.  “Best case scenario, they’ll have tons of backup.”

“I… my bare skin’s fizzing.”

“Fizzing?”

“I can’t see it, but I feel like there’s bubbles, and they’re so tiny I can’t see them, but they’re flowing down from my skin.”

“Huh.  You can’t control it?”

“No.  Or… sort of?  If I concentrate, pull on my skin, it speeds up.”

Fizzing and pulling on her skin.  It wasn’t the most apt description, but Krouse wasn’t sure he’d be able to accurately describe the pressure or the feeling of heft he got when he pressed his power into something.

“Does it feel different when you touch stuff?”

“Yeah.  Feels like my skin’s fizzing against my clothes, as I’m putting them on, where the cloth touches me.”

“Touch other stuff.  If we can figure out your power, maybe we can use it.”

There was a pause.  Krouse waited while she experimented.

The door banged.  He tensed.  This time, at least, he’d be ready.

“Not much.  Less than from my clothes.”

There was another bang on the door.  The chair shifted, and Krouse moved it back.

“Worry about it later.  We’re stuck with just my power until we figure yours out.”

Noelle entered his field of vision, wearing all of her winter stuff.

Krouse stepped over to the window.  The street was lit only by the minimal moonlight that filtered through the clouds.  There were police cars and fire trucks massing inside the quarantine area, as well as black vans with pale purple stripes and the letters P.R.T. on the sides.  The people outside the black vans had uniforms like the man he’d just beat up, only they wore helmets.

There were capes, too.  Krouse could see the one with the brown cloak and staff.  Myrddin.  A half dozen superheroes clustered around him.  His team?  It was a surprise that so many heroes were still present in the city.  Did they have to undergo their own kind of quarantine processing as well?

Doing this all backwards, deciding on a strategy before I’ve fully tested my powers.  Don’t even know my own range.

Krouse pushed his power away from himself, reached for two of the men in the P.R.T. uniforms, each on opposite sides of the crowd.

They swapped places.  He couldn’t really see the physical differences between them, but they were alarmed, confused.

“I can swap us out with someone in the crowd, if it comes down to it.  Happen to know anything about Myrddin?  Maybe Jess said something?”

Noelle shook her head.

“Fuck.  And we have even less chance of knowing something about his subordinates.  Far as I know, he does something with these dimensions he carts around.  When I ran into him, he sort of banished me into this phase state where I could move around and stuff, but I couldn’t touch anything either.”

Noelle nodded.

“He didn’t mean to, though.  He thought I’d pop back in like I’d just left.  His power, it doesn’t work well if something’s changed between dimensions too much.  Which means it won’t work a hundred percent right with us.”

“Would he listen if we talked to him?”

Krouse looked outside.

“No.  I don’t think we could.  We’re on our own.  Just… we just need an opportunity.  Stay close to me.”

Myrddin was flying, now.  Two of his subordinates were advancing as well.  One had a beachball-sized ball of jet black extending a foot away from his splayed hands, crackling with arcs of electricity that were both absolutely black and somehow still glowing enough to be seen in the dark.  The other figure was an Asian woman with a painted mask and a giant lantern in her hands.

“We have a fight incoming,” Krouse said, backing away from the window.

Myrddin waved his staff, and the window shattered.  With another movement of his staff, he plunged down into the room, landing with an audible impact.

Krouse had a better look at the guy:  A brown cloak-and-robe combination that might have been burlap, but with a heavier material beneath.  If the raised metal collar around his neck was any indication, Myrddin was wearing some kind of armor or protective gear beneath the robe.  It should have been heavy, but he wasn’t having any apparent difficulty.  His staff was a gnarled stick of dense wood, worn by weather.  The upper half of his face was hidden behind a metal visor that served more to cast his face in shadow than to be actual armor.  He sported a thick, well trimmed beard.  Brown, not white.

This wasn’t a guy that Krouse could fight hand to hand, and between his armor and his stature, he was too heavy to be swapped with anything that wasn’t an appliance.

“Stand down,” Myrddin ordered.

“I’ll pass,” Krouse replied.  He looked at the injured P.R.T. soldier, “We’ve got-”

“Begone,” Myrddin said, pointing his staff.

The officer vanished in a cloud of mist.

“-A hostage,” Krouse finished.

Myrddin looked at Noelle, then at Krouse, “So there’s two of you.”

“One of us, two bodies,” Krouse said.

“What?”  Myrddin’s eyes narrowed.

No clue.  Just confusing matters.  His eyes flickered to the scene behind Myrddin.  No luck just yet.

The man with the black spheres floating around his hands leaped up to the shattered window.  Krouse could see the Asian woman holding the handle of her lantern as it raised into the air.

“Banish one?” the man with the spheres asked.

“Already banished their hostage.”

“Want me to grab one to take into custody?”

“Be my guest, Anomaly.”

Anomaly raised one hand, and the sphere floated up until it was level with Krouse’s head.

Krouse felt a pull, stepped back and grabbed the footboard of the hospital bed.

The pull increased steadily, intense enough to pull at his hair with the strength of a gale.  Noelle said something Krouse couldn’t make out as she began to slide towards the thing.

Myrddin, for his part, didn’t budge an inch.  The girl with the lantern held onto the handle with both hands to avoid the suction, setting her feet on the windowsill and perching with a crouch.

Noelle slid, and Krouse caught her with his power.  He found the lantern girl, snagged her-

And Noelle was there, on the windowsill, losing her balance.  The lantern girl slid into the sphere, virtually folded over it as it pulled her tight against its surface.

Noelle caught the side of the shattered window with one hand.  He could see her grimace in pain.

Shattered glass.  Sorry.

He swapped Noelle for Anomaly, and both she and the lantern girl fell hard to the ground.  Anomaly tipped from the window to the interior of the room.

“Who are you?” Myrddin asked.

Krouse glanced out the window.  No.  This might go badly before he had a chance to execute their escape.  If he had to teleport to the back of the crowd, they could wind up in a situation where there was no escape.

“Nobody dangerous.”

Myrddin shifted his staff, and Krouse tensed.

Where the staff-tip moved, a thread of blinding light was drawn in the air, loose and loopy, like the light trail from a sparkler.

The light exploded outward with a concussive force, and both Krouse and Noelle were slammed against the walls.  The shape of the trail Myrddin had drawn meant the resulting blast passed over and to either side of his lantern-bearing teammate.  Her clothes were barely ruffled.

He has personal dimensions he carries around with him, Krouse theorized.  And each one follows different rules.  One holds banished people, maybe that one holds energy or compressed air, and he just needs to open it a crack to let the stuff out.

“Can you open doors between worlds?” Krouse asked.

Myrddin went stiff.  “No.  Are you implying you’re one of the creatures from the world she opened a door to?”

She.  The Simurgh.

“Nah,” Krouse replied, climbing to his feet.  “Just wondering.”

“Stay down,” Myrddin warned.  The hero drew another glowing ribbon into the air, more intricate and convoluted than the former.  Krouse braced himself for the resulting impact.

Then he saw it.  A belated arrival to the party.  A police car coming down the street in the distance, maneuvering to pull in and join the ranks of officers and rescue personnel on site.

Krouse turned his head, trying to catch Noelle and the crowd in the same field of vision.

He swapped her for someone at the back of the crowd.  A moment later, gathering enough air, he swapped himself.

The cold air was like a slap in the face.  He reached for her hand, grabbed it.  This new vantage point let him see the inside of the police car.  He reached for the officer and partner, then swapped again.

Krouse found himself sitting backwards in the driver’s seat.  He flipped himself over and, as nonchalantly as he could manage, pulled away, heading deeper into the quarantine area.

We’ll abandon the car as soon as we can, then go back to the house.  Face the music.

He reached for Noelle’s gloved hand and squeezed it, but she didn’t smile, didn’t show any relief.  She looked troubled.

He realized why.  Her left hand was undamaged where she’d slashed it on the shattered glass of the window.

They traveled the last leg of the journey to the house on foot.  There were no words exchanged between them, even as minutes passed.

As they approached the house, Krouse was left to wonder which one his friends would be in.  He settled on the first house they’d broken into.

Jess, Luke, Marissa and Oliver were there, arranged in the living room.  It was dark, barely lit.  Makes sense.  They’ll be looking for houses with lights on.

“Noelle,” Marissa said, leaping to her feet.  “You’re okay!”

She hurried across the room, reached out to give Noelle a hug, and was stopped.  Noelle had her hands on Marissa’s shoulders.

“What’s wrong?” Marissa asked.

“Nothing,” Noelle said.

“You really did it, Krouse,” Luke said.  “I almost didn’t believe them.  That you’d be that stupid.”

“Oh, I’m a hell of a lot stupider than that,” Krouse said.  “But I saved her.”

“You gave it to her?  The can?”

“Half,” Krouse said.  He withdrew the canister from his front jacket pocket and switched it with a book on a nearby bookshelf, then threw the book aside.  “Just enough to heal her.  Save her life.”

“And now you two have superpowers,” Luke said.  “You’re doing exactly what we said we wouldn’t.”

“The Simurgh set it in motion, not really my fault,” Krouse said.

“That’s bullshit,” Luke replied.  Unlike Cody, he was quiet, and the words almost had more impact as a result.  Krouse wondered, Is it because he’s my friend?  

“If I hadn’t done it, things would have gotten even worse.  If she wants us to use the stuff, then we eventually would have.  It’s extortion, extortion through fate, I dunno.  But I chose to pay the price rather than wait for her to ramp things up until I had to.  If you want to blame me, blame me.”

“No fucking shit we’re blaming you,” Luke said, and the hint of anger in his voice wasn’t as calm as his earlier words had been.

That anger seemed scarily similar to what Krouse was used to seeing from someone else.

“Where’s Cody?”

“Here,” Cody said, from behind Krouse.

Krouse whirled around.

Cody was smiling, swaggering.

“You too?” Krouse asked, unsurprised.  He’d left Cody in the house with the four remaining vials.

“Yeah.  Me too.”

Everything in the room shifted.  The curtains flickered and appeared in a fractionally different position, Noelle had moved a foot away, now squarely facing them, and Cody was in the center of the room.

“See?” Cody asked.

“What just happened?”

“I got powers.  The paperwork said it was the ‘Vestige’ can.  And as luck would have it, my power counters yours.  Totally and completely.”

There was another shift, things moving all at once, and Cody was now a foot in front of Krouse.  He was laughing.

Teleportation?  No.  The others wouldn’t move like that.

“Stop it, Cody,” Marissa said.

“He doesn’t care, he doesn’t know,” Cody said.

“Just stop!”

Everything shifted positions again, and this time, Cody was swinging a punch at Krouse.  It connected and Krouse crashed to the ground.  The punch had landed painfully close to where Krouse had been struck not long ago, and the resulting pain seemed to radiate across the surface of his skull.

“Only bad part is,” Cody said, shaking one hand as though it were sore, “If I use it on myself, I don’t get the satisfaction, and if I use it on him, he doesn’t even know.”

“Just leave him alone,” Marissa said.

Krouse looked at Noelle, saw her with gloved hands pressed to her mouth.

“What’s he doing?” Krouse asked, not moving from the ground.

“Time travel,” Luke said.

Cody shrugged, “Directed time travel, anyways.  Backwards only, a few seconds at a time.  You teleport away, I set you back to where you were, then kick you in the balls for being an asshole.”

“Well,” Krouse said, “Do you feel better now?  After however many beatings you just gave me?  Kicks in the balls?”

“I feel a bit better.  But what has me tickled is that I can do it again and again, whenever I feel the urge,” Cody said, smiling.

“Don’t,” Luke said.  “That’s…”

“Brutish,” Jess said, her voice low.  She was glaring at Krouse.

“Not the word I would have chosen,” Luke said, “But yeah.”

Cody shrugged.  He couldn’t stop smiling.

“Listen,” Krouse said, “Noelle’s better and she’s safe.  That’s priority number one done with.  Now we need to get out of here, and then we focus on getting home.”

“You know, Noelle?”  Marissa asked, “You know about our situation?”

“Some.”

“Come on then, let’s leave the boys to hash this out.  I’ll fill you in on what’s going on while we get our stuff packed.”

“Food first?” Noelle asked.  “I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

Marissa gave her a funny look, but she led the way to the kitchen.

“Stuff?” Krouse asked the others, when the two girls had left.

The room flickered.

Stop, Cody,” Jess said.

“I’m tired of everyone catering to him.  He fucked up, broke the rules he set,” Cody said.  “So if he wants to run off and be the lone maverick, he can deal with the consequences.  That means we don’t go out of our way to get him caught up.”

“You’re being as bad as he ever was,” Luke said.

Cody turned towards Luke, “No.  No I’m not.”

“You’re making calls on our behalf.  You’re not being a team player, and you’re making things harder than they have to be to get your way.”

“It’s not the same,” Cody said.

Krouse looked at Cody, then grabbed him from behind and threw him into a bookcase.

“Krouse!” Luke shouted.  Marissa and Noelle hurried back to the hallway.

Cody appeared back where he’d been standing, in the exact same position.  Krouse repeated the throw from behind.  “Two!”

Again, Cody reappeared, setting himself back to where he’d been three seconds ago.  Krouse shoved him yet again.  “Three!”

On the next reappearance of Cody, Krouse shoved him and called out, “Four!  Blade cuts both ways Cody!”

This time, Cody didn’t use his power on himself.  He landed amid the fallen stacks of magazines and books, offered a snarling noise.

“Your power works against you,” Krouse said.  “Using it to protect yourself?  It doesn’t work if your opponent knows how you function and you don’t have backup to break the loop.  You shift yourself back in time, you don’t remember, and I can use the same strategy over and over.”

“That’s not-” Cody said, then he stopped.  His eyes narrowed.  “I don’t have to put you back where you were after hurting you.  Any time you do something to me, I can set you up to a position where I can hurt you, then leave you like that, hurting.  Using my power doesn’t tire me out.  I can set you back as many times in a row as I need to.”

“Just stop,” Jess pleaded.  “All of this is hard enough without you two being enemies.”

“Problem is, Jess,” Krouse said, not breaking eye contact with Cody, “Cody’s got this mindset where the guy with the bigger stick wins. He doesn’t care about the big picture until he’s established his dominance.  Since idea of dominance is kicking my ass, we can’t have him doing that while we’re trying to get back home.  It’s… counterproductive.”

“Yeah?  What are you going to do about it?” Cody asked.  He was pulling himself to his feet.

“Nothing,” Krouse said.  “You want to pull stunts like that, feel free.”

“Thought so,” Cody smirked.

“And,” Krouse said, stepping close enough to whispered in Cody’s ear, “Your power’s kind of a liability, you know. Not just the double-edged sword part.”

“Liability?”  Cody asked in a normal speaking volume.

Krouse continued whispering.  “A liability.  You saw what I was willing to do when the Simurgh forced my hand by putting Noelle’s life on the line.  Now my hand’s dangerously close to being forced again.  Because I will get these people home, and if you get in my way, if you give me reason to fear for my safety or to make me think we aren’t making as much progress as I want?  Well, the only way I can think of to shut down your power is by killing you.”

Cody smirked, stepping away.

His eyes flickered across Krouse’s face as he read Krouse’s expression.  Cody’s smile faded.

Cody forced a smile onto his face again, but it didn’t seem quite so genuine.  “I’m going to go pack my shit.  You have my permission to fill the asshole in on the details.”

You’re a coward at heart, Krouse thought, as he watched Cody head upstairs.  And I’m too stubborn to back down or give up.  As long as that’s the case, I’ll always come out ahead.

He looked at the others, “Well, I think that’s that.  Let’s talk about the next step of our plan.”

He seated himself on the couch, flashed Noelle a smile.

Noelle smiled back, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes or overcome the concern in her expression.  She turned back towards the kitchen, and Marissa followed.

Krouse’s heart sank a little at that.  It felt like they’d somehow been set back weeks or months in their relationship progress.

He distracted himself.  Turning to Luke, he asked, “What was that about ‘stuff’?”

“Stuff.  We weren’t quite sure where you went, and you kind of made it impossible to get the car out of the driveway,” Luke said.  “So we went shopping, so to speak.  Brought back clothes, toiletries, and all the cash we could get out of the registers, pretty much every place within walking distance.  We even got an old wheelchair for Jess, rinsed off the seat in the shower upstairs.  We’re just waiting for it to dry off.”

Krouse smiled.  “Good man.”

Luke wasn’t smiling back.  “It feels shitty, stealing.”

“Nobody’s going to touch that money anyways,” Krouse said.  “Not with it being in the quarantine area.  That was a smart move, really.  Does this mean we’ve got everything we need to get by for the next while?”

“Pretty much.  You should go through the stuff we brought and make sure it all fits, and that you aren’t going without something essential.”

“You didn’t happen to pick up cigarettes?”

Luke frowned, “I shouldn’t have, told myself you didn’t deserve it after what you pulled.”

“But?”

“But I did.”

“Best friend!” Krouse smiled, spreading his arms wide.

Luke shook his head.  “You don’t deserve it.”

“I don’t.  But I’ll make it up to you by getting us out of here with my power.  Shouldn’t be hard; there weren’t all that many soldiers outside the fence, and we can swap ourselves for them, maybe.  If Cody cooperates, that makes it even easier.”

“And Noelle?” Luke asked.  “Does she have powers?”

“Apparently,” Krouse said, “Though I don’t have any idea of how it works.  You guys give any consideration to the idea of using the rest of the juice?”

Luke was nodding a little.

“Luke!” Jess said, aghast.

“What?  Half the damage is already done,” he said, “And as far as I’m concerned, the benefits of getting more powers outweighs the possible danger.  We don’t have any real income, we don’t have anybody to go to for help, and it’s going to be far easier to get funds if we can do something like mercenary work with a team of people with powers.  Like Cody was talking about, we could hire someone to get us home.”

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Jess said.

Luke sighed, “Let’s be honest.  If it’s just Noelle, Cody and Krouse who have powers, I’m worried things will get ugly.  There’s too much tension, but I don’t think any of us are willing to leave the group and strike out on our own, not when it means being all alone in a strange world.  So we’re stuck together, and that means there’s going to be conflict.  If they aren’t the only ones with powers, then at least we can do something to stop a fight from erupting.”

“I don’t know,” Jess said, “I feel like it’ll make the problem worse.  And you talk as if being a superpowered mercenary isn’t dangerous.  And it won’t be that easy to find a tinker who can give us a way home.”

“There’s a thousand mad scientist types in this world, aren’t there?  Someone knows how to get us back,” Krouse said.

Jess frowned.

“Jess,” Luke spoke.  “Superpowers.  And the stuff healed Noelle.  Maybe it’ll heal your legs.  Think about it.  Walking, dancing?  Running?  Other stuff, stuff with boys?”

Her expression shifted a fraction.  For the first time since the powers had been brought up, he thought maybe there was a sign of interest.

She looked at Krouse, and Krouse shrugged.  “We have three and a half vials left.  Someone’s going to get only a half dose.”

“You’re assuming I take one,” Jess said.

“I am,” he echoed her.  “She set Cody against me, so I had an adversary, putting me off balance.  Then used Noelle’s injury to push me to act.  And you guys?  You, Luke, Marissa and Oliver?  She kept you occupied.  Kept you focused on yourselves.  You want to talk about the Simurgh’s game plan?  It centers around me.  I can’t see any other way of looking at it.  She isn’t aiming to have you guys get mondo powers and kill a president or something.  Why would she make Oliver feel like crap if that was her end goal?”

“It’s you?” Luke asked.

“Doesn’t it make sense?  Just look at where the focus is.  She distracted you guys because you were the ones who could have talked sense into me.  The can of worms is opened, and I’m the person she’s turned into a guided missile.”

“You don’t sound too worried for someone who believes that,” Luke said.

“I’m… I’m processing it,” Krouse admitted.  “But that’s what it looks like, to me.  And if there isn’t anything that points to me being wrong?  Maybe I should just help you guys get home, then stay here.  Become a hermit or something.  Let me keep however much leftover cash we wind up with, and I’ll find an apartment and while away the rest of my days watching movies and playing games over the internet, not saying two words to anyone.  Don’t know how much damage I could do that way.”

“Or come with us,” Luke said.  “There’s no way she can see the future of this world and ours.  No way she’s turned you into some ticking time bomb that’s going to fuck our world over.”

Krouse shrugged, “Maybe.  I can decide when we get that far.”

“Three and a half vials,” Jess said.

Krouse nodded.  She’s on board.

“You took the Jaunt one and the Division one,” Luke said.

“Leaving…”

Luke was already getting a piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolding it.  “Prince, Deus, Robin and half of whichever vial you gave to Noelle.”

“Half of Division,” Krouse said, “Funny.  But it doesn’t look like Noelle has powers.  She’s said her skin fizzes, whatever that means, but maybe it’s incomplete…”

“I’ll take half,” Oliver said.

All eyes turned to him.  Oliver continued, “If Noelle doesn’t want to finish it, I’ll take half.  I’m not strong, I’m not brave, or smart, or creative.  I don’t have it in me to be a hero.  So as long as you don’t ask me to risk my life fighting stuff like the Simurgh, I’ll take the half, try to find other ways to help.”

“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” Krouse said.  “You’re a decent guy.”

“Maybe,” Oliver said.  He sounded sad, “Maybe I’m decent.  But I’m not a great guy.  Like I said, nothing about me is special.  Nothing’s exceptional.  So I’ll take half.”

“Okay,” Krouse said.  “Anyone want to call dibs on the others?”

“Robin,” Luke said.  “Sounds like it might mean I could fly.”

“Mars?” Jess asked.  “You care?”

Marissa shook her head.

“Then Deus for me.”

“That leaves me with Prince,” Marissa said.  “I hope it doesn’t turn me into a boy.”

“Are they still next door?” Krouse asked.

Luke nodded.

“We dose you guys one at a time so we can be sure we have everything under control and minimize any damage.  Then we’ll leave before sunrise.”

The others nodded.


The car coasted down the long highway, the windshield wipers clearing away the moisture of the freezing rain.  Krouse pumped the windshield washer fluid and then wiped it away.

Madison was well behind them, now.  Odd, how it felt like he was leaving home, even when it wasn’t really his city.  A bad copy, an ugly copy.  One with more violence, where the criminals could do far, far worse, by virtue of having more power.  Having powers.  That was without even touching on Endbringers, the Simurgh, and the desolate quarantine area.

Cody was in front.  Krouse didn’t mind, didn’t care about giving up that token alpha-maleness.  If that’s all it took for Cody to be satisfied for the time being, he’d accept it.

He’d save his strength for the more serious conflicts.  They would happen.

The sun was rising.  It was a bit of a relief.  Driving in the rain and snow, in the dark, with the headlights seeming to extend a scant twenty feet ahead?  It sucked.  The rain continued, and the sky was overcast, but it was transitioning into a beautiful sort of overcast, with dark purples and oranges.

He looked at where Noelle sat in the passenger seat, reached over and squeezed her hand.

She looked at him and smiled a little.  It was better than he’d gotten in the last little while, and the surge of relief he experienced was almost palpable.

Marissa and Jess were in the back seat, either already sleeping or most of the way there.  He’d resisted the urge to comment, to note how the girls were with him, avoiding Cody.  They knew something was off.  That Cody was just a little too aggressive.  A little too testosterone driven.  As far as Krouse was concerned, it said something that the girls felt safer with him, even after everything that had happened.

They had their powers, and there was a slight cast of disappointment for everyone involved.

Jess could walk… but only with the images she projected.  Her real body seemed largely unaffected.  She got to experience everything she’d never had a chance to, even got to fly, but at the end of the day, she was still in the chair.

Marissa was managing to create flickers of light between her hands.  She’d stopped when a nearby piece of paper had caught on fire, resolving to try it when there was more open space.

Luke was especially disappointed with his power; it hadn’t been flight.  No, it was destructive, singular and without any versatility.  He turned anything he touched into a projectile.  It would be useful for mercenary work, if they were willing to take on the more dangerous jobs.  It came down to how long they were willing to wait before they got home, and how much money was demanded of them.

It was the day before Christmas Eve, Krouse remembered.  He’d have to be thankful for their well being, at least.  They were alive.  Things were okay.  Not great, but not as hopeless as they might have seemed before.  And things had settled down, at least.  For the first time since the others had joined him and Noelle at the coffee shop to discuss his inclusion on the team, things were calm.  They’d find a way to put their new powers to work.  They’d get money, get themselves home.

Things made sense again.  Mostly made sense.

Cody’s turn signal came on.  He was pulling into a rest stop.  One of the off-the-highway areas with a few fast food places and a gas station.

There weren’t many cars on the road, this time of morning, and less in the rest stop parking lot.  Cody pulled in just beside the front door.  Before Krouse was able to pull into another parking spot, Oliver was out of the door, running for the bathroom.

Oliver hadn’t changed either.  Half a dose apparently wasn’t enough.  It did seem to make the aftermath of drinking the stuff worse, though.  Oliver’s condition had been nearly as drawn out as Noelle’s after he’d taken his dose.

“Anyone need to make water?” Krouse asked.  “Fast food places might be open if you’re hungry.”

The two girls in the back seat groaned, but they roused.

“Want help with the chair?” he asked.

“We’ve got it,” Noelle said.  She flashed Krouse a small smile and headed inside.

Krouse fished in his pocket for a cigarette, whispered praise to Luke.  He popped it in his mouth and then started looking for the lighter.

Noelle knocked on the windshield, gave him a death glare.

“What?”  He offered her an exaggerated shrug

“Not in the car!” she admonished, her voice muffled by the intervening windows.

He smiled a little, climbed out of the car, leaned against the door and lit the cigarette.  While he puffed, he stared at the clouds as faint traces of the sunset’s colors traced across them.  The rain was freezing cold and irritating, but the cigarette was worth it.

When he’d finished the first and the others hadn’t returned, he resigned himself to walking across the parking lot to a spot where there was shelter from the rain, starting on a second cigarette.

He was halfway done when Marissa came outside.  He walked slowly in the direction of the car, taking a deep pull on the cigarette, thinking of how to gracefully point out that the others were taking a long time.  Then he saw her eyes.

She was afraid, white as a sheet, and she was silent in a way that suggested she didn’t know what to say.

He ran her way, spitting out the cigarette.  She held the door open for him, and then led the way toward the women’s bathroom.

There was a heavyset manager from one of the fast food places just at the door, shouting at Cody in a gruff voice.  Krouse ignored them, headed inside the bathroom, ignoring the manager’s shouted protests.

Noelle had crumpled to the ground at the far end of the bathroom.  Oliver, Luke and Jess were huddled around her.  Marissa moved straight to Noelle’s side.

“Don’t touch me!”  Noelle screamed, her voice shrill.

Marissa stepped away, hands raised, as if showing she were unarmed, safe.

“What happened?” Krouse asked, his voice quiet enough that the others might hear, but Noelle wouldn’t.

Each of the others gave him a look, expressions haunted.

He stepped closer, to get a better view.  Noelle’s pants were down around her knees.  Her jacket meant Krouse couldn’t see anything but her thighs.  There was a mark about a foot long and eight inches wide, raised on her left leg.  Red, angry, it was wrinkled and blistered like a bad burn.

She saw him. moved to try and cover herself, “Don’t look, Krouse!”

He turned to step away, to turn his back, but Jess reached out, caught his pants leg.

He looked again, saw Noelle’s head hanging, her hair a curtain around her face.  She was sobbing.

The skin on the angry red mark parted.  There was no surprise from the others; they’d seen this already.

Beneath the angry red skin on Noelle’s thigh, there was an eyeball, twice the normal size, with a broad yellow iris.  Noelle’s hands were clenched into fists, gripping the cloth of her jeans as the eye’s gaze darted from one member of their group to another.  It settled on Krouse.

Accusatory.

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Migration 17.6

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“We have to tell them,” Krouse murmured.

He and Jess were in the kitchen of a stranger’s house, using that stranger’s utensils to prepare their food.  It felt odd, invasive.  Except it’s not like they’ll be coming back any time soon.

“I need another knife,” Jess said, “This one’s awful.”

“Are you dodging the subject?”

“No.  I need a better knife if I’m going to keep cutting strawberries.  We can still talk.”

Krouse opened a drawer and passed a knife to where Jess sat on a stool at the counter.  “They’re going to find out sooner or later.  I’ve noticed something like five major clues since I started paying attention.  They’re distracted for now, but-”

“This knife sucks too.”

“All the knives suck.  Whoever lived here didn’t take care of their stuff.  Make do.”

Jess set to cutting the tops off the strawberries.

“They’re going to be upset,” she said.

“No shit.  We’re stuck in a whole other world, and things are just different enough that we could fuck up and reveal ourselves as aliens.”

Jess nodded.  She gathered a mess of strawberry tops from the cutting board and strained to reach forward enough to get it in the empty plastic container.

Krouse put one foot on the bar of the stool to give it a little more weight, so it wouldn’t fall, then moved the plastic container closer.

Jess said, “That would be bad, if we got caught.  The people of this world?  They’re scared.  There’s laws against people or objects being transmitted across worlds.  When that hole between universes came about, the first idea on people’s minds was that we might go to war, a whole other planet with resources.  Water, oil, wood, metal, all that stuff.  And Earth Aleph would lose because Bet had all the capes.  The rest of the world thought this gateway would make America into a bigger superpower than we already are.  So there were sanctions, deals.”

Krouse nodded.  He flipped the pancakes over on the frying pan.  They were the crappy sort, the sort that came from a box.  Still, it was better than nothing.

“It’s bad, Krouse.  Even if we were willing to go home, with the Simurgh maybe planning something-”

“We can’t let that dictate our choices,” Krouse said.  “We’ll go crazy trying to second guess everything.  We can minimize the damage, try to keep a low profile.  And I’ll admit you’re right.  Not using the contents of that briefcase is a start.  If we get a chance to meet the president or something, we should probably turn it down.”

“Yeah,” Jess said.  Then she held up a hand.  “Shush.”

Floorboards upstairs were creaking.

Marissa came downstairs, her hair wrapped in a towel.  “Shower done, if either of you want to rinse off.  We have power?”

“Came on a bit ago,” Krouse said.

“Got restless, decided to do something.  Food in our bellies, keep the furnace burning.” Jess said.  “Hungry?  Offering up some pancakes for dinner.”

“Yeah,” Marissa said.

Krouse checked the pancakes and put them on a plate, tearing one in half and popping it in his mouth.  “Mars, you want to relieve Oliver?  He’s looking after Noelle right now.”

“Who took the shift before that?”

“Me,” Krouse said.  “I’ll bring you a plate.  Butter and Syrup?”

“Sugar and lemon juice,” Marissa said, before leaving for the living room.

Krouse spoke in a low voice, “We have to tell them.”

Jess nodded.

Krouse opened his mouth to say something else, then shut it as conversation erupted in the living room.

Noelle?

He turned off the oven burner and headed in that direction, only to be stopped by Jess.  “Krouse?”

He paused, looked back, saw her perched on the stool.

“Bring me?”

He grimaced, sliding one arm around her shoulders, with his other one beneath her knees, making sure not to bump his injured hand against anything.  He lifted her and commented, “You’re lighter than I thought you’d be.”

“Ever a charmer, Krouse.”

“Guys!”  Marissa called out.

Krouse hurried for the living room, pausing only to ensure he didn’t slam Jess’ head or feet into a door frame.

His blood ran cold as he saw what had the others attention.  It wasn’t Noelle.

The television was on, and it was displaying footage of the Simurgh.

Shit,” Jess whispered.

“We have cable!” Marissa said, smiling.

“Maybe we’ll have working phones soon,” Luke said.  “Get ahold of our parents.”

Krouse navigated past where Oliver was lying on the ground, blankets balled up so he had something to lean against, a book in his hands.  He stepped around the coffee table and set Jess in the one empty armchair.

Then he walked over to the TV, blocking it with his body, and pressed the volume button at the top until the sound was off.

“What the hell, Krouse?” Luke asked.

“Asshole,” Cody said.  He was sitting in the adjacent dining room.  “We might finally get a chance to find out what’s going on.”

“You’re going to find out because I’m going to tell you,” Krouse said.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Luke asked.  “Is this that thing you were putting off telling us yesterday?”

Krouse nodded.  He saw Jess shifting position as though she were trying to face everyone else, met her eyes and shook his head just a little.

She frowned, but she kept quiet.

“Spit it out,” Cody snapped.

“We’re a long way from home,” Krouse said, shrugging.  “Better you hear it from me than find it out on TV.”

Marissa frowned, her eyebrows knitting together.  “Long way from home?  But-”

“We’re still in Madison.  We’re just… we’re not in our Madison.”

He stopped to let that sink in.

“Oh fuck you,” Cody snarled.

Oliver was looking around the room, seeing people’s expressions change.  He looked at Krouse, “I don’t understand.”

“When the building fell, that was her bringing us through?” Luke asked.

“Yeah.  From Earth Aleph to Earth Bet,” Krouse confirmed.  He saw Oliver’s eyes widen as he belatedly understood.

“Wait,” Marissa said, “But… what?”

“You knew too, Jess?” Luke asked.

“I- yeah.  Yeah, I figured it out.”

“It’s what we were talking about, after we first got to this house,” Krouse said.  “I convinced her to keep quiet.  Figured it wasn’t crucial to know just then, and with the screaming in our heads, we didn’t need the added stress.”

Jess stared at him.  He glanced at her, then turned his attention to the others.  I’m better at being the bad guy than you are.

“You had no right,” Cody said.

“Probably not.”

“So you were keeping us in the dark?” Luke asked.  “Deciding it was for our own good, deciding for us?”

“That’s the gist of it.  I think you’ll look back on this and see why I did it.  We needed to look after ourselves, look after Noelle, and we couldn’t do that if we were thinking about how we had no way of getting home.  I strong-armed Jess into being quiet, hid one or two pieces of evidence.  Hate me if you have to, but it made sense.”

“But we- is that why you told us we should stay here instead of heading out?”

Krouse shrugged. “Part of it.  Another part of it was just like I said; we can’t be sure the heroes have found and defeated all the monsters the Simurgh dropped into the city.  Maybe they won’t ever get all of them.  But yeah, no point leaving because there’s no home to go to.”

“But how-” Oliver started.

He didn’t get a chance to finish.  Cody was on his feet in an instant, his chair falling to the ground.  He rushed Krouse, gripping him by the shirt collar.  Once he had a hold, he swung Krouse around to one side, shoved him, throwing him across Jess’ lap and into the coffee table that sat between her and Luke.

Luke tried to stand from his chair, but Cody pushed him back down.  While Luke fell back, Cody stooped down to seize Krouse’s shirt with one hand, striking at his face with the heel of the other.

“You fucker!  Lying to us?  At a time like this!?  Fuck you!  Fuck you!”

Krouse tried to shield himself with his arms, but it didn’t help much.  He brought his knees up to his chest, between himself and Cody, then kicked outward, forcing Cody off.

Cody fell back, nearly hitting the coffee table in front of the couch.  It would have been a good opportunity to close the distance, to hit back, but he didn’t.  Krouse took the opportunity to stand, tenderly touching the spots on his cheekbone, chin and nose where Cody had landed some good hits.

“Fucker!”  Cody shouted, from across the room.

“I… well, I guess I deserved that,” Krouse said.

“Krouse-” Jess started.

“Hm?” he turned her way, touched fingertips to his nose to check for blood.  Only a little.  “It’s fine.”

Better they’re mad at one of us than both of us.

“Fine?” Cody growled.  “We’re fucking stuck in a world with Endbringers like that psycho alien bird bitch!  And we’ve got you playing head games with us on top of that!”

“He wasn’t playing head games,” Luke said.  He winced as he moved his injured leg from his footrest to the ground.  Not exactly.”

“Thank you for saying so,” Krouse said.

“Don’t thank me,” Luke said, angry, “I’m not on your side.  I’m just saying you didn’t fuck with us for your own gain, you fucked with us because you thought it was in our best interests.”

“So that’s it?” Cody asked.  “It’s not just that we’re pawns in some crazy chess game the Simurgh is playing.  We’re stranded here?”

“Yeah,” Jess said.  One word.

“There’s got to be ways home,” Luke said.

“Probably,” Krouse replied.  “But they won’t be easy to find.”

“What are we supposed to do?” Oliver asked.  “If we go to the police-”

“They’ll realize that we’re probably pawns in the Simurgh’s game plan,” Krouse said.  “We’ll be detained.  And let’s not forget, they killed that superhero, because he might have been caught in her web.  Odds are pretty fucking good that we’re caught in it, between the coincidences Jess mentioned and the fact that the Simurgh pulled us from our world to this one.  The people in charge?  They won’t fail to notice.”

“You think they’d kill us?” Oliver asked.

“It’s hard to believe, but I find it hard to believe they killed the cape and they did.  Yes.  I think they’d kill us..”

When a minute passed and nobody spoke up, Krouse turned the volume up for the television.

…final decisions.  In the meantime, plans are underway to build permanent blockades around the affected area, with concrete walls placed South Midvale Boulevard to the west, Capitol Square to the east, and Haywood Drive to the south.  A quarantine processing center is already established at St. Mary’s Hospital, servicing city residents who were not evacuated before temporary blockades were set up.

Restitution will be offered to citizens displaced from their homes, paid for with international funding.  Authorities report that no catastrophic damage was done, and the situation was quickly brought under control by the first responders to the scene.  Chicago Protectorate leader Myrddin is quoted as stating, ‘This is a win for the good guys.  Scion arrived early to put the pressure on within minutes of her arrival and Eidolon delivered the final blows, driving her off.  We’re getting better at fighting these guys, and it’s showing.’

However, insider sources in the PRT suggest that things are not so glowing.  A vault holding the equipment of now-deceased supervillain ‘Professor Haywire’ was accessed by the Simurgh.  Shortly after, the source alleges, the Simurgh activated a large-scale replica of the devices, depositing large amounts of foreign bodies in the heart of the city.  Among these bodies, multiple reports say, were innumerable monsters with superpowers and hazardous materials.  When asked, the Chicago PRT director declined to comment, except to say that there have been no breaches of quarantine and there is no indication of risk to anyone in the vicinity of the quarantine zone.”

“MWBB coverage of the Endbringer attack will continue for the rest of the day, but next, we have a story of-

Krouse turned off the TV.  “St. Mary’s?”

“Not in our world,” Jess said.  “And we’re running a lot of risks by going…”

“We don’t have a choice,” Krouse said, looking at Noelle. “We’ll find a map, and we’ll need a car, with half of us unable to walk.  Let’s get Noelle to a hospital, ASAP.”

Finding the car proved to be the hardest part.  There wasn’t a car in the garage of the house they were borrowing, and though Krouse saw a car in the driveway of the neighboring house, he couldn’t find a set of keys in any of the obvious locations.

Be nice to know how to hotwire a car.

In the end, they headed out as two teams.  Krouse was joined by Marissa, while Oliver and Cody formed the other team.  It was dark, the streets were empty, and snow still drifted in dense clouds.  Few places had lights on, but that proved fortunate, as those places tended to be businesses.

They found a car rental place, but metal shutters on the window barred their access.  The keys are probably in a safe or something, Krouse thought.

They ran at first, jogging lightly as they hurried from place to place.  As they ran into continual failures, failed to find a car they could use, they slowed to a brisk walk.  It meant preserving their stamina, even as the slowness of it made Krouse anxious.  Every second spent looking was a second that Noelle had to wait.  Settling in and leaving her to linger in a nigh-unconscious state had been their only option before they’d heard the broadcast.  Now, though…

They passed the area with the restaurants and patios as they continued searching for a usable car.  Every time he passed a car, he peered inside to see if there was a key in the ignition, if maybe it had been left abandoned by the owner.  No luck.

This is pointless.

He checked another car, wiping snow from the window, then hurried to catch up to Marissa.  She was checking the cars on the other side of the street.

“No luck,” she said.

“Can I ask what you saw?” he asked.

“What?”

“When the Simurgh showed you stuff.  What did you see?”

“Why does it matter?”

“Because I’m trying to get a sense of what her game plan was.  Cody told me that she reminded him of me.  Brought up all the bad memories of times I gave Cody a hard time, times he thought I slighted him or whatever.  I’m wondering if it was the same for you.”

Marissa shook her head.  “If I say no, will that be enough?”

“I won’t force you, obviously.  But… I’ve been trying to think about all this the way shes thinking about it.  Anticipate her moves.  It’d help a lot if you shared.”

Marissa made a face.  He couldn’t see a lot of her face, with the white scarf that was wrapped around the lower half, but he saw the grimace, the skin wrinkling on her nose.

“Okay.  It’s fine, don’t stress about it,” he said, hurrying to check more cars on the other side of the street.

She called out after him, “I was on stage!”

He stopped, turned.

“I was on stage.  It was just before I stopped doing all the dance and music stuff.  The whole thing then had been lyrical dance.  But I’d been rebelling…”

She trailed off.

“I don’t follow.”

“I was fighting with my mom, top of our lungs screaming at each other, always about stupid stuff.  The color of my dance uniform, and what I was eating for dinner, the amount of homework I was or wasn’t doing.  So I stopped practicing.  Started hanging out with friends like I’d wanted to do for years.  Thought I was getting back at my mom, that I’d get on stage, and I’d get fourth place, and she’d be pissed, whatever.”

“But?”

“I froze.  It’s never really happened to me before.  My mind went blank, I, um, I couldn’t even bring myself to move, or pull one coherent thought into my head.  I was sweating, breathing hard, to the point that I almost thought I’d finished, except I hadn’t even started.”

“Scary.”

“It’s… it’s worse than that, but it wasn’t scary so much as… devastating?  I don’t know if I explained it right, but it’s like, I managed to get a little of my own strength, break away from my mom’s grasp, and all the pressures she put on me, become my own person.  And then I’m standing there on stage, and I feel a bead of sweat run down the inside of my leg and for just three seconds, I-“

She stopped.

Krouse didn’t want to interrupt, and Marissa was busy talking, so he took over checking the inside of the car windows as they walked.  He peered inside the next car. “You thought you’d pissed yourself.”

“…I don’t know why I said that out loud.  You fucking mention that ever again, and-“

“I won’t.”

It was another ten seconds before she continued.  “I must have turned bright red.  I’d felt strong, felt independent for the first time in my life.  And then it turns out like that.  And she’s in the audience, front row.  My mom.  She’s smiling, because she thinks it’s a victory for her.  The rebellious daughter discovering that mom was right about everything after all, you know?  That’s how she probably saw it.”

Krouse nodded.

“That smile?  That was what the Simurgh showed me.  Except it lingered.  Couldn’t shake it.  Almost as if it was the Simurgh doing it and not my mom.”

Krouse scraped at ice that had packed against one passenger-side window, peering inside.  “What happened after that?”

“Here or back then?”

“Back then.”

“I had a bit of a breakdown.  My grades went to hell, I stopped doing everything, all of the music, all of the dance, all of the after school stuff.  Retreated to my room.  Wound up going to therapy, but my mom sat in on all of the sessions, and how could I get better when the person that’s ninety-percent to blame for the problems is in the room with me?  Stopped going to that therapy until I could get a therapist who’d be for me and just for me.  That’s where I met Noelle.  Chris backed me up in general, but it was Noelle that helped me find my way.”

He could see her face fall, understood why.  “I’m sorry about Chris, by the way.”

“He was a genuinely good guy.”

“Yeah.  Sorry I didn’t get to know him more.  He was always more your friend than our collective friend.  But he was nice enough.”

“And without Chris or Noelle, there’s nobody left in the group that I really could talk to,” Marissa said, “So it’s the same for me, now, kind of.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “You can talk to me, if you need to, you know.”

She snorted.

There was a break where they only investigated the cars.  Krouse knew he should be on the other side of the street, looking for keys, but it was fruitless.  There was an expensive looking hotel at the end of the street that had a parking garage, and he held out hope that the place would have valet parking.

Oliver had been saturated with self-doubt, loathing, all the things that made him introverted, passive, even whiny.  He’d been brought to tears at one point, even.  Marissa had been brought back to the stage, her focus turned to her relationship with her mom.

What purpose does that serve?

The only thing that Krouse could think of, and he had to ask Luke to get a third data point, was that the Simurgh had wanted to distract them.  Cody, meanwhile, had been set against Krouse, and Krouse’s attention had been turned to Noelle.

This doesn’t strike me as the kind of maneuvers she’d be making if she was planning something for years from now.  This is more imminent.

“What are you thinking?”

“That I need to talk to Luke about what he saw.”

“To make sure he’s okay?”

“That, and to round out my theory.  With your situation, what you were talking about with the aftermath of the stage fright, was that it?  There was nothing afterward?  Things got better?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Marissa shrugged.  “It was good to be free, to have time to myself, without my mom, um…”

“Your mom’s intensity?”

“Intensity.  Yeah.  But it sucks, because I’m a year away from the point where I could move out.  Maybe more, depending on how long it takes me to get first and last month’s rent together.  And until then, I’ve got to put up with dinner conversations where every other sentence has a hidden barb, a prod to accomplish something, or a dismissal of the stuff I’m actually interested in.”

She’s talking like all that’s still a consideration.  We’re a long way away from that stuff, from our families and having to worry about rent.  Krouse knew she’d feel worse when it hit her, if she kept thinking that way.

“You don’t need to worry about any of that now, at least,” Krouse said, trying to sound nonchalant, checking the next car.

He didn’t hear a response.  Turning back, he saw her eyebrows drawn together in a frown.  He asked, “Sorry.  Was that too blunt?”

“No.  Um.  I dunno.  Is it strange I miss my mom?”

“You know your feelings better than I do.”

“For years, I’ve dreamed about running away, or getting enough money together to move across the country and cut all ties with her.  Only now a situation like that’s been dropped in my lap, and I realize I might not see her for a long time, if ever, and Chris on top of that…”

“I think these circumstances would make anyone feel lonely,” he said.

Marissa nodded.  “How are you holding up?”

“Just want to get Noelle help.”

“And your hand?”

“Hurts like a bitch.  But it feels silly to complain when we have bigger problems and other people are hurting more.  And I’m getting antsy, taking so long doing this.  Looking in the car windows isn’t getting us anywhere, and it’s getting too dark.  Let’s check the hotel.”

“Okay.”

They crossed the street and found the front door of the hotel unlocked.  Only half the lights were on, set for daylight rather than evening, and the interior was abandoned.

“Everyone really did evacuate, didn’t they?”  Marissa asked.

Krouse hopped onto the front desk and swung his legs around to the other side before hopping down. “Two ways to deal with the Simurgh, I guess.  Far easier to be preventative than to clean up the mess afterward.”

He opened a drawer and found a mess of business cards, each organized into neat rows with elastic bands around them.  The next drawer was locked.  “Mars!”

Marissa returned from the employee-only hallway beside the front desk, “What?”

“Can’t get this open with one hand.  Want to try?”

She tried and failed to get the drawer open.  Struck by inspiration, she hurried back into the hallway and then came back with a toolbelt.  It took less than three minutes to get the drawer open.

Half of the drawer were largely empty, containing only two credit cards, a piece of jewelry and a paper noting procedure for managing the lost and found.  The other half of the drawer was sectioned off with a grid of wood panels, with keys and slips of paper in some and plastic cards with numbers in stylized golden letters in the others.

“Score,” he said.

A dozen keys in hand, they made their way to the parking garage, stopping at the stand with all the brochures to find one with a map of the area.  Marissa got in the first car they found.  Testing the remaining keys, Krouse made another nearby car beep.  Seven of us, and Noelle should lie down.  This works.

They opened the metal paneled door to the parking garage and hurried back to their cars.  He followed her out.

The plan had been to loop around and find the others.  If they couldn’t, they were to beep and signal them.  With things this quiet, it wouldn’t be too difficult to hear the horn.  Still, he’d rather not have to.  There was no guarantee the freaks weren’t still around.  Two people would be hard to spot in the gloom and the curtains of falling snow, but cars with glowing headlights?

Oliver and Cody were nowhere to be seen.

He beeped twice and waited, while Marissa drove ahead and did the same.  A minute passed as they staggered their movement across the area Oliver and Cody had headed off to.  The pair didn’t show up.  Either Oliver and Cody were in trouble, or-

He peeled out, driving past Marissa.

Was the gut feeling his own, or was it something implanted in his head by the Simurgh?

The wheels skidded on the snowy surface of the road.  He didn’t have far to go.  If he was wrong, he knew this would cost them only a little time.  If he was right, though-

There would be a car parked outside the house.  There was; Cody had left it sitting in the middle of the street, by the fence.  Krouse pulled his car to a stop and climbed out.

The soldiers on the other side of the fence were still there.  All but a few were inside their vehicles, now.  Others were outside, smoking.  They didn’t seem to care about what was unfolding ahead of them.

Krouse rushed into the house.  He glimpsed at Noelle.  She didn’t seem to be any worse, and Oliver was beside her.  Jess shot him a concerned look, but Krouse wasn’t waiting long enough to exchange words.  He rushed towards the kitchen.

Luke was standing, one leg bent and off the ground, holding a door frame for balance.

“Cody-” Luke started.

“I know,” Krouse replied.

There was a noise as someone ascended the stairs.  Cody burst into the kitchen.  “Where are they!?”

“And you call me the asshole,” Krouse said.

“Fuck you.  You hid them.”

“Close, but no cigar.  We did leave the suitcase in plain sight, took the canisters out.”

“Where!?”

“But we didn’t hide them.  Jess and I destroyed ’em, before we started cooking dinner.”

Bullshit.”

“We weren’t going to use them,” Krouse shrugged.  “It’s a bad idea.”

“You fucker!  Making decisions for the rest of us!”

Krouse shrugged.  “Cope.”

Cody turned towards the area where Luke was at the door frame.  “Luke.  You’re going to stand by and let him act-“

“You don’t have any ground to stand on,” Luke said, interrupting.  “Not that Krouse is doing much better, destroying those vials before we had a chance to discuss it further, on top of what he’s already pulled, but the worst Krouse has done thus far is lie by omission.  You lied to my face.  Said you were looking for something to help transport Noelle.”

“I’m willing to bite the bullet,” Cody said.  “I’ll take the hit.  I’ll drink the stuff, or inject it, whatever.  And if the Simurgh has things set up so I get fucked over down the road, I’m okay with that.  I can still use whatever powers I get to get us out of here.  Maybe get us home.”

“Get us home?” Krouse asked, “Like it’s that easy.”

“Everything comes down to money,” Cody said.  “Think about it.  We get a few million bucks, pay one of those mad scientist types, and they get us home.  Maybe I die or something in a few months or a few years.  But I’m not staying here!  I’m not putting up with this fucking dynamic!”

Krouse noted Marissa coming in through the front hall, standing behind him.

“What dynamic?” Luke asked.

“The one where he comes out on top!  Where everyone else is okay with the shit he pulls and then pats him on the back when that shit works out in everyone’s favor!”

“The Simurgh fucked with your head,” Krouse said.

“No!  This has been bothering me for a long time!”

“Listen!” Krouse raised his voice.  Cody glared, but didn’t speak.  Krouse continued, “She fucked with your head, brought that simmer to a boil.  She wanted this.  She wanted Luke and Noelle and Oliver to be distracted, that’s why she made them remember the things they did.  She wanted you to hate me, and I think she wanted me to go just a little too far.”

“Krouse,” Luke said, his tone a warning.

Krouse’s tone was matter of fact, calm.  “I will.  I’ll admit it, I’m a crummy person and Noelle seems to like me anyways.  You have no conception of how major that is, or of the hurdles we’ve had to get past to get even this far in our relationship.  So yeah, I’ll go too far if I’m pushed, right here, right now, because I have to protect Noelle.”

Cody folded his arms.

Krouse continued, “It’s probably what the Simurgh wanted, maybe even why she made me as reckless and violent as I was when we ran into those supervillains.  So I’d cross that line once.  She set me up so I’d do it, like she’s set you up so your resentment’s at a fever pitch.  If you attack me, I’ll probably kill you.”

“You’re talking out your ass,” Cody snarled the words.

“I’m done with you,” Krouse said.  “You can’t let go of shit, can’t see far enough past what’s between the two of us to know how shortsighted you’re being.  Our situation right now?  We’ve got priorities.  Noelle is number one, but the rest of these guys come in a close second.  So I’m going to go help Noelle and get her into the car I brought, and we’ll get her and Luke to a hospital.”

Cody only glared.

“And Cody?  If she suffers at all because you wasted time, then I’m going to make you answer for it.”

Krouse turned his back on the guy, making his way to the living room.

“Need help?”  Marissa was on his heels.

“Help Jess.  I can carry Noelle, and I want to be out of here sooner than later.”

“Okay.”

“Luke?” Krouse said, “Want to use my shoulder to steady yourself?”

“I can use Oliver.”

Krouse nodded.

One by one, they made their way to the cars Krouse and Marissa had brought.  It took time to get Noelle settled in with blankets around her.  Even a little cold left her whimpering and moaning, struggling with less strength than a baby might have offered.  Her eyes never opened, and she couldn’t even lift her arms beneath the blankets, after they were in place.

All the while, Cody stood in the doorway of the house, staring.

It was only after Krouse and Marissa had pulled away that Cody made his way to his car and followed.

“Need help!” Krouse shouted, as he pushed the hospital doors open with his foot.  Noelle was in his arms.

There were only twenty or so people present.  No staff.  Plastic panels had been boarded up so that they blocked half of the access hallways.  The front desk, too, was similarly blocked off.  A camera sat on the desk, pointing forward.

Krouse went out of his way to avoid putting himself in front of the camera.  He banged on the plastic panel that hung over the front desk’s window.  “Hey!  This girl is dying!”

Please wait,”  a voice said.  It sounded over an intercom or something.

“She’s waited way too long already!”

Stay calm and be patient.  The staff at this facility are strictly limited to the volunteers who were willing to undergo the quarantine procedure themselves.  As such, this facility is currently understaffed.

Was it an automated message?  No.  He didn’t get that vibe.

“Sit, Krouse,” Marissa said.

Krouse settled Noelle into a chair, then sat beside her.  “Fucking creepy.  I think that thing in the booth is an artificial intelligence.”

“No shit?” Luke asked.

“No shit,” Krouse said, his leg bouncing up and down restlessly.  It had to have been at least eight hours since the initial injury, but the minutes that were passing now that help was so close were a special kind of torture.  He studiously ignored Cody, who was standing on the other side of the waiting room.

The others in the waiting room included two nuclear families, a collection of older people who might have come from an old folks home and five men in protective gear that looked like what a firefighter might use, but they had the word ‘Rescue’ emblazoned across their shoulders.

“We get asked about where we came from,” Krouse murmured to the others, “We stick as close to reality as we can, but we don’t name people or places.  Better to look dumb than name a place that doesn’t exist.  Any tips, Jess?”

“Nine-eleven didn’t happen here.  Endbringers did.  They have one dollar coins in this America, not bills, and they phased pennies out.  Um.  There’s an installation on the moon, half-built and abandoned.  I don’t know.  Stuff is different.”

“Is any of this even liable to come up?” Luke asked.

“Don’t know.  Better to be safe,” Krouse said.

Two people in nurse’s uniforms hurried out of the mouth of the hallway.  One, a man, approached Krouse and his friends.  Krouse stood from his seat.

“Situation?” the nurse asked.

“Two moderate injuries, one severe,” Krouse said.

“She’s the severe one?” the nurse asked.

“Yeah.  Stuff fell on her.  Her stomach’s turning black.”

“We’ll look after her,” he said.  He whistled.  “Esme!  Stretcher!”

The other nurse ran to get one.

“Only six of us volunteered,” he said.  “Lots of rules, lots of drawbacks, when it comes to the quarantine.  We were on the outside, but we get treated same as you for coming in.  Can’t blame others for not being willing to make the sacrifice, but it’s tough with the limited staff.  Who else is injured?”

“Impaled hand,” Krouse raised one hand.  He pointed at Luke.  “And sliced leg.  If you’re going by priority, put me last.”

“Not critical?”

“No,” Krouse said.  He looked at Luke, “No, right?”

“I’m okay for now,” Luke said.

The other nurse had arrived with a stretcher.  The pair checked Noelle over, then loaded her onto it.  She disappeared down one hallway

Krouse sank into his seat.  It was out of his hands now.  He could finally let himself relax just a little, finally-

Sir?

It was the intercom by the camera.

Hesitant, he stood, then he stepped closer, still avoiding the camera.

Please take these papers and distribute them to your companions.

Krouse took the stack of paper.  They were stacked together in packs of six.

Be informed, individuals within the quarantine area must meet the prerequisites noted on those sheets before they can be permitted to process out and re-enter society.  Under the D.D.I.D. measures, individuals found to be circumventing the listed procedures and strictures or violating the post-release conditions will be criminally charged.”

“What?”

Do you require further explanation of the D.D.I.D. measures?

“What measures?”

To be processed out of the quarantine area, individuals are required to undergo ten months of twice-weekly checkups with a rotating body of quarantine processing agents.  Eight of those months will also involve weekly sessions of counseling and psychiatric evaluation.

“Ten months?”

Ten months, correct.  Further, anyone processing out of quarantine is required to accept a tattoo marking their D.D.I.D. status.  Each such individual will be placed on a list, with twice-weekly checkups with quarantine processing agents continuing indefinitely.  Attendance at any official or non-official function with more than ten individuals present requires permission from a quarantine processing agent, a minimum of forty-eight hours in advance.  The individual in charge of the function should be notified of your D.D.I.D. status upon your arrival.  Any employers should be notified of your D.D.I.D. status at the first opportunity.  Anyone selling or renting property to you should be notified of your D.D.I.D. status at the first opportunity.  Financial institutions should-“

“Stop.”

The remainder of details are noted on the sheets provided.  This counter can answer any further questions.  The operator overseeing the quarantine area can answer any further questions.  As noted on the sheet, the operator can be contacted-“

“Stop.  Shut up,” Krouse said.

The mechanical voice went silent.

Krouse turned to leave.

“Sir?  There is one other matter to discuss.”

Krouse turned back.  “What?”

Regarding the care of the young woman, will you be paying the balance?

“I don’t have any money.”

Understood.  If you will provide the name of your financial institution-

My financial institution… a world away.

It dawned on Krouse, belatedly, that he was a person without an identity.  His driver’s license, his banking info, his birth certificate… they didn’t count for anything here.

“Why?”  Krouse interrupted it.  “Can’t you guys pay for it?”

Of course.  You will be reimbursed for costs incurred in the course of your processing.  But the process will be expedited if you pay now.  Failure to do so could mean additional delays.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Krouse said.  He thought of the credit card he’d taken from the drawer. If he used that…  No.  Too dangerous.  But there had been any number of stores that had been left abandoned.  “I can pay cash, if given a chance to go collect it.”

These measures were put in place to ensure that we are able to track anyone undergoing quarantine processing, as well as those who may be attempting to circumvent processing.  We will require a credit card or a bank account number.

“If I don’t?” he asked.  “My stuff got destroyed in the attack.”

Again, we can contact your financial institution on your behalf and start the process of restoring your accounts to your control.  If you do not pay, you will not be processed.”

“And my girlfriend?”

The patient will not be processed, either.

“If I say I don’t have the money, and I can’t pay her fee?”

“We will request financial information from the patient at the first opportunity.

Noelle, Krouse was almost certain, didn’t have a wallet on her.  No, they’d left her purse in Luke’s apartment, and that was in shambles.

“If she can’t pay?”

“We will attempt to contact her financial institution.”

“If you can’t?”  He searched for an excuse, “She was confused, before she went unconscious.  She might have hit her head.  If I can’t give you that information and she can’t give it to you, what then?”

Then the department will pay.  But quarantine processing will not continue until you have provided identification and financial information to verify your identity.

Krouse returned to his seat, set his hands on his head.

Fuck you, Simurgh, he thought.  Fuck you and fuck this foreign Earth.

“Krouse?”  Marissa asked.  “Was it about Noelle?”

She’s forcing our hands.

“Quarantine measures,” he said.  He shoved the papers at her, half-crumpled in his hand.

She took them with a gentle touch that stood in stark contrast to the force he’d just used, as if afraid to provoke him further.

“What do you mean?” Luke asked.

Krouse spoke in a low voice, “I mean we don’t get out of this quarantine area without I.D. and bank info, which we don’t have, and even then, we get treated like criminals for the rest of our lives.”

“There’s got to be a way around it.”

“No.  I don’t think there are.  They’re on the watch for that stuff.  For anyone trying to slip past the system.  So we either need to take ten months to process out of here, with enough psychiatric counseling and talks with quarantine officers that we’re bound to slip up somewhere, and we’d have to get flawless I.D. that’s going to meet the standards for their checks-“

“Which is impossible,” Cody said.  He’d approached and was listening.

Krouse nodded.  “-and we’d get treated like criminals for the rest of our lives, or we take option two, we try to escape, and again, we get treated like criminals for the rest of our lives, only we deserve it.”

Another family came in the front doors, finding chairs to settle into.  Two twenty-somethings and two people who looked more like grandparents than parents.  They were sitting close enough that Krouse couldn’t continue risk being overheard.

He fell silent, and the others read the papers detailing the quarantine protocols.

It was two hours before the male nurse returned to the lobby with news about Noelle.

Krouse didn’t even finish listening before dashing for the door.

“Well played,” Krouse said, as the car skidded to a stop outside the house they’d borrowed.  “Well fucking played, Simurgh.”

He stepped out of the car.

Permanent damage.  Removing the majority of her lower intestine.

He didn’t step into the house they’d borrowed.  He headed straight for the house next door, the one they’d broken into when they were looking for house keys.

Interrupted blood flow, infection, possible signs of necrosis.  She’l require a colostomy bag even in the best case scenario.  In the worst case scenario, well, there’s any number of ways this could end badly for the patient.

End badly, Krouse thought.  She’ll die.

Heading inside through the side door, he locked it behind him and made his way to the living room.  The canisters were sitting under the couch, along with the papers.  He flipped through them.

Canister A:  F-1-6-1-1, ‘Deus’, 85% mixture.
Added: C-0-0-7-2, ‘Balance’, 15% mixture.
           To be consumed by Client 1

Canister B: R-0-9-3-6, ‘Jaunt’, 70% mixture.
           Added: C-0-0-7-2, ‘Balance’, 30% mixture.
           To be consumed by Client 2

Canister C: C-2-0-6-2, ‘Prince’, 55% mixture.
           Added: O-0-1-2-1, ‘Aegis’, 30% mixture.
           Added: C-0-0-7-2, ‘Balance’, 15% mixture.
           To be consumed by Client 3

Canister D: M-0-0-4-2, ‘Vestige’, 75% mixture.
           Added: C-0-0-7-2, ‘Balance’, 25% mixture
           To be consumed by Client 4

Canister E: X-0-7-9-6, ‘Division’, 80% mixture.
           Added: C-0-0-7-2, ‘Balance’, 20% mixture
           To be consumed by Client 5

Canister F: E-0-7-1-2, ‘Robin’, 60% mixture.
           Added: C-0-0-7-2, ‘Balance’, 40% mixture
           To be consumed by Client 6

“Can’t even say what they do, huh?” he asked.  “Because you want to leave maximum room for us to screw up, is that right?”

He could hear a car on the road, the crunch of heavy snow beneath tires.  A car door slammed.  He flipped back several pages to reread the directions.  Nothing more complicated than drinking the stuff.

But which one?  He stared at the list, muttered, “Jaunt.”

A small laugh escaped his lips.  Didn’t a jaunt mean a short trip?

“Well, that’s as fitting a choice as any,” he said.  He could hear the others making their way inside.

He screwed off the top of the canister and withdrew the vial inside.  “A toast!  If I’m screwed no matter which path I take, then at least I’ll go forward with courage!  Fuck you, Simurgh!”

Marissa and Oliver appeared at the entrance to the living room just in time to see him tossing the contents of the vial back.  They rushed forward to stop him and only succeeded in catching him as he fell.

Pain.

It was like cold electricity, moving through his body at a speed of an inch a second.

He saw fragmented images, faded, blurry.  A crystal formation, growing in fast motion.  Two crystals, each somehow alive.  They moved by creating more of themselves, letting the crystal behind them die.  He sensed that years were passing, but they moved together, insistent.

The second they made contact, the entire world was turned to crystal in a heartbeat.

Another heartbeat later, the world shattered.

Another image.  Creatures that folded and unfolded through space, existing in multiple worlds simultaneously, too many to count, spreading out from the remains of a world.

A third scene.  Falling towards a barren planet, seeing the descent with countless eyes that weren’t quite eyes.  And a fragment of an idea… that the world had the same general shape as Earth.  Landmasses in the right place, if not quite the right shape.  No water… but still Earth.

“Krouse,” Marissa whispered.

“All good,” he smiled.  He struggled to his feet, then nearly lost his balance.  He had to put one hand on Marissa’s shoulder to keep from falling to the ground.  “It’s all good.”

Why?”

“Because I’m brave and stupid and because she’s the only one who ever gave me the benefit of a doubt,” he said.  He tried to walk and fell.  Marissa caught him.

“You can’t,” she said.

“Can too.  ‘Cause I’m pretty sure it worked.  Not sure how.  But it worked.”

He felt a pressure behind him.  A matching pressure to his right.  He turned to look, to see what was happening, and only saw the flatscreen television and a heavy speaker poised on the edge of the bookshelf.  There was a chord, as if a string stretched between them, vibrating, and the television was suddenly sitting on the bookshelf, the speaker in the midst of the entertainment center.  The television fell with a crash, and the remains of the screen danced across the floor.  Marissa shrieked.

“See?” he smiled.

“Krouse-”

He was aware of the pressure, aware of the reaching.  He tried to push it to move, like he’d move his hand, and it did.  He couldn’t exactly feel the shape, but had a sense of the heft of the thing he was pressing against.  He pressed the other presence against the coffee table, but didn’t feel the same chord.

Could expand and contract it, he noted, as if he were opening or closing his hand.  He tried expanding one.  No, that made it worse.  Expanding the one around the coffee table, grabbing, what, air?

The chord.

The desk from the front hall crashed to the ground and tipped over just beside them.  The coffee table settled in the front hall.  Again, Marissa made a noise of alarm, a yelp.  “Krouse!  Stop!”

“It’s all good,” he repeated himself.  “Because I’m going to help her.  Fuck the Simurgh.  Fuck destiny.”

He stopped when he saw Cody in the hallway.

“They’ll accept this too,” Cody said, “Our friends, your friends really, they’ll let it slide, won’t they?  I get threatened, treated like shit, and you?  Well, you get the breaks.”

“Pretty much,” Krouse said.  “But if it helps, you’re doing it for you.  I’m doing it for her.  For Noelle.  Because I love that girl, and she puts up with me, and I’ll probably never find another person like that again.  Not in our world and not in this one.”

“You’re not capable of love,” Cody said.

“We’ll agree to disagree.”  Krouse pushed the presence against Cody, surrounded himself.  No, not quite.  I’m smaller.  Need to suck in some air…

They swapped places in a flash.  Cody staggered.

Krouse nearly fell, too.  He caught the rails of the stairwell to balance, grit his teeth in the anticipation of pain.

No pain.  He clenched his bad hand, the one that had been impaled.

It was healed.

“All good,” he said, knowing he was saying the same thing over and over, rambling.  “Guess I’ll need one for her.”

He grabbed the heaviest book from the coffee table, then reached for a canister…

He could feel it, but couldn’t get a lock.  He turned around, looked.

There.

The book was replaced by the canister the second he made eye contact.  He nearly dropped it.

Krouse smiled.  “Not too difficult.  Not hard.”

He whirled around, nearly lost his balance.  “Well, I’ll meet you guys at the hospital.”

“Krouse!”  Marissa shouted.  She stepped forward, reaching for him.  He pushed his power into her and Oliver, switched them so that Oliver was within a few feet of him.

Oliver backed away, scared.  Krouse had expected as much.

“Hypocrite!”  Cody shouted.

“I know this is shitty,” Krouse admitted.  “And my excuses, my reasons for doing it, maybe they don’t make up for what I’m doing.  But I’m okay with you guys hating me if it means helping Noelle.”

He headed outside, stepping through the side door, glanced around.

The garage of the house he’d just left was still open from where they’d investigated.  It had a car sitting inside.  He smirked.

He had to wait until he had both Marissa’s car and the one in the garage in sight before he could lock on to both.  He pushed his presence into each, didn’t find it particularly difficult to get a hold…

They switched.  Marissa’s car made a crashing sound as it settled in the garage.

He got in his car, then pulled it into the driveway, just in front of the garage.  Cody was just stepping out of the side door.  Krouse saluted him.

Then he swapped himself and his car with the one that was now on the street.

They didn’t have keys to that car that was now blocking the driveway.  It would buy him time.

He shifted gears and drove.

“Hey, No’.” He said.  He sat down beside Noelle’s bed.

She opened her eyes, smiled just a little.

He smiled back.  “You’re finally awake.”

“Morphine helped.  Hurt too much to even open my eyes, before.”

“Sorry.”

“Hey, Krouse… things are pretty fucked, aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” he said.  He smiled a little.  “So you caught some of what we were talking about?”

She nodded slowly.  She closed her eyes with such languidness he thought she was falling asleep, but it was only a slow-motion blink.

“Yeah, things are supremely fucked,” he said.

She nodded a little.  “I’m due for another surgery.  They gave me one short one, and now they’re replacing my blood, see?”

“I see,” he said, eyeing the blood bags.

“…I kind of wish we’d done more boyfriend and girlfriend stuff,” she said.  “Sorry.”

“Don’t need to apologize.  You did what you had to.”

“I could die,” she said.  Her voice was feeble, quiet.  “They’re cutting too much out, and they can’t wait any longer, but my condition’s bad, so I could die on the table.”

“You’re not going to die.”

“And even if I live, I’m gonna be ugly.  Nice big plastic plug in my belly, with a bag of shit attached.  Which is really ironic, you don’t even know…” she trailed off.

“I sort of figured it out,” he said.

She nodded.  “Big scars, bag of shit.  Is why I wish we’d done more, before.  Won’t be any good to look at, after.”

“I don’t care about scars.  But it doesn’t matter anyways.  You’re not going to die, and you won’t have scars.  Or a colostomy bag.”

She turned his way.

He asked, “You catch any of what we were talking about?  Back at the house?”

“Only some.  Um.  I can’t distinguish the reality from the delirium dreams.”

“I suspect the delirium dreams made a little more sense, if that helps,” he said.

He set the canister down on the short table beside the bed.

“What’s that?”  Her eyes widened.  “That wasn’t a dream, then.  Krouse, no.”

Yes.  You’re going to take this, and it’ll help.  You’ll live, and you won’t need surgery.  Then I’ll get you out of here, and we’ll go home.  Somehow.”

“I don’t- no, Krouse.  People were saying…  They were scared.  This… this isn’t some minor thing.”

“No.  It’s big.  It’s huge.”

“There were only six,” she said.  “And there’s seven of us.”

“You deserve special treatment, after what you’ve been through.  And I want to make sure you get better.”

“No.  It’s… it wouldn’t be fair to the others.”

“Screw the others.  Cody, at least, can go fuck himself,” Krouse said.

“No, Krouse.  I… there’s too many things, too many warnings, and stuff you guys were saying about poison-“

He could hear footsteps in the hall.

“What if you take half, then?” he asked.  “Only half.  It’ll be fair to the others.”

He drew the vial, then found a paper cup by the sink.  He poured half into the cup.

“See?”  He handed her the glass vial

“Krouse-“

Someone’s going to come in any second now.

“It’ll work,” he said.

“And if it doesn’t?  Or if that horrible stuff you guys were talking about comes true?  The… what did you call it?  The cause and effect?”

“If it happens,” Krouse said, “Blame me.”

“I don’t-“

“Please,” he said, the word barely above a whisper.  He hadn’t realized he was saying it out loud before the word had left his mouth.

She gave him a small nod, and he helped her to drink.

I’ll take the blame.  I’m okay with being the bad guy, he thought.  Just so long as you get to live.

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Migration 17.4

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They took a path that kept the fence to their right.  It meant they stayed on the fringe of the Simurgh’s power, the volume of the keening song as low as they could hope to keep it, and it meant there was one less cardinal direction that any creatures could approach them from.  There were soldiers stationed at the far end of any roads, a ways back from fences, but they weren’t taking shots at them.  If the soldiers happened to shout at them through a loudspeaker, he considered it a bonus, something to draw others closer.

He cursed the heavy clouds of fog and dust that were resulting from the ongoing fighting and the snow that had evaporated or scattered on a massive scale.  It wasn’t bad enough that there were monsters prowling around the city, but his key senses were being obscured.  He couldn’t see more than one or two hundred feet ahead of him, and the noise… there was no absolute quiet.  The screaming in their heads continued without end, low in volume and apparently low in effect, but there.  Always there.  Just as distracting and nerve-wracking were the rumbles and the sounds of gunfire, of distant explosions, of buildings collapsing, and of city streets being blasted to shreds.

It was during one of the quiet moments, one of the periodic breaks in the distant chaos where there was only the song in their heads, that they heard a shrill scream.

Krouse, Cody and Marissa stopped in their tracks.

“Was that in my head?” Krouse asked.

“No.  Definitely a person.  Or people.  We should help them,” Marissa said.

“We’d be putting ourselves in danger,” Cody replied.

“No,” Krouse said.  “We should go.”

“I feel like you contradict me to be irritating,” Cody growled.

“We should go because there’s barely anyone around,” Krouse said, “And we’ve got to find a doctor.  One person with the right skills in an area with very few people.”

“And since someone’s screaming, we know there’s at least one person there.”

Krouse nodded.  He didn’t wait for further argument from Cody, sprinting ahead instead.

His path took him to the foot of a set of tall buildings with stores on the lowest level.  He was somewhat relieved that most of the fast food chains seemed familiar.  Somehow it implied that home wasn’t so far away.

Tables and benches were bolted into the ground in a broad patio or plaza between the buildings.  The fixtures that weren’t exposed to the winds and shockwaves that were rippling across the city in all the fighting were piled high with layers of snow and ice.

Krouse could hear the crunch in the snow as Marissa and Cody caught up behind him.  He glanced back to verify it was really them, then gripped his spear tighter.

Screams, again.  To his left.

He hurried toward the sound.  He knew the singing in his head was making him more impulsive, rounding off the edges of his sense of caution and pushing him to act rather than plan.  It didn’t matter.  He had one goal in mind.

Eight people were gathered in a burger joint with the lights off.  More daunting were the three monsters that were in the room.  One of the monsters was holding a ninth person off the ground.  The windows had been shattered and curls of snow flowed into the fast food place.

Krouse dropped low, crouching behind a snow-covered patio.  He gestured for Cody and Marissa to stop.

The monsters included a man with a neck three times the usual length and a gnarled hump on his back that was plated in armor.   His arms split in two at the elbow, with one set of hands and one set of limbs that ended in built-in scythes.  He was perched on a table, cackling.  His jacket was clearly borrowed, ill-fitting around his hump, and he kept having to push the sleeves up so they wouldn’t cover his hands or weapons.

His partner held their victim, the ninth person in the room.  She was big, maybe seven feet tall, and heavy in a way that met some middle ground between being muscular and being fat.  Big boned might have been the most apt way to describe her, in a literal sense.  Her skin was thick, her features blunt: she had a porcine nose and cauliflower ears, her fingers were stubby and her lips so fat that they curled away from her comparatively tiny teeth.  She might have weighed four hundred pounds, and the way she was easily holding her victim in the air suggested she was strong enough to kill someone with one good punch.  She wore only a set of grays that looked like a prisoner uniform.  He could make out the first half of the word that was printed across her shoulders: GWER-.

Rounding out the group was a young woman.  Something was off about her, besides the obvious physical changes.  Thick black horizontal lines striped her body, crossing her eyes like a blindfold, extending from the corners of her mouth, lining her chin and tracing down her neck.  By the time they reached her fingers, her skin was more black than white.  She wore the same prison grays, but had donned a jacket and boots.  Her blond hair was straight, her bangs cut severely across her forehead.

She was off because there was a rigidity to her.  She stood too straight, and every part of her except her clothing seemed to be drawn in horizontal and vertical lines.

Scythe-arms finished laughing, took a second to compose himself, and then snarled with a viciousness that seemed to be in stark contrast to his previous humor,  “Ontige hie, Matryoshka.

The massive woman turned to shove her captured victim towards the girl with the lines.  Krouse could make out the rest of the word.  Gwerrus.  Her voice was deeper than any Krouse had ever heard. “Egesa riika se-ji.”

The line girl spoke in a thick accent.  “Speak the anglo?  This skin too far from myself for me to remember.”

“Mirzuty,” the large woman swore.  “Egesa say you take her, Matryoshka.”

“I can not.  Too far.  I will lose myself.  Begging you, Gwerrus.”

Gwerrus slammed her hand down on the counter next to her, demolishing it.  The soft drink dispenser exploded in a spray of fizz and foam.  Gwerrus looked momentarily surprised, and the scythe-armed one started cackling.  Was that the Egesa that Gwerrus had mentioned?

Gwerrus growled, “There are guards, frail one.  Many.  There are fences and the… what you call them?  Transportation.”

“Trucks,” Matryoshka said.

“Trucks.  They hunt us.  They have craft.  Burn you by looking at you.  Fly,” Gwerrus’s deep voice took an almost reverent tone.  “We must escape.  We use your craft to do it.  Fold us.  Fold them.”

Matroyshka glanced at the crowd of people that were huddled by the front counter.  Her face was etched with anxiety.  A distant rumble shook the city, and her head snapped to one side in alarm.

Ofstede,” Egesa growled.

“Egesa says now,” Gwerrus translated.

“I guess that already,” Matryoshka said.

“Clever, clever,” Gwerrus said, with a cruel note to her voice, “Should use that clever mind to think.  Longer we wait, longer we have to listen to this dwimor wail.  More time for men hunting us to find us.”

Cody and Marissa crept closer until they were beside Krouse.  Krouse winced as their feet crunched in the snow, but the monstrous people didn’t seem to notice.

Matryoshka reached out and bent down in the direction of the woman Gwerrus had thrown to the ground.  Krouse couldn’t quite make out the view, but saw a flurry of black and flesh tone ribbons.

When she stood, she had a different face, her hair was darker, and the lines on her face and hands were thinner.

“How long?” Gwerrus asked.  “To… what is word?”

“Digest,” Matryoshka said.  Her accent wasn’t so thick as it had been.  “Hours?  Two or three.  Can’t really remember.”

“Fold into me next,” Gwerrus said.  “Then Egesa.  Then them.”

Both Matryoshka and Gwerrus looked at the huddled captives.

“But if I take more than two or three hours to escape, I’ll digest you.”

“I’m a soldier,” Gwerrus spoke.  “Tough.  Hard to eat?”

“Digest,” Matryoshka said.  “I don’t know.  Not sure you can be tough against this.”

Efeste,” Egesa growled.

“He says-”

“I get it.  Fine.  Kneel.  Easier if I don’t have to climb.”

Krouse tightened his grip on the spear, waited until he saw the ribbons.

Then Krouse charged forward.  Couldn’t afford to wait until that Matryoshka woman ate someone with the know-how Noelle needed.  The window of opportunity here was small, anyways.  Had to strike while two of the enemies were occupied.

His boots crunched over snow, and Egesa turned his way, raising one scythe before he even saw Krouse.

Krouse drove the makeshift spear into Egesa’s side.  The shape of the head didn’t allow for much penetration, but it did bury itself in the monster’s stomach.

Krouse had never been in a fight.  He’d been punched, but he’d never hit back.  Wasn’t in him, he’d thought.  How much of this was him, and how much was the song in his head?  Was the Simurgh’s song pushing him to violence where he might have tried to find another way in other circumstances?  Or was this what it felt like, doing what had to be done to help Noelle?

Egesa nearly fell from the table he was sitting on, managed to brace himself, and then swung one scythe-arm at Krouse.  Krouse threw himself backward, tugging on his curtain-rod spear.

It twisted as it came free, doing more damage on the way out than it had with the initial thrust.

Egesa fell to the ground, landing with his knees, two scythes and one hand on the ground. His other hand pressed to the injury, where blood was spilling onto the ground.

The hump of a hunchback protected the man’s head, as he crouched before Krouse.  Krouse looked at Egesa’s arched back, his legs and arms under him.  He could have gone for the stomach again, but there were no guarantees.  He jabbed for the armpit, instead.  Limit his range of attack.

His body hummed with adrenaline, and he felt far, far too calm for what he was doing, as he thrust the heavy metal spear into the base of Egesa’s arm.  This time he twisted it on purpose before pulling it free.

There was more blood than he thought there’d be, with that one.  Egesa fell over, no longer able to prop himself up.

Changing his grip, Krouse brought the spear down like a bludgeon, cracking Egesa across the head.

When Egesa didn’t immediately slump over, Krouse hit him twice more.

Ende,” Egesa growled.

Krouse swung to hit him one more time.  Egesa disappeared in a cloud of black smoke that quickly dissipated and the spear hit tile.

Krouse glanced around to see if Egesa had changed locations.  The scythe-armed freak wasn’t around.  He did see Cody and Marissa looking at him wide eyed.

This next part wasn’t going to change that much.  “Run!” he shouted at the bystanders.  They scrambled to their feet and ran for cover.

He advanced on Gwerrus and Matryoshka, saw how Gwerrus was entangled by Matryoshka, wearing the ribbons like a second skin.  Her left arm, completely encased, was compressed to only half the size, almost normal.

Gwerrus looked too tough to hurt, but Matryoshka…  He slashed the end of his makeshift spear into her, and the ribbons of flesh cut and tore.  Matryoshka began to pull together, unwinding from Gwerrus, and he clubbed her over the head.

Gwerrus was a bigger problem.  The way her skin seemed to be three times as thick as normal, at least, and her massive frame, he suspected he wouldn’t be able to hurt her with his weapon.  If he-

No, Krouse made himself stop, took an account of what he was doing.  He was getting carried away.  He turned to run.

A hand gripped the back of his coat, and a scythe blade extended around Krouse’s throat.

He felt another scythe tap against his spear, tapping again shortly after.  He let the spear clatter to the tiled floor.

Matryoshka condensed the ribbons into onion-like layers. The cuts and tears he’d made weren’t continuous once she was put together.  Rather, it was divided into a series of short cuts placed around her face and hands, with more probably hidden beneath her clothes.

“Brave,” Gwerrus growled.  “Stupid brave.”

“Sculan abretoan cnapa,” Egesa muttered, just beside Krouse’s ear.

Gwerrus shook her head.  “Na.  Wac thurfan cnapa with huntians ferranan, Matryoshka cunnan fealdan cnapa.”

Egesa shoved Krouse so that he stumbled forward, finding himself in the middle of the three.

“English?  Anglo?”  Matryoska asked.

“We need the boy,” Gwerrus said.  “You fold him.”

“Uh huh,” Matryoshka said.  “We’ll need more.”

“We’ll find more.”

“Soon?  Women I just took will be all dissolved.”

“Soon,” Gwerrus said.

Krouse couldn’t help but notice how even her dialect had changed since she’d absorbed the woman into her.  “You don’t have to do this.”

Egesa kicked him from behind, and Krouse fell to his hands and knees.

“Don’t hurt him,” Matryoshka said.

“They are enemies,” Gwerrus growled.  “They hunt us.”

“We’re not hunting you,” Krouse said.

Egesa kicked him again for his trouble, driving a heel into Krouse’s kidney.  Krouse grunted and writhed at the pain.  The screaming in his head was bad, now, almost drowning everything out.  It was almost affecting his vision.  He couldn’t help but think about the pressure of being deep underwater, being so deep he was barely able to function, except this wasn’t imagined.  It was real, despite being all in his head.  That same pressure dimmed everything around the edges of his vision, made shadows darker and lights brighter.  When spots appeared in his vision, he could almost imagine they were images.

Egesa pressed the tip of one scythe to Krouse’s eyelid.  “Abysgian in eage?  Yeh?”

Krouse slipped, so to speak.  He hadn’t even realized he was resisting the song, but in the pain, in his momentary fear, he let himself listen, looked at the shapes that were filling the dark places he could see.

Am I giving up?  This easily?  The others need me.  The others…

“Noelle,” he mumbled.

“Francis?”

He winced.  “Call me Krouse.  Everyone but my mom does.”

“Krouse,” Noelle tried the word.  “Okay.  You want something?”

“Just wanted to talk.  When we were marking each other’s papers in class, I got yours.  I just wanted to say I like the way you think.”

He could see her expression change, as though the whole paradigm of the conversation had shifted.  What did I say?

“Thanks,” she said.  Her eyes dropped to her lunch tray, and she speared a piece of lettuce on her fork.  She popped it into her mouth and chewed, slowly, methodically, then glanced up at Krouse.  The meaning was clear.  With body language alone, she was asking, why are you still here?

“Comparing the way you write an essay to how you’d design a game, plotting things both on a mechanical and general level.  It was interesting to read.  Nerdy in all the best ways.  That’s a compliment, in case you’re left wondering.”

“Alright.  Thanks.”

He was turning to leave when he saw Marissa Newland approach and sit down next to Noelle.  They weren’t people he’d expected to see together.  It wasn’t that Noelle was unattractive, only that Marissa was a swan, one of the better looking girls in the school, and Noelle was maybe best described as a sparrow.  Small, nervous, plain.  He hadn’t imagined they had any shared interest, social circles or friends.

Marissa moved a small plate with a square of pizza on it to Noelle’s tray, before looking up at Krouse.  “Krouse?  You need something?”

“Nah, said what I wanted to say.”

“Don’t pester her, ‘kay?”

“I”m not doing anything more annoying than distracting her from lunch, and I was already leaving.”

“You two know each other?” Noelle asked.

Krouse answered before Marissa could.  “Our moms both do a lot of volunteer stuff for the school.  Bake sales and crap.  Been a couple of times where we both got dragged in to help and wound up working together.”

“So I know exactly what to watch out for with you,” Marissa said.  “At any given point in time, you’re pulling some nefarious prank, you’re manipulating others to get what you want, you’re making someone else look bad-”

“Stop.  All this praise is going to make me blush.”

“Sixth grade,” Marissa said, turning to Noelle, “He tells his teacher-”

“Aaand I’m out of here,” Krouse said, making sure to interrupt her, “I forgot Marissa knew about the more embarrassing stories.”

“Good riddance to you, then,” Marissa said, smiling lightly.

He wasn’t two steps away when he heard her saying, “The Ransack qualifiers-”

He turned, interest piqued.

“What?” Marissa said.  “Do I need to get back to the story to scare you off?  Or are you going to make some crack about girls and video games?”

“No, I’m not.  You said qualifiers?  As in competitive level?”

“Yeah.  We have a club we organized through the school, to manage it.  It was the only way I could get access to a computer without my mom looking over my shoulder.”

“No kidding.  That’s the same one Luke’s in?  You know Luke Brito?”

“Yeah.  He’s in the group.”

“Ah,” he said.  He floundered.  “I’m sort of lost for words.  The bar for that sort of thing is higher than a lot of people think.  Even getting to the point where you’re in the qualifiers is pretty respectable.  Kudos.”

“Thanks,” Marissa said.

“I won’t subject you to my presence any longer.  Good luck tonight.  Really.”

“You play?” Noelle asked, the question abrupt.  She tore off a bit of pizza crust and popped it into her mouth.

It took Krouse a second to mentally shift gears.  “Some.  Casually.”

Marissa looked at Noelle to double check, then gestured towards the empty seat across from them.

Krouse sat, winced as a plastic tray clattered to the ground.

Marissa screamed, the sound abruptly cutting off as she was tossed from the counter where the plastic trays were stacked to the ruined counter where the soft drink dispensers had been.  She gasped for breath, struggled to climb to her feet and fell.  She was too dazed, and the ruined counter didn’t offer much in the way of solid traction.  Gwerrus advanced on her.

Krouse forced himself back to reality, hurried to climb to his feet, only to feel the scythe’s blade press hard to his neck, only his scarf keeping it from severing flesh.

The screaming in his head was back, worse than ever.  After the peace of the memory, the tranquility of being free of the screaming, still experiencing the warm buzz that surged through him, this wasn’t where he wanted to be.

“Began’na weorc,” Egesa hissed in his ear.

“Don’t understand a fucking thing you’re saying,” Krouse responded.  In a strange way, he was pissed.  Pissed in the way he might be if he’d been woken abruptly from a good dream.  He knew it wasn’t rational, knew it wasn’t even healthy to think that way when the Simurgh was this dangerous, this insidious, but he was still upset.

So maybe, in the smallest way, it gave him the push he needed to reach beneath his coat, to where he’d stashed the sheathed kitchen knife.  With his other hand, he found and dug his gloved fingers into the wound the spear had made, simultaneously twisting, putting his less vulnerable shoulder in the way of Egesa’s scythe-hand.

It didn’t matter.  Egesa’s knees folded as Krouse twisted his fingers in the wound, dug deep.  The knife’s sheath clattered to the ground, and Krouse dragged the blade across Egesa’s long neck.

Egesa pushed him away, blood fountaining down the front of his body.  Krouse’s fingers were plucked free of the wet, sucking wound as the freak backed away.  Egesa disappeared into wisps of dark smoke.

“Stupid brave boy,” Gwerrus said.

Krouse glanced around the room as the massive bear of a woman turned to face him.  Marissa was only just managing to stand, while Cody had backed up to the opposite end of the room, crowbar in hand.  Matryoshka was on her hands and knees, not far from Cody.

“Run!” he shouted.  “Scatter!”

He was only turning to run away from the brutish Gwerrus when he realized the others might not be in a state to run.  Marissa had been thrown hard, and he wasn’t sure what kind of condition Cody was in.

Not that it mattered.  Gwerrus picked Krouse for her target.

She wasn’t fast.  There was some small blessing in that.  But he quickly realized that she was keeping up with him, and she didn’t have half the trouble he did in wading through the deeper patches of snow.  Slipping on ice, too, didn’t prove to be a problem for her when she weighed enough that the ice shattered with each footfall.

She caught up to him before he was clear of the plaza, grabbed him by the seat of his pants and the back of his coat.

He stabbed at her hand with the knife, and felt a fierce agony tear through his own hand.

Blood welled out from his palm, warm as it ran down his arm to his elbow.  Krouse screamed.

“No,” Gwerrus growled in her deep voice.  “Stupid boy.”

“Begone,” a man intoned.

Krouse felt himself slip from her grasp.  He dropped to the ground.

“Do it quickly,” another man said.

Krouse turned to look, but he saw everything through a monochrome haze.  His own hand seemed smoky, faint.

I’m a ghost?

“Any insights, Myrddin?” a man in armor spoke.  Gwerrus backed away as he advanced.  A giantess and a man in a suit of gleaming armor.  The man twirled a halberd in one hand.

“A protective power.  I just got a glimpse of the idea behind it.  Retribution,” the first man said.  He was behind the man in armor, wearing a robe.  “Her power’s based around retribution for damage done.”

“Damage reflection?” the man in armor asked.  “Or does she get more durable as you attack her?”

“More likely to be the former than the latter.”

Krouse stood as the man in armor walked up to him.  Walked past him as though he weren’t even there.

“I am stronger than you,” Gwerrus snarled.

The armored man didn’t reply.

“Why do this?  Why hunt us?”  Gwerrus asked, backing away.

The armored man slammed his halberd down against the ground, and smoke billowed around him.  A moment later, there was a sound like a gunshot.  Gwerrus dropped to one knee, one meaty hand pressed to her chest.

There was a tink and she was set on fire, head to toe.

The flames were hot enough and close enough to Krouse that they could have burned him, should have burned him.  But he barely felt the warmth of them.  Barely felt anything.  The Simurgh’s scream had faded, and his own wounded hand was little more than a dull throb.

“Hey,” Krouse said, turning to the man in armor.  There was no response.  “Hey, my friend needs-”

“That was reckless,” Myrddin said, speaking over Krouse.  “Attacking when we didn’t know the particulars of her power.”

“Two most likely vectors for it,” the armored man said, talking as though he couldn’t hear Krouse.  He raised his voice a little to be heard over Gwerrus’ screams.  “Either she needed to see me, or there needed to be some correlation between me and the damage done.  Smoke plus a nonlethal bullet works as a test for the first case.  Besides, priority one is minimizing interactions, right?”

“Yes.  But it was still reckless.”

Krouse turned to Myrddin.  “My friend’s dying.  Can you help her?”

Myrddin walked ahead, dismissing the smoke with a wave of the craggy wooden stick he carried.

“Dragon?” the armored man said.

I’m here,” the woman’s voice came from the armbands that they’d fixed around their wrists.

“Myrddin just shunted some kid out to minimize contact.  I saw some blood.  If I mark the location, can we get emergency services here for when he pops back in?”

We’re overloaded.  Was it a severe injury?”

“Bad, but not severe.”

We don’t have the vehicles or personnel to spare, and quarantine will still be in effect.

“Right.  Where did our target land?”

Two hundred feet away, down your four o’clock, Armsmaster.

“How are we for exposure?”

You two are good for another seventeen minutes at the exposure you’re facing.  Twenty if we push it.  I can have a flight unit to you shortly.

Krouse hurried to follow them as they changed direction and began briskly walking toward the end of the street..

Myrddin spoke up, “How’s the fight going?”

It goes well.  But we can’t let our guards down.

“No,” Myrddin agreed.  “This is a bad one.  Too many possible avenues to cover, too much exposure time across the board.”

We’re doubling down quarantine, and we’ll have a processing center in place shortly.  The President is pushing the D.D.I.D measure.

“It’s going to backfire,” Myrddin said.  “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now, and I’ll remind you all I said it with every chance I get, from now until the day I die.  It’s going to backfire.”

I don’t disagree,” Dragon said.

“But you’re helping to enforce it.”

I’m following orders.”

“No offense, I like you, Dragon, but that’s the oldest excuse in the book.”

I’m merely picking my battles.

“If you’re not going to fight this battle, then what will push you to make a stand?”

“Myrddin,” Armsmaster cut in, “Ease up.  And pay attention.  This is it.”

Krouse stared.  It was a section of building.  White tile and white walls, a desk, and a metal cabinet with a shattered glass pane.  File folders were strewn over the floor and desk.  In the midst of it all was a man in a white lab coat.  His body had been shattered by the impact.

“Damnation.  If we could only look into this…” Armsmaster said.

“Priority one.  Minimize exposure.”

“I know.  But this stands to answer a great many questions.  If we can find where she opened that portal to-”

“If she’s answering questions for us, we don’t want to know,” Myrddin said.

Armsmaster sighed.  “I know.  Can you shift this into one of your pocket dimensions?”

“I get bad interactions if I transition something in of one of my dimensions and back, or if I take things out of one dimension and put them into another.  It doesn’t compartmentalize into the dimension properly if it’s been elsewhere too recently.  Whether these people and objects came from somewhere halfway across the globe or some pocket dimension, I don’t think we want to test our luck and risk something disastrous.”

Krouse startled at that.  Is that what happened to me?  Some bad interaction of interdimensional crap?

“I’m thinking white phosphor?”  Armsmaster suggested.  Myrddin nodded.

Dragon chimed in, her voice sounding from the armbands on their wrists, “Can’t call in a strike until fifteen minutes after the Simurgh is gone.  Mark the area.  I’ve got another danger site a quarter-mile to your six o’clock.  Then we’re getting you clear.

“Got it,” Armsmaster said.

Armsmaster tossed a small canister into the middle of the section of laboratory, they cordoned off the area with red tape, and then they left.  Armsmaster used a grappling hook to fly to a nearby rooftop while Myrddin took to the air.  

With no way to follow, Krouse was left standing there.  He prodded at a piece of rubble, but his hand passed through.

Yet he was able to walk on the hard ground?  He couldn’t process it.

“I don’t understand,” he muttered to himself.

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

He folded his arms.  That’s not something I ever expected to hear.  “You can’t blame me at least a little?”

“No,” Noelle said, shaking her head.  She looked miserable, and he felt a knot forming in the pit of his stomach as he saw just how unhappy she was.  It wasn’t something he was familiar with, on a lot of levels.  Quiet, she said, “You’ve been great.”

He spread his arms, “I don’t get it.  I thought we were doing fine.”

“We aren’t!  This is… it’s not working.”

“I’m okay with it.  I enjoy spending time with you, and I didn’t get any impression you were having that bad of a time, either.”

“But we don’t- we aren’t-”  She stared down at her feet.  “We’re stalled.  It isn’t fair to you.”

That’s what you’re worried about?”

“Don’t dismiss my concerns,” she said, managing to sound a little angry.

“No’, it’s fine.  It’s cool.  I get that there’s stuff you’ve got going on that you don’t want to tell me about.  I can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but I’m not an idiot.  And I’m not going to twist your arm to get you to share, either.  That’s your stuff, and I figure you’ll tell me in time.  Or you won’t.”

“It’s not fair to you,” she repeated.

“I’m not saying things have to be equitable or balanced or fair or any of that.  So who cares if things aren’t fair?”

“Don’t do that!”

He spread his arms for the second time in a minute, helpless.  Don’t do what?  Don’t make sense?

Long seconds passed.  He studied her, saw how dejected she was.  Only minutes ago they’d been having a good time talking.  Then things had fallen apart without warning, and it sounded like she wanted to break up.

It’s like karma for all the times I’ve pulled shit on others.  Only I did it in fun, and this isn’t fun in the slightest.

“Someone said, a little while ago,” Noelle spoke without looking at Krouse, “That I can’t really forge a good relationship with others until I have a good relationship with myself.

“You don’t?”

Noelle didn’t say anything.

I think you’re fantastic, if that counts for anything.”

“You don’t know me.”

“I’ve been getting to know you some.  And I have yet to see anything that’s going to scare me away.”

She stared down at her feet.  “…I don’t think we should date.”

“Okay.  If you think that’s for the best.  But I just need you to do one thing.  Look me in the eye as you tell me that.”

She glanced up at him, then looked down.  She didn’t say a word.

“Because,” he went on, “I think you’ve seemed happier than I’ve ever seen you since we started going out.  Marissa said so, too.”

Noelle glanced at him.

He continued, “If you really feel like us dating is making things worse in the long run, then I’m perfectly okay with breaking it off.  I can leave the club if that makes things easier on your end.  It was your thing before it was mine, and you’ve got enough on your plate with being team captain.”

“I don’t want you to leave the club.”

“Okay,” he said.  He waited for her to speak, but she didn’t.  “Listen, I get the feeling today is a bad day.  Don’t know why it is, but it is.  And that happens.  Fine.  But I’m not willing to end this if it’s because the stars aligned wrong.  So I’m asking you to tell me that you’re worse off because we’re together.  Not asking for an explanation, just-”

“Never mind,” she said.

“Never mind?”

“I’m- just never mind.  Can we forget this conversation happened?”

“Sure,” he said.  He saw how dejected she looked.  “Want me to walk you home?”

She nodded.

It was odd.  He’d been punched before, had failed a grade, he’d lost his uncle, and yet it was here, beside his girlfriend, that he was unhappier than he’d ever been.  He was helpless, confused, frustrated.  All he wanted to do was to help her, but he wasn’t sure how.

He fought the urge to sigh, and drew in a deep breath instead.  The air in his nostrils was so cold he choked on it.  All of his senses were plunged into high gear; a keening song so high pitched it made his ears hurt, cold throughout his body, the smell and taste of dust thick in the air, and pain lancing through his right hand.

Coughing, bewildered, he stared at the pile of rubble and the laboratory.  Whatever effect had encompassed him, it was gone.

Noelle.

He scrambled up the pile of rubble.  He remembered how they’d said they wouldn’t bomb this site until after the Endbringer was gone, so he still had some time.

He needed a first aid kit.  He went through the cabinets and a set of drawers.  Nothing.  Empty test tubes, glass vials without any contents, canisters without contents, and paperwork.  Lots of paperwork.

His eyes settled on a metal briefcase beneath the desk, within a few feet of the dead man’s hand.

His fingers crossed for a portable case of medical supplies, he set it down on the desk and popped it open.  Disappointment overwhelmed him.

Six metal canisters recessed in black foam with slots cut out to hold them, paperwork was set in a flap in the lid.

He swore.

…newly purchased superpowers…

He winced.  He’d turned his head too fast, and the movement had almost made the song in his head worse, like the pain prompted by moving a broken limb.

As had been the case with the birdcage and the newspaper, Krouse’s eye had caught on something.  He’d always been a fast reader, was used to skimming through books, picking up the necessary words.  As his glance had passed over the case, he’d read something in the text without even registering that he’d done it.

He reread the first line, underneath the header.

Congratulations on your newly purchased superpowers.

His eyes moved down to the vials.

He slammed the case shut and turned to leave.  There was nothing here he could use for first aid, and certainly no doctors.  He could only hope that Cody or Marissa had caught up with some of the people who they’d rescued from the three monsters.  If there was any justice in the world, there would have been a doctor among them, and Cody or Marissa would have brought them to the house.

He ran.  He had to get back, rendezvous with the others, and get to someone who knew him.  If he didn’t hurry, he was worried he would slip into another memory and fail to find his way out again.

The cold air burned in his lungs as he ran, the metal case swinging from his good hand, banging irregularly against his leg.

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Extermination 8.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s at CA-4, heading Northwest!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

“The wreckage goes this way,” she responded.

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

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

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

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

“Ninety-nine percent.”

“Noted.  We’re teleporting forces in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Browbeat deceased, BW-8.

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

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

Parian down, BW-8.

All of the ‘stuffed animals’ deflated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadow Stalker down, BW-8.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brandish down, BW-8

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

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

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

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

The rumble didn’t stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above me, her armband flashed yellow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Setting down again,” Laserdream said.

“But if there’s a tidal wave-”

“I don’t see one.”

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

“If it’s a trick-”

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

“Right.”

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

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

Dad.  It could be my dad.

“Bring me,” I said.

She frowned.

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

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

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

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

Myrddin down, BX-9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I remembered the Halberd.

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

“As a shovel?” he looked skeptical.

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

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

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

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

There was a pause.

No reports.  Location unknown.  Exert caution.

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

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

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

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

“Everyone out!” Laserdream called out.

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

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

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

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

It was surprising how much that chance meeting bugged me.

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

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

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

Leviathan.

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

Laserdream down, CB-10.

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

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

No death notice from the armband for civilians.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two seconds later, it hit me again harder.

Two blocks away, Leviathan crashed down into the water.

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

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

Something splashed near me.  A footstep.

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

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

I followed her gaze, blinked twice.

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

How many dogs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kill!” Bitch shrieked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay?” he called out.

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

“Bring her here, I’ll take her back.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your name?” someone asked.

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

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

“Villain?”

I shook my head.  “What?”

“Are you a villain?”

“It’s complicated. My back-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving me chained up.  Alone.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.1

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The crush of bodies was a tide that Tattletale and I had to push through.  There were a thousand or more scared people in our immediate area, surging against and around us.  Even our costumes didn’t give people much pause or reason to give us space.  Thoughtless in their panic, the crowd was guided only by the barricades of policemen and police cars that had been established at the intersections to guide the masses to the shelters.

Everybody had been informed, in the pamphlets that came in the mail and in schools, about emergency procedures.  There were multi-level shelters spaced around the city, enough for people to hunker down in for a few hours.  They’d all been told that they could bring our larger pets if the animals could be trusted to behave.  They could bring only necessary medical supplies and what they could have on their person.  People weren’t allowed to use their cars, unless they were in one of the areas on the periphery of town.  Too easy for there to be an accident in the panic and hurry, leaving everyone else stuck in a traffic jam when disaster arrived.

But people were stupid.  A chronic condition of our society, that so many people somehow thought they were special, the exception to the rule.  In this panicked crowd, every rule was being broken.  There were people with luggage on wheels, one kid carrying a lizard in a glass cage.  People were pushing and shoving, shouting and swearing.  Pets were reacting to the ambient stress with barks and snarls, dashing around and getting others tripped or tangled up in leashes.  Tattletale and I passed two cars that were even making their way forward in the midst of stampede, inch by inch, honking their horns the entire time.  Between the air raid sirens and the honking horns, I couldn’t make out the words people were shouting.  I could barely think.

We reached a trio of police officers, who had used their cars and yellow tape to cordon off two sides of an intersection.  I could see the eyes on the officer nearest me widen in recognition.  He was about to say something, but the officer next to him put a hand on his shoulder, reached in the window of the police car.  He pushed pieces of paper into each of our hands.

I glanced over it, found what I needed, and gave him a curt nod.  Tattletale grabbed my hand and pulled me away.

The paper, labelled at the top with the words ‘Parahuman Response’, contained a picture of our destination in black and white and directions on how to get there.  It wasn’t far – the area which divided the Docks and Downtown, a short distance East from the mall where Brian and I had gone.

The closer we got to our destination, the more the crowd thinned out.  We saw another crowd moving toward a different shelter as we got close, but we could avoid that by detouring around that particular set of streets.

As we got close enough for me to wonder what direction to take, I saw the streak of smoke as an huge armored suit plunged down from the sky, just a block away.  It was clue enough for Tattletale to pull me forward to follow it.  Reaching the end of the street, we saw our destination on the other side of a nearly empty four lane road.

The building was fairly nondescript.  Six stories tall, it featured dark brown brick and dark tinted windows, and sat alone on a grassy hill.  A nearly empty parking lot sat between us and the building, and a stretch of beach sat on the far end.  People in PRT uniforms stood guard around the parking lot and entrance, and four of the five vehicles in the parking lot were PRT vans, with turret-mounted hoses and armored exteriors.  As good an indication as any that this was the meeting place.

Past the hill and to the left was Dragon, in a mechanical suit that was as large as two PRT vans put together, four legged, with what looked like a single jet engine on top, still smoking from her recent flight.  On either side of the engine or oversized jetpack or whatever it was, were two shoulder mounted missile launchers, each pre-loaded with four missiles longer than I was tall.  She was facing the water, unmoving, like a gargoyle standing guard.

I saw what she was watching.  A stormcloud in the distance.  It hung over the water with an opaque curtain of rain descending down from it.  It was gradually getting closer.

As we approached the parking lot, a squad of PRT officers blocked our way.  I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Were any of these the same people we’d attacked at the Protectorate’s fundraiser?  I couldn’t tell, with their helmets and tinted faceguards covering their faces.

With a sound like a muffled thunderclap, a half dozen people appeared in the center of the empty lot.  When I saw who they were, I was awestruck.  That wasn’t hyperbole or whatever, I was using the word awestruck in the original, zero-embellishment sense of the word.

Alexandria stood at the head of the crowd that had just arrived.  Her head turned from one side to the other as she surveyed her new surroundings, the long, straight black hair that spilled from the back of her helmet sweeping from one side to the other.  She was everything that made you think ‘superheroine’; athletic, tall, muscular, but still feminine.  Her costume was black and light gray, with an image of a tower in the center of her chest, and she featured a wide, heavy cape that flowed over her shoulders and draped onto the ground beside and behind her.  Alexandria. 

Her team – people I recognized but couldn’t necessarily name – followed behind her in a loose formation.  Only one man in a blue and black uniform and cap stayed behind in the middle of the parking lot.  He looked around for a few moments, then disappeared with a crack and a whoosh, smaller than the one that had brought the entire group there.

Tattletale and I circled around the parking lot, to avoid getting in the way of any incoming teleporters.  We were nearly to the door when we heard another group arrive behind us, the same way Alexandria had come.  Teenagers, this time.  I couldn’t place them, but the brighter colors of their costumes led me to suspect they were heroes.  The man who’d teleported them in said something I couldn’t make out over the the wailing air raid sirens, and they quickly set to marching in our direction.

Leading them out of the parking lot was a shirtless, muscled boy with metal skin, eyes and hair and a strange texture to his shoulders and spine.  Among other things, I noticed the tines of a fork sticking out near his neck, and what might have been the wires of a chain link fence half melted into his opposite shoulder.  But where that strange half-melted-metal texture didn’t cover him, his metal body was exceedingly detailed and refined.  His ‘skin’ was a dusky dark gray metal with the slightest of swirls of lighter metals in it, and his ‘adonis’ musculature was perfectly etched out in the metal, with silver lines tracing his muscle definition like veins of metal in raw ore.  His eyes, too, were silver, and two lines ran from the corners of them down his cheekbones and to the sides of his jaw.

He clapped one heavy hand down on my shoulder as he passed me and offered me a tight smile.

It seemed we were allies, at least for the time being.

Tattletale and I followed his group into the building.

Folding chairs had been set into rows and columns in the center of the lobby, facing a trio of widescreen television sets, which in turn were backed by a series of large windows overlooking the beach.  Through the windows, we had the perfect view of the looming storm.

As daunting as the approaching clouds were, what drew my attention was the crowd.  There were people filling the lobby.  Only a few were local.

Empire Eighty-Eight was here, at the back corner of the room.  I saw Hookwolf there, half covered in a layer of his metal hooks and barbs.  I didn’t see Cricket or Stormtiger.  He glared at Tattletale and I.

The Travelers were all present, I noted, the only other local team of villains to show.  Faultline’s crew was absent, and I couldn’t help but note that Coil wasn’t around.  He wasn’t a front lines kind of guy, but he’d at least supplied his soldiers for the ABB situation.

The local heroes were present in force.  I wasn’t surprised – skipping this fight, as a hero, let alone a team of heroes, would be unforgivable to the public.  Aegis was talking with the metal skinned boy who’d arrived at the same time as Tattletale and I.  A large group of fifteen or so other teenagers were gathered and talking amongst themselves.  There was some joking, the occasional laughter, but it felt forced, strained.  False bravado.  I was assuming they were all Wards, from at least three different cities.

The kids from New Wave were near the Wards -Glory Girl, Panacea, Laserdream and Shielder- but they weren’t really joining in with the conversation the Wards were having.  I could see Glory Girl and Gallant standing together; she was holding his hand.  Panacea was sitting backwards on a chair just beside where Glory Girl stood, her arms folded over the chair back, chin resting on her wrists.  She glared at the two of us, though the look was mainly directed at Tattletale.  Near Panacea, the adults of New Wave had pulled the folding chairs into a rough circle so they could sit while they talked in a bit of a huddle.

The Protectorate was present, and it wasn’t just the locals, but the big guns.  Armsmaster, standing a little taller and looking more confident than I’d seen before, with not one but two Halberds connected to his back, was having a quiet conversation with Miss Militia and Legend.  It took me a second to absorb that picture.  That was the head of the Protectorate, the leader of the largest team of capes in the world.  What’s more, he was right in front of me, having a conversation with someone I’d talked to.  Ridiculous as that sounded, it affected me.

Legend sported a skintight blue costume with a design in white that fell somewhere between flame and electricity in style.  He had a perfect physique – one I didn’t mind giving a second glance-over – a strong jaw and wavy brown hair.  If Alexandria was the flying bruiser that just about every other flying bruiser strove to match up to, then Legend was at the head of the pack when it came to being flying artillery.  His firepower was on par with Purity’s, if not outright surpassing her, and he was far, far more versatile.

Knowing I’d seen two members of the leading three figures of the Protectorate, I looked for the third.  I glanced past Myrddin, from Chicago, with his brown burlap robe and wooden staff, Chevalier, in gleaming silver and gold armor, carrying his cannonblade, and Bastion, who had earned a great deal of bad press, lately. Someone used a cell phone to catch Bastion using the word ‘spic’ several times as he yelled at a kid who only wanted to take his picture.  He was studiously ignoring Kaiser, who was standing nearby, staring at him, taunting him without speaking or doing anything.

It was only at the back corner of the room that I found the third member of the Protectorate’s triumvirate.

Eidolon stood behind one of the large television sets, staring out the window.  He wore a blue-green skintight suit that expanded into a voluminous hood, cape and sleeves that draped over his hands.  The interior of the hood and sleeves wasn’t shadowy, but illuminated with a soft green light.

Debating the relative strengths of various capes was common enough, in the schoolyard and elsewhere.  If Alexandria and Legend fought, who would win?  Would Boston’s Protectorate win against Brockton Bay’s team?  What if you removed Boston’s weakest members until the sides were even in number?

When the question inevitably got to who was the strongest, the ‘big five’ were generally ruled out, in the sense of ‘well, yeah, but besides them‘.  Scion got counted as a part of that group because the powers he did have were head and shoulders above just about everyone else’s.  Eidolon was almost the opposite, because he had every power, though he could only hold on to a handful at a time.  Then there were the Endbringers, because they mandated situations like this, where even Scion or Eidolon plus multiple teams of capes weren’t necessarily enough.

Sure, some loyal people might argue that Legend was better than Eidolon, or maybe even some other cape like Dragon or Alexandria.  Generally speaking, though?  Eidolon was a top dog.

I looked away from Eidolon, to check out the rest of the crowd.  There were a few other unofficial teams of heroes, including Haven, the Christian team from the bible belt, and two teams with corporate sponsorship that were being very careful to not interact with one another.  Some sort of bitter rivalry, there.

A scattered few independent heroes and villains were around as well.  Few I could name.  I saw a girl dressed up like an old fashioned doll.  Parian.  She was local, and she wasn’t hero or villain.  A rogue, who only used her powers for business or entertainment.  She could sometimes be seen doing some promotion for a store downtown, giving life to some massive stuffed animal or a store mascot.  She’d done an interview in a magazine I’d read back before I had powers, and I knew she was a fashion student, though she wasn’t revealing just who she was until after she was more established.  She looked as though she were trapped in a conversation with a curly haired, dimple-cheeked villainess that looked no older than eight, who wore a frock that was maybe from the same period as Parian’s.  The pseudo-child was Bambina, if I was remembering right.

Parian was rescued by one of the out-of-town Wards, a girl in a skintight costume with a visor covering her eyes, nose and ears, with a quiver of what looked like giant needles and a massive crossbow.  The Ward said something to Bambina, who scowled and managed to look cute while doing it.  Then the heroine ushered Parian over to where she’d been talking with Shadow Stalker.  What in the world could that group talk about?  I might not have been alone in thinking that – Shadow Stalker seemed unimpressed with the new addition to their group, judging by her body language.

Tattletale spotted the Undersiders before I did.  I’d been looking for Bitch and the dogs as things that would stand out in the crowd, but they weren’t present.  Tattletale squeezed my hand and gave me an apologetic smile before letting go, patting me on the upper arm, and crossing the room to head over to where Grue and Regent sat.

The two boys glanced my way, then turned their attention to Tattletale.  Ignoring me.

That… really stung.

It was sort of inane, that I was concerned over something like that, given the seriousness of the present situation.  We were here because we faced the very real possibility of facing down one of the Endbringers.  I shouldn’t be worried about broken friendships.

But I was worried about it, stupidly.  I felt like I was back in school, the only kid left when everyone else had found their groups, and a hit to my confidence was not what I needed on a day like this.  I looked for a place to sit, and settled for a chair in the overall vicinity of the Undersiders and the Travelers.

Sundancer glanced at me, noted my presence, then she seemed to go out of her way to avoid looking at me again.  That caught me off guard, because I’d somehow let myself believe I’d left our cooperative battle against Lung with a good impression.  It seemed she wasn’t so willing to look past the fact that I’d carved out Lung’s eyes.

Feeling more and more like an outsider, more out of place, I watched as others filed into the room.  More of the Protectorate, and a small few members of the Guild.  Narwhal turned heads as she entered the lobby.  She stood seven feet tall, with a curtain of glossy, pale hair extending almost to the backs of her knees.  She was unclothed, not even wearing a skintight costume on her long limbed body, but it somehow wasn’t obscene.  Her skin was layered with fine crystal scales that caught the light and scintillated with faint rainbow hues.  A single horn stood out from the middle of her forehead, three feet long.  She ignored stares as she found a space to lean against a wall near the front of the room.  She had her chin against her chest with her eyes closed, as though she were resting, or concentrating.  Or maybe it was a habit she’d picked up when standing straight meant stabbing the average ceiling with her horn.

Yet more were continuing to arrive when Armsmaster and Legend turned away from their conversation and walked up to the front of the room.  The din in the room quieted, and every set of eyes was on them.

Legend cleared his throat.  He had the kind of voice that you listened to, “We owe thanks to Dragon and Armsmaster for their early alert.  We’ve had time to gather, and that means we have just a few more minutes to prepare and brief for Leviathan’s arrival, instead of jumping straight into the fray as we arrive.  With this advantage, some luck, teamwork and hard effort from everyone, I hold out hope that this could be one of the good days.”

A pre-battle speech from Legend.  It almost made the lousiest, most painful and dangerous situations I’d put up with since putting on my costume worth it.

“But you should know your chances going in.  Given the statistics from our previous encounters with this beast, a ‘good day’ still means that one in four of the people in this room will probably be dead before this day is done.”

Or not.

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