Scourge 19.1

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The school’s bell tolled, oddly deep, with an echo that continued, unending.  I couldn’t see it through the cloudy haze that consumed my vision, but I felt as though the lockers were straining against their hinges in keeping with the rhythm.  The same went for the floor tiles, and the hundreds of footfalls of the students milling around me.  A pounding rhythm.

I couldn’t keep my footing.  I was blind, still, but that wasn’t the source of the problem.  It seemed vaguely familiar, the way every impact seemed designed to hit me where it hurt, to knock me off-balance and leave me in a state where I was spending too much time reeling and staggering to push back or find safety.

Someone tall shoved past me, and his bag caught on my nose.  It tore at the skin between the nostrils, and I could feel warm blood fountaining from the wound.  I staggered, bending over with my hands to my face, and someone walked straight into me, as though they didn’t know I was there.  My head hit a locker and I fell.  Someone stepped on my hand as their vague shape walked by, and I could hear something break, could feel it break.  The pain dashed all rational thought from my mind.

I screamed, brought my hand to my chest, cradling it.  I was tougher than that, wasn’t I?  I wasn’t made of glass, to have bone fracture or-

“You’re so pathetic, Taylor,” Emma intoned.

No.  Not now.  Not like this.

I could hear Madison tittering.  Sophia was silent, and her presence was all the more ominous for it.  I’d done something reprehensible to her.  I couldn’t recall what it was, but I knew she was here for retaliation.

They struck me, and I fell.  Emma and Madison took turns kicking me, and every effort I made to defend myself fell short.  It wasn’t just that I didn’t know how to fight, or that I was blind.  It was somehow worse, as though every effort I made were being actively punished.

I’d reach out with my good hand to grab one of them and pull them off their feet, and my elbow would get stepped on, forcing it to bend the wrong way.  I tried to push myself to a standing position, only for someone to kick me in the back, slamming my chest and face into the tile, hard.

I tried to speak and a kick caught me in the throat.

And all around me, there was the steady rhythm of footsteps and the bell’s echo.

The point was clear.  I was supposed to give up.  I really should have given up.

If I wasn’t able to do something on my own, maybe a weapon?  Some tool?  My thoughts were confused and disordered, but I searched through them, as if I could remember if I’d stashed some tool or weapon on my person.

No, something else, I was supposed to have another weapon, though my instinct told me it wasn’t anywhere I could reach, and that was normal.  I searched for it-

The scene was visible through a thousand times a thousand eyes, the colors strangely muted in favor of texture, the images blurring except where they moved, when they became oddly sharp.

Tattletale managed to leap back from the metal walkway as Noelle lunged and caught on the fixture.  As Noelle fell, her claws scraping gouges into the concrete walls, the walkway was pulled free.  Tattletale had put herself in one of the rooms that extended off the walkway.  Coil’s room.  There was a doorway to nowhere between herself and Noelle, surrounded by concrete walls that were two or three feet thick at their narrowest point.

Most of the construction of this place had taken place after Coil had found out about Noelle.  He’d known there was the possibility that she would go rogue.

Tattletale stepped up to the doorway, drew her gun, and fired, gunning down a Grue that had been vomited out.  Blood spattered and he went limp.

-and I couldn’t find anything.  I was unarmed here.

One kick caught me in between the eyebrows, and my head exploded with pain.

That spooked me.  I had to protect my head.  If I suffered another concussion…

That was the breaking point.  My brain was more important than whatever else I was trying to protect.  Anything else was fixable.  I stopped fighting back, tucking battered legs against my bruised upper body, drawing my hands around my head.

Immediately, the assault stopped being an attempt to break me and destroy my every effort to stand up for myself.  It became something more tolerable, with periodic kicks and stomps instead.  The accompanying shame and humiliation was almost nostalgic.  Horrible, but familiar.

Then Sophia stepped close, and I felt something sliding beneath my hands and arms, settling around my neck.  A noose.  She used it to lift me, choking, off the ground.

Madison opened the locker, and the rancid smell of it wafted around me.  I would have gagged if I could breathe.

Sophia shoved me inside, planting one foot between my shoulder blades as she hauled back on the rope.  My unbroken fingers scrabbled for purchase, found only trash and cotton that tore when I tried to grab it.  Bugs bit at my flesh and there was nothing I could do to stop them.

Bugs?  There was something I thought I should know, something-

The bugs observed as Tattletale pulled the pin from a grenade.  She waited while it sat in her hand.  It was dangerous and reckless to ‘cook’ a grenade like they did in the movies, but then again, this was Tattletale.  It fit with her nature, and if anyone knew how long the fuse really was, it was her.  She tossed it down to where Noelle lurked below.

The grenade detonated just before it made contact, billowing with smoke and radiating enough heat to kill the bugs that were finding their way into the underground base.  Other bugs could see the shifting radiance of the flames.

Tattletale shouted, “Rachel!  Now!”

-that eluded me, like the water that escaped the ever-thirsty Tantalus.

As I scrabbled for purchase, the contents of the locker shifted, falling and collapsing against me, pressing tight against my body, smelling like old blood and rancid flesh.

My heart skipped a few beats and I felt as though my blood was turning to sludge in my veins, slowing down.  My thoughts dissolved into a slush of memories, speeding through my life in choppy, fragmented, distorted images.  I felt momentarily disembodied, as though the line between myself and my surroundings, my mind and my feelings were all blended in together.

When it pulled back, I could finally breathe.  I let out a deep, shuddering breath.  I could breathe.  I could think again.

I heard the sound of blades rasping against one another, the ringing of steel building with each repetition of the sound.  I blinked, and the blind haze lifted as though I’d only had tears in my eyes.

Mannequin stood in the center of the room.  He had four arms, each ending in three-foot blades, and was sharpening each weapon against the others without pause.

Around him, the factory.  Machinery churned, pumps and pistons and levers moved, and furnaces glowed to cast long shadows, casting Mannequin in a crimson light.  The people from my territory were there too, along with Sierra, Charlotte, Lisa, Brian, Rachel, my dad, and my teachers.  Each of them fought to hide in the shadows and the corners, but there wasn’t enough room.

I carefully assessed the tools I had at my disposal.  My gun, my knife, my baton.  In a more general sense, there were my bugs.  I called for them-

Tattletale jerked toward the doorway, stopped as one arm stretched behind her with a clink.  She’d handcuffed herself to a length of chain, fastening that chain to a rubber-sheathed cluster of wires at the far end of the room.  Tattletale’s free hand gripped her gun, pointed it at something narrow… The bugs who were touching the object in question were being absorbed, dying.  It was one of Noelle’s tongues, wrapped around Tattletale’s waist.

The gunshot went off, severing the tongue, and the chain went slack.  Tattletale dropped to her knees, pressing her gun hand to her shoulder.

The three largest dogs attacked.  Bitch sent three, and the result was predictable.  Noelle absorbed them as they made contact, though each dog was nearly a third of her own size.  Her flesh stretched thin around the mass of each dog, then stretched thinner as they started to swell in size.

Noelle’s flesh crept over them faster than they grew.  The growth ceased the instant the flesh finished enveloping them, and their struggles slowed.  It took long seconds for them to stop struggling, but each dog eventually went limp.

Tattletale and Rachel watched as two figures stepped out from behind Noelle.  Regent and a Skitter.  Me.

Regent whipped his head up in Tattletale’s direction, and she dropped her gun.  As her good hand snapped up to her throat, gripping it, it became apparent that dropping the gun had been quite intentional.  If she’d been holding it-

The perspective of the scene shifted abruptly as the Skitter bid every bug in the area, Noelle’s included, to turn toward Rachel.

Rachel clenched her fists.

-and barely any responded.  A hundred?  If that?  The heat of the furnaces killed many of the ones who were trying to approach.  It left me with a mere thirty-nine bugs.  I might as well have been unarmed.

Mannequin extended one arm with the blade outstretched, pointing at the crowd.  His ‘eyes’ were on me as he did so, moving the blade slowly.  Pointing at faces that were familiar, but who I couldn’t name.

Pointing at my dad.

And there was nothing I could do to save him.  Not saving him wasn’t an option, either.  I drew my gun, fired.

Only one bullet in the chamber.  There was a sound as it hit Mannequin, but he barely reacted as he turned toward my father.

I drew my knife and baton, charging.

Futile.  He ignored me completely, raising one hand and then stabbing down.  I couldn’t even look at what was happening.  Refused to look.

I struck Mannequin, aiming for the joints, the small of his back, his hips and knees.  Nothing worked.

Without even looking, Mannequin reached over to one side and thrust one blade at me.  His weapon penetrated my armor like it was Armsmaster’s special halberd.

I screamed, but it was more rage than pain.  I howled like I might against a hurricane, a storm that was destroying everything I loved, that I was helpless to fight.  I battered him, struck him with my weapons, gave everything I had and more, to no avail.

He folded his arms around me in a bear hug, squeezed, crushed.

More of him folded around me, pulling tight against my head, my throat, arms, chest and legs.

My life flashed before my eyes, every event, every memory and recalled feeling distilled into a single point.

When the crushing sensation passed, I was left standing, disoriented, in the middle of a flooded ruin.

The momentary relief faded swiftly.

All around me, desolation.  Blasted buildings, bodies, flooded streets.  Graffiti covered the walls around me, the letter-number combination ‘s9’ repeated in endless permutations and styles.

I flinched as an explosion took the top off a building two blocks away.  Blue flames roared on the upper floors.

I couldn’t breathe.  My skin prickled, burned, just on contact with the air.  I felt nauseous, disoriented.

Radiation?  Plague?

A fleet of cockroaches scurried over one of the nearby ruins, like cattle stampeding away.

They were fleeing from something.  Multiple somethings.

I took cover.

Where are you?”

The voice might have been sing-song if it weren’t for the filter that reduced it to a mechanical hiss.

“Where are you?” another voice echoed the first.  Younger, female.  A girl’s giggle followed.

“Hush, Bonesaw,” Jack’s voice reached me, like a sibilant whisper in my ear.  The water that flooded the streets served as a surface for the sound to bounce off of, letting it carry throughout the area.

My costume was more tatters than actual fabric.  It wasn’t like there were spiders anymore.  Only cockroaches, and fewer than I might hope.  The water that flooded the streets wasn’t so kind to them.

“What game shall we play today?” Bonesaw asked.  “Did you make anything?  Please tell me you made something.”

I did,” Bakuda responded.  “I borrowed from your work for this one.”

They were close.  Nine of them.  I couldn’t run without making noise.

The cockroaches, then.  I reached for them-

“Regent,” Noelle gasped out the word.  She was far bigger than she had been before.  “Come.”

Regent hesitated, gave her a sidelong glance.

“Come!” she roared.

He reluctantly obeyed.  She raised one massive limb, slammed it into the wall where the walkway had once been attached.  The mutant Regent clambered up her arm to the doorway.

That would be the doorway that leads to the corridor with the cells.

The same cells where Shatterbird was in sound proof containment.

Tattletale had descended to the ground floor and was backing up as two Skitters and a Grue approached, with Bentley advancing to her side.  Rachel was prone, lying at the point where the wall met the floor, with Bastard on the ground and pressed up against her, as if he were using his bulk to keep the worst of the bugs from reaching her.  Her other dogs were smaller.  Big, but much smaller than they could be.

“You take fliers, I take ground?” one Skitter asked the other.

“Mm-hmm,” the other Skitter grunted her reply.

“Have to share, be smart about this one.  Grue, hang back.  She might try pulling something,” Skitter One ordered.  “Harder to make a counter-plan against bugs.”

“Me?  Pull something?” Tattletale asked.  She was cradling one arm, and covered in vomit.  Judging by the body parts that surrounded her, Bentley had taken apart the clones that Noelle had vomited at her.

“Yeah, you,” Skitter One said.  “You’re the type, aren’t you?  Awfully fond of keeping secrets for someone who calls themselves Tattletale.  Keeping secrets from me, even at the best of times.  Even though you knew what I’d gone through.”

“I’ve been pretty open,” Tattletale said.  She retreated a step, and Bentley advanced.  The swarm stirred around the two Skitters and the Grue.

“You haven’t mentioned your trigger event, have you?  Perfectly happy to dig through other people’s sordid pasts, but you won’t get into your own darkest moment.”

“Really not that interesting,” Tattletale said.

Skitter One’s voice was thick with restrained emotion.  “It’s still a betrayal, staying silent.  How can we have a partnership, a friendship, without equity?”

“Maybe.  I think you’re exaggerating.  Does the other Skitter have any input?  Awfully quiet.”

Skitter Two made a growling sound that might have sent a small dog running for cover.  “I’m the quiet type.”

“That you are,” Tattletale said.

“No commentary?  No manipulations?” Skitter One asked.  “Nothing nasty to say, to throw us off-balance?”

“You’re already off-balance enough.  Besides, I don’t think anything I had to say would get through.  How can I target your weak points when you’re nothing but?”

“That so?” Skitter One asked.  “Doesn’t happen often, does it?  You’re not as cocky, now.  Do you feel scared?”

“Just a bit,” Tattletale said.  She’d backed up enough that she’d reached the wall.  The mangled staircase stretched out beside her, almost entirely torn free of the wall.

“Why don’t we turn the tables, then?  Let’s see how I do, trying to fuck with your head,” Skitter One suggested.

“I’ll pass.  Bentley, attack!”

The dog hesitated, hearing the command from an unfamiliar person, but he did obey.  Skitter Two ran towards him, surrounding herself with crawling bugs.  At the last second, she took a sharp left, sending a mass of bugs flowing to the right.

Bentley managed to follow her, struck her with his front paws, and shattered her legs.  Skitter One’s flying swarm flew over him, and began binding him with threads of silk.  It was too little, a distraction at best.

Tattletale fired her gun, and Skitter One went down.  The bullet didn’t make for an instant kill, and the bugs continued doing their work.  Tattletale thrashed as the bugs started to cluster on her, took aim again-

And the Grue swept darkness over Skitter One.  She disintegrated, reappeared as the darkness sloshed against the far wall.

Teleporting things via his darkness.  As divergences from the base powerset went, it was pretty extreme.

“Heroes are on their way!” Skitter One shouted to Noelle, one hand pressed to the flowing chest wound.

I could sense them, observing with the same bugs that Skitter One was using.  Tattletale had left each of the doors unlocked as she’d made her way into the base, and Miss Militia was leading a squadron of Protectorate members and her Wards through the series of rooms and tunnels.

More bugs sought Rachel out, and she kicked her legs at the gap where they were flowing in beneath the left side of Bastard’s stomach.

Shatterbird appeared in the doorway at the end of the tunnel.  She was holding the Regent-clone by the throat.  She pushed him forward and let his limp body fall.  It landed in the heaping mass of Noelle’s flesh.

Shatterbird panted, her face was beaded with sweat, and it wasn’t related to the scene she was looking at, not the underground base filled with flesh and bodies.  Her hand shook as she pushed her hair out of her face.  Emotion?

Miss Militia chose that moment to open the door.  She, like Shatterbird, stared at the scene, but she was distracted as she was forced to grab the door frame to avoid stepping out onto the ruined walkway.

Tattletale’s voice was muffled by the bugs that were crawling on her face.  To actually open her mouth, in the face of all that, I wasn’t sure I could have done it.  I knew better than she did what the result might be, but… yeah.

But she did it.  Tattletale opened her mouth and shouted, “Shut the door!”

Miss Militia moved to obey.  Too late.

Shatterbird screamed, using her power of her own free will for the first time since we’d captured her.

-and the cockroaches obeyed.  They formed a rough human shape, then another.  Swarm-clones, as close as I could get to making them, without a concealing costume for my real self.

And the Nine didn’t fall for it.  Bakuda turned my way, and I belatedly remembered the heat-tracking goggles.  She could follow me by my body heat.

I ran, and I knew it was futile.

Night caught up to me first.  It would have been a simple matter for her to kill me right then, but she had different aims.  Her claw cut at the back of my legs, and I fell, crippled.  My fear pushed the pain into a distant second place on my priority list.

In a matter of moments, I was surrounded.  Night at one side of me, Crawler on the other.  Jack, Bonesaw, Siberian, Bakuda, Shatterbird, Burnscar and Panacea.

It was Weld who seized my wrists.

“Run,” I tried to warn him, but the words didn’t reach him.  Fluid bubbled out of my lips, and it came out as a mumble.  The radiation?  Plague?  Had Bonesaw or Panacea done something to me without my knowledge?

He said something I couldn’t make out.  It sounded like I was underwater.

Then he pulled.

He wasn’t gentle about it.  He threw me over one of his shoulders with enough force that bile rose in my throat and the sharper parts of his shoulders poked at my stomach.  I tried to move my hand to raise my mask, so I wouldn’t choke if I threw up, but my arm didn’t respond.

My head swam, and half of my attempts to breathe were met with only chokes and wet coughs.

Was this another delusion?  A dream?  Could I afford to treat it as though it was?

I was still blind, but my power was waking up.  I could feel the bugs in the area, and I was getting a greater picture of the surroundings as my range slowly extended.

Shatterbird was still perched in that doorway-turned window.  Noelle was beneath her, and I had only the bug-sight to view her with.  Her already grotesque form was distorted further by the three dogs she’d absorbed into herself.

Instinctively, I tried to move my bugs to get a better sense of the current situation.  They didn’t budge.

Instead, I felt the pull of the other two Skitters, wresting control of my bugs from me as though they were taking a toy from a baby, ordering those bugs to hurt my teammates and allies.

Rachel and Tattletale were down, and Imp was crouched beside Tattletale.  Imp had pulled up the spider-silk hood that I’d worked into her scarf, covering the back of her head, and cinched it tight.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was leaving her almost totally protected.

Almost.  Bugs had reached her scalp, and there were spiders working thread around her legs.  I wasn’t sure if she was aware of the latter.

The Wards and Protectorate in the upstairs hallway- some were hurt.  The fallen and the wounded were numerous enough that the heroes had lost any momentum they’d had.  Their focus was in the hallway, now, in saving their teammates.  Maybe they’d deemed the situation unsalvageable.

I exerted a greater effort, trying to reduce the impact the swarm was having on everyone present, but there was nothing.  My doppelgangers had a complete and total override, and the pair definitely noticed my attempts.  They turned my way.

What would I be doing in their shoes?  They couldn’t hurt Weld, but they could hurt me.

Or they’d find another avenue for attack.

“Weld,” Skitter One spoke up.  Her voice was quiet.  “Surprised you’re here.  Did Imp help you get close?”

Do I really sound like that?  I wondered.  And Imp?

Weld wasn’t replying.

Really surprised you’re with her,” Skitter One said.  She had one hand pressed to a chest wound.

Weld glanced over his other shoulder at her.  The other Skitter was a distance away, with shattered legs.

“Did she tell you?” Skitter One said, “She set someone on fire.  Maimed a minor, slicing his forehead open.  She cut off Bakuda’s toes, carved out a helpless man’s eyes.  I can keep going.”

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  He wasn’t moving.  Why?  He was waist deep in Noelle’s belly, holding me…  it dawned on me that he couldn’t throw me to some point clear of Noelle without giving me to the Skitter.

“You should care.  I could tell you about the critically injured man she left to bleed out and die.  She stood by and let people get attacked by Mannequin so she could buy herself time to think of a plan to make a counterattack.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t draw in enough breath to manage more than a hoarse whisper, and Weld wouldn’t have heard me.

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  “I know she’s done bad things.  After this is over, we’ll find her, beat her and take her into custody.”

“You don’t care?” Skitter One asked.  “She murdered your boss.  Shot Thomas Calvert in cold blood, not that long ago.”

Weld froze.  Or he went more still than usual.

“Whoopsie,” Imp said.  She’d appeared behind Skitter One.  A slash of her knife ended Skitter One’s contributions to the discussion.  “Sorry to interrupt.”

I couldn’t say whether Skitter One’s feedback had done anything to change his behavior, but Weld wasn’t gentle when he grabbed me and flung me overhand.  My legs tore free of Noelle, where her flesh had closed firmly around my legs, and I was sent flying.

Unable to move to protect myself or react to the landing, I sprawled where I landed, fifteen or so feet from Noelle.

Weld turned back to Noelle.  His left hand changed to become a blade, and he used it to hack and slash his way through Noelle’s side.  His other hand dug and scraped for purchase as he deliberately and intentionally submerged himself.

My bugs found their way to the others.  I did what I could with my bugs to drive Shatterbird away from the doorway and put her out of reach of Noelle’s tongue.  Once she’d started staggering back, I set about finding and destroying the bug clones who were attacking people and ignoring my powers.

The door where the Wards and Protectorate had been lurking opened.  Miss Militia tested her weight on the staircase, then leaped down to ground level.

She trained a gun on Imp as she noticed the girl crouching over Skitter Two, the taciturn Skitter with the broken legs.  Imp executed the girl, glanced at Miss Militia and shrugged.

I tried to speak, coughed.  I pulled my bugs away from Rachel and Tattletale.

Miss Militia stared at Noelle, her eyes adjusting to the poor lighting.

“You fed her!?” Miss Militia asked.

“Rachel,” Tattletale said, “Come on!”

There was a clapping or slapping noise, and Bastard lurched to his feet.  Rachel stood, and the other three dogs spread out around her.

“You fed Echidna?” Miss Militia asked, disbelieving.

Echidna?  Right.  They’d coined a name for her, then.

“And we’ll feed her more,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel!  All of the spare dogs!  Try not to get in Weld’s way!”

The dogs began to grow, flesh splitting, bone spurs growing, and muscles swelling to greater size.

Rachel hesitated.

“Do it!” Tattletale shouted.

Rachel gave the orders, shouting, “All of you, hold!  Malcolm, go left!”

She slapped one dog on the shoulder, and he bolted.

“Coco, go right!  Twinkie, go right!”

The other two dogs gave chase, stampeding past me as they ran along the right side of the room.

“Hurt!”  Rachel gave the order.

The dogs attacked the closet target – Noelle.  They got stuck in her like she was tar.

But, I realized, that the converse was also true.  Noelle was absorbing them, but she was unable to move so freely as long as this much extra mass was stuck to her.  It was like the way we’d fought Weld, sticking metal to him.

The problem would be when she spat out the dogs.

I tried to move, but I felt like I had fifty pound weights strapped each of my arms and legs.  My face burned hot, and my vision swam.

It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar feeling.  I felt sick.

With that thought, it dawned on me.  Noelle absorbed living things, and that apparently extended to bacteria.  Where others had bacteria in their digestive systems to help them digest food, Noelle, Echidna, had no need for such.  When she absorbed the ambient bacteria and molds from her surroundings, she was storing them, weaponizing them like she did with rats and insects.  They were used to debilitate her victims, render them unable to fight back while her clones got the upper hand.

It meant I was sick, and I’d have to hope that whatever the illness was, it would be short-lived.

Shatterbird was still thrashing, trying to do something with her glass and failing because she couldn’t breathe or see.  Echidna couldn’t move, as her legs were caught on the dogs.  The other clones had been executed by Imp, as far as I knew.

The sticking point was Weld.  Tattletale had apparently figured out that he was immune to Echidna’s absorption ability, but he wouldn’t be immune to her basic shapeshifting ability.  She didn’t have a lot of control over her form, or she surely would have chosen something without that number of legs, without the three mutant dog heads, but she did have the ability to shift her flesh around, and Weld was limited in how fast he could cut that flesh away.

Rachel had moved to my side.  She put her arms under my shoulders and my knees and lifted me, grunting.

I twisted around to cough and gag.  I managed to move one arm to my face, but didn’t have the strength in my fingers to move the fabric at my neck.

Rachel found it instead, pulling it up and halfway up my face.  I coughed up lumps of stuff that tasted the way raw meat smelled.

“Careful!” Tattletale said.  “Incoming!  Dogs!”

Noelle had apparently moved one of her heads around, because she managed to spray a stream of vomit our way.

There was a pause as her body heaved, my bugs could sense the movement as one of the bulkier dogs was repositioned inside her monstrous lower body, and then she puked up one of the dogs, along with a handful of humans.

It wasn’t large, wasn’t mutant.  Well, it was a mutant, but it wasn’t one of Rachel’s mutants.

“Bentley,” Rachel ordered.  “Kill.”

The bulldog lunged and seized the smaller dog in its jaws in a matter of seconds, crushed it in a heartbeat.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice low enough that only I heard it.  “Feels wrong.”

“Why?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why was it small?”

“When we were hanging out with Panacea during the Slaughterhouse Nine fiasco, she put her hand on Sirius,” Tattletale said.  “And she said that the tissues die as they get pushed out from the center.  They’re more like super zombie dogs, really, with a juicy, living center.”

“And Echidna doesn’t copy dead things,” Miss Militia said.

Tattletale nodded.  “We got lucky.  I was worried it would only be a little smaller.”

Weld was fighting to emerge.  He had his hands on Grue and one of the dogs.  He hurled them out, and Miss Militia caught the dog.  Imp and Tattletale hurried to drag Grue away.

“Did you bring all the stuff I asked for?” Tattletale asked.

“Yes.  It won’t be enough.”

“So long as you’ve got some, it’ll help.  Just need to buy time,” Tattletale said.

Echidna’s bulk shifted.  I couldn’t see it with my own eyes, but with the blurry vision the bugs offered, I could track how she was getting her legs under her.  I could see that there weren’t any distinct bulges anymore.  She was breaking down the mutant flesh she’d stripped away from Rachel’s dogs and she was making it her own.  Six dogs… if my estimates about them being roughly a third her mass were right, she could be three times as big as she’d been before.

“She’ll be stronger,” Miss Militia said, putting the dog down.  “If this doesn’t work, we just gave her a power boost for nothing.”

“We’re saving the people she took,” Tattletale said, “And we’re buying time.  It’s not nothing.”

Echidna heaved herself up to her feet.  She vomited forth a geyser of fluids and flying clones.  Our ranks were scattered, knocked over and pushed away from Echidna by the force and quantity of the fluids.

It was stronger than before.  Whatever the source she was drawing from was, she’d reinforced it with the mass she’d gained from eating the dogs.  No less than fifteen clones littered the floor, and there were another twelve or so dogs and rats in their mass.

Miss Militia didn’t even stand before opening fire.  Twin assault rifles tore into the ranks of the clones as she emptied both clips, reforged the guns with her power, and then unloaded two more clips.  Several clones were avoiding the bullets more by sheer chance than any effort on their part.  One Grace-clone managed to shield the bullets, moving her hands to block the incoming fire.  One stray shot clipped her shoulder, but she was holding out.

Echidna spat up another wave, and I hurried to get my flying bugs out of the way.  I still couldn’t move, but I held my breath.  The wave hit us on two fronts, an initial crush of fluid and bodies, and the bodies from the first wave that had been shoved up against us.  As the fluid receded, my bugs moved back down to the ground to track how many clones she’d created.  It made for a pile of bodies, with snarling dogs and clones struggling for footing as they reached for us.

Bentley and Bastard provided our side with the muscle we needed to shove the worst of the enemy numbers away, bulldozing them with snouts and shoving them aside with the sides of their large bodies.  Miss Militia followed up by sweeping the area with a flamethrower.  She stopped, waiting for the smoke to clear, and Tattletale shouted, “Again!  Weld’s still inside!”

Another wave of flame washed over the clones.  They were Regents, Tectons and Graces, as well as various dogs, and none were able to withstand the heat.  Each and every one of them burned.

But this much heat and smoke, even with this space being as large as it was, it wasn’t an assault we could sustain.

Echidna opened her mouth for a third spray, then stopped.  One by one, bodies were dropping from her gut.

“No!”  Noelle screamed, from her vantage point on top of the monstrous form.

Weld forced another dog free, and Echidna moved one leg to step on it.

Grace and Tecton fell, and Weld dropped after them.  He turned the blade of one hand into a scythe, then chopped a segment of Echidna’s foot free.  With one motion of the scythe, he sent Tecton, Regent and some of the dogs skidding our way, sliding them on the vomit-slick floor like a hockey player might with a puck on ice.

Echidna deliberately dropped, belly-flopping onto Weld, Grace and the dismembered foot that had stepped on the sixth dog.

Miss Militia was already drawing together a rocket launcher.  She fired a shot at the general location where Weld was.  He forced his way free of the resulting wound a moment later, the dog tucked under one arm, Grace under the other.

Echidna swiped at him, but he hurled the others forward to safety a second before it connected.  He was slammed into the wall, but he didn’t even reel from the blow.  He made a dash for us.

“Retreat!” Miss Militia gave the order.

The staircase shook precariously as we made our ascent, one group at a time.  One of the capes had frozen the staircase of the metal walkway to the wall to stabilize it.  They started getting organized to hand each of us and the dogs up to the door, but Rachel barreled past, carrying me and two dogs, with Bastard and Bentley following behind.

As we reached the doorway, dogs were handed to the able-bodied.  Others were helping the wounded.  Clockblocker had fallen, and Kid Win was being moved with a makeshift stretcher formed of one of the chain-link doors that had been in the hallway.  There was a lot of blood.

It was Shatterbird’s power, I realized.  I’d barely registered the event.  Shatterbird was still in the hallway on the other side of the underground complex.  Standing away from the main fighting, perhaps, or waiting for an opportunity.  She’d found the locker where Regent kept her costume, was using her power to put it on while simultaneously fighting off the bugs that were still biting her.

Echidna reared back, apparently gearing up to vomit, and Miss Militia fired a rocket launcher straight into the monster’s open mouth.

It barely seemed to slow Echidna down.  Vomit spilled around her, crawling with vermin and bugs.

The monster was moving slower, now.  The entire structure shook as she advanced on us, sections of the walkway crumpling and screeching where her bulk scraped against it.

But the door was just that – a door.  Three feet wide and six feet tall.  The tunnels the trucks had used were too small for her mass, even if one ignored the fact that they’d been strategically collapsed.

The entire area shook with the impact of her furious struggles.  She was trying to tear her way free.  The violence only ramped up as we made our escape, to the point that I was worried the building above us would come down on top of our heads as we headed outside.

The warm, fresh air was chill against the damp fabric of my costume as we escaped from beneath the building.  I could sense other heroes and trucks stationed nearby, no doubt surrounding the area.

The second we’d reached the perimeter, Tattletale collapsed to the ground, propping herself up with her back to a wall.  Grue and Regent were placed next to us.

We were covered in blood and vomit, half of us so weak we could barely move.  It didn’t convey the best image.

“Vista wasn’t inside Echidna,” Weld said.  “If she’s still in the building-”

“Triumph, phone her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“Yes’m,” Triumph replied.

Miss Militia turned to Tattletale.  She gestured at the nearby vehicles.  “You said you wanted containment foam.”

“I did,” Tattletale said.

“You think she’ll fight free?”

“Almost definitely,” Tattletale said.  “She had a Grue with her.  One with teleportation powers.  He disappeared partway through the fight, lurking somewhere out of sight.  Being pragmatic about the situation.  So unless someone can testify to having killed the guy, we can expect her to pop up in a matter of minutes.”

“Minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“No reply from Vista,” Triumph reported.

“Keep trying.”

“She gets free in a few minutes, and we’ll use the containment foam then?” Assault asked.  I jumped a little at the realization it was him.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’ll use it as soon as the dust settles.”

“Dust?”  Assault asked.

She withdrew her cell phone, raised her voice, “If any of you have force fields, put them up now!”

Tattletale started punching something into the keypad.  Miss Militia grabbed her wrist, prying the cellphone from her hand.  “Stop.”

“It’s our only option.”

What’s our only option?”

Buying time,” Tattletale said.  She wrenched her hand free, but Miss Militia still had the phone.

“How?”

“You could punch the last two digits, one and four, into that keypad, see for yourself,” Tattletale said.  “Or you could give me the phone, let me do it, and then if Vista’s in there, your conscience is… less muddy, if not exactly clear.”

Miss Militia turned her face toward the phone, stared at the building that loomed over Coil’s not-so-secret base.

“Shatterbird-” I started to speak, had to catch my breath, “She’s in there too.  She was talking to Noelle.  To Echidna.  Last I saw.  They might be deciding to work together.”

“I won’t have a clear conscience, no matter what I do,” Miss Militia said.  “But I might as well own up to it.”

Miss Militia touched the phone twice.  Long, quiet seconds reigned.

“Didn’t think you had it in you,” Tattletale commented.

There was a rumble.  My bugs couldn’t reach far enough to see, but they could see the blur.  A cloud, at the top floor of the building.

Another cloud expanded out from the top of the building, one floor down from the first.

The explosions continued, escalating, ripping through the building in stages.  I couldn’t even breathe as I experienced the resulting aftershock, the vibrations as the building folded in on itself, plummeting down to the construction area.

“What-” Assault started.

There was another explosion, muffled, and my bugs were in range for the explosion that followed.  Plumes of earth rose in a rough circle around the building, and then the ground sank.  The entire underground base, folding in on itself.  Even with the debris of the fallen building on top of it, the area seemed to form a loose depression.

Fitting for the criminal mastermind, I thought.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” Regent said, his voice reedy.

“He didn’t use it on us?” I asked Tattletale.  “Coil?”

She was staring at what must have been a massive cloud of dust.

“He tried, sort of,” she said.  “His computer was rigged to blow everything up if someone tampered too much.  I found the stuff when I went looking for his files, as I moved in.  Scared the pants off me when I realized that it was already in motion.”

“Before that?”  I asked.  “When we were waiting for the meeting?”

“Couldn’t afford to let ‘Echidna’ loose,” she said.  “And I think I would’ve known.  Can’t say for sure.”

It took minutes for everything to finish settling.

“Containment foam on the wreckage!”  Miss Militia shouted.  “I want cape escorts for each truck and equipped PRT member, do not engage if you see her!”

She was rattling off more orders.  I couldn’t focus enough to follow it all.

“She’s not dead,” Tattletale said, “But we bought an hour, at least.  Maybe a few.  With luck, they’ll upgrade this to a class-S.  We’ll get reinforcements… which we’ll need.”

“She’s stronger,” Grue said.  He didn’t sound good.  “You fed her.”

“Had to.  Or she would have escaped before the explosion.”

“But she’s stronger,” Grue repeated himself.

Tattletale nodded.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Not really.  Ideas.”

“I have a few too,” I said.  “Not good ones, though.”

“I’ll take bad ideas,” she said.  She sighed wistfully, “Fuck.  I really wanted an evil mastermind headquarters of my own.  It’ll be years before I can build one for myself,” Tattletale groused.

“So impatient,” Regent clucked his tongue.

Tattletale pushed herself to her feet.  “The next part’s going to be three times as bad.  I’m going to go see if we can scrounge up some healing.”

I brought my legs up to my chest and folded my arms on my knees, resting my head on them.  The visions I’d seen were swiftly fading into memory, but the ideas behind them lingered.  For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to fight, to step up and save others.  A large part of me wanted to say it was up to the heroes, to take the unsure thing over doing it myself and knowing I’d done everything I could.

I turned to Grue.  “You okay?”

He didn’t respond.

“Grue?” I asked.

Nothing.

I used my bugs to search for someone who might be able to give medical attention.  Everyone was milling around, active, busy.

Us Undersiders aside, there were only two people nearby who weren’t active, trying to contain and prepare for a potential second attack.  Weld and Miss Militia.

They were talking, and they were looking at me.

Thomas Calvert.  My clone had informed them.  And they’d seen our faces.

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Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #2)

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“Water torture,” Justin said.  “It’s what the C.I.A. uses.”

“No, please.”

Justin shook his head.  “What good is begging going to do?  There’s hardly a point to torture if you want it.”

“The victim can aspirate water during water torture,” Dorothy commented, as though she were commenting on paint shades.  “But I could have been doing it wrong.”

“Burning, then.  Start on the back, chest and stomach, work our way to the extremities.  They say a burn hurts worse than any other pain, inch for inch,” Justin said.  “By the time we work our way to the face, the armpits, or the soles of the feet…”

“Oh god.”

“Scarring,” Geoff said, looking up from his newspaper.  “Chance of infection.  He’d be facing as much risk as he would with the water torture.  It might even be harder to treat.  Harder to explain if we had to go to a doctor.”

“Razors?”  Justin suggested.

“Razors could work,” Dorothy said.  “I’m good with a razor.”

“Hear that?” Justin asked.  “She’s good with a razor.”

“Please.  There has to be another way.”

“There are a number of other ways,” Dorothy said.  “Tearing out your teeth, fingernails and toenails is one.  Castration, force feeding, breaking bones, rats, flaying…”

“I meant besides torture.”

“Psychological methods,” Justin suggested.

“Isolation,” Dorothy offered.  “Sensory deprivation, intoxicants.  Would you like cream in your coffee, Geoff?”

“No thank you, dear.”

“The bacon is done.  Why don’t you two come and eat?”  Dorothy offered.

Justin sighed. “Come, Theo.”

The boy gave them wary looks as he stood from the armchair and crossed the length of their hotel room.  Dorothy had laid out a veritable feast: bacon, eggs, english muffins, toast, french toast, a bowl of strawberries, a bowl of blueberries, and a bowl of fruit salad.  There was orange juice and pots of both coffee and tea.  She was just setting down a plate of bacon, leaving barely enough room for anyone’s plates.

It would have been too much for eight people to eat, but she didn’t seem to realize that.  She smiled as Justin ushered Theo to the table and sat down.  Her clothes were more fit for a job interview than for a fugitive, with a knee-length dress, heels, earrings and makeup.  Geoff, like his wife, was too well dressed for the occasion, wearing a button-up shirt beneath a tan blazer, his hair oiled and combed back neatly.

They can’t act, Justin thought.  They follow their routines like bad actors following a script.  A housewife preparing a meal for her family, the husband at the table.

He’d known that the pair started every day with the same routine, like clockwork.  Wake, don bathrobe, and collect a newspaper.  Geoff would step into the shower as Dorothy stepped out, and she would be done grooming by the time he was through.  Once they were both dressed, they’d head to the kitchen, and Geoff would read the paper while Dorothy cooked.

But always, the details would be off.  Things any ordinary person would take for granted were forgotten or exaggerated.  Dorothy inevitably prepared too much, because it was harder for her to consider how hungry everyone was and adjust accordingly.  Only two days ago, Justin had noted that Geoff would take a few minutes to read the front page of the paper, turn the page, and stop.

Now he couldn’t help but notice.  It was the same thing every day.  For the twenty or thirty minutes it took Dorothy to put everything together and set it on the table, Geoff would stare at the second and third pages of the newspaper.

Justin had asked about the headlines and the articles.  Geoff never remembered, because he wasn’t reading.  He could read, but he didn’t. He spent nearly forty minutes in total, every day, like clockwork, doing little more than staring into space, pretending to read.

Put the paper away, it’s time to eat, Justin thought.  Yes dear.  Mmm.  Smells delicious.

“Put the paper away, it’s time to eat,” Dorothy said.  She was holding the coffee pot, stepped behind Geoff, putting a hand on his shoulder, and bent down to kiss him on the top of his head.  Automatic, without affection.

“Yes, dear.  ” Geoff said, smiling up at his wife.  “Mmm.  Smells delicious.”

Jesus fuck, they scare me, Justin thought.  But he plastered a fake smile of his own onto his face, grabbed one of the oven-warmed plates and served himself.  Theo did much the same at the other side of the table, minus the smile.

Kayden emerged from one of the bedrooms, her hair still tangled from sleep, wearing a bathrobe.  Mousy, shorter than average, looking exceedingly human, she was Dorothy Schmidt’s antithesis.

“Aster slept well last night,” Justin commented.  “Didn’t hear her crying.”

“She slept through the night.  We just have to maintain a routine as we keep moving,” Kayden said.

“We were just discussing ways to force Theo’s trigger event.”

“It’ll come on its own,” she said.  “We have two years.”

“One year and eleven months,” Theo said.

Kayden glanced at him but didn’t respond.

“It should have happened already,” Justin pointed out.  “It’s easier for children with inherited powers, and Theo’s the son of Kaiser, who’s the son of Allfather.  Third generation.”

“Maybe I didn’t get powers,” Theo said, not looking up from his plate.

“Or maybe you’ve lived a sheltered enough life that you haven’t had a reason to trigger,” Justin retorted.

“I don’t want to get tortured.  Physically or psychologically.  There has to be another way.”

“Torture?” Kayden asked.

“It’s one line of thought,” Justin said, trying to mask his annoyance.  He’d purposefully brought it up while Kayden was out of the room.  “We were trying to think of methods that wouldn’t leave him unable to fight Jack when the time came.”

“No torture.  Theo’s right.  We can find another way.”

Justin frowned, “Every day we wait is a day we don’t have for training his abilities, and he’ll need all of the training he can get.”

“Because I have to fight the Slaughterhouse Nine and Jack Slash.  And he’ll kill a thousand people if I don’t,” Theo said.  “Me and Aster too.”

Justin glanced at the boy, saw the white-knuckle grip he had on his knife and fork, looked at Kayden, who had french toast speared on her fork but wasn’t raising it to her mouth.  She stared off into space as the maple syrup slowly dripped down to the plate below.

She doesn’t know what to do any more than we do.

“You come from a good pedigree,” Justin commented.  “Kaiser was strong enough to rule over the better part of Brockton Bay, as Allfather did before him.”

“Which doesn’t do us any good if I don’t get powers,” Theo mumbled.

“If worst comes to worst,” Kayden said, “We fight the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Night, Fog, Crusader and I.  Okay?”

Justin frowned, but he didn’t speak.

Theo voiced half the doubts that Justin was keeping silent, “You didn’t fight them last time.  I’m not saying you were wrong to leave, but-”

“But we didn’t fight them then.  You’re right,” Kayden said.  “I’d hoped the others would stop them.  The heroes, the Undersiders, Hookwolf…”

“And they didn’t,” Justin said.  “Which means we have to assume Jack’s going to follow through.  That gives us a time limit.  Theo needs powers, he needs training, we need to find the Nine, and we need to stop them.  What if we went to the Gesellschaft?”

Kayden glanced at the other two who were sitting at the table.  Dorothy and Geoff.  Neither of the two had reacted to the name of the organization that had created them.  Or, at least, they hadn’t reacted outwardly.

“I’m more concerned that they’d help the Slaughterhouse Nine if it meant killing a thousand Americans,” she said.  “And I’m not sure I want Theo to recieve the kind of power they offer.”

“If we contacted them through Krieg…”  Justin trailed off.

“What?” Kayden asked.  She let her knife and fork drop to her plate with a loud clatter.  “You think they’d give us assistance with no strings attached?  That we could call in a favor with Krieg and they’d give Theo powers, without the follow-up attention?”

“No.  No, I suppose not.”

“They turn people into weapons,” Kayden said.  “Then they decide where those weapons are best positioned, for the cause.  There’s two good reasons why they wouldn’t have given fresh orders to Night and Fog since the Empire collapsed.  Either they can’t get in touch with us-”

“I somehow doubt that.”

“Or Night and Fog are forgotten.  Presumed dead or ignored,” Kayden finished.  “In which case we don’t want to remind them that we’re still around.”

“I somehow doubt that, as well,” Justin said.  “They have to know we’re alive.”

“Then what?  Why leave these two in my care?”

“Because it serves their agenda,” Justin answered.  He finished off his plate, spooned some blueberries onto the side, and poured himself some orange juice.

“What agenda?”

“The Empire fell.  The Chosen fell.  Only Kayden Anders and her Pure remain.  If they hope to retain any foothold in the Americas, it’ll be through you.”

“I don’t want to give them a foothold in the Americas.”

“By the sole fact that you exist, you’re giving it to them.  Your reputation, your success, it gives the Gesellschaft the opportunity to say, their cause is being furthered in the West.  Even if your goals and theirs are only aligned in abstract.  So they leave Night and Fog in your care, because it keeps you dangerous, it helps ensure your success, and maybe because it gives them a way to strike at you if they decide you’re a danger to the cause.”

Kayden glanced at Dorothy, studying Night’s civilian appearance.

“More coffee?” Dorothy asked, smiling.

“God, yes,” Kayden muttered.  She held out her cup for a refill.

“What about you?” Theo asked.

Justin turned to look at the boy.  “Who?  Me?”

“Where do you stand, with the cause?”  Theo asked.  Justin didn’t miss the inflection at the end.

“I’m a simple man,” Justin said, smiling.  “I like steak and potatoes.  I like a good fight, a serious game of baseball or football.  American football.  I like a good woman’s company-”

Kayden cleared her throat.  When Justin met her eyes, she was glaring at him.  Not jealousy, more of a mother bear protecting her cub.

Justin smiled a little, more with one side of his mouth than the other.  “-And I believe that they are fucking things up, out there.  And the rest of the world’s letting them.”

“People with different colored skin.”

People with differences,” Justin said.  “Faggots, gimps, mongoloids.  Kaiser got that.  I talked to him one on one, and he had the right ideas.  He got that America is ours, that they’re polluting it over time, letting these people in.  But he was too focused on the big picture, and he was working with the Gesellschaft, which was way too big picture for my tastes.  Still, birds of a feather.  I worked under him because I wasn’t about to find others elsewhere, and I didn’t feel like going it alone.  Then he introduced me to Purity.”

Theo glanced at his onetime stepmother.

“And I think we’re more in sync, Kayden and I,” Justin said.  “If Kaiser was the visionary, the guy on top, the guy with the dream, working to achieve something over decades, then Purity’s the detective working the streets.  And that’s the kind of simple thinking I can get behind.”

“So you don’t support the Gesellschaft?”  Theo asked.

“I can’t support what I don’t understand,” Justin said.  “And what I do understand is that we need to give you your trigger event before it’s too late.  Because Jack and his gang of psychopaths are the sort of freaks I can’t stand, and I’ll be fucked if we let him beat you on this count.  They don’t get to beat us, and you’re one of us.”

Theo drew in a deep breath, as if he was going to say something, and then heaved it out as a sigh, slow and heavy.

“Whether you like it or not,” Justin added, just under his breath.

Theo glanced at him.  He hadn’t missed the comment.

At a normal volume, Justin said, “You’re vetoing the torture, where we’d be trying to get him to a trigger state in a safe, controlled environment.  We need another game plan.”

Kayden sighed.  “For now?  We’ll let Dorothy clean up.  Have you two done your morning sparring?”

Justin shook his head.

“Give Theo some training while I shower, then you two can wash up.  Get dressed to go out.  I have one idea regarding Theo’s trigger event.”

Justin stood with a plate in hand, but Dorothy was already walking around the table, her heels clicking on the tile.  She took the plate from him, smiling.

“Come on, then,” Justin urged the boy.  “Let’s see how much of it’s sinking in.”

“Not much,” Theo said.

“Probably not,” Justin replied.  He reached for his power and stepped out of his body, a spiritual mitosis.  A ghostly image of himself, wearing the same clothes, crossed the ‘living room’ of the space the hotel had given them.  He created two more replicas of himself, one walking until its legs were sticking through the couch.

“Four against one?”  Theo asked.

“You think the Nine are going to play fair?  Now, do you remember priority one?”

“Self defense.”

“Protection comes first, always.  The core of any martial art or self defense.  Perception’s second.  Know what’s going on, because it’ll help you protect yourself, and it’ll help you identify the right moment to strike.  Arms up.  Let’s see your stance.”

Theo raised his arms in the ready position, positioned his feet further apart.

Justin looked the boy over.  He’d lost a little weight, though he wouldn’t look much skinnier if he kept exercising like he was.  He’d put on muscle, and look just as bulky, at least for a while.

But that stance…

Justin suppressed a sigh.  Those one thousand people are fucked.

“Harvard,” Justin said.

“This way,” Kayden said.  She had Aster in a harness, the baby’s head resting against her chest.

“You know your way around Harvard?  Color me impressed.”

“I looked it up online.  This way.  I’d rather not spend too much time in public.”

Justin noted the crowd of older teenagers and twenty-somethings.  It was summer, but the school wasn’t empty.  With the warmth of summer, the students were wearing shorts and short sleeves, as well as short dresses.  Justin smiled at a group of girls as they passed by.  One of them looked over her shoulder at him, gave him a glance that roved from head to toe and back up again.

“Justin,” Kayden said, raising her voice.

“Coming,” he said.  Damn.

They made their way across the campus.  Dorothy and Geoff had stayed behind, leaving Kayden, Justin and Theo to carry out the errand with Aster in tow.

They reached a tower, built to match the other buildings of the campus.  Justin held the door for Kayden and Theo, pausing to note the lettering across the entrance: ‘Dept. Parahuman Studies’.

Fitting.  Kayden’s plan was clear, now.

They entered the elevator, and Kayden checked a slip of paper, hit the button for the ninth floor.  She tucked it into a pocket behind Aster’s back, then kissed her sleeping daughter on the forehead as the doors closed.

“We should get in and out fast,” Justin commented.

Kayden pursed her lips.

“Always have to consider that someone made us, and that they’re calling the authorities.”

“I know,” she said.

“Fuck Coil,” Justin snarled.

Kayden glared at him, and her eyes and hair both glowed with a trace of light.  Some free strands of hair lifted as the light touched them, as if they were buoyant, or as if Kayden was underwater and slowly sinking.  “Watch your language around Aster.”

“She doesn’t understand.”

“But she will, one day.  Get in the habit now.”

Justin sighed.  “Will do.  We going in hard or soft?”

“You could rephrase that.  But this is a soft entry.”

“Right.”

They departed the elevator as it reached the ninth floor.  Kayden double checked the slip of paper, and they began the process of figuring out where the room was.  It wasn’t intuitive, as the rooms didn’t seem to be numbered sequentially.

They stopped at one door that was labeled ‘914’, with a nameplate below reading ‘Dr. Wysocki’.

“What the hell kind of name is Wysocki?  Polack?”

“He’s one of the top researchers on Parahumans,” Kayden said.  “The best in the Massachusetts area.”

“You’re the boss, and it’s your call,” Justin said, shrugging.  “Just saying I pointed it out in advance.”

“What difference is it going to make?” Theo asked.  “Doesn’t make any difference to his ability to do his job.”

“So cute,” Justin said.  He gave Theo a pat on the cheek, and the boy pushed his hand away in irritation.

Kayden knocked, and the door swung partially open.

A young man, no older than twenty-five, hopped out of his swivel chair, pulling earbuds from his ears.  “Ah.  Hi?”

“We had a few questions,” Kayden said.

“I’ve never had a student bring their family before.”

“We’re not students,” Kayden said.  She strode into the room, and Justin gave Theo a push on the shoulder to prod him forward.  When everyone was inside, he closed the door and stood with his back to it.

“Huh.  I thought I recognized you, would have been from class,” the man said.

“We’re not students,” Justin echoed Kayden’s words.  His tone didn’t have the intimidating effect he’d hoped for.  The young man’s forehead was wrinkled in concerns of a different sort.

“You’re not here for the office hours?  Figures.  I sit around for three hours twice a week, five straight weeks, someone finally shows and they aren’t a student.”

“You’re Wysocki?” Justin asked.

“No,” the young man gave him a funny look.  “You’re really not students.  I’m the T.A.  Filling in while he’s at an event.  Peter Gosley.”

He extended a hand, but nobody accepted it.

“Fuck,” Justin said.  “This is a waste of time.”

“If you have questions…” Peter trailed off, letting his hand drop.

“Trigger events,” Theo said, his voice quiet.

Peter’s eyes fell on the boy, widening slightly.  “You have powers?  You just got them?”

“I need them,” Theo answered.

Peter gave them a funny look.  “I… I’m not sure I understand.”

“Tell us what you know about trigger events, and perhaps we’ll explain,” Kayden said.

“I… that’s a broad field.  What do you want to know?”

“How to have one,” Theo said.

“Trust me, there isn’t a single government out there that isn’t trying to pull it off.  None have had much success with the various methods they’ve tried.  Not to the point that anyone else has been able to copy their methodology.  If anyone was succeeding, it’d be off the radar.  Maybe the Protectorate.”

“What methods have they tried?” Justin asked.  “The governments.”

“Anything?  Everything.  Drug induced panic attacks.  Kidnappings.  Torture.  Some with willing participants, some even with participants in the dark.  The Queensland Trials-“

“Stop,” Kayden said.  Peter stopped.  “Participants in the dark?  And nothing worked?”

“It sometimes worked, a lot of stuff sometimes worked.  The problem is, the act of getting a trigger event tends to throw a controlled situation into disarray.  A government or organization pours hundreds of man hours and half a million dollars into identifying people who might be parahumans, by whatever metric they’re using, tracking them, covertly acquiring them, and inducing the parahuman state… and it’d work one in two hundred times.  Half of those times, they’d wind up with a parahuman in an agitated state and things would fall apart.  So a lot of the successes end up being failures of a diffferent sort.”

“But they haven’t found a consistent way of getting people to trigger?” Kayden asked.

“No.  Fact is, it’s harder when you’re trying to provoke a trigger event.  Even if the participant doesn’t know you’re trying it.”

“Why?”  Kayden asked.

Peter shrugged.  “There’s theories.  There’s the specific trigger theory, which suggest that each individual demands a particular kind of trigger event, so any attempts to force it are essentially attempting the wrong form of trigger.  There’s the specific circumstance theory, which is different, because it suggests that it’s not just a particular type of trigger that’s demanded, but the specific time or event.”

“You’re saying it’s predestined,” Justin said.

Some scholars say it’s predestined.  I don’t.  Um.  Other theories… there’s intelligent intervention.”

“Phrase it in American fucking English,” Justin said.

“There’s no need for rudeness,” Peter said.  He adjusted his glasses and frowned at Justin.

“Please phrase it in American fucking English,” Justin clarified.

Please explain,” Kayden said, shooting Justin a look.

“It means there’s someone or something that’s deciding who gets powers and when.  There’s subtheories… Aesthetic analogue, where they’re saying the powers tend to relate to the trigger event somehow, so obviously someone’s doing it on purpose.  Uh.  Intelligent powers, where they say the powers are sentient and they’re making the call on their own.  Ties into other areas of study, and it’s a favorite of mine.  There’s the-“

“This isn’t helping us,” Justin cut in.

“Quiet.  Everything helps,” Kayden said.

“We’re short on time.”

Peter gave him a funny look.  “Look, I’m not fully understanding what you’re getting at.  It’s great that people are interested in this stuff, but this notion you have that, because your son wants powers, you’re somehow going to give him a trigger event?  That’s a little freaky, it’s not really possible.  And, uh, it’s borderline abuse, if not actual abuse.”

“It’s a complicated situation,” Kayden said.  “What else can you tell us about trigger events?  Beyond theories?”

“The manner of trigger event seems to impact the powers.  That’s frosh level stuff.  Physical pain, physical danger; physical powers.  Mental pain, mental crisis?  Mentally-driven powers.”

Justin frowned.  And being the brother of a dying, half-blind, deaf retard of a girl who got all the attention?  All of the gifts, the money?  Being made to get surgery for her sake, give up years of my lifespan so she might live?  Getting caught pulling the plug, only for it to do little more than set alarms going?

Was his power really a mental power?  He’d always considered it more physical.

He looked at Kayden, studied her concerned expression.

Peter was still talking, responding to something Kayden had said.  “Drugs tend to create conditional powers.  It’s not hard and fast, but you get situations where the power is directly linked to one’s physical, mental or emotional state.  We think it’s because the power works off a template it builds as the powers first manifest.  If someone is riding an emotional high as they trigger, their powers will always be looking for a similarly excited state to operate at peak efficiency, often an emotion or drugs.  When people were caught trying to fabricate trigger events, sometimes they were intending to use this so the subject would be more easily controlled.”

“I wonder if lack of food and water could create similarly conditional powers,” Kayden commented.

“I’m… are you talking about starving him?”  Peter’s eyes were wide now.

“Not at all.  I’m… speculating.”

Justin could follow her train of thought.  He’d heard the story through the Empire’s grapevine, once.  A sixteen year old girl, driving for the first time, down a side road, getting in an accident where her car rolled off the road, out of sight of anyone passing by.  Trapped… starving, dying of thirst.

Getting powers that fed off and required other resources.  Light.

He glanced at her, and she offered him a curt nod.  Without speaking, they’d come to a mutual agreement that this ‘Peter’ knew what he was talking about.

“What’s the impact of being the child of a parahuman?” she asked.

“Um.  I love that you’re interested, and yeah, I wasn’t really doing anything, but maybe if you have this many questions, you should take a class?”

“He’s the son of a parahuman,” Kayden said, pointing at Theo.

Cat’s out of the bag now.

“No kidding?  Wow.  Who?”

“Kaiser,” Kayden said.

Peter’s eyes widened as he looked at Theo.  Then something seemed to click, and he looked up at Kayden and Justin with a note of alarm in his expression.

“Yeah,” Justin said.  “Smart man, and you’re only figuring it out now?”

“I saw the stuff on the news.  Thought I recognized you.  Purity and…”

“Crusader.  So maybe now you understand we’re serious.  And how we’re not interested in taking a class,” Justin said.

“If he’s Kaiser’s son, and Kaiser’s Allfather’s son… he’s third generation.”

“And he doesn’t have powers,” Kayden said.  “It’s crucial that we fix that.”

“I… I don’t really know.  It’s supposed to be ten times easier to get powers if you’re second generation.  But we don’t have research on third generations yet.  It’s only pretty recently that we had the first third-generation cape on record.  The baby in Toronto.”

“Didn’t hear about that,” Kayden said.  She frowned.  “A baby?”

Peter’s eyes fell on Aster.  “Oh.  Wow.  Is she third generation too?”

“Pay attention,” Justin said.

“The… yeah.  Each successive generation seems to produce younger capes, by lowering the barrier to entry, the severity of the requisite trigger event.”

“So why haven’t I triggered?”  Theo asked.

“I don’t know.  There’s a lot we don’t know.   Maybe… maybe you don’t have powers.”

“I have to.”

“It’s a question of luck.”

“You don’t understand.  If I don’t get powers, a lot of people will die.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Justin said.  “Give us all the information you have.  Every way you’ve heard about people trying to trigger, and how well they worked.”

“That’s a six month lecture series unto itself!”

“Talk fast,” Justin said.

“Um.  There’s meditation.  Either to tap into your deeper psyche or to tear down the walls between yourself and your worst fears.  There’s theories that the powers themselves are intelligent, and they’re worked into the host’s head, before or after the trigger event.  Sometimes the meditation’s related to that, but it’s usually people trying to have a second trigger event.”

“That’s not relevant to the boy, is it?” Justin asked.

“The research is related!  There’s a lot of research into second trigger events because it’s a lot easier to find willing parahumans than it is to find potential parahumans.  The methods that people try tend to be similar, too.  It’s just… a lot of the time, they fail for opposite reasons.”

“Opposite?”  Kayden asked.

“It’s not confirmed, it’s just an idea, but the idea the powers are sentient?  Well, either the second trigger event opens up communication, frees the powers to act on their own more, or if you don’t buy that stuff, it breaks down the mental barriers between the altered part of the brain that controls the powers and the part that doesn’t.  At least, that’s going by the patterns we’ve seen.  Except… well, we think sometimes the reason people can’t have a second trigger event is because they’ve already had one.  You can’t really distinguish a single trigger event from having two in quick succession.”

“Like a multiple orgasm,” Justin commented.  Kayden glared at him.

“More or less.  There’s more parallels than that, but yeah.”

“Crusader is right, this isn’t helping him,” Kayden said.

“What kind of trigger events did Kaiser and Allfather have?”

Kayden and Justin exchanged glances.

“No idea,” Kayden said, frowning.

Peter frowned.  “That would have helped.  At least we know they both had similar powers.  Allfather could conjure iron weapons from the air immediately around himself, send them flying.  Kaiser could call metal out of any solid surface.  Both are the kind of powers you’d see from almost purely mental trauma.  If the trend continues…”

He trailed off, leaving the sentence hanging.  Theo would probably require mental trauma to trigger.

“Hard to imagine Kaiser having mental trauma.  He seemed so confident,” Kayden said.

“His dad was Allfather.  Not so hard to imagine,” Justin replied, absently.  He thought of the college girls and stepped over to the window, curious if he’d be able to make out any from this high up.  He froze.

“Kayden,” he said.

“What?”

“Cops.  And containment vans.”

“Someone made us?”  Kayden asked.

“And saw us enter the building,” Justin finished.  “They’re surrounding us on the ground.”

Shit!”  Kayden swore.

Aster whimpered, then started crying.

Didn’t you tell me to watch my language in front of Aster?  Justin thought.

Theo was sitting in a swivel chair, hands clasped in his lap, his eyes watching Kayden, waiting for her cue.

Justin noted the tension of Theo’s grip, the way he seemed to retreat into himself.  The fat little boy who was nothing like Kaiser.  Maybe he hadn’t inherited powers at all because he wasn’t his father’s son.  If his mother had cheated on Kaiser, gave birth to this pudgy blob, it would explain why he didn’t have powers.  It would mean he wasn’t a second generation cape, let alone a third.

“Hmm.”  Justin watched more PRT vans arrive.  They were spreading out, clearly anticipating Kayden’s artillery-level attacks, and they had the damn foam-bead nets they used for dealing with fliers.  “Theo, who’s your mom?”

“Heith.”

Justin sighed.  Heith was Fenja and Menja’s cousin and guardian, Kaiser’s first wife, killed in a turf war with the Teeth, back in the old days of Brockton Bay.  She has powers after all.

Somehow, all of this would be easier if he could believe that Theo was illegitimate.

“Crusader,” Kayden said, “Can you stall them?  We have more questions.”

He nodded, shut his eyes, and drew on his power.

It was as simple as stepping forward while staying in the same place.  A ghostly phantom appeared, followed by another, and another.  One headed for the elevator shaft, while the other headed for the stairwell.  He directed the remainder to sink through the floor.

“What else can you tell us?  Something we can use,” Kayden said.

“If the authorities are here, I don’t know if I should say.”

“You should,” Justin said.  “Because we’ll hurt you if you don’t.”

“Don’t,” Theo said.

Justin gave the boy his best dispassionate look.

“He’s been helpful,” Theo said.

“He hasn’t solved your problem,” Justin said.  He was dimly aware of his other selves engaging with the enemy as they moved into the building.  One fought them in the stairwell, immune to any strike or bullet, yet fully capable of pushing a man down the stairs, into the people behind him, fully capable of strangling a man.

Peter shifted positions nervously.  His voice rose in pitch as he spoke, “I don’t know what you want.  I can’t give you an answer because there aren’t any!

Think,” Justin suggested.

“You expect me to do in five minutes what the best scholars in the world haven’t figured out in thirty years?”

“Well put,” Justin said.  More clones were still splitting off, breaking away from himself to sink through the floor.  Some had moved beyond the building to attack the men who were manning the turrets on top of the van.  With luck, he and Kayden would be free to fly to safety with the children.

“This… this is insane!  What am I supposed to tell you?  I’ve outlined some of the best theories we have!”

“If it helps,” Justin said, leaning towards Peter, “I’m going to kill you if I don’t leave here satisfied.  Think about that.”

“Kayden,” Theo said, “You’re not going to let him, are you?”

“Crusader,” Kayden said.  “Is that really necessary?”

“I can’t even think straight under this pressure!” Peter cried.

“I imagine you feel very similar to someone about to have a trigger event,” Justin said.  “Maybe that will inspire something or fill in the blanks for some half-baked idea you had once.”

“I don’t… There’s isolation.”

“An isolation chamber?” Justin asked.

Peter shook his head.  “No.  More basic.  It’s a common trend.  People who have trigger events, they don’t usually have a good support system.  Their family, their friends, they tend to fail them, or be the cause of the problem.  I… I wrote a paper a while back about how Masters tend to have loneliness as part of their trigger events, and how maybe that was why Masters tend to be villains.  Because you need support and social pressure to be more of a good guy.  My professor then, the guy who I work for now, Dr. Wysocki, he tore me to pieces.  Too many other parahumans have it as part of their history.  Isolation.  It wasn’t enough to suggest a correlation.  He said you could call it a common theme for nearly all of the trigger events out there.”

Justin was in the middle of creating another ethereal copy of himself when he stopped.  It snapped back into place.  He thought back to something earlier in the day.

“Kayden, let’s go.”

“What?”

“I’ve got our answer.  Let’s go.”

“Are you sure?”

Justin nodded.

“To the roof?” she asked.

“As fast as you can move with the baby.”

Kayden rose into the air, her hair and eyes lighting up.

“Come on, Theo,” Justin said, “I’ll carry you.”

He spawned a ghostly replica as Kayden left the office.  Theo hesitated as the replica got closer.

“What’s wrong?” Justin asked.

“What he just said…  You’re going to leave me.  Isolate me.”

“Yeah,” Justin said.  His ghost-self lunged, and Theo threw himself back with such force that he fell over in the chair.  The ghost was on him in a second, pinning him down to the floor with one hand around his throat.

“Don’t.  You heard what he said.  If you force it, it won’t happen,” Theo protested, his voice barely above a wheeze with the hold the ghost had on his neck.

“I’m willing to take that chance.  In the worst case scenario, you’re their problem, not ours.  The heroes can look after you and figure out what to do with you.”

“Justin!  Crusader!”  Theo managed a strangled scream, but Justin was already in the doorway, not even pausing or hesitating at his words.  “It won’t work if you try to make it happen!”

Justin left Theo behind, stepped into the stairwell, noting a gap between the stairs that was big enough to fly between.  He created a clone and left it overlapping his body, using its flight to lift himself into the air.

Kayden hadn’t flown for safety yet.  She was waiting on the rooftop, Aster writhing in the harness, screaming bitterly.

“Fly,” he said.

“Where’s Theo?”

“Would you believe me if I said he was coming?”

He could see her expression shift in time with the realization.  “You didn’t.”

“I did.  And you won’t go back for him.”

“Like hell I won’t.  He saved Aster when Jack was going to kill her, he might have saved me in the process.  I owe him-“

“-And we’re paying him back by leaving him.”

“No.  No, we aren’t.”

“He’s one of our own, kind of.  I get that.  But… he was never going to help the cause.”

“The cause,” Kayden spat the word.

“Purifying the world, cutting out the rot, becoming a symbol of better things.  It’s not him.”

“He’s my stepson.”

“And isn’t that the problem?  Remember this morning, at breakfast?  He was worried he wouldn’t get powers.  That he wouldn’t be able to stop Jack.  And how did you respond?  You reassured him.  You told him we’d fight the Nine if he couldn’t.”

Kayden only glared, eyes shining with painful brightness.

“When you said that, part of me, I thought we didn’t fight the Nine then, how could we two years from now?  Theo said it outright.  He’s sharper than he looks sometimes.  Sharper than he acts.  But here’s the thing, at the same time, a part of me felt like I’d realized something, and it took me until now to get it sorted in my head.”

“What?”

“You’re reassuring him, when that’s the last thing we want.  When there’s a crisis, he looks to you.  The most basic requirement for a trigger event is you get to a point where you can’t go anywhere.  Pushed to your limit and then pushed further.  He can’t get there so long as we’re there as a safety net.  As a support system.”

“So we’re supposed to abandon him?”

“We just did,” Crusader said.  “The authorities are just getting to the ninth floor now, my clones are letting ’em by.  By the time we got there, they’d have him secured, and they’d be ready to spray us with that foam.”

“You could use your power, disable them without any risk.”

“I could.  But I won’t.”

Kayden flared with light, and for a second, he thought she was going to shoot him.

The blast of solid light didn’t come.

Justin sighed, “He’ll be hurt, he’ll be pissed, and he’ll be alone.  They’ll quiz him on us, get every detail they can, and if I know him at all, it’ll tear him up, because he might not like us, but we’re the closest thing he’s got to family…”

Kayden glanced toward the door.

“…And that’s the best thing we can do for him right now,” he finished.

“I never was the mom he needed,” Kayden said.

“Well, it’s too late now.”

She walked over to the roof’s edge, peered down.  “Any net launchers?”

“Nobody to aim them now.  Everyone’s fighting my doubles.”

She glanced back toward the door, absently cooed for Aster to stop crying.

There was a flash of light.  By the time it cleared away, she was merely a glinting speck in the distance.

He glanced at the door, then flew after her.

Up to you and you alone now, boy, he thought.

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Colony 15.3

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“To use a cliché, you can do this the easy way or the hard way,” Tattletale said, a light smile on her face.

“Fuck you,” Othala snarled.

Tattletale hadn’t told me.  I could understand if Regent didn’t inform me that they were hoping to enslave someone else, but I counted Tattletale among my few real friends.  I had something of a sore spot when it came to being betrayed by friends.

They’d planned to do this at some point today, and I hadn’t been filled in.  Was that accidental?  We’d exchanged so many calls, I could almost believe that I’d been forgotten, or that everyone had assumed someone else would be the one to fill me in.

But I couldn’t shake the other possibility.  They could have left me in the dark because they knew I’d object.  And now that I was filled in on this plan, I couldn’t object without making the group look weak.  Tattletale would know that.  She would know I wouldn’t screw us over, even with my objections, and this next part of the plan would go ahead whether or not I agreed or not.

Biting my tongue, I walked around until I stood at the very back of the scene, where I could see Night as well as everyone else that was present.

“Victor,” Tattletale said.  “You’re the tax payment, so to speak.  Your call.”

Victor’s eyes narrowed.

“Consider it an opportunity.  You’re bound to pick up something you can use, talent-wise.”

“I won’t betray my team.”

Regent chuckled, not raising his eyes from Night.  “Not really getting a choice.”

“The PRT trains its squads in resisting and reacting to master-category attacks.  I’ve picked up some things,” Victor’s chin raised a fraction.

Victor had a kind of easy arrogance to him.  It wasn’t just the arrogance of someone who thought they were better than everyone around them.  It was the arrogance of someone who’d been born and raised thinking they were better, only to have that confidence reinforced and enhanced over the course of their lives.

Even bound by the spider silk, he managed to carry the demeanor of a prince from one of the monarchies of old, transported to the modern era.  He had the look, too: a cleft chin, close-cropped hair that had been bleached to a platinum blond and a stare that managed to look simultaneously condescending and angry.  He would be angry, obviously, but I’d seen him in situations where he wasn’t trussed up and lying on the ground, and he’d looked the same then.  His costume reinforced the image of someone between eras, with a simple black-painted breastplate with a sharp stylized ‘v’ around the neck, a blood-red shirt and black slacks.

The color scheme extended to Othala, who wore something decidedly more traditional as superhero costumes went.  Her bodysuit was skintight and tomato red, with a single icon in the center. Like the swastika, it featured a circle with a black border and white center, and a rune in black.  It wasn’t a swastika, though, but a diamond with two legs extending from the bottom point, each turning up at the bottom.  She’d taken to wearing an eyepatch with the same icon on it in white.  Her hair covered enough of that side of her face that it wasn’t obvious.

She couldn’t heal herself, of course.  She granted powers to others.  There would be no other reason for her to be kneeling in the water, bleeding from a hundred papercut-thin lacerations.

Rune, for her part, wasn’t much older than Imp.  Her long blond hair streamed out of a pointed hood, and runes lined the edges of a long, dark blue cloak.

“I’m kind of hoping you’re right,” Regent shrugged, “Nobody’s ever resisted before.  I could learn a lot.”

Tattletale asked, “Seriously, are you going to cooperate?”

“No,” Victor replied.  He rolled onto his back and set his head down so he was staring up at the sky.

“Fine.  Imp?”

I turned and saw Tattletale pointing toward Othala.

Imp was there, behind the villainess.  Imp planted one foot between Othala’s shoulders and kicked the girl face first into the street

“Hey!”  Victor shouted.  “Don’t touch her!”

“Anything we do to you or Rune, you’ll always know in the back of your mind that Othala  could heal it,” Tattletale said.  “But anything we do to her…”

Imp took that as a cue, kicking Othala in the gut.

“Your issue is with me!”

Tattletale was as calm as he was angry.  “You’re surprisingly upset.  You’d think you’d be used to seeing your teammate taking some lumps in the course of your supervillain careers.  You two are involved, aren’t you?  Makes sense, given how closely you’ve worked together.”

“You don’t know the littlest thing about where we come from,” Victor snarled.

“I’m figuring it out.  Give me a second.  Judging by what you’re saying, there’s a loss in there somewhere.  Group like yours, bound to be pretty insular.  Making friends with similar beliefs, dating people with similar beliefs.  Did your daddy give you some strong encouragement to date this little lady?”

Victor looked away, his lips twisting into an expression I couldn’t interpret.  He shook his head.

“Not quite, huh?  It wasn’t your dad.  You were on your own, a lost soul recruited by a big, proud family.  Proved yourself, and you were told you’d earn a proper place in Kaiser’s Empire if you married in, so to speak.  Not an arranged marriage in the strictest sense, but the idea was that you’d date one of the lieutenant’s girls and marry eventually.  Except it wasn’t her you were supposed to date.  Her sister?”

“Cousin,” Victor spat the word, “I’m getting tired of hearing you fumble your way to answers.  It was her cousin.”

“There we go.  Something happened to the cousin.  So you two got paired together instead.  And you two work so well together, it’s a kind of kismet.  Only there’s a little heartbreak on both sides.”

This is your plan?” Victor sneered.  “Hate to break it to you, but we’ve talked this shit out.  It’s called communication.  You won’t be revealing any big secrets to break us up.”

“No.  You two are totally honest with each other.  Kudos.  Thing is, you’re just not very honest with yourselves.  You know why you’re getting so angry at Othala getting hurt?  You’re really quite insecure in your attachment to her.”

“Oh god, this is lame.”  The water rippled as Victor let his head drop down to rest on the flooded street.

“You’re playing up your own anger because you’re afraid that if you don’t make yourself care, you won’t care at all.”

“Okay, sure.”

“You tell yourself you’re growing to love her, but you’re a very good liar, Victor, and you’re very good at lying to yourself.  You know that, so you’ve found yourself wondering if maybe the feelings you have for Othala are just the head games you’ve been playing with yourself.”

“Easily possible.  But there’s two other possibilities.  It could be that I’m not lying to myself.  Let’s not forget that.  Another possibility is that it really is just me lying to myself, but that lie will become truth over time.  People all over this city feign confidence, and that becomes something concrete.  You can become the mask you wear on a day-to-day basis.”

Something about that bothered me.  I spoke for the first time since Tattletale had declared her intentions.  “Seems kind of hollow.”

“Because it’s not a fairytale romance?  It’s not.  But I’ll tell you I enjoy her company, I trust her, I respect her, and I’m even attracted to her.  We’ve got a foundation, bug girl.  There’s nothing forcing us to stay together anymore.  Empire Eighty-Eight is gone.  We’re a pair because we want to be.  Right, O?”

“Right,” Othala’s voice was quiet.  She’d pulled herself up onto her hands and knees.  She glared up at Imp, then looked down.

Tattletale stepped forward, “Or because your names and faces are known to the public, and instead of being part of your group by choice, you’re part of the group because nobody else will have you?”

Victor laughed a little.  “Somehow I expected better from you, Tattletale.  This is pretty feeble.  Attacking our relationship?  We’re strong enough, and no matter what you try to pull, you won’t change the fact that we have what it takes.”

“Sure.  But I don’t have to.  Your relationship is doomed.  You don’t have that same lovesick, infatuated feeling for Othala that you had for her cousin.  The chance for that moment has passed.  And it’ll eat away at you.  You’ll crave that kind of feeling, and feel like you missed out on something by throwing yourself into a relationship out of duty rather than love.  You’ll cheat because you’re searching for that and because it’s easy for you to get women.  You’re good-looking, and you have access to all the little tricks, how to approach them, how to win them over.  And Othala over there, she’s still head over heels for you.  It’ll kill her when you betray her.”

The smile slipped from Victor’s face.  “You’re not saying all this to fuck with me.  You’re fucking with her.”

I glanced at Othala, who was staring down at the ground.

“Why?” he asked.  “Why do this?”

“What other options do we have, if we want to pressure you?  You’re invincible for at least a little while longer, but even without that, if we beat and tortured you, I think we’d come out behind, just by virtue of how far we’d have to go before we got past whatever interrogation resistance techniques you’ve stolen.  Wouldn’t be much different if we beat and tortured Othala.  We’d piss you off, but I don’t think we’d break you.  So at the very least, this is a more civilized route of attack.”

“You don’t need my agreement, and I’m not about to give it.  Not betraying my teammates.”

“Your agreement would make all of this a lot easier.  Don’t play dumb and say we don’t need it.  You and I both know you’re a master of martial arts that you could use if we cut your legs free.  Capoeira, I imagine.  There’s certainly others you could draw on, and I’d bet you’ve blended all those styles together.  You’d kick our faces in, maybe distract us long enough for Night to bounce back.”

Victor smirked.

“Regent and Skitter would stop you without a problem, but that’s a lose-lose situation.  You and your buddies end up dead or seriously injured, and we don’t get to borrow your talents.  But you’d do it, to deny us what we want and because you hate it when someone else comes out on top.”

“And what makes you think you’re going to change my mind?”

“The fact that that was just a sampler.  I’m just getting started.  We’re not in any particular rush, so we can sit here until I’ve completely fucked up your group.  I’ll find every little chink and weak link there is and leverage them until you break,” Tattletale shrugged.  “You think on that while we go take our pick of your stuff.  There’s bound to be some juicy clues in your living space.  Imp, come on.”

Tattletale and Imp headed off to collect the spoils.  I settled down, silently fuming, keeping one eye on Night.

Silence lingered for a good minute.

“You can cheat,” Othala said.

“Not now, O.”

“We open up the relationship.  You do what you need to, just promise that if you don’t find what you’re looking for, you come back.”

I spoke up, “Not sure if it’s really true, given who you’re associating with, but don’t you deserve better than that?”

“Shut your mouth-hole, heeb,” Othala snarled.  “Butt out.”

I felt my heart skip a beat at the ‘heeb’.  She knew my last name?

No.  Heeb was short for Hebrew, not Hebert.

I’m not Jewish, I thought.  How had she come to that conclusion?  I could believe someone would make an assumption like that if they’d seen my skin tone and hair, but my costume covered my skin.  I’d spent some time wearing a mask that did show some skin, after Bonesaw had cut up my good mask, but Othala hadn’t been there for any of those incidents.

I had ideas about what that could mean, but I kept my mouth shut.

“Don’t stress about it,” Victor said.  “She’s trying to get to you.”

“No shit,” Regent muttered.

“I’m just thinking if we can find a solution to this, then I can be more confident we’ll find solutions to the other stuff.”

Victor shook his head.  “Just relax.  There’s no rush.  Any problem Tattletale brings up, every issue, it’s something we can work through.  If you get panicked, if she starts making you think that whatever she’s talking about is suddenly a crisis and it has to be addressed right now, you’re playing into her hands.  She’ll use that to make you say or do something you’ll regret.  So take-”

“Regent, keep an eye on Night?”  I spoke, interrupting.

“Sure.”

Victor stared at me as I approached.  I held out one hand and let a spider drop from each fingertip, dangling from threads.

“The hell?” He squirmed in an attempt to get away, but his arms and legs didn’t afford him much room to move. I slowed their descent enough that he could see the spiders clearly.  Black, orblike abdomens, stamped with a red hourglass marking.  If it wasn’t for my wanting to do this to make it clear what spiders they were, I would have just used the spiders I’d employed to wrap him in silk.  I wanted the drama and to make it absolutely clear what I was doing.

I moved my hand and let the spiders swing a little to the left to make sure they were in place and let them settle on his face.

“Hush,” I told him.  “Now close your eyes.  You don’t want to startle them or they’ll bite.”

One of his eyes fluttered in a reflexive action as the spider touched his eyelash.  He growled “You psycho,” scowling, before shutting his eyes.

I moved more spiders into positions on his lips.

“Careful,” I said.  “I’m focusing on watching Night, so I’m not really bothering to suppress their instincts.  Don’t move.”

I looked at Rune and Othala, “You two be quiet, too.  I can handle you the same way.”

Othala only stared, while Rune offered a slow nod.

It took five more minutes for Imp and Tattletale to come back, each loaded down with bags.  Given the variety of labels, I guessed the bags contained things looted from stores downtown.  Imp put down a spray can, and set to spraying the glass cube Shatterbird had imprisoned Fog in.  Filling in the gaps, cementing it together.

“I’d step back, Skitter,” Tattletale said.  “His power works by proximity, among other things.  Physical contact, eye contact and active use of a skill lets him leech them off you.  The stronger the contact with each transfer point, the more transfer points he’s maintaining, the faster the drain.  He could suck away something essential, or make you just a little bit worse at everything you do.”

I stepped away, silent.

“So, have you made a decision?” Tattletale asked Victor.  “Because I’m all geared up to carry on with the discussion here.”

Victor didn’t respond.  Couldn’t.

Tattletale turned to look my way, and I met her eyes.  I left the bugs in place.

“Could you please move the spiders?”  She asked.

“Of course.”  I dismissed them, but I didn’t break eye contact.

She was the first to look away, turning her attention to Victor.  “Well, Victor?”

He looked over at Othala, then stared up at Tattletale.  He managed to look confident despite being bound and lying in the floodwater.  After a long moment, he said, “I’m undecided.”

“That’s a step forward,” she said.

“Maybe you could provide me some incentive?”

He needs to win on some level if he’s going to make a concession, I thought.

Regent shrugged.  “I could keep you for seventy-two hours, if you don’t cooperate, or thirty-six if you do.”

Victor turned to look at Regent.  “That’ll do.”

“Can you cut him free?”

I had my spiders start severing the threads.

“You leave the others alone,” Victor said.

“Skitter will keep an eye on them until we’re a safe distance away, and then she’ll give them the signal that it’s okay to move,” Tattletale said.

I nodded.  I didn’t agree, but I would play along for the sake of the group’s image, and because I wasn’t willing to sabotage a plan in progress, even if I didn’t agree with it.

I brought Atlas to me and was in the air a few seconds later.

Between Imp and I, there was a pretty slim chance that we’d both blink at the same time and leave Night free to use her power.

When Tattletale and Regent were out of my range, I turned to leave.  Night didn’t turn into a monster, but I took that to be a result of her being unconscious.  Or maybe the taser’s effects.  Either way, I wasn’t complaining.  It gave me more of a head start.  When the Chosen were at the limits of my power’s range, I drew words in the air to let them know it was safe to move.

I caught up with the others a short distance away from Regent’s headquarters.  Victor was being loaded into a van, hooded and heavily shackled.  Another truck was parked a short distance away.

The moment the door was shut, I stabbed one finger in Tattletale’s direction, “What the fuck was that?”

“Woah,” Regent said, “Relax.”

“I’m not going to ‘relax’.  You two deliberately left me in the dark, there.  Or it was an exceedingly stupid oversight to forget to mention it, and I know Tattletale isn’t stupid.”

“It was only sort of deliberate.  Regent didn’t have any part in that.”

“Explain,” I told her.

“I didn’t realize you had such an issue with Regent using his power until you brought it up before.  I could have mentioned our secondary goal then, but I was worried that would start something.  Or that it would discombobulate you before we got into a thing with the Chosen.”

“As opposed to finding it out right after.

“I’m sorry.  Again, I really underestimated how much you’d care.”

“I was okay with Shadow Stalker because she’s a legit psychopath, and sure, there was some personal bias in there.  Whatever.  I’m also cool with Shatterbird because I don’t think there’s a shred of humanity in there.  This is different.”

“See, that’s what throws me,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t see that big a difference between Victor and Shadow Stalker.”

“I’ve spent more than enough time around Shadow Stalker to feel confident in making the call.  I haven’t spent any time around Victor.  I didn’t know if he’s a psychopath, if he’s just deluded, or if he’s being forced into what he’s doing.”

“I could have filled you in.”

“You’re right,” I said, “You could have.  That’s all I wanted.  I just wanted you to ask.”

She frowned.

“And, of course, now we’re locked into this thing, and I can’t help but wonder if I can trust you in the future.”

“That’s rich,” Regent said, “Coming from you.”

I shook my head.  “I’ve played along.”

“Bullshit.  You’ve demanded concessions and compromises from us every step along the way.”

“And I’ve made concessions and compromises.  I accepted it when you revealed your real power, I agreed we should capture Shadow Stalker for the one job.”

“Let’s call a duck a duck.  You agreed to capturing Shadow Stalker because you wanted revenge.”

I shook my head.  “No.  Remember when I first brought up the bullying?  I was pretty clear about how I didn’t want any of that.”

“You said it, but that’s a long ways away from meaning it.”

“I say what I mean.”

“Says the most dishonest members of the group,” he retorted.  Before I could reply, he raised both hands, as if to ward me off.  “Not really intending to get on your case, not accusing or insulting you.  Just saying: the whole undercover operative thing, I don’t think you have much ground to stand on.”

I looked away.  “I’m not proud of that.”

“Sure.  That’s fine.  But let’s be honest about all this.  You spent a whole lot of time saying one thing while doing another.  I think we all rolled with that pretty damn well.  Even went the extra mile on some occasions.  Well, Rachel excepted, but yeah.  Are you saying you can’t return the favor?”

“If we’re talking mind control-”

“No,” Tattletale cut in.  “We’re not.  We’ve already established a precedent when it comes to using Regent’s powers on the legitimately fucked up.  And I already knew Victor fit that label.  Your issue is with my neglecting to fill you in.  I’m willing to admit I was wrong.  It was a bad call on my part, to leave you in the dark.  It’s your call if you want to accept that apology and move on.”

“And how often can this happen before I can say we’re taking it too far?  Regent’s power is going to get us in trouble, one way or another.  If our enemies decide that the threat of being mind-controlled is too big, and band together against us, it might be creating more of a disadvantage than an advantage.”

“It’s body-control, not mind-control,” Regent said.  “I don’t touch the grey matter.”

“Semantics.  My point stands.”

“Then let me raise my own point,” he said.  “What am I supposed to do, if I’m not using my power?  The whole bit with tripping people up, knocking them down, making them drop shit?  It’s not exactly grade A material as superpowers go.”

“I’m saying we discuss it as a group before enslaving someone.”

“And if there’s a window of opportunity?” he asked.  “A chance to capture someone on the fly?  Do we just let it slip by because you want to host a debate?”

“No,” I sighed.  “You could capture the person in question, we hold them for long enough to talk it over, then we let them go if it isn’t appropriate.”

He shrugged.  “Which doesn’t do a damn thing to ease people’s suspicions if everyone’s watching their friends, seeing if anyone’s dropped off the map long enough to have been captured and converted.  I’ve been there.  Maybe not on this scale, but I’ve seen it happen, the paranoia.”

“Right.  And your little plan here has started that ball rolling.  Whatever we do from here on out, people are going to be spooked enough that they’ll see the mind controlled where they don’t exist.”

“Fear is good,” Tattletale said.

“Paranoia isn’t.  If our enemies are backed into a corner, they might do something stupid.  You yourself said how Victor was willing to attack us if we cut him free, even if it put himself and his teammates in grave danger.  And he’s not dumb.”

“He’s not brilliant either,” Regent said.  “Just saying, but having a power that gives you brains doesn’t necessarily mean you’re smart.”

Tattletale gave him an annoyed look, then turned to me.  “I can understand your frustration.  You feel like we just set ourselves back on a city-wide scale for a relatively minor gain.”

I shrugged, “Pretty much.”

“Except our enemies are already banding together to attack us.  Having Regent as a target doesn’t change anything except taking the focus off of more important members of the team,” she said.

“I see what you did there.  A little quid pro quo,” Regent muttered.

Tattletale stuck out her tongue at him, then turned back to me, “And people are going to be scared to take him out if it means releasing Shatterbird.  Picture yourself in their shoes.  It’s not a comfortable position to be in if you’re itching to retaliate.”

“It’s not a comfortable position to be in anyways, even with him on the team,” I said, glancing over at Shatterbird.  Not that we hadn’t taken countermeasures, but… yeah.

Tattletale looked as well.  “But the main thing I was getting at is that we’re working towards something here.  We got Victor.  Bully for us.  But you’re probably wondering why.”

“Just a little.”

“Remember our attack on the PRT headquarters?  We walked away with data.  Data Coil and his best people couldn’t crack.”

I nodded.

“I think Victor could pull it off.”

“Okay.  Still not convinced.”

“Hear me out.  I told Coil that, and that got his attention.  I had something of an idea that Victor, Rune and Othala were looking to leave the Chosen, so I floated the idea to Coil that he could make them an offer.”

“I’m not so sure I’m a big fan of that idea.”

“I don’t think they’ll accept.  But if they do, I think it’ll work out for us anyways.  But I’m getting off topic.  The important thing isn’t recruiting them, but letting them know in a roundabout way that we’re involved with Coil and Coil’s involved with us.”

I nodded.  Outing Coil and his relationship to our takeover, maybe possibly.  There were advantages to that.  It would divert attention from us and maybe distract him.

“Point three.  Just a theory, but what if Grue could borrow Victor’s power and get some permanent boosts?”

“Just as an idea?  It’s interesting.  You brought this up with him?”

“No.  Imp said he was resting when I called to ask.  I figure it can’t hurt.”

I nodded.

“So we’re getting the data, we’re possibly outing Coil, and we’re putting a skill vampire in a situation where he’s surrounded with some very skilled people.  Like a kid in a candy shop, I doubt he’ll be able to keep from drooling.  Coil won’t let Victor get in situation where he can pick up anything special unless he agrees to join, that’s obvious enough.  Except I’ve talked to Minor, Senegal, Pritt and Jaw, and they’re willing to give him a little something in the way of exclusive skills he wouldn’t otherwise have access to, in exchange for a few small favors.”

“Like?”

“Like getting a read on Coil’s talents and skills, perhaps.  I can’t say for sure, but I’m thinking Victor could tell us what Coil’s day job used to be.  Enough of a starting point that I can dig up more details.  Know your enemy.  And with a guy that versatile, I can think of several ways he could be useful.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Okay?”  She asked.

“Okay.  Yeah.  I wish we could have talked about this before, but I’m willing to accept that we’ve been through a hell of a lot, and you’ve put up with a lot of demands from me.  If you think this is a good idea, if you’re certain about this, I can accept that.”

She nodded once, “Thank you.”

“And me?” Regent asked.  “No ‘I have faith in your judgement’?”

“I really don’t,” I admitted.

“Pshh.  After everything I’ve done for you.”

“Hm?”

“Nevermind,” he said, chuckling.  “I’m going to catch a ride to Coil’s and handle this next bit.  Wonder how long he’ll hold out.”

“I’ll come too,” Tattletale said.  “I want to see how this plays out.”

“If you don’t need me, I’m thinking I’m going to head back,” I said.  “Take care of my people.”

Tattletale nodded and gave me a short wave as she climbed into the back of the second truck.

I wasn’t thrilled, but I could deal.  I felt relieved to have a window of time to do what I needed to do.  It wouldn’t be relaxation, but more moving on to the next point on my priority list, handling the stuff that absolutely positively needed to be handled.  Making sure my dad was protected from Coil was a big one, making sure my people were both protected and equipped to protect themselves from the Chosen was another.  I needed to get my equipment in order, and the costumes finished, make sure I touched base with Bitch so our recent good relationship didn’t fall apart, and maintain the lines of communication with Tattletale and Coil so I was up to date on upcoming events.

“Do me a favor?”  Someone asked from behind me.

I spun around, drawing my knife.  It was just Imp.  Damn it.

“What?” I asked.  “Where’d you come from?”

“I stayed behind to keep an eye on Night.  Winking instead of blinking so I didn’t lose sight of her.  And you don’t even remember that I was doing it.  Fuck.  Ungrateful bastards.  I had to run the last block so I could be sure you didn’t fly off before I could ask.”

“You could have phoned.”

She shook her head.  “You heard what Tattletale said.  Coil might be listening in over the phones.  We don’t mention anything we wouldn’t want him to overhear.”

“And you don’t want him to overhear this favor?” I asked, hating myself even as I opened my mouth.

How was I supposed to get a handle on everything if I was posed with two more crises every time I got something done?

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Colony 15.2

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One thing at a time.

As much as I wanted to make it a focus, taking care of my territory was something I had to handle in my downtime.  I felt guilty; I’d left my people to handle things on their own, I’d failed to arrange the cleanup of the bodies Mannequin and Burnscar had left behind.  I hadn’t made arrangements for food, fresh water or accommodations.  I wanted to make it up to the people who had stuck by me, or at least the people who hadn’t left, but this wasn’t one of the instances where I could let my emotions dictate my priorities.

We had a mess of things to do and a limited amount of time to work with.

After departing from our meeting, we’d taken the afternoon and evening to handle our personal affairs, agreeing to start on the major stuff in the morning.  Bitch had to take care of her dogs, Regent was toying with gangs in his territory by puppeteering their leaders, and Tattletale had her various spies and scouts to keep in contact with.  Things were a little less busy for myself, Grue and Imp: I’d tended to my territory, ensuring that the cleanup was going well and that the major concerns were being addressed.  Grue and Imp had taken the afternoon and evening to try to catch up on sleep.

Except we hadn’t been able to break away from planning, and just going by his participation in our exchange of texts and calls, Grue hadn’t managed to rest much.  We’d arranged plans, discussed priorities, sent messages to Coil, tracked down information from our various underlings, and in the doing, we’d managed to hash out a general game plan.

With a hundred problems we needed to handle, we’d agreed the most important thing was to deal with the most inevitable ones.  There was no point in working out a complicated and involved attack plan against Coil if we didn’t wind up fighting him.  There was a point in dealing with the Chosen; they were bound to attack us at some point, regardless of how future events unfolded.  Better to take the fight to them.

“Whatcha thinking, dork?”

“You’re still calling me that?”

Regent chuckled.  He was walking down the center of the street with Imp.  I was keeping to the sidewalk out of habit, and because the raised concrete path was fractionally higher, so I wasn’t wading in quite so much water.

“Just thinking about priorities,” I told him.

“Yeah, Tattletale kept trying to rope me into the planning phase last night.  Not my thing.”

“I wouldn’t have minded,” Imp said.  “I wouldn’t have anything to contribute, but I’d like to follow along.  And I can’t figure out my niche in the group with the trio being so… trio-ish.”

“Trio-ish?” I asked.

“Tattletale, you and my brother.  Making all the plans, you’ve got the nemeses…” Imp paused.  “Is nemeses a word?”

“Yeah,” I said.

And you three have the brains, of course,” she stabbed a finger in my direction, as if it was an accusation, “Which leaves Regent, me and Bitch, following along, expected to obediently do as we’re told.”

“Let’s quit and start our own group!”  Regent said, throwing one arm across Imp’s shoulders and gesturing dramatically with the other as he continued, “Regent, Imp, and Bitch, the Othersiders, a spin-off team.  And we’ll stick with Coil while the others turn traitor, and we’ll have this epic fight…”

Imp took his cue, “And Brian and I will go head to head, and it’ll end in this dramatic moment where he says something pretentious-”

“Et tu, sis?”

“And then I’ll say ‘Yeah, it’s me’ and finish him!  No mercy.”

They were playing off one another, joking.

And he calls me the dork?

I ignored them up until we met up with Tattletale.

“No Grue?” she asked.

“He’s tired,” Imp said, shrugging free of Regent’s arm, which had stayed in place since they began their play-acting.  “Not sleeping these days.”

“We should address that soon,” Tattletale said.  “We’ve seen how mistakes happen when some of us get too fatigued.  With the way things are stacked against us, we could wind up with another few days of concentrated activity, and running on empty from the start could spell bad things.”

She glanced at me.  Fine, I’d own up to it.  I’d fallen into that trap.  I nodded an agreement.

“And you?” she asked me.  “You’re good?”

“Guilty about leaving my people to their own devices,” I admitted, “But I’m glad we’re working through this stuff.”

“Speaking of,” she said.  “We’ve got the mayoral elections coming up in a week and a half.  They were thinking about canceling them, but with the Nine gone, they’re apparently wanting to get things closer to normal.”

“What does this mean for us?” I asked.

I caught a glimpse of Imp nudging Regent, in a ‘see, see?’ kind of way.  She muttered something about the trio.

“On the upside, Coil has two agents as mayoral candidates, so he’ll be focused on that.  On the downside, it’s another thing we have to take into consideration.  We could throw a wrench into that situation, to slow him down in his takeover and buy ourselves time to leverage the situation to our advantage, but I’m wondering if it’s really worth it with our other time constraints.”

“The primary one being Dinah getting her powers back,” I said.  I turned to the other two, “Are you wanting to chime in instead of poking fun?”

“I’m good,” Imp said.  Regent chuckled a little.

Tattletale said, “I’ve been trying to figure out what’s been happening with the Chosen and Purity’s group.  The white supremacists keep losing leaders.  Kaiser got offed by Leviathan, now we’ve got a brainwashed Hookwolf running off with the Nine.  The natural thing for the group to do would be to fall in under Purity, but there’s some snags.”

“Some Chosen thinking they want to be leaders?” I asked.

“There’s that.  Stormtiger and Cricket have been Hookwolf’s followers for a while.  I could see how they might feel that it was their due to get a turn.  There’s also the fact that Hookwolf was probably engaging in some propaganda against Purity, in case she tried poaching from his team.  So you’ve got the overall group split between the Chosen and the Pure we’ve had for a few weeks now.  Then you’ve got another split within the Chosen, with the loyal and the brainwashed, and the, um.  Not sure what to call them.”

“The free thinkers?” I offered.

“If you can call a neo-nazi a free thinker,” Tattletale conceded.

“So it’s a prime opportunity to strike, then,” I concluded.

“Maybe.  Or maybe they’re in the same straits as us.  They could be feeling the same kind of pressure from multiple directions.”

“Something to keep in mind,” I said.

“Something to exploit?”

I glanced at her in surprise, and she shrugged.

“Elaborate?  You’re not suggesting we ally with them, are you?”

“Fuck yes!” Imp skipped halfway across the road to join us.  “Finally, an argument I can get into.  No way are we allying with the skinheads.”

“Are you taking this seriously?” I asked her.

“Totally one-hundred-percent serious.  I’m not cool with working with them on any level.  I’ve put up with their racist asshole kids giving me a hard time at school, I put up with their racist asshole adults throwing slurs and swear words at me when I’m walking down the street.”

“I’m not talking about working with them,” Tattletale said.  “I’m talking about a ceasefire.  We broker a deal, agree to leave them alone if they leave us alone, they can hold their own territory without worrying about us, and they extend the same civility to us.  It gives us a chance to do what we need to do.”

“Still not cool,” Imp protested.  “It gives them a chance to do what they want to do, which is making life hell on anyone that isn’t straight, white and Christian.  Or whatever you call people that worship those viking gods.  They like naming themselves after those guys.”

I looked at Tattletale, “I can’t argue with her point.  The first part.”

Tattletale frowned.  “I’m trying to think about what’s easiest to achieve while clearing up the most problems.  I already got in touch with New Wave and got them to chill out for a bit.”

“How’d you pull that?” Regent asked.

“Lady Photon was wondering where her nieces went.  I told her that Panacea was healing Glory Girl but she still wanted her space.”

“Hmm,” I offered, to give an indication I was listening.

“It isn’t true, or I should say it isn’t the whole truth, but we tried to reach Panacea and she turned us down again and again.  It’s a shame, but what can you do?”

Amy had crossed my mind as I’d reflected on the various encounters with the Nine, and I’d thought about going to look for her.  Having her in the group would be invaluable, no question.  Even touching base with her could leave us options if someone got hurt or if we needed resources.  That said, the major issue was that I couldn’t be sure she’d actually join or even listen, and we were trying to operate with certainties.  I couldn’t afford to go when it meant potentially wasted time.

Better to be in my territory, for morale, for organization, and to keep working on the costume bits.  It also let me eat, sleep and take care of Atlas – stuff I tended to forget about.

Thinking about Atlas reminded me of one thought I’d had during our downtime.  “It’d be fantastic if we could get a tinker in the group,” I said.  “Between Bakuda, Armsmaster, Mannequin and Bonesaw, I’m sort of starting to appreciate what they bring to the table.”

“What you see there are the end results,” Tattletale said, “You have to realize how much time they’re spending building stuff, or time spent building tools to build better stuff.”

“Bonesaw did plastic surgery on seven people, performed brain surgery on Cherish and then trapped her inside a pod that could keep her alive for years or decades, and as far as I figure it, even if they got their hands on an all-terrain vehicle, they can’t have had five or ten minutes to do it in.  That doesn’t amount to much prep time.”

“Some to build and program her mechanical spiders, but yeah.  She probably wouldn’t need as much time as you’d think.  Probably didn’t even have to put Cherish’s head back together after doing what she needed to for the surgery, for example, if she was going in the pod.”

You’re almost a tinker,” Regent told me.

“Not really.”

“You made these rags,” he pulled down his collar to show me the skintight costume beneath.

Rags?  If you don’t want them, I can use the material.”

He laughed.

“I don’t think I’m anything like a tinker, though.  I just realize my power’s not that strong, so I wrack my brain to think of ways to expand it.  I make the most of the possibilities available to me, while a tinker creates possibilities.”

“I’m getting what you’re saying,” Tattletale smiled.  “You liked having Panacea around as a pseudo-tinker, huh?  The way it expanded your options?”

I shrugged, “Goes without saying, doesn’t it?”

“But you especially, given how you think.  It’s a shame that there’s not really any tinkers around that aren’t already committed.  Unless you want to make a point out of recruiting Leet?”

There was a bit of a pause as we all considered the idea.

We simultaneously broke into laughter.

“Come on,” Tattletale said, “Let’s get down to business.”

Beyond our short detour to meet up with Tattletale, we’d primarily been focused on heading towards Regent’s territory.

As if they knew Regent didn’t have the forces to retaliate or respond in kind, the Chosen had decided on an underhanded means of attack.  If you could call it that.  The Chosen’s wolf-head gang tag and swastikas marked every available surface.

A snub, an insult.

Shatterbird descended from some distant point high above us, landing in the middle of the College, Regent’s territory.  It was the middle ground between Downtown and the Docks, and the buildings were a mix of quaint housing and stone buildings.  Or they had been.  Most were ruins now.

Dust and sand stirred around us.  It coiled around Shatterbird, then streamed against the offending pieces of artwork.  Housepaint and whitewash peeled and disappeared, flecks of spray paint were gradually worn away, and concrete was chipped.

In less than a minute, the area was clean.  Not only was it free of the spray paint, but walls were left looking cleaner and newer than they had in years, maybe decades.

“Nifty,” Imp commented.

“Why spend a few hundred bucks on a sandblaster when you have a Shatterbird?  Who’s a good little power tool?”  Regent gave Shatterbird a pat on the cheek.  “You are.  Yes you are.”

“Stop that,” I said.

“What?”

“That’s uncalled for.”

“It’s totally called for.  Are you bothered I’m calling her a tool, or are you bothered I’m mocking her?  Because she is a tool, you know.  In more than one sense.”

“You don’t have to mock her.”

“Why?  Because we should be respectful of the poor widdle mass murderer’s feelings?”  He snapped his fingers, and Shatterbird covered her ears, shutting her eyes.  “There’s a reason I’m doing this, believe it or not.  You aren’t the only one who can have ideas about finding some special angle in your power.  Her best bet at breaking free is if she has a strong enough emotional reaction while being far enough away from me.  I’m irritating her because I want to keep her emotionally drained.  That way she won’t be able to put up a good fight when she does get a chance.”

“There’s got to be a better way of doing that.”

“Sure.  Tell you what.  Next chance I’ll get, I’ll take her to my lair, sit her down and torture her until her mind breaks.  Heck, it wouldn’t even be that hard.”

“You-” I started.

“He’s being facetious,” Tattletale interrupted.

Regent rolled his eyes.

“The alternative is killing her,” he said.  “But that seems awfully wasteful when she’s giving us some much-needed firepower and deterrence.”

“I’m not saying torture her, and I’m not saying kill her.  I’m just asking you to treat her with respect.”

Shatterbird spoke, startling me.  “Hi!  I’ve killed hundreds of people and maimed thousands.”

“I get your point, Regent.  Stop that.”

Shatterbird smiled wide, the expression so fake and cheery it was disturbing to see.  I tried to ignore her as she continued staring at me.

As an idle thought, I noted that her teeth were in surprisingly good shape.  It made me wonder how the Nine took care of their teeth.  Did they threaten some dentist and force him to do fillings and whitenings?  Or did Bonesaw handle that?  It was odd to think about.

“Okay, we’ve got Shatterbird for some firepower, you’ve got a swarm, Skitter?”

My bugs weren’t condensed into a swarm, but I had a good number.  “I’m set.”

“Can you find them?”

My bugs searched our surroundings.  “There’s people, I’m just not sure they’re Chosen.”

“Where?”

I pointed.  “Six there, belowground.  Eight there, on the far side of the building where it isn’t caved in.  Five there, front room, drinking alcohol, I think.”

“That group,” she gestured to the first one I’d indicated, where people were gathered in a basement or cellar.  Some stone building with sandbags around it to keep the floodwater at bay.  “Ages, genders?”

“I can’t say about ages, but two are below average in height, smaller across the shoulders.  So probably younger.  Two female, one male.”

“Are they agitated, busy?”

“They’re annoyed because of the houseflies and mosquitoes buzzing around them, but I don’t think they’ve realized it’s me.”

“Just trying to figure it out.  The quality of the lodgings here is pretty miserable compared to some areas close by, then if I go by the graffitti and the placement thereof… yeah, it’s them.”

“All of them or just some of them?”

“Everyone present is a member of the Chosen.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.  Nobody’s going to hang out here otherwise.  Doesn’t fit.  Even if I discount some of the evidence that’s leading my power to the conclusions it’s finding… yeah.  I’m sure.”

“Then cover up,” Regent alerted us.

I pulled the short cape over my head to cover my hair.  I could see Imp wrapping her scarf around her head with the same idea in mind.  Tattletale, for her part, pulled on the spider silk balaclava I’d made as a trial run at something for my minions, then donned a pair of goggles.

“Go, Skitter,” Tattletale spoke.

We attacked.  My bugs flowed into the spaces where I’d found the people.  In one moment, they were simply crawling on them, the next moment they were under attack, being bitten, stung, scratched and smothered.

As usual, I kept the wasps and bees from contracting their abdomens to force the venom out.  It would hurt, but the risk of anaphylactic shock would be minimal.

They fled, running for the outdoors.

I gave them a second of reprieve.  A few seconds where they could catch their breath and think they’d escaped.

“Your turn,” I told Regent.

Shatterbird attacked, calling forth a light flurry of glass shards.  There weren’t many, far less than I had in the way of bugs, but our enemies couldn’t defend against them.  My mosquitoes could smell blood as the shards sliced thin papercuts into their skin, impaled their cheeks and hands.

“Don’t hit any vital organs,” I said, “Or arteries.  Keep it confined to the outer edge of their body.”

“You’re so finnicky,” Regent commented.

“If you kill them, this situation becomes something totally different.  They’ll have a vendetta against us, and any friction within their group is going to take second seat to getting revenge.”

“I’m not saying I won’t be careful,” Regent sighed.  “I’m saying you’re being picky.”

A section of building floated across the street to land at the midway point between Shatterbird and our targets.  There were nearly twenty of them, and one of them was Rune.  Okay.

Shatterbird extended her arms out to either side.  The pelting hail of glass shards split in two, each half arcing well to the left and right, circumventing the obstacle entirely.  He stepped up the intensity a notch.

“Feels like we’re going easy on them,” he said.

“Just weeding out the foot soldiers.  If we can eliminate anyone with powers, so much the better.”

I nodded.  We’d made our point with the glass shards.  I set my bugs on them once again.

No point in playing fair, really.

One by one, they collapsed, losing their balance and falling, or simply giving way under the pain.  The second one of them went limp on the ground, curling up in the fetal position or trying to cover themselves in their clothes, I let up.  For everyone else, I made the bugs a little more aggressive with every passing moment.

“They’re going to retaliate soon,” Tattletale informed us.

A cloud of mist erupted and began to expand, squashing my bugs.  That meant Fog was here.  And if he was here, Night would be too.  Night and Fog, Nacht und Nebel.  I could sense someone who could have been her, running away from the collection of people.

“Rune, Night and Fog so far,” I said.

“That’s two different groups.  Rune could be looking to join the Pure,” Tattletale spoke.  “Purity’s not here or she would have responded already.  You’re not sensing anything that could be Crusader?  Your bugs wouldn’t be able to pass through his astral clones.”

“No Crusader.”

I sensed someone my bugs were unable to hurt.  He ran forward through the swarm, the hail of glass and Fog’s cloud.  “Incoming.  Not Night.”

Victor.  He was a talent vampire, stealing people’s trained skills, keeping them if he held on to them long enough, and leaving that person temporarily bereft of whatever skill they’d spent their lives learning.  People like him had a tendency to pick up martial arts, parkour, weapons training and other combat skills.  He tended to pair up with Othala, the girl who could grant powers, meaning Victor also had super speed, super strength or invincibility.  If he was wounded, she could give him regeneration instead.

But her power demanded that she touch whoever she was using it on, and it limited her to granting one power at a time.  If he had invincibility, it meant he didn’t have super strength, pyrokinesis or any of that.

I started tying him up in silk, drawing the lines out with my spiders and carrying them with flying insects.

He didn’t make it halfway to us before stumbling.  A minute later he was caught.  I began layering it on him, thicker.

“Victor down.  Othala’s somewhere, only big problems are Night and Fog.”

“Okay.  How confident you feeling?”  Tattletale glanced at me.

“I could try my hand at dealing with Night.  Not sure about Fog.”

“Regent?”

“That’s cool.”

“Going to see if I can bait them,” I responded.  “You guys get back some.”

“Play safe.”

Our last run-in with Night and Fog had been ugly.  That had been months ago, and we’d basically lost.  I wasn’t content to simply lose, though.  I’d replayed the scene over and over in my head since it had happened, doubly so since I’d found out Coil’s power.  If he could create alternate timelines and choose the results, and if he’d used his power to save us, what had happened in that other timeline?  Had we died?

I hated the idea that I owed my life to Coil, because I hated him.  I hated that he’d turned something I could almost make peace with -being a villain- and he’d turned it into something that I was deeply ashamed of, something that gnawed at me.  He’d used me, and he’d done it to abuse, manipulate and take advantage of a young girl.

That irritation had been one more nudge to get me thinking about how I could have handled this.  With every new trick, strategy and technique I came up with, I tended to think about how they could apply to previous encounters, especially those encounters where we hadn’t come out ahead.

My bugs gave me a way of tracking Night.  I could sense her change as she escaped the line of sight of both her allies and our group.  I didn’t hurry after her, but I kept my attention turned in her direction as she transformed into that multi-legged, hyper-agile, lightning quick death blender of blades and claws and moved to flank us.

I called Atlas to me.

So long as I could see her coming, she wouldn’t be able to maintain that form as she closed the distance.  That didn’t mean her human self was a non-threat.  She was prepared to use any possible method to blind or distract so her opponents would take their eyes off her.  Flashbang grenades, smoke canisters, a cloak that doubled as a net, complete with hooks to catch on costumes and hair.

Fog was in his cloud form, advancing inexorably towards us.  He had the ability to adopt a gaseous body.  He was capable of making the gas semisolid, even maintaining a crude hold on objects.  If someone happened to breathe him in or swallow that smoke, and he made it solid while it was in their bloodstream, it was capable of doing horrific internal damage.

Shatterbird stopped driving the glass shards at our enemies and began collecting the nearby glass instead.  She formed it into a barrier.  The join wasn’t perfect, and Regent apparently lacked the fine touch the real Shatterbird had, because he didn’t strategically break the glass to make the joints fit better or create smaller pieces to jam in the holes.

Fog was slowed, but not stopped entirely.  He seeped through the cracks.

The high-pitched sound of glass slapping against glass filled the area as Regent patched up the holes by pressing larger pieces of glass over the gaps.  Still imperfect, but it was as good a barrier as we might hope for.

Night had paused.  She’d clearly wanted to use the smoke cover or the distraction of Fog’s approach to attack, but with his approach delayed, she was slowed down as well.

I was already prepping my bugs, readying with a response of my own.

I was nervous, I had to admit.  I’d fought against Leviathan, I’d fought the Nine, but Night was never going to be an opponent I could laugh off.

Fog managed to get enough of himself through the glass that he had leverage enough to break it.

“This power is so hard to use,” Regent complained.  “So much to focus on.”

“You’re doing fine.”

“I’m doing fine because she’s helping.  I think.”

“Be careful then,” Tattletale said.  “Don’t rely on her power.”

“Kind of hard not to, unless you want to let him approach?”

Would Shatterbird cease assisting at the most critical juncture, getting us all killed?  It would fit.  Unless she was helping only because she didn’t want to die.

“I’m going,” I told them.  “Hold down the fort, run if you have to.  We’ve basically scored a victory here, it’s just a question of driving it home.”

I climbed on top of Atlas and flew away from my companions.  If my plan failed, I could fly, but Tattletale and Regent couldn’t.  Better that she chase me with the others having a chance to escape than a scenario where I led her straight to them.

My swarm swamped Night, catching her alien, angular legs with strands of silk.

Lots of legs, only so much silk.  It wasn’t really working.  It might have been doable if I had a sense of how her body moved, or how the legs bent, but any time I looped silk around what I might consider a knee-joint, it turned inside out, the silk dropping to the ground.

Irritating.

My bugs weren’t finding anything I could identify as a sensory organ, no eyes or anything of the like.  Nothing that pepper spray would have an effect on.

Okay.  Something else.  I held back with the bugs that had the silk lines, rearranging them as I closed the distance.

The second I rounded the corner to spot Night, she was human again.  She pulled her cloak around herself, glancing around until she spotted me.

I swallowed, backing away slowly while keeping her in plain view.  My bugs gathered, but not to the extent that they blocked my view of her.

In one fluid motion, she wrapped her cloak around herself and then cast it out so it billowed.  She had a canister in her hand, whipping it in my direction.

I caught it in a net of silk strands buoyed by nearly two thousand flying dragonflies, beetles, wasps, hornets and cockroaches.

Night watched as the canister floated off into the air a distance away.  I readied two more nets, placing them in the air to the right and left.

I knew what she would do next, but that was mainly because I hadn’t been able to come up with a good way to deal with it.  I could trust Grue to handle it, but he wasn’t here.  I could use my bugs, with some luck, but even then I wasn’t sure it would have an effect.

She used a flashbang.

Close my eyes or stare dead on into the flash, I’d be momentarily blind either way.  I opted for the former, covering my eyes and flying both up and away.

With my swarm sense, I could feel her creating some distance, breaking away and heading for the general direction of the others, moving faster than any car, with far more raw mobility, turning on a dime and easily navigating obstacles.  Even before the flashbang went off, I was turning to follow.

I could tell the others were distracted by Fog.  Even some of the other members of the Chosen were slowly pulling themselves together.  I stepped up the assault with my bugs to make up for the fact that Regent and Shatterbird were otherwise occupied.

That left me to catch Night.  She was taking the long way, favoring alleys and going through the ground floor of buildings, which simultaneously let her maintain her monstrous form while forcing her to take just long enough that I could keep up.  The fastest path between two points was a straight line, so I had that advantage at least.

So long as I had eyes on her, I could slow her down, keep her from assaulting my teammates.  If I could catch her in human form, I might be able to bind her, or at least keep those flashbangs webbed to her belt.

There was the worst case scenario that she’d get close enough to kill someone in the span that a flashbang blinded us-  I wasn’t oblivious to that.

I was gaining on her, slowly but surely.  My heart pounded in my chest as I sensed her closing the gap between herself and the others, my eyes and my bugs scanning the surroundings so I could calculate the best position.  It wouldn’t matter how close I got to Night if there was a building blocking my view of her.

She stopped.

Or, more appropriately, she shifted gears from zig-zagging from one piece of cover to another to running at human speed.

I caught up a few seconds later, stopping Atlas so we circled directly above her.

She glanced around, looked up at me, then bolted for a restaurant with a tattered canopy over what had been an outdoor patio.

She disappeared from my sight for an instant, but she didn’t change.

The smoke canisters came out, but my bugs had lagged behind.  Anticipating another rush for my teammates, I piloted Atlas to a position between Night and the others.

The smoke spilled out around her, but again, she didn’t change.

She collapsed to the ground.

Wary of a feint, I approached with care.

Imp stood over Night, holding a taser.

“Got her,” she said, “Fuck yes.  You can’t tell me that wasn’t awesome.”

“Good job.  Now don’t take your eyes off her.  She heals back to pristine condition the second you blink.”

“We take turns blinking?”  She asked.

“Sure.  Blink on five.  One, two, three, four, five…” I said.  I waited until the second count and started blinking on three.

We draped Night across Atlas and hurried back toward the others, continuing the count.

Shatterbird had Fog trapped in a box of glass, layers upon layers.  Every time a puff of smoke escaped, a layering of glass shards covered the gap.  My allies were all standing, and our enemies were soundly defeated.  After a quick exchange to ensure we were sharing the duties of watching Night, I freed myself to check the scene with my eyes, rather than my swarm-sense.

Rune was kneeling, bleeding from shallow cuts across her face, chest, ribs, stomach and thighs.  She was using her power on a scarf to bind the wounds tight.

Othala was standing off to one side, hurt as well.  Victor was bound.

None of them were meeting our gaze.  We’d won to the extent that it was embarrassing to them.

“You’re in our territory,” Tattletale told them.  “Get out.”

“You’ve taken this whole fucking city as your territory,” Rune retorted, scowling.

“Your point being?” Regent asked.

“Where are we supposed to go?”

“Leave the city, retard.”  Imp said.

“You can’t just take the whole city.”

I didn’t feel like Imp and Regent were giving the impression of strength.  I spoke before they could.  “We already have.  We fought the Nine and played a pretty big part in taking out more than half of them.”  I pointed at Shatterbird, “Case in point.  You took advantage of that to try to claim some territory for yourselves.  Not only is that awfully pathetic, but you proved yourselves hypocrites, doing exactly what Hookwolf accused us of doing.”

“We staked out our claim.  It’s our right.”

“Your right?  On what grounds?  Strength?  We have you beat there.  Did you earn it?  No.  I think my team has you beat on both points.”

“Now,” Tattletale stepped forward, “Here’s the thing.  We can’t let you get away with this unscathed.  So we’re taxing you.”

“Tax?”  Othala asked.

“Tax.  Imp and I are going to step into the basement of that building over there,” Tattletale pointed, “And relieve you of every valuable we can carry.”

“You assholes!” Rune growled.  She started to stand, then fell to the ground, hard.  Imp had pushed her.  I tried to hide my own surprise at the girl’s sudden appearance.  The others looked somewhat intimidated as well.

“But that’s not enough, is it?  So there’s another tax.  We’re borrowing one of your teammates.”

The Chosen weren’t the only ones who looked shocked at the declaration.  I snapped my head around to look at Regent.  There was no surprise there.

Fuck them.  They’d planned this, and they hadn’t told me.

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Plague 12.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why could I feel calm now?

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

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

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

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

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

There was one flash in response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not going to happen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two?” Purity asked.

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

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

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

“So?” Tattletale asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

That gave everyone pause.

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

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

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

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

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

really didn’t like that idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trickster nodded at his words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Militia frowned.

“Please.”

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

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

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

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

“Perhaps.”

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

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

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

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

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

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

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

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

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

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

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

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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

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

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

I had to help, somehow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.  Great.  I need your help.”

He nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hew down, CD-5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re winning, I thought.

A flash to my left caught my eye.

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

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

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

Tidal Wave.

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

There was no helping it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bastion bellowed, “Do it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be ready!” Armsmaster called out.

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

Brigandine deceased, CD-5.

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

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

“He’s running!” someone called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Militia down, CD-6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shielder deceased, CD-6

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

Sundancer down, CD-6.

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

The group I was at the rear of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trickster frowned, looked around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

There was a quiet murmur through the room at Legend’s words.  One in four dead.  And that didn’t mean the rest of us would get away unscathed.

“I’m telling you your chances now because you deserve to know, and we so rarely get the chance to inform those individuals brave enough to step up and fight these monsters.  The primary message I want to convey, even more than briefing you on the particulars of his abilities, organizing formations and battle plans, is that I do not want you to underestimate Leviathan.  I have seen too many good heroes,” he paused for a fraction of a second, “And villains, too, die because they let their guard down.”

Legend paused, glanced out the window.  The storm clouds had reached the beach, and torrential rain stirred the water into a froth.  Not just rain, but buckets of water.

“We think of Leviathan as the middle child; he was the second of the three to arrive.    He is not the physical powerhouse Behemoth is, nor the cunning manipulator that the Simurgh so often proves to be.  That said, I would advise you to think of him as having many of the strengths of both siblings at once.  You’ve seen the videos on television and the internet.  You know what he is physically capable of.  I want to be clear that despite the image he might convey, he is not stupid, and he can display a level of cunning and tactics that can and will catch you off guard.

“I will tell you what you may not know from the videos.  He feels pain, he does bleed, but few attacks seem to penetrate deep enough past the surface to seriously harm him.  He is like the other two Endbringers in this respect.

“What sets him apart is his focus on water.  You’re likely aware of his afterimage, his water echo.  This is no mere splash of water.  At the speeds Leviathan can move, surface tension and compressibility make water harder than concrete.  He also has a crude hydrokinesis, the ability to manipulate water, and there will be water on the battlefield.  We believe that this is what lets him move as fast as he does when he is swimming.  Faster than he is normally, far faster than any speedster we have on record.”

He went on, “Were it just that, this fight might still warrant a show of force like what we’ve gathered here.  But things are more serious than that, which brings me to our primary concern.  As much as Dragon and Armsmaster’s advance warning might give us the opportunity to make this a good day, other issues threaten to make it just the opposite.

“I spoke of Leviathan as a hydrokinetic.  I can’t state this enough – Leviathan is primarily a hydrokinetic on a macro scale.  There is no better illustration than the days where Leviathan won.

“Newfoundland,” he spoke.

I knew exactly what he was speaking of, and mouthed the date as he spoke it, “May ninth, 2005.  Nearly half a million dead.  The Canadian island simply gone, after the shelf of land holding it up cracked in the face of what we now understand were incredible pressures beneath the water level.

“Kyushu, the night of November second and the morning of the third, 1999.  His sixth appearance.  Nine and a half million killed when the region was swamped with tidal waves from every direction while Leviathan disrupted prearranged evacuation attempts.  Nearly three million evacuees rendered homeless, a nation sundered.

“These were errors, grave mistakes from defending heroes.  We had but one strategy at the time – to hem him in, minimizing the effects of growing waves and casualties until Leviathan was beaten into a retreat or Scion arrived.  These areas, however, were too vulnerable.  Waiting let Leviathan build up the strength of his attacks, and we lost.”

He paused.  “We have since classified the locations the Endbringers target as either hard targets or soft targets.  The hard battlefields are where we stand our ground, buy time, wear him down.  The soft ones are locations where we cannot afford to do this.”

The television screen showed a cross section of Brockton Bay as seen from ground level.  The West end of the city was bordered by hills, and the terrain sloped gradually from the base of the mountain down to the water.  Directly below the image of the buildings that marked the city’s location, there was a large cavern, bordered by rock on all sides except the part nearest the beach, which was sand.  It was marked blue – filled with water.

“Brockton Bay, this location, is a soft target.  The city was originally founded at this location because of the proximity to the coastline for trade routes and an aquifier that provided the first settlers with access to fresh water.  This aquifier, essentially an underground lake beneath the city, is our weak point.  From the moment Leviathan shows himself, we expect Leviathan will stir and manipulate this underground reservoir to erode the surrounding sand, silt and rock.  Add the tidal waves from above, with the resulting tremors and impacts…”

I doubted anyone failed to understand what would follow.  A section of the city, perhaps most of the city, could collapse into the aquifier.

He paused, “We have to end this fast.  Each wave he brings on top of us is stronger than the last.  This means we have two priorities.  First, we cannot let him out of our sight.  From the moment the battle is initiated, we hem him in, sustain an offensive onslaught.  If we let him slip past our defensive lines, precious time will be wasted chasing him, getting him in another situation where we can contain his movements.

“Our second priority is that we need to find ways to hurt him.  If you cannot, if your attacks are deflected or prove otherwise useless, work to support those who can.  It is vain to hope to kill him, but he can be whittled down enough that he will flee back to the ocean, and if we hurt him enough, it may delay the time before he is capable of making another attack elsewhere.”

Legend frowned.  The windows were rattling with the force of the rain against them.  It was almost impossible to see through them with the water that streamed down, and the overall gloom beyond.

This is what the Endbringers are.  As of yet, we’ve been unable to stop them, unable to get through even one confrontation without grievous losses, be it civilian casualties, the loss of a city, or the loss of the lives of some of the bravest and strongest of us.  And they will keep coming, one after another, winning these small victories, and winning some major ones.

“You are doing a good thing.  The greatest thing.  This is why we are tolerated, why society allows and accounts for the capes that walk the streets and fight in its towns.  Because we are needed for situations like this.  With your assistance, we can forestall the inevitable.  Your efforts and, if you choose to make them, your sacrifices, will be remembered.”

He looked to Armsmaster.

Armsmaster spoke, authoritative, less impassioned, but confident, “The Wards are handing out armbands of Dragon’s design.  These are adjustable to slide over your arm and should be tightened around your wrist.  The screen on the top of the armband notes your position on a grid, as well as Leviathan’s last updated location.  Use this.  You’ll also note there are two buttons.  The button to the left lets you send messages to everyone else wearing an armband.  It will not, unless you are a member of the Protectorate or otherwise a veteran of these fights, directly communicate what you say to everyone else wearing an armband.  Dragon has a program screening messages and passing them on through the network based on priority, to cut down on unnecessary chatter that could distract from crucial information.  If you must bypass this three to five second delay, speak the words ‘Hard Override’ before conveying your message.  Abuse of this feature will lose you the ability to send any further messages.”

“The second button is a ping.  Use it in the case of an emergency, to alert others if you are in danger or hurt.  If it is not an emergency, but you want assistance, such as a flier to get you to another vantage point or you see an opportunity to turn the tables, press both buttons, tell the armband what you want.  Dragon’s program will prioritize your needs, with assistance being directed your way if others are not occupied with more pressing matters.  The armband tracks your condition and will automatically send a ping if you are badly injured or unconscious.”

Legend called out, “Capes!  If you have faced an Endbringer before, stand!”

I watched as the rest of the Protectorate, about a third of the out-of-town Wards, Bambina, half of a commercially sponsored cape team and the Travelers stood.  I couldn’t help but notice Armsmaster lean over toward Miss Militia, whisper something in her ear, and point at the Travelers.  Miss Militia shook her head.

“When in doubt, follow the orders of the Protectorate first!  We have trained, organized and planned for this!  The others who are standing, now, are the ones you listen to if we aren’t contradicting their order!  They have been through situations much like this, you go with their instincts!

“We are splitting you into groups based on your abilities!  If you are confident you can take a hit from Leviathan and get up afterwards, or if you have the ability to produce expendable combatants, we need you on the front line!  You will be directed by Alexandria and Dragon!”

As a share of the crowd moved toward one corner of the room, Armsmaster stepped down from the podium to approach Tattletale, Grue and Regent, “Where’s Hellhound?”

“At least call her by her real name,” Tattletale glared up at him, “She’s not here.  You knocked her dogs around enough to know they aren’t that tough, and that means you’re implying they’re expendable.  Be glad she wasn’t around to hear that and figure that out.”

Armsmaster opened his mouth to respond, but broke off when Legend called out his name.

“Armsmaster and Chevalier will be leading the hand to hand combatants who do not fit in Alexandria’s group!  Anyone who thinks they can harm or hamper Leviathan in close quarters, you’ll be assisting and reinforcing the front line!”

Armsmaster strode away from the Undersiders, and I saw Assault, Battery, Brandish, Night and Fog move to join that group, among others.  Smaller than the first group, but I suppose it took a certain amount of bravery to be willing to get close to an Endbringer when you weren’t invincible or close to it.

The boy with the metal skin began to pass through my row.  He handed me an armband from a bag, and I slid it over my hand and cinched it in place.  A flat, square screen showed a satellite view of the building we were in, and the surrounding parking lot and beach.  A display read: ‘State name’.

I pressed the communicator button and spoke, “Skitter.”

My name appeared on the display, with a yes and no display in the corners over the respective buttons.  I confirmed it.

Legend was still organizing the groups.  “-forcefields, telekinesis, whatever your power, if you can interrupt Leviathan’s movements or help reduce the impacts of the waves, you’re the backup defense!  Bastion will direct you!”

I was also all too aware that the size of the group that was still sitting was dwindling, and I had no place to go.

“Movers!  We need fliers, teleporters, runners!  You’ll be responding to pings!  Rescue the fallen, get them to emergency care, assist any others where needed!  Myrddin will give you your orders!

“Long ranged attackers, with me!  If you fall in more than one category, go with the group where you think you’ll be the greatest assistance!”

Did I count as a long ranged attacker?  No, my power wouldn’t hurt Leviathan.  I turned to look at those of us who were still seated.  I recognized Grue, Tattletale, Regent, Othala, Victor, Panacea and Kaiser.  There were a half dozen more who I’d never seen before.  People from out of town.

“The rest of you-” Legend was interrupted by shouts.  Bastion bellowed, pointed, and the people in his team moved.

Layers of forcefields went up around the far wall in front of and behind the front windows, and they weren’t enough to take the hit.  The building rocked with an impact, the forcefields to the left collapsed, and the water began to rush in, carrying chunks of brick, glass and the metal windowframes into the lobby.

One of the television screens toppled in the onrushing flood.  The other two showed a flickering series of images, a half second of each.  The coast of Brockton Bay being struck with a wave.  The ferry, the harbor down at the south end of town, the boardwalk, all smashed by the initial wave.  I saw a glimpse of a tall figure in the middle of one shot, little more than a blur behind the spray of water and the rain.

There was a loud groan, and the ceiling at one corner of the room began to descend swiftly toward the ground.  Narwhal flicked two fingers up in that direction, and shored the ceiling with some forcefields, but I saw other portions of the ceiling begin to sag, gallons of water pouring through the gaps in the ceiling tile.

“Strider!” Legend bellowed, over the noise and chaos, “Get us out of here!”

A voice sounding from the armband, female, synthesized, except I couldn’t make it out over the noise.

The air was sucked out of my lungs, and there was a noise like thunder.  My entire body was rattled down to the core, and I thought I might have been struck by lightning.  I was outside, I realized, on my hands and knees in what I first took to be the middle of a shallow river.  The rain that pounded down on us was more like a waterfall than any rainstorm I’d been in.  The taste of the salty ocean water filled my nose and mouth.  My soaked mask clung to my lower face, forcing me to hang my head to keep my breaths from pulling more water into my mouth.  A few coughs and heavy exhalations cleared the worst of it away.

We’d arrived in the middle of a road, one I’d crossed several times when going to the loft or leaving it.  It was still dark out – either the sun either hadn’t started to rise yet, or the storm was enough to obscure it.  The ‘river’ that I was kneeling in was the ebb of water from the first tidal wave, receding downhill toward the beach and the ocean.  It brought waves of trash, litter, broken windows, wooden boards and dead plants with it.

I looked around, saw the other heroes and villains composing themselves, climbing to their feet in the knee deep rush of water.  A few fliers were conveying our ranged combatants up to the rooftops.

At the end of the road, downhill, was the Boardwalk, or what was left of it.  From what I could see through the downpour, the wooden pathways and docks had been shattered by the initial wave, to the point that many were standing nearly straight up, or were buckled into fractured arches.  Water frothed and sprayed as it rushed back against the ragged barrier that had been Brockton Bay’s high end shopping district.

He was there, too.  I could see his silhouette through the rain and the spraying water that was the tidal wave’s aftermath, much as I had on the television set.  Thirty feet tall, the majority of him was was muscled but not bulky.  His hunched shoulders, neck and upper torso were the exception, bearing cords of muscles that stood out like steel cables.  It gave him a top-heavy appearance, almost like an inverted teardrop with limbs and a tail.

His proportions were wrong – his calves and forearms seemed too long for his height, his clawed fingers and digitigrade feet doubly so.  He moved with a languid sort of grace as he advanced through the spraying water.  His arms moved like pendulums, claws sweeping against the water’s surface, while his upper body swayed left and right, as if to give counterbalance to his great height.  His tail, forty or fifty feet long and whiplike, lashed behind and around him in time with his steps, perhaps borne of the same need for balance that gave him his teetering gait.

Gallons of water poured around him in the wake of his movements, roughly the same amount of mass as the body part that had just occupied the space.  This ‘afterimage’ streamed down him and splashed violently against the water he waded through.

As he got closer to the heroes and villains that were organizing into lines, shouting something I somehow couldn’t hear over the buzz of fear and adrenaline, I could almost make out his face.  It was something you never really saw in the videos or pictures.  He had no nose or mouth, no ears.  His face was a flat, rigid expanse of the same scaly skin that covered the rest of him, like the scales of a crocodile’s back.  The hard, featureless plain of Leviathan’s ‘face’ was broken up only by four cracks or tears – one on the right side of his face, three on the left.  In each of those dark gaps, the green orbs of his eyes glowed with a light that pierced through the rain.  His head moved faster than the rest of him, twitching from one angle to the next like someone’s eyeball might flicker left, right, up and down, taking us all in, uncannily out of time with the rest of his body.

“Get ready!” Legend howled the words.

It was hard to say whether Leviathan heard the command or if Legend had spotted some tell, but Leviathan dropped to all fours at the same time Legend gave the command. With Legend’s cry still ringing in the air, Leviathan moved.

He was fast.

Fast enough that his clawed hands and feet didn’t touch the road beneath the water – after the initial push, his forward momentum was enough to let him run on the water’s surface.

Fast enough that before I could finish drawing in a breath, to scream or shout something or gasp in horror, he was already in the middle of us, blood and water spraying where he collided with the lines of assembled capes, and the armbands were beginning to announce the hopelessly injured and deceased.  Carapacitator down, CD-5.  Krieg down, CD-5.  WCM deceased, CD-5.  Iron Falcon down, CD-5.  Saurian down, CD-5…

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.10

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Whether I shut my eyes or suffered the effects of the flashbang grenade, the effect would be the same.  The moment we took our eyes off Night, she’d become what Tattletale had termed ‘all monster’.

I opted to have more control over my temporary blindness, clamping my hands over my ears, dropping into a crouch to shove my face against my knees, eyes wrenched shut.  I sent every bug in my immediate vicinity toward Night, in the hope of slowing her down even a fraction.

The flashbang went off while it was still over us.  The last time I’d been around one when it went off, I’d had a wall between me and the detonation.  I wasn’t so lucky this time.  It wasn’t just bright and loud.  The blast rattled through me, left me dizzied, unable to balance, almost incoherent.  It was scarily like the concussion I’d endured.

Night was already moving.  My bugs were my only sense that still worked, but they couldn’t get a grip on the surface of her body.  She moved too fast, and her skin was smooth and oily, slick with some sort of lubricant.  The result was that I couldn’t really make her out in the darkness.  I only got flashes, the vaguest sense of how she was put together.  I was reminded of the ink blots I’d seen during my brief stay in the mental ward.  Every fraction of a second, it was a different set of ink blots, a different shape, all edges and angles and sharp points, entirely up to interpretation.

She struck at Judas a half-dozen times in the span of a second, her limbs flashing out and striking hard enough that I could feel the vibrations in the air.  Judas staggered away from her, colliding with me and one of my teammates.  I felt Judas’ crushing weight against my own body, the raw meat feel of his flesh and the stone hardness of his bones smothering me, before he shifted his weight and lurched back her way.

From the way Judas’ movements followed Night’s as she moved back, and the rigidity of his face and neck, I knew he’d managed to get a grip on her with his teeth.  He weathered the hits as she continued to thrash him.  He seemed to be getting the worse end of the exchange, but he’d taken away some of her leverage.

Blinking, I tried to focus on Night, but I saw double.  For several long, terrifying seconds, I was unable to bring what I was seeing into focus.

Judas was thrown against a wall, and went limp.  The furrows Night had carved into his face left more gouges than untouched flesh, his face a mess of shattered bone and hamburger meat.  With Judas’ bulk out of the way, I could make out Night, backing away.  My bugs settled on her, and she pulled her cloak up to shield her face, still walking backward.

Snapping my head around to check, I saw our escape route barred by Fog’s mist.  I could see Angelica’s silhouette in the midst of the cloud.  Bitch and Tattletale were struggling to drag Grue back away from the advancing mist.  Grue, too weak to stand, was trying to use his darkness to wall Fog off.  Grue might have stopped Fog entirely, except he was so weak that his darkness was dissipating almost as fast as he produced it.  Fog slipped through the largest gaps and continued a slow but inexorable advance.

Night was still struggling to get away from the bugs as they navigated around the folds of her cloak and the coverage of her mask.

Drawing my baton, I started to advance on her.  Night was human like this, vulnerable.

She drew her hand from her sleeve.  Another canister with a pin in it.

“Regent!” I shouted.

He snapped his hand out, and Night’s arm bent in a palsied, twisted angle.  The grenade fell to the ground, and Night fell on top of it.

I thought that Regent had been the cause of her fall, until I saw her raise her head, her good hand holding the grenade, pin held in her teeth through the fabric of her mask.

She pulled the pin free, and black smoke began billowing from the upper end of the canister.

It was suicidal, perhaps one of the dumbest things I’d done yet: I charged her.  She was already standing, holding the canister out in front of her to ensure the plumes of colored smoke obscured her quickly.  I struck at her hand with my baton, knocking the smoke grenade to the ground.  I stooped for it, but she stepped forward, blocking it with her body, seizing my shoulders.

She wrestled me to one side of the alley, perhaps to try and push me away and buy time for the smoke to build up, maybe for another angle.  I wouldn’t find out, because I brought my baton against the side of her face.  I got a sense from the feeling of the hit that she didn’t wear any armor or protective wear beneath the cowl and mask.

Night staggered from the blow, and I drove my shoulder into her.  It wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped, but I did get her far enough away from the canister that I could duck down and scoop it up in one hand.

I dashed away, past her, and she struck me from behind.  I knew from the magnitude of the impact that she wasn’t in her human shape as she hit me, and for one paralyzing moment, I suspected I’d made a terminal error.

The blow was enough to knock me to the ground and make me roll a half-dozen times before I could stop myself.  I cast a glance over my shoulder as I stopped.  Night was there, and the residual smoke from the canister that surrounded her had apparently been sufficient to block my teammates’ view.  Stupid of me to turn my back.  I was lucky that she hadn’t had more than a second or two in her transformed state to act.

I scrambled to my feet, not taking my eyes off her, and rapidly backed up.  A piece of the armor on my back dangled from where she’d cleaved through it, swinging against my backside in time with my steps.  I held the smoke grenade low, to minimize how much it obscured my vision.  When I’d backed up enough that there was an alley to my right, I threw the smoke grenade away.

Night stopped following me, then swept her cloak up to shield against the bugs that still swarmed her.  I couldn’t go as all-out as I normally might with my swarm, without risking that I’d obscure my own vision of her and give her another opportunity to transform.

Second try, then.  Baton in hand, I charged her.

She was thrashing beneath her cloak, six or so paces away.  The bugs were nipping and stinging flesh.  Good.  One or two more good hits with the baton, she’d be disabled.

Night bent low, and I thought maybe she was down for the count.

Then she swept her cloak off and threw it up into the air.  It opened wide and momentarily filled my field of vision.

I heard her footsteps, two normal ones, heels clicking rapidly as she ran, then the noise of claws scraping against hard ground.  She tackled me, keeping the fabric between us, and my baton slipped from my grasp as her weight slammed into the trunk of my body.  The cloth of her cloak caught on my right hand and face.  An angular arm with too many joints seized my right leg, another two latched onto my right arm and neck, respectively.  Her grip and proximity to me held the cloth in place, kept her obscured.  I was hefted high into the air with a speed that dizzied me.

She dropped me, making me grunt as I landed.  Above me, my bugs touched her very human body.  I struggled to pull the cloth free, but it caught.  After a few seconds of ineffectually trying to remove the cloak from myself and see what was happening, I was almost frantic.  I brought my own bugs down on top of myself to get a better sense of what was happening.

Hooks.  The black fabric of the cloak was woven with black-painted hooks at regular intervals.  She’d worn that layer facing the outside.

“You’re boring people, you know,” I heard Tattletale’s voice, and felt a fractional relief.  I focused on pulling the hooks free.  Not that many were caught on the fabric, but there were some caught on the textured exterior of my armor, others on the straps that held my armor in place, a couple in my hair.

“I saw your info.  Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt.  First located in Hesse, Germany, moved to London, then Brockton Bay, Boston, then Brockton Bay again.  No kids.  Cat.   Nothing interesting about you, besides the obvious.  I’m thinking you even have your dinners on rotation.  Chicken and rice on Mondays, Steak and potatoes on Tuesdays?  Something like that?”

I pulled the cloak free and held it in my hands.  I saw Tattletale on the other end of the alley.  Fog had advanced quite a bit, but Regent and Bitch had apparently gotten Grue up on Brutus’ back, and both Brutus and Judas were with them, Brutus moving painfully slowly, while Judas was apparently blind or nearly blind from the damage to his face.  They all stood not far behind Tattletale, masked by traces of the smoke from the smoke bomb.

Night stood closer to me than the others.  I could see how she had various pieces of equipment strapped to her hips, forearms, and back.  Grenades, canisters, knives, something that looked like spray paint.  She swatted at the bugs that were crawling around her face and eyes, but her attention was on Tattletale.  I could have stood, maybe, but I didn’t want to draw her attention.

“So I was at a loss to figure out how to fuck with you.  You’re two dimensional.  Until I remembered that you left the Empire when Purity did.  And when she came back?  So did you.”

Night cocked her head a little to one side, listening.  Again, she slapped at the bugs on one side of her face.  Her face didn’t feel swollen, from what my swarm was conveying.  Her eyes were open, blinking closed when a bug touched her eyelash.  I suspected she healed back to perfect condition whenever she entered her other form, which would include cleansing herself of any toxins or allergens.

Night looked down at me.  Pale blue eyes.

“Hey!” Tattletale spoke, “Pay attention!”

Night drew a knife from a hip sheath.  She bent down over me.  I dropped her cloak and struggled to reach behind my back for my own knife, but she was faster.  The blade pressed against my throat.  My hand caught her wrist, stopping her from going any further.  I was pretty sure my costume could take a cut from a knife, but if she found the gap where my mask was separate from the body portion of my costume that extended around the lower part of my neck, she could slide the blade through with no difficulty.

“Damn you!” Tattletale shouted.  I was only aware of Night’s unwavering, unblinking gaze, the feel of her wrist in my grip.  Then the gunshots.

Night didn’t even scream.  She dropped partway on top of me, falling onto her side, her weight on my legs.

The villainess lay there, silently writhing, hands behind her back.  Blood welled from holes in her lower back and the space where her buttock met her thigh.  I glanced at Tattletale, who had her gun raised, looking slightly surprised and disturbed by what she’d just had to do.

Any sense of relief I felt at Night being taken out of action was short lived.

Too bright to look at, Purity hurtled down from the sky to land just beside Night and me.  I saw her raise one hand toward Tattletale and the others, energy welling up.

The blast of light momentarily blinded me, and it struck me just why Purity had Night and Fog working as part of her personal squad.  There were no happy coincidences there.  She must have calculated how their powers could collectively work together.  Her light and Fog’s mist could blind their foes, with Night leveraging any opportunities gained.  Alabaster and Crusader?  Probably intended as the front line, to slow the enemy down, take out the problem targets and buy time for the core group to do what they needed.  Or to do what they were doing now, and occupy enemies elsewhere.

When I could see again, I tried to grasp what had changed and what had happened.  Dust filled much of the alley, Night stood beside Purity, unhurt, and my teammates were on the ground.  No blood.  Nobody dead or dying.  At least, nobody that hadn’t been dead or dying when Purity arrived.  I was getting worried about Grue.  He didn’t look nearly as lively as he had two minutes ago.

A channel had been carved out of the brick wall to Purity’s right.  Motes of light still danced around it.  An intentional miss?  No.  It would have been Regent throwing off her aim.

“Purity!  Kayden!  Not looking for a fight!” Tattletale called out.  She raised her hands, her gun dangling from one finger by the trigger guard.

Purity just raised her hand, and more light began glowing in her palm.

“Dale and Emerson!”  Tattletale added.

Purity didn’t lower her hand, but she didn’t shoot either.  “What?”

“Aster.”  Tattletale stood up, “She’s at Dale and Emerson.  Outskirts of town.  The PRT has a safehouse there, for when a villain’s after someone, or in case some member of the Protectorate or Wards gets outed, and their family needs a spot to stay.”

“How-”

“You worked alongside me when we were dealing with the ABB.  Your subordinates and allies have as well.  You know I have my sources.”

“Don’t believe you.  You have no reason to tell me this, you told everyone-”

Tattletale interrupted, “We didn’t tell the media that stuff.  I’m even a little pissed about it.  Not just about us getting blamed, but that they didn’t just attack you, but your families?  It’s fucked up.  Entire reason we came here was to set the record straight and get you your kid back.”

“Kaiser said-”

“Kaiser thought he’d get more out of this debacle if he turned you against us, first, before directing you at the people or person who really sent the email.”

Purity shook her head.

Tattletale added, “It’s up to you.  Who are you going to trust, when Aster is on the line?  Me, or Kaiser?”

That was her argument?  I started to move to where I could attack Purity if it came down to it.  A spearpoint pressing down against my collarbone stopped me.  I looked up and saw Crusader behind me.

Purity dropped her hand to her side.  She told Tattletale, “You’re coming with me.”

“Didn’t expect any less.  But you’re letting my team go, and this destruction stops.”

“And how do I know you’re not just sacrificing yourself for them?”

“Because whatever else you might be, Kayden, you somehow, in some warped perspective, see yourself as an upstanding person.  And if I wasn’t an honest person when it counted, I wouldn’t trust you to hold to that.  Make sense?”

It didn’t to me.  It was circular reasoning.  I wouldn’t have listened if it were Tattletale trying to convince me  The question was whether it would get through to Purity.

Purity stared at Tattletale for a long time.  I was acutely aware of the spear at my chest, which Crusader could thrust through my costume and into me with a momentary use of his power.  How easily Purity or Fog could give Night the opportunity she needed to slaughter my teammates.

“You’re aware of the consequences if you’re wrong?”

“I’m not stupid,” Tattletale spoke, “You take out your anger on me, I wind up dead or maimed.”

Purity stepped forward and grabbed Tattletale’s wrist.

“The others walk,” Purity spoke to her subordinates, leaving no room for argument or discussion.  She wrapped one arm around Tattletale’s ribs, and they were gone in a flash of light, a trail of firefly-like lights dancing in Purity’s wake.

In that same momentary glare that had carried our teammate and Purity away, Night had moved into the midst of our team.  She had a knife held with the blade pointed out of the bottom of her fist, pressed to Regent’s throat.

“I get it,” Regent replied, with a disinterested tone, “You could kill us right here.  May we go?”

Night sheathed the knife and walked through the group to Fog, who was gathering himself up in a human shape again, turning away to exit the alley.  Crusader, on the opposite side of us, was rising back up to the sky.

I breathed a sigh of relief as Purity’s squad disappeared.  I held my breath again when I saw Grue and, further down the alleyway, Angelica.  Grue’s darkness was reduced to mere wisps around his body, which I took to be a bad sign.  Hurrying toward him, I retrieved my cell phone, went down to the bottom of the contact list.

It rang three times before it picked up.  I heard ambient noise, maybe a fan, but the person on the other end didn’t respond.

“Coil,” I spoke, “It’s Skitter.  We need that doctor of yours.  Fast.”

“Can you get to the same location as last time?”

“I don’t know.  Grue and the dogs are hurt.  We may need a ride.”

“I will arrange it.  Expect a call from the driver shortly.”  He hung up.  Not quite so friendly as the last time we’d talked.

I set to helping Alec steady Angelica while Bitch worked with Judas, who’d been effectively blinded in the fight with Night.   She guided his head and shoulders under Angelica’s body, so the smaller ‘dog’ was draped over him.

Once Angelica was in position, I hopped up behind Grue and helped him turn him over, to examine his chest.  I applied pressure and used the remainder of the bandage I had in my utility compartment to try to staunch the bleeding.  When I talked to him, asked him to verify that he was okay, his replies were monosyllabic and fairly nonsensical.

Between Judas’s canine burden and the damage Brutus had apparently sustained to his side, the two dogs moved slower than I normally walked as they plodded down the alley.

Every moment was nerve wracking.  I kept waiting for someone in the Wards, New Wave or Empire Eighty-Eight to find their way into the alley, spot us and pick a fight.  Worse, I harbored grave concerns that Grue might stop breathing.

The phone call from Coil’s people came when we’d reached the beach – the closest spot I could think of that would put us out of line of sight in the continued fighting.  I directed the guy on the phone to our position, and in my nervousness, I had to get them to verify, twice, that they’d safely made it through the barricade without any trouble.  All we needed was another ambush at the barricades from more of Hookwolf’s underlings.

The moment the pair of ambulances arrived, we loaded Grue into the back of one, the three dogs into the other.  Brutus and Judas had shrunk, having shed the layers of added bulk, and were more or less alright underneath it all.  Angelica, though, had been in Fog’s mist, and wasn’t any better even though she was almost normal size.  She’d inhaled the mist, drawn it into her lungs.  I could only surmise that it had consequently made its way into her bloodstream, and from there, to the rest of her body.  Only time would tell how much damage Fog had done to her from within.

I went in the ambulance with Grue, and watched as they gave him extra blood and tended to his chest.  Between my first time job patching up his chest, the fact that he’d torn it open, and my haphazard attempts to wad it with bandages and stall the blood loss as we retreated from the scene, it was a mess.  I cringed, feeling guilty, waiting for one of Coil’s medics to call me on something I’d done wrong.  They worked in silence, which was almost worse.

I sent Tattletale a text:

Frog A.  Got Coil’s people to pick us up.  Brian is getting help.  Dogs are mostly ok.  Text me back.

We pulled in behind the doctor’s office, and Tattletale still hadn’t replied.  I was surprised that the ambulance with Bitch, Regent and the dogs hadn’t come with us.

The doctor was a cranky old guy that Coil’s medic referred to as Dr. Q.  He was a thin-lipped man, about my height, which made him fairly small.  His hair was either recently cut or he got it cut regularly, was slicked close to his scalp, and seemed too dark given how old his face and hands were.  He took over for the medics as they carted Grue in, and they left with a nod to me.  I nodded back, unsure of how else to respond.

I stood by Grue’s bed with my arms folded and watched.  Dr. Q checked the work the medics had done in suturing up Brian’s chest and muttered to himself that it was competent.  When he’d verified they hadn’t screwed up, he took the time to clean Brian’s chest and remove the remaining threads from the first job.

“The bug girl,” he finally commented.

“Yeah.  I’m really sorry about bringing the bugs to your place, last time.  I see they’re gone now.”

“They are,” was his response.

I nodded.  I checked my phone again.  Still no response from Tattletale.

Minutes passed.

“Okay,” he pulled off his latex gloves, “Nothing more we can do for this lug.  You unhurt?”

I shrugged, “More or less.  Got jabbed in the stomach, I have my aches and pains, hurt my ear earlier, but I already got it taken care of.”

“I’ll verify that for myself.”

He checked my stomach, which required me to take off the top of my costume, and he prodded the bruise Cricket had left me with cold, dry fingers.  Then he had me remove my mask to examine my ear.  Apparently, he didn’t deem Brian’s job satisfactory, so I was sat down on a stool so he could clean it up.

He was partway through the job when my phone vibrated.  I read it and heaved a sigh of relief.

Tattletale:

Avocado c.  she got what she needed.  omw

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Buzz 7.9

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

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

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

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

“Seriously, are you going to be-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Coil?” I guessed.

“Yep.”

“And he’s saying?”

“To be careful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” I called out.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh hell no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t kill her,” I told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go!” I shouted at her.

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

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

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

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

Still, hard to complain.

“You okay?” Tattletale called out.

“Yeah.  You guys?”

“Not so hot,” Grue replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” I caught her shoulder.

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

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

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

She’d done that?

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

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

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

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

I nodded, once.

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

“That’s…”

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

A flashbang grenade.

“Tattletale?”

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

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

“Grue!” Tattletale shouted.

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

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

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

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Hive 5.1

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The place was nondescript.  A hole in the wall in the midst of a long street of hole in the wall businesses.  Everything was run down.  For every given store or restaurant you passed, you could only guess if the place was still open or not.

The pub had a sign on it reading ‘Somer’s Rock’.  There were iron bars on the windows and the curtains were drawn, but it would have been more unusual if that wasn’t the case.  It was that kind of area.  The paint on the outside was peeling, and the rust from the bars had bled onto the gray-white paint below the windows.

As we stepped inside, it became clear that Somer’s Rock was one book that should be judged by its cover.  It was dim, dingy and depressing.  The wood floor was stained the same dark gray as the counter of the bar, the curtains and tablecloths were dark green, and the only real color or brightness, if you could call it that, was the yellow light cast by ancient, burnt lightbulbs.

There were three people in Somer’s Rock when we arrived.  One was a sullen looking twenty-something girl with brown hair and a slightly wrinkled server’s uniform, who glanced at us as we came in, but made no attempt to welcome us.  There were two identical twins behind the bar in the far corner, probably her older brothers, busying themselves with washing glasses and studiously ignoring us.  One of them was wearing a dress shirt and apron, looking the part of a bartender, while the other had a black t-shirt under a Hawaiian shirt.  Besides the contrast in fashion, they were identical in height, haircut, features and expression.

A group of tables had been pulled together with chairs arranged around them, but we walked past them to a corner booth.  Tattletale, Bitch, Grue, Regent and I all arranged ourselves on the worn cushioned benches.  I was calling them that in my head, really, because they weren’t Lisa, Brian, Rachel and Alec.  We were all in costume.

As we settled in, the girl with the dour expression approached us, setting her notepad down on the table and then stared at me, the look in her eyes almost challenging.  She didn’t say a word.

“Coke?” I ventured, feeling uncomfortable under the look.

“No, Skitter,” Tattletale nudged me, “She’s deaf.  If you want something, write it on the pad.”  To demonstrate, she reached across the table, took the pad and wrote ‘tea, black’.  I took her cue and wrote down my order, then passed the note across the table to the boys and Bitch.  The girl gave me an ugly look as she walked away with our orders.

It had been a week since the incident with Bakuda.  Lisa and Brian had stopped by several times as I spent my days in bed, giving me updates on the situation as it unfolded.  At one point they had even brought Alec and Bitch, and I’d been very relieved my dad hadn’t been home at the time.  Alec and Bitch weren’t the polite houseguests that Lisa and Brian were, and I suspected their presence and personalities would have raised more questions with my dad than they put to rest.

Apparently someone at the PHQ had named my costumed self ‘Skitter’.  Lung had overheard something about it, and it had now spread through the city in the aftermath of his escape, which implied he was probably looking for me.  As a newspaper article raised our possible involvement in the bombings that had taken place, as adversaries of Bakuda, my new name had come up yet again, so it looked like it was maybe catching on.  I didn’t love it, but I didn’t love any of the names I’d come up with, so I could cope.

It seemed that we had arrived a few minutes early, because the rest of the guests arrived within seconds of each other, as the server brought us our drinks.

Kaiser came through the door with a girl on each arm, blondes with measurements like Playboy models.  Kaiser wore armor head to toe, elaborately worked and topped with a crown of blades.  The leader of Empire Eighty Eight.  The twins went by the names Fenja and Menja, and were decked out in Valkyrie-style armor featuring countless little steel wings, along with closed-face helms.  Had to admit, Kaiser liked his heavy hitters.  These two could grow to be three stories tall, and they were a hundred times more durable when they were.

Purity entered a few steps behind him with several others following her.  She was dressed in a white costume without any markings or symbols on it, but the fabric glowed softly.  Her white hair and eyes glowed too, but it was more like they were made of heated magnesium than anything else.  I couldn’t look in her direction without getting spots in my eyes, and my mask had tinted lenses designed to reduce glare.

The people that had come in with Purity were other members of Empire Eighty Eight.  Krieg, Night, Fog and Hookwolf.   It was interesting to see, because as far as I’d known, while every one of them had been a member of Empire Eighty Eight at some point in time, Purity had gone solo, while Night and Fog had splintered off to form their own duo in Boston not long after.  All reunited, apparently.

That wasn’t even Kaiser’s entire team.  Aside from the rare exception like Lung reaching out to Bakuda when she’d been at Cornell, it seemed that most groups recruited new members from within their own city.  Kaiser was different.  He was one of the better known American villains with a white supremacist agenda, and people sharing his ideals were either recruited from other states or they came to him.  Most didn’t stay with him for too long, for whatever reason, but it still made him the Brockton Bay resident with the most raw parahuman muscle at his beck and call.

Kaiser sat at one end of the table in the center of the room, his people finding seats and chairs at the tables behind him.  Purity didn’t relax or order drinks, though.  She sat in a chair a few feet behind Kaiser, folded her arms and crossed one ankle over the other, settling in to watch the proceedings.  From my research online and digging through old newspaper articles,I knew Purity could create light and charge it with kinetic energy.  She was like a human flashlight, if the light from the flashlight could punch through brick walls and tear city buses in half.  As far as raw firepower went, she was up near the top of the list, a flying artillery turret.

Coil entered after Empire Eighty Eight, all the more conspicuous because he was alone.  No backup, no show of force.  He was taller than Grue, but he was thin to the point of being skeletal.  His skintight costume covered him head to toe, lacking even eyeholes or openings for his nose and mouth, and the way it clung to his skin let you see his individual ribs and joints.  The costume was black, and the only design on it was a white snake, with its head starting at Coil’s forehead, the tail extending down the back of his head, looping and winding over his entire body before finally ending at one of his ankles.  He sat at the end of the table opposite Kaiser.

“What’s his deal?” I whispered to Tattletale.

“Coil?  Can’t say as far as his powers go, but he’s one of the more powerful players in town.  Considers himself a chessmaster.  You know, like a master strategist, tactician.   Controls more than half of downtown with squads of top notch personnel in the highest end gear.  Ex-military from around the world.  If he even has powers, he’s the only one in his organization who does.”

I nodded.  Almost the opposite of Kaiser in that department.  I might have asked more, but others were streaming into the room.

Faultline.  I knew of her from my research.  She was twenty-something, and her straight black hair was in a long bristling ponytail.  Her costume was weird, approximating something like a blend of riot gear, a martial arts uniform and a dress.  Four people entered the room with her, and the two guys in the group were instantly the weirdest people in the room.  I knew them by name too.  Newter wasn’t wearing a shirt, shoes or gloves, which made it all the more apparent that his skin was neon orange from head to toe.  He had light blue eyes, dark red hair that looked wet and a five foot long prehensile tail.  Gregor the Snail was morbidly obese, average height, with no hair on his entire body.  His skin was milky white and slightly translucent, so you could see shadows beneath it where his organs were.  Like someone else might have bad acne, he had bits of shell or scales crusting his skin.  They looked almost like barnacles, but there was a spiral shape to them.

You wouldn’t have thought they were close by their body language, silence and the sheer difference in appearance, but both had matching tattoos.  Newter’s was just above his heart, while Gregor’s was on his upper arm.  It looked like the greek ‘Omega’ symbol, but upside down.  Maybe a stylized ‘u’.

The other two girls in Faultline’s group were very normal by contrast;  Labyrinth wore a dark green robe and mask with lines all over them.  Spitfire wore in a red and black costume with a gasmask.

I was surprised when Faultline deliberately walked by our table on her way to her seat, taking the long way around.  As she passed us, she looked over Tattletale and me and sneered a little before taking the chair to Kaiser’s right.

“I’m going to go before all the seats get taken, if that’s cool?” Grue spoke, and the rest of us nodded.  Grue sat between Faultline and Coil.

“What was that with Faultline and you?” I murmured to Tattletale, “History?”

“Nothing important,” she replied.

Regent leaned forward.  “She and Tattletale have been feuding a little.  Faultline upped the ante when she poached Spitfire from us when we were in the middle of trying to recruit her.  Can’t say why Faultline doesn’t like Tattle, but I know Tattletale hates it when people act like they’re smarter than her, and Faultline is smarter than her.  Ow.  Fuck, that hurt.”

Tattletale had kicked him under the table.

“They’re mercenaries right?” I asked.

Tattletale nodded, “Faultline’s crew does anything short of murder.  You can say her personality sucks, you can say her powers suck, but I’ll admit she’s very good at finding hidden strengths in the people that work for her.  See those two guys?  When it came to powers, they got a bad roll of the dice.  Became freaks that couldn’t hope to pass in normal society, wound up homeless or living in the sewers.  There’s a story behind it, but they became a team, she made them effective, and they’ve only messed up one or two jobs so far.”

“Gotcha,” I said, “Impressive.”

“Keep in mind, though, we haven’t screwed up any.  We’re 100%.”

“They’ve done something like three times as many jobs as us,” Regent pointed out.

“But we haven’t failed any jobs, is the important thing,” Tattletale stressed.

Another group arrived, and it was like you could see a wave of distaste wash over the faces in the room.  I had seen references on the web and news articles about these guys, but they weren’t the sort you took pictures of.  Skidmark, Moist, Squealer.  Two guys and a girl, the lot of them proving that capes weren’t necessarily attractive, successful or immune to the influences of substance abuse.  Hardcore addicts and dealers who happened to have superpowers.

Skidmark wore a mask that covered the top half of his face.  The lower half was dark skinned, with badly chapped lips and teeth that looked more like shelled pistachio nuts than anything else.  He stepped up to the table and reached for a chair.  Before he could move it, though, Kaiser kicked the chair out of reach, sending it toppling onto its side, sliding across the floor.

“The fuck?” Skidmark snarled.

“You can sit in a booth,” Kaiser spoke.  Even though his voice was completely calm, like he was talking to a stranger about the weather, it felt threatening.

“This is because I’m black, hunh?  That’s what you’re all about, yeah?”

Still calm, Kaiser replied, “You can sit in a booth because you and your team are pathetic, deranged losers that aren’t worth talking to.  The people at this table?  I don’t like them, but I’ll listen to them.  That isn’t the case with you.”

“Fuck you.  What about this guy?” Skidmark pointed at Grue, “I don’t even know his name, and he’s sitting.”

Faultline answered him, “His team hit the Brockton Bay Central Bank a week ago.  They’ve gone up against Lung several times in the past and they’re still here, which is better than most.  Not even counting the events of a week ago, he knows about the ABB and he can share that information with the rest of us.”  She gave Grue a look that made it clear that he didn’t have a choice if he wanted to sit at the table.  He dipped his head in the smallest of nods in response.  We’d discussed things beforehand and agreed on what details we’d share.

“What have you done that’s worth a seat at this table?” she asked Skidmark.

“We hold territory-”

“You hold nothing,” Grue answered, raising his voice, his powers warping it, “You’re cowards that hold onto the areas nobody else cares about, making drugs and selling them to children.”

“We sell to everyone, not just-”

“Find a booth,” Grue’s echoing voice interrupted him.  Skidmark gave him a look, then looked at the others sitting around the table.  All still, every set of eyes he could see behind the masks was staring him down.

“Assholes.  Puckered, juicy assholes, all of you,” Skidmark snarled, stomping off to the booth where his teammates already sat.

The serving girl picked up the fallen chair and restored it to its position at the table, not meeting anyone’s eyes as she walked up to the table where Kaiser’s people sat, put down her notepad and waited for everyone to write down their orders.  It struck me just why the pub had a deaf waitress.

“I’ll be taking a chair, I think,” someone spoke from the door.  Most heads turned to check out a male figure in a black costume with a red mask and tophat.  It gave me sort of a Baron Samedi vibe.  His teammates followed him into the room, all in matching costumes of red and black, differing only in design.  A girl with a sun motif, a guy with bulky armor and a square mask, and a creature so large it had to crawl on its hands and knees to get through the door.  It was hard to describe, approximating something like a four armed hairless gorilla, with a vest, mask and leggings in the red and black style its team was wearing, six-inch claws tipping each of its fingers and toes.

“The Travelers, yes?” Coil spoke, his voice smooth, “You’re not local.”

“You could call us nomadic.  What was happening here was too interesting to pass up, so I decided we’d stop by for a visit.” The guy with the top hat pulled off the first really formal bow I’d seen in my life. “I go by Trickster.”

“You know the rules, here?” Grue asked Trickster.

“We’ve been to similar places.  I can guess.  No fighting, no powers, no trying to bait others into causing trouble, or everyone else in the room puts aside all other grievances to put you down.”

“Close enough.  It’s important to have neutral ground to meet, have civilized discussion.”

“I won’t argue that.  Please, continue as if I wasn’t here.”

When Trickster took a chair and put his feet up on the table, nobody complained, though Skidmark looked like he wanted to kill someone.  The rest of the Travelers settled in a booth not far from us.  The gorilla thing sat on the floor and it was still large enough to be at eye level with its teammates.

Coil dipped his head in a nod and steepled his fingers.  When he spoke, his voice was smooth, “That should be everyone.  Seems Lung won’t be coming, though I doubt any of us are surprised, given the subject of tonight’s discussion.”

“The ABB,” Kaiser replied.

“Thirty five individuals confirmed dead and over a hundred hospitalized in this past week.  Armed presence on the streets.  Ongoing exchanges of gunfire between ABB members and the combined forces of the police and military.  They have raided our businesses and bombed places where they think we might operating.  They have seized our territories, and there’s no indication they intend to stop anytime soon,” Coil clarified the situation for all present.

“It is inconvenient,” Kaiser spoke.

“They’re being reckless,” Faultline said.  She made it sound like that was a crime on par with killing kittens.

Coil nodded, “Which is the real concern.  The ABB can’t sustain this.  Something will give, they will self destruct sooner or later, and they will likely cease to be an issue.  Had things played out differently, we could look at this as a good thing.  Our problem is that the actions of the ABB are drawing attention to our fair city.  Homeland security and military forces are establishing a temporary presence to assist in maintaining order.  Heroes are flocking to the city to support the Protectorate in regaining control of matters.  It is making business difficult.”

“Bakuda is at the center of this,” Grue joined the dialogue, “Lung may be the leader, but everything hinges on the girl.  She ‘recruited’ by orchestrating raids of people’s homes while they slept, subduing them, and implanting bombs in their heads.  She then used those bombs to coerce her victims into kidnapping more.  No less than three hundred in total, now.  Every single one of her soldiers knows that if they don’t obey, Bakuda can detonate the bombs.  All of them are willing to put their lives on the line, because the alternatives are either certain death or watching their loved ones die for their failure.  Taking her down is our ultimate goal, but she’s rigged her bombs to go off the second her heart stops, so it’s a little more complicated than a simple assassination.”

He reached into the darkness that shrouded his chest and withdrew a package.  “She videotaped the ambush she pulled on my group a week ago and left it behind when she ran.  I’ve made copies.  Maybe you’ll find it useful for getting a better understanding of her.”

Grue handed a burned CD to everyone at the table.

This was our show of strength.  The video showed everything from the point Bakuda had liquefied Park Jihoo to the second bomb she had set off in her ranks.  As the second bomb had gone off in the midst of Bakuda’s group, the camera had dropped briefly, recorded the sounds of guns going off and everything being darkened by Grue’s power, but it didn’t show us running.  It didn’t reveal our weaknesses, how lucky we’d been to get away, or how bad our circumstances had really been.  It did let everyone know what we’d been up against, let them know that we’d come out fine and had been able to attend this meeting.  That would do as much for our reputation as anything else.

I wasn’t 100% recovered from my concussion, and Alec was complaining of twinges in his arm, still, but Brian had stressed how important it was that we attend, give the illusion our team was intact, untouched. Seeing the other groups with their subtle posturing, I knew he’d been right.

“So,” Coil let the word hang in the air as he cracked each of the knuckles on his right hand individually, “We’re in agreement?  The ABB cannot be allowed to continue operating.”

There were nods and murmurs of agreement from around the table, some from the various villains gathered around the room.

“Then I suggest we establish a truce.  Not just everyone here, but between ourselves and the law.  I would contact authorities and let them know that until this matter is cleared up, our groups will restrict our illegal activity to only what is absolutely essential to our business, and we will enforce the same for those doing business in our territories.  That would let police forces and military focus entirely on the ABB.  There would be no violence, infighting between our groups, grabs for territory, thefts or insults.  We band together with those we can tolerate for guaranteed victory, and we ignore those we cannot cooperate with.”

“Just saying my group won’t be getting directly involved in this without a reason,” Faultline spoke, “We won’t be going after the ABB unless they get in my way or someone pays my rates.  It’s the only workable policy when you’re a cape for hire.  And just so we’re clear, if it’s the ABB paying, my team’s going to be on the other side of things.”

“Unfortunate, but you and I can talk after this meeting is done.  I’d prefer to keep matters simple,” Coil said, “You’re okay with the other terms?”

“Keeping on the down-low, not kicking up a fuss with other groups?  That’s status quo with my group anyways.”

“Good.  Kaiser?”

“I think that is acceptable,” Kaiser agreed.

“I was talking to my group about doing something not too different from what Coil just proposed,” Grue spoke, “Yeah, we’re cool with it.”

“Sure,” Trickster said, “Not a problem.  We’re in.”

Hands were shaken around the table.

“Funny,” Tattletale murmured.

I turned away from the scene to look at her, “What?”

“Aside from Grue and maybe Faultline, everyone’s already plotting how they can use this situation to their advantage, or fuck over the others.”

I turned back to the scene, the villains sitting around the table.  It dawned on me just how much sheer destructive potential was gathered in the room.

This could get complicated.

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