Speck 30.3

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I made my way into Brockton Bay, the Boardwalk.  Five more steps carried me into New Delhi.  Only a minute later, I was walking through Brockton Bay again, downtown this time.

Los Angeles.

Bucharest.

Brockton Bay again.

Madison, Wisconsin.

Cauldron’s Headquarters.

Ruins.  Places built up by man, painstaking, sometimes over centuries.  Layer upon layer of human experience, history, and art, represented in stone and wood and glass.  Every single building had been put together with the idea of meeting some specific goal, a specific individual’s tastes, filling a purpose as an institution, or being built to cater to society’s tastes as a whole.  Virtually every building had been a familiar place to someone, a home, a place of business.  Roads had once been a part of people’s daily routines, bridges a convenience that was appreciated, if rarely acknowledged.

Shattered, eroded, dashed aside.  Roads were now uneven slabs, rising and falling, while buildings had folded or leaned over, spilling out their innards.  Those same innards hinted at just how much value we’d put into this world we’d built around ourselves.

I realized I’d stopped walking, struck by what I was looking at.  There was a tightness in my chest, and I struggled to put my finger on what to call it.  It was a sweet feeling, but not a pleasant one.  Not nostalgia, but it called to a certain kind of familiarity.

Home, I thought.  This is home.  Not so much a place I could return to for a hug, to kick my shoes off and let down my guard, not a place where I would sleep and wake up feeling warm.  Yet it was a place which was central to me, a place I was rooted in, and vice versa.

I’d defined myself in places like these.  The height of my growth, my strongest moments, they’d taken place in open graveyards and the aftermath of tragedies.  Not my best moments, not the noblest, but the moments where I’d had the greatest impacts and had made the choices that shaped who I was.

I started walking again.  I wasn’t actually traveling to Brockton Bay, to Bucharest or Los Angeles.  I could have, but I wasn’t.  It was only that the ruins here were so easy to relate to those places, to this home.  The memories of the locations were bleeding into my awareness, making it feel almost real.

I wanted to tell myself it was the clairvoyant in my range, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to.  I wanted to say it was the distraction of having to devote a small share of my attention to ensuring that Doormaker kept opening portals when the clairvoyant recognized someone asking for one.

With a note of desperation, I told myself it was because I was still trying to keep tabs on my power, gauge my level of control, and manage my body.  If I couldn’t get a better grip on my own movements, maybe I could get control over my swarm.  Over the people I was controlling.

But I didn’t really believe it.  I was slipping.

My bugs spilled out over the ruins.  My range was shorter, but I could use the relay bugs I had on hand.

Slipping, the thought came back to me.

Losing my mind, losing grip on things.

The Faerie Queen had told me I needed to anchor myself.  Except I’d been doing that for a long time.  It was how I functioned.  Compartmentalizing, identifying a priority, devoting myself to it.  Surviving the bullying, the mission to turn in the Undersiders, the mission to save Dinah, to turn the city around, to save the world.  I’d had tunnel vision at the best of times, and I’d had both successes and failures.

I functioned best when I had a mission, something beyond the one singular goal before me.  Yes, stopping Scion was key, but-

I shook my head.  I’d stopped walking again.  Had to focus.

I’d use smaller anchors here, smaller things to tie myself down to reality, focusing on my surroundings.  If and when the time came, I would abandon them, cast them away in order of size and priority.  In a way, it would let me gauge how badly I was slipping.

An exercise of Doormaker’s power let me experiment with the portals.  They couldn’t move or drift, excepting the way they were anchored to the rotation of the planet as a whole.  Instead, I opened and closed new portals, timing it so the opening of one was a fraction of a second before the prior one closed.  I surrounded myself with them, a shifting, shuttering array of portals.

I was put in mind of the moment I donned my costume, of being Skitter the Warlord, with her half-cape, half-shawl.  There had been a kind of power to the gesture, to draping myself in the cloth and assuming the title and the role.

As I made my way through New York, I found myself altering the portals, reconfiguring them.  I’d drape myself in them like I did in a costume.

They formed a loose three-quarter circle around me, Doormaker and the clairvoyant, at first, a cylinder with an opening in front of me.  When I turned my head, they reconfigured, the portals in my way disappearing, replaced by others.

To streamline the portal creation, I layered them.  Two half-circles, overlapping.

And then, because it was the most compact way to fit the portals together, because I needed to make a signature, to make this mine and to make it me, I made them hexagons.  A honeycomb interlocking of small, one-foot-diameter doorways, opening up to random points throughout the city, extending my range further than even my bugs could manage.  Each one showed a different image when looked through, a wall, a section of overcast sky, a bit of pavement.  It didn’t stand out, serving more as a kind of camouflage.

As I experimented, finding the places to set the portals, my awareness of the city expanded in turn.

I sensed some of Teacher’s squads.  Groups of men and women, always with at least one person who was more fit than the rest, all dressed in white, or at least in white shirts with jeans.  Most had backpacks, and all had weapons.  They patrolled, scouting the area, talking amongst each other in low voices.

Always talking about business.

I found Teacher.  He had a project in the works, and his ‘students’ were busy scavenging.  A different sort of control than I had, with my bugs or the people in my sway.  More human, maybe.  A society, rather than an army of troops gathered in formations.

The vast majority were active, each with a job to do, a task.  Men carried metal and electronics and either broke down materials or shaped them.  Women, just a little weaker in terms of physical strength, carried things like wire and baskets of clothing they had looted from stores.  Children handled the finer work, etching designs into metal and stitching.

I could almost respect it.  Except his motives were clearly selfish.

“Better to be fast than perfect,” he was saying.  He paused to touch one of his subjects for a few seconds.  The girl stood there, eyes closed, while Teacher resumed talking, “Follow the blue prints, or use the hub stations to get a clear mental picture.”

There were nods from the group around him.

Hub stations.  Not everyone was active.  There were clusters of two or three individuals that were each together, but I was pretty sure they weren’t what he was referring to.  There were also some individuals that seemed to be operating as rally points for the others, arranged in a loose ring around their work in progress.  I watched one individual bring a car door to the rally point, touch the man in the center, and then make their way over to teacher.  He murmured, “Metal and fiberglass design.”

Teacher touched him for four seconds, and then the man with the door made his way to a table, dropping a backpack and collecting a small crowbar.  As he started working, another man at the table stretched, grabbed a backpack, then joined one of the scavenging groups.

It was like a barn raising, but they were working purely in steel and electronics. Individuals that were tired switched to a different job, and everyone worked tirelessly.

They were building a Dragon-craft from scratch.

Not only a Dragon-craft.

“Eight costumes,” Teacher said.  He approached a table, lifting one costume off the surface to investigate.  “Not so flashy.  We want to fly under the radar.  Make it substandard, if anything.  C-list material.”

There were nods all around.  Teacher walked over to another table, lined with tinker weaponry and other tools.  His students were loyal, but they weren’t puppets, like mine were.  Their movements were natural.  The overall system, though, wasn’t natural at all.

I was put in mind of Regent’s games.  There was the base of operations, the cluster of villagers managing the city, and there were the more independent squads of people, deployed to the world beyond the base camp, patrolling for enemies, ready at a moment’s notice to be gathered together in a massed attack.

No doubt they were organized by ability.  Teacher could grant thinker and tinker powers.  If I assumed at least one tinker per group, with the tinkers carrying some ranged weapon or defense, and if the athletic members of the roaming squads were the soldiers, gifted with some knowledge that would give them a small edge in a fight, there were still two or three members in a given group I couldn’t identify.

I wasn’t even finished the thought when one of them perked up, startled.  She shouted, “Scatter!”

Her group moved in different directions.

Trouble?

I was the trouble.  It’s a fucking precog.

I opened portals, catching her three teammates, one by one.

It took two tries to catch her.  She was a fast runner, and she saw where I was putting down my portal before I’d even started, turning a hundred and eighty degrees around and scrambling in the opposite direction.

They were eerily calm, all things considered, much like Doormaker and the clairvoyant.  It made things easier for me.  But I knew that ‘easy’ wouldn’t last.

Teacher achieved control over people by giving them parahuman abilities.  The organization was important, and everything was key.  I’d moved too fast, and now Teacher’s human systems were starting to kick into effect.

Men and women in an isolated cluster dropped to their knees.

“Amber district, team B-six,” one of the students in the group reported.  His voice was as clear as a bell in the near-silence of Teacher’s base of operations.  There were only the sounds of tools and the steady percussion of hammers striking metal, all in unison.

“What’s the problem?”  Teacher asked.

“Out of action.”

“Change focus.  All observation teams, identify our target,” Teacher said.

Heads in every second group around the base turned.  They looked my way, as if they could see the full five or six city blocks and see me standing in the middle of the road.

One crossed to another group, touching a young man.

“Weaver,” the young man said, in turn.

It’s like a computer.  Every person carries out a specific operation, and they’re gathered in clusters with people who can communicate those ideas to others in efficient ways.

“Tinker group H,” Teacher said.  “Defensive measures, modify them for micro-scale drones.  Forcefields, area attacks.  Group N, to me.  We’ll need more tinkers on this problem.  We’ll also need to this area.  Groups F and J, I’ll recalibrate, put you on more general anti-clairvoyance duty.  She’s- You’re looking in, aren’t you, Weaver?”

I reached out to place a portal in Teacher’s camp, right behind him.  I hit a barrier, a dead zone I couldn’t affect.

Some tinker device was blocking my clairvoyant, which was blocking Doormaker in turn.

My relay bugs didn’t work either.  They only worked on bugs.

I began laying down portals around the perimeter, instead, finding the exact point I could affect.  The portals right next to me were turned around, so none faced me directly.  It wouldn’t do if he had students open fire and shoot through the portal to hit me point blank.

“This is new,” Teacher said.  “Have I done something to earn your attention?  Crossed a line, somehow, maybe I inadvertently borrowed someone you care about?  I assure you, I’m very benign.  The vast majority of my students here volunteered their services.  I told them I could use them to help stop Scion and save the world, and they agreed.  A number of others took the deal with the oath that I could borrow them for a year, and I’d supply them powers with no strings attached for the extent of their lives, no mental bondage at all.”

I frowned, shifting my weight from foot to foot, trying to ensure I didn’t lose touch with my body.  If I had to move, I wanted to be able to move fast.

One of the groups was close enough to the perimeter of Teacher’s base to fall in range of my portal.  I seized them, then took a second to analyze their capabilities.  Hyper-acute senses, enhanced aim, the ability to see through walls and a danger sense.

I thought of Tattletale, boasting to Coil in the moments before I’d pulled the trigger.

Not, I reminded myself, that I’m pulling any triggers here.

But I needed to disturb things, shake up Teacher’s elegantly balanced operation.

They looked at one another, and I gauged the equipment they held.  The one with enhanced aim was the ‘soldier’ of the group, armed with an ordinary gun and a bandolier of grenades.

I controlled his movements, directing him to grab a grenade from the bandolier.  He handed it over to the one with enhanced senses.

The one with the grenade raised his hand, hollering, leaning back, ready to throw-

My danger-detector reacted, and I had Doormaker create a portal, moving the grenade out of the line of fire.  A fat blob of crackling energy soared through the vacated space.

“You’re full of surprises today,” Teacher said.  “I’m going to assume this is actually you, Weaver, and that you’re not an Ingenue thrall or something similar.  I want you to know I’m not your enemy.  I was there for that whole business against the Elite, pitting Endbringers on them, I understand why you did it.  You have your mission, a noble task, and you see it as a universal task.  One everyone should inspire towards.  Peace and prosperity in your territory, because peace and prosperity are good things, am I right?  Please feel free to comment, strike up a conversation here.”

He gestured, and his crowd of students collectively backed away from the squad of students I’d taken over at one corner of his setup.  They faced down the others, their heads and shoulders visible above a section of wall that had fallen to the road hours ago.  I watched his group move, and tried Doormaker’s power again.  The borders were at the same points.

“No?  Okay.  You’ll have to trust me when I say I’m working towards the same end mission you are.  I want to stop Scion.  But I’m not a warrior, and I’d be offering more trouble than help if I was on the battlefield.  My students are fine when I’m giving the orders, but they’re prone to undecision at key junctions.  I know where I need to be, I’ll be there shortly, and I’ll be of far more use to our side then.”

If the group had moved and the borders were at the same point, then it wasn’t a person generating the effect.

I used my bugs and Doormaker’s power to get a sense of where the perimeter of this clairvoyance-blocking power was.  It was just a little irregularly shaped, but I could factor buildings and intervening obstacles into the area.  If there was a generated signal, it didn’t extend as far with solid objects in the way.

“For the books, I was inviting you to ask where it is I was planning on going.  You seem more keen on silence.”

My squad turned a gun on the very center point, opening fire with a trio of bullets.

A box, a tinker-made device, exploded in sparks, popping into the air and bouncing off of the pavement.

I tested the clairvoyant’s power.  It worked.

I placed portals with care.  Not to ensnare Teacher’s students, but to cut them off.  Portals between them, above and behind them, in front.  Assuming twelve to thirteen feet of range, I could space them out and cover a wide area.

When I started tagging the groups, I worked from the outside in.  His precogs weren’t amazing, with only a few seconds of awareness before their power gave them a heads up, but the trap was already in place.

I left Teacher for last.  No students at his disposal.  I made a portal, and then stepped through.  My soldiers aimed guns at him, while others stood stock still.

Teacher said something in a language I didn’t understand.

I shook my head.  I didn’t have a better way of showing my lack of understanding.

“No?” he asked, smiling a little.

I shook my head once more.

“A shame, that,” he said.  He sounded genuinely bothered.

My bugs flowed over him and through his pockets.  I didn’t have silk, so I used thread from one of the workbenches, encircling the gun beneath his unfashionable corduroy jacket.  It wasn’t a fast process, but Teacher saw what I was doing and helped it along, raising his hands to his head, simultaneously lifting his jacket up and away from the weapon.

I passed the thread to one of my new underlings, and they pulled the gun free.

My new minions began examining the gathered components and gear.  I looked through their eyes, taking it all in.

“I’m not unfamiliar with robbery,” Teacher said.  “Parcel and part of this whole enterprise.  But this isn’t you, I don’t think.  For one thing, I’m working towards stopping Scion, in a roundabout way.  Or mollifying the damage he does, if stopping him isn’t likely.  It seems things have turned around, then, if you’re closer to being the Elite you were so recently condemning, and I’m someone working towards a fix.”

I gave him a hard look.  He shrugged, his hands still on his head, then said something in another language, smiling a little.

A code word?  A trap or trigger for some tinker device hereabouts?

Except nothing had happened.

“Well then,” he said.  “Scratch that.”

He tried something and it didn’t work?  My swarm shifted their stances, approaching a little closer, guns raised.

Definitely scratch that,” he said.  “Well then, I won’t ask for your forgiveness, but I can still be blunt.  You seem different, and not so much for the better.”

My attention was on the tables.  Weapons, tinker gear… I started browsing through it myself, joining the minions who weren’t actively keeping Teacher at gunpoint.

“Can I ask why?  Or is that too personal?  I understand second triggers can be mortifying.”

I turned around to face him.  I put my hand flat against my mouth.

“Mute.  I see.  And you came to me for help with that?  Do you want to be able to communicate again?”

I shook my head.

“Then you’re looking to refine this ability of yours.  I can do that.  Give capes control over abilities that feel a little lacking in areas.”

Again, I shook my head.

“What did you come for, then?”

I didn’t respond, my attention on the group.

I found what I was looking for.

Boxes, small, with a single, broad button along one side.  Like detonators.  There was nothing to them but a single LED, green, and a few ports where they could be plugged into certain ports or outlets.

I gathered them, tucking them into spare pouches.

“I don’t suppose you could sock one for me?”

I shook my head.  I gathered all of them.

Then I began gathering the guns.

“This is inconvenient, for the books.”

You don’t need these against Scion.

“Again, my power is available, if you should need it.  Anything that helps against our reciprocal enemy, you understand.”

He had an annoying habit of picking difficult-sounding words and using them instead of simpler options.  Like someone trying to sound smarter than they were.

I approached Teacher.  I saw him startle a little at the sudden movement.

He had nowhere to run, and he knew it.  He looked around, and he could see his own students caught in my snare.

I saw the surrender in his body language, an instant before he fell inside my power’s range.

Memories hit me.  Announcing myself as Weaver in front of the PRT buildingTaking on the role in New Delhi, coordinating two teams.

I could sense his power, and I could sense his general awareness of the people he’d affected.  There was no constant connection between him and them, nothing like I had over my bugs or my subjects.

I moved another over to him, and I used his power on them.

There was a connection then.  It only took a little bit of time, and focus on Teacher’s part.  I could sense both the power taking hold, and the frailty, the weak point that manifested at the same time.  There was a duality.

I let go of the subject, and I could feel that frail point linger, decaying by the smallest fraction with every passing moment.  That was what Teacher sensed, an awareness of both the power and the degree of influence he had over the subject.

No, I thought.  Not an option.

I withdrew my phone, unlocked it, and found the page I needed.  I threw it to Teacher.  Rather than try to catch it with his clumsier movements, I had him grab the bottom of his sweater and lift it up, forming a net.  It landed in the ‘net’, and Teacher collected it.

I backed away, releasing him.

Teacher staggered a little, then muttered what must have been a swear word in that other language.

“Karma, I suppose,” he said, panting a little.  “A… little nerve wracking there.  I can’t help but notice you didn’t pursue with yourself, while you had me in command.”

There would be no way to use the power without leaving myself open to Teacher’s influence.  No, I wouldn’t be able to get myself a voice this way.  Not if it affected my ability to make decisions.  Not if it left a lingering window open.

These people who’d taken his promise of a lifetime of power, no strings attached, had been misled.

“Nothing, then?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“A disappointment.”

I wasn’t that disappointed.  I had what I needed.  A speed bump for Scion, weapons, a little more information on how my power worked, and…  I pointed at the phone I’d given him.  He glanced down.

“The C.I.U.,” Teacher said.

I responded with a short nod, then held up one of the devices I’d collected.  I was picking and choosing the members of Teacher’s collection I could use, arming them with tinker weaponry and gathering them near me.  I didn’t enclose them in my little cloak of portals.

“Ah… you guessed?”

I nodded, once.

“Understand, it wasn’t spiteful on my part,” Teacher said.  He lapsed into the other language for one moment, “…I gave them the switch in the hopes it would stop the incursions and curb honestly.  They were supposed to lock themselves away, but they held on to it, apparently intending to use it if anyone retaliated.  An ingress, a portcullis, if you will.  A way to raise the drawbridge and prevent passage into their castle.”

At my order, some of his students gestured with their guns, prompting him.

He seemed to take the threat in stride.  “The one with a white button.”

I glanced at the ones in my possession.  I found it in a belt pouch and repositioned it.

“Skeleton key, Weaver.  I could make you force me to give up any of this detail, but I won’t.  I want to get back to work, so I can help.”

He was giving me a funny look, trying to drive home his point.

But this was a roundabout plan, some kind of infiltration, and he was clearly working against our side.  I wasn’t sure I bought it.

It didn’t matter.

I gestured to the phone.  He moved to throw it back, and I raised a hand.  I pointed to my left.

He wasn’t stupid.  He got my meaning, then used the phone to find the page I was referring to.

“I assume you’re not looking to find me, which leaves only the Birdcage.  No.  I haven’t provided any devices to the Birdcage, or anyone alleged with it.  But you’re going to find entering is difficult, regardless.  There are security placements in measure.”

I nodded.  My soldiers got in place, rank and file around me, all armed.

“If I grasp your intentions, Weaver, I can speculate you’ll be back for me later?”

I didn’t respond.  No need to telegraph my plans to Teacher.  Still, the thinkers were figuring out what I was up to.

I was running out of time.

Which meant taking a leap of faith.

Using the clairvoyant directly was a dangerous prospect.  He could grant the power to see the entire world, multiple worlds, but breaking that contact was troubling, debilitating.  I could see the toll it had already taken on Doormaker.

But I couldn’t afford to hold back.

I separated Doormaker from his partner.  I could sense the effect, the sensory shift, the break in perspective, the mild nausea.  But he was functionally blind and deaf, and there were only so many senses that he had which could suffer.

I’d suffer far, far more.  If I made contact with the clairvoyant and was forced to break it… that would be it.  Chances were good I wouldn’t be able to carry on.  Things would be over before I recovered.

I took stock.  I had a squadron, now.  People who would have been slaves anyways.  People with simple abilities that were easy to get a handle on and use.  I had weapons, better than a typical gun.

Hopefully we wouldn’t have to use them.

I took hold of Doormaker’s hand, and I moved it to my belt, hooking his fingers through it.  Then I used my hand to take hold of the clairvoyant’s.

My awareness started to unfold.  A slow, steady, gradual process.  I was aware of vast tracts of land.  I could see the damage done to Earth Bet.  It disoriented me, to see how we were in Washington, not New York.  Teacher had returned home.  Why had I thought we were in New York?

If I’d been distant from myself before, the enhanced vision made it that much worse.

I could remember how I’d once been comforted by the fact that my power put the world in perspective, showing me just how small I was in the grand scheme of things.

This wasn’t comforting at all.  Not this.  Not at this brutal scale.  I could sense the entirety of the world, from atmosphere to ocean floor.  I could, if I wanted to listen for it, hear the wind, the patter of rain, see the shimmers of heat on one side of the planet and the frost forming in caves on the other side of the planet, day and night at the same time.

I can see how the Doctor got a little detached from things, if she used this power with any regularity.

Teacher said something.  I couldn’t make it out, because I wasn’t really listening.

I could see the other worlds and tally up the damage.  Not even a fifth of us were fighting, but those ten percent were giving it their all.  Others had retreated, finding family or friends to take shelter with.

I could count all of the individual collections of people.  Using Doormaker, the Doctor had scattered mankind over every available earth.  Collections of a few hundred to a few thousand.  People used to civilized life were starting over from scratch.  Makeshift shelters, fires, crafting tools.  They were tired, frustrated, and above all else, they were scared.  There was no news, no media, no way to follow the ongoing fight.

When I stopped looking, they didn’t leave my attention.  They carried on in my peripheral vision, as that field of vision continued to grow with every passing second.

The only real limitation was a set of blind spots, identical to the one that had hovered over Teacher’s base of operations.  I could work around that.  There was also the fact that I could avoid looking for things, and keep them out of sight.  I could avoid searching and seeking, avoid bringing something or someone into my field of vision.

Another anchor, another thing to tie me to reality, tie me to Taylor.

I could see one cabin, off in the distance in Earth Gimel.  It would be three days of walking on foot to get there from the settlement.

Grue’s cabin.

I’m so weak, I thought.

I didn’t want to look inside and see him with Cozen.  I didn’t want to see them curled up in front of a fire, knowing the world could end at any moment, should Scion decide to shatter the landmass.

Instead, I fixed that cabin’s location in mind, and I watched it from a distance.

I found my house, or what little was left of it, in shattered Brockton Bay.

I found people.  I found Charlotte and Forrest.  I found Sierra, being very authoritarian and intimidating as she ordered refugees around.  She gave off an oddly familiar impression.

I found Tattletale.  She’d left her laptop aside and was helping with the wounded, talking with Rachel and Panacea in an intense, low voice.

Imp was giving somebody CPR.  Unlike the movies, most CPR attempts weren’t successful.  Her patient was probably dead already, but she kept trying.  Ages ago, Grue hadn’t been able to get her to take the first aid class.

Parian and Foil were moving around the outskirts of the battlefield, riding a stuffed animal.  Foil wasn’t shooting, and it wasn’t due to a lack of ammunition.

All the people I cared about, the things I wanted to hold on to, no matter what.

I found my mom’s grave.  It was a part of the ruined landscape, and the earth had cracked open.  I could see the insect life surrounding the site.  Experimentally, I opened a portal.  My relay bugs passed through, and I cleared up the area, bringing the bugs to me.

Vanity, stupidity, but I felt a little better.  The area was cleaner.  Still in ruins, but cleaner.

And my dad…

I hesitated.

I’ve lost so much, I thought.  Forgive me, dad.  I need to have the hope you’re still alive more than I need to know either way.

I exhaled slowly.

Little anchors, more things to tie me down to reality.  I double checked the others were in place.  The least important of all, the mantle, the costume, for lack of a better word, with the honeycombed portals, it was secure.  I had my goal, I had my mission.

I was still me.  I was managing.

I turned my attention to Scion.  Apparently Tattletale had been right.  A bit of a fib on Cauldron’s part, that they couldn’t use the clairvoyant on him.  They’d wanted to avoid Scion finding them, avoid having him find his way to their laboratories.

When I looked, I saw him screaming.

Even for someone who had only ever spoken twice, it was an eerie, unsettling sound.  Raw, like he was being actively tortured, a sound of pain and anger distilled, given volume by his power.

He wasn’t being tortured, though.  He was winning, tearing into the crowd with more ferocity than before, that same crowd where the others, people I cared about, were-

“Pose?” Teacher asked, interrupting my thoughts.  I’d missed the beginning of what he’d said.

I raised my head.  It was more like I saw the movement of my head through a telescope than it was like owning the head itself.

Right.  I’d zoned out again.  Taking in too much.

Needed to move.

I was omniscient.  More accurately, I was as close to omniscient as I could hope to get.  It came with an Achilles heel, but I’d make do.

My phone had the last known location of the C.U.I. portal.  I opened a door to it.

I left Teacher behind.  He didn’t warrant a goodbye.  If there was such a thing as Karma, he’d get it soon enough.  For now, I would put off getting revenge for what he’d done to Dragon.  He’d be inconvenienced by the loss of his soldiers and disruption of his base of operations, but he’d recover.

Twenty parahumans flanked me as I walked down the dirt road.  I stopped when we’d come to the portal’s location.  The C.U.I. had invaded, killing the refugees on the other side, then moved in.

The clairvoyant, moving at my bidding, took hold of the device I’d fastened onto my belt.

He hit the white button.

Teacher had sealed himself off in one world, to build up his students and work with Dragon.  He’d given that technology to the C.U.I., and they’d used it to secure their position.

Now I was breaking in.

The blind spot fractured, then dissolved.  I could see the C.U.I.’s empire.  Three hundred million people, many still migrating to places where they could settle, physically walking to separate themselves from others, so Scion couldn’t kill too many at once.  I could see where Scion had attacked at one point, and they were still performing disaster relief.

There was a member of the C.U.I. who was officially known as Ziggurat, though she was really ‘Tōng Líng Tǎ’ to her allies and countrymen.  She’d used her power to erect stone walls and start the construction of a palace for the Imperial family.  Three walls stretched between three impressive towers, with the palace at the center of the acres of empty space within.

I could see the Yàngbǎn in full force.  Three groups of sixty to one hundred and thirty capes, arranged on broad, square platforms of stone that had been raised off of the ground, each facing outward, their backs to the palace. Every one of them was in a matching outfit, their masks white, purple, and yellow, in turn.  They were tending to wounds, and the gaps in their number suggested they’d taken heavy losses.

Inside the place itself was a kaleidoscope.  Each room was mirrored several times over, the occupants moving in unison.  The main chambers had nine iterations, each with a copy of the imperial family, each with a fourth squad of Yàngbǎn ringing the group in concentric circles rather than in rows and columns.  This squad wore masks like the others, multifaceted gemstones large enough to cover their faces, but the gems were a jade green.  The bodyguards, thirty in all.  The scariest capes in their group.

A young man, fourteen, sat on the throne.  On either side, their chairs just low enough to the ground that their heads were beneath the young man’s, were family members.  Too young to be his mother and father.  A very young child, a girl, sat on a mat at their feet.  His sister.  I’d seen pictures of the new emperor and his sister when their older brother had been killed along with the Simurgh’s attack on flight BA178.

They were joined by others.  Shén Yù the strategist was a surprisingly young man, wearing a black robe that was as straight and narrow as he was.  He was focused on a small tablet computer.  Beside him was Jiǎ, the imperial family’s tinker, and surely the individual who had set up the kaleidoscope effect, throwing off would-be assassins and intruders.  Tōng Líng Tǎ was there as well, a very thin Chinese woman with a black robe and heavily painted face.

Just below the dais were three more Yàngbǎn members.  Null, One and Two.  The key components in their power structure, the ones who divided the powers, controlled the squads and gave them the strength to be effective, respectively.

If I acted, I’d be targeted.  We’d taken out one of their armies, an infiltration and raiding party with the Simurgh’s attack, but there were four groups remaining.  One of the other raiding parties was less biased towards infiltration and more towards movement.  They were the cavalry, the blitzers, the ones capable of flight and teleportation.  In the wake of the raids, the first strikes our side had deployed against them had been viciously counterattacked.  Quite possibly Shén Yù’s work.  Any attempt to attack was met by equal and opposite counterattack, targeting the leaders of the offensive party.

Even with nigh-omniscience, even with my portals, I wasn’t sure I wanted to gamble on this.  Overconfidence at this juncture would be ruinous.

Better to sunder their confidence, than let my own be too high.  They weren’t anticipating an attack.

But two hundred parahumans and a set of elite capes focused on defense and counterattacks was ominous.

I tensed, all at once.  A stray attack on Scion’s part flew through the air.  I closed Doormaker’s portals in the area, and it wiped out a building, along with six people.

I raised the portal again, connecting Gimel to the makeshift hospital.

Tattletale muttered something under her breath.  Panacea said something I couldn’t make out.

Two of my favorite people in the world, almost wiped out without a chance to even know it was coming.

I looked at each of these things I treasured, the things I valued.  My leveled ‘house’ in Brockton Bay, the graveyard, my ex-employees, my teammates… and I looked at Scion.

There was no right answer.  No perfect battle plan on this end.  There was no time.

I exhaled slowly, forcing myself to relax.

Then I began opening portals across all of the different worlds I could reach.  I began gathering bugs en masse.

I’d heard once there were ten quintillion bugs in my world.  Eighteen zeroes.  I couldn’t control that many.  Or, to be precise, I couldn’t afford the time to collect that many.

Fourteen zeroes?  If I had a dozen worlds, each with really good swamps and rainforests to tap into, my relay bugs to help extend my pitiful, three-hundred foot range?  That was doable.

Fuck it all.  There was a time for strategy, and there was a time for the brute force approach.  Hell, the brute force approach could be called a strategy unto itself.

I’d find out about Shén Yù’s power the hard way.  He could see attacks coming.  Did it work when the attack came from every direction?

I divided the bugs into tenths.  Then I opened nine portals into the Yàngbǎn’s world.

The tenth I opened into Earth Bet, above the portal I’d reopened.

They did react.  Shén Yù did manage a nigh-instantaneous counterattack.  A hundred capes deployed to my general area, teleporting in, and then flying around with speeds that would have put them on par with cars on a highway.

I watched from a distant location as my hand clenched, squeezing the clairvoyant’s.

But I’d deployed a tenth of the bugs on my location.  I was hidden within an impenetrable cloud of bugs.  I raised Doormaker’s portals as shields around me.

Some entered the cloud, and the response was swift and brutal.  The bugs consumed them, and my minions with the tinker guns shot them.  I moved to a different world, closing the door behind me, just to make their job a little harder.

The other squadrons had their own means of defense.  One had eighty or so people burning red hot, torching the bugs by heating up the air.

I began using portals, and I captured the group.

“If you little fucks had any sense, you’d know that getting the upper hand on me, just for a moment?  It’s something you should be fucking terrified of.”

Not my voice in my head.

“Oh?  The ineffectual little girl with the bug costume is awake.”

Memories of confusion, a pain unlike any other.  Of utter helplessness.

What would my mom think to see me now?  A thought from a different moment than the others.

I used Doormaker’s portals to capture other groups, though they were more scattered.

When I had the majority of them, I turned them against the palace.

Ziggurat closed up every window and door.  The ring of Yàngbǎn members was standing now, on alert.

It hardly mattered.  They’d amassed this much sheer power, they’d controlled the people through manipulation, and now they were seeing what happened when the people turned on them.

I felt a kind of anger swelling in my breast, and I knew it wasn’t mine.

But it was still a feeling I could ride.  Something that could carry me forwards.

Fuck them.  Fuck them for not cooperating.  Fuck it all, I shouldn’t have had to go this far.

The attackers tore down one wall.  I saw one of the six mirror images of the kaleidoscope interior fade away.  The interior was heavily trapped, laced with poisons, rooms with only vacuum within and, ironically, poisonous bugs.  Had someone tried teleporting in, chances were good they would have met a grisly end.

I moved the attackers around the outside of the palace, rather than subject them to the traps.  They attacked different walls.

One wall was penetrated, and two more shares of the mirror image faded.

There was another contingent of Yàngbǎn within one of the revealed partitions.  Red masks, like the ones I’d seen in New Delhi.  A small squad of throwaways.

I controlled them too.

It wasn’t long before the last mirror images fell.

My portals ensnared the remaining Yàngbǎn in a few moments.  The fighting stopped all at once.

I added Zero, One and Two to my swarm.

Alexandria, choking on bugs.  They hated me for my arrogance.  For what I was.

I exhaled slowly.  They were a little more aware than the others.

Two’s power enhanced other powers.  Refracted throughout the Yàngbǎn, it was what allowed them to have sixty powers at one fifth of the strength instead of sixty at one sixtieth.

Her power worked on my own.  I felt my control clarify.

In front of me, One extended a hand, then carefully closed it.  I moved it experimentally, testing the range of motion.

Not as perfect as if it were my own hand, back when I had full control over it, but better.

I wouldn’t be sharing this one.  I couldn’t afford to.

Shén Yù spoke.  It didn’t sound Chinese, with the wrong cadence.  It was a question, by the sound of it, accusatory.

Maybe there was a power that would have made sense of it.  It didn’t matter.

There were five layers of overlapping hexagons, now.

I had my army.

But it wouldn’t be enough.

On to the Birdcage, I thought.

I opened portals for my swarm to pass through.

I passed through, and I found myself in the midst of ruins.

Ruins, like I’d been thinking about before I met Teacher.

I used the clairvoyant’s power to search my surroundings.

No.  The structure was only partially intact, devastated by Scion’s fury, by shockwaves and literal waves.  That it still stood was a testament to how solid it had once been.

This isn’t the Birdcage.

Gardener.  My old jail.

The disorientation rocked me.  To get my bearings, I didn’t reach for more geographical reference points, but I reached for the little anchors I’d formed instead.  I checked and double checked them until I could be sure I was stable.

For the second time, I tried to make my way to the Birdcage.

I stepped through the portal, moving myself to a peak above the Birdcage itself.  Though I couldn’t really feel it, I was aware of how cool the air was, the fact that my body, so small on that vast mountain, was sweating pretty heavily.

Being surrounded by thousands of billions of bugs had drained me more than I’d been aware.

Another weakness, another point where I’d disconnected just a bit too much.

Was my own body supposed to be an anchor?  Was that something I should cling to, at the expense of other things?

I made myself draw in a deep breath, until my chest hurt, and it still felt so paltry compared to the hundreds of people I controlled.  The view, this majestic image of the landscape, of a sky that still harbored the clouds of dust and debris from Scion’s earlier attacks… it was but one piece of a scene viewed from a hundred different pairs of eyes.  Virtually all of them had better vision than I did.  I was adrift in an ocean of input, one body, harder to control than all of the others, so easy to forget about.

I’d done it without thinking, bringing them with me.  They stood on ledges and jutting rocks all over the peak, surrounding me.  More than anything else, I could feel their fear.  With so many of them, it was indistinct.

I forced my own head to move, felt the crick in my neck, where I hadn’t really moved my head in a long time.

The ones who were still in the Birdcage were the ones the cell block leaders had felt apprehensive about.  Not necessarily stronger, but less predictable, less reliable.  More of a danger than a help, if given free reign.

As far as I could tell, it was the last large group of experienced capes I could collect.

I opened a portal within the Birdcage, to capture my first prisoner.

Containment foam rained down from the ceiling, sealing him in place.

Dragon, I thought.

I didn’t make another move.  I waited.  I’d expected this.  It was why I’d come here in person.  I could use the clairvoyant’s power and see a hangar in one mountain valley opening up.

It took only a minute.  A small armored suit arrived, a fast-moving model rather than a heavy combat model, much like the one she’d used to counteract our first attack on the Brockton Bay PRT headquarters.

It perched on a rock in front of me.

Dragon’s weapons were primed and ready to fire, the threat implict.  When she spoke, her voice as clear as a bell in the clear mountain air.

It was the same language Shén Yù had spoken to me.  The same incomprehensible language Teacher had lapsed into.

English.

When I met Dragon’s eyes with my own, my head shook with the shock I felt.  I might have collapsed, numb, if I hadn’t been holding on to the clairvoyant, with Doormaker gripping my belt.

It was the anger that kept me going.  I’d felt a glimmer of it when attacking the palace.  I’d felt it when dealing with capes and civilians every damn step of the way.  The only thing I wanted was for everyone to do what they were supposed to do.  To be good and to be fair, feed the hungry, give shelter, to fix the things that were broken and to fucking band together against the real monsters.  Save the world.  For the world to make some damn sense.

I found myself chuckling a little, and it was just as displaced and not-quite right as any of my individual movements.  Off kilter, more like I was doing a bad job of acting than real laughter.

I couldn’t stop it, even as I tried to pull myself together.  I turned my face towards the sky, my eyes streaming.  Her voice continued, insistent, the gentleness giving way to concern.

Hardly the last injustice I’d have to face down in the coming hours, but it was a front runner for the biggest.  The most decent damn person I’d ever met, and she wasn’t even human.  She was the only person who was definitely still alive who’d helped me without an iota of selfishness.

I couldn’t negotiate my way out of this.  Even with the rapport we’d established, I couldn’t trust her to give me the benefit of a doubt.

As much as I didn’t want to, I knew that the only way forward would be to destroy her.

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Speck 30.2

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We were broken, routed.

When had it happened?  When had we reached that critical juncture?  Had one specific act or moment marked the point where the rank and file capes had stopped fighting and started merely trying to survive?

Morale was failing, and had failed long ago.  A good fifth of our fighting force here was made up of Nilbog’s creatures and Dragon’s suits, which self-repaired and kludged together with the remains of other damaged suits to return to the field again and again.  That was with the reinforcements that were coming through Doormaker’s portals.

Chevalier and Ingenue, the other Birdcage leaders and other teams were trying to gather into a defending force.  Issue was, there wasn’t really a way to defend.  Scion held the keys to all things power related, and any attack that didn’t penetrate a particular defense needed only to be tweaked, adjusted with a moment’s thought.  Following that, it passed through forcefields, armor and time distortions like they weren’t even there.

The same was true in terms of our ability to attack.  I had a sense of Scion’s scale, because I’d seen his partner, and I’d gotten a glimpse of the sheer mass of the partner from how much had flowed through into our world as Scion had moved it.  I could assume they were roughly equivalent in size, and that meant we were trying to tear through landmass of raw matter, and we were doing it a few handfuls at a time.

I could look at how durable the partner entity’s flesh had been when Rachel and Lung had been tearing through it, extrapolate to the attacks we’d seen here.  We weren’t doing nearly enough, especially if he was compartmentalizing the damage and keeping himself from losing more than a certain amount at a time.

To top it all off, anything we found that worked only worked for a short time.  Either the user died, or Scion adapted his defenses to become immune to it.

I knew this.  A good number of us knew some of it, especially the ones who’d attended the meetings with the major players.

But for a large number of people on the battlefield, this wasn’t all common knowledge.

For the others on the ground, this was a man with golden skin who didn’t seem to be bothered in the slightest by the vast majority of what we were throwing at him.  At best, he seemed annoyed, by effects as massive as the ones String Theory and Gavel had dished out.  At best, we gave him pause for a moment.  He was toying with us in a way that made it clear he was holding back, yet it didn’t take away from the horror of his actions.

It was impacting morale, instilling a kind of hopelessness, and that hopelessness was a big part of why things were falling apart before my eyes.

I saw him generate a beam so thin I couldn’t make out anything but the glow around it, tracing it through a group.  It cut into throats, arms, legs and chests.  The wounded capes fell, all together.

Blood welled out from the cuts the beam had made in their flesh.  The damage wasn’t lethal, not yet, but it was bad enough that death was likely.  Even inevitable.  I saw a trace of golden light on the skin around the wound.  The damage was spreading.  It wasn’t the sort of injury a medic would be able to handle.

Sixteen capes in all, left to feel their hot blood flow free, their lives seeping away.  Not everyone Scion had targeted was in such bad shape.  One had dodged, pulling a teammate out of the way.  Another three or four had survived the attack by toughness alone, with armor and powers protecting them.

Scion moved, advancing on them.  One sphere of golden light, turning one of these hyper-tough capes into ash.  And then he was in their midst, hitting them with physical blows, tearing them to pieces, each hit harder, faster and more gruesome than the last.  A sweep of his arm and a cape with stone armor was torn in two.

Two or three seconds and he’d taken nineteen capes out of action, wounding several more.  But the real effect was on others, on capes who were now giving up, trying to get away from this slaughter.

He advanced on the two who remained, and it was Chevalier who got in the way, slamming his cannonblade down, twenty feet long and eight feet high, a physical barrier in Scion’s way.

Scion raised one glowing hand, not even slowing as he advanced towards his intended targets.  The sword, to Scion, was little more than tissue paper.

Which made it all the more surprising, to him and to me both, when he stopped, his hand touching the barrier and failing to tear through it.

Chevalier drew the sword back, then cleaved Scion.  The sword passed through the golden man’s shoulder, ribcage, and out his waist, cutting into the earth.

Bisected.

Chevalier remained where he was, hands on the handle of the weapon, making eye contact with Scion.  Ingenue was only a short distance behind him, looking more like she was dressed up to go to a club than to be on a battlefield, with a little leather jacket and a dress with the slit up one side,  her hair draped over half of her face.

Just the same as we’d seen with the Siberian.  The damage was there, but Scion was holding himself together.

Scion withdrew himself from the sword.  Chevalier slashed again, slamming Scion into the earth, then used a sweep of the sword to vault himself back.

Scion’s a ghost, it’s a mask.

And whatever Tattletale says about him being human at his core, human on the surface or whatever else, he’s a natural disaster, not an individual.

A force of nature.  Impossible to control or prevent.  The words crossed my mind, and they were my words, but they weren’t my thoughts.

Reminding me of the bad old days, Passenger?  I thought to myself.  My bugs continued to gather around me.  A familiar and comfortable presence, considering everything that was happening.

I’m not giving up!  My voice, sounding so far away, even in my own head, so young.

Damn straight.

Chevalier blocked Scion’s beam with his sword, then moved the blade, pulling the trigger.  The cannonball hit Scion, and knocked the golden man back.

Capes were taking the opportunity to flee.

I knew what I had to do, here.  Even with a myopic, skewed perspective.  I could guess what the ultimate price was going to be.

Maybe a good part of myself was a monster.  Maybe a part of me was still that girl who had very nearly gone on a rampage in her school, still that girl who would have been an angry, frustrated, aimless c-list villain, a footnote in a footnote in the grand scheme of things, forgotten by nearly everyone once the media frenzy had died down.

The hell am I supposed to do!?  The memory was so clear I could almost hear my own voice.  Had that anger ever really gone away?

The world didn’t fucking make sense.  People didn’t make sense.  I’d been railing against it from the beginning.

I dropped to the ground, cutting one of the boosters to the flight pack.  I didn’t position my legs right, and I folded, landing on my knees and hands instead of on both feet.

I felt a spark of fear, then another.  Capes stopped in their tracks, and the ones behind them crashed into them, driving them forward, some toppling onto a disc a tinker was riding.  Seven people, now inside my range.

I could get a sense of their powers.

The disc the cape was riding was a tinker device, hovering over the ground with a constant stream of air that sent dust billowing in low rolling clouds around the edges.  A woman rode the platform, garbed in a green, flowing kimono-style dress, surrounded by some sort of tinker-derived cyborg bonsai trees on raised sections of varying height.

I began to find my feet, using both my hands and the flight pack to get myself upright.

I could feel the tree-girl’s fear, the fact that she was cornered.  It was echoed across each of the seven who’d stumbled into my power’s radius, and it invoked memories.  Different memories for each of them.  For her, it called Leviathan to mind.  Me running, being struck from behind.  There was one case that reminded me of being with my dad in the room, wracked with shame and helplessness, a complete and total lack of direction.  Another that, inexplicably, brought up the scene with Dragon and Defiant in the Arcadia High cafeteria.  A sense of injustice, mingled with surrender.

For another, for two others, it brought up Mannequin, but they were different scenes.  Being in the empty factory with the innocents at the edges, a building rage, and being there when he’d attacked my territory the second time, after we’d saved Amy.

In both of those cases, it was the same kind of rage I’d just been thinking about.  To these two, I was the freak of nature standing in their way.

I was broken, and I’d bitten off more input than I could chew.  The passenger was tapping into the experiences it had shared with me, because that was the only way it could convey the signals I was getting from them.

Which wasn’t what I needed.  It was the wrong inputs.  What I needed was to decipher their powers.  The tinker with the trees… I could sense things about her that weren’t tapping into memories I understood.  Something mental that I couldn’t relate to, out of my reach.

I ordered them to turn.  When they moved, they lurched.  Unfamiliar proportions, different degrees of athleticism.  Like my adjustment to my new arm and legs.

Could I get used to moving them like I’d gotten used to the new limbs?

Laughter disturbed me from my thoughts.

“Human shields?”  A man asked, almost unintelligible with his coarse accent.  “I love it!  I was ganna shoot the bloody idjits in the backs, you’re ‘lowed to do that, ‘miright?  But some cunt might get the wrong idea.”

When I turned my head, all but one my minions turned their heads as well.  My fault.  I’d wanted the extra sensory input, and I’d instinctually tried to take it in with a share of my ‘swarm’.

It was Acidbath.  One of the Birdcage’s cell block leaders.  He had the stylings of a rock musician or punk rocker who’d spent a little too much time doing drugs and not enough time playing his instrument.  Worn around the edges, a little too full of himself.  He’d been a bit player in the real world, caught up in his vices, yet had managed to take over and rule a cell block for three years after being sent to the Birdcage.

He was still smirking, laughing a little, as he looked between me and Scion’s ongoing fight with Chevalier.  He danced a little from foot to foot, tensing just a bit every time Scion moved.  Not out of fear.

“This is better,” he said.  “They wanna run and leave us assholes to do the fighting, you can say otherwise.  Pin ’em up and let Scion knock ’em down.”

No.  They aren’t meat shields.

But I couldn’t tell Acidbath that.  I couldn’t answer him because I couldn’t communicate.

It galled me that he thought I’d use them as cannon fodder.  Not least because he was right.  Partially right, but that didn’t make it much better.

I’d compared myself to some pretty horrible individuals in the past, but Acidbath was something else.  He was low, barely above dirt.  He’d scalded his own brother with acid, and had gone after girlfriends and girls who had rejected him.  The attacks hadn’t been lethal, but had melted flesh and the fat or muscular tissues beneath.  I’d seen the pictures of the aftermath when I’d browsed his files, after the scar tissue had formed.

I couldn’t think of worse ways to hurt someone, and he’d done it in impulsive acts of retaliation.

If I was going to be a monster, I’d at least try to be smart about it, constructive.  To have a plan.

I set my new minions into action.  I couldn’t get too caught up in the details.  Their powers were a part of them like the venom was a part of a spider or centipede, or web a part of the spiders I controlled.  I had to take it in without getting caught up in analyzing it, trusting the passenger to handle the essential details on autopilot.

As my new minions rejoined the battle, I felt the tinker tap into that power that had previously been out of reach.  I got a glimpse of how she operated, the world she saw; a distorted world much like I’d seen when I tried to look through my bug’s eyes.  The trees were primed and loaded like guns.  Tinker-herbalism, only it wasn’t very medicinal at all.

I set her aside.  The others… my passenger was better at controlling most of them.

A cape in a black flowing costume who had powers I couldn’t decipher.  I set him aside as well.

The others were easier to use, and I wasn’t sure how much of it was because of their powers’ similarities to my own.  Focusing on them resulted in a deluge of fragmented memories, memories of me using my power in different ways.

Two shaker-classification capes provided the majority of the offensive power.  If I let them be, if I let things move on autopilot in their own way, then they used their power well enough.  A telekinetic with an emphasis on small objects, with a storm of ball bearings and small stones from the road, and a cape that could create superheated shafts of energy, anchoring them between two objects.  The memories were of my bugs attacking as a coordinated whole, of the threads I’d extended as tripwires and my attack on Echidna.

Not that I was so graceful or effective in using their abilities.

There was a woman, and focusing on her resulted in a deluge of fragmented memories, but these were memories of using my bugs to observe.  A secondary power?  Trying to tap into her other power resulted in thoughts of Atlas, the void in his midsection, of my relay bugs.  Something incomplete?  A kind of frustration.  With my eyes, I could see her fingertips glowing blue.

I moved her hand, and I saw a line drawn in the air.

Something incomplete.  I moved her hand in a circle, and I closed the line.

There was a small pop as the space we’d enclosed disappeared.  My bugs could feel the air moving at the destination point.

A teleporter with a somewhat irritating limitation.

The other two looked like members of the Birdcage.  Very possibly Acidbath’s underlings, though he hadn’t identified with them.  Brutish, mean looking.  One was armored in what looked to be fragmented pieces of pottery and glass, with flesh webbing between fragments, while the other was covered head to toe in biker tattoos, oddly doughy looking, with a power that was being channeled just under his skin.  Focused air.

Alexandria joined the fight, relieving Chevalier, who was on his heels, his blade in rough shape.  A third cape I didn’t know joined the fight.

Scion shook off the pair, and then struck Chevalier hard enough to send him crashing into the crowd opposite us.

Then he wheeled around.  His eyes passed over Acidbath.

Acidbath, still dancing from foot to foot, leaped, and he changed into a living tidal wave of clear liquid, isolated, with roughly five times his mass.  He materialized into regular human form when he was a little behind and to one side of Scion, and then lashed out, slinging punches that ended with his hands becoming liquid projectiles.  They splashed against Scion, and I could see smoke rise, even though there wasn’t any visible damage.

If Scion had been planning to attack us, the cape with Alexandria managed to get his attention.  Another flying bruiser type.  An ‘Alexandria package’ cape fighting alongside Alexandria herself.

Or Pretender, whoever.

The fear that was emanating from my minions was paralyzing me, I realized.  I shook it off and stepped up the attack.  The one with the shards and the one with the soft looking body charged to either side, and moved right out of my power’s range.

I hoped they would take this as a nudge, a push to get back into the thick of things.  Both these capes and the ones around us.  We weren’t many, but we were a little closer to Scion than most, and we were steadfast.  Capes who were backing away on either side of us were keeping their eyes on Scion, where they might otherwise have routed completely.

The guy that was made up of fragments took the nudge from me for what it was, giving me a hard look over one shoulder before he joined Alexandria and the other cape in attacking Scion.  He was a shapeshifter, maybe one like Mush, from the Brockton Bay Merchants.  My assessment of his power suggested he was tougher than he looked.

The other one, with the air swirling beneath his skin, simply left my range and ran.  He found a spot with more capes and slowed down, dropping into a crouch, like he might run at the first opportunity.

Scion threw the Alexandria-package cape I couldn’t name into the ceramic shard guy, and he managed to break the cape’s fall, falling to pieces in the process.  He began picking himself up, gathering more pieces of glass from nearby rubble to make himself bigger than before.

Acidbath stepped up the attack, slinging acid every time the path was clear,

I didn’t want to lose my stride, getting caught up in observation.  I focused on my minions.  The tinker with the disc had her plants loaded down with drugs.  I focused our attention on different things, and I got more fragmented memories in response.  A glimpse of me, paralyzed, with Bonesaw about to operate on me.

Poison?  Paralytic?

Being inside the building Coil had set on fire.

Incendiary?  Blinding?

The hospital bed-

I was acting even as the knowledge came to me.  I pushed her to use that one, and the passenger took over.  It was better at understanding the abstracts.  I could follow what it was doing, grasp the basics of it.  Her body and the seat beneath her was another plant, focused on producing, concentrating and storing gases in a combination that served as breathable air, the same gas that was keeping her disc aloft.

Her hand moved, the raised platforms shifted, and one tree was lowered to a point just in front of her.

The gas blew what looked like a vast cloud of purple pollen out onto the battlefield.  It settled on the wounded capes, and only the wounded capes.

Coagulants, I thought.  Painkillers.

I watched the others carefully, making sure that my minions weren’t inadvertently putting others in the line of fire.  I started circling our group with our teleporter, drawing out a line as she jogged in a tight loop.  The two shakers, the telekinetic and the guy who made lasers, they had matching costumes.  Had they combined their techniques?  I formed lasers between the airborne ball bearings.  Needle thin, they still cut into Scion.

The damage of one with the flexibility of the other.  No doubt a technique they’d used on their own.

Scion turned his head, looking at us.  His hands glowed.

The teleporter lunged forward, completing the loop, leaving out only the brute with the weird skin, the fragment-shapeshifter and the girl with the disc.  I gave one last command to make the disc-botanist tinker start running.

Our group was collectively teleported away.  I could feel the strength drain out of the teleporter to the point that she fell to the ground.  Scion’s attention was elsewhere.  He hadn’t gone after any of the ones we’d left behind.  We’d managed to avoid his attentions.

I turned my attention to the one cape I hadn’t yet figured out.

A voice interrupted me.  “Queen Administrator.  I almost didn’t recognize you.”

Glaistig Uaine.  I didn’t respond.  My focus was on the young man.  Some kind of trump power, responding to a few glimmers here and there.

I turned her way.  She was dressed in a complicated dress of green-black ribbons, complete with a hood.  She looks so young.

I pointed at the cape I was trying to figure out and raised my stump-arm in a shrug.

“If you want to get a full understanding of your new capabilities, you must figure that out on your own,” she said.  “Practice, and it will soon be second nature.”

I turned my attention to the cape.  My focus, again, was interrupted by her voice.

“I will warn you, do not attempt to usurp me.  If I catch you trying, I will fight you.  I am careful to tend to my flock, and would not have anyone but me handle them.”

I nodded.

“Good.  Peace is preferable,” she said.  We watched Scion unload on another group.

They can’t stop him with brute strength.  They know it.  Yet they keep coming.  Is it just for the sake of going out with a fight?  The hope of finding some trump card?

I’d stopped capes from running, but the idea wasn’t to stop retreat.  Retreat was sensible.  I didn’t want things to devolve into a panicked stampede to get away.

“It seems we’re losing, Administrator,” Glaistig Uaine said, as if echoing my thoughts.

I shook my head a little.

“I would offer him solace, if I knew how.  He is in a dangerous state, and I find myself worried for the first time.”

I glanced at her.

“Yes, very worried.  Had things gone like they were before, I would be bothered, but not overly upset.  We would die, the faerie would slumber and they would wait.  With luck, with a great deal of luck, he would find another partner, or another partner would find him, and things would be set for the great play to start anew, on a fresh stage.”

Scion had stopped with the beams and the blasts.  He was throwing punches again, hurling himself into the thickest parts of the crowd.  Nilbog’s creations were taking the brunt of the attack.

“But the faerie are creatures of whimsy, aren’t they?  Easily influenced by the masks they wear.  It’s the whole point of them, isn’t it, Administrator?  It’s why they are, yes?”

I nodded a little.  I could almost see it.

She nodded a little herself, as if satisfied by my response.  “He’s fallen prey to the worst kind of whimsy, a destructive wroth.  He is heartbroken and hopeless, he has lost more than you or I could ever imagine, and he may well leave this stage so ruined that things cannot be salvaged, unless we’re fortunate enough to get a…”

She trailed off, grasping for a word.

Understudy?

“Fortuitous arrival,” she said.  She smiled a little.  “Not very likely.  They litter breadcrumbs in their wake, not to be followed, but so their kin don’t waste time and effort traveling the same paths.  For another to arrive here, they would need to avoid touching a single crumb, like you or me swimming the length of a river without touching a wave.”

Black Kaze had entered the battlefield, backed up by Dragon’s Teeth.  She disappeared, and then reappeared behind Scion, katana drawn.  A moment passed, and Scion reacted as though he’d been punched dead center in the chest.

Not a big reaction, but it was a reaction.

Black Kaze alternated attacks with Acidbath, very proper, measured in her movements, compared to Acidbath’s flailing, reckless, hurried scramble to keep out of Scion’s line of sight.  Acidbath moved with surprising quickness, faster than a typical car might.  A peculiarity of his breaker power.

Glaistig Uaine offered a small laugh.  “I cling to a sliver of hope, and I know I’m fooling myself.  There really isn’t much of a time window.  A few thousand years is such a short time, you know.”

I continued to pay attention while I focused on the more mysterious cape in my range, the one who I hadn’t deciphered.

The connections of his powers to something that was there but not quite there… his power hinged on some outside qualifier or factor that wasn’t being met on this battlefield.  It was concentrated most on the wounded…

It snapped into place.  His power worked with people who were sleeping.  The people his power sort of worked on were unconscious.

I used the teleporter to draw a circle around him.  A moment later, he was gone, set in the midst of the biggest cluster of wounded.

“Ah, you understood.  Good.”

Only a moment later, Scion attacked, striking the ground.  We were distant enough that I could see the circle of golden light expanding around them, a ring that ripped through the ground, demolishing it.

Nilbog’s creations, the defending forces and Dragon’s suits were all toppled as the ground settled.  Buildings collapsed.

A wounded Leviathan emerged from the water, approaching Scion with an almost lazy slowness.  Capes practically fought one another to get their footing and get out of the way.  Some were too rough in their hurry to get by Nilbog’s creations, only to get attacked by the things in retaliation.

I clenched my one fist.

“Would you accompany me?  We would be the queen of the living and queen of the fallen.  No swords in our hands, but warlords nonetheless.  Yes?  I will give you hints, if you desire them, and help you manage your soldiers.  One last hurrah, a great war to end it all, like the best myths have.”

I shook my head slowly.

“No?  A shame.  Fear?  A lack of soldiers?”

I shook my head, still.

“No, you are not afraid, queen, or you are afraid, but this is a fear that drives you forward.  You have something you intend to do.”

I nodded.

“Then I will be here when you return, and we can have that great battle, fighting to drive him back into slumber.”

I gathered my swarm around me and the teleporter, and I had her draw another circle.

Glaistig Uaine reached out, seizing the woman’s wrist.  The teleporter’s alarm mingled with my own.

But she wasn’t attacking, and she wasn’t taking the teleporter’s powers, extinguishing her life in the process.

“A warning,” Glaistig Uaine said.

I gave her my full attention.

“You sought power, and you lost a portion of yourself in the doing.  Always the case, but it’s… pronounced, in a case like yours.  Yes?”

“Hng,” I mumbled.

“You will need a tether, an anchor.  It can be an idea, a physical thing, a place, a person, a goal.  Right now, it will not seem so important, but it will.  When all is said and done, you will either be dead, and this thing will be a comfort to you in your last moments, or you will be powerful, and it will be all you have left.  Decide what you will hold on to.”

I’ve already decided what that is, I thought.  Since a long time ago.

“Choose very carefully,” she said.  “Take it from someone who knows.”

Then she moved the teleporter’s hand, closing the circuit.

The teleporter and I arrived at our destination at the same moment Leviathan crashed into Scion.  Water mingled with the ruined landscape, seeping into cracks, making life just a bit harder for the capes in the center of the disaster area.

I felt memories stir.  The moment I’d announced myself as Weaver and heard the howling.

You really have to make this unnecessarily hard, don’t you?  I thought.  Reminding me that I’m abandoning them.

Yes, Rachel and Imp were probably there.  So were the capes I’d controlled and urged back into the fray.  Maybe they had turned to run at the first opportunity.  Maybe they had been given a chance to reconsider, and were still fighting.

Maybe I’d killed them, by denying them the chance to run.

But I told myself I wasn’t abandoning them.

I had a mission, and this was a mission that would take me back to them, after a fashion.  I might never rejoin the group, I was fully aware of what I was getting myself into, but this was for their sake, not despite them.

That detour was a part of the mission, killing multiple birds with one stone.  Helping to stop the rout, trying to do a little something to keep the fight going, so the capes on the ground could buy time.  Learning about my new ability, testing my ability to accommodate unfamiliar abilities.

It hadn’t been planned, so much, but I’d also had a reminder of something that had slipped my mind.

Glaistig Uaine was one of my most dangerous enemies at this point.

Now I was in dire need of information.  Getting that information was a surprising obstacle, considering my inability to communicate.  I couldn’t ask, couldn’t whip out my phone and type something into the search bar and wait for it to dig records out of the archives.

To these ends, I’d moved us to the edge of the settlement, where six armored suits were deployed and waiting to be sent into the fray.  The Pendragon was one.  Dragon’s Teeth were scattered throughout the area, many holding what looked like rocket launchers with glass bulbs at the front.

The teleporter was exhausted from using her ability, and leaned on me as we made our way forwards.

D.T. officers stepped forward to bar my way.

Alarm, surprise.  I was momentarily dazed by images of a number of surprise attacks and explosions.  My power had reached them, and they stepped aside at my command.

I moved as confidently and as quickly towards the Pendragon as I could manage, trying not to show fear or uncertainty.  Harder than it sounded, given my limping, uneven gait, and the way my head slumped forwards.  D.T. officers beyond my range took notice and moved to flank me.

I reached the back of the Pendragon and I slammed my hand on the metal door.  I did it again.  My best attempt at a knock.  I tried my best to stand straight, folding my hand behind me.

Not quite loud enough.  The armor was too thick.  Still, the fact that I’d knocked was a point in my book, as far as the officers were concerned.  They were hanging back.

“Defiant isn’t replying,” one of the officers said.

“Try Dragon,” another spoke.  “She always answers calls.”

“Ladies!”  One called out.  “State your identities for the record!”

You know who I am, I thought.

“We know your face, we’ve met, but we can’t take anything for granted here!  Stranger and Master protocols are in effect!”

Oh.

Were the protocols in effect because of me?

Or was it a problem that stemmed from the half-dozen incidents in the last two years, where people had tried to capitalize on Endbringer attacks and other crises, attempting assassinations on key figures?

I couldn’t argue it, in any event.  I couldn’t defend myself, either.

“Both of you!  We’ll need your names, and we need at least one good password!”

Right.  Lovely.

Couldn’t use the teleporter without getting shot.  They’d see the line…

Unless they couldn’t.  Seeing myself through the teleporter’s eyes, I was a little surprised at the sheer number of bugs I’d accumulated.

She moved her hands to me, and she drew the line through the middle of the swarm.

Could she teleport where she couldn’t see?

I focused our attention on the interior of the Pendragon.

She closed the circuit, and we were inside.

My bugs could sense the soldiers reacting.

“Weaver?”  Dragon asked.  “I was just about to step outside.”

I stepped away from the teleporter.  My eyes roved over the ship’s interior.  Less elbow room than in the Dragonfly.

“Tattletale filled me in, asked me to pass on the details,” Dragon said.  “A lot of people are worried, here, on quite a few different levels.”

I couldn’t respond, and I knew how tight time was, so I met her eyes, nodded a little, and then gestured towards the nearest laptop.

“Yes,” Dragon said.  “Of course.”

I gave her a little salute.  I didn’t know a better way of expressing thanks.  If I’d known sign language, would I have lost it with my ability to speak and write?

“Tattletale was saying you were unfocused.  I’m not getting that sense.  You’re up to something.”

The laptop booted.  I froze.

Oh.  Damn.

I realized what I was looking at, and I felt my heart plummet.

When my mom had died, I’d sort of turned to books as a way of remembering her, a way of being with her in the present day, reminding myself of the nights she would read aloud to me, then the nights we’d read together, and beyond that, times when we’d all be in the living room, my dad with his computer half the time, a book the other half.  My mom and I always had our novels.  Sometimes we had shared, sometimes not.

When the bullying had started, books had been an escape.  I’d be exhausted at the end of the day, feeling a low that counterbalanced the higher adrenaline and stress of the time spent in school.  Curling up with something to read had been a refuge.

Maybe that had lapsed when I’d become a cape.  The costumed stuff had become an escape of sorts.  But I’d gotten back into it in prison, and on some of the stakeouts.  I’d taught myself braille, so I could read with my bugs, and take in more.

I would have settled for being a little crazy.  I would have settled for some physical impairment, for a power that was so out of control that I couldn’t have real human contact again.

The words were gibberish.  I couldn’t read.  It had been something I’d turned to in my lowest moments, a little crutch, a coping mechanism, and it had been denied to me.

It hit me harder than the loss of my voice, stupid as it was.  My hand shook, hovering over the display.

I watched as the words disappeared, replaced by images.  A composite picture of locations, a composite picture of faces, a composite picture of icons that no doubt included details on powers.  There were others I could scroll down to see.

My eyes watered a little.  I couldn’t look at Dragon, but I raised my hand in another salute.  Not nearly as good a thank-you as I wanted to be able to give.

My fingers touched the display.  Faces.

There were sub-menus.  All visual.  I clicked the frowny-face with the black background, then the little map for a world map… America.  I clicked the map icon again for a national map… Washington.

I found Teacher’s portrait near the top of the results list.  One of Washington’s most notorious capes.  Right.  I clicked it.

Dragon’s hand settled on the top of my head.  She ran it over my hair, using one finger to hook a strand and move it out of my face.  She did the same for another strand.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

I opened his file, and I clicked through the tabs until I saw a map.

I tapped my phone against the screen.

There was a rumble outside, followed by a thrum, and movement beyond this craft.  Dragon had deployed at least two of the other suits.

“I need some communication here, Weaver,” Dragon said.

Dumbly, I tapped the phone against the screen once again, not making eye contact.

“Please,” she said, but she made it sound like an order.

What do you want?  I thought.  Pantomime?  Do you want me to draw Teacher and the rest with my bugs and enact a play?

I didn’t do either.  I reached up and pulled off my mask.  I met Dragon’s eyes.

I could see myself through the teleporter’s vision.  Strands of my hair had fallen across my face as I’d removed the mask.  My lips were pressed together – I forced myself to relax them, only to find them resuming the position when I turned my attention elsewhere.  My body was all odd angles, my expression… I didn’t even know how to judge my own expression.  I didn’t know my own face that well, all things considered.  It was only something I saw from time to time in the mirror, getting ready for the day.

Intense?  Focused?  Determined?

Fatalistic?  More crazy than less?

I held her gaze.

Again, I tapped the phone against the computer screen.

It chirped.  The data had been loaded onto it.

“If it was Skitter that asked me, I would have said no,” Dragon said.

I nodded.

“If I was convinced it was Weaver in there more than anything else, I’d feel a lot better about this.  Tell me, am I going to regret giving you this?” she asked.

I couldn’t answer.  Not even with a nod or a shake of the head.  I touched the screen again, going back a bit.  Region… Chinese Union-Imperial.

C.U.I.

She knew what I was looking at.  “I’m thinking of how we brought the Endbringers in, bullying people into helping, or at least getting them to stop hurting.  Is this going to be a repeat?  Strongarming them?  Using your power?”

I shook my head.

My phone chirped again.

Others.  More targets.  The Birdcage.

Another chirp.

The rest I’d find on my own, provided all went according to plan.

I turned to the teleporter, then bowed low.  It wasn’t because of her culture – she looked European – it was because a bow would have to serve as an apology, as much as a salute would have to serve as acknowledgement and thanks.

I met Dragon’s eyes.

“I wish you could explain,” she said.

I’m glad I can’t, I thought.  I turned to leave.

Glaistig Uaine was one hurdle I’d have to cross.  Dragon was another.

If everything went to plan, they were the biggest threats to me.  Scion excepted, of course.

I left the teleporter behind, making my way outside.  I turned on the flight pack.

My bugs sensed the teleporter making her exit, drawing a circle around herself and then promptly disappearing.  The Pendragon took off a moment later.

I approached my target.  The Simurgh was flying over a set of hills that would have been the Towers district of Brockton Bay, had we been on Earth Bet.  She was building something.

The fighting was ongoing, with Leviathan more hurt than alive.  Capes were fighting to get to safety rather than trying to hurt Scion.

Scion hit Leviathan, and the last buildings in the settlement toppled.

I turned away.  I wasn’t one for prayer, but I wasn’t really one for hope, either.

At the same time, though, everything hinged on their ability to hold out.  Scion might leave soon, moving on to another target, but I wasn’t so sure these guys would be able to hold out against one more attack.

I passed beside the Simurgh as I flew.  Checking.

No control.

I plummeted.

The Simurgh, for the time being, came part and parcel with Tattletale.  When she wasn’t fighting, she was a distance away from my teammate and friend.

I touched ground, then flew through the doorway at an upward angle, moving over the defensive line Marquis had set at the doorway.

I found myself back in Tattletale’s company.  Marquis and Lung were close, but not so close they were in my range.  Panacea and Bonesaw, for their parts, were tending to the wounded.  The two girls froze as they fell inside my range.

Too many patients, on top of Panacea and Bonesaw.

Marquis and Tattletale froze as well, but it wasn’t the same kind of freezing.  It was tension.

“No,” Marquis said.

I ignored him.

“My daughter-”

Panacea stood up.  Bonesaw followed soon after.  They marched in Marquis’ direction.

They passed out of my range.  Marquis draped an arm around his daughter’s shoulders, hugging her closer.  Bonesaw wheeled on me, and there was a fury in her eyes.

It left only the wounded in my vicinity, along with a handful of others.  Members of the backline, the infrastructure elements in Gimel.

“Taylor-” Tattletale said.

I ignored her too.

“I’m sort of getting what you’re doing.  I don’t get why, but I think I get what you’re about to do.  Don’t.”

I closed my eyes, concentrating.  I needed to figure this out before I made any moves, or I’d be putting myself in danger.  Problem was… there was so much.

“Taylor, if you go ahead with this, and people start to catch on, you become public enemy number two.”

“Catch on?” Marquis asked.

Tattletale didn’t answer him.

I was pretty sure I had it.

With my power, I seized control of Doormaker and the Clairvoyant.  The pair stood, holding hands.

A heartbeat later, a cage of bone erupted from the ground.  Bindings wound around my legs.

He laid a trap under the surface of the ground, I thought.

Some of the more mobile injured were backing away from me and my two hostages.  The remainder were still in my range.

Bone coffins encased each of them, sealing them to the ground, out of sight.

I paused, doing my best to get a sense of them.  I could get the gist of their abilities, focus to try and piece together the details.  There were a few capes who could have broken free, a few who were probably capable of slipping out one way or another.

But I didn’t need to go that far.

I exerted Doormaker’s power, and he opened a portal behind Marquis.  The other side of that portal was just behind me.

Memories hit me.  Being chained to the interrogation chamber, opposite Director Tagg.

Tempered confidence, even now?

The memories were distorted, moving just a little too quickly towards the end of that particular scenario.  Except I was looking an awful lot like the person on the receiving end of the abrupt, painful and unexpected murdering.

Marquis’ lieutenants approached.  Cinderhands, Spruce, one other I couldn’t name, in dark clothes and chains.  Lung was circling around, getting ready to fling a fireball.

I used Marquis’ power to block their paths with spiked barriers of bone.  When Lung, Spruce and Cinderhands all tore through the barriers, with claw, some sort of disintegration power and flame, respectively, I used Doormaker’s power again.  This time, the portals I opened were only about a foot by a foot across.  Four at once.

“Taylor,” Tattletale said.  “You’re putting me in a pretty shitty spot, here.”

I checked my phone, tabbing through the pages that had been loaded onto it.  There was a blip marking Teacher’s location.

More were gathering around me.  I made more doors.  One or two dodged out of the way.  I managed to catch them, anyways.

“I’m not getting enough details here to paint a picture.  I trust the hell out of you, but I’m not sure this is you, Taylor.”

I pocketed my phone, then reached into my belt.  I hesitated for an instant, then pressed my hand to my chest for long seconds.  I knew I didn’t have time to spare, but…  no.  I didn’t have time to spare.

I opened a portal twenty feet above Tattletale, then opened my hand.  The little tube of pepper spray dropped through the portal.  Tattletale caught it.

“You couldn’t have made it easy?”  Tattletale asked, looking down at it.  “Because standing by while you do this… that’s fucking hard.  It’s honestly easier if I’m on their side and I’m helping them stop you.  If I can blame the fuck-up job Panacea did to your head.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I used Marquis’ power to withdraw the bone cage and free my own legs.

I opened a doorway and passed through.

Dragon might be my enemy the moment she got filled in on what I was doing, but she was someone I cared about.  Teacher had fucked with her.

This next bit was going to be easier.

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Speck 30.1

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I didn’t trigger.

Kind of silly, really, that I’d expected to see something.  But this was the opposite.  A trigger event worked on the power end of things.  This was altering me.

I felt the range of my power halve, as though a guillotine blade had dropped down, cutting it off.

My control began to slip.  It wasn’t so severe as the effect on my range, but I could feel it degrading.  I was aware of my bugs in a general sense, and they were moving in reaction to my subconscious thoughts, but the end result wasn’t precise.  I moved them, but getting them to stop had a fraction of a second’s delay.

Slipping out of my control.  Slipping…

Tattletale was nearby, but I was trying not to focus on her.  I had to focus on the swarm, I needed to be perfectly aware of what was going on.

An echo of an event from years ago, only this time, Tattletale was one of the ones in the dark.  I felt a pang of guilt,and I was surprised at how intense it was.  Guilt, shame, a kind of intense loneliness…

This way lies madness, I thought.  But the thought itself had an oddly disconnected quality to it.  The emotions persisted, and I was aware of the memories.  Walking away from the people I cared about, feeling horrible about it, knowing it was the best thing in the end.

Too many would be calling it an error in judgement, stupidity.  Why go to such an extreme, especially when there was no guarantee it was the right path in the end?

But it had allowed me to reunite with my father, in a fashion.

I could remember jail too, the way the guilt and shame had manifested as a maddening restlessness, worse than the confinement.  The fears that had haunted me, dealing with the other prisoners, the kind of peace that had come with surrendering to my then-current circumstances…

Would this decision lead to something in the same vein?  Would I be confined, following a monumental decision that was so selfish and selfless at the same time?

I was altering something biological and mental.  I felt my heart skip a beat as my mind momentarily touched on what that kind of confinement might entail.

I was hyperaware of my own body, every movement, the flow of blood in my veins.  I was focused on the beating of my heart and my breathing, both picking up speed with every moment.

The sky behind me was bright blue, almost taunting me.  Blue was the color I wore when I became a hero.  A failure.  It made for long shadows, extending down the length of the cave in the direction of the others, in the direction of Doormaker’s portal to Earth Gimel.

No, focus on the swarm.

My range was dwindling with every passing second, and so was my control.

That trace of fear I’d experienced swelled as I realized just how much I wanted that control.  I needed to be able to use my mind, to put things into motion when I had an idea.

I need control, I thought.

I tried to open my mouth to tell Panacea, and I couldn’t.  I’d pushed my focus out towards my swarm, and I couldn’t reel it back in to my body.

I was still aware of my body, but it felt piecemeal, now.  My fist was shaking, I had my head bowed, my teeth clenched so hard against one another it hurt.  My heart was pounding, my breath coming out in inconsistent huffs through my nose, pushing just a bit of mucus free.  My eyes were wet with tears, but I hadn’t blinked, causing them to build up on the surface of my eyeballs.

All of these things were normal, but I didn’t feel like they were all intuitive parts of a whole.  My concept of my body as a connected thing had shattered, the ties broken.

If this continued, I’d be on autopilot from here on out, if I could even put the individual components together to walk.

I need control, I thought.

A moment passed, and I could feel Panacea working to give me that control, changing what she was focusing on.  I felt the swarm moving more in sync with what I was thinking and wanting.  But this… I could sense what was happening, feel my range plummeting yet again, the guillotine coming down.  My range had been cut down further.

Take an inch in one department, lose several inches in another.  Lose a whole foot.

Everything was piecemeal now, slipping away.

If this continued, I’d have nothing left.  A net loss operation.

Stop, Panacea, I thought.  Stop, stop, stop, stop…

My swarm attacked her, and it wasn’t because of any conscious command on my part.  The attack was crude, more the swarming behavior of wasps drunk on attack pheromones than the calculated attack I was used to employing.

She stopped, pulling back and falling backwards in a clumsy way.

“Shit, shit, shit, fuck,” a young woman’s voice, from a distance away.  Not Panacea.

Tattletale.

I raised my head, and Tattletale startled a little.  Why had she startled?  The way I’d moved?

“What did you do, Taylor?”  Tattletale asked.

What did I do?  I wanted the answer to that question, myself.

I looked at Amy, realizing the bugs were still approaching her.  I pulled the swarm away, and I felt how hard it was to move them.

I was left with the ruins of my power.  My range was maybe a third of what it might otherwise be, the control rough-edged at best.  There were bugs in my swarm that I couldn’t control, too small.

There were too many things to concentrate on.  The swarm, the nuances of my power, my state of near-panic, and the fact that I no longer felt like a complete, connected human being.  The other stuff, it wasn’t that it wasn’t important, but it was so secondary.

Someone large, with flames swirling around his hands, stalking towards me… didn’t matter.  My power – was my inability to get a complete picture due to a loss of my multitasking ability?

It was Lung who was approaching, Lung who stopped a short distance away, his breathing hot, muscles tensed, flames rolling over his clawed hands and forearms.

He stared at me, his eyes a molten orange-red behind his mask, his breath hot enough it shimmered in the air.  Waiting to see if I was a danger?

“Taylor…” Tattletale said, as if from very far away.

But she didn’t say anything else.  She stared for long seconds, and then she paced, walking the perimeter, as if she could get different perspectives on me from the edges of the room.  Bonesaw, a little distance away, was half-crouched, tensed, between me, Doormaker and the clairvoyant.  She looked less like a child and more like a wild animal.  Reverting to habit, maybe, only without the veneer of the innocent, cutesy, perky child this time.

The stillness of it all was eerie, not helping the growing sense of panic I was experiencing.  Everyone’s eyes were on me, and I felt like I might be having a panic attack.  I couldn’t regulate my breathing because focusing on that meant my body was getting tenser, my one fist clenched so hard it hurt.  Paying attention to my hand meant my breathing started to spiral out of control again.  All the while, my heart was pounding.  Nothing I could do to fix that.

I closed my eyes, in an effort to shut out the external stimuli, and I felt the moisture running down to the point where my lenses met my cheekbones, settling there.  I raised my head to look at the cave roof.

As if that was some kind of cue, Bonesaw dashed through the doorway.

Why was I crying?  It didn’t fit.  I was scared, my hand was shaking and I couldn’t be sure how much was fear and how much was because of what Panacea had done.  I was angry, inexplicably, frustrated, and I couldn’t shake the phantom memories of being in jail.

Trapped in an uncooperative body?  No.  The emotions and the thoughts didn’t match with that.  Why was I thinking about it, all of a sudden?

I felt almost nauseous, now, on top of the sense of panic and the conflicting, nonsensical emotions I was experiencing.  Or because of them, maybe.  I felt myself tip over as if I were physically reeling from it all.  When my leg moved to catch me, it wasn’t because I gave it the order.  It wasn’t a reflexive response either.  A third party.

Passenger, I thought.  I guess we’re going to have to learn to work together here.

My breathing eased a notch.  I had no way of telling if it was the passenger reacting or if it was my own reaction to the realization that the passenger was there.

“Weaver?”  A girl’s voice.

I wasn’t sure I trusted my control over my bugs to get a good sense of where she was or what she was doing.  I turned my head to see Canary standing by the portal.

“Don’t,” Tattletale said.  “Don’t bother her.  Leave her alone for long enough that she can get her bearings.  Wait.”

“What happened, Weaver?”  Canary asked, ignoring Tattletale.

Someone answer that question for me, I thought.

Tattletale?  No, she was silent.

Bonesaw was gone.

Canary wouldn’t know.

Passenger?  I thought.  Any clues?

It was easier to talk to my passenger than it was to speak up and answer the question.  Speaking up meant voicing everything that was wrong, my confusion, the fears, the worries, the fact that my body, my mind and my emotions all felt entirely unhinged.  Speaking meant trying to talk around the growing lump in my throat.

“You never learned to ask for help when you needed it,” Tattletale said.  Her voice was almost accusatory.  “I mean, you ask when you approach other groups, and it’s like you’re holding a gun to their heads as you ask, or you ask at a time when it’s hard for them to say no, because all hell’s about to break loose.”

I glanced down at Panacea.  She wasn’t moving, aside from rocking a bit back and forth as she breathed, her head slumped, eyes on the ground.

Was it me?  Something grotesque?  Horrible?  Had I changed?

No.  I had taken stock of myself, I’d seen myself, and I was still the same, as far as I could tell.  Two arms, two legs, two eyes, a working nose, ears and mouth.  One missing hand, but that was to be expected.

“Yeah, you asked Panacea.  You asked me to play along and arrange stuff, when you went to go turn yourself in.  Your handling of the school thing… well, I don’t want to get into a pattern and start cutting too deep.  Let’s just say you make a decision by yourself, and then you use others to get help carrying it out.  That’s not really you asking for help, is it?”

I didn’t need this, not now.  But I looked up, meeting Tattletale’s eyes.  She was standing behind Lung, now.  He was changing.  Was he biding his time?

“While I’m saying all this, kiddo, you gotta know I love you.  I adore you, warts and all.  You saved me, as much as I like to think I saved you.  All this stuff I’m bitching about, it’s the same stuff that got us through some pretty hairy shit, and I love you for it as much as I groan about it.  You’re brilliant and you’re reckless and you care too much about people in general when I really wish you’d leave things well enough alone and be selfish.  But this?”

This?

“Shit,” Tattletale said.  “You gotta forgive me, just this once.  Because seeing this and knowing what you pulled hurts enough that I gotta say this.  This makes me feel really sorry for your dad, because I’m starting to get a sense of what you put him through.”

She might as well have slapped me full-force.  Worse, I deserved it.

So this is what it’s like to be on the opposite end of a Tattletale attack.

“There,” she said.  She smiled a little, but it wasn’t a grin, exactly.  If it was an attempt at being reassuring, it wasn’t something she had a lot of practice in.  “I’ve said what I needed to say.  I do have your back, here.  Now we need to figure out how we’re going to fix this.”

Which I was okay with, except I wasn’t sure what this was.

This isn’t easily reversed,” Bonesaw said.

She had returned, and she’d brought others.

Marquis, and two of Marquis’ lieutenants.  They’d been delivering wounded up until a bit ago, but their hands were empty now.  Marquis was a little dusty, but still elegant and elaborately dressed without being feminine, his hair tied back into a ponytail.  He was accompanied by the hyper-neat guy and the guy with arms black from fingertip to elbow.  All three looked like they were in full on business mode.

“I’m open to trying,” Tattletale said.

Marquis surveyed the situation with a cool gaze.

“I’m not hearing a resounding yes here,” Tattletale said.

Marquis strode forwards.

“Careful!” Tattletale called out.

I might have dodged if I’d had full control over my own body.  I might have dodged if I’d been a little more focused.  Hell, I probably would’ve dodged if it wasn’t for the realization that Tattletale was warning Marquis instead of warning me.

I thought she had my back, I thought, as Marquis’ shaft of bone caught me dead center in the chest.  I couldn’t have dodged if I’d had full control over my body and my flight suit.  It hit me in the sternum, broad and flat, and shoved me back and away.

The bone changed as it pushed me, splaying out in two branches.  The backwards momentum made it impossible to get my feet under me, which meant I hit the ground, rump first, then a heavy hit with the hard shell of the flight pack, and finally a crack of my skull against the hard stone floor of the cave.

I came to a stop, and was just beginning to get my bearings when Marquis continued extending the pole.  I was shoved further back until my back was against a stone, five feet from the cave mouth, five and a half feet away from the sheer rock ledge above a sheer drop I couldn’t measure with my bugs.  The two branches of bone sat on either side of my neck, like the arms of a dowsing rod, pinning me in place.

The skin of his other hand had ripped and torn as the bones of a massive skeletal hand had erupted from his wrist.  Judging by its position around Lung and Panacea, he’d apparently used the hand to push or slide them back away from me.

“Oh god,” Panacea was saying, “Oh shit, oh god.”

A sudden display of emotion, as confusing to me as everything else here.

And here they were, Marquis, his men, Lung, Panacea, Canary, Tattletale and the portal duo from Cauldron, staring me down.

“Sixteen feet,” Tattletale said, her voice quiet.  “Fifteen point nine-eight feet, to be exact, but we can ballpark it.”

Marquis nodded.  “Parahuman abilities wax and wane depending on one’s mental state.  Given how volatile she may be…”

“It’s not going to change,” Panacea said, not making eye contact with anyone.  She was staring at the backs of her hands, which were flat against the cave floor, or staring at the tattoos that covered them.  “I felt how it changed…  Not connected to her emotions or those parts of her brain.  Not anymore.”

“I see.  Good to know, thank you,” Marquis said.  He approached three paces, and the bone shaft that extended between his arm and the branches that pinned my neck shrunk a corresponding amount.

He was keeping a distance, a good twenty or twenty five feet away from me.

Why did Tattletale say sixteen feet?

“What are you guys talking about?” Canary asked.

“I would have burned her,” Lung growled the words, ignoring her.  “But I thought you would be upset if I burned Amelia in the process.”

“Quite right,” Marquis said.  He didn’t take his eyes off me.

“Oh god,” Panacea was saying, her hands moving to her head, her fingers in her hair, inadvertently pulling it from the ponytail.  “Oh fuck me, oh god.”

“Hush,” Marquis said.  He laid a hand on her shoulder.

“Well, this is a step forward for you, Ames,” Tattletale commented.

Don’t,” Panacea hissed the word.  “Don’t you fucking dare.”

“…This time you got consent before you screwed someone up beyond your ability to fix it.”

“I’ll fucking kill you,” Panacea snarled.

There was a distant rumble, intense enough it could be both heard and felt through the doorway that Doormaker had open between us and Earth Gimel.  The fight was ongoing, and it sounded like maybe they were leading Scion away from the settlement.

My friends were out there.  Rachel, Aisha.  Here I was, doing nothing.

My hand slid on the stone beneath me as my body tried to push itself to a standing position, only to meet the ‘v’ of bone at my neck.  Why had I done that?  I hadn’t actually made the decision.

Passenger?  I thought.

Was it making decisions with my body, too?

Not a question I could answer definitively.  I turned my mind to a question I could focus on.

Sixteen feet. 

I saw how the others were spreading out, forming a line behind Marquis, their attention on me.  I saw the length of the column of bone.

It belatedly clicked.  Sixteen feet was the distance they needed to keep from me.

“I’d like to say I’m sorry for being a little rough,” Marquis said.  “I was in a hurry, trying to get my daughter to safety.”

Aahheuuhhhmmm.

It took me long seconds to wrap my head around the fact that the sound had come out of my mouth.  Not the right syllables, not even something that sounded like words.  My hand flew to my mouth.  My fingertips dug through the thick spidersilk fabric for some purchase on my lips, as if I could somehow manually get them to start working again.  Even the movement of my hand was clumsy.

I was a puppeteer trying to make the puppet move by tugging the strings from some remote place.  Something as complex as speech was beyond me.

I tried to form words with the swarm, to speak or to spell.  I failed.

Far, far beyond me.

I could see Tattletale reacting too, her entire body going rigid.  She took a half-step back.

I lowered my eyes to the cave floor.  My fingers were moving, grasping, and it wasn’t me doing it.

“Ah,” Marquis said.  “Shame.  A communication problem makes it harder to gauge how much we can trust her.”

Trust her, he’d said, instead of trust you.  Like there was no point to saying it to me directly.  Marquis was talking to Tattletale to refer to me in the same way someone might talk to the family member or companion of a mentally disabled individual or small child, instead of the diminutive individual themselves.

As though I was so fucked up I apparently needed a guardian to act as a translator or advocate.

“I can tell you how she is,” Tattletale said.

“You’re biased, to be frank,” Marquis said.  “I’m not willing to put myself, my family, or my underlings in a dangerous position because you have a sentimental spot for Weaver.  And before you launch into a spiel, I should warn you that Amelia here has filled me in on you.  I’m aware of how convincing you can be.  Spruce, Cinderhands, Lung?  You have my permission to mutiny if you think she’s gaming me.  I even recommend it.”

“Hardly fair,” Tattletale said.

“It’s rather fair, all things considered,” Marquis said.  “If you can convince all of us, then it must be a legitimate and sound argument.”

“I think you’re underestimating how eager Lung is for an excuse to hurt something,” Tattletale said.

“Maybe so,” Marquis said.  He glanced at Lung.

“You are too soft with women and children,” Lung said.  “If she starts something, I will break your rule for you and immolate her.”

“I suppose that’ll do,” Marquis said, sighing a little, he gave Tattletale a look, and she nodded a little.

There was another distant rumble.  A sound like a thousand men screaming in unison.  I felt a chill.

“Let’s put this issue to rest,” Marquis said.  “A compromise.”

“Sure.  I’m open to compromise,” Tattletale said.  “Beats being immolated.”

Marquis turned.  “Doormaker?  Another portal, please.  We’ll change locations and set up a triage unit somewhere else.  We link it to Gimel, and we close all doors leading to and from this cave.”

“I’m not sure I like this compromise,” Tattletale said.

“Weaver is an unknown quantity.  We’ll leave her here, as safe as anyone on any Earth is, and we conclude this fight against Scion, win or lose.  When all’s said and done, we come back and we see what we can do for her.”

There was a long pause.

Stay here?  Not participating?

I tensed.  My bugs stirred.

Right.  I still had my bugs.  My control was down, but only just.  Anything I touched or manipulated would be like I was using my left hand instead of my right.

Problem was, I didn’t exactly have a wealth of bugs to work with.

“It’s… sorta hard to argue with,” Tattletale said.  “But I don’t like it.”

“Nature of a compromise is that it leaves everyone more or less equally unhappy,” Marquis said.  “I’d feel happier if she was under secure restraints, but I’m content to break this rod and leave her free to forage and look after herself while we’re gone.”

No thread left.  I’d used too much of it when we’d made the platform back at the Cauldron base.

There was a new dimension to my power, at a cost to everything else.  Sixteen feet of range.

I just needed to figure out how to use it.

Tattletale shook her head.  “If Doormaker dies, she’s stranded here, all alone, more than a little borked in the head and in the heart.  Possibly for the rest of her life.”

“If Doormaker dies, I think we’re all in dire straits,” Marquis said.  “This is the fairest solution.  I think you realize that.”

I raised my hand, fingertips going vertical, moving my stump in that general direction, knowing she could draw the conclusion.  Best I could do in terms of a pleading gesture, with only one hand to work with.

Tattletale stared.  “…Yeah.  Except for one thing.”

“There’s a snag,” Marquis concluded, sounding a little defeated.

“Sure.  Life isn’t fair, and I’ve got a hell of a lot of faith in that girl.  Besides, we agreed not so long ago that we wouldn’t leave each other behind.”

“Unfortunate.  Lung, Cinderhands?  Make Tattletale leave.  Drag her if you have to, but don’t hurt her.”

“You test my patience with this gentleness of yours,” Lung growled, but he took hold of Tattletale’s arm with one claw.  Cinderhands took her other arm.

“Watch for her gun.  If she gets a hand free, she’ll use it on one of us,” Panacea said.  She followed the trio.

I struggled to reach my feet, but the ‘v’ of bone at my throat held me.  I slumped back down to the ground, staring at the ones who remained.

“Stop struggling, Weaver,” Marquis said.  “Please relax.  You took a gamble and you lost.  You sit this one out.”

I narrowed my eyes behind the lenses of my mask.

“Spruce?  Can you use your power?  Not too much.  Enough she can break free before too long?”

The tidy man shook his head.  He turned his hand over, and a little sphere swirled in it, looking like a cabbage made of stone.  He closed his hand, and it winked out of existence.  “Ten years ago?  Sure.  Right now?  I don’t trust my accuracy.  I’d be worried about the structure of the cave if my power touched anything to either side or behind her.”

Marquis nodded.  “Go look after the others, then.  Be ready to shut the door the moment I’m through.”

Spruce turned to leave, ushering Doormaker and the clairvoyant out.

“I know you have tricks up your sleeve.  You have bugs, you have the pepper spray.  You have other tools I probably don’t know about.  I’m going to assume you’re in a state of mind to use those tricks.  I’m going to hope you’re in a state of mind to listen when I ask you not to use them.  Stay here, pull yourself together, and we’ll come for you when we can.  If we can.  I give you my oath that I’ll do my utmost to keep Tattletale safe in the meantime.”

My hands were clenching and unclenching.  Not by my own volition.

Eeeeuunnh,” I growled.

“I’m very optimistically going to take that as a reluctant yes,” he said.

It took me a moment to get the motions in order, but I managed to shake my head very slowly from side to side.

“Alright,” he said.  He put an arm on Canary’s armored shoulder.  “Canary?  Please step through.  I’ll be right behind you.”

She started to obey, then stopped.  “I… I really know how you feel, Weaver.  Sort of.  I took Cauldron’s stuff, it messed me up, physically.  I felt horrible, I went a little crazy.  And maybe three years after I picked myself up and pulled it all together, everything went to shit.  Like life was reminding me of the mistake I made.  So I- I know what you’re feeling.  But you can make peace with it.  So… don’t beat yourself up too hard?  Take it from someone that’s done that too much.”

“It was kind of you to say that,” Marquis said.  “Please step through?”

Canary nodded.

He was watching her go.

I heaved myself sideways, freeing my left arm to reach to my right hip.  In the process, I managed to move the branch of bone a little to one side.  Not enough to get my head free of it, but enough to get some elbow room.

“Heads up!” Marquis called out.

My hand fumbled for my gun, and I pulled it free.  I raised it to the point where the branch split in two and fired.  The thickest point.

Perhaps a little insane, to fire upwards, at something as hard as bone, inches from my face and throat.

But the bone shattered and splintered.

I was free, and Marquis was already taking action.  Armor of bone surrounded him, ornate, decorative, but with enough coverage that the bugs near him were either crushed against his skin or they failed to find a way through.  I didn’t have any bugs small enough to fit through the vertical slits around the eyes and mouth.

The spear of bone began branching out, becoming a veritable tree, filling the cave between myself and Marquis with forking and dividing limbs.  He was backing away, creating more bone to stay connected to the base of the tree.  He knew what I’d try to do next.

I didn’t stand.  I couldn’t afford to take the time.  I used the flight pack, extending the wings with the thrusters, and launched myself at the wall of the cave.  I hit it a little harder than I might have liked, one wing bending, and then scraped against it, flying in Marquis’ general direction, moving along the cave ceiling where there were less branches.

The amount of space I had to maneuver in was rapidly closing. My dangling leg caught a branch, and I nearly lost all of my momentum.  I was forced to put the thrusters away, but one didn’t fold away properly where it had bent in the collision.

Tree branches of bone closed around me.  I activated the thruster on the remaining wing, and I opened fire, blind, in the hopes of clearing a route.

Marquis moved to the side, creating a shield of bone in front of himself and Canary.  The bullets weren’t really on course for them, but it worked out in my favor.  He’d broken the shaft of bone to free himself to move, and the ‘tree’ was no longer growing.  I flew through the biggest available gaps, snapping the thinner spears and spines of bone on my way through.

Twenty feet away from Marquis.  He moved back, and then grabbed the ‘tree’.

A disc of bone unfolded in front of me, as though the tree were a parasol.  A wall, a barrier.

I shot at the edge, and a chunk broke off.

But more flowed free before I could wedge myself into the resulting gap.  It sealed the cave off.  I shot again, but it was too thick.  The trigger clicked as I pulled it again and again, fruitlessly.  The movement was so frantic and jerky that the gun fell from my clumsy grip.

“Terribly sorry,” Marquis murmured.

Panic and fear welled up inside me.

I don’t want to stay behind.  I can’t.  You don’t understand.  I’ll lose my mind, more than it already feels a little lost.

Gorrugh,” I hissed.  The armor of my mask clicked against the bone as I rested my head against it.

The fear, the panic, no…

I felt it, but it wasn’t mine.  Neither was the fear and paralysis I’d felt before, or the anger.

I was so used to my power being automatic, I wasn’t used to having to exert any kind of will.

I tapped into the feeling, I focused all of my attention on my ability.

Sixteen feet.  Marquis was out of my range, but Canary had been slower to move, her reflexes not as good.  She’d been caught up in watching, maybe not wanting to turn her back on a fight in progress, and she hadn’t moved as quickly.

I was touching the wall of bone, and Canary was fifteen or so feet away, on the other side.

Now that I was taking the time to look, to sense, I was aware of Canary’s body in the same way I’d been aware of Lung’s.  As Panacea’s, to a lesser degree.  Her steady, measured breathing, the complete lack of movement.

Just like Lung and Panacea had been frozen.

Waiting for instructions.

I couldn’t move her closer to Marquis without putting her outside of my range.  Instead, I turned her around.

“Ah… damnation,” Marquis said.

Her movements weren’t much more fluid than my own ones here.  A drawback, among many.  She marched towards me and the wall Marquis had created.

He snared her, throwing out shafts of bone and surrounding her upper body with a cage of the stuff, interlocking the two pieces.

But she wore the Dragonslayer’s armored suit.  She bent her legs at my order, and then lunged forward.  She broke the bone that surrounded her, and with her fist free she struck the wall of bone.

Two, three, four times.

Marquis stepped forward, very carefully, and planted a foot on the base of the shaft of bone.  The wall began to thicken, faster than Canary could smash it.

Her power…

I looked, and I had enough of a sense of her inner workings to get a sense of her general state of well being, where she was sore, her fitness, and her power.

She began to sing.

Bring him closer.  Bring him in.

The song changed.  The relentless, almost machinelike drum against the wall of bone continued, cracking it with the power of the suit, and I could sense Marquis wavering.  He lowered his foot from the shaft of bone and began to approach Canary.

I was so used to a buzzing, to a dull roar of power in my ears.  This was so much more complex.  Complex and seductive, the emotions I was tapping into.  Linking myself to Canary on some level.

I could remember being in Dragon and Defiant’s grip, being hauled along on the way to the roof, so soon after killing Alexandria and Director Tagg.  Struggling, futile, hopeless.

I could look beyond that surface memory, and I could see what was beneath it, a general sensation, a recollection of a feeling.  Canary, struggling, helpless and bound, terrified and panicking, with a dull sense of guilt over what she’d done, a reality that she hadn’t quite processed and might not fully process for weeks or months.

She was me and I was her.  Shared experience.  She was an extension of myself.

There was no way to know if that was a good thing.  I was starting to feel a little unhinged again.  A little disconnected from me.

The only thing scarier than that fact was the knowledge that it was only going to get worse.  This was my tool.  This was what I’d sacrificed my mind, body, range, and control to obtain.  Sixteen paltry feet of range.  Sixteen feet of range that, according to Panacea, I wouldn’t be able to increase through my emotions.

I made myself climb to my feet, pushing my way through the smaller branches of bone, reaching up with my hand to grab a larger branch for balance.  My legs were shaky beneath me, my head a little lopsided, and if I hadn’t been holding on to something, I suspected my arm would have hung utterly limp at my side.  I couldn’t… I couldn’t dig for that knowledge of how my body was supposed to be in a resting state.

I saw the first crack spread on my side of the wall.

Better yet, Marquis was getting closer.  One or two more reluctant steps our way, and-

-And I never got to find out if I’d be able to leverage his power.  Lung stepped into the hallway, and he filled it with fire.

Canary was armored, though her hair was set on fire where it flowed beneath the helmet.  Marquis, too, was armored.  Neither was positioned to be turned into a crisp.

But the fire drowned out the singing.  The fire stopped, and Canary could hear Marquis’ footsteps as he ran, hands pressed to where his ears were covered by his helmet.

I had Canary punch through the wall.  She reached through the wall and grabbed me by the straps of my flight pack, hauling me through.

The doorway was closing.  Canary, it seemed, was being left behind.

I had her throw me, and I used my flight pack to get extra speed.

I slid through the doorway two seconds before it was too narrow to pass through.  I lay there, the group staring down at me.

Coohugggah,” I mumbled, with more than a little anger in my voice, as I slowly made my way to my feet.  Nobody offered me a hand, but that was my choice, not theirs.

My stump of an arm was throbbing, and the rest of me felt alien.  My movements weren’t all my own choice, with the passenger apparently doing something to help me manage.

I looked through the other portal, beside us.  Gimel.

I left the others alone, not controlling them.  When Spruce was in my way, I pushed him aside with physical strength.

I’m fighting, I thought.  I’m fighting Scion.  Somehow.

I could see myself through their eyes.  Each image was slightly distorted, just different enough to be uncanny and out of sync.  I had more awareness of myself through them than I had with my own eyes.

I stepped into the damaged fast food restaurant, and over the rubble at the front where one attack or another had clipped the building.  As I made my way to the front, the others behind me found themselves out of my reach, free to move of their own volition again.

Free to attack me if they wanted.

Marquis, Panacea, Bonesaw… not so dangerous.

Lung?  No.  If he was going to kill me, he’d let me know just before he did it.

Spruce?  Cinderhands?  They were maybe the type to attack me, because of pride and the fact that I’d momentarily seized control of them.

Tattletale was freed.  She dashed forward, hopping over rubble and debris to get closer to me.  She stopped three or four paces from me.

A fraction more than sixteen feet away.

But she didn’t say a word.

Scion was there.  Tearing through people with a ferocity, this time.  People were scrambling for cover that did so very little against Scion, trying to erect defenses, hiding and fleeing.

Had we already lost?

A collection of capes, many carrying wounded, headed our way.  Rachel, Imp and Bastard were among them.

I moved to the side, but I failed to anticipate their path.  I’d expected them to head into the sandwich-place-turned-hospital, but they moved straight towards me.

I backed away, taking flight, while Tattletale rushed forward, her footfalls tracing a curved path around a bubble that only she seemed to be conscious of.  She stopped in their way, arms outstretched, shouting, “Go around!  Dangerous power!”

Most of them listened.  Only one, looking over his shoulder at Scion, stumbled past Tattletale, into my range.  I was looking for it this time, and I could feel his being snap into my mind’s eye.  He froze in place.

No sooner did I have control than Tattletale grabbed the guy by the back of the collar and hauled him out.

“The fuck?” Imp asked.

Tattletale let the guy go, and he fled.

I couldn’t reply, so I focused on gathering my bugs.  No use dismissing a resource that had once been vital.

Someone volunteered herself for noninvasive brain surgery from the lunatic with a sister complex.  Or, just as likely, she asked the lunatic psychopath for invasive brain surgery and the other lunatic stepped in.  Now Skitter’s broken.”

“That didn’t look broken,” Imp said.  “That guy…”

“Hrrrrrn,” I said.

“Hrrrrn,” Imp replied, nodding sagely.  “Now I understand.”

“She can’t talk,” Rachel said, more a statement than a question.

I shook my head.  Can’t move as fast or as well as before…

I belatedly realized that Rachel had hopped off of Bastard.  She reached her hand forward, as if feeling her way.

I backed away, but she stepped forward faster.

A conception of Rachel’s entire being bloomed in my consciousness.

I made her step back away.

“Mm,” Rachel grunted.

“Why the fuck would you do that?” Tattletale asked.

Because she trusts me far too much, I thought.

“She’s smarter than I am,” Rachel said.  “Let her do what she needs to.”

I shook my head, backing away with my flight pack.

Controlling Rachel wouldn’t achieve anything.  I wouldn’t get any special knowledge of her whistles or commands, or her instinctive understanding of the dogs.

But I needed to do something.

Marquis and the others were approaching, on guard, looking tense.

I was a wild card, now, something they couldn’t wholly trust.  A little unhinged, a little unpredictable, and my power would be more dangerous and debilitating in their minds than it was useful.

“You’re going?”  Tattletale asked, almost realizing it before I had.

I nodded.

“Good luck,” she said.  “You know where to find us.”

I nodded again, taking to the air with my damaged flight pack, but it was with a heavy heart.

I’d told myself, not so long ago, that I’d know the route to victory when I saw it.  I had an idea of what I needed to do now.

Maybe it was good I couldn’t speak, because I would’ve said the words if I’d had the ability, and we’d sworn not to.  I had to think it instead, and this way, they didn’t need to hear it.

Goodbye, Undersiders.

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Cockroaches 28.3

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“You have something in mind?” Defiant asked.

“No,” I said.  “But we’re dealing with problems on a massive scale.  We need to look for solutions on that same scale.”

“Um,” Imp said.  “You just leaped from the subject of talking about the Endbringers to talking about solutions.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think we definitely need to think about solutions, Endbringer-wise.”

“Oh, well, of course,” Imp said.  “This is doable.  Something we’ve managed once in the last thirty years, taking down Endbringers.”

“Shh,” Tattletale said.  She turned to me.  “There’s more to this.”

“Dinah told me the defending forces would be divided into five groups.  Armies, individuals, some of the biggest capes, and unknowns.”

“She said that to others.  It’s on record in the PRT,” Defiant told me.

“Five groups in different places, and Dinah couldn’t see why they were there, she couldn’t see the particulars.  She said there could be too many precogs there, but what if that’s not it?  What if she’s blind about the particulars because the Endbringers are there?”

“A coordinated attack?” Narwhal asked.

I nodded.  “It’s possible.  Either it’s Leviathan, Simurgh, Tohu, Bohu and Khonsu, or Scion’s there and Tohu and Bohu are together, as usual.”

“I can’t imagine the defending forces would hold the line for very long, if at all,” Defiant said.  “Not if we’re spread that thin.”

“A situation this dire brings out all of the people who might not otherwise fight,” I said.  “Parian wasn’t a fighter, but when Leviathan hit Brockton Bay, she stepped up to the plate.  As things get worse, we might see some people doing the same.”

“If it’s five Endbringers and Scion we’re up against, we might see people giving up altogether,” Narwhal pointed out.

I nodded.  “Tattletale already said something like that.  Yes.  A lot hinges on whatever comes next, whether we can get people on board.  Whether others are doing the same.”

“Alright,” Defiant said.  “You have something in mind for the Endbringers?”

“A pre-emptive attack,” Narwhal said, her voice quiet.  “If it provokes them to lash out, well, at least it’s not a coordinated attack, and at least it’s at a point in time when Scion’s busy elsewhere.  The Simurgh is standing still.  We could hit her with something like what we used in New Delhi or Los Angeles.”

“We could,” Defiant agreed.

“Let’s think on it?” I suggested.  “We can’t do this without laying out the groundwork, and that means convincing people this isn’t hopeless, it means gathering information, getting resources together.”

“Then do your thinking as you get ready,” Defiant said.  “Gear up.  Gather anyone you think you need.”

“I’m set,” Tattletale said.  Imp and Rachel nodded.

“I’ll need my spare costume pieces from the Dragonfly,” I said.  “I parked it in Gimel before I left for the rig.  Hoping my flight pack has enough of a charge.”

“Go,” Defiant said.  “I’ll see to Saint.”

“And me?” Canary asked.

“We can get you a standard Protectorate costume.  Spider silk,” Narwhal said.  “Durable, flexible.  No frills, nothing fancy, but it’ll be better than nothing.”

Canary frowned.

“What?” Narwhal asked.

“Just… skintight suits.”

“Got a bit of pudge there?” Imp asked.  “Fat thighs?  Cankles?”

“I don’t have cankles,” Canary said.  “Or fat thighs.  But it’s not…”

She trailed off.

Imp plucked the fabric of her own costume. “I’ve been there.  You think looking this good is easy?  Skintight is a bitch to pull off.  Diets, exercise, keeping up with the patrols and the life or death fights.  Surprised you didn’t get that while you were in the slammer.”

“Not a lot of choice in food, or freedom of movement when you can get cut in half for setting one toe in the wrong spot,” Canary said.  She was frowning, now.

“You can wear your clothes over it,” Narwhal suggested.  “We can get you some tools.  Nonlethal weapons.  So you’re able to defend yourself.”

They’d work it out.  I shook my head a little.  Had to focus on my own thing.

“Doorway, please,” I murmured.  “Gimel.  By the Dragonfly, New Brockton Bay.”

The portal began to slide open.

“I’ll do you one better, Canary,” Saint said.  “I’ll give you one of the spare Dragonslayer suits.”

“It’s… a good offer, but I think I’d feel like I was betraying Dragon if I took it.”

“You wouldn’t be able to pay her what you supposedly owe her if you died, either,” Saint said.  “This is freely offered.  No strings attached.  I’ll give you the ability to fly, Canary.  Better nonlethal weapons than the ones they have Masamune manufacturing.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

I hesitated in the doorway to listen.  Tattletale, Rachel and Imp walked past me on their way through.

“Do it,” Defiant said, not looking at Canary or Saint.  His eyes were on the laptop.  “Saint?  I’ll be looking over everything for tricks and backdoors.”

“Noted,” Saint said.

Defiant opened the door to Saint’s cell.

Saint stood, then rolled his head around, as if getting kinks out of his neck.  He looked so small next to Defiant, but he wasn’t a small guy.  His face was marked by lines of stress, but his gaze was hard.

“You don’t leave my sight,” Defiant said.  “Any access you have to a system is routed through me.  I double-check it.”

Saint nodded.

I passed through the portal, entering the field where I’d set down the Dragonfly. Some kids were climbing around the outside of the ship, but they ran the second they saw us, shouting.

The wind blew, making waves in the tall grass.  I turned to face it so my hair wouldn’t blow into my face.  I was left looking out over the water, while I moved bugs into the necessary channels and manipulated the switches, bidding the ramp to open.

“It doesn’t get said enough, but this is pretty damn cool,” Tattletale said.  “Outclassed convenience-wise by the portals we’ve got access to, but yeah, nice.”

“Yeah,” I said.  My mind was almost someplace else, considering everything that was in play, the threats, the necessities.

I paused, glancing out at New Brockton Bay.  Brockton Bay Gimel.  Tents and shelters were spread out everywhere, with ramshackle shelters dotting the landscape with little sense or organization.  Here and there, there were paths forming, where the passage of hundreds of people were tramping down grass and disturbing the earth.  Crews of people working in groups to erect basic shelters, bringing down trees and reducing them to basic components that they could form into shelters.

I felt a stirring, a mix of emotions, at seeing that.

Looking at them, I could almost sense that they were blissfully unaware.  They didn’t know how badly we’d lost in our initial foray, or their attitudes would be different.  There wasn’t anything like television or radio to spread the word.  There would only be word of mouth.

Had someone told them, only for the masses to dismiss it as hearsay?  Dismissing it because they didn’t want to believe we were well and truly fucked?  Or had the word simply failed to spread, with enough people keeping quiet, believing that it wouldn’t do any good for people to know?

They were lucky, to be able to face the end of the world without full knowledge of what we were up against.  Without the knowledge of what Scion was, or the looming, patient presence of the two Endbringers on Earth Bet.

It was arrogant, even condescending, but I felt a kind of warmth in the center of my chest when I looked at the people down there, like a parent might feel for a child, accompanying a sort of pity.

And somehow, when I pictured the people going to work, sweating, dirty, hungry and scared, getting eaten alive by flies, selflessly carrying out barn raisings to give shelter to the old, the infirm and the very young, I couldn’t help but picture my dad in their midst.  It was the sort of thing he’d do.

Nobody had explicitly said he’d died, and I’d gone out of my way not to ask.  Still, I felt how wet my eyes were when I blinked.  No tears, but my eyes were wet.

I could envision Charlotte down there.  Sierra.  Forrest.  The kids, Ephraim, Mason, Aiden, Kathy and Mai, I imagined, would be bringing water to the people hard at work.

Except Sierra had other duties, and the orphan children from my territory were older.  The kids would be doing basic jobs by now, overseeing new batches of kids with the errands, sweeping, and other stuff in that vein.  Still, it was a mental picture that defied logic, like seeing my dad down there.  I pictured them with the water bottles.

I shook my head a little to rid myself of the mental image, and in the doing, I stirred myself from the daydreaming entirely.  I was still standing at the foot of the ramp.

“Lost in thought?” Tattletale asked.

“Sorry,” I said.  I turned to make my way up the ramp, Tattletale keeping pace beside me.  Rachel had already settled in, lying on a bench, Bastard lying on the ground just below her.  Imp had settled outside in the grass, her head turned towards what would have been the south end of the city, if the city existed in this world.

“No need to apologize.  Constructive thought?  Strategy?”

“No.  Not constructive at all,” I said.  “Thinking about the people.”

“The people?” Tattletale asked.  “We keep telling them to split up, that we’ll give them portals to different spots around Gimel, or to other Earths.  The ones down there are the ones that refuse to go.  Sitting there, clustered into a massive target for Scion, the Endbringers, or the Yàngbǎn to take out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “Everything I’ve said in the past stands.  Humans are idiots.  They’re selfish and injust and unfair, they’re violent and clumsy and petty and shortsighted.  Don’t get me wrong.  Every part of that applies to me, too.  I’m not setting myself above them on any level.”

“Mm,” Tattletale responded.

I began gathering the components for my suit.  I’d wear the same thing I did to the fight against Scion.  Just needed the individual parts.

“But at the end of the day, sometimes humanity isn’t so bad.”

“Sometimes,” she said.  “Took me a while to realize that.  The more you find out, the uglier things tend to look.  But you keep looking, and it’s not all bad at the end.”

I nodded, reaching into my pocket to get the little tube of pepper spray I’d claimed from my ruined costume.  I moved it into the belt of the new costume, then began stripping out of the casual clothes I wore.

I paused when I had my shirt off and my hair more or less in order, holding the bundle against my chest.

“I want to save them,” I said, surprising myself with the emotion in my voice.

“Scary thing is,” Tattletale said, “I know what you mean.  Most times, I’m just not that fond of people.  Seen enough ugliness in them that I don’t… care?  No.  That’s wrong.  I care, I cared, past tense.  But I didn’t… mind, if something happened to them.  That’s closer to the mark.”

I nodded.  I wasn’t surprised at that.

“But we’re getting to this point where I want to do something for them like I wanted to do something for you.  Probably a bad omen.”

“No,” I said, quiet, as I strapped on armor.  I looked at her.  “Do you regret reaching out to me?”

“No,” she said.  “But that doesn’t mean it was all right, know what I mean?”

I nodded.

Tattletale gave me a pat on the back before making her way to the bench opposite Rachel, grabbing a laptop and lying down with her head and shoulders resting against a bulkhead.

Belt on.  I hesitated before donning my mask, but I pulled it on anyways, then clasped it behind the neck, unrolling the bit from the body-portion to bury the clasp.

Then I pulled on the spare flight pack.

Depending on how things went, I might not get the chance to charge it again, to refuel the Dragonfly or anything in that vein.

If Scion or the Endbringers didn’t kill us in the coming handful of days, we’d eventually run out of fuel.  Communications would falter, and we’d run through stores of food, medicine and other amenities.  There was no way to establish new supplies as fast as we needed them.

We’d only been able to evacuate with limited supplies.  Then there were the supplies we’d brought over in advance.  Gimel was one of the more fortunate Earths for that.

I checked my armor, then tightened the straps.  Maybe a bit tighter than necessary, but I wasn’t going to stress over it.

I opened and closed my hand.  It felt weird, still, but not so much that it would be debilitating.

“Doorway,” I said.  “To Panacea.”

The doorway unfolded, and noise poured forth from the other side.  I got Imp’s attention with a swirl of butterflies, then drew the other bugs in the area to me.  Once Imp was inside the Dragonfly, I bid the ramp to close.

The rear door of the Dragonfly was still slowly shutting as we passed through the doorway and into the center of what looked like a makeshift hospital.

The walls seemed to be rough granite in varying colors, surprisingly thick and old.  Bricks and blocks three feet across, some with cracks here and there.  There were even tendrils of grass or occasional flowers growing in some of the deeper crevices.  The ‘windows’ were openings five feet by ten feet wide, with glass set into frames that had clearly been added as a late addition.

The area was flooded with people, talking, shouting, whimpering, crying.

Patients.

People had been burned, cut, bruised, their limbs crushed, faces shattered.  There were wounds I couldn’t imagine were anything but parahuman made.  They were laid out on beds and sat on stone chairs, crammed so close together they were practically shoulder to shoulder.

Panacea appeared.  She was rubbing wet hands as though she’d just washed them.  Long sleeves were rolled up, her hair tied back.  Unlike what Canary had suggested, she was leaner as a result of her stay in the Birdcage.  She was followed by a man with hair that had been combed into a sharp part, a needle-thin mustache and heavy bags under his eyes.  Something in his bearing… he was a cape.

She walked by a row of people, and they extended hands.  Her fingers touched each of theirs for only a moment, while she didn’t give them even a glance.

“Dad,” she said, stopping.

A man at the side of the room stood straighter.  Marquis.  His hair was long enough to drape over his shoulders, his face clean-shaven by contrast.  He had a fancy-looking jacket folded over one arm, and a white dress shirt that had fine lines of black lace at the collar and the sleeves he’d rolled up his arms.  Two ostentatious rings dangled from a fine chain around his neck; the chain had a locket on it, suggesting he’d added the rings as an afterthought.  To keep them out of the way while he worked, perhaps.

“What is it, Amelia?”

For another man, the combination of physical traits and the style of dress might have led to someone mistaking them for a woman.  They might have come across as effeminate.

Marquis didn’t.  Not really.  When he’d spoken, his voice had been masculine, deep, confident.  The cut of his shoulders and chin, his narrow hips, was enough that I couldn’t expect anyone to mistake him for a woman.  I wasn’t the type to go for older guys, I wasn’t even the type to go for effeminate guys.  But I could see where women would go for Marquis.

“Broken bones here.  Shattered femur.  Some bone is exposed.  Are you occupied?”

“Nothing critical,” Marquis said.  “It won’t be comfortable, fixing that.”

Panacea touched the patient’s hand again.  “He’ll be pain-free for twenty minutes.”

“That’s enough time.  Thank you, my dear.”

Marquis crossed paths with Panacea on his way to the patient.  He laid a hand on her shoulder in passing.

I watched her reach one hand up to her upper arm, touching a tattoo.  She took in a deep breath, exhaled, and then moved on.

She got two paces before she finally noticed us, stopping in her tracks.

“Yo,” Tattletale said.

“Is there a problem?” the tidy man beside Panacea asked.

“Old acquaintances,” Panacea said, her stare hard.

“Enemies?”

One enemy,” she said, her voice soft.  “I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing you again, Tattletale.”

“Sorry,” Tattletale said.

“I can deal with this, if it’s what you require,” the tidy man said.

“No, Spruce.  You probably couldn’t.  Don’t worry about it.  Think you could double-check on things in the back?  The equipment?”

“I will,” the tidy man said.  He turned and strode from the lobby of the makeshift hospital.

Panacea closed the distance.

You do the talking,” Tattletale whispered.  I nodded a fraction by way of response.

“So?” Panacea asked.  Her eyes roved over us, taking in details.

“I wanted to thank you for the fix,” I said.  I raised a hand.

“You tried to help me at a bad time.  It didn’t take, but you tried,” she said.

“Ah.”

“A lot of people invested in your survival.  Caught me off guard.  Used to be I was the golden child, but I wasn’t lucky enough to have anyone there to catch me when I fell.”

“Looks like Marquis caught you,” Tattletale said.

Panacea glanced at her dad, who was looking at us with one eyebrow slightly raised.

“Maybe,” she said.  “I thought you were a hero now.  You’re running with the old gang?”

Gang is such an outmoded word,” Imp said.  “So small.  There’s gotta be a better way to put it.  Ruling the roost with the old warlords again, back atop Mount Olympus once more.”

“Shh,” Tattletale hushed her.  Then, after a pause, she whispered “Olympus?  Where are you getting this?

“Not a hero, not a villain.  Just trying to get by,” I said.  “Sticking with the people I know best.  People I trust.”

“I see.  We’re trying to get by, too.  Twelve doctors, twenty nurses, me, my father and what remains of my father’s old gang.  They were sending the worst of the wounded our way while we tried to get set up to accommodate larger numbers.  Then the Yàngbǎn hit a settlement.  We’ve been flooded ever since.”

“I see,” I said.

She shifted her weight.  She had a different presence, now.  Something she’d no doubt picked up in prison.  Not posturing.  Simply more comfortable in her shoes.  She asked, “Did you need something?  There’s a reason you came.”

“I was going to say we’re mobilizing.  Dealing with some threats.  Trying to get as many big guns on board as we can, starting with the ones who weren’t on the platform.  I was thinking we could use you.”

“I see,” she said.  “I’m not particularly interested in being used.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know, but it’s still meaningful that the word came up, isn’t it?”

“No,” I said.  “No it isn’t.”

She glanced back towards her dad.  Two more people who might have been capes had approached him, while he sat next to the man he was healing.

“I can’t stop Scion,” Panacea said.  “I probably couldn’t even touch him, if I wanted to get that close, and if I did, I don’t think I’d accomplish a thing.”

“Maybe not,” I said.

“Do you think you’re going to stop him with giant dogs?  With bugs?  People tried and they failed.  This is what’s left.  Finding places where humans used to live and moving in, if we’re lucky.  Starting over from scratch if we aren’t.  Ensuring that the population is spread out enough, but not so spread out they won’t be able to repopulate.  Dividing all of humanity into groups of six hundred to a thousand people, dropping them off in the middle of nowhere.”

“It won’t work,” Tattletale said.  “Scion moves too fast, and there’s not that many places to hide, in the grand scheme of things.”

“Every time you open your mouth,” Panacea said.  She sounded as if she was going to say something else, but she didn’t.

“You’re one of the strongest capes out there,” I said.  “We need you on our side.”

“You’ll have me,” Panacea said.  “But not on the front lines.”

I sighed.

A deep rumble sounded.  An animal noise, almost.

I turned to look, and I saw Spruce, the tidy man, standing beside Lung and Bonesaw.  The noise had been Lung, an odd sound to come from him when he was still, to all appearances, in his human state.  A tall Asian man, muscular, riddled with tattoos.  New ones had been added since the first day I’d seen him.  More eastern-style dragons.  His hair was longer, and there was scruff on his cheeks and chin.

Bonesaw wasn’t dressed up like a little girl.  Her hair wasn’t in ringlets.  She wore gray sweats.

Rachel growled a little, under her breath, an eerie parallel to Lung.

Lung stepped forward, and he pushed Bonesaw, who stumbled a little.

“It’s not nice to push,” she said.

“Don’t be cutesy,” he growled.  “We’ve warned you before.”

“Okay, fine then.  Stop fucking pushing me.  Tell me where you want me, and I’ll walk there.”

He pointed towards us.

They closed the distance until Bonesaw was next to Panacea.  Lung placed a hand on top of her head and gripped her, arresting her forward momentum.

She lashed out, twisting around and slapping at his wrist with one hand.

Don’t do that,” she said.

Someone’s short-tempered,” Imp observed.  She hadn’t yet donned her mask, though she had it with her.  Her eyes were narrowed.

“I’ve had no sleep,” Bonesaw said.  “Big sis here took out all the good bits I’d stored inside myself, and she didn’t turn off the pain.  I feel too light.  I feel weird.  Can’t sit still, not that they ever let me.”

“First tier parahuman problems,” Imp said.  Her tone wasn’t as humorous in nature as the words.

“And they keep getting on my case,” Bonesaw said, apparently oblivious.  She directed her attention to Panacea and Lung.  “Trust me, I haven’t butchered you all yet, I’m not going to in the future.  You can stop testing me.”

“I remember when you were cuddly,” Tattletale said.  “You were so happy and fluffy and you had a good attitude.  You were a complete and total monster, and nobody in their right mind would cuddle you, but you were adorable.  Now look at you.”

Bonesaw scowled, but I wasn’t paying attention to that.  Tattletale had used the past tense.  You were a complete monster.  Referring to the past, or an observation on a deeper level?

She is why I can’t leave,” Panacea said.  “I’m the only one that can double-check her work.  If we’re both here, you’ve got two stellar healers on the back lines.  If I leave, you’ve got a healer with minimal combat experience on the front line and a defused bomb with nobody that’s capable of knowing if it’s reactivated.”

I couldn’t really argue that.

Well, I could, but not very well.

“There’s another way to deal with that sort of situation,” Imp said.  “Get rid of the fucking bomb.”

“We will,” Panacea said.  “If she gives us an excuse.  Any excuse at all.  But she gets one chance.”

“When you’re talking about a bomb, that’s all it needs,” Imp said.  “Then you wind up carved up, your insides decorating the walls of a room.”

“Your metaphors…” Tattletale mumbled.  “Well, that almost worked.”

Bonesaw raised an eyebrow.  “You sound upset, but I don’t remember doing that to you.”

“My brother,” Imp growled the word.

“Oh,” Bonesaw said.  She glanced to her left, then down to the floor, a frown crossing her face.  “Right.  I’m remembering now.  Shit.  That was one of the bad ones.  Not one of the bad bad ones, but bad.”

Kind of, yeah,” Imp said, not easing up in the slightest.

“I’m sorry,” Bonesaw said, still looking at the floor.  “I won’t say I’ll make amends, because there’s no way I can even come close.  I don’t know what to say, except that I’m sorry.  No excuses.  But I’m going to do what I can to make things better, and maybe I get a hundredth of the way, in the end.”

“He had a second trigger event,” Tattletale said.  “And killed Burnscar.  In case that helps you place him.”

“I said I remember,” Bonesaw said, sounding irritated.  She glared at Tattletale.

Sure,” Tattletale replied, quiet enough she could barely be heard.

I stared at Bonesaw, watching her expression shift in fractions.  Her eyes moved, as if she were watching a scene, or recalling a memory in great detail.

“You’re fighting?” Lung asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“We’re fighting,” I said, shifting my attention to him.

“Who?”

“Everyone who gets in our way,” Rachel interjected.

“What she said,” I added.

Lung stared at me, and I held his gaze.  For someone as brutal and vicious as he was in the heat of battle, Lung had cold eyes.

He’d be thinking about his losses to me.  I’d used venomous bugs to rot away his junkular area, and I’d dosed him with hallucinogenic blood before gouging out his eyes.

It was odd, but those slights probably mattered less than the real offense I’d dealt him.

I’d taken over the city.  He’d tried and failed, I’d succeeded.

Given my understanding of Lung, I suspected that was something far more unforgivable.

“Fighting Scion, Endbringers, the Yàngbǎn…”  Tattletale said.  She placed an emphasis on the last.

Odd.  I would have reversed it.  Emphasized the biggest threats.

“Yes,” Lung said.  “No need to manipulate me, Tattletale.  If you want me to join the fight, you only have to ask.”

Tattletale had a funny look on her face, fleeting.  She turned my way, one eyebrow raised, questioning.

I nodded.

“Good,” Lung said.  “Let me collect my mask.  I will be back.”

He left.

“Doorway,” Tattletale said.  “Um…?”

“To Shadow Stalker,” I said.

The portal began to open.  It was nighttime on the other side.

Tattletale gave me a funny look.

“What?”

“I brought up the Yàngbǎn because I figured he’d be ticked they attacked this spot.  I’m getting credit for brilliant insights I didn’t have.  Not even in a fun way.  That’s going to bug me.”

I shrugged.  “Take what we can get?”

She nodded.

While we’d exchanged words, Panacea had sent Bonesaw off with Spruce.

“Thank you again, Panacea,” I said.  “For putting me back together.”

She opened her mouth to speak, then seemed to reconsider.  She pointed at the portal.  I nodded, and followed her as we strode through.  Tattletale and Imp remained in the hospital lobby, and the portal remained open.  Rachel followed us through, but seemed to sense that we wanted a private discussion and wandered off a short distance.

Panacea and I walked out onto a shelf of rubble that had once been the midpoint of a bridge.

“I’m not a fighter,” she said.  “I hope you understand.”

“I do,” I said.  “But I’m kind of hoping that, in the end, we aren’t left with only the people who ‘aren’t fighters’ on the battlefield, who’ve realized they have no choice but to change their minds.  It’d be pretty tragic if we got that far and someone like you clued into the fact that you could have helped.  It would be somehow fitting, too, if that’s how humanity went extinct.”

“It would be just as tragic if we rushed headlong into a fight, and threw away a life in the process, only to realize in retrospect it was someone vital,” she said.

I nodded.

“Good luck.  Don’t turn your back on Lung.”

“I won’t.  I’m pretty good when it comes to keeping an eye on people,” I said.  I called bugs to my hand, as if to illustrate.

“Then I really hope you succeed in the fights that come.  We’re kind of counting on you.”

“Likewise,” I said.  “I mean, I hope you achieve whatever you’re striving to do here.”

She glanced back towards the portal, which glowed from the ambient light of the room on the other side.  “Second chances.”

“Hm?”

“Together, we’re giving second chances to monsters who don’t deserve them.”

“Yourself included?” I asked.

She nodded.

“I’m not sure I get it,” I told her.  I could see Shadow Stalker land to perch on an outcropping of steel reinforcement, a distance away, watching us.  “I mean, I do get the second chances thing, not deserving it.  But…”

I trailed off.  I couldn’t articulate it well enough.

“When you’re in that position, sometimes the only people willing to extend those second chances to you are the people who need them.”

“I understand,” I said.  “You know, if you’d joined the Undersiders back then, we could have given you that.”

“You could have.  I’m not sure I could have taken it.”

“Right,” I answered.  “Yeah.”

“Not all of us are like that, though,” she said.  “Lung isn’t, as far as I can tell, but maybe you’ll see it if you look for it.  Or maybe you’ll get burned to a crisp by Lung the second an enemy distracts you and you forget to watch him.”

I nodded.

“He’s not someone who builds or rebuilds.  He’s someone who destroys.”

Something in that phrase struck a chord in me.  I knew the right answer, right away.

“We just need to point him in the right direction, then,” I said.

“Best of luck with that,” Panacea said.

She’d had her hands clasped, and as she extended a hand to shake, I could feel the bugs come to life, fluttering free of the space between her palms.

Relay bugs.  Twenty.

I checked, investigating their internal makeup.  They could breed.

Even with that gift, even with the fact that she’d never done anything to me, I couldn’t help but think of the incoherent mess of details I’d seen in the records.  The pictures that catalogued the event that had preceded her voluntary admission to the Birdcage.  I saw her outstretched hand and hesitated for a fraction of a second.  From the expression on her face, I knew she had noticed.

Second chances.

I shook her hand, drawing the relay bugs to me and stashing them in my belt.  “Thank you.”

She nodded, then exited the portal as the others made their way through to my side.  Lung and the Undersiders.  I had my back turned to them as I looked at Shadow Stalker.  She remained perched on that twist of bent girders and bars from the collapsed bridge, her cloak flapping around her.

“I remember this one,” Lung rumbled.  “She shot me with arrows.  It did not hurt that much.  She is a weakling.  Why are we wasting our time with her?”

And so the struggles for dominance in the group begin.

“I’ll take weak,” I said.  “I’m just… working with known quantities.”

The flapping of the cloak quieted as she shifted into a shadow state.  The wind was passing through it, instead of pushing against it.

Shadow Stalker leaped down, floated.

Soundlessly, she landed right in front of me, remaining in the shadow state.

“Hoping you’ve changed your mind,” I said.  Hoping you’ve seen the devastation, and that it’s reached some human part of you that cares.  “That you’re interested in fighting.”

She didn’t budge, didn’t respond.

“It also means bashing some skulls,” I said.  “She been behaving, Tattletale?”

“Mostly.”

“Then she’s probably itching for a good fight,” I said, not breaking eye contact with Shadow Stalker.  “What do you say?  You want to knock a few heads?  Break some jaws?”

She shifted to her physical state.  “I’m not that easy to bait.”

I shrugged, waiting.

“Search and rescue is garbage,” she said, sounding annoyed.  “Nobody left, but there’s no place to go if I don’t want to do it, either.”

“You could go home,” I said.  “Find your family, settle down, put the crossbow away for good.”

“Capes don’t retire,” Shadow Stalker said.  “Doesn’t work.  We die in battle or we lose our minds, one or the other.”

I thought of my passenger, how it had reflexively sought out violence in the past.  How others had done the same.  Die in battle.

Then I thought of Grue.  Was Shadow Stalker right?  Would the retirement just fail to take?

I sighed.  “So?  What’s your call?”

“I’ll come.  Sure.  I kind of want to see what you’ve made of yourself.”

She had wanted to claim the credit for my becoming what I’d become.  It grated, because it wasn’t entirely wrong.  It wasn’t true in the sense she believed it was true, but she had given me my powers.

“Fine,” I said.

She cracked her knuckles.  “So, who’s first?”

“Need to talk that over with Defiant,” I said.  “We can do it over the comms, for the sake of expediency.”

“Okay,” she said.  She sounded a little pleased with herself.  “Whatever.  I’m game.”

“Doorway, please,” I said, to nobody in particular.  “Dragonfly interior.”

The portal opened.

I extended a hand, inviting the group to enter.

Lung shouldered his way past Rachel to be the first one inside.  Bastard huffed out a half-bark, then growled.

Much like Panacea had said about Bonesaw, it wasn’t about having them as allies.  Having them be part of the group, it meant they weren’t on the opposing side.  They weren’t wreaking havoc as neutral parties.

That alone was good.

But if they turned out to be destructive forces we could control

The half-thought I’d had during my goodbye to Panacea fell into place.

A plan.

I stepped through the portal to board the Dragonfly.

“You lunatic!”  Shadow growled the word.

I was silent.  The clouds above and landscape below were a blur, the individual details impossible to make out with our speed.

“Doing this with me?  With Lung?  I could almost understand that,” Shadow Stalker growled.  “But your friends?”

“Don’t care,” Tattletale said.  “We’ve always been the sort to go for the long odds.  You have to do what your enemy won’t predict.”

“Damn straight,” Imp said.  “Credo I live by.”

“Mount Olympus, now credo?”  Tattletale asked.  “It’s the Heartbroken, isn’t it?  They’re warping you into… this.”

“Leave me alone, seriously.”

“What you’re saying doesn’t make sense!”  Shadow Stalker snarled.  “Not here, not like this!

“It actually makes the most sense,” Tattletale said.  “But that’s a different story altogether.  One that needs some explanation.”

“Ten minutes before we hit our target,” I said.  We’d taken the path through the Brockton Bay portal.  Cauldron’s doorways weren’t big enough for a vehicle like this.

“Ten minutes should be enough,” Tattletale said.  “Let me get this loaded on the laptop.  Easier to show than tell.”

“Right,” I said.  My eyes didn’t leave the navigation screens.

“I’ll kill you,” Shadow Stalker threatened.  “Turn this fucking ship around.”

She moved, reaching for a crossbow bolt.  I reacted, half-rising from my seat, drawing my swarm out-

But Lung moved faster, shoving Shadow Stalker against the side of the ship.

Shadow Stalker went ghostly, brandishing the bolt like a dagger as she passed through Lung.

Rachel gripped a length of wire that extended from the laptop, holding it out like a garrotte.  As Lung had done, she moved to pin Shadow Stalker against the wall of the Dragonfly.  Shadow Stalker returned to a normal state just in time to avoid being electrocuted.

Bastard growled, snapping at her hand, and the bolt clattered to the floor.

“You’re okay with this?”  she asked.

“Yes,” Lung rumbled, by way of response.  “This might be best.”

“Fuck you, Hebert!  Pulling this shit only after you got me on board?  You’re all lunatics!”

I sighed.

Tattletale sat down on the arm of my pilot’s seat, setting one foot down beside my thigh on the seat’s edge.  “There’s stuff you need to know.  I told you before, you said you wanted to be blissfully ignorant until the last minute.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yes.  Right.  I’m listening.”

“It’s video footage Glaistig Uaine left with me.  Last two minutes of Eidolon’s life.  Video cuts in and out, but there’s audio.  That leaves me maybe a minute or two to explain, then you can use the rest of the time to think it over.”

She had my attention, though I couldn’t take my eyes off the monitors at the front of the ship.  Shadow Stalker’s cries of anger were background noise.

The Pendragon was flying alongside us, just a little behind, carrying the capes Defiant had recruited.  Carrying Saint, Canary, and others.

Tattletale loaded up the video, filling the screen of the laptop.

I glanced once at the main monitor, then set the autopilot.

Faultline had talked about taking the simple route.  Talking to Scion.  In practice, harder than it seemed.

We were dealing with problems on a massive scale, we needed solutions on that same level.  There was no easy way to get to that level.  It meant taking risks.  Gambling.

We needed a destructive force we could direct.  Needed to turn third-party liabilities into assets.

With that in mind, I’d set course straight for the Simurgh.  We’d talk to her or we’d kill her.

Tattletale started the video, and I watched.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 22 (Donation Bonus #1)

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

March 2nd, 1997

“Okay,” Daiichi said.  His Japanese was easy, a lazy drawl.  He paused at the top of the flight of stairs, sneering a touch as he waited for his followers to ascend.  “If you don’t hurry, they’ll be gone by the time we get there.”

There were grumbles from the others.

“Why isn’t there an elevator?” Ren whined.  Of all of them, he was the heaviest, the black jacket of his school uniform straining across his shoulders.  He’d dyed his hair blond, but hadn’t yet found a good style to wear it.  Ren was Daiichi’s lieutenant; most thought that was because Daiichi put too much stock in Ren’s size, ignoring the fact that he was more fat than muscular.  People who knew Daiichi better speculated that it was because Daiichi wanted someone fat and ugly that could offset his own good looks.  Only those inside Daiichi’s group and the people who crossed them knew better.

“Only three floors,” Daiichi said.  “And we wouldn’t use it if they had one.  They could have someone watching.”

“With only two of them?”  Ryo asked.

“Can’t hurt to be safe,” Arata said.

Kenta was the first up the flight of stairs.  Daiichi clapped one hand on his shoulder.  Their leader asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” Kenta answered.  His heart pounded.

For others, for his neighbors and peers, conformity was safety.  To be the same as one’s peers, it reassured the self, reassured others.  Standing out was bad.

But Kenta stood out anyways.  He looked different.  People knew his mother was Chinese.  He was oddly tall for his age, his grades poor.  He could have struggled, but there was so little point.  He was competing with classmates who were already miles ahead of him, who were fighting to keep ahead of one another by studying after school, studying at night.

This was something else.  It was both thrilling and terrifying, to recognize those lines and ignore them.  To be brazen, to stand out on purpose.  Breaking rules, breaking convention.  He imagined it was like the rush that accompanied a fall to open water or hard ground.

“This is our springtime,” Daiichi said, and he managed to say it without sounding ridiculous.  At seventeen, he was older than any of them.

Springtime, Kenta thought.  Daiichi had it all planned out.  They would earn a reputation for themselves, then submit themselves to the Yakuza.  With luck, they would be accepted as low-level members of the ‘chivalrous organization’.  The freedom would be gone, in a way.  Their ‘springtime’, in a sense, referred to the brief period where they were free to do what they wanted, between the confines of school and membership in the Yakuza.

“There’s only two Chinese?” Ren asked, as they filed out of the stairwell and into the restaurant on the third floor.  The rooms here had thick walls and a wooden door, rather than the traditional paper.  They’d wanted privacy, maybe.  It didn’t matter.

“My cousin owns the building,” Daiichi said. “He said they paid with bundles of bills, and no other Chinese came in.  Some Western gaijin, but nobody threatening.”

Kenta looked back at their group.  Nine people for two men?  And they had an unfair advantage, besides.

“Go,” Daiichi ordered.

Kenta was stronger than Ren, so he was the one to kick down the door.  He moved aside to let fat Ren advance.  He wasn’t stupid, wasn’t ignoring the possibility the foreigners had guns. 

There was no gunfire.  Instead, he could hear someone speaking in English, very calm.

The woman is upset you did not take enough precautions,” A man said, in Chinese.  He sounded more alarmed than the English speaker.

Daiichi and Ren led the advance into the back room.  Kenta followed, looking over Ren’s shoulder to take in the scene.

There were five people in the room.  Two were Chinese, sure enough.  Businessmen, they seemed to be, kneeling on one side of a squat dining table that was neatly stacked with cash and ‘bricks’ of white powder in plastic wrap, as well as various dishes laid out with vegetables and meat.  A Japanese man sat at one end of the table, hands folded in his lap, eyes wide.

But there were two more gaijin in the room, kneeling opposite the Chinese foreigners.  A black woman in a white suit jacket and a knee-length dress, and a twenty-something woman with a European cast to her features, with dark hair and a black suit.

The black woman spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to Chinese.  “The woman recommends we stand back.  Her bodyguard will take care of the situation.”

“The woman in front is a bodyguard,” Kenta told Daiichi.

This was wrong.  The two women were too confident.

Daiichi drew a gun and pointed it at the woman.  Kenta felt his heart leap at the sight of the weapon.

Then Daiichi fired, a warning shot.  Kenta flinched despite himself.  He’d never heard a gunshot before.  Loud.

The men were cowering, trying to hide beneath the table.  The women hadn’t even reacted.

“One bodyguard?” Daiichi asked, sneering.  He made the first move.  He flared a brilliant green, then jolted as a phantom replica of himself leaped forth.

The phantom Daiichi flew across the room like living lightning, a trail of neon green smoke in its wake.

The bodyguard was already moving, her hand on a plate.  She turned it upside-down and threw it in a single motion, and it caught the air like a frisbee.  It turned in mid-air and crashed into the real Daiichi’s face.

He staggered, and the phantom he’d created dissipated a fraction of a second before reaching the bodyguard.  She shut her eyes as the residual smoke carried past her.

Kenta stared.  He’d never seen Daiichi’s ability fail him like that.

Daiichi raised the gun, and the woman raised one knife from the table, turning it around so she held the blade, the metal handle extended.  She held it out with one hand, pointing it at Daiichi’s shoulder.

Daiichi fired, and the knife went flying.  It ricocheted, spinning rapidly, striking the doorframe behind the bodyguard before flying over her head in a tall arc.  She caught it in her other hand, resuming the exact same position as before, then shook her right hand for a second.

She said something, murmuring it in English.  The knife, still held in front of her, had a dent on the end.

The black woman behind her said something else.

“What are they saying?” Daiichi asked.

“The woman in the suit just got permission to kill us,” Hisoka said.  “But the black one said not to spill any blood.”

“We should run,” Kenta said.

“You scared?” Daiichi asked.  “We have muscle.”

“So does she,” Kenta retorted.

Daiichi only smirked.

Can’t run, we’re going to get hurt if we stay…

Ren rolled his shoulders, then inhaled.

Wind rushed out of the room, and small objects were drawn towards Ren.  The intensity of the suction grew as the fat boy sucked in more and more air.

The bodyguard kicked one edge of the low table, and the wind caught it, helping it rise.  Money, plates and the bricks of white powder slid to the floor, sliding and rolling towards Ren.

Daiichi opened fire again, indiscriminate, but she didn’t even react.  Her knife blocked one shot that was directed more at the black woman, flying out of her grip, and the bodyguard walked between the rest of the shots without even dodging.  She seized a table leg in one hand.  It would have been too heavy to lift, but Ren’s suction was hauling it off the ground.  Two bullets bit into the thick wood.

Daiichi unleashed his power, creating another ghostly replica of himself, incredibly fast, stronger than he was.

The woman kicked the table, and it spun through the air as it flew towards Ren, clipping the ghost.  The phantom lost an arm and a chunk of its chest, got its bearings, then charged the bodyguard.  The damage to its chest was too grave, and it crumpled into neon green dust a pace away from her.

Ren was struck by the moving table, hit with enough force that he stumbled backwards into Kenta, Hisoka, and the other mundane members of the group.

Ren blew, and the table went flying across the room.  Kenta’s heart sank as he saw the woman, crouching low to the ground.  Her hand reached up to strike the flying table, altering its course as it flew towards the Chinese men.  It came so close to hitting them that Kenta thought it would be like the cartoons, where someone was cut but didn’t start bleeding until seconds had passed.

Except it hadn’t hit them, and the woman was too close to the ground to really be affected by the wind.

“Suck!” Daiichi shouted.

“Don’t!” Kenta said, though there was little point.

It was too late.  Ren had stopped blowing, buying her a second to move.  She stepped forward, closing the distance to the group.  Daiichi created a third ghost, rushing towards her, but she avoided the first strike.

Ren started drawing air in once more.  Daiichi’s spirit opened with a flurry of attacks, moving twice as fast as she was, but failed to land a strike.  The bodyguard took a step back and used the toe of her glossy black shoes to flick a brick of powder into the air.  She threw it, and the suction only added to its velocity as it soared to Ren’s right.

Daiichi’s spirit was fast enough to avoid the brick, but Daiichi wasn’t.  It bounced off his head, and the ghost dissipated again.  She kicked the table, and again, the suction caught it.  It flew into Ren’s shins, and he fell.

Thrice, both the ghost and Ren had been countered, almost casually.

Daiichi shouted, uncharacteristically angry.  Uncharacteristic, maybe, because he’d never lost a fight before.

The others pushed forward from behind Kenta.  Had they not just seen the fight?  They really thought they’d accomplish something?

But the force of the others charging forward from behind started him moving forward, and he was driven to keep advancing by the vague, incoherent idea of what might happen to him if he, the largest, physically strongest member of Daiichi’s group, turned coward.

He knew in an instant that it was a mistake.  Daiichi’s ghost, twice as fast and twice as strong as Daiichi himself, an expendable assailant, hadn’t accomplished anything.  Why would six or seven teenaged delinquents?

She tore through them, every movement precisely calculated to disable, to crush, blind, stun and stagger.  They were driven to stumble into one another, their weapons knocked from their hands.  She wasn’t any faster than any of them, not a martial artist, though there was a degree of elegance to what she did.  No movement wasted.

Her foot caught Kenta in the diaphragm.  She planted one hand on the back of his head as he winced from the blow, then pushed him face first into the ground.

His teeth bit into a brick of powder, puncturing the plastic itself.  Kenta tried to rise, but she stepped on the back of his head, driving him facefirst into the brick a second time, hard.

Someone else fell to the ground a short distance away.  Kenta turned to look, simultaneously coughed, and loose powder exploded around his face, filling his eyes.

The powder caked his nose, thick in his mouth, to the point that he couldn’t swallow.

Drugs weren’t a ‘big’ thing in the East, even among gangs.  He didn’t know the particulars of any powder or substance.  Only that they were bad, possibly lethal if too much was ingested.  He tried to spit it out, but couldn’t help but feel like he was swallowing more than he was removing.  The weight of the woman bodyguard was on his head, holding him there, suffocating.

He felt the rush of it taking hold, intense and seemingly without a ceiling to top it off.  His face in the dirt, in the dust, he was overwhelmed by the paradoxical sense of being like the king of the world.

That rush lasted too short a time.  He could feel the rush building until it felt like his heart was going to burst or vibrate itself into pieces.  He felt nauseous, as if he was going to throw up, but couldn’t bring himself to.

Kenta’s left arm started going numb.  He knew what that meant.

With a cold feeling in his churning gut, he thought, I’m having a heart att

He found himself out of his body.  He was an observer, an outside agent, without body or mind.  He couldn’t think.  He could only exist, as a part of some sequence of events.

Two entities, communicating in increasingly short bursts as they drew together.  Two entities, each unfolding and folding through realities, through multiple worlds at the same time.  Two entities, singing ideas through mediums he could barely comprehend.  Through light and heat and space and half-lives and gravity.

And they were looking.  Looking at a planet that was broad, more gas than solid.  A world of perpetual storms.  There were lifeforms in there, lifeforms in countless possible variations of that world.  Bloated bags of gas that flowed through and in the storms, in kalleidoscopic patterns.

He could see what they were focusing on, see them examining those possible worlds, declaring something.  Ownership here.  Claim there.  Territory elsewhere.

ack.

Kenta’s thoughts were confused as he felt the high seize him.  Three things overwhelming him at once.  The things he’d just seen, fleeing from his recollection.  His own body, dying in a violent, incomprehensible way.  The world beyond-

He blinked the dust out of his eyes, felt them burn, could only see shadows, could only hear the rush of blood in his ears.

The bodyguard had stepped away from him, freeing him to raise his head.  She’d staggered, and was being supported by the black woman.

He turned away, flipping himself over.  He could see the fat shape of Ren, on his hands and knees, Daiichi prone on the ground.

The bodyguard recovered faster.  She found her stride quickly enough.

She kicked at Daiichi’s throat, hard.  Ren, she struck in the nose with one boot.

The black woman said something in English.

S-she’ll take the cost of the lost product out of the deal,” the translator said in Chinese, his voice distant.

Kenta only lay there, his chest heaving.  He felt stronger, could feel his heart returning to some form of equilibrium.

But he knew he couldn’t win.  He lay there, doing his best to emulate the dying, as the Chinese men collected both cash and drugs in a bag, handing them to the black woman.

She spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to, “She would like to discuss delivery of the product on the way out.”

Kenta lay there long after the two women and the Chinese men had left.  He wiped caked powder from his face, though the effects had receded, the tingling and the rush long since faded.  Whatever had happened to him, the drugs did almost nothing, now.

He wiped his face with his shirt, then checked on his friends.

Daiichi, dead, suffocated, eyes bulging.  Ren lay there, eyes rolled up into his skull, his nose rammed into his brain, though the blood hadn’t leaked past the aperture of his nostrils.

Hisoka, suffocated on powder, as Kenta almost had.  Arata, gasping for air he couldn’t seem to pull into his lungs.  Ryo’s head had a dent in it, and his eyes were unfocused.  Jirou’s airway had been blocked, much as Daiichi’s had.  Both Takeo and Shuji lay dead with no apparent wounds.

All dead or dying, with no blood spilled.  Technically.

Kenta waited, holding Arata’s hand as the boy slowly died, then he straightened.

Idiots, he thought, with a degree of anger.  It had been foolish to escalate the fight after seeing what the woman was capable of.  He’d be more careful of who he fought in the future.

November 2nd, 1999

Lung toyed with a flame in one of his hands as he watched the great lizard-man’s rampage.

The Sentai Elite were battling the thing, assisted by the gaijin heroes.  Once every few minutes, someone passed him, flying, carrying wounded.  Lung didn’t care.  It was about timing.  If he was going to do this, he’d do it right.

A tidal wave rocked the area, and Lung had to hold on to a nearby building to keep from falling.  Heroes were swept up in the wash of water, and buildings were leveled.

The anticipation of a fight stirred inside him.  He could feel the scales beneath his skin, just itching to be brought to the surface.  The fire, too, was warm in the core of his body.

This was a fight that was worthy of him.  The trick was orchestrating it so he wouldn’t die before he got strong enough.  It was his biggest drawback.  The fight… the heroes were stalling in their own way as well.  He could tell by the way the heroes moved.  They fought in shifts.

Eidolon was fighting now.  He hurled globes of energy the size of small houses at Leviathan, and each one was sufficient to knock the creature away, flaying away the thing’s skin and simultaneously slowing it.  The hero’s own hydrokinesis deflected the lizard’s ranged attacks, diverting them skyward or off to one side.  Leviathan couldn’t attack from range, and couldn’t get close without getting pummeled.  He attempted to run, only for Japan’s foremost team, the Sentai Elite, to step into his way, blocking his progress.

“Are you fighting?”

Lung turned to look at the speaker.  A woman in a yellow and black Sentai costume.

“Yes,” he answered, his voice a rumble.  His power had granted him additional strength, durability, regeneration and control over fire even in his ordinary form, but the changes to his body had altered his voice.

She glanced at the fight, as if unsure whether she should be participating or talking to Lung, “You’re a yankee?”

“No.”

“You’re a villain?”

“I am me.”

Another tidal wave rocked the area.  This time, the water reached Lung, sweeping up to waist level and forcing him to hold the windowsill again to avoid losing his footing.  He caught the Sentai woman’s wrist to keep her from being washed away.

He could feel the scales beneath his skin stirring, threatening to rise, eager.

“Sumimasen deshita,” she said, once the water was mostly gone.

Lung only grunted a response.

“Why are you back here?”

“I’m waiting,” he answered.  “And you should be fighting.”

“I can’t do anything.  My power hurts people, but it doesn’t hurt him.  I’m not permitted to leave.”

The heroes were winning, slowly but surely.  Slowly more than anything.  Each tidal wave was doing catastrophic damage in the meantime.

I’ll fight, he thought.

With that very thought, his power started stirring into effect.  The scales began growing, slowly but surely, bristling like a sea urchin’s spines as they arranged themselves.  The very anticipation of the fight was serving to fuel his abilities.  When he changed, it would be rapid, accelerated by the sheer threat his opponent posed.

He abandoned his handhold and began striding through the flooded streets, towards Leviathan and the others.

He’d made a promise to himself.  He wouldn’t lose again.  Victory, it didn’t matter.  But losing?  He wouldn’t accept it, not like the loss he’d faced at the hands of the unnamed woman.

And that very thought, that certainty, it stirred his power further, as though it were something alive, something other.

Another tidal wave hit.  Leviathan disappeared in the midst of it, reappearing elsewhere.  Lung could hear the destruction as the beast clawed and tore through the base of one building that heroes were perched on.  He quickened his pace, felt himself growing stronger as he got closer.

The beast was otherwise occupied… this was the time.

“You’re going to die!” the Sentai in black and yellow shouted.

I’ll never die, Lung thought.  I might fall, but I’ll come back again and again.  I might falter, but I’ll return with twice the fury.

The waves were more frequent now.  Buildings here had been built to tight specifications, to remain standing in the face of earthquakes and tsunamis, but it wasn’t enough.  Barely a minute passed between the strikes, with each wave reaching further inland than the last, and only a handful of buildings stood at their full height, where there had been a city here only an hour ago.

It was in one of those brief moments of respite that the ground shuddered.  Lung nearly lost his footing.  When he looked up at the night sky, he could see that the tallest standing buildings were swaying, like fronds bending in the wind.

Somewhere he couldn’t see in the gloom, a building swayed too far and crashed to the ground.

Eidolon backed off, and Alexandria stepped in, flying into close quarters with the beast, battering him.  He tried to duck beneath the water, but she broke off to fly beneath, using her strength and the speed of her flight to part the water, cutting off his retreat.  He slowed as he entered open air, though slow wasn’t the word.  Legend caught him square in the chest, and Leviathan slowed long enough for Alexandria to catch him by the tail.

She flew straight up, holding the monster by the tail.  Between Leviathan’s dark scales and Alexandria’s black costume, they disappeared in the gloom.

Leviathan fell, and the resulting impact was oddly out of sync with his mass.  The water in particular seemed to react, a single ripple extending outward, clearing an area around him of any and all water.

Lung braced himself, felt the water collide with him with a force like a locomotive, was summarily dragged beneath, trapped, suffocating.

Scales pierced his skin, strength surged through him, and his pyrokinesis boiled around him, disrupting the water’s flow, rendering it to steam.

Other heroes were pushed back a hundred meters, but Lung was already standing, burning himself dry, advancing on the fight, where Eidolon was again engaging with Leviathan.

Another tidal wave struck, barely giving the defending forces time to recover from the last assault.  Lung lost his footing, lost another dozen feet of headway.

More scales were sprouting, they were growing en masse now.  His blood coursed through his veins at twice the usual speed.  Fire burned around him perpetually now.  He was naked, the burned rags of his clothes swept away by water, and he didn’t care.  He was in freefall, of a sort, but it wasn’t the ground waiting for him.  It was Leviathan.

His flame blasted out to pelt the Endbringer.  It didn’t do any substantial damage.

Lung ran, and it took him an instant to get used to his newfound strength, to find a stride and a rhythm.

The ground was shaking almost constantly, now.  The lasers, Eidolon’s strikes, the very impacts of the blows Alexandria delivered, the Sentai’s attacks, the barrages from assisting heroes.  A cacaphony of noise, light and violence.

He struck Leviathan, and was struck in turn, his bones broken, internal organs smashed.

He very nearly blacked out, but his rage won out.  He struggled to his feet, found one femur in two distinct pieces.  He knelt instead, resting his weight on one knee, the other foot planted on the ground, taloned toes biting into asphalt, and he directed a constant stream of fire at the Endbringer.

A flick of Leviathan’s tail sent him sprawling.

But Lung knew he’d reached a critical point.  His leg was already healing, the changes speeding up.  He stopped to hold his leg, pull the bones into what was more or less the right position, so they could bond.

Anyone who crosses me will pay twice over, he thought.

A Sentai in purple and green offered him a hand.  Lung ignored the man, standing on his own.  Again, a stream of fire, but the color was more blue than red.

The Sentai joined him, adding their ranged fire to his.  They had a man who mass produced their armor and weapons, each with wrist-mounted laser guns, rifles at their hips.  Sixteen or seventeen of them opened fire with both weapons at the same time.

Leviathan turned, struck.  Some Sentai used powers to soften or deflect the incoming scythe of water.

Leviathan charged, and Lung stepped forward to meet the brute, roared in defiance.

He wasn’t strong enough.  Leviathan knocked him aside, and Lung rolled, putting taloned hands and feet beneath him before rushing forward, shallow leaps that carried him over the water that was knee-high to the humans.  Barely halfway up Lung’s own calves.

He found handholds in the shallow wounds on Leviathan’s back and shoulders.  The abomination moved, and the watery echo that followed its movements crashed into Lung.  Not enough to unseat him.

The tidal wave that struck wasn’t enough either, nor Leviathan’s speed as the creature swam.  Lung dug deeper, clawed flesh away.  Deeper in Leviathan’s body, the flesh was only harder, the ichor making it slick.

Lung roared, burned head to toe as he clawed deeper still.  If Leviathan’s muscle was as hard as steel, Lung would burn hot enough to melt steel.

Leviathan surfaced, and Lung found his way up to the monster’s neck.  He tried to reach around, and his arm shifted, reconfiguring to be a fraction longer.  Lung’s legs, arms, and talons were growing as well.

Stronger, larger.  Another man might have been afraid of what he was becoming, but this was only continuing the freefall.  Freedom.

Leviathan shook him free, and Lung found no trouble in putting his feet under him.  His mouth strained, opened wider than it should have, four individual mouthparts flexing, bristling with teeth, his own lips buried somewhere deep inside, altered.

Water steamed and boiled around Lung’s calves as he stood as straight as he was able.  He’d changed more, his shoulders broadening, his chest heavy with muscle.  He had to rest his taloned hands on the ground to maintain his balance.  His senses focused on Leviathan like a laser, taking in everything, even the faint creaking of the monster’s movements and the Sentai’s muscles, and the infintesmally small burbles of ichor bubbling forth from Leviathan’s wounds.

The ground was rumbling constantly, to the point that the local heroes were starting to seem more concerned about the landscape than about Leviathan.

There was a crack, and Lung was put in mind of the gun Daiichi had fired, more than two years ago.  A loud sound, a wrong sound.

The ground shifted underfoot.  Heroes scrambled for cover, scrambled to run or save their friends, and water rushed forth.  Lung merely set his taloned toes in the ground, ignoring the water, the debris, and the people that flowed past him.

Leviathan charged him.

He can’t ignore me now, Lung thought.  He was only half the height of the Endbringer, but it was enough.  Fire against water, claw against claw.  Leviathan hit harder, but Lung healed faster.  Every second he fought without Leviathan tearing him in half was a second that was to his advantage.

The ground parted, and Lung could hear the water rushing in to fill the void.  The landmass had parted, and ocean water was streaming in from miles away.

Leviathan tried to drag him closer to the chasm, no doubt wanting to fight in that churning abyss.  Lung planted toes in the ground and resisted.

Alexandria was there in a heartbeat, helping, keeping Leviathan from finding his way inside.  She drove the monster back, bought Lung purchase.

She said something in English, but Lung didn’t know the language.  The only others who spoke Japanese or Chinese were gone, now.  They’d evacuated who they could, and the remainder were left to drown.  The only ones left were the indomitable, and for now, Lung was among them.  They fought to keep Leviathan from continuing his rampage, to keep him from carrying on until he’d wiped away all of Japan.  Lung just fought.

Fought for minutes, hours.  Fought until four wings extended from his back, and he burned so hot that the steel-like flesh just beneath Leviathan’s skin was blackening and charring to ash by proximity alone.  Until he was larger than Leviathan, until even Alexandria hesitated to get too close.

For that indeterminate period of time, Lung was king of the world.

But he began to weaken.  The lesser heroes were gone, washed away or helping others to evacuate, the greater heroes a distance away.

And Lung had nothing to fuel his power.  He was engaged in a fight of ten times the scale he’d been in before, and his power was leaving him.

The landmass disappeared beneath the pair of them, the shards of land drawn beneath the waves, and Lung was now fighting Leviathan in the monster’s home ground.

For an instant, he thought he would die.  But Leviathan, wounded, broke away and fled into the depths.

Lung only sank, too dense to float, growing wearier by the second as his power left him, the fight over.

He’d expected a feeling of satisfaction, but he knew he hadn’t delivered a killing blow, that he had been a long, long way from it, though he’d done more damage than anyone had in years.

His enemy couldn’t be killed.  Lung had become something more terrifying than the Endbringer, but there had been nobody to see.  None of the public to recognize him, to respect and fear him.

He sank, feeling a kind of despair.  Too tired to move, he touched bottom.

Alexandria found him in the depths and brought him to the surface.

August 13th, 2002

The walls of the C.U.I. prison loomed around him.

Lung fumed, but his power was denied him.  He paced, punched walls, burned the concrete with his power.  All around him, the area was pockmarked with the wounds that marked his periodic struggles.

They’d had him in regular cells before.  It had been a learning process for them.  He’d found that surviving in a prison like this involved being a true monster, so he’d bowed his head to one boss.  When this boss had discovered what he was capable of, he’d attacked another leader in the prison.  The ensuing war had ended with Lung being placed in higher security, until he fought the man who’d brought him food, very nearly escaping before Tōng Líng Tǎ, who never showed herself, encased him in a mountain of stone.

All in all, three years since he’d fought Leviathan.  Two years since he and his mother had come here to Chaohu.  A year and eight months since he’d been arrested by the Yàngbǎn.

A year and four months since Tōng Líng Tǎ had buried him here at the base of this pit, with the same routine.  Twice a day, he would get two packages with food.  Every day, he would pace, trying to tap into his abilities, finding them beyond his reach.  He would struggle, fume, scream, and wonder if he was going mad with the solitude.  Sometimes it rained, and he found himself knee deep in water.  Sometimes it was cold enough he couldn’t sleep.  Always, he was here, in a pit so deep that the hole at the top looked no larger than his handspan when he held his hand overhead.

Every seven days, Tōng Líng Tǎ used her powers on the walls.  The floor, she left alone, but the walls were wiped clean, her power to manipulate stone turning the four impossibly tall walls of Lung’s cell into flawlessly smooth surfaces.  She would absorb any and all of the trash that remained from his meals, any of the wildlife that had accidentally found their way into the pit, and all of Lung’s leavings, which he customarily left in one corner of his cell.

Every fourteen days, like clockwork, the Yàngbǎn opened communications.

Lung was waiting, waiting for Tōng Líng Tǎ to use her power.  Like a ripple traveling over the surface of water, he could see her power extend down the walls of his cell.  It touched the base of the wall and traveled along the floor.

Lung didn’t resist as the ground swept over his legs, trapping him from the knee down.

They appeared, descending from above, floating.  Two of them this time.  They made no mention of his lack of clothes or his shaggy hair.  Both wore identical uniforms, red jackets and pants, their red masks turning their faces into overlarge, featureless gemstones with coverings over their ears

At each of their shoulders, there was a number.  One-six and two-seven.  Not ones he’d met before.  No names.  No identities.

Will you join us?

Always, the same questions, always in Chinese.  He didn’t answer.

The American heroes approached you.  What deals did you strike?

Again, he didn’t answer.  He’d tried to tell them the truth, that he’d told the heroes to go away.  The Endbringers couldn’t die.  There was no point to fighting them.  Twice they had approached him with better deals, promising him the world, but he’d turned them down twice in turn.  He’d considered the idea of taking the third offer, but then he’d followed his mother to the C.U.I. states and lost touch with the Americans.

Not a real concern.

You will stay here until you answer our questions.”

I will join,” he told them.

They exchanged a glance between them.

He moved one hand and saw them flinch.  They wouldn’t burn any more than the other Yàngbǎn members had, but they still feared him.

It made him feel better than anything in the past long months.

The Yàngbǎn is the solution,” the taller of the two said.  “You agree this is truth?”

No,” Lung said.

That is a shame.”

I want out of here,” Lung told them.  “That is all.  If I must kneel, I will.”

We need to hear the right answers before we can go any further.  We will come again in two weeks time and we will ask you again.  If you give us the answer we require, we can move on to the next step.”

And, Lung thought, carry down the chain of questions, steps, and procedures until I fail.  You will break me and brainwash me until I am one of you.

Worst of all, they would take his powers, most of them, and give him others in turn.  This was the reason they imprisoned him, the reason they sought to break him.

He would risk it, and accept the offer.  He would do whatever they required of him, and then he would kill whoever he needed to and escape.

March 23rd, 2011

With every defeat, a matching ascent.

“The ‘Azn Bad Boys’ is a shit name,” Bakuda said.

Lung didn’t react, staring at her.

“Just saying.”

“It was the name of the group I joined when I came to America.”

“See, that’s what I don’t get.  You’re a badass, fine.  You tested the waters, took on a whole team of local heroes, and you walked away.  Right?”

“I fought Armsmaster, Dauntless, Miss Militia, Velocity, Challenger, Assault and Battery,” he said.  “Yes.”

“Except you’re small time.  You’ve got all this power, and what do you have to show for it?”

“Fear,” he said.

“I don’t fear you,” Bakuda said.  Her pale blue eyes stared at Lung, unflinching.

“You will,” he answered her.

She shrugged.  She paced, looking around the building.  Two of Lung’s whores sat on a couch, looking distinctly uncomfortable, as if they didn’t know how to hold themselves, the pose to take.

“There are two kinds of fear, Bakuda,” Lung said.  “The first is common.  Fear of the unknown.  A questioning fear.”

“Uh huh,” she said.  He could tell he had her attention.

“This is fear of unanswered questions.  If I fought him, would I win?  How is he going to hurt me?  Who or what is he?”

“And the other kind?”

“A fear of knowing.  Of realities.  If I fight him, I lose.  I know him, and I quiver to be in his presence.  I know he will hurt me and I know it will be the worst pain imaginable.”

Bakuda didn’t reply.

“I have found that the first is a weak fear.  It breaks.  It ends when you have answers, when others give you their support.  The other?  It is a fear that breeds itself.  It is a disease, and it only gets stronger when you fight it and fail.  I have situated myself here to engender that kind of fear.  The residents know me.  Those I want for my gang, I take.  My influence grows, and my enemies know not to cross me, because I always have my vengeance.”

“But the ‘Azn Bad Boys’?”

“A reminder, to my enemies, of what I’ve done before, what I could do again.”

Bakuda frowned.

“I defeated many gangs, many groups.  Some had powered members, others did not.  I recruited some.  Oni Lee was one.  The rest I killed.”

“And the heroes didn’t stop you?”

“The heroes see me as a double-edged sword.  They fear me.  They know what I am capable of when the situation calls for it, they know I am too strong to defeat as a group.  For now, I wait.  They leave me be because the only aggression they can see is that I inflict on other criminals, and I amass power, swelling in reputation.”

“And the fact that you, a halfbreed, recruited me, a halfbreed, and built a gang of a bajillion different races, it’s totally not a freudian thing, tying back to some childhood issues.”

“No,” Lung growled.

Bakuda only smiled.  “And what happens down the road?”

“I have enemies,” Lung thought.  “Those who have slighted me, those who have won.”

“Like Leviathan?”

Lung shook his head.  “Leviathan, I beat, if you can even call it an enemy.  It is a force of nature.  No, I speak of other enemies, insults old and new.  I will defeat each of them in turn, and then I will rule.”

The woman in the suit, the Yàngbǎn.

“So petty.  And you want me to help?”

“You will help,” Lung said.  “Because you think like I do.  In terms of power and fear.”

Bakuda took a seat at the end of the couch.  The two whores inched away from her.

She smiled at that.  “Alright.  You got me.”

July 14th, 2011

“…and that’s the gist of it,” Amelia said.

Lung watched Teacher’s expression change as he considered the idea.  The man seemed so ordinary, so unassuming.  To hear the man talk about it, he’d been one of the foremost criminal masterminds until the heroes trumped up charges against him.

“I might not be explaining it right,” Amelia said, “How my power works, hard to interpret.  But I think I’ve worked it out.”

“I can see where it makes sense to you,” Teacher said.  “But for those of us with no conception of these power granting entities, we don’t have enough solid ground to found the idea on.”

Amelia frowned.

Teacher shook his head.  “There’s holes in your logic.  The Endbringers?”

“I don’t see how they fit in,” she admitted.

“A developmental step forward?”

“No,” Amelia said.

“A step backwards, then?”

“No.  At least, I don’t think so.  Something else entirely.”

“To be frank,” Teacher said, “I don’t know whether to hope you’re right or wrong.”

“It’s both,” Amelia said.  “It’s bad, but at least we know how bad.”

“With nothing we can do about it until someone lets us out,” Teacher said.

Amelia frowned.  She rested her elbows on her knees, as she sat on the edge of Marquis’ bed.  Plastic crinkled with the movement.  The tattoo artist who was working on her arms had scrounged up plastic sheets from the meals that came down the shafts, sterilizing them and then taping them in place.  The freshest tattoos and the irritated flesh around the markings were blurry just beneath.

Panacea had complained about how idiotic it was, because she couldn’t get sick, but any artist had their rules and peculiarities, and Marquis had told her to accept them.

“Well,” Marquis said.  “It’s food for thought.  I’d suggest a breakout attempt, given how grave this all seems, but we know how that tends to go.”

“Yes,” Teacher agreed.  “Our deal stands?  You won’t replace my dentists or doctors?”

“That wasn’t the deal,” Marquis chided.  “We’ll price match.  A little competition will keep your employees honest.”

Teacher frowned.

“It’s the best deal I’m willing to-”

Marquis stopped short.  Lung turned to see Spruce at the entryway into the cell.

“Hey, boss,” Spruce said.

“What is it?” Marquis asked.

Spruce gave him a curious look before turning back to Marquis, “Big news. TV.”

Lung took his time walking down to the televisions.  Marquis, Spruce and Amelia made their way down, where a crowd had gathered to watch.  It was rare, that the same thing would be on all of the working televisions.

It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.

“What’s this?” Amelia asked.  She gave Lung a nervous glance as he approached.

“Alexandria bit it,” Cinderhands said.

With that, each of the new arrivals turned their attention to the screen.

“…will recognize Taylor Hebert, revealed to be Skitter in a controversial confrontation at the school just a week ago, a confrontation Alexandria ordered.  Taylor Hebert played a crucial role in stopping Alexandria in a moment of crisis, ending the fight.

“No shitting way,” Panacea said.

Lung remained quiet.

“She’s the one who arrested you, isn’t she?” Cinderhands asked, looking over his shoulder at Lung.

“No,” Lung said.  “We fought twice, I was arrested by others.”

“But she beat you?”  Cinderhands asked.

“Shush, C.H.,” Marquis said.

It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.

“Anyone else thinking that we really should get a chance to appeal our cases?”  someone in the crowd asked.  “If the organization is this fucked up, the arrests can’t count.”

“Yes,” Marquis said, his tone condescending, “I’m quite sure the Protectorate will be apologizing to the public, then they’ll throw open the Birdcage’s doors and let us all loose.”

“…hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency…

And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.

Panacea stared as the girl on the television stepped forward at Chevalier’s bidding, She removed the black sweatshirt and pants the PRT had issued her, revealing a costume of white and gray beneath.

Amelia’s hands went to her mouth.

Marquis glanced at Amelia.  Lung took that glance in all it’s import.  The two girls were opposite sides of the same coin.

Lung’s eyes fixed on the new heroine, then narrowed.

I admitted to reprehensible things.  I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.

“is it reassuring?” Teacher murmured.

Lung turned, realizing that Teacher was talking to him.  “Why would it be?”

“You lost to her, but she’s strong enough to defeat Alexandria.  Less of a wound to your ego?”

“I lost once,” Lung said.  “An underhanded trick, but a loss.  I’ll credit her that.”

“Mm hmm,” Teacher replied, wordlessly.

The girl continued, “I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable. Except there are bigger things.  More important things.

“She was stronger before,” Lung spoke his thoughts aloud.

“More powerful?  Likely,” Teacher said.  “Stronger?  I wonder.”

Lung shook his head.

I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.

“Noble,” Marquis said.  “Foolish at the same time, but the line between the noble and the fool is a thin one, or even a matter of perspective.”

“On this, we may agree,” Lung rumbled.

“I’ll endeavor to see that as something other than a veiled insult,” Marquis said.

This is what I want to do, above all else.  Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-  …When and if I do take up the job, you can call me Weaver.

The broadcast ended, with news reporters discussing the fallout, reiterating details.

The noise of it was broken down by singing, echoing through the Birdcage.  A dirge.

The yellow feathered girl who was in the truck, Lung thought to himself.

“That’s for Alexandria, I imagine,” Marquis said aloud.  “Undeserved, I think, but I imagine Lustrum gave her cell block a very good reason to honor the woman.”

“I wouldn’t have imagined you’d care,” Teacher commented.

“I don’t, really,” Marquis answered.  “But I have a lot of respect for people who keep to a particular code, whatever that code might be, and very little for traitors and wafflers.

“Like this new ‘Weaver’?” Teacher asked.

“I would defer to my daughter’s opinion on that.  She knew Weaver.”

Amelia frowned.  “She’s… both?  She’s stuck to her own personal code, even when it made her a traitor.”

“I see,” Marquis mused, rubbing his chin.

Lung frowned.  All nonsense, and none of it mattered.  That was out there, this was here.

“A word, Lung?” Teacher asked.

Lung nodded.  Anything to get away from this intolerable talk of morality and this singing.  His cell wouldn’t afford much relief, but it would be a touch quieter.

They departed, but Teacher led the way out of Marquis’ cell block, rather than to Lung’s cell.

“I believe I can be useful to you,” Teacher said.

“You have nothing to give me,” Lung said.  He bristled at the implication.

“You know how my power works, yes?”

“You make others smarter.”

“I turn others into lesser Thinkers, into Tinkers.”

“At the cost of their independence.”

“Yes.”

“Not something I want,” Lung said.

“You have strength, good instincts on a primal level, and all the potential in the world.  Yet you’ve failed here and there.  You’re here, after all.”

“And so are you,” Lung said.

Teacher nodded.  “Exactly my point.  Think on that for a moment.  We’re almost to my cell block, now.”

“You were captured because you lacked muscle,” Lung said, “I was captured because…”

Lung didn’t like the implication.  Of a lack of brains?

“Because of your incompetent underlings,” Teacher finished for him.  “Who escalated the feud with the heroes into a war while you were incarcerated, leaving you to sustain what they had started.  And, more apropos to our conversation, because your power has a drawback.  It requires a certain mental state.”

“Yes.”

“Amelia, Marquis’ girl, she won’t fix that.”

“I wouldn’t let her,” Lung said.

“Because it involves tampering with your brain,” Teacher said.  “My offer is… less invasive.  We can break down that barrier, give you the ability to control when you change.”

“At the cost of my identity,” Lung said.  “No.”

“A temporary cost to your willpower,” Teacher said.  He extended a hand, welcoming Lung into his cell block.

There was no conversation in Teacher’s cell block.  The residents were neat, tidy, and well groomed.  Some seemed functional, reading on their own or watching television.  Others were more disabled.  Lung could see one individual rocking in place, tapping something out on a table.  Another was walking in small, tight circles.

“My groupthink,” Teacher said.  “Rest assured, I wouldn’t subject you to something this grave.  We would dig deep enough to discover the true nature of your power, fast enough that you didn’t feel the side effects at their worst.  Then we would use what is effectively a hypnotic state to unlock your power as it truly should be, effectively a second trigger event.  If Amelia is right, the entity that grants you your power will resist… but we can get around that.”

Lung frowned.  “There is no point.”

“There is every point!  Come.  I’ll show you.  But first you need to tell me, are you and Marquis friends?”

Lung shook his head.

“Peers, then.”

Lung considered the word.  There were some that came up in English that he still wasn’t quite familiar with.  “Yes.”

“Then you’ll keep a secret?” Teacher asked.

“I will keep a secret,” Lung answered.

“Good, good.”  Teacher led Lung to one TV in the row.  “Trickster?”

Lung arched an eyebrow.  Trickster… the name rung a bell.  It didn’t matter.

“Connect,” Teacher said.

Trickster reached up to the power button on the television, then began a sequence of turning it on and off, with very specific pauses.  A code.

The sequence was still going on when Teacher said, “Stop.  Leave it on.”

The screen showed a face, the image grainy, flickering.  The face had a tattoo of a cross on it.

“Lung, meet Saint,” Teacher said.

Lung didn’t answer.

“He speaks when we give him something to say,” Teacher said.  “But I may have been too eager to find a way of contacting the outside world, and I’ve irritated him.  Saint explained what happened.  The PRT showed him Dragon’s equipment, asked if he could commandeer it, and Saint found an opportunity to insert a discreet backdoor.  He has a channel in, a way to observe, but our channel out is poor at best.”

“This matters nothing to me.”

“It matters a great deal,” Teacher said.  “Saint can see what Dragon sees, even if he’s blocked off from the Birdcage itself, while Dragon is occupied elsewhere.  It buys us a window of opportunity to communicate something, a message in code.  The program that Dragon has observing us with every moment tracks the activity of our televisions.  Turn it on, turn it off, and do it in a systematic enough way, and patterns emerge in a way that Saint can observe.  This allows us to coordinate.  He can’t rescue us, or empty the Birdcage, but, we could do something.  We could communicate with the outside world, and with the hypothesis that Amelia has posed… well, that’s a world changing set of information, don’t you imagine?”

Lung didn’t speak.

“The alternative, Lung, is that we unlock your power, and we use other information that Saint has collected through his backdoor.  We use it to leave the Birdcage.”

“To escape?”

Teacher shook his head.  “We wait, and we let things devolve to the point that they are willing to open the door and let us go, for the assistance we can give.  Dragon has files dictating scenarios in that vein.”

“They will not let us go free,” Lung said.  “Not the true monsters.”

“Most likely not.  It’s a question: do we gamble, or do we take a modicum of comfort in knowing we’ve perhaps saved the world a great deal of grief and maintained the status quo?  The way things are, if you’re not familiar with that particular phrase.”

Lung folded his arms.  “I have no attachment to the current state of things.”

“Then you agree?  I should tell Saint to bury the information, maybe push events here and there, if it means we could go free?”

Lung nodded.

“And your power?  If I-”

“My power will be left alone,” Lung said.  “It is enough.  If you want a bodyguard for a time after we’ve walked free, you will have it.  I will keep your secret about this Saint for now.”

“Alas,” Teacher said.  “But I’ll take the offer.  By the time this comes through, I’ll have a small army of parahumans at my disposal.  Some will be… under my sway, but I’d rather have your feral instincts to offset my own wit than have you as a slave.”

“I would kill you for trying,” Lung replied.  “You use your power on me, I will see you dead for it.”

“Very well,” Teacher answered.  He smiled.  “I’ll have Trickster pass on a message to Saint, then.  We’ll scrub Dragon’s records of this conversation, and any cases Amelia has talked of the power-granting entities, and we’ll leave a request, perhaps.  I have large sums of money stashed away.  That should be enough to convince Saint to perhaps set some events in motion, in the hopes that things sour just enough that they might open the Birdcage’s doors.”

Lung nodded.  “Do what you must.  I only care for our deal.  I walk free, I will assist you for a time thereafter.  The other things do not matter to me.”

“Very well.”  Teacher extended a hand, and Lung shook it.

Lung turned to leave.

As with the Yàngbǎn, he would stay with Teacher until he had what he needed: freedom.  Then the man would die.

The woman in the black suit, the Yàngbǎn, Skitter, and now Teacher.  People he would have his revenge on, at a later date.  People who had looked down on him, who had tried to manipulate him.

He could feel his power rippling under his skin.  Against Leviathan, he’d waited hours before engaging the beast, had fought longer than he ever had.  Now that he knew he might leave… this would be a two year buildup.

The scale of the event Teacher had spoken of?  That Amelia had alluded to?  Fear and power beyond anything he’d ever experienced, freedom without limits.  That very idea gave Lung a taste of that exhiliration he hadn’t experienced for so long.

Lung returned to Marquis’ cell block.  Marquis and Amelia were sitting at one table, drinking green tea and conversing with one another.

Marquis glanced at Lung, then poured out another mug of green tea without asking.  He gestured to the bench opposite, slid the mug in Lung’s direction.

Acceptance, the idea caught Lung by surprise.  He had a place here, odd as it was, as different as he and Marquis were.

Bakuda had taunted him over how he’d sought a kind of connection to others, how he’d recruited his gang to fill a void.  At the same time he found himself thinking of the restrictions he’d faced in school as a youth, the joys of rebellion, the Yàngbǎn and everything they’d threatened to take from him.

If there was a middle ground between acceptance and conformity, was this it?

“Marquis,” Lung spoke, carefully.

“Hm?” Marquis quirked an eyebrow.

Teacher is working to undermine everything you and your daughter are striving for, Lung thought.

“The tea is good.  Thank you.”

“Quite welcome,” Marquis replied, absently.

And Lung fell silent.

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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 16 (Donation Bonus #3)

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“Holding court?”  Cinderhands asked.

“We’ve waited long enough,” Marquis answered.  “Word’s out, demand’s high, and it’s hitting people harder because they’ve been thinking about it.  The time is right, if you’re ready, Amelia?”

Amelia stared down at her hands.  “I don’t want to.”

“Life is full of things we don’t want to do.  I won’t force you, but I think you and I would be very well served if you stepped up to the task.  It will be harder to protect you if you don’t.”

Amelia frowned.  “You mean you’d throw me to the wolves.”

“No.  No.  If you truly decided that you couldn’t, if the situation forced an ultimatum, I would give up the power I have as the leader of Block W if I had to.”

“I can’t tell if you mean it.”

Marquis took his time rolling and lighting a cigarette, then kneeled before her.  He spoke with it bobbing in his lips, “My girl.  I’m not a good man.  I have rules I follow, but that doesn’t make me good.  At best, it’s one virtue among many I’ve failed to acquire.  I’m rough around the edges, whatever I might play at, and that’s plain enough to see to anyone who pays attention.  I grew up in hard circumstances, and it’s taken me a long time to work past that and earn the respect I get.  And I would give that up if you needed it.”

“You don’t know me.”

“You’re family, Amelia.”  He stood, pulled the cigarette from between his lips and kissed her on the forehead.  He didn’t miss how she pulled away in alarm and surprise.  “Whatever else, that’s the most important thing in the end.”

He let the words sit with her, turning away.  Lung stood by the door, arms folded, and Marquis smiled lightly at the man.  He’ll see this admission as weakness, but the right display of confidence will leave him wondering if it’s a lie, a ploy.

Lung, much like all of the other prisoners, was wearing the gray cotton clothing that was supplied regularly through the drops, alongside the other essentials.  He’d torn off the sleeves of the shirt, showing off muscular arms that were emblazoned with tattoos down to the fingertips.  The light brown of his eyes was surrounded by an expanse of bloodshot red instead of whites.  Other than his muscular physique, they were the only thing that set him apart from any ordinary man who one might see on the streets.

Lung was a killer, a wild animal who played at being a man.  Marquis had picked up enough details to know Lung’s story.  He’d broken the rules, broken the code, because he’d thought he had the power to get away with it.  But it had been a power he couldn’t quantify, a blend of raw military strength, reputation and circumstantial power.

Just as there were athletes who studied their sport, trained their technique and honed their bodies with specific goals in mind, there were others who drew from natural talent and instinct.  Lung had built his gang by conquering others one by one, going by his gut to identify those who would stand in his way and then violently removing them from his path.  His instinct and a tenacious power gave him his success on the street level, where he seized control of the local drug trade, of soldiers, but they hadn’t fared so well in the scope of a greater war.

And so it was that Lung found himself here.  Among the fallen, so to speak.

He turned his attention to Amelia.  His daughter.  She sat on the edge of the bed, slouching forward.  Her clothes weren’t torn or modified, and her sweatshirt was a fraction too big for her – she was staying in his cell block, and the clothes were meant for men.  For the time being, she was being left alone.  He’d asked the men of his cell block to look after her, and because of this, she was afforded a certain respect.  People got out of her way, not because they knew anything about her, but because they knew him.

It was precarious and unconventional.  A girl in the men’s cell blocks.  It wasn’t new, exactly, some had taken wives, had girlfriends or paid girls to serve them as prostitutes.  But Amelia was someone with no confidence, no presence, giving every sign that she was a victim rather than a warrior.

This wouldn’t last.  The men in the Birdcage were still men in the end, and they were men who’d found their way here because they had defied the system.  Some, like Lung, had broken the unspoken codes, others had challenged authority and lost, while others still had simply broken the rules too many times.  It was a matter of time before they lost patience with Amelia after devoting so much time and effort to protecting someone who didn’t have anything to offer.  Or they would challenge Marquis; any number of maneuvers ranging from overt mutiny to subtle sabotage.

“Are you holding court, then?” Cinderhands asked, once again.  The man had a shock of red hair that was shaved on the sides, and holes in his nose and ears that pointed to old piercings, only some of which had been replaced by rings and bars hand-crafted from scraps of metal here in the ‘cage.  His hands and arms were a burned black up to the elbows, more like a used log gone cold in the fireplace than flesh.

“I’ll hold court.  Amelia can sit in.”

“You sure?” Cinderhands asked.

Marquis turned to stare at the young man, drawing in a lungful of smoke from his cigarette, “You’ve never questioned my decisions before.”

“Your decisions haven’t raised any questions before.”

“Watch yourself,” Marquis said.

Cinderhands narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips, but he nodded slightly in acquiescence.

“Go pass on word, let the other block leaders know.  I’ll hold audience for one hour, starting one hour after the next shipment arrives, ending at lights out.  First come, first serve.  They can come themselves or send a representative.  We won’t challenge their passage, but no more than two from a block.  Stay by the cell block gates and keep an eye out for trouble.”

“I’ll need some guards if you want me to do anything about that trouble,” Cinderhands said.

“Then find them.  Or tell me you can’t, and I’ll find someone else to handle the job,” Marquis let his annoyance seep into his voice.

Cinderhands stalked off.

How long before they confronted him?  There was a difference between being someone strong enough to be left alone and being leader of a cell block.  Lung was the former, he was the latter.

That said, his real worry was that they would attack him indirectly, standing by while Amelia was hurt, or failing to back him up at a crucial moment.

In fact, he was giving serious thought to the idea of provoking a mutiny among his people.  A solid and undeniable victory would remind people of why he was leader of Cell Block W and help to root out any of the more conniving individuals who were plotting a more subtle form of attack.  That is, if they were impatient enough to capitalize on the ensuing chaos.

Actually being defeated, it wasn’t really a consideration.  He’d only lost a fight on one occasion, and those had been extenuating circumstances.

In any event, instigating a mutiny would only serve as a stopgap measure.  This was a problem he needed to address at the root.  Amelia.

He glanced her way.  She hadn’t moved, and she was still staring at her hands.

She wasn’t the first of her kind that he’d seen.  A hollow shell.  Tabula rasa.  A blank slate. She wasn’t sleeping at night, not easily, and she had frequent nightmares.

He’d seen others, had had two appear in his cell block, delivered by their tinker overseer.  Except he wasn’t a nurturer.  He had no experience on that front.  He’d done what he could to see if he could wake them up from the neuroses that gripped them, and then he’d bartered them away to other cell blocks when he hadn’t seen improvement over one or two weeks.  People who were damaged on this fundamental level tended to go one of four ways.  They recovered, which was rare; someone filled the empty vessel with an ideology; they were used as a resource, cared for so their talents could be exploited; or they were spent, burned up of whatever they had to offer, be it making things or violence.

He wished he’d tried his hand at fixing the two who Dragon had delivered to his block.  Maybe he’d have a better idea of how to deal with Amelia if he had.

“We have twenty minutes until they start arriving.  Go shower, Amelia.  Make sure your hair is dry when you return, and don’t wear a sweatshirt.  They envelop you, make you look like you’re hiding.  A short-sleeved shirt will do.”

She stood and headed out the door, her slippered feet slapping as she walked.

He could have escorted her, but he didn’t.  It would be better in the short-term, but more damaging to their image in the end. Instead, he ventured out of his daughter’s cell, standing at the head of the railing for the raised area that overlooked his cell block.

There were thirty people in Block W, including himself and Amelia.  Those thirty people shared five televisions with no remotes, two weight benches, one open area for general exercise and sports, and a seating area with tables and benches.  The cells themselves were arranged in a horseshoe shape, encompassing the area, with two gently sloping ramps meeting at the furthest cell, his own.  Beneath his cell was a corridor that led to the supply delivery area and the showers.

Tidy in appearance to the point of caricature, Spruce stood guard by the televisions, helping ensure that Block W remained the only block with a full set of working sets.  He would ensure everyone had a turn to choose the channel.  Whimper was overseeing the auction.  Everyone had already received their share of the cigarettes, which served as currency for bidding over the more in demand items of the supply drop.  There were less new blankets than there were people in the block, for example, and each drop only included maybe three or four books; always one classic and two from the recent bestseller’s lists.  Good reads and books with raunchy scenes could be resold to other prisoners for a decent amount, and they would exchange hands until they were too worn to keep.

From his vantage point at the railing, Marquis could see most of the way into virtually every cell in the block.  Only the cells at the very end were at the wrong angle, and he’d stationed his lieutenants there.  His lieutenants and Lung.

Not every block worked the same way, though the layout and the scheduled drops were the same for each.  The advantage of Marquis’ arrangement was that it kept his people relatively happy and it kept them in their place.  The lieutenants and Marquis himself got first pick of any of the items from the supplies, but nobody truly went wanting, so they generally agreed with minimal complaint.

He watched Amelia make her way to the point on the ramp where the railing terminated, step down to the corridor below that led to the showers .  He could see the glances that were directed her way, some almost animal, hungry.  Others, almost more alarming to that part of himself that he associated with fatherhood, were cold, measured and calculating.  More than a few sets of eyes belatedly turned his way after looking at his daughter, as if gauging whether he was noticing that they’d noticed.

By way of response, he called on his power, generating twin spikes of bone that crossed the end of the corridor in an ‘x’.  Amelia passed through the gap, crouching slightly, and he filled the remainder of the space with branching lengths of bone.

Even the littlest things were a hassle, now.

He snapped the bone, keeping his expression blank in the face of the mind-shattering pain that resulted.  It faded quickly, and he let the remainder of the bone fall to the floor, joining countless other shards and fragments around the mouth of his cell.  It invoked a mental picture of a lion’s den.

This was a gamble.  Amelia could be the excuse his enemies or more ambitious underlings needed to mount an attack.  At worst, he’d die and she would… well, she’d be a resource that was burned up, exhausted of anything and everything she had to offer.  If he was able to buy enough time, verify that she was beyond saving, then he could return her to the women’s cell blocks, cut his losses and take the resulting hit to his reputation as the only real cost of trying.

He didn’t want to take either of those options.  He had so few memories with her, from when she’d been a toddler, but they’d stayed with him.  He remembered the sparkle in her eye as she saw the princess costume he’d had tailor-made for her.  He recalled the look of consternation on her face as she’d sat at his dining room table while she practiced writing her letters.   That frustration had become awe as he’d showed her what she could accomplish once she mastered the art, penning out florid letters in cursive with a fountain pen.

More than once, as he prepared tea to share with Lung during one of their long discussions, he’d thought of the mock tea party he’d had with his daughter.

Those moments seemed farther away now than they had in the days before he’d been reunited with her.  He would never recapture them, he knew, but maybe he could find other, new memories to share with her.  A deep conversation, a father’s pride at her accomplishments.

Before that was possible, he had to resolve this situation.  Fixing her was too lofty a goal.  Cementing his own power base would do as a short-term goal.  He would need to show his people and the other cell blocks that there was a reason why he’d invested this much attention and effort into his daughter.  To do that, he would have to decipher the puzzle of her psyche, figure out a way to coax her into demonstrating her power.

He was running out of time, judging by how his followers were acting.

“You will be disappointed if you expect my help, Marquis,” Lung’s low, heavily accented voice came from behind him.

“I know.  You’re your own man.”

“I had more respect for you before this.”

Before my daughter.

“You and everyone else here.  It’s a shame.  I’d hoped I’d amassed enough credit that you and the rest of them could trust me to see this through to a successful conclusion.”

“Mmm,” Lung rumbled.  “Do you trust that you’ll see this through to a successful end?”

Marquis didn’t trust himself to lie convincingly, so he only smiled.

“You do have a plan?” Lung asked.

“You’ll see,” Marquis replied.  “Will you be attending the meeting?”

“I am not one of your lieutenants.”

“But you’ve earned yourself a reputation in a short span of time.  That’s commendable.”

“No flattery.  Get to the point.”

“It helps us both if you’re there.”

“You look more powerful if you have the mad dog on a leash,” Lung growled.

“Some may see it that way.  I won’t deny it.  But in my perspective, you’re dangerous, and people will notice if I’m unconcerned about having you loose in my block.”

“You’re insulting me.  Saying you look down on me.”

“No.  I’m stating the facts.  Yes, in a straight fight, maybe you could give me a run for my money.  Maybe not.  But I have my underlings, and that leaves me fully confident I’d win.”

“You might not have those underlings for much longer if this continues.”

“I notice you’re not disagreeing.”

Lung offered a noncommittal grunt in response.

“If you stay,” Marquis said, resting his elbows on the railing, “You can meet the other cell block leaders, get a head start on figuring them out for when you’ve murdered me and taken over W Block.”

“You don’t sound concerned.”

“Someone’s going to try, Lung.  Someone’s going to succeed.  Might be in two years, might be in five years, or ten-”

“Or today,” Lung cut in.

Marquis waved him off.  “Not today.  But it’s a fact that it’ll happen someday.  I’d rather it was you, when that day comes.”

Lung’s eyebrows rose in a rare expression of surprise.  “Why?”

Marquis stood, stretching, and tossed his stub of a cigarette to the corridor below.

“You can’t imagine I’d be a kind or generous leader.”

Marquis laughed.  “No.  But wouldn’t you rather be murdered by a rabid wild beast who happens to share your living space, than to have a onetime ally stab you in the back?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lung replied.  “You’ll be dead either way.”

Marquis gave the man a slap on the shoulder.  Lung tensed, more because of surprise at the abrupt, familiar gesture than anything else.  Marquis sighed.  “There are times I envy you.”

He turned to head down the ramp, descending into the crowded area where supplies were being sorted.

Whimper showed him the books.  A murder investigation novel, a young adult story featuring some romance with a ghost, a book with a bird mask on the cover and a Dickens novel.  Marquis selected the last.

He seated himself on a bench where he had a view of both the corridor and the cell block entrance.  While others cleared out of the area, Marquis glanced up at Lung, who still watched from the railing above.

He turned his attention to the book, pretending to read while thinking over the situation.

He glanced toward the door of bones in time to see the shadow of Amelia’s approach.  Controlling his own ‘dead’ bones was harder, but he’d been standing at the ready to demolish the barrier, and pulled it down before she got there.

“You took some time,” he said.

Amelia hugged her arms to her body.  “I sat down to think and lost track of time.”

“We’re worriers, my girl.  It’s an asset when applied in the right amount.  Is your hair dry?”

Amelia touched her hair but didn’t venture a reply.  He reached out to touch her hair, and again, he saw her flinch.  “Good enough.  Have a seat.  The latest, what was it, a novel from this ‘Fade’ series?  It was there for auction.  I could send someone to track it down if you’re interested.”

She shook her head.

“Not interested in reading, or not interested in reading that?”

“Both.  Mostly the second part.”

“At least you have taste.  Well, the meeting begins in one or two minutes.  I would like you to attend, of course.  Best if you don’t speak unless directly asked a question, and say less rather than more.  It’s a tactic I employ myself, leaves you less room to say the wrong thing.”

“They’re going to ask me to use my power.  I can’t.”

“I understand.  Yes, they probably will want a demonstration.  I only know what Lung’s told me, which isn’t much, and what you’ve said, which is even less.  That in mind, I still think that a demonstration would do a great deal to secure our position.”

“I can’t,” her voice was small.

Then we may well die, my daughter.

“We’ll cope some other way, then,” he said.  “In the meantime, to convey the right image, it’s best if you make eye contact and speak clearly.  Sit.”

“Okay.”

He stood, then seated himself on the table, his feet on the bench beside Amelia.

He gave the signal to Spruce and Whimper, and they stepped away from the entrance to Cell Block W.

All in all, there were twelve cell blocks with leaders.  That meant that there were eleven leaders with eleven lieutenants arriving.  Acidbath, Galvanate, Teacher, Lab Rat and Gavel were leaders of the cell blocks on the men’s side of the prison.  Lustrum, Black Kaze, Glaistig Uaine, String Theory, Crane and Ingenue were the female leaders.  There were other cell blocks, but twelve was generally agreed on as a good number.  It left room for discussion without too much chaos, and it left enough cell blocks leaderless that they had elbow room to do business elsewhere.

“This is the healer?” Gavel asked.

“Amelia, yes.”

“My people say you’re taunting them, Marquis, having this girl staying in the men’s wing without a lover.”

“Not my intention, I assure you.  I would guess some people are only looking for something to complain about.”  Marquis looked pointedly at Gavel as he replied.

“Don’t waste my time with this male posturing,” Lustrum cut in.  “I have women to look after.  I delivered your daughter to you because you promised repayment and because she asked.  I wouldn’t mind seeing that payment.”

“It was implied that I would pay you back in coming weeks or months, not in a week.”

“And if I ask a month or two from now, will you postpone the payment yet again?”

“I don’t expect I will, but maybe you could clarify the payment you’re looking for?”

“She’s a healer.  Some healing would serve.”

Damn, Marquis thought.  She had to ask.

“Amelia isn’t healing anyone right now,” Marquis said.

“Ambiguous,” Crane’s voice was sonorous, smooth, “Is that because she can’t or because you’re ransoming her ability?”

Marquis only smiled.

“You explicitly let us know you were open for a meeting,” Teacher said.  He didn’t look like a cape in the least.  He was fat, for one thing, and he was ugly, with a red face and balding pate.  “Don’t be coy.”

“Coy?  No, let’s say we’re simply weighing our options and getting a lay of the land.  Healing’s rare.  More than one person picked up on the fact that her codename meant ‘universal cure’.”

Teacher smiled, smug.

“But there’s a great deal of demand, and you’ll have to forgive me for being a doting father, but I won’t exhaust my daughter’s mental or physical resources to parcel out her healing.  We’ll hear terms, we’ll discuss the offers and counteroffers over the next several days or weeks, and then we’ll let you know our decision.”

“You are holding her power for ransom,” Lustrum spoke.

A power she isn’t willing to use, one that I don’t know the particulars of.  Worse, it’s tied to a deeper trauma that somehow involves the loss of a sister, and that’s not something that can be addressed in a matter of weeks.

“I suppose I am,” he replied.

Glaistig Uaine shifted position, and Marquis wasn’t the only one to give her his full attention.  What he could see of her beneath the blackened tatters of her prison-sweats-turned-shroud suggested she was barely a teenager, but that was more due to her power than anything.  She’d been one of the first prisoners of the Birdcage, and he suspected she would be one well after he’d died.  Not that her megalomanical delusion was true.  Rather, it was the fact that nobody dared to pick a fight with her.

When Glaistig Uaine spoke, her voice was eerie, a broken ensemble of a dozen people speaking in sync.  “Beware, Marquis.  You will pay a thousandfold times for your arrogance when the armies of the faerie rouse and gather for the last war.

“Rest assured, Glaistig Uaine, you’re scary enough on your own,” Marquis replied, smiling,  “I don’t need a whole army of your kind chasing me down.”

There will be no chasing, for they are already in position to strike you down the moment they wake, three hundred years hence.  You’re nothing more than the dream of the faerie.  I can see it, so vivacious, so creative in its movements, even in slumber.  I think it might have been an artist.  I want it for my collection.

He was glad Amelia didn’t challenge the ‘three hundred years’ thing and the notion that they would still be alive then.  The ‘faerie’ didn’t react kindly to such.

“You’ve said as much before, noble Faerie,” he said, “Rest assured, you can have me when I’m dead.  In the meantime, I will keep your warning well in mind.”

Your daughter, too.  Your faerie is kin to the one that sleeps inside the girl.  I have no doubt this Amelia is a healer, but that’s only a facet of her true strength.  I have decided I will not bargain with you, Marquis.

Marquis used his hands to prop himself up as he leaned back.  “A shame, but understandable.  You don’t need healing, and your people are a secondary concern.”

I will collect them as they fall.  But you are mistaken, Marquis.  I am not expressing disinterest in her talents.  I am saying that I will only deal with her as an equal.

In years of using his power, of breaking his own bones and feeling the pain each time, Marquis had made himself a master at hiding his emotions beneath a mask.  Even so, he only barely managed to contain his surprise.

“Very well,” he said.  He reached into his pocket and deftly retrieved a cigarette.  He took his time lighting it.  “We’ll be in touch, then.”

Agreed.”  Glaistig Uaine replied.  She extended a hand to Amelia, and Marquis tensed.

Do I stop her?

Every rational part of his psyche told him that the leader of cell block C had no quarrel with his daughter, that she was in no danger.  Every other part of him was telling him to stop her.

Amelia took Glaistig Uaine’s hand in her own, then hesitated.  After a moment, she curtseyed.

I taught her to do that more than a decade ago.

Glaistig Uaine returned the curtsey, then turned to leave.

The gathered cell block leaders watched as the self-professed faerie left.

There were capes who were deluded enough to think that their powers were actually magic.  There were capes who were neurotic in a way that didn’t shut them down or leave them unable to function.  Glaistig Uaine was one who fit both categories, and she was powerful enough to make people listen to her.  He’d never thought he could benefit from it.

Her lunacy actually plays out in my favor, Marquis thought to himself, even as his heart pounded in his chest.  He’d planned to let the tension ratchet up until Amelia was forced to use her power to rescue him.  Applying pressure, after a fashion, without being the one to force it.  He didn’t like it, but he needed her to break out of this state she was in, she needed to break out of it for her own sake, and he was willing to risk everything to see it happen.

“It seems that cell block C will be cooperating with us,” Marquis said.  Then he smiled.

“Glaistig Uaine might see things, but she isn’t usually wrong,” Galvanate said.  “She says the kid has power?  Fine.  Our issues are the usual.  The dentist in cell block T charges a small fortune, and we’ve got some toothaches.  Can you heal that?”

Amelia was still staring off towards the entrance to Marquis’ cell block.

“Amelia,” Marquis prodded her.

“What?”  She stirred.

“Could you heal a toothache?”

“Theoretically,” she said.

Good, Marquis thought.  Vague, but true.

“You’re cutting into my lieutenant’s business,” Teacher said.  “I won’t take that well.”

“Competition is the best thing in the long run,” Marquis replied.  “But maybe we can extend you a discount for your troubles?”

“Um,” Amelia spoke up.  All eyes turned her way.  “A silly question, but if my dad says it’s okay, maybe we can offer a deal, in exchange for an answer?”

Marquis suppressed the urge to frown.  “I think we could.”

“I know the answer’s no, but nobody really talks about it outside, so I’m not sure why… but with everyone we’ve got in here, why can’t we break out?”

Marquis sighed.  It was a newbie mistake, to dwell on the idea of escaping, but he hadn’t had the opportunity to counsel her.  It was good that she was more animated, expressing interest in something other than regret, but this wasn’t helping their image and it wasn’t good to let people know her full capabilities just yet.

“It’s a hollowed out mountain,” Lab Rat said.  “Vacuum, containment foam-“

“No,” Teacher cut him off.  “You want the real answer, healer?  It’ll cost.”

Amelia nodded.  Marquis suppressed yet another urge to cringe.

“Measuring devices are scarce down here, so we don’t have the full picture, but there’s a solid running theory on why we can’t just teleport out or fly through the vacuum and punch our way through the side of the mountain.”

“Do tell,” Marquis said.  It doesn’t matter in the end, but this is the first I’ve heard of it.

“Size warping technology.  The device might be no bigger than a football, and that’s hidden somewhere in the middle of the rocky mountains.  The warping apparatus would be bigger, but there’s nothing saying it’s anywhere close to the actual prison.  Reason we can’t break out is because we’re in a prison no bigger than your fist.  And if all of this is only this small,” Teacher held up a fist, then tapped it against the nearest table, “How far are you going to have to dig or teleport to get through a surface this thick?  Or through something as thick as that wall over there?  Or a hundred feet of lead with gallons of containment foam on the outside?”

“Okay,” Amelia said.  “I understand.  Thank you.”

That could have gone worse, Marquis thought.  It’s depressing, but it could be worse.

Teacher shrugged.  “Thank me with healing for my cell block.”

“A discount,” Marquis said.

Teacher nodded.  “A discount is possible.  What are you wanting?”

With that, the discussion was underway once more, and Marquis set about subtly setting the other cell block leaders against one another, controlling the conversation while making no promises.

This, he could handle.  He felt a quiet relief replace his fear.

“Faeries,” Amelia muttered.  They were venturing toward the communal dining area.

“Not real,” Marquis answered her.  “She sees things we can’t, the auroras that surround those with powers.  She’s named them as something else.”

“No,” Amelia replied.  “I saw her physiology when I touched her.  I couldn’t see what she sees, but I see how she’s carrying them inside her, drawing an energy from them.  And there were three more, just beside her, and she was using that energy to feed them… but they weren’t active?”

“She collects souls of dead and dying parahumans,” Marquis replied.  “Or the souls of any living soul that gets on her bad side.  But they’re not souls, really.  Teacher says they’re psychic images, photocopies of a single individual’s personality, memories and powers.  She can have a handful active and doing what she wants walking around at any given time.”

“They’re not faeries.  Or souls, or psychic images.  Our powers aren’t part of our bodies, exactly.  I would be able to alter them or take them away if they were.  What I saw when I touched glass-“

“Glaistig Uaine.”

“Her.  I feel like I just got clued into a missing piece of the puzzle.  They’re sentient.  Maybe they’re sleeping, like she said.  But they’re not dumb, and I think I’m getting an idea of what happens when they wake up.”

“Is it something we can use?”

“Not here.  Not in the Birdcage.”

“What a shame.”

“God,” Amelia muttered.  “Why did I ask to come here?  If I’d realized sooner-“

“Why did you ask to come here?”

The words hit her like a physical blow.  She hugged her arms close to her body, and her hair fell down around her face.  “My sister.  I used my power on her.  Unmade her.”

“I’m sorry.  A result of sibling rivalry?  A fight?”

“Love,” Amelia’s voice was small.  Her shoulders hunched forward.  He took her by the hand and led her to an alcove, where far fewer people would be able to see her if she cried.

“Alas, love.  The cruelest emotion of them all.  I’m sorry.”

Marquis considered hugging her, but he didn’t.  Part of it was the way she’d shied at his touch before.  He would let her approach him in her own way.  Another part of it, a small part of it, was the notion that Glaistig Uaine seemed to consider the girl to be at her level.

It was a long time before she spoke.  “You said, before, that family was the most important thing.”

“Something like that.”

“I… would you understand if I said I didn’t consider you family?  I- I’m glad you’re here, I’m glad to talk to you, but Victoria was my family.”

“I understand, yes.”  Expertise let him mask the pain her words caused him.  I abandoned you to them because I was too proud to stop being the Marquis of Brockton Bay.  I should understand that you grew more attached to them than to me, yet I can’t.

“I feel like I have to do something.  This feels important.  If I could explain, tell someone who understands…”

“There’s no escape, I’m afraid.”

“And,” Amelia blinked tears out of her eyes, “Already, I feel like I’m betraying Victoria, that I’m already forgetting her.  For just a few minutes, thinking about what I just found out from that girl, I stopped thinking about Victoria.  It’s my fault she isn’t there anymore, that there’s only that thing I created.  If I stop thinking about her, if I stop hurting, then I feel like I’m wronging her.”

“I suspect the pain won’t stop or heal as quickly as you’re thinking it will.  It hasn’t been that long, after all.”

“Except… if it stops at all?  If I ever forget, then I’ve subtracted something from the big picture.  It’s not that she was perfect, but…”

“But you need to maintain the memory.  Come.”

He gripped her hand and pulled her behind him.  She was too busy wiping tears from her eyes and snot from her upper lip to protest.

Still, he was glad that her face was mostly clear by the time they reached their destination.  A tinker sat at the corner of the dining area with tools strewn around him.  Makeshift devices crafted from the raw materials of their surroundings.

“How much for a tattoo?” Marquis asked, “For her?”

Amelia stared at him.

“Five books and five fags,” the tinker replied.

“Old books or new?”

“Either.”

Marquis turned to his daughter.  “If you decide to get it, I would advise a symbol rather than a face.  He won’t get the description exactly right, and the image will distort your mental picture.”

“I couldn’t remember her face as it was when it counted, anyways,” Amelia said, a dark look crossing her face.

“You’ll have the memory of your sister in physical form, so you can never forget as long as you live.  And when you’re done, we’ll take you back to your cell.  You can talk to the empty room, say what you need to say, and Dragon’s surveillance will catch it.”

“It’s like praying,” Amelia said.

“Except there’s a chance someone will listen and act on it,” Marquis replied.

Amelia nodded and sat down on the bench, then she began explaining what she wanted to the tattoo artist.

The house program that monitored the Birdcage followed the girl as she parted from her father and entered her cell in Cell Block W.

When she spoke, she addressed Dragon.  The program began transcribing the message as it did every word said within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.

Tracking programs then began reviewing the message.  Flags were raised as key words came up with some frequency, descriptions were run against a corpus of records in parahuman studies and more flags were tripped.

Sixty-two miles above the surface of the Earth, the Simurgh changed the course of her flight.

Following protocol for when Dragon was deployed on a mission, the system routed the message to one of Dragon’s satellite systems.  The resulting message was scrambled by the dense signature of the Endbringer en route to Dragon.

Receiving the garbled transmission from the satellite, a subsystem of the Dragon A.I. proceeded to sort it.  A scan of the message by a further subroutine saw it classified as non-pertinent, and a snarl in the code from Defiant’s improvised adjustments to her programming saw the message skip past several additional safeties and subroutines.  The message was compartmentalized alongside other notes and data that included flares of atmospheric radiation and stray signals from the planet below; background noise at best.

Considering its job done, the house program archived the transcription among fifteen years of conversation and notes from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.

The Simurgh flew on.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

“I am too.”

“I want to go home.”

“I know.”

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

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

He set down the food and then turned to leave.

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

The door slammed shut after him.

“You thanked him?” The words were accusatory.

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

“Let’s… let’s just eat,” she spoke.

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

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

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

“You’re back?”

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

“In case the city is condemned?”

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

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

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

“Everyone in the office is pitching in.”

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

She shook her head.

“Talk to me.”

Carol sighed.

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

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

He nodded.

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

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

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

Alan shook his head in amazement.

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

“Richard mentioned it.”

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

“Amy’s a healer, isn’t she?”

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

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

“Something else happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carol nodded, then sighed.

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

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

“Carried off by who?  Or whom?”

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

“So Victoria’s missing, now?”

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.

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

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

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

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

“Carol, wake up.”

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

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

Then he moved the lantern.  A stranger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!”  Sarah shrieked, her voice raw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She felt betrayed and she couldn’t understand why.

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

Then silence.

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

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

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

More cracks.

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

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

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

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

A mate?  A partner?

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

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

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

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

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

The betrayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you want me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daughters?  Plural?

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

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

“Stand down,” Brandish ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Careful!” she shouted.

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

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

“What are you protecting?” Lady Photon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was he distracted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This would take some courage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No longer on the defensive, Manpower charged the villain.

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

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

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

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

“Damnation,” Marquis muttered the word, sagging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Marquis said.

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

“Six,” Marquis answered.

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

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

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

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

The idea disturbed her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl shrank back into the closet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sarah-” Brandish started.

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not a good idea.”

“Why are you so reluctant?”

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

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

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

“Mark will be there for Amelia too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially if she’s Marquis’.

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

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

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

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

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

Liar.

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

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

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

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

No.

“Explain.”

“I- I don’t- No-” Amy stuttered.

She could have slapped the girl.

“What happened to my daughter!?”

Amy flinched as though she’d been struck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy stopped as her voice cracked.

“Keep going,” Lady Photon urged.

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

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

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

Again?

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

Her voice hitched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brandish clenched her fists.

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

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

“I don’t know what to do.”

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

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

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

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

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

She looked like Carol had, all those years ago.

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

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

Carol watched Amy through the window.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy turned to face her as she approached.

For a long minute, neither of them spoke.

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

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

Carol couldn’t bring herself to speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s it?” Carol asked.

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

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

“Your husband decided not to come?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.”

“If it’s no trouble, could I watch?”

“What are you wanting to watch, specifically?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

She walked over to the screen.

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

“Would you like sound?”

“It doesn’t really matter.  Yes.”

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

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

How long would it take?

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

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

He looks older.

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

Not the bogeyman that had haunted her.

And that’s Lung behind him.

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

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

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

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

“I’ve been waiting,” he spoke.

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.10

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Arcadia high was the school every kid in Brockton Bay wanted to attend.  A big part of that was the fact that everyone knew that the Wards attended Arcadia, and attending meant that any one of your classmates could be a superhero or superheroine.  To anyone else, you could just as easily be one, too.  It wasn’t a rich kid’s school like Immaculata, but it was a good school.  Every classmate treated other classmates with the utmost respect.  Both the students and the school itself maintained a certain status and pride as a consequence.

Now it was something else, and it inspired entirely different feelings.  The front gate looked like it had aged a thousand years, the sharp corners of the cut stone had rounded off, the ivy that once wound around it had withered.  The windows of the building were all shattered, empty of glass, and the fields were a patchwork of overgrown grass and mud.  With the faint tendrils of colored mist that surrounded the grounds, it looked like a prime location for a horror movie.

I had little doubt I was in the right place.

Panacea’s the healer, top floor.  Jack is the slasher, the blond girl the chemist-tinkerPanacea’s the healer on the top floor, Jack is the slasher, the blond girl is the chemist.

I recited the words as a refrain, as if I could hold the names and identities of the major players in my short-term memory by constantly reminding myself of who they were.

The school was on a hill, meaning the water that was producing the miasma was far enough away that only traces of it reached this far.  The little vapor that got to the school was held at bay by the stone wall that ringed the school.  The design suggested it had been intended more for aesthetics than for utility, but it was serving a purpose nonetheless.

Panacea’s the healer, top floor, Jack is the slasher, the blond girl the chemist-tinker.  Panacea is the healer, top floor, Jack is the slasher, the blond girl is the chemist-tinker.

It seemed like the mechanical spiders had lost track of me.  They would probably give up the chase and return to their master, but it was one less thing to worry about for the time being.

Jack and the tinker would have gone in through the ground floor.  I decided to land on the roof.  The second I was on terra firma, I reached for my phone to check.  No signal.

I needed to signal someone about what was going on.  I was woefully underequipped, and I doubted my ability to win this alone, especially when my opponents weren’t as disadvantaged as I was.

I could use something like a giant nine crafted out of bugs floating over the school to signal that the pair was here… but there was no guarantee that someone would come.  There was also the possibility that it would lead to the good guys dropping another bomb on us.  That would get the healer and maybe even me killed.  Panacea had to survive, or everyone in the city would die in the aftermath of Bonesaw’s miasma.

Panacea is the healer, she’s on the top floor, Jack is the slasher, the blond girl is the chemist-tinker.

I tenderly touched the cut on my face.  Jack must have pulled back as I used the tinker as a shield, because the cut was fairly shallow.  It was long, though, and my fingertips were wet with blood after I touched my hand to it.  I couldn’t distinguish the blood from the black fabric of my gloves, so I couldn’t tell how much it actually was.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

There was a door on the rooftop, and I used my knife to pry the doorknob partially off, then gave it a firm kick to remove it.  The lock was built into the handle, and it didn’t take long to figure out how to open it when I could see the internal mechanisms.  It wasn’t exactly high security, more intended to keep kids from getting onto the roof than keeping people on the roof from getting in.

Just past the door was a set of stairs that led down into the top floor of the building.  It looked like a janitorial closet.  I sent Atlas down to check before venturing down myself, and I began distributing my swarm through the school.  I prepared silk lines across doorways and hallways to inform me of others passing through, placed ants, earwigs, centipedes and pill bugs on the walls to give me a sense of the layout, and sent flies to scan the interiors of each room to see if I couldn’t find anyone.

Again, I repeated the refrain in my head, reminding myself about who was in the building.  I wasn’t sure it was helping, but I didn’t want to get tricked again.

There were two hallways and three classrooms my bugs couldn’t enter without dying on the spot. That marked out a relatively small area that the Nine could be.

The biggest issue was that I couldn’t find Panacea.  Did that mean she was in close confines with the enemy?  It wasn’t a good thought.

As I laid silk lines across possible entryways to alert myself about enemy movements, I was careful to check each area before I advanced further into the building.  My eyes searched for details while my swarm scanned the walls and the ground.

I was a short distance away from the Nine when I saw a wet spot on the wall, complete with discoloration of the paint.  I sent bugs in, and they felt shards of glass on the floor around the patch.  I wouldn’t have said that the swarm smelled anything, but there was something heavy in the air as flies beat their wings, the muscular action simultaneously drawing oxygen in.  Whatever it was, it was dense, cloying, odorless and colorless, only extending a dozen feet around the spot.

I backtracked and picked a different route.  My pace slowed to half of what it had been as I searched for other telltale details.  Twice, I found similar traps, both with that odourless smoke, and twice I had to change my route.

I paused outside the bug-killing zone.  Flies had ferried spiders to me, and I started organizing them to produce lengths of silk cord.  I left them behind while I creeped closer and listened in.

“…minds do think alike.  I did something very similar for Siberian.”  A girl’s voice.

“Shut up.  We’re nothing alike.”  Another girl.

“We could be!  Haven’t you ever wanted to start over?  I could make you younger!  We’d be the same age!  And wear matching outfits!  Oh!  I could do plastic surgery, we could be twins!”

“Did- did you do that to yourself?  Make yourself young?”

“No.”  A male voice.  “Rest assured, Bonesaw’s immaturity is genuine.  Both an asset in how it makes her that much more creative, free in her ways.  A detriment in other ways.”

“Doesn’t… that bother you?  Him saying that about you?”

“Jack knows what he’s doing.”

“I do.  I know a lot of things,” Jack spoke, his voice smooth, almost seductive.

“Don’t.  I know you’ve got a silver tongue.  I don’t want to hear it.”

“You prefer the alternative?”  Jack asked, his voice cool.

I could picture him holding that knife of his, the threat all too clear.

There was a long pause.

He spoke, “I suppose not.  So let’s dialogue.”

“Go ahead,” Panacea’s voice was small, almost defeated.

“What’s holding you back?  You’re capable of so much, of changing the world, of destroying it, but you’re so very small, Amelia Claire Lavere.”

His voice was almost mocking as he said her name.

“That’s not my name.”

“It’s the name you were born with.  Imagine my surprise when I found out your relation to Marquis.  In my last visit to Brockton Bay, I crossed paths with each of the major players.  I met the man.  I must tell you, Amelia, he was a very interesting character.”

“I don’t really want to know.”

“I’m going to tell you.  And I have another motive, but I’ll get to that in a moment.  Marquis was a man of honor.  He decided on the rules he would play by and he stuck to them.  He put his life and limb at risk to try to keep me from killing women and children, and I decided to see if I could use that to break him.  I admit I failed.”

“He killed Allfather’s daughter.”

“No, Amelia, he didn’t.”

There was a pause.

“Did you kill her?”

“No.  What I’m saying is that Marquis would not have killed the girl, even under duress; that was one of the rules he set for himself.  If he was going to violate that rule, he would have done it when I’d tried to break him.”

“Allfather put a contract on my head before he died, because of what Marquis did.  Because- It’s how I found out he was my dad.  A letter from Dragon to Carol.”

“Carol… Ah yes, Brandish.   Well, I suspect either Dragon was manipulating you, or your father was manipulating Dragon in an effort to get a message to you.”

“A message.”

“That he’s there, that he exists.  Perhaps he sought to ensure he wasn’t forgotten by his child.  He was an old-fashioned individual, so it makes sense that he’d seek immortality through his progeny.”

Bonesaw piped up.  “That’s stupid.  Why do something like that when someone like me could make you immortal for real?”

“Shush, now.  Finish sewing yourself up while Amelia and I talk.”

“Okay,” Bonesaw said.  Her voice overlapped with Panacea saying, “Stop saying that.  It’s not my name.”

“Isn’t it?”

There was another silence.

“You’re your father’s daughter.  Both of you are bound up in rules you’ve imposed on yourselves.  His rules defined his demeanor, the boundaries he worked within, the goals he sought to achieve and how he achieved them.  They were his armor as much as his power was.  I would guess your rules are your weakness.  Rather than focus you, they leave you in free fall, nothing to grasp on to except your sister there, and we both know how that has turned out.”

Sister.  I made a mental note of that.  There were four people in that room.

“I- how do you know this?”

“Our emotion reader picked up on some.  I’ve figured out the rest.  As you might expect, I’m rather familiar with damaged individuals.”

Bonesaw giggled.

I didn’t like the way this was going.  I looked down the hall to see the doors.  Each door had once had a window on the upper half, but there were only slivers left, the rest scattered over the floor.  In an ideal world, some distraction would present itself, or the conversation would become a heated argument and they would distract each other.  I could rise from my crouching position, step forward, aim my gun and fire.  Unload the gun’s clip on Jack and Bonesaw.

Or I’d miss, resulting in the messy deaths of Panacea, her sister and I.  I really needed that distraction if I was going to do this.

“I’m not… not that type of damaged.  I’m not a monster,” Panacea protested.  As an afterthought, she added, “No offense.”

“I’ve been called worse.  I almost relish being called a monster.  As though I’ve transcended humanity and become something from myth.”

“Myth.”

“And according to Cherish, it may well be a destruction myth.”

“What?”

“She recently informed me that the world is going to end because of me.  Not quite sure how or when.  It could well be that I’m the butterfly that flaps his wings and stirs a hurricane into being through a chain of cause and effect.”

“I don’t want the world to end,” Bonesaw said.  “It’s fun.”

“It is.  But I expect it won’t end altogether.  There’s always going to be survivors.”

“True.”

“And it makes for an interesting picture.  After everything’s gone, there’ll be a new beginning.  Who better to craft the remains into a new world than you and Mannequin?”

“And Amelia?”

“And Amelia, if she so chooses.  We could be like gods in a new world.”

“You’re crazy,” Panacea muttered.

“According to studies, clinically depressed individuals have a more accurate grasp of reality than the average person.  We tell ourselves lies and layer falsehoods and self-assurances over one another in order to cope with a world colored by pain and suffering.  We put blinders on.  If we lose that illusion, we crumble into depression or we crack and go mad.  So perhaps I’m crazy, but only because I see things too clearly?”

“No,” Panacea’s voice was quiet.  “Um.  You’re not going to kill me if I argue, are you?”

“I’m liable to kill you if you don’t.”

“It’s not that you see too clearly.  I think your view is warped.”

“Over the course of millions of generations that led to your birth, how many of your ancestors were successful because they were cruel to others, because they lied, cheated, stole from their kin, betrayed their brothers and sisters, warred with their neighbors, killed?  We know about Marquis, so that’s one.”

How many were successful because they cooperated?  I wondered.

Jack probably had a rebuttal to my question, but I wasn’t about to speak up to hear it, and Panacea didn’t ask.  She fell silent.

I was tensed, ready to move and shoot the second an opportunity arose.  Anything would suffice.  Anything would do.

I visualized it, the steps I’d take to open fire, and I realized that the shards of glass on the ground between me and the door could provide them with a half-second of warning.  Slowly, carefully, I began brushing the shards aside, keeping my ears peeled for some clue about a key distraction.

“Survival of the fittest, it sounds so tidy, but it’s really hundreds of thousands of years of brutish, messy, violent incidents, billions of events that you’d want to avert your eyes from if you were to see them in person.  And that’s a large part of what’s shaped us into what we are.  But we wear masks, we pretend to be good, we extend a helping hand to others for reasons that are ultimately self-serving, and all the while, we’re just crude, pleasure-seeking, conniving, selfish apes.  We’re all monsters, deep down inside.”

Again, one of those pauses that suggested something was going on that was visual and out of sight, rather than something I could overhear.  Jack offered a dry chuckle.  “Did that hit home?”

“I’m… not that kind of person.  Not a monster.  I’d kill myself before I became like that.”

“But you see how you could be like us.  It wouldn’t even be very hard.  Just… let go of those rules of yours.  You’d get everything you ever wanted.”

“Not family.”

Yes, family.”  Bonesaw cut in.

“You guys kill each other.  That’s not family.”

“You’re derailing our conversation, Bonesaw,” Jack chided the girl.  “Amelia, when I say you could have everything you ever wanted, I’m telling you that you could live free of guilt, of shame, you could have your sister by your side, no more doubts plaguing you, no more feeling down.  Haven’t you laid in bed at night, wondering, praying for a world where you could have something like that?  I’m telling you that you can have those things, and I promise you that the transition from being who you are now to being who you could be would be much quicker than you suspect.”

“No.”  The defiance was half-hearted.

“Amelia, you could let yourself cut loose and love life for the first time since you were young.”

And just like that, her resistance crumbled.  “I’ve never felt like that.  Never felt carefree.  Not since I could remember.  Not even when I was a kid.”

“I see.  From your earliest memory, what was that?  In Marquis’s home?  No?  Being taken home by the heroes and heroines that would become your false family?  Ah, I saw that change in expression.  That would be your earliest memory, and you found yourself struggling to adjust to your new home, to school and life without your supervillain daddy.  By the time you did figure those things out, you had other worries.  I imagine your family was distant.  So you struggled to please them, to be a good girl, not that it ever mattered.  There was only disappointment.”

“You sound like Tattletale.  That’s not a compliment.”

“My ability to read people is learned, not given, I assure you.  Most of the conclusions I’ve come to have been from the cues you’ve given me.  Body language, tone, things you’ve said.  And I know these sorts of things and what to look for because I’ve met others like you.  That’s what I’m offering you.  A chance to be with similar people for the first time in your life, a chance to be yourself,  to have everything you want, and to be with me.  I suspect you’ve never been around someone who actually paid attention to you.”

“Tattletale did.  And Skitter.”

I startled at that.

“I meant on a long-term basis, but let’s talk about that.  I imagine they were telling you ‘No, you aren’t.  You can be good.'”

“Yeah.”

“But you didn’t believe them, did you, Amelia?  You’ve spent years telling yourself the opposite.  You’re a bad person, you’re destined to be bad, by circumstance and blood.  And even though you didn’t believe them, you’ll believe me when I tell you no, you aren’t a good person, but that’s okay.”

“It’s not.”

“You say that, but you believe me when I say it.”

There was another pause where Panacea didn’t venture a response.

“Isn’t it unfair?  Through no fault of your own, the blood in your veins is the blood of a criminal, and that’s affected how your family looks at you.  You’ve been saddled with feelings that aren’t your fault, and doomed to a life without color, enjoyment or pleasure.  Don’t you deserve to follow your passions?  A decade and a half of doing what others want you to do, doing what society wants you to do, haven’t you earned the right to do what you really desire, just this once?”

“That’s not really that convincing,” Panacea spoke, but she didn’t sound assertive.

“I know.  So I’ll offer you a deal.  If you indulge yourself, we’ll surrender.”

“What?”

“I won’t even make you do it now.  Just look me in the eye, and honestly tell me you’ll do it. Drop all of the rules you’ve set yourself.  I don’t care what you do after, you can wipe your sister’s memories, you can kill yourself, you can run away or come with us.  And your side wins.”

“Aren’t we winning anyways?”

“Up for debate.  I’m really quite thrilled with the current situation.  Very enjoyable, and we’ve certainly made an impact.”

“This deal is a trap.  You’ll make me do it and then you’ll kill me.”

“I could, but I won’t.  Do you really have anything to lose by trying?  If I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill you regardless of what you say or do.  Three and a half words: ‘I’ll do it’, and we leave the city.”

I almost stood right then, to open fire before she made a decision one way or another.  I had to convince myself to wait, that no matter what they were saying, they wouldn’t leave right this instant.

Then I heard the sound of glass crunching in time with someone’s footsteps.

With the length of time I’d waited for an opportunity, I was going to take what I could get.  My heart pounded, my hands shook even as I gripped the gun as hard as I could, but I let out a slow breath as I drew myself smoothly to a standing position and stepped into the doorway, pointing the gun through the window frame in the door.

They hadn’t heard me move.  It left me a second to take in the scene and make sure I was shooting the right people.

They were in a music room that had been arranged with seats on a series of ascending platforms, backed by windows that had exploded inward, scattering the area with glass shards.  At the bottom ‘floor’, there was a podium waiting for the teacher.  Jack was walking up the steps to approach a girl.  I knew he was Jack because he was the only male present.  He was wreathed in thin white smoke, wore a light gray t-shirt marked with blood stains and black jeans tucked into cowboy boots.  A thick leather belt had a variety of knives, including a butcher’s cleaver, a stiletto and a serrated blade.

His teammate Bonesaw, was standing in the corner of the room just to my right.  I could see the edge of a dress, an apron with tools and vials in the pocket, long blond hair curled into ringlets, and that same shroud of smoke around her, moving out to fill the room.  The rest of her was obscured by the wall to my right and the shelves that stood behind the podium.  It put her in an awkward spot for me to shoot.  If I’d known she was there, I would have crawled over to the door at that end, gunned her down at point-blank.

Panacea stood at the far end of the room, at the highest point. She had brown hair that was blowing slightly with the breeze that flowed in through the glassless windows behind her, topped with a flat top cap.  Freckles covered her face, and she was dressed in a tank top and cargo pants.  More than anything else, she wore a look of fear on her face that marked her as the victim, not the threat.

And process of elimination meant the thing beside her was her sister.  I would have called it a coffin, but it was clearly made of something living.  It resembled a massive growth of flesh that had been shaped into a vague diamond shape, gnarled with horny callous and toenail-like growths that protected it and reinforced it at the edges.  On the side closest to me, a girl’s face was etched into an oversized growth of bone.  It was unmoving, decorative, with locks of long wavy hair that wrapped around the sides of the diamond.  The ‘sister’ floated a foot over the floor.

It was so startling to see that I nearly forgot what I was doing.  I drew in a short breath, then let slow breath out as I aimed the gun at Jack and squeezed the trigger.

I’d mentally planned to unload the gun on Jack and Bonesaw, but I’d forgotten about the recoil.   At the same time Jack was struck down, my arm jerked up, and my mental instruction to fire nonetheless carried through.  The second bullet hit the ceiling.

I whipped the door open and turned to my right to fire on Bonesaw, but my arm was numb, and her reflexes were sharp.  She was already opening a door at the other corner of the classroom before I could shoot, making her way into the hallway.

I had a split second to decide if I should chase her or go after Jack.  I glanced at Panacea, saw her staring.  As if the eye contact snapped her out of a daze, she lunged toward Jack, one hand outstretched.  She stopped dead in her tracks as he lashed out blindly with the knife.  Reversing direction, she went for her sister instead.

Jack hadn’t been incapacitated.  Aside from the impact of the gunshot, he didn’t even seem wounded.  He was on his feet in a flash, spinning a hundred and eighty degrees to face me, his knife in motion.

I ducked back through the door, the knife delivering a glancing blow to my back.  It failed to penetrate my costume.

Oddly enough, moving into the hallway and putting my back to the wall made me feel like I’d committed to fighting Jack, even if I might have been in a better position to go after Bonesaw.

“Wake,” I heard Panacea speak.  She said something else that I missed.

I felt a jolt, but it wasn’t physical.  It shook me on an emotional level.  My voice abandoned me, not that I wanted to speak.  I felt as if I stood on the very edge of the grand canyon and any movement, even one to step back onto solid ground, was guaranteed to send me falling to certain death.

The levitating construct of flesh slammed through the door and the door-frame that Bonesaw had used to make her exit.  The mask of bone drew upward like an opened lid, to reveal a clear sphere, containing vitreous fluid and a teenage girl with blond hair.

Her eyes were open, but she looked half asleep, her hair fanned out around her, floating in fluid that seemed thicker than water.  Her arms were outstretched, but her hands and lower body were hidden by the meat that surrounded her.  The edges of the shell that were unfolding around her were curved forward like the horns of a bull.

If the sister had come after me, I wouldn’t have been able to fight back.  Like a deer in the headlights, I stood there, unable to think or compel my body to move.

She rotated in mid-air slowly, as if getting her bearings.  As ponderously as she had moved one moment, she went tearing after Bonesaw in the next, slamming through walls as momentum carried her too far and as she turned a corner too tight and sheared through the drywall, tile and window frames.

I could hear Bonesaw laughing with childlike glee as she fled.

“Not smart, not smart, either of you,” Jack chastised us.  “See, with Victoria gone, you’ve left me here with a hostage.”

I stood with my back to the wall, gun in hand.  Ten bullets in here, four spent, if I’d counted right.  I’d always sort of rolled my eyes at how movies treated guns and counting bullets, but it was harder than I’d thought.  The shock and disorientation that came with firing a gun tended to disrupt even basic arithmetic.  I couldn’t remember how many times I’d fired during the fight in the parking lot.

“I’ve been turning every microbe that touches my skin into an airborne plague, Jack,” Panacea spoke, her voice low.  “You should be dead now.”

“And me?” I called out, feeling a pang of alarm.

“I didn’t know you were there.  You should be dead too.  Sorry.”

“A benefit of little Bonesaw’s smoke,” Jack answered.  “If I recall correctly, it’s something of a safeguard in case she accidentally deploys a concoction she hasn’t immunized herself or the rest of our team against.  The fact that it works against bugs and small rodents is a side benefit, rather than the intent.  Bonesaw’s work has made us members of the Nine more or less immune to disease anyways.”

“And the gunshot?”

“Subdermal mesh.  There’s more protection around the spine and organs, and you landed that shot pretty close to my spine.  It hurts quite a bit.”

“Skitter!  I don’t care if I die,” Panacea called out, “I’d rather live, if only to turn Victoria back to normal, but… just don’t worry about the hostage part.  If I have to die so you can kill this fucker, I will.”

It isn’t that simple.  Killing a monster like Jack or Bonesaw?  That was one thing.  I could push myself to do it.  Killing a bystander in the process?  That was something else entirely.

Jack seemed to be able to interpret my pause.  “I suspect, Amelia, that she is worried about the hostage.  The monster that dwells in Skitter’s heart is very similar one to yours.  It’s a lonely thing, desperate for a place to belong, and the only thing it wants to be brutish to is her.”

“Don’t pretend you know me, Jack,” I called out.  “You already tried to fuck with my head, you guessed wrong.”

“I had bad information.  Cherish has her uses, but she was never going to be a long-term member of the group.  The people who can are truly special.  Bonesaw, Siberian, me.  Perhaps Mannequin, but it’s hard to say.  He’s not terribly social, but he’s been with us for some time.”

I stayed silent.  I could hear his voice changing in volume as he spoke.  Was he moving?

There were two doors leading into the classroom.  Was he moving toward one, aiming to leap out and strike at me?  I glanced down the length of the hall.  Bathroom, janitorial closet, another bathroom, storage room… it made sense that there wouldn’t be other classrooms adjacent to a music room with minimal soundproofing.

“You two have your differences, of course.  Amelia, you’re burdened by guilt, as you’re burdened by your rules and so much else.  I’d like you to think again about how nice it would be to be free-”

“No,” Amelia’s interruption was curt, almost defensive.

“Alas.  Well, while I’m interpreting you two, I’d say Skitter is driven by guilt.  What makes you feel so guilty, bug girl?”

He’s trying to distract me.

I scampered along the length of the hallway, keeping low enough that I wouldn’t be visible from the window while I moved to the point just beyond the effects of the bug-killing cloud.  I could send bugs after Bonesaw and the sister -Victoria, was it?- but Bonesaw would still have that cloud of smoke around her.  I doubted my ability to achieve anything on that front.

“There’s always some guilt related to family.  Tell me, what would your mother think, to see you on an average day?  Or can’t you remember her with the miasma?  I’d almost forgotten.”

Even if I couldn’t remember her face, who she was, or even where she was, I could feel a pang of regret that knotted in my gut.  I grit my teeth to remind myself to keep from opening my mouth and grasped the cords that my bugs had threaded together.  I looped them around Atlas’ horn, and then I ran down the hallway, still keeping low.

Just to check, I tried bringing bugs into the hallway.  The smoke was still present, if thin.  They still died, just a little slower than before.  I returned them to their previous location.  No use wasting them for nothing.

“Skitter,” he called out in a sing-song voice.  With the acoustics of the hallway, I couldn’t pinpoint his location.  “Aren’t you going to reply?”

Just as I was trying to locate him, he was attempting to do the same for me.

I decided to give him what he wanted.

“You’re pathetic, Jack.”

I’d intended to provoke him, and I’d succeeded.

I’d also intended to pull the silk cord taut as he stepped into the hallway, tripping him.

Instead of opening the door, he leaped through the open window in the upper half of the door, tucking his knees against his chest.  He landed with a short roll, spotted me, and slashed.

I brought my arms up around my face to protect it.  The feeling of the silk cord’s weight dropped to virtually nothing as the slash cut it.

I’d been given tips on fighting, even if I couldn’t remember by who or by whom.  Catch them off guard.  My arms around my face, nearly blind, I charged him.

He caught me in the side with a kick, but I had enough forward momentum that I crashed into him anyways.  We fell to the ground, and I reached for the smoking vial that hung around his neck.

Jack already had the stiletto in one hand.  He jabbed it toward my face, my eye, and I jerked my head back out of the way, abandoning my attempt to get the vial.  Using one elbow, he shoved me to one side, then flipped over, simultaneously reversing his grip on the knife in his other hand and driving it down toward the side of my head.  I rolled with the momentum he’d given me to escape before it could pierce my ear or my temple.  He was already following up, slashing both knives at me, one after the other.

He knew how to fight, of course.  He’d said he’d been at this for a while.

Hated this.  Hated fighting without knowing enough about my opponents.

I tried to get my feet under me, but it was slow and awkward as I was unable to use my hands.  I had to wrap my arms around my head to shield my face against the continued flurry of slashes. Jack had a knife in each hand now, and he wasn’t giving me a half second between cuts, if that.

My forearms and hands didn’t cover enough of my head.  I could feel the cuts nicking my ears, slashing through my hair by my temple.  A few slashes made their way through gaps between my arms and fingers.

Blindly, I rushed for the classroom.  Needed a second to breathe, to think, before I was whittled down to a bleeding ruin.  I could hear footsteps behind me.  I felt a hand seize my shoulder.  I whirled and knocked it away, felt another knife slash crossing the back of my head.  I had blood in my eyes, my ears were a bloody ruin, and cuts burned like fire around my scalp and neck.

A shout.  Not Jack’s.  I heard it again, the same words, but I couldn’t make them out.  There was blood in my ears.

I stumbled into the classroom, and Panacea was at my side in a moment.

“Fix me,” I gasped.  I couldn’t tell where Jack was, and I was hurting enough that I couldn’t think to strategize.  He hadn’t followed.  “Fast!”

She touched my forehead, and I could feel the cuts knitting together.

But there was another injury that wasn’t mending.

“The red miasma took away my ability to recognize people.  I don’t know anything about the people I’m fighting.  Fix my brain.”

“I don’t- I can’t.”

“If you don’t fix me, Jack could win, and billions could die.  If you don’t cure whatever it is that Bonesaw’s done with this miasma, I and tens of thousands of others could die of a degenerative brain disease.”

“You don’t understand.  I can’t cure brain damage.”

My heart fell.

“I- my- the last time I did it, the last time I broke my rules, everything fell apart.  You’re asking me to do the exact same thing Jack was.  To break my rules again.”

“They’re just rules.”  Where was Jack?

“They’re the only thing holding me together.”

He’s getting away.  This stupid girl.  “You were willing to die if he took you hostage.  I’m asking you to sacrifice yourself in a lesser way.  Fall apart if you have to.  But undo what Bonesaw’s started.”

“This is worse than dying,” she said, her voice quiet.

“Ask yourself if it’s worse than the slow, degenerative death of thousands and the potential end of the world.”

She stared at me.

Even as she looked at me, aghast, I felt something awaken in my mind, barriers crumbling.

“This is bad.  Every second is time you’re suffering more permanent damage.”

“That’s not a huge priority.  I’m more worried about Jack, and all the others who got hit harder by this stuff than I did.”

“It’s a parasite that’s producing the improperly folded proteins.  I can stop it, and I think I can make them create a counter-agent that counteracts the proteins and promotes healing in the brain.  Can’t make them fix the lesions, but I can promote plasticity in the brain and new connections to old information.”

Her voice was so quiet I barely heard it.

But I could remember the others; I remembered Tattletale and Brian.  Rachel.  I could remember Alec and Aisha.  The dogs.  Our enemies.  My dad.  My mom’s face popped into my mind’s eye and I could feel a relief as I let go of an anxiety that I hadn’t been consciously aware of.

“The parasites will replace existing parasites over time, and they’ll die if it gets cold, now.  Or if you raise your blood alcohol content.  Get drunk after a week or two to clear them from your system, and don’t drink tainted water.  If everyone clears them from their systems, the miasma’s effects will be gone by the end of winter.”

“They’re probably what she seeded all over the area, before using the catalyst.”

“I’d believe it.”

“And the damage, can you reverse it?”

“The minor damage, yeah.  But I can’t do anything for the people with more serious brain lesions unless I attend to them directly.  There’s other healers out there, I know they’re not as good, but maybe they can do something to fix that.”

I nodded.

Precious seconds passed.

“Let me know the second I can go,” I said.  “Jack’s going to attack, or pull something.”

“Trying to engineer a large-scale solution to help as many people as soon as possible.  The parasites will leave your body through your sweat, spit and urine, and enter the local water supply to override the others, and anyone you cure will cure others in a sort of reverse-epidemic.  I have to make sure this is engineered right, or nobody’s going to get cured.  If I screw it up, it could be worse than what Bonesaw did.”

My leg bounced on the spot with anxiety and anticipation.  Jack was up to something and I was sitting there.

I tried to distract myself with a change of subject, “Where did you get the material for what you did for Glory Girl?  That sarcophagus thing.  You have to use living material, so…”

“They weren’t human.”

“That’s not that reassuring.”

“I used pheromones to lure stray cats, dogs and rats to us, then I knit them together.  Victoria didn’t have enough body fat to stay warm, and she was wearing out faster than I could get her nutrition.”

“She’s going to return to normal, though?”

“Just a little more time.  I have to ensure she’s totally together inside the cocoon, then disconnect her from it, and make sure she reaches a physical equilibrium afterward.  Once I know she’ll recover…” she trailed off.

“Amy-”

“Go.  You’re done.  Go after Jack.”

I hesitated.  There was a look in her eyes, dark.  She wasn’t meeting my gaze.

I turned and ran.  Atlas was waiting on the rooftop as I ascended the stairs.

Too much time lost.  My body was a counter-agent for Bonesaw’s prion generators, but I had to find Jack and Bonesaw.  I could scout the area with my bugs, vaguely sense the areas they’d traveled by seeing what spots murdered my bugs on contact, but I still had to track their movements.

Glory Girl was hovering over the school, searching for Bonesaw.  The ‘cocoon’, as Amy had called it, was damaged much as the school gate had been, but Glory Girl was still intact inside.

The fact that she was looking made it very possible that we were facing the worst case scenario.

The bug-killing smoke extended outside of the school gates.  It was hard to verify if they’d gone that way and corked the flow of the smoke or if it was traces from before.  My only resource and means of detecting it was my bugs, but testing it meant killing them by the dozens, if not hundreds.

If they stayed on the grounds and I left, it could mean something ugly for Amy and Glory girl.  Conversely, if they’d left and I stayed, it could mean disaster for everyone else.

I left, flying Atlas in an ever-expanding circle, reaching out with my bugs to scan the surroundings.

With a mixture of relief and fear, I realized that Bonesaw’s extermination smoke was stronger a half mile away.  I’d been lucky enough to guess right.

They’d split up.  Two trails, extending down different streets.  My bugs felt around to see where the death-zone was, a few dropping dead each time, their numbers whittling down.  It was like a game of battleship, with constantly moving ships and limited ammunition.

Three trails.  I stopped in mid-air.

Three?

I gave chase to the nearest one, abandoning Atlas to pursue the subject into an alley, through a hole in the wall and into a derelict building, past a pile of rubble… this wasn’t right.  It was too nimble, moving through spaces too small for even Bonesaw.

And before I even returned to Atlas, there were a half-dozen trails in total that were branching out around us.  In another few minutes, there were a dozen.

Our group had used this method some time ago, using Grue’s power to slip away from the bank robbery.  But how were they doing it?  It wasn’t just the wind carrying the gas down misleading alleys.  Were there living creatures carrying vials of the stuff?

Mechanical spiders.  They’d found their maker, and Bonesaw was using them to distribute the vapor and cut off my swarm sense.

They’d escaped.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Wards!”  Weld hollered.  “Crawler and Mannequin, like we discussed!  Close ranks around Victoria!”

His words broke the spell that the scene had over Vista and Flechette.  Surprising that there were so few Wards here, on a level.  Kid Win wasn’t in sight, nor was Chariot, and Clockblocker was under the sway of his own powers. Shadow Stalker, Aegis, Gallant and Browbeat were dead or gone.

The final sorta-maybe member of their group, Glory Girl, was being eaten alive by Crawler’s acid.

Vista and Flechette moved to positions just behind and to either side of Weld.  The group blocked Crawler’s view of Glory Girl.

Miss Militia directed the adult heroes with a series of short commands and hand signals.  Ursa and Assault led the way with Miss Militia, Prism, Battery and Triumph following, clearly aiming to flank Crawler and close the distance between them and Mannequin.

Crawler spat, and Vista used her power, reducing the distance the spit traveled to a tenth of what it might have been.  Crawler leaped, and she widened the distance between him and everyone else so he stood in the midst of a clearing.

Flechette fired a bolt straight into Crawler.  It penetrated his face and stuck there.  Little surprise on that front; I’d seen her stick Leviathan with one of those giant needles.  Crawler’s face bubbled around the wound where it was rejecting the foreign object.  Almost imperceptibly, it began to slide out.

He rumbled with a low, guttural laugh, mocking.  Was he enjoying himself?  He was a masochist, and it was the rare thing that could hurt him.

Miss Militia interrupted his gloating with a shot from a rocket launcher.  His claws dug deep into pavement as he resisted being knocked over.  She used her power to reload the rocket launcher and shot him again, uprooting him.  Triumph used a full-power shout to send Crawler sliding across the clearing Vista had made.  Vista widened the distance by stretching the landscape.

Prism and Battery went after Mannequin.  Prism split into three copies of herself, complete with fireproof suit, closing in as Battery used her power to cross the distance and trade blows.  I was only peripherally aware of Prism, given how she was based in New York, but seeing her in action reminded me of how she operated.

She was a self-duplicator, always producing two other versions of herself, but there were nuances.  So long as one duplicate lived, she would survive whatever happened to the others, but they didn’t last long.  She could also expend them to enhance herself.

It made her an effective partner for Battery.  Both were all about the setup followed by execution.  Prism formed her duplicates and spread them out while Battery attacked, then drew her duplicates back into herself in a flash of light before delivering a crushing strike.

Mannequin was holding his own.  The hits that did land seemed to have little effect, as he went limp and bent with them.  It seemed he was keeping to the old adage of a supple willow bending in a hurricane that topples a sturdy oak.  Even when Battery was moving at super speed, he was quick to take the advantage of a kick that went too high or a sweep aiming to knock his feet out from under him.  He ducked beneath the former and hopped over the latter, then using his grappling-hook hands to haul himself a distance away.

He managed to get close enough to cut down two of Prism’s duplicates, then pointed his hand at her third self, extending a blade from the base of his hand and firing it like a harpoon.  Battery used up her charge and swept it aside before it could strike home and finish off the heroine.

Ursa, Triumph and Assault were getting into the thick of things with Crawler while Miss Militia and Flechette aided them from a distance.  Ursa was creating forcefields in the rough shape of bears, two at a time.  Weld stood, defending the two female members of the Wards.  Glory Girl was looking worse for wear with every passing second.

“Weld!”  I shouted, drawing the beetle as close as I dared with the heat and smoke beneath me.  “What can I do!?”

“More bombs on Mannequin!”  He shouted.

“I’m out!”  I replied.

“Then get out of here!  You’ll be one less person we have to protect!  Our front line’s pretty thin!”

Weld half-turned to glance back at Glory Girl, and I could see his expression change as he saw how bad she was.  It was reaching the point that we might have to leave her for dead. There were spots where the muscle had necrotized enough that I could make out her internal organs.  If the redness was any indication, the acid was extending to her vitals.

“Evac Victoria and Cache on your way out!”

Evac.  The last time I’d had a scale to check, months ago, I’d weighed a hundred and eighteen pounds.  With my gear, my costume, maybe that added up to one hundred and twenty.  I had my doubts the beetle could manage me if I was even ten pounds heavier.  How could I carry someone larger than me, in addition to myself?

Maybe I didn’t have to.

Had to think out of the box.  If I could get her out of here, and if the beetle could manage her, I could remotely pilot it to Amy.  Those were two pretty huge ifs.  No, couldn’t pin my hopes on that.

I saw Cache using his power on himself.  He was barely able to crawl, but he surrounded himself in his dark geometry, disappearing as it condensed down to a point.  He’d taken himself out of this dimension.  I wasn’t sure if it was a journey of no return or a way to get some respite.

But his use of his power gave me another idea.  Glory Girl had powers too.

“Can she fly!?”  I shouted.

“What?”  Weld asked.  He glanced up at me, then turned his attention back to the fight.  His body was tensed and ready to act the second Crawler made a move for his teammates.

“Ask her if she can fly!”

“She’s insensate!”

“Try!”

He turned back to the superheroine and said something I couldn’t make out.

If she responded, I didn’t hear it.

Weld extended his arms into two long poles.  They extended ten feet, then fifteen, then thirty.  Reaching back, he caught Glory Girl with the ends, bending the tips to encircle her body.

“Wait!” I said.

He glanced up at me, then over at Crawler.  The villain was spitting at Assault, who slid on the ground to evade the spray.  Crawler took advantage of the gap in the defensive wall to stampede toward Vista and Flechette.  Vista increased the distance, but not as fast as Crawler crossed it.

Under pressure, choosing the protection of his teammates as his top priority, Weld ignored my plea for a moment to think.  He twisted his entire body to haul Glory Girl into the air, throwing her at me like a catapult might throw a boulder.

I changed my orientation so I’d be ready to catch her.  Rather than try to wrap my arms around her, I moved so we were racing alongside her as she arced through the air.  It gave me only a second or two to make the call about grabbing her.  I didn’t want to get that acid on me.

I grabbed at the two things that seemed safe – the intact portion of her lower costume and her hair.  I pulled back, hauling on both, but the beetle wasn’t able to offer the necessary lift.

She was insensate with pain, and she struggled at what I was doing to her.  I momentarily wondered if she’d hit me or the beetle with one of those punches that could crush stone. Worse, if she grabbed me and I couldn’t break away, I’d plummet to the ground with her.

“Fly!” I screamed the word.  “Lift up, Glory Girl!”

Her face was melting on one side, her eyes a ruin, her ear and the surrounding area of her head a bloody mess.  I wondered if she could even hear me.

I was getting dragged down.  How long before I had to make the call about letting go?  It would mean letting her fall back into the burning city street.  Maybe her forcefield would protect her, but the acid would continue to eat into her, until it got at something especially vital.  She would die, slowly and painfully.  Burning to death would almost be a mercy.

“Rise!  Fly!”  I shouted.

She began to lift up.  I took the opportunity to let go of her hair, grabbing at the one hand that wasn’t covered in acid.  I pulled on her hand, and she followed my lead.

We moved as fast as my beetle was able.  I knew she could fly faster, would have compelled her to even push me and the beetle forward if I thought I could have handled the navigation.  As a group, we passed over a red scaled wingless dragon that I took to be Genesis, wading through the flames on her way to the site of the battle.

My beetle needed a name.  Had to have a better way of referring to it.  A hercules beetle, but bigger, a giant.  I thought about Hercules, about the myth; Hercules had borrowed the burden of the giant who carried the world.  Atlas.

“Come on, Atlas,” I urged him, “Faster.”

Dumb to talk to him, when I knew for an absolute fact that he couldn’t understand me.  Maybe I was talking to myself.

We found my teammates still clearing a path through the edge of the area.  They were all walking, the dogs in a formation around them, Bitch holding up the distant rear with Bastard.

I landed.  Glory Girl didn’t have the strength to stand, and collapsed like a rag doll.

“Holy shit!”  Regent said, as he saw the extent of the damage.

Amy went white as a sheet.

“Heal her!  Just don’t touch the spots where the acid hit her!”

“I don’t know- what happened?”

“Crawler spit on her, then knocked out her forcefield.  Move!  Fix your sister!

She staggered forward and reached out toward Victoria.

“No,” Victoria mumbled.

“You’re dying,” Grue spoke.

“No,” Victoria repeated herself.  “Not-”

She coughed sharply and mumbled in the same breath, and didn’t bother trying to correct herself.

“Do it anyways,” Tattletale said.

Victoria swung with her good hand, slamming it into the sidewalk.  Cracks spiderwebbed out from the impact site.  She coughed.  “No.”

“If she hits me, she’ll kill me,” Amy said.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “If she doesn’t want help, you shouldn’t give it.”

“She’s not thinking straight.  What I did-”

“Doesn’t matter,” Tattletale said.

Amy shook her head, talking over her, “She’s always been emotional, passionate, unrestrained, and she’s channeling all this new emotion into hate, because it’s the closest equivalent.”

“New emotion?” Regent asked.  “You mean you mindraped her.”

Amy looked like she’d been slapped across the face.  I wasn’t surprised, but hearing it said out loud was unsettling.

“Seriously?”  Imp voiced the incredulity that everyone else seemed to be feeling.

“It was an accident,” Amy said.

“How do you do that by accident?”  Imp asked.

“Enough,” Tattletale cut in.  “Victoria, listen, I’m going to pour some sterile water over you, and hopefully it’ll flush some of the acid away, okay?  I don’t know what else we can do for you.  I know you can’t see, so don’t be surprised when it happens.”

Victoria turned her head slightly, but she didn’t respond.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  She didn’t have water in her hand.  Instead, she grabbed Amy and shoved her in Glory Girl’s direction.  Amy looked at her, scandalized and horrified, but Tattletale only mouthed the word ‘go’.

Amy knelt by her sister and touched her hand.  Glory Girl’s back arched as if she’d been electrocuted, and then she went limp.  Paralyzed, unable to resist.

“I’m sorry,” Amy said.  “So, so sorry.  Oh god, this is bad.”

None of the rest of us spoke.

“I can’t- can’t figure out what this venom is.  I can’t touch it to see if it’s organic, um, I can only see what it’s doing.  At least part of it is enzymes.  It’s denaturing proteins in her cells and using the byproducts to build more enzymes, and it’s breaking down lipids as a side effect, shit.  Oh god, and there’s more to it.  The fluid the enzymes are swimming in is some kind of acid.”

“Can you fix her?”  Tattletale asked.

“So much to do,” Amy mumbled, “Have to counter the acid with some kind of physiological byproduct, have to stop the enzymes from liquefying her entire body, and repair the damage.  Trying to make some kind of firebreak to stop the spread of the venom, withdraw the proteins the venom is using to propagate itself.  There isn’t enough tissue in her body for everything I need to do to fix her.”

“Fixing her body and healing all the damage can come later,” Tattletale said, as if she were reassuring Amy.  “For now, keep her alive and fix what you did to her head.”

“I have enough to manage without worrying about that.”  There was a note of desperation in Amy’s voice.

“It’s as much a priority as anything else.  I said it before, if you don’t do it now-”

“Shut up,” Amy snapped.  “I need to focus.”

We watched her work.  The dissolving began to slow, then fix.  The wounds weren’t closing, but the necrotized edges of the ruined flesh was turning from black to crimson.

“You going to go back?”  Tattletale asked me.

I shook my head and glanced over to where the clouds was glowing orange with the reflected flames.  “Nothing I could do.  Too much fire, it cancels out my power, and it’s dangerous for Atlas.”

“Atlas.  I like that.”

I shrugged.

I turned to Amy.  “Do you want me to bring bugs?  Maggots eat only dead flesh, which might be helpful if-”

“No.  I can handle that.”

“Or I could get some of the more useless bugs, like the ones you used to make Atlas, for raw material.”

Amy turned to give me an incredulous look.

“You said you didn’t have enough tissue to patch everything together.  If you wanted to put together a placeholder…”  I trailed off.

“Nice,” Regent said.  “She could be a human-spider hybrid.  Add some insult to injury with the mindrape thing.”

I could see Amy tense.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” I told him.  “Amy was saying the enzymes were dissolving proteins and other stuff.  The bugs would be a source of protein, vitamins, carbs…”

“I’m a little surprised you know that,” Grue commented.  He didn’t take his eyes off of Amy and Glory Girl.

“My power tells me some of it,” I said, “And I did some reading after we took over our territories, trying to research that stuff.  It was an idle thought, but I was thinking that if we got into a food shortage, I could feed my people with bugs.”

Imp made a gagging noise.

“Wow,” Regent said.  “See, you just started off by making me think you were warped and creepy because you were suggesting Panacea turn Glory Girl into some sort of bug-borg, and now you’re making me think you’re creepy and weird because you wanted to feed bugs to people who aren’t your enemy.”

“It was just an idea,” I said, maybe more defensively than I should have, “And bugs are nutritious.  People all over the world eat them.”

“Have you?” Grue asked.

I shook my head, “But I would have tried them first, if I decided to go ahead with that plan.”

“Please,” Amy cut in.  “Can you?”

I turned to her.  It took me a second to realize what she meant, after the line of questioning from the others.

“Yeah, of course,” I told her.  I began calling a swarm to me.  I’d already exhausted the surrounding area of most, and the ones I hadn’t already called forth were buried in the deepest recesses and most awkward areas, where it was so inefficient and time-consuming to bring them to me that I’d left them where they were.

It took some time to bring them to the area.

“How was the battle going?”  Grue asked.

“The heroes seemed to be managing, but I don’t know how things are going to turn out,” I said.  I looked at Shatterbird, who floated above us.  “We could use her help.”

“Don’t trust myself to control her if she’s too far away,” Regent spoke.

I made a face.  “Right.  But she could carry you?”

“She almost dropped me once before.  It’s pretty hard to hold on to someone, especially without the leverage you have when you’re on the ground.

The first bugs were arriving in front of Amy.  She began dissolving them into their constituent parts and pressing them into Glory Girl’s abdomen.  When she raised her hand, they were gone.  She held her hand out for more to gather while keeping one hand on Glory Girl.

Minutes passed before Amy stood and wiped her bloody hands on her pants.  “Done as much as I can.”

Glory Girl didn’t look ‘done’.  Scars crawled across her body, angry-looking, surrounded by burns from the acid and flames.  Her skin in areas where the flesh had melted away was so new and stretched so thin that it was translucent, and there was little to no body fat to pad the area between skin and muscle.

“Fix her,” Tattletale said.  “You know what you did to her, you know it was wrong, undo it and walk away.”

“Can’t,” Amy shook her head, “I said I’ve done as much as I can, but there’s so much more I need to fix.  The parts I made with the bits I took from bugs will need to be replaced with real flesh.”

“That’s her choice.  You saved her life, good on you, but you need to let her make the call.”

“Why do you care so much?  You’re a bad guy.”

“Oh yeah,” Tattletale replied in a dry tone, “I’m evil, right?  Maybe that’s all the more reason to listen if I’m saying that something’s fucked up and wrong?”

Amy shook her head, “She needs to eat, and I need to rest.  I can speed up her digestion, like I did with breaking down the bugs inside her.  But I need so much material that it’s going to take a lot of food if I’m going to get everything she needs.  One night, and I can make her normal.”

Tattletale shrugged, “That’s fine.  Just undo what you did first.”

“If she fights me and doesn’t let me finish-”

“That’s her choice.”  Tattletale repeated herself.

“No!  That’s- that’s not her.  That’s the change I made doing the talking, or the aftermath of it.  Even if I removed all the neural connections that have been made since, there’s so much more in the emotional cocktails and hormonal balances.  She’s channeling it into anger instead of… instead of love.”

Love.  The implications were so fucked up.  It was the sort of thing Heartbreaker did.

She hugged her arms against her body.  There were tears in her eyes.

“You need to fix her mind now.  For you, not for her.  Maybe she’ll forgive you at a later date, when she’s thinking clearly again,” Tattletale said.  “Maybe then she can approach you, you two can start interacting again, you rebuild that trust over months or years, and you can finish healing her body when she gives you her permission.”

“Or I can fix her now, undo what I did and then walk away forever, because I don’t deserve forgiveness and she shouldn’t have to live like this because- because a wrong I committed fucked with her focus or made her too aggressive or-”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said.  “She didn’t have time to react.  I was watching.  These injuries Crawler inflicted were not your fault.”

“Doesn’t matter.  She would have reacted sooner if she’d been getting enough sleep, if her emotions weren’t off kilter.”

“Amy-” I started.

She shook her head so violently that I stopped mid-sentence.  “I can almost feel right about this.  I patch things up, and then I go.”

Amy bent down and touched her sister.  Glory Girl stirred and sat up.  With Amy’s help she stood.

“You’re lying to yourself,” Tattletale said.  “And you’re making things worse.”

“Just- I’m just keeping her complacent.  I’m okay with it if she doesn’t forgive me for it.  Don’t deserve it anyways.  I do this, and then I’ll go somewhere I can be useful.  Only reason I haven’t made more of myself and my power is because of the rules and regulations about exploiting minors with powers.  Either go into government or don’t work at all, and didn’t want to go into government because they would have made me a weapon.  And because I needed to be with my family.”

She smiled, but it wasn’t a happy expression.  “Burned that bridge.  But I’m sixteen now, I can get a job somewhere, start making a real difference with my power.”

“And the last thing you’ll do for your family is this?  Hypnotizing your sister when she’s already mad at you for assaulting her and fucking with her head?”  Tattletale asked.

“The last thing I’m going to do is fix her.”

“A means to an end.”  I stepped forward a little. “Trust me when I say I’ve been down that road.  I don’t recommend it.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Wasn’t it only a little while ago that you admitted you couldn’t figure out what you needed to do to put things right?  You asked me to make the call.”

“Because you had the experience in making calls on morality in dangerous situations, situations where I can’t even think straight,” Amy said.  Her voice hardened a little, “But I have the impression that you don’t have that same expertise when it comes to family.”

I thought of my dad, and it sat heavily enough in my mind’s eye that I couldn’t formulate a response.

Grue formulated one for me.  “You’re one to talk.”

“I’m trying to fix this!”  Amy raised her voice.  “Why are you making this a thing?  Why do you even care?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “I talked about it with Grue, Bitch and Regent.  We were considering offering you a place on the team.”

I looked at Tattletale in surprise.  I glanced at Bitch.  Even her?

Amy scowled, “As if.  You’re such hypocrites.  Regent mind controls people all the time!”

“Regent mind controls the monsters, the bad guys,” I said.

“Taking advantage of bad people for selfish ends.”

“What you’re doing is selfish,” Tattletale cut in.  “You think you’re doing it for her, but you’re only doing it to soothe your own guilt.”

“No,” Amy said, as if that was that.

She glanced at me.  “Thank you for bringing her to me so I could help her.  Um.  I don’t want it to be a nasty surprise, so you should know I didn’t give the bugs I designed any proper digestive systems.  They’ll starve to death before the week’s over, but the Nine will be gone by then.  If they aren’t, we’re all fucked anyways, aren’t we?”

I looked down at Atlas, then back to her.  I clenched my fists.  “I’m using them to help people.”

“For now, sure.  In the future?  I couldn’t be sure.  So I put a time limit on them.  Let’s go, Victoria.”

“Hey!”  I shouted.  My swarm stirred around me as the pair turned to walk away.

“No,” Tattletale said, putting a hand on my shoulder.

“But she-”

“She’s not thinking straight.  We’ve all been there.  You don’t want to start a fight.  We’ve got other enemies to focus on without making more.”

I was pissed off enough that I wanted to hit someone.  I couldn’t even articulate the entirety of why I was so angry.  I’d gone out of my way to be nice to her, to empathize, to save her sister, and save both of their lives.  And this was how she repaid me?  A slap in the face, a final gesture to make her distrust for me as blatant as possible?

“I could try,” Grue said, “I’ve seen her power, but I don’t get the full picture, I might kill it.  Or fuck it up somehow.”

“Please,” I said.

He raised one hand and created a wave of darkness.  It passed over the two girls.

I brought Atlas to Grue, and he laid one hand on the shell.  I could feel shifting in Atlas’ mandibles, head, thorax and abdomen.

The shifting stopped the same instant I saw Glory Girl spear straight out of the top of the cloud of darkness, flying high with Amy in her arms.

“Did you finish?”  I asked.

“Couldn’t say,” he sighed.

I searched Atlas with my power, trying to get a feel for his physiology.  As with all the other instances, everything about him was invisible if I wasn’t looking specifically for it, a black hole in the database of knowledge my power provided.  He was created, and there was no genetic blueprint that my power could decrypt and analyze to figure out what part served a given function.

When I reached the area Grue had affected, I found it even darker, untouchable.  The nervous system wasn’t something my power could interface with.

“I had to model it off of something, and I get the feeling I don’t have the same innate knowledge that Panacea does,” Grue told me.  “The only thing I have any knowledge about is myself.  I don’t know if it’s going to work, but he has a human digestive system.  Or something close to it, that worked with his body.  Near as I can figure, everything connects to what it’s supposed to.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.”

Tattletale was still watching Glory Girl and Amy disappear.  She glanced down at Atlas, “You’ll have to figure out a diet that gives him every nutrient he needs, and pay a hell of a lot of attention to him.  If you give him something his body can’t process, it could poison him like that.”  She snapped her fingers.

I nodded.  It was still better than nothing.

Sundancer was still clearing a path.  I climbed on top of Atlas and rose above the ground, swaying a little in midair as I tried to control his flight enough to hover.

“Go,” Grue said.

“What?”

“Scout, search.  Check on the fight.  You’re restless.”

“Don’t like how that thing with Panacea ended.”

Grue shook his head, “Me either, but we should focus on what we can do in the here and now.”

“And I’m restless because I’m frustrated.  There’s nothing for me to do here.  I can’t handle the fire, can’t do anything if I’m with you guys.”

“Search for Jack and Bonesaw so we can put them down,” Regent said.

I shook my head.  “They disappeared.  Literally.  I’m not sure if they’re dead or if they found a hiding spot.”

“That’s something we can work on,” Tattletale said.  “Siberian was heading to a destination, right?  Heading southeast?”

“Sure.”

“Did you see what direction Jack and Bonesaw were headed?”

I nodded.  “Northeast from a point a few blocks that way.”  I pointed.

“Then I think I know where they went.  It’s quite obvious when you think about it.  A place they could have researched in advance, unoccupied by anyone of consequence, capable of withstanding hits from virtually anything, supplied with food and water…”

Obvious?  Maybe only to Tattletale.  Still, with her hints, I could follow her line of thought to its conclusion.

“The emergency shelters for Endbringer attacks,”  I finished for her.

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