Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #2)

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

“No, please.”

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

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

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

“Oh god.”

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

“Razors?”  Justin suggested.

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

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

“Please.  There has to be another way.”

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

“I meant besides torture.”

“Psychological methods,” Justin suggested.

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

“No thank you, dear.”

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

Justin sighed. “Come, Theo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One year and eleven months,” Theo said.

Kayden glanced at him but didn’t respond.

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

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

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

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

“Torture?” Kayden asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin frowned, but he didn’t speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.  No, I suppose not.”

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

“I somehow doubt that.”

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

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

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

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

“What agenda?”

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

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

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

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

“More coffee?” Dorothy asked, smiling.

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

“What about you?” Theo asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“People with different colored skin.”

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

Theo glanced at his onetime stepmother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin shook his head.

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

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

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

“Not much,” Theo said.

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

“Four against one?”  Theo asked.

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

“Self defense.”

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

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

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

But that stance…

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

“Harvard,” Justin said.

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

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

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

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

“Justin,” Kayden said, raising her voice.

“Coming,” he said.  Damn.

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

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

Fitting.  Kayden’s plan was clear, now.

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

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

Kayden pursed her lips.

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

“I know,” she said.

“Fuck Coil,” Justin snarled.

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

“She doesn’t understand.”

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kayden knocked, and the door swung partially open.

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

“We had a few questions,” Kayden said.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re Wysocki?” Justin asked.

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

He extended a hand, but nobody accepted it.

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

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

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

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

“I need them,” Theo answered.

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

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

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

“How to have one,” Theo said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”  Kayden asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quiet.  Everything helps,” Kayden said.

“We’re short on time.”

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

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

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

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

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

He looked at Kayden, studied her concerned expression.

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

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

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

“Not at all.  I’m… speculating.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cat’s out of the bag now.

“No kidding?  Wow.  Who?”

“Kaiser,” Kayden said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pay attention,” Justin said.

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

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

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

“I have to.”

“It’s a question of luck.”

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

“I’m not sure I follow.”

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

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

“Talk fast,” Justin said.

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

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

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

“Opposite?”  Kayden asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Kayden and Justin exchanged glances.

“No idea,” Kayden said, frowning.

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

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

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

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

“Kayden,” he said.

“What?”

“Cops.  And containment vans.”

“Someone made us?”  Kayden asked.

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

Shit!”  Kayden swore.

Aster whimpered, then started crying.

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

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

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

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

“Heith.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t,” Theo said.

Justin gave the boy his best dispassionate look.

“He’s been helpful,” Theo said.

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

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

Think,” Justin suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t… There’s isolation.”

“An isolation chamber?” Justin asked.

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

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

“Kayden, let’s go.”

“What?”

“I’ve got our answer.  Let’s go.”

“Are you sure?”

Justin nodded.

“To the roof?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?” Justin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fly,” he said.

“Where’s Theo?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No.  No, we aren’t.”

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

“The cause,” Kayden spat the word.

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

“He’s my stepson.”

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

Kayden only glared, eyes shining with painful brightness.

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

“What?”

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

“So we’re supposed to abandon him?”

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

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

“I could.  But I won’t.”

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

The blast of solid light didn’t come.

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

Kayden glanced toward the door.

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

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

“Well, it’s too late now.”

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

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

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

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

He glanced at the door, then flew after her.

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

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Snare 13.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“I was a lot more comfortable with the risky plan when it was something I thought of,” I said.

“You said calculated recklessness, right?”  Trickster asked.

“Part of that ‘calculated’ bit is control.  Keeping the chaos to a minimum, so we can anticipate and plan.”

Trickster leaned against the door of the vehicle.  “That may be a bit of a problem.”

“You think?”

The truck passed over a pothole.  Our teams were out in force, our members divided across three trucks.  I rode with Trickster, Sundancer and Tattletale.  Regent and Ballistic were in the second vehicle.  Bitch and her dogs rode in the third.

This was Tattletale’s first time venturing out of Coil’s base in a little while.  Her power was limited when she could only get information by what we communicated to her, and this was the kind of situation where we needed her at full strength.  If nothing else, it felt better to have another teammate on the field with us, with Grue’s absence.

“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful.  I know Grue isn’t your teammate.  You didn’t have to come to help.”

“We’re all in this together, right?” Trickster said.  “You mind if I smoke?”

I shrugged and Tattletale shook her head.  He rolled down the window and lit a cigarette, placing it through the mouth-hole of his hard mask.

That would be his way of dealing with stress.  We were all tense, and we all had our ways of coping.  Trickster smoked and stared off into the distance.  Sundancer fidgeted.  She frequently realized what she was doing and forced herself to stop, only to pick up something else.  Her leg would bounce in place, then she would stop doing that and start drumming her fingers on her kneepad in some complicated pattern.  It made me think of a pianist or a guitarist fingering the strings.  Tattletale watched people, her eyes roving over the rest of us.  Her cheek bulged slightly where she touched the tip of her tongue against the backside of the wound Jack had left her.

And me?  I retreated into my headspace, I supposed.  I was maybe similar to Tattletale in that I took note of each of the others, but my thoughts were less about simply observing than about cataloguing and mentally preparing.  What options did we have?  What tools, weapons and techniques did we have at our disposal?  Who was going to be backing me up during this operation, and how reliable were those people?

It was constructive, maybe, but exhausting.  There were so many angles to consider, and the stakes were high.  Brian’s life, Brian’s quality of life.  The rest of us weren’t in the Nine’s clutches, but it would take only one mistake before any one of us could be in the same boat, wondering just how horrible things were going to get for us.

Maybe fatigue factored in, but the more I thought on our allies, the less secure I felt.

The information Cherish had volunteered about Coil, true or not, had left me with lingering doubts.  I was also acutely aware of the distinct lack of chemistry and camaraderie among the Travelers.  They were keeping secrets, with no promises of divulging the information in question.

The last time we’d all been in a car with Trickster, he’d noted that there were two major problems that Coil was helping them with.  Noelle was obviously one.  A part of me could buy that there was something serious going on with her, something that necessitated the help of someone like Coil.  Another nagging part of me was thinking that there were still too many unanswered questions.  What was holding them together as a group?  How fragile was that tie?

Was this really what I needed to be dwelling on?

I thought over my arsenal and the options I had with my power.  I’d developed enough techniques that I was starting to have trouble keeping track of them all.  Should I name them?  It seemed like something out of a kid’s show, shouting out the names of the abilities as I used them.  ‘Firebug attack, go!’  ‘Silkwrap Strike!’

I shook my head a little.  I was tired.  My mind was wandering.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had more than five hours of sleep, and I’d barely slept at all last night.  Fear and adrenaline usually clarified things, so it probably said something that I was feeling a little dazed despite what we were going into.  Some of that was the constant aggression.  Since the Nine had made their presence known, I’d barely been able to relax and let my guard down.  After Mannequin had started killing people in my territory, taking even a moment to myself made me feel like I was insulting their memories, that I was failing the next batch of people who would become victims of my enemies.

“We should stop here,” Tattletale said.

That was apparently order enough, because the driver pulled over.  The long seconds of stillness after the truck had stopped said volumes.  We didn’t want to get out of the car, we didn’t want to face the Nine, deal with their traps as we tried to catch them in our own.  Two or three seconds passed with tension thrumming in the air, every one of our nerves on edge, ready to act, react, even now.

The sound of a slamming door from one of the other trucks was the little push we needed to move.  We climbed out of the truck and joined the others.  Bitch had been the first one out.  She had Sirius, Bastard and Bentley with her.  We ventured over to a fallen section of wall, peering over it to get a better glimpse of what would be the battlefield.

The final two members of our group arrived a moment later.  Shatterbird landed, stumbling, and Genesis began to materialize in a massive form.

We were close to the site of our last fight.  The Nine had been on their way to Dolltown, and we’d ambushed them, divided them, and then provoked them into extending out of position.  Having done that, we’d kidnapped Shatterbird as she lagged behind and then looped around to capture the wounded Cherish.

Now the Nine were inside Dolltown.  I could only hope the noise and fighting of our last encounter would have given most of the residents the time and the motivation to run.

“How’s she handling?” Tattletale asked Regent.

“Not the easiest power to use,” he muttered.  “It’s not a physical power, so I’m learning to use it from scratch.  Doesn’t help that she’s really, really, really pissed off.  I think she’s a serious control freak.  My control’s slipping a bit.”

“How much is it slipping?” I asked.  “Is there a chance you’ll lose control of her?”

“Always a chance.  But I think I’m okay, so long as she and I remain pretty close to each other.”

“Tattletale, Where are they?” I asked.

Tattletale pointed at a squat building a few blocks away.  It had the look of a small library, maybe, or a hardware store.  A place meant to accommodate a lot of people for one job. “Somewhere in there.”

“Then we wait,” Trickster said.  “And we cross our fingers.”

Waiting.  The last thing I wanted to do.

Using my bugs, I tried to scope out the area.  Please don’t let there be people here.

There were.  I had to be subtle, not giving the Nine any reason to suspect I was around, but even if I counted only the people who had bugs on them already, there were far too many people in and around Dolltown.

“Regent, can you stop Shatterbird from listening in?”  I asked.

“Sure,” he said.  Shatterbird shut her eyes and covered her ears with her hands.

I asked, “Tattletale, do you know where the Nine are, specifically?”

She shook her head.

“There’re people here.  I’m counting thirty or so, but there could be twice that many.  I haven’t even taken a serious look at the building the Nine are in, because I don’t want to alert them.”

“Ignore them,” Trickster said.  “This is risky enough without splitting our focus.”

“If I know where the Nine are, I can tell these people where to run, give them a chance.”

“It’s not worth the risk,” Trickster stressed.  He glanced at his teammates, “There’s still five or six of the enemy in the area.  If they see what you’re up to and get any advance warning we’re here, this all goes balls-up, and we suffer for it.  Grue dies for it.”

Regent nodded in agreement.

I looked at the others for help.  Tattletale remained quiet, and Sundancer, the one other person I’d hoped would be sympathetic, looked away.

“Those are people,” I said.  “Real people.”

“So’s Grue, and so are we.  We look out for ourselves first.  If we can take out members of the Nine, we’ll save more people in the long run.”

“The ends justify the means?  You realize that when this all goes down, they’re going to die?  Almost guaranteed?”  I’d directed Sundancer to attack a group of people who included bystanders, but they’d been goners already, dead for all intents and purposes.  This was something else.

“Thirty people for the sake of hundreds.  It balances out,” Trickster said.  “If we stick to the plan and if we’re successful.”

“I can’t agree with that.”

“Then make your call.  If you’re absolutely certain you’re not going to fuck us over and give away the plan, if you’re positive that the lives you might save are worth risking our lives and Grue’s, you can go ahead.  You don’t have anyone’s support here, and it’s all on you if you fail.”

Tattletale spoke, “If you’re going to do something, you better do it fast.”

She pointed, and every pair of eyes in our group turned to look.

Purity streaked across the sky, followed by Crusader and a floating rock carrying a whole contingent of their group.  The rest would be moving along the ground.

“Shatterbird, Genesis, go!”

Shatterbird took flight, calling up a storm of glass shards to accompany her.  She flew low to the ground, relying on the surrounding buildings and ruins to keep out of sight.

Genesis had finished pulling herself together.  Her form resembled Crawler, but with some additions.  Growths on her back resembled Bonesaw and Jack.  She tested her limbs, then looked at us.  At me?  I couldn’t tell.  She had too many eyes to tell.

Then she ran, stampeding off.  Not quite as graceful as the real Crawler, but that was one more area where we just had to cross our fingers and hope she could sell the ruse.

There was the dull rumble of a distant impact as Purity opened fire on Genesis.  Genesis dodged into a nearby alleyway, leading Purity and the rest of her group off to one side.  Shatterbird fired on Purity and her allies, guiding a torrent of glass shards toward the incoming enemies.  Not enough to kill, or even to maim.  It was enough to hurt and to piss them off.

Coil had informed Hookwolf’s contingent about the general location of the Nine.  Sure enough, they’d gathered, girded themselves for battle and marched on, hoping to overwhelm through sheer firepower and force of numbers.  Odds were good that it wouldn’t work.  It hadn’t in the past.

But, we were hoping, it would put the Nine in a position where they had to decide whether to hold their position or respond to the immediate proximity of this many enemies.

Shatterbird and Genesis were tasked with distracting Hookwolf’s forces and preventing them from mounting a direct attack on the Nine’s real position.  We couldn’t save Grue if Purity leveled the building.

So much hinged on how the next few moments played out.

“The Nine are distracted.  I’m going to help the people run.”

The lack of response was as damning as anything they could have said.

I waited until Purity fired again, then used the rumble as an excuse to stir various bugs into action.  I did a body count, placing bugs on people’s right feet, trying to calculate how many there were and how they were distributed.

There was a crowd inside the building with the Nine.  People huddled in a room with Crawler, who lay on the ground with his chin resting on his forelimbs, facing them.

I couldn’t find Grue.  Was he in that group?  No.

On the other side of the building, four people were gathered at one window.  A grown man, two grown women, one of whom was nude, and a child.  A man clad in hard armor crouched in one corner, working with tools.  There were enough cool bodies around them that I would’ve known who they were even if the body types hadn’t fit.

“Found them,” I said, pointing, “They’re watching.”

“They’re not stepping outside?”  Trickster asked.

I shook my head.

“Damn.”

I could see Menja leap from Rune’s floating rock and grow as she fell.  She was nearly thirty feet tall when she landed, the road cracking under her weight.  Rune leaped off the rock and landed on the husk of a building that hadn’t survived Leviathan’s attack.  A few seconds later, a large section broke off and lifted into the air.  She didn’t stay on top of it for long, choosing instead to gather more ammunition, moving on to other ruined walls and sections of building.

This would be a balancing act.  Unless the Nine didn’t plan on defending themselves or running, there would be something of a sweet spot.  A point where the enemy forces got close enough that the Nine were forced to act, yet not so close that anyone else was endangered.

Now that I knew where the Nine were, I could focus on the civilians.  I drew out messages for everyone who was hiding in their homes, along with arrows pointing them away from the Nine and Hookwolf’s army.  If someone decided they didn’t want to move, I nipped them with a biting insect or two to prod them.

Dozens of people made their way to safety, following my instructions and running for their lives as they headed out back doors or out of windows to avoid being seen.

There were still way too many people in the room with Crawler.  And I still had no idea where Grue was.  Slowly and carefully, I navigated my bugs through the rooms of the building the Nine had occupied: A makeshift dining hall with a kitchen, a room solely for storing garbage, then a small open shower with three stalls.  It had been some sort of office building with no computers, desks or cubicles.

Something big, firm and formed of cloth… one of Parian’s stuffed animals?  It lay prone on the ground, on the other end of the building from where the Nine were poised, so large and fat that it wouldn’t be able to fit through any of the doors.

I found another cluster of people on the top floor.  Three adult women and two children that ranged from toddler age to five feet or so of height.  Damn it, why did there always have to be kids?

“I can’t find Grue.”

“He’s in there,” Tattletale said.

“How sure are you?”

“Pretty darn sure.”

“Then how long before we can move on to the next phase?” I asked.  “I found some people, which solves one problem.”

“As soon as the Nine act,” Trickster said.  “Tattletale?”

“They’re not wanting to move.  Something about the hostages.”

“Hookwolf doesn’t care about hostages,” I told her.

“I know!  But the Nine are still holding back.”

“Regent-” I started.

“Don’t distract me,” he said, rushing through the words, “I can barely dodge all this shit they’re throwing at me.”

I followed his line of sight to Shatterbird.  Purity opened fire, and Shatterbird used a cone of glass to block the worst of the kinetic energy and refract the light.  Or something.  It didn’t work that well.  Shatterbird was knocked to the ground.  She managed to take flight just in time to avoid Newter, trapped the boy in a cage of glass shards, and then flung a barrage of tiny glass shards at Purity and her group.  I could see the glints of the shards catching the light as it flew through the air.

“Draw some fire towards the Nine’s location, if you can,” I said.

“I said don’t distract me!”

But he listened.  Shatterbird interposed herself between Hookwolf’s advancing group and the building holding the Nine and their hostages.  Purity fired, and again, Shatterbird’s glass couldn’t absorb the full brunt of the hit.  She was hammered down into the ground again, and what didn’t hit her struck the building, not far from where the Nine were peering through the window.

“Come on, come on,” I whispered.

The Nine reacted.  It just wasn’t what we’d hoped for.

Crawler stood and rumbled some words my bugs couldn’t make out, and the hostages fled.  The Nine made no move to try to stop them.  Just the opposite.  They revealed why they’d kept them on hand.

The hostages made their way out the doors and into the streets surrounding the building.  Purity was so distracted by Genesis and Shatterbird that she didn’t seem to notice what was happening at first.

Tattletale watched with her binoculars.  “Oh no.”

“Oh no?”  Trickster asked.

Tattletale looked at me, “Track their movements.  The Nine!  Don’t lose sight of the Nine!”

The hostages scattered in every direction, and some invariably headed towards us.  I saw what had concerned Tattletale.  Even though I knew where the Nine were, I was still caught off guard.

Bonesaw’s talents apparently included crude plastic surgery.  If ‘crude’ was even the right word.  Every hostage wore the appearance of one of the Nine.  The group that headed towards us had three Jacks, a Siberian and a Bonesaw.  Their expressions were frozen, their eyes wide with terror.  None of them were perfect, one was too heavy in physique to be Jack, and the Bonesaw had apparently been a short-statured woman who’d had her shins and forearms sawed to a shorter length and reattached.  The resemblance was close enough that someone could mistake them for the wrong person at a glance, and that was all the Nine needed.

“Decoys,” the word was hollow as it left my lips.

“And the Nine are moving out,” Tattletale reported.  “Leaving the front of the building.  Get ready!”

I used my bugs to draw a message for the people still hiding in another part of the building.

Crawler was the first to leave the building, charging out the front door, plowing through one or two of the Nine, and barreling towards Hookwolf’s army.

The other members of the Nine headed out.  A real Burnscar, Jack, Siberian and Mannequin at the tail end of their mass of fleeing decoys.

“Bonesaw’s not leaving,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter!  Now!”  Tattletale shouted.

Trickster hurried to my side, binoculars in hand.  I pointed, and I could feel a pressure building around me.  It was slower than his other teleports, more jarring.  It didn’t matter.  Our group was soon indoors.  Me, Tattletale, Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic.

The interior was rank.  They were smells I’d gotten to know since Leviathan’s attack.  Blood, death, and the dank smell of sweat.

Trickster had replaced all of the kids and the three adults that had been accompanying them.  He hadn’t brought Regent, because Regent was focused on Shatterbird.  That was part of the plan.  Leaving Bitch behind wasn’t.  I could understand it if it was because of a lack of mass to swap with, but my doubts about the Travelers and about Trickster specifically led me to ask, “You figure Bitch will cover our retreat?”

“And if one of the Nine is here,” Trickster said, his voice low, “We don’t need her dogs making noise.”

“Right.”  Okay.  Made sense.

I led the way, as I had the best sense of the layout.  Bonesaw was excitedly pacing back and forth.  The rest of the place was quiet.  “There’s only a few places Grue could be.  Confined spaces my bugs couldn’t get to.”

“Makes sense that they’d improvise a cell to contain him,” Tattletale said.

I nodded, swallowing.

Worn and damaged posters and fliers referred to yoga and pilates classes.  Makeshift signs and notices had been raised since this building had been used for the rich-person exercise classes.  These were more pragmatic, detailing chore schedules, contact information and watch rotations.

These people had been getting by, maybe in the same way I’d been trying to get my own people organized.  I felt a growing outrage at what had happened here, what had happened to my people.

Why?  What purpose did this chaos serve?

We checked a small sauna.  No luck.  No less than three storage rooms, sealed tight to keep vermin out, turned up empty.

The place I’d mentally labeled the dining hall turned out to be something of a restaurant.  More notices about food rationing covered menus and signs advertising healthy eating.

I headed around the long counter and into the kitchen.  Crates of supplies had been opened, the contents sorted into piles.  There were also other supplies that didn’t look regulation.  Several 5-gallon jugs of water that were designed to fit into water coolers were stacked in one corner, and neither I nor my bugs had seen any water coolers in here.

I stopped outside the walk-in freezer and stared at the handle.

“Skitter?”  Tattletale asked.

“There’s only three places left where Grue could be.  The other two places are the regular fridge over there and a closet in the basement that I think is too small to hold him and still let him breathe.”

“So if he’s not in here…”

“Right,” I said.  “Trap free?”

“As far as I can tell,” she replied.  “No, if they were going to trap it, they’d lock it first, chain it shut.”

Swallowing, I gripped the handle and hauled the door open.  It took me a second to process what I was seeing.

Brian was in there.  And he was alive.

I couldn’t have been unhappier at that realization.

There was no power to the walk-in-freezer, so it was warm.  The interior was maybe ten by twelve feet across, the walls were metal, with racks on either side.  Brian was hanging by the wall at the far end, propped up enough that his shoulders were pressing against the corner bordering the wall and the ceiling, his arms outstretched to either side like a bird hung up for display, his head hanging forward.

It was some sort of collaboration between Bonesaw and Mannequin.  He’d been partially flayed, the skin stripped from his arms and legs and stretched over the walls around him.  His ribcage had been opened, splayed apart.  An improvised metal frame held each of his internal organs in place, some several feet from their intended position, as if they were held out for display, others placed on the shelves of the freezer.  Cases covered in a ceramic shell seemed to be pumping him full of water, nutrients and other fluids that must have been helping keep him alive.

His head was untouched.  He looked up at us, and he looked harrowed.  The look in his eyes was more animal than person, his pupils mere pinpoints in his brown eyes.  Tiny beads of sweat dotted the skin of his face, no doubt due to the warmth of the room, but he was shivering.

“Oh.”  My voice was a croak.  “Brian.”

I took a step forward, and he seized up, his entire body twisting, his hands clenching, eyes wrenching shut.

“Get back!” Tattletale gripped me by the shoulder and forced me out of the freezer.

“I- what?”  I was having trouble processing.  “Trap?”

Tattletale had a dark look in her eyes.  “No.  Look closer at the walls and floor.”

Numbly, I did as she’d asked.  They looked like hairline cracks, spiderwebbing across everything from the walls to the shelving and even the ceramic cases that Mannequin had set up.  Except they were raised, over the surfaces.  “Veins?”

“Exposed nerves.  Artificially grown, connecting from him to the rest of the room.”

I stared up at Brian, and he stared back at me.

There was no way to help him.  I couldn’t even get inside the room to try to comfort him in the smallest ways, not without causing him unbearable pain in the process.

Brian moved his lips, but no sound came out.  He tried to raise his head, as much as the ceiling allowed, his eyes raised towards the sky.  There was a cauterised scar just above his collarbone.

“I could make it quick,” Ballistic said.

“No,” I told him.

“It’d be a mercy.”

“No,” I shook my head.  “No.  We have options.  Panacea-”

“Is nowhere to be found,” Tattletale told me, “And given what happened with Mannequin, she’s going to be as far as she can get from downtown.”

“Then Bonesaw,” I said, clenching my fists.  “Bonesaw can fix him.”

“She’s not going to fix him.  I doubt she’d do it on pain of death,” Tattletale told me.  “Skitter-”

“We’ll try,” I told her.  “At least try.”

I looked at the others.  Sundancer was on the other side of the kitchen, hands on the edge of the sink.  Ballistic had his arms folded.  Trickster leaned against one counter, silent, not looking at the scene.

“Every second you make him go on like this is cruel,” she said, her voice hard.

“So is every second you spend arguing with me.  I’m not negotiating, here.  I’m willing for him to suffer if it means there’s a chance we can help him.”

She met my eyes, looking like she wanted to slap me, yell at me, or both.  “Fine.  Then let’s hurry.”

I gave Brian one last look over my shoulder before I hurried off, leaving him behind.  The others followed.

I was using my bugs to track the positions of the Nine, where Siberian and Crawler were in the thick of the enemy.  Mannequin apparently wasn’t aware of my presence, so I had my first real opportunity of tracking his movements as he scaled walls and disappeared into manholes to emerge half a street away.  Burnscar used her fire to bombard the enemy and divide them.

Jack was more pragmatic, striking from hiding, threatening his decoys to get them to run out of cover and draw enemy fire, and using every hiding space that was available.  He was quick, smart, and devastating in how he operated.  No movement was wasted, and every time he emerged from cover and swiped his knife, someone suffered for it.  As far as I could tell, he was evading Night and Fog.  My bugs could detect some noise from him that I was parsing as a mocking laughter.  Maybe my imagination.  Probably my imagination.

I was getting a sense of what Brian had described, once upon a time; that anger and outrage that didn’t even come close to connecting with a fire inside, with burning rage or anything like that.  It was cold, dark, and numb.

We found her in one of the exercise rooms.  Yoga mats had been stacked together to serve as mattresses, forming a kind of sleeping area.  Most of the Dolltown residents who had been living in this facility were dead now, their cold bodies lying in pools of blood.  One of the culprits was at the window, clutching the frame.  Bonesaw.

I gathered my bugs, directing them her way.

“Wait!”  Tattletale cried out.

I turned to see her stagger.  I whipped around to see Bonesaw.  She was whirling around in response to Tattletale’s shout, her eyes wide.  There was a chain stretching from her wrist to the base of the window.

Not Bonesaw.  Decoy.

Tattletale crashed to the ground, followed soon after by Trickster.  Sundancer and Ballistic crashed to the ground a second later.

“Why won’t you go down!?”  The voice was petulant.

I followed the voice and saw one of the corpses move, rising to its feet.  Bonesaw unzipped the covering of dead flesh she’d covered herself in and shucked it off.  She was wearing a yellow sundress and yellow rubber boots with a short blue jacket, but her hair and each article of her clothing were stained dark brown with the blood that had been on the corpse.  A small tube was in one of her hands, “I shot you with three darts!  It’s rude!”

I glanced down.  Three pea-sized darts with flesh-toned feathering were stuck in the fabric of my costume.  One in my dress, one in a panel of armor on my chest, and another in the side of my stomach.

“Bonesaw,” I growled.

“Skitter, was it?  Bug girl!  I really want to find out how your power works!  I’ll take your brain apart and find the mechanism so I can copy it!  Is your costume spider silk?  That’s awesome!  You know the right materials to work with!  No wonder my darts didn’t work!”

“What did you do to them?”

“Paralyzed them, obviously.  Living flesh is so much easier to work with.”

Paralyzed.  I glanced at my teammates.  Why couldn’t I have finished their costumes?  Stupid.  I’d spread myself too thin.  I should have finished one costume, then moved on to the next.  Maybe then I would have saved someone.

“Oh, and I dosed them with a little something extra.  Because Jack said there’s no point in doing anything halfway.”  She gave me a sage nod, as if sharing some universal truism.

“You’re going to give them an antidote to whatever you injected into them, then you’re going to go to Brian and you’re going to fix him.”

“Brian?  Oh!  You mean the boy we put in the freezer!  I’m still trying to figure out where his power comes from.  The darkness comes from inside him, but what’s the source?  Besides the usual, I mean.  So I took everything apart to see, but he wasn’t cooperating.  I told him I’d make the pain stop forever if he would just show me, but he was so stubborn!”  She stamped one foot.

I’d let Brian’s name slip.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.  I wasn’t thinking straight.

“But no, I’m not going to do that,” she said.  “I don’t censor my art because it offends people.”

“I could convince you,” I told her.  My swarm flowed forward, and she backed away.  Her eyes, one green and one blue, flashed as she took in the breadth of the swarm, the composition of it.  She was probably already brainstorming some solution.

I wasn’t going to give her a chance.  I drew my weapons, one in each hand, and charged through the swarm, straight for her.

My bugs served to give me a half-second of early warning as they felt her jam one hand into the side-pocket of her dress.  I turned on my heel, the burn on my leg screaming in pain as I did it, and threw myself to the right as she brought one hand to her mouth and blew a billowing cloud of powder into the space I’d been occupying.

I got my feet under me and lunged forward again.  I didn’t get two steps before I was tackled to the ground.

It was a mechanical spider the size of a large dog.  It had been folded up inside one of the bodies.  Its legs latched around me.  There wasn’t much strength in them, and even with my less than fantastic upper body strength, I managed to pry the first two legs apart.

I had almost got the spider off me when another caught me from behind.  A third and fourth caught me an instant later, seizing my head and shoulders and my legs, respectively.

Bonesaw exhaled a second cloud of dust into my face.

I held my breath for as long as I could, but there was a limit.  When I did breathe, my chest seized up, and my ears immediately started ringing violently, a headache settling into place.  The muscles in my arms and legs locked up.

She sprayed an aerosol around herself, killing my bugs.  Not that it mattered.  My facility with my power was getting clumsier and clumsier as the headache increased in intensity.

No, no, no, no, no, no.

“Bring them,” she said.  The mechanical spiders leapt to obey.  Within moments, me, Tattletale, Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic were being dragged inch by inch towards the dining hall.  Towards Grue.

No, no, no.

It took long minutes for us to get there.  I could hear faint rumbles of the ongoing battle and Bonesaw’s humming.  It was all I could do to keep breathing.  It was like my body had forgotten how, and it demanded my constant attention to maintain that simple rhythm.

With the aid of her spiders, she stacked us like logs.  Ballistic and Trickster went on the bottom.

I couldn’t even grunt as the spiders leveraged me onto the pile alongside Tattletale.  I stared down at the mask of the third person below us.

Imp.  She’d got Imp.

Bonesaw crouched so her face was level with mine.  “This is going to be fun.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why could I feel calm now?

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

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

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

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

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

There was one flash in response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not going to happen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two?” Purity asked.

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

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

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

“So?” Tattletale asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

That gave everyone pause.

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

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

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

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

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

really didn’t like that idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trickster nodded at his words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Militia frowned.

“Please.”

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

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

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

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

“Perhaps.”

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

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

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

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

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

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

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

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

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

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

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

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11b (Anniversary Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Theo clutched the remote control in both hands.  For five minutes, he hadn’t taken his eyes off the TV set.

For those same five minutes, the TV set had been off.

“Who’s a pretty baby?  Who’s a pretty little girl?  You are! Yes you are!”

Aster squawked in one of the little cries that foretold an incoming tantrum.  Theo clutched the remote control tighter.  He felt a throbbing pain where the corners of the remote bit into the heels of his hands.

“Oh, don’t cry, don’t cry!”

Theo’s throat was dry, every thud of his heartbeat seemed to make his hands shake and his vision waver.  He’d never been more intimately familiar with the television itself.  The shape and color of the TV set, the proportion of the screen to the outer frame, the little border of silver around the very edges, and the ‘Starry’ brand name logo at the very bottom.  He suspected it would be ingrained in his memory for the rest of his life.

Which might just be a very short span of time.

“Nope.  Don’t see the appeal.  Hey, boy.”

Theo’s heart leaped in his chest.  He tore his eyes from the television and looked up at the man who was cradling Aster.

“The baby needs to be changed.”

Theo nodded and stood.  He was reaching for Aster when the man threw the baby at him.  He had to scramble to catch her, almost let her slip through his arms, and only just barely caught her by pressing her against his stomach and pelvis.  She started screaming.

“Don’t drop her, now, or I’ll be very annoyed.”

Theo nodded, raising his voice to be heard over Aster’s shrieks, “Yes sir.”

“Must you keep calling me that?  Do I really look like a sir?”

Theo looked at the thirty-something man.  He wore a dress shirt that was open to show his muscled chest and stomach, and had the sleeves rolled up to expose his forearms.  His tight jeans were low slung, his limbs long, and his hair was longer and greasy.

The man’s beard had been trimmed, but scruff was growing in around the edges, obscuring the intricate pattern that had been trimmed into the inside border of the  facial hair.  A knife danced around his fingers constantly, making Theo flinch every time the blade turned to point toward him and Aster.

Jack Slash.

“My father told me I should address my betters as sir, sir.”

Jack laughed with the slightest touch of derision.  “Well, your daddy taught you well, didn’t he?”

True enough.  Theo wondered if this measure of respect played any part in why Jack had let him live this long.  “Yes, sir.  I’m going to go change the baby.”

“Yes.  Do.”

Theo’s hands shook as he adjusted his grip on Aster, hauling her up until her head was at his shoulder, even though that meant she was screaming in his ear.  He carried her to the changing table and set her down.

Kayden had reclaimed her old apartment after the catastrophe, found many of her possessions still there.  The man never let the front door out of his sight as he walked around the living room, and was soon behind Theo.  With the open window, Theo could hope the man was upwind of the aromatic diaper.  How long before the squealing of the baby, an offensive smell or something else set the psychopath off?

“How long until your mother gets back?”

That was something else.  That was the third time Jack had asked the question.  Was his captor’s patience running out?

“She’s not my mother,” Theo changed the topic.  He dropped Aster’s dirty diaper into the bin.

Jack walked up to Theo, until he was just behind the boy, his shadow cast long by the setting sun, stretching over Theo and the changing table.  Theo could feel the tension ratcheting up.  “I’m going to get upset if you lie to me.”

Theo didn’t take his eyes off the baby, forced his fingers to keep working on the diaper.  “Kayden is Aster’s mother, sir, my dad’s ex-wife.  She’s been taking care of me since my father died.”

“Of course, of course, now I understand.  I believe you,” Jack said, before chuckling.  He turned and walked away, leaving Theo breathing out a shuddering sigh of relief.  When Jack spoke again, there was no humor in his tone.  “Do you love her?  The mother of that baby?”

“Yes, sir.”  But I don’t like her.

“Good, good.  Does she love you?”

“No sir.  But she likes me.”

“Ohhhh?” Jack drew out the sound, and it was vaguely mocking.  “Do tell.”

“I- I take care of Aster for her.  I do my chores, I don’t talk back.  I don’t make life harder for her,” Theo began.  He swallowed, “But my dad treated her badly, and I think she sees him when she looks at me, and she’ll never let herself love me because of that.”  She has to look past the doughy face to see Dad in me, past the baby fat I never seemed to lose, but I have his genes, I look like him, beneath it all.

Do you have some of your father in you?”

Did he?  “I’d like to think not, sir.”

“I’m remembering now.  Kaiser.  His name in costume was Kaiser.  I met him once, don’t you know?”

“I didn’t know.”

“Years ago.  Allfather still ruled Empire Eighty-Eight then.  They held a big meeting between all of the factions.  We stopped by.  Great fun.  I don’t think they accomplished a thing that day.  We provoked a bidding war instead.  Group called the Teeth wound up hiring us to kill some members of the Protectorate team.  We did it, and then we wiped out the Teeth before leaving the city.”

The Slaughterhouse Nine must have been new, then.  People today would know better.  Hopefully.

Jack chuckled lightly, “I digress.  I do remember your father.  He was older than you are now when I saw him.  He talked in a way that made me think he was an athlete.”

“He was, sir,” Theo confirmed.  And he was disappointed I never followed in his footsteps.

“There were more teams in this city, then, more villains.  Not many heroes.  Lots of scary motherfuckers around, and yet I could probably count on one hand the people who made eye contact with me.  Even then, when my reputation was a fraction of what it is today.  Your father was one of those people.  Ballsy fucker.”

“Maybe he thought you’d respect him for it, sir?  He was always good at reading people.”  And making them do what he wanted.  Even me.

“Is that so?  I’d like to think I’m much the same.  A people reader.  But my interest is in the design of people. What makes them tick?  What holds them together?  All too often, it’s one little thing.  In architecture they call it a keystone.  The one stone that keeps the entire arch from collapsing.  The weak point.  And I’m very, very good at finding those weak points.  Can you guess what I’m talking about here?  Why I’m in this apartment?”

“Aster, sir?”

“And you say you’re nothing like your father.  You’re sharp, little boy.”  Theo couldn’t see Jack move, but again, the man’s shadow fell over him.  He felt himself shrink down, as if the shadow weighed on him.

“Thank you, sir,” he managed.

“Yes.  See, my compatriots are all busy with a task, tonight, you understand.  I bet on the wrong horse.  Come.”

Jack’s hand fell on Theo’s shoulder, and he flinched.  Still, he scooped Aster up and followed as Jack led him to the front of the apartment.  There was a trail of blood leading from the front door to the nearby bathroom.  Jack gave Theo a push on the shoulder, but remained outside the bathroom, where he could watch the front door.  Theo entered.

There was a man in the bathtub.  He’d seen Jack drag the man inside, had heard the taps running.  What he hadn’t expected was for the man to be alive.

The bathwater was crimson, and the man lay in a sea of things that had been taken from the freezer and dropped within.  He was Japanese, Theo noted, his hair cut short, his body bearing the lean muscle of someone who’d honed their body into a weapon, and he was unconscious, though breathing.

“Oni Lee,” Jack spoke from outside the bathroom.  “Our habit is to nominate a certain individual.  Then the others test them in their own ways.  If that individual passes the test, they are recruited to the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

Theo didn’t know how to respond, so he kept his mouth shut.  He rocked Aster in his arms, using one hand to shield her eyes from the scene.  Not that he thought she could make it out or understand what she was looking at, but it made him feel better.

“I had a little conversation with Oni Lee.  Found him living above a grocer’s, with the help of one of my teammates.  Someone shot out his kneecap, it seems, and he’s been restless ever since.  A few kills here and there, but perhaps a little harder when you can’t walk.  Need the right time, the right place.  I kind of respected that, and the fact that he was another fan of knives was a point in my book.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But we didn’t even make it to the test.  I told him we had tinkers that could fix him up.  He was interested.  Then I told him he’d have to prove himself, he asked me how.  Now, it isn’t always done, that a member of the Nine tests their own candidates, but I decided to anyways.  Something off about him, wanted to make sure he didn’t embarass me.  Told him to come up with something, and he couldn’t.  Do you know what tabula rasa is, boy?”

“No, sir.”

“Blank slate.  A piece of paper with nothing on it.  A formatted computer.  A tombstone without the name on it.  Seems that fellow can copy his body just fine when he teleports, but something in his mind gets left behind.  Once I realized it, picked up on the fact that he was little more than a robot wanting his orders, I informed him I had decided we had no need for his services, we fought, and… here we are.”

“I see.”  And Jack was in one piece, while Oni Lee was bleeding out into the bathtub.

“So.  Come on out of the bathroom, now.” Jack ushered Theo out of the bathroom with the dying man. “There we go.  Back to  the subject of Purity and the baby…  Aster?”

“Yes, Aster, sir.”

“We’re going to play a little game.  See, the moment Purity steps in that front door, I give her just a moment to take in the scene… and then snicker-snack, you and the baby die.”

Theo felt his blood run cold.  Tears appeared in the corners of his eyes.  I’m going to die.

“I’ll get to savor the expression on her face as she watches her keystone crumble.  I’ll get to see how she responds as that element in her life that supports everything else bleeds out on this nice white carpet.  Maybe say something to just twist the knife.” Jack mimed a lunging stab and then slow turn of his blade.

Straightening, Jack looked Theo over, “A pity she doesn’t love you, but if she likes you, at least, then it’ll have to do.”

Why did I tell him that?

“She’ll kill you, sir.”  Theo said.  Then he added a hurried, “No offense.”

Jack waved him off.  “She’ll try.  So many have, and they’ve all failed so far.  But it’s good that it’s a little dangerous, a little risky.  It’s no fun if I know how it’s going to play out.  Some unpredictability, it gives spice to life.  Maybe I’ll kill her right after I see the look on her face.  Maybe I’ll escape and leave her to wallow in her misery.”

Escape?  From a fifteen story apartment building, against a supervillain who can fly and level city blocks?

Then again, Jack had done worse things than murder the child of a cape like Purity, and he was still here.

“Sometimes,” Jack started, pausing as if he was constructing the thought as he spoke it, “I like to imagine the impact I’ve made on the world.  What possible realities am I pruning, what events am I setting in motion, each time I take a life?  If the flap of a butterfly’s wing can alter the course of a hurricane, what am I doing when I take a human life?  The life of a person who interacts with dozens of people every day, who would have a career, romance, children?”

Tears ran down Theo’s face.  He clutched Aster tight.

“Can you tell me who you are, Kaiser’s boy?  What am I doing to reality when I open you up from cock to chin and let your entrails spill onto the floor?”

“I-I don’t know,” Theo said, his voice quiet.

“Don’t shut down on me, now.  Here, I’ll make you a deal.  If you give me a good answer, I’ll make it quick.  Thrust my knife right through the center of your brain.  It’ll be like flicking a light switch.  You just stop, and there’ll be no pain.  It’ll be as dignified as death can be.”

“I-”  Theo shook his head.

“I’ll even let you relieve yourself in the bathroom beforehand so you don’t shit yourself so badly when you drop dead.  You’d have to be quick, unless you want to be on the toilet when she comes in, but it’s a chance few get.”

“I wanted to be a superhero,” Theo blurted.

Jack laughed abruptly enough that Aster was spooked and started screaming louder.  His laughs continued for several long seconds.

Theo went on, as if Jack were still listening, “I’m probably going to get powers, because I’m Kaiser’s son.  But I don’t want to be a member of Purity’s group, I don’t want to cleanse the world or try to fix things by killing or through hate.  Sir.”

“And you’d fight people like me, I suppose?”

Theo nodded.

Jack was still grinning.  “What would you do to people like me, then?  Let’s say you got powers.  Would you right wrongs, lecture schoolchildren on doing what’s right, and see bad guys like me carted off to the Birdcage?”

Somehow, knowing the inevitability of his own death gave him a measure of courage he had never had before.  Even so, it took all of the willpower he had.  Theo met Jack’s eyes for the first time.  The man’s eyes were a very pale blue, and there were lines at the corners.

Theo swallowed the lump in his throat.  “People like you?  I’d kill.  Sir.”

Jack broke into a second spell of hysterical laughter, and it was all Theo could do to keep Aster from squirming out of his grasp in her distress.

“Can’t-” Jack had to break off to let another small laugh pass, “Can’t say I can imagine that, boy.  You, as one of the vigilantes?”

Neither can I, Theo thought, but he remained silent.

“But you’ve piqued my interest, and if there’s any reason I do what I do, it’s because I find it interesting.”

Theo could see the cell phone on the coffee table in the living room light up and shift position as it vibrated.  It happened behind Jack, and the man didn’t appear to see or hear it.  The only person who called Theo’s phone was Kayden, and she’d been out getting groceries.  It was routine for her to call for him to open the lobby door, then come down to help bringing them up from the lobby…

She was coming up.  He was almost positive.  Could he distract Jack and give Kayden the opportunity to put the man down?

“I’ve changed my mind,” Jack said.

Theo stared, trying to fathom what the man was saying.

“Don’t let it be said that I can’t delay my gratification.  Listen carefully now, I’m making you a deal.”

Theo nodded, mute.

“I want to see this.  This picture you paint.  So I’m going to give you a chance to make this happen.”

Theo nodded slowly, but his thoughts were on Kayden’s approach.  How long until Kayden opened the door?  Would Jack attack her?  Attack Aster?  Despite what he was saying now?  Or would Kayden attack him and provoke something?

“How old are you?  Fourteen? Fifteen?”

“Fifteen, sir,” Theo said.  Hurry up, finish before she comes.

“Two years then.  Two years to get your powers, to train, to do whatever it takes to become the motherfucking badass you describe.  That should be long enough without risking that one of us gets offed by bad luck or picking the wrong fight.  At that two-year mark?  You hunt me down, you kill, disable or sneak past my Nine, whoever they are two years from now, you look me in the eyes, and then you try to kill me.  If you fail?  If you cannot find me?  If you chicken out?  Hmmm… what’s a good consequence?”

In his hurry to resolve this before the door opened, Theo made the first suggestion that came to mind, “You kill me.”

“That goes without saying.  No.  It should be meaningful.  What’s your name, boy?”

“Theo.”

“Fifteen year old Theo.  How many people’s lives will you touch in these coming two years, because I’ve spared your life?  Two hundred?  Five hundred?  A thousand?  How far will the flaps of your butterfly wings extend?”

Theo glanced at the phone.  It glowed and moved again.  Was Kayden in the lobby?

Jack went on.  “If you fail in this, I’ll kill nine hundred and ninety-nine people in your name.  I’ll even break my usual rules to get the body count that high, so it’s something special, beyond my usual habits.  Maybe a bomb, maybe poison.  I’ll come up with something.  I can target the people you love, those you’re closest to, people you’ve affected.  Aster there can be the nine hundred and ninety ninth, and you’ll be the thousandth.  Perfect.  Canceling out the impact you’ve made in the world, it’s poetic.”

Theo swallowed.  A thousand people?  Could he say no?  Could he refuse the offer?  Or would Jack carry what he threatened regardless?

“Well,” Jack spoke, smiling.  “I’ll be off.”

He stepped into the bathroom, turning away from the door for the second time in his entire ‘visit’.  When he emerged from the bathroom, he held the naked form of Oni Lee over one shoulder, a knife in his free hand.

“A treat for a teammate, this is,” Jack winked.  “Doesn’t need to be alive.  Just fresh.  Would you get the door, Theo?”

Theo hurried forward to open the door, shifting Aster in his arms to open it.

Kayden stood on the other side, groceries in hand.

Stern, she said, “Theo!  I called you twice.  Can you go down to the lobby and get the last two bags of groc-”

She fell silent as the door opened wider, revealing Jack.  In a moment, the bags in her arms were tumbling to the ground, and her hair, eyes, and hands were glowing with blinding light.

“Kayden,” Theo had to control his voice to keep it from shaking, “Let him go.”

“I had a wonderful conversation with young Theo here,” Jack spoke.  He rested his hand on top of Theo’s head.  Theo could feel the hard handle of the knife tap against his scalp.  “Very interesting.”

“What are you-” Kayden started, her voice rising with anger, but Theo lunged forward, gripping her shirt and shaking his head.  She looked down, confused.

Jack waggled a finger at her, “Don’t bother, Purity.  See, I’ve been studying you.  I go into every possible fight armed with knowledge.  You have a weakness.  A flaw in that power of yours.”

Theo could see Kayden tense, but she obliged when he pushed her away from the door and towards the end of the hallway furthest from the stairwell, stepping back.

“While reading up on you, I tried to put the newspaper clippings and online information in chronological order, and a funny thing happened.  Seems like your power is weaker some days, stronger on others.  I mapped it out.  You have some form of internal battery or fuel that drives your power.  After going days without using your power, you’re stronger.  After periods where there’s more sunlight, your power is stronger.  You absorb light of any kind, I suppose, and later spend it to use your abilities.”

Theo thought he might have seen a tiny flash of concern on Kayden’s face.

“It’s been an overcast week, and you’ve been using your powers a great deal, trying to put the Pure on the map.  So think very hard about what you want to do next.  Because if I’m right, and your power is spent, you might not succeed in killing me.  And I would retaliate by killing all three of you.”

“You’re underestimating me,” Kayden spoke, her voice hard.

“Then blast me away.  Turn me into a smear in your hallway, if you think you’re strong enough, quicker with your light than I am with a knife.  Prove me wrong,” Jack smiled.  He waited a few seconds, and the only noises in the hallway were Aster’s mewling complaints.

Jack stepped into the hallway and turned toward the stairwell.  “Thought so.  Be grateful.  That boy is the only reason you and your daughter are alive right now.  He’ll explain.  Train him.  Make him strong, make him vicious.  Let him take whatever path he needs to take.  You and your daughter owe him that.”

Kayden looked down at Theo, who glanced at Jack for just a second, then looked up at her and nodded quickly.  Urging her.  Jack wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t think he could get away.

“Alright,” she spoke.

Jack didn’t offer anything further.  His knife twirling in his fingers, he stepped toward the door by the elevators, kicked it open, and stepped inside.  As he made his way down, he whistled a merry tune, the sound echoing through the stairwell until the moment the doors shut.

Theo handed Aster to her mother.  He felt dazed at the magnitude of what faced him.  Two years.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Lady Photon and the eighteen year old Laserdream landed beside Armsmaster, making a small splash as they touched down.

You could see the family resemblance.  They weren’t supermodel good looking, but they were attractive people, even with their hair wet and plastered to their heads and shoulders by the rain.  Both wore costumes with a white base color, had heart shaped faces, full lips and blonde hair.  Lady Photon’s costume sported a starburst on her chest, with several of the lines extending around her body, or down her legs, going from indigo to purple as it got further from the center.  Her hair was straight, shoulder length, held away from her face by a tiara shaped much like the same starburst image on her chest.

Her daughter had a stylized arrow pointing down and to her right, on her chest, with a half dozen lines  trailing behind it, over her left shoulder, one line zig-zagging across the others.  The entire design gradually faded from a ruby red to a magenta color in much the same way her mom’s did.  Similar rows of lines with the zig-zag overlapping them ran down her legs and arms.  She didn’t dye her hair in her ‘color’ like her younger brother did -had, past tense-, or wear the tinted sunglasses, but she did wear a ruby red hairband over her wavy hair, to ensure she always had a coquettish sweep of hair in place over one eye, and to pull the magenta, red and white color scheme together.

More than anything else, though, the two of them had the look of people who had seen half their immediate family brutally and senselessly torn apart over the course of one terrible hour.  As though they’d had their hearts torn out of their chests and were somehow still standing.  It wasn’t that I had seen anyone in those circumstances before, but that look existed, and they had it.

It was painful to look at.  It reminded me of when my mom had died.  I’d been in a similar state.

Lady Photon – Photon Mom to Brockton Bay residents and the local news media – bent down by Armsmaster.  She created a shaped forcefield tight against his shoulder, lifted him with a grunt.

“Take him,” Lady Photon’s voice was strangely hollow, though firm.

“No.  I’m a better flier, and more likely to hurt that thing in a fight.  I’ll take the girl and help against Leviathan.”  Laserdream had a little more life in her voice than her mother did.

The girl.  Like I didn’t warrant a name, or it wasn’t worth the effort to remember.  A part of me wanted to stand up for myself, a larger part of me knew this wasn’t the time or place.

After a long few seconds of deliberation, Lady Photon nodded.  She looked like making that decision aged her years.

Laserdream and her mom looked at me.  I felt like I should say something.  Give condolences?  Tell them that their family had died well?  I couldn’t think of a way to put it that didn’t tell them something they already knew, or anything that wouldn’t sound horribly offensive or insincere coming from a villain.

“Let’s go get that-” I stopped, both because I suddenly felt that something like motherfucker was too crass, and because I wanted to bend down to pick up Armsmaster’s Halberd, the one with the disintegration blade, grabbing the pole of it with my good hand. “Let’s go get him,” I stated, lamely.

It took some doing for Laserdream to lift me without pressing against my broken arm or touching the blade. She wound up holding me with an arm under my knees and the crook of her elbow at my neck.  She held the Halberd for me.  I resigned myself to being cradled – there was no dignified way to be carried.  She had morning breath, a strangely mundane thing – she’d likely been woken up at half past six in the morning by the sirens, hadn’t had time to brush her teeth or eat before coming here.

She took off, smooth.  It felt like an elevator kicking into motion, except we kept going faster, had the wind in our faces.

My first time flying, if you discounted the experience of riding a mutant dog as it leapt from a building, which was sort of half-flying.  It wasn’t half as exhilirating as I’d thought the experience would be.  Tainted by the sombre, tense mood, the sting of the rain and the bitter chill that went straight through my damp costume and mask.  Each time she adjusted her hold on me, I had to fight that deep primal instinct that told me I was going to fall to my death.  She was adjusting her grip a lot, too – she didn’t have superstrength, and I couldn’t have been easy to carry, especially soaking wet.

My power’s range was almost double the usual, and I had zero clue as to why.  I wasn’t about to complain.  Using Laserdream’s armband and my right hand, I passed on details.

“He’s at CA-4, heading Northwest!”

The roads beneath us were damaged, shattered.  When Leviathan had shifted the position of the storm sewers, he’d gone all out, and he’d gone a step further than just the storm sewer – he’d also torn up the water supply network for the city.  The occasional pipe speared up between the slats in the sidewalk, fire hydrants were dislodged, and the water that poured from these was barely a trickle now.  That might have meant too much was leaking from the damaged pipes to give the water any pressure.

As he’d beaten a path deeper into the city, he had found opportunities to do damage on the way.  A police car had been thrown through the second story of a building.  A half block later, as he’d rounded a corner, he had elected to go through the corner of a building, tearing out the supporting architecture.  The structure had partially collapsed into the street.

We passed over a gas station he’d stampeded through, and Laserdream erected a crimson forcefield bubble around us to protect us from the smoke and heat of the ongoing blaze.

“BZ-4,” I reported.  Then I saw movement from the coast, called out through the armband’s channels, “Wave!”

I was glad to be in the air as the tidal wave struck.  The barrier of ice and the wreckage at the beaches did a lot to dampen the wave’s effect, but I watched as the water streamed a good half-mile into the city.  Buildings collapsed, cars were pushed, and even trees came free of the earth.

No cape casualties announced from Laserdream’s armband, at least.

We passed over the Weymouth shopping center.  It had been devastated by Leviathan’s passage, then had largely folded in on itself in the wake of the most recent wave.  From the way the debris seemed to have exploded out the far wall, it didn’t look like Leviathan had even slowed down as he tore through the building.  That wasn’t what spooked me.

What spooked me was that I’d been through the Weymouth shopping center more than a hundred times.  It was the closest mall to my house.

When I sensed Leviathan turning south, towards downtown, I didn’t feel particularly relieved.  There were enough shelters and enough space in the shelters to handle virtually every Brockton Bay resident in the city proper.  From what I remembered, not everyone had participated in the drills that happened every five years or so, choosing to stay home.  It was very possible that some shelters near the residential areas might prove to be over capacity, that my dad, if he arrived late, might have been redirected to another shelter.  One closer to downtown, where Leviathan was going.  I couldn’t trust that he was out of harm’s way.

“He’s at or near BZ-6, heading south.”

The area we were entering had been further from the heroes with the forcefields, where waves hadn’t had their impact softened or diverted by the the PHQ’s forcefield or the larger, heavier, blockier structures of the Docks.  Entire neighborhoods had been flattened, reduced to detritus that floated in muddy, murky waters.  Larger buildings, what I suspected might have been part of the local college, were standing but badly damaged. Countless cars sat in the roads and parking lots with water pouring in through shattered windows.

Laserdream changed course, to follow Lord street, the main road that ran through the city and downtown, tracing the line of the bay.

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

“The wreckage goes this way,” she responded.

I looked down.  It was hard to tell, with the damage already done, the water flooding the streets, but I suspected she was right.  One building that looked like it should have stood against the waves thus far was wrecked, and mangled bodies floated around it.  It could have been the tidal wave, but it was just as likely that Leviathan had seen a target and torn through it.

“Maybe, but he might have been faking us out, or he detoured further ahead,” I said.  I pointed southwest.  “That way.”

She gave me a look, I turned my attention to her armband, tried to discern where Leviathan fell on the grid.  Around the same moment I figured it out, I felt him halt.  “BX-8 or very close to it!  He’s downtown, and he just stopped moving.”

“You sure?” came Chevalier’s voice from the armband.

“Ninety-nine percent.”

“Noted.  We’re teleporting forces in.”

Laserdream didn’t argue with me.  We arrived at the scene of the battle a matter of seconds later.  Familiar territory.

I had been near here a little less than two hours ago.  The skeleton of a building in construction was in view, a matter of blocks away, an unlit black against a dark gray sky.  Beneath that, I knew, was Coil’s subterranean base of operations.

Parian had given life to three stuffed animals that lumbered around Leviathan.  A stuffed goat stepped forward, and sidewalk cracked under a hoof of patchwork leather and corduroy.  A bipedal tiger grabbed at an unlit streetlight, unrooted it, and charged Leviathan like a knight with a lance couched in one armpit.  The third, an octopus, ran interference, disrupting Leviathan’s afterimages before they could strike capes and wrapping tentacles around Leviathan’s limbs if he tried to break away.  Parian was gathering more cloth from the other side of a smashed display window, drawing it together into a crude quadruped shape, moving a series of needles and threads through the air in an uncanny unison that reminded me of my control over my spiders.

Leviathan caught the streetlight ‘lance’ and clawed through the tiger’s chest, doing surprisingly little damage considering that it was just fabric.  After three good hits, the tiger deflated explosively.

The octopus and goat grappled Leviathan while Purity blasted him with a crushing beam of light.  By the time he recovered, Parian was inflating the half-created shape in front of her, so it could stumble into the fray.  She turned her attention to repairing the ‘tiger’.

I was curious about her power.  Some sort of telekinesis, with a gimmick?  She had a crapton of fine manipulation with the needles and threads, that much was obvious, but the larger creations she was putting together – whatever she was doing to animate them with telekinesis or whatever, it left them fairly clumsy.  Did her control get worse as she turned her attention to larger things?  Why manipulate cloth and not something stronger, sturdier?

I wondered if she was one of the capes that thought of what she did as being ‘magic’.  Her power was esoteric enough.

A slash of Leviathan’s tail brought down two of the stuffed entities, and Hookwolf tackled him to ensure the Endbringer didn’t get a moment’s respite.  Leviathan caught Hookwolf around the middle with his tail, flecks of blood and flesh spraying from the tail as it circled Hookwolf’s body of skirring, whisking blades.  Leviathan hurled Hookwolf away.

Browbeat saw an opening, stepped in to pound Leviathan in the stomach, strike him in the knee Armsmaster had injured.  Leviathan, arms caught by Parian’s octopus and goat, raised one foot, caught Browbeat around the throat with his clawed toes, and then stomped down sharply.

Browbeat deceased, BW-8.

Leviathan leaned back hard, making Parian’s creations stumble as they maintained their grip, then heaved them forward.  The ‘octopus’ remanied latched on, but the ‘goat’ was sent through the air, a projectile that flew straight for Parian.

Her creation deflated in mid air, but the piles of cloth that it was made of were heavy, and she was swamped by the mass of fabric.  Leviathan darted forward, held only by her octopus, and the afterimage rushed forward to slam into that pile of cloth.

Parian down, BW-8.

All of the ‘stuffed animals’ deflated.

The girl with the crossbow and Shadow Stalker opened fire, joined by Purity from above.   Laserdream dropped me at the fringe of the battlefield with the Halberd before joining them, flying above at an angle opposite Purity’s, firing crimson laser blasts at Leviathan’s head and face.  Leviathan readied to lunge, stopped as a curtain of darkness swept over him, the majority dissipating a second later, leaving only what was necessary to obscure his head.  It took Leviathan a second to realize he could move out of that spot to see again, a delay that earned him another on-target series of shots from our ranged combatants.  Grue was here, somewhere.

It wasn’t much, I didn’t have many bugs gathered here yet, but I was able to pull some together into humanoid forms.  I sent them moving across the battlefield towards Leviathan.  If one of them delayed him a second, drew an attack that would otherwise be meant for someone else, it would be worth the trouble.

I looked around, trying to find Brandish, Chevalier, Assault or Battery, or even someone tough.  Someone that could take the Halberd and make optimal use of it.

One of crossbow-girl’s shots, like a needle several feet in length, speared under the side of Leviathan’s neck, out the top.  Shadow Stalker’s shots, at the same time, failed to penetrate Leviathan’s hard exterior.

“Flechette!  I’m getting closer!” Shadow Stalker called out, looking back at her new partner.

“Careful!” the crossbow-girl – Flechette, I took it – replied, loading another shot.

Shadow Stalker timed her advance with a pounce on Hookwolf’s part.  Empire Eighty-Eight’s most notorious killer latched onto Leviathan’s face and neck, blood spitting around where the storm of shifting metal hooks and blades made contact with flesh.  Shadow Stalker ran within twenty feet of the Endbringer, firing her twin crossbows.  The shots penetrated this time, disappearing into Leviathan’s chest, presumably fading back in while inside him.

Flechette fired a needle through Leviathan’s knee, and the Endbringer’s leg buckled.  He collapsed into a kneeling position, the knee striking the ground.

Leviathan used his claws to heave Hookwolf off his face, tore the metal beast in half, and then threw the pieces down to the ground, hard.  One landed straight on top of Shadow Stalker, the other almost seemed to bounce, rapidly condensing into a roughly humanoid form before it touched the ground again, landing in a crouch.  Hookwolf backed away, the blades drawing together into a human shape, skin appearing as they withdrew.  He brought his hand over his head and pointed forward at Leviathan.  A signal for the next front-liner.

Shadow Stalker down, BW-8.

I didn’t recognize the next cape to charge in to attack.  A heroine in a brown and bronze bodysuit.  She flew in low to the ground, gathered fragments of rock and debris around her body like it was metal and she was the magnet, then went in, pummeling with fists gloved in pavement and concrete.

You could tell, almost right away, the woman didn’t have much training or experience.  She was used to enemies that were too slow to move out of her way, who focused their attention wholly on her.  Leviathan ducked low to the ground, letting the heroine pass over him, then leapt for Flechette.  In the very last fraction of a second, the girl flickered, and was replaced by the brown-suited cape, who took the hit and stumbled back, fragments of rock breaking away.  Flechette dropped out of the sky where the cape had been, landed hard.  It took her a few seconds to recover enough to fire another bolt at Leviathan, strike him in the shoulder.  Trickster had just spared brown-suit from making a fuck-up that got someone killed.

The boy with the metal skin formed one hand into an oversized blade, as long as he was tall, managed a solid hit at Leviathan’s injured knee as the Endbringer whirled around to face Flechette.

Leviathan slapped the teenage hero down, swiped at one of my swarm-people, then was forced down onto all fours as Purity struck him square between the shoulderblades with a column of light.  A metal shelving unit shot from the interior of a store, Ballistic’s power, I was almost positive, and made Leviathan stumble back.

We had the upper hand, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  More than once, in the past hour alone, the Endbringer had demonstrated that any time the fight was going against him, he’d pull out all the stops and do something large scale.  A tidal wave or tearing up the streets.

We did not have what it took to withstand another wave.  No forcefields, no barriers.

I had one of my gathered swarms explode into a mass of flying insects as they got close enough to Leviathan, make their way against the drenching rain to rise up to Leviathan’s face.  Many clustered in the recessed eye sockets that looked like tears or cracks in his hard scaled exterior.  Others crawled into the wounds other capes had made.

Briefly blinded, he shook his head ponderously, using his afterimage and one swipe of his claw to clear his vision.  He scampered back as his sight was obscured yet again by one of Grue’s blasts.

He lunged forward, stumbling into and out the other side of the cloud of darkness.  A swipe of his tail batted the metal-skinned boy away.  Another strike dispatched Brandish, who was moving in to attack with a pair of axes that looked as though they were made from lightning.

Brandish down, BW-8

Flechette fired one needle into the center of Leviathan’s face, between each of his four eyes.  It buried itself three quarters deep, speared out the back of his head.

He reared back, as if in slow motion, stumbled a little.  His face pointed to the sky.  He teetered.

Yeah, no.  Much as I’d like to to be, there was no fucking way it was going to be that easy.

That top-heavy body of his toppled forward, and it was only his right claw, slamming down to the pavement, that stopped his face from being driven into the ground.  The impact of his claw striking the ground rumbled past us.

The rumble didn’t stop.

“Run!” I shouted, my cry joining the shouts of others.  I turned, sloshed through the water to get away, not sure where to get away from, or to.

Leviathan and the ground beneath him sank a good ten feet, and water swirled and frothed as it began pouring to fill the depression.  He used his arm to shield himself as Purity fired another blast from above.  As the ground beneath him continued to sink, the water lapped higher and higher around him.

The Endbringer descended, and the area around him quickly became a massive indent, ten, fifteen, thirty, then sixty feet across, ever growing.  The force of the water pouring into the crater began to increase, and the ground underfoot grew increasingly unsteady as cracks spread across it.

I realized with a sudden panic, that I wasn’t making headway against the waves and the ground that was giving way underfoot.  The growing crater was continuing to spread well past me, rising above me as the ground I stood on descended.

“Need help!” I screamed, as water began falling atop me from a higher point, spraying into me with enough force that I began to stumble back, fall.

The ground in front of and above me folded into a massive fissure.  The movement of the cracked sections of road created a torrent of water that washed over me, engulfed me and forced me under.  The impact and pain from the force of the water on my broken arm was enervating, drew most of the fight out of me when I very much needed to be able to struggle, get myself  back above the surface.  I tried to touch bottom, to maybe kick myself back up, but the ground wasn’t there.  Feeling out with the pole of the Halberd, I touched ground, pushed, failed to get anywhere.

A hand seized the pole of the Halberd, heaved me up, changed its grip to my right wrist and pulled me up and free of the waves.

When I blinked my eyes clear of water, Laserdream was above me.  She faced the epicenter of the growing depression in the ground, flying backwards.  Her other hand clung to an unconscious Parian.  It seemed like the two of us were too much for her to carry alone, because she hurried straight for a nearby rooftop, carefully lay Parian down.

We hadn’t set down for more than ten seconds before the building shuddered and began to collapse.  The ground beneath the building cracked and tilted, no doubt because the underlying soil and rock was being drawn away by churning water.  The flooding in the streets was diverted into the deepening bowl-shaped cavity Leviathan was creating, filling it.  It was almost a lake, now, three city blocks across and growing rapidly. Only fragments of the taller buildings in the area stayed above the waves; some buildings were already toppled onto their sides, others half-collapsed and still breaking apart as I watched.  Some capes were climbing out of the water and onto the ruined buildings, with the help of the more mobile capes.  Velocity and Trickster were working in tandem, Velocity running atop the water’s surface to safe ground, trickster swapping him for someone who was floundering, rinse, repeat.

As our footing dropped beneath us, Laserdream reluctantly grabbed at my hand and Parian’s belt, hauled us back up into the air.

Above me, her armband flashed yellow.

“Armband!” I called up to her. “Tidal wave?”

“Can’t see unless I drop you,” she responded, over the dull roar of the waves beneath us.  With a bit of sarcasm and harshness to her tone, she asked me, “Do you want me to drop you?”

Right, I’d kind of messed with her cousins at the bank robbery.  She counted me as an ally, here and now, but she wouldn’t be friendly.

Myrddin and Eidolon moved from the coast to the ‘lake’ in the upper end of Downtown.  I saw and sensed Leviathan leap from the water like a dolphin cresting the waves, moving no less than two hundred feet in the air, toward the pair, lashing out with his afterimage in every direction.

I didn’t see how it turned out, because Laserdream carried Parian and me away.  I could sense the Endbringer through the bugs that had made their way deepest into his wounds, the ones that had found spots where his afterimage couldn’t flush them out each time it manifested.  With my power, I could track him beneath the water.  He was moving so fast that it was almost as though he were teleporting, finding the drowning and executing them.

Scalder deceased, BW-8.  Cloister deceased, BW-8.  The Erudite deceased, BW-8.  Frenetic deceased, BW-8.  Penitent deceased, BW-9.  Smackdown deceased, BX-8.  Strider deceased, BW-8

“Setting down again,” Laserdream said.

“But if there’s a tidal wave-”

“I don’t see one.”

I joined her in looking toward the coast.  The water was as stable as it had been since the fight started.

“If it’s a trick-”

With a little anger in her voice, a hard tone, she spoke, “Either we set down or I drop you.  I can’t hold on much longer.”

“Right.”

She carried me two blocks away from the crater.  The ground was wet, but no longer submerged, the road was torn up, shattered, covered with debris.

Laserdream checked her armband, “It’s one of the shelters.  They sprung a leak, need help evacuating.  I’m going.”

Dad.  It could be my dad.

“Bring me,” I said.

She frowned.

“I know your arms are tired.  Mine is too, and I was just hanging there.  I can’t tell you how thankful I am that you’ve done this much to help me, but we have to stick together, and you can fly low enough to the ground that you can drop me if you have to.”

“Fine, but we’re leaving the doll kid here.”

She laid Parian down in a recessed doorway, then pressed the ‘ping’ button on the girl’s armband.

I held the Halberd out while Laserdream walked around behind me.  She wrapped her arms around my chest and lifted us off.  Uncomfortable, and she was jarring my broken arm, which hurt like a motherfucker, but I couldn’t complain after just having asked to come.

Myrddin down, BX-9.

Laserdream carried us around the edge of the ‘lake’ that was still growing, if not quite so fast as it had been.  I saw others gathered at the edge of the water, forming battle lines where Leviathan might have a clear path to make a run for it. If he wanted to make a run for it.  As it stood, he was entirely in his environment, in the heart of the city, where he could continue to work whatever mojo he needed to bring more tidal waves down on our heads.  To my bug senses, Leviathan was deep beneath the waves, moving rapidly, acting like he was engaged in a fight.  Against Eidolon?  I couldn’t tell.  Every darting, hyperfast movement dislodged a few bugs, made him harder to detect.

The shelter was set beneath a smallish library.  A concrete stairwell beside the building led belowground to the twenty-foot wide vault door.  Fragments of the building and the ledge overhanging the stairwell had fallen, blocked the door from opening fully.  Making matters worse, the door was stuck in a partially ajar position, and the stairwell was flooded with water, which ran steadily into the shelter.  Two capes were already present, shoulder deep in the water, ducking below to grab stones and rising again to heave them out.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, as Laserdream set us down, I immediatelly sent out a call to summon bugs to my location, just to be safe.  “Do we want to shut the door or open it?”

“Open it,” one of the capes in the water said.  He ducked down, grabbed a rock, hauled it out with a grunt.  “We don’t know what condition they’re in, inside.”

Laserdream stepped forward and began blasting with her laser, penetrating the water and breaking up the larger rocks at the base of the door.

I was very nearly useless here.  With one hand, I couldn’t clear the rubble, and my power wasn’t any use.  There weren’t even many crabs or other crustaceans I could employ in the water around us, and the ones that did exist were small.

Then I remembered the Halberd.

“Hey,” I stopped one of the capes that was heaving rocks out of the stairwell, “Use this.”

“As a shovel?” he looked skeptical.

“Just try it, only… don’t touch the blade.”

He nodded, took the Halberd, and ducked beneath the water.  Ten seconds later, he raised his head, “Holy shit.  This works.”

“Use it on the door?” I suggested.  He gave me a curt nod.

Enemy location unknown, I could hear the cape’s armband announce.  Defensive perimeter, report.

There was a pause.

No reports.  Location unknown.  Exert caution.

“I’m going to try cutting the door off,” the cape spoke.  He descended beneath the water.  I could barely make out his silhouette.  Laserdream ceased firing as he made his way to where the heavy metal door was, stepped around and set to burning long channels in the side of the stairwell.  I realized it was intended to give the water in the stairwell somewhere to flow that wasn’t towards the people inside.

The door tipped into the stairwell and came to rest against the opposite wall, resting at a forty-five degree angle, sloping up toward the railing.  The water in the stairwell flowed inside, an unfortunate consequence.  The cape with the Halberd set to using the blur of the Halberd to to cut lines into the back of the door and to remove the railing, so there was sufficient traction for people walking up and out of the door.

I stepped down to investigate, sent a few bugs in to get the lay of the land.  The interior of the shelter was surprisingly like what Coil’s headquarters had been like, concrete walls with metal walkways and multiple levels.  There were water coolers and a set of freezers, bathrooms and a sectioned off first aid area.

It was clear that one of the waves or Leviathan’s creation of that massive sinkhole in downtown had done some damage to the shelter.  Water was pouring in from a far wall and from the front door, and twenty or so people were in the first aid bay on cots, injured and bloody.  A team of about fifty or sixty people were moving sandbags to reduce the flow of water into the chamber from the cracked back wall.  A second, smaller team was blocking off the room with the cots, piling sandbags in the doorway.  In the main area, people stood nearly waist deep in water.

“Everyone out!” Laserdream called out.

Relief was clear on people’s faces as they began wading en masse toward the front doors.

My dad was taller than average, and I hoped to be able to make him out, see if he was in the crowd.  As the group gravitated toward the doorway, however, I lost the ability to peer over the mass of people.  I didn’t see him.

I hung back as people filed out in twos and threes.  Mothers and fathers holding their kids, who otherwise wouldn’t be tall enough to stay above water, people still in pajamas or bathrobes, people holding their dogs above water or with cats on their shoulders.  They marched against the flow of water from the stairwell, up the back of the vault door and onto the street.

Mr. Gladly was near the back of the crowd, with a blond woman that was taller than him, holding his hand.  It bugged me, in a way I couldn’t explain.  It was like I felt he didn’t deserve a girlfriend or wife.  But that wasn’t exactly it.  It was like this woman was somone who maybe liked him, heard his side of things, validated his self-perception of being this excellent, ‘cool’ teacher.  A part of me wanted to explain to that woman that he wasn’t, that he was the worst sort of teacher, who helped the kids who already had it easy, and dropped the fucking ball when it came to those of us who needed it.

It was surprising how much that chance meeting bugged me.

A shriek startled me out of my contemplations.  It was quickly followed by a dozen other screams of mortal terror.

Impel deceased, CB-10Apotheosis deceased, CB-10.

I felt him arrive, a small few bugs still inside him, though most of the rest had been washed away in his swim.  There were so few I’d missed his approach.

Leviathan.

People ran back inside the shelter, screamed and pushed, trampled one another.  I was forced into the corner by the door as they ran into the shelter, tried to make some distance between themselves and the Endbringer.

Laserdream down, CB-10.

And he was there, climbing through the vaultlike door, so large he barely fit.  One claw on either side, he pushed his way through.  Stood as tall as he could inside the front door, looking over the crowd.  Hundreds of people were within, captive, helpless.

A lash of his tail struck down a dozen people in front of him.  The afterimage struck down a dozen more.

No death notice from the armband for civilians.

Leviathan took a step forward, putting me behind him and just to his right.  He lashed his tail again.  Another dozen or two dozen civilians slain.

Mr. Gladly’s girlfriend was screaming, burying her face in his shoulder.  Mr. Gladly stared up at Leviathan, wide eyed, his lips pressed together in a line, oddly red faced.

I didn’t care.  I should feel bad my teacher was about to die, but all I could think about was how he’d ignored me when Emma and the others had had me cornered.

One hand on my shoulder to steady my throbbing broken arm, I slipped behind Leviathan, hugging the wall, slipping around the corner and moving up the vault door with padded feet.

It was a dark mirror to what Mr. Gladly had done to me.  What Emma and her friends had done, I couldn’t say for sure that I would have had the mental fortitude to put up with it if I hadn’t gotten my powers – and for all he knew, I hadn’t.  I couldn’t know whether I could have dealt with everything that had followed the incident in January, if I could have made it this far if I hadn’t had my powers, these distractions.  In every way that mattered, Mr. Gladly turning his back on me, back there in the school hallway, a time that felt so long ago, could have killed me.

A fitting justice, maybe, leaving him in that shelter with Leviathan.

I saw Laserdream lying face down in the water, bent down and turned her over with my good hand and one foot, checked she was breathing.

The two capes, who I took to be Impel and Apotheosis, were torn into pieces.  I ran past them.  Ran past the civilians who Leviathan had struck down, ripped apart.

I stopped, when I found the Halberd, picked it up.  Found Impel’s armband, bent down and pressed the buttons to open communications, “Leviathan’s at the shelter in CB-10.  Need reinforcements fast.”

Chevalier replied, “Shit.  He must have gone through some storm drain or sewer.  Our best teleporter’s dead, but we’ll do what we can.”

Which left me only one thing to do.  I had to be better than Mr. Gladly.

I ran past Impel and Apotheosis, passed Laserdream, and reached the shelter’s entrance once more.

Leviathan was further inside, crouched, his back to me.  His tail lashed in front of him.  Terrified screams echoed from within.

It was agonizing to do it, but I moved slowly, to minimize the noise I made, even as every second allowed Leviathan more time to tear into the crowd.  To move too fast would alert him, waste any opportunity I had here.  A backwards movement of Leviathan’s tail arced through the air, fell atop me, forcing me down into the water.  Gallons of cold water dropping down from ten feet above me.

I swallowed the scream, the grunting of pain that threatened to escape my throat, stood again, slowly.

With only one hand, I didn’t have the leverage to really swing the Halberd.  I had to hold it towards the top, near the blade, which meant having less reach, having to get closer.

When I was close enough, I drew the blade back and raked it just below the base of his tail.  Where his asshole would be if he had human anatomy.  Easiest place for me to reach, with him crouched down like he was.

Dust billowed and Leviathan reacted instantly, swiped with one claw, fell onto his side when the damage to his buttocks and the hampered mobility of his tail screwed with his ability to control the movement of his lower body.  His claw swipe went high.  His afterimage was broken up by the the wall above the door, but enough crashed down in front of and on top of me to throw me back out of the shelter, into the toppled shelter door.  I was pushed under the water, the Halberd slipping from my grip.

I climbed to my feet at the same time he did, but I had a clear route up the back of the shelter door while he had to squeeze through the opening.  I was on the street and running well before he was up out of the stairwell.

I gathered my bugs to me, sent some to him, to better track his movements.  As he climbed up, I gathered the swarms into decoys that looked human-ish, sent them all moving in different directions, gathered more around myself to match them in appearance.

With the effects of my slash of the Halberd combined with the damage Armsmaster had already done, Leviathan didn’t have the mobility with his tail he otherwise would.  When he attacked my decoys, he did it with slashes of his claw and pouncing leaps that sent out afterimages to crash into them.  A swipe of the claw’s echo to disperse one swarm to his left, a lunge to destroy one in front of him.  Another afterimage of a claw swipe sent out to strike at me.

Water crashed into me, hard as concrete, fast as a speeding car.  I felt more pain than I’d ever experienced, more than when Bakuda had used that grenade on me, the one that set my nerve endings on fire with raw pain.  It was brief, somehow more real than what Bakuda had inflicted on me.  Struck me like a lightning flash.

I plunged face first into the water.  My good arm on its own wasn’t enough to turn me over – the road just a little too far below me.  I tried to use my legs to help turn myself over.  Zero response.

I’d either been torn in two and couldn’t feel the pain yet or, more likely, I’d been paralyzed from the waist down.

Oh.

Not like I really should’ve expected any different.  Neither case was much better than the other, as far as I was concerned.

My breath had been knocked out of me at the impact, but some primal, instinctual part of me had let me hold my breath.  I lay there, face down in two or three feet of water, counting the seconds until I couldn’t hold my breath any more, until my body opened my mouth and I heaved in a breath with that same instinctual need for preservation, filled my lungs with water instead.

The lenses of my mask were actually swim goggles, it was a strange recollection to cross my mind.  I’d bought them from a sports supply store, buying the useless chalk dust at the same time.  Durable, high end, meant for underwater cave spelunkers, if I remembered the picture on the packaging right.  Tinted to help filter out bright lights, to avoid being blinded by any fellow swimmer’s headlamps.  I’d fitted the lenses from an old pair of glasses inside, sealed them in place with silicon at the edges, so I had 20/20 vision while I had my mask on without having to wear glasses beneath or over it, or contact lenses, which irritated my eyes.  I’d built the armor of my mask around the edges of the goggles so the actual nature of the lenses wasn’t immediately apparent, and to hold them firmly in place.

Even so, when I opened my eyes, looked through those lenses for their original purpose, all I could see was mud, grit, silt.  Black and dark brown, with only the faintest traces of light.  It disappointed me on a profound level, knowing that this might be the last thing I ever saw.  Disappointed me more than the idea of dying here, odd as that was.

Through my power, I sensed Leviathan turn, take a step back toward the shelter, stop.  His entire upper body turned so he could peer to his left with his head, turned the opposite way to peer right.  Like a dog sniffing.

He dropped to all fours, ran away, a loping gait, not the lightning fast movement he’d sported when he first attacked.  Still fast enough.

My chest lurched in a sob for air, like a dry heave.  I managed to keep from opening my mouth but the action, the clenching of every muscle above my shoulders, left my throat aching.

Two seconds later, it hit me again harder.

Two blocks away, Leviathan crashed down into the water.

Another lurch of my throat and chest, painful.  My mouth opened, water filled my mouth, and my throat locked up to prevent the inhalation of water.  I spat the water out, forced it out of my mouth, for all the good it would do.

I’d left the fat cape to die like this when the wave was coming.  Was this karma?

Something splashed near me.  A footstep.

I was hauled out of the water.  I felt a lancing pain through my midsection, like a hot iron, gasped, sputtered.  Through the beads of water on my lenses, I couldn’t make out much.

Bitch, I realized.  She wasn’t looking at me.  Her face was etched deep with pain, fury, fear, sheer viciousness, or some combination of the four.

I followed her gaze, blinked twice.

Her dogs were attacking Leviathan, and Leviathan was attacking back.  He hurled two away, three more leapt in.

How many dogs?

Leviathan pulled away, only for a dog to snag his arm, drag him off balance.  Another latched on to his elbow, while a third and fourth pounced onto his back, tearing into his spine.  More crouched and circled around him, looking for opportunities and places to bite.

He clubbed one away with a crude movement of his tail, used his free claw to grab it by the throat, tear a chunk of flesh away.  The dog perished in a matter of seconds.

Bitch howled, a primal, raw sound that must have hurt her throat as much as it hurt to listen to.  She moved forward, pulling me with her, lifting me up.  When I sagged, she gave me a startled look.

I looked down.  My legs were there, but there was no sensation.  Numb wasn’t a complete enough term to explain it.

“Back’s broken, I think,” the words were weak.  The calm tone of the words was eerie, even coming from my own mouth to my own ears.  Disconcertingly out of place with the frenzied, savage tableau.

Leviathan wheeled around, grabbed another dog by one shoulder, dug a claw into the dog’s ribcage and cracked  it open, the ribs splaying apart like the wings of some macabre bird, heart and lungs exposed.  The animal dropped dead to the water’s surface at Leviathan’s feet.

Bitch looked from me to the dog, as if momentarily lost.  In an instant, that look disappeared, replaced by that etching of rage and fury.  She screeched the words, “Kill him!  Kill!”

It wasn’t enough.  The dogs were strong, there were six of them left, even, but Leviathan was more of a monster than all of them put together.

He heaved one dog off the ground, slammed it into another like a club, then hurled it against a wall, where it dropped, limp and broken.

With that same claw, he slashed, tore the upper half of a dog’s head off.

“Kill!” Bitch shrieked.

No use.  One by one, the dogs fell.  Four left, then three.  Two dogs left.  They backed away, wary, each in a different direction.

Bitch clutched me, her arms so tight around my shoulders it hurt.  When I looked up at her, I saw tears in the corners of her eyes as she stared unblinking at the scene.

Scion dropped from the sky.  Golden skinned, golden beard trimmed close, or perhaps it never grew beyond that length.  His hair was longer than mine.  His bodysuit and cape were a plain white, stained with faded marks of old, dirt and blood, a strange juxtaposition to how perfect and unblemished he looked, otherwise.  There was no impact as he landed, no great splash or rumble of the earth.  Leviathan didn’t even seem to notice the hero’s arrival.

Leviathan struck at one of the remaining dogs with a broad swing of his tail, caught it across the snout.  It dropped, neck snapped.  A short leap and a slash of the claw dispatched the last.

Scion raised one hand, and a ball of yellow-gold light slammed into Leviathan from behind, sent the Endbringer skidding across the length of the street, past Bitch and I.

Leviathan leaped to his feet, reared around, swung his claws at the air ferociously.  Water around him rose, rushed towards Scion, a wave three times as high as Bitch was tall.  Three times as tall as I might be if I could stand.

Scion didn’t move or speak.  He walked forward, and ripples extended from his footsteps, soared past us with some strange motive force.  The ripple touched the wave, and the tower of water collapsed before it got halfway to us, dropping straight down.  Liquid as far as the eye could see was being flattened out into a disquieting stillness by the ripples of Scion’s footsteps, like a great pane of glass.

Leviathan lunged up to the side of a half-ruined building, leaped down to a point three-quarters of the way between himself and Scion.  His afterimage slammed into the hero.

Scion turned his head, shut his eyes, let the water wash over and past him.  When the attack was over, he squared his head and shoulders, facing Leviathan head on, raised a hand.

Another blast of yellow-gold light, and Leviathan was sent sprawling.

I saw the ripples and waves of Leviathan striking the ground wash past us.  Saw, again, how the ripple of Scion’s footstep seemed to wipe out and override that disturbance, returning the water to a perfect flatness.

Leviathan grabbed a car, twisted his entire upper body to toss it in the style of an olympic hammer-throw.  The car hurtled through the air, and Scion batted it aside with the back of one hand.  The vehicle virtually detonated with the impact, falling into a thousand pieces, each piece glowing with golden-yellow light, disintegrating as they splashed into the water.

Scion raised one hand, and there was a brilliant flash, too bright to look through.

When the spots faded from my vision, I saw that one of the damaged buildings was emanating that same light the pieces of the car had, was toppling, tipping towards Leviathan.  Scion, fingertips glowing, started his slow advance as the structure was pulled atop the Endbringer.  The ripples of his footsteps erased any disturbance in the water from the building’s collapse

Leviathan heaved himself out of the rubble, turned to run, only for water to rise and freeze solid in one smooth movement, forming a wall as tall as Leviathan was, a hundred feet long.  He paused for a fraction of a second, to gauge which way he might go, poise himself to leap over.  Scion caught him with another golden-yellow blast before he could follow through.

The movement of the water and the creation of the ice hadn’t been Scion.  Eidolon approached, flying close, raising one hand to create a ragged mess of icicles where Leviathan was to land.  Some impaled the Endbringer, but by and large, they shattered beneath him, left him scrabbling for traction and footing for long enough that Scion could shoot him again, send him through the barrier of ice as though it were barely there, tumbling.

Scion paused, turning to look at Eidolon, his eyes moving past Bitch and me like we weren’t even there.  His eyes settled on the hero, the most powerful individual in the world staring at the man who was arguably the fifth.

His expression was so hard to read.  I knew, now, what people had meant, when they said they thought his face was a mask, a facade.  Though it was expressionless, though there was nothing I could point to to explain why I felt the way I did, somehow I sensed disgust from him.  Like nobility looking at dog shit.

Scion turned away from Eidolon to focus on the enemy once more.  He blasted the Endbringer again.  Floated up and moved past Bitch and me faster than I could see, to strike the Endbringer a fraction of a second after the blast of light struck, stopping there in midair to blast Leviathan a second time as the Endbringer was still flying through the air at the punch’s impact.  Everything about Scion and his actions was utterly silent. His movements or attacks didn’t even stir the air.  Only the effects, Leviathan striking the water, the breaking of ice, generated any movement, shudders or sounds.

Eidolon froze the water around Leviathan’s four claws, giving Scion the opportunity to land another blast.  Leviathan turned, raised a spraying wall of water to cover his retreat.  Scion sent out one blast of his golden light to strike the wave, following up with a second blast before the first even made contact with the water.

Seeing the second blast coming, Leviathan leaped to one side.  No use – the blast of light curved in the air to head unerringly for him, struck him down.  Edges of the Endbringer’s wounds glowed golden yellow, drifted away into the air like flecks of burning paper caught in the updraft of hot air.  A fist imprint near the base of Leviathan’s throat glowed with edges of the same light, the wound continuing to spread and burn as I watched.

A tidal wave appeared in the distance, at the furthest end of the street, near the horizon.

Scion sent out a blast of golden light the size of a small van, darting to the center of the wave, disappearing into a speck of light before it made contact with the distant target.  The middle third of the wave buckled, fell harmlessly into a splash of water, all momentum ceased.  The other two sides of the wave curved inward, bent, to bear unerringly towards us.

Another blast of golden light, and one side was stopped, stalled.  A third blast was spared for Leviathan, who was getting his hands and feet firmly on the ground, crouching in preparation to run.  The Endbringer was knocked squarely to the ground.

Scion stopped the third wave in its tracks with a fourth blast, but the water was still there, and it still bowed to gravity.  The water level around us rose by a dozen feet, momentarily, slopping as gently over us as physically possible, like a lap of water on the beach.

When the flow of water was past us, I could see a fifth blast of light following Leviathan, who had used the cresting water to swim away.  He was making his way to the coast.  Scion rose, flew after his target with a streak of golden light tracing his movement.  Eidolon followed soon after.

Ten, fifteen seconds passed, Bitch holding me, averting her eyes from the corpses of her dogs, jaw set, not speaking or moving.

A teleporter appeared beside Laserdream, a distance away.  He looked at us, startled, glanced at his armband.

“You okay?” he called out.

“No,” I tried to shout back, but my voice was weak.  Bitch spoke for me, “She needs help.”

“Bring her here, I’ll take her back.”

Bitch carried me, dragging me by my collar to where Laserdream lay.  I grunted and groaned in pain, felt those hot pokers through my upper back and middle, but she wasn’t the type for sympathy or gentleness.

The teleporter touched one hand to my chest, another to Laserdream, who turned her head to look at me.

There was a rush of cool air, and we were in the midst of chaos.  Nurses, doctors, moving all around us.  I was lifted and placed on a stretcher, hauled up by four people in white.  There were shouts, countless electronic beeps, screams of pain.

I was placed on a bed.  I would have writhed with the pain of being shifted if it weren’t for my general inability to move.  There was a heart monitor on one side, a metal rack with an IV bag of clear fluid on the other, thick metal poles beside each, stretching from floor to ceiling.  Curtains loomed on either side of me, making for a small room, ten feet by ten feet across. The emergency room, triage or whatever was in front of me, past the foot of the bed, a dozen more cots, doctors doing what they could for the massed injured, civilian and cape alike.

All around me, nurses moved with a rote efficiency, to put a clip on my finger, and the heart monitor started beeping in time with my own heartbeat.  One put some sticky glue on my collarbone, pressing an electrode down there.

“My back, I think it’s broken,” I said, to no one in particular.  Nobody in particular replied.  All of them too busy with set tasks.  People seemed to approach my bedside and leave to go attend to another patient elsewhere.

“Your name?” someone asked.

I looked to the other side of me.  It was an older woman in a nurse’s uniform, pear shaped, gray haired.  A man in a PRT uniform stood behind her, holding a gun on me.

“Skitter,” I replied, confused, feeling more scared by the second.  “Please.  I think my back’s broken.”

“Villain?”

I shook my head.  “What?”

“Are you a villain?”

“It’s complicated. My back-”

“Yes or no?” the Nurse asked me, stern.

“Listen, my friend, Tattletale, do you know-”

“She’s a villain,” the PRT uniform cut me off, touching his way through some blackberry device with his free hand.  “Designation Master-5, specifically arthropodovoyance, arthropodokinesis.  No super strength.”

The nurse nodded, “Thank you.  Handle it?”

The man in a PRT uniform holstered his gun and stepped up to the bed.  He grabbed my right wrist, clasped a heavy manacle around it, fixed it to a vertical metal pole by the head of the bed.

“My other arm’s broken, please don’t move it,” I pleaded.

He gripped it anyways, and I couldn’t help but scream, strangled, as he pulled it to one side, clasped a manacle down on my wrist, hooked the other side of the manacle to the second pole.

“What-” I started to ask a nurse, as I forced myself to catch my breath, stopped as she turned her back to me and pulled the curtain closed at the foot of the bed, walked past it.

“Please-” I tried again, looking to the PRT uniform, but he was pushing his way past the curtain, leaving my company.

Leaving me chained up.  Alone.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.1

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The crush of bodies was a tide that Tattletale and I had to push through.  There were a thousand or more scared people in our immediate area, surging against and around us.  Even our costumes didn’t give people much pause or reason to give us space.  Thoughtless in their panic, the crowd was guided only by the barricades of policemen and police cars that had been established at the intersections to guide the masses to the shelters.

Everybody had been informed, in the pamphlets that came in the mail and in schools, about emergency procedures.  There were multi-level shelters spaced around the city, enough for people to hunker down in for a few hours.  They’d all been told that they could bring our larger pets if the animals could be trusted to behave.  They could bring only necessary medical supplies and what they could have on their person.  People weren’t allowed to use their cars, unless they were in one of the areas on the periphery of town.  Too easy for there to be an accident in the panic and hurry, leaving everyone else stuck in a traffic jam when disaster arrived.

But people were stupid.  A chronic condition of our society, that so many people somehow thought they were special, the exception to the rule.  In this panicked crowd, every rule was being broken.  There were people with luggage on wheels, one kid carrying a lizard in a glass cage.  People were pushing and shoving, shouting and swearing.  Pets were reacting to the ambient stress with barks and snarls, dashing around and getting others tripped or tangled up in leashes.  Tattletale and I passed two cars that were even making their way forward in the midst of stampede, inch by inch, honking their horns the entire time.  Between the air raid sirens and the honking horns, I couldn’t make out the words people were shouting.  I could barely think.

We reached a trio of police officers, who had used their cars and yellow tape to cordon off two sides of an intersection.  I could see the eyes on the officer nearest me widen in recognition.  He was about to say something, but the officer next to him put a hand on his shoulder, reached in the window of the police car.  He pushed pieces of paper into each of our hands.

I glanced over it, found what I needed, and gave him a curt nod.  Tattletale grabbed my hand and pulled me away.

The paper, labelled at the top with the words ‘Parahuman Response’, contained a picture of our destination in black and white and directions on how to get there.  It wasn’t far – the area which divided the Docks and Downtown, a short distance East from the mall where Brian and I had gone.

The closer we got to our destination, the more the crowd thinned out.  We saw another crowd moving toward a different shelter as we got close, but we could avoid that by detouring around that particular set of streets.

As we got close enough for me to wonder what direction to take, I saw the streak of smoke as an huge armored suit plunged down from the sky, just a block away.  It was clue enough for Tattletale to pull me forward to follow it.  Reaching the end of the street, we saw our destination on the other side of a nearly empty four lane road.

The building was fairly nondescript.  Six stories tall, it featured dark brown brick and dark tinted windows, and sat alone on a grassy hill.  A nearly empty parking lot sat between us and the building, and a stretch of beach sat on the far end.  People in PRT uniforms stood guard around the parking lot and entrance, and four of the five vehicles in the parking lot were PRT vans, with turret-mounted hoses and armored exteriors.  As good an indication as any that this was the meeting place.

Past the hill and to the left was Dragon, in a mechanical suit that was as large as two PRT vans put together, four legged, with what looked like a single jet engine on top, still smoking from her recent flight.  On either side of the engine or oversized jetpack or whatever it was, were two shoulder mounted missile launchers, each pre-loaded with four missiles longer than I was tall.  She was facing the water, unmoving, like a gargoyle standing guard.

I saw what she was watching.  A stormcloud in the distance.  It hung over the water with an opaque curtain of rain descending down from it.  It was gradually getting closer.

As we approached the parking lot, a squad of PRT officers blocked our way.  I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Were any of these the same people we’d attacked at the Protectorate’s fundraiser?  I couldn’t tell, with their helmets and tinted faceguards covering their faces.

With a sound like a muffled thunderclap, a half dozen people appeared in the center of the empty lot.  When I saw who they were, I was awestruck.  That wasn’t hyperbole or whatever, I was using the word awestruck in the original, zero-embellishment sense of the word.

Alexandria stood at the head of the crowd that had just arrived.  Her head turned from one side to the other as she surveyed her new surroundings, the long, straight black hair that spilled from the back of her helmet sweeping from one side to the other.  She was everything that made you think ‘superheroine’; athletic, tall, muscular, but still feminine.  Her costume was black and light gray, with an image of a tower in the center of her chest, and she featured a wide, heavy cape that flowed over her shoulders and draped onto the ground beside and behind her.  Alexandria. 

Her team – people I recognized but couldn’t necessarily name – followed behind her in a loose formation.  Only one man in a blue and black uniform and cap stayed behind in the middle of the parking lot.  He looked around for a few moments, then disappeared with a crack and a whoosh, smaller than the one that had brought the entire group there.

Tattletale and I circled around the parking lot, to avoid getting in the way of any incoming teleporters.  We were nearly to the door when we heard another group arrive behind us, the same way Alexandria had come.  Teenagers, this time.  I couldn’t place them, but the brighter colors of their costumes led me to suspect they were heroes.  The man who’d teleported them in said something I couldn’t make out over the the wailing air raid sirens, and they quickly set to marching in our direction.

Leading them out of the parking lot was a shirtless, muscled boy with metal skin, eyes and hair and a strange texture to his shoulders and spine.  Among other things, I noticed the tines of a fork sticking out near his neck, and what might have been the wires of a chain link fence half melted into his opposite shoulder.  But where that strange half-melted-metal texture didn’t cover him, his metal body was exceedingly detailed and refined.  His ‘skin’ was a dusky dark gray metal with the slightest of swirls of lighter metals in it, and his ‘adonis’ musculature was perfectly etched out in the metal, with silver lines tracing his muscle definition like veins of metal in raw ore.  His eyes, too, were silver, and two lines ran from the corners of them down his cheekbones and to the sides of his jaw.

He clapped one heavy hand down on my shoulder as he passed me and offered me a tight smile.

It seemed we were allies, at least for the time being.

Tattletale and I followed his group into the building.

Folding chairs had been set into rows and columns in the center of the lobby, facing a trio of widescreen television sets, which in turn were backed by a series of large windows overlooking the beach.  Through the windows, we had the perfect view of the looming storm.

As daunting as the approaching clouds were, what drew my attention was the crowd.  There were people filling the lobby.  Only a few were local.

Empire Eighty-Eight was here, at the back corner of the room.  I saw Hookwolf there, half covered in a layer of his metal hooks and barbs.  I didn’t see Cricket or Stormtiger.  He glared at Tattletale and I.

The Travelers were all present, I noted, the only other local team of villains to show.  Faultline’s crew was absent, and I couldn’t help but note that Coil wasn’t around.  He wasn’t a front lines kind of guy, but he’d at least supplied his soldiers for the ABB situation.

The local heroes were present in force.  I wasn’t surprised – skipping this fight, as a hero, let alone a team of heroes, would be unforgivable to the public.  Aegis was talking with the metal skinned boy who’d arrived at the same time as Tattletale and I.  A large group of fifteen or so other teenagers were gathered and talking amongst themselves.  There was some joking, the occasional laughter, but it felt forced, strained.  False bravado.  I was assuming they were all Wards, from at least three different cities.

The kids from New Wave were near the Wards -Glory Girl, Panacea, Laserdream and Shielder- but they weren’t really joining in with the conversation the Wards were having.  I could see Glory Girl and Gallant standing together; she was holding his hand.  Panacea was sitting backwards on a chair just beside where Glory Girl stood, her arms folded over the chair back, chin resting on her wrists.  She glared at the two of us, though the look was mainly directed at Tattletale.  Near Panacea, the adults of New Wave had pulled the folding chairs into a rough circle so they could sit while they talked in a bit of a huddle.

The Protectorate was present, and it wasn’t just the locals, but the big guns.  Armsmaster, standing a little taller and looking more confident than I’d seen before, with not one but two Halberds connected to his back, was having a quiet conversation with Miss Militia and Legend.  It took me a second to absorb that picture.  That was the head of the Protectorate, the leader of the largest team of capes in the world.  What’s more, he was right in front of me, having a conversation with someone I’d talked to.  Ridiculous as that sounded, it affected me.

Legend sported a skintight blue costume with a design in white that fell somewhere between flame and electricity in style.  He had a perfect physique – one I didn’t mind giving a second glance-over – a strong jaw and wavy brown hair.  If Alexandria was the flying bruiser that just about every other flying bruiser strove to match up to, then Legend was at the head of the pack when it came to being flying artillery.  His firepower was on par with Purity’s, if not outright surpassing her, and he was far, far more versatile.

Knowing I’d seen two members of the leading three figures of the Protectorate, I looked for the third.  I glanced past Myrddin, from Chicago, with his brown burlap robe and wooden staff, Chevalier, in gleaming silver and gold armor, carrying his cannonblade, and Bastion, who had earned a great deal of bad press, lately. Someone used a cell phone to catch Bastion using the word ‘spic’ several times as he yelled at a kid who only wanted to take his picture.  He was studiously ignoring Kaiser, who was standing nearby, staring at him, taunting him without speaking or doing anything.

It was only at the back corner of the room that I found the third member of the Protectorate’s triumvirate.

Eidolon stood behind one of the large television sets, staring out the window.  He wore a blue-green skintight suit that expanded into a voluminous hood, cape and sleeves that draped over his hands.  The interior of the hood and sleeves wasn’t shadowy, but illuminated with a soft green light.

Debating the relative strengths of various capes was common enough, in the schoolyard and elsewhere.  If Alexandria and Legend fought, who would win?  Would Boston’s Protectorate win against Brockton Bay’s team?  What if you removed Boston’s weakest members until the sides were even in number?

When the question inevitably got to who was the strongest, the ‘big five’ were generally ruled out, in the sense of ‘well, yeah, but besides them‘.  Scion got counted as a part of that group because the powers he did have were head and shoulders above just about everyone else’s.  Eidolon was almost the opposite, because he had every power, though he could only hold on to a handful at a time.  Then there were the Endbringers, because they mandated situations like this, where even Scion or Eidolon plus multiple teams of capes weren’t necessarily enough.

Sure, some loyal people might argue that Legend was better than Eidolon, or maybe even some other cape like Dragon or Alexandria.  Generally speaking, though?  Eidolon was a top dog.

I looked away from Eidolon, to check out the rest of the crowd.  There were a few other unofficial teams of heroes, including Haven, the Christian team from the bible belt, and two teams with corporate sponsorship that were being very careful to not interact with one another.  Some sort of bitter rivalry, there.

A scattered few independent heroes and villains were around as well.  Few I could name.  I saw a girl dressed up like an old fashioned doll.  Parian.  She was local, and she wasn’t hero or villain.  A rogue, who only used her powers for business or entertainment.  She could sometimes be seen doing some promotion for a store downtown, giving life to some massive stuffed animal or a store mascot.  She’d done an interview in a magazine I’d read back before I had powers, and I knew she was a fashion student, though she wasn’t revealing just who she was until after she was more established.  She looked as though she were trapped in a conversation with a curly haired, dimple-cheeked villainess that looked no older than eight, who wore a frock that was maybe from the same period as Parian’s.  The pseudo-child was Bambina, if I was remembering right.

Parian was rescued by one of the out-of-town Wards, a girl in a skintight costume with a visor covering her eyes, nose and ears, with a quiver of what looked like giant needles and a massive crossbow.  The Ward said something to Bambina, who scowled and managed to look cute while doing it.  Then the heroine ushered Parian over to where she’d been talking with Shadow Stalker.  What in the world could that group talk about?  I might not have been alone in thinking that – Shadow Stalker seemed unimpressed with the new addition to their group, judging by her body language.

Tattletale spotted the Undersiders before I did.  I’d been looking for Bitch and the dogs as things that would stand out in the crowd, but they weren’t present.  Tattletale squeezed my hand and gave me an apologetic smile before letting go, patting me on the upper arm, and crossing the room to head over to where Grue and Regent sat.

The two boys glanced my way, then turned their attention to Tattletale.  Ignoring me.

That… really stung.

It was sort of inane, that I was concerned over something like that, given the seriousness of the present situation.  We were here because we faced the very real possibility of facing down one of the Endbringers.  I shouldn’t be worried about broken friendships.

But I was worried about it, stupidly.  I felt like I was back in school, the only kid left when everyone else had found their groups, and a hit to my confidence was not what I needed on a day like this.  I looked for a place to sit, and settled for a chair in the overall vicinity of the Undersiders and the Travelers.

Sundancer glanced at me, noted my presence, then she seemed to go out of her way to avoid looking at me again.  That caught me off guard, because I’d somehow let myself believe I’d left our cooperative battle against Lung with a good impression.  It seemed she wasn’t so willing to look past the fact that I’d carved out Lung’s eyes.

Feeling more and more like an outsider, more out of place, I watched as others filed into the room.  More of the Protectorate, and a small few members of the Guild.  Narwhal turned heads as she entered the lobby.  She stood seven feet tall, with a curtain of glossy, pale hair extending almost to the backs of her knees.  She was unclothed, not even wearing a skintight costume on her long limbed body, but it somehow wasn’t obscene.  Her skin was layered with fine crystal scales that caught the light and scintillated with faint rainbow hues.  A single horn stood out from the middle of her forehead, three feet long.  She ignored stares as she found a space to lean against a wall near the front of the room.  She had her chin against her chest with her eyes closed, as though she were resting, or concentrating.  Or maybe it was a habit she’d picked up when standing straight meant stabbing the average ceiling with her horn.

Yet more were continuing to arrive when Armsmaster and Legend turned away from their conversation and walked up to the front of the room.  The din in the room quieted, and every set of eyes was on them.

Legend cleared his throat.  He had the kind of voice that you listened to, “We owe thanks to Dragon and Armsmaster for their early alert.  We’ve had time to gather, and that means we have just a few more minutes to prepare and brief for Leviathan’s arrival, instead of jumping straight into the fray as we arrive.  With this advantage, some luck, teamwork and hard effort from everyone, I hold out hope that this could be one of the good days.”

A pre-battle speech from Legend.  It almost made the lousiest, most painful and dangerous situations I’d put up with since putting on my costume worth it.

“But you should know your chances going in.  Given the statistics from our previous encounters with this beast, a ‘good day’ still means that one in four of the people in this room will probably be dead before this day is done.”

Or not.

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Buzz 7.10

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Whether I shut my eyes or suffered the effects of the flashbang grenade, the effect would be the same.  The moment we took our eyes off Night, she’d become what Tattletale had termed ‘all monster’.

I opted to have more control over my temporary blindness, clamping my hands over my ears, dropping into a crouch to shove my face against my knees, eyes wrenched shut.  I sent every bug in my immediate vicinity toward Night, in the hope of slowing her down even a fraction.

The flashbang went off while it was still over us.  The last time I’d been around one when it went off, I’d had a wall between me and the detonation.  I wasn’t so lucky this time.  It wasn’t just bright and loud.  The blast rattled through me, left me dizzied, unable to balance, almost incoherent.  It was scarily like the concussion I’d endured.

Night was already moving.  My bugs were my only sense that still worked, but they couldn’t get a grip on the surface of her body.  She moved too fast, and her skin was smooth and oily, slick with some sort of lubricant.  The result was that I couldn’t really make her out in the darkness.  I only got flashes, the vaguest sense of how she was put together.  I was reminded of the ink blots I’d seen during my brief stay in the mental ward.  Every fraction of a second, it was a different set of ink blots, a different shape, all edges and angles and sharp points, entirely up to interpretation.

She struck at Judas a half-dozen times in the span of a second, her limbs flashing out and striking hard enough that I could feel the vibrations in the air.  Judas staggered away from her, colliding with me and one of my teammates.  I felt Judas’ crushing weight against my own body, the raw meat feel of his flesh and the stone hardness of his bones smothering me, before he shifted his weight and lurched back her way.

From the way Judas’ movements followed Night’s as she moved back, and the rigidity of his face and neck, I knew he’d managed to get a grip on her with his teeth.  He weathered the hits as she continued to thrash him.  He seemed to be getting the worse end of the exchange, but he’d taken away some of her leverage.

Blinking, I tried to focus on Night, but I saw double.  For several long, terrifying seconds, I was unable to bring what I was seeing into focus.

Judas was thrown against a wall, and went limp.  The furrows Night had carved into his face left more gouges than untouched flesh, his face a mess of shattered bone and hamburger meat.  With Judas’ bulk out of the way, I could make out Night, backing away.  My bugs settled on her, and she pulled her cloak up to shield her face, still walking backward.

Snapping my head around to check, I saw our escape route barred by Fog’s mist.  I could see Angelica’s silhouette in the midst of the cloud.  Bitch and Tattletale were struggling to drag Grue back away from the advancing mist.  Grue, too weak to stand, was trying to use his darkness to wall Fog off.  Grue might have stopped Fog entirely, except he was so weak that his darkness was dissipating almost as fast as he produced it.  Fog slipped through the largest gaps and continued a slow but inexorable advance.

Night was still struggling to get away from the bugs as they navigated around the folds of her cloak and the coverage of her mask.

Drawing my baton, I started to advance on her.  Night was human like this, vulnerable.

She drew her hand from her sleeve.  Another canister with a pin in it.

“Regent!” I shouted.

He snapped his hand out, and Night’s arm bent in a palsied, twisted angle.  The grenade fell to the ground, and Night fell on top of it.

I thought that Regent had been the cause of her fall, until I saw her raise her head, her good hand holding the grenade, pin held in her teeth through the fabric of her mask.

She pulled the pin free, and black smoke began billowing from the upper end of the canister.

It was suicidal, perhaps one of the dumbest things I’d done yet: I charged her.  She was already standing, holding the canister out in front of her to ensure the plumes of colored smoke obscured her quickly.  I struck at her hand with my baton, knocking the smoke grenade to the ground.  I stooped for it, but she stepped forward, blocking it with her body, seizing my shoulders.

She wrestled me to one side of the alley, perhaps to try and push me away and buy time for the smoke to build up, maybe for another angle.  I wouldn’t find out, because I brought my baton against the side of her face.  I got a sense from the feeling of the hit that she didn’t wear any armor or protective wear beneath the cowl and mask.

Night staggered from the blow, and I drove my shoulder into her.  It wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped, but I did get her far enough away from the canister that I could duck down and scoop it up in one hand.

I dashed away, past her, and she struck me from behind.  I knew from the magnitude of the impact that she wasn’t in her human shape as she hit me, and for one paralyzing moment, I suspected I’d made a terminal error.

The blow was enough to knock me to the ground and make me roll a half-dozen times before I could stop myself.  I cast a glance over my shoulder as I stopped.  Night was there, and the residual smoke from the canister that surrounded her had apparently been sufficient to block my teammates’ view.  Stupid of me to turn my back.  I was lucky that she hadn’t had more than a second or two in her transformed state to act.

I scrambled to my feet, not taking my eyes off her, and rapidly backed up.  A piece of the armor on my back dangled from where she’d cleaved through it, swinging against my backside in time with my steps.  I held the smoke grenade low, to minimize how much it obscured my vision.  When I’d backed up enough that there was an alley to my right, I threw the smoke grenade away.

Night stopped following me, then swept her cloak up to shield against the bugs that still swarmed her.  I couldn’t go as all-out as I normally might with my swarm, without risking that I’d obscure my own vision of her and give her another opportunity to transform.

Second try, then.  Baton in hand, I charged her.

She was thrashing beneath her cloak, six or so paces away.  The bugs were nipping and stinging flesh.  Good.  One or two more good hits with the baton, she’d be disabled.

Night bent low, and I thought maybe she was down for the count.

Then she swept her cloak off and threw it up into the air.  It opened wide and momentarily filled my field of vision.

I heard her footsteps, two normal ones, heels clicking rapidly as she ran, then the noise of claws scraping against hard ground.  She tackled me, keeping the fabric between us, and my baton slipped from my grasp as her weight slammed into the trunk of my body.  The cloth of her cloak caught on my right hand and face.  An angular arm with too many joints seized my right leg, another two latched onto my right arm and neck, respectively.  Her grip and proximity to me held the cloth in place, kept her obscured.  I was hefted high into the air with a speed that dizzied me.

She dropped me, making me grunt as I landed.  Above me, my bugs touched her very human body.  I struggled to pull the cloth free, but it caught.  After a few seconds of ineffectually trying to remove the cloak from myself and see what was happening, I was almost frantic.  I brought my own bugs down on top of myself to get a better sense of what was happening.

Hooks.  The black fabric of the cloak was woven with black-painted hooks at regular intervals.  She’d worn that layer facing the outside.

“You’re boring people, you know,” I heard Tattletale’s voice, and felt a fractional relief.  I focused on pulling the hooks free.  Not that many were caught on the fabric, but there were some caught on the textured exterior of my armor, others on the straps that held my armor in place, a couple in my hair.

“I saw your info.  Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt.  First located in Hesse, Germany, moved to London, then Brockton Bay, Boston, then Brockton Bay again.  No kids.  Cat.   Nothing interesting about you, besides the obvious.  I’m thinking you even have your dinners on rotation.  Chicken and rice on Mondays, Steak and potatoes on Tuesdays?  Something like that?”

I pulled the cloak free and held it in my hands.  I saw Tattletale on the other end of the alley.  Fog had advanced quite a bit, but Regent and Bitch had apparently gotten Grue up on Brutus’ back, and both Brutus and Judas were with them, Brutus moving painfully slowly, while Judas was apparently blind or nearly blind from the damage to his face.  They all stood not far behind Tattletale, masked by traces of the smoke from the smoke bomb.

Night stood closer to me than the others.  I could see how she had various pieces of equipment strapped to her hips, forearms, and back.  Grenades, canisters, knives, something that looked like spray paint.  She swatted at the bugs that were crawling around her face and eyes, but her attention was on Tattletale.  I could have stood, maybe, but I didn’t want to draw her attention.

“So I was at a loss to figure out how to fuck with you.  You’re two dimensional.  Until I remembered that you left the Empire when Purity did.  And when she came back?  So did you.”

Night cocked her head a little to one side, listening.  Again, she slapped at the bugs on one side of her face.  Her face didn’t feel swollen, from what my swarm was conveying.  Her eyes were open, blinking closed when a bug touched her eyelash.  I suspected she healed back to perfect condition whenever she entered her other form, which would include cleansing herself of any toxins or allergens.

Night looked down at me.  Pale blue eyes.

“Hey!” Tattletale spoke, “Pay attention!”

Night drew a knife from a hip sheath.  She bent down over me.  I dropped her cloak and struggled to reach behind my back for my own knife, but she was faster.  The blade pressed against my throat.  My hand caught her wrist, stopping her from going any further.  I was pretty sure my costume could take a cut from a knife, but if she found the gap where my mask was separate from the body portion of my costume that extended around the lower part of my neck, she could slide the blade through with no difficulty.

“Damn you!” Tattletale shouted.  I was only aware of Night’s unwavering, unblinking gaze, the feel of her wrist in my grip.  Then the gunshots.

Night didn’t even scream.  She dropped partway on top of me, falling onto her side, her weight on my legs.

The villainess lay there, silently writhing, hands behind her back.  Blood welled from holes in her lower back and the space where her buttock met her thigh.  I glanced at Tattletale, who had her gun raised, looking slightly surprised and disturbed by what she’d just had to do.

Any sense of relief I felt at Night being taken out of action was short lived.

Too bright to look at, Purity hurtled down from the sky to land just beside Night and me.  I saw her raise one hand toward Tattletale and the others, energy welling up.

The blast of light momentarily blinded me, and it struck me just why Purity had Night and Fog working as part of her personal squad.  There were no happy coincidences there.  She must have calculated how their powers could collectively work together.  Her light and Fog’s mist could blind their foes, with Night leveraging any opportunities gained.  Alabaster and Crusader?  Probably intended as the front line, to slow the enemy down, take out the problem targets and buy time for the core group to do what they needed.  Or to do what they were doing now, and occupy enemies elsewhere.

When I could see again, I tried to grasp what had changed and what had happened.  Dust filled much of the alley, Night stood beside Purity, unhurt, and my teammates were on the ground.  No blood.  Nobody dead or dying.  At least, nobody that hadn’t been dead or dying when Purity arrived.  I was getting worried about Grue.  He didn’t look nearly as lively as he had two minutes ago.

A channel had been carved out of the brick wall to Purity’s right.  Motes of light still danced around it.  An intentional miss?  No.  It would have been Regent throwing off her aim.

“Purity!  Kayden!  Not looking for a fight!” Tattletale called out.  She raised her hands, her gun dangling from one finger by the trigger guard.

Purity just raised her hand, and more light began glowing in her palm.

“Dale and Emerson!”  Tattletale added.

Purity didn’t lower her hand, but she didn’t shoot either.  “What?”

“Aster.”  Tattletale stood up, “She’s at Dale and Emerson.  Outskirts of town.  The PRT has a safehouse there, for when a villain’s after someone, or in case some member of the Protectorate or Wards gets outed, and their family needs a spot to stay.”

“How-”

“You worked alongside me when we were dealing with the ABB.  Your subordinates and allies have as well.  You know I have my sources.”

“Don’t believe you.  You have no reason to tell me this, you told everyone-”

Tattletale interrupted, “We didn’t tell the media that stuff.  I’m even a little pissed about it.  Not just about us getting blamed, but that they didn’t just attack you, but your families?  It’s fucked up.  Entire reason we came here was to set the record straight and get you your kid back.”

“Kaiser said-”

“Kaiser thought he’d get more out of this debacle if he turned you against us, first, before directing you at the people or person who really sent the email.”

Purity shook her head.

Tattletale added, “It’s up to you.  Who are you going to trust, when Aster is on the line?  Me, or Kaiser?”

That was her argument?  I started to move to where I could attack Purity if it came down to it.  A spearpoint pressing down against my collarbone stopped me.  I looked up and saw Crusader behind me.

Purity dropped her hand to her side.  She told Tattletale, “You’re coming with me.”

“Didn’t expect any less.  But you’re letting my team go, and this destruction stops.”

“And how do I know you’re not just sacrificing yourself for them?”

“Because whatever else you might be, Kayden, you somehow, in some warped perspective, see yourself as an upstanding person.  And if I wasn’t an honest person when it counted, I wouldn’t trust you to hold to that.  Make sense?”

It didn’t to me.  It was circular reasoning.  I wouldn’t have listened if it were Tattletale trying to convince me  The question was whether it would get through to Purity.

Purity stared at Tattletale for a long time.  I was acutely aware of the spear at my chest, which Crusader could thrust through my costume and into me with a momentary use of his power.  How easily Purity or Fog could give Night the opportunity she needed to slaughter my teammates.

“You’re aware of the consequences if you’re wrong?”

“I’m not stupid,” Tattletale spoke, “You take out your anger on me, I wind up dead or maimed.”

Purity stepped forward and grabbed Tattletale’s wrist.

“The others walk,” Purity spoke to her subordinates, leaving no room for argument or discussion.  She wrapped one arm around Tattletale’s ribs, and they were gone in a flash of light, a trail of firefly-like lights dancing in Purity’s wake.

In that same momentary glare that had carried our teammate and Purity away, Night had moved into the midst of our team.  She had a knife held with the blade pointed out of the bottom of her fist, pressed to Regent’s throat.

“I get it,” Regent replied, with a disinterested tone, “You could kill us right here.  May we go?”

Night sheathed the knife and walked through the group to Fog, who was gathering himself up in a human shape again, turning away to exit the alley.  Crusader, on the opposite side of us, was rising back up to the sky.

I breathed a sigh of relief as Purity’s squad disappeared.  I held my breath again when I saw Grue and, further down the alleyway, Angelica.  Grue’s darkness was reduced to mere wisps around his body, which I took to be a bad sign.  Hurrying toward him, I retrieved my cell phone, went down to the bottom of the contact list.

It rang three times before it picked up.  I heard ambient noise, maybe a fan, but the person on the other end didn’t respond.

“Coil,” I spoke, “It’s Skitter.  We need that doctor of yours.  Fast.”

“Can you get to the same location as last time?”

“I don’t know.  Grue and the dogs are hurt.  We may need a ride.”

“I will arrange it.  Expect a call from the driver shortly.”  He hung up.  Not quite so friendly as the last time we’d talked.

I set to helping Alec steady Angelica while Bitch worked with Judas, who’d been effectively blinded in the fight with Night.   She guided his head and shoulders under Angelica’s body, so the smaller ‘dog’ was draped over him.

Once Angelica was in position, I hopped up behind Grue and helped him turn him over, to examine his chest.  I applied pressure and used the remainder of the bandage I had in my utility compartment to try to staunch the bleeding.  When I talked to him, asked him to verify that he was okay, his replies were monosyllabic and fairly nonsensical.

Between Judas’s canine burden and the damage Brutus had apparently sustained to his side, the two dogs moved slower than I normally walked as they plodded down the alley.

Every moment was nerve wracking.  I kept waiting for someone in the Wards, New Wave or Empire Eighty-Eight to find their way into the alley, spot us and pick a fight.  Worse, I harbored grave concerns that Grue might stop breathing.

The phone call from Coil’s people came when we’d reached the beach – the closest spot I could think of that would put us out of line of sight in the continued fighting.  I directed the guy on the phone to our position, and in my nervousness, I had to get them to verify, twice, that they’d safely made it through the barricade without any trouble.  All we needed was another ambush at the barricades from more of Hookwolf’s underlings.

The moment the pair of ambulances arrived, we loaded Grue into the back of one, the three dogs into the other.  Brutus and Judas had shrunk, having shed the layers of added bulk, and were more or less alright underneath it all.  Angelica, though, had been in Fog’s mist, and wasn’t any better even though she was almost normal size.  She’d inhaled the mist, drawn it into her lungs.  I could only surmise that it had consequently made its way into her bloodstream, and from there, to the rest of her body.  Only time would tell how much damage Fog had done to her from within.

I went in the ambulance with Grue, and watched as they gave him extra blood and tended to his chest.  Between my first time job patching up his chest, the fact that he’d torn it open, and my haphazard attempts to wad it with bandages and stall the blood loss as we retreated from the scene, it was a mess.  I cringed, feeling guilty, waiting for one of Coil’s medics to call me on something I’d done wrong.  They worked in silence, which was almost worse.

I sent Tattletale a text:

Frog A.  Got Coil’s people to pick us up.  Brian is getting help.  Dogs are mostly ok.  Text me back.

We pulled in behind the doctor’s office, and Tattletale still hadn’t replied.  I was surprised that the ambulance with Bitch, Regent and the dogs hadn’t come with us.

The doctor was a cranky old guy that Coil’s medic referred to as Dr. Q.  He was a thin-lipped man, about my height, which made him fairly small.  His hair was either recently cut or he got it cut regularly, was slicked close to his scalp, and seemed too dark given how old his face and hands were.  He took over for the medics as they carted Grue in, and they left with a nod to me.  I nodded back, unsure of how else to respond.

I stood by Grue’s bed with my arms folded and watched.  Dr. Q checked the work the medics had done in suturing up Brian’s chest and muttered to himself that it was competent.  When he’d verified they hadn’t screwed up, he took the time to clean Brian’s chest and remove the remaining threads from the first job.

“The bug girl,” he finally commented.

“Yeah.  I’m really sorry about bringing the bugs to your place, last time.  I see they’re gone now.”

“They are,” was his response.

I nodded.  I checked my phone again.  Still no response from Tattletale.

Minutes passed.

“Okay,” he pulled off his latex gloves, “Nothing more we can do for this lug.  You unhurt?”

I shrugged, “More or less.  Got jabbed in the stomach, I have my aches and pains, hurt my ear earlier, but I already got it taken care of.”

“I’ll verify that for myself.”

He checked my stomach, which required me to take off the top of my costume, and he prodded the bruise Cricket had left me with cold, dry fingers.  Then he had me remove my mask to examine my ear.  Apparently, he didn’t deem Brian’s job satisfactory, so I was sat down on a stool so he could clean it up.

He was partway through the job when my phone vibrated.  I read it and heaved a sigh of relief.

Tattletale:

Avocado c.  she got what she needed.  omw

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Hive 5.1

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The place was nondescript.  A hole in the wall in the midst of a long street of hole in the wall businesses.  Everything was run down.  For every given store or restaurant you passed, you could only guess if the place was still open or not.

The pub had a sign on it reading ‘Somer’s Rock’.  There were iron bars on the windows and the curtains were drawn, but it would have been more unusual if that wasn’t the case.  It was that kind of area.  The paint on the outside was peeling, and the rust from the bars had bled onto the gray-white paint below the windows.

As we stepped inside, it became clear that Somer’s Rock was one book that should be judged by its cover.  It was dim, dingy and depressing.  The wood floor was stained the same dark gray as the counter of the bar, the curtains and tablecloths were dark green, and the only real color or brightness, if you could call it that, was the yellow light cast by ancient, burnt lightbulbs.

There were three people in Somer’s Rock when we arrived.  One was a sullen looking twenty-something girl with brown hair and a slightly wrinkled server’s uniform, who glanced at us as we came in, but made no attempt to welcome us.  There were two identical twins behind the bar in the far corner, probably her older brothers, busying themselves with washing glasses and studiously ignoring us.  One of them was wearing a dress shirt and apron, looking the part of a bartender, while the other had a black t-shirt under a Hawaiian shirt.  Besides the contrast in fashion, they were identical in height, haircut, features and expression.

A group of tables had been pulled together with chairs arranged around them, but we walked past them to a corner booth.  Tattletale, Bitch, Grue, Regent and I all arranged ourselves on the worn cushioned benches.  I was calling them that in my head, really, because they weren’t Lisa, Brian, Rachel and Alec.  We were all in costume.

As we settled in, the girl with the dour expression approached us, setting her notepad down on the table and then stared at me, the look in her eyes almost challenging.  She didn’t say a word.

“Coke?” I ventured, feeling uncomfortable under the look.

“No, Skitter,” Tattletale nudged me, “She’s deaf.  If you want something, write it on the pad.”  To demonstrate, she reached across the table, took the pad and wrote ‘tea, black’.  I took her cue and wrote down my order, then passed the note across the table to the boys and Bitch.  The girl gave me an ugly look as she walked away with our orders.

It had been a week since the incident with Bakuda.  Lisa and Brian had stopped by several times as I spent my days in bed, giving me updates on the situation as it unfolded.  At one point they had even brought Alec and Bitch, and I’d been very relieved my dad hadn’t been home at the time.  Alec and Bitch weren’t the polite houseguests that Lisa and Brian were, and I suspected their presence and personalities would have raised more questions with my dad than they put to rest.

Apparently someone at the PHQ had named my costumed self ‘Skitter’.  Lung had overheard something about it, and it had now spread through the city in the aftermath of his escape, which implied he was probably looking for me.  As a newspaper article raised our possible involvement in the bombings that had taken place, as adversaries of Bakuda, my new name had come up yet again, so it looked like it was maybe catching on.  I didn’t love it, but I didn’t love any of the names I’d come up with, so I could cope.

It seemed that we had arrived a few minutes early, because the rest of the guests arrived within seconds of each other, as the server brought us our drinks.

Kaiser came through the door with a girl on each arm, blondes with measurements like Playboy models.  Kaiser wore armor head to toe, elaborately worked and topped with a crown of blades.  The leader of Empire Eighty Eight.  The twins went by the names Fenja and Menja, and were decked out in Valkyrie-style armor featuring countless little steel wings, along with closed-face helms.  Had to admit, Kaiser liked his heavy hitters.  These two could grow to be three stories tall, and they were a hundred times more durable when they were.

Purity entered a few steps behind him with several others following her.  She was dressed in a white costume without any markings or symbols on it, but the fabric glowed softly.  Her white hair and eyes glowed too, but it was more like they were made of heated magnesium than anything else.  I couldn’t look in her direction without getting spots in my eyes, and my mask had tinted lenses designed to reduce glare.

The people that had come in with Purity were other members of Empire Eighty Eight.  Krieg, Night, Fog and Hookwolf.   It was interesting to see, because as far as I’d known, while every one of them had been a member of Empire Eighty Eight at some point in time, Purity had gone solo, while Night and Fog had splintered off to form their own duo in Boston not long after.  All reunited, apparently.

That wasn’t even Kaiser’s entire team.  Aside from the rare exception like Lung reaching out to Bakuda when she’d been at Cornell, it seemed that most groups recruited new members from within their own city.  Kaiser was different.  He was one of the better known American villains with a white supremacist agenda, and people sharing his ideals were either recruited from other states or they came to him.  Most didn’t stay with him for too long, for whatever reason, but it still made him the Brockton Bay resident with the most raw parahuman muscle at his beck and call.

Kaiser sat at one end of the table in the center of the room, his people finding seats and chairs at the tables behind him.  Purity didn’t relax or order drinks, though.  She sat in a chair a few feet behind Kaiser, folded her arms and crossed one ankle over the other, settling in to watch the proceedings.  From my research online and digging through old newspaper articles,I knew Purity could create light and charge it with kinetic energy.  She was like a human flashlight, if the light from the flashlight could punch through brick walls and tear city buses in half.  As far as raw firepower went, she was up near the top of the list, a flying artillery turret.

Coil entered after Empire Eighty Eight, all the more conspicuous because he was alone.  No backup, no show of force.  He was taller than Grue, but he was thin to the point of being skeletal.  His skintight costume covered him head to toe, lacking even eyeholes or openings for his nose and mouth, and the way it clung to his skin let you see his individual ribs and joints.  The costume was black, and the only design on it was a white snake, with its head starting at Coil’s forehead, the tail extending down the back of his head, looping and winding over his entire body before finally ending at one of his ankles.  He sat at the end of the table opposite Kaiser.

“What’s his deal?” I whispered to Tattletale.

“Coil?  Can’t say as far as his powers go, but he’s one of the more powerful players in town.  Considers himself a chessmaster.  You know, like a master strategist, tactician.   Controls more than half of downtown with squads of top notch personnel in the highest end gear.  Ex-military from around the world.  If he even has powers, he’s the only one in his organization who does.”

I nodded.  Almost the opposite of Kaiser in that department.  I might have asked more, but others were streaming into the room.

Faultline.  I knew of her from my research.  She was twenty-something, and her straight black hair was in a long bristling ponytail.  Her costume was weird, approximating something like a blend of riot gear, a martial arts uniform and a dress.  Four people entered the room with her, and the two guys in the group were instantly the weirdest people in the room.  I knew them by name too.  Newter wasn’t wearing a shirt, shoes or gloves, which made it all the more apparent that his skin was neon orange from head to toe.  He had light blue eyes, dark red hair that looked wet and a five foot long prehensile tail.  Gregor the Snail was morbidly obese, average height, with no hair on his entire body.  His skin was milky white and slightly translucent, so you could see shadows beneath it where his organs were.  Like someone else might have bad acne, he had bits of shell or scales crusting his skin.  They looked almost like barnacles, but there was a spiral shape to them.

You wouldn’t have thought they were close by their body language, silence and the sheer difference in appearance, but both had matching tattoos.  Newter’s was just above his heart, while Gregor’s was on his upper arm.  It looked like the greek ‘Omega’ symbol, but upside down.  Maybe a stylized ‘u’.

The other two girls in Faultline’s group were very normal by contrast;  Labyrinth wore a dark green robe and mask with lines all over them.  Spitfire wore in a red and black costume with a gasmask.

I was surprised when Faultline deliberately walked by our table on her way to her seat, taking the long way around.  As she passed us, she looked over Tattletale and me and sneered a little before taking the chair to Kaiser’s right.

“I’m going to go before all the seats get taken, if that’s cool?” Grue spoke, and the rest of us nodded.  Grue sat between Faultline and Coil.

“What was that with Faultline and you?” I murmured to Tattletale, “History?”

“Nothing important,” she replied.

Regent leaned forward.  “She and Tattletale have been feuding a little.  Faultline upped the ante when she poached Spitfire from us when we were in the middle of trying to recruit her.  Can’t say why Faultline doesn’t like Tattle, but I know Tattletale hates it when people act like they’re smarter than her, and Faultline is smarter than her.  Ow.  Fuck, that hurt.”

Tattletale had kicked him under the table.

“They’re mercenaries right?” I asked.

Tattletale nodded, “Faultline’s crew does anything short of murder.  You can say her personality sucks, you can say her powers suck, but I’ll admit she’s very good at finding hidden strengths in the people that work for her.  See those two guys?  When it came to powers, they got a bad roll of the dice.  Became freaks that couldn’t hope to pass in normal society, wound up homeless or living in the sewers.  There’s a story behind it, but they became a team, she made them effective, and they’ve only messed up one or two jobs so far.”

“Gotcha,” I said, “Impressive.”

“Keep in mind, though, we haven’t screwed up any.  We’re 100%.”

“They’ve done something like three times as many jobs as us,” Regent pointed out.

“But we haven’t failed any jobs, is the important thing,” Tattletale stressed.

Another group arrived, and it was like you could see a wave of distaste wash over the faces in the room.  I had seen references on the web and news articles about these guys, but they weren’t the sort you took pictures of.  Skidmark, Moist, Squealer.  Two guys and a girl, the lot of them proving that capes weren’t necessarily attractive, successful or immune to the influences of substance abuse.  Hardcore addicts and dealers who happened to have superpowers.

Skidmark wore a mask that covered the top half of his face.  The lower half was dark skinned, with badly chapped lips and teeth that looked more like shelled pistachio nuts than anything else.  He stepped up to the table and reached for a chair.  Before he could move it, though, Kaiser kicked the chair out of reach, sending it toppling onto its side, sliding across the floor.

“The fuck?” Skidmark snarled.

“You can sit in a booth,” Kaiser spoke.  Even though his voice was completely calm, like he was talking to a stranger about the weather, it felt threatening.

“This is because I’m black, hunh?  That’s what you’re all about, yeah?”

Still calm, Kaiser replied, “You can sit in a booth because you and your team are pathetic, deranged losers that aren’t worth talking to.  The people at this table?  I don’t like them, but I’ll listen to them.  That isn’t the case with you.”

“Fuck you.  What about this guy?” Skidmark pointed at Grue, “I don’t even know his name, and he’s sitting.”

Faultline answered him, “His team hit the Brockton Bay Central Bank a week ago.  They’ve gone up against Lung several times in the past and they’re still here, which is better than most.  Not even counting the events of a week ago, he knows about the ABB and he can share that information with the rest of us.”  She gave Grue a look that made it clear that he didn’t have a choice if he wanted to sit at the table.  He dipped his head in the smallest of nods in response.  We’d discussed things beforehand and agreed on what details we’d share.

“What have you done that’s worth a seat at this table?” she asked Skidmark.

“We hold territory-”

“You hold nothing,” Grue answered, raising his voice, his powers warping it, “You’re cowards that hold onto the areas nobody else cares about, making drugs and selling them to children.”

“We sell to everyone, not just-”

“Find a booth,” Grue’s echoing voice interrupted him.  Skidmark gave him a look, then looked at the others sitting around the table.  All still, every set of eyes he could see behind the masks was staring him down.

“Assholes.  Puckered, juicy assholes, all of you,” Skidmark snarled, stomping off to the booth where his teammates already sat.

The serving girl picked up the fallen chair and restored it to its position at the table, not meeting anyone’s eyes as she walked up to the table where Kaiser’s people sat, put down her notepad and waited for everyone to write down their orders.  It struck me just why the pub had a deaf waitress.

“I’ll be taking a chair, I think,” someone spoke from the door.  Most heads turned to check out a male figure in a black costume with a red mask and tophat.  It gave me sort of a Baron Samedi vibe.  His teammates followed him into the room, all in matching costumes of red and black, differing only in design.  A girl with a sun motif, a guy with bulky armor and a square mask, and a creature so large it had to crawl on its hands and knees to get through the door.  It was hard to describe, approximating something like a four armed hairless gorilla, with a vest, mask and leggings in the red and black style its team was wearing, six-inch claws tipping each of its fingers and toes.

“The Travelers, yes?” Coil spoke, his voice smooth, “You’re not local.”

“You could call us nomadic.  What was happening here was too interesting to pass up, so I decided we’d stop by for a visit.” The guy with the top hat pulled off the first really formal bow I’d seen in my life. “I go by Trickster.”

“You know the rules, here?” Grue asked Trickster.

“We’ve been to similar places.  I can guess.  No fighting, no powers, no trying to bait others into causing trouble, or everyone else in the room puts aside all other grievances to put you down.”

“Close enough.  It’s important to have neutral ground to meet, have civilized discussion.”

“I won’t argue that.  Please, continue as if I wasn’t here.”

When Trickster took a chair and put his feet up on the table, nobody complained, though Skidmark looked like he wanted to kill someone.  The rest of the Travelers settled in a booth not far from us.  The gorilla thing sat on the floor and it was still large enough to be at eye level with its teammates.

Coil dipped his head in a nod and steepled his fingers.  When he spoke, his voice was smooth, “That should be everyone.  Seems Lung won’t be coming, though I doubt any of us are surprised, given the subject of tonight’s discussion.”

“The ABB,” Kaiser replied.

“Thirty five individuals confirmed dead and over a hundred hospitalized in this past week.  Armed presence on the streets.  Ongoing exchanges of gunfire between ABB members and the combined forces of the police and military.  They have raided our businesses and bombed places where they think we might operating.  They have seized our territories, and there’s no indication they intend to stop anytime soon,” Coil clarified the situation for all present.

“It is inconvenient,” Kaiser spoke.

“They’re being reckless,” Faultline said.  She made it sound like that was a crime on par with killing kittens.

Coil nodded, “Which is the real concern.  The ABB can’t sustain this.  Something will give, they will self destruct sooner or later, and they will likely cease to be an issue.  Had things played out differently, we could look at this as a good thing.  Our problem is that the actions of the ABB are drawing attention to our fair city.  Homeland security and military forces are establishing a temporary presence to assist in maintaining order.  Heroes are flocking to the city to support the Protectorate in regaining control of matters.  It is making business difficult.”

“Bakuda is at the center of this,” Grue joined the dialogue, “Lung may be the leader, but everything hinges on the girl.  She ‘recruited’ by orchestrating raids of people’s homes while they slept, subduing them, and implanting bombs in their heads.  She then used those bombs to coerce her victims into kidnapping more.  No less than three hundred in total, now.  Every single one of her soldiers knows that if they don’t obey, Bakuda can detonate the bombs.  All of them are willing to put their lives on the line, because the alternatives are either certain death or watching their loved ones die for their failure.  Taking her down is our ultimate goal, but she’s rigged her bombs to go off the second her heart stops, so it’s a little more complicated than a simple assassination.”

He reached into the darkness that shrouded his chest and withdrew a package.  “She videotaped the ambush she pulled on my group a week ago and left it behind when she ran.  I’ve made copies.  Maybe you’ll find it useful for getting a better understanding of her.”

Grue handed a burned CD to everyone at the table.

This was our show of strength.  The video showed everything from the point Bakuda had liquefied Park Jihoo to the second bomb she had set off in her ranks.  As the second bomb had gone off in the midst of Bakuda’s group, the camera had dropped briefly, recorded the sounds of guns going off and everything being darkened by Grue’s power, but it didn’t show us running.  It didn’t reveal our weaknesses, how lucky we’d been to get away, or how bad our circumstances had really been.  It did let everyone know what we’d been up against, let them know that we’d come out fine and had been able to attend this meeting.  That would do as much for our reputation as anything else.

I wasn’t 100% recovered from my concussion, and Alec was complaining of twinges in his arm, still, but Brian had stressed how important it was that we attend, give the illusion our team was intact, untouched. Seeing the other groups with their subtle posturing, I knew he’d been right.

“So,” Coil let the word hang in the air as he cracked each of the knuckles on his right hand individually, “We’re in agreement?  The ABB cannot be allowed to continue operating.”

There were nods and murmurs of agreement from around the table, some from the various villains gathered around the room.

“Then I suggest we establish a truce.  Not just everyone here, but between ourselves and the law.  I would contact authorities and let them know that until this matter is cleared up, our groups will restrict our illegal activity to only what is absolutely essential to our business, and we will enforce the same for those doing business in our territories.  That would let police forces and military focus entirely on the ABB.  There would be no violence, infighting between our groups, grabs for territory, thefts or insults.  We band together with those we can tolerate for guaranteed victory, and we ignore those we cannot cooperate with.”

“Just saying my group won’t be getting directly involved in this without a reason,” Faultline spoke, “We won’t be going after the ABB unless they get in my way or someone pays my rates.  It’s the only workable policy when you’re a cape for hire.  And just so we’re clear, if it’s the ABB paying, my team’s going to be on the other side of things.”

“Unfortunate, but you and I can talk after this meeting is done.  I’d prefer to keep matters simple,” Coil said, “You’re okay with the other terms?”

“Keeping on the down-low, not kicking up a fuss with other groups?  That’s status quo with my group anyways.”

“Good.  Kaiser?”

“I think that is acceptable,” Kaiser agreed.

“I was talking to my group about doing something not too different from what Coil just proposed,” Grue spoke, “Yeah, we’re cool with it.”

“Sure,” Trickster said, “Not a problem.  We’re in.”

Hands were shaken around the table.

“Funny,” Tattletale murmured.

I turned away from the scene to look at her, “What?”

“Aside from Grue and maybe Faultline, everyone’s already plotting how they can use this situation to their advantage, or fuck over the others.”

I turned back to the scene, the villains sitting around the table.  It dawned on me just how much sheer destructive potential was gathered in the room.

This could get complicated.

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