Interlude 20

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If Accord didn’t know better, he might have thought this little soiree was located here with the sole purpose of irritating him.

Wait, he did know better.  Tattletale.  She would have done this just to beleaguer him.

The Forsberg Gallery.  The building had once been a pristine, albeit distressingly asymmetrical construction of glass and steel.  Now it was a shattered ruin.  There was little rhyme or reason to the design, and navigating was something of a chore.

To his right, as he ascended a staircase, there was a wing that jutted out from the side of the building, six stories up, like an architectural tumor.  With the damage done by Shatterbird’s attack, the only glass that remained in the building was scattered across the floor like a winter frost.  The offending growth on the side of the building had sustained some damage, more likely a consequence of the vibrations than damage from the glass itself, and the reinforcements that had been made to shore it up only served to make it uglier.

Inelegant, unbalanced.

His power immediately began supplying answers and solutions.  He was on his guard, and the first thoughts to his mind were of offense and harming others.  As clear as if he were seeing it for himself, he could see a pendulum, disguised among the steel frame of the building, swinging from a point above, and he could hear the sound of steel on steel, like a sword being drawn from its sheath, only at twelve times the scale.

With the appropriate design, the impact would be clean, almost muted.  His enemies, isolated within the wing, would make more noise, screaming as the reinforcing struts and the rivets holding intact beams to the larger structure were shorn away.  The end result would see his enemies dead, and the building improved, more balanced.

Ten minutes to draw up the blueprint.  Eighty to a hundred minutes of labor, depending on the skill of the craftsmen.  Two hundred and forty five minutes of labor if he did it himself… and the result would be stronger, better and more efficient if he did.  One thousand, four hundred dollars plus salaries.

Impractical.  Getting his enemies into the area would be hard.  Impossible, if they had any intelligence at all.

He dismissed the thought, but others were already flooding into place.  Him and his two Ambassadors in the offending wing, connected to nearby buildings by an arrangement of steel cables.  Not one pendulum, but seven.

One pendulum would cut the tumorous wing free.  It would swing out on the steel cables, between the two buildings.  With the right angle, it would swoop between the two nearest buildings.  The right mechanism, and one cable could come free at the right moment, allowing a change of direction.  They wouldn’t even lose their balance, as the angle of the floor and centripetal force kept them steadily in place.

With attention to details, they’d even be able to step free of the platform, as though they were departing a ski lift.  The wing would then slingshot into the rubble of a nearby building, cleanly disposed of.  The Forsberg Gallery would be pulled apart, steel cut from steel by the shearing blades of the pendulums, the weight and movement of the mechanisms serving a second purpose by magnifying the damage, pulling individual pieces free of one another and setting the complete and total destruction of the building into motion.

The unseemly Forsberg Gallery would crash to the ground, with many of his enemies inside, while he and his Ambassadors watched from the point where they’d disembarked.

He loathed making messes, but cleaning up after the fact was so very satisfying, whether it was mopping up the gore or seeing the lot cleared of debris.

Thirty two minutes to draw out blueprints for the pendulums and work out the sequence needed for best effect.  Three hundred to three hundred and forty minutes of time to set it up.  He could estimate costs north of eleven thousand dollars, not counting salaries.  None of the materials were particularly expensive in and of themselves, and he had any number of businesses in his pocket where he could acquire those materials at a significant discount.

Somewhat more practical, but impossible.  He didn’t have the time to set it up, not for tonight.  It made for an elegant image, if nothing else, somewhat soothing.

No sooner had he turned away from the idea of violence than other thoughts were forcing their way into his mind’s eye.  The outstretching wing being transformed from an edificial cyst to a bridge, with similar connections networking the entire city, each bridge and connection point changing individual points of design into a series of gradients.  Architectural styles and building heights would change from a stuttering, jilted progression to something flowing, a seamless wave

Accord closed his eyes briefly, doing what he could to shut it out.  It didn’t help.  He had a sense of the building as a whole, could imagine reconfiguring it, removing the parts that jutted out and using them to fill gaps towards the building’s center mass.  He’d worked with his power to see things through the various lenses of viability: money, resources, time, personnel, but that was almost a detriment now.

He opened his eyes to search for something to take his mind off of the irritating aspect of the building’s design, but he saw only glass shards, discordant in how they had fallen throughout the building.  Some had been swept out of the way by people who’d taken up residence in the Gallery, but the heaping, lumpy piles of glass, dust and debris weren’t any better.  He caught a glimpse of a soggy sleeping bag and the scattered contents of a supply kit and wished he hadn’t looked.

Images rifled through his mind.  A network of wires, drawn taut by a weight plunging through the elevator shaft, moving in concert to sweep the glass shards and signs of human life into the elevator shaft.  The same wires would catch his enemies, mangling them as they were cast down after the rain of glass.  Between the long fall and the thermite that could reduce the mess to a fine, clean ash, even more durable capes wouldn’t be walking away.

No.  It wasn’t constructive to think this way.

On the uppermost floors, plexiglass and a large volume of water mixed with a high concentration of carbon dioxide and a sudsing agent, sweeping through the building.  Staggering it, so the water from the highest floor could clean away the soap-

Rearranging the glass shards into a kaleidoscopic-

“Citrine, Othello,” he spoke, interrupting his own train of thought.  “Distract me.”

“I’m not so comfortable with this vantage point,” Citrine said.  “The climb only tires us out, and the vantage point doesn’t suit any of our abilities.  It puts us in a weak position.”

“Sir,” Othello whispered.

“…Sir!” she belatedly added.

Accord was ascending the stairs just in front of her.  It might normally be impossible, but here, it was easy: to turn and deftly slice her throat with the folded blade within his cane.  Quiet, efficient.

He stopped partway up the stair case and faced her, saw her unharmed and unhurt.  His Citrine, young, blond, wearing a goldenrod yellow evening gown and a gemstone studded mask.  Her hair was immaculately styled, her makeup flawless, with a yellow lipstick that matched her outfit without being garish.

Accord’s left hand folded over the right, both resting on top of the ornate cane.

She stopped, glanced at Othello, beside her.  “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Everything and everyone in the appropriate place,” he said.  “Not just in terms of physical position, but socially.  Courtesy and acknowledgement of status are pivotal.”

“I know, sir.  It’s not an excuse, but I was tired from the walk and the climb, and I was thinking of strategy, in case we were ambushed.  I will endeavor to do better, sir.”

“We all have to do better.  We must all strive to improve.  A step backwards is a tragic, dangerous misstep.”

“Yes sir.”

As if he were watching himself on film, he could see himself pushing her down the stairs.  Not so steep a fall as to kill her, but the pain would enforce discipline, and the act of discipline would both help drive the point home for her and quiet his own thoughts.

But the bruises, cuts any broken bones, her inconsistent attempts at suppressing any sounds of pain as she joined him on the trek to the upper floor?  It would only make things worse.  More disorder.

The thoughts were so sharp they were difficult to distinguish from reality.  He shifted his hold on his cane, staring into her eyes.  She still stood before him.

With just the fractional movement of his hands, there was a change in her body language.  Muscles in her neck and shoulders grew more taut, her breathing changed.  She said, “Sir-”

“Shh,” he said.  She fell silent.

His left hand cupped her chin, his eyes never leaving hers.  More of a reaction: her eyes flickered, moving mere milimeters as she strained to maintain eye contact.  he could feel the warmth of her breath on his wrist as she exhaled slowly, the faintest of movements against his hand as she shifted her weight to stay absolutely still.

His thumb brushed against her cheek.  Soft.  He knew she dedicated an hour every morning to caring for her skin, another hour to her hair.  Unlike hers, his gaze was unwavering, assured.  In his peripheral vision, he could see her chest rise and fall.  He wasn’t a sexual creature, not in the base, animal sense.  The idea of intercourse, it didn’t appeal.  The mess of it.  But she was a thing of beauty, nonetheless.  He could appreciate her from an aesthetic standpoint.

Citrine had shifted out of place, though.  A square peg, just askew enough that it wouldn’t slide into the hole designated for it.  It jarred, and it cast a pallor on everything else that was right about her.

As his fingers moved, tracing the line of her jaw, drifting to her chin, the idea of cutting her throat invaded his thoughts.  A quick, clean severing of vital flows.  He could see the lines of tension in her neck as she stretched it, striving to keep it absolutely still.

Again, though, the disorder, the disruption.  Blood was so messy, and as much as he might relish the opportunity to take thirty minutes from his day and clean up back in a more secure area, others would see, and it would throw too many things out of balance.

There wasn’t a right answer here, and it bothered him.

Thinking rationally, he knew he was irritated.  The location, even this city, they didn’t suit him.  He couldn’t act on that, not yet, and the resulting dissatisfaction affected how he responded to the little things.

His fingers broke contact with her chin, one by one, as he contemplated his options.  By the time his index finger had dropped away, he’d decided.

“You’re my best ambassador, Citrine,” he said.

She was breathing just a bit harder than she had been, as the tension that had drawn her entire body tight was released.  A flush touched her cheeks as she responded, “Yes sir.”

“I don’t want to lose you.”

“Yes sir, I’ll do my utmost to ensure you don’t have cause to.”

“Please do,” he said.  He noted that the flush had spread down to her decolletage.  Not the result of fear or anger.  Another base emotion.  “Citrine?”

She glanced at him.

“Calm yourself.”

“Yes sir,” she breathed the words.

He glanced at Othello, who wore a black suit and a mask divided between alabaster white and jet black.  The man hadn’t commented or flinched as Accord addressed Citrine.

Accord turned and started ascending the stairs again.  “Quicken your paces.  I refuse to be late.”

Intrusive thoughts continued to plague him.  He’d once described it as being very similar to the sensation one experienced on a train platform, a ledge or while standing in front of fast moving traffic, that momentary urge to simply step forward, to see what might happen.

Except the thoughts were sharper, with more weight to them, more physical than ethereal.  His power was problem solving, and every problem demanded to be addressed. The solutions were posited whether he wanted them or not, one step and hundred-step plans alike.  And it never ended.

Every flaw needed correcting, every imbalance needed to be weighed again.  Mediocrity could be raised to greatness.

The greater the problem, the faster he could solve it.  He’d taken the time one afternoon to solve world hunger.  Six hours and twenty-six minutes with the internet and a phone on hand, and he’d been able to wrap his head around the key elements of the problem.  He’d drafted a document in the nine hours that followed, doing little more than typing and tracking down exact numbers.  A hundred and fifty pages, formatted and clear, detailing who would need to do what, and the costs therein.

It had been bare bones, with room for further documents detailing the specifics, but the basic ideas were there.  Simple, measured, undeniable.  Every major country and ruler had been accounted for, in terms of the approaches necessary to get them on board, given their particular natures and the political climate of their area.  Production, distribution, finance and logistics, all sketched out and outlined in clear, simple language.  Eighteen years, three point one trillion dollars.  Not so much money that it was impossible.  A great many moderate sacrifices from a number of people.

Even when he’d handed over the binder with the sum total of his work, his employer had been more concerned with the fact that he’d shown up late to work for his job.  His boss had barely looked at the binder before calling it impossible, then demanded Accord return to work.  A mind like his, in an office handling economic oversight within the PRT, looking for the precogs and thinkers who were trying to manipulate the markets to their own ends.

It was only one imbalance, one irregularity, but it had been an important one.  It had nagged at him, demanded resolution.  He had to prove it was possible.

So he’d siphoned the very funds that his department was managing.  It hadn’t been hard to redistribute some of the wealth that the villains and rogues were trying to manipulate.  One ambiguous evil for the sake of an undeniable good.  He covered his tracks flawlessly.

In the process, he failed to account for the full breadth of his newest coworker’s talents.  Thinker powers interfered with one another, and despite his ability to work with that particular drawback, even help them to work in concert, the clairvoyant had found him out.  He’d been caught, jailed, and subsequently freed by the jailbreak specialist he’d contacted well in advance.

Here he was, years later.  Nobody he’d contacted had taken to his ideas, and government after government had failed to thoroughly read the documents he sent them.  Nobody raised the subject of his work to the United Nations or any major political body.  They were too interested in maintaining the status quo.

His plans weren’t observably closer to fruition, but he had contacts and he had wealth, and that went a long way.  He would take the slow, steady path to victory.  The binder relating to world hunger had been expanded on, with the addition of further binders to detailing the specifics.  Other sets of binders had joined it, each relating to a major issue: disease, population, government, energy, and climate.  He spent an hour and a half every morning ensuring that everything was up to date with recent changes to the economy and international politics.

The recent altercation with the Slaughterhouse Nine in Boston had been a setback, but he remained confident.  Twenty-three years to see it all through.  Twenty-three years to bring the world into order.  Everything was a step towards those ends.

Even this, as much as the setting and the people grated.

They reached the top floor and came face to face with the Teeth.  Seven parahumans, wearing costumes that bristled with blades, spikes and spines.  They managed to wear the trophies of their defeated enemies without looking primitive.  Teeth, eyes, dessicated body parts and bones were worked into their costumes, a collective theme that promised aggression and violent retaliation for any slight.

Accord tightened his grip on his cane.  He itched to end them.  His mind burned with hundreds of ideas on how to do it.  Traps, ploys, ways to set them against one another, or ways to use the other people in the room against them.

The Teeth didn’t get in his way as he led his two ambassadors around the periphery of their group.  There were no windows, and the wind sent minuscule shards of glass dancing over the tiled floor, periodically glinting as they caught the light from the flood-lamps that were set around the room.

“Welcome, Accord,” Tattletale greeted them.

He surveyed the group at the end of the long table.  They weren’t holding back, in making a show of power.  No less than six dogs were chained in place behind them, each mutated and grown to massive size by Bitch’s power.  Their number was bolstered by the addition of a massive spider and a scorpion, both wrought of black cloth.  Silk?  Skitter’s silk?

Regent stood by Imp, a costume of predominant white contrasted by a costume of black.  They seemed to be exchanging murmured words.

Bitch wore a mask that looked much like her dogs did, bearing a black jacket with thick, shaggy fur around the edges of the hood and collar.  She didn’t flinch, even as one of her larger mutants growled and gnashed its teeth inches from her head.  The creature’s ire was directed at Accord, not her.

Parian’s style of dress had changed from the images Accord had seen in his research.  Her hair was no longer blonde, but black, her frock matching.  The white mask she wore had a crack running down one side.  She was very diminutive compared to the others, almost demure with the way she sat at one side of the table, hands folded, as though she didn’t want to be a part of this.

Tattletale, by contrast, was seated on the cloth scorpion, just beside a large monitor.  She was cavalier, her hair wind-tousled, disrespectful by her very body language, sitting askew.

He had to work to ignore her.  He turned his attention to the figures at the head of the table.  Grue stood behind the chair, one hand set on the backrest, a demonic visage wreathed in absolute darkness. Skitter sat at the end, backed by her forces, looking over the room.  Bugs swarmed her from the shoulders down, but Accord could note a shawl and hints of protective armor.  Neither the yellow lenses of her mask or the expanse of black cloth that covered her face gave any indication of her mood or expression.  Either the images that he’d seen had been misleading, or she’d done some work to her mask, making the mandible-like sections of armor that ran forward from her jawline sharper and more pronounced.

Dismissing Tattletale’s greeting, Accord spoke to Skitter, “We finally meet.  Good evening.”

“Good evening,” she said, her voice augmented by the accompanying buzzes and drones of countless bugs in the area.  “Have a seat.”

He took a seat midway down the length of the twelve-foot table, and his ambassadors sat on either side of him.

The Fallen must not have been terribly far behind him, as they arrived less than a minute after he did.  Valefor and Eligos.

Valefor wore a delicate-looking mask without eye-holes: a woman’s upper face with closed eyes.  Beneath the mask, he had a sly, perpetual smirk with tattoos that colored his lips black and extended from the corners.  The ink depicted fangs poking from thin lips that nearly reached his jaw, the points alternating up and down.  His costume was almost effeminate, with white and silver feathers featuring heavily on flowing white clothes that clung to his narrow body, including a corset that drew his waist in.

The costume was meant to invoke images of the Simurgh, no doubt.  Crass.  Eligos’ costume wasn’t so fine, suited more for a brawl, but it, too, conjured up thoughts of an Endbringer: the Behemoth.  Obsidian horns that swooped back over his head, heavy armor that resembled rhino hide in texture and claws built into his gloves.

“Valefor, Eligos, members of the Teeth, now that we’re all here, I’ll ask that you take a seat,” Skitter said.

“Why should we listen to you?” Valefor asked, his voice was incongruous with his outfit, bearing a slight southern twang.  He leaned over one chair, his arms folded over the backrest, taunting.

“It’s customary for there to be violent retaliation if someone causes trouble at a meeting like this,” Skitter said.  “Usually involving every other party that’s present.”

“I’m not saying I’m intending to cause trouble,” Valefor said.  “I’m wondering why we should follow the schoolgirl.  I’m sure everyone here saw the news.  Did you see the news, Butcher?”

“Yes,” the leader of the Teeth answered.  A woman stepped out of the midst of the group of Teeth.  She was elegant, long necked and long-limbed, with her hair tied up in a high ponytail.  Her mask and armor had an Asian style to it, though the costume were studded and trimmed with a number of wickedly barbed blades.  More incongruous, there were three bleached skulls strung to one another and hanging around one shoulder.

The costume, it was asymmetrical, lacking harmony, trying to do too many things at once.  The samurai, the headhunter, the bloodletter.  None of it fit the title she wore: Butcher.

Images flickered through Accord’s mind.  Ways to obliterate both costume and wearer. More difficult than it seemed, given just who she was.

As if to punctuate Accord’s line of thinking, she effortlessly lifted a gatling gun and set it down on the end of the table.  The sheer mass of the weapon was imposing enough that Accord momentarily wondered if the other end of the long wooden table would lift off the ground.

The woman very deliberately refused the offer to sit.  She’d spoken only one word, but managed to convey a great deal with her actions.

“Very embarrassing,” Valefor mused aloud.  “Really, I don’t see why you should get to sit at the head of the table.  A sixteen year old girl, a victim of bullying, it doesn’t conjure up the most imposing image, does it?”

“If everyone agreed to suspend the usual rules, I would be more than happy to go head to head with your group,” Skitter replied.

“Of course you would.  You outnumber us.”

“Just me,” Skitter answered him.

“That so?”  Valefor smiled, considering.

Accord surveyed the situation.  Valefor was a stranger, less in terms of his ability to hide, and more in his ability to engage in subterfuge.  He had only to look on a target with his naked eye, and the fight was over.  It was no small wonder, really, that he’d styled himself after the Simurgh.  The effect was all too similar, in how the victim was often unaware of what had happened until it was too late.

Yet Skitter didn’t seem to mind.  Was it a decoy?  An empty costume?  No.

A trap?

Accord studied the area around Valefor.  What would he do, with her abilities?

He saw it: almost invisible, except where the light caught it at the right angle.  Threads, surrounding Valefor, trailing from his corset, his elbows and knees.

They were all trailing in the direction of the window.  If they were pulled taut, Valefor would be dragged outside.  Depending on how well they held, he’d either dangle or fall to the street below.

“Valefor,” Accord spoke, the layers of his mask shifting to emulate his smile, “Trust me when I say you already lost the fight.”

“Is that so?”

“I won’t spoil the conclusion if you’re eager to see this through.  One less threat to worry about.  But if I may offer my own opinion, I think the response she gave, given the situation, was eminently reasonable.  I gained respect for her, seeing how it unfolded.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

“Regardless, I won’t condone fighting here.  It sets a bad precedent.”

“Yes,” Butcher said.

Valefor frowned.

“That’s that, then,” Skitter said.

Accord studied her.  He could see her swarm in the shadows behind the floodlights, moving in anticipation of a fight, no doubt.  Their presence nettled him almost as badly as if they’d been physically crawling on him.  They were all of the issues he’d had with the glass, but they were alive.  He knew he could make them stop, make them go away, simply by giving an order to his ambassadors.  Not that it was a possibility.

He glanced at Skitter.  “I think you and I both know you’d win the fight.  But how final would the outcome be?  You’re in the seat of power.  More villains will arrive with every passing day.  Are you prepared to kill?”

“Is this some kind of head game?” Valefor asked.

“It isn’t any manner of head game,” Accord responded.  “I’m curious.  Her response would shed a great deal of light on the discussion tonight.”

“Yes,” Skitter gave her belated response.  “But I’d like to keep to the unwritten rules, as abused as they have been, lately.  Killing should be a last resort.”

“I see.”  She has some other trap on hand?  The bugs at the edge of the room?  “Can I ask if- no, wait.  Don’t tell me.  I’ll enjoy it more if I discover it for myself.”

“Very well.  Now, if everyone would be seated, we can begin,” Skitter said, resting both elbows on the table.  

It wasn’t quite straight, Accord noted.  The table was askew, in relation to the rest of the room.  Solutions flickered through his mind’s eye, ranging from ones as simple as standing to push the table into a proper position to a flat-faced wrecking ball that could slam into the building’s side.

No, he had to focus.  He could distract himself by figuring out Skitter’s contingency plans.

Butcher seemed to come to a decision, but that was normal for her, to take some time, ruminate.  To discuss, for lack of a better word.  She sat at the end of the table opposite Skitter.  She was tall enough to be seen head and shoulders over the massive gun.  Her followers didn’t sit, but stood in a half-circle around her, a mirror to Skitter’s own group.

“Valefor,” Skitter spoke, and her voice was more ominous, hinting at the sheer number of bugs lurking at the edges of the room, “Either take a seat or leave.”

Valefor glanced over the room, then shrugged, as if he didn’t care anymore, sitting.  Eligos followed his cue.

And Accord realized Skitter’s contingency plan in the next instant.  Silk wasn’t just attached to Valefor, to him, even.  She’d connected silk to the furniture.

The table.  She could drag the table with the silk lines, each laid out to fit in the gaps between tiles, nearly invisible.  In doing so, she’d sandwich any one group between the table and a wall, or leave them clinging for a grip, almost falling.

How would she drag it?  Another mutant dog?  Some counterweight?

Regardless of the answer, Accord felt oddly pleased with himself.  The danger posed by this trap didn’t even concern him.

“Let’s talk business,” Skitter said.  “Whether you like it or not, the Undersiders have prior claim on this city.”

“A matter of a week and a half,” Valefor said.

“Prior claim,” Skitter repeated herself.  “We have rules, and if you bend or break these rules, we’ll be forced to act.”

“I’ve already discussed your rules with Tattletale,” Accord said.

“You had your chance to accept the terms we were offering then.  Now the rules we’re stipulating have changed.  No killing.  Cross that line and we kill you.  Several members of our team are capable of doing that without you knowing we’re anywhere nearby.  If you’re lucky, Imp slits your throat with you none the wiser, or Regent has one of your underlings stab you in the back, and you go quick.  If you’re unlucky, Bitch’s dogs tear you to shreds, and it’s a long, drawn out, painful process.  If you’re very unlucky, you get the worst of both worlds, and you deal with me.”

“What if there’s someone that has to die?” Valefor asked.  “Sometimes killing is necessary.”

“You come to me.  I decide,” Skitter said.

“There’s no new detail here,” Accord said.  “Tattletale outlined much the same thing, though with less in the way of threats.”

“I’m not even close to done.  Property.  We will find out about any territory you acquire.  Whatever you pay for the land, you pay us a third.  That includes the cost of buying the land itself, rent and taxes.  If you’re not paying property taxes or rent, we still expect an appropriate amount.”

“Expensive,” Accord said.

“You could have accepted our earlier offer,” Skitter replied.  “If you want out from under that particular constraint, any of you may fold your organizations into ours, coming under our direct authority.”

“This is a passive takeover, then,” Accord said.  “You intend to put the squeeze on us until we cave.”

“I am very, very tired of people telling me what I intend,” Skitter answered him.  “Our territory borders are marked with our individual signatures.  Traffic in anything illegal or harm someone within any of these areas, and we retaliate.  Target any of us, and we retaliate as a whole.”

“It doesn’t sound like it leaves us much elbow room,” Accord replied.  “I have yet to see an area that wasn’t already marked as being in one territory or another.”

“Then you grasp my meaning.” Skitter added, “My next point: during any Endbringer event, or the possible incident at the end of the world, you send half of your powered membership or three members to assist, whichever is more.”

“This is bordering on the ridiculous,” Valefor said.  “You expect us to fight the Endbringers?”

“You?  No.”

“You’re picking a fight,” Valefor said.

“I’m giving each of you the option of obeying, leaving or fighting,” Skitter said.  “The Ambassadors will accept the deal as posed.  They won’t like it, Accord may even hate me, because of my powers and my less predictable nature, but they’ll accept.”

“Is that so?” Accord asked.

“Yes.  You’ll do it because you have resources that you can use to leverage what unfolds when they’ve finished scouting the other side of the portal and open it up for business.  You wouldn’t come all the way here and then leave because you didn’t like the terms.”

“There are the other options.”

“Fighting us?  You have only two underlings that survived the attack in Boston.  As strong as they are, you’re not equipped to fight.  You’ll join us because it’s the fastest route to get what you really want.”

Ah, Accord thought.  Tattletale filled her in.

It made life a little easier, and a little harder, in very different ways.

Skitter leaned back, one hand resting on the table.  “What was it you said to Tattletale?  Everyone and everything has a place?”

“More or less.”

“Your place isn’t on a battlefield, opposite the Undersiders.  It’s in this city, building an infrastructure and gathering resources for your long term plans.  You’ll accept an expensive rent and a limitation on criminal activity for that very reason.”

“You would have me risk good help on fruitless fights against immortal killing machines,” Accord said.

“That too,” Skitter replied.  “I don’t expect the Fallen will accept the terms, with the restriction about fighting Endbringers, but I doubt they’re long for this city anyways.”

Valefor stood from the table.  Eligos joined him.  Together, they strode from the room, silent.

“That was a touch rash,” Accord commented, “insulting them.”

“I wasn’t lying.  Imp and Haven will handle them soon.”

“Valefor is more cunning than you’d assume.  An arrogant young man, impetuous and immature, but history suggests he’s rather cunning when he puts his mind to something.”

“Not a concern,” Skitter said.

“If you say so.”

Skitter turned her attention to the other leader.  “Butcher?”

“No,” the woman replied, standing from the table.

“I didn’t think so.  Do you have any other business you’d like to bring up, while we’re all here?”

“You die,” Butcher said.  “You can’t kill me.  I will win.”

With that, her longest statement yet, she turned and walked away.

“Not good enemies to have,” Accord commented.  It was just his group and the Undersiders now.

“We’ll manage.”

“The first Butcher had super strength, durability, and the ability to inflict enough pain at a distance that his enemies went into cardiac arrest.  His other powers only became evident later.  He was killed by a subordinate, and the man who would later be known as Butcher Two inherited a fraction of his powers and a share of his consciousness.”

“Butcher Three inherited it too, along with a share of Two’s powers and consciousness,” Tattletale said.  “He was a hero, though.”

Accord rankled at the fact that she’d spoken out of turn.  Her voice rang in his ears, as though each syllable were the echoing toll of a bell, growing louder with each iteration.  Out of turn, out of sync, out of place.

He bit his tongue.  “Yes.  And the two voices in the hero’s head worked together to drive him mad.  He was gone from this world well before he died in battle.  The Teeth reclaimed the power, and the legacy has largely remained within the group since, each successor inherting powers of the ones before.  The voices and consciousnesses only work with rightful heirs, members of their group who challenge the leader and beat him in a fair match.”

“Which one is this?” Regent asked.

“Fourteen,” Tattletale said.

“This one’s number fourteen?” Regent asked.  “Which means she’s got thirteen sets of powers?”

Another one, speaking out of turn, Accord thought.

Citrine was giving him a sidelong glance.  He met her eyes, shook his head fractionally.

Tattletale answered, “Only a small share of each power.  Don’t forget she’s got thirteen voices in her head, giving her advice and helping her work stuff out, and all the powers she brought to the table, besides.  Her attacks don’t miss.  She imbues them with an effect which means they bend space so they strike her target,  Bullets turn in midair, swords curve, all means she’s pretty much guaranteed to hit you if her attack reaches far enough.”

She hopped down from the scorpion’s head and walked around the table until she was opposite Accord.

One by one, the Undersiders who’d been standing behind Skitter found seats.  The other groups had left, and they were making themselves more at home, now.  Regent put his boots on the table, right in front of Imp, who pushed them away.

Overly familiar.  Presumptuous.

Accord closed his eyes for a moment.  The table was unbalanced now, in a metaphorical sense, but it felt very real.  “I don’t recall anyone giving you leave to sit.”

Tattletale raised her eyebrows.  “I don’t recall anyone giving you permission to complain.  Our territory, our house, our rules.”

I could kill you.  Car bombs, other traps.  I could manipulate the heroes into going after you.  When I direct my ambassadors, they win their fights.  You’d break in the face of what I could do, the pressure I could inflict, everything and everyone in the world suddenly a threat, with me pulling the strings. 

He drew in a deep breath.  Too much at stake, to say such things.  In his most patient tone, as though he were speaking to a well meaning but misguided eight year old, he explained, “I’m talking about the way things are meant to be, Tattletale, understand?”

Tattletale bristled as though he’d slapped her.

“Enough,” Skitter said.  Her voice was quiet.

The silence that followed was both surprising and relieving.  She had control over her subordinates.  Good.  It took a measure of talent to exert control over such disturbed individuals.

He studied the girl.  She was composed, despite the fact that less than twelve hours had passed since her identity had been revealed to the world.  And her bugs… it had grated how disordered they had been, but now that he was looking at the ones she wore like a second layer of clothing, he could see how they were ordered, all in formation.

Skitter was calm, collected, reasonable but willing to act with a heavy hand when needed.  Clever.  She thought at the scale necessary for a true leader.

“Do you accept the deal?” Skitter asked.  “Best if I ask now, because your answer dictates the tone of the conversation that follows.”

“I accept,” he replied.  She was right: he really had no choice in the matter.  He’d dealt with worse deals and worse circumstances before.  “I suspect there will be friction, and we will have our disagreements, but we’ll be able to find a common ground.  You and I are very similar people.”

She didn’t reply.  The silence yawned, and his fingertips twitched involuntarily, dangerously close to the trigger that would turn his cane into a weapon.

“In saying that,” he said, doing his best to remain level, “I was inviting a response.”

“And I was taking a second to think before giving it,” she responded.

Starting a sentence with a conjunction.  He grit his teeth and smiled, his mask moving to emulate the expression.  “Beg pardon.”

“Let’s talk about details,” Skitter said.

The city is too dirty.  Too disordered.  The thoughts were intruding again, oppressive, insistent.  They were at the point where they were repeating, cycling back on one another.  He’d have to do something to break the cycle.  It could be time spent at a workbench, sorting out the projects in his binders or eliminating some of the more chaotic elements.

Murder was out, but there were other options.  He’d sent capes to the Yàngbǎn before.  It was more constructive than killing.  Cleaner.  It also built relationships with the C.U.I..

“Talk,” he said, after too many long minutes of silence.

“We can take them, sir,” Othello said.  “Any one group, we could handle, but not two groups at once.”

“I agree,” Accord said.  “Do you think you could handle them if things went sour?”

“With little trouble, sir.  The only ones I’d wonder about are Tattletale, Imp, Valefor and Fourteen,” Othello replied.

“Imp and Valefor… your stranger powers against theirs makes for a troublesome fight.  Imp is the one I would worry about first.  Unpredictable, impossible to track.”

“I’m suspicious my power cancels hers out, sir.  My other self saw her get close to Butcher.  I think she had a weapon.”

“Interesting.  Citrine?”

“I don’t know, sir.  Forgive my saying so, but a lot of people have thought they could handle the Undersiders, and they were wrong.  I don’t know how my power would interact with theirs.”

“Very true.  Sensible.  I’ll need to recruit, regardless of whether we encounter them.  Focus on the Teeth and the Fallen for the time being.”

“Yes sir,” the pair echoed him.

Skitter and Tattletale, he thought.  They were the real issues for him.  Tattletale’s power might have seemed similar to his own, but it was almost the inverse.  He’d heard himself described as falling somewhere in between a thinker and a tinker, and perhaps that was apt.  It was how he applied his power, starting with the end result and building backwards, and the designs that he fashioned that were so tinker-like.  But his real ability was as a thinker, involving planning, awareness and ideas beyond the reach of the unpowered.

He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but he had to plan for every contingency.

They’d reached their accomodations, a newly built office building.  He owned the two uppermost floors, and was buying the floors beneath as the owners agreed to the sales.  Soon he would have it set up his way, with escape routes and traps to target his enemies.

“Othello,” he said.

“Yes sir?”

“Send the five first tier employees with the best grades to my room.  I expect them in fifteen minutes.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Once you’re done, retire for the evening.  Rest well,” he said.  “There are big things on the horizon.”

“Yes sir,” the two ambassadors echoed him.

Only two.  It wasn’t enough.

He settled in his room.  Too much of the furniture was pre-made.  He preferred things he had made himself.  Cleaner, simpler.  He knew where it had all come from, knew how it was put together.  Accomodations he had crafted himself were as soothing as the outside world wasn’t.

The five employees arrived right on time.  Satisfactory.  He opened the door to his room and invited them in.  Three men, two women, immaculate, all in proper business attire.

His vetting process was strict, and each step up the ladder required both his invitation and the employee’s acceptance.  Each step required them to prove their worth, to face progressively more stress and heavier workloads, and to hold themselves up to his increasingly exacting standards of perfection.

It might have made for reality television, if it weren’t for the blood that was shed along the way.  Theirs and others.

“You are being promoted,” he said.  “After tomorrow, you will be my ambassadors, my representatives to the rest of the world.”

The displays of emotion were well hidden, but they were there.  They were pleased.

“That is all.”

Wordless, the five marched out of his room.

Withdrawing his cell phone, Accord dialed a long distance number.

He smiled a little at that.  He wasn’t much for humor, but it had its places.

The ringing stopped, but there was no voice on the other end.

“Accord.  Brockton Bay.”

The doorway opened at one end of his room.  His hair stirred as air pressure equalized between the two planes.

The Number Man stood on the other side, in the white hallway with white walls.

“Five vials.  Of the same caliber as the last set, same price.”

“Done,” The Number Man said.  “Where do we stand?”

“It’s promising, but I wouldn’t make any guarantees.”

“Of course.  Everything’s progressing according to plan, then?”

Accord nodded, once.  “As well as we might hope.  We lost Coil, but the Undersiders may serve as a model in his absence.”

“Good to know.  I’ll inform the Doctor.”

The gateway closed.  Accord sat down on the end of the bed, then lay back, staring at the ceiling.

Coil had been the focus of the test, unaware.  The man had also been Accord’s friend, the one who’d sold him the PRT databases.  His death had been a tragic thing, on many levels.  There were few men Accord considered worthy of being his friend.

Now it hinged on the Undersiders.  They’d taken up Coil’s legacy, after a fashion, and just like Coil, their ambitions fell in line with Cauldron’s.  The organization’s hopes rode on them and their decisions.  Accord’s hopes rode on them: his twenty-three year plan, saving the world from the worst kind of disorder.  In the end, they were responsible for billions.

Not that he could tell them or change his actions in respect to them.  It would defeat the point.

Everything and everyone had their respective places in the grand scheme of things.  For one sixteen year old, the decisions she made in the immediate future would have more impact than she imagined.

It all came down to whether she could embrace this new role, and whether the city could embrace her in turn.

Accord drifted off to sleep, his weary mind grateful from the respite from the endless assault.

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Scourge 19.7

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The heroes found positions and opened fire on Echidna.  The difference in this and the fighting as it had been before was noticeable.  Small, but noticeable.  Capes weren’t communicating and teamwork was faltering as a result.  Capes like the red lightning girl and Chronicler were struggling to find people to use their powers on.

I didn’t want anyone else running or flying headlong into the thread, so I gathered my more harmless and useless bugs in a thick cluster around each piece of thread, until each thread appeared to be a black bar a half-foot across.

Clockblocker appeared at my side.  He was in fighting shape, though he didn’t look it with his damaged costume.

“Anything I can do?” he asked.  “Anything else set up?”

I shook my head.  “She dissolves the thread if it touches her flesh, and things are too frenetic.  Someone would get hurt.”

“Gotcha,” he said.

He didn’t move from where he was standing.  A minute passed as Echidna was bombarded.  She wasn’t quite at full fighting strength, she didn’t have many capes to clone, and she was apparently hesitant to charge or make any sudden movements with the possibility of there being more thread.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”  Clockblocker asked.

“That I had something in mind?” I asked.  “I guess a part of me thought that maybe if you figured out what I was doing, you wouldn’t have frozen the gun.”

“That’s not fair.  I don’t think I’ve given you any reason to think I’m vindictive like that.”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “Maybe I didn’t want you to give her a tell, or do something that Eidolon might notice.  I’m not sure why, not entirely.”

“So you’re not really doing anything that those guys out there aren’t.  When it comes down to it, you’re suspicious of us, just like we are of each other.”

“Maybe,” I admitted.  “It’s… a lot to take in.  What do you even do from here on out?”

“I don’t know,” Clockblocker said.

A series of neon green concentric circles exploded outward from a point in the sky above, rippling out to disappear over each horizon.  Eidolon had engaged one Alexandria-clone, and whatever he’d done seemed to have finished her off.  One left.

Echidna belched out a mass of clones, and I added my bugs to the firepower that the heroes threw their way.

Some slipped past the loose perimeter the heroes had established, and were promptly gunned down.

“I’m guessing Tattletale told you the particulars of my power?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“The range?  I’m surprised you knew it would work through interconnected pieces.  Hell, I barely knew I’d be able to push that far.  I guess that makes this one of the rare days my power’s working at peak efficiency?  But you somehow knew that?”

I glanced over my shoulder at Tattletale.  She was getting out of the van, and was joined by Faultline, Labyrinth, and four members of the Travelers: Sundancer, Ballistic, Genesis in her wheelchair and a blond boy who resembled but didn’t quite match Oliver in appearance.  Tattletale was exchanging words with Regent.  Getting an update?

“You’re not responding,” Clockblocker noted.

“I”m not sure what you want me to say.”

Yes, Clockblocker,” he added a falsetto note to his voice, bent one wrist to a ninety degree angle as he raised his hand to his mouth, “Of course we know more about how your powers work than you do.  How else would we kick your posteriors with such frequency?

He faked a high society woman’s laugh, where the laugh was said as much as it was uttered.  A cape nearby, one I recognized as Astrologer from the New York team, shot us a dirty look, before she returned to calling down projectiles from the sky.

“I don’t sound like that,” I commented, trying not to sound as irritated as I felt.

“I thought it fit pretty well for one of the wealthy crime lords of Brockton Bay,” he said.

I was a little caught off guard, to see this side of Clockblocker, or more that he was showing it to me.  Was it humor as a coping mechanism?  Or attempted humor as a coping mechanism, to be more on target?  I could believe it, from the guy who’d chosen Clockblocker as his cape name.  But to let me see anything other than the hard-nosed defender of the peace was something different.  A show of trust, letting his guard down some?

Or maybe it was just a coping mechanism, and he had a hell of a lot to cope with.  Only an hour ago, he’d probably felt he had his whole future laid out for him, a career in the Wards transitioning into a career with the Protectorate, with funds, fame and every side benefit and piece of paper he might need to mask his real identity.  Now nobody had any idea how that would work out.

Another circle exploded across the sky.  Alexandria-clone-two was down.  Legend and Eidolon descended in Echidna’s direction, keeping a healthier distance.

Whatever Eidolon had been hitting the clones with, considering the area it was covering and the fact that it was apparently taking Alexandria out of action, it suggested a kind of attack that couldn’t be used near the ground, because it might have leveled whole sections of the city.

Tattletale caught up to me.  The others in her retinue hung back.

“Was that you two?” she asked.  She pointed at Echidna, where the right and left sides of the monster’s body weren’t quite lined up.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You realize that if you pull off the dramatic sacrifice, Grue won’t be able to take it?  He’s relying on you to be his crutch for the time being.  You can’t kick it out from under him mid-step.”

“He’s stronger than you’re saying,” I murmured.  I eyed Clockblocker, all too aware that he was listening in.  Tattletale was aware, too, which meant she was trying to communicate something.  “Can we finish this discussion elsewhere?”

“Why don’t I just leave you alone?” Clockblocker offered.  “I wanted to make myself available in case you wanted to repeat the maneuver, but you’re saying that’s not so doable.”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “But thank you.”

“Signal me if you need me,” he answered.

Alexandria had a steel, fire-scorched girder in her hands, retrieved from a fallen building nearby.  She wasn’t flying, but she walked forward, relying on the girder’s size and sheer presence to clear her way through the assembled capes.

Her back was straight, her chin raised, as her subordinates stared.  Her black costume, it was fortunate for her, served to hide the worst smears and stains from Noelle’s vomit.

She swung the girder at Echidna like someone else might swing a baseball bat, and Echidna was knocked off her feet and into a building face.  The girder didn’t bend like the traffic light had.  This was a piece of metal intended to help support buildings.

Echidna opened one mouth, no doubt to vomit, and Alexandria flipped the metal around, driving one end into the open mouth and through Echidna, the other end spearing out of the monster’s stomach.

Before Echidna could react or retaliate, Alexandria flew straight up into the air, joining Legend and Eidolon.

As attacks went, it wasn’t a game changer.  Something else?  A symbol?  A gesture to us?

Echidna roared, lunged, only to hit a forcefield.  The field shattered and she stopped short, the girder rammed further through her.

To say we were at full strength would be a lie.  Too many had been injured.  Still, we’d pinned her down.  I could see Noelle atop Echidna’s back, craning her head to look at me.  Through some signal or some shared knowledge, Echidna was following Noelle’s recommendation, avoiding sudden movements, enduring every attack that came her way rather than risking running headlong into more frozen silk.

In fairness, she still had something of an upper hand.  None of our attacks were slowing her down, not really.  She was healing faster than we hurt her, and our side was getting tired, burning resources.  We weren’t sustaining casualties, but we weren’t winning this fight either.

With our current disorganization, it was only a matter of time before she popped out another clone that was capable of turning the tables.

“We need to finish her,” I said.

“Sundancer could do it, probably, but she would need convincing.  Labyrinth’s going to set up while we wait for Scrub,” Tattletale replied.

“Where is he?”

“Bit dangerous to have him riding along in a car.  We put him in another, and he nuked the engine.  We rigged a sled, and he should arrive in a bit, depending on how many times they need to stop and replace the chain,” she said.

“He’s going to open the door?”

Open is probably the wrong word.”

“What’s the right word?”

“I’d say it’s more like using a battering ram than a doorknob.”

“With dimensions,” I said.

Through dimensions.  Knocking down the door, not knocking down the house.”

“I’m not seeing the difference between the two,” I said.  “What’s to say a given area is one thing over another?”

That,” Tattletale said, “Is Labyrinth’s job.”

I could see Labyrinth.  Faultline was right next to her, apparently talking her through the process.  Arches and high walls rose like cresting waves, locking into place as they met one another.  It amounted to what looked like a church, if only four paces in diameter.

“You think that’ll be easier for Scrub to punch through.”

“Positive,” Tattletale said.

“How do you punch through to the right place?”

That, Tattletale said, “is something we’ll have to trust to luck and an educated guess.”

“Not reassuring,” I said.  “What’s going on?  I’m worried.  Nearly getting yourself shot, twice?  Provoking the Triumvirate?  Spending however much it costs to bring Faultline into the city, after the financial hit you took pulling the soldier gambit on Coil?  Now this?  The dimensional hole?”

“It’s how I operate.”

“Yeah, you’ve been reckless before, got cut by Jack, provoked Glory Girl.  But this is turning the dial to eleven.”

“We came out ahead in the end, both times.”

“It wasn’t necessary.  There were other ways around either of those situations.”

“Not as much as you’d think,” Tattletale said.

Echidna roared again, each of her mouths making a slightly different noise, combining into a discordant noise that made almost everyone present wince.  Weld tore his way free of her side, two capes in his grip.

Still five captives inside, I noted.  I saw Weld climb free and drop to the ground.  He wasn’t going back in for more.

Tattletale took me by the arm and led me back and away from the fighting, to where we had more privacy to speak.  I used bugs to guide some capes at the back lines toward some clones who’d flown into an alley.  It was odd, to be playing a part in a high-speed chase while standing still, but the capes were closing the distance on their quarry nonetheless.

“I’m just looking for answers,” I told her.  “This dimensional hole, provoking the heroes, apparently spending a lot of money I’m pretty sure you don’t have.  I… I can kind of get that you’re feeling a bit aimless, a bit unfocused.  Maybe that comes across as recklessness.  I’m feeling like that too.  We beat Coil, and so much of what we’ve done over the past while, it was with the end goal of doing just that.  So I get if you’re not sure of where to go from here.”

“Except you’ve been talking to the heroes, and you’ve had that to help center yourself, figure out where you stand,” Tattletale said.  “I haven’t.”

“That’s it?  You need to talk to someone?”

“No.  That’s not what I’m saying,” she said.  She sighed.  “Yes.  Kind of.  It’s only part of it.  Who the hell am I going to talk to that grasps things on a level I do?  Do you really expect me to find a therapist and sit down and not pick him apart faster than he can decipher me?”

“You could talk to me,” I said.

“Not when you’re part of the problem, part of what I’d need to work past.”

“That’s not fair,” I told her.

“No, it isn’t,” she admitted.

Echidna spat out volumes of clones at the defensive line.  The reaction was only a little slower than it should have been.  Squads still weren’t operating as squads.  Legend and Eidolon were offering support fire from above, but they were standing apart from the rest, in a much different way than Tattletale and I were.

“It’s not you,” Tattletale said.  “It’s more about my relationship with you.”

“This isn’t the point where you confess your undying love for me, is it?”

She snorted.  “No.”

“Then what?  Or is this just going to be another secret you keep?”

“All of the good secrets are getting found out anyways, or so Regent said.  I suspected they would be, for the record.  Part the reason I dished like I did was to put us in a good position in case the juicy stuff did come out.”

“Not sure I buy that,” I said.

“You don’t have to.  It was only a part of it.  And I understand if a more in-depth explanation is overdue, but I need to turn it around in my head some, get it to the point where I can share it without it coming out wrong.”

“Your trigger event?” I asked.

“That’s a part of it.  But can we please put that off until after we’ve torn a hole in reality and stopped the pseudo-Endbringer?”

“Just tell me this isn’t another educated guess.”

“It’s not.  Except for the bit where we might be able to find the right universe.”

“When you’re saying it’s not an educated guess, is that because you’re sure or because it’s an uneducated guess?”

“I’m mostly sure.”

I sighed, loud enough for her to hear.

She grabbed my hand and pulled me in the direction of the van she’d brought.  Labyrinth’s church had expanded considerably, and Scrub was very deliberately keeping his distance, keeping the company of Gregor the Snail, Newter, Shamrock and Spitfire.  They looked a little the worse for wear, with burns, scrapes and bandages.  Had Tattletale pulled them away from a job?

“Hey, F,” Tattletale said, smiling.

Faultline didn’t return the smile.  “You’re aware that I’m going to track you down, beat you to a pulp and leave you tied up for the authorities to collect if we don’t get our payment?”

“You’ll get your payment the minute I have access to a computer Shatterbird hasn’t toasted,” Tattletale said.  “No sweat.”

“I’m harboring serious doubts,” Faultline said.  She glanced at Echidna, “But I can look at this situation, and I understand if there’s a rush here.  How does this work?”

“Really simple,” Tattletale said.  “We should get Labyrinth clear, though.  Then I’ll show you.”

Faultline gave her a look, then hurried to Labyrinth’s side, dodging a wall that was erupting from the ground to fit into the greater structure.  The ground surrounding the temple-like tower had changed, with an ornate inlay of what looked to be artificial flowers.  The petals were gold leaf, the stems the black-gray metal of iron.  The thorns, I couldn’t help but notice, were real, like needles, sticking out of the ground.  Dangerous ground to tread.

As Faultline led Labyrinth to safety, I put one hand on Tattletale’s shoulder to get her attention.  “You sure?”

“I’ve got a theory.  With the clues on the passengers that we got not so long ago, about the powers, the idea of how the things work, I’m getting a sense of the bigger picture.  I think I could spend a decade working it out, but the basics of it?  I think there’s a lot of powers that are a lot more versatile than their owners are aware, because they never get the opportunity to leverage it.”

Above us, Legend followed through on one cape’s attacks, opening a wound in Noelle’s side.  Grace leaped in as the laser stopped, grabbed a cape that had been exposed by Legend’s attack, then kicked herself free, bringing the cape with her.

Another cape exhaled a cloud of what might have been acid vapor in Noelle’s direction, apparently to slow the healing of the wound.  It didn’t make much of a difference.

“Based on what?” I asked Tattletale.

“It’s all part of a whole,” she replied, absently.  Her focus was on the others.  “Scrub!  Get closer to the tower!  Everyone else, get back!  Labyrinth, don’t use your power any more!  Hold off!”

Heads turned.  People had no doubt noticed the tower, but now something was happening.

Scrub stepped closer, and one of his explosions ripped through the air.  Another followed shortly after, intersecting one area of altered road.

Like a gas in the air that had been ignited, the entire thing went up in a heartbeat.  In an instant, it was a white void, as undefinable as Grue’s darkness, perceivable by the edges, but with zero depth or dimension.  He’d shunted out the entire structure, as well as everything that had altered on the ground, but nothing had come back.

The door had been kicked out of the frame.

To look at it, I’d almost expected a rush of wind as the void on the other side sucked everything into it, like the vacuum of space.  There was only the sensation of a breeze as the air flowed into it.

Alexandria landed next to us, with enough force that I nearly lost my footing.  Every set of eyes that wasn’t on Echidna was on us, now.

“What did you do?”

“Made a hole,” Tattletale said.

Apparently.  You didn’t ask?  You didn’t consider the ramifications of this?  Close it now.”

“Who said we could close it?” Tattletale asked.

“You’re a fool,” Alexandria said.  She set one hand around Tattletale’s neck.  She could have killed Tattletale with a squeeze, but she didn’t.  A threat.

“I’d be careful,” a cape growled, from the periphery of the scene.  I didn’t recognize the man.  He wore a costume in orange with red metal claws.  Alexandria turned to look at him, and he added, “Wasn’t so long ago that your partner called us all fools.”

In the background, Echidna screeched.  She fought her way forward through the crowd, but the battle lines were holding, now.  Our side hadn’t been surprised, this time, and the only capes in her reach were capes she couldn’t absorb.  The rest were staying well back.

She wasn’t an Endbringer, in the end.  It would be impossible to trap any of them like this, to get an advantage.  They had other tools, ways to exert pressure that were entirely independent of their own abilities.  Behemoth generated storms and background radiation, Leviathan had the waves, the Simurgh had her scream.

“That wasn’t him,” Alexandria said.  “It wasn’t Eidolon who said that.”

“Close enough,” the cape said.  “Let her go.  You can’t throw around authority you don’t have.”

“As of this moment, I am still Chief Director of the PRT, and I am the leader of the Protectorate team that overlooks the second largest city in the United States.  That hasn’t changed.  At the end of the day, I’ll face any consequences I have to, but for now, I’m still in charge.”

“Your authority doesn’t mean anything if they don’t accept it,” Tattletale said, staring Alexandria in the eyes.  “Put me down.”

“I can’t let this go any further.”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Tattletale said, “There’s no further to go.  It’s pretty much gone.  All that’s left is to find out whether this is a useful trick we just pulled or a really useful trick.”

“Useful?”  Alexandria asked.

“Worst case scenario, it’s a place we can dump Echidna.  A place where she won’t be able to hurt anyone.”

“Or?”

“Or Labyrinth figures out that she can work with this.”

The hole blurred, colors consolidating into forms.  I could see Faultline standing by Labyrinth, arms folded.

“Labyrinth… the shaker twelve,” Alexandria said.

“That’s the one,” Tattletale said.  “Mind letting go of my throat?”

Alexandria let go, but settled her hands on Tattletale’s shoulders.  The implied threat was still there, just not so imminent.

“It’s deep,” Labyrinth said.  Her voice was faint, as if from far away.  “There’s so much there.  Worlds that I didn’t make.”

“All parts of a whole,” Tattletale mused.  “Okay, Labyrinth.  The world we’re looking for isn’t very deep at all.  In fact, it’s very, very close to the surface.  When you push into that world, it’ll feel easier.  Like a path that someone’s already walked, more than once.”

“There’s two like that.”

I would have missed it if it weren’t for my bugs.  Alexandria reacted, stiffening, a slight straightening of her back.

Behind us, Echidna roared and threw herself against the barrier of ice and forcefields that surrounded her.

I turned toward Alexandria.  “What?”

“I didn’t say anything,” she responded.  Her hands still rested on Tattletale’s shoulders.

You didn’t have to, I thought.  But I wasn’t sure how to use the information, and I didn’t want to distract anyone from the subject at hand.

“Look,” Labyrinth said.  “One’s like this…”

The image shifted.  I wasn’t the only one who walked around to get a better view through the window.  The landscape on the other side the window was different, the grassy hills that had been Brockton Bay before settlement, the distant beaches.  There were houses, but they were squat and blocky, half-overgrown.

Again, the slightest reaction from Alexandria.

“…And here’s the other.”

Another landscape.  A city, like Brockton Bay, with different buildings.  Intact, undamaged.  It looked like a back road, one that didn’t get much in the way of traffic.  Apparently the streets in that Brockton Bay were in different places.

“Earth Aleph,” Tattletale said.

The Travelers’ world?

“Are you insane?” Alexandria asked.  “There’s sanctions, treaties, truces.  If you open this hole to Earth Aleph, it could mean a war between universes.”

“If that war was possible,” Tattletale said, “We’d have had it already.  The possibility of a whole other world of resources is too much to pass up.  Sure, our side has more raw firepower, by a factor of a hundred, but their side has just as many nukes.  It’s a zero sum war.”

“You don’t understand what you’re getting into.”

“What I understand is that accidents happen, and everyone in earshot will call this particular interuniversal portal as an accident, because it keeps things peaceful.  I also understand that this keeps Brockton Bay on the map.  Any other circumstance, people are going to keep trying to scrap this city, to accept that it’s too costly to rebuild, that the criminal element holds too much power.  They’ll throw bill after bill out there until the right combination of people are in power, the right hands can be greased, and Brockton Bay gets bulldozed and paved over.”

“It still could,” a cape said.

“Oh, sure, theoretically,” Tattletale said.  “But there’s really two options here.  Either we spread the word, and a whole sub-industry explodes around this simple little doorway, accessing and trading information between worlds, research, a mess of other stuff, a city full of residents who’ve put up with disaster after disaster get work, get their homes rebuilt, and ultimately get their second chance.”

“Or we keep this a secret,” I finished her thought, “And we get none of that.”

“Or we keep this a secret,” Tattletale agreed, “We do what Alexandria wants, and everything stays hush hush, just the way the big bad secret organization likes it.”

I could see the capes around us paying attention.  Ten, fifteen capes, from cities all across America and Canada.

“You have no idea what you’re doing,” Alexandria said.

“Fucking you over?”

“You’re putting everything at stake.  All of us, this world.  Even if we ignore the chance of our very first interdimensional war-”

“Traitor!” someone shouted from the sidelines, cutting her off.

Alexandria turned her head to try and identify the culprit.  I got the impression she wasn’t used to people insulting her.  There were more capes nearby.  Miss Militia had backed up, but was keeping her eyes on the spot where Echidna was trapped.  On the far side of the clearing where the gateway stood, Gregor the Snail escorted a bound Sundancer and Ballistic to the periphery of the area.

“I can’t help but agree with Alexandria,” Faultline said.  “This is reckless.”

“More than a little,” Tattletale agreed.  “But I’m not sure you heard the full story.  I only heard it secondhand, and I was with you from the time your helicopter arrived.  When we last ran into Newter, you guys were looking for dirt on Cauldron.  You still looking?”

Faultline’s eyes narrowed.  “Why?”

“No less than ten minutes ago, Eidolon’s evil double admitted full culpability.  The Triumvirate, much of the upper levels of the Protectorate.  Kidnapping people from other universes, experimenting on them to figure out some power-inducing formulas, dropping them here.  Might help you to understand why people are giving Alexandria the evil eye.”

Faultline glanced at Alexandria.  “A little too easy, to find out like this.”

“It’s not the full story,” Tattletale said, “Not by half.  But it should inform your call on whether to side with her or not.”

Faultline frowned.  “That’s not… no.  Maybe she is the person behind the scenes.  Fine.  But that doesn’t change the fact that she might be right.  Better to have Labyrinth find another universe to link to.  Maybe one where a mountain is blocking the other side of this gateway, if we can’t close it.”

“Why do you have to be so reasonable?” Tattletale asked.  “That’s the worst of both worlds.”

“It’s not war,” Faultline retorted.

“Stop,” Chevalier said.  People parted to give him room to enter the clearing.  “There’s other concerns.  The deal that was described to me was that the Travelers would do what they could to eliminate Echidna.  Failing that, we find a way to move her through the gap and deposit her in a place where she can do no harm.  That’s our first priority.”

There was a murmur of agreement.

“Want to go home, Sundancer?  B-man?” Tattletale asked.  “Genesis?  Oliver?”

Ballistic, Genesis and Oliver stared at the opening.  Sundancer was shaking her head.

“What?”

Sundancer spoke, “I… it’s not home anymore, is it?  I’m not me.  Can’t go back to the way things were.  I’ve killed people.  Accidentally, but I’ve killed.  I have powers.  If I went there, I wouldn’t be Marissa.  I’d be… Sundancer.  I’d be famous.  If anyone found out about me, or if there was something in the media that goes between worlds, that clued them in…”

“They don’t have to know,” Tattletale said.

“I don’t… I don’t know if I can.”

I spoke up, “Are you talking about going home, or killing Noelle?”

“She’s… she was my best friend.”

“She’s not Noelle anymore,” I said.

Sundancer shook her head.

“Go,” Tattletale said.  “She’s not happy like this.  You do this, then you go home.  You give your mom a hug, fabricate an excuse to explain why you disappeared, and then go back to life as normal.  Never use your powers again, if you don’t want to.  See if you can eventually convince yourself that none of this ever happened.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“No.  But it’s a hell of a lot better than staying here, isn’t it?”  Tattletale asked.

“She’s my friend.”

“Was,” I said.  “It’s a big difference.”

Sundancer looked at the mound of ice, rock and forcefields.  Echidna was thrusting her clawed hands through the barriers, only for them to be reinforced.

“Are there… does she have anyone inside her?”

“There’s-” Tattletale started.  I flew a bug into her mouth and down her throat, and she choked.

“No,” I lied.  “I’ve been keeping track with my bugs.  Weld and the others got everyone out.”

Saved everyone they could.  If Weld had backed out and nobody else was able to free the small handful that were still trapped, that was it.

Nobody was correcting me.  They knew, but they weren’t correcting me.

Sundancer hung her head.  She started approaching Echidna, her hands cupped in front of her.

“Move!”  Chevalier shouted.  “Clear out of the way!”

Capes began to retreat.  Final patch-up jobs were thrown onto the mound of rock, forcefields and ice before the respective capes turned and ran.

It took Sundancer a long few seconds to form the miniature sun.  When it was formed, she held it over her head, letting it grow with every passing second.

I had to back away as the heat reached me.  I could note how the ice was melting, even though it was a hundred feet away.

Echidna roared and threw herself against her temporary prison.  Rock and melting ice tumbled away.  She began to claw free, until her upper body was exposed.  Capes opened with ranged fire, tearing into her forelimbs and limiting her mobility.  Alexandria dropped Tattletale and cast off her cape, before flying in and helping to hold Echidna in place.

“Marissa!”  Echidna screamed, her voice guttural, voiced from five different mouths.  “Mars!  It’s too soon!  I want to kill them!  I want to kill them all!  Kill this world!  Destroy this universe that did this to me!  Not yet, Mars!”

The sun flew forward, melting pavement as it traveled, before it enveloped Echidna, Alexandria and the prison of ice and stone.

It hung there for nearly a minute, deafening with its sizzling and crackling.

The sun flickered and went out. Echidna wasn’t there any more.  Only sections of her feet were still in contact with the ground, bones and claws scorched black, crumbling and decaying like any part of her did when disconnected from the core that supplied her with power.

Alexandria was there in the midst of it, panting for breath.  Her costume had burned away, and only the metal pieces remained, including helmet, belt and metal underwear, each so hot they were melting and running over her skin.

But Sundancer was already turning away, not wanting to see it for herself.  She pulled off her mask and threw it aside.  Blond hair tumbled down around her shoulders, half-covering her downcast face.

Piece by piece, she removed her costume, not caring in the slightest about the watching crowd.  Each discarded piece sank into the melted ground around her or smoked on contact with it.  When she’d finished, she wore only her camisole and terry shorts.  The ground was still shiny and smoking from the sheer heat as she approached, left cool and solid in her wake.

She stepped into the portal, without a word, and then looked around, confused.  She took another few steps, and passed around the side of the portal as though it were merely a corner, out of sight.

The other Travelers went through next.  Oliver and Genesis didn’t look like anything but ordinary people, with no costume or monstrous form, respectively.  They merely passed through.

Ballistic hesitated for long seconds.  “Trickster?”

“We have him in custody.  He’ll go to the Birdcage,” Chevalier said.

“Good.  Because we don’t want him,” Ballistic said.

He walked through the portal, still wearing his costume.

“Can you close it?” Faultline asked, when Ballistic had disappeared from sight.

“No.  Not really,” Labyrinth said.  “I can pick a different world.  So there’s no war.  Or do like you said, find a place where a mountain covers the hole.”

“Feel free,” Tattletale said, grinning.  “In fact, that might even be more useful.  Can you imagine how significant Brockton Bay might become, if we had a whole unpopulated world to get to, harvest for resources, and Brockton Bay was the terminal you had to pass through?”

Faultline frowned.  “You used us.”

“I hired you.  Not my fault if you didn’t ask for enough money.

Faultline put her arm around Labyrinth’s shoulders.  “Can you find a world without people?”

“I… yes.  There’s one with lots of trees.  I’m looking all over, and I can’t find anyone at all.  Not even on the other side of the oceans.  Only animals.”

“That’ll do,” Faultline said.  She looked at Tattletale, “Not for you.  Only because I couldn’t stand to let her be responsible for an Endbringer finding a defenseless world.”

“Much obliged, whatever the reasoning,” Tattletale replied.  She flashed a smile.

Faultline only frowned and turned to usher Labyrinth away.

“Wait,” someone called out.

Weld, with the red skinned boy and Gully beside him.  They caught up with Faultline’s crew.

Whatever words they exchanged, I didn’t get a chance to hear.  There was no way that the ‘monsters’ could serve the Protectorate.  Faultline was a known element, someone who had, as far as everyone was aware, always been good to the people I was now thinking of as the Cauldron-made.

I couldn’t even begin to guess where they’d go from there, but they’d have stuff to talk about, no doubt.

I’d mentioned to Tattletale that I’d felt adrift, after letting Dinah go.  Untethered, I think, was the word I’d used.  Everyone here now felt like that, to some degree.  The future had never been quite this uncertain.

I saw Alexandria standing by the sideline.  Eidolon had gathered her heavy cape where she’d tossed it aside and was helping to drape it around her shoulders.  I wasn’t the only one looking, but she was oblivious, uncaring.  She still stood with all the confidence in the world.

She was barely covered, with one hand pinching the cape shut in front of her, traces of now-cooled metal lacing through her hair, the eyebrow and eyelashes of her one good eye.  It highlighted the lines at the corner of her eye, a finer metal finding its way into the crevices.  Her other eye held only a scarred over ruin with cooled metal pooled in the deeper recesses.  There were nubs of melted metal rods, no doubt there to help hold a high-end prosthetic in place.  Tinker-made, if she’d been hiding her injury to play the role of the PRT’s Chief Director.

Without Echidna to divide our number, our ranks were free to line up in a rough semicircle around Alexandria and Eidolon.

“Nobody can know what happened today,” Alexandria said, utterly calm.

Someone scoffed.  “You want us to keep your secret?

“Not the secret,” she said, unfazed by the scoff.  “Echidna.  Four capes were inside her when she was scoured away.  More were injured or killed in the course of the fight, or in Shatterbird’s attack.  We can’t cover that up.  We shouldn’t.  They were good capes.  But we can’t tell the whole story.”

“You don’t get to say that,” the ice-generating cape said.  “You have no place, saying that.”

“I won’t argue,” Alexandria said.  “Everything we did, we did for the right reasons.  I understand it’s ugly, without the context.”

Someone at the front spat in her face.  Alexandria didn’t even blink.  She let the spit run down around the ruined pit where her eye had been, much like she had with the molten metal.

“If word were to get out about the clones, the ramifications would be too damaging.  We’ve spent decades cultivating an illusion, that we’re heroes.  Decades shaking the idea that we’re killing machines.  The nature of this fight threatens to reveal just how much damage even the more mundane of us parahumans could do to the common people.  That’s not only the clones and what they did, but how we dealt with the clones, in turn.  We can’t shatter the image that the Protectorate has so painstakingly built, or the entire world will turn on us.”

“And the Protectorate?” Miss Militia asked, her voice hard.

“What of it?”

“The involvement with Cauldron.  It won’t stand, not like this.”

“It has to,” Alexandria replied.  “Too much depends on the Protectorate, even internationally.  If it crumbles, then the whole world suffers for it.  Other teams around the world would go without the resources we provide.  If it means keeping the Protectorate intact, I will step down.  I’ll tender my resignation as Chief Director of the PRT, effective the moment I can reach my desk.  I’ll consent to being watched until the moment I can step down as Alexandria, if you are uncomfortable with me continuing to serve the Protectorate in costume.  Eidolon, I’m sure, will do the same.  Myrddin’s death will be excuse enough for our retirements.”

“What about Legend?” Miss Militia asked.

Alexandria raised her head, staring up at where Legend hung in the air, unmoving.

“He was only aware of the most basic elements.  That Cauldron sold powers, but not how we tested them.  He did not know of our relation to the Nine.”

“He made excuses for you,” Miss Militia said.  “Lied.  We can’t trust him any more than we can trust you.”

“I’m aware.  But what he does next is ultimately up to him.  I am only telling you what I know, and I know he did not know as much as Eidolon and I did.”

“That’s not good enough,” a cape said.  “You’ve committed crimes against humanity.  You bastards should be tried.”

“Do that, and the whole world pays.  Every cape would come under scrutiny, both from other parahumans and from the public.  Teams would dissolve, faith would falter, and I sincerely doubt we’d last through the next two Endbringer attacks in that kind of a state.”

All around me, capes exchanged glances.  I could hear angry murmurs, my swarm could sense fists clenching in anger.

“And the captives?  The people from other worlds Cauldron kidnapped?”  Miss Militia asked.

“Anyone with clearance should know that the number of people with physical mutations has declined steeply.  We’ve stopped experimenting.”

“Or so you say,” Tattletale cut in.

“I do.  Tell me I’m lying, Tattletale,” Alexandria said.

Tattletale shook her head.

“You need us,” Alexandria said.  “If not for the assistance we can provide in the face of class-S threats, then for the image, for the idea.  I’m trusting that each of you are sane enough, reasonable enough, to understand that.  You could come after us, but I assure you it wouldn’t be worth it.”

“And Cauldron?” someone asked.

“As I said, we’re only barely involved.  If you want to try going after them and get justice for what happened to the captives, feel free.  Just know that we can’t help you there.  We can’t give you access or information, because they’re out of your reach, and in the wake of all this, they’ll be out of our reach too.”

I felt numb.  She was everything I despised.  Authority, the institution, the self-serving people in power, the untouchable.  All around me, I could hear angry voices, each trying to drown the others out.  Chevalier was among them, Miss Militia was quiet.

Tattletale was quiet, oddly enough.

“I-” I started, but the voices drowned me out.

My swarm buzzed with noise.  People startled and jumped as the bugs moved, shifting from the various positions where I’d more or less hidden them at elbows and in armor plates.

I stepped out of the crowd, toward Alexandria, and then turned my back to her, facing the capes.  So many eyes on me.

“She’s right,” I said, my swarm carrying my voice for effect.

Voices rose in anger, and again, I had my swarm move, buzzing violently, until they stopped.

“I’m not a public speaker, so I’ll make it short.  I’ve got a long history with the Protectorate, a hell of a lot more experience being angry with them.  I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for them, and that’s not a good thing, not entirely.  But Alexandria’s right.  Not about Cauldron, or the human experimentation.  I don’t know anything about that.  But she’s right that we shouldn’t make any rash descisions.  Talk it out with your teammates before you make a call.  Maybe the various team and squad leaders should convene, form a unanimous decision.  I don’t know.  But… don’t let your anger push you to do something that affects everyone.  Please.”

A second passed.

“You’re not with the PRT, are you?” a cape asked.

“No,” I said.

“So you don’t have to wake up tomorrow and go to work, pretend like everything’s normal?”

“No.”

“Work beside someone, wondering if they lied about their trigger event?  If they maybe got their powers from a bottle, something made only because some psychopaths,” he spat the word out at Alexandria, “Decided to experiment on innocent people and sell the results at a profit?”

“No.  I don’t really have to wonder about that.”

“Then where the fuck do you get off, telling us what to do, then?”

“Calm down, Jouster,” Miss Militia said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You’re right.  It’s not my place,” I said.  I looked at Miss Militia and Chevalier.  Clockblocker was just a little ways behind them.  “Thanks for hearing me out.  Good luck.”

Atlas flew to my position.  I drew my bugs around me and took flight, rising well into the air and hiding myself in the mass of bugs before pausing to adjust to a sitting position.

I saw Legend hovering in the air.  His fists were clenched, and he was looking down.  He looked agonized.

If I’d had any idea what to say, I might have approached him.  I didn’t.

With a command, I directed Atlas away from the discussion that could decide history, maybe even the fate of the world.

I sat on the railing of my balcony, Atlas’ body hidden behind the towel-covered railing, serving as a footrest while I fed him a much-needed meal.  Unfolded pieces of paper sat in each of my hands.

I couldn’t stand to be there any longer.  I’d said what I could, for what little it was worth, but I was too tired, the stakes were too high, and Jouster had been right.  The consequences might have been world-spanning, but it was ultimately up to the Protectorate to decide what happened next.  I didn’t like feeling that helpless.

Beneath me, some kids from my territory were carrying boxes of treats I’d ordered two days ago.  They’d take more than their fair share, but they’d distribute the treats to the other people in my territory, people who had likely gone a good little while without a chocolate bar or bag of chewy candy.

There hadn’t been any clones in my range as I zig-zagged my way to the North end, no signs of swarm activity.  I’d stopped by home, checked things over with my bugs, and my dad was there, more or less fine.

I’d go home in just a little while.  It wasn’t a peaceful place, though.  This was.  My territory, being with people I’d taken care of, people I’d protected and fought for.  My heart was easier here than it was around my dad.

I was aware of the approaching figure, twisted around to get a look at Lisa.

“Can I come up?”

I pointed at the door, followed her movements as she navigated her way past Charlotte and up the stairs.  She reached the balcony and stepped out to hop onto the end of the railing opposite me.

“I own the land the hole to the other universe is on,” Tattletale said.  “Or Coil’s fake name does, and I can finagle that so I have control over it.”

I nodded.  “The meeting?  Did they decide?”

“Legend left first.  Then Alexandria and Eidolon.  The heroes were still talking when I left.”

“Okay,” I said.  That didn’t mean anything, not exactly, but it was better than the alternative.  The longer they talked, the more tempers would cool.

Perversely, I almost hoped that Cauldron had the clout to silence a few angry voices.  I could only hope that they were few and far enough between that the story wouldn’t reach the public.

“Rex,” Tattletale said.

“Hm?”

“His name was Reggie, but he got into sports in high school.  They started calling him Rex, until everyone used the name.  I don’t mean this to be insulting, but you were kind of opposites in a lot of ways.  He was this popular guy, charming.”

“Your boyfriend?”

She laughed, a short sound.  “My brother.”

“Oh.”

“My family was well-to-do, I think that’s come up.”

“Yeah.”

“When you’re that rich, when you have people working under you who do the chores and handle the stuff that you’d normally do with your family, sometimes it’s hard to stay a family, you know?”

Not really, I thought, but I nodded.

She gave me a funny look, but she didn’t call me on it.  “It gets to this point where, you know, your cool older brother only spends time with you because it’s his duty as a sibling.  And when you realize that, it sort of hurts.  Makes it insulting.  I think I caught on to that around the time I started high school.  I stopped accepting those token offers of siblinghood.  We were brother and sister, we lived in the same house, went to the same school.  Our paths crossed, but we didn’t interact.  We were strangers.  He was caught up being the popular senior, and I kind of resented him for it.”

“For not being a brother?”

Lisa shrugged.  “Don’t know.  More for acting like a brother than not being a real brother.  For being the popular kid, being the favorite child, heir to the family businesses.”

“What happened?”

“I started noticing, he was in rough shape.  The smiles seemed fake, he’d get angry easier.  Was bottling something up inside.”

“What was it?”

Lisa shrugged.  “I’ve dwelled on it so long I’ve imagined possibilities and derailed my train of thought.  Even with my power, I can’t guess.”

“And something happened?”

“He slowly got more and more distant.  He’d fake more smiles, get a little more angry, a little more reckless.  And then one day he offed himself.”

Just around the corner, some kids were screaming and shouting as they played.  One boy was pelting another with chocolate pellets.  The victim shrieked in pain.

My bugs swept over the boy with the chocolates, and the pair froze.  They looked around, trying and failing to see me, then ran for the nearest alleyway, fight forgotten.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“So am I,” Lisa sighed.  “I’ve spent so long trying to figure it out, but I couldn’t.  You’d think the star athlete might be gay, but it wasn’t that.  Something else.  I let on to my family that I’d noticed something, after, and they started blaming me.  They were grieving, but that doesn’t excuse it, does it?”

I shook my head.

“Calling me stupid, an idiot,” Lisa looked away.  “It got to be too much, like I was in a pressure cooker, everywhere I went, it was about him, and there was always this feeling, like everyone was aware that I’d known something and hadn’t spoken up, hadn’t done something to help.  I think I had my trigger event while I was asleep, tossing and turning and dreaming about it all.  And then, boom, I wake up and I start figuring stuff out, with killer migraines on the side.  Maybe if I’d caught on that it was powers sooner, I might have been more secretive, but my dad caught on.  Did a complete turnaround.  Faked affection, hid the real feelings, all to get me to use my power for the family’s benefit.”

Lisa shrugged.  “I was already seeing too much ugly, even before the powers.  Seeing more of it?  Seeing when people were being fake, when everything else was still screwy because of Rex’s suicide?  It was too much.  I took more money than I should have from my parents and I ran.”

“And Coil eventually found you.”

She nodded.  “And I eventually found you.  I took one look at you, and I had a grasp of what was going on.  Didn’t take too long for me to notice that you had that same air around you that Rex did.  Maybe I did what I could to save you because I couldn’t save him.”

“Earlier, you said that you couldn’t talk to me about the problem because I was the problem.”

“I saw it when you pulled the trigger, offed Coil.  You saved Dinah, and you described how you felt adrift in the aftermath of it.  But you found a new focus.  You could fight Echidna.  Save the city.  Me?  When you shot Coil, I realized I was done.  I’d helped you out of the same trap of despair Rex had been in.  Don’t know if the road I helped you down was a good one or a bad, but I’d finished.”

“But why be reckless?  Why take the risks?”

“Because I did what I had to do, I helped you, and I still feel like the stupid, self-obsessed little child that let her big brother die.  It wasn’t conscious, but maybe I felt like I needed to up the stakes.  Pull something dramatic.  Show that, with these crazy smart capes like Alexandria and Faultline around, I could still be the smartest person in the room.”

“And do you feel like the smartest person in the room?”  I asked.

She stared out over the cityscape.  “Maybe- maybe when the interuniversal trade takes off.  Can you imagine?  With me and you as the top dogs?  The whole world will pay attention to us.”

I hopped down from the railing, walking around Atlas as I made my way to Lisa.  I wrapped my arms around her, and she returned the hug.

I crumpled the papers in my fists.

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Scourge 19.6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sword was growing with every moment, as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were suffocating; it was a vacuum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chevalier was out of my range before he hit ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We needed to stall.

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

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

We needed something more effective.

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

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

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

Scary thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop,” I told her.  “Is he okay?”

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

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

“Clockblocker,” I said.  “You there?”

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

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

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

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

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

Echidna belched out another set of clones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It said a lot that nobody moved to help.

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

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

Gully only made a small noise in response.

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

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

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

“We just lost,” Clockblocker said.

I looked at him, saw Gully hanging her head.

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

“It’s a big hit to morale, but-”

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

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

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

“Laugh?”

“Never took you for an optimist.”

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

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

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

No, not Echidna.  Noelle.

“I need your help,” I told Clockblocker.

“Can’t fight.”

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

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

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

“Skitter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned toward me.

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

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

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

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

“You’re dead anyways,” she said.

You’re not wholly wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not running.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scourge 19.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a limit to what I could do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I began drawing out arrows and letters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incoming,” my swarm buzzed.

More than a few heroes jumped at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pointing at the ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…s not her, Jouster,” another said.

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

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

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

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

Shatterbird!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He turned to help me with the Kudzu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck me, they’re cooperating.

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

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

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

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

Chevalier took aim and shot.  A miss.

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

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

Four copies of Noelle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hush of sorts descended on everyone present.

Two of our best, caught.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria shook her head.

Another cough, another spit.

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

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

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

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

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

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Scourge 19.4

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

“Echidna,” Tattletale supplied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yet,” Tattletale said.

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

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

“A way home?” Tecton asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go for it,” Tattletale said.

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

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

“Send someone with us,” I said.

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

“I’ll ask,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said.

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Hear me,” Wanton spoke.

My bugs spelled out the word ‘yes’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

“You’re giving orders?” Wanton asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How far did this reach?

“What are you talking about?”  Myrddin asked.

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

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

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

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

Try,” I told her.

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

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

“If you’re sure,” Myrddin said.

“Trust me.  Please,” Miss Militia replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is she a clone?” Myrddin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re relative innocents?” Tattletale tried.

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

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

“Just be quiet,” Miss Militia said.

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

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

“Not for your career.”

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

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

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

“I have,” Myrddin said.

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

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

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

“What is it?” Myrddin asked.

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

Myrddin looked at Miss Militia, and she nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This isn’t the time or place.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? I thought.

“The Triumvirate,” Tattletale said.

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

“The… Triumvirate?” Gully asked.

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

“Fuck me,” Regent muttered.

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

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

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

“That’s it?  That’s your answer?”

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

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

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

Legend, landing in the midst of us.

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

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

“You’re admitting it,” Chevalier said.

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

“It’s true?” Gully asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Siberian is Manton?” Myrddin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” she said, a little belatedly.

The rumbling continued, steadier now.

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

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

“We’ll-”

My bugs sensed Echidna clawing her way to the surface.

“Armband!”  I interrupted Chevalier.

“What?”

“Warn them.  She’s here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scourge 19.3

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I could see the dirty looks from the heroes around us.  Tattletale’s outburst would cost us something in the here and now, and I wasn’t sure there was anything to be gained long-term.  Meanwhile, we were the only real villains that I was aware of, surrounded by people who didn’t trust us.  People who expected us to try something.

I was acutely aware that the Chicago Wards and Scapegoat would be listening in if I said anything to Tattletale, and the thing I most wanted to say to Tattletale would be the worst thing to say on a lot of levels.  Calling her an idiot made us look less cohesive as a team, and she never reacted well to it.

I didn’t want Tecton, Grace and Wanton to hear, so I put one hand on Tattletale’s shoulder to stop her, and spoke just above a whisper.  “That was ill-timed.”

“Only opportunity I was about to get, with all of them together,” she said.  She didn’t bother to lower her voice.  “Big piece of the puzzle, knowing this much lets me start working out how everything fits together.”

“I know,” I murmured, “But it wasn’t a good moment.  We don’t need to make enemies of the Triumvirate, and we don’t need a kill order put on our heads.”

“Miss Militia wouldn’t really,” Tattletale said.

“That so?” I asked.  “Or is that another one of your educated guesses?”

“Educated guess,” Tattletale said.

“Let’s not forget that there’s other capes with a reason to hate us, and provoking their bosses might motivate them to get on Miss Militia’s case about that kill order and cleaning up Brockton Bay.  If an order comes down from above, it doesn’t matter if she’s willing to kill us or not.  Let’s do our best to avoid seeming dangerous.”

“Sure,” she said.  “Got what I wanted anyways.”

I wasn’t sure I was happy with that outcome.  She wasn’t saying she wouldn’t do it again.  “Keep in mind that we’re tired.  It’s easier to make mistakes.”

“I get it.  It’s cool,” Tattletale said.  “But just like you need time to get your bugs together, I need background info to work with before I get into a fight.”

“That’s not a fight we want to start right now,” I said.  “Maybe ever.”

“I have ideas.  Trust me a little,” she said, smiling a touch.

I frowned behind my mask, then led the way to the Wards.  I couldn’t be lecturing her about picking her battles if I didn’t do the same, and arguing this point with Tattletale wasn’t going to help us right now.  Something to address another time, another day.

“What’s going on?” Tecton asked.

“Discussing strategy,” I said.  “How are you guys?  Wanton?”

“Myrddin caught up with me, collected all the radioactive stuff,” Wanton said.  “My other form feels a little weak.  Might be that my real self is feeling drained, might be that whatever powers my other self is.”

“And Raymancer?” I asked.

Wanton glanced at Tecton, but he didn’t respond.  I could tell from their body language.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Nausea, vomiting, headaches, weakness… and even if he makes it through today, it’s probably going to kill him in the next while,” Tecton said.

“There’s healers,” I said.  “Tinkers who understand radiation.  I’m sure they’ve got good doctors looking after him now.  If you’ll accept my saying so, I’d say your priority is here, now, this situation.”

Tecton shifted position, straightening his back so he stood a little taller.  With his power armor, it put him head, shoulders and chest above me.

I had to admire the power armor.  Even the idea of power armor, it was kind of scary to me.  Putting together a piece of machinery that could bend steel bars and punch through concrete was impressive enough on its own, but doing that and then climbing into said machinery, walking around in it, knowing that a single malfunction could cause a potential catastrophic failure?  Being trapped in that armor, or worse, having it accidentally leverage that terrible strength against the wearer inside?

I was still operating like I had when I was blind.  A centipede crawled over the lens of my mask, obstructing my vision.  I willed it to move away.

Tecton wore his suit well.  He was a walking tank, wide as he was tall, a glossy rust-brown with brass highlights.  His eyes were barely visible, but I could see his eyes behind the mask, studying me.  He wasn’t venturing a reply.

Had I been too forward?  Too presumptuous?

“Worrying about him is fine,” I said, and the image of Grue sitting at the base of the wall flickered through my mind’s eye, “But the best thing you can do for Raymancer is get through this thing alive, and when you’re done, you can do your job as team leader and find someone who can help him.”

“Myrddin will do that.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “But are you really willing to trust the well-being of your teammate to a supervisor?  Wouldn’t it feel better to handle it yourself?”

“Unless I have reason not to, I’ll rely on Myrddin and I’ll feel better doing that,” Tecton replied.  “All of this, this whole scenario, the organization of it all, it doesn’t work unless there’s a measure of trust.”

“Okay,” I said.  His reply had caught me off guard.  I hadn’t expected Tecton to have that kind of faith in his superiors, and I couldn’t be sure if it was my own bias or naiveté on his part that were at fault for this gap in understanding.  Even if I were right, though, it wasn’t my place to ‘fix’ him.  “You lead the way you have to.  Sorry to make assumptions.”

“S’okay,” Tecton said.  “Doesn’t matter if you do or not.  I’ll just keep making sure you and your team don’t create trouble.”

“Which we didn’t do, when we lost the armbands and let them move on Eidolon,” Grace pointed out.

“I’ll take the flak for that,” Tecton said.

“I mentioned it in passing to Miss Militia,” I said, “Better that you tell the truth and say we pushed hard for it.  Blame me.”

“No,” Regent said, “Blame me.”

I shot him a look, and he shrugged.  “Just wanted to get in on the fun,” he said.

“You want me to put the blame on you, even if it means you get the kill order?” Tecton asked.

“I’d rather not get the kill order,” I said.

“And I’d rather not be indirectly responsible for your death,” Tecton said.  “I think that settles that.”

Maybe that’s for the best, I thought.  “Then let’s talk strategy and priorities.  Tecton, do you need anything?  Gear?  Time to prep?”

He shook his head.  “No.  Need time to clean my armor and make sure it’s all in working order, that’s all.”

“Bitch,” I said.  “The dogs are okay?”

“They weren’t, but they’re getting better as they grow.”

I looked at the dogs.  They were each about twice their usual size, rippling with interior and exterior muscles, layered in calcified skin and sporting bone hooks.  They were walking, which was good.  I looked over the rest of the group, trying to take in all the variables.  “Regent, you have a bead on Shatterbird?”

“Sorta did, felt too shitty to do anything with her after metal boy yanked me out.  Around the time I started feeling better, she disappeared.”

“What does that mean?”

“She’s out of range, she’s dead, or she’s inside Noelle.”

“Inside Echidna.  That would be bad,” I said.

“And plausible,” Tattletale said.  “She would, just to fuck us over.”

“Any idea what variants we could expect on her power?”  I asked.

Tattletale was combing her hair free of gunk with her fingers and fingernails.  “No.  Seems like there’s always a consistent factor, and the variations work off of that.  For Vista, it was space warping.  For Grue, darkness.  With Shatterbird, there’s three strong possibilities: glass, sound or macrokinesis of some type.”

“Fuck me,” Tecton said.  “City-wide attacks with something other than glass?”

“Wood?  Metal?  Pavement?” Tattletale suggested.  “The way her original power works, her kinetic ability attunes other objects so they extend her range.  She reaches as far as she can, then sets up a wide-area explosion.  Instant chaos.”

“We deal with that if it happens,” I said.  “I can use my bugs, maybe sense if she’s affecting anything besides glass, buy us time to react or take cover somehow.  But we have limited time, and we should use it.  I’d like to stop by my territory, get resupplied, and maybe swing north to wherever Coil put Atlas.”

“Atlas?” Tecton asked.

“Skitter’s giant pet beetle,” Regent supplied an answer.

“It’ll let me fly,” I said, “And I want to stay out of trouble until Scapegoat’s power stabilizes.  Easiest to do that if I’m a hundred feet above the ground.  That’s not important right now.  What I’m wanting to know is whether anyone else has an errand they need to run.”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “I’d like to meet up with the remaining Travelers, talk to Scrub.”

“Scrub?” Tecton asked.

“Scrub.  And then I need to get back here to meet some guests as they arrive.  I invited Faultline’s Crew.”

That gave me pause, but I couldn’t say why while the heroes were here.  “Let’s find a ride.”

Half of the PRT’s containment vans had turrets on the top for spraying foam, and each of those vans were circling the area where the building and construction site had been demolished and brought down on Noelle’s head, laying foam down on the rubble.

The other half were little more than mobile roadblocks, and they had been positioned to block off minor roads and alleys, leaving only a few major roads that could be protected by capes.

The benefit of having the Chicago Wards with us was that we could ask for that stuff.  Tecton went to Myrddin, Myrddin spoke a word into his armband, and a PRT agent brought our truck to us.

Tecton had been talking about organization and relying on others.  I didn’t think it counted for nearly as much as he was saying.  Not the PRT, with what I’d seen and the hints at the Triumvirate’s involvement.  Still, it was a ride, and I wasn’t about to complain.

The Travelers were in custody, with Trickster absent.  Genesis was in her monstrous form, fixed to the ground with containment foam.  I didn’t see any sign of her real body, which meant she was either playing along or cooperating.  She wore a vaguely female shape with a serpent’s tail from the waist down and a bony forehead that flared and swooped back behind her head like a triceratops’ frill.  She had no eyes, and her mouth was wide and lipless, with tiny sharp teeth, her arms long with clawed fingertips.

Sundancer and Ballistic were glued down to either side of her, buried up to their shoulders.  Scrub was a distance away, buried up to his waist in the road.  His hair glowed with a faint red color, and a glow emanated from his eyes and the inside of his mouth.

Ballistic and Sundancer stared as we approached.  The heroes were giving them a wide berth, probably as a safety precaution.  I didn’t recognize any of the three who were standing watch; a boy and girl each with shortbows and headbands with a bull’s and ram’s horns, and an eight-foot tall hulk of a girl with a muscular physique that had to be power-induced and a shovel broader than I was.  She was stooped over, nearly to the point of having a hunchback, and she had a severe overbite that left her top row of teeth sort of hanging off the front of her face.  Her hair was tied into thick, dark braids that hung nearly to her toes, partially obscuring her face.  Like Weld, she wasn’t wearing a mask.

“Wards West!  Yo!” Tecton called out.

The large girl turned around.  Her voice was deeper than Grue’s when she spoke, “Chicago Wards.  Not that I’m one to talk, but you’re missing a few members.  They didn’t-“

“Nobody’s died yet,” Tecton said, extending a hand.  She shook it.  He said, “Got a couple sitting this one out.  Bearach put in for vacation, I think he’s feeling the pressure after the Leviathan hit, and he’s hoping to have a good excuse to miss the next Endbringer hit.  I told him he’s not forced to come on these missions, but…”

“He’s compelled to defend others,” she said.

“Yeah.  Garnett gave this one a pass.  Raymancer came, but he took a bad hit.”

“Injured?”

“Radiation poisoning.”

“How bad?” she asked.

“Bad as it can get without killing you right away,” Tecton replied.  “Like I said, nobody’s died yet.”

She bobbed her head in a nod, and her hair swung in front of her.  She reached out and put a large hand on his armored shoulder.  Her voice was surprisingly gentle when she said, “I’m sorry.”

Tecton didn’t reply right away.  Sympathy could be a horrible thing to give someone, depending on who they were and how far along they were in their acceptance of the event.  I felt moisture in my eyes, but it was Grue I was thinking of.

With something to distract myself, I could deal.  I’d compartmentalize, refocus, focus on getting the job done.  But if someone gave me a few simple words and a touching gesture like this girl was offering Tecton, right here and right now, I suspected I wouldn’t be able to resist losing my composure.

It was a good thing, perhaps, that nobody on my team was that type.

“I’d like to talk to the Travelers,” Tattletale said.

The large girl looked at Tecton, and she talked to him instead of Tattletale, “Hell of a babysitting job, Tec.  These are the guys from the news.”

“Speak for yourself,” Tecton said, gesturing toward her captives.  “Where’s Fisherboy?”

“The captain’s sitting this one out.  I’m in charge for this mission.”

There was genuine cheer in Tecton’s voice as he said, “You’ve been wanting that for a while.”

She smiled, which amounted to revealing more of her top row of teeth than anything else.  “I won’t get a promotion for real.  They never give them to people like me.”

“I wouldn’t worry.  You’re winning them over,” Tecton said.

That camaraderie.  If I’d joined the Wards, would I have had that?  How would things have unfolded?

“Tattletale, Undersiders, this is Gully.  I’m only as strong as I am because of the data I got from studying her power.  There was a time that she looked after two members of my team, when they were based in San Diego.  Wanton was one of ’em.  If you treat her with anything less than the utmost respect, you won’t get any more cooperation from me.  Got it?”

“Not a problem,” Tattletale said.  I nodded an agreement.

As a group, we approached the Travelers, and Gully accompanied us.

“Figures,” Ballistic said, when we were in earshot.  “I run to the rescue, all for nothing, and I get arrested.  No help from you guys, and Trickster fucks us all over.  And when all’s said and done, you guys are free and I’m fucking sitting here in a puddle of goo.  Tell me Trickster got his, at least?”

“Not that I’m aware,” Tattletale said.

Ballistic sighed.

Sundancer wasn’t moving.  She sat in a hunched-over position.

“Is she okay?” I asked.

“Of course not.  Motherfucking Trickster teleported the two of us into the sky, let us drop.  When I stood up again, he did it a second time.  My wrist and legs are probably fractured, her legs aren’t any better.  She’s out cold.  We need fucking medical attention, and they stuck us in this foam instead.”

I turned around.  “Tecton, Gully, is there a way we could arrange some care for these two?”

“I’ll pass on a message with my armband,” Gully said.  “See what the higher-ups say.”

“Might help to mention that these guys are heavy hitters at the upper end of the scale.  Sundancer can probably finish Noelle, given an opportunity, and Ballistic can definitely slow her down.”

“Will do.”

She stepped away, retrieving a smart phone from her pocket and putting it to one ear.

“You’d think she’d wear a mask,” Regent muttered.  I sent a collection of bugs flying at his face and shot him a dirty look at the same time.  He was left sputtering.

Ballistic stared up at me.  I couldn’t see his eyes through the lenses of his mask, but I was acutely aware of his silence, here.  He wasn’t offering thanks.

“Well,” Tattletale said, “Let’s see if my guess is right.  If not, I wasted a lot of money and a lot of thinking time on this problem.”

“Guess?” Tecton asked.

“Guess.”  Tattletale briskly walked in Scrub’s direction.  The ex-Merchant was buried in a standing position, three-quarters of his body sunken into a hole in the ground roughly two and a half feet in diameter.  He couldn’t raise his arms up out of the hole to pull or push himself up, and the narrow confines of the hole didn’t let him bend his legs.

A flash marked an explosion nearby, hitting only air.

“Scrub,” Tattletale said.

Scrub didn’t respond.

“So you don’t talk,” she said, “That makes this harder.”

She sat down cross-legged, to put herself on more of a level with him.   A flash erupted two feet away from her, a few feet off the ground, and was followed by a slight movement of the air, stirring Tattletale’s blond hair.  She brushed it back into place with her hand.

“What’s the guess?” I asked.

“His power.  What do you think it is?”

There was another flash.  Again, it hit only air.

“I was thinking uncontrolled annihilation blasts, but you’re going to tell me it’s something else,” I said.

“I am.”

Another flash.  Tattletale drummed her fingertips on her knee, watching, waiting.

“We’re kind of on a schedule,” I said.  “So maybe hurry up with the explanation?”

“I’m just waiting.  It’s a matter of time before I can check my theory.  If it’s checkable.”

If it’s checkable?”

“Can’t you just play along?  I love those ‘murder she wrote’ moments, where I can pull everyone together, then dish the info.  Everything makes sense, the puzzle pieces fall together, and things start falling into place.  We lose all the effect if I reveal some of it early.”

“And we lose that opportunity if you sit too close to the guy with the uncontrolled power that isn’t energy blasts, get half your face scooped off and die,” I said.  “I know you know you’re safe, but let’s be extra careful.”

I extended a hand, but Tattletale didn’t take it.  Right, Scapegoat’s effect.  She stood without my help, then stepped back.

“I’ll explain this part of it once I verify,” Tattletale said.  “The rest has to wait until Faultline’s people fly in.”

“How long will that be?” I asked.

“Hour and a half from the time I made the call, about.  That was about thirty-five minutes ago-“

Tattletale stopped as another flash hit.  It intersected the ground, but the ground was left intact.

“There!”  She said.  Her hand went to her belt, and she had a laser pointer out in a second.  She circled the area where the blast hit.  “Can you remove that section of ground without breaking the middle?”

Tecton took a half-step forward, but Gully stopped him.  She tapped her shovel against the ground, and the area in question rose from the ground, perfectly cylindrical, three feet high.

Another of Scrub’s explosions struck, and a spherical gouge was cut out at the bottom of the pillar.  Tattletale ducked close, grabbing it as it toppled, then hurried back out of Scrub’s range, dragging the column after her.

“Careful!” I told her.  “If you’d been hit-“

“Doesn’t matter,” she said.  She rested the cylinder with the vaguely pointed bottom down on the ground, tapped her finger on the top – what had been the road’s surface.  “Look.”

I peered closer.

It was so subtle I almost missed it.  The texture of the road’s surface was interrupted, shifting minutely to a different texture and fractionally different shade.  The area formed a neat circle.

I stood back while the others looked.  Only Rachel didn’t investigate.  She was more focused on her dogs, using a metal-tined comb to brush their fur clear of gunk.  Bentley nudged my hand, and I gave him a scratch on the crown of his head.

“I don’t get it,” Tecton said.  “The blast changed it?”

“The blast transplanted it,” Tattletale said, grinning. 

“How the hell do you even notice something like that?” Wanton asked, touching the surface.

“That doesn’t matter.  Now, if everyone will allow me, I’d like to have my moment now.  We all know that there’s built-in limitations to our power.  These limitations are apparently for our benefit, even if we might not always love them.  The Manton effect is a big one.  We get powers, and in the moment those powers take hold, we get some hardwired restrictions that keep those powers from hurting us.  A running theory says that it goes too far, and overgeneralizes to humans or living things who aren’t us.  Another says that it’s just our empathy at work, that we have built-in limitations because we care about our fellow human beings, and our powers acknowledge that.  With me so far?”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“There’s other limitations or advantages that come with the powers.  Sundancer over there can’t be burned.  Temperature completely and one hundred percent normalizes within a certain range of her body.  Our old buddy Shadow Stalker could pass through surfaces but never sank into the ground and fell to the center of the Earth.  And Scrub here, with his uncontrolled power, never blasts the ground out from under his feet, and he’s far less likely to collapse a building onto his own head by accidentally destroying a critical support.  Why?”

Nobody volunteered an answer.  Tattletale smiled.

She explained, “Looking at this, I’m thinking it’s because the same passengers that give us our powers are connecting us to some other parallel Earth.  Maybe even individual collections of Earths for each of us, so that there’s no ugly interactions when two powers meet.  Scrub here shunts matter into an Earth where there’s architecture roughly corresponding to our own, but he won’t tear up his own footing because he’s shunting in the more permanent elements as his power shunts stuff out.  When Shadow Stalker displaces her mass, she displaces it into another Earth, distributing her mass and her footing across the two worlds.  She’s still all there, she’s just not all here.  And when Sundancer superheats her immediate area, she’s doing what Scrub does, and shunting a roughly human-shaped patch of superheated air and fire into a parallel Earth, shunting room temperature air into her immediate surroundings.”

“Doesn’t that mean that they’d be causing destruction in some hapless world?” Wanton asked.

“Good question.” Tattletale grinned.  “Yes.  Probably.  Could be that every time Sundancer’s power protects herself, she’s setting the approximate location of her other Earth on fire.  Nothing’s saying that other Earth is populated, but it could be.”

I shivered.  It was too much to think about.  “Does that apply to other powers?  Mine doesn’t really protect me.”

“Ah,” Tattletale grinned.  She raised a finger, “But here’s my question to you.  What’s your power source?  Where are you getting the energy you use to relay and receive information from your bugs in real-time?  Keep in mind that so far, the only person who’s been able to intercept, understand and replicate your signals has been Leet.

“You’re saying that when I got my powers, my passenger picked a suitable Earth, and I’ve been… what?  Leeching power from it?”

“Possible.  Or drawing power from two hundred or two hundred million Earths.  Maybe it’s ambient light and radiation, and you’re condensing that energy into something you can use.”

“Am I hurting or killing people?” I asked.

“Who knows?” Tattletale shrugged.  She flashed me a smile.  “Maybe your passenger picked a few barren Earths with no people at all.  Earths where life never evolved, or where humankind went extinct.  Or maybe you’re drawing a teeny, tiny bit of energy from millions of worlds, to the point that nobody would ever notice.”

“Or maybe you’re turning another Earth’s Brockton Bay into a cold, barren wasteland,” Regent commented.

Don’t want to think about it, I thought.  It wasn’t like I could even turn my power off, short of killing myself or removing every bug from my vicinity.

“It’s… a bit of a leap,” Tecton said, “To go from looking a piece of pavement to thinking on that scale.”

“It’s only a theory, but I’ve been giving a lot of thought to powers in general, and my teammates know I’m pretty good with this stuff.  Now, I want you to imagine this.  Think about all the complex processing and work that goes into managing powers.  Hell, Skitter can individually control every insect in her swarm and simultaneously give each a completely different instruction. My own power, it’s similar.  Tecton’s brainpower, his processing as he thinks about engineering, architecture… where’s that work taking place? Our brains certainly aren’t capable of it.”

“The other world?” I asked.

“But how?  Who?” she asked.

“Tell me,” I said.

“Insofar as we’ve even thought about passengers, we’ve been sort of inclined to think about them as being pretty small.  After all, the way Bonesaw talked about them, they’re these things that work their way into our heads, bond with our brains and then burn themselves off in the process of reconfiguring how our heads work.  Right?  But anything as small as what she’s describing wouldn’t possibly be able to do what we need to manage our powers.  So what I’m asking is… what if they’re big?  Massive.  What if each and every passenger is picking us, for whatever reason, they find us and then they bind to us.  They connect to us by rewiring a tiny part of our tiny brains, and through that extra lobe, they connect us to all the other parallel Earths, including the one where they reside?  Maybe they’re physical, maybe they’re more ethereal, I dunno, they could be plant or animal, but they’re there.  Lifeforms that could be titanic, the size of cities, continents or moons, lurking in some other parallel Earth and attaching themselves to us with a thread, a fine hair that stretches across dimensions to a lobe in our brain, sending and receiving all necessary data.  And things like that are connected to each and every one of us who have powers and those of us who don’t, existing only to process our abilities, to absorb and channel the necessary energies, signals and information, and make each and every one of us into…”

She paused to chuckle a little.

“…Into superheroes and supervillains and everyday nobodies who use their powers for business or entertainment.”

I shivered.

“It’s nonsense,” Tecton said.

“Maybe.  It is just a theory,” Tattletale said.  “But it feels mostly right, and I’d love to hear a better explanation.”

Why?” Gully asked.  “Why would they do that?  If they’re that powerful, if they’re that big, why care about us?”

“Excellent question,” Tattletale replied.  She grinned. “No clue.”

“I’m not saying it’s not an interesting theory,” I hedged, “But how does this tie into the Echidna situation?  Is she an Endbringer, and do the Endbringers relate to the passengers?”

“Oh.  I’m pretty damn sure there’s no real connection between her and Endbringers.  I saw her at work.  Nothing really fit, as far as the various things I saw about Endbringers.  No, she’s something else.”

“Then what does this have to do with her?  Because this definitely could have waited.”

“Well, there’s two major factors at play here,” Tattletale said.  “Two plans.  Numero uno is that it’s really quite possible that Echidna’s got a broken passenger.  Something went wrong, it’s damaged, it’s demented, or some of the usual limits are gone.  Hell, maybe it’s gaining more of a grip over her as she brings more of the passenger into this world to operate her body, and the usual processes that keep a passenger passive and sleeping are missing in hers.  Or it could be that her passenger is trying to make its way into our world.”

“And it’s city sized?” Wanton asked.  “Or moon sized?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “It’s not like she couldn’t get that big.  I was thinking about throwing Rachel’s dogs at her until she couldn’t support her own weight, but she’d still be able to use her power and puke, and while her clones seem to be getting more fragile, weaker and more plentiful as she grows, I’m not positive that’s a good game plan.”

“Not fucking risking my dogs like that again,” Rachel said.

“Of course,” Tattletale added.  “There’s that too.  I can’t really say more about Echidna without finding more about Cauldron’s process for granting powers, and I’d really like to grill the Travelers on that front.  But understanding all this is our best bet for understanding Echidna, and potentially stopping her.  Or even fixing her.”

I glanced at the others.  “But… there’s some powerful people who wouldn’t want us to dig for more information about Cauldron.”

“There are,” Tattletale said.  She glanced at the heroes who were with us: Tecton, Wanton, Grace, Gully, Scapegoat and the twins.  “Which means we may be doing this without the support of the other heroes who are here to stop Echidna.  Which is probably sensible, because they probably won’t be on board with the next idea I’m going to propose for a democratic vote.  The second reason why I wanted to carry out this particular research project.”

“I get the feeling I’m not going to like this,” Grace said.

Tattletale smiled, “I think we can tear a hole between dimensions.”

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Scourge 19.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I replied.

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

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

“Go on,” she said.

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

“You were conscious?”  Weld asked.

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

“Beg pardon?” Weld asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because you murdered him,” Weld said.

I didn’t answer.

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

“I wouldn’t,” I told Miss Militia.

“Wouldn’t what?  Make my recommendation?”

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

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

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

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

Eidolon?” Weld asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know what I mean.”

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

“Maybe,” Miss Militia said.

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Militia waved a hand to one side, silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Scapegoat?” I asked.  “A healer?”

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

“What do you mean by ‘sort of’?”

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

“I’ll take what I can get,” I said.

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

“What’s the duration?” I asked.

“Anywhere from one hour to six hours.”

“And the condition?”  I asked.

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

“Sit,” Tattletale said.  I sat.

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

“It’s okay,” Tattletale said.

I nodded, gave Scapegoat my hand once again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could see, and I could breathe.

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

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

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

“What’s going on?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Fuck me,” Scapegoat said.

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

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

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

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

“Problem, S.g.?” the girl asked.

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

“You’re blind?” she asked.

“I was,” I said.

“It happened after we parted ways?”

“No,” I said.

She gave me a funny look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” Imp said.  “Oh.

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

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

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

“Imp,” I said.

“What?”

“You should take him home.”

“But… I can help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take her home,” I said.

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

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

They were watching as reinforcements arrived.

Alexandria and Legend had joined Myrddin, Chevalier and Eidolon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scourge 19.1

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

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

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

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

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

No.  Not now.  Not like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tattletale shouted, “Rachel!  Now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel clenched her fists.

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

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

Pointing at my dad.

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

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

I drew my knife and baton, charging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The momentary relief faded swiftly.

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

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

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

Radiation?  Plague?

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

They were fleeing from something.  Multiple somethings.

I took cover.

Where are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cockroaches, then.  I reached for them-

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

Regent hesitated, gave her a sidelong glance.

“Come!” she roared.

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

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

The same cells where Shatterbird was in sound proof containment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really not that interesting,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

“That you are,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll pass.  Bentley, attack!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Militia moved to obey.  Too late.

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

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

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

I ran, and I knew it was futile.

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

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

It was Weld who seized my wrists.

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

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

Then he pulled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost.  Bugs had reached her scalp, and there were spiders working thread around her legs.  I wasn’t sure if she was aware of the latter.

The Wards and Protectorate in the upstairs hallway- some were hurt.  The fallen and the wounded were numerous enough that the heroes had lost any momentum they’d had.  Their focus was in the hallway, now, in saving their teammates.  Maybe they’d deemed the situation unsalvageable.

I exerted a greater effort, trying to reduce the impact the swarm was having on everyone present, but there was nothing.  My doppelgangers had a complete and total override, and the pair definitely noticed my attempts.  They turned my way.

What would I be doing in their shoes?  They couldn’t hurt Weld, but they could hurt me.

Or they’d find another avenue for attack.

“Weld,” Skitter One spoke up.  Her voice was quiet.  “Surprised you’re here.  Did Imp help you get close?”

Do I really sound like that?  I wondered.  And Imp?

Weld wasn’t replying.

Really surprised you’re with her,” Skitter One said.  She had one hand pressed to a chest wound.

Weld glanced over his other shoulder at her.  The other Skitter was a distance away, with shattered legs.

“Did she tell you?” Skitter One said, “She set someone on fire.  Maimed a minor, slicing his forehead open.  She cut off Bakuda’s toes, carved out a helpless man’s eyes.  I can keep going.”

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  He wasn’t moving.  Why?  He was waist deep in Noelle’s belly, holding me…  it dawned on me that he couldn’t throw me to some point clear of Noelle without giving me to the Skitter.

“You should care.  I could tell you about the critically injured man she left to bleed out and die.  She stood by and let people get attacked by Mannequin so she could buy herself time to think of a plan to make a counterattack.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t draw in enough breath to manage more than a hoarse whisper, and Weld wouldn’t have heard me.

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  “I know she’s done bad things.  After this is over, we’ll find her, beat her and take her into custody.”

“You don’t care?” Skitter One asked.  “She murdered your boss.  Shot Thomas Calvert in cold blood, not that long ago.”

Weld froze.  Or he went more still than usual.

“Whoopsie,” Imp said.  She’d appeared behind Skitter One.  A slash of her knife ended Skitter One’s contributions to the discussion.  “Sorry to interrupt.”

I couldn’t say whether Skitter One’s feedback had done anything to change his behavior, but Weld wasn’t gentle when he grabbed me and flung me overhand.  My legs tore free of Noelle, where her flesh had closed firmly around my legs, and I was sent flying.

Unable to move to protect myself or react to the landing, I sprawled where I landed, fifteen or so feet from Noelle.

Weld turned back to Noelle.  His left hand changed to become a blade, and he used it to hack and slash his way through Noelle’s side.  His other hand dug and scraped for purchase as he deliberately and intentionally submerged himself.

My bugs found their way to the others.  I did what I could with my bugs to drive Shatterbird away from the doorway and put her out of reach of Noelle’s tongue.  Once she’d started staggering back, I set about finding and destroying the bug clones who were attacking people and ignoring my powers.

The door where the Wards and Protectorate had been lurking opened.  Miss Militia tested her weight on the staircase, then leaped down to ground level.

She trained a gun on Imp as she noticed the girl crouching over Skitter Two, the taciturn Skitter with the broken legs.  Imp executed the girl, glanced at Miss Militia and shrugged.

I tried to speak, coughed.  I pulled my bugs away from Rachel and Tattletale.

Miss Militia stared at Noelle, her eyes adjusting to the poor lighting.

“You fed her!?” Miss Militia asked.

“Rachel,” Tattletale said, “Come on!”

There was a clapping or slapping noise, and Bastard lurched to his feet.  Rachel stood, and the other three dogs spread out around her.

“You fed Echidna?” Miss Militia asked, disbelieving.

Echidna?  Right.  They’d coined a name for her, then.

“And we’ll feed her more,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel!  All of the spare dogs!  Try not to get in Weld’s way!”

The dogs began to grow, flesh splitting, bone spurs growing, and muscles swelling to greater size.

Rachel hesitated.

“Do it!” Tattletale shouted.

Rachel gave the orders, shouting, “All of you, hold!  Malcolm, go left!”

She slapped one dog on the shoulder, and he bolted.

“Coco, go right!  Twinkie, go right!”

The other two dogs gave chase, stampeding past me as they ran along the right side of the room.

“Hurt!”  Rachel gave the order.

The dogs attacked the closet target – Noelle.  They got stuck in her like she was tar.

But, I realized, that the converse was also true.  Noelle was absorbing them, but she was unable to move so freely as long as this much extra mass was stuck to her.  It was like the way we’d fought Weld, sticking metal to him.

The problem would be when she spat out the dogs.

I tried to move, but I felt like I had fifty pound weights strapped each of my arms and legs.  My face burned hot, and my vision swam.

It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar feeling.  I felt sick.

With that thought, it dawned on me.  Noelle absorbed living things, and that apparently extended to bacteria.  Where others had bacteria in their digestive systems to help them digest food, Noelle, Echidna, had no need for such.  When she absorbed the ambient bacteria and molds from her surroundings, she was storing them, weaponizing them like she did with rats and insects.  They were used to debilitate her victims, render them unable to fight back while her clones got the upper hand.

It meant I was sick, and I’d have to hope that whatever the illness was, it would be short-lived.

Shatterbird was still thrashing, trying to do something with her glass and failing because she couldn’t breathe or see.  Echidna couldn’t move, as her legs were caught on the dogs.  The other clones had been executed by Imp, as far as I knew.

The sticking point was Weld.  Tattletale had apparently figured out that he was immune to Echidna’s absorption ability, but he wouldn’t be immune to her basic shapeshifting ability.  She didn’t have a lot of control over her form, or she surely would have chosen something without that number of legs, without the three mutant dog heads, but she did have the ability to shift her flesh around, and Weld was limited in how fast he could cut that flesh away.

Rachel had moved to my side.  She put her arms under my shoulders and my knees and lifted me, grunting.

I twisted around to cough and gag.  I managed to move one arm to my face, but didn’t have the strength in my fingers to move the fabric at my neck.

Rachel found it instead, pulling it up and halfway up my face.  I coughed up lumps of stuff that tasted the way raw meat smelled.

“Careful!” Tattletale said.  “Incoming!  Dogs!”

Noelle had apparently moved one of her heads around, because she managed to spray a stream of vomit our way.

There was a pause as her body heaved, my bugs could sense the movement as one of the bulkier dogs was repositioned inside her monstrous lower body, and then she puked up one of the dogs, along with a handful of humans.

It wasn’t large, wasn’t mutant.  Well, it was a mutant, but it wasn’t one of Rachel’s mutants.

“Bentley,” Rachel ordered.  “Kill.”

The bulldog lunged and seized the smaller dog in its jaws in a matter of seconds, crushed it in a heartbeat.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice low enough that only I heard it.  “Feels wrong.”

“Why?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why was it small?”

“When we were hanging out with Panacea during the Slaughterhouse Nine fiasco, she put her hand on Sirius,” Tattletale said.  “And she said that the tissues die as they get pushed out from the center.  They’re more like super zombie dogs, really, with a juicy, living center.”

“And Echidna doesn’t copy dead things,” Miss Militia said.

Tattletale nodded.  “We got lucky.  I was worried it would only be a little smaller.”

Weld was fighting to emerge.  He had his hands on Grue and one of the dogs.  He hurled them out, and Miss Militia caught the dog.  Imp and Tattletale hurried to drag Grue away.

“Did you bring all the stuff I asked for?” Tattletale asked.

“Yes.  It won’t be enough.”

“So long as you’ve got some, it’ll help.  Just need to buy time,” Tattletale said.

Echidna’s bulk shifted.  I couldn’t see it with my own eyes, but with the blurry vision the bugs offered, I could track how she was getting her legs under her.  I could see that there weren’t any distinct bulges anymore.  She was breaking down the mutant flesh she’d stripped away from Rachel’s dogs and she was making it her own.  Six dogs… if my estimates about them being roughly a third her mass were right, she could be three times as big as she’d been before.

“She’ll be stronger,” Miss Militia said, putting the dog down.  “If this doesn’t work, we just gave her a power boost for nothing.”

“We’re saving the people she took,” Tattletale said, “And we’re buying time.  It’s not nothing.”

Echidna heaved herself up to her feet.  She vomited forth a geyser of fluids and flying clones.  Our ranks were scattered, knocked over and pushed away from Echidna by the force and quantity of the fluids.

It was stronger than before.  Whatever the source she was drawing from was, she’d reinforced it with the mass she’d gained from eating the dogs.  No less than fifteen clones littered the floor, and there were another twelve or so dogs and rats in their mass.

Miss Militia didn’t even stand before opening fire.  Twin assault rifles tore into the ranks of the clones as she emptied both clips, reforged the guns with her power, and then unloaded two more clips.  Several clones were avoiding the bullets more by sheer chance than any effort on their part.  One Grace-clone managed to shield the bullets, moving her hands to block the incoming fire.  One stray shot clipped her shoulder, but she was holding out.

Echidna spat up another wave, and I hurried to get my flying bugs out of the way.  I still couldn’t move, but I held my breath.  The wave hit us on two fronts, an initial crush of fluid and bodies, and the bodies from the first wave that had been shoved up against us.  As the fluid receded, my bugs moved back down to the ground to track how many clones she’d created.  It made for a pile of bodies, with snarling dogs and clones struggling for footing as they reached for us.

Bentley and Bastard provided our side with the muscle we needed to shove the worst of the enemy numbers away, bulldozing them with snouts and shoving them aside with the sides of their large bodies.  Miss Militia followed up by sweeping the area with a flamethrower.  She stopped, waiting for the smoke to clear, and Tattletale shouted, “Again!  Weld’s still inside!”

Another wave of flame washed over the clones.  They were Regents, Tectons and Graces, as well as various dogs, and none were able to withstand the heat.  Each and every one of them burned.

But this much heat and smoke, even with this space being as large as it was, it wasn’t an assault we could sustain.

Echidna opened her mouth for a third spray, then stopped.  One by one, bodies were dropping from her gut.

“No!”  Noelle screamed, from her vantage point on top of the monstrous form.

Weld forced another dog free, and Echidna moved one leg to step on it.

Grace and Tecton fell, and Weld dropped after them.  He turned the blade of one hand into a scythe, then chopped a segment of Echidna’s foot free.  With one motion of the scythe, he sent Tecton, Regent and some of the dogs skidding our way, sliding them on the vomit-slick floor like a hockey player might with a puck on ice.

Echidna deliberately dropped, belly-flopping onto Weld, Grace and the dismembered foot that had stepped on the sixth dog.

Miss Militia was already drawing together a rocket launcher.  She fired a shot at the general location where Weld was.  He forced his way free of the resulting wound a moment later, the dog tucked under one arm, Grace under the other.

Echidna swiped at him, but he hurled the others forward to safety a second before it connected.  He was slammed into the wall, but he didn’t even reel from the blow.  He made a dash for us.

“Retreat!” Miss Militia gave the order.

The staircase shook precariously as we made our ascent, one group at a time.  One of the capes had frozen the staircase of the metal walkway to the wall to stabilize it.  They started getting organized to hand each of us and the dogs up to the door, but Rachel barreled past, carrying me and two dogs, with Bastard and Bentley following behind.

As we reached the doorway, dogs were handed to the able-bodied.  Others were helping the wounded.  Clockblocker had fallen, and Kid Win was being moved with a makeshift stretcher formed of one of the chain-link doors that had been in the hallway.  There was a lot of blood.

It was Shatterbird’s power, I realized.  I’d barely registered the event.  Shatterbird was still in the hallway on the other side of the underground complex.  Standing away from the main fighting, perhaps, or waiting for an opportunity.  She’d found the locker where Regent kept her costume, was using her power to put it on while simultaneously fighting off the bugs that were still biting her.

Echidna reared back, apparently gearing up to vomit, and Miss Militia fired a rocket launcher straight into the monster’s open mouth.

It barely seemed to slow Echidna down.  Vomit spilled around her, crawling with vermin and bugs.

The monster was moving slower, now.  The entire structure shook as she advanced on us, sections of the walkway crumpling and screeching where her bulk scraped against it.

But the door was just that – a door.  Three feet wide and six feet tall.  The tunnels the trucks had used were too small for her mass, even if one ignored the fact that they’d been strategically collapsed.

The entire area shook with the impact of her furious struggles.  She was trying to tear her way free.  The violence only ramped up as we made our escape, to the point that I was worried the building above us would come down on top of our heads as we headed outside.

The warm, fresh air was chill against the damp fabric of my costume as we escaped from beneath the building.  I could sense other heroes and trucks stationed nearby, no doubt surrounding the area.

The second we’d reached the perimeter, Tattletale collapsed to the ground, propping herself up with her back to a wall.  Grue and Regent were placed next to us.

We were covered in blood and vomit, half of us so weak we could barely move.  It didn’t convey the best image.

“Vista wasn’t inside Echidna,” Weld said.  “If she’s still in the building-”

“Triumph, phone her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“Yes’m,” Triumph replied.

Miss Militia turned to Tattletale.  She gestured at the nearby vehicles.  “You said you wanted containment foam.”

“I did,” Tattletale said.

“You think she’ll fight free?”

“Almost definitely,” Tattletale said.  “She had a Grue with her.  One with teleportation powers.  He disappeared partway through the fight, lurking somewhere out of sight.  Being pragmatic about the situation.  So unless someone can testify to having killed the guy, we can expect her to pop up in a matter of minutes.”

“Minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“No reply from Vista,” Triumph reported.

“Keep trying.”

“She gets free in a few minutes, and we’ll use the containment foam then?” Assault asked.  I jumped a little at the realization it was him.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’ll use it as soon as the dust settles.”

“Dust?”  Assault asked.

She withdrew her cell phone, raised her voice, “If any of you have force fields, put them up now!”

Tattletale started punching something into the keypad.  Miss Militia grabbed her wrist, prying the cellphone from her hand.  “Stop.”

“It’s our only option.”

What’s our only option?”

Buying time,” Tattletale said.  She wrenched her hand free, but Miss Militia still had the phone.

“How?”

“You could punch the last two digits, one and four, into that keypad, see for yourself,” Tattletale said.  “Or you could give me the phone, let me do it, and then if Vista’s in there, your conscience is… less muddy, if not exactly clear.”

Miss Militia turned her face toward the phone, stared at the building that loomed over Coil’s not-so-secret base.

“Shatterbird-” I started to speak, had to catch my breath, “She’s in there too.  She was talking to Noelle.  To Echidna.  Last I saw.  They might be deciding to work together.”

“I won’t have a clear conscience, no matter what I do,” Miss Militia said.  “But I might as well own up to it.”

Miss Militia touched the phone twice.  Long, quiet seconds reigned.

“Didn’t think you had it in you,” Tattletale commented.

There was a rumble.  My bugs couldn’t reach far enough to see, but they could see the blur.  A cloud, at the top floor of the building.

Another cloud expanded out from the top of the building, one floor down from the first.

The explosions continued, escalating, ripping through the building in stages.  I couldn’t even breathe as I experienced the resulting aftershock, the vibrations as the building folded in on itself, plummeting down to the construction area.

“What-” Assault started.

There was another explosion, muffled, and my bugs were in range for the explosion that followed.  Plumes of earth rose in a rough circle around the building, and then the ground sank.  The entire underground base, folding in on itself.  Even with the debris of the fallen building on top of it, the area seemed to form a loose depression.

Fitting for the criminal mastermind, I thought.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” Regent said, his voice reedy.

“He didn’t use it on us?” I asked Tattletale.  “Coil?”

She was staring at what must have been a massive cloud of dust.

“He tried, sort of,” she said.  “His computer was rigged to blow everything up if someone tampered too much.  I found the stuff when I went looking for his files, as I moved in.  Scared the pants off me when I realized that it was already in motion.”

“Before that?”  I asked.  “When we were waiting for the meeting?”

“Couldn’t afford to let ‘Echidna’ loose,” she said.  “And I think I would’ve known.  Can’t say for sure.”

It took minutes for everything to finish settling.

“Containment foam on the wreckage!”  Miss Militia shouted.  “I want cape escorts for each truck and equipped PRT member, do not engage if you see her!”

She was rattling off more orders.  I couldn’t focus enough to follow it all.

“She’s not dead,” Tattletale said, “But we bought an hour, at least.  Maybe a few.  With luck, they’ll upgrade this to a class-S.  We’ll get reinforcements… which we’ll need.”

“She’s stronger,” Grue said.  He didn’t sound good.  “You fed her.”

“Had to.  Or she would have escaped before the explosion.”

“But she’s stronger,” Grue repeated himself.

Tattletale nodded.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Not really.  Ideas.”

“I have a few too,” I said.  “Not good ones, though.”

“I’ll take bad ideas,” she said.  She sighed wistfully, “Fuck.  I really wanted an evil mastermind headquarters of my own.  It’ll be years before I can build one for myself,” Tattletale groused.

“So impatient,” Regent clucked his tongue.

Tattletale pushed herself to her feet.  “The next part’s going to be three times as bad.  I’m going to go see if we can scrounge up some healing.”

I brought my legs up to my chest and folded my arms on my knees, resting my head on them.  The visions I’d seen were swiftly fading into memory, but the ideas behind them lingered.  For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to fight, to step up and save others.  A large part of me wanted to say it was up to the heroes, to take the unsure thing over doing it myself and knowing I’d done everything I could.

I turned to Grue.  “You okay?”

He didn’t respond.

“Grue?” I asked.

Nothing.

I used my bugs to search for someone who might be able to give medical attention.  Everyone was milling around, active, busy.

Us Undersiders aside, there were only two people nearby who weren’t active, trying to contain and prepare for a potential second attack.  Weld and Miss Militia.

They were talking, and they were looking at me.

Thomas Calvert.  My clone had informed them.  And they’d seen our faces.

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Interlude 18

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“Scout it,” Noelle gave the order.  “Recuperate while we wait.”

Marissa sent a hawk flying through the dense foliage.  Noelle could feel that dull thrum of adrenaline, feel as though time had slowed down, her perceptions and reaction times cranked up to the maximum as she assessed every skeleton and bog zombie between her team and the hawk’s ultimate destination – a clearing with a withered crone standing idle in the center.

Everything was a clue, the placement the enemy had chosen for each unit crucial, because it would force them to maneuver one way or another.  Was that treasure chest placed at the back of the swamp-dungeon because the enemy Overlord had wanted to put it as far out of reach as possible or was it because he wanted to bait them into a trap on that side of the room?

It would be impossible to guess from that one clue alone, but the position of the monsters, lighter on that end of the room-

“Stay to the right,” she ordered.

There were reports of assent from the others.

Like being aware one was dreaming without actually disturbing the dream, it was a rare thing to be in the zone and to be aware she was in the zone.  She knew she was right.

“Cody, go ranged.”

Cody’s Highwayman sheathed his rapier and drew twin pistols from his belt.

“Luke, wind magic, wind spirits.  Dimplecheeks doesn’t usually use casters as an overlord, but he’ll stick to old habits.  He’ll have teleportation.  Mars, circle around, poke at her from range.  Go!”

They charged into the clearing.  The hag, Dimplecheeks, summoned two Über demons as they breached the threshold, then teleported to the far end of the room.  Luke’s shaman was already setting down wind spirits who were spewing forth miniature tornadoes, casting out gusts of wind that would accelerate his team and slow down or push their enemies.

“Enemy team just turned around,” Jess reported.  “They’re backtracking for the portal.  They’re going to invade en-masse.”

“Fuck,” Noelle said. Her mind was racing, covering a dozen factors at once – positioning her Challenger to best benefit her allies in the fight, avoiding the hag’s spells, calculating the damage her team was doing, keeping track of her items, and those of her team.  “How many rooms?”

“They were one room past portal, they’ll be entering around now.”

Ten seconds at best.  “We can’t kill her before they show.”

“Want me to send troops?”  Jess asked.

“No.  Fortify your dungeon.  If they take us out, you hold them off.”

“You know my boss monster isn’t that strong.  They’re only three rooms from fighting it.”

Hold them off,” Noelle said.

Sure enough, the enemy appeared at the entryway of the boss room.  Her team was hurt from the fight with the hag, and the enemy team hadn’t ventured far enough in to burn all of their resources.

Dying was inevitable.  That didn’t mean that their efforts were futile.  She had to slow them down-  She challenged the enemy’s Chronomancer to a one-on-one duel, consequently shrugged off the vast majority of the damage the remainder of the enemy inflicted, and charged to close the distance to strike the mage down in three blows.

She challenged the hag the second her target was down, landed two good hits, dropping their target to a third of her total health.

Then Cody fell, with Luke falling shortly after.

Noelle managed to use her own body to absorb the worst of the enemy attacks while Marissa ‘kited’ across the area’s perimeter, maintaining a consistent distance as she fired arrows at them.

Caught between the approaching enemy and a cloud of poison fog the hag had cast, Mars chose to rush through the latter.  Her health dropped to zero and she collapsed.

“Fuck!  Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Cody was shouting.  He kicked something.

It was as though Cody’s tantrum were happening in a very distant place.  Noelle’s focus was entirely on slowing the enemy down.  She challenged the enemy’s barbarian, because he did the lowest damage and everyone she didn’t challenge would do less damage to her.  She took a swig of the potion she still had in her inventory from the start of the game.  It wouldn’t restore even five percent of her health, but there was a dim possibility that it would force the enemy to land just one more attack.  Take a half second, or invest a few magic points into an ability to catch her.  Magic points they couldn’t use to take Jess on.

The three remaining enemy heroes bum-rushed her, cutting off her fighting retreat and forcing her into one location.  The hag landed a toxin-bomb on her, and her health disappeared in an instant.  The screen turned to shades of crimson and black, and a timer appeared in the dead center.

Forty five seconds to respawn.  The enemy players were surrounded in flares of light.  Level ups.  It would make up for the expense of passing through the portal.  It had been a good maneuver, perfectly timed, so they could disengage from Jess’ own forces and backtrack through her dungeon.

“Fuck!” Cody shouted.

Cody would take thirty seconds to respawn.  Thirty to forty-five seconds before they spawned at the checkpoint…

No, the enemy’s bandit was backtracking through the dungeon.  Hacking away at the checkpoint flag.

Now twenty to thirty-five seconds before they spawned at the dungeon entrance.

She watched the clock count down, bought new items, continued to watch the clock.

Cody respawned.

“Go!” she shouted.

Luke appeared soon after.  So did the enemy Chronomancer, in Jess’ checkpoint room.  The enemy was on the second to last room, dispatching goblin grenadiers and goblin gunners, fighting their way past the trenches Jess had laid down.

They defeated the last of the monsters.  The blood gate was satisfied and opened, giving them free rein to fight Jess’ end boss, an ogre king.

The boss Dimplecheeks had put in the checkpoint room, halfway through his dungeon, was just as tough and more dangerous.

Mars and Noelle respawned, and they charged through the dungeon.

Jess had half her health remaining, the hag had one-third, but there were four enemies in Jess’ boss room and Cody hadn’t even reached the hag.

By the time Cody and Luke were in the hag’s room, it was thirty-twenty five in the enemy’s favor.  The ogre king was tough, but slow, easy to hit.  The enemy delivered damage steadily, while Luke and Cody were forced to adapt as the more fragile hag teleported to inconvenient spots, costing them precious seconds each time.

Noelle and Mars joined the fray.

When the fighting stopped and the screen went dark, Noelle wasn’t entirely sure if they’d won or lost.

Letters in gold script flashed across the screen.  ‘Victory!’

The others were out of their chairs, cheering.  She joined them.  They hugged.  She turned, saw Krouse perched on the desk in the center of the room beside Chris and Oliver.  He was smiling.

Noelle hugged him, and for once she was able to forget all her doubts and insecurities, all her issues, the way even physical contact would leave her with a pit in her stomach.  She hugged him tight, and it was good.  It felt right.

“We’re going to nationals!” Cody whooped.

“That was you,” Krouse whispered to her.  “You made the difference.  You won.”

Her breath was too hot as it passed through her lips.  The exertion, this body mass, it made her feel feverish.  Worse than feverish.  She felt like she had when she’d been camping as a child, standing too close to the fire, seeing how long she could endure it.

Only it was all over, inside her.  A prickling, almost unbearable heat.

I know why you showed me that, she thought. She looked at Trickster; he adjusted his hat, swapped Sundancer with one of the flying capes.  The sun fizzled out as she landed.  One threat out of commission.  Ballistic and the other cape he’d arrived with were down as well.

She tried to read Trickster’s body language.  Back straight, walking with confidence.  He’d hesitated when she’d asked for his help.  Now there wasn’t a trace of doubt.

She’d admired that about him, had been jealous of it.  The confidence.  The sense of pride.

But the memory that had flashed across her consciousness, almost more vivid than reality, the emotions very real as she recalled them, it hadn’t served the intended purpose.

You can’t convince me that way, she thought.  This victory and that one don’t even compare.

There wasn’t a reply, of course.

“Bitch!  Run!” Regent hollered. “Go to Tattletale!”

Only his head, shoulders and one arm were free of Noelle’s grip.  She tugged and pulled him in faster.  He put his free arm inside her flesh, found something more or less solid and managed to push back enough to avoid having his head pulled in.

Trickster and Noelle wheeled around.  Bitch, the girl with the dogs, was the last Undersider here.  Trickster couldn’t find an angle to swap the girl with anyone else.  The boy in the armor would be too large, and Trickster’s field of vision didn’t allow for him to get his eyes on her and someone more appropriate.

Noelle tagged several of the bodies in her internal stomachs, felt flesh constrict tight against them, felt the pre-prepared nuggets of flesh in her gullet forming into close replicas in an instant.  Timing was crucial; if she spat them out too soon, they’d be malformed, missing limbs or features.  Too late, and there was extra material.

She retched, sending them flying in the direction of the girl with the dogs.  Bodies for Trickster to use.

But the boy with the armor was already moving.  He slammed one hand into the ground, and a cloud of debris and dust masked him and Bitch.

She couldn’t wholly control the vomit, lost one of the powered ones.  Not one of the Undersiders, she was relieved to note.  It had been the big one, who’d been with the tinker.  He’d called himself Über.  She didn’t try to reclaim him.  He was more or less useless.  The loss still pained her.  Better to have him than one of the unpowered ones.

Her vomit caught Genesis, who was presently a charging bull with a jellyfish-like tentacles trailing behind her.  The vomit blinded Genesis, and Noelle struck her hard enough to kill.  The body collapsed and started disintegrating.

“Hey,” Regent said.  “Monster girl.”

Noelle snarled as she glanced down at the boy who was stuck inside one of her legs.  Only his face was left to be consumed.  Her voice was hoarse with emotion as she asked, “What?”

“When you make my clone, do you think you could give him a goatee?”

Noelle didn’t dignify the question with a response.  She flexed and drew Regent completely within her body.  She’d hurt him later.  For now, she needed him to help her escape so she could hunt down his friends.

She ran.  The simple act of moving flooded her body with endorphins and adrenaline.  It felt good, made her feel strong.  That was another avenue of attack, as her body tried to work its manipulations on her mind.  The hunger, the heightened emotions, rewarding her with pleasant memories and good feelings when she operated in sync with it.

It was a matter of weeks, days or hours before she lost enough ground that she was the one trying to manipulate her body into doing what she wanted, with it calling all the shots.  If the process continued, she would eventually be subsumed entirely, unable to do anything but observe, and maybe not even that.

The pavement had been cracked like a sheet of glass, and the footing was unsteady, but the mass of her body was crushing fragments underfoot, and she had four good legs, with five more for further support.  Falling wasn’t a concern.

Noelle passed through the cloud of dust that the one in armor had sent flying into the air.  She saw the armored tinker punching the ground once more, leaped to clear the ground that suddenly plunged into a pit in front of her.  She picked out a selection from those within her and, with her rightmost head, sent a stream of bodies at him.  He punched the ground with his other hand, and pavement tilted upward in a makeshift barrier, blocking the worst of the stream and flying bodies.

The ones who did land in his vicinity were on him in moments.  One was the little space-warper, another was a copy of the firebreathing acrobat with the rich smell, and three were copies of the unpowered people she’d absorbed.  They mobbed the armored tinker.

She hadn’t included the Undersiders in that stream.  Until they were more fully absorbed, there was a good chance that she’d spit them out if she tried to copy them.  Using any one person too frequently carried the same risks, and she suspected that it would be more difficult now that she was so full.

The girl in silver armor, with white flowing clothes was dashing toward her from the other side, not any slower for the shattered ground underfoot.  Noelle picked out unpowered individuals she could afford to lose, closed her muscles tight around them, and spat out the partially formed nuggets along with a mess of the internal fluids.

The girl ducked low, landing on a fragment of road, using her forward momentum to skid toward Noelle as though she were snowboarding.  There was an explosion of debris as she kicked off the ground, and the girl soared toward Noelle, twisting in the air to land a kick with that same foot.

It felt like getting hit by a cannon.  Noelle’s stride broke and she had to plant one foot to the side to keep from falling over.

She’d lost ground, and Bitch was swiftly increasing the distance between them.

Noelle hesitated, then decided to let the girl go for the time being.  Better to defend herself, establish a better position.  While stationary, she could spit up an Undersider, swallow them back up again.  She’d read up on them, had talked to Trickster about them.  She had a good sense of what they were capable of.

But which one?  She had three.  Regent might work against this girl in white, but his influence would be too minor in the big picture.  His smell was weakest of the three.

Not that it was really a smell… but she was peculiarly aware of the people with powers, active or otherwise.  Each had a texture and a tone and a flavor, something she felt like she could come to understand.  She might have said it was taste, might have compared it to when she’d tried wine that one time and tried to see what the wine aficionados looked for when they sampled a vintage.  Except the word ‘smell’ worked better, because smell and taste were really very similar and smell worked over distances.

There was a difference in Skitter, Grue’s and Eidolon’s smells, along with a handful of the other visiting capes.  A smell that set them apart from the other parahumans in the same way that the other parahumans were set apart from the people who could have powers but didn’t.  An intensity.

She wished she’d spent more time researching the powers.  She hadn’t been able to bring herself to, had wanted only to distract herself from the thoughts of what was happening to her.

Which one to use?  Skitter was more dangerous in a general sense, but she wouldn’t stop the girl in white now.  That left Grue.

She didn’t spit, but simply contracted and let the body spill forth.  Sure enough, the real Grue tumbled out, prostrate, unable to move.  A tongue snaked out of her center-mouth and caught him before he could try to escape.  She’d swallowed him by the time her Grue was on its feet.

Noelle only had a glimpse of her Grue’s real form before he started cloaking himself in darkness.  He was muscular, broad-shouldered, his long hair slicked to his head by the fluids of the vomit.  Angry red ulcers studded his dark skin at set intervals.

He cast a glance over his shoulder at her as the darkness crept up over his shoulders and the back of his head.  His eyes were black from corner to corner, his teeth too large, misshapen much like his fingernails were, tangled together to the point that he couldn’t open his mouth.  It forced him into a perpetual grimace with his teeth bared.

He turned his back to her as the darkness covered his face, squared his shoulders.  The body language was clear.  He was protecting her.

He’s one of the useful ones, then.  Her copies of the little space warper had been like that.  Naturally inclined toward teamwork, disciplined.  The other three were more likely to run off.  They were still useful, but they did things in their own way.

Spheres of darkness appeared in her Grue’s hands.  One after the other, he hurled them at the girl in white.  The first missed, and the second seemed like it might do the same, until it arced in the air to strike her from the side.

The darkness was more like gum than smoke, and she struggled.  Noelle’s Grue closed the distance, moving over the surface of the road much as the girl in white had.

Then Noelle saw why and how.  A thread of darkness, barely thicker than a finger, extended from the sticky darkness to her Grue.  That would be how he’d moved the projectile in the air, and how he was absorbing her power.

The boy in armor created a fissure that spat debris into the air as it parted, aiming to separate the Grue and the girl in white.  By intent or accident, he cut the thread of darkness in the process.  Noelle’s Grue stopped, turned to face the tinker and created more spheres in his hands.

Those two were occupied.  Noelle turned to see Trickster dealing with the flying heroes.  Two were on the ground, prone.  That would be the result of Trickster baiting them into shooting one another.  The remaining hero had a weapon in hand but wasn’t shooting.

Eidolon was there too. His smell was interesting.  Complicated, but somehow off.  If he was using any particular method of attack on Trickster, then Noelle couldn’t see it.

Trickster disappeared from the skirmish with the flying heroes, putting one of her creations in his place.

She sniffed him out.  He was in the midst of the one batch of bodies that had piled up against the tinker’s makeshift wall.  They were turning on him, grabbing for his arms and legs.  He teleported to keep them from getting any serious leverage, but the escape was slow.

“Leave him!” she ordered, and her voice came out with surprising volume.

They didn’t listen.  They struck him, gripped his costume and dragged him to the ground.

Trickster shouted in alarm as he was submerged in the mass of clones.

Noelle advanced on her creations in as threatening a manner as she could, the ground shaking with her advance.  They noticed and backed away.

Trickster, for his part, didn’t even flinch as she closed the distance between the two of them, stepping within a few feet of him.

It would be all too easy to just snap her tongue at him.  Catch him, swallow him.

She held off.  Instead, she faced Eidolon and the other flying cape.

Trickster adjusted his hat and did the same.  The two of them against the world.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” she said.

Krouse folded his arms.  ”You can’t blame me at least a little?”

“No,” Noelle said, shaking her head.  If I could only explain, I would…  She could feel her throat seize up.  Worrying that her voice might crack if she spoke at the normal volume, she lowered her voice to a hush as she said, “You’ve been great.”

He spread his arms, “I don’t get it.  I thought we were doing fine.”

Doing fine?  How many hours had she spent lying awake in bed, agonizing over this relationship?  Hating herself?

She’d relapsed because of it, and recovering was proving to be a long, hard road.

“We aren’t!” Noelle said, “This is… it’s not working.”

“I’m okay with it.  I enjoy spending time with you, and I didn’t get any impression you were having that bad of a time, either.”

“But we don’t- we aren’t-”  She stared down at her feet.  ”We’re stalled.  It isn’t fair to you.”

That’s what you’re worried about?”

Only part of it.

“Don’t dismiss my concerns,” she said, and the anger in her own words surprised her.

“No’, it’s fine.  It’s cool.  I get that there’s stuff you’ve got going on that you don’t want to tell me about,” Krouse said.

Her breath caught in her throat at that.  Had Marissa told him?  Or had he figured it out?  It wasn’t like she hadn’t left signs.

He continued without a pause, “…I can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but I’m not an idiot. And I’m not going to twist your arm to get you to share, either.  That’s your stuff, and I figure you’ll tell me in time.  Or you won’t.”

“It’s not fair to you.”  Noelle knew she was repeating herself, but it was the only argument she could make.  All of the others would involve discussing other topics, her issues.

And she couldn’t bring herself to do that.  Marissa knew, would keep quiet because she got it.  Marissa knew, wouldn’t bring it up, would back her up when needed.

Noelle loved Krouse, but she knew he wasn’t so graceful.  It would become something jarring, intruding on their everyday interactions.

“I’m not saying things have to be equitable or balanced or fair or any of that.  So who cares if things aren’t fair?”  Krouse asked.

“Don’t do that!”

She could see his expression change to bewilderment at her reaction.  He spread his arms, as if he were asking a question without opening his mouth.  I’m being irrational… but that’s the disease at work.

It took her a long time to find the words.

“Someone said, a little while ago,” Noelle spoke without looking at Krouse, “That I can’t really forge a good relationship with others until I have a good relationship with myself.

“You don’t?”  He asked.  I think you’re fantastic, if that counts for anything.”

The words stung, nettled her, as if they personified his lack of understanding.  She said as much, “You don’t know me.”

“I’ve been getting to know you some.  And I have yet to see anything that’s going to scare me away.”

She couldn’t keep going down this road, couldn’t have an argument, or she’d let something slip.  She stared at her feet.  ”…I don’t think we should date.”

“Okay.  If you think that’s for the best.  But I just need you to do one thing.  Look me in the eye as you tell me that.”

Noelle glanced up at him, then looked back down.  She tried to find the words, but both brain and mouth failed her.

“Because,” he went on, “I think you’ve seemed happier than I’ve ever seen you since we started going out.  Marissa said so, too.”

It’s… it’s a bad time for me, she thought, as if voicing the words in her head would let her utter them out loud.  The wrong moment.  Any earlier or later in my recovery…

He continued, “If you really feel like us dating is making things worse in the long run, then I’m perfectly okay with breaking it off.  I can leave the club if that makes things easier on your end.  It was your thing before it was mine, and you’ve got enough on your plate with being team captain.”

“I don’t want you to leave the club,” she said, meaning it.

“Okay,” he said.  He paused very deliberately.  She didn’t take the invitation to speak.

He sighed, ”Listen, I get the feeling today is a bad day.  Don’t know why it is, but it is.  And that happens.  Fine.  But I’m not willing to end this if it’s because the stars aligned wrong.  So I’m asking you to tell me that you’re worse off because we’re together.  Not asking for an explanation, just-”

Can’t do this.  Can’t break it off.  Not when he’s being this good about it.  Not when it’s making the both of us this miserable. 

“Never mind,” she said, abrupt.  I’ll find another way.

“Never mind?”

“I’m- just never mind.  Can we forget this conversation happened?”

“Sure,” he said.

Her feelings were a chaotic storm.  Relief, quiet joy, fear, misery, self loathing, panic…

I’m not well, she thought.

”Want me to walk you home?”  His voice was gentle.

She nodded mutely, unable to find the words to speak.  A simple five word confession would simultaneously explain everything and spoil the tone of their relationship.  She knew it, knew she was being irrational, that her recent relapse was making her that way, was making her nasty and emotional and unpredictable.

How could he not notice?  The way she picked at her food, the way Marissa got on her case about eating?  The countless other clues?  Yes, she’d been in recovery for much of the time they’d known each other, but… hadn’t he been paying attention?

She simultaneously loved and hated him, in that moment.  He was the best thing in the world for her, and the worst thing in the world for her, both at the same time.

And it wasn’t fair to him, putting that on his shoulders.

She was fighting with Eidolon.  The realization startled her.  She’d been adrift in vivid memories, and she’d lost time.

She sniffed, for lack of a better word, and found Skitter prone on the ground.  Her tongue snatched the girl up, and she swallowed the girl anew.  The taste and smell were right.  Good.

That spooked her.  Her body wasn’t making good decisions when it was on autopilot.  Or, at least, it wasn’t making decisions she’d accept.  Almost losing an Undersider?  No.

She double checked.  Skitter, Grue, Regent and the little space warper were safely ensconced inside her, each tucked away in neat little wombs, unconscious and helpless and safe from the ongoing fighting.

Why did you show me that?  Why was that so important?

There was no reply.  Never a reply.

Eidolon reached out with one hand, and she instinctively rushed out of the way.

The gravity effect hit her, and she could feel her flesh tearing, feel the extremities ripping: her ears, nose, lips and all the little pieces of her monstrous lower half.  At her shoulders, the top of her head, the flesh above her spine on her lower half, the flesh was pulled down and away until it started to rip.

Eidolon fell out of the air, hitting the ground hard.

Noelle turned her head, saw Regent.  Her Regent.  He was only half-formed, one arm missing, the features of his face more like a fetus than a teenage boy.

She smiled.  Maybe her other half had made some good decisions.

Her flesh was already knitting back together, everything shuffling into their proper places or shifting around to fill in gaps.  The fluid that welled from a bottomless source in her monstrous lower half bubbled up and coursed through her veins to supply the needed materials.

The girl in white hit her again, striking the joint of one outstretched limb.  Noelle swiped at the girl in mid-air with her other forelimb, came within inches of making contact.

The ground underfoot shattered.  Noelle leaped before the tinker could repeat the effect and sink her into another sand trap.

There was another explosion from beneath her.  She leaped to avoid the worst of that one.  She vomited in the direction of the tinker, but he was anticipating the attack.  He provoked an eruption of rock shards and dust midway between them.  The bulk of the flying bodies and fluids were knocked off course by the plume of debris.  With a third strike he raised a barrier around himself.  Two of the three bodies that hadn’t been stopped by the debris were caught on the shards of pavement.  One suffered a broken back, the other hit the edge of a fragment with enough force that his stomach was ripped open.

The third flew over the barrier.  The tinker caught it with a punch, and the piledriver in his gauntlet extended twice in an instant, punching two neat holes through the upper body.

He didn’t even wait for the body to hit the ground before striking and creating another fissure that extended beneath the barrier and beneath her.  She leaped out of the way before it opened wide enough to catch her or one of her feet.

It was bad timing.  She had been distracted by the recent vision.  Eidolon hit her square-on with another gravity attack.  Her flesh was savaged and split, she was almost immobilized under the force of it.  If the tinker used his power now-

Trickster broke Eidolon’s contact with the gravity field by teleporting him.  The hero reacted in an instant, releasing a half-dozen blue sparks from each hand.  They grew until they were each three feet across, crackling with electricity, moving at a walking pace as they slowly homed in on Trickster.

He had to teleport to avoid the closest one.  Only some of the orbs followed him to his new destination, the others remaining where they were.

Noelle opened fire on the tinker, two streams of vomit, each directed to one side of him.

She considered vomiting on the electric orbs, then thought twice about it.

Trickster teleported again, trying to maintain distance, but Eidolon had created more of the sparks, and the things were spreading out evenly across the battlefield, moving closer to Trickster if he got within ten paces of them.

It threatened to hamper her own movements too, Noelle noted.

Eidolon raised a hand in Trickster’s direction, and Trickster was quick to teleport away.  The gravity slam hit one of Noelle’s creations instead.  Trickster wound up within two paces of one orb, and had to scramble back before it touched him.

Noelle looked at him, remembered the scene from the most recent memory.  In this moment, with so many other people to be angry at, so many others to hate, she didn’t feel that bottomless resentment for Trickster that she’d experienced ever since the transformations started.

It wasn’t you, she thought.  I keep saying it was your fault.  It wasn’t.

She was already moving towards him as the thought came to her.

I blamed you for giving me the elixir.  The potion.  Whatever you call it.  But it was me.  I heard you guys talking about how the people who drank the stuff were supposed to get tested for psychiatric issues.  I didn’t tell you the Simurgh showed me visions of my worst days, of my relapses, my lowest points.  That she drove me into a state where I was reluctant to take the full dose, eager for a compromise.

She started running.

I knew all this, and if I’d only had the courage to say it, maybe this all would have gone a different way.

Oh, the irony, that this was what she’d become.

She crashed into the first of the lightning orbs.  She felt the current surge inside her, settle in her bones, latent.

A heartbeat later, every single orb that Eidolon had cast out flashed with visible arcs of electricity, striking her.  The energy ripped through her, stripping flesh from around the bone of her arm, her ribs, her spine, and the larger bones of her lower body.  The electricity surged to the ground and out the top of her head, stabbing toward the sky in a visible lightning strike.

Noelle staggered, touched one hand to her face, where her flesh had been distorted by the strike, separated from bone so it hung down, large patches of hair at the crown of her head burned away. The ends of her fingers where she’d touched the orb were blasted away, revealing bone.

She could feel it growing back, flesh knitting together.

Even this wasn’t enough to kill her.

She touched another, and it was worse, drawing on the residual energy from the first contact.

The third was worse still.

She’d complained of the sheer heat of this body before, but this… it was heat and pain on an inhuman level.  Transcendant.  Were she regular Noelle, Noelle without the powers, without the monstrous lower half and warped brain, even a tenth of this would knock her out, stop her heart from the sheer intensity of it.

On contact with the fourth orb, her frontmost legs collapsed under her, with everything within a half-foot of the major bones being rendered to little more than ash.  There was nothing to connect flesh to bone, and she toppled.

She roared, and for perhaps the second time in the past hour, both she and her monstrous half were in agreement.  With her other legs, she pushed herself forward, and extended one of her long tongues for the orb closest to Trickster.  To Krouse.  She screamed in pain and fury as it ripped through her, and another bolt stabbed toward the sky.

Too much damage, too fast.  She wasn’t healing fast enough.

A series of lightning strikes nearby marked the deaths of some of her clones.

Eidolon was there, too, at the end of the street.  The glow beneath his hood and sleeves was almost blue in the reflected luminescence of the twenty or thirty orbs that hovered around him.  A further twenty or thirty orbs were spread out over their immediate surroundings.

The others… the tinker had created short walls of stone to shield himself and the girl in white.  The rest of the battlefield consisted of bodies and other fallen.

Eidolon spoke into his wrist.  Noelle realized that there were other capes nearby when they each came to a stop, resting on rooftops and behind cover a few blocks away.

Short of Eidolon, there was nobody for Trickster to swap himself with.  And given that Eidolon had so many orbs in his immediate vicinity… no, Trickster swapping himself for Eidolon wasn’t an option.

Her other half hated him, and she was realizing just how much her monstrous body had been influencing her without her knowledge, now that her emotions were all pointed at this one individual, this one target.  It left her feelings towards everyone else at an almost normal level.  Her feelings for Krouse, her hatred of the Undersiders, her anger at Coil, each had been twisted, magnified, warped.

“If he does another gravity attack, I’m kind of dead,” Trickster said.

“He won’t,” Noelle rasped,  “He’d knock those orbs out of the air, and he’s counting on them to destroy me.  They probably will.”

As some of her tendons and ligaments knit together, she got two legs under her and positioned herself as close to Trickster as she could without touching him, shielding him from the orbs that were approaching at a crawling pace.

“I’m sorry,” Trickster said.

Noelle couldn’t bring herself to reply.  She wanted to say she was sorry too, that his apology was unnecessary, but a kind of indignant rage was rising deep within her, threatening to overwhelm her.  All of it was directed at Eidolon.

And in the midst of that rage, she felt a killing instinct she hadn’t experienced before.  Even coming this far, she’d never wanted to kill.  She’d wanted the Undersiders dead, yes, she’d tried to kill people, but a part of her had always held back from wanting to kill, from wishing to carry out the act of murder herself.

To execute this man who sought to end her existence.

It wasn’t her desire, not really.  It was her body’s.

“You want to kill?” she asked.  “You really think you can fight your way through this?”

“What?” Trickster asked.  “What are you talking about?”

Not talking to you, she thought.  “I have two conditions.  Don’t harm Trickster, and make it a nice memory this time.”

Then she let her defenses down.  Her other self took over, and it wasn’t her memory that she experienced.

Some of the others departed early.  Others were readied to depart soon after arrival.  Still others, this one included, were to wait.

They were one, they were all.  A collective, a single entity, a trillion times a trillion entities.  Each with a function in the whole, each with a role in the cycles, each with an individual identity.

As one, they traveled.  The distance was immeasurable, the passage of time impossible to convey.  There was no standard, for there were realms they had traveled where time and space operated on different levels.

For all, their own kind was the only standard, the only thing that remained relatively static through the cycles.  When they met their own kind they shared with each other.  When a new cycle was carried out, everything of the parent was borne by their spawn.

And the collective moved toward their destination.  They operated as a whole to decipher it, to pick apart the permutations, see the futures and the possibilities.

But for this one entity, which existed as part of the whole, there was a target within that destination.  When it came time for this one to depart, it would seek out a particular individual, and it would bond with that individual.  This one would fragment itself if others met the criteria; if there was time and opportunity enough then it would move to better candidates, younger or more able ones with a greater ability to affect the cycle.  This one would wait until the time was right, and then it would activate, come into the identity and role that had been ingrained into its being.

All to serve this cycle.

With the help of the collective, this one could see its objective.  A single living being.  This one encoded that being, the time and place in its very makeup.  It would be ready.

Noelle’s eyes went wide.

It wasn’t me.

Whatever her body was, the intelligence and purpose that lurked inside her other half, whatever these powers were.  It had all gone to the wrong person.

Gone to the wrong person, askew from the beginning, then twisted further by her own psychological issues, messed up by the fact that she’d only taken half a dose.

The realization and the confusion that came with the vision were compounded as she stared at her surroundings.

Her minions surrounded her: two copies of Trickster; a skinny girl with long dark hair, covering herself with her arms and a carpeting of rodents, Skitter;  a Grue; a Regent; two blondes who would be copies of the girl in white; four of the civilians, and one she didn’t recognize as any of the civilians she’d absorbed.  The tinker.  Eight of them in all.

Her flesh was knitting together.  Wounds as bad as the ones before, and worse ones.  Eidolon had apparently wanted to spare her captives, because the electricity had only affected her, her flesh as it surrounded her bones.  He had selected that power with their safety in mind.

And there he was, in front of her.  Eidolon, on his knees, covered in bile and blood.

“Why?” he asked, in an eerie, distorted voice.

You want to know why I did this?  Where would I start?  Why would I even tell you, when you tried to kill me, kill Trickster?

She was breathing too hard to respond, even with her nearly bottomless stamina.

“Why isn’t it working?”  He asked.

“I…” she had to stop for breath, “I don’t care.  Whatever it is.”

“I was supposed to get stronger, and there’s nothing.  Nothing at all to reach for.”

She turned, saw Trickster on his hands and knees, covered in the fluids of her vomit.

You weren’t supposed to hurt him.

You were supposed to give me a nice vision, for that matter, she thought.

“Why?” Eidolon asked.

“I don’t care,” she said, again.  She took a deep breath before speaking again, though there was little point, when it was this entire body that was so drained.  “I… it’s your choice.  We continue this fight, and my creatures run, they do whatever damage they can, and it’s weeks before you find every last one… or you let me go.”

Eidolon struggled to his feet.  “Let you go?”

“Three Undersiders down.  Three to go.  Then I give myself up.  Deal stands.”

“What’s to say you keep that promise?”

“Nothing.  But you don’t have another choice, do you?”

Eidolon didn’t respond.

“I’ll even let you call in reinforcements,” she offered.

“Your knight in shining armor took it,” Eidolon spoke.  “The wristband I use for communications.”

Noelle turned to Trickster, and he extended one hand, holding out one of the wristband displays.  Noelle took it.

Her Skitter was watching, looking concerned.

“Don’t fucking look at me,” Noelle spat the words at her minion.

Her Skitter turned her eyes to the ground.

“Trickster said you thrived on this kind of impossible fight.  Prove it.  Or die horribly.  I don’t care.”

Her Skitter looked up and smiled, lopsided.  Half the girl’s face was paralyzed, Noelle realized.  She wondered if the real Skitter had spaces between each of her teeth like that, or the gnarled twist of a nose.

Noelle turned back to Eidolon, waited for his decision.

“Okay,” he intoned.  She gave him a curt nod.

Tentatively, Eidolon slid the armband into place and pressed a button.  “Requesting reinforcements to my location.  In bad shape, need to mop up some clones.”

Her Regent said something she couldn’t make out.  He talked as though his tongue was too large for his mouth.  He had more muscle than fit on his frame, stretching his skin almost comically tight.  It was easy to believe the problem extended to the inside of his mouth.

“And they let me pass uncontested,” she said.

He spoke into the armband again.  “Do not engage target Echidna.”

Understood,”  a woman’s voice came from the armband.

“Echidna?” Noelle asked.

“One of the PRT members coined it,” Eidolon said.  He was eyeing her minions warily.  “Said he had a three year old girl called Noelle, didn’t want to associate her with something like you.”

“What was his last name?”

Eidolon gave her a wary look.  “Meinhardt.”

“Okay,” Noelle said.

Then she turned to run, leaving Trickster behind.

Her nose led her to the remaining Undersiders.

Back home, insofar as she had one.  The same place where she’d been kept contained for weeks.  Coil’s headquarters.

Surfacing from her dream, she’d temporarily supplanted the killer instinct that was demanding Eidolon’s head.  Now that she was closer, her thoughts were afire with thoughts of revenge, and that killer instinct was welling up again.  The idea that she’d maybe had the chance to get back to normal, that her friends had maybe been close to going home, and the Undersiders had taken all that away, it made her want to scream.  To inflict punishments worse than death on them.

Her vision from before lingered.  The entity.  The thing that was taking her over, that had made her a monster, it had an identity, now.  She wouldn’t say it had a face, but it was no longer a vague malevolent force, now.

Part of her felt sympathetic for it, because this thing that shared her body had been wronged by some nebulous circumstance.  In that, at least, they were kindred.

Another part of her was just bewildered.  The memory it had shared with her was so vast, it changed everything, had left her feeling like her problems here were so small, so miniscule.  Even this, this fight, her revenge, in a way it felt artificial, false.

It’s not my world, she thought.  It’s almost like a game.  Killing characters in some false, barbaric setting.

If she felt like she was more in sync with it, now, did that mean she’d lost ground in her perpetual war with the entity, her other half?  So much ground lost, so fast, in the heat of this battle?

She shook her head.  Focus.

The tunnels that Coil had used to move his trucks in and out of the base had been collapsed, and it had been recent.  She could smell the smoke from the explosives.  She spat out a Vista, then another, and another, until she had one that could give her a way in, shrinking the rubble and expanding the corridor.

In her restlessness, unable to shake the idea that her sanity was slipping away moment by moment, she pushed her way through the last length of the rubble, absorbing it into herself and spitting it out behind her, moving through it as though she were a thick fluid; even her bones dissolved when needed.  The only thing that slowed her down were the capes she’d stored within herself.  Each of the three Undersiders, the tinker, and the girl in white.  She used her strength to wedge gaps sufficient to squeeze the individual organs through.

She brute-forced her way through the last few feet of the barrier, and paced her way into the interior, the ground shaking with her footfalls.  The vault door was still open, crumpled, and the entire interior was lit only by red emergency lights.

Tattletale was on the metal walkway, hands gripping the railing.  Bitch was on the ground, with no less than seven dogs around her, each of varying size.

Noelle could smell the Protectorate and Wards members moving towards her location.  She was put in mind of the memory her entity had granted her only a little while ago, of the night her team had passed the qualifiers for nationals.  She’d passed the point of no return, and now the enemy forces were collapsing in on her.

She smiled a little.  She would almost thank Tattletale for this, if she wasn’t so eager to rend the girl limb from limb, to wipe the smile from her face and hear her screams.  All that aside, Noelle hadn’t felt more like herself in a long time, and she had these circumstances to thank.

The difference between this scenario and that one, really, was that the reinforcements were minutes away.  This fight wouldn’t last that long.

“Well then,” Tattletale grinned.  Her tightening grip on the railing betrayed the emotion she was trying to hide.  “Come on.  Do your worst.”

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Queen 18.8

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I signalled Bitch to stop so I could communicate with the others.

“I fucked up,” I said.

“What?”  Grue asked.  “How?”

“She’s been absorbing my bugs.  She’s spitting out some, and I can’t control them.  They’re methodically destroying my swarm, and they’re hunting down people and attacking them.”

“She probably absorbed some before she even ran into us,” Tattletale said.  “And she just needs one of a given type to make copies.  I wouldn’t blame yourself.”

“Did she absorb hornets, black widows, brown recluses?”

“Maybe not,” Tattletale admitted.

“Okay,” I said.  “Because there’s homicidal hornets and spiders out there now.  Because of my fuck-up.”

“Don’t focus on the mistake,” Grue said, “Let’s focus on making up for it.”

I took a deep breath.  “Okay.  Bitch and I will be going ahead to deal with some unpowered clones.  I’ll be in touch through the swarm.  You guys keep moving forward, and I’ll signal you about any clones that Eidolon or my bugs aren’t able to take down.”

“Eidolon’s gone quiet,” Tattletale said.  “He might be changing powers, chasing at a distance to safely keep track of her while he adjusts.”

“I’ll try to signal him,” I said.  “Let him know we’re here, and that we’re engaging Noelle if and when we’ve managed the clones and we see an opportunity.”

“Hopefully he doesn’t accidentally wipe us off the face of the planet,” Regent joked.

“Hopefully,” I echoed him, except I wasn’t joking.

“Then I’ll suggest that this can be where we part ways,” Tattletale said.  “I’ll take Imp, I can do more good with a phone and computer, and she’s no good to anyone right now.”

I nodded.  I helped Imp climb down to the others.

“Good luck.”

Bitch whistled, and Bentley sprang into motion once more.

The people inside the building lobby were only now starting to recover from whatever Noelle’s power had done to them.  Their clones hadn’t suffered any such drawbacks, though, and the abuse that had been heaped on the victims was more than making up for their recovery speed.  They were helpless.

None of the victims were standing.  I reached forward, putting one hand on the chain that Rachel was using to keep Bastard close.

She looked back at me.

“Clothesline!” I raised my voice to be heard over the rushing wind.

Rachel let some chain out and caught it under her left foot, forcing it lower.  She managed to hook it on one of the growths of bone of Bentley’s ribcage.

We stampeded into the building lobby, through the hole Noelle had made, and Bitch whistled, flicking the chain as Bentley and Bastard passed through the space.

“Left!” she shouted, while steering Bentley right.

The chain was just low enough to catch the standing and crouching clones.  The clones were caught by either the chain or by the bodies of their fellow clones, pulled back en-masse, drawn together into a tangle of bodies and distorted body parts.  I moved my bugs through their midst to ensure they were all mutants.  There was only one innocent who’d been dragged long with them.  His clone had a grip on his clothing, and hadn’t let go when the chain had caught it.

“Getting down,” I said, sliding off the dog’s back.  I hurried to the mass of clones before they could get themselves in order, drew my knife and slashed the hand that gripped the one innocent.  I managed to pull him free without any of the clones hitting or grabbing me.

I was left coughing by the exertion and the pain in my side.  Bitch steered Bentley to put his bulk between me and the clones.

“I got ’em,” she said.

“I’ll handle the others,” I told her.

“Right,” she grunted the word. “Bastard, hurt ’em!  Bentley, kill!  Kill!”

The canines threw themselves into the mass of clones the chain had caught.

There were three clones in the remaining group.  One continued thrashing her alter-ego, while the other two stood to face me.  I held my knife in one hand, drew my baton with the other and flicked it out to its full length.  Not nearly as threatening as either of the canines, but I’d make do.

It was odd that Rachel was having Bastard hold back, being limited only to a ‘hurt’ command.  Come to think of it, she’d had Bentley do the killing when fighting the Vista-clone, too.

My rib throbbed even now, just from riding Bentley and hauling the one victim out of the mass.  I was left breathing hard, though the exertion had been mild.  My stamina wasn’t a tenth of what it might otherwise be, to the point that I was worried I might get dizzy, start coughing or wind up too tired to fight if it came down to a straight hand-to-hand brawl.

I couldn’t afford to take it easy, though.  Where I might otherwise have tried to distract them or buy enough time for Bentley to finish off the others and deal with these guys, the person that the female clone at the back was thrashing wasn’t going to last long.  The two who were facing me were both men, both bigger and tougher than they might have been as humans, one fat, the other tall and broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted to the point of being a caricature.

My swarm was my best offense and my best defense, here.  My bugs went for eyes and ears, and that was excuse enough for the two mutants to charge me.

They were half blind, and the mass of bugs that clung to me billowed out to mask my location.  I started to move to my left, but I felt the fat one veer slightly in that direction and chose to head between them, instead.

The pair stumbled forward into my swarm, arms swinging wildly in a blind attempt to hit me.  I ducked low, then moved forward to the mass of fallen and wounded.  The female clone had her more normal self by the neck, and was repeatedly raising her and slamming her down.  If someone else’s leg wasn’t in the way, she might have had her head dashed against the ground.  As it was, a beating was still a beating, and something vital was bound to give sooner or later.

The clone looked up at me as I approached, still cloaked in a thick cloud of bugs. I realized why she hadn’t stood to face me.  Her left leg was gone, barely a flipper.  She raised her arms in self defense, and I batted one aside with my baton before stabbing her just above the collarbone.

They’re not people.  They’re mockeries.

The small, helpless sounds she made as blood bubbled around the throat-wound weren’t helping my attempts to assuage conscience.

Damn Noelle, damn her for making me do this.

“You leave Steph alone!” the fat clone bellowed.

The words caught me off guard as much as the fact that he’d seen the attack.  He charged, and I swiftly backed up, bringing my weapons to the ready.

He didn’t come after me.  He stopped by ‘Steph’, the one-legged clone with the fatal throat wound.

“You care about her?” I asked.

“She’s Steph,” he said.

“I… what?”  My train of thought was interrupted further by the snarling and gnashing of Bentley fighting the clones.  One tried to break away from the group to come after me, but Bentley caught him, striking him flat against the ground with both front paws, like how a cat might pounce on a mouse.

“She’s Steph.  She’s Steph.  Of course I care.  Fucking bugs!”  He lashed out with one arm, as if he could hurt the swarm, drive them away.  His arms folded around the clone-Steph.

I pulled the attacking bugs away, leaving only enough to track his movements.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to open up a line of dialogue, but my conscience couldn’t afford to let me not.  “But… what about the person she was beating up?  You don’t care about the real Steph?”

“Ignored me.  Looked down on me because I was fat.  Fuck her,” he spoke with such force that my bugs could feel the spit flying from his mouth.

“She’s still Steph, isn’t she?”

“Bitch.  Brushing me off.  Made it so we were friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend.  Bitch,” he said.

He let the mutant-clone Steph drop limp to the ground, clenched and unclenched a fist.  “Fuck her.  Fuck you for killing Steph.”

“Why do this?  Why hurt people?”

“I’m a soldier,” he said, his words dull.  “It’s what I am.”

I sensed his girth, used my swarm to sense his equally heavy alter-ego.  “You… don’t strike me as a soldier.”

“It’s what I am.”

“Is… is he a soldier?” I gestured in the direction of his other self.

“No.  Fat fuck could never be a soldier.  Kill him.  Dig my fingers into that gut and rip and tear until he dies.  Strangle him.  No willpower, hide from the world behind that disgusting fat.  Choke the life out of him.  He’s useless anyways.  Waste of air, waste of a life.”

Projecting much?

“And when he’s dead?  What will you do?”

He moved toward me, and I backed away a step, bringing my bugs closer to him.  He went still again, glanced around.  “Kill others.  Kill Dad and Mom and Sammy and the cats.  Kill teachers and classmates and burn my house and burn the school.  Fuckers.  All of them.  Looking down on me.”

His words struck a chord, and it was the closest experience I’d ever had to the sort of flashback that happened in the movies.  I could remember being in the school bathroom, dripping with juice.  Being so frustrated, so angry, so hurt that I just wanted to lash out.

Was that all he had left?  Was that all he was?

“And if they all die?”

“Kill others.  Burn this fucking disgusting city.  Burn this fucking country.  Keep burning, keep killing.”

“Do you really think that’ll make anything better?”

“No.”

“Then why?  Is there any way I can get you to stop?”

“No.  Won’t stop.  I’m a soldier.”

“Whose soldier?  Hers? Noelle’s?  The monster who spat you out?”

“No.”

“And you?” I asked, turning so my back wasn’t to the broad shouldered one in the midst of my swarm.

He didn’t answer.  He charged for me instead.  The obese one took the opportunity to come after me from a different angle.

Again, I drew my swarm around me, put each of my bugs on the offensive to distract, and used my swarm-sense to figure out where they were moving, getting out of the way.

Ducking low, I felt a sharp pain in my side.  I grunted in pain and barked out a cough.  The cough made me need to cough more, which only helped inform them of my position.

The coughing fit took the strength out of me at a time when I needed to move most.  Swimging blindly, the fat one struck me across the face.  My mask absorbed the worst of the impact, and I stuck my knife out in his general direction, sticking it into the general area of his chest, hitting bone rather than anything substantial.

“Bugs fucking hurt,” he growled, apparently oblivious to the pain of the knife wound.  “Stop it!”

He swung again, but I managed to get out of the way.  With the stinging, biting insects in his eyes, crawling into his mouth and nose as he talked to gag him, I managed to distract him enough that I could safely retreat.  My entire body shook as I suppressed coughs, and I dropped to one knee to try and catch my breath.  I hoped that being closer to the ground would mean I didn’t get hit; I was too breathless to move out of the way if he swung a punch at me.

The broad-shouldered one stepped close, his cheeks wet with the vitreous fluids of torn eyeballs and blood where my swarm had dug in deep.  I suppressed another cough and slid my knife’s blade against the back of his knees.  It might not have cut deep enough if he’d been wearing clothes, but he was naked, and there was nothing to stop the knife.

He collapsed just in front of me.  I hesitated a moment, then stabbed my knife into the side of his throat.

They’re not realNot real people.

Bentley had finished tearing apart the other eight or so clones, and at Rachel’s instruction was closing in on the fat clone.  I moved my bugs to give her a clearer view.

I was ready for him to make a break for it.  He didn’t.  He turned toward us, clenching and unclenching his fist.

There’s no saving them.  Whatever had happened to their heads while they were grown inside Noelle, they’re twisted.  Their perspectives are warped.

“Stop him,” I said.  “Finish them, Rachel.”

Rachel whistled, and Bentley leaped.  The clone tried to come after me, but didn’t make it two steps before the dog got to him.

“Feels wrong,” I said.  Rachel gave me a hand in climbing back up.

She didn’t offer a reply.  It wouldn’t feel wrong to her.

I started searching with my bugs, looking in the direction Noelle had last gone.

Without even the ability to tentatively feel Noelle out with my bugs, I was having trouble keeping track of her.  Every passing minute meant that there was more sunlight, but even with that I couldn’t see Noelle.  It was as though a painter was working with white and black paint, throwing handfuls of it onto a canvas from three feet away.  It didn’t convey a picture so much as a blurry, indistinct abstract.

I should have been able to follow movement, to track Noelle by the way the patches of light and dark changed.  The issue was that there were countless things moving across my radius.  Water was running where some streets were still draining, plastic bags blew in the wind and shadows shifted as the sun and clouds moved.  Each changed the canvas, altered the blurry, muddy blotches of light and dark.

I could hear Grue give an order, and his group started moving with purpose.

“Grue just saw her, I think,” I said.  I pointed the way.

I’d started another coughing fit by the time we caught up with the others, and I could feel my skull pounding as if it had a three pound heart inside of it instead of a brain.

“She found some of the other capes who were holding position,” Grue said, when I’d managed to get my breath.  “Lights in the distance.”

“Fuck,” I said.  I was about to comment on how we were too close to Ballistic’s headquarters for comfort, but remembered that Grace and Tecton were listening.  I stopped myself before the words left my mouth and coughed instead.

“You okay?” Tecton asked.

“Little worse for wear.”

“Sounds like more than a little.”

I shook my head.

As we got closer, I tentatively moved the bugs closer, until I had them on the flying heroes.  I made an effort to discover and eliminate the hostile bugs that Noelle had created, and tried to find identifying details on the capes we were approaching.

“One of the heroes is a guy with an emblem, I think it’s a book with chains around it,” I said.

“Maybe Chronicler,” Tecton said.

“Three more flying ones,” I said.  “One with antlers on his chest emblem.”

“All guys?” Tecton asked.  When I nodded, he said, “That’d be Strapping Lad, Intrepid, and Young Buck.  And the one you mentioned before would definitely be Chronicler.”

“Seriously?” Regent asked.  “Strapping Lad?”

“They’re from the Texas Wards team,” Tecton said, as if that was explanation enough.  “Lad, Intrepid and Buck are all about the harassment.  Flying, teamwork, hitting hard and adjusting their battle plans to match the enemy threat level, staying out of danger.”

“Up until they get too close and she grabs one,” I said.

“Could happen,” Tecton replied.  “Eidolon’s probably up there too, too quiet.  Might be waiting for new powers to finish manifesting before he makes any moves.”

“What can we do?” Grace asked.

“I remember those Wards from the Leviathan fight.  Some of them,” I said.  “They fly?  All of them?”

“Yeah,” Tecton said.

“Then we support on the ground,” I said.  “You, Grue and maybe Regent can slow her down.  Bitch keeps us mobile.  We stay ready to move at a moment’s notice if it comes down to it.  Staying safe is a bigger priority than anything else.”

Noelle was limited to moving on the ground.  It gave the young heroes a natural advantage: each of them flew, and two of the three were armed with long ranged tinker-made weapons.  The guns weren’t anything flashy or spectacular, more the kind of laser weapon that a fan of science fiction might create, but the young heroes apparently thought it was worth keeping up the onslaught, and the guns didn’t appear to rely on any ammunition or reloading.

The one without the gun was apparently Young Buck, going by the raised image of antlers on his chest emblem.  He would fly around Noelle, close to the ground, then turn himself, his gear and the bugs I’d placed on him into a living projectile.  Or, maybe, he was using some kind of uncontrolled breaker power to go faster than the speed of sound, unable to change course or take any action while he traveled.  Whatever he was doing, he flashed across the battlefield as a straight, living projectile before materializing again.  The ground shook with his impacts he delivered to Noelle.

The one I took to be Chronicler was casting out a hazy field around himself and the other two with the guns.  The field shifted, drifting closer to the ground, and then solidified in a semisolid image of the heroes, complete with the laser fire.  A quick check with my bugs verified that the shots were just as real as what the real selves were creating.  The aim wasn’t so hot.  It was more of a replay of the actions they’d just taken than proper clones.

Young Buck moved beneath Chronicler, and passed through the field as he turned into a beam.  When the images appeared, they mimicked the same beam attack, their paths a perfect parallel to the real Young Buck.

We stopped as she came into view.  For the others, anyways.

“Fuck me,” Regent said.  “Anyone else noticing what I notice?”

“Bitch’s dogs,” Grue said.

“Not that similar,” Rachel grumbled, but she didn’t sound confident.

“Pretty fucking similar,” Regent said.

I leaned forward, hand on Rachel’s shoulder, whispered, “What is it?”

“Her entire lower half, it looks like my dogs.  Bit on the back doesn’t look like it, though.  More like a hand, but same look.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“We good to go?” Grue asked.

“Go,” I gave the order.

Tecton slammed his piledriver-gauntlets into the ground, and a fissure opened beneath Noelle.  The ground shattered around her, denying her the footing to move out of the way as Chronicler and Young Buck worked together to multiply Young Buck’s offensive power.  Tecton repeated the process, disintegrating the ground beneath her.

“I can’t do a lot to her,” Regent said.  “Only some of her is normal, and it doesn’t really connect together.”

“Try, or focus on the clones,” Grue ordered.  He sent a blast of darkness my way, enveloping me.  I could feel the quality of my bug-senses decline, my degree of control degrading.

A moment later, he withdrew the darkness.  Did he just want the view?  The sense of what was where?

Raising his hands above his head, Grue fired a thick stream of darkness at Eidolon.

The hero moved out of the way before the beam made contact.

“Work with me!” Grue growled.  “Damn.  I can’t throw darkness over Noelle without hurting our side as much as we hurt her.  I need powers.  Grace?”

“You want to copy my power?”

There was a rumble as Tecton shattered more road beneath Noelle.  With the way he’d directed the attack to place it off to one side, I suspected she was trying to climb out of the funnel-shaped depression the explosions had made.  Given her speed from before, it was surprising how slowly she was climbing.

Then it struck me.  An antlion pit.  The sides of the pit weren’t giving her any traction.  Any time she set her weight down, she only pushed the sand to the bottom.

“Let me test it, see what I can get,” Grue told Grace.

“Fine.”

I scouted the area with my bugs, and accidentally ran into Noelle with a handful of houseflies as she slid backwards into the pit.  I wasn’t going to agonize over the fact, but I didn’t want to give her any more ammunition.  My bugs did find a mess of vomit at the very bottom of the shallow crater.

“There’s vomit, but no clones,” I said.  “She’s trying something.”

“The two-dimensional Vista.  She’s ambushing,” Grue said.

“Ambushing who?”  Tecton asked.

“I don’t know.  Can you see them?” I asked.  “When they’re moving on a surface, are they visible?”

“Why are you asking us?” Grace asked.

“Tecton,” I said, “As much ground as you can affect, now!”

He didn’t hesitate, punching the ground and driving both piledrivers into it.  There were no fissures, this time.  The entire area rumbled, and the ground spiderwebbed with cracks in every direction, not leaving two square feet of ground untouched.  Bentley nearly lost his footing, and Bastard growled, until Rachel pulled on his chain.

The first clone stepped out of a piece of plywood that had been placed across a shattered balcony door.  An Über.  He pulled the plywood free and disappeared into the apartment, swatting at the bugs that I’d set on him.

A Circus emerged beneath the flying heroes, cradling a shattered arm.  Bugs began drifting toward her, as if a strong wind were pulling them in.  The normal Circus packed a pocket dimension she could put things into.  This one was only storing air, forming a strong vacuum around herself.  Chronicler’s cloud dissipated as it was sucked in, and the heroes with weaker flying abilities were swiftly being dragged her way.  Regent hit her with his power, and the effect slowed, but she recovered faster than the fliers did.

My swarm could see a large blob of shadow, Noelle, taking advantage of the distraction to climb free of Tecton’s antlion pit.

“Now!” Grue said.

Grace ran forward, having little trouble moving on the shattered road.  She leaped and kicked Noelle, no doubt putting her invincibility in one foot.  As the kick was delivered, Grace used Noelle as a foothold and thrust herself away.  Grue chased her attack with a stream of darkness, enveloping Grace as she stuck her landing, leaped, and did very much the same thing Grace had, slamming one fist into Noelle.

Noelle toppled with a rumble my bugs could feel, then slowly slid back into the crater Tecton had made before she could get her feet under her again.

The Über stepped out onto the balcony with a block of kitchen knives in hand.  Though they weren’t weighted for throwing, he had no problem throwing a knife to hit Young Buck as the hero flew by.  Young Buck spiralled out of the air, stopping himself only a moment before he hit the ground.  When he righted himself, his hands were pressed around the knife that had embedded in his stomach.

I sent more bugs after the Über, my bugs tearing at his eyes and hands in earnest.  He threw another knife blind, hitting Chronicler in the arm before he collapsed and started thrashing to get the bugs off himself.

The Circus, for her part, had used her pocket-dimension vacuum to draw one of the fliers close enough to get her hands on him.  The hero, Intrepid or Strapping Lad, was set aflame from head to toe, his costume ignited in entirety.  He kicked out, blind in the midst of the flames that were immolating him, and she ducked out of the way.

Grace saw the flames of the burning hero as Grue banished his darkness.  She made a break for the Circus.  Regent knocked the Circus off balance, momentarily interrupting the suction yet again, and Grace punched with enough force to cave in the clone’s chest.  The Circus dropped to the ground, dead.

Grace couldn’t see in Grue’s darkness, so they were limited as far as their partnership went.  He backed away slowly, searching for another opportunity or another power he could borrow.  Without Grace’s natural agility, the individual pieces of road made for unsteady footing, each tilting and sliding as weight was placed on them.

Noelle screamed with frustration and rage.  As far as I could tell, she was still at the bottom of the pit.

I couldn’t follow what was happening, not without giving her more bugs to work with, but then again, I wasn’t sure that anyone else was having more luck on that front.  Not with the pit around her.

“She’s pulling something!” Tecton shouted.  He raised his voice to be heard by the other capes, “Get back!”

Everyone moved away, excepting Young Buck, who was frozen, hands to his wound.  Grace retreated, holding onto the incinerated young hero.

When Noelle vomited, the slurry came out as one stream, a geyser that extended six or seven hundred feet.  Rachel steered Bentley out of the way before it hit, and the others danced off to either side to avoid getting splashed.  Grace got clipped, and went sprawling, almost glued to the ground under the weight of the fluid, the cape in her arms falling.

A dozen bodies began climbing free of the vomit.  Ten or so clones had been deposited on the street, along with a real Leet in civilian clothes.  One of the clones was a Circus, folding herself into her pocket dimension.

“She’s walking on the bodies,” Tecton said.  “Incoming!”

The bodies.  She vomited bodies into the pit to keep stuff from sliding underfoot.

Young Buck charged through Noelle, but he wasn’t flying when he finished his maneuver.  He tumbled to the ground, rolling after he landed.

I could hear armbands informing others of the fallen.

My arm jerked in pain, and I slapped at a hornet.  One of Noelle’s.

Noelle advanced on the burned cape and Grace.  Tecton slammed the ground, but the effect was muffled.  He’d shattered the ground for blocks around, had maybe killed or eliminated several of the two dimensional clones, but his piledriver gauntlets wouldn’t be as effective on this soft surface.

Two of the Southern Wards opened fire from above, pelting Noelle with laser fire.  I could sense her growing tall, or rearing up on her hind legs, and she vomited a stream into the air.  Chronicler and the other cape were splashed, caught by the clotted liquid and a flying body.  Chronicler’s power remained, the hologram images sustaining the same fire at the same angle, not adjusting as Noelle moved to one side.

Eidolon made his move.  My bugs could sense the air growing heavy and humid.  Vomit dried, and clones staggered and fell.

The humidity increased to the point that I could feel the moisture flowing through the air in thick clouds, rising from every surface, heavy off the bodies of the clone, off Noelle and the streams of vomit.

My bugs were dying.  The flying insects were first to die, their wings crinkling.  The ones closest to me were alive, but they were suffering too.

Dessication.

“You’re killing Grace!” Tecton bellowed at the sky.  I doubted Eidolon would hear from his vantage point.  I had only his word to go by.  Grace was in an area my bugs couldn’t reach.

“Acceptable losses,” Grue said.  Tecton whirled around to face him.  Grue’s voice was calm, “His plan isn’t working.  Tattletale said he wanted to experience enough danger to get a power boost, and I’m not getting the feeling he’s had that.  He’s too experienced to panic, but with everything he’s seen, everything he’s done over the past decades of work, maybe he’s thinking he has to do something here, and he’s decided he can’t let there be another Endbringer.  Can’t let there be another monster in this world.”

“She’s on our side!  She’s one of the good ones!”

“If it makes you feel any better,” I said, “Eidolon might be assuming she’s already dead.”

I’d positioned some bugs so that they could distinguish Noelle’s vague lumbering frame against the background of the dimly lit sky.  Her flesh was drying and flaking off in chunks as the moisture was pulled out with force.

But the ground still rumbled with the vibrations of her steady advance, and for all the dried flesh that was falling free, she wasn’t getting noticeably smaller to my bugs’ senses.

Eidolon hit her with a gravity slam.  More flesh came free.  I saw a change, with that, but the edges of the silhouette filled in.

“She isn’t dying?” I asked, my voice a murmur.

“She’s regenerating,” Grue said.

The effects of Eidolon’s dessication were starting to get to me.  The air was too dry.  I coughed once and briefly held my breath to keep from succumbing to another fit.

There was a sound like a firecracker taking flight, and Noelle lurched.  Even with my bug’s less than stellar sight, I could see the aftermath.  A hundred slightly different angles.  Noelle’s true body, the human half perched on top of the monster, arched her back, her chest out, head turning toward the sky.  A spray of blood and gore marked a small explosion ripping out the front of her chest.

And another, a shot from behind, tearing through her cranium.

My bugs ventured into the dessicated area.  They would only last for a minute at best, but they’d serve to scout, to give me eyes.  They found Ballistic.

He hadn’t come alone.  Scrub was with him, and Trickster swapped rubble out of the area to move his teammates in.  He swapped himself in for Grace, appearing in the middle of the vomit-slurry.

I opened my mouth to speak, coughed at the dry air instead.

“You decided to help?” Grue called out.

“She’s our responsibility,” Genesis said, “We made a promise to each other.  To get home, no matter what it took.  But there were other parts to it.  Things we added on when the whole situation became clear.  Fixing Noelle was one of those additions.”

Getting home?

“We knew it was fucked up,” Sundancer said.  “But we promised ourselves that if it came down to it, we’d step in before it got bad.  And this is bad.  So we’re acting on it.”

Her orb burned above her head.  Its crackle sounded slightly different in the dry air.

Noelle’s growl was accented by a noise from one of the larger canine mouths.  “Traitors.”

She’s alive.  Shot through the heart and brain, and she’s talking.

“If you were thinking straight, you’d agree with us,” Genesis said.  “You’d agree this is right.  That we can’t let people get hurt, just for your revenge.”

“I didn’t ask for this,” Noelle said.

“I know,” Trickster spoke.  He looked up toward the sky, tilted his head, and then Eidolon disappeared.  I could sense Eidolon’s new location, a few blocks away.  He tried to fly closer, and Trickster teleported him again, keeping him a distance away.  Eidolon had given up his power invulnerability.

“I… I’ll use my sun, Noelle,” Sundancer said.  “We’ll burn you.  It’ll be complete, thorough.  And this ends.  There’ll be no more hurting people.  And we put all this behind us, remember you the way you were.  It’s better if it’s us.”

“I don’t want to be a memory,” Noelle said.

“You already are,” Ballistic said, from behind her.

She turned, and a low growl sounded from one of her lower mouths, deep enough I could feel the rumble of it.

Ballistic shook his head.  “The old Noelle’s long gone.  Do you think she would have survived getting shot like that?”

Noelle didn’t answer.

“You have her memories, nothing more,” Trickster said.

“Krouse,” Noelle said.  “You turn on me like this?”

“I don’t know what else to do.”  He teleported Eidolon away again.  This time Eidolon stayed put.  Choosing a new power?

“You did this to me.  This?  The old Noelle disappearing?  It’s your fault.  You know it.  You created me.”

He’d created her?

He’d dosed her.

“Yeah,” Trickster said.  He lit a cigarette, put it in the mouth-hole of his mask.

“And I listened to you.  I bought your promises.  Your hollow assurances.  I listened and cooperated when you said I should be locked up.  I listened when they shut me in that vault, in the dark, alone, with that fucking beeping that wouldn’t let me sleep.  I waited all this time because you said I could get better.”

“I know.  It eats away at me.  But I don’t know what else to do.”

“I spent the past two years listening to you.  Doing what you wanted.  Just do what I want here, and I’ll let it all end.  I’ll let her burn me, and then you guys can find your own way home.”

“I know what you want,” he said, “But the consequences-”

“-Don’t matter,” she said.  “It’s not our world.  It’s… it’s as screwed up as the things I make.  They’re just dark twisted copies of people in this dark, twisted, fucked up world.”

“No’-” He started.

“You owe me this.”

Trickster sighed, spat out the barely-touched cigarette.  Even though I couldn’t identify tone, I felt a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Shit,” I said.  “Grue-”

Trickster was already turning.  Grue was only beginning to raise a cloud of darkness around us when he disappeared, Trickster standing in his place.

“Grue!” I screamed.  He was where Trickster had been, half a city block away from Noelle.

Noelle lunged.  Trickster could have moved out of the way fast enough.  Grue wasn’t so lucky.  The shattered ground under her feet shifted, and she slammed into him, her lower body catching Grue, adhering to him.

He was giving her us.

Trickster was already gone from the midst of our group. There was gunfire and incoherent shouting as people tried to identify his location.  Ballistic was gone, replaced by a piece of rubble.  He was taking the most immediate threats out of the picture.  Eidolon, Ballistic, Grue…

Who came next on that hierarchy?

Me.

I found myself only five paces away from Noelle, plucked from the midst of my cloud of bugs.  There were too few to hide me from Trickster’s sight, with the way the dessication had thinned their ranks.

She caught me with the back of one claw.  There was a sound like a gunshot going off, my ribs feeling like my bones had turned to white-hot brands, and I stuck.  She set her claw down on the ground, and my back exploded with pain as I struggled to contort my body, get in a position where I wasn’t being folded in half under the weight of an eight ton monstrosity.

I was spared being snapped in two not by my own struggles, but by the pull of her flesh as it folded around me.  It simultaneously consumed me and pulled on me, as if by a hundred hands.  The process was smooth and inevitable, flesh flowing around me like hot candlewax, even as I was drawn upward and inward.

I could sense Regent appearing nearby.  Noelle turned to face him.  He didn’t fight, didn’t try to run.  He said something, but I couldn’t make out the words, couldn’t hear them with the dark, hot, rancid-smelling flesh that had enveloped me.

The last of the flesh closed behind me, my power stopped working, and I was left with only absolute darkness and the pounding flow of Noelle’s blood in my ears.

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