Interlude 24

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Hero ushered him into the headquarters.  “This is the last one.  I’d like you all to meet Chevalier.”

There was a chorus of replies.  Mumbled greetings with one exceedingly enthusiastic response from a girl in the crowd.  It was almost mocking.

Chevalier ventured inside, a touch hesitant.  Not afraid.  He’d told himself he’d never be afraid again.  No.  But this was unfamiliar territory.  The others were difficult to read.  Nine youths.

His eyes roved over the group.  Five girls, four boys.  His addition made it an even split.  Intentional?

The costumes ran the gamut from professional to homemade.  They varied in the degree of color, in seriousness, in combat readiness.  There was a boy, also, who had a professional looking costume, black and green.  It was a costume that had no doubt cost money, with leather and a utility belt, a leaf emblem over his heart.  Around him, Chevalier could see a vague nimbus, as though he could see only the brightest and darkest parts of some landscape that the boy stood within.  It was a subtle thing, an image that Chevalier could make out in the same way his perspective on something might alter if he had only his left eye closed, as opposed to his right.

A girl beside the boy with the leaf costume wore a less expensive looking costume, but she’d apparently gravitated towards him, a hopeful lackey or a romantic interest.  In the same way that the forest seemed to hang in the periphery of the boy, an older woman loomed just behind the girl.  She was kindly in appearance, like a next door neighbor, with hands burned black from fingertip to elbow.  The old woman was moving her lips as though she were talking, but the image was silent.

He started to turn his head, but the image changed.  The effect ran over the girl’s skin, as though she were standing right in front of a glacier, the light refracting off of it.

No, the black hands on the older woman… a result of fire?  Magma.

The girl caught him looking at her and frowned a little.  He averted his gaze.  She likely thought he was staring for other reasons.

At the far end of the scale, opposite the two professional, serious looking young heroes, there was a girl with a shield and sword.  Her helmet sat on the table beside her, a homemade piece of equipment with ridiculous mouse ears at the sides.  It wasn’t a great helmet either; it didn’t offer enough peripheral vision, was more decorative than protective.  She stood off to one side, but two others had gathered near her.  She was grinning, the one who’d stood out from the rest with her over the top welcome.

And the images, the glimmers, they showed the mouse-ears girl laughing.  For her companions, there was a strange writing system patterned on one boy’s skin, and the other boy swirled with a smoke that wasn’t there.

The images weren’t an unfamiliar thing, but this was the first time he’d been confronted with so many in one place.  It was distracting, unnerving.

What were they supposed to be, the glimmers?

The remaining two members of the group were a boy, a clear vigilante of the night in appearance, with a costume that was black from head to toe, and a girl dressed in urban camouflage.  Chevalier’s attention fell on the girl; her white and gray jacket was short enough that it didn’t reach the small of her back, a blue tank top with a shield emblem on the front.  Her scarf, a complimenting shade of blue, was wrapped around her lower face, bearing the same emblem.  She sat in a chair, elbows on her knees, toying with a knife.

Odd as it was, she was more grim than the boy who was trying to look dark and disturbing.

“Take a seat,” Hero said.  He laid a gentle hand on Chevalier’s shoulder.

Such a minor thing, but it felt somehow critical.  What clique did he identify with?  What direction would he take?

He glanced over the rest of the group, at the images that had changed, and his eyes fell on the one with the knife.

In that instant, the knife disappeared, and there was a flare.  The images were suddenly distinct, glaring, an image appearing in a flash, so brief he might have missed it.  A cluster of children, blood, their faces stark with fear and in one case, pain.

It faded as quickly as it had appeared, and the girl held a gun, now.

She’d caught him looking.  Meeting his eyes, she changed it again.

The image that flickered was of her, holding a gun with a silencer on the end, pointing it.  Her expression was one of desperation.

She’d changed the gun for a machete, apparently unaware.

He made his way across the room, and seated himself in the chair beside her.  She didn’t even glance his way, her attention on the weapon as she ran her thumb alongside the flat of the blade.

“Army girl doesn’t even speak english, you know,” the boy in the nice costume said.

“She speaks some,” Hero said.  “It’s fine.”

“I’m just saying,” the boy said.

“I think we all know what you’re saying,” Hero answered.  “You’ve made arguments about what you want the team to be, your desire to be taken seriously.”

Chevalier watched the exchange carefully.  His eyes fell on the figure behind Hero, and he tried to focus his attention on it.  It moved with glacial slowness, a four-legged creature with legs so long that the ‘window’ around Hero didn’t even show its main body.  Finger-like appendages at the base of each leg carved diagrams and ideas into the ‘soil’ beneath as it walked.

“We’ve got the serious part down,” the girl with the mouse ears said.  She drew her sword, thrusting it into the air, “Huzzah!”

“So bogus,” was the mumbled response.  “As if her group has the majority.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Hero said.  “A lot of you have been through a lot, and some of you have only just stopped.  Stopped running, stopped fighting, stopped dealing with a long series of crises.”

Hero’s eyes briefly fell on Chevalier.  Chevalier lowered his eyes to the floor.

“The important thing to remember,” Hero said, “is that you’ve got time.  You have time to figure out who you want to become, time to figure out what this team will become, time to breathe.  To be kids again.”

Hero paused, glancing over the room.  He sighed.  “And you have zero interest in that, I’m sure.  You’re in a hurry to grow up, to be heroes.”

“You’d better believe it, boss,” the mouse girl said.

“Just be careful,” Legend said, as he strode into the room.  He was accompanied by Eidolon and Alexandria.  “This is about training, not thrusting you into the midst of trouble.”

“That comes later,” the mouse girl said.

“If you decide you want it,” Legend answered.

The sheer presence of the heroes here was changing the energy of the room.  The listless teenagers had perked up.  They were paying more attention, more alert.

It was no longer one more act in a long sequence of hoops and events.  This was the main capes of the Protectorate, all here in one place, for them.

“Well,” Hero said, clapping his hands together.  “I’m not good at the formalities.  Being in charge isn’t my thing, as much as those three like forcing the job on me.  So what do you say?  Let’s crack open the soda bottles, cut the cake and celebrate our inaugural Wards team.”

The mouse girl’s team cheered and whooped.  Nobody else really joined in with even half of the enthusiasm, but there was more of a response than there might have been before the rest of the Protectorate had showed up.  Chevalier even allowed himself a cheer, joining in with the clapping.

It was exciting.  Exciting and a little scary.  Like stepping out over a chasm.

As the others made their way to the table, Chevalier stood from his chair, then glanced down at the army girl.  “You want cake?”

She raised her head.  “Yes.”

“What do you want to drink?  I think there’s cola, ginger ale, sprite…”

“The brown drink,” she said.

“Coke, then.”

He left her sitting in the chair, paying far too much attention to her weapon, and grabbed two paper plates.

“I’m curious why you sat next to Hannah,” Hero commented, as he served himself some cake.

Chevalier glanced at the girl with the weapons.  He felt uncomfortable, “People are making it a bigger deal than it is.  It was just me sitting down.  I didn’t put much thought into it.”

“Maybe,” Hero said.  He laid a hand on Chevalier’s shoulder.  “But it’s good that you did.  She could use a friend.  Might make a world of difference, in the long run.”

Chevalier shrugged, stepping up to the tray and placing a slice of cake on each plate.

“We’re all ignoring the obvious reason,” the girl with the mouse ears said, getting in Chevalier’s way as she reached for a plastic fork.  “He thinks she’s hot.  He wants the poontang.

Hero cleared his throat in a very deliberate way.

“Don’t be juvenile,” the leaf-boy told her, from the front of the line.

Chevalier shifted awkwardly.  The girl with the mouse ears was in his way, and he couldn’t move down the table to get a drink.  She wouldn’t budge until this was resolved.

“I got the vibe she and I are similar,” Chevalier said.  It was honest.  The images he’d seen, of the girl…

And it was apparently the wrong thing to say, because mouse-ears was only more insistent, now.  She smiled, cooing the word, “Similar?”

“You didn’t figure it out yet?  Chevalier’s the vigilante that went after the Snatchers,” the leaf-boy said.

Hero turned around, and his voice was a little hard, “Reed.  That’s not your story to share.”

“It’s okay,” Chevalier said.  “They’d find out eventually.”

Mouse-girl looked confused.  “The Snatchers?  Are they supervillains?”

“No,” Chevalier said.  He used the distraction to push past her and get to the area where the two-liter bottles of soda were lined up.  He poured the drinks for himself and Hannah.  “They were ordinary people.  Bad people, but ordinary.  Except maybe the leader.”

“Maybe?”  Mouse girl asked.

“I didn’t give him a chance to show me.”

Her eyes widened.

Chevalier felt strangely calm as he spoke, “Not like that.  Alexandria caught up with me at the very end.  When I was trying to decide what I’d do with him.  She told me she’d stand by and let me kill the guy, if I really had to, but I’d go to jail afterwards.  That, or I could come with her.  Come here.”

Hero frowned, glancing at Alexandria, who had gathered at one corner of the room with Eidolon and Legend.  They were looking at the kids, talking, smiling.  “I’m glad you made the right choice.”

Chevalier shrugged.  I’m not sure I did.

He was still angry.  Still hurt.  His little brother’s absence was still a void in his life.

“Maybe now you can stop asking questions,” Reed told the mouse girl.

“Never!”

Reed sighed.

“Everyone has their baggage,” Hero said.  “Sometimes it’s in the past, sometimes it’s in the present, other times it’s fears for the future.  But this is a fresh start, understand?  I’m pretty mellow, believe it or not, but I’m going to be upset if I hear that anyone’s holding any of that stuff against a teammate, or if you’re letting it hold you back.  Understand?  This is a second chance for everyone.  You’re here to support one another.”

There were silent nods from Chevalier, Reed and the mouse girl.

“Good.  Now go.  Eat cake, drink soda, be merry.  And when the party is done and us adults are gone, with you kids left to your own devices, check the empty room, the one that isn’t assigned to any of you.  I stocked you guys with video games and movies.”

“No way,” Reed said, smiling genuinely for what might have been the first time.

“Yes way,” Hero said, returning the smile.  “But we’re not going to tell the higher-ups, are we?  It’s a bit of a secret, and you don’t betray that secret by letting yourself slack on the training or the schoolwork, right?”

Reed’s smile dropped a little in intensity, but he nodded.

“Go on,” Hero said, still smiling,  “And don’t get me in trouble.”

Reed hurried back to his chair, as if getting there sooner meant the party would end earlier, speeding up his access to the treasure trove Hero had hinted at.

Wordless, Chevalier managed the drinks and two plates as he carried them over to Hannah.  He gave her a plate and a cup, and she smiled without thanking him.

“A toast,” Alexandria said, stepping forward.  “To the first Wards team of America.”

“To second chances,” Hero said.

“A brighter future,” Eidolon added.

“And to making good memories,” Legend finished.

“Memories,” Hannah said, under her breath, nearly inaudible as the room clapped and cheered.  She was looking down at the machete that she’d placed across her lap, the paper plate with the cake balanced on the flat of the blade.

Chevalier didn’t respond.  His eyes were on the phantom images, barely visible.

The screen displayed the list.  Chevalier scrolled down, his expression grim.

Marun Field, December 13th, 1992.  Behemoth.
São Paulo, July 6th, 1993.  Behemoth.
New York, March 26th, 1994.  Behemoth.
Jakarta, November 1st, 1994.  Behemoth.
Moscow, June 18th, 1995.  Behemoth.
Johannesburg, January 3rd, 1996.  Behemoth.
Oslo, June 9th, 1996.  Leviathan.
Cologne, November 6th, 1996.  Behemoth.
Busan, April 23rd, 1997.  Leviathan.
Buenos Aires, September 30th, 1997.  Behemoth.
Sydney, January 18th, 1998.  Leviathan.
Jinzhou, July 3rd, 1998.  Behemoth.
Madrid, December 25th, 1998.  Leviathan.
Ankara, July 21st, 1999.  Behemoth.
Kyushu, November 2nd, 1999.  Leviathan.
Lyon, April 10th, 2000.  Behemoth.
Naples, September 16th, 2000.  Leviathan.
Vanderhoof, February 25th, 2001.  Behemoth.
Hyderabad, July 6th, 2001.  Leviathan.
Lagos, December 6th, 2001.  Behemoth.
Shanghai, April 23rd, 2002.  Leviathan.
Bogotá, August 20th, 2002.  Behemoth.
Lausanne, December 30th, 2002.  Simurgh.
Seattle, April 1st, 2003.  Leviathan.
London, August 12th, 2003.  Simurgh.
Lyon, October 3rd, 2003.  Behemoth.

“Stop,” Chevalier ordered.  The artificial intelligence halted the scrolling.  The scroll bar wasn’t even at the halfway mark.

Brighter future indeed.

He rubbed at his eyes, suddenly feeling very weary.  Nothing worked out like it was supposed to.  The Wards were supposed to be a safe haven for teenaged capes, buying them time to prepare themselves, to train and figure out what they needed to figure out.  Somewhere along the line, some Wards had joined the fight.  Locals, defending their homes, naturally.

As the ranks of adult capes were whittled down, more had attended the fights, as if unconsciously acknowledging the need, or as if they were under a subtle pressure to do so.  Just like that, the ideals and ideas that had helped form the original Wards team had eroded away.

He swept a hand in front of him, and the ship read the gesture, a new image appearing on the monitor.  The two screens on either side showed Behemoth’s attack on the city.  He hadn’t ventured far from where he’d emerged.

Chevalier only glanced at the screens from moment to moment, his focus more on the infrastructure, the resources at his disposal.

San Diego, absent.  They’d lost too many members, abandoned by those who’d lost faith in the Protectorate, with the remnants cannibalized to support other teams in need.  San Diego was more or less stable, so there’d been little pressure to resupply them with new members.

Except that Spire, San Diego’s team leader, hadn’t felt confident walking into the fight.  There’d been the human element, the fears, the concerns.  He’d had cold feet at the last second, decided not to come.  An integral part of their defense, gone, forcing them to adapt.

There were so many elements like that.  Little things.  He’d heard so many complain about how the Protectorate handled the attacks.  How they were disorganized, inefficient.

Maybe he’d shared in that sentiment, to a degree.  That had changed when he’d participated in his first fight, when he’d seen just what it meant to be in the fray, against an enemy that couldn’t truly be stopped.  But still, he’d harbored doubts.

Then he’d taken command of a team, and he’d seen the process of trial and error, as they learned their opponents’ capabilities, saw how Leviathan or the Simurgh could keep tricks up their sleeves for years, before using them at a critical moment.  Even now, they didn’t fully understand the Simurgh’s power, how long it might take someone to recover, if recovery was even possible.

And now he led the attack.

He drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.

Focus on the presentHe’d lose it if he dwelled on the pressures, on the fact that every attack to date was another added pressure, a set of losses to avenge, a step towards mankind’s fall.

Vegas was absent too.  They’d turned traitor, walked away.  Satyrical had turned down the offer for a ride to the battle, claiming they’d make their own way.  It was disconcerting, to think they had access to transportation in that vein.  Teleporters?  A craft that could and would carry people halfway around the world fast enough?  Disconcerting to think they had access to resources like that so soon after defecting.

But not surprising.

Brockton Bay, in large part, was sitting this one out.  Hannah wasn’t a true asset against Behemoth.  Besides, the truce was in worse shape than it had been even in the beginning, and the portal too important.

He allowed himself a moment to think of Hannah.  They’d dated briefly, then separated.  It had been a high school romance, and they’d both been too busy to really pursue things.  What had been one or two dates a week became maybes, then had ceased to happen at all.  He’d graduated to the Protectorate, changed cities, and they hadn’t said a word on the subject.

Chevalier had seen her grow, though.  That was what he kept in mind to assuage his disappointment over the way things had gone.  She’d come into her own, confident, intelligent.

In a way, he was glad she wasn’t coming.

He turned around to face Rime and Exalt.  He could see the shadows, as he now thought of them.  Rime’s younger self accompanied her, sitting on the bench beside her, arms folded around her knees, face hidden.  The real Rime was sitting on the bench, a fold-out table in front of her, a laptop open.

And Exalt?  His ‘shadow’ was barely visible, impossible to make out.  When it came to the fore, though, Chevalier knew it would look much as Hannah’s power did in its transitions.  Phantom images.

He’d raised the subject of the images with others.  When his proximity to Eidolon had started to give him migraines, he’d confessed about the images.  He’d feared a kind of schizophrenia, but Eidolon had reassured him otherwise.

It was a piece of the puzzle, but that puzzle was still far from complete.  Until they had more to work with, it was merely data.  Glimmers of memories and dreams, the conclusion had been, after long discussions with Eidolon and the parahuman researchers.  An effect of the thinker power required to manage his own ability, tied to trigger events in some fashion.

Except now he was wondering if he’d been misled.  Eidolon was a traitor, one working for a group that clearly had some deeper understanding of powers.  Maybe it had been in Cauldron’s interests for Eidolon to lie about this.

“Record numbers.  Lots of capes are coming,” he said.  Rime and Exalt both looked up.

“But…” Exalt said.  He seemed to reconsider before finishing his sentence.

“But we’re disorganized,” Chevalier finished it for him.  “People we should be able to count on are gone.  Plans we had are falling apart because those people aren’t there.

Exalt nodded.

“PRT wants us to play this up,” Chevalier said, “I’m supposed to involve you guys in leadership aspect of things.  If you’re willing, I’m not going to dwell on it.”

Exalt arched an eyebrow.

“You’re team leaders.  You’ve got the experience, at least to a degree.  But I don’t want to dwell on peripheral stuff.  We’re focused on the fight?  All right?”

Rime and Exalt nodded.

“I’ll lob a few of you some softball questions, then we get right to it.”

“Right,” Rime said.

The ship altered course, Chevalier felt his heart drop.  Silkroad’s power wasn’t giving them any forward momentum anymore.  They were close.  Landing in a minute.

“You ready for this?  Being leader for the first time?”  Exalt asked.

“No.  Not for one this important.  Everyone who’s paying attention knows this is a crucial one.  Maybe even the point of no return.  We lose this, we lose New Delhi, and there’s no going back.  We’ll never get to the point where we can consistently beat those motherfuckers, never recoup what we’ve lost.  I screw up here, and the world will know.”

“They can’t blame you,” Rime said.

“They damn well can,” Chevalier retorted.

She frowned.

The ship descended, four legs absorbing the impact of the landing almost flawlessly.

He turned to the swords, set into the floor of the craft.  There were two.

In truth, there were three.  The largest was thirty feet long, running from the ramp at the back to the cabin at the front, almost entirely set into the floor.  There was no decoration on it.  Only mass, sturdy craftsmanship, and the mechanisms necessary for the cannon that was set inside the handle and blade.

It would have been too heavy for the ship to carry, except he’d already used his power, drawing it together with a second blade, an aluminum blade a mere four feet long.  Lightweight.

His ability to see the ‘shadows’ about people was an extension of this power.  He could see the general makeup of the two weapons, the phantom images, the underlying physics, in lines and shapes and patterns.

It was about perspectives.  Relationships.  He’d drawn them into one blade, with the appearance of the larger, the properties of the smaller.

The third blade was decorative, with a ceramic blade, gold and silver embellishments and inlays in the blade.  The thing was ten feet long from end to end, and again, it had the cannon set within.   Combining the first blade with this one proved more difficult.  He granted the weapon the appearance of this blade, gave it the cutting edge, but retained the lightweight mass and the durability of the largest weapon.

Fine balances.  He adjusted it, tuning its size for convenience’s sake.  The heft remained the same, as did the effective weight as it extended to the rest of the world.

His armor was the same, only it was too large to bring on the craft.  A veritable mountain of construction grade steel, as light as aluminum, with the decoration of a third set.  It had required some concentration, to maintain the balances he’d set, but he was confident he could fight outside of the kill aura’s range.

He glanced at Rime and Exalt, then nodded.

The ramp opened, and the three of them emerged.  There were heavy thuds and the sound of metal striking metal as the other ships landed, forming a ring, with the doors and ramps pointing inward.  A fortification to guard the arriving heroes.

The Protectorate and Wards teams were gathering, with a degree of organization.  His new Protectorate had gathered into the general positions they held at the conference table.  Rime to his left, Exalt to his right, their teams behind them.

And he couldn’t help but notice the gaps.  San Diego, Vegas, Brockton Bay.  Three of the more prominent teams in the United States.

Defiant, Dragon and Weaver were among the last to arrive.  They joined the unofficial capes who’d filled the void that should have been occupied by the San Diego capes.

“The ships have all arrived,” Chevalier said, breaking the silence, starting his speech.

It was only after the Yàngbǎn were out of sight that Chevalier could breathe a sigh of relief.

“You know your roles,” he said, to the capes who remained  He searched the rooftop, and found who he was looking for.  “Mr. Keene, walk with me.”

The dark-skinned man nodded assent, falling in stride.  He wore a neat suit with a PRT pin, official identification on a lanyard around his neck.  Morgan Keene was the PRT’s liaison and ambassador to unofficial teams across the world.  Chevalier could see the glimmer of a power there, suppressed but there.

The fact that the man was a parahuman employee of the PRT wasn’t so unusual.  The fact that it was a well-kept secret was.  The power was out of sync, however, which was stranger still.  Since Chevalier had chanced to make Morgan Keene’s acquaintance, years ago, the man’s shadow had changed.  The core elements were the same, but the appearance of it had changed enough that he’d wondered if the man had managed a second trigger event.  He would have assumed so, except there was no intensity to corroborate the idea.

It left him suspicious, but it wasn’t a suspicion he could act on.  In an ideal world, Chevalier hoped to replace Mr. Keene.  In reality, the situation was too chaotic, and Morgan Keene too entrenched in things.

“You’re upset about the Yàngbǎn.”

“I don’t like surprises.”

“I sent you a number of emails, three voice messages.”

“Can we trust them?”

“No.  But they’re still an asset.  Alexandria wanted them on board.  When you installed your new administration, they said to keep going.”

Chevalier sighed.

“Our thinkers are on board to advise with the concentrated defense.  I’ve coordinated the foreign capes, Arbiter’s handling some of the translations.”

“Okay.  And our… less legitimate thinkers?”

“Accord and Tattletale.”

“Yes.”

“Rime set them up with access to the PRT databases.  Connection is slow but remains strong.”

Chevalier nodded.  “I’ll talk to them.”

“Of course,” Mr. Keene answered.

Chevalier made his way to the downstairs room.  He paused at the entrance.

Tattletale’s ‘shadow’ peered around with a dozen eyes all at once, each set different in design, in appearance and apparent function.  A mosaic.  Accord’s was a glimmer of an old computer, the edge of a desk that wasn’t there.

It wasn’t as meaningful as it had appeared to be at first.  They were only figments of ideas that had been codified and collected in times of stress.  Ideas imprinted on a malleable surface during trigger events, or moments when trigger events had been on the verge of occurring.  As an individual’s power waxed and waned, the images grew more distinct, shifted between the images personal to the cape in question, and the stranger, dream-like aspects that seemed to relate to the powers.

“Accord.  Tattletale.  Do you have something constructive to offer?”

“Yep,” Tattletale said.

“Your defensive lines are a disaster waiting to happen,” Accord said.

“Straight to the point,” Tattletale commented.

“A disaster?” Chevalier asked.

“I’m wondering if you’ve done this on purpose,” Accord stated.  His eye moved critically over Chevalier.  “You’re going to fight the Endbringer in a melee.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

“And you’ve picked the new Protectorate team with the idea that they would support you.  The core team is all ranged.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

“Ego?” Tattletale asked.

Chevalier shook his head, then thought for a moment.  “Perhaps.”

“Well, ego’s a part of the job.  Question is, can you live up to it?”

“I can try.  But more than anything, I’m not going to put people on the front line if I’m not willing to go there myself.”

“Foolish,” Accord said.  “Everyone has their place in the grand scheme of things.  You do yourself and everyone else a disservice if you try to put yourself where you don’t belong.”

Chevalier shook his head, but he didn’t reply.  There would be no convincing this one.

Accord continued, “There are only two ways you could make this plan work.  The first would be using a sword long enough to reach past his Manton effect bypass, the second is to somehow within that range and survive.”

“Accounted for,” Chevalier said, a touch irritated.  He didn’t need this.  Not now.

“Usher,” Tattletale supplied.

“Ah.  I see,” Accord said.  “And if Usher were to be struck down by a chance lightning bolt?”

“We have fallback plans.”

Accord shook his head.  “I’ll develop better.”

Chevalier grit his teeth.

“I’m watching him fight,” Tattletale said, “And something’s off.  I’ve been watching old videos of the Endbringer fights, looking over maps, and it doesn’t fit together.”

“What doesn’t?”

Her finger tapped hard on the map she’d printed out.  “Location, pacing.  They’re toying with us.  Acting.”

“You’re crediting them with more intelligence than they have.”

“Are you telling me that because you really think they’re dumb, or because you don’t want to-“

Chevalier could sense the attacker by the movement of the shadows.  He whirled around, only to find himself face to face with a cloud of the ‘shadows’.

The Yàngbǎn, one of them.

An assassin?

He couldn’t even make out the figure, behind the layers of images.  Glimpses of twenty, thirty, forty trigger events.

Defying the truce, here?  Now?

He felt his anger stirring.  He adjusted the balances of his blade, maintaining the reach, the appearance, but he altered its interaction with the rest of the world, maintaining its lightweight feel as far as he was concerned, changing it in other respects.

“You lunatic!”

He had his sword out in a flash, swung.  A forcefield appeared, but the weapon breezed through it as if it weren’t even there.

It was, in all respects except appearance, and the ease with which he moved it, a weapon that weighed upwards of fifty tons, as durable as the heaviest weapon.  The cutting edge of the ceramic blade.

His opponent slipped out of the way, and images flared with life as he drew on a power to fly.

Chevalier couldn’t make him out in the midst of the shadows.  Did the Yàngbǎn know this would trip him up, slow him down?

It didn’t matter.  The attacker didn’t have offensive strength.  Two more attacks failed to penetrate Chevalier’s armor.  He advanced, swung, thrusted, and his opponent stepped back, narrowly dodging.

Chevalier pulled the trigger, but a power flared and the shot jammed in the chamber.

Can’t afford to expend resources on this.  Have to prepare for the fight.

He followed up with more swings.  Each missed by a hair.  His opponent was scared, frantic.

And suddenly his opponent was a distance away.  The images, the movement of the clouds outside, telltale signs of being stopped in time.

He advanced, felt another attack fail to penetrate his defenses.  Again, time stopped, his opponent used the window of opportunity to back away.

In between the following two pauses, he could see Accord and Tattletale change places, moving to the door, now barred with a forcefield.

They’d have to hold their own.  Chevalier assessed his opponent, as best as he could, through the storm of hellish images.  Each of them was fractured, broken.  Nothing to be gleaned from them.

But the opponent was sloppy.  Letting him get dangerously close between resets.  It was a question of letting him make a mistake, occupying his attention, so the thinkers would be safe.  A chess game, moving the knight to keep the king in checkmate.  There was only so much space in the room, and he could position himself to force the Yàngbǎn member to move further, to have less time to act, leaving more room for a mistake.

“No,” he could hear Accord murmuring, the word barely above a whisper.  He chanced a glance at the pair.  Tattletale had a hand on her holster, and Accord had stopped her.

He didn’t get a chance to see anything further.  He felt the strength go out of his lower body, a slow but incredible pain tearing through his midsection.

The laser.  How?

He had only a moment to adjust the balances in his power, so the blade and armor wouldn’t crash through the floor and tear down half of the building.

I missed the fight, he realized, as he woke in a hospital bed.

The ground rumbled violently.  He looked up to see Tattletale in the corner of the room, half of her attention on what was happening outside the window, the other half on a phone.

“He’s here?”

She turned to him, tapped her throat.  He could see the tube in her throat.

He sighed.

She approached the bedside, attention on the phone.  She held it out for him to read.

A notepad executable read:

hes here.  defenses crumbled in a minute.  rime dead.  melted off more than half his outer body and he still fighting.  last stand to protect hosp’l for evac and he cutting them down

Chevalier shut his eyes.  We lost.

Tattletale was already typing again.  Her expression was grim as she focused on the phone.

He tried to sit up, and found himself unable.  It was a pain concentrated in one area, but it was so immense that made his entire body react.  His ears buzzed, his vision wavered, and every muscle clenched, as he lay there, trying to ride it out.

She showed him the phone as he lay there, panting.

he still at full strength.  shouldn’t be.  he’s an onion, inner rings progressively tougher.  next 15% way tougher than rest combined.

“I know this,” he gasped out the words.  He moved the sheet to examine himself.  His breastplate had been removed, and his stomach had fresh incisions on it, with sutures holding them closed.

How long had he been out?

She showed him her phone again.

they stapled your gut up.  if outer body is like this then why does he have it?  useless.

He reached up to swat the phone away, felt a pull on his stomach and winced instead.  He knocked it out of the way with his other hand.  Still painful, but easier.

She drew it out of his reach, started typing again.

He turned himself over in the bed, nearly retching at the intensity of the pain, but he found himself on his side.  Even at the weight of aluminum, the armor on his legs and hands was heavy enough to help weigh him down, hold him in position.

She offered him a hand as he swung his legs down, trying to use the momentum to sit up.  He nearly fell, but she caught him, dropping the phone onto the bed in her haste to help him stay sitting upright.

His chest heaved, and he growled out each breath.  The growling helped, on a primal level, but that wasn’t saying much.  Just sitting upright was bad enough that he thought he might pass out.

“My breastplate.”

She handed him the phone, then crossed the room to where a bundle of belongings were gathered on a chair.  They’d cut off the layer of mesh that sat beneath the armor, and the cloth that sat against his skin.  She discarded each of those and simply brought him the armor.

It had held its form.  Good.  He glanced at the phone.

outer body is cosmetc only.  why?  because he supposed to scare us.  behemoth was fashioned.  unnatural life.

She brought the front portion of the armor, resting it on the corner of the bed.  She tapped the phone.

“I read it,” he growled.  “Help me put it on.”

She tapped the phone again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.  “It won’t change the outcome of this fight.”

She nodded agreement, then lifted the armor, bringing it to his chest.

There was a crash outside, a chorus of screams.  Chevalier grit his teeth.

“Back piece,” he said.  She gave him a pointed look.

“Please,” he added, growling the word.

She turned on her heel, crossing the room to pick up the armor, slowly, almost leisurely, as she typed on the phone with one hand.  She held the armor in the other as she made her way back, then took several damnable seconds typing out the message before putting the phone down.

“We don’t have time for your typing,” he said.

She only gave him a level, silent stare, as she moved the rear portion of the armor into place.  He reached for the clasps, but moving his left arm was too painful, pulling on the muscles of his stomach.  He used his right for what he could, then waited for her to finish.

Indian doctors rushed down the hall, pushing beds on wheels, four in a row.

He conceded to pick up the phone and read what she’d typed.

they regen slower as damage is further from center.  simurgh core not in human body.  decoy.  prob in join of biggest wing instead.  Is why body fragile n slow to heal.

His eyes widened.  “We destroy the center, we destroy him?”

She gave him a look as if he’d just asked if the sky was green, incredulous.  She shook her head.

“Why the hell not?”

She just shook her head.

“I don’t know why the hell not. Where’s his center?”

She pointed with two fingers, at her collarbone.  The base of the throat, between the shoulders.  Quite possibly the deepest set part of his body.

“Help me stand.”

The entire building rumbled.  For a moment, he thought the entire point would be rendered moot as the structure collapsed.

It took three tries to get him to his feet, with him holding a shelf on the wall with his right hand, her leveraging her entire body’s strength with her shoulder under his armpit.  He stumbled forward, catching himself on the shelf, and heaved for breath, feeling the strength threaten to leave his legs with every deep inhalation and exhalation.

But he couldn’t.  Couldn’t allow himself to.

Tattletale was pulling on a blue latex glove.  He watched her as she reached out and placed a hand on the space beside the incisions, where the burn had been patched up.

“What are you doing?”

She reached for the phone.

no tear inside u.

“I could’ve told you that.”

She shrugged, her eyes on the screen, thumbs typing on the onscreen keyboard.  She raised the phone.

can try.  prob wont work.  dense enough 2 fuck wit time n space there.

“Right,” he said.  “My Cannonblade?”

She sighed, making her way to the end of the room.  She collected his Cannonblade from the floor by the chair.  He’d made it as light as it could go in every respect, before he’d passed out.  Even so, moving his left arm to try to hold it made him seize up in agony.

For now, he was a one-armed fighter.  He gripped the handle in his right hand, then exerted his power.  He could see it grow heavier, even as the weight remained effectively the same in his hand.

He rested it against one shoulder, then managed a limping step forward.  He very nearly fell.

Another step.

He focused on his power, as a way to distract himself, planting one foot in front of the other, the armor squeaking in one point where a knee joint had bent as he’d fallen after fighting the Yàngbǎn assassin.  It was easier to keep moving than to stop and start again, so he moved forward with an almost machinelike rhythm, limping.

He’d never forgive himself if they lost this fight and he didn’t even fight.

Stairs.  He had to make his way down.  One mistake, a faltering step, and he’d collapse.  He’d probably be unable to stand, if it didn’t tear his stomach apart.

He made his way down, the stitches pulling against the fresh incisions with every step.

The building shuddered.  His mind a fog of pain, he reached out for the railing for stability, only to remember he was holding his sword.  It plowed through railing as if it were a meticulous sandcastle, raining pieces on the ground below.

He swayed, and for the briefest moment, he considered that it might be easier to fall.  Easier than making it down the next ten steps.  If there was a ten percent chance his stomach stayed intact, a twenty percent chance someone could help him stand…

But he took another step down, and somewhere in the midst of planting his foot, he found his balance.

Everywhere, doctors were struggling to evacuate.  Some capes were working to help, even injured ones trying to pull things together.  Still fifty or sixty capes to evacuate.

And the bodies… people who had died because he’d failed them.  Because he hadn’t been able to defeat the assassin, to take his role at the front of the battle lines, where he could bait Behemoth into the various traps they’d laid.

He had to suppress the guilt.  There would be time for blame, self-directed or otherwise, later.  He’d bury the mental pain like he was with the physical.

This is how Behemoth fights.  Indomitable.  Never slowing.  Always progressing forward, Chevalier thought.

He could remember who he’d once been.  So long ago.  Well before he’d had his first of twenty fights against the Endbringers.  Before meeting Hannah and the rest of the original Wards.

They’d been in a car crash, in the middle of a vacation.  Strangers had stepped in, crowding the car to help his little brother out, while his parents were reeling, moaning in pain.  They’d tried to get him out too, but he’d been pinned, the car handle had been scraped away in the collision, the interior handle protected by the child locks.  They’d left, and for hours, as the emergency services arrived and the rescue continued, he’d wondered why.  He’d triggered, caught in the wreckage, but had been too insensate to do anything about it, to even realize the full gravity of what had happened in the midst of the chaos.

It was only later that he found out they were serial kidnappers.  The crash that had broken his mother’s leg in three places had been orchestrated.  So had the collection of his little brother.

Three years later, when he heard about the group again, he put together a makeshift club and armor and set about hunting them down.  He appeared in the news in the midst of tracking down the individual members, and again and again, they had described him as relentless, to the point that it had very nearly became his codename.  Revenge had been all he had left.

Then, just as he was now, he’d been fueled by anger, by pain.  He could barely see, as black spots blotted his vision.  Revenge, again, was his only option, only it was the end point, rather than the beginning.

I told myself I’d never let myself be afraid again, he thought.

His left hand was nearly useless, so he hit the double doors at the front of the temple with his sword instead.  Wood splintered as the doors parted.  He trudged forward, ignoring the doors as they swung shut, bouncing off his armor.

Record numbers show up, and this is all that’s left?

Barely fifty heroes still stood their ground.  The back lines were sheltered by giant hands of stone, Hellhound’s mutant dogs collecting the wounded, carrying them around the side of the building.  Eidolon and Alexandria wrestled with the Endbringer, fighting in close quarters against the monster.

Alexandria?

He shook his head, nearly losing his balance as he continued his forward march.  He could barely see straight, and it wasn’t helped by the phantom images that riddled the mass of capes.  Images he had called glimmers when he was a youth, that he called shadows now that he was an adult.

But Behemoth… the Endbringer was little more than a skeleton with extensive padding.  He’d never seen this much damage delivered.

Chevalier focused his power on his blade, making it as large as he could.  He continued marching forward.  There was no indication Usher was okay.  Rime was dead, and he had little idea about the state of the supporting forces who’d been intended to help him attack, who’d trained to assist him.

He extended his blade towards Behemoth, using it to gauge the distance for the kill aura.  Defending capes cleared out of his way as he walked forward, between two of the stone hands.  The shadow of his sword was warning enough.

One of Behemoth’s legs seemed less developed than the other, the toes missing, the bones less pronounced, the flesh thinner.  He reached the perimeter and slammed the weapon down into the earth with his one usable arm.

His steam nearly spent, he collapsed over the handle of the weapon, his hand still gripping the handle, and he pulled the trigger.

The size of the weapon and the effect of the firing pin seemed to help with the jammed mechanism.  That, or the transition to being closer to his largest blade had shifted something in a fractional way.  The shot blasted Behemoth in the calf of his weaker leg, and the Endbringer fell.

Again, he pulled the trigger, over and over.  Three, four, five shots.

He stopped before he spent the sixth.

He’d dealt damage, but it was precious little.  Flesh had torn at the leg, not quite as dense as it should be, by all reports.  Had the regeneration not finished rebuilding the complete structures?

Rendered effectively one-legged again, Behemoth crawled forward on three limbs.  Alexandria struck him from above, driving him face first into the ground.

Why was she here?  She was supposed to be functionally dead.

Chevalier could feel a sensation crawling through his body, an energy.  It didn’t invigorate, not on its own, but he could feel a kind of relief.

Usher was alive, and Usher’s power coursed through him.  With luck, he’d be immune to Behemoth’s power, or at least partially immune.  Nobody had received the benefit of Usher’s ability and been brave enough to venture into Behemoth’s kill range.

Chevalier pulled his sword from the ground, swayed, and very fell over.

Defiant caught him.

Old friend, Chevalier thought, though he didn’t have the breath to speak.

Anyone else might have spoken up, told him he didn’t have to do this, that it was madness.

Defiant was silent, supporting Chevalier, helping him right himself.  Defiant understood this much.  The need, the drive.

Chevalier took his first step with Defiant’s help.  The second was only partially supported.  The third was on his own.

He closed into the kill area, and he could feel the heat touch him.  It heated the armor, but didn’t reach him.  Usher’s power at work.  He tried to inhale, and found no air.  Choking, he forced his mouth shut.

Holding his breath, Chevalier brought the sword down on Behemoth’s shoulder, a blow from above much like Alexandria had delivered, followed by another.

His aim wasn’t good, the blows off target.  If his form were better, he’d be landing each strike in the same place, time after time.  Not so, with the blade this big, the margin for error so great.

With that in mind, Chevalier shrunk his sword as he closed the distance, shut his eyes as lightning crackled around the Endbringer.  With the scale smaller, the effective edge was that much sharper.  The blade bit just a fraction deeper each time.

He couldn’t stop walking without falling, couldn’t stop swinging the weapon in the same rote motion without risking that he’d never be able to raise it again, however light it might be.

His goal was the spot Tattletale had mentioned.  The core.

Behemoth swiped at him, but he was already shifting the balance of his armor, moving to block the blow with the flat of the blade.  The sound of the impact was deafening, and it wasn’t something Usher’s power protected against.  But Usher’s power was finnicky at best.  Unreliable.

At the very least, it was holding up here.

He found a measure of strength, then swung the cannonblade, driving it for the deepest part of the wound.

Behemoth lurched, changing position, and the painstakingly created notch in his shoulder shifted well out of Chevalier’s reach.  He let up on the intense heat, turned to radiation instead.  Heroes scrambled to retreat from the ominous glow.

Bastard, Chevalier swore.  He released a sound somewhere between a moan and a groan, exhaling the last of the air in his lungs, greedily sucking in air.

Something flew past him, shearing straight through Behemoth’s chest.  A wheel of metal, thin, with two bars sticking out of the center.  It cut through the Endbringer like he wasn’t even there.

Dazed, lungs fit to burst as he held his breath, barely coherent, Chevalier turned.  He saw Tecton with his piledrivers extended, Weaver just behind him, along with two of the new Wards: the white supremacist’s child they’d picked up in Boston and a boy in a white cloak.  They stood all the way at the back lines of the battlefield, by the temple, along with a character he didn’t recognize.  A girl in black.

His eyes settled on Weaver, surrounded by the nimbus of her power, which glowed with an intensity that surpassed any and all of her teammates.  When she stepped forward, it was like she was pushing against a curtain, only it was a membrane, a network of individual cells, each with tendrils extending out, so thin he couldn’t make them out, except by the highlights that seemed to rush down them as she gave conscious direction to her bugs.

Second chances, Chevalier thought back to his inauguration to the Wards.  He’d harbored doubts about taking her on board, but memories of that day had been a factor.  He’d needed a second chance.  So had Hannah.

Colin, even, though it came much later.

It was a good feeling, to see that coming into play.  He knew she wasn’t all the way there, but she’d taken a step forward.

It was a better feeling to watch as Behemoth’s shoulder shifted, attached by a mere hair.  The weapon had cut through his ribs, torn through the space where his heart should be.

That’ll do.

Alexandria hit him, and the arm came free.  Behemoth lurched, planting his one remaining hand on the ground, and came just short of collapsing on top of Chevalier.  He was only a few feet away, glowing with the radiation.

I’m dead, Chevalier thought, without a trace of the despair he’d imagined he would feel.

He tried to move, to raise his blade, only to find his armor refusing to cooperate.  It had melted, the joints and joins flowing into one another.  His sword wasn’t much better.  The ceramic properties he’d applied to the edge were heat-resistant, but the remainder of the weapon were growing more nebulous in shape, the hottest parts of the metal flowing down to obscure the edge.

He concentrated, and found his power beyond his reach.  Too tired, his stamina gone.

Trapped in a hot wreck of metal, an explosive death just a short distance away.  It had been his starting point, and it had been the end.

It would be the optimal time for a second trigger event, the thought passed through his thoughts.

Of course, the joke went that you couldn’t get a trigger event by trying to have one, so even thinking about a second trigger event was enough to banish any possibility.

Not so funny, in this moment.

His power worked best with similar things.  Differences made it slower.  It was why he had the same firing mechanism at the core of each of the three weapons he used for his Cannonblade.

Now, as the battle raged around him, he was nearly blind with the visor of his helmet melting, at his utter limit in terms of stamina and pain tolerance.  Behemoth delivered a shockwave, and Usher’s power protected him, his boots welded to the ground kept him from falling over.

He reached for his power, grasping at his armor, and he didn’t reach for anything familiar or similar.  He reached for anything, everything.  The ground, the soil, air.

Somewhere in the midst of that desperate struggle, he found his armor coming apart.  He wasn’t even willing it, not even forming any coherent idea of what he was doing, but his power operated of its own accord.

Free of the armor, he could move his weapon.  It was slag, barely a sword anymore, but the core still had some density to it.

He made it grow.

He made the sword grow, from ten to twenty feet in length.  It was more by the growth than by any action on Chevalier’s part that it extended into the wound.  The weapon penetrated into the scar Weaver’s crew had created, as close to the core as Chevalier could get it.

He made it grow to its greatest possible length, a full thirty feet, his head turned skyward to the monster that glowed silver and black.

Space and time distortion were supposed to protect it?  He’d fight fire with fire.

Flesh parted as the blade grew inside the wound.  He put his finger on the trigger, ready to fire.

Before he could, the sword’s tip touched the core, and everything went wrong.

His power abruptly ceased to take effect, and the blades came apart, in its three individual pieces.  They slid from the wound, falling down around him.

Behemoth lurched forward, and his wounded leg struck Chevalier, knocking him to the ground.  He could feel the gunshot break of multiple ribs shattering.

Supine on the ground, unable to breathe, but for tiny pants, Chevalier stared at the sky, unwilling to look directly at the ensuing scene, even if he could have managed to turn his head.

There was a horrible crash as a sweep of one claw shattered the stone hands.  Glowing silver, he loomed over the defending capes, scorched and electrocuted those who’d fallen within his instant-kill range.  One of Hellhound’s mutant dogs, Dragon.  Others he couldn’t make out in the midst of the clouds of dust.  Rendered to ash and melted armor in heartbeats.

They were the lucky ones, Chevalier thought.  The radiation was generally observed to be concentrated, limited to a certain range, manipulated to strike only those within a hundred feet or so of Behemoth, to saturate the landscape and render it uninhabitable.  These capes were close enough.  Their deaths would be slow, painful.

A failure.  Hopefully the ones in the temple had been evacuated, and the capes at the rear of the battle line free to retreat.

The ground rumbled violently, churning and smoking.  Behemoth was burrowing.

The fight was over.

Chevalier stared up at the shifting smoke of the sky above, struggling to breathe, not entirely sure why he was bothering.  Maybe he wouldn’t die of the radiation, thanks to Usher’s power.

Long moments passed as the rumbling of the earth faded in intensity.  The air was still filled with the screams and shouts of the various capes and doctors fighting to save the wounded, the dull roars of distant helicopters, carrying the evacuated capes away.

Chevalier watched as the worst of the smoke cleared, and he imagined he might have seen the glowing blur of the sun through the clouds.

Not the sun.  It was a figure.  Scion.

He would have laughed if he could.

Too late.

You showed up too late.

Scion lowered himself to nearly ground level.  His golden hair moved in the wind as he gazed over the battlefield.  His white bodysuit was smudged here or there on the sleeves, but otherwise seemed so pristine that it seemed to glow in the gloom.

No, part of that glow was real.  The faint light touched Chevalier, and he could feel his breathing ease.  It was reaching out to everyone present.

A consolation prize?  A bit of healing?  Maybe a helping hand against the radiation, for the others?

He managed a soft laugh.  The glow was making the pain easier to handle.  He could almost breathe, now.

He closed his eyes, and he felt a tear roll down from the corner of his eye.  He suspected he wouldn’t have been able to tear up without the healing.

Not sufficient to fix the broken bones, or the damage to his stomach, perhaps.  He opened his eyes to look at Scion, to ask a question.

But Scion was gone.

A noise rose up from those who remained in the crowd.  Gasps, cheers, shouts of surprise.

Chevalier forced himself to move, stared at the spear of golden light that had risen from the earth, just on the horizon.  Scion.

He held Behemoth in his grip, released the Endbringer to fall two or three hundred feet to the ground, struck his falling foe with a beam of golden light, as if to shove Behemoth into the ground.

Behemoth’s lightning crackled between them, catching Scion, but the hero didn’t even seem to flinch.  He hit Behemoth again, and this time the beam of energy didn’t stop.  With virtually every structure leveled, there was nothing to hide their view but the lingering smoke and dust, and even that wasn’t thick enough to hide the light.

The aftershock of it traveled across the city, quelling dust storms, blowing past the assembled heroes like a strong gust, faintly warm.  Even though the ray didn’t reach quite that high, the clouds of smoke and dust parted visibly above Scion.

Chevalier watched, staring, belatedly thought to count how many seconds had passed.

One, two, three, four

Behemoth generated a shockwave, but it was muted by the light, suppressed.

…eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…

Behemoth’s silhouette thrashed as he tried to move out from beneath the shaft of light, but Scion only reoriented the beam, keeping it fixed on his target.

sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one

The light ceased.  Behemoth was gone.  A plume of dust rose from the earth, at the very limits of their vision.

Scion plunged beneath the ground, heedless of the intervening terrain.

Again, Scion rose from a point beneath the shattered surface of the city.

Again, he held Behemoth in his hands.  Thinner than a skeleton, the Endbringer was little more than a stick figure from Chevalier’s vantage point.

Only this time, with a flare of golden light to accompany the movement, he tore the Endbringer in two.  The legs came free of the pelvis as two individual pieces, and Scion obliterated them with a pulse of the golden light.  The air that reached the crowd of wounded heroes was cool, this time.

In Chevalier’s peripheral vision, people were emerging from within the temple.  Chevalier didn’t spare them a direct glance.  If he was seeing what he thought he was seeing, then he wouldn’t take his eyes off the scene for anything.

Behemoth slammed his claw into the glowing hero, and the shockwave tore him free of Scion’s grip.  Scion followed him with a glowing sphere of light, and Behemoth redirected his fall, generating an explosion in mid-air, hurling himself towards the assembled crowd.

Eidolon stopped him with a violet forcefield that spread across the sky, a solid obstacle to arrest Behemoth’s momentum, stopping him dead in his tracks and leaving him suspended a hundred feet up in the air.  His one intact claw clutched the edge.

Scion followed up with another shaft of light, and the forcefield shattered in an instant.  Behemoth was slammed into the road, three streets down from the gathered heroes outside the temple.

The Endbringer glowed, and the swelling light was too intense to look at.

Just seeing it, there was no question of what he was doing.  A final act of spite.  Turning himself into a bomb.

A stream of darkness poured from one of the helicopters, filling the street Behemoth lay in.  For an instant, the Endbringer was almost entirely obscured.

Scion fired one more beam, and the darkness was obliterated, swept away.

The silhouette of the Endbringer flickered, then disintegrated.  There was no detonation, no destruction to the landscape.  Only the cleansing light.

The beam dissipated, but its effects hung in the air, canceling out noise, stilling the air.

Slowly, the crowd took up a cheer, a cry of victory from everyone with the breath to spare.

As noise returned to the landscape, the stilling effects of Scion’s light fading, Chevalier closed his eyes, listening.  With the noise of the helicopters and distant fires mingling with the shouts and hollers of joy from the defending capes, he imagined he could hear the whole world cheering alongside them.

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Crushed 24.3

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Eidolon and Alexandria had settled into something of a rhythm.  Though his powerset was similar to Alexandria’s on the surface, the eerie noises and the dimming of the light around the areas his punches landed suggested he was transmuting the kinetic energy of his punches into something else altogether.  Between Eidolon’s strikes and Alexandria’s, Behemoth couldn’t quite adapt to the point where he was redirecting every strike, let alone the barrage of ranged attacks that the other capes in the area were directing his way.

The Endbringer staggered under the onslaught, but he was slowly adapting.  They’d managed to pin him for a minute, even costing him some ground by driving him back once or twice, but each successive minute saw him rolling with the punches more, advancing further when he found a second or two of mild reprieve.

His target: the command center.  Our flying capes weren’t working fast enough to clear the entire rooftop, and every shaker we had -every cape capable of putting up a forcefield or creating a portal, raising a barrier- was busy trying to slow down the brute.  The Chicago Wards, or most of the Chicago Wards were among them.

I tensed, but I couldn’t move without exposing myself to one of the lances of electricity that were crashing down around us.  The capes on the rooftop were protected by an arrangement of tinker-made forcefields, it seemed, but those wouldn’t hold.  Fuck, hanging around on rooftops was dumb.  I’d learned my lesson on my first night out on costume, had avoided being put in that position since, excepting the fundraiser, where we’d been on the attack, and the time Defiant and Dragon had dragged me up to one, just a bit ago.

The guys up there were tinkers and thinkers.  They were our communications, supporting roles, strategists and healers.  A few of them were long-ranged capes.  Not really people who could hop or fly down five stories to the ground and walk away unscathed.  Not without help.

I waited and watched as Behemoth engaged the other capes, tracking what powers he was using and when.  He was presently staggering forward when he could, otherwise holding his ground, deflecting and redirecting attacks.  When he was free to do so, he reached out with his claws, and lightning lanced out to tear through the assembled capes.

Golem, to his credit, was going all out.  Hands of stone and metal rose from the ground to shield defending capes and balk Behemoth’s progress.  I could make out Hoyden, leader or second in command of the Austin Wards.  She wasn’t on the front lines, but was defending the mid-line capes.  It made sense with how her power worked, as her defensive powers provided more cover from attacks at greater ranges.  She threw herself in the way of lightning bolts and stood between Behemoth and the wounded.  When lightning struck her, detonations ripped out from the point of impact, seeming almost to short out the currents.

“Come on, come on,” I muttered.

I could see Tecton creating fissures in the ground, no doubt intended to reduce the reach and effects of Behemoth’s stomps.  Annex was creating bridges so heroes wouldn’t fall into the gaps.

Dispatch, vice-captain of the Houston Protectorate team, zipped over to a group of wounded with accelerated speed, only to seem to pause, as though he and his immediate surroundings were only video footage.  Color and space distorted violently in an irregular area around him as he hung there, just an inch over the ground, one hand at his belt and another reaching for someone with intense burns.

A half-second later, the effect dissipated, and they were all moving.  Dispatch was carrying one of the most wounded, gloves off and the sleeves of his costume pulled up, dried blood up to his elbows.  Others were bandaged and sutured.  His name, I knew, came from his ability to pick out targets in a fight, closing the distance to them and catching them in his temporal distortion effect.  He’d have minutes or hours, however long it took the air within the effect to run out, to end the fight with his super strength, durability and the close confines of the bubble.  To any observers, it appeared as though he’d won the fight in a heartbeat.  Apparently the idea extended to medical care.

Revel, leader of the Chicago Protectorate and official overseer of Tecton’s Ward team, was stepping up to the plate.  Floating up to it, whatever.  She rose into the air, and caught one full current of lightning inside her lantern.  The sheer force of the blast knocked her back, and she struck a wall, pressed against it with her lantern held in front of her.

She began releasing spheres of light from the lantern, each larger than a human head, slow-moving but numerous.  Their trajectories were unpredictable, some striking friendlies, others carrying forward towards Behemoth.  Where they struck friendlies, they only exploded in brilliant showers of sparks.  When they touched Behemoth, they sheared right into him, cutting two or three feet deep before flickering out.

When she saw it was working, she only intensified the assault, spending the charge she’d accumulated to create fifty more orbs, before hurrying forward to intercept another stream of lightning that was flowing from Behemoth’s claw-tip.  It was impossible to actually get in front before the lightning appeared, to save the lives that Behemoth was taking with the initial moments the lightning appeared, but she was stopping the lightning from flickering to the fourth, fifth or sixth target.

That was what I was waiting for.  My limited experience with Endbringers had taught me one thing.  When someone actually found a way to respond, to cancel out the attacks or to deliver a measure of real damage, they changed tactics.

Some capes were already responding.  Captains and leaders were giving orders, and various barriers were being reinforced or thrown back up.  Some were trying to give the warning, but their voices disappeared in the midst of the chaos around us.

“Take cover!” I hollered, and my swarm carried my voice.

It was only two or three seconds later, as the second wave of spheres drifted to Behemoth and began to cut into his torso and groin area, that he responded.  His ‘mouth’ opened, the craggy spikes of obsidian ‘teeth’ parting.

And he roared.  A sound that was slow at first, growing steadily more powerful.

Sound was a bitch of a thing.  It could be muffled, but blocking it entirely?  We didn’t have Grue.

I fled, cranking my antigrav to ‘high’ and risking unfolding my wings to use the propulsion systems as I made my way to for cover, putting as many buildings between Behemoth and I as I could.

My swarm responded to my call, assisting the capes who weren’t fleeing fast enough.  They rose as a singular mass, a wall of tens of thousands, and absorbed the worst of the scream.  I wasn’t sure it was enough.  Even with some distance and a dozen buildings between Behemoth and I, I had no defenses as it reached a crescendo.  My sense of balance went out the window, my very bones hurt.

Closer to Behemoth, capes were bleeding from their ears, vomiting, passing out.  Organs and brains would be reduced to jelly as he continued.  My bugs weren’t doing much to muffle the noise or soften the damage, if they were helping at all.

But my focus was on the rooftop.  I’d been waiting until he stopped using his lightning.  There was nothing saying he wouldn’t use it now.  He could use multiple attack forms at the same time.  Still, he was more focused on picking off the defending capes, the ones who were suppressing the noise.  Was Citrine among them?  I could see the golden glow of her power in the distance.

Director Tagg had given me an effective ranking of two for every single power classification.  Ostensibly, it had been because he hadn’t wanted to underestimate me.  Was there a note of truth to that, though?  I wasn’t sure about the ‘brute’ or ‘mover’ classifications, but did my power over bugs afford me a versatility that let me cover the bases on other fronts?

They still hadn’t completely evacuated the roof.  The people who might have helped them down were disabled or otherwise occupied.  Getting them down was key, here.  The flying capes were more focused on assisting the capes near the front lines, helping the ones who could deal damage escape Behemoth’s implacable advance and avoid the kill aura that accompanied him.

The roaring made it impossible to hear.  Even seeing was difficult, as my vision distorted and lost focus.  I very nearly tipped over, until I turned to my swarm sense.  Not perfect.  Even they were suffering, scattered and dying, at close range to the roar.  But it gave me an orientation, a plane to compare the tilt and angle of my body with.

I looped to one side to intercept some of my bugs, collecting the strands of silk they’d woven in one hand, then made my way around to the back of the building the heroes were clustered on.  Flying capes were settled on the ground, pausing to recuperate from the roar.  I took a second, myself, to get my bearings.  My back against the concrete, I could feel the building shuddering in response to the roar.  But at least there was a small degree of reprieve, here.

When I’d caught my breath and reassured myself my insides hadn’t been vibrated to pieces, I flew to the rooftop.  My bugs swept over the crowd.  No Tattletale that I could see.  No Accord, either, for that matter.

Two capes approached me, not quite Caucasian but lighter-skinned than the Indian capes.  One had a costume with a spiral to it, the other wore armor with tiny faces that looked like baby’s heads.  Was he a villain?  They were rattling off something in French or Spanish as they reached out to take my hands.  Their eyes were wide with fear and alarm.

“I can’t carry you!” I shouted, raising my voice to be heard over the perpetual roar.  “My flight pack isn’t strong enough!”

They clutched at me, and one even pushed at another cape who’d gotten too close.

A little too much.  Too intense, here, too forceful.  I just want to find Tattletale.  I’ll find a way to help you once I’ve done that.

“Back off!” I said, raising my voice.

The guy with the faces on his armor shouted so forcefully that spit flew from his mouth, as he pointed to the ground beyond the building.  He approached me, trying to hug himself tight to my body.  I pushed him away and backed up, trusting the antigrav to hold me aloft.

One of the capes on the rooftop approached me, pushing her way through the crowd.  She wore a golden mask with a woman’s face, the mouth parted a fraction, with a black bodysuit.  It was softened a touch by the loose black cloth that draped down from her golden shoulderpads and breastplate.  The black didn’t look so dramatic as it might have, mottled a brown-gray by the loose dust that had accumulated on it.

“Weaver,” she said, her voice melodic.

“Arbiter,” I responded.  One of Rime’s underlings.  The one with the social danger sense, forcefield and sonic beam.  I supposed her forcefield wasn’t quite large enough or versatile enough to offer a bridge down to the ground.  “I’ve got other stuff I need to pay attention to.  Don’t suppose you speak French?  Or Spanish?”

“Portuguese,” she said.  “And no, but give me a moment.”

She turned to the capes, but a heavy crash interrupted her before she could speak.

A building had fallen, toppling, and Behemoth hadn’t done anything to precipitate it.  Nothing except the roaring.

Was that enough?  Was this building coming apart beneath us?

Where the hell was Tattletale?  My bugs flowed into cracks in the building, checking rooms only to find them empty.

“Hurry!” I said.  I turned my attention to my swarm.  They extended out beneath me, forming into neat lines.  My bugs were slow to move through the structure.  I had to use the cracks that already existed in the walls, ducts and vents that just happened to be open.

“Speak to me,” Arbiter said to the Portuguese capes.

The one with the spiral costume chattered out something I couldn’t even guess at.  Arbiter nodded.  In very broken Portuguese, she asked a question.  The spiral man looked at the one with him, gesturing.

In less broken Portuguese, she spoke again.

That prompted another burst of explanation, or what I took to be exclamation.  They sounded desperate, afraid.

When she responded, she spoke just as quickly and flawlessly as the two native speakers.  She’d picked up the language in a matter of three exchanges.

I bit my tongue as the roar abruptly intensified, jarring me enough that my jaw was slammed shut.  It wasn’t that he was roaring louder; one of the capes who’d been keeping the worst of the noise at bay had fallen.

Focus.  My bugs extended lines of silk to the ground, while others held it aloft and kept it more or less straight, allowing the lengths to be carefully measured, the amount of slack controlled.

“Weaver!” Arbiter said, raising her voice so I could hear her.

I turned around.

“I don’t quite understand, there’s a gap in translation, but he says he’s pregnant with his dead teammates,” she said.  Her voice cut through the noise, “They’re asking for him to be rescued next.”

Pregnant with dead teammates?

Suddenly the little faces on his armor seemed twice as creepy.  I really hoped that was a tragically bad translation.  Parahumans could be so fucked up sometimes.

“He gets rescued with everyone else,” I said.  “There’s no way to prioritize.”

“Right,” Arbiter said.

I secured the lines of silk on the roof’s edge and on the ground.  I then pulled off a shoulderpad and retrieved the strip of silk that had held it in place.  I folded it over the cord and stepped over the edge, letting myself slide down the length of the cord.  Both ends were tied, and the slack was enough that it should ease people to the ground.  I was okay with doing the test run, as my flight pack could handle the fall.

It didn’t break.  Good.  Better than nothing.  I flew back to the rooftop, and I could feel the roar rattling me as I made my way up past the more solid cover.

“Should be fairly safe,” I said, “Silk cord got warm, from what my bugs are feeling, but I’ve got six arranged.  One person at a time, delay by about… twenty seconds, at least, between trips, so the heat and friction doesn’t wear through the silk.  It’s not the strongest thread I’ve ever made.”

Arbiter glanced over the roof’s edge.  I followed her gaze.  The silk was barely even visible.

“You’re sure they’ll hold?”

“No,” I said.  I glanced over at Behemoth, “But I’m less sure this building’ll be standing in five minutes.  If a cape falls and dies, I’ll take the blame.  Better than having everyone up here die.”

“You’re not convincing me,” she said, but she said something to the cape with the spirals on his costume.  With gestures and careful explanation, she got him to step up to the front, pulling his glove free of his fingers, using the excess fabric to slide down the silk line.

My bugs checked it after he’d passed.  Warm, but not so much that I was worried it’d split.

“Go!  Go!”  Arbiter said, grabbing the attention of the capes who’d been standing back and watching.

In seconds, we had capes sliding down the lines.  Arbiter was careful to keep them from overloading or applying too much friction too fast to the makeshift ziplines.

Behemoth had stopped his endless roaring.  He was using fire, now.  There was none of the uncanny precision the lightning had, but the fire moved with intelligence, spread easily, burned hotter than it should have, and it was virtually impossible to stop all of it.  It slipped between force fields, between the fingers of Golem’s stone hands, and it ignited any fabric and wood it touched, set grass alight.

I had to pull back my bugs.  I’d managed to keep the vast majority from dying, some fires and casualties from the roaring excepted, but this wasn’t a place where they’d help.

Six more capes made their way down the line.  Arbiter used her forcefield to block some more agitated capes from making their way down before it was time.  She spoke in one of the local languages to the group.

“Thank you,” I told her.  “For helping keep this sane.  If it comes down to it, and the cords don’t hold, I’ll lend you my flight pack.  I can control it remotely.”

“Give it to someone else before you give it to me,” she said, without looking at me.

“Right,” I answered.  “Listen, I’m-”

A cape gripped the cord for his turn, only to turn out to be far heavier than he looked.  Arbiter placed a forcefield under him, but it didn’t do much more than slow his descent as he crashed through it.

Five cords remained, and there were too many capes here.

Fuck,” I said.

“He’s okay,” Arbiter observed.

But the others seemed more reticient now.

“What the hell is going on downstairs?  Are stairs too difficult?”

Arbiter shook her head.  “Government building, it’s set up to lock down in a crisis, which it did.  A rogue cape turned on the people inside, so the metal doors closed to protect others.  We’ve been reeling since.  Command structure’s down, our battle lines collapsed-”

“You’re talking about Chevalier.”

“Yes.”

“Then where’s Tattletale?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Teenage girl, dirty blond, costume of black and light purple.  She would’ve been with a short man wearing a suit.”

“I saw them.  They went downstairs with Chevalier.”

I could feel my heart in my throat.  “Where are they now?”

“With other wounded.  We’re relaying them a half-mile that way,” Arbiter pointed.  “Far enough away that Behemoth won’t be endangering them anytime soon.”

Behemoth generated a shockwave, and one forcefield at the front of the roof flickered and died.  A tinker moved forward to try to restart it, and was struck down by a bolt of lightning before she could.

A wave of capes mustered the courage and slid down.  There were only eleven of us on the rooftop now, myself and Arbiter included.

I checked the lines, then cut one that was too frayed.  Four left.

“Four lines left,” I reported, before someone reached for one that wasn’t there.  My thoughts, though, were on Tattletale.  Injured or dead.

“Go,” Arbiter said.  “To your friend, your teammate, your partner, whatever she is to you, she’s important.”

I shook my head.  “You need me.  I can use my bugs to check the lines are okay.”

“There won’t be any major difference if you’re here or not.  Three more trips-”

A flying cape touched the rooftop only long enough to take hold of one of the people on top, then took off again.

“Maybe two trips, and we’re clear.  I’ll go last.  Go.

Another shockwave knocked out another forcefield panel.  A tinker was working on the generator, best as she could while hunkering down behind the sole remaining panel.  She said something frantic.  I couldn’t understand her, whatever her language, but I could guess.  It wasn’t her tech.

I hesitated, wanting to take the offer to escape.  Then I shook my head.  “I’ll stay.  Tattletale’s important to me, but so is doing what I can here.  I can check the lines in a way nobody else here can.”

Arbiter only nodded, her eyes on the ongoing fight.

I drew up decoy-swarms, placing them across the rooftop, and stepped off the rooftop, hovering and using the building for cover.  Arbiter raised her forcefield to fill some of the gap in the tinker-created field, crouching in the crowd of swarm-people.  Others followed suit.  I covered them as much as I could without obscuring their vision.

Seconds passed before Arbiter gave the go-ahead.  Capes evacuated the rooftop.

Behemoth’s lightning strike flashed through our ranks, right over Arbiter’s squatter forcefield, through two decoys and striking a cape.

The crash of thunder seemed almost delayed, synced more to the cape going limp than the flash itself.  The body struck the roofop, dead before it touched ground.

Had the decoys spared two people from being hit, or was it chance that the bolt had made contact with them?  Fuck.  Having more information would be key, here.

Behemoth was continuing to suffer blows.  His progress had all but stalled, but he wasn’t changing tactics.  Why?

Did he have a strategy?  The Simurgh was supposed to be the tactician, Leviathan had the brute cunning.  Was Behemoth harboring a certain degree of intelligence?

I didn’t like that idea, but I couldn’t think of a good way to explain just why he was willing to stand there and take abuse.

Flying capes evacuated two more.  Arbiter gave the go-ahead for more to use the ziplines.

That left only the two of us here, and I had cover, at the least.

Lightning lanced past us, burning much of its initial charge on the forcefield.  It danced through the ranks of my decoy bugs.  Arbiter was left untouched.

“Damn,” she muttered.  “Damn, damn, damn.”

“Fuck waiting for heat to dissipate, just use the zipline,” I said.  “Hurry.  Second one, it’s least worn, coolest.”

She half-crawled, half-ran to me.  I handed her the strap that I’d used for the test run, and she looped it over the line.

I followed her to the ground, my hand on the armor at her collar.  I probably didn’t have the lift to keep her from falling, but I might have been able to soften the blow.

Not that it mattered.  The zipline remained intact, and she touched ground with a grunt.

I found Rime, casting wave after wave of crystals at Behemoth.  He was using shockwaves and fire to prematurely detonate or push away Revel’s spheres, and Rime’s attacks were suffering from a similar angle.

Rime was second in command, wasn’t she?  Or was it Prism?

Rime would be more receptive to listening, either way.  I used my bugs to speak to her.  “Command center evacuated.  Can relax front line if you need to.”

She didn’t respond to me, but I could make out her orders as she shouted the words, “Fall back!  Stagger the retreat!”

I exhaled slowly.

“You’ve done your duty.  Go to your friend.  Figure out what’s going on,” Arbiter said.

I nodded and took off.

Through my bugs, I spoke to Tecton, “Back shortly.

He mumbled something I couldn’t make out.  It might have been ‘okay’.

As I got more distance, I felt safe to withdraw the wings again.  I picked up in speed, putting Behemoth and the fighting behind me.

I found a temple with wounded inside.  The exterior was opulent, the interior doubly so.  Now it was a triage area.  There were more burns here, crushed limbs, people coughing violently.  It wasn’t damage suffered from direct confrontation with Behemoth.  It was secondary damage, taken from the fires and smoke of burning buildings.

And inside one curtained area, there were the wounded capes.  I approached, folding the wings away and moving forward with antigrav and the occasional touch of foot against ground to propel myself forward further.

I stopped by Tattletale’s bedside.  I’d found her within instants of the temple falling in my range.  Her lips moved as she recognized me, but no sound came out.  My eyes moved to the tube sticking out of her throat.

“You really gotta stop doing this,” I said.

She only grinned.  She reached over to the bedside table and retrieved a pen and notepad.  Her grin fell from her face as she wrote something, then tore the page free, handing it to me.

he’s going easy on us.  all Endbringers are.  but Behemoth holding back, even from moment he arrive.  taking more hits than he should.

“We already knew that they’re holding back for some reason,” I said.  “The way they space out attacks, they could accelerate the timetable or coordinate their strikes if they wanted to fuck us over.”

Another note:

they want to lose I think.  set themselves up to fail.  but not fail so bad they risk dying.  levi was after something, noelle I think.  but why didn’t he show up closer to downtown?

“I don’t know,” I said.  I felt a little chilled at the idea that this was the Endbringers pulling their punches.

big b wants something.  not at india gate.  somewhere past it.  why not come up right underneath it?

“I don’t know,” I repeated myself.  “It doesn’t matter.”

matters.  looked at past attacks.  pattern.  small pattern.  behe attacks nuclear reactor, appears some distance away.  attacks birdcage, appears in rockies, no sign he was close or beneath cage.  pattern says he wouldn’t emerge this close if he just wanted to attack india gate.  He attacking something north of it.

“Just tell me, is there anything I can do?”

I was trying to find his target.  accord was trying to find way to stop him, coordinate counteroffense.  accord dead, I useless.  get me computer?  maybe I can help still.  Ppl here not helping.  scared of me.

Accord was dead?  What did that spell for the Undersider-Ambassador alliance?

No.  I couldn’t let myself get distracted.  There were more immediate concerns.

“Computers are probably down,” I said.  “I think there’s too much electromagnetic energy, no cell towers, no radio, no internet.  Armbands aren’t working, and I’d expect them to be the last thing to stop working.”

She spent an inordinate amount of time writing the next message.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other while I waited for her to finish, then accepted the note and read it.

FUCK

Each letter had been traced over several times, and the entire thing had been underlined twice.

I glanced at her, and she was scowling, already writing the next message.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.  “You’re a distance away from the fighting, maybe a phone works.”

But she was already handing me the next piece of paper.

you go.  find it.  find his objective.

“There’s other capes better for that than me.”

get help then.  but you can use swarm.  search.  we win this by denying him his target.

I frowned, but I didn’t refuse her.  I started to leave, then hesitated, turning back to her.  I opened my mouth to speak, then saw the note.

go already.  I ok.  I get healer another day.  not worried.

And I was gone, flying over the heads of the wounded as I made my way to the front door.

The availability of healing made for an interesting, if ugly, dynamic.  Capes like Tattletale, capes like me could be reckless, we’d get our faces slashed open, our backs broken, our throats severed, blinded and burned, and we’d get mended back to a near-pristine condition.  Tattletale still had faint scars at the corners of her mouth, regenerated by Brian after his second trigger event, but she’d mended almost to full.  I’d had injuries of a much more life-altering scale undone by Panacea and Scapegoat.

If we died, we were dead, no question, unless I gave consideration to Alexandria’s apparent resurrection.  But an injury, no matter how grave?  That was something that could be remedied, it lent a feeling of invulnerability, an image of invulnerability.  So we continued being reckless, and we would continue to be reckless until something finally killed us off.

Was there a way to break that pattern?  Could I afford to?  My ability to throw myself headlong into a dangerous situation was part of the reason for my success.

I looped back towards the main confrontation, finding the thinkers I’d helped off the rooftop.  Some were moving to assist allies, others were fleeing.  One pocket, at a glance, seemed to be trying to form a second command center.

I moved towards the cluster of them.

Two Indian capes, one Caucasian.

“English?” I asked.

“Yes,” the Caucasian said.  “Just me.”

“Trying to enlist help.  Names and powers?”

“Kismet, balance thinker,” the Caucasian said.  He wore a white robe with a hard, faceless mask that had only slits for the eyes.

“And the other two?”

“As far as I can tell, Fathom and Particulate.  Best translations I can give.  My Punjabi isn’t strong.”

“Their powers?” I asked, with a restrained patience.

“Displaces people or things to another dimension, filled with water, brings them back.  Particulate’s a dust tinker.”

What the fuck is a dust tinker?  Or a balance thinker, for that matter?

“Okay, I’m going to find others,” I said.

“Wait, what’s the project?”

“A mission.  Finding whatever it is that Behemoth wants.”

“We’ve got others on that already.”

“Nobody’s reported back,” I said, “Or at least, nobody’s formed a defensive line or put safeguards in place.”

“You’re sure he’s after something?  They’ve attacked cities just to kill people before, and this is a dense population center.”

“He’s after something,” I said. “He’s got a direction, and a friend told me he’s targeting a point beyond where the heroes are searching.”

“We’ll help look,” he said. He rattled off a few lines of Punjabi to the capes in his company.  One of them, Particulate, I took it, removed what looked like a fat smart phone from one pocket.  He peered at it.  Some sort of scanning instrument.

“Hey, either of you have a phone?”  I asked.

Kismet nodded, then handed me the phone.

“Can I keep it?”  I asked.  “I can get it back to you later, probably.”

He made an exasperated noise.  “I thought you wanted to make a call, not keep it.”

“It’d be for a good cause,” I promised.

He sighed, “Take it, then.”

I wound silk around it and then had bugs carry it off in Tattletale’s direction.

“You think it’s a cache of nuclear weapons, or what?”  Kismet asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Go look, towards India Gate.  I’m going to round up others.”

“On it,” he said, before speaking another line of Punjabi.  “And kid?”

I hesitated in mid-air.

“Thanks, for the escape route from that rooftop.”

I didn’t respond, taking off.  Rude, maybe, but taking the time to respond was stupid, when there was this much going on.  Making me wait while he thanked me was similarly dumb.

I waited until the phone reached Tattletale’s hands, then drew closer to the fighting, and the capes who were closer to the battlefront.  When Rime was in my power’s reach, I contacted her.

Tattletale thinks she has a lead on Behemoth’s objective.  Mobilizing thinkers to find it.

I was nearly drowned out by the chaos of the fighting.  Behemoth was standing partially inside a building, and it was blazing, pieces of it falling down with every heavy impact the heroes delivered.

“Say again,” she said.

I repeated myself, speaking the words aloud under my breath, to gauge the proper way to form the sounds with my swarm.

“Good,” she said.  And that was all.  She was fighting again, trying to freeze the building so Behemoth was encased.

I found two more thinkers and gave them directions.  We’d search the area beyond the Rajpath.

Behemoth generated a shockwave, and I could sense the heroes reacting to it.  The only cover here was cover heroes like Golem were creating, and the concussive shock traveled through the air, knocking capes off their feet or out of the air.

I grit my teeth and pressed my back to a building as it rolled past me, fell over at the impact.

The Endbringer strode forward, using the momentary break in the attack to cover more ground.  Unfortunate capes who’d been pushing their luck were left trying to run for cover, only to be caught within his kill aura.

Rachel rescued one or two, though the heroes might have debated the nature of the rescue.  Her dogs seized people in their mouths, running, dropping them at a safe distance, before moving in to retrieve more people.  Some of the rescued individuals were left slowly climbing to their feet, no doubt bruised from the dog’s teeth and dripping with drool.

One dog, a person in its mouth, was struck by a bolt of lightning.  It fell, sprawling, then slowly climbed to its feet.  I could tell with my bugs, that the person in its mouth was no longer alive.  Still, it dutifully carried the body to safety and deposited it on the ground, before limping back towards the battle.

I belatedly remembered to pay attention to my team.  Tecton was busy erecting barriers, raising the earth in shelves with his piledrivers. Annex was reinforcing everything, fixing other people’s work, providing loose cover for ranged heroes to hide behind, and delaying collapses.  Powerful.

Grace, using her strength to carry the wounded.  Wanton was venturing into more dangerous ground with the safety of his telekinetic body, returning to human form to help the wounded and trapped, then retreating with the same form, moving on to the next person.  Cuff was helping a tinker.

Golem was forming barriers, limiting the movements of Behemoth’s legs, and shoring up the building the Endbringer was wading through.

The constructions weren’t doing enough.  We needed to change tactics now that this wasn’t working, sort of like the Endbringers did.  If not constructions, then maybe destructions.

Tecton, pits.  Have Annex cover them,” I ordered.  “Think controlled collapses.

I couldn’t make out his response.  I hoped that didn’t mean he couldn’t make out my statements.

You’re in charge until I get back.  I have other orders,” I added.

I returned to collecting thinkers and other stray capes, taking only a minute before heading for our destination.

There were heroes and PRT officials at India Gate, and lined up across the Rajpath.  A handful of thinkers and tinkers were here.  Not ones I’d sent, but official ones, directed to scan and search for whatever Behemoth might be after.

Search north,” I communicated, sending moths and butterflies to pass on the message.  I didn’t wait to see if they’d listen.  I kept moving.

I zig-zagged across the landscape, scanning every surface with my bugs, as the fighting continued in the distance.  Behemoth wasn’t quite visible from this vantage point, but the cloud of smoke and the lightning suggested it wouldn’t be long.

How many capes had he killed?  How many more would die?

I crossed paths with Particulate, who had apparently been filled in by Kismet.  He handed me one of the scanning devices, and I took off.

Damn tinkers.  Their stuff was making life so complicated, now.  Too many things to keep track of.  Antigrav, propulsion, sensing things with my bugs, paying attention to what I was sensing with my bugs, coordinating people, with sectors for them to cover, and now tracking the stuff with the scanner.

Not that it was impossible.  I was managing everything but the bugspeak without a problem.

The scanner showed me only gibberish at first, with sixteen bars divided into eight individual pieces, each of which could be any number of colors.  Each rose and fell as I moved and as I turned the scanner.  Moving past Particulate, I noted that the rise and fall of the bars was linked to my relation to his scanner.

We were triangulating.  Or did we not have a third?  Kismet was somewhere out of my range, at present, as was Fathom, so I couldn’t be sure.

The bars rose as I pointed in Behemoth’s direction, a mix of blues, greens, yellows and reds.  Was it tracking energy?

I turned away, and found another bump, almost all white, the rest yellow.  Nothing tracked in any significant quantity at Behemoth’s location.

It was something.  I circled around until the bars reached a peak, every single one of them topping the charts.

Nothing.  I used my power, but I couldn’t find anything more complex than a desktop computer.

Then it adjusted.  The bars each dropped until they were only four or five high.

Was Particulate doing something on his end?

It dawned on me, as I tried to narrow down our target, that this was big.  Something that topped the basic readings just by being within a mile of it.

And I found it.  My bugs could sense an underground chamber.  Concrete walls, impenetrable to earthworms, and no obvious entrance.  I looped back to communicate to the others.  The English-speakers, anyways.

Then, as the faster and the closer thinkers caught up with me, I approached the site.

Particulate and Kismet joined me.

This underground chamber was different from the one I’d seen closer to Behemoth.  There was no ramp leading up, nothing to suggest an elevator.

“Not sure how to get through,” I said.

“Smart of them,” Kismet said.

“I know, but it doesn’t help us.”

Kismet said something to Particulate, and the tinker drew a gun from a holster with an excess of care.

Then he fired.  There was no beam, no projectile.  There was only a corridor, three feet across, carved into the earth, and plumes of dust.

We backed away, Kismet coughing as he caught some of it.  Particulate, a tinker with a narrow, overlong bald head, said something in his language, almost musical, humorous.  He glanced at me, his eyes covered by goggles, his mouth covered by a fabric that hugged every wrinkle of his lower face, as though it were a micron thick, and smiled.  I could see the contours of his teeth and gums behind the strange fabric.

“Battery,” Kismet said, stopping to cough, “is dead.  Three shots.  Tried two on Behemoth, didn’t work.  He likes that it was useful.”

“Damn,” I said.  If they had worked…

I didn’t waste any more time.  I handed them a length of cord, then disappeared down the hole.  My feet skidded on the smooth, almost glassy surface, but my flight pack gave me some lift.

Now that I was lower, I was free to feel out the surroundings, and mentally map out the entire complex.  It took time, but the others were slow to descend to the lower corridor.

Was there a whole undercity beneath New Delhi?  Some kind of subterranean realm of corridors and rooms, large and small?  Did the good and bad ‘cold’ capes accidentally dig into each other’s corridors at any point?  Collapse sections of each other’s undercity?

Geez, it wasn’t like the city wasn’t large enough already.

I was drawing a mental picture as my bugs spread out.  There were people here, but they weren’t doing anything special.  Sleeping, cooking, fucking, smoking some sort of pipes… no.

And in the midst of it, as Particulate adjusted his tracking device to further narrow the sensitivity, we closed in on a void.  A part of the underground chamber my bugs couldn’t touch.

Particulate said something, arching his eyebrows as he looked down at the scanner.

“A lot of energy,” Kismet translated.

“How much is a lot?” I asked.

Particulate spoke without Kismet translating for him.

“More than Behemoth has given off during his entire stay in New Delhi,” Kismet said.

I stared at the little scanner and the white bars.  “There’s no way in, as far as I can tell.”

“There wasn’t a way into this base either,” Kismet said.  “Maybe they have a way to enter and leave.”

“Okay,” I said.  “We know where Behemoth’s target is, even if we don’t know what it is.  Let’s retreat, communicate with-”

But Particulate was already moving, tampering with the gun that had created the corridor.

“Stop him!” I said.

Kismet reached over, but Particulate was already tossing the gun to the point where the floor met the wall.

It started flashing rapidly, increasingly bright, and Particulate bolted.  It was almost comical, as though he’d been taught to run by a textbook.  His hands were out flat at his sides, his arms and legs bent at rigid right angles as he sprinted away, almost robotic in the movements.  He shouted something in Punjabi.

Almost comical.  When you saw a bomb disposal team running, as the joke went, you ran to keep up.  The same applied to any tinker and a device that flashed like that.  Kismet and I ran after him.

The gun exploded, silently, without fire or light or electricity.  There was only a roughly spherical opening carved into the area.  It was wide enough to lead into the tunnel above and below us, and had sheared through the five or six feet of solid earth that separated each floor.  At the far end, I could see where it had cut into a corner of the previously inaccessible room.

We approached, and I could see a cape inside, or a parahuman, if ‘cape’ applied.  He was disheveled, with dark circles under his eyes, his skin pale, his beard and hair bedraggled.  His clothing, by contrast, was opulent, clean: a rich indigo robe, a sapphire set in a gold chain, a gold chain for a belt, and a golden sash.

And above him, the energy.  There were two golden discs, and something almost alive seemed to crackle between them.

“It’s Phir Sē,” Kismet said, backing away.

“The glowing thing in the air or the person?”  I asked.

“The person.”

“Who’s Phir See?”  I asked.

Sē.  He’s one of the reasons the American girl’s PRT can exist,” Kismet said.  “When they talk about disbanding it, the PRT only reminds them that monsters like this lurk elsewhere.”

The man slowly turned to face us.  He wasn’t an old man, but he moved like one.

“Monsters?”  I asked.  “I’ve fought monsters.  Just tell me what kind of monster he is.”

“The kind that is too smart for all of our good,” Kismet said.  He’d frozen the moment the man set eyes on him.

Phir Sē spoke, “That is compliment?  Yes?”

“Yes,” Kismet said.

“Then I thank you.  Girl?  I recognize you from American television.”

“I go by Weaver, now.”

“I do remember.  You had much power.  You turned it down.”

“It wasn’t for me,” I said.

“You are more comfortable where you are now?” he asked.

“Now as in here, in this fight, or as a hero?”

“Either.  Both,” he stated.

“Honestly?  No on both counts.  I’m still figuring it out.”

He inclined his head.  “This is to be respected.  Making hard choice.  The challenge of the young adult.  To find identity.”

“Thank you,” I said, still wary.  Everything about Kismet’s reaction was telling me this guy was to be feared, so I had to step carefully.  “Can I ask what that thing is?”

“A weapon,” he said.  “A… how do you Americans say it?  Time bomb?  Only this is joke.”

“He makes portals,” Kismet said.  “Using them, he can send things back in time.  Something goes in portal B, comes out of portal A a few minutes earlier.  Or the other way around.”

“Or, as I discover, I make loop,” Phir Sē said.  “Weaponize.  Simple light, captured in one moment, redoubled many times over.  I move gate, and that light will pour forth and clean.”

I could remember what Particulate had said.  More energy than Behemoth had created since arriving in this city.  Only this would be directed at a single target.

“Clean isn’t the word you want,” I said. “Scour?”

“Scour,” Phir Sē said, he inclined his head again.  “I thank you.”

“Behemoth wants his hands on it,” I said.  “On that energy.”

“I want this on Behemoth.  Do great harm.  Even kill.”

“Shit,” Kismet said.  He backed away a step.  “This is-”

“Stay,” Phir Sē said.  His voice was quiet, but it was clear he expected to be heeded.

Kismet glanced up at the glow, then turned to run.

He wasn’t even turned all the way around when there was a flicker.  A man appeared just in front of Kismet.  A teleporter.

And his forearm extended through Kismet’s chest.

Then he flickered, like a bad lightbulb, and he was gone, leaving only a gaping hole where the arm had been.  Kismet collapsed, dead.

A teleporter who can bypass the Manton effect.

“Stay,” Phir Sē told us, again.  He hadn’t even flinched, but the space between his bushy eyebrows furrowed as he stared down at Kismet.

My heart thudded in my throat as I glanced down at the body.

Particulate said something, spitting the word.

Phir Sē said something in Punjabi, then turned to me, “Is rude, to speak in language you cannot understand.  He call me evil, so I not speak to him further.  But you understand, do you not?  You know what form this war take?  The danger we all face, from monsters like that, from others?”

“I don’t think many top the Endbringers,” I said.

“Maybe not so.  Maybe.  But you have tried being cold.  Killing the enemy, yes?  Because ruthless is only way to win this war.”

“I met some people.  I think they were your adversaries,” I said.  “Glowing eyes?  Reflective?  Like mirrors?”

“Yes.  Enemy.  They petty evils that walk this city.  Organize crime.  Slave, prostitute, murder, mercenary.  My side, we root out corrupt.  Ruthless.  Government prefer them to us.  Paint us as evil, pay them to carry on.  But you know what this is like, yes?”

“More or less,” I said, not breaking eye contact.  “And those guys, they’re ruthless in the same way you described, I guess?”

“More, less,” he said, as if he were trying on the phrase, “Yes.”

“You want to hit Behemoth with this… time bomb,” I said.  “But… I think that’s what he wants.  He’s holding back.  My thinker friend, she said so.  He’s taking more hits than he should, and I’m just now realizing he might be doing it because he wants to be ready for when you hit him with this.  He’ll push it out into the ground, or into the air.”

“Yes.  This is likely,” Phir Sē said.  “This is what he may want.  I hoped for the Second or Third.  This will have to do.”

“They’ve tried this stuff before,” I said.  “Nukes, gigantic railguns, tricks with teleportation and portals.  It doesn’t work.  You won’t do anything except get a lot of people killed as collateral damage.”

“We time this.  Strategic,” Phir Sē said, calm, as if he were talking to a panicked animal.  “Come.  Step in.”

Right, I thought.  Approach the temporal bomb.

But I did.  No use ticking off the guy with the murder-teleporter on call.  Particulate followed me as I navigated the way to the room’s interior.

There were television screens all across the wall.  Five showed the ongoing destruction from distant cameras.  Two showed grainy camera footage.  The last showed what looked to be an Indian soap opera.

“Thirsty,” Phir Sē commented.

The teleporter flickered into existence, then disappeared.  Phir Sē had a bottle of water in his hands that he hadn’t held before.  He turned our way, bushy eyebrows raised as a faint smile touched his face.  “Might I offer you anything?”

I shook my head.  My stomach was a knot, my heart was pounding.

Particulate said something, but Phir Sē ignored him.

“We watch the First,” Phir Sē said.  “He let his guard down, I strike.”

“I’ve seen an Endbringer fool another brilliant man who thought he had a surefire way to win,” I said.  “They’re cleverer than we think.  What if Behemoth fools you?”

“Then New Delhi pay for my mistake,” Phir Sē answered me.  “I have daughter there.  She join bright heroes, popular ones.  She pay for my mistake, if she still lives.  I live, down here, spend life mourning.”

He looked genuinely upset at the idea.

“You want to win?” I asked.  “You take that thing, aim it for the sky.  Deplete it, so Behemoth’s entire goal for coming here is gone.”

“Is a chance,” Phir Sē told me.  “To strike them harder than anything yet.  You tell me, is that not worth it?”

“Worth risking this city?  Your daughter?  The lives of the heroes here?”

“Yes.  Is worth.”

“No,” I retorted.

He looked at me, and I could read the unhappiness in his expression.  Not a condemnation or even him being upset with me.  Disappointment in general.

The woman in the suit told me there were people with their own agendas.  Monsters.  This is one of them, and he thinks we’re kindred spirits.

“I tell you because you are ruthless, Weaver.  Do not stop me,” he said.  “I die, focus waver, time bomb explode.  Aimless, no direction.”

“Indiscriminate,” I supplied a better word.

“Indiscriminate,” Phir Sē echoed me.  “India gone.  You die, even down here.

I raised my head, staring up at the two golden discs and the current that seemed to run between them.  I would have thought it would be brighter.

“Hero fall.  We wait,” he said.  “When fight cannot be won, I strike.”

I tensed as I watched the fighting on the screens.  They flickered intermittently in a delayed reaction to Behemoth’s lightning strikes.

“Very soon,” he said, his eyes fixed on the monitor.  “You stay.”

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Interlude 23

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Lightning ripped across the landscape, following its own path, independent, breaking every rule that electricity was supposed to follow.  It danced over the outside surfaces of houses, running across concrete and leaving glassy scorch marks in its wake.  It touched objects that should have grounded it, channeling it into the earth, but leaped for another target instead.

The Yàngbǎn raised their hands, already reacting.

Twenty-third path, fifth benefit.  Reflexes.

Thirteenth path, third formForcefield constructions, barrier.

The forcefields absorbed the worst of the energy.

Cody was already moving to use the thirty-sixth path to rescue anyone who’d absorbed the remnants of the shock.  None.  It hadn’t touched them.  He was among the last of them to dismiss his forcefield.  The forcefields drained their reserves of energy, and weren’t to stay up for too long.  They’d been drilled on this.

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

They mobilized.

Fourth path.  Shallow flight.

Ninth path.  Short range electromagnetism.  They skated off of the little exposed metal that was available around them, car hoods and pipes, gaining speed to augment their flight.

There were forty-two paths in all.  Forty-two powers.  No, he corrected himself, there were forty-one now that Seventeen was dead.  More would die by the day’s end.

The hope, the plan, was to demonstrate the Yàngbǎn’s strength, to show that they had the answer, a way to defeat the Endbringers.  It wouldn’t happen today, but a solid demonstration would serve to bring others on board.

They hadn’t been asked.  The expectation was that they would give their lives for this.  He would have refused.  He’d dealt with an Endbringer before, and he still hadn’t recovered from that chance meeting.  He’d lost everything, been stripped of friends and family both.

Yàngbǎn qiáng!”  Five called out.

Yàngbǎn qiáng!”  The group responded in chorus.  Cody’s voice joined theirs, quieter.  His pronunciation wasn’t good.  In all this time with the group, he hadn’t even managed to grasp the fundamentals of the language.  Mispronunciation was punished, not by any reprimand, but in a subtle way.  They would speak to him even less than they were now, he would get less food.  Maybe for a few hours, maybe for a few days.  The thought bothered him, and the degree to which it unsettled him was more disturbing still.

Something so minor as that shouldn’t have mattered so much to him, but it was all he had, now.

There was a crash of lightning, and a building collapsed, directly in their path.  Flames and smoke barred their path.

Shèntòu!”  Three ordered, his voice nearly drowned out in the noise of the building settling.  They were still moving forward, not even slowing.

The forward group hit the barrier with localized vacuums.  Individually, they were weak, but with twelve all together, flames were quenched, smaller objects levitated into the air.

Cody joined the middle group in shearing through the remaining wreckage.  Thirty-first path.  The cutting lasers.  The first group was slowing a fraction, and Cody slowed his flight to hold formation.

The twelve members of the Yàngbǎn only accelerated, flying around the group members they had been following.  They turned solid, space distorting around them as they rendered themselves invincible and incapable of any action but their pre-existing momentum, effectively human bullets.  They tore through the wreckage, clearing a path for the rest.

He felt a rush, just being part of the unit.  Being a part of a maneuver that let them cut through a burning ruin of a building with the ease they had.

Some of that rush, he knew, was the second path.  Magnification of powers.  Two wasn’t present, she was too valuable to risk losing, but they still shared her power between them.  Each of them had a sliver of her ability to enhance the powers of those nearby.  It was the reason their powers worked to the degree that they did, a feedback loop in power augmentation across their whole unit.

There were more things feeding into his consciousness, other senses he wasn’t actively tapping into.  The twenty-third path, it enhanced his perception, particularly his awareness of others, the threat an individual person posed, and enhanced his reflexes, particularly when dealing with people who wanted to hurt him.  It was of minimal use against Behemoth, but it made him cognizant of the other members of the Yàngbǎn, aware of their breathing, the noises they made as they ran.

In this way, the group subsumed him, rendered him a part of something overwhelming.  For now, in the midst of this, the deep loneliness and isolation was gone.  Language was almost unnecessary, beyond the one- or two-word commands he needed to know for particular maneuvers and directives.

Zig-zagging down the streets, they naturally settled back into their established rank and file.  With every member of the group having access to the same pool of powers, placement in the formation was a question of experience and how expendable they were.  Cody was an essential defensive asset, no use if he was taken out of action, so he rested in the middle of the group, surrounded by people who could protect him in a pinch.

Rumbles marked the collapses of taller buildings as Behemoth advanced, somewhere a quarter-mile behind them.

The heat was oppressive.  Even as they got further away from the monster, the fire only seemed to get worse.  The smoke was the worst part of it, preventing them from seeing or tracking their enemy.  It meant they couldn’t see more than a hundred or so feet around them, and they didn’t have any idea whether they were going to walk straight into the monster’s path or wind up encircled by burning buildings.  Their flight depended on proximity to a solid surface.  It involved hovering five to ten feet off the ground while moving at fifty or sixty miles an hour.  They had another means of flight, but less controlled, one that risked putting them above the skyline, obvious targets for a lightning strike.

Was the Behemoth smarter than he looked?  Was the destruction seeded in a way that would spread?  Fires started where buildings were closely packed?

Cody could feel his skin prickling.  His mask was filtering out the smoke, but the heat, it was getting unbearable.

Zhàn wěn,” Ten said.

Zhàn wěn,” the group echoed her, their voices strong.  It was an encouragement, an affirmation.  Cody didn’t know what it meant.  He’d been with them for an indeterminate length of time, what felt like years, but he didn’t feel any closer to grasping the language than he had been on the first day.  He’d had help, briefly, but that had been stopped.

Every member of the group was permitted to speak freely, but virtually every utterance was vetted by the group as a whole.  If, like Ten, someone were to speak, and others were in agreement, deeming the phrase acceptable, then the response was clear.  If the statement was poorly timed, or out of tune with the group’s line of thinking, then it was ignored, followed only by a crushing silence.

Cody had never experienced the adrenaline rush that Ten was no doubt experiencing over the simple act of getting a response from the squadron.  The group had never deemed his statements acceptable, because his pronunciation was poor.  He was a member of a tight-knit crowd, yet utterly, completely alone.

Tíng!” one of the members in the rear called out.

They dropped to the ground, their landings practiced, wheeling around a hundred and eighty degrees by planting one foot on the ground and sweeping the other out.

His forcefield was up before he even knew what the threat was.  Individually weak, strong in formation: a makeshift bubble of overlapping forcefields twenty feet over their heads.

The glowing projectile swiftly grew in his perspective, giving him only a second to brace himself before it crashed down on the wall of forcefields.

The wave of heat was intense, even on the other side of the barrier.  It seemed almost liquid as it spilled out over the edges.  In seconds, they were surrounded in flame.  The forcefields sealed it off, prevented superheated air from burning them alive, but the viscosity meant it was resting against the forcefield.

Magma?

They’d drilled on abstracts, on possible situations.  Attacks from any direction.  Attacks in various forms.  He’d never really considered the ideas behind dealing with magma, but he had the tools.  Being a member of the Yàngbǎn meant being constantly drilled.  They took your power, all but a fraction of it, but every member of the group had that same fraction.  Every member was expected to know how to use every power, to know when and to do it in unison with the rest of the squad.

A small handful of individuals in the C.U.I. hadn’t been brought onto the group.  Null, the cape who made the Yàngbǎn possible, was independent.  He couldn’t be a part of the whole.  Others included Tōng Líng Tǎ, who had a power that was too slow to use, not worth the fractional decrease in power that came with including her in the network, Shén yù, the strategist, and Jiǎ, the tinker that supplied the C.U.I. with its devices, including the simulations for the drills.

It was those drills and simulations that allowed him to react a precious fraction of a second faster as he responded.  It kept him in sync with the others in the group as he joined half of them in letting his forcefield dissipate, simultaneously reaching out to apply another power.

Thirty-second path.  Nullification waves.

The effect was short ranged, and he could see the shifting in the air as it extended, passed through the gaps in the forcefield where the magma and heated air were only just beginning to leak through miniscule gaps.

The waves generated by thirty-two served to stabilize.  It stalled things in motion, warmed up cold things, cooled warm things.  It silenced, stilled.

The magma cooled with surprising rapidity, but then, the power was affecting the inside at the same time it affected the outside, rather than trying to cool the outside to a degree that would extend inward.

Path thirty-two.  It made him think of Thirty-two, the member.  The source of that particular power.  He snuck a glance at her.

She was one of four outsiders, four people not native to China.  She’d been his closest ally.  Something more.

Dǎpò,” Seven ordered.

Like the others, the maneuver was a practiced one.  The last forcefields dropped, and the group mobilized.  Odd-numbered members of the squad crouched, legs flexing, while even-numbered members, Cody included, reached out.

Path fourteen.  Vacuum spheres.

The odd-numbered members of the group pierced the barrier of cooled magma, and the vacuum spheres scattered the shards.

Another sphere was already in the air, aimed close to them, if not at the exact same spot.

Without even thinking about it, he trained a laser on it.  Others were doing the same, or following suit.  The glob of magma, still mid-air, was separated into loose pieces, no longer as aerodynamic as it had been.  It expanded, fell short, disappeared into the cityscape between them and Behemoth.

Each action Cody performed as a part of the unit was validating, affirming.  It was a series of small payoffs for the drills he’d gone through for over a year, with smaller groups and the Yàngbǎn as a whole.  The drills had been intense, with one new situation every one or two minutes, like flash cards, only they were holograms, color coded polygons and shapes with just enough mass that they could be felt.  If they failed the scenario, the offending members of the squad would be named out loud, the scenario shuffled back into the list of possibilities, so it might repeat in five minutes, or two hours.

Cody was well aware of what they were really doing, between the six hours of drills and the twelve hours of schooling that combined lectures on the C.U.I. with traditional education.  He knew why they only got forty-five minutes in total to eat for their two daily meals, only five hours of rest a night, why every minute of the day was scheduled.

He’d always told himself that he wouldn’t be a victim, that when the time came and he was indoctrinated into a cult, he’d recognize the targeted isolation, the practice of tiring him out so he’d be more amenable to suggestion, more likely to conform.  He’d told himself that he would rebel and maintain his individuality.

So stupid, to pretend he had that degree of willpower, in the face of crushing social pressure and exhaustion.  It had taken him nearly five days after he left the basic training and joined the official team before he realized what was going on.  The saddest part of it was that he was fully aware they were brainwashing him, indoctrinating him, and there was nothing he could do about it.  Despite himself, despite the pride he’d once had as a person, he wanted acceptance.

They were a poor surrogate, a surrogate he hated, in a way, but he had nothing else.  His family was a universe away, his friends had turned on him, gone mad.

There was a crash, and a shockwave ripped through the area, momentarily clearing the smoke.  Cody instinctively raised his forcefield.

Behemoth was there, standing amid leveled buildings, fighting some flying capes who strafed around him.  He had built up some steam, and lightning coursed over his gray flesh, illuminating him.  Only one or two of the metal ships were still fighting.  Other craft, airborne, seemed focused on evacuating, but it was a gamble at best, as shockwaves and lightning struck them down.

The smoke filled the sky once more, obscuring Cody’s vision too much for him to see any further.

Behemoth clapped again, then again, each collision of claw against claw serving to extend the damage one step further, clearing obstructions out of the way for the next.

The Yàngbǎn backed away, spreading out inadvertently.  Cody could feel the benefit of the second path fading, the enhanced powers the others granted slipping from his grasp.

“Tā shì fúshè kuòsàn,” Three said.  He said something else that Cody couldn’t make out.  Something about leaving.

The group moved out, flying low to the ground, and Cody was a fraction of a second behind, pushed himself to make sure he was in formation.

“Radiation,” Thirty-two said, her English perfect, unaccented.  It was for Cody’s benefit, and the benefit of the other two English-speaking members of the group, who might not understand the more complicated words.  She got glances from the other members of their squad, but continued speaking.  “He’s using the shockwaves to spread irradiated material across the city.  We’re retreating, okay?”

Cody nodded, but couldn’t bring himself to speak as the group took flight.  It was unnecessary, wasn’t worth it when he accounted for how the others would react and respond if he used English.  Thirty-two would be shunned for doing so, there was no need for him to join her.

An explosion of smoke bloomed out in front of them.

Not smoke.  Darkness.

The Yàngbǎn collectively dropped into fighting stances, ready to use any power the instant it was called for.

Villains stepped out of the smoke, and it was only then that the benefits of the twenty-third path belatedly granted the Yàngbǎn their ability to sense these people.  The power had been blocked by someone or something in the group.

They were Westerners, by the looks of them.  Cody’s eyes narrowed as he studied them.  A guy with a demon mask, surrounded by the same eerie darkness that formed a wall between the group and Behemoth, a young girl with a horned mask, a stocky guy or girl with a thick fur ruff on their hood, and a girl in black with an opaque pane over her face and a crossbow in her hands.

The other group was also mounted, but clearly distinct in style, even if they’d shuffled together with the other group.  The boy in medieval clothes with a silver crown, the girl in a frock, two grown women in evening gowns.

They were all mounted on mutants.  He had to reach for the name.  The guy from Boston, Blasty?  Blasto.  He was supposed to make horrific mutants.  Maybe he was here.

The Yàngbǎn edged around the group, wary.

“Jesus,” the man with darkness shrouding him said.  His power was billowing out around him, more darkness.  “What the hell are you doing?”

He’s getting the benefit of the power boost, Cody thought, but he didn’t speak.

The others were shifting uncomfortably, but the one with the white mask and silver crown, and the two in the evening gowns… they seemed to take it more in stride.

Something about them, it tugged at a memory.  Not a strong memory, but a brief encounter at some point… it gave him an ugly, twisting feeling in his gut.

He blinked, and the girl with the gray, horned mask was right in front of him. He resisted the urge to react.  His teammates, he knew, were raising their hands in anticipation of a fight.  They were distrustful.  They’d been taught that foreign heroes were dangerous, unpredictable.

Thing was, they were right.  As a rule, capes were fucked up.  People were fucked up.  The Yàngbǎn, Cody mused, resolved the situation by stripping capes of their humanity.

She turned around, as if she hadn’t just appeared in front of him.  “Shit, you weren’t kidding.  It gets stronger as you get closer to more of them.  I can do practically anything, and they don’t react.”

“No idea,” the man in black said.

“They’re Chinese capes,” a woman in a yellow evening gown said.  “They probably don’t speak enough English to answer.”

Something nagged at him.  Cody searched his memories.  Between the crossbow and the boy in the renaissance era clothes, he couldn’t help but think of the game he’d played with his friends before everything went horribly wrong.  But the evening gowns, those masks…

Accord.  The bastard who had taken him, who had traded him to the Yàngbǎn for money.

The anger was refreshing, startling, and unexpected.  A splash of scalding water to the face, as if waking him from a dream.

“Thirty-six!”  It was Thirty-two calling.

“Thirty-six?” the girl with the horns asked.  “What?”

It was Cody’s name.  His new name, rather, but he’d never quite identified by it.  He turned and realized he’d dropped out of formation.

“Let’s go,” she said.

He glanced back at the woman in yellow.

“I can guess what you’re thinking, but it’s not worth it,” she said.

Every step of the way, I got fucked.  Fucked by Krouse, fucked by the Simurgh, fucked by Noelle, fucked by Accord, fucked by the fucking Yàngbǎn.

The woman in yellow spoke.  “Whether it’s answers, or revenge, or something else entirely, you won’t find any of it here.”

Others in her group were looking at her in surprise, or as much as one could, when wearing masks.

“Do you know how easy it would be to kill you?” Cody asked.

Three gave an order in Chinese.  Incomprehensible, but Cody could guess.

“If you killed me,” the woman in yellow said, “He’d barely care, and you’d spend the rest of your life in a hole that Ziggurat made, if they didn’t just paralyze you from the neck down and leave you alive to borrow your power.”

Ziggurat?  Oh.  Tōng Líng Tǎ, the earth mover.

She’d said she didn’t have answers, but this-

The ground shook violently.  Behemoth was still active.  Lightning was arcing through and around the dark clouds of smoke that were rising at the edges of the city.

“If it’s alright, we should go,” the darkness man said.  “Things get much worse, I’m not sure how much we can help, and I’m losing my mind waiting like this.”

There was a whistle from someone in the group, and they were gone, the mutant quadrupeds breaking into a run.

And Cody was left standing there, staring.

Three snapped something, and Thirty-two translated, “He’s saying we can send you back, if-”

“No.  It’s fine,” Cody said.  He turned and fell into formation.  The disapproval was like a weight on him from all sides.  He withered a little.  How many weeks, months or years would it be before he was allowed to hold a conversation with his comrades?

More heroes were running by, now.  A group of young heroes, a cluster of religious capes with halos and crosses worked into their costumes, and a fresh wave of mechanical ships.  The reinforcements had arrived.

Eight said something, but the accent was too thick for Cody to make it out.

He’d been stirred from a delirium, a state where the days had blended into one another, where the sole defining moment of his week might be if he were acknowledged by the other members or rebuked.  It wasn’t Behemoth who’d shaken him from that point.  It was the woman in yellow.

Anger twisted in his gut, and it wasn’t going away.  He found himself holding onto it, embracing it.

As if it reflected the violence within Cody, the city was burning, shattered and gripped in chaos.  Thousands were in the streets, running between flimsy looking buildings crusted with signage, or lying dead, struck down by shockwaves created by a monster half a mile away.  Women, children.

They passed injured, and didn’t spare a second glance.  A family of five were caught in a ring of burning structures, and the Yàngbǎn didn’t even spare a second glance.

We’re military, not heroes.

The goal was to fight the monster, to support the Yàngbǎn and support the C.U.I. in any way possible.

Three changed course, and the rest flew after him, setting down.  Their destination was a flattened building, with a group of dead, maimed and dying Indian capes lying in the debris.

Cody exercised the twenty-third path to find out what Three surely knew already.  There was nobody nearby.

Three reached down, and others around him joined in, making contact with one of the dying.

It took nearly a minute, to attune everything the right way.  But the effect took hold, and the injured hero disappeared.

Five looked to Cody and pointed at the next one.

Lowest rung on the totem pole.  If I didn’t think Null would rescind my powers, I’d kill you here and now.

Reluctantly, still stewing with anger, he obeyed, kneeling by the body.

The forty-second path.  Teleportation.  He could see the destination in his mind’s eye, like an annoying spot of light in the center of his vision, gradually getting more detailed and focused.  Each person that joined his side to assist sped the process along.

The wounded hero flickered and disappeared.

By the time they were done, all three bodies had been removed.

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

They moved out.

As they traveled, he could see the streets choked with evacuees, a virtual tide of people, rickshaws, bicycles and cars.  They’d reached bottlenecks, points where they couldn’t advance, and the evacuation wasn’t proceeding.

Was this an extension of Behemoth’s strategy?  The major streets were unused, either because the Endbringer could see them, unleashing waves of electricity and shockwaves to strike down anyone who tried those routes, or because buildings had been felled and they were impassable.

The heroes who weren’t helping with the evacuation were establishing perimeters, staggered lines of defense.  Here, Indian capes were setting up turrets on high ground, guns the size of cars, drilling them into the roads and rooftops.  Another block over, there were civilians who weren’t running.  They’d gathered, and were talking in low voices.  They radiated a different degree of power, on par with the capes on the rooftops.

The Yàngbǎn squadron slowed down as the cluster of capes grew denser, the buildings more solid and further apart.  There were trees here, but the heroes were cutting them down.  Each squad seemed to be executing a different plan, a different setup.  What appeared to be force-field fences were being erected in between each group and Behemoth’s estimated point of approach.

There was one group with heavy ranged weapons.  An area was being cleared, set up with devices.  Another area had been marked off with chalk, but it wasn’t clear what they intended to do.  Tinkers everywhere were setting up.  A kid with red armor and lenses had two odd-looking cannons set up on one rooftop, each the size of a city bus.

It painted a picture, formed a script of sorts, for the story that had yet to take place.  The idea that Behemoth would change direction from where he’d initially started off wasn’t even a consideration.  They weren’t consolidating forces, gathering together for one good strike, but were arranging it so one would follow after the other.  The capes he’d already seen were the ones that had gone forward to support, to find the injured, trusting to mobility or evasion to slip away.

And here, this far in, a dozen countermeasures were being set up, if not two dozen.  This would be the staging ground, without the crush of flammable buildings all around them.  Each countermeasure would occupy Behemoth for just long enough that the heroes could manage a barrage of attacks.

The Yàngbǎn reached the center of the network, landing on the rooftop with the most capes.  The makeshift command center.

He only had to take one look, and he knew.  Something vital was missing.  They had any number of ways to stall, and each one would cost them a little.  But for all of that, he couldn’t make out anything that looked like it would end the fight.

Cody could see the heroes react as the Yàngbǎn landed, and he could see the way others looked to one small set of people for cues.  The top-level guys, the leadership of the Protectorate.

A a man in gleaming armor extended a hand to Three, who’d stepped away from the group.  “We didn’t expect the Yàngbǎn.”

Three looked over his shoulder, and Thirty-two stepped forward.  Three murmured something, and she translated.  “Your PRT was very persuasive, Chevalier.”

“I suppose we can count that as a good thing.  You read the briefings and plans we sent out?”

Thirty-two continued to translate, “We did.  With your permission, we’ll return to the fight with Behemoth shortly.  But we’d like to make a proposal.”

“I know what you’re going to propose,” Chevalier said.  “I’m sorry, it-”

“It’s somewhat counter to our usual offer,” Thirty-two spoke quickly to match Three’s attempted interruption.

Chevalier fell silent.

“Your heroes here are scared.  They want to help, they are good people.  We’re offering another way.  They can help without risking their lives.”

“I think I understand.  You have to understand why I’m saying no,” Chevalier said.

“Our group shares powers.  Time and time again, the West has refused them.  We would rehabilitate your criminals, and share their powers among us.  They are divided in strength, but we have the ability to magnify powers.  You can feel it now, being close.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

In the distance, a column of lightning cut through the wall of smoke above the city, as big around as an apartment building.  Cody could feel the vibrations shudder through the building, as sturdy as it was, though the lightning was miles away.

“We might each have only a share of a power, reduced effect, range or duration, but we regain as much as a third of that power back with this magnification, depending on how many are together.  A full third of forty powers at once.  If any would volunteer, we would teleport them to a safe place, where we would borrow their power for this fight only.  We would send them home when the fight was over.”

Cody could see the reactions of the capes on the rooftop.  People were exchanging glances.  Considering it.

A part of him wanted to scream, to warn them, whatever the cost to him might be.

“I see,” Chevalier said.

“For years, we have boasted of the strength the Yàngbǎn offers the world.  But we are small, and too many citizens with powers flee or fight rather than cooperate.  Today, we hope to show our strength.  We have extended our support, and we ask for trust in exchange.”

“Your support is welcome, and that’s why we couldn’t ever ask you to make this leap of faith,” Chevalier said.  “I understand your motives are pure, but if some accident transpired, and a good cape didn’t make it back, it would mean war.”

Cody hadn’t missed the way the hero had stressed the words.  A warning for his people, more than a statement for Three.

“We would be exceedingly careful,” Thirty-two translated for Three.  “Rest assured.”

Cody was watching the negotiations continue, Chevalier looking more and more uncomfortable, when he saw him.

Accord.  He was accompanied by a girl in a lavender and black costume, and a dark-skinned man in a suit.

Cody had to hold himself back to keep from striking the man.  It would be suicide, and no matter which power he used, Cody couldn’t be sure he could guarantee a kill.

He could see the moment where Accord saw the Yàngbǎn.  Cody could see the reaction, as if the man had been slapped in the face.  Accord’s shifting mask gave away his reaction, and then his expression set, his body language neutral, as if nothing had happened and nothing was wrong.

The girl beside him smiled, and brilliant green eyes settled on Cody, stark contrasts to her pale purple costume.

He hated not knowing anything, being cut off by language barriers and the rules of the Yàngbǎn.  Who was the girl in lavender?  Where were Alexandria, Eidolon and Legend?

Every question left him more uneasy, increasingly angry, and Accord was the person who had put him in this situation.

I’m a slave, and he’s the one who put me in chains.

“May I interrupt?” Accord asked.

“If the Yàngbǎn will excuse me?” Chevalier asked Three.

Three nodded.  “As you will.  We can wait.”

Cody suspected Chevalier had been hoping to end the conversation, rather than postpone it.  He stared at Accord.  Do they know what you do?  What you are? 

There was a crash, a clap of thunder, and a rush of hot wind.  The cloud of smoke around Behemoth’s battlefield was growing, and it wasn’t just a matter of perspective, of Behemoth getting closer.

Capes flew off, joining the fray.  The Yàngbǎn remained.

“What can you tell us?  Do you have a plan?” Chevalier asked Accord.

I’ll kill him.  I’ll kill him.  Somehow.  I just need a chance.

It was too much, like being asleep for months and finally waking up, only to discover that the only thing inside him was rage.

“…optimal timing,” Accord was saying.  “I’m still working out the particulars.”

Krouse thought he was smart too.  When I’m done with you, I’ll find him and kill him. 

“What do you need?”

“Contact information for your various squads.”

Cody virtually twitched with a need to move, a craving to fulfill some deep-seated desire for revenge, but the group around him wouldn’t afford him the chance.  Each member of the Yàngbǎn was simultaneously a prisoner and a guard, some more of one than the other.

Chevalier nodded.  “You’ll have it.  Rime?”

A woman in blue limped forward, “I’ll handle it.”

The girl in lavender glanced at Cody before falling in step with Rime and Accord.

Had she sensed his emotion?  She hadn’t said a thing.

“He just reached the first perimeter,” someone reported.  “Tore through our skirmishers.  Some teenagers were killed.  Eidolon and Legend are fighting, but they’re not in good shape.  We didn’t expect him to move this fast.”

“The Triumvirate’s missing a key member,” Chevalier said.  “Our more mobile capes should move out now.  Meet him at the first perimeter if you’re fast enough, hold at the second if you aren’t.  Maintain cover where possible.”

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

The negotiations were over, it seemed.

But he could feel the tickle of new powers taking hold.  The three they’d collected from the shattered building were joining them, like it or not.

The first power was an easy one to grasp.  He could feel his body surging with some added strength, and that strength swelled a step further as the power-enhancing auras took hold.

The second was a tinker power, he was almost positive, or it was a thinker power with a focus on guns.  Nothing useful.

The third… another thinker power.  His vision clarified a step.  The ability to see through smoke?

No.  The ability to see through surfaces.

He was disappointed, and he couldn’t be sure why.  What had he wanted?  What did he want, in general?

Even now, he was alone.  The Yàngbǎn wanted to collect capes, to prove themselves.  The heroes wanted to stop Behemoth.

Cody didn’t care about either.

He entertained the notion that helping Behemoth go loose would almost be better.  It could mean the end of the Yàngbǎn, Accord’s death.  Even Trickster’s death, if they had decided to show up.

Except there was no reasonable way he could do that.  Not for a lack of wanting to, but because he couldn’t hope to oppose the Yàngbǎn and the heroes at the same time.

Needed an opportunity.

The Yàngbǎn passed through the worst of the smoke, into the blasted, shattered ruins of the city.  In the moment they joined the fight, Cody held back.

They sensed he was gone, but they couldn’t disengage, not as Behemoth gathered up a ruined section of building and melted it down, hurled massive globs of melted plastic, metal and stone at them.

The process took a minute at the best of times, with help.  His destination couldn’t be a distant one, and he couldn’t hope to behead the Yàngbǎn on his own, not with the members they’d kept in reserve, the precious ones, with powers they couldn’t afford to lose, like Two’s.

He nearly lost his concentration as a massive crash knocked him off his feet.

The fight’s only beginning, Cody thought.

The teleportation took hold, and he found himself back at the building the Yàngbǎn had just left, three stories down.

The command center.

Accord, the lavender girl, and Chevalier were leaning over a table with computers arranged along it, papers strewn out across the surface.

It brought back memories of the moment everything had turned upside down, the computers, the interrupted tournament.  Finding themselves in another world…

If he needed a push to act, that was it.  The biggest one first.

The laser didn’t cut the armor.  It was capable of cutting granite like a hot knife through butter, but it didn’t cut the armor.  Chevalier turned, drawing his sword, a six-foot long beast of a weapon.  The armor glowed orange as the laser concentrated on his belly.

“You lunatic!” he shouted, charging.

Cody switched tactics.  A forcefield-

The sword shattered it with one swing.

He flew out of the way as another swing came within an inch of decapitating him.

A laser with one hand, a vacuum sphere with another, pulling Chevalier off balance.

Again, it didn’t work.  The man barely reacted as the vacuum sphere caught his legs.  He aimed his weapon, and a combination of danger sense and a nullification wave stopped the shot in the chamber, disabling the gun.

The x-ray vision was barely penetrating the sword or armor.  Cody had to duck, back up and rely on his enhanced reflexes to avoid Chevalier’s attacks.  He had forty-four powers and not one was letting him beat, what, a swordsman in a suit of armor?

It was the lack of the power boost.  The Yàngbǎn were only strong as a group, granting the aura to one another.  Here, now, he was feeble.  Forty powers, and not one of them sufficient.

Always second best.  Always alone, Cody thought.  No.

Keeping the laser trained on Chevalier, he used his own power.  Perdition’s power.  The thirty-sixth path.

Chevalier was moved back to where he was seconds ago.  Cody backed out of the way, kept the laser trained on the hero, and the instant his opponent got too close, he used his power again.  It barely set Chevalier back two seconds, but it was enough.

Slow, steady, inevitable progress.  Time was one of the fundamental forces of the universe, undeniable.

Accord and the girl in lavender made a sudden attempt to run to the door.  Cody created a forcefield to bar their way.

They reached for phones.  He used a vacuum sphere to pull them away.

It took nearly a minute to cut through Chevalier’s armor, using the time reversals to effectively put the man on hold while he put some distance between them, and the laser to cut.  The man folded over the second the laser pierced flesh, cutting straight from the front of his stomach to his back.

Obstacle gone.

“Reckless,” Accord said, sounding more sad than afraid.  “Lunacy.”

“I don’t care what you think.”

“I’d hoped your placement with the Yàngbǎn would temper you.”

Cody lashed out with the laser.  Accord’s right arm was lopped off.

Another cut, for the right leg.  Accord screamed as he fell.

The girl in lavender hadn’t reacted, only stared down at the two dying men.  She clicked her tongue, “Tsk.”

“He’s asymmetrical in death,” Cody mused.  “There’s a justice in that, isn’t there?”

“If there’s irony here, it’s the fact that his desire for order led to this,” the girl commented.  “We just lost our strategist and our field commander, so there’s going to be more chaos than ever.”

The windows briefly rattled with the shockwave of one of Behemoth’s attacks, halfway across the city.

“Tsk.”  the girl said, again.

The anger still burned inside him, not sated in the slightest.  Did I end it too quickly?  Maybe I should have drawn it out more.

He glanced at her.  She was staring at him.  “Can you use that computer to find someone?  If they’re here, or somewhere else?”

“I can,” she said.

“Trickster.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “Oh, I can tell you that without looking.  He bit it.  Some freaky monster calling herself Noelle freaked out, made clones of him.  They ate him alive.  Literally.”

He blinked.  “When?”

“A month ago, Brockton Bay.”

The details fit.  Cody nodded slowly.  He wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“Sorry, if he was your friend.”

“He wasn’t,” Cody snapped.  He felt off balance.  This was so unexpected.  How was he even supposed to react to that?  How long had it been since he’d really made a call on his own?

Slowly, he spoke, as if sounding out the ideas as they came to him, “No.  I suppose that’s good.  Thank you.  I’d tell you I’ll make it quick, but… you worked for him.  You probably deserve it.”

“Nuh uh,” she said.  She’d backed away, gripped the edge of a table.  Her entire body was rigid.  “I’ll give you my phone, you can call any one of my buddies, tell them it’s Tattletale.  They’ll tell you we were constantly fighting. Only reason we haven’t offed each other is that it’d be mutually assured destruction.”

“Trickery.  No, knowing him, knowing the kind of people he associates with,” like Trickster“there’s probably contingency plans.  I won’t fall for that.”

“Spare me, maybe I can salvage this mess.  I mean, you’ve still got to live on this planet, right?  We can’t let Behemoth win.  Not today.”

“I’m dead anyways.”

“Because of the Yàngbǎn.  I could help.  I’ll figure out a way for you to escape.  Hopeless as this feels, there’s a way out.”

“No,” Cody shook his head.  He felt so lost, so tired, so unsatisfied.  There was one major enemy left to eliminate, one more group who’d wronged him.  The Yàngbǎn.  He already knew he wouldn’t get any more satisfaction from it.  He knew he’d likely die in the attempt.  “No, no point.”

“Fuck,” she said.  “There’s definitely a point.  Just… give me a second, I’ll think of it.  Shit.  Sucks I don’t know much about you.  Don’t suppose you’d give me a hint?”

He raised a hand, pointing at her.  “No.”

“Think about her,” the girl who’d called herself Tattletale blurted out the words.  “What would she think?”

He hesitated.

Her?  The first person that popped into mind was Thirty-two.  The Yàngbǎn member who’d tried to teach him Chinese.  They’d been close, had been friends, before the group segregated them, because they were more malleable as individuals than as a group.  Members of the same team, but never given a chance to talk with one another.  Always in arm’s reach, never together.

The second person he thought of was Noelle.  His first love, the betrayer, the monster.

He shook his head, which only intensified the ringing in his ears.  When had that started?  With the shockwaves?  During the fight with Chevalier?

Or before all that?  Before the Yàngbǎn.  Had it ever stopped?

He thought of the Simurgh, thought of all of this in the context of him being just one of her pawns.

His head hung.

Always a pawn.  Always the expendable one.  Kicked off the team, traded away to Accord for the team’s safety.

“There’s…” he started to speak, then trailed off.  She didn’t interrupt him.  “Who?  Which her are you talking about?  Which her?  Be clear.”

He approached Tattletale, gripping her throat, feeling the added strength of the newest additions to the Yàngbǎn.

Tattletale’s voice was strained, “Honestly?  I figured I’d toss it out there.  There’s bound to be someone important, and saying her gives me a fifty-fifty chance.”

“I hate smartasses,” he said, and he squeezed, feeling her windpipe collapse in his grip.

She fell to the ground, and he watched as she struggled for air that didn’t come.

The faint screaming rang through his head as he watched her struggle to climb a chair, taking ten, fifteen seconds to just get her upper body onto the seat.

She found a plastic pen, collapsed to the ground with it in her hand.  When she flopped over onto her back, it was broken.  She’d caught it between her body and the ground.

This’ll have to do as a surrogate for Trickster, Cody mused, watching.  Had Noelle felt anything like this when she’d killed and devoured innocent people?  A kind of despair, mingled with helplessness?

Anger was all he had left, the drive for revenge the sole thing keeping him moving.  Feeble and misdirected as this was, it wasn’t it.

Tattletale drew a knife from her belt, used the edge to remove the nib and the ink reservoir from the plastic case of the pen.

When that was done, she stabbed herself in the base of the throat.

She’s giving herself a tracheotomy, Cody thought, watching in fascination, even as he reached out and took hold of the plastic pen case.

He watched her expression as he crushed the plastic in one hand.

And he felt nothing.  Even the paradoxical grin that appeared on her face, in contrast to the frustrated slam of one hand against the floor, it reminded him of Trickster in an odd way.  Yet it added nothing to this.

Think about her.  What would she think?  Tattletale’s words struck him.

He thought of Thirty-two, and without even deciding to, he used his own power on the pen case, returning it to the state it had been in seconds ago.

He handed it back to Tattletale, then stood, his back to her, as he concentrated.

As goals went, it wasn’t much of one.  He’d barely talked to her.  As far as kindnesses went, hers had been minor at best.  But he’d save Thirty-two.

It took two minutes to carry out the teleport.  He didn’t have much time before the Yàngbǎn found a free moment to contact Null and rescind his powers.  Maybe they were calling already.  Maybe the electromagnetic radiation in the area would block the call.

He’d find a way, regardless.

He felt his power take hold and teleported.  Back to the battlefield, back to Thirty-two.

Chest heaving as she greedily sucked in air through the plastic tube she’d jammed into the hole in her throat, Tattletale feebly crawled over to Chevalier.  Her strength was depleted before she got halfway.

She stared across the room at Accord and Chevalier’s bodies, straining to see if either were breathing.

She managed the only utterance she could, without the ability to bring air from her lungs to her mouth:  A click of her tongue.  “Tsk.”

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Drone 23.5

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The waiting was the worst part.

My restlessness was cranked up to eleven, cooped up in the craft with Defiant and Dragon, waiting to cross half the world.  Dragon was focused on piloting the craft, unable to speak, in any event.  Defiant was busy communicating, which translated to being inaudible as he kept the vents of his mask closed.  From the images on the monitor, he was clearly tracking who was coming, our forces, the Endbringer and the high-risk areas.

I watched for a time, saw the cape count rise.  A screen filled with lines of text, noting the hero teams who had committed to the fight, numbers beside them to tally the total numbers.

For every group that joined, I felt myself growing a touch more nervous.  More participants in the fight was a good thing, but… so many small teams.  I couldn’t read half of the names of the groups on the list, but there was nothing to suggest it was organized.

I shifted my weight, sat, stood, stretched.

Agony.

Being in a prison, I didn’t have the luxury of a full wardrobe, certainly not the bike shorts and tank top I tended to wear beneath my costume.  I had only underwear, and I needed to change into the new costume.  I could have waited, but I wanted to hit the ground running.

Worse, the boxes with my butterflies within were in one of the crafts that followed just behind us, carrying a full contingent of capes.

But Defiant was engrossed in the monitors, and that left me debating the merits of modesty over being ready.

I stripped down, pulling on my old costume.  They’d said something about painting it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait for that.  I left the major armor components off.

The pack they’d given me, it was the wrong color to match with the armor.  I’d be sacrificing the ability to keep things inside my utility compartment, but I suspected this would make up for that.   There were built-in wings that folded at a juncture, like dragonfly wings with joints, and there were the ‘arms’.  The controls seemed to be worked into gloves I was supposed to wear beneath my costume.

I found that there was a hatch, but it was small, barely larger than my hand, and the space was shallow.  I sent bugs inside to explore, and found a series of fine switches.

“Redundant controls,” Defiant said.

I looked up.  He’d turned away from the monitors.

“If your glove gets damaged, you’ve got the controls built into the pack itself.  If the pack gets damaged, you have the gloves.  If both are damaged, you’re not likely to be in a state to fly.  It might take getting used to, but this will give you the ability to move faster if you need it, and it’s very possible you’ll need it this afternoon.”

“You built it so fast.  I wasn’t with Mrs. Yamada for even two hours, and you put this together?”

“It’s made using components and technology we already have.  Four antigravity panels, like those Kid Win had in his hoverboard,” Defiant said, angling his hand to indicate the general placement.  One at the very bottom, one above that, facing more back than down, and two more at angles on either side.

“Okay,” I said.

“That gives you lift, the ability to offset gravity or momentum in a given direction, but the acceleration is low.  Expect zero to thirty miles an hour over eight seconds.  It won’t carry you out of the way of trouble, understand?  It won’t stop you if you’re moving at terminal velocity, unless you’re falling a long way.”

I nodded.

“The wings are a modification of technology that was confiscated from a cape called Stinger.  Missile themed, not wasps and bees.  They’ve got a venting-exhaust system we repurposed.  It toggles between using either antigravity or propulsion.  They should give you an easier time orienting yourself, or more speed pushing yourself in a particular direction, but not both at the same time.   While the wings are intact, you should be able to manage zero to forty-five in about three and a half seconds.  That ends if the wings break, and they aren’t made to be durable.”

I nodded.  “It won’t let me flit around the battlefield, but it’ll give me some vertical movement?”

“Yes.”

He continued, indicating lines with his finger.  “We built nineteen tracks into the device, that you’ll be able to control with the bugs you direct into the interior.  One for the on-off switch, doubling as an override for the glove handling, four for antigravity panels, eight for the arms, six for the wings.  You’re sure you can handle all that?”

“Multitasking is a strength of mine,” I said.  “If it’s anything like controlling Atlas, it’ll become almost subconscious.”

“I hope so.  You’ll want to learn with both the glove and the insect control.  There’s also limitations on energy and fuel, for the antigravity and propulsion, but not so limited that you’ll run out by the end of the day.  You have time to review the documentation Dragon put together.  Pay attention to the particulars of the flight pack’s vulnerability to electromagnetic radiation.  While the wings are deployed, one good hit will scramble it and render you flightless.  While the wings are withdrawn and the casing closed, it should be shielded against all reasonable EM sources.”

“I’ll have to stay close to the ground then, in case it gets scrambled.”

“For now.”

“Can I practice?” I asked.  “Not flying, but the arms, and moving the individual components…”

“The arms aren’t done.  Keep them out of the way for now.  Until I figure out a way to approach the internal design, they’ll have about as much strength as a newborn baby.”

I nodded.  “I really appreciate this, anyways.  You two went above and beyond the call of duty.”

“It’s not customary for tinkers to design things for teammates.  If they do, it’s on a relatively small scale, simple.  Kid Win making Gallant’s armor, for example.  Any device requires a great deal of upkeep.  Time is spent tuning, calibrating, repairing and identifying problems.  Each device created is something the tinker then has to take time to maintain, and mass production means the tinker becomes tech support more than an innovator.  Dragon and I don’t sleep, or sleep very little, but even for us, it isn’t effective.  Far better to invest our time into the artificial intelligences and the ships.”

“But you’re doing this for me.”

“We, I in particular, wronged you,” Defiant said.  “I know that even now, we’re not fully on the same page, but I now believe you did start out wanting to be a hero, and I may have played a part in your drift from that path.  I’ve put myself on the line to recommend you to the Wards, and I’ll dedicate the time and equipment necessary to get you on track.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.”

“If you don’t mind,” he said.  “I-”

He paused, glancing at Dragon.  Then he continued, “I’m working on being more humble, but I think I will always have a certain measure of pride and an excess of focus, to the point that I lose sight of the periphery of things.  I’ll forgive your past transgressions if you look past mine, and if there’s any disparity in the two, I’ll make it up for you with this.”  He lowered his head to indicate the flight pack.  “And I’d ask you to spare my ego the reminder by accepting this without thanks.”

“I’ve worked with Rachel, with Bitch, I think I can do that much,” I said.

“When this is over, today, if we’re all still alive, I will maintain two of these packs for you, and you can switch to the spare if one needs repairing or recharging.  Some of it’s of Dragon’s design, but the maintenance will be left to me.  If you have questions, I’ll answer them,” he said.

And the latter half of the statement was left unsaid.  But let’s not talk of this any further, unless it’s about the technical aspects of the device.

He had already turned back to the monitor.  There were three screens filled with columns noting the various teams who were showing up.

“How long until we arrive?”  I ventured.

“Forty-five minutes.”

I nodded.  “We’re going to show up late, aren’t we?”

“Inevitable.  Dragon already has had every combat-ready craft on standby in eastern Europe for a week now.  They and the local forces will have to hold the fort until then.”

“Okay.”

“The computer opposite mine is available.  Dragon is pulling up the documentation on the flight device now, if you need something to occupy yourself.”

I glanced behind Defiant, noting the terminal and the stool that was built into the craft’s cabin.  I took a seat, resting the pack on my right thigh.

Okay, so they’d found the time to pull together a flight pack with some antigravity and propulsion systems, I could believe that.  But the documentation?  Who had time to draw out 21 pages of notes on capabilities and limitations, on top of building the thing?

Especially when it was all drawings, rather than typed out words.

I wasn’t about to complain, but it did leave me reconsidering what Dragon’s specialty might be.  I’d thought I worked it out, but the speed with which she’d pulled this together…

My bugs found the channels inside the suit, and I set about experimenting with it, working through the various steps for moving the wings and the individual limbs.  Each ‘track’ inside the pack’s interior was a narrow corridor with very sensitive switches along the interior, so that any movement of even something as diminutive as a ladybug was capable of pushing them.

The sensitivity would need to be calibrated at a later point.  As it stood, any jarring impact would briefly lock all of the inputs in place, so they wouldn’t read the impact as contact from a bug and send the wrong signal.

I had to shrug out of the upper half of my costume to get the gloves on beneath my costume, but I managed to get everything set up.  There were too many straps and no room for them to slot beneath my costume, so I connected them over the costume’s exterior, beneath the armor, and cinched every strap tight, doing up the metal clasps once everything was comfortably tight.

There were four ‘arms’, each a little longer than my arms.  The control was a little simplistic, with only two switches for each limb.  I imagined it was similar to an artificial limb.  I folded them close to my body, so they hugged my lower ribs and the space just beneath my ‘breasts’, and then left them be.

The wings were just as simplistic, but had three switches each.  Two to move and reorient the wings, with a third to switch between the antigrav vent and varying amounts of propulsion.  I didn’t dare experiment with that in an enclosed space.

I read and reread the documentation ten times over, because there was precious little else to do.

“We’re landing in a minute,” Defiant announced.  “Estimated eight minute wait before the last craft from North America arrive on site and a cape by the name of Silk Road deploys a corridor.”

I nodded.

“We picked up your old team,” he said.  “Sent a craft.”

I turned around, surprised.

“Stipulations of your membership in the Wards dictate that you aren’t to extend contact to them.”

Oh.  Right.  Shitty.

“Keeping in mind that there are likely going to be cameras and cell phones pointed at you throughout this incident,” Defiant said, glancing at Dragon, “You’re free to do as you wish.  So long as you don’t do anything troublesome on camera, I don’t expect anyone will make an issue of it.  It might even help if you allow others to record you, so it’s clear you aren’t doing anything questionable.”

I glanced at him.

“Dragon’s suggestion, not mine,” he said.  “But I don’t object.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it.

“Thank me by staying out of trouble,” he said, brusque.  He glanced at Dragon, then back to me.  “And you’re welcome.”

She can communicate with him, but not with anyone else.  Why?

I nodded.  “Um.  You reminded me, when you said there’d be people getting camera footage of me.  Mrs. Yamada said I should start recording myself while I’m in the field.  I know we still have to talk about my costume, and it’s too late to make any updates, but I wouldn’t mind having it, especially for the next high-intensity situation.”

“We’ll see,” he said.

I nodded.

The craft set down, the doors opening.  My mouth dropped open in surprise as I took in the scene.

The area was a flat, open field with knee-high grass.  Settled on it were twenty of Dragon’s ships, with two to sixteen capes to each.  People were stepping out, stretching, meeting others and talking.  Almost all of them were from the Protectorate and the Wards.  Others included Haven, a villain group I didn’t recognize, and one of the corporate teams I’d seen before the Leviathan fight.

And the Undersiders.  I sensed them with the bugs in the field.

I felt a measure of hesitation.

Time to test out these wings.

It wouldn’t do to faceplant in front of all of these heroes.  I was tentative, as I sent a bug down a tight corridor with innumerable tiny switches.  Only one corridor, one switch.

A panel kicked to life, gentle.  I nearly tripped as I stepped forward and was lifted an inch or two higher off the ground than normal.

I sent the bug further down the corridor, directing more power to the panel, and I was no longer having an issue, because I was being lifted into the air.

I was starting to lose my balance, though, necessitating a drop in lift and some experimental firings of the left and right panels to keep myself upright.

I touched ground and extended the wings, activating the vents for the antigrav at the wing’s tips.  It made for a sudden, lurching adjustment, nearly flipping me over to the ground.

Not wanting to waste too much time, I made a beeline for the Undersiders, experimenting as I went.  Rather than fly, I used short bursts of the antigrav with kicks of my feet to get some air, landing on the noses and limbs of various Dragon-crafts, so I didn’t have to walk around.

“There she is,” Tattletale said, “And she’s flying.”

I settled on top of a head, swaying for a second as I touched ground and found my center of balance.  “Floating, until I get more practice.”

“Close enough,” she said.  She flashed a grin.  “Fancy.”

They were all present, Parian included.  Accord, Citrine and the woman with the water powers were all present.  I couldn’t recall her name.  Ligeia?  She had a costume, now.  Or an evening dress, rather, with a conch brooch and mask.

More than Parian, I was surprised that Accord had come.

Flechette, now Foil, stood off to one side.  She’d donned a black costume, which I was pretty sure was made of one of my failed attempts at a Tattletale costume, using asymmetrical belts, boots, armor and gloves to cover the areas where I’d tried to embellish.  Her mask was an opaque pane, like Clockblocker’s, but black, with silver trim at the edges.

“You’re wearing your old costume,” Grue said, finally.

“Haven’t had a chance to make a new one,” I said.

“No kidding,” Regent said, his tone dry, “Too busy making license plates, dropping the soap…”

“I can’t believe you went and became a hero,” Imp said.  “What the fuck?  How the fuck do you off a major cape and get invited to the Wards?”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“Are you getting by?” Grue asked.

“Not as well as I’d like,” I said.  “But surviving.  Are you guys okay, leaving your territory like this?”

“Hey now,” Regent cut in.  He stabbed a finger at me.  “Aren’t you supposed to read us our rights before questioning us?”

Imp snorted.  Grue smacked Regent across the back of the head, a little harder than necessary.

“It’s all good,” Tattletale said.  She grinned, “Booby traps, some misdirection, I figure we can afford to be gone for a day.  We can look forward to going back home to see some bruised egos.  Regent’s dad among them.”

“You’re being safe?” I asked.  “I mean, we’ve taken on some monsters, but this is Heartbreaker, and the repercussions of a lost fight are kind of, well, permanent.  There’s no undoing his power.”

“Like I said, it’s all good.”  Tattletale shrugged.

“You with a team?” Grue asked, “Or with us?”

“No idea.  As far as I know, I’m independent,” I said.  “I’m not sure what that means, yet, but way I figure it, I’m going to do whatever works best in the moment.”

“Isn’t that how you wound up with us in the first place?” Tattletale asked.

I didn’t have an answer to that, so I shrugged.  My eyes followed Foil as she walked over to talk to Jouster.  He handed her an arbalest, and a quiver of needle-like bolts.

When she took the quiver, he gripped her wrist, speaking something in a low volume.  She nodded as she replied, saying something I couldn’t make out, and he let her go.

Wordless, they parted, him rejoining his team, Foil moving to Parian’s side.

I wanted to say something about that, but what?  I didn’t get the vibe she was a double agent, but I imagined there was something more to that.

I turned my attention back to the Undersiders, and my eyes moved to Rachel.  She was sitting on the ramp at the back of a craft, her dogs clustered around her.  She was stroking Bastard, using her fingernails to get in deeper than the base layer of fur.

Finally a chance to talk, and nothing to say.  The silence hurt me more than any accusations or insults.

“I don’t know how to say this gracefully,” I said.  I paused, noting the presence of a hero nearby who’d raised a camera towards me.  Whatever, I’d say it anyways.  “But you guys mean a lot to me.  I’m sorry I didn’t say it before, but I couldn’t without letting on that something was going on.  You’re my family, in a way.  As lame as it might be, I love you guys.”

My head turned from Grue to Rachel to Tattletale as I said it.

“Gaaaaaaayyyyyyy,” Imp drew out the word.  Parian and Foil gave her an annoyed look.

I smiled a little, despite myself.  “Fuck off.”

“Are you trying to get someone killed?” Regent asked.  “That’s totally a death sentence, telling someone you love them, tying up loose ends.”

“She’d be getting herself killed, going by the rules,” Tattletale said.

“Don’t say that,” Grue said, his voice quiet.

With a touch more seriousness, Tattletale said, “No dying, okay, Skitter?”

“Weaver,” I corrected.

“Skitter,” she said.  “Here, today, you’re Skitter.  Consider it a good luck charm.  And no dying.  I’ll say it as many times as it takes, until it gets through to you.”

I shook my head a little.  “No dying.  That goes both ways.”

“Way I see it,” Imp said, “She’s gone soft.  Real quick, too, getting affectionate, lovey-dovey.”

“Alternate costume, too,” Regent said, “White, light gray, baby blue…”

“Electric blue,” I said.  I was smiling now.  I used the flight-pack to slow my descent as I hopped down from the head of the craft.  I pitched my voice lower so I wouldn’t be overheard, and poked Regent in the chest.  “Fuck you guys.  I’m as badass as ever.  Recommending drugs to kids, strangling a ten year old, forcing bugs down my allies’ throats…”

“Killing Alexandria,” Regent said.

“Mm,” I said, and I could feel my heart plummet into my stomach.  All at once, I was left wondering just how many capes here were secretly blaming me.

“Asshole,” Tattletale told Regent.

I folded my arms, feeling a chill, the summer warmth notwithstanding.  “We may pay for that today.”

“I think we’re fucked in general,” Tattletale said.  “But no sweat.  We’ll-”

She snapped her head around.  There was an uncharacteristic emotion as she swore under her breath.  “Fuck.  He’s up.”

A second later, the ships each spoke in their identical voices, out of sync not because of any flaw in Dragon’s program, but due to their positions across the field, and the delay of sound traveling, a chorus, “Behemoth has surfaced.  Return to your craft as soon as possible.  Supplies will be provided while we are en route.  Individuals on the ground may or may not be left behind.

“See you on the battlefield,” Grue said.

“See you,” I answered.  I felt a tug of worry.  I had almost hoped he’d sit this one out.  He didn’t tend to do well when it came to facing down the real monsters.

I bit my tongue and started up the flight pack.

“Don’t hold back now,” Regent said.  I could see that he was watching the guy who was still training his camera phone on me.  Regent turned back to me and extended his arms, injecting fake emotion into his voice, “You know we love you too!”

I kicked off, just barely floating out of reach as he tried to fold me into a hug.  “Jackass.”

He was back to his casual, detached attitude in an instant, showing just a touch of swagger as he stepped back to rejoin the others.  He gave me a sloppy mock salute.  I shifted my ascent and set foot on the head of the craft that had been behind me.

“Just remember,” Tattletale called out, “You’re officially Skitter today.  Don’t be a hero.  No point to all this shit if you do something brave and get yourself killed.”

“Not sure about that,” I said.  “About being Skitter, not the getting killed bit.”

Heroes were rapidly retreating to the craft.  I didn’t have long.  There was so much I wanted to say, but… shit.

“Rachel,” I said.

She glanced up at me, her eyes almost hidden behind her hair.  I could see the hurt in her expression, a raw feeling.

“The letter, it helped.  All of the letters meant a lot to me, except Imp’s.  But yours especially.”

She grunted in acknowledgement, setting Bastard on the ground, then stood.

“And I’m probably going to get crucified for saying this, but I still consider you a friend.  Someday, after all of this has settled down, when you don’t need to be a villain anymore to take care of your dogs, and I’m okay where I’m at, I want to hang out again.  Throw the balls for the dogs, clean up dog shit, go for walks.  Whatever works.”

“Saying shit like that, you’re signing death warrants!” Regent said, his hands to the side of his head.  “Stop it, you lunatic!”

I shook my head, then turned and took flight.

All around me, doors were shutting.  If it weren’t for my bug sense, I might have lost track of where Defiant was.  So many Dragon-ships, no two quite the same.

I entered, and I could see Defiant standing in front of the monitors, his arms around Dragon’s shoulders.  One of them must have acknowledged my presence, because the doors of the craft began shutting behind me as I made my way inside.

Odd as it was, I hadn’t fully parsed that they were together before now.

I approached, quiet, and watched as the drama on the monitors unfolded.  The bugs from the field followed me inside, clustering around me.

Behemoth, nearly fifty feet tall, was still standing in the midst of a collapsed building.  The structure had no doubt fallen on top of him as he emerged, and the debris was ablaze, casting his gray skin in hues of red and orange.  He didn’t seem to care about the building.

Dragon’s A.I. were already attacking him, each from the greatest distance possible.  The camera shook, out of sync with the timing of the strikes, as the vibrations took time to travel to the distant cameraman.

Heroes were fighting, contributing pitifully little to the assault.  They were too distant to make out.

“Locals?” I asked.

Defiant turned, reacting as if he were surprised I was present.  “Yes.  Don’t ask me to pronounce their names.”

Sāhasī Pān̄ca,” Dragon said.

I glanced at her in surprise.  “You can talk, all of a sudden?”

There was a pause.  “…Little.”

“She felt she needed to be able to communicate,” Defiant said.  To her, he said, “And this is the last time we make a last-minute fix.”

“I’m sort of in the dark here,” I said.

Defiant declined to fill me in, staring at the screen.  His voice was almost pained as he muttered, “They’re too close.”

One Dragon suit was unleashing what looked like a freeze ray at the Endbringer, while another of the Dragon suits was turning a laser on the ground beneath Behemoth’s broad feet.  It wasn’t enough to take away his footing.  He set one ‘claw’ -a growth of obsidian-like black shards- onto solid earth, then half-loped, half-hopped forward.  With his claws and feet now on firm ground, he leaped.  The shockwave of his departure toppled the slipshod buildings around him in his wake.

The landing as he arrived flattened another set of buildings.  The heroes started to run.  They were too slow, when compared to the length of Behemoth’s legs, the sheer power he was capable of putting into the simple act of walking.  One by one, they fell within his kill range.  Two were scorched from the inside, a brawny-looking cape seized up with smoke billowing from his corpse as he struck ground, his arms and limbs still twitching in death.

One managed to escape, taking flight.  He got a full four city blocks away before Behemoth reached out.  He was struck out of the air by a visible arc of lightning that extended from a claw’s tip.

Four A.I. were continually bombarding him now, three using what looked to be freeze-rays.  The fourth alternated between destroying his footing and blasting burning buildings flat with some sort of concussive laser-drill, stifling the spread of the fires.  Heroes here and there contributed some inaccurate ranged fire, but seemed preoccupied with fleeing.

Behemoth hardly seemed to care about any of it.

Our ship lifted off.  Outside, the surroundings were taking on a rosy tint.  I could hear the cumulative thrum of the twenty-seven Dragon-craft’s propulsion systems operating in unison.  My bugs could track them all, the late arrivals included.

There was a shudder, and the rosy tint of our surroundings intensified, filling the cabin.  We started to move, and it wasn’t the ship moving us.  Dragon stepped out of Defiant’s embrace to approach the ship controls.

An instant later, the propulsion system kicked into motion, and we were moving far faster than before.  The shuddering of the cabin was so intense I had to sit down.

“India’s capes fall into two categories,” Defiant said, not taking his eyes off the screen.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over the movement of the craft.  “They term their capes ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, with very strict rules on who falls into a category.  Walk between the two groups, you get the worst of both.  Hot, it’s about flash, color, appeal, and engaging the public.  Villain or hero, they’re cape celebrities.  Cold, it’s… bloodshed, violence, assassination and secrecy.  Capes of the underworld.  The public doesn’t see or hear about the cold capes.  The media does not speak of them.”

On the screen, Behemoth wasn’t even slowing down.  Another arc of lightning lanced across the cityscape, setting a dozen fires.  The houses looked shoddy, dirty, and were apparently very flammable.  The flames spread quickly, and plumes of smoke were streaming towards the overcast sky.

“The capes that are getting killed, they’re-”

Garama,” Dragon said.  “…Hot.”

“We need the ones with killer instinct,” Defiant said.  “The ones who fight for real, not for play.  The cold capes.”

Thanda,” Dragon supplied the translation.

“Question is whether the Thanda think it’s worth breaking the rules and emerging from the shadows,” Defiant said.

“Did last…  time,” Dragon said, her words bearing an odd cadence.  She approached me, holding an armband and a silver packet.

I accepted them, turning both over in my hands.  “Radiation pills?”

She nodded, holding up one finger.

“Take one?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Still.”

“Still?”  I asked.

But she just touched one side of my face.  One finger was under my chin, and I raised it, looking up at her, confused.

She let me go, leaving me momentarily confused.  I touched my face where she’d laid her hand and felt two bumps.

A camera?

“Dragon,” Defiant said, before I could ask any questions.  “Look.”

She approached his side, her arms wrapping around his armored left arm, metal scraping against metal.

“They’re not supposed to be here,” he commented, his voice low.

I turned my attention to the monitor.  “Who aren’t?”

“The Yàngbǎn.”

The focus was on a formation of capes.  They were lined up like musketeers, rank and file, each a set distance apart from the others.  The ones in front were kneeling, the ones behind standing.  Each wore a mask that covered their faces, flowing costumes with loose sleeves and pants, somewhere between a martial arts uniform and a military uniform, each crimson with a black design of horizontal and vertical lines at edges of the sleeves and pants.  There were nearly thirty of them.

All together, they directed lasers at him, aiming for his one red eye.  He blocked the concentrated laser-fire with one claw, and the flesh at the base of the obsidian claw began peeling away.

“Who are they?”

“The C.U.I.’s military parahumans.”

“Isn’t the C.U.I. xenophobic?”

“Yes,” Dragon said.  Her voice sounded funny.  It wasn’t emotion, but something was somehow off about it.

“Excepting diplomatic functions, this is the first time in over a decade that any of the Yàngbǎn have set foot outside of China,” Defiant said.  “We’ve tried to arrange for their aid in the past, but relations between our side and theirs are sour.  For years, they’ve alleged that the PRT and the Protectorate are fundamentally corrupt, the source of the problems currently plaguing the world.”

“They were right,”  I said.

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He didn’t sound happy about the admission.

Behemoth slammed his claws together.  The Yàngbǎn responded by creating forcefields en-masse, one for every person, overlapping with those to either side of them.  The shockwave of the clap ripped through them, shattering the first two rows of forcefields and virtually liquefying the unfortunate capes who no longer had protection.

The Yàngbǎn in the back rows were already dropping their forcefields, extending their hands forward, open palms aimed at their comrades.

The shockwave’s effects reversed in an instant, and the injured were whole, holding the positions they’d been in an instant before.  Here and there, the reaction had been a fraction too slow, and the Yàngbǎn members were only reversed to the instant the shockwave made contact.  They were thrown back and caught by the ones in the back row, blood streaming from their eyes, noses and ears.  One was saved much too late, and the process of being liquefied was only repeated, splattering the Yàngbǎn soldier who’d failed to react in time to rescue him.

Behemoth unleashed a rolling tide of flame, and the remaining twenty-eight Yàngbǎn fled, using a combination of enhanced speed and flight.  The remains of the dead member were left behind.

“I can’t tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing,” I commented.

“With luck, they’ve changed their minds and we have much-needed allies,” Defiant said.

“And if they haven’t?”

He didn’t reply.

More of Dragon’s craft were arriving, adding their attacks to those of the others.  I could recognize the wheel-dragon, using some sort of tuned electromagnetic pull to draw away the loose rubble from beneath Behemoth.  He sank nearly ten feet as the ground shifted around him.

He struck the wheel-dragon with a bolt of lightning, flaying off a few plates of armor and destroying the wheel.  It opened its mouth and launched cannon-fire at him.  The shells exploded into blobs of containment foam, fireproof, sticky, virtually impossible to remove.

But not capable of holding back something like Behemoth.

More lightning was unleashed, each doing successively more damage to the craft.  By the fourth blast, it wasn’t operational.  The fifth split it down the middle.  Insulation was little use against a dynakinetic that could redirect the natural course of electricity.

Ten craft were around him now, concentrating fire.  Cryogenic beams, containment foam and more served to slow him down.  Not stopping him.  No, that was too much to hope for.  His pace was roughly two-thirds the speed it might otherwise be, at a glance, his attention focused on the A.I.

Behemoth brought both hands together, but it wasn’t to clap.  Instead, he directed a stream of lightning at the nearest craft, easily twenty feet across.  It was splintered in an instant.

A second craft perished a second later.

Before he could turn his attention to a third, the stream of lightning shifted, curving off to one side.  Drones, the annoying little bastard spheres that had electorcuted me on multiple occasions, the same ones that had been built into the ceilings of the cells and prison hallways in the PRT headquarters, were in flight, deployed by a drone-ship like the one I’d fought in Brockton Bay, and they were channeling the lightning along a different path.

Behemoth wasn’t one to roar, but I could see the effort at work as he began to draw the lightning away from the remote drones, forcing it to take another path, beyond the route of ionized air or the electromagnetic charge that they were using to catch it and harmlessly redirect it into an area that was already rubble.  He was taking abuse from the airborne craft, unable to move without giving ground.  More containment foam and more ice built around him, tearing and melting, respectively, in response to his lesser movements.

They moved closer together, strengthening the bond, and the lightning was caught once more.

He gave up on the lightning and blasted the drones out of the air with a wave of heated wind.  An instant later, he resumed destroying the craft.  Three in as many seconds, and then a slam of one claw against a building.  The shockwave that followed leveled a whole row of buildings.

I belatedly swallowed a radiation pill and attached the armband.

The screen displayed text:  ‘Name?’

“Weaver,” I said.

The letters appeared on the screen.  I confirmed with a press of the button.

A map of my surroundings appeared, a landscape rushing by.  In one corner, the distance to Behemoth was noted, rapidly counting down.

I could see the runway an instant before the ship touched down.  The rosy glow was still present as the ship cut back on forward thrust.  The craft touched the runway belly-down, skidding to a near-stop.

The red tint that surrounded everything disappeared, and Defiant caught my arm with one hand, holding on to a beam in the ceiling with the other.

The ship activated one thruster, and the craft swung around.  The other thruster kicked to life, and we took off, still bearing some of the forward momentum from earlier.  We were moving in a near-perpendicular direction to the one we’d been traveling earlier.  Defiant let go of my arm.

When I looked back at the screen, nearly half of the city was on fire.  Black smoke choked the skies, a stark contrast to the cloudy sky of only minutes ago.

“Were they able to evacuate most?” Defiant asked.

“No,” Dragon answered.

Our craft touched ground, and I glanced out the window to see a sliver of what the monitors showed.  A sky choked by darkness, a city aflame.

The glow of his single eye cut through the smoke, and I was reminded of Lung.  Of that first night, on the rooftop, when one of Lung’s eyes had been swollen shut, the other open.  Lung, like Behemoth, had been virtually untouchable.

This was that same scenario, that same fight.  I couldn’t hope to win.  At best, I’d manage a distraction, a momentary handicap, but he’d recuperate, and given the chance, he’d murder me with a casual ease.

This wasn’t a rooftop, but there wouldn’t be an easy means of escape.  And just as I’d acted to stop Lung from hurting what I thought were innocent kids, I was acting here to save lives.

The same thing, but on a far greater scale.  The danger, the stakes, all scaled up by a thousand times, a million times.

The back of the craft opened, and Defiant led the way as we made our exit.  Spotlights cast much-needed light on the immediate surroundings.  The ships had settled in a ring formation, some posed above the others, as if providing a protective enclosure.  Weapons were directed outside, and one craft loomed overhead.  For now, we were as safe as we could hope to be.

Chevalier, Rime and the rest of his new Protectorate were all in one group, backed by their respective teams.

A nearby crash made half of the people present, myself included, nearly jump out of their skin.  It was somehow reassuring that Chevalier managed to retain his composure.

“The ships have all arrived,” Chevalier said, “I’ve received the data on the other participating teams, those not already fighting will reinforce as they’re able.  We should expect record numbers, we shouldn’t expect it’ll help.  Any news on the locals?”

“Gathering and setting up defenses at India Gate,” Rime said.  “It seems to be his destination.”

“The gate?  There’s nothing there,” Chevalier said.  “Only population.”

“If it’s not a soft target,” Revel said, “then we can play the long game, buy time for Scion to arrive.”

“Let’s assume it’s soft.  We made that mistake once, never again,” Chevalier said.  “Okay.  Listen up!”

He raised his voice, commanding the attention of everyone present.

“We’ve already notified you if we believe you have the capacity to engage Behemoth.  Anyone else is operating as search, rescue, and support.  Maintain a distance of at least a hundred feet from Behemoth at the very minimum.  Get any closer, you probably won’t have a chance of escaping if he decides to close the gap.  Be mindful of line of sight, because he can and will tag you with a lightning bolt, and it’s not something you can dodge.  Assume every structure will fall down in a heartbeat, and know that there’s no good place to hide and wait for this to be over.  Keep moving and move smart.”

The crowd of heroes was utterly silent.  I could see the Undersiders on the opposite end of the enclosure.  The spotlights behind them rendered them little more than silhouettes with glowing edges.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” Chevalier said.  “The fact that you’re here, today, knowing the state things are in, you’re the biggest damn heroes I’ve worked with.  I’m not going to make any big speeches.  Better we get out there and save lives.  Hit him hard if you see the chance, keep an eye out for whatever his goal might be, communicate with other groups as best as you’re able.  Stay spread out so he can’t wipe too many of us out at once.  You work best with the people you know, so form your own teams, stick with the people you’ve operated with before.  Go.”

Heroes, already gathered in their groups, mobilized.

I started to approach the Undersiders.  Defiant’s hand on my shoulder stopped me.

I could see Tattletale and Accord stepping off to one side, talking.  She gave me one glance, offered me an apologetic half-frown, and then continued walking.

“Why?” I asked.

“The Chicago Wards,” he said.

“What about them?  I can function better alongside the Undersiders.”

“Dragon thinks you can contribute just as much or more with the Wards group, and they’re the team that wants you.”

I glanced at the groups that hadn’t departed yet.  Some were getting geared up, another group had a cape touching each member in turn, turning their skin to what looked like stone.  On the far end, past those other groups, I could see Tecton, Grace, and Wanton with three others I didn’t recognize.  They were looking at me.

“It’s the smart choice,” he said, “But it’s your choice.”

And, giving evidence to the statement, he departed, entering the Pendragon and freeing me to decide without his influence.

I sighed, then activated the antigrav panels to give myself some forward thrust, speeding me up as I moved to join Tecton’s group.

“Yep,” he said, to one of the newbies.

“You’re leader, I’m recon?” I asked.  “Like it was in New York?”

“No, you’re leader as long as this fight lasts,” Tecton said.

I must have looked surprised, because he said, “You’ve been in two of these fights, right?  If we count Echidna?”

I nodded.

“I’ve only been in the one, and I was never the shot-caller.  That was a partnership between Raymancer and me, and he’s gone.”

“My condolences,” I said.

He nodded, but my focus was on the other members of the team, trying to account for the resources I had available.  Grace had changed her martial arts outfit for something with more coverage, a chainmail mesh like the PRT uniforms wore.  Wanton still wore free-flowing clothes, but he wouldn’t stay in that form.

The other three… A girl with bands of metal running down each of her arms and legs, with heavy gauntlets, boots and a breastplate, a mask etched to look like a feminine face, with white lenses over the eyes.  Her platinum blond hair had three individual braids, two draped over her shoulders, with the ends bound in more bands of the blue-black metal.

There was a guy in a cowl, with another metal mask, who reminded me a bit of Shadow Stalker, but he wore white, and carried no weapon I could see.

And the last one… heavyset, with armor that seemed too generic.

“You’re a rookie?”

“All three of those guys are rookies,” Tecton said.  “They cannibalized our non-core team members to supplement other groups, and-”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “I guess you three are getting thrown in the deep end.  Names?”

“Cuff,” said the girl in blue-black armor.

“Annex,” the cowled one told me.

“Golem,” the last one said, his voice muffled by his helmet.

I frowned behind my mask, perplexed.  “You named yourself after the little bastard from The Lord-”

“No,” he said.  I could hear him sigh from behind his helmet.  “I’m thinking of changing it.”

If not from the trilogy, then…  I fixed the pronunciation, compensating for how his muffled voice had modified it.  Right.  Golem, from the myth.

“I get it, nevermind.  Listen, we’re going to move out, and you’re going to explain your powers en route.  You know who I am?”

There were nods all around.

“You’re still okay with following my orders?”

Again, nods.

I saw the Undersiders moving out, along with the Ambassadors.

“We’re supplementing and supporting the Undersiders for the time being.  You okay with that?”

A touch more hesitant, they nodded.

“Then let’s go,” I said.

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Drone 23.2

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Every part of the Las Vegas team’s reaction to our arrival screamed dissatisfaction.  Folded arms, the way none of them would meet our eyes, the very way they were positioned, so they were just enough in our way to make it clear they didn’t agree with what was going on, but not so close as to be with us.

Except it wasn’t me that was the problem, this time.

Satyrical, Satyr for short, wore a helmet sculpted to look like a goat’s head, the mouth in a perpetual smile.  On a good day, I imagined his eyes were bright with mischief, his shaped eyebrows quirked behind the large eye-holes of the helmet.  This wasn’t a good day.  There were circles under his eyes, and he glowered.  With the smile on his helmet, it made him look… I didn’t want to say deranged, but it was the word that sprung to mind.

His bare chest was muscular, waxed hairless, the belt and leggings of his costume slung low enough that I could see the lines of his lower stomach that pointed to his… yeah.  It was admittedly distracting.  It was meant to be distracting.

Nix, Blowout, Leonid and Floret joined Satyrical in their anger.  Heroes in more flamboyant and colorful costumes than normal, their moods a contrast in how dark they were.  Spur and Ravine seemed more lost than angry, but the way they retreated into their group as we passed told me that they would side with their team over us.

If there was something to be said, words of encouragement or apology, nobody I was with seemed ready or able to come up with them.

We approached the elevator and made our way down, and none of the local heroes joined us.

“Thoughts?” Vantage asked me.

“For a city like Las Vegas, I’m surprised the building is so…” I trailed off.

“Dull?  Like a giant tombstone?”

“No windows,” I said.  “Just the front door, walls all around it, no decoration except for the PRT logo on the face of the building, no lights except for spotlights.”

“Stands out,” Vantage said.  “There’s contrast.”

“And it’s required.  Vegas is one of the worst cities for sheer number of villains,” Rime said.  Her entire demeanor was rigid, which maybe fit in a way with her ice powers.  “Vegas employs a group of unsponsored thinkers and tinkers to monitor the venues, much like the PRT does with the economy, ensuring that everything is above-board, that everything is being conducted fairly and that the numbers add up.  Vegas changed as a result, developed a different cape dynamic.  In Los Angeles or New York, it’s the people who can blow down buildings that are seen as true ‘heavy hitters’.  Here, they’re trying to game the system, and the heroes are trying to game them.  In Vegas, it’s thinkers, tinkers and strangers who rule the underworld.”

“A different sort of cops and robbers,” I said.

“Cops and robbers?”  Vantage asked.

“A way my teammate once explained it to me.  The, for lack of a better word, healthy way for heroes and villains to be, is for all of this to be a game of sorts.  Trading blows, counting coup, but ultimately leaving the other side without any permanent damage.”

“Counting coup?” Leister asked.  He was the sole subordinate that Vantage had brought along.  Rime, by contrast, had brought Usher and Arbiter from her team.  Prefab from San Diego had shown up as well.

I explained, “The term came from the Native Americans’ style of warfare.  In a fight, one person makes a risky, successful play against the other side showing their prowess.  They gain reputation, the other side loses some.  All it is, though, is a game.  A way to train and make sure you’re up to snuff against the real threats without losing anything.”

“Except,” Rime said, “Things escalate.  One side loses too many times in a row, they push things too far.  And there’s always collateral damage.  I notice civilians don’t factor into that explanation.”

“I’m not saying I agree with it a hundred percent,” I said.  “I didn’t, even from the beginning.  But it sounds like what you’re describing.”

Rime shook her head.  “No.  The strip is dying.  Every successful job the villains pull causes catastrophic damage, sees venues shutting down.  More villains arrive, hearing of the last group’s success, or because there’s room for them, and they settle in the more desolate areas.  The problem feeds itself, gets worse.  This building is a fortress and a prison because that’s what the city needs, that’s how bad things have gotten.”

“And the heroes?”

“Flamboyant, as brilliant and attention-grabbing in the open as the villains are discreet and hidden in plain sight.  The Vegas team is largely made up of strategists, charlatans and borderline scoundrels.  Individuals who can foil cheats and frauds, or throw a wrench in the works of the local masterminds, who think like they do.  Which is why this is such a problem.”

The last sentence had a note of finality to it.  I decided not to push my luck with further questions.

We made our way out into the corridor with the cells.  It was deeper, more developed than Brockton Bay’s.  There were two tiers, with one set of cells above the other.

Rime moved her phone next to a television screen, then tapped it.  There was a pause as a row of black squares with white outlines gradually lit up.  She leaned forward a little, her hand resting against the wall beside the television.

The screen came alive.  I saw a man in a cape uniform within, without a mask.  He had albinism, to the point that the velvet purple of his costume overwhelmed the little of his skin that was showing.  The irises of his eyes were a dark pink.

“Pretender,” Rime said.  Her voice had a harder note than before.  “What have you done?”

“Don’t place all of the blame on me.  You forced my hand.”

“No,” she said, “There had to be another way.  You could have admitted-”

“A death sentence,” he said.  “You’re an upper-echelon cape now, and you have the clearance.  You know about her.  The bogeyman that comes after anyone who tries to release information they want to keep secret.”

I glanced at Vantage, who only shrugged.

“We could have protected you,” Rime said.

Pretender only chuckled.  “No.  No you couldn’t.  I’m dead anyways, one way or another.  I surrender, it’s the end of my career, and that’s all I have.  I talk, I die.  This was the best option.”

The hand that Rime was using to lean against the wall clenched into a fist.  Her voice was tight as she asked, “Killing a government thinker was the best option?”

“Yes.”

Rime straightened, but it was more of a defeated gesture than anything, her hand dropping from the wall.  “You were one of the good ones, Pretender.”

“Still am,” he said.  He crossed the length of his cell, sitting on the corner of the bed.  “I’d explain, but it would only get us all killed.”

“We’re going to have to take you to a more secure facility,” Rime said.

“Well, I didn’t expect you’d let me go.  Do what you have to.  I made a deal with the devil, you caught me, for better or worse,” Pretender said.  In a quieter voice, he said, “About time I pay the price.”

Rime turned off the television.  She looked at Arbiter.

“My riot sense was going off like crazy as he talked,” Arbiter said.  “There’s something at work here.”

“Describe it.”

Arbiter touched her middle fingers and thumbs together, forming a circle, “Orange.”

She moved her hands further apart, “Red.”

Then further apart again, until the implied ‘circle’ was as big as a large pizza.  “Yellow.”

“That bad?”  Rime asked.

“Bad.”

“Then we move now,” Rime said.  She raised her hand to her ear.  “Dragon?  Cancel your errands.  We’re in for some trouble, almost guaranteed, and I’m thinking we want to clear out before it descends.”

There was a short pause.

The digital voice of Dragon’s A.I., the same one I’d heard through her drones and the armbands, informed us, “Kulshedra model en route to Las Vegas Protectorate Headquarters.  ETA two minutes.  Tiamat to join in t-minus eight minutes.”

“Okay,” Rime said.  “It’ll be here before we’re on the roof.  Let’s get Pretender packed up.  Standard stranger protocols in effect.  Usher and Arbiter, you handle it.  Everyone else with me.”

Once we were all in the elevator, I figured I was clear to ask without sounding too much like a newbie.  “What was Arbiter talking about?  Riot sense?”

Rime explained.  “She’s a social thinker, in addition to her minor blaster and shaker powers.  Her danger sense is mild at best, not something she can react to immediately, but it makes her aware of associated individuals and the threat they pose.  She wouldn’t be able to see much from Pretender alone, but she knows that there’s a moderate to high danger posed by those closest to him-”

“His team, probably,” Prefab said.

“She’s predicting a massive risk from people who have an intimate but less immediate association or those who have a recent but less familiar association with him…”

“Old teammates or family that he doesn’t see regularly,” Prefab said, “Or people he’s hired for help that he isn’t as familiar with.”

Rime finished, “…And a moderate risk from people or things on the periphery of his real-life social network.”

“The bogeyman?” I asked.

Rime didn’t answer.  Instead, she looked at the digital display above the door of the elevator.  “Prefab, look after our Wards.  I’m going to have words with Satyr.  See if we can’t work out what the angle is.  Wait on the roof for our ride.”

“Stranger protocols mean you don’t go anywhere alone,” Prefab said.

“Of course.  I’m thinking…  Vantage,” she said, beckoning.

Vantage nodded, stepping forward.

The elevator doors opened for Rime to exit, then shut.  The three of us continued up to the roof.  Prefab was large, and his armor made him look larger, with shoulderpads that looked like the tower-tops of a castle, each probably weighing twice as much as my entire outfit, equipment included.  He carried a heavy cannon, obviously tinker made.

Leister was a teenager in lightweight silver armor with the edges molded into wave-like forms.  Beneath the armor was blue cloth with a similar wave-like design embroidered on it.  He held a trident, as ornate as his armor.  As lightweight and sprightly as Prefab was a veritable tank.

“This bogeyman-” Leister started.

“Based on what we know,” Prefab said, “Arbiter giving us a yellow that possibly includes her is more worrying than a red alert involving just about anyone else.”

“You don’t know anything about her?”

“We mainly see her censoring information,” Prefab said.  “Silencing and disappearing people who are talking about sensitive stuff, and doing the same with everyone they talked to.  Only details are slipping through the net, now.  About Cauldron, about Alexandria, the formulas.”

“Too much for one person to handle?” I suggested.

“Speculation from the top is they’ve probably stopped caring,” Prefab said.  “Thinkers believe she’s letting things leak, because it doesn’t make sense that they’d keep things this tight and then slip up like they have been.”

“What’s her classification?”

“Thinker.  Don’t worry about the number.  Just run.”

I frowned.

“Exactly how many capes are like that?” Leister asked.

“A handful.  Enough.”

“I’m beginning to feel like I’m out of my depth,” Leister said.

“You get used to that,” I said.  “With the sheer luck involved in powers and the crap we wind up facing on a daily or weekly basis, it’s only a matter of time before you wind up going up against someone you don’t have a chance against.”

“Yeah, but Fab’s talking-”

Prefab,” Prefab growled.

“Sorry.  I mean, Prefab was talking about opponents we couldn’t hope to fight, and I’ve only had two real fights so far.  One of them wasn’t even a real fight.”

“You’re new?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

“I’ve only been a Ward for a month.”

Only two fights in a month.  I felt a pang of envy.

“Let’s hope there isn’t a fight today,” Prefab said.  “But let’s be ready if there is one.

We ascended to the rooftop.  Dragon’s suit had already landed.  A bulky craft, twice the size of a helicopter, with what looked to be a cargo bay.  Letters stenciled on the edge of the wing read ‘Kulshedra v0.895’.

Inside, in boxes, there were butterflies.  Innumerable varieties.  Sadly, quite a few had died due to a lack of food or being crushed under the weight of the others.  The idea was clear.  The PRT wanted me to change how I operated.  Dragon, at least, was willing to give me the means.

It was still stupid.  Ridiculous.

The back of the craft opened, giving me access to the hatches.  I stepped up onto the ramp and found the buttons to open the boxes.

“Go, my pretties,” I said, monotone.  “Go, seek out my enemies and smother them.”

They took off, moving in colorful formations, organized by type, drawing fractal shapes in the air as they spread out.

I stepped down off the ramp to see Leister staring at me.

“I know you were joking,” Prefab said, “But no smothering.”

“No smothering,” I said, sighing.  I looked up.  The sky was darkening.  “If there’s a fight, it’s going to be at night.  It’d be pretty stupid to use butterflies at night, when half of my tricks are subtle.”

“You’d have to ask Rime.”

Was I supposed to use non-butterflies to scout for trouble?

I considered asking, but I was suspicious I already knew the answer.

Best not to ask, and beg for forgiveness later.

Insects and flies moved out over the surrounding cityscape.  There were too many buildings here, too many that were sealed off, but I could check rooftops and balconies, and I could investigate the ground.  Tens of thousands of people, all in all.

“Sniper rifle,” I said, in the same instant the thought came together.

“Wha?” Leister asked, incoherent and confused.

Prefab’s head snapped my way.  “You sure?”

“I’d point,” I said, “But he’d notice.  Our masks and helmets cover our faces, or I’d be worried about lip-reading.”

“Don’t panic, don’t give away that you’re afraid.  Into the craft.  Go,” Prefab said.

I nodded, wishing I had my real costume, though I knew it might not be tough enough to withstand a bullet from a sniper rifle.

Prefab was the last to step inside, slowing down as he approached the ramp.  I could see light glittering around the edges of the roof, growing more intense over the course of seconds.  Ten, fifteen seconds passed, until there was more of the light than there were spaces in between.  The light was most intense near the edges.

In a clap of thunder, a rush of wind and a flare of… anti-sparks, crenellated walls appeared, extending fifteen feet up from the lip of the roof’s edge.  The sparks, such as they were, were black at their core, surrounded by shadow.  They spun in the air before drifting to the ground, where they flickered out of existence.

“Does that block his line of sight?  I can make them taller,” Prefab said.

“I don’t think he has the right angle to shoot over the wall,” I said.

“No weapons?  Costume?”

I used my subtler bugs, but he was already packing away the rifle in record time, then swiftly moving away from the roof’s edge.  He brushed away my bugs as they converged, kicked a hatch open with his foot, then climbed inside with a speed that almost made me think he’d fallen.  Only the fact that the hatch closed firmly after him convinced me otherwise.

The only way he’d have evaded the swarm like that was if he’d known what I was doing.

“No costume,” I said.  “He brushed away the bugs before I could get anything substantial, but I think… glasses?  And a dress shirt.  I think he noticed what my bugs are doing.  That’s rare.”

“We’ve got trouble,” Prefab said.  I realized he was using his phone.  “Sniper on a rooftop nearby.  Possible Thinker.  Barricades should make for safe elevator exit.”

We’re on our way up,” Rime said, through the speaker.  “Four capes and the containment box.  Hold position, play safe.  If Pretender arranged a jailbreak, he won’t have just one person working under him.  Arriving in eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…

The elevators opened.  Rime, Arbiter, Vantage and Usher made their way out, wheeling a box along with them.

“Password?” Prefab asked.

“Twenty-three-aleph-pater-newfoundland-washington-vikare,” Rime said.  “Arbiter’s group is already confirmed, they haven’t left my sight.  First half of your first password?”

“Eight-nine-three-scion,” he responded.  “And the other two are clear.”

“Good.  Let’s move. A hand?”

Prefab gave Rime a hand in moving the box.  It couldn’t have been comfortable: four feet by six feet by four feet.  Enough to stand in, but not enough to lie down.  The thing had four wheels, and was dense enough that it took some muscle to get it up the ramp.  I would have joined in, if I didn’t fear I would get in the way more than I’d help.  I wasn’t the strongest person around.  Fit, yes, but not strong.

Instead, I focused on bringing my butterflies back.  I couldn’t get them all back in time, but a loss of a hundred or so wasn’t a tragedy.

A loss of all of the butterflies wouldn’t be a tragedy.  I’d feel bad, if only because of the trouble Dragon likely went through in acquiring them, but yeah.

Gosh, if they all just happened to die or get left behind, maybe I’d have to use something else.  Tragic.

They finally managed to settle the box at the center of the cargo bay, pulling a switch to close clasps at the base of it, lowering a solid metal pillar from the roof to the top of the box.

I doubted it would budge if someone crashed a bus into it.

I called back some of the butterflies closest to me, keeping others around the building with the sniper.  He hadn’t set up again.

“I’m worried about that sniper,” I said.  “If he was coming after us, why is he giving up so easily?  If he wasn’t coming after us, who was he after?  A civilian?”

“Identify the building as we get airborne.”

“Through a window?” I asked, looking forward, to the ‘head’ of the craft, that looked out onto the city.

“Bulletproof glass or no, let’s stay away from the windows for now,” Rime said.  “Kulshedra, show Weaver what your cameras see.”

Monitors changed from red text on a black background to high-resolution images of the surrounding walls and rooftop, a different image for each one.

A second later, the ramp closed, and we took to the air, the craft vibrating softly.

I studied the monitors, watching, getting a sense of the surroundings and of which buildings corresponded with what I was looking at.

“Kulshedra,” I said, pretty sure I was mangling the name, “The leftmost monitor on your left side.  Zoom in, a little up and left.  There.  Building to the left of the one in the dead center.”

I tapped the screen as the ship highlighted the building in question.

“Good job, Weaver,” Rime said, peering at the monitor.

“Was on the roof, moved below through hatch when I used my bugs.  Hasn’t left the building,” I said.

Rime touched her earbud.  “Vegas teams, be advised, armed individual in a building at… 125 West Sahara.”

“It’s port,” Leister murmured to me.

“Huh?”

“You said ‘left side of the ship.  It’s port.”

“Isn’t that boats?” I asked.

“Can be aircraft.”

“Best leave it,” Vantage said.  “Leister’s a little stubborn.”

“So am I,” I said.

“Maybe ‘tenacious’ is the word you want,” Vantage offered.  “There aren’t a lot of people who get knocked out and still manage to win a fight.”

“Are you all this pedantic?”  I asked.

Vantage only laughed, though I saw Rime glancing at me, and she didn’t look pleased.

“Alexandria was always hard on us,” Arbiter said.  Her voice had a strange tone to it, oddly melodic, “Getting us to focus on grades, extracurricular stuff, on top of what we did as a part of the team.”

“We were challenged to be better than the other teams in everything, academics included,” Vantage said.  “But we were the only team with a leader who cared about it.”

“Except the capes in Fresno,” Arbiter said.  “I was still a Ward, then.”

Vantage smiled, “Oh yeah.  The bastards in Fresno.  They caught on, probably because we were complaining so much.  Small team, but they started studying like crazy, just so we’d be in second place, academically.  Didn’t matter why we were second, Alexandria was still annoyed at us.”

“All those sermons on being top-notch, on acting like the people we wanted to be, and… she turned out to be a monster,” Arbiter said.

“A monster slain by Weaver, here,” Usher spoke.

All at once, I felt very on the spot.  Each of the capes here, Rime and Prefab excluded, had worked with Alexandria in some capacity.  Except Rime and Prefab were team leaders, and Defiant had commented on how every cape in a position of power had some experience working under the Triumvirate, so even they knew her to some extent.

“Weaver did what had to be done,” Rime said.  “Not pretty, not kind, but sometimes you have to use a knife to cut out a cancer.”

All eyes were on me.  Nobody was speaking.

“I asked you to come along on this job for a reason, Weaver,” Rime said.  “I’ve read the incident reports that involved your interactions with the PRT and the groups under the PRT’s umbrella.  The bank robbery, the fundraiser, the theft of the database with the Shadow Stalker kidnapping, and your ultimate surrender, a little over a week ago.”

I nodded, not sure where she was going, not wanting to interrupt.

“On the latter two occasions, you and your team perverted the natural course of justice.  You pretended to be defeated by Shadow Stalker in order to ambush the Wards, and you later surrendered, only to get off rather lightly for your crimes.”

“I think I follow,” I said.  I glanced at the others, but they were all busy trying not to look like they were listening to our conversation.

Rime nodded, “It’s about-”

The ship lurched, and Rime broke off mid-sentence to catch herself before she fell to the floor.  Usher fell and nearly slid across the floor, but Vantage caught him.

“Kulshedra!” Rime shouted, “Report!”

Incoming fire.  Taking evasive maneuvers.”

“The sniper,” I said.

Not likely,” the ship reported.  “Unless the sniper is capable of moving great distances, he is approximately point seven three five miles away.  The missile came from a perpendicular direction.

Missile?” Leister asked, sounding very alarmed.

Projectile,” the ship corrected.  “Humanoid in shape.”

I saw Leister relax a fraction at that, which I found oddly charming.  He was relieved it was just a person.  Experience told me that small-to-medium sized explosives were less daunting than the prospect of fighting an unknown parahuman.

“Let me out, Kulshedra,” Rime said, “Before they attack again.  Follow my orders on comm channel two.”

The back of the ship cracked open, and wind rushed into the cabin.  Several of my butterflies were torn free of their roosts.

“Prefab’s in charge,” Rime said.

“Got it,” Prefab answered.

“Usher?” Rime asked.  “Hit me.”

Usher didn’t respond, still struggling a bit with his precarious position, holding on to Vantage’s hand.  He did close his eyes, and Rime began to glow, a sheen radiating over her hair, skin and costume.

With that, she was gone, pushing her way out of her seat, leaping and taking flight, flying out of the open hatch.

An instant later, the ship swayed again.  Prefab used his power to create a short half-dome over Usher.  The back hatch closed, and Usher was finally able to relax, with solid ground and something to hold on to.

Projectile was rotating rapidly, along both horizontal and vertical axes.  Rendering composite image from video footage.

The monitors showed a gray expanse, but it began to rapidly take shape in what was first a distorted sphere, then a crude face, and finally a face complete with details.

Arbiter, Vantage, Leister and Prefab all groaned in unison.  I suspected Usher might have joined in if he had a better angle..

“Fuck you, Pretender,” Vantage muttered.  “Fuck you.  You had to hire the worst mercenaries possible, didn’t you?  You asshole.”

I looked at the image.  Not a face I knew, but one I recognized from TV, from the internet, and one very brief encounter.

“That’s B-”

The ship swerved, but it didn’t manage to avoid the hit this time around.  This time, the shifting center of gravity was compounded by a sudden impact, heavy enough to cave in the front of the craft.  Each and every one of us were thrown out of our seats.

From there, things went south quickly.  No longer flightworthy, the ship struggled to maintain altitude.  Bugs that had collected on the outside of the ship made me aware of how the jets that had been driving the craft forward were now angling towards the ground.  They worked double time to keep the Kulshedra from spinning as it fell and to give downward thrust to counteract the pull of gravity.

Rime’s power froze the Kulshedra in mid-descent, catching it between two buildings, suspended in the midst of a bridge of ice.

The projectile struck us again, from directly above.  The ice to our left, our port side, shattered.

“Seatbelts on!”  Prefab bellowed.  “Hold on tight if you can’t get to one!  Deep breath, don’t tense with the impact!”

I climbed up to a point where there were benches, and belted myself in.  One over each shoulder, one over my lap.  The headrest- it wasn’t there.  There was only metal.  My butterflies found the real headrest above me.  I reached up and found the clasps to lower the softer bundle until it sat at the right height to cushion any impacts.

The ice on our starboard side cracked, an agonizing, gradual break.  My heart leaped into my chest as we plunged towards the street below.

The Kulshedra hit ground, and the impact was so heavy my thoughts were jarred out of my head.  For long seconds, I couldn’t think, but could only experience, could only feel every part of my body hurt, aches and pains I didn’t know I had magnified by the jolt.

It was a small relief that my passenger didn’t take the opportunity to act without my consent.  I was bewildered enough without any added complications, stunned, sore where the straps had pulled against my shoulders and gut.

“Kulshedra!” Prefab shouted.  “Lights on!”

Auxilary offline.  Emergency lighting failed in six attempts carried out in two seconds.”

“Uhhhh,” he said, drawing out the sound, “Damage report?”

A.I. bank one offline.  Aux offline.  Propulsion offline.  Weapons offline.  Helm offline.

“Why are you speaking strangely?”  I called out.

A.I. bank one offline.  Advanced linguistics, memory, geography-

“Enough,” Prefab said, cutting it off.

I almost told him to let it continue, just so we had an idea, but he was the boss.

“Protectorate, Wards, sound off!”  Prefab shouted.

“Arbiter.  Fine.”

“Vantage, mildly injured,” Vantage said.  “My hand.”

“Usher, bleeding from a bad scrape, but otherwise okay.”

“Weaver,” I said, “I’m fine.”

There was a pause.

“Leister?”  Prefab asked.

“Mostly okay,” Leister said, but his voice sounded strained.  “Took a hit to the gut.”

“Let’s get ourselves sorted out,” Prefab said.  “If you can reach your phones, use them for light.  There’s an exec on the second page, if you haven’t mucked with them to add ten pages of games.”

“Don’t-” Leister said, still sounding odd, “Don’t diss the games, when you make us sit around waiting for stuff all the time.”

I didn’t get a phone yet, I thought.  But hey, I’ve got the damn butterflies.

At my order, the butterflies that had been clustered on the outside of their cage took flight, spreading out over the ship’s interior.

I spoke, “Kulshedra.  Roof got crushed, lights with them, am I right?”

Yes.

“No lights in floor?”

Not at present.  Standard floor fixtures in Kulshedra model precursor were removed for containment box fixtures. Lights included.”

“Any power to monitors?”

Yes.”

“Video footage of exterior, stat,” Prefab ordered, cutting in.

Monitors flickered to life.  One in three showed only the ground beneath us, and another third were broken.

“Change the focus of any monitor displaying only asphalt,” I said.

A.I. bank one is offline.  Discrimination no longer possible.

“Monitors with video from any camera on the ship’s upper half.”

Restate, please,” the A.I. said.

“Nevermind,” I said.  “Um.  Nine working cameras, four on port side, five on starboard, am I right?”

Yes.

I worked on unbelting myself, ensuring my legs were fixed in the bars beneath the bench, so I wouldn’t fall.  “Label monitors with numbers from one to nine.”

One by one, the monitors displayed numbers instead of the video feed.

“Weaver-” Prefab said.  “This isn’t helpful.  We need information on our surroundings.”

“No immediate threats nearby, according to my swarm,” I told him, checking with my bugs.  “Ship, monitors one, three and seven weren’t displaying a usable feed.  Restore a feed to each other monitor.”

The videos reappeared.

“Monitors two, six and eight are broken and are not displaying anything coherent.  Display white instead, maximum brightness, on those screens and any ones not displaying any video.”

Monitors lit up.  It wasn’t much, but it was marginally better than what the Protectorate-issue phones were granting.

“How the hell do you know your way around this thing?”  Vantage asked.  I could see him below me, one hand outstretched, the other held behind his back.

“Defiant and Dragon have been ferrying me between the PRT and court, and between prison and these little field exercises, so I’ve gotten a sense of them,” I said.  “And I fought a bunch of others back in Brockton Bay.  You figure them out, kind of.”

“I saw that bit about Dragon’s visit to Brockton Bay in the news,” Vantage said.  “Here, fall.”

I twisted myself around until I hung by my hands, then let myself drop from the bench.  Vantage caught me with the one hand.

The others were getting themselves sorted out.  A few minor injuries, but it wasn’t as bad as it could be.

My head snapped around as our opponent landed just outside the ship.  She let go of her companions, setting them down on the ground beside her.

Hellooooo,” a girl’s voice sounded over the system.  I had to turn around, checking all of the cameras, before I found the one where she was displayed, upside down.

“Ship, flip monitor, um, monitor four, one-eighty-degrees vertical,” I said.

It flipped the right way around.  I could see a young girl on the opposite side.  She was flanked by two other small children, one a male with a widow’s peak and a severe expression for his age, ten or so, the other a girl of about twelve, in overalls that ended at the knee, a star at the chest, and far too much makeup.

“Fuck me,” Vantage muttered.  “Bambina brought her team.”

Come out and plaaaaay,” Bambina called out.  A second later, she leaped.  The small detonation that followed in her wake was quenched by the appearance of Rime’s ice crystals.

Sniper’s active,” Rime’s voice came through the earbuds.  She was panting.  “Deliberate, accurate shooter.  I’ve taken three bullets, ice armor took most of the force out of the shots.  Bambina is accompanied by Starlet and August Prince, um.  Shooter’s shots ricochet.  Can’t dodge.  There’s wounded just outside craft.  Traffic caught underneath when you fell.

“Stop talking and get inside,” Prefab said.

 “Can’t close the gap to the Kulshedra without getting shot again.  He’s cutting me off.”

“Use crystals to form a wall, get inside, damn it,” Prefab said.

Ricochets,” Rime stressed.  “I- shit!”

I found her with my bugs, setting them on her costume.  “She’s okay, just fleeing from Bambina and Starlet.  The shooter doesn’t seem to be targeting the kids.”

“My power makes her immune to Bambina,” Usher said.

“Maybe to the explosions,” I said, “But the impact?  Or something else?”

He frowned.

“They’re not on the same side,” Arbiter said, “The shooter and the child villains.”

“Good,” Prefab said.  “Let’s-“

Bambina collided with the Kulshedra again.  It rocked, nearly tipping over onto one side.

“Kulshedra,” Prefab said, “Open ramp!”

The ramp opened, and I sent the butterflies out.  Nothing substantial, but it was something.

Okay, not really.  But it was an opportunity to lay out some silk.  I emptied the reserves I had contained in my costume.

Prefab began working on a structure, forming it out of the same flashes of light and sparks of darkness he’d used before.  It took time to pull together, and the way it joined with the wall next to it, it didn’t seem like he was designing it on the fly.

Similar to Labyrinth, but it was only natural that powers might run in parallel.

The shooter wasn’t in my reach.  Bambina was horrifically mobile, bouncing off of walls and the street, creating explosions with most of the impacts.  Her teammates were along for the ride, apparently unscathed by her power.  Going on the offensive would be hard, even if I was using my full complement of bugs.

I was having a really hard time justifying Glenn’s rule on pretty bugs only.

Prefab’s wall appeared around the craft.  “Priority one is the wounded!”

We made our way out of the craft.  Odd as it was, I felt a mixture of relief and… an emotion I couldn’t place, at the realization that I didn’t have to fight to convince my teammates that we had to help other people.

Three cars had been caught beneath the wings of Dragon’s craft, another smashed by a chunk of ice.  The passengers of one car had fled, another two cars had people trapped inside, and the people in the fourth were unconscious.

I helped Arbiter with the unconscious ones.

“I alerted Dragon,” Prefab said.  “The Vegas teams know too.  This is a waiting game.  We help Rime, and we keep the prisoner contained.  If he gets loose, or if Bambina destroys the containment vessel, this gets a lot more complicated.”

The prisoner, I noted the word choice, not Pretender.

“If I can get closer to the shooter, I can disable him,” I said.

“Too dangerous.”

An explosion against the exterior of the wall Prefab had pulled together marked another attack from Bambina.

“I can do dangerous.  Let me take the kid-gloves off, and-“

No,” Rime’s voice came through my earbud.  “No.  Stay.

I grit my teeth.  “You’re underestimating me.”

We’re well aware of what you’re capable of.  I’m doing you a favor,” she said, and her voice was strained.  “Stay, follow Prefab’s orders.

I considered running, then stopped.  “Okay.  I’m giving you some backup, Rime.  Best I can do.”

With that, I sent butterflies her way, clustering them into human-shaped groups.  When one group reached her, they surrounded her.  Decoys.

“Hard to see,” she said.  I didn’t even need the earbud to understand, with the butterflies near her.

I kept the bugs away from her face.  I wasn’t sure that was ideal, but it was her call.

Arbiter and Prefab had enough medical training to check the civilians over before we moved them or moved them further.  With my power, I tracked Bambina as she ricocheted through the area, causing innumerable explosions across the landscape.  Rime struggled to evade both Bambina and the detonation, while maintaining some degree of cover against the gunman.

“Last one,” Prefab said.  “Weaver, help.”

I helped him get the older woman to her feet, and keep her standing as we led her into the back of Dragon’s ship.

I stopped abruptly, as Bambina’s trajectory swiftly changed.

“Trouble!” I called out.

Bambina landed atop the wall.  Her teammates landed beside her, each holding one hand.  They looked a little worse for wear.  Starlet was firing darts of light at Rime, the darts exploding mid-way through the air to block Rime’s path when she tried to advance.  Between Starlet and the sniper, she wasn’t able to advance.

 “You were there for the Leviathan fight,” I spoke to Bambina.

“Can’t really bounce on water, it turns out,” she said.  “Wasn’t worth the trouble.  Ducked out.”

Prefab let go of the older woman, leaving me with the burden as he faced Bambina square-on.  “Lots of attention on Pretender all of a sudden.”

“Paying pretty well,” Bambina said, “And he promised a favor, too.  He set some rules, but considering how we’re going above and beyond the call of duty, I’m hoping he’ll bend them.  You know how fucking awesome it is to have a favor from a body snatcher?  He zaps himself into some hunky celeb that’d never touch me otherwise, then…”

Bambina launched into a lewd explanation of what she’d have him do to her, and vice versa.  I averted my eyes and did my best to turn off my ears.  I’d started out spending months suppressing my powers to varying degrees, and I’d learned to ignore some sensations from my bugs.  I wasn’t so lucky when it came to my hearing.

“…with my feet,” Bambina finished.

Starlet, still firing on Rime, glanced over her shoulder to look at us, cackling at Bambina’s audacity, while August Prince didn’t seem to react.

I’d backed away, helping the older woman hobble forward on her bad ankle, and we were close enough to the ramp for her to make her own way up.  I stepped forward, my eyes still on Bambina.

“Worst thing ever,” Vantage murmured from behind me.  “Fighting kids?  You win, you get zero credit, no matter how good their powers are.  They’re children, after all.  But if you lose, well, they’re kids, your reputation is fucked.”

“Focus,” Prefab said.  “We know who these three are.  We’ve got a Mover-shaker six, a blaster-shaker four, and a master-stranger three.”

“Hey, Weaver,” Bambina called out.  “You’re that supervillain-turned hero, right?  Offed Alexandria?”

“Yeah,” I said.

Odd, how I felt more at home in this situation than I had fifteen minutes ago.  Or even helping the civilians.  I’d liked helping civilians, but this was where I felt most able to reach into myself and be strangely calm.

“You fucked up my rankings for a straight week, worst fucking time, too.  I’d planned an escapade, was supposed to rise to number thirty, but your news took the front page instead, and I dropped to forty-five instead.  I haven’t been that low in a year!”

“Rankings?” I asked.

“Rankings!  Don’t you even pay attention?  It was embarrassing.  My mom’s still giving me a hard time over it, and it’s like, that’s less money from our sponsors.  So I’m going to make you deepthroat my fist, okay?  Break your arms and legs and make you suckle it.”

She stamped, and fire rippled around her.  Both August and Starlet flinched.

Worse, it destroyed the silk I’d been tying around her leg.

She leaped down, holding August Prince’s hand, and Arbiter took action.  The heroine directed a sonic blast at Bambina with one hand, but Bambina kicked the wall, changing the direction she was moving.  Arbiter blocked her with a forcefield, then raised a hand to shoot again-

And stopped, standing still instead.  A look of consternation appeared across her forehead, above her mask.

Bambina ricocheted off of Dragon’s craft, hitting it hard enough that it shifted, then flew at Prefab.  One hit, and he was out of action.  The explosion hadn’t even been that large.

Prefab, who had his cannon raised and hadn’t even pulled the trigger once.

Bambina whipped around, rotating crazily before touching ground, her feet skidding on the ground.  She set the Prince down.  Starlet, up on the wall, laughed.

“Can’t touch the Prince, can you?” Bambina asked.  “Go, August.”

The little boy advanced.  He held a scepter, different from Regent’s.  More of a mace.

Arbiter was backing up rapidly as he advanced, and I-

I thought briefly about what the heroes had said about Alexandria, about how she’d wanted them to act like the person they wanted to be.

I’d done that, in a way.  It reminded me of how I’d formed my identity as Skitter.  I’d acted fearsome, acted as if I expected people to be afraid, expected them to listen, and they had.  Even Dragon had, at one point.

But maybe I didn’t need to be feared here.  I could do something as Weaver.  Confidence.  I didn’t back down as the August Prince approached.  I sent butterflies his way.  No problem.

Tried to move them so he would be blinded… and found they didn’t listen.

Tried to bite and sting with the nastier insects I’d hidden inside the butterfly swarm, and again, no response.

He closed the distance to me, swinging at my knee with the mace.  I ducked back out of the way.

His fighting style was graceless, without any particular fluidity.  He held the mace with two hands and swung it, and then took seconds to recover.  An opening to strike, and my body refused to follow up on it.

That would be his power then.  Something in the same department as Imp’s ability.

My bugs continued past him, and I sent them straight for Bambina.

She only laughed as the butterflies landed on her, stomped hard to kill most of them.  “No way.  You offed Alexandria.  I’m not-  Ow!”

Bees, wasps and hornets stung simultaneously, targeting her eyes, mouth and earholes.

She stomped, and soared up to the top of the wall.  “My face, fuck you!  This is going to swell!  This fucking…”

I didn’t hear the rest.  I was more focused on the little kid who was striving to cave in something vital.

The Prince swung at me, and I caught the mace.

It was a mistake.  He let go and tackled me, gripping my leg, hauling on it to put me off-balance.

I couldn’t fight to pull him off, couldn’t use my bugs.

This was annoying.

Then I saw Bambina point, saw Starlet stop taking potshots at Rime and turn my way, reaching.

If the Prince was the master-stranger hybrid, and Bambina the mover-shaker, then that left the blaster power to Starlet.

“Arbiter!”

Arbiter threw a forcefield between us.  It didn’t matter.  The dart of light she fired exploded against the forcefield, and the ensuing implosion pulled me off the ground.  August Prince held on as I tumbled, then climbed up me before reaching around my throat.

I tucked my chin against my collarbone, preventing him from getting a decent hold, and he started clawing at me, struggling to get fingers, a hand, between my chin and my neck.

If this goes any further, Clockblocker’s never going to let me live this down.

The second thought was a little more grave.

If this little bastard kills me, the Undersiders will never forgive me.

The others were helpless to assist me, due to the peculiarities of the Prince’s power, but they could direct their focus to Bambina and Starlet.  Leister thrust out his trident, and it distorted, stretching the distance between himself and the two kid villains on the wall.  He struck Starlet in the face with the shaft of the trident.

Bambina kicked him, and he went flying to a point on the other side of the wall.  His spear distorted and brought him to the ground, but the kick- it hit too hard.  He didn’t rise.

Seeing one of her Wards get taken out of action, Rime made a break for us, my decoys moving parallel to her.

The sniper fired, and she went down.  One guess, and it was accurate.

Tumbling through the air, she used her power in one singular burst, and was encased in a two-story high tower of ice.

Vantage leaped onto the top of the craft, then onto the top of the wall.  Starlet’s blast nearly moved him.  Bambina leapt, bouncing off a nearby building, then flying towards Vantage.  He teleported out of her way, then threw a bola, catching her.  She fell from the wall, landing hard.

One down.  Two to go.

I’m better than this.

The rules about interacting with the Prince were strictly defined.  I could hold him, but I couldn’t hurt him.  Which category did silk fall under?  I had some on my person.  Twenty feet in all.  Twenty feet disappeared fast when it was wound around something.

I chose his neck.  Not hurting him, not directly.  His power allowed it.

One of Starlet’s implosions sent Prince and I tumbling.  Too far from anything I could hold.  He found the opportunity to seize me by the neck.

“Someone!”  I said, “Come closer!”

Usher approached, and Starlet blasted the ground behind him, pulling him off his feet.  He was mere handspans from where I needed him.

“Rime’s out of commission!” I said, my voice strangled as Prince did his best to choke me.  “Your power isn’t affecting her.  Give it to me!”

Usher focused his power on me.  I felt it ripple through me, felt something, but it didn’t break the spell.  I still couldn’t turn the slightest amount of aggression towards the kid.

“No,” I said.

Usher focused his power on Vantage instead, and Vantage flared with light.

Starlet’s power hit him, and it didn’t do a thing.  He punched her in the gut, then caught her as she went limp.

And Prince… was harder to deal with.  Usher approached, and I tied thread around his leg.

I tried to tell Usher to run, knowing what would happen with the thread around Prince’s neck.  My voice wouldn’t come out, and it wasn’t due to the feeble but persistent attempt at strangulation.

So many heroes around me, and they couldn’t touch this little bastard.

Move, I thought.  Move, move, move.

“Your power immunity isn’t making me immune to the kid,” Vantage said, helplessly.

Don’t talk, move.

In the midst of the Kulshedra, I could sense moving air currents.  A woman emerged from thin air, from a place cooler than the interior of the ship.  The civilians we’d rescued shrieked and backed away from her.  She didn’t respond, barely reacted.  Someone with long, dark hair and a suit.  She fixed her cuffs, then moved with purpose.

But I found myself less fixated on her than on her surroundings.  Oddly enough, I could feel a different structure behind the woman, a hallway.

I tried to speak, but couldn’t find the air.  Damn this little bastard.  Damn Usher for not doing something.

“What a mess,” Satyr called out.

Heads turned.

The Vegas Wards had arrived, perched on top of the nearest wall.  They didn’t move to help, didn’t leap to intervene.  Satyr glanced at Bambina, who was struggling to free herself from the bola.  There was something in his eyes.

Were they in on it?

“Help us!” Vantage called out.  “Rime’s out, and we can’t save Weaver!”

Satyr didn’t speak.  He glanced at the ship.  He couldn’t see from the angle he’d approached, but the woman inside had pulled the lever, and the door at the back was slowly closing.

I drew out words on the side.

Pretender in danger

The heroes turned, eyes going wide.  Satyr, Blowout and Leonid rushed forward, joined by Vantage.

Then Usher stepped forward to help, and the August Prince choked, giving me a little slack.  I sucked in a gasp for air.

Arbiter heard, whipping around, and threw a forcefield between us.  I pulled away.

She managed to sandwich the little bastard between her forcefield and the ground.  I rolled away, sitting up.

The ramp was nearly closed by the time they arrived.  Vantage slammed one hand against the door, but it was too heavily armored to give.

“Kul-,” I gasped out.

The woman turned and walked up to the ruined nose of the craft, and began threading wires together.  She didn’t even flinch as sparks flared between them.  She was measured, even patient, as she worked at fixing the panel.  When she was done, she tapped something out on the broken, unlit touch panel.

“Kulshedra, shut down,” I managed.

Restate request.”

The pillar rose from the top of the box, freeing the upper part of the box’s door.

“Kulshedra, contact Dragon,” I tried.

Dragon is currently unable to reply.

“Contact Chevalier.”

Calling.

The woman tapped out another code, and the clamps on the bottom came open, freeing the bottom.

Yet another code typed out, and the system spoke, “Type two safety override accepted.

The woman in the ship struck a single button.  The A.I. spoke, “Call ended.

“Kulshedra, call Chevalier,” I repeated.

Nothing.

The woman inside typed out a final code, and the door of the box opened, releasing Pretender.

And then she spoke, and I could hear through the bugs that surrounded her.  “The Doctor will see you now.”

“Right-o,” Pretender said.  “Gotta be better than the Birdcage.”

They stepped through the gateway that led to the cool, air-conditioned hallway, and then they were gone, the butterflies in the hallway no longer in my reach.

I felt my blood pumping, roaring in my ears.  “They got him.  They collected Pretender.”

“Who?”

“Her.  The shooter’s partner.  Cauldron.”  I clenched my fist.  “Rime’s down.  We have to help her.”

“The shooter-” Vantage started.

“He’s gone,” Arbiter said.  “Not sensing a threat.  You guys go.  I’ll look after Prefab and Leister, and make sure Weaver’s okay.”

Usher nodded.

Satyrical gestured, and most of his team joined the L.A. team members.  I was left kneeling, still catching my breath.  Satyr and Nix hung back, arms folded, exchanging surreptitious glances.

Arbiter didn’t look at them as she spoke, “You hired them.  Bambina’s crew.  You wanted to break him out.”

Satyr didn’t respond.

“You were going to leave the Protectorate?  You had to have been.”

“Yeah.”  It was Nix who spoke, not Satyr.

“Just like that?”

Nix shook her head.  “It’s gone.  Doomed.  We lost Alexandria, we lost Legend and Eidolon.  The new team doesn’t hit half as hard.  Look at Rime.  Taken out of action like that.  Protectorate’s a shadow of what it was.”

“She was beaten by monsters the Protectorate refuses to even classify,” I said.  I coughed a little.

“Alexandria would have managed.”

“Alexandria worked for them,” I said.

Nix shrugged.

Arbiter looked up at Satyr and Nix, “If you leave, the Endbringers-”

Nix interrupted, “We’ll still fight Endbringers.  But the Protectorate was going to take Pretender from us because of how he got his powers.  It’s ridiculous.”

“He was still going to be on the team,” Arbiter said.  “Just… we can’t let him be leader if he’s beholden to a group like that.”

“It shouldn’t matter.”

“Cauldron’s evil,” Arbiter said.  “They experimented on people to get the powers Pretender has.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Satyr said.  His voice was rough.  “Pretender’s gone, and so are we.  We’ll get our teammates and we’ll go.”

He nudged Nix, and they turned to go.

One Protectorate team gone.

Arbiter dialed her phone, shifted restlessly.  “Chevalier.  It’s an emergency.”

There was a long pause.

“The Vegas team,” she said, finally.  “They’ve broken ranks.  There’s more, but if we’re going to arrest them, Dragon needs-”

A pause.

“No,” she said.  “They aren’t.  No.  Yes.  Yes, sir.”

There was a defeated tone to her body language as she let her arm fall to one side, disconnecting the call.

Arbiter looked from her phone to Prefab.  “Dragon collapsed just before this began.  She was meeting a Las Vegas Rogue.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I thought of the woman who’d been so handy with the computer.  The censor, the bogeyman.  They’d taken out Rime, no doubt because she could have sealed the box behind a wall of ice.

Yet they hadn’t taken out Prefab, who could have done much the same thing.

Every step of the way, every action perfect.

“The Vegas heroes?”  I asked.

“He said to let them go,” she said, her voice small.  “That we need them, even if they aren’t Protectorate.  He’ll send people to talk to them and arrange something later.”

I nodded, mixed emotions stewing in my midsection.  It was bad, it was disappointing, to see a failure on this level, after I’d given so much up to help the Protectorate out.

“We lost on every count,” I said.

“Rime’s alive,” Arbiter said, looking at her phone.

“Every other count, then,” I said.

“There’ll be better days,” she said.

Not like this, I thought, and it wasn’t a good thought.  As nice as the feeling of rescuing civilians had been, this was an ugly idea, a pit in the depths of my stomach.

The person I wanted to be, the person I was, reconciling them wasn’t so easy.  The hero on one side, Skitter on the other.

This has to change.

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Drone 23.1

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“Weaver,” the voice had a slight digital twang at the edges, to the point that I thought it was Bakuda for a second, even if the two voices were entirely different.

I lowered my book.  Defiant stood in the doorway to my cell, flanked by two of the prison guards.

I swung my feet to the ground, simultaneously sitting up.  “If you’d asked me a few weeks ago, I’m not sure I would have believed that I’d actually be happy to see you.”

“You’ll be coming back,” he warned me.  “This is a temporary leave.”

“I know,” I said.  I marked the page in my book, placing it in a corner, where it joined twelve others.

“And yes, I’m not surprised you had hard feelings.  We weren’t on good terms then, and even now…”

He didn’t finish the sentence.  Even now, we aren’t friends?

“A lot of books,” he noted the stack of prison library books.  “You’ve read them all?”

“Yeah.”

“In seven days?”

“Lots of time to myself.  I don’t have classes, but I have homework and self-study, and that cuts into reading time, or I’d have read more.  But it’s kind of nice, if you ignore… pretty much everything else.  I’ve had time to think for the first time in months.”

“I know what you mean,” Defiant said.  “I remember worrying every day if that would be the day innocents were caught in a crossfire between Coil and Kaiser, or the day a member of Empire Eighty-Eight was initiated into the group, with the requisite assault of an ‘acceptable target’.”

I grimaced at that.  He extended an arm, indicating I was free to leave the cell.

He continued as we walked, flanked by the guards.  “…And then there was the team, handling the internal politics, Assault’s harassment of Battery, the Wards and their individual issues.  The countless requests for appearances, for photo shoots, interviews, and demonstrations, figuring out which have to be accepted, which can be turned down, knowing that too many refusals in a row could mean a negative article.  And then there were the threats, of course, dealing with powered criminals.  Every team member becomes a resource, and those resources have to be allocated judiciously.”

“And in the midst of all that, you’re still trying to find time for you,” I said.

“Free time is the easiest thing to sacrifice,” Defiant said.  “It costs you, to give it up, but there’s little guilt.  Time to yourself is best spent preparing.  Developing new technology, strategizing, adjusting equipment-”

“Weaving costumes, pre-preparing lines of silk,” I said.

Defiant nodded.

“I may have inadvertently screwed Miss Militia over,” I said.

Defiant shook his head.  “She’s a natural leader.  I wasn’t.”

“That might make it easier to handle,” I said, “But she’ll still be in a position where she has to worry, has to prioritize and make sacrifices, and I don’t know if she asked for it.”

“She’ll manage,” Defiant said, as if that was that.  I couldn’t tell if it was trust in his teammate or if he wasn’t particularly empathetic on that front.  Miss Militia was the one who’d supplanted him as team leader.  Were there still hard feelings?

We stopped at the end of the hallway, and the guards stopped to check in at the control station that managed which doors opened and when.  There were procedures for seeing a prisoner out, and it took some time.

I could see into cells near the gate.  Prisoners glared at me.  I was a villain to everyone who had a grudge against supervillains, a hero to everyone who had a grudge against ‘cops’.  A traitor.  A murderer.  The person who’d killed one of the strongest heroes in the world.  Who’d killed someone who had fought for decades to save the world, again and again, and who may have doomed us all.

The other prisoners were still trying to assess me, I was pretty sure.  Nobody spoke to me or approached me when we filed off to get our meals or when I visited the library.  The words printed on my uniform were probably daunting for the unpowered.

The judge had seen fit to assign me to a close security prison, a wing in a medium security facility.  It was somewhat backwards, as rulings went, everything taken into consideration.  I’d been charged as an adult, for one thing, so juvenile detention was out.  Too many crimes under my belt.  I was apparently too dangerous for a minimum security institution, but the PRT had asked for leniency, and this was the compromise they’d come to.

As far as I could figure it out, it was everything I might have expected from a medium security prison, complete with a station that controlled the opening and closing of cell doors, constant supervision, and escorts wherever we went.  The only difference was the emphasis on programs.  We were here to be rehabilitated, to find work, get an education and get therapy.  All mandated.

I’d already started studying.  Now, with Defiant here, I’d get okayed to start other projects.  I hoped.

The warden was waiting for us in the ‘hub’, the room with benches where we’d waited to be assigned to our cells.  She wasn’t what I’d expected from a person in charge of a prison.  She made me think of a stern teacher, instead.  She was old, pushing sixty if not well past it, and ramrod straight, and thin.  Her graying hair was tied back into a short braid that didn’t quite reach the bottom of her neck.  She was tough in a gnarled, craggy sort of way, like the veteran actors of cowboy movies, but female.

“Taylor Hebert,” she said.

“Ma’am.”

“Every rule in my prison applies while you’re outside.  You know this.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I know you capes are magnets for trouble.  If a fight happened to erupt while you were en route and it came down to you fighting back or getting stabbed, I expect you to get stabbed and then graciously thank your attacker, you understand?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“That said, best if you don’t get hurt.  Running would be preferrable, so long as you don’t run.  Trying to escape would be the worst thing you could do, and it wouldn’t succeed.”

“You want me to stay out of trouble.  I understand, ma’am.”

“It’s a cushy deal you have here, but one word from me, and that changes.”

“I get that, ma’am.  Really, I do.  I get that I did some sketchy things.  I get that this is a kind of penance, probably not as harsh as I deserve, and I welcome it.  I think, given a choice between walking away free right this second and continuing my sentence, I’d choose the latter.”

She studied me for long seconds.

“We have a no-tolerance policy on powers, Ms. Hebert.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“What appeared to be an emerging case of body lice in the main prison seems to have abruptly corrected itself, according to our physicians.  The roach traps in the kitchen aren’t catching anything, either.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“There’s a part of me that would like to think you’re doing us a service, cleaning things up.  Which would still be a violation of the zero-tolerance rules, but somewhat forgivable given the intent.  Another part of me has to be concerned that you’re hoarding these in the same manner another prisoner might hoard makeshift weapons.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Which is it?”

“I sort of hoped to talk about it with my therapist, on our first meeting, and figure out the best way to approach it before talking to you.”

She made a ‘continue’ gesture with her hand, arms still folded, her gaze hard.

“My power is always on.  It takes a conscious effort to block them out and let them act normally.  I feel what they feel, sense what they sense, sort of.  It’s… not fun with lice, crawling around in prisoner’s pubic hair, you know?  Being aware of that, across eighteen, nineteen prisoners, twenty-four-seven?”

“My concern, Ms. Hebert, is what you’re doing with those bugs.”

“Nothing,” I said.  “I- moved them away from the prisoners.  I’ve mostly left them where they were, let them starve.  I can’t leave them stationary like that where there are rodents, or they’ll only feed the rodent population and you’ll have a bigger problem.  I could kill the rodents, but then you’d have dead rats in your walls, and-”

“This isn’t acceptable.  You understand why this isn’t acceptable?”

“You have to protect other prisoners,” I said.

Even if it means letting them have lice?  I didn’t say that last part.

“If bugs are your weapon of choice, I can’t let you have access to them.”

“What about a bucket?” I asked.

“Hm?”

“Set up a bucket in some back room, fill it with something caustic enough to kill them on contact.  I’ll drown every bug I can reach in the bucket, and you’ll be able to see for yourself, by the volume of bugs that are in there.”

“Let’s postpone measures like that,” Defiant cut in.  “Go change.”

I nodded, happy for the escape route.  I made my way to the combination shower-and-change room area, pausing to collect my civilian clothes from the guard in the bulletproof glass enclosure that overlooked the hub.

I would have liked to shower in relative privacy, but I didn’t think anyone outside was planning on waiting.  I stripped out of the prison uniform, a lightweight, gray one-size-fits-all cotton tunic and pants that felt more like pyjamas than real clothes.  Mine weren’t as threadbare as the clothes the other prisoners wore.  For one thing, I was a ‘small’.  Sort of.  It was a choice between either wearing a medium-sized tunic and have it hang around me like a tent, or wear a small and have it barely reach my beltline.  I’d chosen the latter.

The other reason I got a uniform that hadn’t been worn a hundred times by a hundred other prisoners, was that I wore a special prison uniform with ‘Sp. Inmate’ printed across the shoulders and sleeve, informing everyone who saw me that I had powers.

After folding the garments, I donned my ‘Weaver’ costume.  I’d have to update it.  It wasn’t real, wasn’t fit for fighting.  The underlying bodysuit was something generic they kept on hand, no doubt similar to what made up Clockblocker’s costume.  Much in the same way his costume had been elaborated on with armor panels, mine had armor that Dragon had 3D-printed prior to arriving at the PRT headquarters.

It felt wrong, especially the way the straps fit into it, and I didn’t like knowing how flimsy it was.

I didn’t wear the mask or the armor panels, merely holding the bundle that contained them.  Instead, I pulled on clothes over the bodysuit, rolling up the sleeves until they were midway up my biceps.  The same short-sleeved, button-up shirt I’d changed into after we’d met with the judge, and jeans.

When I emerged, Defiant and the warden were talking.  She had enough presence that even Defiant, six feet tall and clad in armor, looked like he wanted to back down.

She tapped him in the center of his chest to punctuate her words, “…before lockdown.  And I want all paperwork, as soon as you get it.”

“You’ll have it,” he responded.

“Hand out,” the warden said, turning to me.

I extended a hand.

She strapped a device to my wrist, like a pager, but with a coarse black strap attached.  “So we know where you are.”

“Okay.”

The warden looked to the guard in the bulletproof glass enclosure.  She gave him a hand signal, and he opened the front door to the prison.

We made our exit down a corridor of double-layered fences topped with barbed wire.  We entered the parking lot, where a small crowd had gathered around Defiant’s ship, staring.

They parted to let us board, and then backed away as the jets started to thrum with life.

“We’re alike in some ways,” Defiant said, from his seat at the controls.  I sat behind him, having belted myself in.

My response was cut short as we started moving, and inertia hit me like a pressure  wave against the front of my entire body.  I managed only a “Hm?”

“We’ve both been leaders.  We’ve both made our mistakes, and we’ve faced a form of detention for it.  You with your prison, me with my retirement.”

Oh, he was back to that?  We’d been interrupted.

“Guess so,” I managed.  “And Dragon?”

“Not a leader,” Defiant answered me.  “Not unless you count the artificial intelligences that operate the other suits.  But her prison?  It remains worse than any you or I have faced.”

“Remains?”  I asked.

“Yes,” he said, but he didn’t elaborate.

How could her prison be worse than jail?  And how could she still be in it, unless… was she disabled?  Cerebral palsy, partial or total paralysis, something else?

I wasn’t sure how that factored in with her current inability to communicate.  If she relied on a computer to speak for her, maybe something in the program had broken?

The craft changed direction.  Defiant tapped a button, then let go of the controls.  Autopilot?

“Whatever happens,” he said, “You’re a member of the Wards.  That’s done, but the nature of your membership is still very much in question, understand?”

“I’m not sure I do.”

“Before, I mentioned the tasks of being in charge of a Protectorate team.”

“Allocating people.”

“Yes.  Today you’re going to meet some people who are going to play a very crucial role in deciding how you are allocated.  Best case scenario, we put you on a team in the thick of something.  Not the quiet you’ve been enjoying in your cell, but you’d be helping.  Everyone benefits.”

“And the worst case?”

“The worst case is they say it’s a mistake, and you go to jail for the foreseeable future.  I don’t see that happening.  The second-to-worst case is more likely, where there are no team leaders willing to take you on board with all of the inherent risks.”

“You just said I was a member of the Wards.”

“I did.  Miss Militia has your back, but there’s no way you could join the Brockton Bay Wards, under her.  Conflict of interests, animosity…”

“I figured.”

“Chevalier’s interests are in restoring the PRT and Protectorate programs.  We’ve committed to helping in any world-scale crisis events, which means participating in the next Endbringer program.  He respects Miss Militia’s opinion, and your appearance before the media means we’ve committed to keeping you.  That was partially intentional.”

“Intentional?”

“Because it throws a wrench in the plans of anyone who might want to maintain the status quo.  But as much as Chevalier is on your side, if the capes directly under him in the command structure deem it necessary, he could easily send you to a place where you couldn’t do any damage and bring you out of hiding for media appearances and Class-S threats.”

“A place where I couldn’t do any harm?  Like?”

“Guard duty at the quarantine area in Madison, perhaps, or a town without a cape presence, where you’d be doing little more than making appearances and talking to kids.”

“I’m… I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I’m better than that.”

“Mm hmm,” he said.  “Let’s hope they think so.”

He pressed the button and took hold of the controls.  “New York.  The central headquarters of every Protectorate team in America.”

With Defiant beside me, my civilian clothes removed, costume donned, I entered the common room of the local Protectorate team.

The interior wasn’t dissimilar from the Wards’ headquarters in Brockton Bay.  I’d visited that spot when we’d stolen the data from their server.  The layout was similar, with what seemed to be interchangeable or connecting pieces defining the interior.  The difference was in the quality of the pieces.  Gold or faux-gold trim marked pillars and short walls.  There wasn’t any brushed steel or ceramic.  It was marble.  This would be where they held the interviews and wowed the people who invested in the merchandising side of things.

Inspiring, in a way.  Intimidating.

Equally intimidating, if not more so, was the crowd that waited for me.  Eleven people, arranged across the room, most of them capes.

“In the lead, we have Prism, second in command of the New York team,” Defiant told me.

Prism’s lips flattened into a tight line as she looked at me.  We’d met, at the Mayor’s house.  She’d been one of Legend’s people.  I supposed that Chevalier would have wanted someone who knew the city and the routines as his second in command.

“Rime, team leader of Los Angeles,” Defiant said.

Taking over for Alexandria, I thought.  A cape with black hair in a blue skin-tight costume with fur.  I recognized her from the Echidna event, the cape who made ice crystals.  I remembered how she’d been following Chevalier’s orders.  His second in command?  It made sense he’d promote someone he knew to the second largest team in America.

“Revel, team leader of Chicago.”

Revel was a woman I hadn’t seen before, even in the background of the various Class-S fights.  I was pretty sure I would have recognized her.  She was clearly Japanese, with a painted mask covering her lower face, and a massive lantern on a stick that rested against one shoulder.  She wore a white skin-tight outfit with straps at the shoulders, the legs ending mid-thigh, giving her a degree of modesty that the stylized crimson kimono didn’t.  The kimono hung loose around her, held in place more by belts and what must have been wires in the fabric, elbow-length and just barely long enough to be modest.  Her shoulders were bare and narrow, her expression… one eyebrow was raised as she studied me.

“Dispatch, the second in command of Houston.”

Prism at least had an apparent reason to dislike me, but Dispatch’s expression suggested he’d come to that conclusion all on his own.  His costume was white, with steel points rising from his shoulders and either side of his brow.  The mask that covered the upper half of his face was sculpted into a perpetual frown.  I might not have given it a second thought, but his mouth… the frown left me little doubt he didn’t like me, right off the bat.

“You may recognize some of the captains of the respective Wards teams.  Jouster from New York, Vantage from Los Angeles, Tecton from Chicago and Hoyden from Austin.  You know Clockblocker.”

I nodded.  Tecton, in what looked to be a fresh outfit of bulky rust-red power armor, gave me a salute.  Jouster was playing up the medieval theme, a spear in hand, while Vantage was a black guy in forest green and silver… his costume looked a touch flamboyant, at a glance.  Hoyden looked more like a desperado than a superhero, with a costume that incorporated a kerchief with eyeholes over the upper half of her face, her blond curls tumbling behind, and a jacket and jeans in what looked like black-painted chainmail.

Clockblocker leaned against a desk, unreadable.

“Mrs. Yamada, you’ve met, if the records are right.”

I nodded at the Japanese woman in a casual dress-suit who was standing beside Revel.

“And I’m Glenn Chambers.  PRT head of Image,” a man spoke.  He approached me to offer a fat hand for me to shake.  He had a firm grip. Glenn didn’t look like someone who was particularly invested in image.  He was obese, his clothes not flattering, his hair not quite cut into a mohawk, but gelled into something resembling one.  He wore rectangle-framed glasses that made it easier to see how he seemed to perpetually squint – a result of long eyelashes.

“And I suppose I’m Weaver,” I said.  Eleven sets of eyes, all on me, judging me.  I hooked my thumbs into my pockets.

“I’m surprised Chevalier hasn’t shown up,” Defiant commented.  He glanced at Prism.

It wasn’t Prism who answered.  Dispatch, the Texan cape, spoke instead.  “I asked the same question.  He brings us all the way here, but he doesn’t show himself?”

“He’s handling a small crisis,” Prism said.

“We’re all handling crises,” Dispatch said.  “Half of us have no experience as team leaders, we’re dealing with capes in mourning, with government capes auditing our team rosters for Cauldron capes-“

“Leave it be, Dispatch,” Rime interrupted him.  “We should get down to business.  The sooner this is settled, the sooner we can get back.”

Mrs. Yamada cleared her throat.  “What are you thinking, Weaver?”

Suddenly put on the spot.  “Honestly?”

“Honesty is good,” she said.

“I’m intimidated,” I said.

“How do you usually handle something like that?”

By being more intimidating in exchange, I thought.  It wouldn’t do to say that out loud, to explain how I’d fallen back on being scary and ruthless for so long that I wasn’t sure how to approach something like this.

“I’m not so sure anymore,” I said.  It was the truth, and it wasn’t self-incriminating.

Mrs. Yamada nodded.

Defiant spoke , “Let’s ensure we’re all familiar with what’s going on. We’ve had capes with criminal backgrounds join the Protectorate and Wards teams, though that has remained largely discreet, and Weaver’s civilian identity is public knowledge.  We’ve had experienced capes join, as well, forcing us to adapt to their experience and retrain them where necessary.  Weaver is both.  She’s currently serving time in Gardener.  Under the terms of her sentence, she’ll be continuing her high school studies independently, she’ll be getting therapy as soon as we’ve settled on a schedule, and she’ll be ferried out to various teams for testing and evaluation.”

“A lot of hassle for a little girl,” Jouster said.

A little girl?  I kept my mouth shut, but it took some effort.

Clockblocker, however, was chuckling.

“What?” Jouster asked.

“She beat Alexandria,” Hoyden said, “He’s laughing because you’re putting down the girl who killed Alexandria.”

“Not a selling point,” Hoyden’s boss, Dispatch, cut in.

“She’s an absolute nightmare to fight,” Clockblocker said.  “I’ve been on the receiving end enough times to know.  So when Miss Militia told me she was in custody, I started asking questions, trying to get a sense of what was happening and when.  I don’t even have to be here, and I’m picking up extra patrols later this week to make up for it, but I wanted to come and say this:  I don’t like her, not really.  But if my word counts for anything, as someone who’s only spent half the time dealing with the shit in Brockton Bay that she has?  We want her on our side.  Somehow, in some form.  Because the alternative sucks.”

“Thank you,” I said, my voice so quiet I wasn’t sure everyone heard me.  He was standing up for me, in a way, at a point in time I wasn’t sure how to voice those sorts of things myself.

I could see Jouster’s eyes behind his helmet, as he gave me a once-over.

“She killed Alexandria,” Hoyden said.  “And, what, she was there for Leviathan, she was there for the Slaughterhouse Nine, for Echidna…”

“She went head to head with each of those,” Clockblocker said.  He looked at me.  “Right?  Like, you weren’t just there.  You were in the thick of it, exchanging blows?”

I nodded.

“Today is numbers,” Prism said.  “Power evaluation, interviews.”

“No, no,” Dispatch said, shaking his head.  “Ridiculous.  You don’t invite us here, then make us sit through that nonsense.”

“We need to evaluate her abilities,” Defiant said.

“Do it on your own time.  And skip the interview,” Dispatch said.  “Your own notes, Defiant, say she’s a manipulator and a liar.”

“I’ve retracted those statements,” Defiant said.

“And who’s to say she hasn’t manipulated you?  You and Chevalier were arguing for a cleaner, shinier Protectorate, didn’t you?  Let’s not get off on the wrong foot.  We vet her thoroughly, and if we don’t get a consensus that she’s an asset to the team, then that’s that.”

“What would you suggest, in place of testing and an interview?”

“We do what we’re doing with the Cauldron capes, run her by our thinkers,” Dispatch said.  “We can get a more concrete assessment of her now, with a field exercise, than by any amount of talking.  If I’m remembering right, a notice went out, didn’t it?  A New York group of villains is poaching Wards and Protectorate members?”

“The Adepts,” Revel said.

“Two birds with one stone,” Dispatch said.  He looked at the collected captains of the Wards.  “We want to know how she functions in a team environment, let’s put her in the thick of it.  If there’s trouble, or if the mission doesn’t look good, the rest of us can step in.”

Eyes turned my way.

“You’re serious,” I said.

“As cancer,” Dispatch told me.

“I don’t have any of my stuff, and the costume Dragon gave me isn’t my usual.  Besides, you’ll be expecting me to follow different rules.”

“You’ve read the handbook, haven’t you?”

I nodded.  But I haven’t completely thought of ways around the restrictions.  I’d picked the name Weaver based on the idea that I’d be using thread more, but I didn’t have any prepared, not here, not yet.

“I’m sure Prism will let you have access to the New York teams’ supplies.  Largest cape groups in America, they’ll have a little of everything.”

I frowned.  If I said no, it’d be a black mark in my record, and some of these people were obviously not interested in giving me any slack, unless it was to hang myself with.

“Okay,” I said.

“The Adepts don’t kill,” he said.  “If there’s a problem, it’s on you.”

There should be a rule against saying things like that, I thought.  I didn’t care that he was putting me on the spot, or blaming me for stuff that hadn’t happened yet.  He was implying this would be easy, practically ensuring this would be anything but.

“Adepts,” Jouster said.  “I assume everyone’s up to date?”

Tecton was walking in front of our group, his tank of a suit giving us enough presence that the crowd parted before us.  “Don’t be a jackass.  You know Skit- Weaver hasn’t read the files.  They’re in your city, you fill us in.”

“I know the basics,” I said.  I’d read the file in Tattletale’s office.  “They’re wizards, or they pretend to be, like Myrddin.  Led by a time traveller.”

“They’re led by Epoch,” Jouster said, without looking at me.  “Group is very organized.  Thing you gotta know about New York is it’s bigger.  Everything is.  So these guys, there’s a lot of them.  They’re organized into tiers, and they compete with one another for placement in the tiers, challenging ones in higher tiers, paying a penalty if they fail the challenge.  There’s one tier one, two tier twos, three tier threes… all the way down to the tier fives.”

“Fifteen in total,” I said.

He gave me a hard look, then fell silent.

Am I not allowed to talk?

“This city sucks to move around in,” Hoyden said.  “Crowds, traffic… how do you get anywhere?”

“We have different sub-teams for different roles,” Jouster said.  “Lancer group for fast response, those of us who can fly or move over rooftops.  Another group of heavier hitters who’re old enough to ride the bikes and licensed to travel the tracks.”

“Tracks?”  Hoyden asked.

“Subways.  You use a computer to help know which tracks you can stay on and when, so you don’t get hit by a train.”

“And the ones who aren’t old enough, or aren’t naturally mobile?”  Tecton asked.

“Foot patrol, or sidekick duty with a Protectorate member,” Jouster said.

“Loads of fun,” Hoyden said.

“Am I the only one who likes doing the ride-along thing?” Vantage asked.

“Yes,” Hoyden said.  “Definitely.”

Jouster shook his head.  “It’s the job.  They grumble, sure, but it’s a few years at most before they get to do the bike thing.”

“I’m guessing you’re one of the ‘lancers’,” I said.

Jouster gave me a dirty look, “What of it?”

“Nothing,” I said.  “Just made sense.”

“Flechette was one too,” he said.  “She was going to lead the squad when I moved up to the Protectorate, with Shelter taking over as Wards captain.”

“I believe it,” I said.

“Seem to recall that she’d defected, joined your old team.”

“I don’t know anything about that, honestly,” I said.  “Only that she had romantic interests towards one of us Undersiders, and-”

“The doll girl,” Jouster said.

Vantage punched him in the shoulder.

“I didn’t know if she was ‘out’, so I didn’t want to say,” I said, feeling lame.

“That’s right,” Vantage said.  “That’s how you’re supposed to act.”

The earbud I’d been supplied with buzzed with a woman’s voice.  Prism?  They own the building up ahead.  Cut the banter and focus on the job.”

A male voice.  Talk us through everything you’re doing, Weaver.

“Focusing on my bugs,” I said.

“Tap the earbud twice to start the feed,” Tecton said.

I tapped it twice, and it beeped faintly.  “Focusing on my bugs.  I’ve been collecting them as we moved from the headquarters to this spot, so I have quite a few.”

Lethal and venomous bugs aren’t allowed, you know that.”

Tying my hands.  It was fine.  “I didn’t plan on using them anyways.  I’m selecting the smallest and most discreet, and sending them out.  It’ll take a minute at most, but I’ll be able to track their movements.”

The Adepts?”

“Everyone.  I mean, the area’s dense, but once I have tabs on the Adepts, I’ll have an idea of where the civilians are, too.  It means we can keep them out of danger, and we’ll know if anyone runs into the line of fire.”

There was silence on the line in response.  Were they talking about me?  Discussing the particulars?  Hell, was I already breaking rules by violating people’s privacy?

I spoke, hoping that I was interrupting them if they were saying something along those lines.  “I have other bugs on the periphery, drawing out cords of silk.”

Show us.  We have a camera in Tecton’s suit.

Okay, this was getting borderline annoying.  Second guessed every step of the way.

My swarm moved in front of Tecton, swirling.

Image, Weaver,” it was a different man who spoke.  The fat one… I couldn’t remember his name.  “We need to do something about appearances, here.”

“Appearances?”

The black, amorphous swarm.  It conveys the wrong ideas.  It’s disturbing to any onlookers, and if photos of you using your power on any greater scale made the rounds, it could be fodder for some ugly articles.  You already face an uphill battle, with your reputation as an ex-supervillain.

“You’re serious,” I said.  I tapped my ear to shut off the channel, looking at the others, “Is he serious?”

“Glenn is always serious,” Clockblocker said.  “When I first picked my name, Clockblocker, and announced it in front of a live camera so they couldn’t retract it, they punished me with intensive lessons with Glenn.”

“They do that any time you screw up on the PR front, like swearing on camera,” Hoyden said.  “And in the sessions, he talks to you about your hair, about redesigning your costume…”

“How to talk so you command attention,” Vantage said, over-enunciating his words.

“How to hold yourself,” Jouster said, straightening his back, squaring his shoulders and raising his chin a touch.

We can hear you, you know,” a woman said through the earbud.  Rime?

Maybe we need lessons in decorum,” Glenn’s voice buzzed in our ears.

Hoyden made a pained expression.  She glanced at Tecton, then ducked low, avoiding the camera, while she walked around to Tecton’s back.  She pushed at his shoulder, urging him to turn around.  He rolled his eyes and sighed as he obeyed, and Hoyden prodded him forward until he was standing right in front of a wall.

“I really don’t know what you expect,” I said.  “It’s my power.”

By all reports, you’re a clever girl,” Glenn said  “Surely there’s a way to present your power in a less threatening way.

I opened my mouth, but the sheer number of protests that came to mind all jumbled together.  I looked at the Wards, trying to see if I was the butt of a joke.

“Lucky, lucky you,” Clockblocker whispered to me, covering his ear with his hand, “You get his attention right from the start, and I’m willing to bet he’s not going to leave you alone.  It almost makes me feel better about the time you crammed those bugs into my mouth and ears.”

Vantage made a face at that.

“So worth the extra shifts I’m pulling this week,” Clockblocker commented to Jouster.  “Just to see this.”

“I’m not sure what you want, Glenn,” I said, after tapping my earbud,  “I could send my bugs in one at a time.  That’s not threatening, right?”

Your sarcasm isn’t appreciated, Weaver,” Defiant informed me.

“I’m willing to play ball,” I said.  “I just want to figure out what the he- heck you want, first.  Do you want, like, ladybugs?  There’s color there, a nice red cloud.  There’s only, um, two hundred and twelve ladybugs in my range.  But I could use them.  Or… butterflies?  There’s more butterflies than ladybugs.”

I accessed the butterflies in my swarm, drawing them to me.

“Tekky,” Hoyden said, “Turn around.  They’ll love this.”

Tecton,” he mumbled, stressing the word.  “I hate ‘techy’, ‘tech geek’ and all those names.  Just like I hate being the camera guy, the guy who the PRT gets to fix the vans when they want to cut work early…”

I drew the butterflies into formation, a stream of them following after one another.

“I just want you to realize that this is what you’d be asking me to-”

Yes,” Glenn said, cutting me off.  “Excellent!  They did say you were smart.

“You’re serious,” I said.

Clockblocker was laughing silently, his shoulders shaking.

“Serious as cancer,” Hoyden mimicked her superior.  “All Glenn cares about is the image, the PR.  Up to you to figure out how to hold yourself like a ‘lady’ while you’re dealing with street thugs with guns.”

You would know, Hoyden,” Glenn said.  “I’d hoped something would sink in for you, with you having more meetings with me than anyone has in the past year.

Stick to business, please.  Where did you get all those butterflies, anyways?” I think it was Rime, on the comms.

“Rooftop gardens,” I said.  “There was a whole block with older buildings and a garden on every roof, while we were heading this way.  Lots of balcony-mounted flower troughs, too.”

We’d need to get you a steady supply,” Glenn said.  “I wonder how we arrange that.

“They’re really going to make me the butterfly girl?” I asked.

Clockblocker only laughed harder.  I was pretty sure he was faking it, at this point.  He couldn’t find it that funny.

If this is a problem,” Defiant said, the earbud’s digital sound only compounding the faint digital note of Defiant’s voice, “We can cancel the job, take a few days to discuss the tools you need to do the job effectively.”

The worst of both worlds.  I’d be backing down, they’d probably argue for this as a way to keep me ‘tame’, and I’d look disobedient.

“No,” I said.  “You want me to use butterflies, let’s do that.”

“For real?” Hoyden asked.

I nodded.  “We’re picking a fight with the Adepts?”

This is only a branch,” Prism said, over the comm, “They have three primary properties.  They don’t hold territory, so the local gangs leave them be.  The idea is to discourage them.  Fight only so long as you’re confident you’ll win.  Communicate what’s going on, and we’ll step in if need be.  With luck, this will be a setback for them, and cause to stop headhunting from our side.

“Okay,” I said.  “Who’s in charge?”

“Me,” Jouster said.

It would be weird to not be the leader, after heading the Undersiders.  “You okay with me as recon?”

“Suppose you have to be, if you’re limiting yourself to butterflies,” he said.

“I wasn’t going to limit myself to recon,” I said.

“You’ll tear them to shreds with butterfly bites,” Vantage said.  “Do butterflies bite?”

“They don’t have mouthparts that can bite,” I told him.  “They have proboscises.”

“So are you like, super smart or something?” Hoyden asked.

“No,” I answered her.

“Don’t get distracted by the new member,” Jouster said.

I noted what my bugs were telling me.  “There’s three of them inside.  Two men, one woman.  The men have groupies with them, I think.  In their bedrooms.  There might be more, but they don’t have costumes on.”

“They should have numbers on their sleeves.  Roman numerals.”

“I can’t really see through the bug’s eyes,” I said.  “One second…”

I found the woman, sitting on the couch, a laptop on a coffee table in front of her.  The bugs traced her sleeve.

“It’s not embroidered, I can’t sense anything raised, and the bug’s eyes can’t make out the letters.  Sorry.”

“Check the surroundings,” Jouster said.  “Tools?  The group’s practices involve using tools, ritual, rites, chants, and all that crap to try to achieve better control over their abilites.”

“Kind of makes sense,” I said.  “Abilities get stronger when you’re in a mental state closer to how you were thinking before your trigger event, so-”

“Wait, what?”  Clockblocker cut me off.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I triggered while I was in a locker.  I’ve been thinking, I get just a little stronger when I feel trapped, or when I despair, or when I feel betrayed.  My range extends.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jouster said.  “Three of them.  No tools?”

“Sort of a tool.  A rod, short, barely a foot long, and blunt, no barrel or anything.  Carved, I think.”

“Not sure,” Jouster said.  “Doesn’t ring any bells.”

“Um.  But if you look,” I pointed.  “There’s birds.  Usually they’ll pick off a few bugs that get too close, but they aren’t moving.”

“And there’s some inside?” Jouster asked.

“Three… five birds in cages inside the apartment,” I said.

“Felix Swoop, tier three member of the group,” Jouster said.  “Master-blaster hybrid.  Controls birds, but not as much control as you seem to have.  Thing is, he applies fire immunity and pyrokinesis to the birds, programs them with movements.  You said he’s distracted?”

I noted Swoop’s presence in the bedroom, tried not to pay too much attention to the particulars of what was happening inside.  “Definitely occupied.”

“Let’s move,” Jouster said.  He began striding across the street.  He raised his voice, “Back away from the building!”

No reaction from the men in the bedroom or the woman on the sofa.  They couldn’t hear it.

I directed my swarm.  Bugs moved through the crowd, and I organized the swarm so it was surrounded by butterflies, masking the core of the ‘disturbing’ black swarm within.

Cheating, maybe, but I’d do what I had to.  The irritating part of this was that I had to look at the swarm to make sure everything was in place.  It’d become natural sooner or later, but I really didn’t need more handicaps.

Back away from the building.  You can watch the fight, but watch from the other end of the street,” I spoke through my swarm.

So weird, to be doing this with a veneer of legitimacy.

What are you doing, Weaver,” one of the capes asked me, through the earbud.

“Warning the crowd.  I can mimic my voice by using the sounds my swarm produces, only I’m using mainly butterflies.”

A bit of a fib, but it would fit what Tecton was seeing by way of his camera.

Keep us updated on your thought process and strategies.

Jouster led the way into the building.

“I’m using the silk cords I prepared earlier to hamper the birds on the balconies,” I said.  “There’s a pigeon roost above, but I’m covering the door, so hopefully Swoop won’t have access to all of those pigeons.  And I’ve got other bugs surreptitiously gathering in the clothing that Swoop and the other male discarded.  I’m assuming I can use the scarier bugs if the public isn’t about to see?”

That goes against the spirit of what I was talking about,” Glenn told me.

“Yeah,” Hoyden said, from just behind me, “You should want to use butterflies and butterflies only.”

Tecton pushed the door open, splintering the lock and snapping the chain with just the strength of his power armor.

Tecton in last,” Prism said.  “We’ll want eyes on the scene.”

“I’m the toughest of us,” Tecton protested.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Hoyden said, patting his chest as she walked by.

“Two upstairs there, with two more that might be initiates, might be civilians,” I said, raising my voice a fraction.  I pointed in the direction of the two men.  I moved one hand to point at another point.  “One woman there.  All two floors up.”

I hung back as the heroes ascended the stairs, and got to see as Tecton placed his hands against the frame of the door.

“Let me know when,” he said.  “And brace yourselves.”

We’d gone over the powers in this particular group before we left.  I knew what Tecton and Clockblocker were capable of, obviously.  That left Vantage, Jouster and Hoyden.  I could track them as they broke into the apartment.

Jouster’s blaster-striker hybrid power involved his lance, a power that conducted along the usual channels, only the form it took varied.  He speared through the computer, then swung the blunted side of the weapon at the couch.  The woman rolled out of the way, and energy rippled away from the lance, freezing and shredding cushions.

He could choose the effect, making it fairly versatile.  Concussive blasts, fire, ice, lightning, suction and disintegration, among other things.  Trick was that he had to hit to deliver the effect.

The advantage, conversely, was that he had another power.  With a brief-lived burst of superspeed, he closed the distance to the woman, coming to an abrupt stop just in time to kick her in the midsection.

Clockblocker followed, stepping forward to touch the woman and freeze her.

Woman is Paddock,” Jouster said, through the earbud.

Caught her,” Clockblocker said.

Hoyden and Vantage were already breaking into the other rooms, interrupting the men and women at play.

Vantage had super strength, but his strength and reflexes scaled up as the number of opponents rose, with diminishing returns.  He wasn’t especially durable, but he packed short-range teleports.  Very short-range – a matter of two or three feet, at best.  He teleported to help close the gap to Swoop and slammed one hand into the man’s collarbone.  The woman scrambled for cover.

Anyone want to break the wishbone?” he quipped.

The other man raised a hand at Hoyden, and she stopped in her tracks.  He almost leisurely stood, taking the hand of the girl beside him, then reached down to collect his robe, and recoiled in horror at the bugs that festooned it.  He couldn’t get to the rod, whatever it was supposed to do.

“Heads up, Hoyden’s ensorcelled or something,” I said, communicating through the earbuds.

“Nuh uh,” I could hear her speak through the earbud.  She caught the cape from behind, then hurled him through the doorway, at Clockblocker.  He stepped on the man’s bare back, and the man was frozen.

“Cape two captured,” Clockblocker said.

Hoyden was one of the capes with a mess of powers.  Things she hit exploded, things that hit her suffered a retaliatory explosion.  She was stronger, more durable, and to top it all off, she had a peculiar resistance to damage and powers that improved as she got further from her target.

Between them, they each had the ability to apply their abilities in devastating ways.  They were team captains for a reason.

Wait, was this okay?  I’d barely done anything.  I was used to hanging back, supporting my allies, and delivering decisive strikes where necessary, but I was supposed to be proving something.  Would I be able to say I’d achieved anything definitive?

Was that intentional?

I hurried up the stairs in double time.  I reached the door frame, and I got a look from Jouster.

Definitely intentional.  He’d had his team bulldoze through the capes, leaving nothing for me.  I’d provided recon, but would that be enough?

“Securing the bystanders,” Clockblocker said, from across the room.  He approached one of the women, and she made a squeak of alarm as she jumped back from his reaching hand.  “Shhh, it’s okay.  Doesn’t hurt.  If you’ve done nothing wrong, there’s nothing to worry about.  You’ll wake up in a few minutes, visit the police, and then go home.”

She glanced at Jouster, as if looking for confirmation, and Clockblocker touched her, freezing her.

The other woman was pulling on pants, the kind of skinny jeans you pulled up inch by excruciating inch, if you were lucky enough to have actual hips.  She still wore a black bra, and way too much eye shadow.

“Last one,” Clockblocker said.  “You can call in the PRT vans.”

She buttoned up her jeans, then ran her thumb along the chain that ran from her belt loop to her pocket.

“Wait,” I said.  The chain- there were charms on it.  “Those charms.”

“My embellishment,” she said.

“Shit!” Jouster said.  “Clock!”

Clockblocker lunged, but she leaped back.  Landing on his hands and knees, Clockblocker reached out, firing the fingertips of his glove at her, each trailing cords that extended to his gauntlet.  Two of the cords looped around her limbs as they made contact.  Thick, I noted.  Not fishing lines that might cut when they were frozen in time.

He froze them, then freed his hand from the glove.  She was immobilized.

It wasn’t enough.

“It’s Standstill,” Jouster said.  He broke into a run, charging her with his lance held ready.

“Thirteenth Hour, now,” she retorted.  Her eyes flared with light, and I felt my body jolt.

Tecton!” I spoke through my bugs.

My heartbeat slowed to a glacial pace, my breathing slowing.  My outstretched hand started drifting down, the strength to hold it up slowly leaving my body.

Thirteenth Hour collapsed, going limp in the midst of Clockblocker’s suspended wires.  Jouster, mid-stride, did much the same.

My thoughts were slowing down, volition gone.  The others were the same.  My sense of time…  I was reminded of a dream I’d had, of being put under a spell by Coil.  Scopolamine.

Clockblocker’s power wore off the various Adepts, one by one.  They composed themselves, dressing.

Swoop dialed a number on his phone, approached the sleeping Thirteenth Hour while holding it to his ear.  He lifted her chin and kissed her, staying beside her to catch her as the cords were released.

“Spot of trouble,” he said, with a faint accent.  Australian?  British?  “Wouldn’t mind one of the top tiers.  They’ll have reinforcements.”

My eyelids drifted closed.  I didn’t have the will to raise them.

But I could follow my bugs as they stirred, converging, moving as if with a mind of their own.

Following my unconscious directives?

The bugs went on the offensive, biting, stinging.

No.  It wasn’t even a coherent thought.  I’d get in trouble.

No,” the bugs whispered, their droning forming crude words.

Swoop and the others startled at that.  I could sense their movements through the accumulated bugs.  He made a hand gesture, murmured a phrase, and birds took flight from the cages around the apartment.  After a moment, they ignited, winging their way through the thickest areas of the swarm.

The others would be arriving soon.  I had to do something.

That urgency, more than anything, seemed to translate into an order for my swarm.  They began moving, bearing silk threads.

That, I was okay with.

The binding they performed was carried out as if from some deep-seated, creative part of me, the part of me that would doodle absentmindedly in the margins of my notebook when I was tired in class.  Instead of aimless doodles, however, it was cords and lines of silk extending from table legs to feet, from wrists to earrings and between the loops of shoelaces, and it was all accompanied by the butterflies that I was still maintaining in formation.

Swoop’s improvised phoenixes couldn’t get close enough to burn those things without burning the individuals in question.

The other Adepts were arriving.  My sense of time, still, was obscured.  Where were the Protectorate capes?

How long would we be stunned like this?

Swoop, one hand pressed to his collarbone, moved his other arm to allow a flaming pigeon to rest on one hand, then winced in pain as he wound up nearly yanking an earring out.  “Curses!’

He really said things like ‘curses’.

I did not want to lose to these guys.

The bugs were still moving, aimless, without my active direction, but they were using the silk cords.

Butterflies, I thought.

The butterflies I’d been prepared to use moved into the formations I’d instructed, joining and complementing the swarms of bugs that were weaving webs of silk over and around the four Adepts, including the sleeping Thirteenth Hour.  I could sense her breathing.

How to break the spell?

Tecton.

He was under the effects.  I could tell, by how his arms had drooped from where he had them on the door frame.

If this was simply a kind of hypnosis…

I called bugs to me, directed them to gather on my face.

Not enough… they couldn’t get through my mask.

Without me asking it to, a cockroach started chewing through the fabric.  The fabric that wasn’t nearly as strong as spider silk.

The female Adept that Jouster and Clockblocker had attacked as they entered the apartment made her way toward the kitchen, stumbled as a silk cord around her knees failed to give her enough give.

“Annoying,” she said.

“Admirable, almost,” Swoop commented.  “This is the sort of thing we hope to train, and she’s already a fair hand at it, isn’t she?”

“Whatever,” the woman said.  She drew a kitchen knife from a wooden block on the counter, then began cutting the most obvious threads.

Seconds, minutes, hours passed.  I couldn’t say for sure.  There was fighting outside.  Capes fighting capes.  I couldn’t focus my attention on it.

With the hole in my mask now large enough, the cockroach wormed his way in.

Two ways this could go, I realized, as it dawned on me what I was doing.  What my passenger was doing?  Either this worked, or it would fail disastrously, and they’d be distracted, at the very least.

The cockroach reached the back of my throat.  I gagged and coughed.

And that disruption was enough to shake off Thirteenth Hour’s influence.  My thoughts began to coalesce into something more coherent.

Still coughing, fighting the urge to throw up into my mask, I directed bugs into the eye holes of Tecton’s mask, down to his mouth, to do much the same.

“No,” the cape with the rod said.

Another mind-affecting power.  I could see my spiders getting larger as they crawled, the apartment getting smaller, I felt vertigo…

Tecton reached out to the doorframe and made the building shudder with enough force that everyone stumbled.

Everyone woke, Thirteenth Hour included.  The hallucinations stopped.

“Again!” Swoop shouted.

Thirteenth Hour’s eyes glowed, her power flaring…

But I was ready.  A cockroach mobilized to set off my gag reflex a second time, and I was alert before the effect had even sunken in.

So gross.

Vantage and Jouster wore masks that covered their mouths.  It’d take a second to get into Tecton’s, and I didn’t want him to unwittingly wake Thirteenth Hour again…

I woke Hoyden instead.

I wasn’t making friends or allies here, I suspected.

Hoyden strode forward, coughing and wiping at her mouth.  A flaming bird soared at her face.  In the instant it made contact, it detonated in a ball of flame and unburned feathers.  She was thrown backwards.

Another homed in on me.  I wasn’t durable, like Hoyden.  I shielded my face with my arms.

The armor protected me, the cloth didn’t.  I could feel it as though something scraped against my flesh, felt the hot prickle that promised future pain.  A burn.

“Stop,” the cape with the hallucination power said.  He made a sign with his hands, extending his rod at me.

Again, I felt the sensation of things distorting.

I was free of Thirteenth Hour’s power, though, and my bugs were winding silk around his arm and face.  He clawed at it, to little effect, and the more butterflies that settled on his face, the less effective he seemed to get.

Hoyden had returned, and endured a barrage of more flaming birds.  The larger birds weren’t obliterated as they exploded, and circled around to strike her again.  I ducked below one I could sense only by the bugs it burned along its path, then backed away.

The one with the knife.  I tied some silk around the knife handle, connecting to the silk between Swoop’s leg and the table.

She tried to bring the knife down to cut something, and the cord went taut, pulling it from her hand.  She tried to bend over to pick it up, and the thread between her throat and the light fixture pulled taut.

What was her power, even?

I wasn’t interested in finding out.  I navigated the threads by using the bugs to track their placement.  The armor Dragon had fashioned didn’t have compartments inside the armor panel at the back, but I had a taser dangling from my belt.  Before she could figure out a way to break a thread, arm herself or use her power, I jabbed her with the taser.

She fell, momentarily suspended by the threads.  I had the bugs near the light fixture manually break the thread before she strangled.

That left Swoop and Mr. Hallucination, who was apparently suffering for not having removed more threads from himself earlier.  He swatted at the butterflies.

I reached Jouster, shaking him.  When he didn’t rouse, I shook him harder.

Nothing.  Not jarring enough.

I kicked his leg out from under him, and he sprawled.

“Fuck you,” he mumbled, as he began to climb to his feet.

“Wake up Clockblocker and Vantage,” I said.

“You don’t give me orders,” he said.  He approached Swoop.  The man smacked Hoyden with one more bird, whirling around to face Jouster, and then got slammed in the chest with the fattest part of the lance.  The third tier Adept flew into a wall and went limp.

Jouster wanted to clean up?  Fine.  I tazed the hallucination guy, then hurried to Clockblocker’s side.  When shaking him didn’t rouse him, I raised his head from the floor and then smacked it down hard enough to startle him.

“Jerk,” he mumbled.

Jouster had poked Vantage awake.

“Our reinforcements are fighting their reinforcements,” I said.

“Good to know.  We get Tecton and back them up.”

“You kicked their asses with butterflies,” Clockblocker said, as we made our way to the stairs.

“I cheated.  The butterflies are superficial, decorative.”

“No, no, no,” he said.  “If anyone asks, you kicked their asses with butterflies.”

Defiant and I walked back through the corridor of double-layered chain-link fence.  There was a long pause as the gates opened.

“You may have won over some of the ones with doubts, but Rime was grumbling about your attitude, and I suspected she was on your side to start with.”

“My attitude?”

“I don’t know.  Something to ask her, when the time comes.”

I sighed.

“Your arms?”

“Hurt,” I said.  I extended my arms, prodding at the bandage on my forearms.  “Nothing serious.  Will probably peel like a motherfucker.”

“Language,” he said, as we entered the hub.

The warden was there, waiting for us.

“You got injured.”

“In the line of duty,” Defiant said.  “Permitted duty.”

“I told you to keep her out of trouble.”

“Wasn’t my choice,” Defiant said.  “I can give you my superior’s number if you’d like.”

“I would like.  Taylor Hebert?  On the issue with the bug population of my facility, I feel it would be a very bad idea to provide you with a caustic substance to give your bugs, given what your file says you achieved with capsaicin.  I had a bug zapper purchased, and you should be able to access it with each and every one of your tiny soldiers.  I expect to see it used, understand?”

I nodded.

“Go change.  I’ll have a guard waiting here to escort you to your cell.”

“Okay,” I said.

I changed back into a fresh prison tunic and pants, leaving my shoes behind.  It pained me to leave everything behind, but I did.  The female guard patted me down when I’d emerged and handed the bundle of clothes to the guard at the hub’s office, then led me to my cell.

I was cognizant of my fellow prisoners, who watched me.  Prisoners who, I had little doubt, saw my injury as a sign of weakness, a reason to descend on me like wolves with wounded prey.

Being out among the Wards had shaken me, on a level.  I still needed to find out how to fight like a Ward.  A more effective Ward than the ones I’d encountered in the past, ideally.  I needed to adjust my tactics, the very way I thought.  To build a measure of self-confidence that wasn’t borne by fear and intimidation.

I settled down on the bunk with my book.

I shifted restlessly.  I still had trace amounts of adrenaline in my system.  The rush of a fight.  My arms hurt, too, despite the over-the-counter painkillers I’d tossed back.  A second degree burn, and like so many other injuries of the hands and arms, they seemed as though they had been strategically placed where they’d be most irritating and debilitating.

Tonight is going to suck, I thought.  How was I supposed to get comfortable like this?

My bugs found the bug zapper, and I began systematically eliminating every cockroach, louse, fly and ant in the building.

The spiders, I kept on hand, directing them to the burned corpses.  They could breed, in time, and I could put them somewhere where they wouldn’t encounter any people.

Breaking the rules, maybe, but it was something to occupy my thoughts.  It made me feel just a little safer, a little more like myself.

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