Colony 15.3

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

“Fuck you,” Othala snarled.

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

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

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

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

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

Victor’s eyes narrowed.

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

“I won’t betray my team.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine.  Imp?”

I turned and saw Tattletale pointing toward Othala.

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

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

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

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

“Your issue is with me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” he asked.  “Why do this?”

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

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

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

Victor smirked.

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

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

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

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

Silence lingered for a good minute.

“You can cheat,” Othala said.

“Not now, O.”

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

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

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

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

No.  Heeb was short for Hebrew, not Hebert.

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

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

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

“No shit,” Regent muttered.

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

I moved more spiders into positions on his lips.

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

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

Othala only stared, while Rune offered a slow nod.

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

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

I stepped away, silent.

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

Victor didn’t respond.  Couldn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a step forward,” she said.

“Maybe you could provide me some incentive?”

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

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

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

“Can you cut him free?”

I had my spiders start severing the threads.

“You leave the others alone,” Victor said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Woah,” Regent said, “Relax.”

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

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

“Explain,” I told her.

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

“As opposed to finding it out right after.

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

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

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

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

“I could have filled you in.”

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

She frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I say what I mean.”

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

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

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

“If we’re talking mind control-”

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

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

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

“Semantics.  My point stands.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fear is good,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

I shrugged, “Pretty much.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a little.”

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

I nodded.

“I think Victor could pull it off.”

“Okay.  Still not convinced.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

“Like?”

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

“Okay,” I said.

“Okay?”  She asked.

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

She nodded once, “Thank you.”

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

“I really don’t,” I admitted.

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

“Hm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could have phoned.”

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

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

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

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Colony 15.2

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One thing at a time.

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatcha thinking, dork?”

“You’re still calling me that?”

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

“Just thinking about priorities,” I told him.

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

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

“Trio-ish?” I asked.

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

“Yeah,” I said.

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

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

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

“Et tu, sis?”

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

They were playing off one another, joking.

And he calls me the dork?

I ignored them up until we met up with Tattletale.

“No Grue?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The free thinkers?” I offered.

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

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

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

“Something to keep in mind,” I said.

“Something to exploit?”

I glanced at her in surprise, and she shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’d you pull that?” Regent asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not really.”

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

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

He laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

We simultaneously broke into laughter.

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

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

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

A snub, an insult.

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

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

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

“Nifty,” Imp commented.

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

“Stop that,” I said.

“What?”

“That’s uncalled for.”

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

“You don’t have to mock her.”

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

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

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

“You-” I started.

“He’s being facetious,” Tattletale interrupted.

Regent rolled his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you find them?”

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

“Are they agitated, busy?”

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

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

“All of them or just some of them?”

“Everyone present is a member of the Chosen.”

“You’re sure?”

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

“Then cover up,” Regent alerted us.

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

“Go, Skitter,” Tattletale spoke.

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

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

They fled, running for the outdoors.

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

“Your turn,” I told Regent.

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

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

“You’re so finnicky,” Regent commented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No point in playing fair, really.

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

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

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

“Rune, Night and Fog so far,” I said.

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

“No Crusader.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Regent?”

“That’s cool.”

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

“Play safe.”

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

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

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

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

I called Atlas to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re doing fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irritating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She used a flashbang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She collapsed to the ground.

Wary of a feint, I approached with care.

Imp stood over Night, holding a taser.

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

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

“We take turns blinking?”  She asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your point being?” Regent asked.

“Where are we supposed to go?”

“Leave the city, retard.”  Imp said.

“You can’t just take the whole city.”

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

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

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

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

“Tax?”  Othala asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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Plague 12.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why could I feel calm now?

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

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

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

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

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

There was one flash in response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not going to happen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two?” Purity asked.

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

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

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

“So?” Tattletale asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

That gave everyone pause.

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

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

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

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

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

really didn’t like that idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trickster nodded at his words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Militia frowned.

“Please.”

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

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

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

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

“Perhaps.”

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

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

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

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

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

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

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

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

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

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

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

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

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

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Interlude 11e (Anniversary Bonus)

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The high-pitched song of steel rang through the air as sword parried sword, struck shield and fell to the ground.  Somewhat less sweet were the guttural grunts and muffled slaps of flesh being battered and struck.  A boot in the stomach, an elbow or fist striking a face.

Hookwolf walked between the groups of his sparring recruits.  They were tired, pushing themselves through their exhaustion.  All wanted to be here.  The training was too punishing for anyone who didn’t.  With small exceptions for eating and sleeping, their days were filled with exercise, hand to hand sparring, gun training, and practice with melee weapons.

The main adversaries of the Chosen were mercenary soldiers, police and trained heroes.  Why should the standards of his Chosen be any lower than theirs?  No, if his group was to represent the true Aryan warrior, they had to have higher standards.  They had to be the best.

It was that knowledge, that commitment that drove his trainees to give their all.  Too many saw the Aryans as hatemongers, failed to see the greater picture, the hope for raising humanity to a higher level.  He stopped at one end of the room to watch their progress, watch for the ones who had the killer instinct he needed.  Stormtiger and Menja were at the other end of the room, looking for the same.  Stormtiger had cast off his mask, and wore only face paint.  He still walked a little stiffly from the gunshot wounds that he’d taken to his legs.  Othala had attended to them over the past few weeks, would give him a half-hour to an hour of regenerating ability each night until he was better, but knees were slow to heal.  Menja wore her armor, her expression stern as she watched the form and habits of the combatants.  Cricket sat in one corner of the room, typing on a laptop without looking at the screen, taking notes on the trainees.

Hookwolf looked at Menja, and she raised one hand, two fingers extended.  Signalling, she pointed to two of his thirty-four recruits.  A bald man in peak physical condition and a twenty something girl with the ends of her hair in thin bleached blond braids.  A little too much like cornrows for his liking.  Maybe it was supposed to be ironic.  He liked her first pick, though.  He’d noticed the bald man.  He’d committed their names to memory on first meeting them, but he’d forgotten some.  He knew the man was Bradley, the girl was Leah or Laura or something like that.  His own pick was a lean scrapper in his early thirties, Ralph.

“Stop!” he ordered.

As one, his recruits pulled away from their fights and sheathed their blunted swords.  Not all of them were able to stand straight.  More than a few had bloody noses or black eyes.

“You’re three days into our week of training.  If you’re still here, you’re doing us proud.”

He could see a few of them stand a little taller at that.  Hookwolf had been a fighter before he’d been a fighter with powers.  He had spent a great deal of time around athletes, knew all too well that just a little recognition and a little motivation could make a world of difference.

“Some of you have earned special attention.  You’ve fought harder, meaner or better than the others.  Bradley, come here.”

The bald man approached.

“Menja.”

Menja stepped through the gathered recruits to stand beside Bradley.

“You two are going to fight.  No weapons, no armor.  Menja?  You can use your powers, just a little.”

Menja smiled, then she grew a foot and a half.  Bradley stood at a height of just over six feet, but she still loomed head and shoulders above him.  She unstrapped her armor and threw it aside.

Bradley looked at Hookwolf, a flicker of concern crossing his features.

“Part of the reason for this is that I want to see how you do against someone bigger than you,” Hookwolf said.  “You’re tired.  You’ve been training and sparring all day, Menja hasn’t.  Tough.  If you’re going to represent the Chosen as one of our elite, you’re going to be expected to go up against capes.  Things will be just as one-sided or worse.”

Bradley looked to his left, sizing up Menja.

“Think you can fight her without embarrassing us?  If you think you can do it, you might just have a place as one of our lieutenants or as a leader of one of our warbands.”

“I’m no coward,” Bradley replied.  He turned to Menja and adopted a practiced fighting stance.

Hookwolf watched with approval as the two squared off.  It was clear from the start that Bradley was thrown off guard by how strong Menja was, and doubly apparent that he wasn’t used to fighting someone with better reach or more power behind their hits.  But he was trained, and he was familiar in how to use his body, and he adapted quickly.

Bradley shifted to the defensive, and Menja struck with sharp kicks to his side and lunging steps forward to jab at his face.  He timed a grab and quickly shifted to an arm lock, forcing Menja to bend over.  For just a moment, it seemed like he had control of the situation, but Menja snapped back to her normal size, slipping her arm free, then struck at him, simultaneously growing.  He was shoved to the ground.

“Enough,” Hookwolf said.

It wouldn’t do to let the man defeat Menja, and it was looking increasingly possible that he might.  It would hurt her pride and weaken the position of his powered lieutenants in comparison to the unpowered ones.

“Good man,” he said from behind his mask.  He offered the man a hand, and Bradley took it.  “Well done.  Welcome to the Chosen’s elite.”

Bradley nodded and stood at attention.

Hookwolf turned to the blond girl. “Leah, was it?”

She looked surprised to be picked, but she nodded.

“Menja likes you.  I don’t.  You get one chance to prove me wrong.  Menja?  Who would you set her against?”

There weren’t many options.  Stormtiger couldn’t walk, Menja wouldn’t nominate herself, and it wouldn’t just be a hassle to go get Rune, Othala or Victor, but each of the three were either too powerful in a brawl or effectively powerless.  That left Hookwolf himself and-

“Cricket,” Menja said.  “Same reasoning.  Leah’s quick, Cricket’s quicker.”

Cricket stood from her seat in the corner and limped forward.  She’d refused the same help that Othala had granted Stormtiger, both for the injury to her leg and the damage she’d taken to her vocal chords when she’d had her throat slashed, in a time before he’d met her.  It would have taken a few days at most to restore her to peak condition, but she valued her battle scars too highly.

“Up for this, Leah?” Hookwolf smiled.  Cricket’s injury to her leg slowed her down some, but the young woman was anything but a pushover.

Cricket reached to her side and picked up a small silver tube.  She pressed it to the base of her throat, and her voice came out sounding distorted and digital, “Something’s wrong.”

“With the fight?”  Hookwolf asked, raising one eyebrow.

Cricket opened her mouth and pressed the tube to her throat to reply, but didn’t get a chance.  The windows shattered with an explosive force, knocking the majority of the people in the room to the ground.  Hookwolf was one of the few to remain standing, though he bent over as shards of glass tore through the layer of skin that covered his metal body.

He took a moment to compose himself in the wake of the blast.  His ears rang, and he bled from a dozen cuts, but he was more or less fine.  His people were not.  They groaned and screamed in pain, accompanied by the sound of car alarms going off outside.

Two trainees and one of his graduated Chosen were dead.  They’d been wearing glasses, and the glass had penetrated their eyes to tear into their brains.  The others were all wounded to some degree or another.  Some had been hit by the glass that flew from glasses others were wearing, others from the windows, and one or two others had patches of blood rapidly expanding around pockets where cell phones had been stowed.

Why couldn’t they have put the cell phones away before they started sparring?

Leah lay dying, and Stormtiger had one hand pressed to his throat, blood billowing from a cut that may or may not have nicked an artery.

Hookwolf tapped into his core, the ‘heart’ from which his metal sprouted inside his body.  He could feel it start to churn with activity, and the metal he already had encasing each of his muscles began to stir.  Soon it was lancing in and out of his pores, criss-crossing, some blades or needlepoints sliding against others with the sounds of whetted knives.  In a few seconds, he had covered his body, to protect himself from further attacks.

“Shatterbird!” he roared, once he knew he was secure.  There was no reply.  Of course.  She was attacking from a safe position.

An attack from her meant an attack from the rest of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Daunting, but not impossible.  He was virtually invincible in this form.  That left few that could actively hurt him.  Burnscar.  The Siberian.  Crawler.  There was Hatchet Face, the bogeyman of capes.  With the exception of Hatchet Face, the group wouldn’t be able to do much harm to him unless he was forced to stay still.

More troubling were the Nine he couldn’t put down.  The Siberian was untouchable, an immovable object, invincible in a way that even Alexandria wasn’t.  Even if he were capable of hurting Crawler, he wouldn’t want to.  Mannequin, he wasn’t sure about.  He knew the crazed tinker had encased himself in a nearly indestructible shell.  As strong as Hookwolf was, he faced that distant possibility that any of these people could pin him down or set him up to be taken out by others.

Who else?  He wracked his brain.  Jack Slash was the brains and leader of the operation.  Not a threat unto himself.  Shatterbird couldn’t harm him, he was almost certain.

Bonesaw.  She was the wild card, the most unpredictable element in terms of what she could bring to the table.  So often the case with tinkers.

He strode across the room to the windows and gazed out at the city block surrounding the home base of the Chosen.  Glass was still raining down from the sky, glimmering in the orange-purple light of the setting sun.  Every window in view was broken, empty of glass.  Car windshields, streetlights and signs had all been affected, and the surrounding surfaces of wood, metal and fiberglass all bore the scuffs and gouges of the fragile shrapnel.

Every piece of glass in the room suddenly stood on end, points facing upward.  He gave it a moment of his attention, then turned to the world beyond the window, hoping for some glimpse of his adversaries, a clue about where they were.

“Cricket,” he called out.  “You alive?”

He heard a sound, movement, and turned. She was gingerly searching through the carpet of weaponized glass shards for her artificial larynx.  She found it and pressed the cylinder to her throat.  “Alive.”

“You said something was wrong.  What did you notice?”

“Sound.  The glass was singing.  Still is.”  She pointed at one wall.  Hookwolf followed the line to a building across the street and a little ways to one side.

His ears were ringing, but he doubted that was it.  It would be something subsonic that Cricket noticed with her power, then.

“You come with me, then.  Menja, Stormtiger, I leave it to you to see to my Chosen.  See if Othala is able to help.”

“On it,” Menja said.  Thin trails of blood ran down from the points where glass splinters had pierced her skin, but the damage hadn’t gone any further.  She stooped down and picked up Stormtiger in her arms.

Orders given, Hookwolf drew the majority of his flesh into a condensed point in his ‘core’, felt himself come alive as more metal spilled forth.  Only his eyes remained where they were, set in recessed sockets, behind a screen of shifting blades.  He was half-blind until the movement of the blades hit a rhythm, moving fast enough that they zipped over the surface of his eye at speeds faster than an eyeblink.

He let himself fall from the third floor window and hit the ground in a state that was more liquid than solid.  Blades, spears, hooks and other twisted metal shapes all pooled on the pavement, absorbing the impact.

He pulled himself together, in his favored quadruped form.  Looking up to the window, he created a tall spear from between his ‘shoulders’.  Cricket leaped out and caught the pole, slid down until she could hop off and land beside him, skidding on the glass covered surface.  She looked annoyed as she looked down at her shoes, raising one foot off the ground to investigate the underside.  Glass had embedded in the soles.

He would have told her to ignore it, but he couldn’t speak.  For that matter, neither could she.

Cricket pointed, and he led the way with her following directly behind him.  As he walked, he wasn’t moving his limbs quite so much as it might appear at first glance.  Instead, he extended one growth of metal as he retracted another, only generating the illusion.  A hundred new parts growing each second to suggest shifting musculature, a cohesive form, when he was anything but.  Only the core skeleton, the shafts of metal that formed the limbs from the shoulders or hips to his knees,  actually moved without retracting or extending.

Glass rose from the ground to fit together into a window that floated in the air and he smashed through it with one of his forelimbs.  Another barrier appeared, thicker, and he smashed that as well.  The glass began to form into dozens, even hundreds of barriers.  He quickly found one strike wasn’t enough to clear the way.

Through the mess of dozens of dirty and wet panes of glass, he saw her.  Shatterbird.  A sand nigger, going by memory and the color of her exposed skin.  The upper half of her head was covered in a helmet of colored glass, and her body was covered with a flowing garment made of tiny glass shards, like scales.

He rose onto two feet, standing straight, and reconfigured his arms.  With spears as big around as telephone poles, he punched through thirty or forty panes of glass all at once, then did the same with his opposite hand.  It was slow progress, as the glass constantly reformed and pieced itself back together a few feet ahead of him, but he was closing in.

She abruptly dropped the barriers and changed tactics.  The majority of the glass in the area formed into one shape, a cone of solid glass, pointing towards the center of the purple-red sky, two and a half stories tall.

Raising one hand, she shot it straight up into the sky above, until it was just a speck.

Hookwolf lunged for her, only to find that the residual glass that remained on the ground was denying him traction.  His metal claws failed to find grip, failed to crack the glass, even with the heavy impacts and his impressive weight.  Closing the distance proved slower than he’d hoped.

The massive spike of glass plummeted from the sky.  He knew it was coming, had kept an eye out for it, and timed a leap to coincide with its descent.

No use.  It veered unerringly for him, speared into him with enough force that it nearly sheared him in half.  Cricket uttered a strangled scream as she got hit by the fallout of glass shards and scraps of metal.

“Stand,” Shatterbird said.  Her voice held traces of a British accent, and her body language and the crisp enunciation made her sound imperious, upper class.    “I know you survived.”

Hookwolf struggled to pull himself together.  He used hooks to pull the metal back towards his core, where it could be reabsorbed, recycled.  It didn’t take much of his reserve of internal energy to create and move the metal, but it took some, and he’d rather not run out.

It was a risk, he knew, but he needed a few moments to pull himself together and rebuild his body.  He let his head and upper chest emerge from the core, taking form in the hollow metal ‘head’ of his canid form.

“What do you people want?” he asked.

“Person.  Singular.  I am the only member of my group here,” Shatterbird informed him.

“Arrogant.”

“You can be arrogant when you’re strong enough.  You should know, Hookwolf.”

“You here to make trouble?”

She shook her head, her helmet sparkling in the light cast by the setting sun.  “I’m the Nine’s primary recruiter.  I have an eye for people who can thrive among us, and I have brought more than five individuals on board.  I thought long and hard before settling on you.  I am not about to let you turn me down.”

So that was why she hadn’t hit the entire city with the blast, shattering the glass and maiming or killing hundreds.  She hadn’t wanted to kill any prospective members, wanted to reserve her power for when it would be most dramatic.

“I’m fine where I am.”

“This isn’t a request.”

“Is that so?  You going to make me?”  He was nearly restored.  He could fight now if he needed to.

“Yes.  I know who you are, Hookwolf.  I spent some time researching your history.”

“Not that interesting.”

“I beg to differ.  You ally with the Aryan groups.  Run one, but your motivations seem to be different.  I have guesses as to why, but I’d rather you tell me.”

“Tell you?  Why should I?  I think we’re done here.”

Shatterbird raised one hand, then frowned, her lips pursing together.  “Hm.”

Cricket climbed to her feet.  She was bleeding badly where she had exposed skin, and chunks of glass were partially buried in her arms and legs.  There was the quiet rasp of her laughter.

“Pride goeth before the fall,” Hookwolf said, striding towards his enemy.  “Seems as though Cricket can use her subsonics to cancel you out.”

“Seems so,” Shatterbird answered, rapidly backing up to maintain some distance from Hookwolf.

“And here I was thinking you’d won the lottery with powers.  Incredible range, fine control, devastating force, versatility… and all it takes is the right noise and it all falls apart?”

“Guess the men who bought my power should ask for a refund.”

“No.  Not interested in being conned into a game of twenty questions to figure out what you’re talking about.  Not giving you a chance to figure a way out.”  He punched one of his massive spears at her, and she threw herself to the ground, rolling beneath the impaling weapon.  As she stood, she drew a gun from the folds of her glittering dress.  She fired between Hookwolf’s legs at Cricket, the noise of the shots ringing through the air.

Hookwolf didn’t even need to look.  He laughed, “No.  Afraid my lieutenant is a little too fast for you.”

“Look out,” Cricket’s said from behind him, the artificial sound of her voice detracting from the inflection and urgency.

A tide of glass slammed into him.  Standing on only two limbs, his balance suffered, and he wasn’t able to keep from being pushed onto his side.

“Wasn’t aiming at her,” Shatterbird said.  She fired several more shots, simultaneously releasing a shard of glass from her free hand.  Hookwolf turned, saw Cricket clutching her throat.  She’d dodged the bullets, but Shatterbird had controlled the flight of the glass shard she shot at Cricket much in the same way she’d controlled the descent of the massive spike of glass.  It had struck its target.  “Just needed to break her concentration.”

Cricket collapsed, large quantities of blood spilling through her fingers and around her hands, where they clutched her throat.

“Now it’s just you and me,” Shatterbird said.  She dusted herself off, not giving any concern to the sharp edges of the glass shards that made up her garment.  “We talk.”

“I think I’ll kill you instead,” Hookwolf growled.

“What’s the rush?  In fact, any moment we delay, you have a chance of reinforcements arriving.  Your Stormtiger, your Othala, your Menja, they could all do a little something to assist you.  It’s in your advantage for us to delay the fight.”

“Except I’m more than capable of putting you down myself.”

“Perhaps.”

He adjusted his form, dropping to four legs once more.  The aesthetic suffered, but he created two needle-tipped limbs at his shoulders, poised like scorpion’s tails.

“Ah, that’s much better,” she said, “But you’re still too attached to conventional forms.  Why have legs at all?”

“They’re enough.”  He pounced.  She leaped to one side, and almost glided to a position across the street.  She was using the glass of her costume to levitate herself.

From her new vantage point she told him, “I did say I had my suspicions about your motivations.  I think I’ve come to understand you. Jack encourages this, you know.  Understanding our targets, be they recruits or victims.  You learn a lot being with him.  I believe you, Hookwolf, are a born warrior.”

He pounced once more, driving both foreclaws at her and following up with two quick jabs with his needle-tipped limbs.  She dodged all three hits, then swept a carpet of glass beneath him as he pounced quickly after her.  He landed and skidded on the surface like one might with a carpet of marbles, falling onto one side, and she threw a tidal wave of glass shards at him, driving him across the street to distance him once more.

He stopped to draw his head and upper body back into the core.  The wave of glass had come too close to penetrating the head of his form and cutting his flesh.  It was dangerously vulnerable.

A warrior at heart, she’d said.  He’d thought, sometimes, that he was born at the wrong time.  Had he been born in Rome’s heyday, the Crusades or any of the great wars, in eras where martial pride and strength were valued, he thought he might have been a great person, a soldier feared on the battlefield.  He would have relished that life.  Here, now?  Even with powers, he wasn’t so notable.  People with a tendency for violence and a thirst for blood just didn’t thrive.

“What I can’t figure out-” she paused to throw herself up to the top of a four-story building, then raised her voice to be heard on the ground, “Is what you’re doing with these ‘Chosen’ of yours.”

He couldn’t speak to answer her, and only climbed the building’s face.  He was three-quarters of the way up when she leaped down, soaring toward the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street.  Always keeping her distance.

A gale caught her, and her lateral movement stopped.  As wind twisted around her, she was driven down into the street, hard.

Hookwolf would have laughed if he could.  He looked at his headquarters and saw Stormtiger crouching by the front door, clutching a blood-soaked rag to his throat.  Stormtiger wouldn’t interfere where it counted, but he would give Hookwolf the opportunity to confront his opponent.  He adjusted his position and fell to the street next to Shatterbird.  She held one leg while laying on her back.  She’d fallen badly.

Stalking towards her, he heard she was still talking, “You call them Fenrir’s Chosen.  I’m a scholar, believe it or not.  I know Fenrir was one of the beasts that brings about Ragnarök, the death of the gods.  Fenrir was the beast who slew Odin, Allfather, king of the gods.  Fenrir was a wolf.  Too coincidental for that to be an accident on your part.”

He stirred the blades that made up his form, pushing himself to be bigger, more dangerous as he closed the distance.

“A sword age, an axe age.  A wind age, a wolf age.  A world where none have mercy.  I can believe this is your goal, your ultimate objective.  Do you crave to reduce this city to darkness, blood and ash, so that only the strong will survive?  Do you tell your followers that it is only the pure will rise to the top in the new world order?”

He set one clawed foot down on her.  He could feel some blades on the underside of his foot bite into her flesh.  She didn’t fight him or resist.

“Join us,” she said, her voice strained.

He formed a head and mouth.  His voice echoed from within his metal skull, “You describe me as a warrior, why would I join petty killers?”

She shifted her position, huffing out sentences between gasps of pain.  “Only a matter of scale.   Need more like you in our number.  Frontline combatants.  Capable of carving murder through the ranks of the innocent.  Through our enemies.  We could be great warriors.”

“Not interested.”

“We could create your Ragnarök more than any number of Chosen.”

“They are my people.  I won’t turn my back on them.”

“Then kill me.”  A thin smile crossed her face, though her expression was drawn with pain.  When she spoke, it was in more short sentences. “But know that your dream is over.  Unless you come with us.  Once nominated you’ll be tested.  By others, whether willing or not.  I have left notes.  Urging them to kill your soldiers.  To raze any place you might call home.  To bestow fates worse than death.”

He raised his claw from her.  She was bleeding from wounds in her stomach and pelvis.

He’d had a hard enough time killing this one.  If the other seven arrived?  No, he wouldn’t be able to stop them alone, and his lieutenants were not strong enough to hold them off.

“And you won’t rescind these orders and requests?”

“I will.  If you join.  You give me your word, I leave.  You will be tested.  Your people left alone.  When the test is done you’re… either dead or one of us.”

“What is it you want?”

“Make history.  Names in books.  Taught to schoolchildren for years.  Centuries.  Our goals…” she winced, pressed one hand to her stomach, “Coincide.”

He pondered for a few moments.  Could they escape?  No, you didn’t escape the Nine.  He’d already considered fighting, but that option was out.

There was a possibility he could lay a trap for them.  Or buy time for his people to escape.

“Fine.”

Another thin smile crossed her face.  She used her power to raise herself to a standing position, her toes only barely touching the ground.  “So loyal.”

“But I won’t forget what you’ve already done.  If you survive, I will wait for the right time and place, and I will kill you.  One day.”

“Already thinking like… one of us.  Rest assured.  I will survive.”

Glass drifted towards her to fill the injuries, cracking in the right spots so each fragment fit the wounds perfectly.  The smallest particles of glass, a fine cloud of dust, flowed forth to fill the gaps.

Then she rose into the sky.  Hookwolf signaled for Stormtiger to hold his fire.

He wasn’t going to accept this.  They’d insulted him, hurt his people.  They wanted to subvert his mission and twist it to their own ends?  No.

His face twisted into a scowl as he looked over the glass-strewn street, and at Cricket’s prone form.  He’d told Shatterbird he’d kill her sometime in the future, had hopefully led her to expect something further down the line.

No, he would go through the motions of their ‘test’, even join them for the short-term.  But he’d kill them sooner than later.  Before they left the city.

He looked at his people, saw Othala hurrying over to Cricket’s side to grant the young woman regenerating abilities.  Rune was hurt, the right side of her face torn up, healed only enough to close the cuts and stop the worst of the bleeding.  Probably Othala.  Everyone else was injured to some degree, many gravely.

He’d need help from elsewhere.

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Extermination 8.4

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I got my orders and left behind a bizarre scene where Armsmaster was working hand in hand with Kaiser, of all people.  Kaiser worked to build the same sort of trap that he’d imprisoned Lung in, some time ago, creating bars of metal between and around each of Leviathan’s limbs, a cage tight to the body.  Rune and another telekinetic were working to bend the metal from Kaiser’s shaken barrier around Leviathan’s limbs and face.

It wouldn’t last.  Leviathan was too big, his tail extended a long distance behind him, and it was thin and supple enough to slip through almost any barrier Kaiser could erect, strong enough that it could bend metal.  Leviathan would get free, there could be no illusions on that front.

While Kaiser worked, Armsmaster was simultaneously ensuring that he could maximize the damage delivered the second Leviathan moved again.  Gingerly, he worked with the grenades the Protectorate had liberated from Bakuda, the same explosives Miss Militia had been firing at Leviathan, and hooked them up as motion activated or proximity mines.  A complicated affair, I imagined, when your target could start moving any second, and when you couldn’t fully know or understand what the individual bombs did.

In the end, though, it was still our best bet to do one final measure of damage against Leviathan before he was free to wreak havoc once more.

There were a little more than fifty of us left.  Hookwolf, Fenja, Menja, Genesis, Aegis and Manpower were among the fifteen or so standing combatants that remained and were able to go toe to toe with Leviathan.  Parian, the girl in the doll costume, had formed some massive stuffed animals – a lion and a pig that stood as tall as Leviathan’s shoulder.  Tougher than they looked, according to her.  I had my doubts.  I mean, it wasn’t just that they were stuffed animals, but according to Parian, this was her first fight.

Too many others were capable of delivering the hurt, but were too fragile: Browbeat, Shadow Stalker, Lady Photon, Purity, Laserdream, Brandish and others I didn’t know.  The Ward with the crossbow, some guy with crimson skin.  There was a light show in the sky above as Kid Win teleported in pieces of the cannon he’d had at the bank robbery, manifesting them onto a hovering platform set directly in front of Leviathan.  He’d get anywhere from a few seconds to a minute’s worth of concentrated fire with the gun firing on the highest settings, directing a beam through a gap in the bars to where Narwhal’s razor sharp forcefield had opened a gap in Leviathan’s neck.

Beyond those first few moments after Leviathan woke up, it woul be anyone’s guess.

I hurried away from the site Armsmaster had indicated to me, my right hand on my left elbow, keeping my arm from moving too much.  Sector CC-7, a block and a half South, a block West.  So strange, to think that this was an area I’d walked through a dozen times, on my way to or from the Loft.  Now I was looking at it as a battlefield, trying to figure out what routes Leviathan would take.  What things I had to watch out for – the grates leading down to the storm sewers, the rain barrel on top of one of the buildings that might or might not be intact enough to retain any water in it.  Puddles.

Stuff I could use…  hardly.

It wasn’t like there was any weapon I could deploy, no feature of the terrain I could use to deliver the critical blow.  This was Leviathan.  A creature that had killed more people in the last 12 years than I had even seen in my entire life.  Seen in person, anyways.

I was scared.  A huge part of me wanted to just close my eyes and hope Leviathan didn’t come, that I wouldn’t have to deal with him.  It would be nice to join the three hundred and fifty thousand other Brockton Bay residents that were trusting the heroes to handle things, find a peace of sorts in surrender and helplessness.  Except I couldn’t.  I’d seen firsthand how Leviathan had taken down some of the strongest capes.  I couldn’t find refuge in that kind of trust anymore.  My mental and emotional resources were better spent on figuring out how to help than they were on hope.

I was hurting, too.  The only thing keeping the throb of my arm from consuming my attention was the fear.  It was a kind of grim cycle:  the pain reminded me of why I should be scared, but the emotion and the adrenaline kept the pain as this intensely unpleasant background chatter in my brain, where it might have crippled me otherwise.  It was a teetering balance that had me on edge in a way I’d never experienced to this degree.  There were probably people who lived for that hypervigilant, heart-racing, brain-going-in-overtime experience.  I wasn’t one of them.

Priorities.  Back to what I was thinking about – there obviously wasn’t anything to be found here that would win me a fight against Leviathan or even hurt him.  Ridiculous to think that way.  Any advantages to be gained would be ones that kept me alive.

I wiped the beads of water from my lenses with my glove, which only seemed to divide each of them into a mess of smaller droplets.  Leviathan was bigger than me, stronger, faster, tougher.  I had to think like a mouse who might run into a murderous cat at any moment.  Like prey.  Use my small size.  Hide.  I needed a position that kept me out of sight, gave me a good vantage point, but left me free to make a run for it.  A spot where I had an escape route if things got bad.  To top it off, in the event Eidolon couldn’t stop the wave, I could also do with cover.

It was the sort of street you saw often enough in the Docks.  Large buildings lined either side, like giant boxes made of concrete or brick.  I could have maybe found a fire escape to climb up, in the hopes that I’d be out of reach of the wave, but my experience with Lung back on day one had taught me better.  The higher ground was an advantage, sure, but if your opponent could get up or down from that location faster and more easily than you could, that stopped being an asset really damn quickly.  If there was anything that was going to be useful, it would be on ground level.  I saw a rusted van that had sat in front of an old workshop since I’d first passed through this area, all tires flat, windows broken, interior gutted.  A chain link fence stretched between two buildings, but someone had cut the wires that connected the fence to the frame, so half of it was curled back and waving slightly in the wind and rain.

No, those things weren’t useful.  Larger scale?  There was an old roof supported by two pillars, attached on one side to a building, a carport, perhaps.  The roof was mostly intact, corrugated steel with a smallish hole in one lower corner, which meant the area beneath it was largely dry, but for a small puddle.  It was also exposed on three sides, which meant I couldn’t stay there.  My bugs could.  It was a place they could keep dry until I needed them.

I’d been acutely aware of my bugs since the battle started, and for the second time I could remember, I found my power was responding far more effectively as I called for them.  My reach extended further, my bugs were fractionally more responsive.  The last time this had been the case, it had been when I teamed up with Bitch, Sundancer and Newter and wound up fighting Oni Lee and Lung.  I couldn’t explain it, but I wasn’t going to complain.  I needed every small advantage I could get.

As they began gathering under the carport, my mind returned to that notion of being successful ‘prey’.

When I’d originally designed my costume, I’d picked the darker colors, made sure that the varieties of chitin I used to make the armor were spaced out so the individual shading would retain some ‘speckling’ after being painted, all for a reason.  Camouflage.  I’d known I’d have my bugs all around me.  I’d known I would be standing in the midst of them while they gathered into swarms, would have them crawling on me from time to time.  So I’d picked darker colors and made my armor mottled to blend in with the bugs that were, obviously, specks.

Just hiding inside my swarm wouldn’t be enough.  Too easy for him to attack just the one cluster, tear through me.

So I gathered more than one smaller swarm, clustering them in areas where it was dry.  The interior of the rusted van, under eaves, in doorframes and on a roof, under a large rain barrel.

Then, struck by a little inspiration, I condensed the nine swarms into human-ish shapes.  Black silhouettes crouched, stood tall with arms akimbo, leaned against walls, leaned partially outside the driver’s side window of the van.  In the gloom, through the rain, it was deceptive.  Deceptive enough?  I couldn’t be sure.

I felt the bite of cold air.  A chill breeze, going straight through the soaked fabric of my costume.  When I looked down to where the long road sloped to the edge of the water, I saw the reason for the chill.  Eidolon was flying at the coast, focusing blue rays on the water around the shattered boardwalk and debris at the water’s edge, hardening the waves into irregular sheets and glacier-like formations of ice.

Dangerous.  I could remember seeing on TV that they’d tried something like this a few years ago.  A Tinker using an ice engine, I think.  I didn’t know exactly how or why, but judging by the fact that they hadn’t used the tactic again, I got the impression It had turned out really badly.

My guess was based on the notion that hydrokinesis was the movement of water, and ice was just water in another form.  It wasn’t that Leviathan would levitate the chunks of ice.  Nothing so blatant.  Rather, when a tidal wave did break through the ice, rolled up onto the battlefield with frozen shards and chunks caught up in the current, Leviathan might move those chunks a little faster in the wave’s passage, make them hit a little harder, and give them a tendency to strike where they could do the most damage.

That was my suspicion, anyways.  The heroes didn’t exactly dish out the full details at press conferences, afterward, so I could only make an educated guess.

Either way, it was a delaying tactic.  Holding off the damage, in the hopes that we could end this or get reinforcements before Brockton Bay became another Newfoundland.

We were hoping for Scion.  The first cape, the golden skinned man.  The guy that could go toe to toe with an Endbringer and win, if things hadn’t already gone too far south.  If Behemoth hadn’t already turned the area into a radioactive, magma-ridden wasteland.  If Leviathan hadn’t built up enough momentum with his waves.  If the Simurgh… Ok, the Simurgh was different, I had to admit.  The issue with her wasn’t so much winning the battle.  It was what came after.  Win every battle against her, lose the war, more or less.

The problem with waiting on Scion was that the guy wasn’t exactly in touch with the rest of us.  There was speculation he had at least one human contact – someone that had given him clothing and a costume, at least – but he never bothered to stop long enough for anyone to pass on any requests, to tell him to go to X place when we gave him Y signal.  He rescued people twenty-four-seven, three hundred and sixty five days a year, handling crises only as they came to his attention, which meant that sometimes an Endbringer came and Scion was wholly occupied with saving sinking ships, stopping landslides and putting out housefires.  I wondered what he was doing now.

My swarms were in place, which left me having to decide where to hide.  The carport was too in the open, none of the eaves left me a good enough escape route, and as for the space under the rain barrel on the roof, well, I wasn’t that stupid, and I’d already dismissed the roof as an option anyways.

I started toward the rusted van.  I was halfway there when I reconsidered.  As comforting as it might be to have the safety of metal around me and to be more or less concealed, it posed some of the same problems as the rooftops.  If things turned sour or if an unexpected situation arose, I’d be trapped.

After a moment of tense consideration, I reluctantly decided on the carport, hunkering down in the gloom and hoping the shadows there would help conceal me.  It offered me an escape route – around the back of the building, or through the side door, it gave me cover from the rain and any debris, and it gave me concealment.  I’d have to cope with the lack of cover from any incoming waves or Leviathan himself.

Secure in the amount of bugs around me, I collected the ones that could go out in the rain and manage reasonably well.  Primarily roaches.  I sent them out in the general direction of where Leviathan and the others were.  The better a sense I had of any imminent encounters, the better I could react.

Manpower deceased, CD-6.  Aegis deceased, CD-6, my armband spoke, at the same moment my bugs reached the area around where Leviathan had been.

He was awake again.

Aegis would have been covering an aerial route, keeping Leviathan from heading to the rooftops, which meant Leviathan went up.  I had the mass of roaches ascend, trying to get a sense of his location.  I tried to use my armband to help gauge the direction he was traveling, but since I couldn’t move my arm, it was difficult at best.

Fenja down, CC-6.  My head snapped up.

I found them.  Fenja and Menja were duking it out with Leviathan.  Both were nearly as big as he was, which was saying a fair bit.  I knew their power warped geometry to make them bigger, simultaneously reduced the effective size of incoming attacks by an inversely proportionate amount.  Six times as tall and a sixth of the hurt, on top of the benefits of being bigger.

Fenja deceased, CC-6.

It wasn’t doing them a lot of good.  Not Fenja, anyways.

I saw a light as Kid Win rose above the level of the buildings, fired a painfully bright beam down at the EndbringerAfter the laser petered out, he rose up higher again, to keep out of reach.  He was in the middle of firing another beam when the laser flicked around nearly three hundred and sixty degrees, spun by a massive impact.

Kid win down, CC-6.

And then Leviathan was in view, entering the same street I was on.  As if to herald his coming, a massive wave crashed hard against the barrier of ice Eidolon had erected around the wrecked Boardwalk, the spray seemingly reaching nearly to the stormclouds above.

One shoulder was bloated, five times the normal size, twisted, like it was covered in elephantine tumors, bleeding openly.  He was injured in other places, had a hole through the side of his stomach, a larger blackened wound at the base of his neck, and a fifth of his face was missing, torn off below the cheekbone.  He didn’t seem to be suffering much.  He held Kaiser’s upper torso in the one claw, tossed it casually to one side.  The man’s legs were nowhere to be seen.

Wait, what?  I hadn’t heard the report on Kaiser’s death.  I checked my armband, where my arm hung immobile at my side.

It was dead, offline.  Black screen.

I didn’t have another second to worry – Leviathan was extending one claw in my general direction.

The water that had pooled shallowly beneath the carport trickled his way, as if it were moving downhill, gathered in a rising bulge of water on the street in front of the carport, swelling to five feet in height, fifteen feet across.

Unsure what to do, I remained absolutely still.

A movement of his claw, and the bulge broke, spilled to one side as an onrushing wave.  It swept beneath the rusted van, suddenly rose to heave the vehicle in Leviathan’s direction.  The van rolled once, skidding toward the Endbringer, threatening to strike one leg out from under him.  He stopped it by punching it through the roof, into the front end of the van.  He stabbed the other claw through at the same point, tore the van into two halves that he tossed to either side of him.

A flick of his tail, and he sent a blade of water slashing through the air at the rain barrel, slicing through the swarm and stilts.  The barrel crashed to the rooftop, and water cascaded out.  A twisting movement of his claw, and that cascade of water flowed off the roof in a small, controlled wave, moving like a speeding car, straight towards the carport on the other side of the street, toward me.

I caught a glimpse of Leviathan rearing back in reaction to something as I legged it, left my swarm behind as I ran perpendicular to the wave’s direction, away from Leviathan.  I leaped as I felt it make contact with the swarm, felt it slam into my legs a fraction of a second after.

I’d cleared enough ground that the angle of the hit didn’t throw me straight into the side of the building.  I was thrown a distance, rolled on my side, on top of and over my probably-broken arm.

Pain consumed me.  I writhed, my good hand pressing on my bad arm.  I gagged, pulled my mask up to throw up, as if my body was trying to find some way to rebel against the pain.  I tried to climb to my feet, but I was too weak, dizzy, and my good arm gave out.  I landed face first in dirty water.

I had no idea how long it took me to pull myself together.  It could have been two minutes, it could have been ten seconds.  I managed to climb to my feet.  Stumble back toward the carport, staying to the shadows.

As I approached the corner of the building, I saw Armsmaster fighting toe to toe with Leviathan, a Halberd in each hand.  One was similar to the one he’d used the night we attacked the fundraiser, capable of unfolding into a grappling hook, the other was simpler, a dull stainless steel from tip to butt end, with no decoration or style to it.  The head was surrounded by a strange blur that seemed static, unmoving around the blade and point.

Leviathan slapped his tail at Armsmaster’s legs, and Armsmaster leaped over it, swiped out with the blurry Halberd.  It carved a chunk out of Leviathan, left a cloud of dust that the rain quickly drove down into the expanse of water beneath them.  The Endbringer reared back in pain, and Armsmaster stepped forward, leaped up higher than any normal human could, and caught Leviathan just above the knee with the Halberd, driving the blade nearly a third of the way to the bone.

Leviathan retaliated, swiping at Armsmaster, but the hero planted a foot on the uninjured part of the knee, and kicked himself back and out of the way.  The afterimage followed him, and he swiped at it with the other Halberd.  The blade erupted with a flame like a giant purple blowtorch, turning the worst of the afterimage into steam before it could crush him.  He turned his back so the steam didn’t billow against the exposed flesh of his face.  Some remains of the afterimage struck his armor, but he slid back and rolled with the impact, keeping his feet on the ground the entire time, enabling him to leap and roll to one side as Leviathan’s tail came down from behind and directly above him.

Leviathan was badly injured.  Ichor poured from six large wounds that hadn’t been there when he’d arrived on the street.

“You dumb brute,” Armsmaster growled.  He was panting for breath.  “Every fight you’ve done so far, that we’ve got on camera?  I’ve watched it, put it through programs.  I’ve got a computer on my back that’s relaying to a supernetwork, noting your every move, using subsonic pulses to read every aspect of the street, the surrounding buildings, every feature of the terrain.  I know exactly what you’re going to do next – you’re going to try to catch me from behind with a wave.”

Leviathan lunged, swiped with the oversized claw.  Armsmaster rolled to one side, then swung both Halberds behind him to intercept the wave that was coming from behind, vaporize it.

“You don’t even speak English, do you?  Or you’d know what I was saying, you’d know I already won.  The others helped, slowing you down, stopping the waves.  But this victory, this killing blow?  It’s going to be mine.”

Leviathan lunged, stopped, letting his water echo get ahead of him, then lunged again, a half second later.  Armsmaster leaped out of the way of the echo, drew his knees to his chest to avoid a claw swipe while he was still airborne, and sent his grappling hook between Leviathan’s feet to pull himself to the ground in a flash.  He skidded with the momentum, right between Leviathan’s legs, and raised the blurry Halberd to strike Leviathan between the legs, against the first ten feet of Leviathan’s tail.  The tail was turned to dust where the blade made contact, the plumes of it briefly obscuring Armsmaster.

“This cloud around my blade?  Nanotechnology.  Nano-structures engineered to slide between atoms, sever molecular bonds.  Cuts through anything.  Everything.  Like a sharp knife through air.”

Leviathan whipped his tail at Armsmaster.  Armsmaster stepped out of the way, slapped at the tail with the broad side of the blade.  More dust, another chunk of flesh gone, ichor pouring from the injury.  He ducked the echo as though it were an idle afterthought.

Leviathan turned to run.  Armsmaster sent out one blade like a grappling hook, circled the smaller of the Endbringer’s claws with the chain.  Leviathan moved, oblivious or uncaring, and Armsmaster waited until the slack was out of the chain, pressed a button.

The chain and Halberd ceased moving, and even Leviathan’s strength ceased to move it.  Rather than pull away, the Endbringer skidded, fell on his back, wrist still held by the chain.

A half second later, the chain went briefly slack, then rigid again as Armsmaster reeled himself in. He drove the blurry blade straight into Leviathan’s face with all the force of his forward momentum.  He pulled it free, slashed again, then freed the chain and used it to pull himself across the street, out of reach of Leviathan’s violent response.

Armsmaster called out, “Let’s see how quickly you respond to classical conditioning.  Every time you try to run, I’ll do something like that.”

Leviathan had no reply.  He simply climbed to his feet, swiped a claw through the air.  Armsmaster parried the afterimage that sailed through the air toward him, using the purple flame.

“For the record, that last trick was a temporal stasis trigger, with thanks owed to the cooperation of a subordinate of mine.  Drains my battery reserves, but you don’t understand that, do you?”

Leviathan lunged, and Armsmaster fired out the grappling hook, stopped it in mid air by freezing it in time.  Leviathan ran himself through on the chain, the thing spearing deep into his neck and out the back of his torso.  Uncaring, the Endbringer continued to charge at Armsmaster.

Armsmaster let the chain go slack, ducked a swipe of the tail, leaped forward and to one side to avoid the claw that followed.  Another small hop and roll ensured he moved right beneath the afterimage, and he made two swipes with the blurry Halberd at the back of Leviathan’s thighs as he passed behind the Endbringer.  His chain reeled in, pulled free of Leviathan’s neck wth a spray of blood, came down and across Leviathan’s hip to snap back to the top of the Halberd.  He fired it off again to get himself more distance, pulling himself across the street, spinning to face Leviathan once more as he stopped.

He passed one Halberd to the other hand, so he held two, wiped some frothing spittle from his mouth with his gauntlet.  “I am going to be the one to take your head, abomination.  I can only hope you know mortal terror in your last moments, know what you’ve inflicted on so many others.”

Leviathan stood, straighted itself, touched its claw to its ruined face, then its neck.  The amount of blood it was losing – it seemed somehow more than Leviathan should have been able to contain within himself.  I mean, he was big, but this was a lot of blood.

For several long seconds, Leviathan didn’t move.

“Delaying, buying time for a tsunami?” Armsmaster laughed, and Leviathan cocked his head at the display of emotion.  “No.  Three point four minutes before the next big wave breaks through the ice.  Dragon’s probes are giving me the data on that.  This will be over before then.”

He stepped forward, then stepped again, waiting for some cue from Leviathan.  On Armsmaster’s third step, Leviathan took a small step back, lashed his tail behind him.

“Finally scared?” Armsmaster taunted.  “Good.”

Nausea and pain was welling up in me again as I watched from the corner of the building, under the carport, threatening to override my sense of awe.  It was all I could do to keep quiet, keep from distracting Armsmaster, or distracting Leviathan and throwing some wrench in Armsmaster’s data.  The last thing I wanted was to become the hostage that made Armsmaster hesitate for the fraction of a second that cost him -cost us all-  the fight.

Armsmaster went on an all-out offensive, slashing as fast as his arm could move, cutting leg, knee, tail, leg again, moving out of the way of Leviathan’s attacks as though it were easy.  For ten seconds he continued, relentless.

“I should thank you, monster,” Armsmaster spoke, after he’d just finished a backflip that had carried him near enough to Leviathan’s torso to strike the creature across the lower belly.

Leviathan lunged, dropping to all fours, as if trying to swamp Armsmaster with a huge volume of water by way of his afterimage.  Armsmaster was already casting his grappling hook out, pulling himself out of the way.  In the final moment before he pulled away, his other Halberd swung up and into Leviathan’s neck, making a wound mirroring the spot where Narwhal’s forcefield had cleaved deep, the one Kid Win had undoubtedly opened wider with his laser turret.  Armsmaster reeled the hook back in.

The Endbringer turned, as if to run, only for the loop of the grappling hook’s chain to pass under his ‘chin’.  Armsmaster heaved himself up and onto the Endbringer’s back, drove the Halberd into one side of the neck, lengthening the cut he’d just made.  He stepped on the top of the Endbringer’s head, leaped down, catching the Endbringer across the face with the Halberd as he descended.  Leviathan collapsed, going spread-eagle.

Armsmaster slashed at Leviathan’s forearms as the Endbringer started to clmb to his feet.  More damage done, though it didn’t stop Leviathan from rising.  While Armsmaster pressed the attack, his armband hissed with a message I couldn’t make out.  I glanced at mine – still broken.

“This will be over before then,” Armsmaster echoed an eariler statement, speaking more to himself than to the armband or Leviathan.

Leviathan hopped backwards to create some distance, staggered a little as the more injured of his two legs failed to take his weight, used his smaller hand to stop from falling a second time, poising himself on three limbs.

Armsmaster used his grappling hook to haul himself close, readying to make another slash for the neck.  He changed his mind as the ground rumbled, pulled the hook free to latch it on a garage door.  Countering his forward momentum, he swung himself to one side of the road, staying out of Leviathan’s reach.

The ground rumbled again, brief, intense, stopped.

Armsmaster touched a hand to the side of his visor, and I thought I saw his lips crease in a frown before he turned his head away from me.

Another fierce rumble, and a crack appeared like a seam down the center of the street, a straight line as far as I could see in either direction.

Leviathan raised his claw, and the road suddenly split, heaving upward as a concrete pipe wide enough to fit a man crested from the pavement like a whale rising from the waves.  A second later, water gushed forth, veering toward Armsmaster.

The storm sewers.

Armsmaster hesitated, then threw his grappling-hook-Halberd forward into the onrushing waves like a javelin.  The gush of water froze in time, and he leapt forward, stepping on the furthermost extensions of the immobile spray in a parkour-style ascent over the water and the pipe.  The water resumed its regular motion as Armsmaster took his final leaping step off the top, heading straight for Leviathan.

Leviathan moved faster than he had in the last minute, caught the blade in his claw.

Dust rose from the claw as the blade sank deep, blood poured out, but the blade remained fixed in place.  Armsmaster tugged, failed to dislodge it.  He tried to pull away, but I could see Leviathan had caught onto his hand and wrist with his clawtips, while the Halberd sat embedded in his ‘palm’.

“How!?” Armsmaster roared.

I didn’t hesitate a moment in sending out my bugs.  Three swarms, shaped like people, more as a general cloud.  The bugs all sagged beneath the drenching rain, the ones on top taking the brunt of the downpour.

Leviathan planted one foot beside Armsmaster for balance, reached out with his free claw, and pressed the tips against the side of Armsmaster’s throat and torso.  Still holding on to Armsmaster’s hand and wrist, he pushed against the side of the man’s body.  Armsmaster screamed, a frantic noise that seemed to redouble in urgency with every breath.  He tipped over and fell with a splash.

The Endbringer stood, showing none of the frailty or pain it had been displaying seconds ago.  The injuries were there, to be sure, his head hung at an angle because of the way the weight of his head hung on the intact portions of his neck, but he wasn’t suffering, had no trouble putting his full weight on his more injured leg.  Had it been an act?

The Endbringer dropped Armsmaster’s arm and Halberd, where the weight of the metal armor and device pulled them beneath the water.  A lash of his tail dispatched two of my three swarms.  He watched, seeming not to care, as the third ran up to him, smashed against his leg.  The bugs spreading out, burying themselves deep into his injuries. I was hoping to find some weakness, devour him from the inside out, but the bugs might as well have been biting on steel.  Nothing budged beneath their jaws, their stings couldn’t penetrate.

He turned, crouched, bolted West, away from the coast, full speed.

I hurried to Armsmaster’s side.

“You,” he groaned.  His left arm was gone at the shoulder, torn out of the socket.  Blood poured from the wound.  “You’re dead.”

“Hey, you’re not making any sense.”

“He killed you.”

Had my armband announced my death when it glitched out and died?  Assumed total destruction of my unit, and me with it?

“I’m alive.  Listen, I’m going to try and find your arm, my armband got broken, maybe something got dislodged when Leviathan broke my arm.”

He only groaned unintelligbly in response.

I ran over to the general area where Leviathan had dropped Armsmaster’s arm.   I tripped over the crack that ran down the middle of the street, got my feet under me to keep running, and began feeling through the water.

I came within inches of touching the submerged blade, turning my hand to molecular dust.

Finding the arm, I picked it up.  Heavy, almost too much to hold in one hand.  It wasn’t just the weight of the armor or the fact that it was a muscular, full-grown-man’s limb – the gauntlet had been crushed around the pole of the Halberd, crumpled like tinfoil.  With the arm and weapon in a bricklayer’s grip that was painful to maintain, I hurried back to Armsmaster’s side, dropped them near him.  I shook him, hoping to get him alert, to no avail.

With my only working hand, I pried the Halberd free of his glove, rested his arm across his chest, and pressed the button.

“Armsmaster down!  CC-7!  Leviathan is heading West…”

I felt the bugs I’d clustered in Leviathan’s wounds change direction.  The compass point between West and Northwest was what?  More Wests than North.

“Cancel that!  He’s going West-North-West from my location!”

My voice echoed back to me in the Armband’s tinny voice a half-second after I’d finished.  Armsmaster’s armband changed to display a red dot, tracking Leviathan’s movements, or the closest approximation the system could guess.

“Roger, sounds like he might be heading for one of the shelters, lots of people packed into a space where they can’t run, vulnerable,” someone replied, “Medical help incoming.  Whoever this is, you can track Leviathan?”

“Yes, as long as I’m within a few blocks of him.”  Again, the system relayed my message. Affirmative.  Range restriction of ‘a few blocks’.

Did it really need to reword what I said?

“Can you fly?  Chase him?”

“No.”  Negative.

“Then I’m sending a flier your way, to ensure you stay close enough.  We need eyes on this bastard, and you’re them.”

“Got it!”

There was only silence after that.  Teeth clenched, shivering, I pressed my good hand as hard as I could manage against the ragged mess of Armsmaster’s shoulder, trying to slow the blood loss.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.9

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“You going to be okay?” I asked, as Grue zipped up his jacket.  With his t-shirt removed, he was wearing the leather jacket over his bare, freshly stitched skin.  I couldn’t imagine it was remotely comfortable.

“I’ll be fine.  Let’s end this ASAP.  Bitch?  The dogs.”

I winced.  I wasn’t looking forward to riding.  It was too soon after our previous escapade, and I was still sore.

Bitch whistled and pointed, and we headed out the front door of the church.  The moment we were outside, Grue hauled himself up onto Judas’ back, and I could see him hunch over for a moment in pain.

“Seriously, are you going to be-”

“I’m fine, Skitter,” Grue spoke.  He was creating darkness around himself, and his voice had that hollow quality to it.  “Just drop it.”

The ‘drop it’ line hit a little too close to home, echoing what I’d said at the mall after Brian’s rejection, and once or twice after that.  I was made acutely aware of that little rift I’d generated in what had been a fairly easygoing friendship.

Regent and Bitch were climbing onto Brutus, while Tattletale was examining her phone.  That left two dogs to ride.

I looked at where Grue sat, and decided it would be less awkward if I didn’t ride with him.  I approached Angelica, extended my hand for her to sniff, then climbed onto her back.

“Tattletale,” Grue spoke.  “I thought we were in a hurry.”

She put the phone away, then climbed up behind Grue.

“Coil?” I guessed.

“Yep.”

“And he’s saying?”

“To be careful.”

Grue gave a hand signal, Bitch whistled to give the dogs the order, and we rode.

Angelica was happy to follow the others, which freed me from the burden of getting her to follow my instructions.  That only left me the task of holding on and ignoring the ache in my leg muscles and stomach.

Tattletale was able to give us a general idea of which direction Purity was, using her power, and it only took us a few minutes to spot the telltale pillar of white in the distance.  Purity’s light, not aiming at a building, but lashing out.

As we got closer, the situation became clearer.  Purity, a flare of white against the backdrop of the gray sky, was surrounded by other figures, easy enough to make out with their predominantly white costumes.  New Wave.

The leader of New Wave had named herself Lady Photon, but in the wake of New Wave’s founding, and the revealing of their secret identities, the media had latched on to the idea of a superheroine mom and dubbed her Photon Mom.  It was apparent to anyone who followed cape news that the name really bugged her.

Lady Photon’s daughter and niece were in the air with her.  Laserdream and Glory Girl.  Mother and daughter shared the same general powers; flight, the ability to raise forcefield bubbles around themselves, and the ability to project lasers from their hands.  As a consequence, their fight with Purity was something of a light show.

Below, it seemed, there was an all-out war.

As she targeted Glory Girl, one of Purity’s blasts of light slammed into the edge of a rooftop.  Debris showered down, but was deflected by a bright blue forcefield.  That would be Shielder’s power at work.  He fought alongside Flashbang and Brandish, and I could identify Krieg, Victor, Othala and Alabaster in their immediate vicinity.  Further away were Night, Fog, Panacea, Vista and Clockblocker.

“Around!” Tattletale pointed over Grue’s shoulder.

Wordlessly, Grue steered Judas into a turn.  Bitch, astride Brutus, a bit ahead of Judas, looked over her shoulder and turned to join them.  Angelica was happy to follow after.  Together, we detoured left to a side street running parallel to the ongoing battle.

“Why?” I called out.

“Safer!” Tattletale replied, without turning to face me.

A crash behind me made me duck.  Manpower, a powerful seven foot tall athletic figure decked out in white and yellow, had been thrown through a brick wall.  Maybe more than one.  He seemed unhurt, but he was a fairly durable guy.  Personal electromagnetic shielding, if I remembered right.  He was still struggling to his feet after we left him behind.

“What’s our plan!?” I shouted, raising my voice to be heard as one of Purity’s blasts crashed down to the street to our right.

“Get her attention!” Grue replied.  He pointed,  “Up!”

Bitch whistled, and Brutus surged forward in our pack.  Brutus turned partway into an alley and leaped.  He latched his claws on one wall of the building, half turned, then leaped across to the neighboring building.  Zig-zagging upward, he ascended to the roof in a span of seconds.

Oh hell no.

Judas followed, and Angelica was only a heartbeat behind.  If I’d thought our travel over the rooftops on our last escapade had been rough, this was sadistic.  Or masochistic.  It depended on where I assigned the blame.

We reached the rooftop just in time to nearly be squashed by a huge chunk of building that dropped from the sky like a meteor.  Angelica lurched under me as she leaped to one side.

New Wave’s fliers and Purity weren’t the only ones in the air.  Aegis was also up there on the side of the good guys, but Purity had backup from Crusader and Rune.

Crusader was flanked by a half dozen translucent replicas of himself, each armed with a ten foot long spear.  He could use his power to generate ethereal simulacrums of himself, a legion of ghosts, if you wanted to be dramatic.  I was more willing to peg them as some sort of semi-sentient forcefield molded in his shape or some telekinetic energy infused with fragments of his ego.  Whatever.  The important thing was that his images could carry him up into the air, letting him fly, and they could pass through walls, armor and other solid barriers to impale you with those spears of theirs.

Rune was the source of the debris that had struck us, which was rising back into the air as I watched.  A teenage girl in the service of Empire Eighty-Eight, Rune was a powerful telekinetic capable of lifting nearly a ton.  Several things weighing up to a ton, judging by what I saw.  She hovered in the air, crouched atop a piece of building as big as a garbage truck, with more similarly sized pieces of rubble orbiting her.  The drawback to her power was that she needed to touch things before she could move them with her mind, but that seemed fairly inconsequential right this moment.

The pair of villains were running interference for Purity, distracting and trapping the heroes to set them up so Purity could blast them out of the sky.  Purity was too high up for us to interfere with, which meant we had to find another way to get her attention.

Regent handled that for us, sweeping his arm to one side.  Rune slipped from her position on her floating piece of balcony.  Another gesture from Regent, and the girl was left hanging from the side.

“Don’t kill her,” I told him.

“Right,” he looked up at the girl.  Seeing her struggle, he shouted, “Better make sure you can land somewhere safe!  I’m dropping you in three seconds!”

The rock drifted in our general direction, and we backed the dogs up.  When Rune was over the rooftop, Regent swept his hand to one side and brought her down to a painful landing.

“Fuckers!” the teenager in the cowl and robe screamed, “I’ll squash you!”

The big pieces of rubble in the sky above drifted our way.  One suddenly stopped levitating and dropped.

We were already kicking the dogs into motion, leaping to the neighboring rooftop, when the debris struck with a series of crashes that suggested the debris had punched through the roof and even the one or two floors below it.

Crusader was apparently too occupied covering for Rune’s sudden absence to come after us.  That meant that all we had to worry about was keeping from being crushed by Sabrina the teenage nazi.

Note to self:  I apparently wasn’t one of those capes that was good at the repartee, banter or name calling.

One piece of debris soared over our heads, then plunged to stab downward through the roof in front of us.  The dogs were agile enough to leap out of the way.

In the heat of the moment, we didn’t anticipate it rising again.

The debris thrust up through the edge of the building’s roof, and the dogs had to skid to a halt to avoid treading on crumbling rooftop.  With the damage the building had sustained, our footing grew unstable.  The ground sloped, Angelica scrabbled for a grip, and then the section of roof beneath us began to slide down toward the street.

Brutus pulled clear easily enough, but the continued drifting of the piece of debris forced Bitch to direct him down toward the alley, off the rooftop.

The rest of us had a harder call to make.  We were sliding off a precipice, and it was a good ten story drop to the street.  The nearest and only available rooftop to leap to was the one we’d just left, which was in ruins.

Judas, I saw, managed to clutch the edge of the sliding raft of rooftop and get the leverage for a jump.  Brian, Tattletale and Judas reached the alley, where they could rebound off the walls until they reached relative safety.

I was about to urge Angelica to do the same, when that drifting debris of Rune’s shifted position to block off the alleyway.  Another of Rune’s pieces of building approached from her direction, promising to smash us if through some miracle, the section of roof Angelica and I were standing on didn’t break free.

But we had another option.  If I could only convince Angelica.

“Go!” I shouted at her, kicking my legs.  She pushed forward, and the movement only accelerated the decay of the fractured rooftop beneath her paws, prompting it to slide and tilt.

Angelica ran toward the building to our right.  To the right of the alley.  She clearly intended to leap to the building face, use her claws to dig into position there… and there would be nowhere to go from there.  Even if she could hang there indefinitely, or scale the wall back to the street, Rune would scrape us off the wall with a levitated piece of rubble.

I grabbed a horn at the side of her head and hauled on it, pulling her left.  She resisted, hauled right, but I tugged again.

“Go!” I shouted at her.

She lunged straight for the floating piece of debris.  Her claws latched on it, and for a moment, we hung there, Angelica in an undignified pose with her upper body hanging onto the thing, back legs dangling.

It drifted downward, slow at first, then faster, as though Rune couldn’t support the weight of us and the chunk of building.  Angelica scrabbled for a grip, pulled her body up and forward, and found the footing to leap.

We reached the alley, Angelica found footing on the wall, and then made her way safely to the ground.

As we landed heavily, I fell from Angelica’s back.  My hands were stiff from the deathgrip I’d just maintained, and my legs were a wreck.

Still, hard to complain.

“You okay?” Tattletale called out.

“Yeah.  You guys?”

“Not so hot,” Grue replied.

He was leaning against a wall, with Tattletale at his side.  Darkness radiated from every part of his body but his chest, and I could see how  he’d unzipped his jacket to investigate the damage.  He was bleeding from the cuts on his chest.

“Fuck, I knew you weren’t good to go!” I struggled to my feet and rushed to his side.  “You pull your stitches already?”

“Other things to worry about!” Regent called out.  “Incoming.”

I looked, and sure enough, Night and Fog were striding into the alleyway.  Night sported high heeled boots that clicked as she walked, and there was the gender difference, but the two were otherwise very similar.  Cloaks, cowls, no logos or other decoration.  Gray for him and black for her.

“Retreat,” Tattletale spoke, “Just don’t turn your backs to them.”

Fog moved forward, his limbs and legs dissolving into a cloud as he advanced on us.  His pace was slow, only a little faster than we moved walking backward.

Bitch had to whistle twice to get a growling Angelica to retreat.  The dog seemed set on protecting her master, attacking this threat, and was slow to obey.

The fog reached her, and we heard a strangled yelp, an unnatural sound from the throat of an unnatural animal.  I saw Bitch start forward.

“No!” I caught her shoulder.

I might have argued, told her why she couldn’t or shouldn’t attack, how useless it would be against a man that turned to a sentient gas.  I didn’t get a chance.

While our attention was on Angelica, Night took the opportunity to blindside Brutus.  He was thrown bodily into our group with enough force to to bowl us and even Judas over.  Night just stood there, standing straight, heels together, one arm outstretched in front of her.  I hurried to my feet, my legs and knees aching, putting one hand on Brutus’ shoulder to steady myself.  It was then that I saw the damage she’d done to him.

A dozen gouges criss-crossed his side, each wider than my handspan.  One of the gouges had even shattered some of the protective bone plating.  Brutus exhaled slowly, shuddering.

She’d done that?

I sent my bugs at the woman, but the delay Night had created had bought time for Fog to get close.  His mist blocked the path to Night, reduced the woman to a faint silhouette, and where the cloud passed, my bugs were crushed alive in midair.  The mist swelled forward, and we backed up as best as we were able.

I checked our escape route.  It was blocked by none other than Night herself.  Had she teleported?  Cloned herself?  No, it wasn’t cloning.  I couldn’t see her silhouette anymore.

“What the fuck is this woman?” I asked, “Tattletale?”

“You know how the Manton effect could maybe be a psychological block that comes parceled with our powers?”

I nodded, once.

“Okay, well, imagine that this woman got powers that let her turn into something so wrong that she’s got some sort of mental block that keeps her from transforming if anyone can see.  Maybe because she’s so ashamed of being seen like that.  When nobody’s looking, though, she’s a monster.  Lightning fast and all sharp.”

“That’s…”

“Not even remotely close to the truth,” Tattletale confessed.  “But it’s the best I can offer you.  Don’t take your eyes off her.”

“Right.”

I began massing my bugs.  I was going to need to catch Night off guard, debilitate her enough to take her down before she retreated to safety.  Swarm her, swat her down, then we’d figure out how to deal with Fog.

A bit optimistic, but it was a plan, anyways.

Night reached into her sleeve and retrieved a canister.  I recognized it immediately.

A flashbang grenade.

“Tattletale?”

“I see it,” she murmured her response.  “Grue, we’re going to need you to cover this shit.”

I felt a ton of weight suddenly press heavily against my back.

“Grue!” Tattletale shouted.

Grue had fallen against me, and he slid from that position to staggered to the ground at my side, landing with his hands and knees on the ground.

“Blood loss,” Tattletale intoned.  “Fuck, Grue, pay attention, you’ve-”

Night pulled the pin from the flashbang and threw it high into the air above us.

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