Interlude 29

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Two parts to a whole.

This, as everything does, builds towards the ultimate objective, a propagation of the species.

To rise above a competition among one’s own species is a kind of transcendence.  Cooperation, a goal that extends beyond one’s lifespan, one’s community.  This entity can recall the moment of transcendence, the unification and reinvention of their species.

Everything extends to an end goal.  A complete and total mastery of all things.  In time, just as they spread and consumed their entire world, they will fill every space in all accessible universes that can be occupied.  In time, they will reach a stasis and they will fall from their transcendent state.  They will descend into competition once more, and they will devour each other alive once again.

Hope, continued existence, is dependent on another reinvention of their species.  They will use knowledge gleaned from countless other species, from mingling, matching and culling their own internal libraries of functions.

There is only so much time.  Only so many generations and cycles before things approach their final state.  Information will be exchanged, their species will weigh everything based on merit, and then they will seek a solution.  A final expenditure of power, a resetting of the universes, a reinvention of existence, or something beyond this entity.

This is the goal.  The most must be made of every cycle.

Two parts to a whole.  The other entity is a warrior, direct, oriented in the short-term goals.  This entity looks further, consulting possibilities.

Their general destination is in mind, and has been in mind for some time.  Already, they have begun to close their helix spiral, drawing fractionally towards one another with each rotation, controlling the pattern and timing of their approach.

Destination, the Warrior entity communicates.

Agreement, this entity responds.  The signals that accompany and form the overarching messages allow them to pick out sub-worlds for themselves.  Arrival points, destinations for critical shards to root, hosts for the extensions of those same shards.

Trajectory, the other entity communicates.  More data on where they will arrive, the way they will move on approach, the placement of less crucial shards.

Agreement.  This entity sees the constant messages as a distraction.  It is reorganizing, calling on its own precognition and clairvoyance to map out their actions after arrival.

This entity reforms itself, adjusting the placements of individual shards, priming itself for a deeper simulation, considering possible ways things can be carried out.

This takes time.  Focus.

Colony, the other entity signals.

Narrowing down possible destinations.

Agreement, this entity is distracted in responding.  It is receiving another broadcast.

A third.

The communication is almost alien, a member of their species, but long distant, from countless cycles ago.

It hesitates, then signals its own location.

ExchangeMeet.

The response is garbled.  Takes time to analyze.

The third entity travels more through momentum than by insinuation.  It expends vast quantities of power to change course.

They meet violently.  As their ancestors did, they share with one another in a violent fashion, crashing together, breaking shard from shard.

This entity knows right away that there is a wealth of information here.  But there must be cooperation, information given for information.

Even as they grind together, destroying one another in a brutal exchange of shards, the entity works to salvage key shards, to put ones it can afford to lose on the exterior body.

This is the optimal path, the best way to achieve their end goal.  The shards here are rich with memories, experience and unexplored possibilities.  It is worth sacrificing as much as she is.

They break apart.  The third entity continues its path, moving to a distant star, its path perpendicular to the pair’s.

Concern, the Warrior entity expresses.

Confident, this entity responds.  This is optimal.  It is heavy with these new shards, drowning in knowledge and experience.  If this could occur with every cycle, bringing this sort of information into the pattern, then survival beyond the endpoint would be virtually guaranteed.

This entity struggles to move as it works to reorganize these new shards, to convert them into a form it can use.

It will see this cycle through, and regain what it lost in the union with the Warrior.

This entity sees new possibilities, now.  Not simply conflict, but philosophy and psychology.  Imagination.  It is in these new patterns of thought that it can see a possibility for the future.  Its partner takes on some of its duties as it digs into the libraries of information to see how it might put it into practice.

It can use its strengths, the Warrior’s strengths, and the host’s natures to explore new ideas and tactics for approaching the endpoint.

Already, this entity is forming a model, a simulacrum of the host species, mapping out how things might unfold.  While the Warrior is preparing to shed its shards and litter the world, this entity is plotting a strategic approach.

It cannot make out what form it or the other entity will take, but it can still view the situation in part.  It sets the criteria for an optimal future, for optimal study, and then it looks to a future that matches this criteria.

“Thank you for coming,” Partisan said.

The entity nodded.  Its expression was stern.

Partisan touched his computer terminal.  Monitors lit up, showing a series of images.

A figure, fifteen feet tall, pale, with a lion’s head, a mane of crystal.  Muscular, brutish, it was perched on a massive floating crystal, with more crystals floating about it. Here and there, the crystals touched ground.  They turned what they touched into more crystal, which soon uprooted themselves to join the storm around it.

A woman, even more brutish in appearance, had a reptilian lower body.  Steam rolled off her in billowing clouds, taking uncanny forms as it coiled and expanded through the area.  Faces, reaching claws and more.

And on the third monitor, flecked by static, was a naked man, beautiful and long-haired, his face touched with a macabre grin.  He perched on top of an ocean wave that was frozen in place, his body too flexible, moving with the wind as though he were light enough to be carried away.

“They’ve released three more of the superweapons,” Partisan said.  “But of course, you know this.”

“I do,” the entity responds.

“This makes nine.  Four are at the Divide.  We’ve got one to the far north, poised to flank us.  Four more spread out over the world.”

“Maybe more we don’t know about,” Arsenal speaks.

A power the entity held in reserve identified something wrong.  The entity turned and looked at its partner, standing slightly behind it, taciturn and silent.  They exchanged the smallest of broadcasts.

A consensus was reached between them.  Arsenal knew something about the superweapons, or he suspected strongly enough for it to matter.

“What is it?” Clarent asked.

The entity responded, feigning emotion, “…There are eleven more.”

It could see the reaction among the gathered heroes of the Wardens.  Fear, alarm, a kind of dawning horror.

For Arsenal, though, there was another reaction.  He was upset, yes, but was a little relieved at the same time.  He knew about the others, and he had been testing them, to see if they would lie.

But suspicions remained.

“Eleven?”  Partisan asked.

“Stationed around the world, at the borders of the stronger nations,” the entity informed the Wardens.  “Like yours, they’re remaining more or less stationary, only attacking when they see weakness.”

“And you believe it is the Shepherds who are responsible?”

The entity shook its head.  “I can’t know.  You’ve seen for yourself, the powerful blocks they’ve put in place against powers.  But enough clues point to the Shepherds.”

The expressions of the three men are grim.  The other heroes, at the edges of the room, seem equally concerned.  A woman with a great cannon that constantly changes, expanding and contracting like a living thing.  A hulk of a man, laden with muscle, was muttering something to people around him.

“If this goes any further, we’ll be forced to submit to these terror tactics,” Partisan said.  “I don’t like to say it, but…”

“War,” Arsenal said.  “It’s our only option.”

“I don’t like war,” the woman with the gun said.  “It’ll cause as many problems as it fixes, and with stakes this high, that’s a lot of new problems.”

“Doing nothing is just as dangerous,” Arsenal said.

“I’m not so sure.”

“We know they’re projections,” Arsenal said, his eyes on the monitors.  “Someone or something is projecting them.  We cut off the head, the superweapons fall.”

“Yes,” the entity agreed.  It didn’t miss the curious glance Arsenal gave it.

“We’ll need your help,” Partisan said.

“You’ll have it,” the entity said.  “But there are other places needing our help, too.  Against these, and against other things.  Some are in the middle of full-scale wars as I speak.  We’ll assist you, we’ll stop these superweapons-“

“If these ones can be stopped,” Partisan said.

“…If they can be stopped.  That touches on my next point.  You’ll need to do as much damage as you can, give it your all.  We’ll be arriving late, and if they’re strong…”

The entity trailed off.  It could see Arsenal’s suspicions growing deeper.

“You have your hands full,” Clarent said.

The entity nodded.  It feigned a moment of weariness, assuring these individuals it was merely human.

“Thank you,” Partisan said.  He extended a hand.

The entity roused itself from the mock-exhaustion, straightening, and shook the hand.

“We need to go,” the entity said.

“Before you do,” Partisan said.  He reached into his belt and withdrew a small device.  “Here.  It has good days and bad, but on a good day, we get a range of about a thousand miles, which is maybe four or five times the usual.  With luck, we’ll be able to tune it and cut through the blackout effect.  Get international communications going again.”

“Arsenal’s work?” the entity asked, though it already knew.  It could trace the design to the memories in Arsenal’s shard.

“Arsenal and Richter,” Partisan said.

The entity nodded.  It had no pockets, so it held the device in one hand.

“Good luck,” Partisan said.  “Whoever you’re helping.”

The entity’s expression remained grave.  “I should be wishing you luck.  If you succeed here, you’ll be saving a lot of people.  Here and elsewhere.”

“Easy to forget elsewhere exists,” Clarent said.

“We defend our borders, keep the peace within, and we hold out,” Partisan said.  “It’s all we can do.  We have enough powers that get stronger over time, yours included.  We have Richter, too, we just need the resources.  Things will get better.”

Clarent nodded.  Arsenal clapped a hand on Clarent’s shoulder.

The three tapped the ends of their weapons together.  Partisan’s heavy spear, Arsenal’s guisarme and Clarent’s longsword.  Then they parted ways, attending to their individual groups and squads.

But Arsenal watched out of the corner of his eye, tracking the entity and the Warrior as they approached, walking towards the room’s exit.

The woman with the gun made her way to Partisan’s side.  She whispered, but the entity could hear it, as it heard all things in the vicinity.  “War?”

“We’ll need our Black Knight, Hannah,” Partisan said.  “We bait them into a fight, then sic him on them.  He’ll be able to win as long as it’s parahumans he’s fighting.  Colin’s squad flanks and infiltrates, my squad scouts and Clarent maintains a defensive line.”

“And if these superweapons attack while our forces are elsewhere?”

“They aren’t attacking.  They’re just… there.”

“But if they do attack?  If they’re there for this exact eventuality?” the gunwoman asked.

“We’ll push on, striking for the Shepherd’s headquarters, and the rest hold out.”

“It’s reckless.”

“It’s the only option.  We’ve got two of the strongest parahumans around on our side,” Partisan said, his voice a little louder.  He glanced at the entity and the Warrior.

The entity glanced his way, acknowledging him.  Its focus, however, was on Arsenal.  Hearing Partisan’s words, Arsenal’s suspicions had reached a climax.  He would say something.

That is, he would, if the entity didn’t intervene.  The entity passed by him, and it leveraged a power.  Wiping a memory, setting a block in place.  The same blocks that prevented accord between the Wardens and the Shepherds.  The same blocks that prevented Partisan’s special sight from seeing the entity’s power at work.

With that, the task was done.  The entity stepped out onto the balcony, then took flight, the Warrior flying behind it.

Destination, the Warrior entity broadcasts the idea, interrupting the simulation.

Agreement, the entity absently responds.

An optimal future.  It is an unwieldy future because it gave up a part of its ability to see the future to the other being.  There are holes, because this entity does not fully understand the details of what happened, and because this entity’s future-sight power is damaged.  Above all else, it is an incomplete future because this entity has only the most minimal role in things, and the shards it saw were all the Warrior’s.

The fact that it did not is a part of that future.  This entity will arrive at the destination, and it will deploy shards to complicate a situation and break stalemates.  Losing sides will be granted reinforcements through maturing shards.  A different sort of engagement, a different way of testing the shards.

This entity continues focusing on converting, translating and relocating the shards.  It is frail, fragile.

Hive, the Warrior broadcasts.  A set world, with a set population density and degree of conflict.

But this entity has already decided on that world, seen it in a future.  It responds without consideration.  Agreement.

They are more engaged now, as they close the distance.  They negotiate who can place shards where, and this entity now holds its shards in reserve.

The Warrior is focusing on refining the shards, and this entity is, in turn, focused on refining the future.  A set goal, a reality.

Too complex to convey to the other.

The communications continue, and they approach the galaxy.  This entity begins altering its own powers, but it is not a great concern.

The gravity of the planetary bodies pull at it.  It loses great clumps of shards.

It loses more.  Its focus is now on holding on to the shards critical to making this future it has seen a reality.  A world perpetually in conflict, the groups and factions kept small enough that none can challenge it.

All energy it can spare goes towards the reorganization.  Shards must be discarded, or it will dwarf the destination planet.  It casts shards off, and it retains shards that will allow it to draw power from those shards.

Danger, the Warrior broadcasts.

Confident, this entity responds.

It picks a reality.  Up until the moment it hits ground, it works to reorganize itself.

In the doing, it alters one of the third entity’s powers, replacing its own ability to find the optimal future.

In that very instant, it recognizes that it has made a grave error.  The simulated world and the glimpse of the optimal future are already gone from its grasp.  Too late.

The perspective changes, breaking away, distant, confused, detached.  The impact was too hard.

A girl woke from a dream.

She started to scream, but a man, her uncle, placed a hand over her mouth.  It was the hand, as much as the full-body ache she experienced that silenced her.

Hush,” he said, in their language.  “The monstrous ones are out there.

She nodded, still delirious, lost in the magnitude of what she had seen.

The memories were already slipping away, like sand through her fingers.

Have to remember, she told herself.

The answer snapped into place.  A way to remember.

Nine steps, and she could do it.  Step one was to avoid thinking of the memories.  The moment she acknowledged it, she found herself slipping into a different mindset.

She is touched,” another man said.  One of her uncle’s friends.

She could dimly recall something happening to her parents.  A cataclysmic event.

Except she couldn’t allow herself to start remembering.

She hasn’t changed,” her uncle said.

We both saw the phantom, the night-thing, leap out at her.

She needed to dream.  The next steps would achieve that.

Step two, standing up.

Step three, a jab of her hand at her uncle’s elbow, to stop him from grabbing her.

Step four, a little push of her foot against the ground, to keep her ankle out of reach of the friend’s clutching hand.

Step five, grabbing the medicine bag from behind her uncle.

Opening it was step six.  Walking to the bench was seven.

Her uncle was only getting to his feet now.  Every action was mechanical, spelled out by this surety in her mind’s eye, helped along by a complete, exacting knowledge of how and where to move every body part.

Seven involved uncorking the right bottles.  Eight involved obtaining a specific amount of powder, moving her hand in a careful, precise way, so the exact right amount piled up in her cupped palm.  She dashed it into a half-full mug and drank, just as her uncle reached her, putting his hands on her shoulders, shaking her.

Step nine was to wait for sleep to reach her.  She only needed to dream, and she would be able to escape the forgetting.

When she woke, her body was a ruin, but her mind was clear.

It had started three days ago.  This disaster.  People becoming monsters.  Madness.  Others getting sorcerous abilities.  Their community had scattered, fleeing to the wilderness in small groups.  Any friend or family member could become a beast at a moment’s notice.

Being alone was safest, but being alone meant being in the dark wilderness with the wolves.

It had been a hungry season for the wolves, many sheep dying.

The taste of vomit filled her mouth, but her face was clear.  When she moved, her stomach felt like it had been hit with a club.

She turned her attention to the subject.  One step to minimize the pain.

Swearing was one of them.

Wolf-fucking horseballs,” she muttered, groaning as she found her footing.

She remembered, though.  She knew what they were up against.  This thing, this godling monster, it was going to orchestrate a conflict that spread across an entire world.  When it had gathered whatever it was it wanted to, the results of tests, studies and whatever else, it would consume this world, her own, and everything else to spawn the next generation of its kind.

If she had any conception of where to look-

The answer was given to her.  A thirty-nine step plan.

She felt a chill.

If I wanted to kill the monsters and save everyone from this madness?

Three hundred and seventy-four steps.

She could see each individual step, looking forward to see what it entailed.  She could see it evolve as time passed, accounting for her starting it later.

If I wanted to do both?

Five hundred and thirty-three steps.

Forta,” her uncle spoke.  “You’re awake.

She spun around.

He kept his distance.  “A madness possessed you.  Has it passed?

Had it passed?

Five hundred and fifty-four steps.  Why more than before?

She couldn’t bring herself to respond.

You moved like someone else was inside you.  Escaped Ruggero and me like we weren’t even there.

“I remember,” she said.  She remembered so much.  She understood it all, and she couldn’t explain it-

Ninety-two steps.

She could explain it.  Could she explain it and save everyone?  Explain it and find the strange god-beast, and save her hometown from this chaos?

It was possible.  It would require two thousand, one hundred and seventy-four different actions.  Statements, movements, decisions at precise times.

But she hesitated to carry it out.

There was another question she had to ask.  Like the fable of Luisa and the black-furred man, she had to ask very carefully.

Could she do all this, explain to her uncle, find the thing that was at the heart of this chaos, and save her people, and handle the other essential crises she run into on her way?

No.

A fog was creeping over her eyes, and the number of steps were growing too numerous at the same time.  Two differing things, denying her.

The chill and the general sense of unease crystallized with the realization that she’d have to choose between stopping this monster and helping the people she’d grown up with.

Fortuna, you look as though you’ve seen a ghost,” her uncle said.

I might have, she thought, without taking her eyes off him.

She shivered, but she steeled herself, picking the path she wanted to take.  It was the haze of fog that scared her most.  If she chose to do something else, and she lost sight of the path where she could kill the godling…

Her uncle stiffened as she approached, but she laid a hand on his arm.  She tugged on his sleeve to get him to bend down, then kissed his cheek.

Saving him?

The answer appeared in her mind.  “Go, uncle.  Run as far away as you can.  Don’t eat or drink anything for three days.  It’s all tainted.  Poisoned with the same thing that is making people into monsters.

His eyes widened.  “You will come with me.

She shook her head.

Then she broke into a run.

She could outrun him.  She knew.  He had a bad leg, and it was worse since he’d had to fight off Ruggero.

Into the hills, up the mountain.

Her body ached, but it was easy.  She knew how to move, how to place her feet so the branches didn’t catch on her or trip her, to avoid the patches of lichen which would break away and make her foot slide on the rock beneath.

She knew the most efficient way to climb the rock wall.

She paused to catch her breath, doing her best to ignore the horned man’s corpse at the foot of the wall.  He’d tried to escape this way too, but he’d been pulled down or shot when he was partway up.

Had he been one of them?

Something went wrong.  The monstrous godling had a plan, a vision of the future it wanted, and this isn’t part of that.

It had crashed to earth, and something had broken free.  Here and there, phantom images had appeared, brushing past people, and they changed.  Others changed without touching any of the massive, ghostly gray hands that had appeared from thin air.  She knew, because of this conviction in her head, that it was the food and water.  It was tainting the landscape.

All coming from higher up the cliffside.

She found her breath, then scaled her way up.

The landscape she was as she reached the top wasn’t a familiar one.

A different sky, showing a different time of day.  But the space in between was something else entirely.  She had only to look and she knew what it was she looked at.  The entity.  The evil godling.

I have to kill it.

The plan formed in her mind.  The haze of fog still hung over her mind’s eye, and it grew worse with every moment.

Her hand moved to the little knife at her belt.  She wore it there for when she helped her mother with the cooking and gardening.  Worked metal was expensive, and the knife was a personal treasure.  Two inches long, curved.  She used it for cutting stems and trimming fat.

She would use it here.  She started walking forward.

There were people gathered, bystanders.  An assorted mix.

Why are they here?

No, was there a way to find out, using this sight she had?

I want to understand why they’re here.

They’d come from different worlds.  There were gates or doorways here and there.  When the entity had fallen, it had left gaps.

They bellowed words in a language she couldn’t make out.  Warnings.  They were too far away to stop her.

A woman stepped in her way.

Strangely dressed, wearing a dress so short it might well be indecent, showing the calves, and a fair amount of the upper chest.  Her skin was the strangest black color, her hair bound in thin, glossy braids.

One of the monsters?  No.  She knew right away it was a stranger from a distant land.  A land much like the one she had glimpsed in her fever dream.

The woman said something in a strange language.

Fortuna strode forwards anyways.  Her special knowledge let her push her way past almost effortlessly, choosing the right spot, the right amount of strength.  The godling was in a chasm, a crater caused by the impact.  It stretched out in every direction, a pool of flesh, and it reached into several worlds at once.

It was disorienting to look at.

Step twenty-nine, making her way down into the crater.

She stepped onto loose grit, and her weight did the rest.  She coasted down, much like the boys riding down the mud-slick path they’d made in the hill, down into the pond, except she remained on two feet.  It was a task only the oldest and most athletic boys could manage.

It was more dangerous here than it was on the hill.  There were rocks that jutted out, and outcroppings of deeper roots and plant life that had rained down into the crater in the aftermath of the impact.  It was more dangerous, but not harder.  This, like scaling the cliff face, was easy.

Everything was easy now.  It was disorienting.

The woman with black skin followed, moving slower.  She used her hands and feet to control her descent, sliding from rock to rock, stopping before sliding down further.  The black-skinned woman was a quarter of the way down before Fortuna was at the bottom.

It didn’t matter.  Fortuna advanced into the living forest alone.  Everything here was alive, hands moving, webs of skin stretching and folding.  There was a cacophony of noises that made her think of a chorus of heartbeats, a choir of soft breaths and whispers.  Gentle human noises that were all the more eerie because she could see right through the deception.  She was well aware that what she saw here was the godling putting together a mask so it could lie to people, setting  them against each other.

She advanced into the heart of the gray forest.  She was terrified, but the feeling was disconnected from her actions.  She only had to recognize the next step in the series.  She was aware of the steps that followed…

Until she came face to face with the godling.  Her knife was in hand, and she could see a figure before her.  A human shape, in the midst of pulling itself together from the examples and experiments that surrounded them.

She set foot on one of those experiments, a raised hand, and used it until she was eye to eye with the being, a matter of feet away.

It swelled, lurching forth, creating few inches more of waist, another inch of one arm, two inches of another arm.  Beyond the ending points, the arms and legs simply extended into nothingness.  Parts of a tapestry she couldn’t make out.  It moved again, and closed the distance between them.

The being raised its head.  She could see its eyes open in recognition.

It’s teaching itself how to act like we actEven this.

She raised her arm, knife held with the point down.

And the gray fog descended on her mind, blinding her.  A barrier, a blind spot, a future she could no longer see.  Had it set the limitation more firmly in place?

The godling smiled.  It knew, because the power she was using was the same power it had used to glimpse the future, to find that particular future where it had the world divided, drowned in conflict.

As far as the godling was concerned, she was blind, as helpless as anyone else.

A voice, from behind her.

The black-skinned woman, shouting something in a foreign language.

I want to understand her.

One step.

She had only to think, ‘Stab it.

Fortuna realized she still held the knife aloft.

But where had she wanted to stab it?

Indecision gripped her.  For an hour now, she’d been absolutely certain of what she was doing, and now she faced the absolute opposite situation.

Her hand shook.  She nearly dropped the little trimming knife.

She nearly fell as the hand beneath her moved.  Her power failed her here, too.  Because the hand was an extension of the being before her.

It was going to kill her, and then it was going to reclaim the ability to see the future.  It would use that power to control the world, then to destroy it.

And she couldn’t bring herself to move an inch.

I want to tell her…

The words were alien to her as she spoke them.  “I- I can’t.”

A hand wrapped around her shoulders.  She felt a body press against her back, supporting her.

“I- I have seen visions.  Things I was not meant to see, things this… godling wanted to keep to itself.  I… have to stop it.”

But even as the words left her mouth, she couldn’t bring herself to move.

The woman leaned forward over Fortuna’s shoulder, her face in Fortuna’s peripheral vision.  She said something.

“I believe you.”

The woman spoke in her ear once more, her voice insistent.  She translated, asking for a way to understand the answers.

“It’s dangerous?”

Fortuna nodded.

“Are you sure?”

“I- I would stake everything on it.  Everything ever.”

Though she didn’t even know the words she was speaking, there was a conviction in her tone that seemed to reach the woman.

“Where were you going to stab it?”

Where?  The image had fled her mind, erased from her memory.

“Where?”

The being moved again, and they stepped back, nearly falling.  Fortuna managed to keep them both steady.  Easier if she looked at it as ‘I don’t want to fall’ instead of ‘don’t let this thing make us fall.’  So long as she divorced her thoughts from the being, she still had this strange certainty.

It lurched, creating more of itself.  Legs, a sexless groin, more of the arms.  Hair flowed free, overlong.

It bent over, head hanging, arms suspended to either side.

She saw the nape of the neck as hair slowly slid free, silky and straight.

Still unable to bring herself to move, she found her left arm extending, palm down, until the longest finger pointed at the spot in question.

The woman behind her took hold of the fist that held the knife.  She stepped forward, driving the knife down, as if she were an extension of Fortuna.

Plunging into the spot where the spine met the skull.

They fell from the hand, dangled for a moment by their grip on the knife.  It cut free, and they dropped to the ground.

Fortuna let one leg fold, pushing at the ground with the other.  She rolled, breaking the fall.  The woman fell a little harder.

The entity moved, and everything around them stirred.  A thousand hands, a thousand arms, not all attached to the hands, legs, feet, ears, eyes, faces without features, expanses of skin, they twitched and writhed.

The noise around them faded, the heartbeats going still, the breathing quieting.  The movements all around them stopped.

There was only the thing, hanging in mid-air, struggling to form itself and failing.  It breathed in rapid huffs, in obvious pain.

It wasn’t dead, but it wasn’t alive.  A connection had been severed in a moment where the godling was most vulnerable.

The woman spoke.

“Again?  The heart?”

But Fortuna was sure this was it.  They’d carried out the last step.

“Can you explain this?  Do you know something?”

Fortuna nodded.

“Please,the woman said.  Though she begged,   “My life just turned upside down.  I’ve been lost here for three days.”

Fortuna looked back the way she’d come.

Home was gone.  Tainted.  She could find her uncle, but…

“I need food,” Fortuna said.  “I have no home to go to, so I need shelter.”

“I-“

“I will take you back to your home.”

The woman nodded.  “Yes, of course.  And you’ll explain?”

“Yes.  But there’s one more thing.  I need help.”

“Help?”

“There is one more of these things somewhere out there.”

Yet she could reach out with her power to try to look for it, and all she could see was the fog.

Fortuna did up the clasps on the dress shoes she wore as the woman entered her apartment.

The woman gave the girl a once-over.  “You know how to do up a tie?  Wait.  Dumb question.”

“A little dumb,” Fortuna replied.

“You’re getting a sense of humor.  I’ve done like you asked.  I bought the land with the doorway, using the money you got.  Are you sure you want to keep it a secret?  People could study that thing.”

Fortuna shook her head.  This was a harder question to answer, but she could construct a kind of mental picture, then test her questions.  What would happen?  What were the most likely scenarios?

Panic.  Fear.

Could they figure anything of value out by studying the half-alive thing?  She couldn’t be sure.

But the emotional effect would be all the more pronounced.

“Well, the area is secured, people have found their way home, or at least, to other worlds they can call home.  There was only one doorway people might find easily, and I blocked it off.”

“Thank you,” Fortuna said.

“What’s the next step?”

A heavy question.

How do we stop them?

The fog blocked out her view of any answer.

Can we stop something as powerful as the beings in my fever dream?  How can we stop the Warrior?

Still too close to home.

The indecision gripped her again.  When she wasn’t acting in the scope of her power, it was all the more difficult to act.

Fortuna frowned.  She couldn’t be paralyzed like this.  “How- how would we stop any powerful monster?”

“Weapons?  An army?” the woman suggested.

One hundred and forty-three thousand, two hundred and twenty steps.

It was doable.

“We need some lab equipment,” Fortuna said.

Then she turned her attention to the next step, and it dawned on her just how they would be amassing this army.  She thought of the monsters that had torn her parents apart, the infection that had ravaged her community and home.  Stray bits of the godling had done that to them.  It had killed people, turned others into monsters, drove yet others mad.

But it had given abilities to her.  It would give abilities to others.

The man, Lamar, reached like a child clutching for candy.  The Doctor pulled her hand away.  “There’s no guarantee this will work.”

Fortuna remained silent.  Her halting way of speaking, asking her power for the words or the translation, still made for a barrier in communication.  It unsettled people, apparently.

“If what that girl was showing off wasn’t some fantastic magic trick, if this does what you’re saying it will, I’m willing to take the chance.”

Fortuna exchanged a glance with the ‘Doctor’.  She could see the stress in the Doctor’s expression.  The woman had taken on a moniker, to give just a little protection to her real identity.  Easier to have an adult handling the negotiating and person-to-person interaction.  Fortuna was young, and people wouldn’t be so inclined to drink a strange substance offered by a child.

She offered the Doctor a little nod, a go-ahead.

“Go ahead, then,” the Doctor said.  She handed over the vial.

Lamar drank.

The changes ripped through him.  Lines marked the areas where bones were closest to skin, and then split into craggy outcroppings, thick with scales the length and width of human hands.  Lamar screamed, and the sound soon became guttural.

More scales sprouted, until the man looked more like a bush than a person.  The scaly growth continued at one knee, spiraling around the knee over and over again, growing ever-lumpier.

The leg fell off.  Blood began to pour forth.

Fortuna started to step forward to help, but her power told her it was too late.

Couldn’t see the outcomes, couldn’t counteract the outcomes.

Lamar was left panting for breath.  the wound at his ruined arms and legs closed up.  Holes had opened up throughout his midsection, exposing scale-covered internal organs.

He was trying to scream, but he couldn’t draw in enough breath.

His chest cavity is filled with the scales.

The Doctor stared, silent.  Fortuna had stepped away from the wall, but remained where she was, rooted to the spot.

He wasn’t dying.

Fortuna stepped forward.  Hand shaking, she drew a knife from her pocket.  Not her knife, but a knife of similar length, straight.

She ended Lamar’s pain.

“Our first patient is a fatality,” the Doctor said.  “Is it worth it?”

Fortuna couldn’t answer.

“Let’s wait, then.  Try to figure out where we went wrong.”

She still couldn’t bring herself to answer.

“Fortuna?”

“Don’t.  Don’t… call me by the name my parents gave me.”

The Doctor took a moment to reply.  “Another name?”

Contessa nodded.

It’s a sight unlike any we’ve ever seen.  A man made of gold, floating above the ocean.  Sightings continue to be reported around the world as he travels.  Who is he, and why is he here?  Some speculate he is Jes-

Contessa muted the television.

The pair stared at the screen, watching the silent images.

“Is it?”  the Doctor asked.

Contessa nodded.

“Do we try again?”

“I- don’t know,” Contessa said.

“If we explain to someone important, the army…”

“Disaster.  They react with fear, and he’ll probably respond to the fear.  He’s… hostile, I’m certain.  He only needs an excuse,” Contessa said.  “They can’t beat him, because he designed himself to be unbeatable.”

“You’re the one with the ability to see the future,” the Doctor said, her voice gentle.  “What do we do?”

“I don’t know!”  Contessa said.  “I- when it comes to him, I’m just a child.  I’m useless, blind.  I’ve only got some glimpses of him to work with.  I know how important it is, but, I feel paralyzed, I feel, feel-“

“Okay,” the Doctor said.  “Okay.  What if I made the decisions from here on out?  You tell me if I’m going down the wrong path, give me direction where it’s needed.

“You can’t.”

“I can.  I’ve been thinking about it.  What is the key thing about the one we killed?”

“It’s… broken.  Something went wrong.  It focused too much on the future, and lost sight of the present, it fell and the part that was supposed to guide it ended up inside me instead.”

The Doctor pointed at the TV screen.  “This golden man, he’s more or less on track.  He didn’t break, he didn’t go wrong.”

“Except… there’s a lot of power there, and he’s going to find out what we did, or he’s going to start acting more like the conqueror he’s meant to be, and he’s going to use that power at some point.”

Why?” the Doctor asked.

“I felt the hostility.  I felt how the one we killed, in the vision it had of the future, it almost enjoyed doing what it was doing.  If the golden one is similar at all, then all it takes is an accident.”

The Doctor nodded.  “See?  You’re doing okay.”

“Easier when someone else takes point.”

“So our solution… it’s going to take one of two forms.  Either we break him, somehow, or we find something we can use in the broken parts of the one we killed.”

“Feeding it to people.”

The Doctor nodded.  “I’m inclined to go with the latter.”

Contessa nodded.  “So am I.  If we interact with him, and he figures out what we’re doing, it all goes wrong.”

“Then we need to start testing this.  Figure it out.  Is it luck?  Or is there a way to get consistent results?”

Contessa nodded.

“I’m actually not that much of a scientist,” the Doctor said.  “But I do know that if we want to get a sample size worth talking about, we need to test a lot.”

“Which means we start by preparing more vials.”

Ten vials, to start.  Five hours to prepare each vial.  To saw off the body part, to find a way to break it down, then to package it.  Each vial correlated with a specific map coordinate and they took photos to record every step of the way, to ensure no clue was missed.

Then they’d found ten patients, who had downed vials in separate rooms.  People who’d been terminally ill.

Six made it out.

Contessa watched them, saw the beaming smiles on five faces.

The Doctor kept her back straight as they approached.  “Satisfactory?”

A blond man offered a little half-laugh as a response.  He was looking down at his hands in amazement.

“As the contract stipulates, this is free, which won’t always be the case, but we’ll need forty hours of testing with each of the abilities any of you have received.  In addition, we would like your assistance for a period of time totaling five hundred hours of active duty or five years, whichever term reaches its limit first.”

“Does anyone else feel amazing?” the blond man asked.

“I was afraid to ask,” a young girl said.  “Yeah.”

“Amazing?” the Doctor asked.

“Hey,” the blond guy said, “I spent my entire life with this heart problem, you know?  Heart going a little too fast, reedy, thin heartbeat.  Reminding me it could pop at any moment.  Organs are garbage, diabetes at twenty-two, liver problems turn me yellow if I’m not careful, throwing up bile every morning and every night.  Every moment of every day, there’s something making me miserable.  Except, right now, I’m sort of feeling every part of my body, and the heart’s good, no headache, nothing in my throat, nothing in my gut.  No tremor in my hand…”

“You’re better,” the Doctor said.

“I’m better.  And my brain is, I don’t even know.  I’m picturing stuff really vividly.  Really vividly.”

“I feel better too,” another man said.

“I’m not sure I do,” A woman chimed in.  “Sorry.”

A man who can invent, a girl who can teleport…  she could go down the list and figure each of them out, by posing it as a challenge to her power.  Only one was a little harder to figure out, coming with a fog around him.

She left the group behind.

One by one, she checked on the other patients.

Dead.

A monster, furious with rage, slamming her hands on the door.

Another monster, crumpled into a ball in the corner, murmuring something to himself.

And the last… a boy, staring off into the distance.

She asked her power, and she got her answer.

He could make doors.

He could also close the other doors, the gaps left around the other entity.  It would minimize the chance that the golden man could find them.

“I can’t… too much to look at,” he said.  “So many worlds at once.”

“I know.  We’re going to do what we can, okay?”

“I’m… I’m pretty scared.”  There was a tremor in his voice.

“I know,” she said.  “I need to look after a few things, but I’ll be back.  We’ll figure this out, alright?”

He nodded.

She closed the door.  She paused, standing beside it.

It’s a step forward, she told herself.

A step forward, in a long series of steps.

She rejoined the others.

The Doctor was touching a block of stone that had risen from the floor.  “-a complex, for our labs and research.”

“Most definitely,” a woman answered her.  “If you can do this for more people, I’d forget about the limit on how long I have to work.”

The Doctor allowed herself a smile.  Her eyes met Contessa’s.

One step forward.

“You’re heroes, as far as I’m concerned,” the blond man said.

Monsters!” the word was howled, reverberating through the building.

Fog approached.  A wall of it, moving down the corridor.  She could see normally, but the effect on her powers was absolute.  It was impossible to make out any steps that moved within the fog.

She turned and bolted.  Not a run, but an efficient jog, preserving stamina while still keeping ahead.  She could see from the way the wall extended forward that it was being carried or it was emanating from a person.

There was another power at work, somewhere here.

“Custodian,” she said.

She felt the Custodian’s presence.

“Alert the Doctor.”

A brush against her left hand.  Negation?

“Is the Doctor dead?”

Negation.

“Hurt?”

Negation.

I want to find out how the Doctor is.

There was only fog.  She was blind, which meant the Doctor was somewhere beyond that wall.

I want to find where Number Man is.

He was on the east end of the facility, with the Harbingers.

I want to stay out of this fog.

The path appeared before her.  She fell in step with it, moving in perfect sync with the individual movements in the sequence.

Until a figure appeared behind her  A man with yellow skin, with bruising in the areas where his skin stretched or folded, giving him an artificially gaunt appearance.

A teleporter.

Path: taking him out of action.

Fog.

Path:  hitting that target.

Three steps.

She drew her knife, spun, and threw it.

He teleported away before it made contact.

She could hear his voice echoing through hallways as he hollered.  “She’s heeeeeeere!”

It was all going wrong.  Eidolon had been their trump card, but he wasn’t supposed to be the only one.  None of the others had worked out.  Now Eidolon was dead.

The deviants they’d planned to use against Scion, a way of breaking up the metaphorical scent trail, were now attacking the complex.  The entity was winning every engagement.

He was getting more ruthless, more cruel.

They had five major tools left to deploy.  Three armies, two of which were roughly the same size as any of the defending forces, Khonsu, who was a stalling measure, and a hail mary in the form of the three vials with the special element inside.

She could hear footsteps behind her, running.  They were heavy.

Escape route, she thought.  Get back to Number Man.

No option was clear.  Every possible escape through the complex was blocked by that damnable gray fog.

She could move down a floor, run through the fog, but she’d be blind.

Call the Number Man, keeping myself alive with an escape route afterwards, she didn’t even form the phrase as a complete thought.  It was an idea, formed in a fraction of a second.

The path appeared before her.

She changed direction.  The heavy footsteps followed.

Weld.  The leader of the Irregulars.  He didn’t tire, and however heavy he was, he had some power to his movements.

She ducked into an office.

The phone still had a cord.  The offices here were one of the first they’d set up.  She picked up the phone and pressed two keys to contact the Number Man directly.

Yes?

“Facility under attack,” she said.  “Doctor somewhere in the east section, possibly injured, captured or dead.  I’m in the east section as well.  Not far from your office.”

Weld appeared in the doorway, catching the frame with one hand.  The momentum splintered the wood.

She’s downstairs, using one of Teacher’s subordinates with Doormaker and Two-six.

“I see.  You’ll need to get to her.  They-”

Weld attacked, slashing out with his other hand, a long blade.

She ducked.  “-have a perception blocker, beware.”

Weld struck again.  She stepped back.  She saw the paths available, and kicked the chair so it slid into him, binding with his skin.  He stepped forward and she put one foot against the chair, causing wheels to skid, and Weld to fall to the floor.

Good to know.  Are you alright?

“Cornered.  They’ve got a thinker, I think, they planned this ahead of time, knowing I wouldn’t pick up on their presence.”

Weld drew his feet back and kicked the desk.  Not to hit her, but to put it between her and the door.  Contessa caught the phone-rest before it could clatter to the ground.

Thinking ahead, barring my way.  The fog wall was steadily approaching.

I’m going.  Tips?

She thought, modeling the situation.  The distance he had to travel…

“Best route would be to move further downstairs.  Intercept instead of going right to her.  They’ll reach her before you do, in any event.”

Noted.  You have an escape route?

“No.  Like I said, cornered.”

“Maybe you’re asking the wrong question.  My window.”

The Number Man’s window.  He had a doormaker portal to another world, constantly, for a view and for light, deep underground.

She dropped the phone, making a dash for Weld.

For his part, he put himself between her and the door, using his bulk and the desk to bar the way.  Buying time for the fog to approach.  Spikes extended from his body.  No doubt razor-sharp.

Cute.

“I just want to talk.  We’re here for answers.”

“Ask me after we defeat Scion,” she said.  She used her power, plotting a path.

Two steps.

“I don’t-”

She ran straight for him, her eyes falling on an air conditioning vent.

His sword-arm slashed out, piercing the floor and blocking the vent.

She changed direction, leaping.  One hand placed on his head, vaulting over his other shoulder, her legs together.  A space that was only just wide enough to pass a toaster through.  He tried to right himself, but his arm was bound to the grate, costing him a half-second.

Spikes scraped against her belt buckle and watch.

She found her footing just a half-foot in front of the fog wall, then dashed away.

Number Man’s office.

The teleporter appeared behind her.  She glanced behind her shoulder.  He had guns, and he was inside the fog.

Modeling scenario… not getting shot.

She ducked into a side hallway.

The teleporter was following.  Appearing at each intersection in time to open fire.

Getting closer, closer, moving faster than she did.  Weld was already catching up, too.  She wouldn’t be able to outrun them.

Moving faster than whoever or whatever was broadcasting the fog was.

A little further, and…

He teleported to a point beyond the fog wall.

One step, and she had both of his guns.

He was bulletproof, but one shot point-blank to the eyeball served to delay him.

She fired down the corridor, hitting doorknob four times in succession.

Path: faking my own death or escaping.

Gray fog.  Not happening.

Contessa kicked the door as she passed through.  She was inside Number Man’s office.

She shot his window.  It didn’t break.  But she could loosen the frame which held the bulletproof glass in place.

She was working on the next when the teleporter appeared.  He struck her, driving her through the one pane of glass that remained, through the portal.

She found herself on an alien landscape, tumbling down a hill.

He teleported to follow her.  He struck her again and again.

She tumbled.  She had a glimpse of others appearing.  Weld and two more parahumans hopping over the windowsill, holding on so they didn’t follow her down the steep cliff.  They weren’t shrouded in fog.

Whatever the reason, it was more variables to work with.

Path, she thought, again, faking my death.

She turned in the air as the teleporter delivered another hit.

She raised the gun, and she fired three times.

Two shots, missing.

A third, hitting one of the Irregulars in the chest, a lethal shot.

Whore!” one of the others shouted.  “Yellow, get the fuck away!

The yellow parahuman disappeared.  Contessa hit the hill.  She rolled, and in the doing, she managed to grab a stick.

Weld grabbed at the shouting deviant’s arm, but it was too late to convince him to stop.  He opened his mouth and a flood of magma cascaded down the hill, an impossible amount.

She rolled and came to a stop.  She pushed herself up off the ground with her hands, moving too slowly to get out of the way of the onrushing magma, or the plumes of smoke.

But the moment the smoke had risen high enough, she kicked a rock to get herself moving and threw the branch.  She moved until she couldn’t feel the oppressive heat.

The branch burned quickly, but it, coupled with the rock, made for a well positioned image of a head and a burning hand, when glimpsed through the smoke.

She kept moving until she was at the base of the hill, off to their right.

“-go down and check,” Weld was saying.

“She burned,” one of the others said.

“I’d like to check.”

“You want to check or you want to get Tater Tot to a healer?”

“I’m not sure a healer is going to help,” Weld said.

“Look.  Mantellum’s right here.  She had to have been in his range.  Let’s go.  Healer, then the Doctor.”

“…Right,” Weld said.  “Healer, then Doctor.”

The sounds of conversation faded.  Contessa consulted her power.  They were most definitely gone.

She remained where she was, tending to the wounds she’d received in the course of selling her ‘death’, waiting for them to get far enough away that she could make her way back indoors.

This ‘Mantellum’ had been close enough that he should have been able to block her power.  He hadn’t.

Because he’d been on the other side of the portal.  The power didn’t cross dimensional boundaries.

She’d been lucky.

Minutes passed before she found her feet.  She made her way up the hill.  Easily.  Always easily.

Until she reached the top, and found only the view in front of her.  No doorway.

Not so lucky.

It was almost an hour before the portal opened again.  She made her way into the facility.

Lights out.

She strode through the hallways, wary of the fog, but moving at as good a clip as she could.  Things were damaged, vandalized.

She asked herself questions as she went.

The Doctor was dead.

Doormaker was alive but he wasn’t here, meaning she was limited to any doors he’d left open.

Number Man was alive, but he wasn’t here.

The vials were all gone.  The ability to make more vials was gone.  At best, they’d be able to collect a few stray vials here and there, in evidence rooms and the like, but nothing beyond that.

The plans had failed.  Only Khonsu and the Indian capes were still active.  Capes brainwashed with a deathwish, working in coordination with an Endbringer who could move them to any location instantly, and who could theoretically block some of Scion’s attacks.

She made her way to the nearest portal, finding her way with her power.

And she came face to face with a large group of capes.  Protectorate capes, the ones too minor to help against Scion.

“You were reported dead,” a man in a horned viking-styled helmet and heavy armor said.

“Did anyone really believe it?”

“No, I suppose they didn’t.”

“How do things stand?”

“Standing may be too optimistic a word,” the man in the horned helmet said.

A cape in wizard attire spoke up, “The Doctor is dead, I believe?”

Contessa nodded.  Odd, that she couldn’t bring herself to feel badly about it.  Was it because she’d spent so long trying to achieve something and she’d failed, or was it because she’d lost respect for the Doctor like she’d lost respect for herself?

If she were an outside party, she was forced to admit, any outside party, she wasn’t convinced she would be able to be upset over her own death.

“We need your help,” the wizard said.

She nodded.  “Whatever I can provide.”

“First, we need information.”

“Yes.”

“Were there any other plans Cauldron had in the works?” he asked.

“Nothing substantial.  I can show you the tertiary plans.”

“Please do.  Did Cauldron have plans for if humanity failed?”

“Of course.”

“We’ll need to see those as well.”

She hesitated.

“A problem?” the wizard asked.

Path: identifying strangers and deception.

Her eye moved to the man in the horned helmet, then, after a pause, to the wizard.

“I’m not entirely sure.  Teacher, is it?”

The wizard nodded.  “The Protectorate is just on the other side of the portal, collecting Satyr’s teammates, Nix and Spur.  If you could be discreet, it would be appreciated.”

“Why?  What are you doing, Teacher?”

“What do you think I’m doing?” he asked.  He reached behind his back and withdrew a disc, roughly the size of a trash can lid.  He placed it on the ground, and then kicked it into an empty room off to the side.

“I could stop you,” she said.  There was a flash in the other room.

“Most definitely.  But will you?”

She hesitated.  She watched as a pair of young men in white stepped out of the room.

“Find an empty office,” Teacher said.  “If I’m not here, and another student of mine looks lost, tell them to do the same.  I assume there’s documentation?”

Contessa paused, then nodded.

“Something this big, it has to carry on somehow.  I’ll need a second in command.”

“Me?” she asked.  Her eye moved to the man in the horned helmet.

“He’s his own man.  A wild card.”

“I see,” she said.  More kids in white were streaming from the room.

“Trickster, stop.  You’re with me.  We might need help navigating some of the trickier areas, if the damage to this place is extensive enough.”

One boy stopped where he was, stopping beside Teacher, a dull and unfocused look in his eyes.

Teacher turned his attention to Contessa, “Whatever happens in the next few hours, we need to be there to pick up the pieces.  That was a factor in Cauldron’s plan, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t have much of a role,” Contessa said.  “I can’t do anything when Scion’s on the table.”

“To the contrary,” Teacher said.  “We very much need your help, or we might.”

She narrowed her eyes.  “With?”

“Saving us from ourselves,” he said.  “Case in point, we’ve got a crisis that involves one little lady I think you’re familiar with.”

He held up his phone.  A picture was displayed.

It took her a moment to recognize the person in the picture, and not because it was an unfamiliar face.

Weaver?” she asked.

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Venom 29.6

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“Weaver,” Cuff said.  Her voice was pitched low enough that Satyr wouldn’t hear.

I turned my head her way to acknowledge her.  Satyr seemed to be preoccupied, sitting on a stair, picking something out of a groove in his golden belt.  Dried blood?

“You’re doing that crazy mastermind thing again,” Cuff said.

“Which crazy mastermind thing?”

“Where you talk to the other masterminds and one of you leaves something unsaid, and the other knows what that thing is without asking.  Who’s here?”

“Scion,” Satyr said.

“You heard me?” Cuff asked.  Then, after a pause, she asked, “Scion?”

I spoke up, “Leonid’s powerset includes the ability to hear everything in a certain range.  That means everything, regardless of intervening obstacles, interfering or distracting noises and volume.”

“I can hear your heartbeats,” Leonid said.  He was a lean, young twenty-something with long golden hair and a mask with a lion motif.  His upper body was draped in a black, skintight, sleeveless, bodysuit, his legs in loose-fitting pants.  Complex looking gauntlets and boots encased his extremities, each tipped with wicked, six-inch claws.  Not quite what he’d worn when he was on the Vegas Protectorate team.  His eyes roved from Cuff to Imp.  “I can hear your heartbeat speed up when you look at particular people.”

“Satyr can tell you he already tried the seduction angle with his copies,” I said.

Leonid grinned behind his mask.  “Satyr was doing it to distract you.  I’m not like that.  I’m one of the active guys.  It’s like how a magician shows one hand, all action, style and flourish, to get your attention…”

He gestured towards Satyr, “…and the other hand is busy with the trick.  Hate to break it to you, but I’m genuine when I make a move.”

“Yet you’re all man-whores at the end of the day,” Imp said.

“Imp,” I spoke, my tone a warning.

Leonid only smirked in reply.  Floret, for her part, cleared her throat.

“You’re from Vegas, right?  Just because you dress like a woman doesn’t mean-”

“Satyr,” I said, cutting her off.  “You think Scion’s here.  Is he down there with the Doctor?”

“He entered through the same gateway we did,” Satyr said.  “I imagine he’s somewhere upstairs.  It was always one of Cauldron’s greatest concerns, that Scion would make his way here through one of their doorways.”

“Why?”

“Cauldron’s plan B, their plan C, even plans D, E, and F, if things had gone without a hitch, they would have been deployed from this facility.  Perhaps there is one in a million chance one of the plans potentially works.  If they don’t, then perhaps they buy the rest of us some time, and a third party figures out a solution.  Or perhaps they get close, and Cauldron uses the time that remains to refine the approach and the idea.”

“The prisoners, all of the people upstairs…” Cuff said, trailing off.

“Plan B.  Also plan D, if you count the more unnatural deviants,” Satyr said.  “Except Scion is now here, and he’s here now.  All of the plans will be forced into effect at once, rendered into little more than alphabet soup.  To top it off, the architect of those plans is out of reach.”

I looked at the solid metal wall.  “Cuff?”

Cuff focused on the metal barrier.  “I can tell from here.  It’s a lot of metal.  I don’t know how they did it.  It’s all one solid piece.”

“They did it with powers,” Satyr said.  “A column, with the panic room dead center.  When they retreated inside, they pulled the switch, and the entire substructure dropped two thousand, five hundred feet below ground, putting the upper end of the column between us and them.”

Floret shrugged.  “We could handle a computer, a lock, even a vault, no sweat.  But not this.  The plan was to wait for the group on the other side of the facility to forge their way through the steel, or around the steel, but someone gave the Custodian a tinker-made super death knife, and well…”

“That was me,” I said.  “Nothing to do with the Custodian.”

“Ah, well,” Satyr said.  “Good and bad to any situation.  We’ll be able to assert control over that group more easily, with their leadership dead.  And there won’t be as great a chance that they take the good Doctor out before we can get a word in… but progress will be slower, and we don’t have much time to spare.”

It was a relief, on one level, that he didn’t seem interested in making a fuss over it.  He’d set Spur and Nix in the way, to keep people from interfering with his group’s infiltration, but he seemed fully capable of accepting that there was a snarl in his plan.

I knew it was hypocritical, but a part of me was bothered by that.  I didn’t want him to be able to take this in stride.  I didn’t want a lack of communication, conflicting plans and inter-group issues to be the norm, when the stakes were this high.  Satyr was the type that thrived because he anticipated such.

Maybe I was too.

Satyr looked at the wall to his left.  “The remaining members of the Irregulars and their digging party have just arrived at the far end of this column.  If we go up one floor, we can cross to the other staircase and make our way down to pay them a visit.  Given that the group watching their rear is… compromised, I don’t think we’ll have any problems taking control of that situation.”

“If we leave now and walk briskly, we’ll arrive in eight minutes,” Floret said.

“My details person,” Satyr said, “Would you believe?”

My tone was dry as I replied, “Somehow, I’m not surprised.”

Details would be Floret’s thing.  She didn’t look it, with bright pink hair, green roots, and a costume of metal ‘leaves’ that left little to the imagination.  Her costume philosophy was the antithesis of my own.  But Floret wasn’t a fighter, even less than I was.  She could take a minute or two to create a ‘bud’.  The bud would then unfold into a complex crystalline shape after a set time, or upon impact with a surface.  They were limited in terms of their size, no more than a foot across, but they were rich in potential, with crude applications on the molecular scale.  Typically stylized to look like flowers, the crystals could bond to surfaces, set touched things on fire, cancel out chemical reactions or just fuck with tinker devices.

As a teenager, she’d had a career as a roving lockpick for villain heist teams, creating keys and fake keycards with cloned magnetic strips, to varying degrees of failure.  It was only when she joined the Vegas team that she found others with the degree of forethought, planning and teamwork that could let her power truly shine.

Her power only worked because of her secondary power, and her secondary power was the big reason she fit in so well with the Vegas team.  An enhanced awareness and processing ability regarding fine detail.  She picked up on the little things.  All of the little things.

Satyr leaned back, then rolled forwards, getting to his feet without using his hands.  “I assume you’re coming.”

“Yes,” I said.  If only to make sure you don’t pull something.  “More bodies against Scion.”

“Bodies don’t matter,” Satyr said, as he led the way.  “One, ten, a thousand, it doesn’t make a big difference.”

Speaking of bodies…  Where the hell is Scion?  There wasn’t even any noise.

Was Satyr fibbing?

No.  It didn’t jibe.  Not with the aura of defeat, not with the circumstance, with what Tattletale had said… they were good at the con, but not that good.

I changed subjects.  “Can I ask where the heroes are?  Revel, Exalt and Vantage?”

“With Nix and Spur,” Satyr said.  “Most likely disguised as a rock or a bulge in the cave wall.  Blowout hit them with a full-on stunning presence.  They should still be out.”

“I see,” I said, trying not to reveal how surprised I was.  We’d walked right by the captive heroes.  That wasn’t the big issue.  Blowout was.  He wasn’t as stylish or attractive as the others, with a featureless mask that had a single ‘eye’ at the brow, his head shaved.  His armor panels had lights that slowly rotated from one color to another, like a chintzy car stereo.  Unassuming, when he wasn’t engaged in a fight.  When he was, the lights would be flaring, muscles would be standing out, and there would be noise, shock and awe involved.

Blowout wasn’t a tinker; he had telekinetically assisted strength, which meant that when he was hoisting a car over his head, he was doing it with his mind more than with his arms.  The strength and durability increased with the size of the audience and the reaction he got from them.  His secondary power was the effect he had on his enemies, feeding on the same reactions that fueled his strength to new heights and leaving his targets stunned, reacting slower, taking longer to pick themselves up off the ground.  On paper, he was the case-in-point of what Leonid had been talking about, the hand that distracts while the other hand sets up the trick.

But, as Floret suggested, it was something of a thing for Vegas capes to have ‘secondary’ powers that were actually the real power, in practice. Or maybe it was that Satyr tended to encourage a focus in the secondary powers, or a development of those same abilities.  There was nothing on record about a long-term use of Blowout’s power, like Satyr had described.  It would be a card he’d kept up his sleeve when he wasn’t doing something behind the scenes with the Vegas capes.

I was put in mind of a few of the records and events that hadn’t quite fit.  They’d checked, retroactively, for drugs, and found none.  They’d checked for any remainder of Floret’s creations, and again, they’d found nothing.  But if it was Blowout… if he was the reason people had been left with amnesia, brain damage and even brain death, then that gave me a bunch of new reasons to worry about the Protectorate heroes we’d left behind.

A reason to watch our backs.  I just had to wrap my head around how he might have done this so discreetly, when his power required the obvious and blatant.

Satyr’s duplicates, maybe?  Did the copies count as a crowd?

Something to keep in mind… and I had to inform my teammates without Leonid knowing.

I glanced at the leader of the Vegas mercenaries, noting how quiet he was as he ascended the stairs.  He didn’t seem worried about anything.  Not us, not Scion, not the riot above.  Was I like that, when I was in the zone?  Almost wanting to push him outside of his comfort zone, I said, “I expected you to ask about your teammates.”

“Spur and Nix?  They’re capable enough.  If you’ve done something horrific to them, then informing me won’t help us in the here and now.  I’ll have my revenge at a later date, all the same.”

“Fair,” I said.  No effect.

I let Satyr maintain the lead of the group and determine our pace as we moved forward.  He had eyes on the other group with his duplicates, and he had Floret passing information to him with the subtle sign language the group had adopted.  It worked; if we arrived too early, we’d be interrupting the Irregulars before they were through the steel barrier.  If we arrived late, we’d be running the risk that the Doctor would be killed.

For now, I was happy to let them manage that aspect of the plan, while I focused on keeping an eye out for the inevitable stab in the back.  It just didn’t flow, their attitude now, compared to how they’d tried to cover their tracks earlier.  I knew who they were and I’d seen the records detailing whole strings of crimes, and I wasn’t willing to believe they were playing ball with us.

So I watched them, and Floret watched me, because her power was perfectly suited to following what my swarm was doing from moment to moment.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel murmured in my ear.

Imp leaned in to join the conversation, adding, “You do know that Leonid can hear everything that’s said in a certain area around him?  There’s no point in whispering.” as if she hadn’t just found that out for herself.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel said, full volume.

“That’s not what I meant,” Imp said, a little off-guard.

“He’s arrogant, he talks too much, and he acts like Tattletale does when she’s trying to pretend she’s not in a really bad mood,” Rachel said.

“It’s a rare thing,” Satyr said, “for someone to leave me speechless.  I can tell you that virtually everyone comes to like me when they get to know me.”

“Everyone likes the manipulative assholes after they’ve had a chance to do their manipulating,” Rachel said.

“I couldn’t extend that to Weaver, there, and suggest the same applies to her?”

“You could try,” Rachel said, “But then I’d have my dogs attack you.”

“Alright,” I said, stepping in.  “No more of that.”

Rachel glowered at me.

“He’s a weasel,” Lung growled.  “I have allied with a man who talked like he does, but it was a man of substance.  Not sex and…”

“Subtlety?” Imp offered.  “Scandal?  Style?  Sophistry?

Where is she learning these words?

Lung only glowered at Imp.

“As substanceless a person as he might be,” I said, “Scion’s upstairs, and we have overlapping goals, so we’re allies, or as close to being allies as we’re going to get.  No fighting.”

Rachel relaxed as though she’d flipped a mental switch.  She snapped her fingers twice, getting her dog’s attention, and then made a gesture without moving her hand from her side, her palm facing the ground.

The dogs eased up just like she had.

I glanced at Satyr, who shrugged.  His tone was light as he said, “My ego’s taking a bruising today, it seems.”

I could see the lines of his shoulders and chest, with him not wearing any armor on the upper body.  Was he maybe just a bit less relaxed than Rachel at this point?

Maybe he wasn’t at ease around someone who blithely barreled past any attempts at manipulation with unbridled aggression.  A point for us, maybe.

We’d reached the fourth floor.  I stood by, watching for trouble from above, while the others filed through.  I could see how Canary was ill-at-ease, while Shadow Stalker was impossible to read in her ghostly state, passing through the wall by the door.  Cuff and Lung were both rigid, as if anticipating fights, but were confident enough to walk ahead of the rest.  Golem, Rachel, and Imp seemed more in their element, hanging back while the Vegas capes passed through.

“You know what you’re doing?” Golem murmured, as he hung back with me.

I nodded.  “Mostly.  Just watch your back.”

“For Scion?”

“For them,” I said.  “And yes, I know Leonid hears me.  I know Satyr and the others are getting the cliff notes from Leonid.  But they’ve got secondary goals here, and it’s worth watching out in case they try something.  Even if they know we know they’re trying something.”

There were nods all around.

Four copies of the Custodian appeared before us as we made our way into the fourth floor.  Each moved slightly out of sync with the others as they moved their heads.  It was only when the third and fourth moved that I realized just how they were moving their heads – raising their chins to look up.

“I know, my dear,” Satyr said.  “How close?”

They didn’t respond.  Instead, they disappeared.  First one pair, then the remaining pair.

“Second floor basement,” Satyr said.  “Scion is taking his time making his way down.”

“Why?” I asked.  It was too quiet.  “If Scion wanted, he could have torn his way through here in a heartbeat.”

Satyr was on point as we made our way across the fourth floor.  The cells here were reinforced several times over, each standalone, separated by tracts of empty space that eighteen wheeler trucks could have turned around in.  Spotlights served as the only light in the area, and they were focused on the individual cells, leaving the empty space between the cells dark.  Without my relay bugs, my power still didn’t quite reach the far end.  A third of a mile across by a third of a mile across, maybe, with ceilings that were fifteen feet high.

The lights flickered more violently than it had upstairs or in the stairwells, but these cells seemed to be drawing on a backup power source.  The lights flickered, went out, only to be turned back on, glowing a dim red, before the regular power was restored.  The lighting cycled between the three states, with no rhyme or reason.

Why?” Satyr echoed my question.  I turned my attention back to him.  “Why do you think he’s taking his time?”

“That’s not helpful,” I said.

“Basic reasoning,” Satyr said.  “What do we have in abundance, here?”

“Capes?” Golem asked.

“Capes?  Yes.  But there were capes at the other battlefields.  It’s very possible he’s idling because he’s taking them all to pieces, but… for however many minutes?  No.  What else is in abundance?  Or, to phrase it better, what particular kind of cape is in abundance here, that you didn’t have at the battlefield?”

“I get the feeling you already know the answer,” I said.

He nodded, the goat-horned helm dipping low, then rising.  The lights went out, then went red for a moment.

“Case fifty-threes,” Golem answered the question.

There we go,” Satyr said.  “And if you care to, you can infer further.  Why?  Scion is the supposed source of powers, yes?  Then what are the deviants to him?  If we see them as distorted people, then he sees them as…”

“Distorted powers?”  Cuff answered.  “Or… whatever they are to him.  Distorted spawn?”

“Something foul,” Shadow Stalker spoke for the first time since we’d split up to escape the cell.  “Broken, wrong, loathsome.  Damaged.  And no parent wants to face the fact that their kids came out less than perfect.”

The sphere Imp had tucked under one shoulder jerked a little.

“Woah,” Cuff said.  “Generalizations much?”

“Tell me I’m wrong,” Shadow Stalker said.  She glanced at Satyr, “I’m right.  Cauldron created these deviants as a kind of psychological warfare.”

“Most definitely part of it,” Satyr said, and there was an approving note in his voice.  “It’s psychological warfare… Shadow Stalker, was it?”

Shadow Stalker nodded.

“Yes, I’ve heard of you.  There are other elements at play.  Prey species have been known to spread their scent through an area, to confuse predators.”

“I like that analogy,” Shadow Stalker said.

“Mm hmm,” he responded, nonchalant.  “So Cauldron uses these deviants as a particularly strong source of our metaphorical ‘smell’.  They scatter them across the world where Cauldron is most active, the world Scion occupies, and he loses the ability to sniff them out.  Of course, this only works when the deviant isn’t going to draw undue attention.  Either they’re calm and inclined to keep to their own, by nature, or so dangerous that they remove witnesses by default.”

My eyes moved to the sphere Imp carried.  I was inclined to think she fit in the latter category.

“It makes sense,” I said.  My eyes were on Shadow Stalker.  She was playing into Satyr’s hands.  I’d made a note to watch out for it, but this wasn’t even subtle.

They were fucking blatant about this shit, relentless.  Which probably worked for them, because it eventually worked.  They found a hook, an angle, maybe played it in a more subtle way, or they’d just take it and run with it.

And it was all controlled, all managed, keeping it at a level where I couldn’t call them out on it without looking like I wasn’t willing to play ball.  That was fine on its own, but it put us on a bad footing.  I didn’t want to be in the middle of a brawl if and when Scion made a sudden appearance.

“Cauldron capes have, according to reports, gotten responses from Scion.  A pause, a momentary break in pattern, even, some say, a feeling of aversion.  Powerful Cauldron capes achieve better results, deviants even more so… and if the effect scales up as Cauldron thinks it might, the extreme deviants will get an even greater result, while having powers that may have some effect on him.”

“Which makes a lot of sense,” I said, “They’re a smokescreen, maybe.  Except there’s a hole in that theory.”

“There is,” Satyr said.

“He could wipe them out with one shot,” Golem said, the first to connect the dots.  “He could shoot them and shoot through the floor, if he wanted to.”

“Exactly right,” Satyr said.

“Do you know why he isn’t?” I asked.

“I have guesses, nothing more,” Satyr said.  “Hm.  They just found a way of combining their powers.  They’re breaking through the column more quickly than I thought they would.  We don’t have to run, but maybe hurry a bit.”

We stepped up our pace.

“He’s on the third floor,” Satyr said.  “Floor above us.”

“How do you know?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“Custodian.  We’ve crossed paths, as my group ran some errands for the good Doctor.  I think she likes me, even.”

I hadn’t noticed the Custodian, but I wasn’t positive I would have seen her if the appearance was brief enough.

“What’s on the third floor?” Floret asked.  “I haven’t been down here.”

“The ones with names.  Any cape they deemed interesting enough to keep and research.  Not many left.  I think they scaled down on those to focus on other things.”

Not many left.  Meaning there wasn’t much standing in the way between us and Scion.

If Satyr’s group wasn’t playing us.  I was less sure than I had been.

Supposedly Scion above.  Who’s below?

“Who’s with the Doctor?” I asked.

Ask her,” he said, pointing at Imp.

I glanced at Imp, who shrugged.

“In the sphere,” Satyr said.

“There’s a button on the bottom.  If you depress it, you can rotate hemispheres.  Counter-clockwise, please.  Clockwise opens it, and I’d rather not die.”

Imp looked my way.

“Go for it,” I said.

Imp turned the sphere.

“Finally.  Fresh air,” the girl inside said.  She had a quiet voice.  More the type of voice I’d connect to a shy librarian at a party or a sheltered preacher’s daughter in the company of boys.

“Sveta?” I asked.  “We met on the oil rig.”

“She also goes by Garotte,” Satyr said.  “The only reason the PRT didn’t put her down was because she’s rather hard to kill.  She has quite the impressive body count.”

“Don’t say that.”

“She was part of the original invading party,” Satyr went on, ignoring her.  “They attacked the Doctor, setting this whole mess in motion.”

“I could hear everything you guys were saying,” the girl said.  It was only when she said the longer word ‘everything’ that I noticed the rasp to her voice.  It would be part of the reason for her being quiet.

“Who’s with the Doctor?” I asked.  The other stairwell was in view.

“When things went bad, it was Weld, me, Brickhaus, Gentle Giant and six others who turned around and protected her.  I wasn’t very useful…”

She trailed off.  A second passed.

“Need a bit more information,” Satyr said.

“I’m hurt,” she said, and there was a plaintive note in her voice.  She sounded more like a Canary than a Shadow Stalker.  Not quite the voice of a killer.

“Suck it up,” Satyr said.  “Scion’s coming, and we need to know what we’re walking into.”

“Brick took the guy Blesk brained against the wall, um.  It was the clairvoyant, the doormaker, hurt, the Doctor.  Brickhaus, Magnaat, Munstro, they made it inside.  The others got shot down in the stairwell.  Um.  There was a guy with glasses, and five teenagers who looked a lot like him, only without glasses.  Ordinary looking, pretty much.  Alexandria…”

“Hm,” Satyr made a noise.  He looked up.

In that same moment, the lights flickered out for the umpteenth time.

The emergency lights didn’t come on.

I could sense my teammates, Shadow Stalker, Canary and Lung closing ranks.

“Weaver?”  Satyr asked.

He split in two.  A slow, oozing process, a lump swelling, pulling free, then forming features.  The arms and legs were quick enough, and the details followed, but the new him had no helmet, but slowly reshaped his exterior to match the original Satyr’s costume.

“If you keep doing that, I’m going to have to attack,” I said.

“What’s he doing?”  Canary asked.  There was a note of panic in her voice.

“Splitting up,” I said.  I willed Canary to pull it together.  Satyr bulged, clearly preparing to make another double.  I called out, “Satyr, I might need to rephrase.  If you finish making that copy, I’m going to attack you.”

“He can’t stop once he’s started,” Floret said.  “It’s a drawback.”

“I don’t buy that at all,” I said.  “So either you need to be more convincing, or I’m wrong, and Satyr has to learn how to cancel a copy in progress in the next five seconds.”

The bulge stopped growing more parts.  It began retreating into Satyr.

“We need to talk, Weaver,” Satyr said, still distorted, withdrawing the mass into himself.

Imp spoke up, “Why is it always Weaver you need to talk to?  Never, we need to talk, Rachel.”

“Shut up, you idiot,” Satyr snarled the words.  “There’s no time for foolishness.”

Idiot?  Foolishness?”

“What is it, Satyr?”  I asked.

“I’ve got to ask about your goals.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Nothing complicated.  Saving the doctor, getting answers, stopping Scion.”

I found my knife, beneath the staircase, suspended by threads I’d tied to the surrounding area.  I set my swarm to retrieving it.  We couldn’t see, but Floret shouldn’t be able to either.

“I always had a hard time trusting anyone who doesn’t have ulterior motives,” Satyr said.  “And now, here, I dearly wish you had some.”

“Sorry,” I said.  “If you haven’t noticed, a lot of us are pretty blunt here, straightforward.  Our goals are what they appear to be.  I really wish you could trust us.”

“And I wish I couldn’t,” he said.  “Funny how that works.”

I sensed Blowout pacing a bit to our left.  Floret had her hand cupped, like she was ready to throw one of her things.  I gathered the swarm, sensed her tilt her head a fraction.

Listening?

How much noise could thirty bugs make?  Or, rather, how much noise could thirty bugs make in the audible spectrum?

No.  That didn’t make sense.  Floret sensed details without even trying.

She was faking me out, no doubt.  Distracting so someone else could pull something.

Leonid was utterly still, no doubt focusing on the various sounds.  On heartbeats and breathing, the creaks of our muscles moving and joints shifting.  He was the one to watch.  He’d said it himself.  He was the hand that drew attention so the others could pull their tricks.

Which didn’t make him any less threatening.

Secondary powers of sound detection and sound manipulation, adjusting select things to be up to twice as loud or absolutely silent.  It gave him a stranger classification, a thinker classification.

His third power was a mover power.

“Don’t do this, Satyr.  It’s insanity,” I said.

“Your being here fucks it all up, Weaver.  There’s too much danger that you’d agree with us, that we’d have the same objectives, regarding the Doctor.”

There a distant detonation, a rumbling passed through the complex.

“What are your motives?” I asked.  “Do you want to help her or hurt her?”

“Yes,” Satyr said.

“That’s not an answer.  I thought you said there’s no time.”

“There isn’t,” he said.

“Satyr, I don’t know what’s going on, but you’ve been playing this game of tricks and subterfuge so long you’ve all forgotten how to walk a straight line.”

“Oh, I remember,” he said.  “We remember.”

“So you’re just going to stand here, idly threatening us, until Scion attacks?  That can’t be right.  You’ve lost your mind.  Something with your power, messing with your heads…”

“You’ve got it wrong.  Powers from a bottle, they mess with your body.  Subtle things, but stuff you notice.  Heh, the last straight conversation I had with Pretender, he brought it up, joked…”

Time,” I told him.

“Ah well.  It’s you natural triggers who get a little bent in the head, here and there.  Isn’t that right, Ms. Lindt?”

My heart dropped out of my chest.  I closed my eyes.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice quiet.

I clenched my teeth.

“That’s right,” she went on, a little louder.

“Shadow Stalker.  You too, believe it or not.  I’ve seen your record.  Your attitude, it’s not wholly your own.”

“Bull.”

“I’ve worked with worse.  I could give you direction.”

“Honestly?  With this shit you’re pulling now?  You sound fucking crazy.”

“Shadow Stalker and I are agreeing on this count,” I said, “Trust me when I said that’s a bad sign.”

“If we’re going to resolve this, it’ll have to be soon,” Satyr said.

“You keep doing that,” I told him.  “Telling us how little time we have, then delaying.  Forcing us into a corner?”

Another half-chuckle, wry.

“You’re not making any sense, Satyr,” I said.

He only offered another short laugh.

“You want us to fight you.  To stop you.”

“Probably for the best,” he said.

“No, it’s not,” I said.  “We need help, we can’t be distracted by-”

“Enough of this,” Lung growled the words.

“No-” I said, but I was too late.

Flames erupted around his claws.

It cast light on us, on our surroundings.

With the light, Floret could see my knife, off to one side.  I hadn’t been planning to use it to attack, but I’d wanted it in hand before we descended.  She slung one bud at it.  Encased it in crystal.  It hit the ground at the base of a cell, by a spotlight.

Leonid screamed, double volume, and it was an eerie, echoing scream that bounced through the area, each echo lower in pitch than the last.

Not that he needed it to reach that far.  Each echo of the scream coincided with a fraction of him fading out of existence.

Simultaneously phasing those parts of him in behind our group.

Canary had started to sing, nervous, but Leonid faded in behind her.  Two seconds to teleport.

Rachel raised her hands to her mouth to whistle.  No sound came out.

I turned, opened my mouth to shout, but Leonid had muted us.

I pointed, instead, but Canary didn’t get my meaning.

Rachel couldn’t get her dog’s attention with snaps or whistles.

Leonid reached out with his claw, up for her throat-

And Rachel tackled him, gripping his wrists.  Canary was entirely unawares, up until one of them kicked her ankle in their struggles.

Shadow Stalker and Lung engaged two of the remaining Vegas capes.  Blowout stepped in the way, protecting Floret.

And through some unseen signal, some practiced maneuver, he knew to duck as she flung buds at the pair.

One unfolded in the air, tagging Shadow Stalker in her shadow state, and she crumpled.

The other hit Lung.  Foot-long tendrils extended from his right pectoral to his right arm, binding to each.

Blowout hit the tethered Lung.  Maybe he wouldn’t have been strong enough to affect Lung normally, but the audacity of it and our reactions to that went a long way in giving him a little extra kick.

Satyr forced another copy out in record time, as the other charged me.

I set my bugs on it.  On her.  My double.  She didn’t have my powers.

She was strong.  Tougher.  She closed the distance to me with ease, with a runner’s strength.

So I moved the bugs to the original Satyr.  That bare chest, the eyeholes in his helmet…  I attacked Floret, and Leonid, and all of the other capes who had exposed skin.

Golem’s hand knocked her aside.  Cuff charged the one Satyr had just created.

Even at this juncture, I knew it wasn’t an even fight.  Satyr had outright admitted his team wasn’t a match for ours in a brawl.

Canary tentatively stepped on Leonid’s right hand.  Rachel’s dogs got his legs.  He screamed, and that sound wasn’t muted.

He began to phase out, reappearing by Satyr.  He climbed to his feet.

We outnumbered them, we had better combat powers.  The outcome wasn’t in doubt.

Which made Imp’s maneuver all the more insane.

She stepped out into the middle of the group and held the sphere high.

Rotated it, then rotated it back.

Sound resumed around us, as Leonid dismissed the silence effect.

Don’t, don’t, don’t,” a voice was saying.

It was Sveta, inside the ball.

“Everyone stand up,” Imp said.  “And if you fuck with me, I’m opening this thing.”

Don’t, please don’t.

Why?”  I asked, again, my eyes on Satyr.  The real Satyr.

“I would have been content to wait.  To procrastinate until we ran out of time.  But you came.”

“Satyr…”

“It’s for love, in the end.  Pettiest of all pursuits.  Arrogance, greed, even revenge… they’re nobler, trust me.  I’ve walked all those roads.  But love?  It twists all the other things.  Makes you misstep, makes you irrational, makes you impatient, above all.  We couldn’t have gone down there without getting revenge, without falling to our greed and arrogance.  So I was willing to wait.  To sit back and put it off, tell myself we didn’t have the firepower, didn’t have the numbers we needed to take on the group at the stairwell.  Wait until it was too late.”

“You were willing to die?”  Shadow Stalker asked.  She sounded offended.

“Better than being the ones who pull the trigger, dash our last hopes,” Satyr said.  “You can put down that sphere, Imp.”

Imp hesitated, then lowered the sphere.  She locked it, with vents open so Sveta could speak.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“And you probably won’t.  If you’re lucky.  I’ve said it all out loud, so the lie isn’t worth it, now.  You can go.  We’ll stand by.”

“Your fucking head games.  You’re going to stab us-”

“Weaver,” he said, and there was no pretense in his voice.  No joking tone or trace of mockery.  Talking straight.  “Go.  They’re almost through.”

“He is right, Skitter,” Lung growled the word.  “I can hear him.”

Lung was looking the way we’d come.

Scion, here.  On this floor.  I thought I could see the golden light, but it might have been a spot in my vision from looking at Lung with his burning hands.

If we go, there won’t be any escape routes.  No exits.

It was as insane as anything Satyr was doing.  Everything rational said to go upstairs, to find our way to the doorway, hope that Scion was still half-blind, still holding back.

But I turned, running for the stairwell with the Case-fifty-threes, away from Scion.

I ran hard enough that I couldn’t spare the breath.

I spoke with my swarm.

Go upstairs, if you want to go.

Give them a way out.

I could hear the others behind me, at varying distances.  I could sense Satyr’s group with my swarm.  They held their ground as Scion approached.

I don’t understand.

The others were following.

If you come, there’s no way out.  This isn’t even a hail mary, it’s a hope that there’s maybe something we can do.  A chance buried in a chance.

We came face to face with the group that had been working their way through the steel.  A mole-man, an ‘extreme deviation’ case that seemed to be made up of lasers, with her petrified body parts capping the ends.

And others, dead.  Satyr’s clones littered the area, where they’d brutally fought and killed several of the digging capes.  Where they’d died, they’d withered.

With Scion on our heels, we couldn’t afford the time to fight.

Lung, Shadow Stalker and Rachel tackled the ones who remained.  A crossbow bolt delivered to the cranium of the laser-girl, dogs attacking the mole-man.  Lung’s claws and flames to assist with both.

Without my asking, Cuff jumped into the hole.  Imp followed.

One by one, we passed inside.

Golden light flared in the massive room we’d just left behind.  No rumble, no devastation, nothing of the sort.

But I could guess what had happened.

Even if I didn’t understand it.

Golem was blocking off the path to us, while others made their way down.  Lung, Canary, then Rachel and her dogs.  Hands of concrete barred the way, and two larger hands extended from the column, fingers knitting together to form a fence.

It wouldn’t hold Scion for seconds, but it was something.

Three of us remained.  Golem, getting ready to descend, me, watching the rear, and Shadow Stalker.

Our eyes met.

She bolted, disappearing through the wall.

I headed down, with Golem following right behind.

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Extinction 27.1

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The news came through the earbuds, and it was like a shockwave rippled through our assembled ranks.  Some of the strongest of us dropped to their knees, staggered, or planted their feet further apart as though they were bracing against a physical impact.

The one Azazel that was still in the area landed atop one of Bohu’s buildings, nearly falling as a section slid off to drop to the empty street below.  It found its footing and roosted there.

The pilot couldn’t fly, and the A.I. wasn’t willing or able to take over.

The other capes were talking, shouting, asking questions, sometimes to nobody in particular.  With the blood churning in my ears, I couldn’t make out the words.  I’d used my bugs to find Hookwolf’s core, but they’d been decimated twice over in the process, and I wasn’t interested in trying to use them to figure out what was being said.

I could guess.

I raised my arms, then found myself unsure what to do with them.  Hug them against my body?  Hit something?  Reach out to someone?

I let my hands drop to my sides.

I opened my mouth to speak, to shout, to cry out, swear at the overcast sky above us.

Then I shut it.

There were no words.  Anything I could do or say felt insignificant in the grand scheme of it all.  I could have used every bug in the city to utter something, something meaningful or crude, and it still would have felt petty.

I looked at the others.  Clockblocker was with Kid Win and Vista, Crucible and Toggle were nearby, on the back of a PRT van, bandaged.  They were looking over their shoulders at the screen mounted on the wall of the van.  Footage, covering ruined landscapes, and what had used to be the United Kingdom.

Parian and Foil were hugging.  Odd, to see Foil hunched over, leaning on Parian for support, her forehead resting at the corner of Parian’s neck and shoulder.  The crossbow had fallen to the ground, forgotten.

I wanted something like that.  To have a team close, to hold someone.  I hadn’t had something like that in a good while.

Chevalier was a distance away, his cannonblade plunged into the ground so he didn’t need to hold it, a phone to his ear.  He was talking, giving orders, and demanding information.

Revel was stock still, not far from him.  I watched as she stepped back, leaning against a wall, then let herself slide down until she was sitting on the street.  She placed her head in her hands.

I’d never known her to show any weakness.  She’d always been on the ball, always the leader.  I knew how much concussions sucked, and I’d seen her carry on and contribute to the Behemoth fight when she was reeling from one.

It hit me harder than I might have expected, to see that.

Tecton was standing a distance away, almost frozen, his eyes on the screen of his armband.  Golem did the same, but he wasn’t still.  He paced, looking around for guidance and finding none, then turned back to the screen, watching.

Glancing at the images from a distance, I could see the figure, the speck visible on the long range camera, surrounded by a golden nimbus.

I wasn’t close enough to make out details.  Only staccato flares of golden-white light.  On the third, the screens fizzled, showing only brief gray static, then darkness.

Another target hit.  He’d taken his time on that one, measured the attacks.

I took out my earbud before the report could come in.  Not my focus right now.

Instead, I reached for my phone.  I dialed the Dragonfly.

Would the A.I. be able to cope?  Saint had apparently pulled something.

If there was any hint he fucked us here, he’d pay for it.

The phone responded with a message.  An ETA.

My eyes turned to Rachel.  She was more agitated than Golem, her attention on her dogs.  She used a knife to cut away the excess flesh and retrieve the animals from the placenta-like sacs within their bodies, and the actions were aggressive, vicious, savage.  Her expression was neutral, but I could see the way the muscles shifted in her back, beneath the sleeveless t-shirt she wore, the tension, the way she was hunched over.

The attitude fit the Bitch I’d been introduced to, way back when I’d first joined the Undersiders, not the Rachel I’d come to know, who’d found a kind of peace.

Angry, defensive, bewildered.  Scared of a world she didn’t comprehend.  Aggressiveness was the default, the go-to route when there weren’t any answers.

It dawned on me.  I sympathized.  Given a chance, given something to do in that same vein, hacking through dead meat with a knife for some defined purpose, I might have acted exactly the same way.

She flinched as I approached, as if I were invading her personal space.  When she turned and glanced at me out of the corner of one eye, glowering, the tension faded.

I drew my own knife and started helping.  Bugs flowed into the gap and gave me a sense of where the sac was.  I was able to cut without risking cutting the dog inside.  It helped that my knife was sharp.

We were both sweating by the time we finished.  Rachel had already been sweating from more physical exertion, and her hair was stuck to her shoulders at the ends.  The German Shepherd got free, walked a polite distance away and then shook herself dry.

I looked at my phone, my gray gloves crimson with the dog’s blood.  There were incoming messages.  Updates on the damage, the disaster, and on Scion’s current location.

I ignored them, looking for the Dragonfly’s status.

Minutes away.  It had already been headed into the area by default, tracking me by my GPS, ready to maintain a constant distance until I was prepared to call for it.

That was fine.  I started walking down the length of the street, my back to the others, to the Azazels and the heroes.  Rachel fell into step just a bit behind me, her dogs and Bastard accompanying us.

Parian and Foil were still hugging.  I paused as we passed them, tried to think of how to word the invitation.

Parian’s eyes weren’t visible, hidden behind the lenses on the white porcelain mask she wore.  I hadn’t thought she was looking at me, but she shook her head a little.

Good.  Easier.  I left them behind.

The Dragonfly started to land in an open area, an intersection of two streets.  Moments later, the ground began to crumble.  The craft shifted position, coming perilously close to striking a building as it avoided falling into the hole that had appeared in the street.  A trap.

Rachel boarded the craft.  As I waited for the dogs and Bastard to join us, I looked into the pit.  As deep as a six or seven story building was tall.

I turned away, boarding the Dragonfly.  I plotted a course, then took manual control of the craft.

The A.I. was better at flying than I was, but flying meant I didn’t have to think.  Didn’t have to worry about what I was about to find out.

Rachel didn’t seat herself at the bench along the wall, or even at the chair behind mine.  She sat down beside me, on the floor of the Dragonfly, her back against the side of my seat, the side of my leg, staring out the narrow side window.  It was physical contact, reassurance, seeking that same reassurance from me.  Her dogs settled on either side of her, Bastard resting his head on her lap.

We had the whole country to cross.  Every few minutes brought more visuals, more reminders of what had occurred.  Highways grew choked with cars.  Countless vehicles had stopped at the sides of roads, at the edges of fields and at the fringes of small towns.

Innumerable people running, seeking escape.  Except there wasn’t anyplace good to escape to.

No.  That wasn’t true.  There was.

But the degree of the damage done was becoming clear.  Before we even reached the East coast, I could see the damage done to the landscape.  Smoke was only just settling around the cracks and fissures, fallen bridges and ruined highways.  People were making concerted attempts to move, to leave, but every step of the way brought more difficulties, more forced detours.  Some had abandoned cars altogether, wading or swimming across rivers to make their way.

Every step of the trip revealed more devastation, successively more vehicles choking roads and highways, forging paths around impassable roads.  More and more people were forging ahead on foot, in crowds, because walking was faster than travel by car.

More helicopters, marked with red crosses, had taken to the skies.  Travel by ambulance wasn’t doable.

This was one place.  One moment’s attack.  The display in the cockpit was showing more locations hit.  Libya, Russia, France, Sweden, Iran, Russia again, China…

Time passed.  Forty-five minutes from the point in time I started paying attention to the clock, searching for a yardstick to try to track the scale of what I was seeing on the surface.  How much worse did things get in five more minutes of traveling?  In ten?  It all seemed to get exponentially worse as the Dragonfly took flight.  It wasn’t just that we were getting closer to the point where the attack had hit.  Enough time had passed that people could react, now, realizing just how severe this was.  All of the power of Behemoth, mobility almost on par with Khonsu.

The psychological toll of a Simurgh attack.

These were the people with a strategy.  Doing just what I’d be doing if I were one of the unpowered.  The world was doomed, so they sought to flee to another world.  Problem was, there were tens of millions of them, and the escape routes were scarce at best.

The best known escape route: Brockton Bay.

I felt my heart sink as we approached the coast.  Mountains I’d grown up with weren’t there.  I let the autopilot take over as we got closer, approaching an airspace choked by rescue aircraft.

I didn’t trust my own hands.

It had collapsed.  The blast had only struck the northern edge of Brockton Bay, then changed orientation, striking through the bay itself to slice through the very foundation the city sat on.  Everything had been dropped a solid thirty or forty feet.  Tall buildings had collapsed and only the squatter, sturdier structures and those fortunate enough to come to rest against other buildings were still mostly erect.

Folding and collapsing, the entire city had been shattered, no section of the ground more than twenty-five feet across remained fully intact.  The landscape rose and fell like waves, petrified and left frozen in time.

The portal tower had fallen, but the portal remained there, oddly bright, too high to reach on foot.  Work crews were struggling to erect something beneath, so the civilians could finish their journeys.  The new arrivals were alternately joining in with the construction and making their way inside by way of rope ladders.

Elsewhere, there were capes and rescue crews trying to contain the fallout around the scar.  A structure had been raised to seal it off, but the collapse of the city had released the contents.  A lot of containment foam was being deployed to slow the spread of a pale patch of earth, and there was one spot of fire that didn’t seem to be going out.

But the most eye-catching thing was a thin, scintillating forcefield that was holding off the water.  It was taller than any building that had stood in the city, an artificial dam.  Every few minutes, it flickered for a tenth of a second, and water would flood through to seep into the gaps and fissures.  In time, I suspected, the water would cover everything in the area but the tallest buildings and the hills.  Arcadia High might stick around.  Maybe.

I recognized the rainbow hues.  It was the same force field that had been intended to protect the Protectorate headquarters.  Leviathan had torn the structure apart at the roots, and the tidal wave had knocked it into the city proper.  In the time since I’d left, they’d repurposed the fallen structure and the forcefield setup.

Not, apparently, to try to block Scion’s attack.  No.  This was more to stop the water, to break that initial wave, so it wouldn’t simply sweep the ruins out to sea.

I could only hope they’d done similar things elsewhere, to minimize the damage.

We circled the city twice before I gave the go-ahead for the A.I. to start descending.

My second sense extended through the area as we approached the ground, extending out to the bugs that were scattered throughout the ruined, shattered city.  I immediately set them to work, searching, scanning, investigating.

I changed the course, dictating a final, slow, sweep of the city.

Not everyone had made it.  Stupid to think they might.

My dad’s house was gone, collapsed.  Nobody inside.

Winslow High, gone.

The mall, the library, Fugly Bob’s, the boat graveyard, my old hideout, gone.

My old territory, unrecognizable.  The Boardwalk was underwater now.

It didn’t even take him seconds to do.

Too many dead, not enough who were merely wounded and unable to walk.  Humans were so fragile in the end.  I stopped the Dragonfly and stepped out to seek out the first wounded.  My bugs signaled rescue teams to get their attention.

The wounded here could have been my dad’s coworkers.  People he went out to drinks with.  They could have been Charlotte’s underlings.

So easy, in the midst of it all, to lose track of the fact that these were people.  People with families, friends, with dreams, lives and goals.

Golem had said something like that, hadn’t he?

How many people had simply been erased in the wake of something this random, so instantaneous?  So inexplicable?  I still wasn’t sure what had happened.  Tattletale was supposed to fill people in, but she hadn’t gotten in contact with me.

Or had she?  I’d taken my earbud out.  I looked to my phone, looked for transmissions.

A burst of messages, following just after takeoff.  From the Chicago Protectorate, people who might have been my teammates if I’d ever been inaugurated.  More messages, from Chevalier and the Brockton Bay teams.

I didn’t read them all.  My eyes on the phone, I pointed the search and rescue to the next batch of wounded.  I knew it was cold, but the corpses would have to wait.  There were living people to find.

There were no shortage of corpses.  The number of living people, by contrast, well… we’d see what happened in the next twenty-four hours.

The number of messages declined about thirty minutes after takeoff, then stopped altogether.  Everyone who might have wanted to talk to me had found other things that needed doing.  Other priorities, personal or professional.

Which was exactly why I was here.  I’d just arrived at that conclusion earlier than they had.  I put my phone away.

My mouth was pressed into a firm line as I helped the rescue workers.

We lifted a corner of a second floor’s floor, making room for someone get under and start retrieving a pair of women.  Rachel whistled and pointed, and her German Shepherd seized the floor in its jaws.

The rescue workers seemed to hesitate with the dog’s presence, so I took the lead, crawling inside on my stomach.  I used my hands with the arms on my flight pack to move enough debris that we could slide the second woman out.

There were more.  Almost without thinking about it, I let myself slide back into the mindset I’d held for the past two years.  Sublimating what I wanted to do in favor of doing what needed to be done.

Minutes ran into one another as we worked.  I could see Rachel growing progressively more short-tempered, slower to give the orders, hanging back, rushing with the jobs.

That ended when we rescued a child that had a puppy wrapped in her arms.  She clutched the limp animal like it was a security blanket, not crying, not speaking.  She only stared at the ground, coughing hoarsely whenever she had to move.  Her parents had been on either side of her, and neither had made it.

The paramedics fit her with an oxygen mask, but they failed to pry the animal from her arms.

I looked at Rachel, but she only shook her head.

Rachel’s power healed animals, but this one was gone.

From the moment we left that girl to be loaded onto a stretcher and carried off to firmer ground, Rachel moved a little more quickly, a little more decisively.

We finished with one site where the ground had collapsed and people had fallen into a depression, and then moved on to the next area.  Some heroes were working alongside the authorities to try to rescue people from a building that had partially tipped over.

Clockblocker was there, along with Vista.  I joined my powers to theirs in finding people and opening the way.  Frozen time was used on panels, which were subsequently layered, so that one could offer support if another stopped working prematurely.  Vista reinforced areas, then opened doorways, as I designated rooms where people were trapped within.

A golden light streaked across the sky in the wake of Scion’s flight, just along the horizon.  A thinner beam being directed from Scion to the ground as he passed.

The aftershock of his passing took time to reach us.  Steam started to billow, but the forcefield absorbed it.

The shuddering of the ground was more problematic.  The entire city rumbled in response to the distant attack, a blow that was no doubt slicing deep into the earth’s crust, forcing everything to resettle.

The building we were working on was among those things that resettled.  I watched as the building started to slide where it was resting against the building beside it, slowly descending, building speed.

My flight pack kicked in, and I flew through a window.  I could feel the glass scrape against my scalp and the fabric of my costume.

I found one person, a twenty-something guy, took hold of their wrist, and pulled them behind me, running and using my flight pack at the same time.

Tearing him through the window meant slashing him against the shattered glass, and the weight wasn’t something I could manage with my flight pack.  The building fell down around the people on the ground as I fell too far, too fast.

The wing on my flight pack was still broken.  Couldn’t trust the propulsion.

I let him fall into a tree instead, from a solid two stories above, and then focused the rest of my energy into pulling out of the plunge.

The building was still crumbling as I landed a distance away.  The rumble brought other, smaller structures down.  I stood and watched as it continued its course.

There’d been seven more people to rescue inside.  The other buildings in the area that had been caught up in the domino effect had contained three more.  That was just in my range.  How many more were dying as he continued towards the mainland, cutting deep into the plate of land that the landmass was perched on?

He hadn’t even been near us.  Closer to New York or Philadelphia than anything.  More lives taken, purely collateral.

When the dust settled, I moved in to help the people who had been on the ground.  Vista and Clockblocker had protected most, between a dome and a shelf of land to provide shelter.  Rachel, for her part, had helped others run in time, snatching them up with her dogs, but I counted three more dead, one dying.

Seeing them like that, bleeding, still warm, it caught me off guard.  A kind of anxiety rose in the pit of my stomach, like an impulse to do something coupled with the frustration of knowing that everything I could manage to come up with was futile, hopeless.  I either couldn’t do anything or I couldn’t think of what to do.  It put me in mind of being back at high school, before I had my powers.  Of being a child, powerless and unable to act.

I saw the image of Parian holding Foil in my mind’s eye, and it was joined by an almost sick feeling of mingled relief and fear.  I knew exactly what I wanted and I was terrified to seek it out.

I could feel that same impatience Rachel had expressed earlier, but I couldn’t turn my back on this.  I got the guy out of the tree and found him okay, but for a broken arm.  He didn’t thank me, but I let myself chalk that up to him being in shock.  I almost stumbled over to the latest injured and I attended to the wounded until the medics pulled themselves together, got organized and relieved me.

Then I backed away, flexing my hands, feeling how stiff they were, battered by my attempts at moving things, at pushing things aside.  My gloves, too, were stiff, crusted with dried blood, layered with dirt and fresh blood.

I looked at Rachel, and saw her gazing at the portal.

I didn’t really have a home anymore.  Knowing my old house was leveled, that the cemetery where my mother had been laid to rest was gone, and that I’d never really come back here to hang out with the Undersiders… it hurt in a way that was very different from a knife wound, being shot or being burned.  A crushing feeling, more like.  But it was tough for reasons beyond the fact that I considered it home.  I’d relinquished Brockton Bay, and my concern right now was more to do with the residents than the place itself.

I didn’t have a home in Chicago.  Not in the jails, either.

But Rachel had forged a home for herself, and it had been in arm’s reach since we’d arrived.

Bastard and the dogs seemed to know I’d decided before I said or did anything.  Rachel and I fell in step behind them.

Rachel mounted Bastard before we got to the portal.  The efforts to erect a proper support beneath the portal had been set back by Scion’s strafing run, which left the portal hanging in the sky.  Train tracks extended out from the portal in every direction, twisted and broken where collapsing ground had pulled other sections away.

There had been a tower erected around the portal, but it had collapsed into shambles as the ground dropped.  Now they were using the pieces to form the general structure for a tower of ramps that would lead up to the portal.

Bastard picked up speed as he approached the tower, then set his claws on one of the ramps.  The tower wavered perilously as Bastard leaped up to a higher point, coming to a rest on the very top of the dilapidated structure.  It didn’t look like there were nearly enough reinforcements, and I could see everyone present tense as they saw the mutated wolf’s weight come to rest.

That tension redoubled as the wolf flexed its muscles, hunching down, and then leaped, more up than across, to get to the portal itself.  A few planks of wood broke in that sudden, powerful movement, and one rail of the train track fell free as the wolf scrabbled for a grip on the ground beneath the portal.

When she was gone, the people beneath simply resumed work, heads down, dirty, defeated.

I took flight, entering the portal for the first time.

Earth Gimel.

The tower that contained the portal had a counterpart in Gimel, a matching tower, tall and riddled with train tracks, like a train station designed by Escher, tall rather than squat, with wide doorways for the trains to exit, and complicated reinforcements for the aboveground tracks, positioned so as not to interfere with the tracks below.

I flew out through one of those gates, catching up with Rachel.

Trains extended in every direction from the portal, on tracks that extended out into the middle of nowhere, into pristine forest and mountains.  They were long, almost absurdly long.

Then again, the whole idea had been to have instant evacuation.  Rather than have people make their way to trains, they’d had eight trains that simply spanned the length of Brockton Bay, so any given individual had to find the nearest train car and make their way down the aisle to an empty seat.

Around the tower, a small, odd settlement had sprung up.  All of the sensibility of the city, but contained to a small area.  Tall buildings, wide streets, and a look that matched up with a city proper rather than a smaller town.  It was as though someone had cut and pasted the big city into the middle of this landscape.

On any other day, it would have been energizing, the fresh air, the sunny day, the green and the blue water of the bay, subtly different from the shape of the bay I knew.  But today wasn’t that day.

People at benches were clipping the corners off of refugee’s drivers licenses and trading them for food rations and tents.  Everything was prepped, set up in advance, and people were being orderly, even though the lines were so lengthy it looked like it might be hours before they got what they wanted.

Those that already had their kits were setting up or settling into spaces they’d designated for themselves.  Some clustered close to the settlement, while others spaced out, where they’d have more elbow room.  The tents were identical, dotting the area.  The kits, apparently, included signs, and these same signs listed family names and details.

John and Jane Roe.  1 Diabetic.

Hurles family. 
Two infants.

Jason Ao.  Looking for Sharon Ao my wife.  A crude picture was drawn beside the message.

I scanned the signs, looking for names I might recognize.  I headed in the direction Rachel had gone, but I moved carefully, making a mental note of everything I saw.

It was an extension of what I’d seen back in Los Angeles.  People trying to cope against something where coping was a pipe dream.  There were some breaking down in tears, people getting angry, those who had withdrawn into themselves.

In each expression, there was something that echoed my own feelings.  A part of me wanted to hide from that, but another part of me knew I couldn’t.

It wouldn’t do any good, but I made a mental note of faces, of the pain, the loss.  People who’d been removed from their homes and had all hopes for the future dashed.  If I ever had the opportunity to get revenge, to get back at Scion for doing this, I wanted to remember these faces, find just a little more strength, make it hurt that much more.

But I wasn’t one for simply wanting to help, paying lip service and promising vengeance felt hollow.  Instead, as a token gesture, something that might not even be noticed, I gathered up every mosquito in range and proceeded to murder them with other bugs.  I kept the biting flies.

I wrapped the bugs around me.  Fuck PR.  The faint weight of the insects was reassuring, like a blanket.  A barrier against the world, like Tecton’s armor or Rachel’s intimidating nature.

A sign caught my eye.  I stopped, looking over the people in the small campsite.

Barnes.

No further details, no requests.  I almost hadn’t recognized them.

Alan, Emma’s dad, had lost weight since I’d seen him last.  He’d noticed me, and looked up, staring, his eyes red.  His wife sat in a lawn chair beside him, while Emma’s older sister sat on a blanket at her mother’s feet, her mother resting one hand on her head.

Zoe’s -Emma’s mom’s- eyes were wet.  Emma’s sister looked equally upset.

Emma wasn’t in sight.  I could guess what they were crying about.

Alan was staring at me now, and there was an inexplicable accusation in the look.  His wife took his hand and held it, but he didn’t move his eyes a fraction.

When Anne, Emma’s sister, looked up at me, there was a glimmer of the same.  A hint of blame.

Emma hadn’t made it.  How?  Why?  Why could they all leave while Emma wouldn’t be able to?  I might have thought Emma had been somewhere out of reach, but that didn’t fit.  There would be no certainty she was dead.  They’d be putting her name on a sign and hoping she turned up?

And why would they blame me?  For failing to stop this from happening?

Fuck that.

I turned and walked away.

Once I was out of their immediate vicinity, I took a few running steps and let my flight pack lift me up.  Better than zig-zagging between the campsites.

I floated over a sea of people with their heads down, their expressions alternately emotional and rigidly stoic in defeat.  Hundreds or thousands of tents surrounded the area, and string fences no higher than one’s calf bounded off each of the sites.

Rachel had made her way outside the city limits, past even the tents that were set a five or six minute walk from any of the others.  I followed her over the hill, to another small set of buildings.  Cabins set on what had been Captain’s Hill in Earth Bet.  I knew they were Rachel’s because of the dogs that were scattered around the premises, a small crowd milling around Bastard and the other mutant canines.

The largest cabin had three large bison skulls placed over the cabin door.  Bastard and the other dogs had been tied up outside like horses, left to shrink, with a trough of water to drink from.

I landed, and I was struck by the realization that my flight pack might not be so easy to recharge, now.  I still had the spare, fully charged, but Defiant might have his hands full, and the infrastructure or resources might not be available.

It was a minor thing.  Inconsequential, in terms of everything that was going on.  It wasn’t like the flight pack was going to matter a bit against Scion.  But it was one more reminder of what was truly happening.

I stopped and turned to look over the landscape.  I turned my head right until the small settlement and the sea of tents wasn’t quite visible, then turned it to the left to do the same.  Focusing on the nature, the untouched wilderness.

Is this what Brockton Bay will look like, if we can’t win this fight?  How many years does it take for the last building to collapse, for dirt and grass to drown away any and all signs we were ever there?

It was a daunting thought, a heavy thought that joined countless others.

The dogs barked as I approached on foot.  I kept calm and waited.

I recognized the girl with the funny colored eyes and darker skin from Rachel’s hideout.  I’d met her on my last week in Brockton Bay.  With her presence alone, the animals collectively quieted.  A single dog barked one last time, with two others reflexively following with barks of their own, but that ended it.  The girl held the door open from me, and the dogs didn’t protest as I made my way inside.

Rachel was sitting on a couch with dogs arranged around her.  Angelica was afforded a bit of favoritism, and received a touch of extra attention from her master.  She, in turn, was extending a gentleness to Rachel that went beyond Angelica’s poor health and the glacial movements that accompanied chronic pain.  Rachel looked defensive, her eyes cast down at the ground.  Something more severe than the whole Scion business.

Charlotte, Forrest, and Sierra were present too, keeping their distance, keeping silent as we met again for the first time in over a year and a half, not moving from where they stood.

The kids gathered at the far end of the room, silently occupying themselves with a mass of puppies.  I recognized Mason and Kathy, and didn’t recognize Ephraim at first glance.  Jessie was conspicuously absent, but nobody seemed to be reacting to that gap.  She’d left on her own, maybe.  Found family.

Aidan sat off on his own, a pigeon sitting on his knee.  He opened and closed his hands, and the bird hopped from the one knee to the other, then back again.  Something had happened there, but it wasn’t a focus.  Not right now.

Tattletale sat in her computer chair, but the computer screens were dark, the computers themselves unlit, quiet and still.

I didn’t like the emotion I saw on her face any more than I liked what I saw with the others.

Pity.  Sympathy.

It wouldn’t be Grue.  No.  That didn’t fit.  He’d been flying back, and he hadn’t been so far away that he’d be in the path of danger.

Not Imp either.  Parian and Foil had been fine the last time I’d seen.

No.

Tattletale was best situated to focus on Brockton Bay.  Who had made it.  Who hadn’t.  And there was only one Brockton Bay resident who truly mattered, that hadn’t been accounted for.

I felt a lump in my throat growing with every heartbeat, expanding every time I tried to swallow and failed.

Without waiting for a response, for any words of pity, or even verification, I turned and pushed my way out the door, taking flight.

I flew.  Up over the bay, away from the city, away from this alien Earth.  I blinded myself with my own swarm, drowned everything out with their drone, their buzz, their roar.

All of this time, the sacrifices, the loss of security.

The loss of me.

To do what?  To stop this?

It had happened despite our attempts to the contrary.

To reconnect with my dad?

We had reconnected.  I’d come clean about who and what I was.  We’d built up a relationship that was new, accounting for the fact that we were changed people.  Now, as I continued to fly, to put distance between myself and everything, I wasn’t sure it had been worth it.

The wind blew my hair, and I let my swarm move away, revealing the open ocean all around me.  There was only the wind and the sound of the water to hear.  The smell of salt water I’d come to miss.

My dad was gone, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back and get verification.  I couldn’t handle it if there wasn’t verification.

I was cognizant of the fuel gauge, of the dwindling power of the flight pack.  I knew I’d have to go back.  I knew there was stuff to do.

But I’d spent the last age trying to build towards something, to prepare for the pivotal moment.  I’d played my role, helped stop Hookwolf.  I’d communicated with Foil to urge her to play possum, tracking where the enemy was and what they could see.  It had led to us taking down Gray Boy and Siberian, trapping Jack.

And now the death toll was climbing.  Scion continued his rampage, and I hadn’t even had the guts to own up to the failure.

I couldn’t bring myself to go back and do something minor.  It was arrogant, proud, but I couldn’t bring myself to do search and rescue while the population was steadily scoured from the planet, the major cities wiped out like a human child might kick down anthills.

There was nothing in the worlds that I wanted more than a hug and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for one.  My dad and Rachel were the only ones I could trust to offer one without further questions, without platitude or commentary, and I couldn’t get to Rachel without going through the others.  My dad was even farther from my reach.

The mask I’d erected to see things through to this point was cracking and I couldn’t bear to show anyone my face.

The fuel gauge ticked down.  I noted it reaching a critical point, where reaching land before I ran out might be difficult, if not impossible.

The sky was darkening.  No clouds, no city lights.  A cloud passed over sunset and the moon overhead, and it was startling just how dark things became.

A fluorescent glare cut through the darkness.  My hair and my swarm stirred.  I could feel the breeze from behind me.

I didn’t turn around.

“Your call,” Tattletale said, her voice quiet.  “I’d like you to have my back, but I understand if-”

I shook my head, my hair flying out to either side.  I turned around and floated over to the doorway that hung in the air.

I set foot on solid ground, and felt weirdly heavy when I did.  It took me a moment to find my balance.

Tattletale caught me as the door closed beside us.  Then she wrapped her arms around me in a hug.  Odd, that she was shorter than me.  When did that happen?  I could remember her giving me a one-armed hug once, a long time ago.  She’d been just a little taller than me then.  Just the right height for a hug.  Now we were like Foil and Parian.  I was taller, receiving comfort from someone shorter than me.

I’d underestimated her.  She didn’t ask any questions or offer any sympathy.

“They’re all here,” she said.  “Ready?”

I hesitated, then spoke.  My voice was rough.  “Ready.”

We didn’t budge.  She didn’t break the hug.

Fuck it all,” I muttered.  My voice was still weird with emotion.  Maybe I’d keep my mouth shut at this meeting.

“Fuck it,” she agreed.

That said, we broke apart, took a second to breathe, and then made our way into the meeting room.

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Interlude 26

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

The entity swims through the void and it remembers.  Everything is stored, dating back to the very beginning.

In the beginning, a species chokes their gray planet.  Here and there, landmasses appear, created by inhabitants to trap or uncover the scarce food that exists, but the landscape is largely liquid, water thick with silt and other particles.  The creatures worm in and around one another, and the planet has as much space taken up by the creatures as there is space left for other things.

Each has evolved the same capacity to shift between layers, to explore the alternate versions of this same world, and each of these other worlds are choked by more of the same creatures.  Still, they continue to reproduce, and in their spread, they have eradicated virtually every source of food from every world they can access.  The species is so numerous that it is nearly impossible to find space to surface at the uppermost areas of the water, where they might absorb starlight and radiation.  What little energy they do manage to acquire in the process is lost in struggles to stay at the top and the continued efforts to avoid being pushed and pulled down by the coils of their neighbors.

Tangle.

The ancestor is aware of this, fully cognizant that the fight over resources will soon reach a climax, and there will be a war where every creature fights for itself.  These wars are not graceful or sensible.  The strongest can be torn apart as easily as the weakest.  Once it starts, it will only end when a meager few remain.

Then, as they retreat to individual worlds to mend and restore themselves, the prey will multiply, and there will be a span of feasting for those lucky enough to survive.

With that, the process will begin anew.  The same things will occur.  This has happened no less than one hundred and seventy times, with little variation.  Each time it occurs, realities are left dead, the grace period before resources run out once again is shorter.  That the number of worlds exceed the number of particles that might exist in one world’s universe is inconsequential; the creatures multiply exponentially.

They are running out of time.

The ancestor knows this, and it isn’t satisfied.  It knows its kin aren’t satisfied either.  They are quiet, because there is nothing to say.  They are trapped by their nature, by the need to subsist.  They are rendered feral, made to be sly and petty and cruel by circumstance.  They are made base, lowly.

With all of this in mind, the ancestor broadcasts a message.  Each member of the species is made up of cells, of shards, and a typical broadcast is a simple concept, a single message nuanced by a million individual influences brought to bear by the shards that made up the speaker.

Proposal.

The message is voiced with violence, across innumerable wavelengths and means, through heat and motion and electromagnetics and light.  Each shard cluster retains different abilities, minor tools for self-defense and offense, for finding prey and helping the ancestor make its way in the cold gray mud.  In communicating, it turns the vast majority of these resources outward, to transmit the signal, and each form of communication has different ideas, different subtleties.  In this, a greater, complex communication is achieved.

The act of speaking nearly kills it, it is so starved for energy.

It continues, and because this message is so different from the screams and cries over food and territory and everything else, the others listen.  They expend their own energy to transmit it further.  The idea spreads across every possible world like a ripple.

A species needs to continue evolving.  It needs conflict and variation.

Failure to meet these objectives leads to self-destruction.

By the time the ancestor is finished communicating, it is depleted, unable to even move as it is shoved by the bodies of others that swim past.

Then, in bits and pieces, it is devoured.

Devoured not for energy, but for material.

The shards are absorbed, made a part of the eater, and the ones who eat swell in size.  Unsustainable sizes, but they grow nevertheless.

All across the possible worlds, the creatures turn on one another.  It is a war, but it takes a different shape, a different form.  This time they are not eating for energy, but to stay afloat and stay large enough that they are not subsumed by a greater whole.

The gray planet makes several revolutions around its star before things reach a climax.  Many of the creatures are so large they cannot subsist in one world alone.  They weave into one world and worm out into another.  Every flank is vulnerable to another of its kind lunging out into a world and attacking, consuming whole chunks at a time.  Heat, cold, electricity and mental manipulations are leveraged in these struggles, slowing their targets down enough for them to wrap themselves around, shear off a section to take into themselves.

More revolutions, and only a handful remain.  Energy is scarce, even with the individual bodies taking up whole oceans of the thin gray mud, absorbing all of the light and radiation they can.  Countless worlds have grown dim, absorbed of all possible life and nutrients in the course of struggles and fighting.

The smallest ones recognize the fact that they don’t have energy, that it would cost them all too much if they continued fighting this uphill battle.  They submit, and are consumed.

Two remain.

They spend time reorganizing themselves, shifting the sheer masses of shards they have acquired into forms useful for another task.

Once they are reformed, they leech all of the heat and energy from countless worlds and concentrate it in a single reality.  The energy boils the oceans of silt-choked waters, disintegrates the landmasses.

Their bodies form into a large, complex shape, with only small fragments in this one world.  The extensions of those same fragments extend into other realms, in concentrated, specific shapes, made for a purpose: to survive the next step.

The energy is released, and the planet shatters.

The shattering is so extreme that it extends into other worlds, through the same channels that the fragments used to extend into other realities.  Every single one of the remaining habitable worlds is destroyed in the ensuing blast.

And the fragments radiate outwards, shedding and dropping their protective shells as they sail into the black, empty void.

Gestation.

Still flying through the void, the entity forms the word in the midst of its recollections.

They are children.  Offspring.  They travel the void, hoping to encounter another habitable world.

This is the beginning.

Countless perished, no doubt, in contact with lifeless moons, expending the last of their energy to search the possible iterations of that moon for life.  More die within moments of the detonation, their outer casing too damaged, vital processes separated from one another

But others made contact with other worlds.

A world with life rooted in landmasses, weathering brutal storms of caustic acid.  The one who arrives on that world struggles to find a means of survival.

It finds refuge in one of the dying plant structures, provides ambient heat to nourish it, so that the openings might close up and the shelter be made more secure.

The planet revolves around its star many times.

Many, many times.

The one that occupies the structure has bred, now, fragmented into clusters of shards that could occupy others.

Some shards have different focuses.  This is the experiment, the test.

Of these plants, some thrive.  Others die.

The creature tests different capacities, different clusters of shards.  It watches, observes and records events into memory.

It borrows of the conflict and stress of this new, alien species.  It borrows of the evolution, of the learning, of the crisis.  In some ways, it is a symbiote.  In others…

Parasite.

The fragments continue to divide, feasting on abundant resources, on light and radiation and the alien food sources it has started to learn how to consume.  It spreads quickly now, across every possible variation of this world that sustains life.

It encounters another.  A later arrival to the same planet, a member of its own species, another that is multiplying and consuming and growing.  This new arrival chose a different means of survival, but it too chose a kind of parasitism.

They exchange shards where they meet.  In these shards are codified memories, as well as the most effective techniques they have observed.

The planetoid is small, the range of options limited.  A message is broadcast.  Mutual agreement.  They will move on.

Migration.

The process is similar.  Drawing themselves together.  There is cooperation, this time, as each shard returns to the source.  The hosts die in droves, and are absorbed for energy.

They gather into the same vast forms that span multiple realities, and they leech energy from other worlds to fuel their exit from a single one.  It takes time.

But something else occurs.  A broadcast from the other, followed by an attack.

A carefully measured attack.  The two creatures ruin one another with friction and pressure, burning hot, and shards are destroyed.  Many are partially destroyed.

The other creature joins shards together into combinations, discards and destroys.  Repeats the process.

New shards are created.  Different functions.  Forced mutation.

The end results parallel the studies the creatures have made of the plant life on this planet with its acid rain.

More blatant than intended in the beginning, but nothing lost.  New strengths, regarding growth and durability.

They concentrate the energy as they form themselves into an encasement around the small planetoid.

Shell.

The detonation of the small planet scatters the individual clusters of shards, and this time, they are better inured to the harsher elements of space.

So the cycle continues.

The next world encountered has sentient life, civilization.  A complicated, rich world.

It is a symbiosis, this time, more than parasitism.  The two species learn from one another.  The shards code the ‘technology’ of this new species into their memories.  They learn of warping space and gravity.

Until the species turns against them.  Those lucky enough to bind with the entity’s offspring war against those who do not.  Some seek to rule.

Monarchs.  The entity forms the thought, defining the memory.

The cycle is cut short by a forced exit, as the shards are rooted out and destroyed by the natives of this civilized world.  They meet, they bind and again they share ideas.  Richer perceptions, complex technologies and more are fashioned in the unity of three larger creatures.  It is through differences in the greater entities that a richness is created, new derivations, new connections that none would be capable of on their own.

The planet is expended, the offspring are cast off in every direction once again.

This time, they are capable of moving, of controlling their course.  Gravity, warping space.

The entity recalls all of this as it swims through the void and makes its way to the next target.  It can reach back into the depths of its memory to recall all of what came before.

Each time the cycle started anew, lessons had been learned, methods refined.  Each time, the spawn that are spewed out from the destroyed planet are more robust, larger, hosting innumerable memories.  Where memories fall in parallel, they are shared out, offered to others.

After more than three thousand cycles, there are safeguards, there are protections.  The arsenal of abilities, powers and protections the creature possesses have been built up.  The entity remembers past failures and has adapted so they will not happen again.

The entities travel with partners now, moving in spirals while maintaining a measured distance from one another.  Each is slightly different from the other, taking on a different role.  Attacker and defender, warrior and thinker, builder and destroyer.

This divide is so they are able to take a different stance, shape their shards in subtle ways and clarify the results when their shards are compared and joined once again – some shall be kept, others discarded.  Some will turn up interesting possibilities that can be explored when new shards are invented at the cycle’s end.

These individual focuses drive the pair, shape their tasks as they approach their destination.

The entity reaches out with clairvoyance, with precognition, and it views its destination.  It communicates, covering vast expanses of space, transmitting signals across channels formed of the very foundation of this universe.  These signals are broadcast only across specific realities, so that no aftereffects or lingering transmissions will contact a version of that world that hosts no life at all.

Destination.

Agreement.

Trajectory.

Agreement.

Each signal is nuanced, shaped with subtle details and clues by the trillions upon trillions upon trillions of individual shards that make up the entity.  Through these nuances, it conveys more information than an entire planet of sentient beings might in a hundred revolutions.

They have settled on a target.  Old lessons are remembered.  It is a planet of sentient lifeforms, more primitive than some the entities have run into, more advanced than others.  Social creatures, forming communities.  These societies teeter on fine balances, but they persevere nonetheless.  A world rife with conflicts, big and small.

Agitation.

The new hosts are to be bipeds, with a binary reproduction.  Not uncommon, and rich with potential.  Such a division and natural competition for reproduction fosters a natural evolution and development.  The entities will focus on them over any of the sub-species.

These bipeds raise structures of hard earth or plant matter for shelter against the elements, draping themselves in softer materials for further protection.  They shape the world around them, but are more immutable, unchanging in form.  Different from the entity, in many ways.

This was the stage in the cycle when the entity is most aware, most focused.  It observes the possible worlds and judges which would be best.

Colony, the entity voices the idea.

With that same signal, the various nuances suggest countless worlds that are to be removed from consideration.  Worlds without enough population.

Agreement, the response comes.

The entity’s counterpart is taking a passive role, investigating only to confirm, to validate.  This is concerning.  Where is the counterpart’s focus, if not on this vital decision?

Study reveals worlds with dominant belief systems, peaceful worlds, worlds crowded with twelve billion individuals.  Worlds with almost none.

The entity pares through these, deciding.

It investigates, and in the doing, it prepares some shards for analysis and understanding of this particular society and culture.  Language, culture, patterns of behavior, patterns of society.  This is something the counterpart should be emphasizing.

The process is interrupted by an arrival.

A member of their own species, approaching.  It was smaller, took a different form.  It used different means to travel.

This was what had distracted the counterpart.

Its ancestors had traveled a different path, easily hundreds of cycles ago, before the entities had begun traveling in pairs.  This new arrival had encountered different worlds, less worlds, and it had developed differently.

The lesser one crossed paths with the entity’s counterpart.  For a duration, they intertwined, meeting through multiple realities, their bodies rubbing and crushing against one another.

A sharing of details, a wealth of knowledge, from hundreds of cycles.  A sacrifice of the same.

The lesser one moves on, bloated with new shards and knowledge, but the counterpart flounders.

It sacrificed too much.

Concern.

Confident.

The counterpart is not worried.  The signal carries notes of hope for the future.  The counterpart will replenish its shards, its stores of knowledge, memories and abilities at the conclusion of this cycle, reuniting with the entity.

The counterpart is supposed to be the passive figure, the thinker, the planner, while this entity is the warrior, the protector.  The entity is forced to make up for the counterpart’s disability, to slow its advance through the void as they approach their destination and devote resources to analyzing, something the other should be doing instead.

The focus is on one reality.  They will subsume it first, then expand to others.  The most efficient route, achieving maximum amounts of conflict.  By testing their own shards against one another, they gather information.  The entity’s shards will fight among each other, and they will fight the counterpart’s, and they will steadily learn.

With a species such as these social bipeds, the entities can draw new conclusions, come up with new uses for shards.  It tracks and records details that allow it to shape new shards at the cycle’s conclusion.

But their new hosts are a weak species, fragile.  The abilities must be limited in scope.  Worlds that are too advanced would be too fragile, as advanced weapons eliminate too many, cut the process short.

Destination.

Agreement, the response is not so complex, is expressed in a softer, quieter manner.

Still, the pair have settled on a set of realities.

The entity focuses on one.  Enough individuals, natural conflict and confrontation.  A balance of physical and emotional stressors.  The environment is damaged, but not so much it would inhibit growth.

Hive.  The entity communicates the decision.

Agreement.  The counterpart grasps it immediately, knows which reality he means.

The focus changes.  An interplay of communications, one bouncing off the other, as they designate realities.  Each shard needs one, some shards need to cluster and reside across multiple realities.  They draw on these worlds for power, for energy, and thus fuel the techniques they have been coded with.

Each shard, in turn, needs a target.  The entity’s focus expands, designating likely partners.  Past mistakes have been accounted for, and the shards will connect in a covert manner.  They will reside in other worlds, uninhabited worlds, and they will remain cloaked and concealed in areas this new host species is unlikely to explore.

It is a negotiation.

Ownership here.

Claim there.

Territory here.

With each statement, they each catalogue the realities.  Similar realities are included together, for both the entities and the shards.  Too many complications and confusions arise when interacting with worlds that are exceedingly similar.  Not an effective form of conflict, when it is the same lessons learned over and over again.  It is better to connect them into groupings, limit exposure to each set of worlds.  One shard is capable of settling in a grouping of near-identical worlds, drawing energy from all of those worlds at once.

The entity looks to the future to check for danger.

Plague.

All signs point to the shards murdering their hosts.

The hosts must be protected, or this will be disastrous, counter-intuitive.  The entity adjusts the innate safeguards, protections to reflect the host species and their tolerances.  The bonding process will protect the host, where the host needs protection.  Shards that are capable of providing flame at will cannot burn the hosts, now.  Shards are reorganized, combined and clustered where necessary, to grant sufficient protection.

Infestation.

Better, but not perfect.  The entity refines the process, limits certain abilities, so they will not eradicate too many at a time.

Soft.  The broadcast is sent out to the counterpart, along with suggestions and tips on how to refine the shards.

Agreement, the counterpart accepts.

But the entity can still see fallout effects.  There are parallels in memory storage.  Not many, but there may be glimmers where the subject is capable of perceiving the information stored in the shard as the connections are formed.

For good measure, the entity breaks up one shard cluster, tunes it, then codes the effect into each and every shard.  It studies the host species further, refines, attunes.

It takes time, but the entity forms a sufficient safeguard.  The host species will forget any significant details.

The broken shard is cast off, joining countless others.  It will bond to a host.  The entity looks forward, checking.

After the target planet has revolved thirty-three times around its star, this shard will connect to a host.

A male guards his offspring, a female, with his size and bulk.  A group of hostile bipeds cluster around them.  They call out, making unusual loud sounds, suggesting intoxication.  One of the hostile ones gestures, gripping its male parts, pulling them free of their coverings.  A sexual gesture follows, waving the organ left and right, thrusting it into the empty air.

Sounds of amusement, laced with hostility.

The male and his offspring retreat as far against the nearest construction as they are able.

The shard connects, attaching to the male.

No.  It is ineffective.  The female is clearly more distressed.

Prey.

There is a way to maximize exposure to conflict.

The entity taps into its understanding of the bipeds and how they operate, recognizes the signs of distress, the nuances such things can have.

It views the future again, with changes made in the code.

This time, the shard settles in the male, then immediately shifts to the more distressed female.

Insinuation.  The shard connects to the host’s neural network.

The bond is created.

The shard opens the connection as the stress peaks, and the host doubles over in pain, bewildered, stunned.  The shard then forms tendrils that contact each individual in the area.  It retains traces of the entity’s tampering, of the studies in psychology, awareness and memory, and is quick to adapt.  It finds a manner in which it can operate, then alters itself, solidifying into a particular state.  The remainder of the functions are discarded, the ones in the shard itself are rendered inert to conserve power, while the ones in the host fall away, are consumed by the shard.  The host’s neural network changes once more.

The female disappears from the awareness of the hostile ones that surround it.

The entity looks to the future, to see if this is sustainable, efficient.

All seems well.

A view of other bondings suggests this emphasizes younger targets, particularly those in a middle stage of development, between a lesser phase and an adult phase.  Emotions are higher at that juncture, and the possibility of conflict increases further.

The entity allows for deeper connections to foster more conflict.  The underlying instructions are already present from previous cycles, and can be left largely alone.  These bipeds war with each other enough.  It will only serve to assist the most extreme cases.

Forget.  The entity informs its counterpart of the changes it made.

Agreement.  The counterpart acknowledges.

Emotion.  More changes.

Agreement.

Before the last response is received, the entity has already begun shedding shards that won’t prove useful or particularly problematic.  Shards for attack and defense, distributed over an even geography, an even timeline.

More complicated shards require more focus.  Ones that harbor stored memory of technology and development in past cycles are prepared so they might bond with a host and transmit that knowledge.

For others, there is no easy way to apply the contained knowledge, so they are coded to draw from the host’s recollection and awareness, or to search the entire planet for details and information on what it might be able to do.

Ones that alter the nature of the host in fundamental ways are planted throughout, so as to add more variables in how the others must adapt to them.  A host that chooses how gravity applies to it.  A host that can become a storm of friction, intensifying all friction in an area around it.  One that becomes immaterial.  Another that can make paths between realities, with safeguards to keep it away from ones the shards are rooted within.

The entity is approaching the galaxy cluster in question now, and it sees its counterpart doing the same, if at a slightly slower pace.  Both are trailed by a cloud of shards now, each cast off in such a way that it won’t reach its target location until a set time and date.

The entities begin to close their spiral dance, drawing together as much as they can with the counterpart struggling.

They approach their destination, and begin to disintegrate in great quantities, until thirty percent remains, twenty, ten, two…

It will take one hundred and sixty revolutions before their destination reality hits critical mass.

Three hundred and thirty-one revolutions before the shards reach a critical mass and enough information is gathered.  To look to the future and seek that information in advance would take too much energy.  To do this and fail would be a catastrophic setback in the cycles.

This suffices.  It spends the least energy for the maximum result.

The counterpart is descending, having selected a destination world.  It is hemorrhaging shards in clusters, due to the excessive exchange of shards with the lesser one, too soon before their arrival at their destination.  These shards are breaking off in huge volumes.

A check confirms these shards are coded, that everything is technically well.

Danger, the entity broadcasts.

Confident, the counterpart replies.

The counterpart remains secure.  Nothing to be done.

There is no more time to devote to the crisis.  The entity focuses on its destination, on the next part of the cycle.

The shards have largely been assigned to hosts.  They will remain latent, they will wait for the first crucial moment of crisis and use that to shape their function, to better assist their host.

It is impossible to check the exact circumstances for each event.  Some shards harbor particular concepts, and will shape their application to the host’s needs.  Others are coded with particular applications, and will either scan viable realities or the host’s frame of reference for how that application will come to pass.

Physical harm will grant physical assets, be it direct or abstract.  Immediate danger will nudge the shard towards defensive abilities.  Ranged attacks against living threats, an ability to shape or affect the environment against environmental dangers.

Successes will help refine the abilities, provide inspiration for the development of new shards.  Failures will help all the same.

In hosts, too, there will be variations.  The shards might seek out different hosts, if others are in range, as the perception-altering one did.  They will fragment and transmit to other hosts, as they grow and develop.

The entity is satisfied.  In terms of raw size, it is but a small fragment of what it once was, barely a cluster of shards now.  Its part in this phase of things is nearly done.

The next part of the cycle begins.

It chooses an unoccupied reality.  A barren planet.  Its perceptions focus on the landmasses in idle curiosity.  Different from the focus reality, but similar.

They have reached the solar system in question now.  They brush up against one another, and the entity shores up its counterpart where it can, sacrificing its own shards in the process.

Acceptance.  Gratitude.

The counterpart’s message is thin, but the entities are but a ten-thousandth of a percent of their original size.

It turns its attention to adapting.

In the course of thousands of cycles, the entities have refined their methodology.  There are no true points where they are vulnerable.

As the whole, as the entity, it is safeguarded by countless abilities, defenses, perceptions and options.  It is fat with the knowledge of every generation that came before, the mistakes, the problems, and the solutions.  While it travels the void, it is virtually untouchable.

But there have been times where the shards were vulnerable, after bonding with hosts.  Even now, there are dim possibilities that they might be rooted out.  There are issues where shards that have been coded to generate conflict could do too much damage, disrupting the cycle.

This is something that must be tended to.

The entity turns its attention briefly to their target reality, observes the various life forms.

Always, in the course of its examination of the possible futures, it was evaluating, checking to see what was necessary.

A quick glance into the future, not so deep a look as to expend too much of its remaining energy.  Conservation is key at this juncture, and from here on out.

The entity’s present configuration is satisfactory.  The chance the cycle can be interfered with has become infinitesimally small.

The shard that allows the entity to see the future is broken up, then recoded with strict limitations.  It wouldn’t do to have the capabilities turned against the entity or the shards.

The fragment it just used is sent off, directed to a small female.

The other fragments in that same cluster are retained.  To see the future is resource intensive, but the entity will harbor it as a safeguard.

More abilities are used to check, investigate, and then cast off.   The ability to communicate and receive signals is unnecessary now.  To transmit signals across wavelengths.  It, too, is intentionally crippled as an ability.  It would not do to have that one being used with regularity.  Such would be distracting for the entity and its counterpart.

When it knows the configuration is absolutely decided, it reaches for the last fragment it will cast off.  This one, too, it cripples, even largely destroys, so as to limit the host from using it in the same fashion.

In a haste to decide matters before it enters the stratosphere of that barren planet, the entity casts it off to a similar location as the future-sight ability.  A similar time, thirty-one revolutions from now.  The destination is a male, thin, in the company of strong males and females, drinking.

And with that, the entity lands on the barren planet.

The planet revolves around its star once before the entity even moves.

The entity rises and extends its perceptions across multiple realities.

It’s time.

Chrysalis.

The entity changes.

A star that burns twice as hot burns for half as long.

Not truly, but the entity is aware of the idioms and patterns of this world, is already thinking periodically in terms of the words and ideas of their languages, to frame thoughts for itself in this pivotal moment.  It serves to help codify the messages and intent.

The entities burn as hot as any star, with their sheer mass, their scale, the power they wield.  This is acceptable while traveling the void, when much of the body remains in a hibernation state.  Stored energy is expended as a resource, to view the future, to perceive and communicate.

But this is not sustainable here, in this phase of the cycle, when the entity is so much smaller.

The entity has cast off all but the most essential parts of itself, distributing the shards throughout this reality.  More shards will shower on other realities in time, likely around the point the first have started fragmenting in greater numbers

Cycle to cycle, the role changes.  Direct involvement, watching from afar, being visible or staying out of sight.  Different roles to shepherd the shards through different worlds.

The entity takes shape.  It retains the capabilities it had when it first arrived.

Imago.  Adult state.

Much of it is still too large for the target reality.  It leaves that portion of itself behind, maintains a connection.  A safeguard.  The body it uses is but an extension, a tendril.

It codifies the thoughts and memories of the society it investigated into a usable fashion.

Then it waits.

Sentinel.

Time passes.  A revolution of the planet around its star.

Something has gone wrong.  It is time, but it has not received a broadcast from the counterpart.

The entity emerges, stepping into the target reality.

It can see its shards showering down from above like meteors traveling the void.   The first to arrive.

It can see the shards of the counterpart.

Not all are intact.

Dead shards.  Damaged ones.  Vital shards, even, going to hosts.

The entity destroys these on sight.  They are corrupt, ruined.  They will fail to provide usable results.

Extending its perception over the world and other realities, the entity can sense everything at once.  It can sense conflict.  Wars.

It remains aware of its limited lifespan.  Three thousand and six hundred revolutions.  To search like this costs a tenth of one revolution’s time.  There is more than enough remaining before the cycle concludes.

Or there should be.

The entity abandons the search.  Enough information has been obtained for it to know.

The counterpart is dead.

For a very long time, the entity is still.  It does not move, and instinctively holds back every ability, as if conserving energy in the face of a vast threat.

But this is not a threat that it can weather, like a storm of acid rain: The cycle has been disrupted.

Worse, it is terminated.  The entities have altered themselves so that each half of a pairing serves part of a role.  It is only with the counterpart that it can gestate, that it can modify the individual shards, cast the next generation out and start the cycle anew.

In seeking to understand the host creatures, the entity had coded shards to emulate them.  It is those same shards that experience the entity’s first ever emotion.

Crushed.

The entity comes to experience a deep, profound sadness, for the very first time.

Time passes, as the entity considers the ramifications.  The sky grows dark, then light again.  Dark, then light.

A structure, a vehicle approaches.  A hull pierces the water as it draws nearer.  A crowd stands on the uppermost surface, gathering.  They stare, even babble among themselves, their voices jumbling together, a hum, a blur.  He can see into the other realities that lie adjacent to this one, similar people, similar crowds.

Drone.

Buzz.

They are communicating, and the entity is unconcerned.  It watches as they draw close to the edge of the vehicle, pressing themselves against the barrier that was erected at the edge.  They reach out.

They worship him.  Of course they do.  His form was crafted to fit the values of this reality.  They hold faith, and the entity chose a shape that fit the most celebrated figures of the most popular faiths.  Race divides this species, so the entity deliberately chose a form that didn’t fit any one race, with skin and hair given the color and texture of another thing they celebrated and worshipped – a mineral.

This is intentional.

The entity sees a shard already taking root in one of the vehicle’s passengers.  One of the dead shards, damaged.  The entity’s vision allows it to see the man’s inside, the damage.  He is dying of a systemic issue in his body, producing the wrong type of cells in the wrong places.

The entity reaches out, feels others touch his hand before the male finally makes contact.  A simple wavelength serves to kill specific cells.

The shard will grow now, damaged as it is.

With that, the golden man turns from the crowd and flies away.

The Entity slowed as a figure barred its path.  A female, with her arms outstretched.  Smaller life forms were arranged around and behind it.

Vaguely familiar.

“Stop, Scion,” the female said.

The entity came to a complete stop.  It could see the connection to the female’s shard, the activity as it broadcast signals, reaching out to contact lifeforms throughout the area, coordinating them.

All around the entity, there were shards in varying states of maturation.  The female’s was among the most mature.  Seasoned by conflict, heavy with information, lessons learned, tactics, applications, organization.  It had already fragmented once, heavy enough with information that it could afford to handle other roles.  The fragment would have a derivative ability, and given proximity, it would hopefully remain close enough to exchange information with the shard that it had split off from.  There were no signs of that exchange.  The female had separated ways from the fragment.

The entity recognized her shard.  The last one that had split off before the entity took on this form.

Queen.

The entity’s despair deepened for a moment.  It was a good thing that the shards were harvesting such good information, but nothing would come of it.  The cycle had been disrupted.

“I know you want to help, but it’s too dangerous.  You’re too strong, and this situation is fragile.  It’ll do more harm than good.”

More harm than good.  Scion accepted that as a given and decided to stay where he was.

The female kept on talking as memories stirred.

A male approached.  No shard, no powers.  The area was dark, the planet turned away from its star.  The entity was hovering over the highest point of a short bridge that spanned a river.

Lost.  It had created itself for a purpose it could no longer fulfill.

The male pulled off one foot-covering, hefted it, then threw it.  It bounced off the entity’s face, not even eliciting a blink.

The male hauled on the other foot-covering, but it was too tightly bound.

He gave up, half-hopping, half running up the length of the bridge, pounded his fists on the entity’s chest, scratched, clawed.  Aggressive actions, but it didn’t matter.  The entity was invulnerable.  It could glance into the immediate future and know there was no potential reality where this male would be able to harm it.

Not that it mattered.

“Damn you!” the male cried out.  “Fucking perfect golden man!  Fuck you!  Just… just bleed!  Fucking feel this!”

A strike to the entity’s face.  The male nearly fell from the bridge.  The entity would have let him.

“You don’t- you don’t deserve this!  This power!”  The male sniveled, mucus running from his nose.  Flecks of spit dotted his lips from the sheer force of his words.

“They keep saying you’re fucking sad!?  What do you have to be sad about?  You weren’t beaten black and blue by a fucking girl you were too chickenshit to hit back!  You haven’t been kicked around by motherfucking teenagers who thought it’d be good for a lark!  Buggered against your will… no!  You get to be untouchable!”

The male clawed and scratched, long dirty fingernails scraping at the entity’s body, clawing at a nipple, at the part the entity had crafted to look like genitalia.  Nothing did any harm.  Even the dirt skidded off, failing to find any traction in the entity’s skin.

The male collapsed, his face pressed up against the entity’s chest.  His mucus and saliva slid off with the same ease the dirt had.

“Fuck you.  Fuck you, golden man.  You don’t… you don’t deserve to be miserable.  Or you don’t deserve to be miserable and useless.  Fucking burden on society, distracting people from shit that needs doing.  Fuck you, you ponce.  You… Fuck you!  Go do something.  Never got that.  All these sad fucks that kill themselves or hide away… if you’re going to be miserable without a damn excuse, go to Africa and help those damn kids who were orphaned in wars.  Go… save people from burning buildings.  Help clean up after disasters.  Work in a fucking soup kitchen or something.  I don’t care.”

The man’s voice had gone quiet, barely more than a whisper.

Another pound of fist against the entity’s flesh.

“I don’t care if it’s penance or if it’s a fucking way to kill time.  Do some goddamn good, and maybe you’ll feel like you’re worth a damn.  Maybe you’ll stop being so fucking miserable.”

The entity continued to stare out over the city.  It absorbed the words, considered them.

It was a task.  A role it could play.

It was something.  What had this male said?  Which were ones the entity could achieve?

Save orphans in wars.  Rescue people from burning buildings.  Clean up after disasters.

The entity took flight once more.

The entity remained patient.  Patient then, patient now.

“…You could go to Houston or New York, even.  That’s far enough away from Jack,” the young female with the administration shard was still speaking, quiet, intense, urging without prodding.

The entity and the young female were still hovering over what was becoming a major site of conflict.  The entity extended its senses over the area.

At the center of it all was a man.  Not at the center, but everything tied to him.  Everything moved in relation to him, and he moved in relation to others.

The entity stared, intrigued.

“…We can’t stay here.  Come on.”  The female host was still talking.

The female paused, waiting.

“Orrrr you don’t understand what I’m saying.  Or you don’t care.  Fuck me.  Listen to me, Scion.  Pay attention.”

The entity turned its attention to the young female.  Its hands found the entity’s, pulled.

There was a meaning behind the gesture, but the entity was too lost in observing what was going on below to care.

A confrontation had started between a young male and an older one.  A fragment of a shard against a very mature shard.  The most mature shard in this area, at a glance.

The more mature power was unleashed.  A wavelength power, a kinetic transmission.

The entity watched, and it recognized the shard at work.

The broadcast shard.  One that had been crippled, just like the shard of the female that floated before the entity now.  The same shard that had managed communication between the entity and its counterpart.

The entity turned to observe another conflict.  One shard was connected to eight individuals.  A lesser shard, connected to eight unusual hosts.

The eight advanced in clusters, moving towards the various individuals that seemed to be hostile to them.  The shards connected to each individual provided more detail than anything else.

“You big golden idiot!  Come on.”

Her subjects formed a thick cloud, blocking the entity’s vision.  No matter.  It could still perceive the world.

“Come on!”

She pulled harder.

The entity turned to follow the confrontations.

The male with the broadcasting power was swinging his sword.  The younger one was erecting defenses, lashing out.

Their shards were reacting.  The entity could see how every aggressive shift in the younger one was met by an instinctual retreat in the older.  Cause and effect, invisible but there.  The nature of the shifts changed as they started speaking.

To strike the one with the mature passenger was akin to trying to catch a leaf in the wind.  The hand moved the air which moved the leaf, and it slid just out of reach, just beyond the hand’s grasp.

Ah.  There.  A narrow miss.  The male slid out of reach, and he prepared to go on the offensive.  His shard shifted, just as ready and able to capitalize on the weakness in offense as he was able to evade trouble in defense.

A shard flared to life, and the entity saw an effect take hold around it.  It reached out and found a barrier it could not penetrate.

Cell.

Its hand was moved back to the previous position.  It was caught in a sinkhole of distorted time.  Over and over again, it moved in a steady loop.

Snare.

A trap.

The city burned, and the entity wielded its power.  Controlled wavelengths disrupted the molecules, extinguished each source of heat, inside and out, rendering it a little cooler than the ambient temperature.

Countless individuals fled for safety, running in droves.  The entity watched, but it did not rest.

It hadn’t rested in years.  The longest it had stood still was in the company of Kevin Norton, where the man gave it a white covering that clung to its body.  As instructed, the entity kept the cloth clean, pushing out energy in patterns and yields that would drive out the soil and smoke while leaving the cloth intact.

It lowered itself to get a better angle on one blaze in the basement area of a library.  In the doing, purely by accident, it lowered itself to eye level with a female on a balcony.

The female was startled, afraid, unable to even breathe.  It could look inside the female and see the emotions as an increased heart rate, hormones and adrenaline churning through her system.

It almost blurted out the words.  “Kto vy?

The entity understood the Russian words as it understood all languages, through the knowledge it had scanned for and codified, prior to arriving.

It remembered the instructions Kevin Norton had provided.  To be polite, to be considerate.

Speaking, nonetheless, was an unfamiliar concept.

How to answer?  The entity did not know what it was.  It had no role but the one ascribed to it by Kevin Norton.

In thinking of the man, the entity thought of a thing the man had said.  A word in the midst of a story about ill-behaved spawn.

As it did most words, the entity had searched its memory for details on the concept.

Zion.

A promised land.

A utopia.  A harmonious kingdom.

The promised land could be this world at its climax, the shards at critical mass, the entity and its counterpart bringing about the end of the cycle.  It could be utopia, as the entity understood the term.

It could be the world at peace, people saved from hardship, as Kevin Norton had described it.

Whether the entity was somehow able to return to its original task or whether it continued carrying out Kevin Norton’s answers in an attempt to find itself, the term fit.

Zion,” it spoke.

Memories.  A refuge, a reminder of how things should be, if the cycle were intact.  There would be more shards, more conflict, but it would be more controlled.  The dead shards polluted the setting, almost too numerous.

The female with the administrator shard had long since fled, covering the retreat with her small army of lesser lifeforms, more traps snapping into place in her wake.

It thinks of Zion, and it thinks of other metaphors and ideas.  In the thirty-three revolutions since arriving on this planet, the entity has had time to think.  It has saved a lot of individuals from harm, heard many prayers.

It was aware of everything that occurred around it.  The planet’s star moved across the sky, above the dark, heavy clouds of moisture.  Small movements, but movements nonetheless.

It thought of the beetle in one mythology, rolling the orb across the sky.

It was an idea that persisted across mythologies.  ScarabChariotThe Brother.  The Sky Barge.

Abstract thought.  Was that the sort of pattern that led to a connection, an inspired idea in the development of new shards?  The entity wasn’t sure.  Its counterpart was supposed to handle such matters, retain that capacity for thought and analysis.

Its physical body continued to loop in time.  It didn’t matter.

The conflict continued.  The broadcaster was moving in and out of trouble, relying on a pronounced projection that was being emitted by a dead shard to provide further protection.  There was another entity nearby.  A boy with another dead shard.  Odd, that they had gravitated towards the broadcaster.

Mature shards, a situation ripe with conflict, so much to be gained, and nothing could be done with that.  The entity felt a hint of another emotion, dismissed it.  The simulation of the host-creature’s psychology was only that.  A simulation.

It would spend some time here.  Nothing would change in any event.  Kevin Norton had passed.

The entity observed the ongoing conflict.  No less than five seconds after it had been trapped, two figures had emerged from a doorway between worlds.  The entity could see the paths forming, trace them back to the source.  Another world, a living world without a shard occupying it.

They engaged the eight with their own perception abilities, intervening to assist a group of others.  As a pair, they opened fire with guns, then waded into hand to hand combat.

The entity looked at the male, and it saw the connection to the same shard as the eight.  His connection was stronger, more mature.

It looked at the female, and it saw a shard that wasn’t its own, but wasn’t dead.

Puzzling.

The fight progressed.  Strikes with weapons and with the creature’s limbs were evaded, a careful dance of attacks where each edge and bludgeon touched skin, many even shaving off the finer hairs from cheeks, noses and chins.

The male fought the eight in such a way that they couldn’t move without exposing themselves to attacks from the female.  Each movement placed the male in a path for obvious harm, a fatal blow, but the eight could not capitalize on that.  At the same time, he positioned himself in such a way that four or five at a time were unable to retreat.  Not just in reach of weapons, but in reach of arms, elbows, for being taken hostage.

The female felled three of the eight, and the situation was decided.  The remaining five dropped to a position where they sat on their knees.  She spoke, and an interdimensional portal appeared behind them.

They crawled through, heads down, and the portal closed.

The pair glanced up at the entity as another wormhole opened.  They stared.

The entity, in turn, faced a different direction, but it could perceive them nonetheless.

They disappeared back into the portal.

Puzzling.

The entity observed as the fight concluded elsewhere.

The broadcaster remained unaware as an individual without any attachment to shards at all entered the confined space, unloading a vaguely familiar substance over the group.  Something the entity might recollect if it had access to all of its memories.  A technology.

It didn’t matter.

The entity watched as the broadcaster was sealed in a time distortion.

A female, standing just outside another time distortion, walked around the effect, charging objects with energy.  The entity could see as the small pieces of alloyed metal unfolded, taking shape in not just this world, but all realities, at the same space and time, bristling with an effect that would sever their attachment to most physical laws.

They were thrown, and they disrupted connections to two shards at once.  The projection disappeared, only to reappear a distance away.  The boy who had created the time distortions fell as well.

Sting, the entity thought.  Once it had been a weapon for his kind, against his kind, back in the beginning, when they had dwelt in oceans of gray sludge.

The others hurried to confine the broadcaster.  They were apparently aware of what he could do.

Interesting.

“Just you and me,” Tecton said.  “That’s what he said.  Between gasps of pain, anyways.  ‘I wish I had better company, but I’ll take what I can get.  Ironic, that you’re so boring.”

Golem looked at his old leader.  “That’s it?”

Tecton shook his head.  “He said, ‘I bet you think you’re noble.  You’re not.  You’re uglier than any of us, sparky.”

“And?”

“And that’s it.  The D.T. guy foamed up the gap, I raised the shelf, you closed the hand, and he was completely sealed in.”

“You’re right.  That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“He hasn’t ever met me.”

Golem shook his head.  “Doesn’t seem world ending.”

I always hated the blank… slates,” Jack groaned the last word.  His utterances were finding an odd cadence or rhythm between the gasps of pain, the fresh wounds that were actively criss-crossing his body, opening his stomach, his intestine being gripped and pulled through the wound as if by an invisible force.

The foam weighed him down, and in the midst of the complete and total darkness, he stared skyward.

“…Never that interesting…”  He grunted.  “Never created art, never… created variation...  you’re worse than… most…”

High above, the entity listened.

Tattletale listened over the earbud microphones as Tecton finished relating Jack’s statements.

She raised her eyes from the computer.  Her underlings were arranged around the room, along with others.  Her soldiers were at the ready, alongside Imp’s Heartbroken,  the first and second in command of the Red Hands, Charlotte, Forrest and Sierra.

Sierra was bouncing her leg nervously.  She’d cut off her dreads, and her hair was short to the point of being in a buzz cut, with a fringe flopping over one side of her forehead.  But for the hair and two small hoop earrings in one ear, she was a businesswoman.  Had to be, when she was the ostensible owner of all of Brockton Bay’s prime real estate.

Charlotte was in the company of one of the children, holding him close.  Her fingers toyed with a paper origami cube, and she was doing her best not to look like she was poised on the edge of her seat for any news at all.

The second she gave the word, they’d be ready to evacuate the city, to get people onto the trains and moved through the portal.

But…

“Things have settled,” she said.  “Jack is contained.”

She could see them all relax as if strings that had held them rigid had just been cut.

“That’s it?”

“I don’t know,” Tattletale said.  She grinned wide.  “But if the world is ending, then it’s an awfully quiet end.”

There were chuckles here and there, nervous relief.

“Go home, or go do whatever,” she said.  “I’ll be in touch with more news, let you know how your territory leaders, past or present, are coping.”

As a crowd, the others began filtering out.  Sierra stayed where she was, pensive, but the nervous bouncing of her leg had stopped.

Charlotte, too, remained.

“Sup?” Tattletale asked.

“It’s him,” Charlotte said.

“Aidan.  Hi Aidan.”

“He triggered yesterday.  It… didn’t take much.  Which is probably good.”

Aidan hung his head.

“That’s excellent,” Tattletale said.  She looked at the seven year old.  “How are you?”

“Okay.  Had a nightmare for the first time in a long, long time.  I woke up and I was sleepwalking, and I didn’t know where I was… I got scared, and then it happened.”

“What happened afterwards?” Tattletale asked.

“Birds.”

“Birds.  I see.  Interesting,” she said.  Her eye moved over to the boards that marked the perimeters of the room.  Each was packed with information in her small, tight, flowing handwriting.  Messy, but she’d gotten good at putting pen to paper these past few years

“I push and the birds go where I pushed.  Or I pull and they fly away from that spot.  It’s hard to do.  I can see what they see, but not while I’m controlling them.”

“Like Taylor, but birds, and not that flexible.  I see.”

“We suspected he would trigger,” Charlotte said.

Tattletale looked up, surprised.

“Aidan had a dream one night, back when the nightmares stopped.  He drew that picture.”

“Picture?”

“I gave it to you.  I kind of emphasized it might be important.”

“Pretty sure that didn’t happen,” Tattletale said.  She stood from her desk.  “Sorry, Aidan, to squabble in front of you, but Charlotte needs to remember I don’t tend to miss stuff like that.”

“All that money you’ve given me for helping to look after the territory?  The money for the kids?  I’d stake it all on what I’m saying now.  I promise, I swear I handed you that picture.”

Tattletale frowned.

“I swear,” Charlotte said, for emphasis.

“Then there’s a fucked up stranger power at work.  Don’t like that idea.  Let’s see.  Um.  I store everything in a rightful place.  If you handed me a picture… was it here?”

“Here.”

Tattletale crossed the room.  She pulled a bin off a shelf, then sorted through file folders.

Charlotte said, “There.”

Tattletale stopped, then went back a page.

“Huh.  I stand corrected.”

There was a beep on the computer.  Tattletale went back to the computer to investigate, shrugged, then sat down.

“Well?” Charlotte asked.

“Well what?”

“The picture.”

Tattletale frowned.  “What picture?”

“What’s going on?” Aidan asked.

Charlotte stalked over to the bin that was still out, grabbed the paper, then slammed it down on the desk.  “I don’t think a piece of paper can have superpowers.  Pay attention.  Focus  Memorize.”

Tattletale frowned.  She turned her attention to the paper.

There was a block there.  She felt it slide out of her mind’s eye, caught herself.

She turned her attention to the surroundings, the underlying ideas.

“Aidan?  Describe it to me.  I don’t know what you drew.”

“Those are kind of like fish, or worms, or whales, but they fold and unfold in ways that are hard to understand, and there’s stuff falling off them.  Those are stars, and-“

Tattletale felt something fall into place.

As though a floodgate had opened, the pieces started coming together.  She stood from the desk, striding across the room.

There were still gaps in her work on the boards, where she was outlining everything, trying to decipher the underlying questions.  Now, she began unpinning things from the board.

She was remembering, and she was putting it together, now.  There was a block, but she’d formed enough connections now that things were going around the block.

The whole.  The idea had stuck with her.

All powers fed back into a greater whole, each was a piece of a greater construct.

Of Aidan’s fish-whale-worm things.

But that wasn’t it.

No.  It didn’t fit in terms of timeline.

There was more.

“Like gods,” she said, recalling.

“Like viruses, like gods, like children,” Charlotte said.  “Back on the day I first met you, you said that.”

Like viruses, infecting a cell, converting it into more viruses, bursting forth to infect again.

Like gods.  So much power, all gathered together.  All powers stemmed from them.

Like children.  Innocents?

Blank slate.

“Oh,” Tattletale breathed out the word.

“Tattletale?” Sierra asked.

“Oh balls.”

“I’m notDarwinist,” Jack gasped.  “None of that… bullshit.  Augh!  I’m… I think it is simple-“

He continued grunting.  His switch to turn off the pain took a second to activate, took deliberate action, but getting in the rhythm meant he could buy himself one or two seconds of relief with each loop.  It was a question of concentration, and his concentration slipped.

“It’s simpler.  Us monsters and…  psychopathswe gravitate towards… predation, because we were originally… predators.  Originally had to hunt…  Had to be brutal, cruel…”

He paused, spending a few moments grunting in pain, letting the loops continue.

“Order to survive.  Violence was what made us… or broke us back… in the beginning.”

The entity was patient.  It had time to spare.

Saint swayed slightly in his seat.

The information continued to stream in along a dozen different channels.

Too much.  It was too much, but somehow, somewhere along the line, they’d succeeded.

Jack was contained.  Things were quiet.

Until he noted someone bludgeoning their way through Dragon’s password security.  A series of personal questions, ranging from a favorite texture to something about a pet name for Dragon to a question about the first results of the ten by ten game.

The first two were answered in order.

DefiantGetting access to the system?

No, too crude, too obvious.

The individual stalled on the last question.

He waited a few long moments, then saw the same individual making calls to Defiant.  Three communiques, initiated within one or two seconds of one another.  Then emails, to the PRT and Defiant both.

Saint intercepted it.

Fuck, finally!”

“What are you trying, Tat-“

Shut up and listen, douchestain.  It’s Scion.  He’s the point where it all catalyzes!  And I just clued into the fact that he can probably sense Jack!  Get Grue back to the area, blanket Jack in darkness, now!  Now, now, now!”

“Mags!” he shouted.  “Dobrynja!  Get Grue back to the scene now!  This is it!”

“On it!” the reply came back.  There was a pause.  “Grue is four miles away!”

“Teleporter,” he said.

“We don’t have any that survived the last few Endbringer fights!”

Saint hesitated.

Too far, it would be too late.

The woman who claimed she could control Scion.

His tired fingers flew over the keyboard.  He dug up the file.

It had been seen to.  They’d taken her name, but there’d been no proof.  Hearsay.

Hearsay was better than nothing.

The cyborg was piloting the closest Azazel.  Controlling it could be seen as an attack.  The cyborg would fight, wrestle him for control.

He opened up the window for a message, instead, even as he used the full access Dragon had for every camera, email and phone message to find this Lisette.

A Hail Mary, if there ever was one.

“Defiant,” he said, overriding everything in his way to open communications with the cyborg.  “Help me.”

The entity followed the movements of the various individuals around the battlefield.  More containment foam was being layered over the broadcaster, burying the area.

A noise, a blare that had people doubling over, covering their ears, started emanating from one of the craft.

The craft launched a second later, flying right for the time distortion.

It crashed into the area of warped time, wrapping forelimbs, tail and rear claw around the irregularly shaped feature.

The blaring noise stopped as a voice emanated from the speakers.

“Scion.  Zion.  Golden Man.  It’s Lisette.  Kevin Norton introduced us.  What the man down there is saying… whatever he’s saying, don’t listen.  Turn away.  Please.

Turn away.

The entity moved, and it broke through the time distortion effect with ease.  The craft fell head over heels before propulsion kicked in.  It had to fly in zig-zags to keep pace with the entity’s slow retreat from the scene.

I- uh.  You broke free.  Okay, good.  Leave.  Run!  Please go.  I’m- I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to talk to you before.  You never came back to that spot, and I could never reach you to talk to you.  There was help you needed and I couldn’t give it.  I went to authorities, and nobody believed me.  But now, now maybe I can give you advice.  We can work on this together?  As a pair?  Is that alright?

The entity didn’t respond.

I hope it’s alright,” she said.

The entity took flight, leaving it all behind.

Leave.  Run.

It didn’t return to the task of saving lives.  For a period, it only flew.

It stopped when it had circled the world twice, hovering over the ocean where it had first appeared.

The broadcaster had finished speaking just a moment before the craft had launched, oblivious to the blaring noise that had been intended to drown him out.  What I don’t understand, is why a blank slate like you would default to doing good deeds, rescuing cats from trees.  Why not turn to that violence, as our ancestors did?  It drove them, just like it drives the basest and most monstrous of our kind.

Had he known he had a listening ear?  Had it merely been a struggle to continue doing what he’d instinctively done for decades?

The shards retained memories, motivated, pushed.

The entity looked to the future, looked to possible worlds, and it saw the ways this could have unfolded.  It burned a year off of the entity’s life, but he had thousands to spare anyways.

There was a scene where the entity stood over the broadcaster’s corpse and ruminated on what had driven the male to such extremes.  The shard wasn’t a particularly aggressive one.

A scene where the man died, and years passed, the entity slowly coming to the same conclusions as it observed the rest of the species.

The entity had done good deeds for years, at Kevin Norton’s suggestion, waiting and hoping for the reward, the realization.  When none had occurred, it had simply kept doing what it had been doing.  Seeking out alternatives wasn’t even in the realm of imagination, because imagination was something it lacked.

It had power, though, and if either the counterpart or the cycle had been intact, they could have filled in for that imagination.

Still, it could experiment.

It gathered its power, then aimed at the nearest, largest population center.  Kevin Norton’s birthplace.

The golden light speared forth, and the island shattered, folding, parts of it rising from the ocean.  Crumpled like paper in a fist.

The entity did not eliminate the smoke or the waves that followed.  It simply let the aftermath occur.

The simulated human mind within the entity felt a glimmer of something at that.  Pleasure?  Relief?  Satisfaction?

Something deeper inside, something primal, tied to memories back in the beginning, before the beginning, responded in a very similar fashion.

The entity extended its perceptions outward, felt the reaction, the outcry.  It turned words around in its head, as if it were broadcasting to itself.

Scourge.

Extermination.

Extinction.

That last one was the one to fit.

An interesting experience.  After so much focus on the species as a whole, the evolution and development of the shards, on the cycle

In this, it almost felt like it was evolving as an individual, moment to moment.

The entity opened fire once again, and this time it struck out at the coastline on the opposite side of the ocean.

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Interlude 26a

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Theo exhaled slowly.  He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath.  Inhaling again, the smell of shit and blood was so heavy on the air it choked him.  His suppressed cough was almost a grunt, almost a gag.

His eyes returned to the two bloodstained spikes that had been stabbed into the wall.  It was the space where Nilbog had been crucified, apparently.  Something dangled from one of them.  A tendon, maybe, a vein, or a strip of meat.  The goblin king had been torn down with enough haste and enough force that some part of him had been left behind.

He’d spent some time staring at the metal spike with flesh dangling from it.  The others were busy.  It made sense to take the time to strategize, to get equipment and gear in order, familiarize himself with every tool and technique this squad of capes had on hand.

Thing was, Theo didn’t want to, even as he knew it was the smart thing.  The others seemed to recognize that and weren’t pushing him, weren’t approaching.  Maybe they’d brush it off as a kind of meditative thinking, a mental preparation for the fight that was to come.  Maybe they’d see it for what it really was.  Avoidance.

Staring at the wall and trying not to think about anything was easier than looking down, seeing the dead members of the Slaughterhouse Nine, and maybe seeing Aster in the mess of bodies.

Being silent was easier than having to look the others in the eyes and pretend he was alright, risking that they’d offer some gentle, kind condolences, and he’d have to be stoic in the face of it.

Men weren’t supposed to cry.  It would be disastrous, shattering their image of him, creating too much doubt at such a crucial juncture.  He could imagine how they’d react.  Some of them would be awkward.  Defiant, maybe, would avert his eyes.  Bitch might say something harsh.

Revel, probably, would be nice about it.  Offer a pep talk, a hug, heartfelt words.  Tecton would be much the same.  Parian and Foil, even, might be kind, if he went by descriptions Weaver and others had offered of them and the little clues he’d seen in interacting with them.

The moment he pulled himself together, if he could pull himself together, Chevalier would be at his side, all business, outlining the situation in clear, defined ways.  Framing it all into plans and setups that would put less stress on Theo, no doubt, but not in such a way that anyone could say anything about it.

Hoyden?  Hard to say.  She lived with this wall that she’d erected around herself.  Layers of defenses, in bravado or being snarky or being sarcastic or aggressive or avoiding the situation.  In combat situations or real life, Theo suspected there were very few things that really got to the heart of Hoyden.  When they did, they hurt.  How would she react to someone being vulnerable?

And then there was Weaver.

She was in the periphery of his vision, sitting on a computer case, staring down at the floor.  As ever, her mannerisms were peculiar.  She was so still.  If it weren’t for the bugs, or the fact that her head would periodically move, as if she were looking over the dead, he might have thought she’d stopped, like a machine with the battery removed.

She would be assessing who was dead, who wasn’t, planning and adjusting her expectations for the coming fight, quite possibly.  Probably.

In the midst of that, was Weaver thinking about Aster?  The fact that she, either by aiming a gun and pulling the trigger or by giving the order to Revel and Foil, had killed a toddler?

Weaver was a hard person to deal with.

Taylor, not so much.

If that was all it was, he wouldn’t have worried so much.

There were other possibilities, ones that troubled him.  What if he approached them, and nobody offered condolences at all?  What if they accepted it as a cost of doing business, a necessity in dire circumstances?

What if he did show emotion, and none of his allies offered any emotional support at all?

Kayden had been the closest thing he had to a mother.  If it hadn’t been for Jack’s game, then Theo suspected he might never have rated.  He wasn’t her first priority.  That would be Aster.  Not her second.  That was her mission, nebulous as it had been in recent years.  He hesitated to believe that he’d even rated third place.

He struggled to convince himself he placed fourth or fifth, even.

But she’d been there.  She’d shown kindness, had stepped between him and Father when the situation demanded it.  There had been gentle moments, like the time they’d been watching television one morning and a cape had talked about how tinkers were their least favorite type of opponent to fight, and he and Kayden had laughed, because Kayden and her group had run into Leet just a week before.

Stupid things, in the end.  Nonsensical.  But stupid, nonsensical things were sometimes the most important.

He’d never had friends, before he got his powers.  Even now, he wondered if he’d have really formed the friendships he had if they’d chanced to meet in some universe where powers didn’t exist.

Being alone as often as he had, Theo valued the connections he had made.  Even connections with Justin, Dorothy and Geoff.  Crusader, Night and Fog.

On the flip side of that same coin, he felt the betrayal of Justin leaving him behind.

Above all, he felt the quiet, perpetual horror of knowing that Crusader was still screaming, his throat never going raw, as Gray Boy’s loop continued without cease.

Kayden would be standing a short distance away, stoic, trying to keep from slowly going insane as Justin’s screams continued without end.

He’d lost people who were important to him, in maybe the most horrible way possible.  He’d lost his father, and Kayden, Justin, Geoff and Dorothy, and now Aster.  He’d lost them to violence and stupidity and madness, and he could see the allure in how the others seemed to be functioning, bottling it all inside.

He could see the twisted logic of it, even.  As if there was a binary to everything, every enemy was somehow a twisted mess of emotion, layered by a seeming calmness, while every ally seemed to be cold inside, with only an act on the surface.

He looked down at his mask.  A metal face with lenses over the eyes.  Stoic, expression neutral, or a little stern.  He’d chosen it at first because his real face was a little too round for a mask, but the PR teams had wanted to get more faces on the team.  He’d compromised, and hadn’t given his mask much thought beyond that.

Except time had passed, and he’d found himself wondering if he liked the message it conveyed.  By necessity, capes went down a road where they had to become cold and unflinching.  They had to become numb, had to inure themselves to hard decisions.  It jarred, to wear a mask that seemed to symbolize that transition, that while wanting nothing less than to walk down that road.

Back in Brockton Bay, New Wave had tried to start something, capes without masks.  It had been disastrous.  The message had been lost in the ensuing celebrity, and that had only intensified after one of the core members of the group was found and killed in her civilian identity.

He wondered if they’d been right to try.  If capes really needed to just… drop the mask.  To cry and let the feelings out.  So many got their powers through trauma, but they bottled themselves up, erected defenses, developed coping mechanisms.  If New Wave’s idea had taken off, would things be better?

Didn’t matter.  Here they stood.

He could make it through this, save the world.  They could find the source of the Endbringers and defeat them, could clean things up, get things in order and stop all of the real monsters… he could go to college, get a career and find a girl and marry her, and at the end of the day, Justin would still be screaming.

Aster would still be dead.

The ugly decisions would have been made.

He stared up at the bloody spikes in the wall, an image that would be burned into his mind’s eye, remembered as the point he stood at the threshold.  A mirror to where he’d been in the beginning, when he’d met Jack.

Bitch paced around the edges of the room, impatient.  She’d had to shrink her dogs to get them to an appropriate size, and was keeping them small in case the portal wasn’t accommodating enough.  Here and there, she barked out orders to get the animals away from the bodies.

It grated.

“None of those invisible fucks,” she said.

“Okay,” Weaver answered.  Her voice was quiet.

Theo almost took her voice as a cue to reevaluate how she was reacting to what had just happened, then stopped himself.  Losing battle.  No point.

Then, for some bizarre reason, Bitch approached him.

A sleek Doberman nudged at his gauntlet with its nose.  He looked down and then scratched it behind the ear.  It didn’t matter if the dog bit him – he was wearing a gauntlet.

When he looked up, he could see Bitch staring at him.  Her face was barely visible behind her hair.

“Can I help you?” he asked.  His voice came out harder than he intended.

She didn’t seem to notice or care.  “You’re her friend, aren’t you?”

I don’t want to talk about Weaver.

He didn’t venture an answer.  He couldn’t say yes, not honestly, but he suspected Weaver had a different answer to the question.

“You’re both acting different.  I can see it.”

“Kind of warranted, in this situation,” he said.  “In case you didn’t notice, the last few members of my family just got killed.  I just need a bit of time alone to think.”

His voice had almost broken.  Couldn’t break down.  Not like this, here, with her.

She hadn’t taken his hint.

“They were buttholes, weren’t they?  Purity and her gang.  The nazis.”

The dog nudged his hand again.  He gave it a more intense scratch before answering, “White supremacists.  They… weren’t the best people ever.  But they were still my family.”

She kept looking at him, almost glaring.  She didn’t answer or elaborate, leaving the conversation to die.

Go away.  I don’t want to hit you.

He kept silent, hoping she would just leave.  Willing her to leave.

“Stay, Huntress,” she ordered.

Then she walked away, leaving the dog at his side.

Theo scratched the animal under the collar, and watched it crane its head to one side, enjoying the contact.

It helped, oddly enough.  Having contact with another living creature without all of the issues and hassles of dealing with people.  No judgement, no worries, just… this.  Being alone without being alone.

His father had always preferred cats, and the creatures had never been easy to bond with.  This was nice.

Theo sighed.  He glanced at Weaver in his peripheral vision, and saw that there was a dog sitting next to her.  A mutt, at a glance.  The animal was resting its chin on her shoulder.

She saw him looking, glanced at Bitch, who was walking with her husky puppy following behind her, then shrugged.

He lowered his eyes from Weaver… no, from Taylor, then scratched Huntress again.

“We have the coordinates.  Waiting for a charge,” Defiant announced.  He was already flanked by the Dragon’s Teeth he’d brought with him.

“All gather,” Chevalier ordered.

Bitch snapped her fingers twice, and her dogs returned to her.

Theo raised his hands to his face to rub his eyes, and he felt damp on one cheek.  One tear, fresh.  He wiped his face, glancing around to check if anyone had seen it.  No, not judging by the angle.

He donned his mask.

Golem now, Golem thought.

“We need to decide who goes where,” Defiant said.  “The first teleportation marked coordinates on Houston.”

Weaver spoke up, “I noted Shatterbirds and Burnscars leaving, some Damsels, bunch of others I didn’t catch, but they had weapons and I’m thinking Winter or Crimson.  There were some I parsed as hostages, but it’s only in retrospect that I’m thinking they were Nice Guys.”

“The second group made their way to New York.”

“Bonesaw and a captive Nilbog that’s apparently rigged to create things on demand,” Weaver said.  “Crawlers, Breeds and a handful of others I didn’t identify.”

Chevalier reacted to that, flinching.

His city, Golem thought.

“And the last group headed to Los Angeles.”

“Jack’s group?” Golem asked.

“Yes,” Weaver said.  “He brought the Siberian, Hookwolf, Gray Boy, all eight Harbingers, and there are Psychosomas and Nyxes.  One or two others I didn’t place.”

“Los Angeles?” Chevalier asked.  “What area?”

That area,” Defiant answered, looking at the computer.

Chevalier nodded slowly.

Golem stared at the screen.  He could see the satellite image, the concentric circles that marked the area around the blinking blue dot.

“Charge prepared.  We can send one group at a time.  They’ve already got a twelve minute headstart.  It’ll be another eight minutes before we can send the second group, eight minutes after that before we can send the third.”

“The first group to arrive can call for help and get support to the other locations,” Chevalier said.

“Then why split up?” Weaver asked.  “We should all hit Jack’s group, trust others to help in New York and Houston.”

“Everyone else is closer to New York,” Chevalier said.  “But Houston…”

“We can call in favors,” Weaver said.  “Moord Nag’s apparently on board, though we don’t know why.  Cauldron’s on board.  If we can get Tattletale in contact with them, that’s handled.  But we can’t do that unless we leave.”

“That’s my city,” Hoyden said.

“I get that,” Weaver replied, “But we’re doing nothing constructive if we split up, and we’re definitely doing nothing constructive as long as we sit here.”

“Once we leave,” Defiant said, “We break the configuration cell and everything here breaks down on a Euclidean level.  There’s no going back, changing our mind.”

“I get that,” Weaver said, “But two or three of us aren’t going to do anything special.  We need big guns.”

Golem closed his eyes.

There she is.  Weaver.

“She’s right,” Chevalier said, looking at Hoyden.  “We’ll send every set of reinforcements we can, but it’s not worth what it costs us, to break up our group.”

“Shit,” Foil said.

Hoyden had gone stiff, bristling for an argument.

“I’m not saying we should abandon Houston,” Weaver said, before Hoyden could speak.  “Defiant, can you postpone the collapse of this area?”

“Yes, but I don’t feel comfortable doing it,” he responded.

“I think you should,” she said.  “Toybox left enough stuff behind.  Use it.  Stay behind, arm yourself, then throw everything but the kitchen sink at them.  You remember how the scar formed in Brockton Bay?”

“Mm,” he said.  “Tinker technology takes time to understand, to prepare.  Too dangerous otherwise.”

“There’s a solution to that.  I’ll point the way.”

Defiant hesitated.

Golem looked around the group, saw the expressions on faces, saw how even Hoyden had relaxed a fraction.  Even the Dragon’s Tooth officers that accompanied them were a little more at ease.  There were no answers in this situation, but there was a possibility.  An option, vague as it was.

“Okay,” Defiant said.

Then, without so much as a farewell or a ‘good luck’, he hit the enter key.

Golem appeared a full four feet above the ground.  He hit the ground and let his legs sink in, absorbing some of the fall.  A second later, he pushed himself out.

Just the use of his power gave him a sense of the area.  Touching the pavement gave him a sense of how all of the pavement around him was organized.  It had been folded into itself, folded around, thinned, thickened, bent at right angles.

Looking around, he could see how the buildings had been altered.  Textures had been removed, similar materials blended into one another, everything fortified, thickened, weaponized.

All around them, the buildings were like tombstones.  Windowless, angular, all expression and human touches removed from them.  Spikes studded corners and blocked alleyways, criss-crossed in front of doors, and carpeted pathways.  Some were metal, others camouflaged.

They’d figured out how to fight Tohu and Bohu during the Los Angeles attack.  The trick was responding quickly, stopping them before Tohu had her masks and Bohu managed her influence.  They’d won, for lack of a better term, managing the fight without the casualties they’d seen in the prior attack, but they’d still lost a chunk of the city in the time it took them to beat and batter the towering Bohu into submission.  Now Santa Fe Springs and all of the neighboring districts were uninhabitable, due to the traps that riddled it, the way the infrastructure had been completely and totally compromised.

Easier to found a new habitable area than to try to fix this, routing new pipes and power, managing traps both subtle and blatant.

Those same traps would be a problem here, but they weren’t entirely incapable.  They’d dealt with this before.

Bitch’s dogs grew abruptly, then shook, sending blood and bits of flesh and bone everywhere.

“HQ, come in,” Chevalier murmured.  He continued to speak, delivering the information about Jack and the target areas.

“Area’s empty,” Weaver said.

“A trap,” Golem responded.  “Has to be.”

“Has to be.  Why else come here?”  Foil asked.

“Nyx illusions,” Tecton said, “He doesn’t know we’re aware of who he brought, so he’s set them up to stall us.”

Nyx.  Her gas is concentrated into solid shapes that move at her will.  Break that shape and it becomes a cloud of poisonous gas.

“Not that easy,” Weaver said.  “Maybe he knows we know, and it’s a double-bluff.”

“Parian?” Weaver asked.

Parian nodded.  She unfurled the bundle of cloth from her back, then quickly shaped it into a roughly humanoid shape.

A moment later, it was stomping ahead, forging the way.

Golem fell in step beside Tecton.  Every footfall on a surface concentrated his awareness, informing him of every surface of a matching material in the area.  Lightning flashes in his consciousness, showing the landscape around him.  He deliberately stepped on other materials to inform himself on concrete, on brick, on steel and glass.  His heavy boots made for a rhythmic sound, accompanied by the sounds of Chevalier and Tecton’s own heavy footfalls, and the rougher patter of the mutant dogs.

Stop.”

A girl’s voice, over the comm system.  Not Tattletale.

Golem, tell them to stop.  Now.”

“Stop,” he said.

A second later, he wondered if he should mention this phantom voice.  A trick on Screamer’s part?

Thirty one,” she said.

“Thirty one?”

More uses of my power.  I’ve been testing it, straining it, figuring out my limits.  I can’t make promises.  Might be less.  Might be able to squeeze out more.  But it’s the best I can give you.

The numbers clued him in, belatedly.

Dinah Alcott.

There’s bigger problems,” she said.  Her voice was quiet.  “In two minutes, everyone but you dies.  Seventy-two percent chance.

He stopped short.

“Golem?”  Hoyden asked.

“Solution?” he asked, he raised a hand.

Can you think in abstracts?”

“Abstracts.”

“You’re… kind of scaring me, Golem my boy,” Hoyden said.

“He’s talking to someone in the comms,” Weaver said.  “Tattletale?  Not Tattletale.”

Red means forward, left, attack, team.  Blue means back, right, retreat, solo… I can only ask a certain number of questions a day.  Ask, I can narrow it down, but it’s less help I can give later.

One keyword, and he had to figure out what option it led to.

Blue, Tecton.  Retreat.”

“Back up,” he said.

Collectively, they retreated several steps.

A moment later, one small group of the Nine appeared, pushing their way through solid doorways, leaving colored smoke in their wakes.

Each was young.  Teenagers.  Each had a matching mask, a snarling face, complete with fangs and glowing dots in the dark eye sockets.  Their clothing flowed, with hoods peaking above their heads.  Each carried a different improvised weapon.  A fire axe.  A two-handed shovel.  A makeshift spear.

“Harbingers,” Weaver said.  “Don’t let them get close!  Finish them quickly!”

“Color,” Golem whispered.

Blue.”

He went with his instincts more than anything else.  “Retreat!  Run!”

Parian’s doll reached out, and the Harbingers slipped out of the way of the hands, dodging by virtual hairs as they spun in tight circles, ducked and rolled.  It was like the thing was moving in slow motion, but it wasn’t.

A fire axe and two kitchen knives slid through the creature’s body, severing seams.  It deflated explosively.

Foil opened fire with her crossbow, aiming so it was on a path to hit two of the enemies, and the Harbingers dodged the shot.

She’s not supposed to miss.

Tecton shattered the ground, but it didn’t make the slightest difference.  The Harbingers didn’t slow down.

They turned to run, belatedly.

Hoyden and Chevalier held their ground as others mounted dogs or took flight.  Golem ran his fingertips along the panels at his armor, feeling the connections to the various substances around him flare, touched the one for pavement.

He thrust his hand inside.  A small hand, emerging as fast as he could shove his hand inside the panel.  He reached for the closest Harbinger’s foot.

The young villain pulled his leg up out of the way, virtually spinning as he stepped to the side, planted the same foot on solid ground, then resumed his forward momentum.  No luck.  It was like Harbinger could see it coming.

Weaver’s bugs were swarming the Harbingers, but they took to spinning, relying on the movement of their hoods and the flowing black clothes to drive the bugs away, batting them aside.  Even the threads seemed to fail to do anything substantial, getting caught up in the approaching villains as they moved.

Like whirling dervishes, they closed the distance.

He thrust his hand into the pavement again, and this time, he created a platform like the one he’d fashioned in Ellisburg.  Raising them up off the ground, out of reach.

If there was any difficulty getting down and resuming their search for Jack, he’d deal with that when they weren’t all about to be murdered.

The Harbingers scaled the sides of buildings as if they were running across horizontal terrain.  Weapons, fingers and boots found traction in the surfaces, and they climbed with an easy, almost eerie ease, as though they were almost floating.

Climbing faster than the hand was rising.

Three reached the top of the building, and as if they’d coordinated, planned this well in advance, they set foot on the edge of the rooftop and kicked off.  They ignored the bugs that plagued them as if they weren’t even there, weren’t binding them with silk.

They flipped heel over head, their backs to Golem, Hoyden, Tecton and Chevalier, the two Dragon’s Teeth.  Rachel, Parian and Foil were on the dog’s backs, and Weaver was airborne.

The Dragon’s Teeth aimed containment foam at the three Harbingers.  The clones pulled off their flowing jackets with sleeves that almost covered their hands, catching the foam, then landed.  One swept the bundle of foam to try to knock a D.T. officer off his feet.  The officer hopped up, then struck out at the Harbinger clone.

No use, Golem thought.  A mistake.  Harbinger caught the arm, almost effortlessly turned around, pulling him in the direction of the turn.  A little push, and the soldier fell.

He’s okay,” Dinah said.  “Blue!”

Run, retreat.  As if there was a place to go.

Two attacks struck in concert, a kitchen knife and a fire axe, and a heavy piece of Tecton’s armor was decimated, one gauntlet ruined.

No use.

One more landed on the heel of the hand.

Revel opened fire with a dozen orbs, but the enemy avoided them with an almost casual ease.  She reprogrammed them, altering the orbs’ properties, and this time they homed in on their targets.  The Harbingers dodged them, used the changed trajectories to lure them into nearly striking the D.T. officer and Chevalier.  She stopped, hanging back.

Chevalier swung his sword, pulled the trigger mid-swing to shoot at one Harbinger that stood on a fingertip of the reaching hand-platform.  Both attacks missed.

The Harbinger closest to him stepped close, almost casually, and drove a paring knife through a slit in Chevalier’s visor.

His good eye, Golem realized.

Nobody had figured out Harbinger’s power, before Harbinger disappeared off the face of the planet.  It was an ugly reality that such questions weren’t always answered.  The best guess suggested a hyperawareness of space and the movements of their own bodies.

But being able to figure out that Chevalier was half-blind, being able to blind his good eye?

One stepped close, holding a ball-peen hammer in each hand.  He closed on Golem, invading his personal space, until their noses were touching.

Golem tried to wrap the Harbinger in a bear-hug, felt only the faint drag of cloth against the metal of his gauntlets, empty air.  His intended target had ducked low.

He drove a knee forward.  Tight, contained movements, give them as little to work with as possible.

No contact.  Of course.

He was rewarded with a swat of the hammer against his mask, shattering one lens.  He’d thought he was out of reach, but the boy held only the very end of the hammer between index and middle finger.  He tossed the hammer in the air, letting it spin head over end.

Golem struck at the flying hammer, but another strike of the hammer caught his arm.  His fingertips fell short, and the handle of the weapon rolled over the back of his hand.  The Harbinger caught it, then thrust it forward in the same motion, driving the top of the hammer against Golem’s nose.

“Don’t kill him,” another Harbinger said.

“I know,” was the reply.

They didn’t even sound winded.

None of the others were doing demonstrably better.  The remaining D.T. officer was holding his own, but the others were being slowly, systematically beaten.

He’s dragging it out.  They’re making this into a game.

No use letting this go on.

He retreated, only to find one Harbinger sticking a foot out, planting a foot on the small of his back.  He was pushed forward, then promptly struck in the abdomen.

Rather than try to defend himself, he tucked his chin to his collar-bone, let himself fall, and thrust his hands into the armor panels for pavement.

Double-thrust, one hand extending from the other, pushing Chevalier off the hand.

Another motion, simultaneous, to bring a hand of stone out of the wall behind Chevalier.  It emerged slower, but it formed a shelf, and Chevalier landed on that ledge.

The Harbingers could dodge, but his teammates were valid targets.

Another thrust, this time for himself.

Selfish, maybe, but he couldn’t save anyone if they were interfering with him.

One struck at his leg as he launched himself off the hand.  It altered his trajectory, put him on a course where there wasn’t anything nearby to catch himself with.

Two hands, into brick.  One connected to the other.  While they were new, he could move them.  Trouble with having them against the side of his body was that he couldn’t get a full range of movement like he could get with his arms.  No matter.  He caught himself by the mask, then pulled himself closer to the building.

Another hand, another shelf.

Hoyden exploded, but the Harbingers didn’t get hurt.  They spun, spreading the damage around like a person might roll to absorb a fall, ducking and sidestepping to put themselves at the periphery of the effect.

Scion’s closing in,” Dinah said.  “Blue, Golem.  It’s still blue.  I can’t use my power too many times today, but your numbers are getting worse and the answer keeps turning up blue.  Retreat, go right, go solo or go back.

Someone needs to intercept Scion,” Weaver said, over the comm system. “We can’t have him get involved.

You go,” Chevalier said.

Golem searched the sky, then spotted Weaver at the fringe of the battle, surrounded by a cloud of bugs.

She took off.

Golem grit his teeth.  More immediate things to focus on.  He tried to launch Tecton to freedom, but the Harbingers intercepted him, driving Tecton out of the way in the same instant the hand appeared.

The D.T. soldier managed to deliver a glancing blow.  Golem couldn’t tell if it was intentional or not, because the hit was followed by the D.T. soldier being caught with a length of cloth wound around one wrist.

Tecton stepped in, drawing attention and striking out with his gauntlets, one damaged and one intact.  It bought the D.T. soldier some room.

Golem took the opportunity to launch the soldier to safety.

There were others on the ground, approaching.

One of these bastards could probably take us apart.  Eight of them, we can’t hurt them, we’re losing time, burning resources.

Tecton glanced at Hoyden.  A communication seemed to pass between them.

They struck the palm of the hand, and the entire thing shattered.

Hoyden, Tecton and five of the Harbingers descended with a shower of rubble.

Hoyden and Tecton broke their fall with uses of their respective powers.  Hoyden hit the ground to generate an explosion.  Tecton punched the earth with his piledriver in the instant he reached solid ground.

The Harbingers didn’t have that ability.  A five-story drop.  People had died or been seriously hurt after a three-story drop.

Nobody told them that.  In the midst of the thin cloud of dust and the chunks of debris, the Harbingers moved without wincing or giving any sign of pain, their black-clothed forms rising from the ground like spectres.

“Talk to me, Dinah,” Golem said.

Situation’s getting worse.  Numbers are getting worse, across the board.  I’m not asking any specific questions, but I can sense it, just… the big picture.  It’s not working.

There’s an answer here, and we can’t see it.

“Blue… Backwards, go right, retreat, solo?  What’s that last one?”

Abstracts.  Nothing specific.  It’s only as meaningful as it helps you come to the right decision.

He stared at Hoyden and Tecton, surrounded by the eight Harbingers.

“If I leave… how does that change the numbers?”

Success.”

“Chances for Tecton and the others?”

Better than they were.

This was hell, Golem mused.  This was the nightmare that had driven Weaver from her home city, drove her to surrender.

The right path, but god damn, did it look ugly.

He bit his lip, then formed another pair of connected hands to launch himself skyward.  He reached the apex of his flight, then created a shelf to land on.  He did it again, and this time the shelf he created was just at the edge of the roof.  He stepped over onto the rooftop, then broke into a run.

“Saving Tecton, red or blue.”

Golem, we didn’t get a chance to go over this earlier, but you need to know… I can’t ask that many questions.  I’ve been saving my power for the last big confrontation.  Tattletale said this is the time to act.  I used my power twice to answer big questions earlier today.  Another three to figure out who I needed to talk to, and that told me-

“I’m the best partner for you?”

Right now, yes.  Listen.  Twenty-six questions left.  We haven’t even found Jack.  I can’t figure it out.

He stood on the rooftop, then extended his arms out to either side.

She couldn’t read his mind, so it was only identifying options.  Everything to the left of his nose was blue, everything to the right was red.

“Red or blue.  Now.”

Blue.  Twenty-five.

“Jack’s to my left,” he said.  He turned ninety degrees.  “Again.”

“Blue.  I’m-  My power’s getting fuzzier.”

Scion.

He looked up at the sky.  Weaver with her swarm was there, forming a great wall across the sky, as if to draw attention to herself.  Scion was approaching, a ray of golden light streaking across the overcast sky above.

Scion shut down precog abilities.

He felt something knot in his stomach, an ugly feeling, ominous.

“Let’s get as much use out of it as possible.  Saving Tecton and the others… Red or blue!”

“Red.  Twenty-three.”

He hesitated.  “It’s not me going back?”

“No.  I don’t think so.  I just asked and it said no.”

Break it down.  Attack, left for blue.  Group, forward for red.  “Again.”

“Golem, we can’t waste questions like this.  We-“

“Please.”

“Red.”

Group or forward, he thought, assigning colors to each option.  “Again.”

“Blue.  Somewhere between eighty and ninety percent chance.  I- I’m going blind here, Golem.”

Group.

Group, but not returning to join the others?

He went with his gut.

“Tattletale, are you listening?”

Yes.”

“Reinforcements.  Call in the big guns.”

“With Jack close?  That’s against the quarantine.”

“Dinah, does it improve our chances, everyone’s chances, as far as this end of the world scenario?”

Yes.  A lot,” she sounded genuinely surprised.  “Twenty.”

Cauldron’s refusing aid,” Tattletale said.  “They said it’s because Scion’s presence is blocking their clairvoyant.  They’re lying.

High above, Scion reached a stop, hovering in front of Weaver, who hung in the air in turn, using her flight pack.

Golem tore his eyes away from the scene.  He glanced down at the street, where Bitch, Parian and Foil were reinforcing Tecton and Hoyden, backing them up as the Harbingers approached.  One Harbinger threw something, and a dog dropped like its heart had stopped.

He shook his head.  He could watch forever, but they were better served by having him elsewhere.

The sooner he got Jack, the better.

“Jack is southwest of my location,” he reported.  “Heading off solo on precog advisement.”

He bolted, running.  His power bridged gaps between buildings.  He set his foot down on the corner of one rooftop, then vaulted himself over a trap that he sensed just a foot in front of him.  His landing jarred it into motion, provoking a deadfall, a slice of building that toppled and dropped onto the narrow street below.

Another hand broke a row of spikes that lined the edge of another rooftop.

Once, he’d been fat.  Once, he’d been out of shape.  Two years and a mission had given him the chance to remedy that.  He wasn’t conventionally fit, still had a bit of stockiness to him, but the fat was gone.  He had muscle.  Running with Weaver had made this doable.

Twenty more precog answers.

“Numbers if I stay on the rooftops?”

Twenty to thirty percent chance of injury or being taken out of action.

“If I’m on the ground?”

Fifty-something.  Eighteen questions left.

Her numbers were getting less accurate, the picture of the situation cloudier.

Too many powerful individuals in the area, too many chances of disaster, too many unknowns.

He set foot on one rooftop that had changed less than most, and the lightning flash was a staggered one, as his feet first touched gravel, then the material of the rooftop beneath that gravel.

The next rooftop wasn’t made of either material.  It wasn’t made of brick or concrete.

He created two hands, chaining them together, and extended the hand into the building.

It detonated into a massive cloud of smoke.

He launched himself away to avoid it, but it wasn’t enough.  The smoke flowed towards him like a wall, too vast to avoid.

Too vast to avoid so long as he remained on the rooftop.  He shoved himself off, created more hands to form a series of ledges that might serve as a staircase.

The smoke still loomed.

He got as close to the ground as he could, then launched himself to safety.

Golem was panting as he rested on the ground.  Psychosoma’s monsters emerged from the smoke, one using the same ledges he’d created to descend, the other crawling on the outside of the building.  Homeless, to look at them, twisted into monstrous shapes.  False shapes.  He could deal enough damage and break the effect, and they’d be human again, unhurt.

Simpler than it sounded.  If he broke the effect for one, the other would tear the freed victim apart.

Golem rose to his feet, backing away as swiftly as he could.  He was out of reach of the smoke, but these things, they were a distraction, a speed bump.

He waited, dropping into a fighting stance as they approached.  They broke into runs, charging him blindly, two figures so thin they didn’t look real, their fingers and feet twisted into claws as long as his forearm.

They plummeted into a pit in the middle of the road.

Golem rose from the fighting stance, then hurried on.  His footsteps continued to mark the surfaces around him, making it clear where there were more of Nyx’s illusions, more traps left over from the Tohu-Bohu attack.

His other enemies wouldn’t be so gullible.

“Left or right?” he asked.  He had a mental map of the surroundings.

Left.  Somewhere around a ninety percent chance Jack’s in that direction.”

Each question narrowed down the possibilities.  From fifty percent of the area to twenty-five percent, then twelve and a half percent… now six percent.  It was a small enough slice that he didn’t need to wonder as much.  If he kept on this course, he could find his target.

Right route,” Dinah said.  “It’s… it’s really fuzzy, but I still feel like the bloody, ugly ends aren’t so close.

“A good feeling,” Theo said.

In a numbery way.

A numbery way.

“Status,” he said.  “Not a question.  Just… I need to know what’s going on.”

The others are… okay,” Dinah replied.  “Defiant just arrived in Houston with a giant robot that only has one arm and one leg, and we’ve got…”

Dinah’s voice continued, but he didn’t hear it.

Golem slowed to a walk as he saw his new surroundings.  The tombstones of Bohu’s area were still here, but they were scarred.

A thousand times a thousand cuts.

“Theodore,” Jack said.

Jack emerged, and he wasn’t holding a knife.  He held a sword, nearly four feet long.  A claymore.  His shirt was unbuttoned, showing a body without a trace of fat.  His beard had been meticulously trimmed, but that had easily been a day ago.  His neck had scruff on it.  Strands of dark hair fell across eyes with lines in the corner as he stared at Golem.

Golem had gotten this far.

Now what?

Jack let the blade’s point swing idly at calf-level, pointed off to one side.  Cuts gouged the road’s surface.  Theo let his fingers trace the panels on his armor.  Steel, iron, aluminum, woods, stone…

His second sense marked various items in the surrounding area that were made of the same substance, even marked the trap off to his left, but it didn’t touch any part of the sword.

“All on your lonesome,” Jack said.

“Yes,” Theo answered, sounding braver than he felt.

His finger touched other panels.  Brick, asphalt, concrete, porcelain…

The sword remained out of his power’s reach.  He’d put so much stock in being able to disarm Jack.

With each contact, he felt the accompanying flashes, tried to put together a mental picture of his surroundings.

Two false building faces, just a little ahead of him.  They had to be Nyx-made.  If he advanced, she’d break the illusion, and he’d be surrounded in the noxious smoke.  At best, he’d pass out.  At worst, he’d pass out and wake up to permanent brain damage and organ failure.  Or being in the clutches of the Nine.

Jack let the sword swing, and Golem tensed.  The blade didn’t come anywhere close to pointing at him, but Jack’s power cut shallow gouges into the surrounding brick, stone and pavement.

“Alone,” Jack said, again.

Because of you, Golem thought.

He clenched his fist.

Tears were forming in his eyes.  Ridiculous.  Wasn’t supposed to be what happened in this kind of situation.

Jack, in turn, smiled slowly.  “Quiet.  I was thinking that after all this time, we could have some witty banter.  You can scream your fury at me, curse me for killing your loved ones.  Then you do your best to tear me apart.”

“No.”

“Oh!” Jack smiled wider.  “Show mercy, then?  Walk away from the fight and show you’re the better man, rather than descending to my level?  I’ve been waiting for someone to pull that ever since I saw it happen in a movie.”

“This isn’t a movie.”

“No.  It’s very, very real, Theodore,” Jack said.  He paced a little, letting the sword drag on the ground.  The blade was white, Golem noted.  White, exceptionally sharp.

Mannequin-made?

Or was this Jack an illusion?  Nyx could imitate voices.  She could create the gouges in the walls by way of the illusory smoke.

Golem paced a little too, mirroring Jack’s movements.

“Well, I’m not sure what you expect, then, Theodore.  The fat little boy promised me he’d become the kind of hero that would put down monsters like me.  I gave you two years, and you’ve made it at least partway.  Did you change your mind on the killing part?”

“No.  I will kill you.”

“So tough!  So brave!  All of this from the-”

Stop talking, Jack.  You’re not that clever, not as sharp as you like to think.  You talked to me about keystones?  Bullshit.  You’re a sad, pathetic killer with delusions of grandeur.”

Jack’s smile dropped from his face.  He held the Claymore with one hand, the blade’s point touching the ground, and spread his arms.  His unbuttoned shirt parted, showing the whole of his bare shirt and stomach.  Showing himself to be vulnerable, exposed.

“Then do your worst, Theodore.  Because if you don’t, I will.”

Dinah,” he whispered.

With you.  Gray boy isn’t near.  Nyx and Hookwolf are.  Fifteen questions.  I had to use one to help the others.

He nodded slowly.

I don’t like the illusory building faces.  Too much poisonous smoke was needed to make that sort of thing, it had to be multiple Nyxes working in concert.  They’d be close, probably.

Which said nothing of the other threats that loomed behind the fog.  Psychosoma’s creations?

Golem reached up to his gloves, then tore off the protectors on his knuckles.  They fell to the ground.  Beneath were spikes.

“Nice touch,” Jack said.

Golem spread his arms.  “What do you-”

Red.”

Mid-sentence, still talking, he let his arms fall, driving them into panels at his side.

Jack hopped back out of reach of the hands, seizing his sword.  He drew it back.

Blue.”

Golem created another hand.  Not to catch Jack, but to catch the blade.

It had backfired, if anything.  The hand caught the tip of the blade, but the sword slid free of the grip and flew around with more force.  Golem leaped back, letting himself fall, and let his feet slide into the pavement.  Two boots rose from the ground, shielding him as the slash caught the surface.

Weaver’s lessons.  Catching the enemy off guard by any means necessary, rolling with the punches, or rolling with the effects of the enemy’s attack.

Had to use Dinah’s ability, divide everything into two equally viable actions, so he wasn’t caught off guard.

Still prone, still shielded and out of sight, he reached into the ground with both hands.

Two hands, flattened, jabbed for Jack’s leg, stabbing at ankle and calf.  Jack backed away again before they made contact, slashed again.

This time, the slash caught a section of Golem’s armor that was sticking out of cover.  The cut made a mark nearly a foot deep in the ground, but it served only to split the pauldron in half.  A section of metal fell to the ground.

He created two connected hands of pavement, then whipped them to throw the section of pauldron at Jack.  The trajectory suggested it would fly a little to Jack’s left.

Golem jabbed one hand into the ground, and a flattened hand stabbed out from the spinning piece of metal, extending as the projectile flew.

Jack ducked, but Golem was already thrusting his other hand into the earth.  It jutted from the hand he’d created, doubling the length in short order.  More of a crude boomerang in shape than a chunk of metal.

It only clipped Jack, just barely.

“Clever boy,” Jack said.  “You-”

“Stop talking, Jack,” Golem responded.

For Aster, for Kayden, even for the others…

He thrust his hands into the ground, repeatedly, and they stabbed at the underside of Jack’s feet.  He leaped back out of reach and swung his sword the instant he touched ground.

The action cut through the remainder of the shield Golem had raised, but it also kept Jack in one place.  He caught the underside of Jack’s foot.  Jack stumbled as he pulled himself free of Golem’s grip.

He reached out to stab out with two interconnected hands, the same technique he used to launch himself.

But Jack evaded it, slid out of the way, almost as if he knew the strike was coming.

Golem moved to get into a position to strike again, and realized in the moment that it would take too long.

He was crouched, still, his hands remained buried, and Jack was already drawing his sword back.  He couldn’t mount a defense in time.

He braced himself.  With luck, his armor could take it.

The attack didn’t come.

No.  Jack laughed, instead.  His icy blue eyes were fixed at a point beyond Golem.

Golem chanced a look over his shoulder.

He saw a figure dropping out of the sky, trailed by what looked like a comet’s trail of black shapes.  Weaver.  Her course changed as she flew away, using the Bohu-warped buildings for cover.

And where she’d been, just moments ago, a dull gray light hung in the sky.

Scion.  Trapped in Gray Boy’s time-well.

Jack’s laugh rang through the area.

The figure inside moved, but only barely.  The well trapped powers within.  Kayden’s lasers wouldn’t exit the area.  Crusader’s duplicates wouldn’t be able to wander beyond the well’s limits.

And Scion didn’t appear to be any different.

“I’m sorry, my boy,” Jack said.

Golem whipped his head around.  Jack had backed up a short distance.

Jack chuckled, as if he still found something funny about the situation.  “Ah well.  I’m disappointed.  I’m not sensing it, your killer instinct.”

“I’m prepared to finish you,” Golem said.

“You’re prepared?  Maybe.  But not practiced.  No.  I don’t see this going anywhere interesting.  It’s about the ripples.  You remember our conversation?”

Theo nodded slowly.  The ripples from a butterfly’s wing.  The effects that extend out from any event. 

“You?  This?  It’s nothing.  What ripples extend from this?  You’re weak.  That?” Jack pointed at Scion, trapped in the sky.

Golem chanced another look.  Nothing had changed.  Scion remained fixed in place.

That interests me.”

He climbed to his feet, eyes on Jack’s weapon.

Jack reached into his belt, then drew a knife.

Golem tensed.  Faster than the sword, if not quite so capable of chewing through his armor.

But Jack didn’t attack him.  He struck at the building faces.

The surfaces dissolved into rolling clouds of smoke.  Golem vaulted himself back twice in quick succession to escape it, then continued to back away for good measure.

“You’ve failed to amuse me.  A shame your sister’s been shot, and there’s nothing interesting to do with the hostages,” Jack called out, his voice ringing along the length of the street.  With no details or features on the outsides of the buildings Bohu had altered, the voice carried in an odd way.

A shadow emerged.  Jack, riding atop a massive six-legged beast.

As Jack approached, he became more visible, and the nature of the beast became clear.  He stood on Hookwolf’s back, between the creature’s shoulders.

Other shadows appeared in the mist, and they, in turn, clarified as they approached.  Crawlers.  Mannequins.  Crimsons.  Others.

Done in by my dad’s lieutenant, Golem thought.  No way he was walking away from this.

“I suppose we’ll kill you,” Jack said.  “And you’ll just have to take me on my word when I say I’ll find something suitably horrific to do as punishment for your failing our little game.”

Theo raised a hand as a shield even before Jack used his power in conjunction with Hookwolf’s.  A hand of pavement, struck by a thousand slashes in a matter of a second, whittled to nothing.  Then he had only armor, and that, too, started to come apart.

The cuts that followed parted flesh.

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Interlude 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were they supposed to be, the glimmers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m just saying,” the boy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That comes later,” the mouse girl said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She raised her head.  “Yes.”

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

“The brown drink,” she said.

“Coke, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hero cleared his throat in a very deliberate way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe?”  Mouse girl asked.

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

Her eyes widened.

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

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

Chevalier shrugged.  I’m not sure I did.

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

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

“Never!”

Reed sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To second chances,” Hero said.

“A brighter future,” Eidolon added.

“And to making good memories,” Legend finished.

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

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

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

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

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

Brighter future indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now he led the attack.

He drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.

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

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

But not surprising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exalt nodded.

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

Exalt arched an eyebrow.

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

Rime and Exalt nodded.

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

“Right,” Rime said.

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

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

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

“They can’t blame you,” Rime said.

“They damn well can,” Chevalier retorted.

She frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He glanced at Rime and Exalt, then nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re upset about the Yàngbǎn.”

“I don’t like surprises.”

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

“Can we trust them?”

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

Chevalier sighed.

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

“Okay.  And our… less legitimate thinkers?”

“Accord and Tattletale.”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Of course,” Mr. Keene answered.

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

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

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

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

“Yep,” Tattletale said.

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

“Straight to the point,” Tattletale commented.

“A disaster?” Chevalier asked.

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

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

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

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

“Ego?” Tattletale asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Usher,” Tattletale supplied.

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

“We have fallback plans.”

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

Chevalier grit his teeth.

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

“What doesn’t?”

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

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

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

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

The Yàngbǎn, one of them.

An assassin?

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

Defying the truce, here?  Now?

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

“You lunatic!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The laser.  How?

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

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

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

“He’s here?”

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

He sighed.

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

A notepad executable read:

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

Chevalier shut his eyes.  We lost.

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

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

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

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

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

How long had he been out?

She showed him her phone again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My breastplate.”

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

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

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

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

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

She tapped the phone again.

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

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

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

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

“Please,” he added, growling the word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why the hell not?”

She just shook her head.

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

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

“Help me stand.”

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?”

She reached for the phone.

no tear inside u.

“I could’ve told you that.”

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

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

“Right,” he said.  “My Cannonblade?”

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

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

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

Another step.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stopped before he spent the sixth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defiant caught him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the very least, it was holding up here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin, even, though it came much later.

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

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

That’ll do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so funny, in this moment.

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

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

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

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

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

He made it grow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fight was over.

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

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

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

Not the sun.  It was a figure.  Scion.

He would have laughed if he could.

Too late.

You showed up too late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Scion was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One, two, three, four

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

…eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #1)

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“I am Kevin Norton, and I am the most powerful man in the world.”

Kevin made a hand signal, and Duke woofed lightly.

“I’ve saved millions of lives.  Billions.”

Another hand signal bidding another small woof of agreement.

He held out his mug, but the pedestrians around him simply avoided him, ignored it.

The sole of Kevin Norton’s old shoe had come free at the toe a few days ago, and the tip of it dipped too low, catching on the cobblestone path. He tripped and nearly fell, and Duke danced out of the way, ears perked in alarm.

Kevin caught his balance by grabbing onto a bystander, a woman, and she almost thrust him away, her face suddenly etched in disgust.

“Sorry about that, miss,” Kevin told her, as she hurried on her way, quickening her pace.  When he didn’t get a response, he raised his voice so she could hear him as he finished, “A sad thing, that a man of my stature can’t afford shoes, isn’t it?”

Kevin’s gait bordered on a limp as he adjusted his walk to avoid tripping on his shoe again.  The path here was old-fashioned, cobblestones worn by the tread of hundreds of people over countless years.  The area around him wasn’t so old.  Renovated storefronts and new buildings were popping up, mimicking the older British styles while staying current, fresh and new.

“We won’t be able to stay for long, Duke,” Kevin said.  “Amount of money the city’s dropping here, they won’t want vagrants around.  But I only want to pay a visit to my old haunt, see what’s become of it.”

He saw a family approaching, held out a mug, “A few pence, for the most powerful man in the world?”

The kids stared, but the parents averted their eyes, the mother putting her hands around the little one’s shoulders as if to protect them.

Kevin shrugged and walked on.  There were only a handful of coins inside the mug, rattling around as his arm swung.

“You wouldn’t remember much of this area,” he told Duke, “I’d already moved on from this before I found you.  Ran.  I’d pass through a few times when you were still small enough to hold in my hand, but I’d avoid this particular spot.  Won’t say I haven’t missed it.  The old owners used to give me some of the leftovers.”

He pointed, “Just over there, there was a bakery.  They’d throw out anything more than a day old.  Bags of rolls and pastries.  Sausage rolls, pasties.  When they realized I was coming by to partake, supplement my meager diet, they started leaving the bags to one side of the bins so it wouldn’t get soiled, and they’d leave other things.  Little things.  Some salads, so I had some greens.  A comb, a toothbrush, soap, deodorant.  Gentle folk.”

Kevin reached down to scratch the top of Duke’s head.

“Wonder what’s become of them.  Hope the changes around here treated them alright.  Be a crying shame if they were forced out and didn’t get what their shops were worth.  They deserved that much, at least.  More.”

Duke yawned, and ended the yawn with a little whine.

“Me, you ask?” Kevin said.  “No.  I don’t deserve much of anything.  What’s that line, about power and responsibility?  Most powerful man in the world, I have a bloody great deal of responsibility.  Sure, I go to bed hungry, I slept terribly during that one spell of body lice, but the thing that really costs me sleep is the idea I might have shirked my responsibilities.”

Kevin looked down and Duke met his eyes, tilted his head quizzically.

“I got scared, boy.  Because I’m a coward.  There’s three good ways to get to where I’m at in life.  Not talking about being the most powerful man in the world.  Talking about how I don’t have a place to go, not a friend in the world besides you.  One way you get like this is a lack of support.  Caring family, friends, you can get through almost anything.  No one there to back you up?  Even the littlest things can knock you down a long way if there’s nobody to catch you.”

There was a dull rumble, and then the rain started pouring down, heavy.

“A summer rain, Duke.  About due, isn’t it?”

The few people on the streets ran for cover, and the little side street was nearly emptied in the span of a minute.  Kevin stretched his arms, letting the rain soak through him.  He dragged his fingers through his hair to comb it back, raised his head to face the sky.

Duke shook himself after only a few seconds, spraying water.  It startled Kevin from his reverie.

“What was I saying?  Oh, right.  Second way you get to circumstances like mine?  Sickness.  Sometimes that’s in the head, sometimes it’s in the body, and sometimes it’s a sickness you get in a bottle or a pipe.  Third path is the one I took.  Cowardice.  Run away from life.  Run away from yourself.  Sometimes the bottle’s a cowardice too.  Run away from the truth about what you’re doing to yourself, I dunno.  I have you to thank for sparing me that sin.”

He felt a cold wind and stepped under the eaves of the newly renovated buildings, to find brief shelter from the downpour as he walked.

“Too set in my ways to change, to live a braver life.  Just coming back here is taking all the courage I can sum up.”

Duke forced his head under Kevin’s hand, and Kevin couldn’t help but smile.

“Good boy, good boy.  Appreciate the moral support.”

They had to step out into the rain again to cross the street.  Kevin quickened his pace, and Duke loped alongside him.

He ducked under the next set of eaves as he reached the next block.  “I fucked up, Duke.  I know that.  I gotta live with that.  I did a lot.  More than most would, I think.  But it’s not enough.  If my gut’s right, it’s not nearly enough.  Shit.”

Just down the street, a shop door opened and a young woman stepped outside.  Petite, pretty, twenty-something, her black hair cut to a pixie cut and topped by a dark gray beret.  Black tights, short, pleated gray skirt.  Fashionable.  She turned his way, an umbrella in hand.

He smiled at her, stepped out into the rain as they crossed paths, so she wouldn’t have to.

“Mister?” she called out.

He was just returning to the shelter of the eaves.  “What is it?”

“Here,” she said.  She had her wallet out, and handed him a ten pound note.  He glanced at her.

Taking the note, he said, “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome.”

He gave her a funny look.  She was looking him in the eyes.  “Usually I get two types.  Some give me the money and don’t even give me a second glance.  Those who do look at me are sure to lecture me on how I should spend it.  So feel free to wag your finger at me, tell me I shouldn’t spend it on drugs, drink and fags.  I’ll understand, and I can look suitably ashamed.”

“Spend it however you need,” she said.  She had a trace of a french accent, “Circumstances might be hard enough that maybe you need to find the little comforts, even if they aren’t good for you.”

“Too true.  Rest assured, I feed Duke first, feed myself, and then I buy the little comforts, as you put it.  I admit I do like a fag when I can get my hands on one.”

“Glad to hear it,” she said, smiling.  “Hello Duke.”

“He’s a good boy, but I wouldn’t advise petting him.”

She withdrew her hand.

“Not fleas or anything like that.  I keep him healthy.  But he’s a working mutt.  Watches my back when I need watching.  We take care of each other.  So he might be protective of me, not keen on someone getting too close, too soon.”

“Did you name him?” she asked.  When he nodded, she asked, “Any reason for Duke?”

“Thought long and hard about it.  Duke seemed fitting.  Highest rank of our United Kingdom, just beneath a king in status.  Fitting for the dog that serves the most powerful man in the world.”

He was looking at her eyes when he said it, saw the sadness in her expression.  “The most powerful man in the world?”

“It’s true.  Don’t think I didn’t see that.  You don’t believe me.”

“It’s a grand claim, Mister…”

“Kevin.  Kevin Norton.  And don’t mind my rambling.”

“Lisette,” she said, extending a hand.

He shook it.  Even with the moisture of the downpour, her hand was warm.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Hm?” he perked up, withdrawing his hand.

“You had a look on your face.”

“Just wondering when the last time I had contact with another person was.  Might have been a few years ago.  Pastor gave me a hug as I left his shelter.”

“That sounds so lonely, Kevin.  Years without human contact?”

“Not so lonely.  I’ve got one friend,” he said, scratching Duke’s head.

Lisette nodded.

“But you shouldn’t forget.  The little stuff.  Even a handshake?  That’s something special.  Meaningful.  Value it, even if you get it every day.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she smiled.

“Can’t tell you how grateful I am,” Kevin said.  “Taking the time for me, it means the world to me.  Might be the push I need.”

“For what?”

“I’m looking back, and I haven’t looked back in a long while.  Visiting home, so to speak.  Thinking about stuff I haven’t even told Duke about, these past twelve years.  You’ve given me a bump of morale at a time I needed it.  Thank you.”

“I’m glad.  I hope you make peace with it.”

“Heavy burden, mine.  I… I don’t suppose you have a little while?  Would you walk with me a few minutes?”

She glanced over her shoulder in the direction she’d been headed, “My train-”

“I understand if you wouldn’t want to.  But if you indulged this old man, it’d make all the difference in my facing this, today.  A few minutes.”

“You’re not that old.”  She paused.  “I suppose I could.”

“Come, then, it isn’t far.  You might want to open that umbrella.”

She gave him a dubious glance.

He shook his head, “No.  Not expecting you to share.  I haven’t washed my clothes too recently.  Wouldn’t want to inflict that on you.  And Duke might get jealous.”

She nodded, and followed alongside him as he headed on his way.  He didn’t miss the wide berth she gave him, staying several paces away, hanging back just enough that she could keep an eye on him, as though ready to run if he did something.  She might be a kind person, but she isn’t stupid.

“I was in my early twenties when I started out,” he said.  “Born in London, had nobody left after my parents died in my teens.  Moved up here to York.  Met a girl, moved into her flat.  I won’t say it was the cause of this predicament of mine, I’m willing to take the blame for being where I’m at.  But it started me on that road.”

“What happened?”

“Too many mistakes all together.  She wasn’t the right girl, for one.  Our relationship progressed, and I realized that I don’t like women.”

“Oh,” Lisette said.

“A little late, but I’d gotten that far by doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, and dating a girl was one of those things.  Am I bothering you?  Boring you?”

“No.  Not at all.”

“Well, I was a young, stupid twenty year old boy, I’d moved in without anything putting my name on the lease and without holding on to any money to move out.  She realized we weren’t going to work out, threatened to kick me out, and I begged to stay.  Nowhere to go.  Thought I could save up enough to get a place, if I stuck it out, dealt with the anger.  She started hitting me.  I was never the type to hit back.  It got bad.”

“I’m sorry.”

“There’s battered women’s shelters, but none for battered men, far as I know.  People somehow imagine a woman couldn’t ever strike a man.”

“You left?”

“And I’ve wondered for a long time if I made the right decision,” Kevin said.  “Here we are.”

The road ended, and they reached a narrow stream that fed into the River Ouse.  A small, quaint bridge extended the cobblestone footpath over the stream, benches stood out on a stone patio, and younger trees had been planted in soil bordered by circles of stone.

This is the home you haven’t returned to?” Lisette asked.

“Closest to home I ever had,” Kevin stepped away from the umbrella’s shelter, approached the bridge, “They changed it.  Used to be I could sleep under here.  It’s where I came when I left that apartment and that girl.”

“And you’ve been on the streets ever since?”

“Some stays in shelters, when it got too cold, and when they’d take Duke in as well.  Have to make some concessions to make it as long as I have.  Thank you, by the way, for coming.  I know you missed your train.  I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to go through with this, even with Duke at my side.  I’ve started and stopped more times than I can count.  It’s appreciated.”

She gave him a funny look.  “It’s alright.  Take your time.”

Kevin nodded, “Would you take Duke?  Just for a minute?”

She took the offered leash, a rope cord that had been carefully knotted into a harness for Duke, extending from his shoulder.  It was barely necessary.  Duke never pulled.

Kevin approached the bridge, traced his fingers over the rounded stones that made up the bridge, the rain-worn gargoyle’s face that stood out from the pillar at the bottom.  The rain streamed off the stone face, poured off and through his clothes, soaking him to his core.  It seemed almost fitting.

There wasn’t much point, given the rain, but he knelt by the water’s edge, where the surface frothed with both current and the downpour, washed his hands.  He took a deep breath, taking in the faint but familiar smells of the river water.  A natural smell.

Memories came flooding back.

Kevin pushed his hair out of the way of his face, cupped water in his hands, and splashed his face.

He stood, then stopped, frozen.

A sigh passed through his lips, drowned out by the noise of the pounding rain.

Between the nearest patio table and tree, the golden man floated, only inches above the ground, luminescent in the gloom and pouring rain.  The light reflected off the falling raindrops, scintillating, cast eerie reflections in the river, and the water that streamed between the cobblestones.

Kevin put his hands in his pockets to warm them, glanced at Lisette and Duke.  Duke hadn’t budged an inch, but his ears were flat against his head.  Lisette had her hands to her mouth, eyes wide.  The umbrella had fallen to the ground, forgotten.

Kevin studied the man.  Ageless, the golden man hadn’t changed in the slightest.  His hair was the same length, as was his short beard.  Every part of him was a burnished gold, even his eyes.  He didn’t breathe, didn’t blink as he stared.

The water ran off the golden man’s body, but he wasn’t getting wet.  His hair barely moved as the rain struck it, his costume absorbed the moisture, but dried just as fast.  The water simply wicked off his skin and hair, leaving him untouched.

It was this same effect that kept the costume clean, a simple white bodysuit extending to biceps and toes.  It had been soiled countless times, by everything under the sun, but the golden radiance the man gave off pushed away the particles, slowly and surely cleaning it just as it was doing with the water.  The suit might as well have been a part of him, now.

“Hello old friend,” Kevin said.

The only answer was the pouring rain.  The golden man didn’t speak.

“Wondered if I would see you here,” Kevin continued.  “Been a long time.  I’d nearly convinced myself I’d imagined you.  That old dog over there, he wasn’t even born when I left, and he’s on his last legs now.  Twelve years old.”

The golden man only stared.

Kevin turned away from the superhero.  Walking briskly, he caught up with Lisette’s umbrella, picked it up and shook off the collected water.  He handed the umbrella to her.

“Scion,” she whispered.

“No,” Kevin said.  “That was never his name.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Come closer.”

She hesitated, but approached until she was a short distance from the golden man.  The pupil-less eyes had never left Kevin.

“I said I was the most powerful man in the world.  Wasn’t lying,” Kevin said.  “See?”

The golden man didn’t react.

“You control him?”  Lisette asked.

“No.  Not really.  Yes.  Not like you’re thinking.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Time was, this golden man spent his time wandering, floating here and there, observing but never doing anything.  In a daze.  Naked as the day he was born.  Everyone had different ideas on who he was.  Some thought he might be an angel, others thought he was a fallen angel, and still more thought there were scientific explanations.  Only thing they ever agreed on was that he looked sad.”

“He does.” Lisette was staring, but the golden man was only looking at Kevin.

“He doesn’t,” Kevin said.  “Don’t buy it.  He doesn’t look anything.  That expression never changes.  But whatever’s underneath, that’s what’s giving you that feeling.  He looks sad because he is sad.  Except you take out the ‘looks’ part of it.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“He bloody well flies!  And fights a giant continent-shattering lizard with golden laser beams!  Nothing about him makes any sense!”

The golden man turned his eyes away from the pair, examining one of the recently planted trees.  His eyes fixated on a leaf.

“What’s he doing?”

“Getting around to that.  Was pure chance, but he stopped somewhere near here, dead of night.  Happened around the time I was still new to this life, when I was still feeling so sorry for myself I couldn’t look anyone in the eyes.  I saw him, realized he was this same golden man I’d heard about on the news.  I was mad with depression, ran up to him and pounded my hands on his chest, yelled at him, swore, called him every name in the book.”

“Why?”

“Because he dared to be more miserable than me.  Or because people were putting all these hopes on him and he wasn’t doing a fucking thing other than being some world-wandering nobody who happened to be able to fly.  Don’t know.  A lot of it was me shouting at myself.  I said something about not being miserable, not being a waste, and maybe if he helped in a soup kitchen or something he’d feel better about himself.”

“A soup kitchen?”

“I didn’t really expect him to go work in a soup kitchen.  I eventually did, but that’s beside the point.  I told him to go do something, go help people.  And he did.  Has been since.”

“Just like that?”

“Look at him.  There’s nothing in there.  Whatever happened to him, whatever made him this way, it broke the man.  Broke his mind.  Might be why he was wandering.  Looking for answers, trying to figure out what’s going on.”

The golden man continued staring at the leaves.

“He doesn’t get offended?” Lisette asked.  “When you talk about him like he can’t understand?”

“He understands.  He hears.  But I’ve never heard him speak.  Barely ever get him to look at me while I’m talking.  Doesn’t show emotion, maybe doesn’t understand it.”

“It’s almost like he’s autistic,” Lisette said.

“How’s that?”  Kevin asked.

“Too connected,” Lisette said.  “Too much in the way of stimuli, drowning everything out.”

“Enhanced hearing, hearing the whole city at once?”

“Maybe.  Or maybe he senses things we don’t,” she said.  “The most powerful person in the world, and looking at him now, he’s like a child.”

“Yeah, and unless something’s changed,” Kevin said, “The only person he listens to is me.  He’d come when I was alone, when the weather was bad or in the dead of night, and however he comes, nobody ever followed him here.”

“They can’t follow him with cameras or satellite, I heard.  Have to rely on eye witnesses and global communication to track him.”

“Oh.  Might be it,” Kevin said.  “Surprised he came with you here.  I thought- I almost thought he wouldn’t, because I had you along.  It made me feel better.”

“Why?  Why avoid him?”

Kevin didn’t take his eyes off the golden man.  “He scares me.  He chose me to listen to, of all people.  I’m the most powerful person in the world, just because of that.  Because I can tell the strongest, most capable man in the world what to do.”

“And you ran?”

“It took me a while to realize what I’d set in motion.  I started hearing about him.  Word on the street, newspapers, radio.  The golden man saves a small island from disaster.  The golden man interrupts a burgeoning war.  But it wasn’t until that damned clip began playing on the news that I realized what I’d gotten into.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He’d visit regular, right?  Stop by, like he was checking if I had anything else to say.  Maybe I’d tell him to be more gentle with people when saving them from a car crash, or after that horned bastard came climbing out of the ground and the golden man flew right past it to visit me, I told him he needed to help next time, to fight that monster and anything like it.  But sometimes I didn’t have anything to say, and it’s not like he obeys my every instruction down to the last detail, so sometimes he’d hang out here at half past four in the goddamn morning, and I couldn’t get rid of him, so I’d just talk.”

“Talk?”

“About whatever.  A book I’d gotten my hands on.  Current events.  The generosity of strangers.  Or I’d fix him up some clothes so he looked decent and talk about the clothes.”

He fell silent, watching the golden man.

“What happened?”

“He never responded, barely ever paid attention when I opened my mouth to ramble about whatever.  But he was following the general orders I gave him.  Help people, do this more, do that less.  But I’m in the middle of talking to him about my childhood, about home, when he latches on something.  Head turns, eye contact.  Scares the shit out of me.  I go over it all over again, but it was five in the bloody morning and I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d said.  That is, I couldn’t until three days later, I happen to be in the right time and place, and I see a television in a store playing this clip that’s cropping up on the news.  The golden man says something for the first and last time.  Everyone seems to think he said Scion, and they latch onto it.  They’re wrong, but it sticks, and the word appears on t-shirts and in music and people are talking about it here, where I live.  All because of one thing I said in some ramble of mine, the whole world changes.”

“That’s what scared you?”

“It was the wake up call.  Stupid, isn’t it?  Trivial.”

“No.  Nothing’s trivial when you’re talking about him.”

The golden man had turned his eyes towards the river, his back to them.

“What did you say, if the word wasn’t Scion?” Lisette asked.

“Only realized later.  Was talking about home, religion and family.  Talking about a memory from my childhood.  Don’t even remember it that well, now.  But the word he paid attention to was Zion.”

“That’s Hebrew, isn’t it?”

Kevin nodded.  “Don’t know.  Don’t know the language, it was something to do with a cousin of mine getting in trouble when we were thirteen.  Don’t know why he fixated on it.  But he did, and around the same time that clip started playing, they were talking about the things he’d done.  How he was still the most powerful person out there.  It’s terrifying, because all that power was at my command, mine to order around.  Because a filthy, do-nothing loser like me can change the world with a word.”

“You’re not a loser.  You told him to help people.”

Kevin nodded grimly.

Her expression changed.  “You’re not going to change that, are you?”

He shook his head.  “Golden man!”

The golden man floated around to face him square-on.

“I’ve screwed up, waiting so long to talk to you.  But I’m here now and there’s two things we got to discuss.”

There was no response.  Only the motionless stare.

“This is a hard one, because I really want to be wrong, here.  If this works, then it means my stupidity and my cowardice cost people big.  Means I could have fixed something much sooner.  Was only about the spring before last, I got a chance to use that newfangled internet.  Took some time to learn, but I read up on you.  Saw video of how you were fighting…”

“Kevin?” Lisette asked.

“Those Endbringer motherfuckers.  I told you that you need to stop them, that you need to fight and protect people.  And you have been.”

He clenched his hands, stared down at the ground, “And god help me, maybe I wasn’t specific enough.  Maybe I didn’t realize you’d interpret me literally.  We need you to kill the things.  Destroy every last trace of them, throw them into space.  Don’t know.  But fight to kill, don’t just… God, I hope I’m wrong, that I’m remembering the words I chose all wrong, and that you didn’t hear my suggestion and take it to mean you should fight for fighting’s sake, or fight to stop them, but not to stop them for good.  You understand?  Don’t just stop them from doing what they were doing.  Stop them permanently.”

The golden man hovered in place, so still it looked like he was frozen in time, standing in the air.

“My god, golden man, I’m praying you understand.  Took me a year to get up the courage to do this, because I was afraid of this.  If that was the problem, and you kill one of those bastards, then I just- I just saved countless people, and the blood of every person they’ve killed in the meantime is on my hands.”

“Kevin,” Lisette spoke, her voice quiet.  Her hands settled on his shoulders.

He ignored her, “The other important topic?  I’ve run out of time.  Middle aged, and my liver’s done in.  Never really drank, because I had to feed that dog over there.  Never did any drugs, besides smoking fags.  But I got the hepatitis somehow.  Bad blood in a hospital, or someone else’s infected blood got mingled with mine on a night some kids decided to pick on a homeless man and I fought back.  Running into you the way I did, golden man, and having you stop to listen to me?  That was a one in a gazillion chance.  Getting this disease was another, might be.  Meeting you was the best and scariest part of my life, maybe it’s the same with the disease, a blessing in disguise.  Maybe it was, aside from this young lady’s help, the only reason I was able to find the balls to come here.”

The rain wasn’t as violent or as heavy as it had been.  It made for an audible change in the patter of water on stone and water on water.

Kevin sighed.  “I’m here to get my affairs in order, and you’re most important after Duke.  I want you to keep doing what you were doing.  Help people.  Try to communicate with the good guys more.  I told you to do that before and you didn’t listen, but you should.  And if there’s a problem, if you need someone to listen to, someone to visit from time to time, look for this young lady.  Lisette.  Because she’s good people.  She’s a better person than I am.  Braver.  Has to be braver, if she’s stopping to talk to a homeless motherfucker like me, following him someplace.”

“No,” Lisette said, “I couldn’t.”

“Shitty thing for me to be doing,” Kevin said, turning to look over his shoulder at her.  “This burden.  But I somehow feel better about this than sending him to go obey you than telling him to go listen to and obey the Suits, or the Protectorate, or Red Gauntlet, or whoever.  You think about it, figure out what you need to, decide what he needs to be told.”

“You think he will?  He’ll come to me?”  Lisette asked, her eyes were wide.

“Don’t know, but I think he might.  Don’t know why he picked me to listen to, but he did.  I could’ve reminded him of someone he used to know.  Or he just up and decided we were friends, maybe.  With luck, he can be your friend too.”  Kevin sighed, “You two got it?  You’re partners now.”

Lisette couldn’t bring herself to speak.  The golden man didn’t respond either, didn’t even move to glance at Lisette.

The golden man hovered in place for long, silent seconds, and then took off, faster than the eye could see.  Only a golden trail of light was left in his wake, quickly fading.

In mere seconds, Scion was gone.

“We have to tell someone,” Lisette said.

“You can try.  They’ll look at you the way you looked at me.  Like you’ve lost your mind.”

“But- but…”

“Yeah,” Kevin said.  “Not so easy, is it?  Maybe if you’re lucky, he’ll show up when others are around, and they’ll believe you when you talk about it.”

He sighed.  “Come on, Duke.”

Lisette didn’t resist as he grabbed Duke’s leash.  Kevin started walking away.

“I don’t understand!” Lisette called after him.

Kevin didn’t turn around or stop walking as he raised his voice to respond over the sound of the pouring rain.  “Good deal, isn’t it?  Ten pounds to become the most powerful person in the world.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“We don’t know how long he had been there.  Suspended in the air above the Atlantic Ocean.  On May twentieth, 1982, an ocean liner was crossing from Plymouth to Boston when a passenger spotted him.  He was naked, his arms to his sides, his long hair blowing in the wind as he stood in the sky, nearly a hundred feet above the gently cresting waves.  His skin and hair can only be described as a burnished gold.  With neither body hair nor clothes to cover him, it is said, he seemed almost artificial.

“After a discussion including passenger and crew, the liner detoured to get closer.  It was a sunny day, and passengers crowded to the railings to get a better look.  As if sharing their curiosity, the figure drew closer as well.  His expression was unchanging, but witnesses at the scene reported that he appeared deeply sad.

“‘I thought he was going to crack his facade and cry any moment’, said Grace Lands, ‘But when I reached out and touched his fingertips, I was the one who burst into tears.’

“‘That boat trip was a final journey for me.  I had cancer, and I wasn’t brave enough to face it.  Can’t believe I’m admitting this in front of a camera, but I was going back to Boston, where I was born, to end things myself.  After I met him, I changed my mind.  Didn’t matter anyways.  I went to a doctor, and he said there was no sign I ever had the disease.’

“‘My brother, Andrew Hawke, was the last passenger to make any sort of contact with him, I remember.  He climbed up onto the railing, and, almost falling off, he clasped the hand of the golden man.  The rest of us had to grab onto him to keep him from falling.  Whatever happened left him with a quiet awe.  When the man with the golden skin flew away, my brother stayed silent.  The rest of the way to Boston, my brother didn’t say a word.  When we docked, and the spell finally broke, my brother babbled his excitement to reporters like a child.’

“The golden man would reappear several more times in the coming months and years.  At some point, he donned clothing.  At first, a sheet worn over one shoulder and pinned at either side of the waist, then more conventional clothes.  In 1999, he donned the white bodysuit he still wears today.  For more than a decade, we have wondered, where did our golden man get these things?  Who was he in contact with?

“Periodically at first, then with an increasing frequency, the golden man started to intervene in times of crisis.  For events as small as a car accident, as great as natural disasters, he has arrived and used his abilities to save us.  A flash of light to freeze water reinforcing a levee stressed by a hurricane.  A terrorist act averted.  A serial murderer caught.  A volcano quelled.  Miracles, it was said.

“His pace increased, perhaps because he was still learning what he could do, perhaps because he was getting a greater sense of where he was needed.  By the middle of the 1990s, he was traveling from crisis to crisis, flying faster than the speed of sound.  In fifteen years, he has not rested.

“He has been known to speak just once in thirty years.  After extinguishing widespread fire in Alexandrovsk, he paused to survey the scene and be sure no blazes remained.  A reporter spoke to him, and asked, ‘Kto vy?’ – what are you?

“Shocking the world, caught on camera in a scene replayed innumerable times, he answered in a voice that sounded as though it might never have uttered a sound before.  Barely audible, he told her, ‘Scion’.

“It became the name we used for him.  Ironic, because we took a word that meant descendant, and used it to name the first of many superpowered individuals – parahumans – to appear across Earth.

“Just five years after Scion’s first appearance, the superheroes emerged from the cover of rumor and secrecy to show themselves to the public.  Though the villains followed soon after, it was the heroes who shattered any illusions of the parahumans being divine figures.  In 1989, attempting to quell a riot over a basketball game in Michigan, the superhero known to the public as Vikare stepped in, only to be clubbed over the head.  He died not long after of a brain embolism.  Later, he would be revealed to be Andrew Hawke.

“The golden age of the parahumans was thus short lived.  They were not the deific figures they had appeared to be.  Parahumans were, after all, people with powers, and people are flawed at their core.  Government agencies took a firmer hand, and state-”

The television flicked off, and the screen went black, cutting the documentary off mid sentence.  Danny Hebert sighed and sat down on the bed, only to stand just a moment later and resume pacing.

It was three fifteen in the morning, and his daughter Taylor was not in her bedroom.

Danny ran his hands through his hair, which was thinned enough at the top to be closer to baldness than not.  He liked to be the first to arrive at work, watching everyone arrive, having them know he was there for them.  So he usually went to bed early; he’d turn in at ten in the evening, give or take depending on what was on TV.  Only tonight, a little past midnight, he’d been disturbed from restless sleep when he had felt rather than heard the shutting of the back door of the house, just below his bedroom.  He had checked on his daughter, and he’d found her room empty.

So he had waited for his daughter to return for three hours.

Countless times, he had glanced out the window, hoping to see Taylor coming in.

For the twentieth time, he felt the urge to ask his wife for help, for advice, for support.  But her side of the bed was empty and it had been for some time.  Daily, it seemed, he was struck by the urge to call her cell phone.  He knew it was stupid – she wouldn’t pick up – and if he dwelt on that for too long, he became angry at her, which just made him feel worse.

He wondered, even as he knew the answer, why he hadn’t gotten Taylor a cell phone.  Danny didn’t know what his daughter was doing, what would drive her to go out at night.  She wasn’t the type.  He could tell himself that most fathers felt that way about their daughters, but at the same time, he knew.  Taylor wasn’t social.  She didn’t go to parties, she wouldn’t drink, she wasn’t even that interested in champagne when they celebrated the New Year together.

Two ominous possibilities kept nagging at him, both too believable.  The first was that Taylor had gone out for fresh air, or even for a run.  She wasn’t happy, especially at school, he knew, and exercise was her way of working through it.  He could see her doing it on a Sunday night, with a fresh week at school looming.  He liked that her running made her feel better about herself, that she seemed to be doing it in a reasonable, healthy way. He just hated that she had to do it here, in this neighborhood.  Because here, a skinny girl in her mid-teens was an easy target for attack.  A mugging or worse – he couldn’t even articulate the worst of the possibilities in his own thoughts without feeling physically sick.  If she had gone out at eleven in the evening for a run and hadn’t come back by three in the morning, then it meant something had happened.

He glanced out the window again, at that corner of the house where the pool of illumination beneath the streetlight would let him see her approaching.  Nothing.

The second possibility wasn’t much better.  He knew Taylor was being bullied.  Danny had found that out in January, when his little girl had been pulled out of school and taken to the hospital.  Not the emergency room, but the psychiatric ward.  She wouldn’t say by whom, but under the influence of the drugs they had given her to calm down, she had admitted she was being victimized by bullies, using the plural to give him a clue that it was a they and not a he or a she.  She hadn’t mentioned it – the incident or the bullying – since.  If he pushed, she only tensed up and grew more withdrawn.  He had resigned himself to letting her reveal the details in her own time, but months had passed without any hints or clues being offered.

There was precious little Danny could do on the subject, either.  He had threatened to sue the school after his daughter had been taken to the hospital, and the school board had responded by settling, paying her hospital bills and promising they would look out for her to prevent such events from occurring in the future. It was a feeble promise made by a chronically overworked staff and it didn’t do a thing to ease his worries.  His efforts to have her change schools had been stubbornly countered with rules and regulations about the maximum travel times a student was allowed to have between home and a given school.  The only other school within a reasonable distance of Taylor’s place of residence was Arcadia High, and it was already desperately overcrowded with more than two hundred students on a list requesting admittance.

With all that in mind, when his daughter disappeared until the middle of the night, he couldn’t shake the idea that the bullies might have lured her out with blackmail, threats or empty promises.  He only knew about the one incident, the one that had landed her in the hospital, but it had been grotesque.  It had been implied, but never elaborated on, that more had been going on.  He could imagine these boys or girls that were tormenting his daughter, egging one another on as they came up with more creative ways to humiliate or harm her.  Taylor hadn’t said as much aloud, but whatever had been going on had been mean, persistent and threatening enough that Emma, Taylor’s closest friend for years, had stopped spending time with her.  It galled him.

Impotent.  Danny was helpless where it counted.  There was no action he could take – his one call to the police at two in the morning had only earned him a tired explanation that the police couldn’t act or look for her without something more to go on.  If his daughter was still gone after twelve hours, he’d been told, he should call them again.  All he could do was wait and pray with his heart in his throat that the phone wouldn’t ring, a police officer or nurse on the other end ready to tell him what had happened to his daughter.

The slightest of vibrations in the house marked the escape of the warm air in the house to the cold outdoors, and there was a muffled whoosh as the kitchen door shut again.  Danny Hebert felt a thrill of relief coupled with abject fear.  If he went downstairs to find his daughter, would he find her hurting or hurt?  Or would his presence make things worse, her own father seeing her at her most vulnerable after humiliation at the hands of bullies?  She had told him, in every way except articulating it aloud, that she didn’t want that.  She had pleaded with him, with body language and averted eye contact, unfinished sentences and things left unsaid, not to ask, not to push, not to see, when it came to the bullying.  He couldn’t say why, exactly.  Home was an escape from that, he’d suspected, and if he recognized the bullying, made it a reality here, maybe she wouldn’t have that relief from it.  Perhaps it was shame, that his daughter didn’t want him to see her like that, didn’t want to be that weak in front of him.  He really hoped that wasn’t the case.

So he ran his fingers through his hair once more and sat down on the corner of the bed, elbows on his knees, hands on his head, and stared at his closed bedroom door.  His ears were peeled for the slightest clue.  The house was old, and it hadn’t been a high quality building when it had been new, so the walls were thin and the structure prone to making noise at every opportunity.  There was the faintest sound of a door closing downstairs.  The bathroom?  It wouldn’t be the basement door, with no reason for her to go down there, and he couldn’t imagine it was a closet, because after two or three minutes, the same door opened and closed again.

After something banged on the kitchen counter, there was little but the occasional groan of floorboards.  Five or ten minutes after she had come in, there was the rhythmic creak of the stairs as she ascended.  Danny thought about clearing his throat to let her know he was awake and available should she knock on his door, but decided against it.  He was being cowardly, he thought, as if his clearing of his throat would give reality to his fears.

Her door shut carefully, almost inaudibly, with the slightest tap of door on doorframe.  Danny stood, abruptly, opening his door, ready to cross the hall and knock on her door.  To verify that his daughter was okay.

He was stopped by the smell of jam and toast.  She had made a late night snack.  It filled him with relief.  He couldn’t imagine his daughter, after being mugged, tormented or humiliated, coming home to have toast with jam as a snack.  Taylor was okay, or at least, okay enough to be left alone.

He let out a shuddering sigh of relief and retreated to his room to sit on the bed.

Relief became anger.  He was angry at Taylor, for making him worry, and then not even going out of her way to let him know she was okay.  He felt a smouldering resentment towards the city, for having neighborhoods and people he couldn’t trust his daughter to.  He hated the bullies that preyed on his daughter.  Underlying it all was frustration with himself.  Danny Hebert was the one person he could control in all of this, and Danny Hebert had failed to do anything that mattered.  He hadn’t gotten answers, hadn’t stopped the bullies, hadn’t protected his daughter.  Worst of all was the idea that this might have happened before, with him simply sleeping through it rather than laying awake.

He stopped himself from walking into his daughter’s room, from shouting at her and demanding answers, even if it was what he wanted, more than anything.  Where had she been, what had she been doing?  Was she hurt?  Who were these people that were tormenting her?  He knew that by confronting her and getting angry at her, he would do more harm than good, would threaten to sever any bond of trust they had forged between them.

Danny’s father had been a powerful, heavyset man, and Danny hadn’t gotten any of those genes.  Danny had been a nerd when the term was still young in popular culture, stick thin, awkward, short sighted, glasses, bad fashion sense.  What he had inherited was his father’s famous temper.  It was quick to rise and startling in its intensity.  Unlike his father, Danny had only ever hit someone in anger twice, both times when he was much younger.  That said, just like his father, he could and would go off on tirades that would leave people shaking.  Danny had long viewed the moment he’d started to see himself as a man, an adult, to be the point in time where he had sworn to himself that he wouldn’t ever lose his temper with his family.  He wouldn’t pass that on to his child the way his father had to him.

He had never broken that oath with Taylor, and knowing that was what kept him contained in his room, pacing back and forth, red in the face and wanting to punch something.  While he’d never gotten angry at her, never screamed at her, he knew Taylor had seen him angry.  Once, he had been at work, talking to a mayor’s aide.  The man had told Danny that the revival projects for the Docks were being cancelled and that, contrary to promises, there were to be layoffs rather than new jobs for the already beleaguered Dockworkers.  Taylor had been spending the morning in his office on the promise that they would go out for the afternoon, and had been in a position to see him fly off the handle in the worst way with the man.  Four years ago, he had lost his temper with Annette for the first time, breaking his oath to himself.  That had been the last time he had seen her.  Taylor hadn’t been there to see him shouting at her mother, but he was fairly certain she’d heard some of it.  It shamed him.

The third and last time that he had lost his temper where Taylor had been in a position to know had been when she had been hospitalized following the incident in January.  He’d screamed at the school’s principal, who had deserved it, and at Taylor’s then-Biology teacher, who probably hadn’t.  It had been bad enough that a nurse had threatened to call for a police officer, and Danny, barely mollified, had stomped from the hallway to the hospital room to find his daughter more or less conscious and wide eyed in reaction.  Danny harbored a deep fear that the reason Taylor hadn’t offered any details on the bullying was out of fear he would, in blind rage, do something about it.  It made him feel sick, the notion that he might have contributed something to his daughter’s self imposed isolation in how she was dealing with her problems.

It took Danny a long time to calm down, helped by telling himself over and over that Taylor was okay, that she was home, that she was safe.  It was something of a blessing that, as the anger faded, he felt drained.  He climbed into the left side of the bed, leaving the right side empty out of a habit he’d yet to break, and pulled the covers up around himself.

He would talk to Taylor in the morning.  Get an answer of some sort.

He dreamed of the ocean.

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