Colony 15.2

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One thing at a time.

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatcha thinking, dork?”

“You’re still calling me that?”

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

“Just thinking about priorities,” I told him.

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

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

“Trio-ish?” I asked.

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

“Yeah,” I said.

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

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

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

“Et tu, sis?”

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

They were playing off one another, joking.

And he calls me the dork?

I ignored them up until we met up with Tattletale.

“No Grue?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The free thinkers?” I offered.

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

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

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

“Something to keep in mind,” I said.

“Something to exploit?”

I glanced at her in surprise, and she shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’d you pull that?” Regent asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not really.”

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

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

He laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

We simultaneously broke into laughter.

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

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

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

A snub, an insult.

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

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

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

“Nifty,” Imp commented.

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

“Stop that,” I said.

“What?”

“That’s uncalled for.”

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

“You don’t have to mock her.”

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

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

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

“You-” I started.

“He’s being facetious,” Tattletale interrupted.

Regent rolled his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you find them?”

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

“Are they agitated, busy?”

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

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

“All of them or just some of them?”

“Everyone present is a member of the Chosen.”

“You’re sure?”

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

“Then cover up,” Regent alerted us.

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

“Go, Skitter,” Tattletale spoke.

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

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

They fled, running for the outdoors.

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

“Your turn,” I told Regent.

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

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

“You’re so finnicky,” Regent commented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No point in playing fair, really.

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

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

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

“Rune, Night and Fog so far,” I said.

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

“No Crusader.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Regent?”

“That’s cool.”

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

“Play safe.”

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

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

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

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

I called Atlas to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re doing fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irritating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She used a flashbang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She collapsed to the ground.

Wary of a feint, I approached with care.

Imp stood over Night, holding a taser.

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

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

“We take turns blinking?”  She asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your point being?” Regent asked.

“Where are we supposed to go?”

“Leave the city, retard.”  Imp said.

“You can’t just take the whole city.”

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

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

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

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

“Tax?”  Othala asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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Colony 15.1

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Bentley lunged in my direction, and I could feel my people backing away behind me.  I stood firm.  The mutant bulldog landed with both front paws first, the impact so heavy that spittle and moisture was flung from his massive body.

A low, guttural noise tore its way from Bentley’s throat as he surged forward again.  I could hear yelps and shouts of alarm from the crowd behind me.

Wood splintered, cracked, and finally gave way.  Behind Bentley, the husk of a fire-scorched building collapsed.  Chains that had been lashed to the building’s wooden supports trailed from the dog’s harness as he bounded toward Bitch.  Of everyone present, only Bitch and I held our ground as the dog barreled into his master, practically bouncing with joy.

Bitch, for her part, wrapped her arms around his head as he lifted her off the ground.  “Good boy!”

He’s just a dog.  Beneath the three-thousand-ish pounds of muscle and the exterior of tangled muscle and bone, he was still a dopey dog who adored his master.  Bitch had given him what he’d been yearning for since he was abandoned or abused in his past life.  She’d offered him the affection and companionship he’d been wanting for years.

I could relate.  Not in terms of Bitch, specifically, but I could relate.

“Get to work clearing that up!” I ordered.  My swarm augmented my voice to carry it across the crowd of my followers.  There were twenty-two adults and twenty kids.  With Coil’s assistance, I’d brought in work gloves and black hazmat suits, but most people were wearing only the lower body of the suits.  It was too warm for the full suits, and the masks were largely unnecessary.  Everyone was dripping from the rain, but nobody was really complaining.  I rather liked it; it was refreshing in the otherwise warm day.

A generator stirred to life a short distance down the street, and there was something of a rush as people hurried to get away from the intimidating presence of the big bad supervillains and their mutant animals.  That, and there was something of a fight to get the power tools.  There were only so many circular saws and chainsaws to go around, and anyone who didn’t have one was tasked with carrying the cut wood instead.

I created a barrier of bugs to stop one of the teenagers from reaching for a circular saw.

“If you’re under eighteen, you don’t get to use power tools,” I called out.  “Priority goes to the people who know how the tools are used.  Able bodied adults get second dibs.  Listen carefully to the guys who know what they’re doing, and work somewhere dry if possible.  We’ve had enough casualties, let’s not have anything stupid happening with someone slipping or losing their grip in the rain.  If someone’s being an idiot, tell Sierra, and she’ll inform me.”

Sierra glanced at me and nodded.

I turned my attention to Bitch.

“You owe me,” she said.  The rain had plastered her short hair against her scalp.  Her gang of four people stood by with dogs on leashes: Barker, Biter, a college-aged kid with the scars of four parallel claw marks running across his face, and a girl with her arm in a sling.  They didn’t look scared, like my people had, but they still didn’t look fantastically thrilled to be in close vicinity to one of Bitch’s dogs on full throttle.

Nevermind that you were the one that came here early.  “Of course.  We’ll get you and your people some lunch.”

She frowned.  “Lunch?”

There was a bit of a pause.  I waited patiently as she considered the idea.

“Fine,” she decided.

“Come on,” I told her.  “We’ll go to my place while we wait for the others.”

While Bentley had been helping to tear down and dismantle the derelict building, I’d been contemplating how I’d leverage Bitch’s early arrival to mend fences and rebuild some trust.  I’d decided on something simple, as that seemed to work best with Bitch.  I imagined that she hadn’t paid a lot of attention to stuff like food as she took hold of her territory.  Odds were good that she’d asked Coil for a lot of easy food she could stuff in her pockets and eat on the go.  She probably wouldn’t pay much attention to stuff like seasonings or variety in courses.

I’d recently spent some time looking back on our past interactions.  Her perspective toward me had zig-zagged between a kind of hesitant acceptance and hostility.  We’d met, she’d attacked me.  We’d gone to the bank robbery, and she’d been open and excited, only to do a one-eighty and start shouting at me after misinterpreting something I said.  Two steps forward, one step back.  Until I’d left the group and then been outed as an undercover operative a short while later.  That had been a good solid one-hundred steps back.

Recovering from that breach of trust had proven far more difficult than anything that came before.  Not quite impossible, though; I’d apparently proved myself in the recent past, because Bitch was making an effort on her end.  She was here earlier than I’d asked, for one thing, and she hadn’t murdered me when I asked for a hand with some things I couldn’t handle with my own power.

She glanced back at her group and whistled once, making a ‘come hither’ gesture.  I couldn’t tell if she was signaling her dogs and expecting the people to follow or if she was treating her own people like she did her dogs.  She grabbed the chain at Bentley’s neck and used it to lead him.

Barker and Biter looked pretty unimpressed, either way.  Barker especially.

We didn’t talk as we made our way to my headquarters, and I was okay with that.  Every exchange between us was one more chance for me to inadvertently offend her, and the silence gave me a bit more time to consider how to tackle all of this.  I was used to feeling like I had to approach every conversation with a strategy, planning out what I was going to say so I didn’t sound like an idiot.  That went double for Bitch, because a slip-up could set me back days or weeks in terms of our friendship.

Should friendship even be my goal?  Maybe I was better off just trying to be a teammate.

If it was just for my sake, I could probably convince myself.  As it stood, though, I was thinking of Bitch.  I felt like I would be abandoning her to a pretty lonely existence if I didn’t at least try.

I let them into my lair, after sweeping the area with my bugs to check for any observers, unlocking and opening the shutter.  Charlotte had experienced a few sleepless nights since the scare three nights ago, so I’d given her permission to take it easy here, with the warning that I’d have guests and would want her assistance.  She still looked a little wary as Bitch, Biter, and Barker entered.

“Hamburgers?” I asked Bitch.  She nodded.  When I looked at her minions, they signaled agreement.  Good.  Easy and simple.

“Charlotte, would you mind?  Maybe fries, too, if you know how to make them on the stove?”

“I don’t, but there’s some in the freezer that I can do.  They aren’t bad,” she replied.

“Good.  When you have a second, some towels for the dogs, too.”

“Okay.”

I led the others into the sitting area on the ground floor.  With the shutter up, some dim light filtered through the rain-streaked windows.  Bitch was outside, tending to Bentley, who had yet to shrink to a more normal size.

I stepped outside to give her directions to where she could stow Bentley until he’d returned to a more normal size, pointing the way to the beach.  She marched off with the one-ton monstrous dog, not offering a response.

Which left me to deal with her people in the meantime.

Barker and Biter gave me something of a George and Lennie vibe, with the smaller guy as the brains of the outfit, the larger one as the big oaf.  While I didn’t have any major clues to Barker’s powers, Biter was clearly a physical powerhouse.  He stood over six feet in height with a severe underbite exaggerated by a metal bear-trap style band of metal around his lower jaw.  His teeth, I saw, were filed into points.  His costume featured spiked knuckle-dusters and a number of leather straps and belts over his clothes.  Each length of leather was studded with sharp spikes.

Barker was an inch or two shorter than me, his hair and beard cut short enough that there was more skin than hair showing.  His eyes seemed overly large for his face, with heavy lids and folds around them that made him look older than he probably was.  His ‘costume’ consisted of a black sleeveless t-shirt, jeans and tattooing around his mouth.  I’d seen him in something more conventional when Coil had introduced him to us, but now the only sign of his parahuman nature was the faint smoke that curled out of his mouth.  Just going by his lack of bulk and short stature, I thought I might be able to take him in a no-powers fist fight.

I’d nearly forgotten about Bitch’s henchpeople in the chaos of dealing with the Nine and all of the fallout that had ensued.  I realized I knew very little about them.

To my surprise, it was Biter who did the talking.  He had a low voice, and his words were muddled by some combination of the mouthgear and the underbite.  “You get along.”

I folded my arms.

He spread his hands, “How?”

“How do Bitch and I get along?” I asked.

He nodded.

“I’m not sure I’m comfortable talking behind her back.”

The girl with her arm in a sling spoke up, “She acts like she’s frustrated with us.  And I think we’re frustrated with her.”

“I don’t want to be rude, but that’s really her business with you.”  They’re her property, her territory.  If I screwed around with her minions or started something, it would effectively be stepping on her toes.

“You can’t offer us any tips?” she asked.

She looked so hopeful.  Damn it.

“I can, but it’s going to sound pretty damn basic.  Be honest, be absolutely clear in what you’re saying.  Be obedient, but be assertive.  Don’t let her walk all over you or she will walk all over you.  At the same time, if you think there’s something worth arguing over, be prepared to fight tooth and nail for it, because you’ll be in a weaker position if you fight over it and lose.  Respect her space and her things, and remember that she’s your boss above all else.”

“She doesn’t act like a boss,” Barker said, and he made it sound almost insulting.  Puffs of the dark smoke spilled from his mouth with each word, but they seemed to carry further than cigarette smoke would.  It seemed to be tied to the stress or emphasis on the sounds that drove it forward.  “She does her own thing and she leaves us to clean up shit.”

“Adapt,” I told him.  “That’s all I can say.  If you’ve proven yourself reliable, showed that you’re willing to clean up after the dogs and take care of them without complaining, she’ll test you in other ways.  That’ll be your chance to prove you’re useful.”

He sneered, looking at the girl and the boy with the scars on his face.  “She’s cutting them more slack than she’s cutting Biter and me.  We shouldn’t have to prove anything.”

“What do you do?  Your powers.”

He looked up at me.  “You want to see?”

I shrugged.

“Whore.”

The puff of smoke that accompanied the word detonated like a small thunder-clap, mere inches from my face.  I flinched, but it hadn’t been intended to harm.  Only to alarm.

He sniggered.  I’d never met anyone who really sniggered before.

I could see how Coil thought Barker and Bitch would be a match.  I could also see where there would be some friction between the two.

I sighed a little, watching as Barker looked to the others, then over at Charlotte, as if they’d be joining him in his amusement.  None did.  Biter earned a brownie point in my book by staying quiet and simply watching.

I caught my baton from behind my back and swung it underhand, still folded up, into Barker’s chin.  His teeth clacked shut with percussive force, and I stepped closer to push at his upper body while hooking at the chair leg with my foot to pull it in my direction.  He toppled backwards, his head hitting the wall behind him.

I didn’t have a full measure of his ability, but I did know his mouth was his weapon.  It made me look weaker, but I stepped back so his legs and the chair seat gave me cover in the event that he decided to attack me.

For extra measure, I drew the bugs out of my costume and sent them straight for his nose and mouth.

He went bug-eyed as he sat up, coughing and sputtering in an attempt to clear the bugs from his airway.  After one rolling cough, he created another detonation in and around his mouth, obliterating a majority of the bugs I’d tried to gag him with.

I glanced at Biter.  He was still seated.  Good.  I’d somehow thought that the guy would be stepping up to defend his partner, making this a two-versus-one fight.

Barker was climbing to his feet.  I saw him falter, then start coughing again, gagging.

The capsaicin had kicked in.

“That’s the sort of thing you have to watch out for,” I told him, as he fell to the ground, writhing and coughing, tears welling in his eyes.  I kept my voice level.  “You’re in my house, my territory, and you fuck with me?  That’s the sort of thing that would get you in your boss’s bad books if you did it to her.”

“He has,” the boy with the scars on his face spoke.

Barker only gagged in response.

“Guess that’s why he deserves shit duty,” I commented.  I leaned against the wall, folding my arms, my telescoped baton still in one hand.

Bitch had chosen that moment to return.  She stared at the scene.  Me standing idly by as Barker was curled up on the floor, wheezing and making pathetic noises, a few stray bugs crawling across his face.

She looked at me, glaring.

“He started it, I finished it,” I told her.

She looked at Biter, who shrugged and nodded agreement with my statement.  Bitch seemed to accept that as answer enough.  She picked up his chair, moved it a few feet so it wouldn’t be in Barker’s way as he kicked and spasmed, and sat down.

“I’m surprised there’s no objections about me attacking your partner,”  I told Biter.

“Your house, your rules, you said.”

“What do you do?  No demonstrations, please.”

“I make parts of myself bigger.”  He pointed to his mouth, then to the fist with the spike-studded knuckle-duster.  “Open wide, swing with bigger hands.”

Nothing that would have been that great against the Nine.  I couldn’t blame Bitch for leaving them behind.

“Fair enough.”  I addressed the two unpowered individuals from Bitch’s group.  “And you two?  Why were you picked for her team?”

“I was just starting my first year as a vet before everything went to hell,” the girl said.  “Needed money to pay my boyfriend’s hospital bill, was offered more than enough.  He got better a week ago, then broke up with me.  Not even a thank you.  Guess I’m still here because I don’t have anywhere else to go, and I like taking care of the dogs.”

I saw an opportunity.  “Did you have a dog growing up?”

“Greyhounds.  Eclaire and Blitzen.”

“Blitzen?  Like the reindeer?”

“No.  Like German for lightning.  And Eclaire is French.”

I could see Bitch was tense.  Something about this line of conversation?

I guessed what it might be and continued the questioning.  “Why greyhounds?  Don’t they need a lot of exercise?”

She shook her head.  “No.  They’re running dogs, but they only need about a half-hour of walking a day.  They work really well living in an apartment, which we were.”

“They howl,” Bitch said.

“Only if they’re unhappy,” the girl protested.  She glanced down as Barker thumped on the ground with one fist, then looked up at Bitch and smiled a little, “And ours were happy.”

Bitch seemed to accept that.

“Do you have a dog now?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “I don’t have the money.  Or I didn’t have money, before Leviathan came.  Student loans and living expenses kind of ate up whatever I made.  I’m hoping to save up enough with the work I’m doing now.”

“You buying the dog?” Bitch asked.  She seemed interested, now, but there was still a tension, as if she was waiting for the other shoe to drop.  One wrong answer, and this could turn ugly.  I could only hope the girl had the right answers.

“I kind of want another greyhound, because it’s what I grew up with… and you’ll get greyhounds from an animal rescue ninety percent of the time.  There’s one I’m pretty fond of that’s in one of your shelters, but he’s yours, of course.”

She’d taken my advice about respecting Bitch’s ownership.  Good.

“Greyhound?  Chase or Ink?”  Bitch asked.

“Ink.”

Bitch frowned.  I tensed, ready to jump in and distract with some mention of food.

Grudgingly, Bitch said, “Rather they have a proper home than stay with me.”

I could see the girl’s eyes widen in surprise.  “I didn’t- um.  Thank you.”

“If I see him in some cage in a shelter after you’ve taken him home, I’m going to track you down and dismember you,” Bitch growled.

I could see from the expression on the girl’s face that she believed Bitch.  Still, I saw her steel herself as she replied, “If I fuck up, I deserve it.”

There wasn’t much more I could do to help that conversation.  I had hope that this would set Bitch’s underlings in the right direction.

While they continued talking, I stepped away to check on the hamburgers that Charlotte was cooking on the stove.

“Is he going to be okay?” she asked me.

It took me a second to realize who she meant.  I looked back at Barker.  “Yeah.”

“I mean, is he going to attack us?”

“I dosed him with pepper spray, basically, as well as a few stings and bites to add to the hurt.  That’ll generally put someone down for half an hour, so I don’t think he’s a threat.  I don’t think he’s stupid enough to attack with Bitch and I here.”

She nodded, but she didn’t look relieved.  I would have asked what was up, tried to pry for more clarification on just why she hadn’t slept well, or why she was so easily spooked, but I was interrupted by the vibration of my phone.

I stepped up into my lair to take the call.

“We’re a few minutes away,” Lisa told me, the second I picked up.

“Bitch is here already,” I answered.  “Come in the front door when you get here.”

“Righty-o.  Ta ta.”

She hung up.

I took a second to compose myself, alone in the second floor of my lair.  Dealing with people, the sensitive management of Bitch and her underlings, pretending confidence where I didn’t necessarily have it, and thinking of all the little details that would help me convey the image of someone confident and powerful… it was draining.  It meant standing straighter, having the answers, thinking two steps ahead and using intimidation and fear to prevent any argument or insubordination like Barker’s little stunt.  It meant retaliating in excess to any slight or disrespect.

Barker had pushed me, I’d left him mewling like a baby.

At the same time, I faced a dilemma on the opposite end of things.  I wanted to help people, and I wanted to build friendships with the others.  With the way Bitch sort of mandated that I go the extra mile, it was hard to be nice to her without seeming weak to others.

Well, what they didn’t see didn’t hurt them.

I stepped downstairs.

“Bitch?” I asked.  “A word?”

She frowned, glancing at the food.

“We’ll be done before the food is,” I promised.

She followed me up the stairs.

“It’s not complete,” I admitted, walking over to where I had fabric draped over a workbench.  I picked up one piece and flicked it out.  “I just figured you’d want to see it and voice any complaints before the others got here, so your voice doesn’t get drowned out.”

She took it from my hands.  It was a jacket, not dissimilar to the one she’d lent me once upon a time, but it was naturally lighter.  There was a hood with a fluffy fur border at the edges, extending around in front of her shoulders.  Besides the zippers and buttons, the fur was the only thing I hadn’t made myself.

“I dyed it dark gray.  I figured if you wanted it any color, you’d want it something dark, so I can tint it dark red, dark blue, dark green, or whatever you want.”

She stared at it, her forehead creased.

“It’s spider silk.  Tensile strength like steel, but flexible enough to resist wear and tear that steel wire would experience.  And it’s lighter than the steel would be.  Knives won’t cut it.  I figured you’d want a heavier feel, judging by the jacket you lent me before, so I put rectangular panels of armor in between the inner and outer layer to give it more substance.  I originally meant for there to be an undershirt or something you can wear to protect your upper body for when you don’t have it zipped up, but I kind of cannibalized it for my own costume, after I burned my legs.  I’ll have the shirt ready for you in a week or two.  Here, there’s leggings, too.  They survived.”

I picked up the leggings.  Unlike the jacket, they were skin-tight.

“I don’t wear tights,” she said.

“I thought you could wear them under your pants if you were expecting a serious fight.  I gave you an inner layer with a really fine weave for the inner thighs, for when you’re riding, so there’s less chafing.”

“Uh huh.”

“I went out of my way to give you lots of pockets like you had in the other jacket.  I don’t think it’ll be too hot.  There’s zippers in the armpits so you can ventilate some cool air inside, and you can detach the hood if you want, but I liked how it looked with the fur.  I’m planning an inside liner for when it’s-”

“It’s fine,” she interrupted me.  “Stop talking.  It’s good.”

“Yeah?  I didn’t get a chance to get your measurements, so I went by memory, based on the jacket you lent me.”

She pulled it on and adjusted the front.  “Fits fine.”

“Here,” I said.  I turned around and grabbed the next piece.  I handed it to her.

She turned it around in her hands.  I’d cheated and formed the base sculpt out of chicken wire, covering the remainder with layers of dragline silk and painting the end result.  It was, as close as I’d been able to manage, a recreation of what her power did to her dogs in the form of a mask.  Except I’d made it half human and half dog.

“Looks like Brutus,” she said.

I didn’t see it, but I didn’t see fit to correct her either.

She pulled it on.

“It’s just a little bit flexible, if you want to bend any bits that are rubbing in the wrong place, or shape it to fit your face better.”

“It’s fine,” she said.  She adjusted her jacket again.

“If you want me to change anything-”

“No.”

Her refusal was so curt it gave me pause.  I couldn’t tell if she was upset or happy.

I forced myself to keep my mouth shut.  I’d give her a few seconds to let me know either way.  If she didn’t, I was ready to escape by pointing out that lunch would be waiting for us.

“You made stuff for the others?”

“Yeah.”

“But I didn’t ask for it.  I told you to fuck off when you asked me for my measurements, remember?”

“I made it anyways.”

She adjusted her mask, turning it so it hung off one side of her head.  She was glowering at me.  “Why didn’t you listen when I told you to fuck off?”

Two ways I could interpret that question.  “Don’t worry about it.  Look, the hamburgers will be ready soon…” I trailed off.

An awkward silence reigned.  I turned to head downstairs.

“What do you want for this?”

I looked over my shoulder.  “What?  Nothing.”

“You’re trying to get some favor from me.”

“No, I’m really not.  It might feel like it, with the timing and what we’re going to talk about with Lisa and the others, but it’s really not.  You’re free to argue and disagree with me or the rest of us, just like usual.  The costume’s a gift.”

“I don’t get many gifts.”

I shrugged.  What was I supposed to say to that?  I couldn’t help but feel that if I were a little more socially adroit, I’d have had a snappy answer.

She kept talking.  “All of the stuff I’ve gotten, it’s been with strings attached.  Used to get gifts from one of my foster dads,” she paused.  “And I get the money from Coil.”

“Those aren’t really presents.  They’re more like bribes or enticements.  Really truly, this is no strings attached.  You can act like you normally would, I won’t expect any different.”

Again, that glower.

I swallowed.  “Wear it or don’t wear it.  It’s okay either way.  It’s not a big deal.”

“I’ll wear it,” she said.

When I turned to head downstairs, she followed.

I guess that means ‘thank you’.

We were greeted by the others in the kitchen.  There was just enough time to grab and prepare our burgers before the others arrived.  Grue, Tattletale, Imp, Regent and Shatterbird.  They turned down the offer of food, and together, we ventured back upstairs.

With everyone gathered in my headquarters, I handed out the costumes.  Like Bitch’s, the other costumes were in various stages of completion, primarily with minor details missing or askew.  I ate while the others tried it all on.

Lisa’s costume was virtually the same.  The complicated aspect had been maintaining the crisp differences in color without any bleeding of black into lavender or vice versa.  There’d also been the issue of getting the mask to fit her face well.  I’d accomplished the former by making the black and lavender pieces separately and attaching them to a gossamer-thin sub-layer when I was done.  We had the boys and Shatterbird turn away while Lisa and Aisha changed at one end of the room.  The mask was a failure, it didn’t sit right around the eyes, but I was left with an idea of what to do.

Grue’s costume was not unlike his motorcycle leathers in terms of thickness and design, making him one of the most heavily armored of our groups in terms of the amount of material he was wearing.  His headwear was the part I’d changed the most: I’d modeled the face-plate after a figurine he’d bought at the market.  It was a step away from the visor he’d worn up to now, more demonic than skeletal.  The only real trick there had been making it non-porous enough that his darkness wouldn’t bleed through.  A quick experiment proved that my efforts had turned out alright.  In costume, the face-mask down, the darkness framed his mask but didn’t cover it unless Grue forced it to.  A demon’s face in dark gray in a vaguely human-shaped twist of darkness.

For Regent and Imp, I’d settled on bodysuits and masks.  Regent would wear his beneath his costume and Imp would wear hers as a simple black bodysuit, complete with a scarf and the horned mask Coil had provided.

There was more to do: belts, Imp’s scarf, Tattletale’s mask and Bitch’s shirt, not to mention finishing my new mask, and my plans for different masks for our various minions.

When we’d been fighting the Slaughterhouse Nine, I’d lamented the fact that I hadn’t better outfitted the team, and people had been hurt where the costumes would have otherwise protected them.  In the days I’d had to wind down, focusing on getting people organized and working on cleaning up the area, I’d been in range to get a serious effort going on the costumes.

I was satisfied with this.

By all appearances, they were too.

“Safe to turn around,” Tattletale told the boys.

They did.  I gestured, and people found seats in the various chairs.

“Feels like we’re different people than we were an hour ago,” Imp said, looking around.

I considered her words.  “I appreciate the sentiment, but I think it’s more accurate to say we’re different people than we were a week ago.”

There were some nods.  I glanced at the scar on Tattletale’s cheek, at Shatterbird, who stood obediently behind Regent, and at Grue, who had transformed more than any of us.

And I couldn’t forget the change I’d undergone, even if I didn’t have the objectivity to nail down exactly what about me was different from a week ago.  Sure, my costume was different, and I had the three hundred pound beetle that was resting on the roof.

“You wanted to touch base?” Brian asked, after he’d pulled off his mask.

“I had some words with Skitter,” Lisa answered.  “I think it’s about time we all got on the same page.”

“In terms of tactics?”

Lisa shrugged, “There’s that.  I think working independently is kind of throwing us off, and it leaves us weak against any coordinated attacks from the Chosen.  We work best when we complement one another.”

Alec shrugged.  “Okay.  That’s easy enough to arrange.  Not really a reason to throw a major group meeting.”

“There’s something else,” I said.  I swallowed, looking at Regent, Imp and Bitch.  “I’ve already talked about this at length with Lisa, and I’ve discussed it some with Brian.  This isn’t an easy topic to broach, because it sort of fucks with the team’s status quo.”

That had their attention.

“I guess the question is, how keen are you guys on continuing to work for Coil?”

“Are we talking quitting in the short-term or what?”

“I don’t know exactly what we’re talking about, because so much depends on how you guys respond and how things unfold in the next while,” I said.  “But this thing with Dinah, I’m not happy with it.  I know Lisa and Brian have their issues with that, even if they don’t share my perspective in how culpable we all are in that.”

“I’m not responsible at all,” Aisha pointed out.

“Aisha,” Brian’s tone was a warning.

“Just saying.”

“You aren’t responsible, I know,” I told her.  “I get the impression you’d side with Brian, Lisa and me if it came down to it.  The people I’m really directing this question at are Alec and Rachel.  I’m under the impression they’re the least invested in helping Dinah out, and they’re most interested in what Coil has to offer.”

“Doesn’t Brian have a stake in this?” Alec asked.

Brian shrugged.  “Coil approached me a few days ago about increasing my pay.  I think he knows I’m not that reliant on him anymore.  I got into this because I wanted to get Aisha away from my mom.  With the way things in the city have been turned upside-down, I know and Coil knows that I don’t need help.  The fact that I can say I’ve got money saved up, I can arrange to get a place and Aisha’s safe and sound with me?  That’s almost enough to decide the court case as is.”

“And mommy’s on a bender,” Aisha said.  “Don’t think it’ll end anytime soon.”

It was odd, but Brian looked more upset at hearing that than Aisha was about saying it aloud.  Hadn’t he grown up with his dad?

“So it’s really down to you two,” I addressed Alec and Rachel.

“If I were to say I wanted to stick around?  That I like the status quo?” Alec asked.

“That’s fine,” Lisa said.  “You’d be an asshole and a prick, but we’d work around you.”

“That’s vague,” Alec commented.

“We can’t exactly share our game plan with you if we’re going to wind up on opposite sides,” I pointed out.

“It’s a hassle.  Why make things complicated for all of us, because one member of our group has a moral quibble?”

“A preadolescent girl was kidnapped, with our help, and she’s spent the last few months in a dungeon, drugged out of her mind, all so Coil can use her power,” I said.  “That’s not a quibble.”

Alec sighed dramatically.  “I’m just pulling your legs.  World’s going to end in a couple of years.  Won’t kill me to help you make peace with yourself before it does.”

There was a long pause where nobody spoke.

Nice, Alec.” Brian said.

Alec chuckled.  “What?  It’s true.  That Dinah kid said it was.  Don’t pretend it’s not going to happen.  Might as well live it up before everything goes to hell in a handbasket.”

“There’s a chance it won’t,” I replied, my voice quiet.  “And with the sheer variety of powers out there, there’s got to be an answer.”

“That optimism’s bound to be wearing thin by now,” Alec commented.

“Enough,” Brian said.

“Why are you guys freaking out?  Because I’m calling you out on your willful blindness?  The world’s gonna end, and I’m okay with that.  Therefore I’m saying I’ll go along with your plan, whatever it is.  Why argue with me?”

Brian sighed.

“Bitch?” I asked.  “I know Coil’s set up your dogs in those shelters, and we’d be asking you to potentially lose that, depending on how this plays out, but…”

“I’ve managed without money before,” Bitch said.  “Smarmy bastard conned me.  Promised me I’d be left alone if I joined the group.  That hasn’t happened.  If he thinks I’ll forget that because of what he’s given me, I’d like to see the look on his face when he finds out how wrong he is.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“So we’re all in?” I asked.

“It was fun,” Alec shrugged, “That’s why we got into this, wasn’t it?  Easy money, fun, get to do what we wanted.  No pressure, no responsibilities.  It’s become something else.  So maybe we end that.”

“I don’t necessarily want to end it,” I said.  “I’m not talking about taking Coil head on, and I do want to preserve my territory, if I can help it.  It’s helping people.”

“So what do you want?” he challenged me.

“For right now?  I mainly wanted to know you’re on my side.  I really appreciate that you are,” I said.  I looked at Bitch and repeated myself, “Really.”

“And for the future?”

“We’ve got an awfully small window,” Lisa said.  “One and a half weeks, roughly, before Dinah’s power is back online.  Once that happens, Coil becomes a thousand times harder to take on.  There’s the mayoral elections, the question of whether the city gets condemned-”

“What?” I cut in.

“It’s arguably more expensive to fix the problems here than it is to abandon the city entirely.  Depends on what the consensus is from the President and all the other folks in charge.”

“If that happens, what will Coil do?” Brian asked.

“Leave.  Start over somewhere else, transporting any resources he can, leaving behind all liabilities.  He might bring some of you with him, offering some hefty bribes.  Somehow I don’t think he’ll bring Skitter.  Even my own currency is running pretty thin,” Lisa shrugged.

“He can’t afford to lose you,” Brian said.  “You’re too dangerous as an enemy.”

“Oh, I think he’s studied me enough to feel pretty confident he can off me if he wants to,” Lisa said. “Trick is making it a sure enough kill that there’s no chance of it backfiring on him.”

“And me?” I asked, feeling a pang of alarm.

“He knows your weak points.  The gaps in your power, your dad, your identity, your morals.  You already know that.”

I did, but hearing it said so clearly, it was one of those cases where having the details laid out in front of me didn’t make me feel more confident.

“So this is going to be a different kind of fight,” Brian mused.  “It’s about control and subterfuge.  If he figures out what we’re doing, if we clue him in, he’s probably better equipped than any of our past opponents when it comes to knowing how to deal with us.  If the city gets condemned, we’re boned.  And if Dinah gets her powers back, he’ll be impossible to beat.”

“That’s the gist of it.  Even I don’t know what he has planned for his endgame, here.  It’s looking pretty ugly, to be honest.”  Lisa counted off the points on her fingers.  “The Chosen will be gunning for us, Coil’s got a small army of pretty excellent, well-equipped soldiers at his disposal, he’s got some pretty fucking heavy hitters with the Travelers, the heroes are going to be going into overdrive to establish some sort of control and last but not least, he’s Coil.”

“Well,” Alec said, chuckling a little, “At least we’ll have something to help pass the time while we wait for the world to end.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“How did it go!?”  Tattletale called out to me before I’d even landed.

I set Atlas down on the ground and hopped off.  “Whatever the fuck they just dropped on the city, it apparently took out Crawler and Mannequin.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Tattletale said.  “I think that was Bakuda’s stuff they just used.  What about the other members of the Nine?”

“They’re on the run.  Last I saw, Siberian’s creator looked pretty rough.  Not sure if the spider bites and stings will kill him or if Bonesaw will manage to counteract it.  Depends on whether Legend and the other heroes can keep up the assault long enough to keep Bonesaw from getting to work.”

I could see Bitch react to the mention of Siberian’s creator.  She looked startled, then scowled.

“You found them?”  Tattletale asked.  “Siberian and Legend?”

“Yeah.  Legend told me to scram, in case Bonesaw deploys the threat she’s been holding over our heads, and so I don’t get in the way.  I would have fought to stay, but he’s an intimidating guy to argue with.”

Grue nodded.  “I wouldn’t feel bad about it.  It means we can serve as backup if the heroes lose.”

“And this threat?  Do we know what it is?  Some zombie apocalypse?”  Regent asked.

“No.” Tattletale shook her head.  “She sees herself as an artist.  She’s going to want to do something that catches us off guard, something that scares us in a way that simple horror movie monsters don’t.”

“I don’t know about you guys,” Sundancer spoke up, “But monsters scare me enough.”

“Says the girl who can vaporize buildings and give Leviathan pause for thought,” Regent said, giving her a sidelong glance.

“Leviathan broke half the bones in my body.  The only reason I’m standing here is Panacea,” Sundancer said, a little defensively.

“You two do raise a point, though,” Tattletale cut in.  “Capes are powerful.  If she wanted to scare the locals, she’s done that.  I’d be willing to bet the ace she has up her sleeve is going to be more aimed at scaring people like us, like Legend.  She wants to terrorize the strongest, target people who everyone looks up to and fears.”

Just us?” I asked.

“She’s shown she knows how to disable powers,” Trickster said.  “If she did that on a larger scale, then-”

“No,” Tattletale shook her head.  “She wouldn’t have used the dust and the darts if that was the big reveal.  It doesn’t make sense tactically, because we could have come up with a way to deal, and Skitter’s partially immune anyways.  And it doesn’t make sense artistically, either.  You have to think of her as less of a scientist or doctor and more of a performer.”

A thirty story skyscraper tipped over and crashed to the ground in the distance.  The rumbling crash of the building’s collapse seemed delayed in getting to us.  I could see Legend, more through the flashes of his lasers than anything else, but everyone else was out of sight, specks I couldn’t have made out if they weren’t on the ground.

“If we’re lucky, we won’t have to worry about Bonesaw’s plot,” Trickster said.

“Plan for the worst,” Grue replied, staring into the distance, “If you’re right, you’re prepared.  If you’re wrong, you’re pleasantly surprised.”

“Heard that one before,” Imp commented.

“Still true,” Grue replied, sounding annoyed.

“Can’t plan for this,” I said.  “I’m growing to hate tinkers.  People with enhanced senses and tinkers.  And fire manipulators.  Sorry, Sundancer.”

She shrugged.

I turned back to the subject at hand, “We can’t guess what she’s come up with because her tinker abilities make her so versatile, and that means we can’t preemptively set up any countermeasures.”

Tattletale tucked her hair behind her ear.  “Fits in a vial, assuming that vial she was showing off was the real weapon, something to do with water, she said… you guys haven’t been drinking anything except bottled water?”

There were head shakes and the occasional muttered “No” from the rest of the group.

“I’ve even been making my tea with it,” I said.

“And we know there’s going to be a strategic purpose behind it, beyond causing terror,” Tattletale went on.

“You’re getting into that headspace again, Tattletale,” Grue said.  “Tunnel vision.”

“Right.  I’m done now,” Tattletale replied.

“Is it such a problem?” Trickster leaned forward, “If you can give us answers about this thing, that’s good, right?”

Tattletale shook her head, “If I’m digging deep enough for answers that I’m losing sight of other things, it means I’m probably speculating, and that tends to mean I’m generating false positives, heading down the wrong path to the wrong conclusions.  I told Grue to stop me if I’m doing it, and Skitter’s right when she says we can’t anticipate what Bonesaw’s going to do, so it’s pointless anyways.”

“If we did want to take countermeasures,” I said, “We should maybe think about tracking down Amy.  Or figuring out where she is.”

“Panacea?”  Grue frowned.  “She didn’t exactly leave us on good terms.”

“I know.  But she can counteract whatever Bonesaw does.”

“Unless she falls victim to it,” Tattletale said, sighing.  “After two bad incidents downtown, I’d lay odds she’s heading up toward the docks.  It gives her the best odds of finding a place that’s empty, where she and Glory Girl can hide out for-”

“Heads up!”

I wasn’t sure who had shouted the warning, but I turned to look in the direction of the fighting, and I instantly knew it was Bonesaw’s work.

The water was turning crimson.  Where it was only one or two inches deep above the pavement, it turned a dark red that resembled blood.  That alone might have been spooky enough, but it was spreading over hundreds of feet in a matter of seconds, and there was a thin red mist rising in its wake.

“Run!”  Grue shouted.

I was on top of Atlas in an instant, and in the air a second later.

“How is it spreading so fast!?”  I asked, while the others seated themselves on the two dogs.

“She must have set it up beforehand!”  Tattletale called out.  “Just needed the catalyst!”

She checked to make sure Trickster and Sundancer were seated and had Bentley at an all out run a heartbeat later.  Sirius followed just two steps behind, carrying Grue, Imp, Bitch and Ballistic.  Regent joined me in the air, hanging in a less than dignified way from Shatterbird’s embrace.

I needed only one glance to know they weren’t running fast enough.

“Sundancer!”  I shouted.  “Cut it off!”

It took her three or four seconds to pull an orb together, no larger than a basketball.  It grew to twice the size as it flew, raking across the street to turn the pooled water into clouds of steam.  I rose higher in the air to avoid being caught by the plumes of hot water.  The steam turned from a clean white to pink and eventually red as the effect reached it.

Sundancer’s miniature sun had slowed the progression down our flooded street, but it wasn’t enough.  From my perspective, I could see the water on adjacent streets undergoing the same transformation, moving forward until it was adjacent to the others, then extending forward.  It was a matter of time before it reached far enough forward that it passed through the side alleys and cut them off.

“Get to high ground!”  I shouted.

Bentley leaped for the side of a building in an alleyway, scrabbled for a hold, then leaped to the building face behind him, attempting the zig-zag movement that the dogs had done so many times before.

Except he wasn’t as agile as the other dogs, and I suspected he wasn’t as practiced at it as Brutus, Judas and Angelica had been.  Added to that, he was carrying a heavy burden.  One of his paws went through a window, he slipped, dug his claws into the wall and shifted to climbing the wall instead.

It was too slow.  The water turned crimson beneath him, and then the vapor began to rise, faster than Bentley was climbing.

“Tattletale,” I breathed.

I massed thick clusters of bugs between them and the vapor, while Regent and Shatterbird followed Sirius and the others.

It was enough to buy them time, but that meant precious little.  No matter how much I pressed the bugs together into an airborne barrier, the vapor made its way through.  Worse, the mist was rising to either side of them, approaching the top of the building.

They reached the rooftop and Bentley heaved himself over the edge.  They hopped off his back as they reached solid ground, and Tattletale stepped over to the corner of the roof to watch the rise of the red vapor.  It was only a floor beneath them.

Trickster pointed at the top of a building nearby, then looked up at me.

I gathered my bugs there, again, pressing them together.  Trickster looked increasingly impatient as the bugs massed, and the vapor reached the edges of the roof.

I hurried over to the building, instead, then hopped off, sending Atlas over to the other rooftop.  Trickster swapped me with Tattletale, and I hopped over to ferry myself to the roof again.

Didn’t trust my ability to use Atlas to carry someone else, when I had to struggle to process his sensory inputs.  Add someone else’s shifting weight and movements, and I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t drop them.

I was on the building again when Trickster swapped me for Sundancer.  It left him, myself and Bentley standing on the rooftop.

I was on top of Atlas a second later, flying.  The red mist crept in from the outside edges of the rooftop.  He got on top of Bentley, looking less than comfortable holding the reins, and Tattletale whistled.  It wasn’t as good as Bitch’s whistles, but Bentley perked up and ran, leaping for the side of a nearby building.

He and Trickster reached the second rooftop quickly enough.  The mist was still rising, not just below us, but up around buildings nearly as far as the eye could see.

“Shit,”  Tattletale said.  “Not good.”

“There’s a taller building over there,” I pointed.  “We should head there before the mist gets up here.”

“I’d call it miasma,” Tattletale said.  “And is there really any point?”

“It might stop rising,” I protested.

“It won’t.”

“Is that an educated guess or-”

“It’s not.”

I found myself at a loss for words.

“What does it do?”  I asked.  “Poison?  Something else?”

“Probably something else.  Or it’s poison, but it’s designed to do something besides kill us.  How are the others doing?”

I looked for Grue and Regent using my swarm sense.  Grue, Bitch, Ballistic and Sirius were on a rooftop lower than us, Regent directly above them.  Cursory exploration with my bugs revealed a glass dome extending around the rooftop.  My bugs could fit through gaps in the glass, which meant the miasma would as well.  I did what I could to block up the holes, and I knew it was useless.

Brian.  Rachel.

“I think they’re caught,” I said.  “I-I don’t know what to do.”

“You have a gun.  You have your bugs.  If the Nine are going to let their guards down, it’s going to be now.  All the ones who are still left are priority targets.  Finish off Siberian and taking Jack and Bonesaw out of action will be doable.”

“You’re saying I should leave you.”

“Yeah.”  She looked down at the rising mist.

“No.  That’s ridiculous.  Let’s get you to higher ground.”

“It’s futile.  You’d be buying us a little time, but this is looking pretty inevitable.  Your time is better spent going after the Nine.  If you can’t find them, or if it’s too dangerous, find Panacea.”

“This isn’t negotiable.  I- I can’t do anything for Grue and Rachel and Ballistic, Regent tried and he failed.  Let me do this for you.”

Tattletale frowned.  “Fine.  But you’ll have to hurry.  That’s a lot of distance to cover, and the miasma’s nearly here.”

Trickster cut in, “Gather bugs together like you were doing, remember that they’re not as dense as our bodies are, so we need more than you’d think if I’m going to swap them for one of us.”

I nodded and flew for the tallest building in the area.  I turned around and waited for Trickster to swap me.

He didn’t.  They stood at the roof’s edge, looking my way, and the dark red miasma climbed up the sides of the building around them.

It felt like my heart dropped out of my chest.  Brian, Rachel, now Lisa?

I couldn’t afford to turn around and confront them -time was too short- so I focused on gathering my bugs.  I clustered them together, pressing them into a largish human shape.  How many was enough?

I felt a jarring sensation as Trickster swapped my bugs to his location.  Sundancer appeared beside me.

“Why?”  I asked.

She shook her head, “They didn’t say anything.  They were both really quiet while you flew off, and then Tattletale said ‘It doesn’t look like her plan will work out.  Tell her I’m sorry.’  Trickster teleported me here before I could say anything or ask what she meant.”

“Why isn’t he telporting Tattletale out?  Or himself?  There’s still time for…”  I looked at the cloud.  Not enough time to save both, now.  “He could save one of them, and I could probably get Atlas there and get out of harm’s way before the miasma reached me.”

“His power gets slower with distance and difference in mass,”  Sundancer hugged herself, “Maybe it’s too slow, and he doesn’t think you’d have time to run.  Or-”

“Or.”  I said.  The sentence didn’t deserve to be finished.  There was the other reason.  The notion that he was deliberately avoiding using his power, because he knew I didn’t have the time to get back to them before the miasma reached them.  “Are you going to be okay?”

“I don’t know.  When you’ve left, I’ll use my power, and I guess I’ll wait here until-”  she stopped.

Until when?  There was nothing saying this miasma of Bonesaw’s would disappear or settle anytime soon.

“I hate being alone,” Sundancer said.  She settled into a sitting position.  “It’s like, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually been on my own.  When I was little, I was always with my mom, or always in school, always in afterschool activities.  Ballet, violin, lyrical dance, voice lessons, acting lessons… never a moment to think for myself.  Even after I stopped all that, I was with my friends.  Always in a group.”

I stared at Tattletale and Trickster.  I couldn’t make out their faces, but my bugs could make out the shapes of sounds that had to be words.  They were having a conversation, just like we were.

“I remember you said it was lonely, being in the Travelers.”

“It was.  It is.  But I was still with them.  Part of the group.  The time I’ve spent in my territory is the longest I’ve spent on my own.  Actually managing the territory, scaring off Hookwolf’s people, that was easy.  Being all on my own was unfamiliar ground.  Soul crushing.  I wound up going back to Coil’s base and spending time with Noelle and Oliver.  But being alone, agonizing over everything that’s been going on, no distractions…”

The miasma had reached the rooftop where Tattletale and Trickster stood.  Trickster was pacing, while Tattletale stood with her back to me, her hand rubbing Bentley’s blunted snout.

It took only a few seconds for the mist to close in around them.  There was no immediate reaction.  The two teenagers and the dog simply stood, silhouettes in a stirring cloud of vapor that ranged from ruby-red to crimson in shade.

I swallowed past the growing lump in my throat.

“And now I’m alone,” Sundancer said.  “You’re going to go after the Nine, and I’ll wait here, all on my own, going crazy as I wait and watch and see just what happens to them.”

“If I’ve picked up on anything over the last few months of wearing a costume, it’s that humans are stronger than you’d expect,” I said.  It was as much to myself as to Sundancer.  “We can endure a hell of a lot of punishment before we break, and even after we’re broken, we tend to keep on going.  Could be physical punishment: getting stabbed, getting scarred, broken bones.  Could be mental: losing a loved one, being tortured, even the way I feel like breaking down and crying over the fact that just about every other member of my team is probably fucked, but I’m holding myself together?  Humans can put up with a hell of a lot.”

“I don’t think this is the right time for optimism,” Sundancer said, bitter.

“Optimism?”  I shook my head.  “No.  It’s a double-edged sword.  If we weren’t so resilient, so tenacious as a species, I don’t think we’d be having this much trouble with Jack.  I don’t think Mannequin or Siberian would even exist like they do now.  I’d almost call it pessimistic.  Almost.”

She didn’t reply.

“Speaking of Jack and Siberian-” I started.

“Go.”

I left, taking off and heading for the spot I’d left Legend.  Looking over my shoulder, I could see Sundancer creating her orb and bringing it down on top of herself.  As it had done back during our fight with Lung, it didn’t burn the area directly around her.

And Tattletale and Trickster… were still standing in the midst of the miasma.  They weren’t reacting or doing anything, but they weren’t signalling for me to come back, either, and they weren’t hopping on top of Bentley to rejoin the action.

Something was up, I just had no idea what.

I consoled myself with the bittersweet idea that Bonesaw would want to draw this out.  It wouldn’t be as simple as murdering my teammates.  It wasn’t exactly reassuring, especially when I thought back to what had happened to Brian, but it gave me hope that this wasn’t the last time I’d see my teammates.  My friends.

I rose higher as I approached the epicenter of the miasma.  It had continued to rise, and the place she’d used the catalyst was the place where the vapor had spread the most.  I could see how it was threaded through the streets like veins, surrounding buildings in a crimson embrace, spilling out into the ocean.

The water of the bay, I noticed, hadn’t changed.  Was the salt killing whatever organisms she’d designed to spread this effect?

There were areas of high ground where the effect was diminished or gone.  There were hills here and there where the area hadn’t flooded and miasma wasn’t reaching so far into those spots.  Hopefully that meant the civilians wouldn’t be so affected; the high ground where flooding wasn’t an issue would also be the place where people congregated for shelter.

A series of bright flashes caught my attention.  Between the distance and the cloud of red vapor, I could only barely make him out, but the staccato lasers let me identify him as Legend.  He was fighting.

I sent my bugs down into the miasma, drawing them together into a swarm and placing them strategically, painting a mental picture of the area, the layout, and the positions of the combatants.

Just to be safe, I drew closer to a rooftop.  It wasn’t safe to land, but I had hopes the building would offer me some cover against Jack.  I held the bulk of my swarm at bay, waiting for the moment I could assist Legend in fighting the Nine.

He wasn’t fighting the Nine.

Legend was shooting at teammates.  He shouted something, but neither my ears nor my bugs were able to pick out the words.

Really wished I could use my bugs to hear.

Had they gone berserk?  Rage?

No.  I could sense others hiding.  In fact, it seemed to be the primary concern of the people in the miasma.  Hiding, staying out of trouble, putting distance between themselves and the others.  Even Legend was pulling his punches.  His lasers were nonlethal, as far as I could see.

Paranoia?

Weld, who I identified by his lack of a costume and the metal growths on his shoulders, was standing with his back to a wall.  His hands were blunt weapons, and he was swinging them through the air to threaten anyone who approached.  A small figure who could only be Vista was backing away from two adults.  She got too close to Legend, and he fired a spray of laser blasts at her.  None hurt her or penetrated her costume, but she staggered and fell.

I could sense the ground bulge, spearing up in a pillar.  As the ground beneath them stretched in the pillar’s vicinity, others staggered or got disoriented.  At the pillar’s top, a roughed-up Vista bent the growth she’d created to place herself close to the rooftop and hopped down onto solid ground.  She coughed.

Okay, at least she wasn’t someone who could kill me if this went the wrong way.  I called out, “Vista!”

She whirled on the spot to look at me, then swiftly began backing away.

I raised my hands to show her I meant no harm, “Hold on!  I’m safe!”

“That’s just what they would say!”  She retorted.

They?

“Who?  The Nine?  In what universe would I be a member of the Nine?”

“Shut up!  Don’t try to convince me!  Just… just back off!  Leave me alone until all this stops!”

She was breathing so hard I could see her shoulders rising and falling through the protective suit she wore.

A thought struck me.  It was working through the suit?  The mask had to have filters for smoke, why hadn’t it worked against this miasma?

“I just want to help.”

“Leave!”

She used her power, extending the pillar she had used to ascend to the rooftop.  It missed me by a wide margin, but the threat was clear enough.

I regretted it the instant I did it, but I moved forward to avoid any further movements from the shaft of asphalt.  If I was going to fall, I wanted to land on the roof, instead of the alleyway a dozen stories below.

“No!”  The word was as much a scream as anything else.  She extended the shaft well over my head and then pinched it off so the top part fell.

I’d seen her fight Leviathan, and she’d done the same thing then, if on a somewhat bigger scale.  I had Atlas carry me out of the way and watched the teardrop shaped piece of asphalt crash to the floor of the alley.

That, apparently, was enough to get Legend’s attention.  He rose from the street level and surveyed the scene.  He’d taken off the hazmat-style mask and filter, and what little I could see of his expression was drawn.  His eyes were narrowed, a vein stood out on his forehead, and he furtively looked from Vista to me and back again.

“Legend,” I started.  How was I supposed to address him when he was like this?  When I didn’t even know what was going on with them?

Not that it mattered.  He raised one hand in my direction, and I veered away, taking evasive maneuvers.  It missed me by a foot, circled around and struck me off of Atlas before I could cancel out his momentum and change direction.

Legend had clearly set his lasers to ‘stun’, but it still hurt.  Hitting the rooftop hurt more.  I could feel a piece of armor crack beneath my weight, hear my things spilling to the ground.

I coughed out half a lungful of air and involuntarily sucked in another breath to cough again.  It was humid, tasting slightly off, almost stagnant.

When I opened my eyes, I was seeing red, and not in the metaphorical sense.  I was in the midst of the miasma.

Still coughing, I struggled to my feet.  The back compartment of my armor had cracked as my weight had come down on the lip of the roof.  My weapons, the epipens, the cell phone and the changepurse lay on the ground.

“Stay down!”  the junior heroine screamed.

If I hadn’t still been reeling from my fall, I might have been able to avoid it.  As it was, the section of rooftop behind me bulged up into a wall and then folded down over on top of me.  It bent to accommodate my shape rather than crush me, leaving only my head and shoulders sticking out.

“If you try that trick on me, little girl, I’ll shoot you,” I heard the threat from the air above us.

This was going south, fast.

“I’m going to turn my back and run,” she responded.  “If you try shooting me in the back, I’ll show you what I can really do.”

There was anger in the threat that caught me off guard.  Was it this miasma that had pushed her to that level of anger?  I wasn’t feeling anything like that.  Had something about the way he had talked provoked her?  Or was that the norm for her?

I tried to think back to my prior experiences with her and found nothing.

What was her name?

Was I suffering from brain damage?  Another concussion?

I did a series of multiplication, addition and subtraction in my head and found no problems on that front.  Not general brain damage, apparently.

Amnesia?

My name is Skitter, I thought, Taylor Anne Hebert.  Sixteen.  Born in Brockton Bay.  Student at Winslow High.  Ex-student.  Member of the Undersiders.

No problems on that front.

My line of thought continued absently, as if I wanted to reassure myself that I was mentally intact.  My parents are Dan Hebert and Annette Rose Hebert.

I struggled, wiggling to try and free myself from the hump of solid concrete.  I could inch myself out.

What would my mom think to see me now?

I tried to picture her expression.

Again, that gap, the chasm.  Nothing.

I could have been hit by five more of those laser blasts on ‘stun’ and it wouldn’t have hit me as hard as the realization that I couldn’t remember my mother.  Couldn’t remember her face, the details, her mannerisms.  Even the happy memories we’d shared, the little moments I’d clung to over the past two years, they were gone.  There was only an empty void where they should have been.

I couldn’t remember my dad, either.

The other Undersiders, their faces, their costumes, their personalities and mannerisms, all gone.  I could remember what we’d done: the bank robbery, fighting Purity’s group, lazing around in the old loft, even the general progression of events from the moment I’d met them.  But the people were blanks waiting to be filled in, and I couldn’t go from thinking about one name to thinking about the events that were related to it.

I felt a rising panic as I struggled to work myself free.  I didn’t know the people who were on the rooftop with me: the man who floated in the air, wearing a sturdy hazmat-style firesuit and a blue and silver mask that left only his mouth, chin and wavy brown hair exposed.  I couldn’t recognize the girl he was shooting in the back.  I saw her fall face first and writhe with pain.  He shot her two more times, and she went limp.  Out cold.

I couldn’t make the mental connection between the Nine and their appearances or their powers.  If I didn’t have the benefit of being able to remember my actions over the past few minutes, it would have been impossible to say whether the two people here were allies or enemies.

Everything suddenly made sense.  The infighting, the tactics they were using, the mixture of hostility and paranoia.  Legend was attacking with nonlethal blasts because he couldn’t be sure if he was attacking a teammate or one of the Nine, so he was striving to take everyone out of action with as little permanent damage as possible.

Sundancer’s worries about being alone struck me.  We were all alone, now.  Every single one of us.  From teams to individuals, everyone was fending for themselves because they couldn’t afford to trust the others.

And it would ruin us.

It would be impossible to mount any kind of defense against the Nine if we were fighting them as individuals.

The man with the blue and silver mask floated over to where I was, ready to dispatch me, to knock me out, just in case I was a threat.

“Help?”  I called out.  It was a spur of the moment response.  My mind raced as I tried to form a plan.  Even a bad one would serve.  I lied, “I’m stuck.  Break me out?”

I stared up at him.  His face was riddled with conflicting emotions, his body language tense.  There was a nervousness there that belied simple amnesia.

We’d been warned about drinking the city’s water.  It might mean the effects were more pronounced for the people who hadn’t been informed.  Or there might be side effects.

“Stay,” he ordered.

He stayed at the level of the rooftop as he floated out above the street, aiming more blasts at the others.

This wasn’t rational for him, it didn’t jibe with my knowledge of him.  That could mean there was something about the miasma that was making him irrational.

I waited for long minutes as he continued firing down on the others.  He cast me one sidelong glance, then flew off in pursuit of someone I couldn’t see.

Even after I was able to start wiggling myself free, it was slow.  I measured my progress in half-inches.  My chest, small as it was, proved an issue.  Coupled with the armor at my front and the remains of the armor at my back, it made getting free an issue.  Several times, I stopped breathing for a good minute before I forced myself back under the concrete sheet to be able to breathe again, then I did it again.  As much through the wear and tear on my armor as anything else, I managed to slide my upper body out on the fifth attempt.  I took a second to breathe and rest, and then began the slow process of getting my midsection and hips past the mouth of the concrete shelf.

I directed every curse word I knew at the belt and armor panels I’d placed around my hips as I tried to work myself free.  My hips and rear end were proving as difficult as my chest had been, and with my upper body being further away, I couldn’t get the same leverage push myself out with my arms.  Minutes passed as I grunted and struggled.  I could hear inarticulate screams, shouted threats, screamed warnings and the noise of destruction on the street below as paranoia gave way to violence.  I brought Atlas to my side, but even with his strength and his horn, he wasn’t strong enough to affect the concrete.  I used his help to squeeze myself out, bracing his horn against the lip of the concrete sheet and pulling.

When I was free, I gathered my knife, baton and gun from where they had fallen and fit them into the few remaining elastic loops in my ruined utility compartment.  Cell phone was a yes, but I didn’t have a spot for it, so I tucked it in the chest compartment of my armor.  Similarly, I stuck the epipens and changepurse through the space between my hip and the belt, wedging them in next to the straps.

I double checked that Atlas hadn’t been hurt by Legend’s lasers and then climbed on top of him.

There was destruction below, and signs of the mad fighting between capes.  Sheets of paper frozen in time, a mailbox destroyed, a light-post toppled, all still in the midst of the red water.  Everyone had fled or been knocked out of commission.  The fighting had migrated to several scattered spots nearby.

I didn’t know exactly what to do, so I focused on helping the wounded, making sure they were okay.  I turned an unconscious girl over into the recovery position, and started to drag a wounded man out of the middle of the road.  I stopped when he started struggling and fighting with me and just left him there.

I felt lost.  Was I helping the enemy when I was propping someone up to make sure they didn’t choke on their own vomit or drown in a puddle?  If I used the plastic cuffs I had in the changepurse, would I be tying someone up, leaving them helpless against one of the Nine?

I checked my cell phone.  No service.

I was alone here.  Everyone in the world was a stranger.

Vibrations rocked the street.  I saw the wounded man stir in response.

A monster.  Bigger than a car, fangs, teeth, claws, and a thorny exterior.  It didn’t act like it had seen me.

One of Bitch’s dogs?  Or is it Crawler?

If it was Crawler, and I acted like he was friendly, he’d tear me to shreds.  I could draw my gun to threaten him, defend myself… except that wouldn’t do a thing to slow Crawler down.

If it was one of Bitch’s dogs sans rider, then there was little point in staying.  I didn’t even know if it was suffering from the miasma’s effect.  If it was Crawler…

I drew my bugs around me as a shroud, simultaneously forming decoy swarms.  I ran, my footsteps splashing, and called Atlas to me.  The second I was out of sight, I climbed on top of him and took to the air once again.

Couldn’t settle down, couldn’t stop.  I had to treat everyone I met as an enemy.

I was beginning to see where the paranoia came in.

“Skitter!” a voice called out.

I stopped.

A blond girl, waving at me.

I drew my gun and leveled it at her.

The smile dropped from her face.  She brought both hands to her mouth as she shouted, “It’s me!  Tattletale!”

I hesitated.

How tragic would it be if I shot my friend, so soon after I’d wanted to scream at the heroes for fighting among one another?

“How did you get here?”

“On the dog.  I don’t remember its name, but it wasn’t as affected as we were.  This effect is tailored for people.”

I looked in the direction of the creature I’d seen.  Had that been the dog they’d come on?

I drew closer, but I kept the gun aimed at her.  I glanced around.  “Where are the others?”

“Most are hiding,” she said.  “My powers kind of let me work around this gas, I think.  I brought Grue, too.”

I looked around.  What she was saying felt right, even if I couldn’t remember her powers, specifically.  “What is this?  Amnesia?”

Agnosia.  We haven’t forgotten.  Just… can’t use the knowledge we have.  Looking at the others, I think they’re hallucinating.  If it’s prions, like Bonesaw used with the power nullification darts, it fits.  Hallucinations would match with heavy prion exposure.”

“Prions?”

“They’re small enough to pass through water filtration and gas masks.  Badly folded proteins that force other proteins into identical shapes, perpetuating the problem.  If she found a way to guide them, or specifically target the parts of the brain she wanted, she might get results like we’re experiencing.  In a really bad case, it’d cause lesions in the brain and give you hallucinations.”

I looked around.  “How long does it last?”

“Forever.  It’s incurable and it’s terminal.”

I swallowed.  “But Panacea could fix it.”

She nodded, then smiled wide.  “There’s hope, right?”

“Right.”

She jerked her head to one side, then used one hand to brush the hair back out of her face.  “Let’s grab Grue and formulate a plan.”

She turned to leave, but I stayed where I was.  After three steps, she turned around.  “What’s wrong?”

I didn’t lower the gun.  “Sorry, a little paranoid.”

She frowned.  “That’s fair, but we’re short on time.  If others are getting lesions on their brain, then that means they could die soon.  Seizures, violent mood swings, loss of motor control…  Creutzfeldt-Jakob was a prion disease, but the progression here’s faster.”

I shook my head.  “Crews-what?”

“Neurological disorder caused by eating the meat of a cow infected with mad cow disease.  You get the prions in your head, and you slowly die while suffering personality changes, memory loss and vivid hallucinations.”

“And it’s faster here.”

She nodded.  Her expression was solemn.  “Hours instead of weeks.  And as people experience mood shifts with anger and fear, or if the hallucinations get worse-”

“The fighting among teammates will, too,” I finished.  “It could get ugly.”

“If we’re going to save everyone, we need Amy.  For that, we need to ask Cherish.”

I shook my head.  “Who?”

“Um.  You remember capturing a member of the Nine?”

Did I?  We’d ambushed them, walked away with captives, yes.  But we’d lost someone too.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“And we confined one?”

I nodded.  This was working.  I could piece together the information.  We’d called that person on a phone, hadn’t we?  “Cell phones aren’t working consistently.”

“Is it safe?” a male voice asked.

“Sure.”

I stayed silent.

He stepped out from around the corner to stand by the blond girl.  “This is Skitter?”

She nodded.  “Skitter, this is Grue.”

I didn’t recognize him any more than he recognized me.  I kept the gun trained on them.

“This is slowing us down.  What’s it going to take to get you to trust me?” she asked.

What would it take?

“The fight with Empire Eighty-Eight’s mooks.  When I made the human-shaped tower of bugs for the first time, and they shot into it while I crouched inside…”

She shook her head “I don’t remember that.”

How many people had I been with, then?  I would have said one, but I felt like someone else was involved.  Had they arrived late?  I could remember hurrying off.

She spread her arms wide.  “I’m sorry.  I might not look like it, but it’s affecting me too.  I’m just using my power to uncover the answers we need.”

I nodded.  That would have been reassuring if I could remember what her powers were, or if I could think of something about her I could quiz her on.  It was like two blind people playing hide and seek.

“Look, come here,” she offered.

I hesitated.

“You can keep the gun.  I’ll keep my hands above my head.  Grue, stand back.”

He stepped away and leaned against a wall, his arms folded.

I landed Atlas and stepped forward.

She got on her knees, and with her hands above her head, she walked through the flooded street on her knees until her forehead was pressed against the barrel of the gun.

“I trust you.  I know I’m a pain in the ass sometimes, I know we’ve had our ups and downs.  I know I’ve kept way too many secrets for someone who calls herself Tattletale…” She smiled. “But I trust you.  Now, even if you don’t recognize me consciously, what’s your heart telling you?”

In truth?  It wasn’t telling me much.  If I didn’t think on it, if I just went with the vague impression I associated with the name Tattletale, the smile, the fountain of information…

I backed away a step.  “I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to trust you.”

“Darn it.  Um.  Let me think…”

“Do you want to go ahead without her?” the guy asked.

I turned to look at him.  The idea of being left alone here-

“Go somewhere safe,” he suggested.

I frowned.

“If the Slaughterhouse Nine find Panacea first, or if things get much worse-”

“I want to help, really,” I said.  “But it’s just that…”

I trailed off.

“You want to help, but you’re suspicious.  And you feel bad for being suspicious, because of everything we’ve been through, our close calls?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  I was double checking everything he said against my own awareness.  Was he saying anything that indicated he knew something I couldn’t?

“I know how scared and suspicious you feel because I feel the same way.  Except I trust Tattletale.”

“I do too,” I said, “And I’d trust her if I could be sure she was Tattletale.”

“Trust your heart.”

I wanted so desperately for it to be like in the movies, where people could trust your heart.  Where you were holding the gun and you had to choose between shooting the evil clone and shooting your friend, and you just knew.

He gestured around us with one hand. “This doesn’t work.  This is going to lose us the fight, and all the danger we’ve been through in our fight against the Nine will be for nothing if they win here.”

I shook my head.  “I don’t disagree, but that line of thinking isn’t going to make me drop the gun.”

“Then can I try acting from my heart?”  he asked.

Before I could respond, he started approaching me.  I backed away a step, kept the gun leveled, but I couldn’t bring myself to shoot as he advanced.

He stepped in close, ignoring the gun, and wrapped his arms around me.  My forehead pressed against his shoulder.  It wasn’t the most comfortable hug I’d had, not that I’d had many.  It felt awkward, stiff, clumsy.  But somehow that made it feel more right, like a real hug would have felt off somehow.

He was warm.

Grue?

Then, without waiting for me to give an answer, Grue stepped back, taking hold of my left hand and pulling.  I followed without complaint.  I couldn’t complain.  If I doubted him now, after this-  I’d be ten times as angry at myself as he was with me.

“Priority number one, we get in contact with Cherish,” Tattletale said, grinning.  “From there, we can decide whether we want to track down Panacea or go after the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Right,” I said.

“Keep checking your cell phone.  The second we have service, call Coil.”

“Coil is?”

“Our boss, and since he’s hidden away, he won’t be affected, so he’ll be able to place the name and fill us in on the details the agnosia has blocked from us.”

“Okay.”

“It’s not the end of the world after all,” Tattletale smiled.

I nodded.  I was acutely aware of the gun in my right hand.  I felt like I should put it away, but with the way we were moving and my general sense of unease, I couldn’t stop and do it.  Hated this.  It reminded me of school.

The reminder made me angry, and it somehow made all of this seem worse.  I muttered, “Sooner we’re fucking cured of this miasma, the better.”

“Hey!”  Tattletale paused, pointing at me with a stern expression on her face.  “Don’t swear!”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Three places nearby they could have gone,” Tattletale said.  “Two that fit with the direction they were running.  The shelter underneath the central library, and the one near where Scion confronted Leviathan.”

“I remember that one,” I replied.  We were walking at a brisk pace around the perimeter of the bomb site.  The area to our left still burned, and Sundancer was in the lead, clearing away the worst of the fires ahead of us.  I was walking with Tattletale and Grue, Atlas following behind us.  The others rode the dogs behind me.

“If we’re going to check those locations, then…” Tattletale trailed off.

“If I had a preference, I’d rather we check the library first.  Bad associations with the other spot.”

Tattletale turned her head at that.  “I thought you’d be proud.”

I shook my head.

“I only heard secondhand, so I didn’t get the full story, but you stabbed Leviathan with Armsmaster’s weapon and distracted him from going after the civilians that were inside that shelter.”

“Don’t know how many I really saved.  He had a good thirty seconds to a minute to unload everything he had on the people in there, and we all saw how much damage he did to some of our toughest capes.”

Tattletale nodded.

“I dunno.  I think of what happened back then, and I get this ugly feeling in my gut, like I did something wrong, or I didn’t try as hard as I could have because there was someone in that shelter who I sort of hate.  Hated?  I’m not sure if I should use past tense.”

“One of your bullies?”  She asked.

“Teacher.  I think that when I left the Undersiders, I guess I was thinking of considering becoming a hero or something.  But with what happened at that shelter, I almost feel like it was the turning point.  It was the first time I did anything that someone else could point to and call it heroic, and somehow I can’t find it in myself to be proud about it.  And it’s like, that dream of being a hero that I always had just kind of faded away in the face of reality.”

“We’re glad to have you, whatever your reasons,” Tattletale said.

“Thanks,” I told her.

I looked at Grue.  “You okay?”

“I’m getting annoyed that people keep asking that,” he spoke.

“Don’t be a dick,” Tattletale replied.  “She’s asking because she cares.  We’re asking because we care.  And you know that if it was one of us that went through what you did, you’d want to make sure we were in the right headspace to go up against the Nine.”

Grue sighed, but he didn’t respond.

“You’d tell us if you weren’t feeling right, yeah?”  Tattletale asked.

“If I had any idea what I felt, and it wasn’t good, yeah.”

“Good enough.”

We watched as Sundancer cleared away the flames with her flickering sun.  Flames bent toward it as if being influenced by a strong wind, thinned out and disappeared.

She cancelled out her power and turned back to us.  “One minute to cool off and we’re probably okay to go!”

“We should decide where we’re going and how we’re going to make our approach,” Grue spoke.

“If they’re waiting for their teammates, they’ll stay inside the shelter for the time being,” I said. “We’ll be in a better position if we don’t try anything overly complicated, like a pincer attack, if there’s more than one exit.  We can hit them hard enough with Sundancer, Ballistic and my bugs.”

Grue nodded.  “I don’t disagree.  You two will have an idea if they’re making their way out the other exit.”

“The two shelters are close to one another,” Tattletale said.  “But I’m still a little worried they’ll leave one location while we’re checking out the other.  I almost want to split up.”

“Is that worth the risk of having half our group caught off guard by the Nine before the other half can arrive?”  I asked.

“A better question,” Tattletale said, “Is whether we can afford to let them get away.  If we miss this chance to go on the offensive and let them escape, they go into hiding and work out a strategy.”

“And we’re not exactly in their good books,” I said.  “So we’d be a primary target.”

Was I imagining it, or did Grue’s darkness expand around him by a fraction?

“Sorry,” I told him.

“Hm?”  He turned towards me.

No use making it worse, if I was prodding a sensitive area by raising the threat the Nine posed.  “Nevermind.”

“Saddle up!”  Tattletale called out.

Sundancer turned and sprinted back to the dogs.  Regent hopped down from his seat and grabbed Shatterbird’s wrists so she could lift him into the air.  I climbed on top of Atlas.

“What if-” I started.  “No.”

“Keep talking,” Tattletale prodded me.

“What if I scouted the library, while you guys checked out the other site?  I can fly, it’s faster for me to get there.”

“And we’d be one mistake away from you being killed,” Grue said.  “If not worse.”

“Hear me out.  Their only real long-range attacker is Jack, right?  If I’m flying, the others won’t be able to touch me.”

“You think.”

“I think.  But if Jack’s at the location, I’d be able to sense him before he got a bead on me.  If that’s the case… I can just attack without exposing myself, and I can alert you guys.”

“Assuming he’s not two steps ahead of us and waiting at some vantage point somewhere nearby,” Grue said.

“He functions like a sniper,” Tattletale said.  “Ignore the fact that he slashes and stabs, he’s a long-range combatant with a good sense of what the enemy is doing and how his teammates move on the battlefield.  He stays out of the way and makes surgical strikes, then relocates to another vantage point.  The only thing that keeps him from doing that all the time is how he has to stay involved with his team and keep them under control.  Can’t make it look like you’re in charge if you’re not there.  With less teammates to manage, he’s liable to go on the offensive.”

“But I have the ability to find him,” I pointed out.  “Before he finds me.  Amy gave me bugs that increase my range.  I’ll be taking on some risk, but it means we’re able to check both locations at the same time and keep an eye out for the Nine.  It’s the best way to strike the balance we need.”

“The balance,” Grue said.  He was clearly unimpressed.

“Minimal risk to maximum effect.  Your group will be safe because you’re all together and you’ll vastly outnumber them.  I’ll be safe because I’m airborne, and I’ll have the advantage of an early warning.  Offensively, you guys will have the Travelers and Bitch.  I’ll have my bugs.”

“Bonesaw countered your bugs last time around,” Tattletale pointed out.

I nodded.  “I have a few things in mind.”

“If you’re sure.”

“She’s not the only person who gets a say,” Grue said.

“Name a better option, then?” I said.

“We all go to the library’s shelter, then we all go to the shelter Leviathan attacked,” he said.  “Safer, smarter.”

“If you’re worried about me being defenseless,” I suggested, “Regent could come with me.”

“There’s a reason we’re keeping that pair close to us,” Grue said.  “If he gets taken down, you’ll have to deal with Shatterbird on top of everything else.  We’re capable of handling her, I think.  I don’t know if you are.”

I frowned.

Tattletale looked back at the others, then back at me.  “Go.”

I looked at Grue.

Tattletale pointed.  “Go!  Stay in contact!”

I turned and lifted off.

I kept to the cover of nearby buildings, and I flew erratically, so Jack wouldn’t be able to hit me if he saw me coming.  I was getting more used to flying Atlas.  I wouldn’t have said he felt like an extension of my own body in the same manner as my swarm.  He felt more like a prosthetic limb, or how I imagined a prosthetic limb might feel like.  At first, it would be clumsy, every action requiring some level of careful thought and attention.  Over time, it would become more second nature, a learned skill on my end.  It would never match up to the real thing, but I could deal.

Already, I was getting more used to correcting orientation and keeping him level in the air.

We set down on a rooftop a distance away.  There was a shed with a doorway that led into the building’s interior, and we headed there to take cover.

I chained relay bugs together so one connected to the next, then extended them well beyond the range of my power.  Their progress was relatively slow, but it did allow me to sweep over an entire region around the library.  Bugs stirred into action at my order, and they crawled or flew within a few feet of every horizontal surface that Jack or Bonesaw could be standing on.

No sign of them.  The vault door beneath the library was closed and sealed.

I was about to return to the others when an explosion of dust and rock fragments ripped through a group of bugs a few blocks away from me.

A woman, no clothes.  My bugs slid off her skin.  Even the slightest abrasion on the surface of the skin served to tear through the legs and bodies of the bugs.  Had to be Siberian.  If the general shape of the large object she was holding was any indication, she still held the truck.

A handful of my bugs were wiped from existence a fraction of a second before more explosions of varying size ripped through the area around her.  Legend was somewhere up in the air.

I drew my bugs together around Siberian’s head, in the hopes that I could distract her.  It was pretty thin, but there wasn’t much I could do.  Even a direct hit with Legend’s lasers wouldn’t affect her.

I shifted locations, flying half a block before landing again.  I could just barely make out the pair of combatants with my swarm sense.

Something about what Legend was doing seemed odd.  He wasn’t firing constantly.  Rather, his shots seemed to be strategically placed.  He ripped apart the side of a building a moment before Siberian landed there, then tore through the five or six floors beneath her so she had nowhere to go except straight down.  The instant she stepped free of the building’s ground floor, he tore into the ground with a series of laser blasts that expanded outward, thinning as they went.  It created a bowl-shaped indent, with rubble covering the storm drains that had been exposed by the lasers.

Carrying the truck, Siberian headed for the storm drains anyways, tearing through the piles of debris.  Legend unloaded on the entire street, collapsing them around her.  Some of my bugs descended with the pieces of the shattered street, and they could feel the warmth of the outside air mingling with the cold, stagnant air of the storm drains.  He’d exposed her.

I’d seen Legend go all out, and this wasn’t it.  Why was he holding back?  Granted, there was little point in hitting Siberian with everything he had, and it was easily possible that trying to drill a hole in the ground around her could theoretically give her the chance to escape, if she found some underground cavern or tunnel, but it could just as easily drown her.  So long as she had the truck, Siberian had to stay places where there was oxygen.  She couldn’t, I was assuming, dive beneath the water and make her escape from there.  Legend seemed to be going out of his way to keep her aboveground and exposed, attacking only when he had to.

He was conserving his strength.  As much as both he and Siberian were powerhouses with more offensive capability than ninety-nine percent of people on the planet, this was a strategic battle.  It was easily possible he was planning to keep this up for hours, harrying her, keeping her from getting her feet under her.

And with Siberian’s master or controller in that truck, she was forced to move more carefully.  If Siberian’s creator didn’t have food and water, this could turn into a battle of attrition.  One Legend might even win.  He was fit, healthy, athletic.  Siberian’s master, according to Cherish, wasn’t.  Added to that, being in that truck as Siberian leaped around couldn’t be fun.

I felt like I was still missing something.  Why was Legend fighting here, of all places?  Whatever else was going on, they were causing pretty horrific property damage, and it had to be hard to fight Siberian in a place with this many high-rises.  She could disappear into building interiors, and even if he lowered the height he was flying at, Legend was probably having to penetrate three or four stories of building to get to her.

I kept my distance from the fight as I directed Atlas toward the library.  With my bugs, I was able to more or less follow the fight.  I couldn’t touch Siberian directly, but I could sense where Legend was directing his attacks, and how he was positioning himself.

I continued to do what I could to help Legend, sending bugs at Siberian in the hopes of distracting her or finding some way into that truck.  They searched the windows but failed to find a gap.  Some crawled into the exhaust, others into the undercarriage-

She fell into a trench as Legend leveled another series of blasts at her, and the movement of the truck coupled with Siberian’s power and its rough texture murdered a solid ninety-percent of the bugs I’d used.  The remainder made their way deeper inside.

The bugs could scent something they registered as food.  A heavy smell, fetid, like garbage.  It was rank in there.  They crawled through the air conditioning vents and into the truck’s interior.

The driver’s seat was empty.  I sent the bugs into the back.  Nothing.

The truck was empty?

With my bugs, I drew out words in mid-air high above me, informing Legend: ‘TRUCK EMPTY – SIBERIAN BLUFF.’

Had she assessed what Legend was doing, turned it around on him?  If her real self was somewhere safe, somewhere with food and water, that meant Legend would lose any battle of attrition, if that’s what he was aiming for.

I couldn’t think of another reason her creator would leave the safety of the truck.

Hovering over the library, I got my phone out and dialed.

“Tattletale?”

“Sup?”

“Legend’s fighting Siberian here, but the maker isn’t in the truck.  I think he’s in the vault with Jack and Bonesaw.”

“Someone’s sealed over this door with a heavy pad of metal, because Leviathan or someone tore it down.  My gut’s telling me the Nine didn’t gather inside and weld it shut behind them, but I can’t ignore the possibility that Bonesaw’s spiders did it.  One in twenty chance, I’d guess?  We’ll know in about thirty seconds, after Sundancer burns through.”

“Right.  A few more things that are bugging me.  Can I use your brain?”

“Go ahead.”

“Legend’s fighting Siberian here.  It feels wrong.  He’s working to pin her down, slow her movements as much as he can.  I know he’s probably buying time, trying to wear her other self out, but why not a place with flatter terrain?  Why not a place where there’ll be less cover for her and less collateral damage?  I know Siberian goes where she wants, and if her other self is in the shelter, that’s probably a big reason she came, but-”

“Your gut is saying something’s off.”

“My gut is saying something’s off.”

“Okay.  I’d guess the Protectorate have more of a plan than the one firebombing.”

“They’re going to do it again?”

“No.  The first one, going by what you’ve said and what I’ve picked up, hasn’t done much for our side.  It’s going to be something else.”

“And we don’t know what?”

“No clue.  What else?”

“Minor, but if her other self is in the shelter, where are Jack and Bonesaw?  And if they’re in the shelter, where’s Siberian’s real body?”

“She’s spent years with them, they have a rapport, and they’re dependent on one another. Maybe he felt it was safe to approach them.”

“Maybe.  Nothing more specific?”

“Don’t have much to work with.  What else is going on?”

“Legend’s holding back.  Conserving his strength.  I get that he’s trying to win a fight of attrition, but as far as I can tell, he hasn’t changed his tactics or the pacing of his attacks much since I informed him that the creator isn’t in the truck.”

“He’s buying time for something?  Someone?  Maybe Scion is headed this way?  No.  Don’t get that vibe.  Hmm,” Tattletale mused.  “We just got inside.  They aren’t here.”

I looked down at the library.  “Vault door, how do I open it?”

“Can’t say until I see the control panel myself.  The shelters are supposed to open with a command from the PHQ-”

“Which was annihilated,” I said.

“Right.  Or the PRT headquarters, on the Director’s order.  There’s bound to be another code that can be used in case those places get knocked out of commission.”

“How did they get in?”

“They have a tinker,” Tattletale said.  “She may work primarily with biology, but that’s not going to be the full extent of Bonesaw’s knowledge.  Look at those spiders.  Some basic hacking isn’t out of the question.  Anyways, I can figure it out when I get there.  Unless you want to take the brute force route.”

I looked down at Atlas.  “I don’t have enough brute force, and neither does Atlas.”

Legend does.  We’re on our way.  See you in a few.”

“Right.”

I hung up.

I drew more words in the air with my bugs, near Legend.

‘FOUND THE 9.  UNDERGROUND SHELTER.’

As an afterthought, I added:

‘MAYBE CIVILIANS INSIDE.’

I drew an arrow by the words.  Then, to make it as clear as possible, I drew a giant arrow in the sky, pointing down at the shelter door.

I was going to look foolish if they weren’t inside, and maybe cost Legend in whatever plan he was operating under.

I could feel him changing directions.  He kept facing Siberian, unloading laser blasts, but he was flying my way.

Siberian dashed forward.  I could feel her cutting a swath through the swarm as she ran, the truck in one hand, one corner of it dragging on the ground, cutting a line into the pavement.  She leaped into the air, out of the reach of my swarm-sense.  I felt something massive collide with the bugs that were in the air around Legend, felt more die as he shot a laser and caught them in the area.

She’d thrown the truck, and he’d obliterated it.

Legend shifted into high gear, flying out of reach of Siberian as she lunged for him.  He dove, hard, and I could imagine her leaping off the side of a second building, trying to get her hands on him.

Legend turned my way and flew towards the library.  I hurried out of the way, directing Atlas to higher altitude, just in case Legend decided to level the place.

The leader of the Protectorate had arrived on the scene, and I could sense Siberian on the ground, hot on his heels.  He raised one hand, and a laser beam shot forth, splitting into eight smaller beams that bent in the air.  They hit the outside edge of the vault door with precision, evenly spaced out, then drifted in a clockwise direction.  The door toppled free.

Legend spread his arms, and hundreds of individual beams radiated out from his body.  Three quarters of them turned in sync to spear towards the library, stabbing through the architecture.  Other beams split off to strike through doorways and windows and across rooftops.  No less than three struck me.

I flinched and nearly lost my seat on Atlas, but found it wasn’t much hotter than steaming tap water, and it only lasted two or three seconds before cutting out.  Siberian had approached close enough to demand Legend’s attention, and he’d terminated whatever it was he’d been doing.

I turned my mind away from whatever the beams had been intended to do and toward my own contributions to this fight.   Had to strike before they got their bearings.  I took advantage of the pause to send bugs flowing into the shelter.

I could count a number of people, young and old.  The mosquitoes in my swarm could scent blood.  Twenty or so people were inside the shelter, standing there.  There was metal on their bodies, like backpacks or prosthetic body parts, but they didn’t seem to be hurt.

There were three more inside, but I wasn’t feeling so generous as to call them ‘people’.  They stood apart: two men and a preadolescent girl.

It was them.  The Nine.

I couldn’t trust my ability to get to Legend and communicate the necessary details in time, and I might even be endangering him by getting too close to Siberian.  I couldn’t say for sure how he would really act in the field, but his PR sold the idea of a legitimate good guy who would balk at attacking an enemy with a hostage.

Or maybe he wouldn’t.  It could even be a mercy, sparing someone from one of the Nine’s clutches.  Siberian devoured people alive.

Either way, it was better to try to catch his attention with a written message: ’20 CIVILIAN, JS, BS, SIB’.

He was too distracted by Siberian to see it.  She wasn’t as fast as Battery or Velocity, but she had the physical power to move quickly, and she was leaping between buildings to throw herself at him with the speed and aim of an arrow shot from a bow.

I tried leaving another message for Legend, stating the same thing.  Glancing over my shoulder, I saw him looking at me.  Our eyes met.  He nodded, and I turned my attention to the shelter.

I didn’t want to do this half-assed.  No mistakes this time around.  I gathered a swarm of generous size, but I held it at bay.  There were more preparations to carry out.  I drew the capsaicin bugs from beneath my armor and added them to the swarm.  I drew out silk threads and held them suspended in the air, ready for use.  For a final measure, I withdrew a lighter and the changepurse from the utility compartment at my back.

Primary swarm in first.  As one singular mass, they flowed inside.  The capsaicin-laced bugs joined them, going straight for the eyes.

Jack reacted, as did the man, but Bonesaw was unfazed.  I saw Siberian flicker.  Legend noticed as well.  He snapped his eyes to me, and then the shelter.

The creator needs to concentrate?

My heart was pounding so hard I felt like it would dislodge me from Altas.  Bugs settled on the three members of the Nine and then they attacked.  It wasn’t the sort of attack I’d ever done before.  I’d had bugs bite, I’d had them sting, I’d even used them to deliver payloads of their various venoms.

I’d always held back to some degree.  The only ones I hadn’t held back against had been untouchable.  These three weren’t so lucky.

Mandibles bit into flesh, seeking not to pinch and inflict pain.  Ants scissored flesh away, beetles tore and rent into the flesh, flies spat their digestive enzymes onto the exposed flesh.

I buried them in every kind of insect I had that could eat, cut or pierce meat.  The bugs didn’t eat their fill: they simply bit, chewed, let the food fall from their mouths, then bit again.

Bonesaw’s hands were smooth as glass as she reached for her belt.  She was cool and collected, even as the bugs slowly flayed her.

She was stopped short as the silk strands tangled her ceramic fingers.

My bugs could hear her speak.  Though I could barely make out the words, I thought maybe the first one was ‘Jack’.  She held out her hands.

I tried to bind him, but tying his arm to his side was harder than using silk cords to lash fingers together.  At least partially blinded by the capsaicin, he swiped his knife a few times in Bonesaw’s direction.  He cut her several times, and my bugs could feel her flesh part around her collarbone and face.  Some of the cuts were on target, however, and the threads around her fingers were severed.  An instant later, she was free to put together her anti-bug smoke, working her hands to break the threads as I tried to tangle her fingers again.

Okay.  Not the end of the world.  The bugs were still devouring the three, and I still had a plan in mind.  An idle hope.

I withdrew the tissues I’d wadded in the changepurse to keep the contents from jingling or rattling around.  My bugs took hold of them and carried them into the air, two or three dozen in all.

I tested the lighter, then held it out to ignite the first tissue.

It was a slow burn, taking fifteen or twenty seconds to consume the paper.  The flies that carried it died as the flame reached them, consuming them.

By the time the first was burned, my bugs were positioning the second, allowing it to ignite.  In this manner, I chained them one after the other.  A slow-moving relay of flame.

Bonesaw had her smoke going, despite my efforts to rebind her fingers, and I could feel it murdering my bugs en-masse.  I pulled them away and out of the shelter, leaving only a few to track the movements of the Nine.

The trail of burning tissues made their way inside the shelter.  I ignited the last few tissues and sent them to Bonesaw.  I could feel the bugs die as they hit the smoke.

Nothing.  I swore.

It had been too much to hope for, that the smoke was flammable.  Even if the smoke had exploded in the mildest possible way, it would have at least given me a countermeasure.

I turned away from the area.  I’d told the others I would play safe.  I’d tried what I could, I’d maybe even done a little damage to them, now I’d back off.  I’d earned Siberian’s attention by attacking her creator, but she was preoccupied with Legend, so that was one threat I didn’t have to worry about.  The rest of the Nine were still inside.

Legend, for his part, was keeping up the measured, carefully paced assault.  I saw him raise one hand to his ear.

A communication from his team?  Had something happened with the rest of the Protectorate?  Or the other members of the Nine?

He dove straight for the shelter.  Siberian gave chase, and without slowing in the slightest, he raked a laser across the street to render her footing less stable.  It couldn’t have bought him more than a fraction of a second, if it even made a difference at all;  I could see her placing one foot on a shattered piece of road that wouldn’t have held a squirrel without collapsing.  She used it to kick herself forward, soaring after Legend, hands curled into claws.  He was ahead of her by only ten or fifteen feet.

The scattered bugs I had at the fringes of the extermination smoke gave me only a half-completed picture.  Legend inside, blasting a laser in the direction of the cloud where Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian’s creator were.  He grabbed one of the civilians that were standing dumbly in the shelter, only to get mobbed.  She latched onto him, and the others did the same, trying to drag him down.  My bugs felt a flash of heat as he used his laser to blast at them and free himself.  Another laser speared out of the top of the Library, followed soon after by Legend, spearing up toward the sky.  He directed another laser straight down at the library, continuing to fly straight up.

That was reason for me to do the same.  I rose with one hand on Atlas’ horn, and I drew my phone with the other.  I speed dialed Tattletale.  Trusting to her penchant for picking up the phone on the first ring, I started shouting before I heard any response, “Something’s up!  Take cover and get back!”

The stealth bomber streaked across the sky, just as it had before.  Its payload this time was smaller, barely visible.

The devastation wasn’t so easy to miss.

The only word for it was chaos.  I could hardly pick out the individual effects as they mingled.  A cloud of yellow-green smoke being pulled into a spiral around a vortex, which was causing the section of the library that had turned to glass to shatter and implode.  There was a flare of brilliant mixed colors I could barely look at, frying a scattered assortment of boneless, faceless, fleshy monsters.  One monster made it four steps before being turned to dust.  Where the dust touched, more dust was created, until the vortex expanded enough to start pulling it all in, stopping what might have been an endless chain reaction.

I could see time slowing in one spot, I could see pavement heating into a liquid in another.  I could see one area that was serene, untouched, a bubble where a newspaper that had been scattered on the ground was flapping violently with the movement of air.  Half a building was annihilated by the flash of an explosion, and it toppled into the midst of the bomb site.  In seconds, it was obliterated and chewed up.

The effects spread and expanded all down the street, a stripe of this madness three blocks wide, extending into the midst of the blaze from the previous bombing run.

I drifted toward Legend, raising my hands over my head to show I meant no harm.

“Thank you for the assistance,” he spoke, when I was in earshot.  “Some was misguided or off target, but it did make a difference.”

I could only nod.

He put one hand to his ear, then paused for several long seconds.  When he spoke, it was vague.  “Acknowledged.”

I waited, staring down at the disaster area below.

“Crawler and Mannequin observed to be in the blast site.”

“How did they disengage while keeping them there?  They- they did disengage?”

“Clockblocker managed to tether Mannequin in place.  Crawler freed himself from the same trap by tearing himself in two against the immovable object.  It was Piggot who managed to keep Crawler in the blast area.”

“How?”

“She had Weld pass on a message, telling Crawler what we had planned.  He was so tickled at the idea that we would be able to hurt him that he stayed where he was while the teams made their retreat.”

“Just like that?”

“Apparently so.”

“If he survives-”

“He didn’t.”

There was a series of smaller explosions below.  I could see a section of ruined building glowing red, then detonating in a blast of light that sent a nearby glacier spinning into a patch of burning ground.

“And the other three?”

“Remains to be seen.  The civilians are dead, but it’s something of a mercy.  Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders were welded to their skeletons, allowing her to remotely control them.  Like zombies, only they were aware and in incredible pain.  I expect she had measures to inflict agonizing deaths on them if we attempted to disconnect them from her spider-frames.  Maybe I could have saved them, can’t say.  From the glimpses I saw of them, I don’t know if they would have thanked me.”

We spent a minute staring down at the devastation.

I ventured to ask him a question, “Can Brockton Bay take this?  It feels like it was on the verge of collapse already.  Add this mess, the firebombing… can we really come back from it?”

“You know this city better than I do, I’m sure.  I like to think people are stronger than they appear at first glance.  Perhaps the same goes for cities as well?”

“I’d like to think so.  But if I’m being realistic-”

I stopped mid-sentence.

My bugs had found a group of individuals on the edge of the blast radius.

“No fucking way.”  I pointed.

Siberian flickered violently as she crouched beside Jack and Bonesaw, one hand on each.  In between the three of them was a man, hunched over.

Legend raised one hand, but he didn’t shoot.

“Legend?”

“They haven’t seen us.  I would like to take out Jack or Bonesaw while they’re distracted and unguarded, I just need Siberian to step away or let go of them.”

The group shifted positions, so the man had an arm around Jack’s chest and an arm around Bonesaw’s shoulders, Siberian behind him.

“See that?” Legend asked.

“What?”  I could barely make them out from our vantage point.  “I can’t.”

“My eyes are better than most.  A minor benefit of my powers.  The backs of his hands, perhaps you can make out the tattoos?  A cauldron on the left hand, a swan on the right.”

“I- I don’t follow.”

“No,” he sighed a little.  “I suppose you wouldn’t.  It does mean we know who he is.”

“Someone I’d know?  An old costume?”

He shook his head.  “A scholar.”

Jack glanced up, and Legend fired in the same instant.  With Siberian’s strength, the group  of the Nine lunged to one side, disappearing behind cover.  I sent bugs after them.

My swarm sensed other arrivals.  The Undersiders and Travelers came from the west, taking a circuitous route around the top end of the bomb site.  Legend fired a series of blasts after Siberian and gave chase, but she was keeping a building between her group and Legend.   He stopped where he was, one hand outstretched, and touched his ear.

“My teams are on their way,” he said.

“That’s good,” I said.  “The Undersiders and Travelers are too.  I’m going to go fill them-”

“We need them to back off,” he interrupted.

“Another bombing?”  I asked.

He shook his head.  “No.  It seems we’re facing the worst case scenario.”

“We’re winning,” I said, incredulous.  “You guys took out two of them, we’ve got them on the defensive-”

“Exactly,” he interrupted me.  “We’re winning.  And we’ve broken enough of Jack’s rules for his ‘game’.  Now I fear we’re about to see whatever ‘punishment’ it was that Bonesaw prepared for us.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

“You think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was this really what I needed to be dwelling on?

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

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

“We should stop here,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tattletale, Where are they?” I asked.

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

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

Waiting.  The last thing I wanted to do.

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.

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

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

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

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

Regent nodded in agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t agree with that.”

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

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

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

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

“Shatterbird, Genesis, go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head.

“Damn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t find Grue.”

“He’s in there,” Tattletale said.

“How sure are you?”

“Pretty darn sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Regent-” I started.

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

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

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

“I said don’t distract me!”

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

“Come on, come on,” I whispered.

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

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

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

Tattletale watched with her binoculars.  “Oh no.”

“Oh no?”  Trickster asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bonesaw’s not leaving,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Right.”  Okay.  Made sense.

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

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

I nodded, swallowing.

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

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

Why?  What purpose did this chaos serve?

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

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

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

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

“Skitter?”  Tattletale asked.

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

“So if he’s not in here…”

“Right,” I said.  “Trap free?”

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

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

Brian was in there.  And he was alive.

I couldn’t have been unhappier at that realization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could make it quick,” Ballistic said.

“No,” I told him.

“It’d be a mercy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gathered my bugs, directing them her way.

“Wait!”  Tattletale cried out.

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

Not Bonesaw.  Decoy.

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

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

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

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

“Bonesaw,” I growled.

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

“What did you do to them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonesaw exhaled a second cloud of dust into my face.

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

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

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

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

No, no, no.

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

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

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

Imp.  She’d got Imp.

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“We set up and act the second they stop moving,” Grue’s voice sounded through the walkie-talkie.  “Be ready to move the instant Cherish alerts them.  We maintain unbroken line of sight over the Nine and between our squads.  Notify us and change position if you lose sight of ’em.  Everyone knows what they’re doing?”

Various assents could be heard through the walkie-talkies.

“Maybe I should ask if anyone’s unsure about what they’re doing?” he asked.

There was no response.

“Good.  Hold positions.”

The strategy was mine, but Grue was more comfortable than I was as a battlefield commander.  I was okay with him taking charge here.  Preferred it.

I raised my binoculars.  Seven members of the Nine were strolling down the street.  Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian were at the head of the group, and Jack was using his knife to try to cut down anyone he saw who didn’t get under cover fast enough.  It was almost an idle amusement, rather than some mission or task he’d undertaken.  Most escaped, and he didn’t go to any particular effort to chase them down, as though he were conserving his strength.

Cherish, Mannequin and Shatterbird were in the middle of the group, Crawler behind them, trailing behind with languid, casually effective movements that resembled those of a cat.  At the very back of the group, trailing even behind Crawler, was a hulk of a man who I took to be Hatchet Face.  He looked like he was rotting alive, and there were grafts of flesh and mechanical replacement parts filling in the gaps.

The majority of my attention was on Cherish.  Through the lenses of the binoculars, I focused on her face.  I watched the movements of her eyes, her facial expressions, and the tension in her hands.  Nothing she’d done thus far had indicated she was aware of us. Her attention seemed more focused on the handful people Jack had cut down.  As they walked, she looked down at each of the wounded and dying with the detached interest one might have for a car accident by the side of the highway.  She hadn’t opened her mouth since we’d caught up with their group.

so wanted to jump in and save those people.  But it would be suicide.  Our priority was stopping the Nine.

Part one of the plan was simple.  Up until the point we engaged, we stayed as far away as we could while maintaining a visual and some ability to act.  We knew Cherish’s power was more effective as she was closer to her targets.  If there was any element of surprise to be had, we’d have it by striking from a distance.

I spared a glance at Mannequin, changing the focus of my binoculars to the man in white.  Again, he’d replaced his parts.  His form resembled what I’d seen the first time I’d encountered him.

I turned my attention back to Cherish.  Shatterbird was saying something to her, her lips moving in the rhythms of speech beneath the glass beak/visor that covered the upper half of her face.  She was using her hands to punctuate her words.  Cherish didn’t respond.  From the length of Shatterbird’s speech, I took it to be some kind of monologue or lecture.

“Hey,” Sundancer said from beside me, “Ten or so seconds until we lose them behind that building over there.”

A quick check confirmed she was right.  The direction their group was traveling would take them out of sight.  I picked up the walkie-talkie, “Moving forward.  You guys have eyes on them?”

“Yeah,” Grue reported.  That would be our second squad.

“Yep,” Trickster said, from the third.

I was already sitting side-saddle on Bentley, with Bitch ahead of me.  My burned legs didn’t afford me much grip with my calves, so we’d taken a loop of the chain that surrounded Bentley and wound it under and over my lap and around my waist to secure me in place, connecting it with a carabiner in case I needed to get off fast.  I put one arm around Bitch for further support, and scooted forward to make room for Sundancer.

“Go,” Bitch hissed the words the second Sundancer was in position.  Bentley lunged forward, leaping to the next rooftop and landing with enough force that I wasn’t sure I could have stayed seated if I’d been riding normally.

Bentley was more of a bruiser than the other two dogs, with his front half adding up to almost twice the mass of the rear.  It made him weaker at the long distance leaps than any of the dogs I’d ridden thus far, but his powerful upper body also made him a strong climber.  It also meant he had the raw strength to carry three of us and the pair of heavy metal boxes that we’d strapped to his sides.  Our progress wasn’t fast, but we did make our way up the side of the next building, Bentley’s claws digging into the windowsills as he slowly and methodically ascended.  From that building It was one more leap and a short climb to the roof of the tallest building in the area.  I released my deathgrip on the chains and got the binoculars and walkie-talkie out.

“In position on the Demesnes Soft Tower.  Location of the Nine?”

“Lord and Tillman,” Trickster answered me.

I found the intersection.  Once I had the right general area, it wasn’t hard to spot them.  Crawler was conspicuous.

“Found them,” I informed the others.

Our setup put Grue, Ballistic and Sirius directly behind the Nine, along with the metal cases of supplies we’d strapped to Sirius’ sides.  Trickster and Regent were mounted on Genesis, who had taken a form not unlike the dogs.  The trio were positioned to the Nine’s left.  By contrast, my group, with Sundancer, Bitch and Bentley, were positioned to their right.

Each of us were a little over a thousand feet away from the Nine, three city blocks, give or take.  It meant my allies were out of range of my powers.  It was a drawback, but I hoped it would balance out.

“They’re moving with purpose,” Tattletale sounded over the walkie-talkie.  Trickster was sending her ongoing video with a camera and directional microphone.  “I think they’re heading to Dolltown.”

“Dolltown?”

“Parian’s territory,” Ballistic said.  “She controls these giant stuffed animals.  Cordoned off an area in my district before I made my claim.  I haven’t gotten around to dealing with her yet, with the Nine and all.”

“They’re probably trying to bait the heroes out,” Tattletale said, “Killing in the streets, then attacking one of the safe territories that aren’t controlled by us.”

“ETA for them getting to their destination?” I asked.

“One minute,” Tattletale spoke.

“Moving up,” Grue reported.  “You guys maintain visual.”

Jack was still attacking everyone he spotted.  How many lives would be lost in the meantime?  Worse, would Cherish notice our presence, or would Jack look for civilians and spot one of us on a rooftop blocks away?

Going into this with the element of surprise was almost too much to hope for.

I put my walkie-talkie down, but I kept my eyes on Cherish.  She hadn’t spoken, and there was no change in her posture.

“Grue,” Trickster said, “Get in position fast.  I see the area where Parian marked off her territory.  If they’re going to stop, they’re going to stop here.”

I used the binoculars and found the area in question.  Yellow spray paint, rain coats and scarves had been used to form a line across a street.

Grue didn’t respond, but that could easily be because he was focusing on riding.  Just in case, I asked, “You have eyes on him, Trickster?”

“Yeah.  Grue and Ballistic are heading up to a spot where they can see everyone.  No danger.”

No danger.  It was a loaded statement.  Burnscar wasn’t here, but Tattletale was ninety percent certain that the pyrokinetic teleporter was off tracking down one of the ‘hero’ candidates or Hookwolf to give them their tests.

My heart was hammering in my chest, and I knew that between one of these heartbeats and the next, one of the Nine could spot us.  If it was Jack or Shatterbird, we could be dead or bleeding out less than a second later.

“Set up,” Grue ordered.

I unclipped the carabiner and hopped down.  Working alongside Bitch and Sundancer, I helped bring the boxes we’d strapped to Bentley’s side to the edge of the rooftop.  We hurried back, Sundancer giving me a hand up.  I almost didn’t feel the pain of my legs with the tension and adrenaline that thrummed through me.  Or maybe that was the industrial strength painkillers Coil had provided.

I didn’t want to think about the fact that the drugs I’d taken might be the same ones that he’d used to drug Dinah.

A quick sweep verified that the area around ‘Dolltown’ was largely empty of people.  The flooding was bad here, and only Parian’s place was really on high enough ground to be free of it.  Just to make sure, I asked, “Tattletale?  How many bystanders?”

“Going by the video feed?  Guessing there’s between eight and twenty people in the buildings around you.”

“Then I’m set,” I replied.  I strapped the ‘seatbelt’ chain around my waist and hips and reconnected the carabiner.  Other voices echoed mine, confirming they were ready.

Halfway across the roof, Sundancer began forming her miniature sun.  I checked on the others with my binoculars.  Trickster and Regent were crouched at the corner of one building, and Genesis was dissolving.  Good.

Grue and Ballistic were arguing.  I was pretty sure.  I could see Grue grabbing Ballistic’s shoulder with one hand and pointing at the Nine with the other.

“What’s going on, Grue?” I asked.

“He’s chickening out.”

He’s supposed to handle Cherish.  I glanced at the Nine.  No sign of anything from her.  She was standing apart from the rest of the group, her arms folded.

“She looks like someone I used to know,” Ballistic said, as if that was some kind of answer.

“Who?” Trickster asked.

“Sadie.  From seventh grade.”

“Nope,” Trickster replied.  “Not in the slightest.  Your head’s fucking with you.  Get the job done.”

“But-”

Trickster’s voice was as hard as I’d ever heard it.  “Now.  Remember the deal we made.  Our promise to each other and to Noelle.  Don’t fuck this up.”

Ballistic hesitated.  Through the scope of my binoculars, I could see him holding the foot-ball sized warhead in his hands.  “She’s a human being, someone with feelings, and tastes and-”

Regent was the one who cut him off this time, “And she’s someone that has forced parents to mutilate and kill their kids and she made them enjoy it.  Then she left them to live with the aftermath.”

Regent sounded remarkably calm given the situation.

“She’s my sister.  If anyone has a right to get sentimental, it’s me, and I’m saying it’s okay to off her,” he finished.

“I-”  Ballistic broke off.

I shifted my attention to the Nine.  Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw were moving past the yellow lines.  And Cherish… Cherish was turning to look in Grue and Ballistic’s direction.  I could see her almost bounce in place as she got her feet under her and started sprinting, her mouth opening.

“Cover blown!” I shouted into the walkie-talkie.  Taking my finger off the button, I called out,  “Trickster, Sundancer!”

Sundancer sent her sun soaring around to the Nine, taking the long route so it could cut them off.  In that same moment, Trickster pointed a sniper rifle at a corpse on the street and swapped Cherish’s position with it.

Part two of the plan, after finding them and getting into our positions, was to remove Cherish as fast as humanly possible.  If we accomplished nothing else, our goal was to do that and then make a run for it.  It would pave the way for future attacks and it would slow them down.

We’d left that task to Ballistic, with the idea that Trickster would take care of Jack.  Ballistic decided he didn’t have it in him at the worst possible moment, forcing us to shift roles.

Damn him.

Cherish was struck by Trickster’s shot, blood spattering the pavement.  Her teammates left her behind.

“Don’t have line of sight to Jack!” Trickster reported.

“Hit the others,” I told Sundancer.

“You mean kill them,” her voice was quiet, her fists clenched at her sides.

“Kill them, then.”  I could see the sun growing as it flew.  It was maybe eighteen feet in diameter now.

“Just… just tell me there aren’t any civilians there, no bystanders.”

I looked through my binoculars.  The remainder of the Nine were making a break for it.  Mannequin and Siberian stood still, watching Grue and Ballistic, Crawler was barreling towards them, and Shatterbird had taken to the air.  Jack and Bonesaw were taking cover around a corner to stay out of Grue and Ballistic’s line of fire.

The thing that had once been Hatchet Face scooped up the wounded and anyone he could catch and deposited them with his group.  Bonesaw had a scalpel out and was cutting the second the people were in her reach.  A throat slashed here, a stomach cavity opened there.  Intestines and muscle strung from one individual to another, connecting them together as their faces contorted in pain.  Some struggled to stand, to strike Bonesaw or push themselves away, but deft slices with the scalpel severed tendons and ligaments.  It was a kind of grim reversal, the adults utterly helpless and weak when faced with the child.

We’ll never have another shot like this.

“No,” I said.  I even managed to sound convincing.  “No civilians!  Go!”

“Then tell me where to move it,”  Sundancer’s eyes were closed.  “I can’t see that far.”

“Out further, left, left, left,”  the miniature sun slid twenty or so feet with every order I gave as I tracked the enemy’s position and the movements of the orb with the binoculars.  “Short bit left and then out!”

I couldn’t look directly at the thing, but I saw Mannequin and Siberian wheel around as the blinding light of the orb caught their attention.  Mannequin ran, and Siberian lunged forward.

The orb slid out into position around the mouth of the alley and then rolled over Jack, Bonesaw and Hatchet Face.

“Report!” Tattetale’s voice came from the walkie-talkie.  “I don’t have visual.”

“Sundancer just hit Jack, Hatchet Face and Bonesaw.”

“Where are the rest?”

“Crawler heading for Grue and Ballistic, Mannequin running down Tillman in Regent and Trickster’s general direction.  Shatterbird’s going for the bird’s-eye view.  I don’t think she’s seen any of us except Grue and Ballistic.”

“Siberian?”

“Missing.”

Shit.  Assume they’re all alive, then.  Sundancer’s power still in that area?”

Alive?  “It is.”

“Then keep it there!”

I glanced at Sundancer and she gave me a grim nod.

Crawler had reached Grue and was scaling the side of the building with surprising speed.  I’d taken him for a quadruped, but apparently his joints were modular.  His proportions were more simian, now, and he was climbing up the side of the building twice as fast as I could have run it if it were laid out horizontally.

Part three of the plan had been to hit them as hard as we could.  Trickster was using his rifle to take shots at Mannequin, but I couldn’t see if it was having any effect.  Ballistic finally decided to contribute, and fired a warhead at Mannequin.  Then he reached into the box he and Grue had unloaded from Sirius’s harness and grabbed two more.  He fired them into the smoke cloud that had expanded around Mannequin.

I could see Crawler reaching the edge of the roof, not twenty feet from Grue and Ballistic.

Part four of the plan?  Avoid direct confrontation.

“Trickster,” Grue said, the one word buzzing over the walkie-talkies.

Crawler disappeared, and an empty pickup truck toppled from the edge of the roof to the ground.  Crawler was back in the vicinity of the other Nine, not far from Sundancer’s burning orb.  Blocks away from Grue and Ballistic.

The monster lunged after Grue and Ballistic again, and was supported this time by Shatterbird, who conjured up a storm of glass shards to pelt the pair.  Ballistic retaliated by firing a warhead at Shatterbird, who prematurely detonated the explosive with a thick cluster of glass, shielding herself against the worst of the blast with another wall.  She drew more walls around herself and maintained her assault.

Bitch whistled, and Sirius started bounding across rooftops to head our way.  I could see Shatterbird turn and notice us.

That was fine.  I sent a payload of bugs her way; wasps and bees each carrying several spiders, and more expendable caterpillars and the like that were smeared in capsaicin.  I wanted to make absolutely sure she knew where we were and that she wouldn’t ignore us.

Crawler reached the base of the building only to be switched with yet another car, resetting his position a second time.  He roared in frustration, then turned toward the miniature sun, breaking into an all out run as he charged for it.

“Sundancer, switch off!”  I called out.

The orb disappeared, and Crawler crashed through the alleyway, only barely avoiding Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw.  The edges of the alley were unrecognizable, and the walls were on fire, but the trio were untouched.  Siberian had Jack draped over one shoulder  and another hand clasping Bonesaw by the back of her shirt, holding her high.  The pavement was a molten liquid beneath them.

I clicked the button on the walkie-talkie and informed the others, “Siberian’s granting her invulnerability to Jack and Bonesaw!”

Tattletale said something, but I missed it over the roar of noise that came with Sundancer using her power.  She was forming another orb.  Everyone else was busy with their own things.

Siberian was protecting Jack and Bonesaw.  That was both good and bad.  We’d planned this strategy under the assumption that Siberian would come for us and we’d use the dogs, Grue’s Darkness, my bug-decoys and Trickster’s teleportation to keep our distance from her until we decided we needed to make a run for it.  All of that was in line with part four of the plan, maintaining our distance and avoiding a toe to toe fight.  In the meantime, we’d intended to use our ranged abilities to take out Jack, Cherish, Bonesaw and Burnscar.

She was protecting them, which we hadn’t anticipated, but she couldn’t do that and come after us.

Or maybe she can.  I saw Siberian virtually toss Bonesaw in the air, the girl wrapping her arms around the woman’s neck as she landed.  Holding her two teammates, Siberian sprinted for Trickster and Regent.  She was fast, but it was a speed borne of her peculiar powers, more enhanced strength than augmented acceleration.  Not so different from Battery on that count.

Air resistance and inertia didn’t hamper her in the same ways.  More than that, whatever it was that made her invincible and untouchable to any outside force, she had the ability to snap it out to affect any surface she touched.  Her strength was virtually limitless, and the pavement didn’t shatter with her footfalls because she made it as untouchable as she was.

Shatterbird, meanwhile, was drawing closer, using the glass-storm to bar Ballistic’s access to the crate of explosives.  Grue’s power was serving to counter hers, and any glass that entered the darkness seemed to drop straight down like rain, bereft of her abilities.  Momentum still carried, however, and any glass shards that entered at a high enough velocity seemed to exit at roughly the same speed.

I wasn’t sure about Ballistic, his costume was among the best money could buy, but I wasn’t sure what that entailed.  Grue, at least, should be able to endure a beating.  Beneath his motorcycle leathers, he was wearing the costume I’d made for him and nearly finished.  It wouldn’t protect his head, but his helmet would serve in a pinch.

Even if they wouldn’t be cut to shreds, I wasn’t sure they would survive if Shatterbird detonated that case of rocket launcher rounds with a shard in the right place or a large enough impact.

“Bitch,” I spoke.  “The boxes!”

Bitch was sliding off of Bentley’s back, opening the first metal box and stretching out the contents.

The case was a piece of camping gear I’d noticed ages ago, when I’d first been buying things for my costume.  A watertight case for luggage with a metal frame inside that campers could stretch out to use as a drying rack for clothes and towels.

We didn’t have luggage inside.  No, the box held parts of the mannequins I’d been using for costume design.  Strung together with silk, two mannequins dangled from the frame.

Bitch adjusted the way one mannequin hung and headed over to set up the other case.

My bugs had reached Shatterbird and started attacking her.  Brown recluses, capsaicin, wasps, hornets and bees.  I’d never attacked someone like this.  Not someone who couldn’t heal.  I could see her thrashing, trying to stay aloft even as her concentration faltered.  The brown recluses were insurance of a sort.  If we happened to take out Bonesaw, it could mean Shatterbird was out of the equation as well.

The darkness Grue had generated around the rooftop disappeared all at once.  Grue and Ballistic crouched at the far corner.  Canceling the darkness was a signal.

The mannequins hanging from the first rack disappeared, replaced by the two boys.  Grue and Ballistic disentangled themselves from the metal frames and hurried to our side.

Trickster and Regent appeared soon after the other frame was up.  I could see Siberian on the rooftop.  They’d escaped just in time to avoid being caught in a melee with her.

Trickster rolled his shoulders, stretched his neck and adjusted his hat.

“Don’t waste time,” Grue growled.  “Do it.”

“Times like this call for a certain flourish,” Trickster said.  Trickster withdrew a small remote from his pocket and depressed the button.

The rooftops the other two teams had been situated on virtually shattered with the explosions.  The bazooka rounds had also carried a small collection of plastic explosives.  Since Trickster’s team had only needed the sniper rifle, their case held a hell of a lot more.

Part five done.  Baiting the hook, reeling them in, then hitting them as hard as we could.

It wouldn’t stop them, of course.  The only ones that explosion might have hurt were Shatterbird and maybe Mannequin, if he’d survived Ballistic’s attack and slipped around through some other angle.  Ideal world, it would also slow down Siberian.  More realistically, I was hoping that they’d get pissed, and they’d get sloppy.

I chanced a quick look through the binoculars.  Crawler was stampeding towards the site of the explosion, Cherish was still prone on the ground, bleeding out from Trickster’s sniper fire, and I couldn’t make out the others.

Wait, no.  I could see rubble shifting as Siberian shrugged it aside.  It was enough debris that Crawler would have been hampered, but even with her hands tied up in holding her teammates, she cast the chunks of concrete and brick aside with the same sort of ease that I might walk through a pile of balloons.  She shook her head, and her hair fanned out behind her, draping partially over Bonesaw, who was riding her piggy-back.

Jack wasn’t folded over her shoulder anymore.  He was standing, holding her hand, a wide smile spread across his face.  He said something, some exclamation, without dropping his grin for a second.

And Shatterbird?  I looked through the rubble that had been cast over the street around the building.  She was lying on the ground, struggling to her feet.  The glints of glass shards sparkled for a hundred feet around her.  I quickly tossed my binoculars aside.  They’d be a liability if she attacked us, now.

Here was the gamble.  We’d hurt them, injured their pride, we’d maybe killed Mannequin and we’d incapacitated Cherish.  If Ballistic had been on the ball, he would have blown Cherish to smithereens.  As it was, a stray bullet wouldn’t cut it.  Bonesaw’s known talents included the ability to raise the dead.

Grue used his darkness to form a dozen false-images of shadow-shrouded silhouettes on nearby rooftops.  I did the same with my bugs, but mine were animated, moving.

We’d have to run pretty damn soon.  There were seven of us, but only two dogs.  It was less than ideal.  I’d tried to get Bitch to bring another dog, but she didn’t feel any of the others were trained well enough to bear riders.

The remaining members of the Nine charged, Shatterbird rising from her position to fly straight for us, barriers of glass surrounding her.  Siberian carried Jack and Bonesaw with leaping bounds, while Crawler headed for us.

I crossed my fingers, watching intently.

Two ways this could go for the final phase of our plan.

Well, three ways.  But I was hoping the third possibility -my team getting caught and slaughtered- wouldn’t happen.

The first way this could play out was that Shatterbird’s flight over the buildings would make her faster than Crawler or Siberian, who had to climb or circumvent the obstacles.

When I’d brought this up during the meeting, assuming it would happen, it had been Tattletale who pointed out that I was maybe underestimating how fast Crawler and Siberian could be.  She was right.  Despite her ability to fly, Shatterbird was falling behind.

Which meant we went with plan B.

“You up for this, Grue?” I asked, “I could do it.  My plan, and I was first to volunteer.”

“No, you can’t run fast enough with those burns.” Grue replied, as he hurried to the side of the rooftop furthest from the Nine.  He glanced down. “Trickster, I’m ready!”

“Just need an opportunity,” Trickster said, watching the incoming members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  They were closing a little too fast for comfort.  Sirius had arrived, and we were all getting saddled.  Bitch, Sundancer and I on Bentley, and Regent, Trickster and Ballistic on Sirius.  At Regent’s orders, Sirius moved to Grue’s side.

“Sooner than later!” Grue said.

“Do you want to die?” Trickster asked.

“No, but I’m willing to break something!”

“Your call,” Trickster said.  “Three, two, one!”

Grue leaped from the edge of the roof.  In that same instant, Trickster swapped him with Shatterbird.

She tumbled for a second, got a grip with her flight, and then steadied.

Then Regent hit her with his power.  Shatterbird flew into the corner of the roof, was thrown off-balance and tipped into the gap between buildings.

And Grue?  I cast a glance backward.  He’d dropped out of the air where Shatterbird had been flying, landing on a rooftop a distance below.  I could see him struggling to his feet.

“Go, go!”  Trickster screamed the words.

Our mounts leaped down into the same gap where Shatterbird had fallen.  We made the usual zig-zagging descent down, leaping from wall to wall, and landed on either side of Shatterbird and Genesis.

Genesis looked like a cartoon caricature of a sumo wrestler, grotesquely obese and yellow skinned with eyes like black buttons.  She was hairless, unclothed and sexless, and her skin was translucent and oily.  Through the skin, I could make out the vague figure of Shatterbird, pounding on the walls of the stomach, her mouth opening in a scream that didn’t reach us.  Glass shards were stirring around her, a blender whir cutting at the insides of Genesis’s belly.

“She’s going to cut through,” I said.  “Bitch, Regent, get the chains.  I’ll try to stop her.”

Using my bugs, I formed words against the surface of Genesis’s belly.  ‘Stop’.

Shatterbird only intensified her attempts.

I gathered some black widow spiders and pressed them gently against the shiny, translucent skin.  They were absorbed, drifting inside, and were soon crawling around the inside surface.  Genesis obliged me by opening her mouth, giving me a direct route for the bugs to travel.

“Hurry,” Regent said.  He was winding the chain around the jello-like yellow hand.  Fingerless hands gripped the chain for further traction.

Shatterbird noticed the spiders.  Her eyes widened as the volume of deadly spiders trapped in the bubble with her increased.  I raked my finger beneath the message I’d drawn with the bugs, as if to underline it.  ‘Stop’.

She did.  Glass shards fell into a pool around her feet.

“Go!”  I shouted.

We ran, the two dogs side by side, pulling Genesis behind us like a chariot.

Drawing my bugs together, I covered us as best as I was able, creating other decoys, vague chariot-shaped lumps here and there, huddles of figures.

It would all be for nothing if they returned to Cherish, revived the girl and tracked us down.

“Left!” I ordered.

Bitch steered left.  Regent hadn’t heard, but as the tension on the chains pulled Sirius to one side, he caught on and turned as well.

My bugs served as a navigation system, feeling out the shapes of our surroundings so I could work out a suitable path.  We charged onward, with me giving occasional directions, until we found Cherish lying on the ground in a pool of blood.

“Get her!”

Bitch rode just to Cherish’s left, Regent rode just to the right, and Genesis rolled right over the girl.  Cherish caught like glue, suffered an unfortunate few seconds of being dragged over the road’s surface, and was then drawn into Genesis’ bubble of a body.

My bugs gave me a sense of the Nine’s locations, and my decoys gave them pause once or twice.  We could track them more easily than they could do the reverse, and we were soon far enough away that I couldn’t sense them.

We only slowed when we got to Coil’s underground base.  We parked the dogs and then headed for the series of barred and locked doors.  I glanced at Shatterbird and Cherish where they knelt in Genesis’ rotund body.  We weren’t really giving away information here. Crawler had apparently come this way, not so long ago.

It was a fifty-fifty chance whether Siberian and the other Nine would come this way.  Cherish wasn’t around to give them information, but she might have provided details at an earlier point that Jack or one of the others could use to connect the dots.  We’d cross that bridge when we got to it.

Coil was there to greet us with a Tattletale and a contingent of armed soldiers.  We waited patiently as one of the soldiers scanned Shatterbird with a plastic wand.  He looked at Coil and shook his head.

“This way,” Coil ordered.

How did he set this up so fast?

Shatterbird’s cell was large, twenty feet by twenty feet across, and the walls had the same textured black rubber soundproofing as the sound recording booths I’d seen in movies and on TV.  I couldn’t see the speakers, but there was a noise similar to radio static filling the room, so loud I wouldn’t be able to hear if someone spoke.

With our weapons trained on Shatterbird, we stood by while one of Coil’s soldiers reached into Genesis’s stomach and hauled her out.  She was chained to the ceiling with her arms stretched out to her sides, then divested of her costume, left only with a silk camisole and slip.  Coil’s people wheeled in an x-ray machine and a tank of containment foam.

Shatterbird glared wordlessly at us until we’d exited the room and the heavy vault door blocked our view of her.

“She will be cavity searched and x-rayed to identify any hidden weapon or any devices Bonesaw or Mannequin might have implanted in her,” Coil spoke, after the doors were closed and the white noise was blocked out.  “Regent, we have a protective suit waiting for you.  In the event that she does acquire something she can use her powers on, or if she has concealed anything on her person that is small enough to avoid radiographic detection, the suit will shield you until you’ve finished.”

Regent nodded.

“She was bitten by brown recluses,” I said.  “I’d give her a full physical examination every thirty minutes, to be safe.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know standard treatment for bites of that kind,” Coil said.

Brooks stepped out of the crowd of nearby soldiers.  “Sir?”

“Brooks.”

“I’m familiar with the treatment for the more dangerous spider bites,” he looked at me, “It’s a protein-based venom?”

So the jerk is useful sometimes.  I hadn’t liked Brooks since Lisa had introduced me to him, but I could respect someone who knew his job.  “Yeah.”

“Seems I can leave it to you, then,” Coil said.  Brooks nodded.  Coil added, “Failing everything else, it might serve as incentive to cooperate.”

“Or cause to get desperate,” Tattletale said.  “She might do something stupid if she thinks she’ll die or suffer lifelong effects if she doesn’t get back to Bonesaw.”

“Let’s not give her the opportunity.  Regent, how fast can you seize control?”

“A few hours.”

“Start now.”

Regent headed off to get changed.

“That leaves our unexpected guest,” Coil said.  “Cherish.”

Regent hadn’t yet escaped earshot.  He turned back to us.  “She’ll have a trap on her.  Small explosive looped around her neck with a lock and a deadman’s switch.”

“Thank you,” Coil said.  “Tattletale?  See to it at the first opportunity.”

“Not a problem.”

We approached Cherish and Genesis. Cherish knelt in the small pile of glass shards that sat at the very bottom of the bubble.  Her hands were pressed against the inside of the stomach, causing it to bulge like a small child in a womb.  She was awake, but bleeding severely.

Coil gave the order, “If anyone acts out of character, take them out of action as swiftly as possible and shoot the girl.”

There were nods all around.

Cherish’s mouth moved, but the sound didn’t reach us.

“I did not expect her, and I did not take measures for containing her,” Coil said.  “Keeping her on the premises may prove exceptionally dangerous.”

“The alternative being?” Trickster asked.  “Letting her go?”

“In the euphemistic sense.  Her value as a captive is minimal and we have no way to secure her until Regent can finish using his ability on her.”

“He’s resistant to her power,” Tattletale said, “But that goes both ways.  Don’t know how well he’d be able to control her.  She might break free.  Benefits of being family, I guess.”

“Then I would suggest, as Trickster said earlier, ‘letting her go’.  We execute her and remove her from the equation,”  Coil stated.

I looked at Cherish, and her eyes narrowed.  She knew exactly what we were saying.  Killing someone in cold blood?  A little different than killing someone on the battlefield.

“Not giving you the go ahead,” I said.  “But I’m not about to stop you.  I’m washing my hands of this.”

“The intent was to remove individuals from the Nine before they could conduct their round of tests, yes?  This seems to be the most expedient route.”

“Not disagreeing,” I said.  “But I didn’t sign up to be an executioner.  I manage my district and I help defend your city from outsiders, right?”

“Quite right.  No, I think your service this morning has been exemplary.”

I only barely managed to avoid bringing up the deal about Dinah.  No, it was premature, the wrong people were listening, and I was worried he would point out the fact that my territory had been torched by Burnscar.

Best to keep quiet for now.  Rebuild, re-establish myself as leader of my territory, then raise the topic.

Whatever happened, I needed his respect.

We turned our attention to our captive.  She had raised her hands above her head in a surrender position, despite the hole in her shoulder.

“Do we risk it?” Trickster asked.  “Letting her out?”

“Nothing she can’t do outside the bubble that she couldn’t do inside,” Tattletale replied.  Coil nodded, and that seemed to be signal enough.

Genesis began to dissolve, and in moments, Cherish spilled out, wincing as she cut her hands and knees on the glass that Shatterbird had detached from her costume and weaponized.

Tattletale bent down and looked at the device that hung around Cherish’s neck.  “Small explosive, combination lock.  A bit paranoid?”

“No such thing as too paranoid,” Cherish said, glaring.  “Between my brother and the crap that Bonesaw and the rest of the team want to subject me to, knowing I’ll die if I leave that thing alone long enough actually helps me sleep at night.”

“Can’t have that,” Tattletale said.  Changing the topic, she asked, “You like computers?”

“Computers?” Cherish startled.  She seemed to intuit what Tattletale was doing.  “Not saying.”

“Clever girl, but even that’s enough of a clue.  Let’s see… four, five, four five.”  Tattletale tugged on the lock.  “Nope.  Three, seven, three, seven.”

The lock popped open.  Cherish’s eyes opened wide.

“There goes your bargaining chip.”

“I’ve got more,” Cherish said, her chin rising a fraction.

“Do tell,” Coil said, dryly.

“Certain teammate of yours paid me a visit.  Imp, I think her name was?  So hard to remember.”

“What did you do to Imp?” I asked.  Grue is going to freak out.

Cherish smiled, “She decided to help me get back at the Nine.  They’re planning on inflicting a fate worse than death on me, you see.  There was a reason I pretended not to notice you were all waiting in ambush.  Thought maybe the brat passed on word somehow, until you used that sucker-teleport on me and shot me.  Suppose you’ll have to give me medical attention and keep me alive if you want the rest of the story.”

“And your other bargaining chip?” Trickster asked.

“Grue.  I can sense him with my power.  I can also sense my team.  They got their hands on darkness boy.”

I swear my heart stuttered mid-beat.

Cherish smiled, but her glare didn’t fade in intensity.  “My teammates and I already talked on the subject of Jean Paul, aka Hijack, aka Alec, aka Regent…  You got Shatter, and you got me.  We’re compromised.  No way they’re going to accept us back with open arms.  They’d kill us first.  So no, don’t get your hopes up.  My teammates aren’t going to agree to a hostage exchange.”

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Interlude 13½ (Donation Bonus)

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“Sam!  Sam!”  Celia’s voice was grating and nasal.

“I’m coming!”  The heavyset man grumbled, as he made his way into the living room.  Celia sat on the floor between the couch and the coffee table.  The white of her t-shirt and panties was a stark contrast to her dark skin.  Sam leered at the woman.  She was good-looking for her age, slim, though her breasts sagged behind her shirt without the benefit of a bra.

“You said you were five minutes ago, asswipe.  Takes you five minutes to find your wallet?”

“Needed to piss.  Your fatass friend was in your bathroom, so I pissed in your sink.”

Celia kicked under the coffee table to strike his shin.

Sam just smiled and stepped back.  “Kidding.  I went off the fire escape.”

“That’s not any better!”

“It’s all water and shit down there.  Any place that doesn’t smell like hot garbage smells like a toilet.  Here.  Stop bitching.”  He threw a plastic movie rental card at her.

She cut open a plastic wrapped block of powder and shook a small amount of the powder onto the coffee table.  She used the laminated card to cut it into lines, a set on each side of the table, with none in front of her.

“You’re not having any?”

“I told you.  I’m pregnant.”

“You’re too old to be pregnant,” Sam commented.  She kicked him again.

“Not that old!”

Jennifer emerged from the washroom and stopped in the doorway, staring at the scene.

“I didn’t think you’d actually use any of the stuff.”

“Jen, hon,” Celia said, “We’ve got enough to go around.  Even if we only sold half, we’d be made in the shade for five or ten years.”

“And you just took it?”

“Leaders of the Merchants got killed, everyone else decided to run off with what they could carry of the stockpiles.  Sam and I decided to play it smart.  Sam got his truck, and I guarded the stash from the other assholes.  Paid off.”

“I… what is it?”

“Little bit of everything.  Come, sit.  Try some.”

“What is it?”

Sam seated himself at the table, by one set of the lines of powder.  He picked up a pinch and put it on his tongue.  “H.”

“No way,” Jennifer said.  She dropped into one of the felt-covered chairs at the far end of the room.

Aisha had to hop out of the way so she didn’t get sat on.  She watched the dialogue between her mother, her mother’s boyfriend of the week and her mother’s new friend with a dispassionate expression.  Seeing this scene, she didn’t really feel much.  A little disappointment.  Embarrassment.  Disgust.

No, it was less this scene and more the discovery that her mother was pregnant that nailed her in the gut with a profound kind of sadness.

The first place her mind went, before joy at the idea of having a brother or sister, before anger at her mom for letting it happen and not using protection, was hope.

“Sam, do you have any papers?”

“Rolling papers?  I thought you were going clean.”

“It’s just weed.  I need to have something.”

“Isn’t that bad for the kid-in-progress?”

“It’s weed, dumbass.  Nothing they tell you about it is true.  Kid isn’t going to wind up addicted from birth or anything, ’cause it’s not addictive.  Right?”

“Sure,” he reached into his back pocket and slipped a packet to her, along with a dime bag.

Aisha bit her lip.  Maybe hope was the wrong word, because she didn’t really feel anything on the subject.  But she knew it would probably be better if her mom miscarried and the kid was spared this shit.

How much of Aisha’s problems were because of her mom’s lack of self-control and how many others were because of this environment?  She’d grown up with a mom who’d never mentally or emotionally aged past fourteen or fifteen.  A new man in the house every week or two, with his own idea of how things should work, Celia generally content to let him run things however he wanted.

Aisha tried not to think about the men.  It was like having a broken arm; so long as she didn’t move it, so long as she didn’t think about it, it was okay, a dull throb in the back of her mind.  Something she could ignore.  But even a stray thought could remind her that the arm was broken, and then it sometimes took days before she could get out of that head space.  There was no distraction that worked, because the fact that she was consciously looking for a distraction only reminded her of what she was trying to distract herself from.

Of course, there was no way to avoid the countless reminders in everyday life that would remind her of Guy, or Bridge, or Darren, or Lonnie.  Thinking about a broken arm was one such reminder.

Being ignored by her teammates and told to go to her room and play along for everyone else’s sake was another.  How many afternoons had she come home from school, only for her mom or one of her mom’s boyfriends to shoo her off or bribe her to leave the apartment for a bit?

Pissed her off.  She didn’t need that from her brother, too.

“Come on, Jennifer,” Celia urged her friend.  She took a long draw from the spliff she held in her fingers. “Oh fuck!  Sam, you jackass!  This isn’t just weed, is it?”

“Thought it was.”

“There’s a kick to it.  Amp or something.”  Celia took another puff.  “Amp.  Hey, Jen, join in. Have some of what Sam’s having.”

“But H is fucking scary,” Jen protested.

“So you hear.  But why is it scary?”

“It’s addictive.”

Aisha tuned out the sound of her mother and Sam cajoling the woman and walked over to the table.  Her mom didn’t notice her.  Nobody ever noticed her, and they noticed even less ever since she’d gotten her power.  It was like a dark joke, a grim comedy.  Just when she’d started to figure things out, grow up and catch people’s eye, the world went to hell and she got her powers.  Now she became invisible if she lost her concentration.

Not that it was invisibility, really.  It was memories.  People forgot her as soon as they saw her, to the point that they didn’t register her presence.  She could feel it, her power rolling over her skin, jabbing outward, invisible to sight, touch and anything else, making contact with the people around her and pushing those memories away.

And like her metaphor comparing her memories to a broken arm, her power seemed to respond to the attention of her subjects; the harder they tried to remember and focus on her, the faster she slipped through their minds.

The metaphor applied in another way, too.  Her power operated on its own, doing its thing, and if she very casually noted what it was doing, without pushing it forward or holding it back, she could feel it doing something else.  As if it was ready to push away memories that didn’t relate to her, exactly.  It never did.  Any time it built up enough that it came close to doing anything, she noticed, and it retreated like a turtle pulling its head into its shell.

Frustrating.  Her power didn’t do anything because she wanted it to.  It worked only if she surrendered to it, let it act on its own.  Pushing it to work harder had the opposite effect.

How easy would it be to just carry this stuff away?  She could hand it to Coil for some brownie points, and he could decide what to distribute.  It would be out of her mother’s hands, and money would become a limiter on her mother’s habit.  If the drugs weren’t around, maybe Sam would leave.

Maybe, if Aisha got rid of the drugs, her mom would have an excuse to get things back on track, somehow.  The city was paying people who joined the clean-up crews.  Three square meals, simple and bland but they gave the essential nutrients, and they gave you twenty dollars for nine hours of work.  Fuck around or slack off, and they just kicked you off the crew for the day, no pay.

Idle hopes.  Aisha had spent long years wishing her mom could pull it together, dating back to just after the divorce, when a bad day was still better than most good days were now.  Or maybe that was nostalgia and a child’s eye view.

No.  If she got rid of the drugs, it was more likely that someone would erupt in anger.  Sam or her mom, getting violent, verbally or otherwise.  It would do more harm than good.

She sat down on the coffee table, directly opposite her mother.  Reaching forward, she plucked the spliff from her mother’s lips and dropped it, grinding it under her toes.

Her mother blinked a few times, then reached for her rolling papers.

Aisha used her hand to cover the papers and whispered, “No.”

Again, the dazed blinking.  Her mother asked, “Sam?  Got any more papers?”

“I just gave you a full package.”

“The hell?  Maybe that hit me harder than I thought,” Aisha’s mother giggled.

Aisha stared her mother in the eyes.  She didn’t deactivate her power.  “Mom.  You gotta stop.”

“Where are the rest of the papers, Sam?” her mom asked, oblivious.

“Kitchen.”

“But I don’t want to get up.  I’m comfy,” Celia whined.

“You keep going down this road, your kid is going to be born without a face or something,” Aisha said, her voice quiet.  “You know how hard school was for me?  Even as far back as kindergarten, I couldn’t sit still.  Teacher tells me three things, and by the time they’ve gotten to the third, I’ve forgotten the first.  And Brian doesn’t have any of that.”

“Go get some papers, Sam.  Sam McSamsam.  Sammy-sam.  Samster-”

“I don’t want to get up any more than you do,” Sam growled.  “You’re not one of the talkative ones, are you?  I like it quiet.”

“Mom,” Aisha said, as if she could get her mom’s attention.  Ironically enough, she knew that if she deactivated her power, she’d have even less chance of talking to her mom.  It wasn’t just the horned mask and the black costume.  She’d never had anyone just sit down and listen to her.  Dad ignored her, mom was self-centered and Brian was too focused on what needed to be done that he ignored everything else.

“Mom.  You’re going to have some fucked up kid, and then you’re going to die of an OD before it’s even grown up.  It’s not fair that you leave some kid that’s more retarded than me, or some deformed freak for Brian to take care of.  Not fair on him, and it’s not fair on the kid to make them put up with the dick, either.”

“Fine,” her mother said, standing.  “I’ll get the papers myself.”

Aisha sighed.  Was it cowardice that kept her from confronting her mother, or the knowledge backed by years of experience that it wouldn’t make a difference?

Maybe, if everything with the Nine worked out and Coil got control of the city, maybe she could get her mom some help, or report her to the police.

But not now, not when things were like this, when she had to prove she deserved her place in the group.

Abandoning her mother to a noisy search of the kitchen, Aisha headed into her old room.

Her room smelled like sex, and faintly of urine.  Her mom had apparently had a party since Aisha had left.

Holding her breath, she opened her closet door.  She pushed past the clothes she’d stolen, shoplifted and bought, and past the old clothes she couldn’t or wouldn’t wear anymore.  Her closet was in layers, and each layer held clothes and trinkets from a different era.

Her girl guide stuff was in the very back, too wrinkled by years to wear.  Her dad had pushed her into that.  He’d wanted her to have structure.  After a year and a half, even he had pulled her out.  A bad fit.  She didn’t have the personality type for it.

Around the girl guide stuff, she found a small tape recorder and an old pair of binoculars.  After finding an old backpack that had never been emptied of the school supplies, she found some notebooks that had only been filled in about a third of the way.  She tore out those pages and tucked the notebooks under one arm.

Everything went into a compact black handbag, along with her taser and knives.

Small things.  Nothing she couldn’t have bought in a well stocked convenience store, maybe.  But she would operate best if she was relaxed, and having some personal items made her feel better.

That only left the problem of finding them.

They’d attacked the Merchants, and observing her mom had given her the chance to find out where.  It was a starting point.

It was worse than she’d expected.  She ducked under the police tape and pushed one officer out of her way as she stepped into the area.  Police cars and PRT vans had formed a broad perimeter, with police tape strung between them.  She momentarily wondered why they didn’t have the wooden barricades.  It was flimsy as security went.

It was drizzling, and the small amounts of rain did little to clean the streets of the blood that spattered it.  Water soaked into the white and brown sheets that had been draped over the bodies that still waited for someone to clean them up.  The brown, she realized, was dried blood.

Aisha picked her way through the fallen.  The worst of the carnage was at the edges, as if some invisible line had been drawn that nobody was permitted to cross, and in the center, where the masses of people had gathered before being murdered together.

She’d hoped for a lead.  A piece of evidence, or an overheard tidbit of information from the cops.

No such luck.

There was an overabundance of evidence.  By the time the cops processed everything here and managed to identify the bodies, the leaves would be falling off the trees and the Nine would be long gone, one way or another.  The cops weren’t talking, either.  They were working silently, or the things they were saying weren’t interesting.  Catching the Nine wasn’t their job.  If they found something worthwhile, they would pass it on to the local capes, probably.

No.  If there was something to be found, it wouldn’t be here.  She headed to the edge of the scene, where the police cars had all stopped.  There were still spots and spatters of blood here and there, and bloody footprints, but not much.  She walked around the police and the cars to check each set out.  In every case, it seemed, the bloodied victims had either fallen where they lay or disappeared.  Ambulances?

Having checked the area, she moved further down the street to see the next closed-off alleyway.  The same thing.  A few more bloody footprints, but nothing beyond that.

The third blockade offered something.  There was a spot where the blood was thicker, which didn’t match up with the other spaces.  The trail extended further than it did elsewhere.

Looking around, she spotted a smear of blood on the side of a building, three stories up.

Okay.  So maybe they’d gone this way.

The trail of breadcrumbs that the blood provided were slowly being eroded or masked by the light rain.  The water raised the oils from the cracks in the road, giving the ground a rainbow sheen.

The signs of blood faded too soon, and Aisha could only guess whether she had taken the wrong road, gone too far or if the rain had cleared it away.  She might have given up right then, but she saw a group of men standing outside of an apartment building.

It was only when she got close that she saw the badge clipped to the front of one of their jackets.  A detective.  There was blood on the door that led into the apartment lobby.

The elevator wouldn’t be working.  She headed for the stairwell, only to find more blood.  It was as though a body had been dragged.

Going forward was a stupid idea, she knew.  Brian and Skitter had gone into way too much fucking depth about the risks.   Still, that hadn’t stopped her before.

She got her taser and knife from her bag and made her way upstairs.

Third floor up, blood on the door leading into the hall.  More blood trailing down the hallway, stopping at one apartment.

She double checked that her power was active and pushed her way inside.

Only a few of the Nine were present.  Crawler slept with his ponderous head on paws that were crossed over one another, his back rising and falling with each deep breath.  He was large enough that the highest part of his back rose nearly to the ceiling with each breath he drew in through his nostrils.  Only half of the eyes on his body were closed, covered with thick, dark gray lids.

Shatterbird and Burnscar were on the couch, Burnscar stretched out with her head on the armrest, her feet propped up on Shatterbird’s lap.  She held a graphic novel on her stomach with one hand and created flames in the other, shaping them to match the people she saw as she flicked from page to page.  Shatterbird was sitting upright, a novel in her hands.

Bonesaw stood over the dining room table, with a mechanical spider-thing on the opposite side of the table, assisting her.  A young man was on the table itself, his wrists and ankles tied down.  His torso was open from collar-bone to crotch, his ribs splayed apart.  Bonesaw and her mechanical spider were elbow deep in the contents of his torso.

The spiders.

Aisha moved quickly aside as a spider moved from the kitchen, past her and to the table.  Whatever cameras or artificial intelligence it used, it didn’t seem to notice her.  It handed Bonesaw a diet cola that the little girl opened with bloody fingers and drank.

With a little more confidence, Aisha moved further inside, giving a wide berth to Crawler and Burnscar’s foot-high images of flame.

Holding her weapons, Aisha stood next to Shatterbird, at one end of the couch.

Aisha had never killed anyone, but here she was, holding a lethal weapon.  She could slice Shatterbird’s throat and they wouldn’t even realize she was there.

They would, she suspected, realize that Shatterbird was dead or dying.  There was a fifty-fifty chance, anyways, that it would force them out of whatever effect her powers had on their brains.  It had happened to her before.

Except that Shatterbird would kill her in her last moments, using the glass that had been swept to the corners of the room, or one of the others would.  Burnscar or Crawler could deal a hell of a lot of damage, even if they didn’t know who they were attacking.

Slowly, she walked over to Bonesaw, navigating around the drones.  Could she kill the kid?

On the one hand, Bonesaw was the one who kept the other members going.  Removing her would take a lot of problems off the board.  She could finish off Bonesaw and run for cover in the kitchen, out of Burnscar and Shatterbird’s line of fire.  From there, it was only steps to the front door and safety.

On the other hand, it was still murder, and it was a kid.  A kid that had a hundred kills under her belt.

A squeaking sound distracted her from her thoughts.  It was like air being let out of a balloon, but in shorter spurts.  Bonesaw?  No, the girl wasn’t making any noise.  The mechanical spider?  No.  Not the spider either.

Stepping as close to Bonesaw and the spider as she dared, Aisha investigated the sounds.  Where were they coming from?

Bonesaw smiled, “You’re going to have to speak up if you want me to hear you, Jonathan.”

Jonathan?

Aisha looked down at the body, and realized the heart was beating inside Bonesaw’s hands.  The man’s eyes were moving, and his lips moved as he struggled and failed to make words come up through his windpipe.

The surge of horror and disgust gave Aisha the strength to cast aside her doubts.

“Sorry kid,” she said.

She plunged the knife into Bonesaw’s bare throat.

Bonesaw screamed, shrill and loud, which caught Aisha off guard.  With a knife in her throat, the girl was screaming?

Reacting more on instinct than wit, Aisha pulled the knife out and then slashed it horizontally across Bonesaw’s throat.

She’d expected a spray of blood or gurgling.  Neither happened.  Bonesaw screamed again.

So she pulled the knife free and stabbed Bonesaw in one eye.  The blade scraped against the bone of Bonesaw’s eye socket.

Flame erupted and pieces of glass came to life around Aisha.  She backed away quickly as a wall of flame rolled over Jonathan on the table and divided her from Bonesaw.  There was a rumble and the sound of falling furniture as Crawler stood.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow!”  Bonesaw shrieked.  “It hurts!”

Why isn’t she dead?

Aisha yanked the knife out and then gripped her taser.

“Is it Jack?” Burnscar asked, looking around, then turning to the window, “What the hell?”

“It’s not Jack,” Bonesaw said.  She snapped her fingers, and the mechanical spider leaped on top of her, beginning to suture the wounds in her neck.  “I gave Jack the same safeguards I gave us, he would have succeeded if he tried it.”

Shatterbird scowled.  “Then who or what was that?  Crawler, do you know?”

Aisha backed toward the front door.  She stopped as Crawler appeared in the doorway that led from the kitchen to the front hall, looking through to see his teammates on the far end.  His voice was a mangled mess of sounds that only barely approximated anything like speech.  “I don’t smell anyone.”

Smells can’t find me, then, Aisha thought.  Still, she didn’t have her escape route.

“Torch the apartment and make a break for it?” Burnscar asked.  “We can meet up as a group later.”

“No.  Cherish has a hard time tracking Mannequin, and he won’t know how to find us,” Shatterbird said.

“I’m okay,” Bonesaw piped up.  She held one hand to her eye socket, which had trails of smoke rising from it.  “You don’t need to worry.  I can put my throat back together easy, after I get my kit out to check the sheaths for my vitals to make sure there’s no abrasions, and I’ve got spare eyes.  I could go with green eyes.  Or one green and one blue, or if I alter them, I could have-“

“Quiet,” Shatterbird cut in.  “It’s less about you being hurt and more about the fact that someone had the audacity to attack us here.  Burnscar, put out those fires.  We don’t want attention.”

The wall of flame shrunk and faded away.

“Really hope you don’t have another way of sensing me, big guy,” Aisha said to Crawler, ducking between his legs and stepping towards the door.  “I’m gonna make my exit now.”

None of the Nine reacted as she shut the door behind her.

Lesson learned.  The more ‘vulnerable’ members of the Nine weren’t as vulnerable as they looked.  Sheaths, Bonesaw had said?

Stepping into the lobby, she stopped in her tracks.

One of the detectives who’d been standing by the door was dead, his throat slit.  He laid in the center of the lobby.  Two more blood trails ran to the side of the lobby opposite the stairs.

Manager’s office?

Her weapon drawn, she reached for the doorknob, and collided with Jack as he strode out of the office.

“What’s wrong?” Cherish asked.

Aisha backed away.

“Nothing,” Jack said.  “You grab the last body and then find a mop.”

“Me?”

“I think I’ve been exceedingly generous, giving you a second chance.  You can repay me by doing the heavy lifting.”

“Ever the gentleman.”

“Go on, now.  I’ll wait here.”

Aisha watched as Cherish walked past her, grabbed the heavyset detective and began dragging him inch by inch toward the office.

She only remembered one other time when her heart had pounded this hard.  It had been when the fledgling Merchants had attacked her and her father.  It was another chance.  While they were separated, she could go after one.  But which?

She held the taser and the knife, adjusting her grip so she was secure.

Jack was the key figure.  Aisha knew she could attack him, knew she maybe should, but would she succeed any more than she did against Bonesaw?  Cherish might be able to lash out with some kind of blind fire, affecting the emotions of everyone nearby.

No.  Cherish was the newest member, wasn’t she?  There were better odds that Cherish didn’t have the protections that Jack and the others did.

Exhaling slowly, Aisha followed behind Cherish as the girl tugged the body into the other room.  She stepped inside and shut the door.

“Put the weapon away,” Cherish said, her voice quiet.

Aisha gulped, realizing the trap she’d just stepped into.  “You can hear me?”

A second passed, and there was no response.

“Put it away, or I’m going to leave you quivering in a corner, shitting your pants.”

“You can’t hear me.”  Aisha gripped her weapon and stepped closer.

Cherish whirled around, her eyes flitting right and left, searching for Aisha.  “I’ll scream.  He’ll come in here, and a couple swings of his knife, he can cut you down, invisible or no.”

“It’s not invisibility,” Imp said, uselessly.

“Put your weapon away,” Cherish said, her voice quiet and carefully measured, “We only have a few seconds before Jack gets suspicious.  Listen.  I want to strike a deal.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 12

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“Which one of you dripping rectal cysts is brave enough for this one!?”

The cheer bubbled up from the crowd, until it reached a crescendo that he could hear from his aircraft/podium.  The wind ripped around him as he stood at the nose of the aircraft, his cape fluttering.  Squealer’s vehicle was like a helicopter made by someone who had never seen a helicopter before, who’d decided to add their own improvements to the design when they were finished – more whirling blades spaced equidistant around the thing.  Topping it off, it was roughly three times the typical size.

“Green armband means poison, and this is a poison half of you wastes of air have already tasted!  We’re gonna make it as bad as it gets!  The worst of bad trips!”

He held a bowl of pills that were dusted with assorted powders and raised it over his head, “One handful, then you take a nap in one of the coffins we have up here.  Moment the lid shuts, you’ll find out what’s in store for you.  Some have rats, some have spiders, some have nothing at all and some…”

A beam of light speared down from the base of the fat bodied helicopter, sending chunks of earth where it hit ground.  The moment it faded, a coffin fell into the hole that had formed, followed by a downpour of gravel.

“Get buried alive!”

The noise of the crowd was more bloodthirsty this time, unmasked and unashamed in their savagery.

“Hope you rancid pukes have friends to dig you up!  Put up with that shit while you’re on the trip of your life, and you get yourselves a green fucking armband!  For the rest of the night, everything is as free as your mother’s pussy!  For as long as you hold on to that baby, anything you buy direct from one of us head honchos is ten percent off!  So which-”

He stopped.  There was a thump as the microphone hit the surface near Skidmark’s feet and then a violent but all too brief noise as it struck one of the propellers at the side of the aircraft and was promptly annihilated.

Skidmark’s hands went to his stomach, where blood and organs were spilling out.  He turned to run, but more slices appeared in his arm, his buttock, his back and the back of his neck.  No longer in sight of the majority of the crowd, he continued to try to crawl away, only for his reaching fingers to be separated from his hand, flying away from him in a spray of crimson.

The aircraft lurched and began to turn, but this maneuver ended up spelling out Skidmark’s doom.  The surface beneath him was already slick with blood, and with only one hand’s worth of fingers to grip with, he slid.  He used his power to change the surface and force himself upward, but it was too little, too late.

He dropped into the blades of the spinning propeller and was puréed in a heartbeat.

Standing on a rooftop across from the aircraft, Jack flicked his wrist and snapped the blade of his straight-razor back into the handle.

Smiling thinly, he looked over his shoulder at his teammates.  Bonesaw sat astride Siberian’s shoulders, in the midst of braiding a lock of the feral killer’s hair.  Shatterbird and Burnscar stood on opposite sides of the group, the former holding a book in one hand, the latter with images in flame dancing a quarter-inch off her skin, showing people and familiar objects, many of the images replaying the scene of Skidmark’s demise in miniature.  Bonesaw’s automatons were spread out over the remainder of the roof, and one of her Frankenstein creations waited patiently at the far end of the roof.  Hack Job, she’d called it?  It had started to rot alive, and Bonesaw kept it out of the way so as not to offend the sensibilities of her teammates.  Cherish stood in Crawler’s shadow, pale, her hands clasped together.  Her shoulders were drawn in, as if she was afraid she would be struck any second.

Crawler, the most monstrous member of the group, loomed over the rest.  His chest was ten feet deep from front to back, his head the size of a small car.  He combined the most effective features of a bear and a panther.  Sinuous, flexible, bristling with quiet menace, but also brawny with muscle.  He had armor plates covering him, with scales where armor wouldn’t allow him optimum flexibility, and spines and coarse hair where the scales wouldn’t do.  Head to toe, he had the coloring of an oil slick, black by default, but scintillating with rainbow hues in just the right light.  A hundred black orbs studded the length of his body, set into the plates of armor.  Caustic venom virtually poured from a mouth that bristled with mismatched fangs, spattering precipitously close to Cherish and eating at the concrete rooftop.  Perhaps most unnerving of all were his six legs, each forking at the knee or elbow joint, with one larger limb ending in scimitar-like claws and a smaller set of limbs for each; tentacles for the rear four legs and a long fingered human’s hands for the forelimbs.

Jack spoke, with no small amount of irony.  “Looks like Skidmark’s hosting a party.  I think we deserve a night on the town, after waiting as long as we did to reveal ourselves.  Be sure to thank our hosts.  I’m sure our invitation was lost in the mail.”

Smiles spread across more than one face.

Crawler was the first one off of the roof, throwing himself into the night air to land in the dead center of the crowd.  The others followed quickly after, Shatterbird and Burnscar launching themselves to the far corners of the massed crowd, conjuring up storms of glass shards and flame to block their victim’s retreat.  Bonesaw’s creations poured over the edges of the rooftop to herd the remainder of the crowd and keep them contained to one area.

It was just four of them left on the rooftop.  Siberian, Bonesaw, Jack and Cherish.

Siberian reached out and gripped Cherish by the shirt collar.  More graciously, she extended a hand toward Jack.  He gripped it tight.

“Thank you,” he said.

Catching a ride with Siberian was something of an art form.  Cherish had yet to master it, not even biting her tongue or keeping the short shriek from escaping her lips as Siberian stepped off the edge of the roof.  Jack, for his part, allowed himself to go limp the second Siberian pulled at him.  The four of them collectively dropped, Bonesaw riding atop Siberian’s shoulders, gripping her hair to maintain her position.

They were spared the messy fate of being pancaked on the pavement by a quirk of Siberian’s nature, transferring to each of them.  Jack staggered, more because he’d let his whole body relax so he wouldn’t jar something when Siberian tugged at him, but he let go of his teammate’s hand and straightened.  Cherish dropped to her knees.

“Much obliged, Siberian.” Jack said.  “Go.  Have fun.”

Siberian reached up and set Bonesaw down, and then was gone, one footstep carrying her into the midst of the crowd.  She didn’t care if she hit anyone.  Anyone unfortunate enough to be in her way was pulverized, their limbs broken, chests shattered and necks snapped by the impact.  Even those in the general area were caught by the flying bodies and hurt just as grievously.

Bonesaw laughed, and it was a sound without reservations, not shaped by social constraint or culture or self-censorship.  It was the laugh of a child, free and without a care.  One of her mechanical spiders leaped onto her back, and wound several of its limbs around her chest.  Two limbs extended to connect to her wrists, so the mechanical arms mirrored the dimensions and length of her own.  The ends fanned out into an array of scalpels, needles, saws, and other instruments so one tool sat between each of her splayed fingers.  The smallest gestures of her hands forced instantaneous rearrangements of the tools, so another was ready for her to grasp and use.  Two more spiders lunged forward and pulled one of Siberian’s screaming wounded away from the rest of the crowd, dragging it inch by inch toward the advancing Bonesaw.

The crowd might have turned to fight her, but they lacked the courage.  They scattered.

Jack twirled his closed straight-razor around his fingers.  “Cherish, stand up.  You’re missing the show.”

Obediently, Cherish raised herself up.  She lifted her head just in time to see a blur of white and black against the night sky, followed by a large explosion from the side of Squealer’s flying aircraft.  It tilted and bounced against the side of a nearby building, scraps of metal shearing off to land in the midst of the crowd.  A series of small detonations that ripped forth from the interior of the aircraft cast just enough light for Jack and Cherish to see Siberian striding across the deck, one of the Merchants in her grip.  In a heartbeat, she’d torn the woman’s limbs from their sockets and buried her teeth in the woman’s neck.

Bereft of a pilot and working internal mechanisms, the aircraft crashed heavily in the midst of the crowd.  The Merchants who had gathered in the street for Skidmark’s festival of poison scattered, abandoning their fallen friends, trying to find an escape route or hiding place.  The screams of panic were twice the volume of any cheering they’d done earlier.

Siberian hopped up to the highest point of the wrecked aircraft, the twisted remains of a propeller that should not have borne her weight.  Her hair blew in the hot air that rose from the heap of burning metal.  She glanced around to see where she might do the most damage, spat out a gobbet of meat and then leaped off to one side, out of sight.  The propeller didn’t even move.

“Are you going to partake?” Jack asked Cherish.

“Why are you still talking like I’m a member of this team?  I tried to manipulate all of you, and I failed.”

“We’ll deal with your punishment at a later date.  Bonesaw is working on something.”

Cherish’s eyes widened.  “I knew she was… I read her emotions towards me… I knew she was thinking about something.  But hearing you say it out loud.  Oh god.”

“Rest assured, Cherie Vasil, you dropped out of reach of God a long, long time ago.” Jack smiled at her.

She turned away, looking over the scene, as if it could distract her from her thoughts and fears.

Crawler threw himself into the point where the crowd was thickest.  Bodies flew as he moved on his two rearmost legs and swept the other four claws and two tentacles through the ranks of the Merchants.  When everyone within his broad reach was dead or suffocating from the paralytic venom, he turned toward the wrecked aircraft and began advancing with a more measured pace.  Each of the hundred eyes along the length of his body blinked to clear away the blood and dust that had spattered him in his all-too-brief spree.

Jack watched as someone drew a gun and pointed it at Crawler, then reconsidered.  He turned it toward Bonesaw, and found himself face to face with Hack Job.  He was cut down a moment later.  Hack Job exploded in a puff of white dust, already having left to dispatch more gunmen that might harm Jack or his maker.

Another figure appeared next to Jack and Cherish.  Jack assumed it was Hack Job until he turned his head.

“Oh hoh,” Jack assessed the man.  “What happened here?”

Mannequin stood, headless, streaked in paint and dust that marred his white body with dark colors.  His right arm ended at the elbow, the remainder missing.

One by one, the other members of the Nine seemed to notice Mannequin’s appearance.  Shatterbird stepped back from the ruined husk of a massive suit of steaming armor and started flying their way, accompanied by a cloud of bloody glass shards.

Bonesaw turned away from her patient.  She spoke to the man, pushing him away.  She might have said something like ‘run’.

The man stumbled five or six steps before his body began to swell.  His right arm bloated up to three or four times the usual size, turning crimson, before it exploded violently, sending shards of bone and a spray of blood into the people nearest him.  He screamed, only for his cries to grow shorter and more frantic, as the rest of him reached that critical mass.  In another ten seconds, the remainder of his body detonated.

Bonesaw was already skipping over to the rest of their group, grinning wide, “Mannequin!  Aww!  Did the villain break you?  Poor baby.  Like a little girl with a ken doll.”

A blade sprung from Mannequin’s remaining hand.  Bonesaw tittered.

Behind the child tinker, those in the crowd who had been struck by the blood and flying bone of her first victim were starting to scream as their bodies swelled as well.

Jack frowned.  “Bonesaw.  You know my rule about epidemics.  You have to play fair with the rest of the group.”

“No epidemic!  I promise!”  She said, drawing a little ‘x’ over her heart, “Four or five cycles.  No more.  Each transition is going to have only about half the catalyst of the last, and eventually they’ll be able to fight it off.”

Shatterbird landed in their midst.  Behind her, a swell of orange light from Burnscar’s flames coincided with a peak in the crowd’s screams.  Mush’s titanic form of sand and debris had ignited, and he flailed madly.  Shatterbird ignored the chaos that her teammate was causing, studied Mannequin and then spoke in a voice that was dripping with judgement, “Mannequin failed.”

“It’s a shame you can’t see the disapproving look on Shatterbird’s face, Alan,” Jack commented, smiling.

Mannequin pointed the blade in his hand at Shatterbird, a threat and a warning.  Jack tensed, studying Shatterbird’s expression, waiting to see if this would start something.

“A loss is allowable,” Jack said, when the fight didn’t erupt.  “Most of us are more forgiving than Siberian, and allow a failure or two from our candidates during the rounds of testing, no?  It’s okay to let them win from time to time.  It gives them that spark of hope, so we can snatch it away and leave them all the more devastated.”

He looked at Shatterbird and she inclined her head in a barely perceptible nod.

“Which raises an interesting topic,” Jack said.  He spotted Siberian and indicated for her to approach.  Two corpses were stacked on her arm like meat on a kebab, and she cast them aside with a motion of her arm before approaching their circle.

Crawler was one of the two group members who had yet to rejoin the group.  He was engaged with a young man with a glow that suffused his hair and emanated from his eyes and mouth.  White flashes appeared with little accuracy and devastating effect, carving spherical chunks out of the brute.  This only encouraged the monster, and Crawler eagerly paced closer, his wounds closing together with a startling rapidity.  So few things could hurt Crawler these days that Jack rarely got to see the regeneration in full effect.  Crawler’s healing powers appeared to play out in fast-forward when compared to even the regenerators who could heal wounds in seconds.  Hundreds of pounds of flesh were replaced in one or two heartbeats.

One eruption of light hit Crawler in the dead center of his chest.  It made him pause, no doubt removing one of his hearts and some of his spinal cord.  The boy with the glowing hair pushed his power into overdrive, calling forth a series of flashes that exploded in close succession.  One caught Crawler in the face, revealing only a cross-section of his head, complete with a bisected brain, a skull six inches thick and the interior of Crawler’s mouth.  Crawler collapsed.

Siberian watched as the boy ran, then turned as if she intended to give chase.

“No,” Jack instructed.  “Let him go.  We need to leave some alive.”

He had other motivations, but he would remain quiet on that particular subject.

Crawler’s brain grew back to its full beach-ball size in one or two seconds, followed closely after by the healing of the skull, the reappearance of his facial muscles, then his skin, hair, spines, scale and armor plating, roughly in that order.  He shook his head like a dog with water in its ears and looked around, searching for his quarry.

“After, Crawler!”  Jack shouted, “You can fight him another time!  Group meeting!”

Crawler hesitated, then loped over to their gathered circle.  Burnscar lobbed a fireball high over their heads, and then dropped down from the airborne projectile to land in a crouch.

Somewhere in the background, there were the screams and explosions of the fourth or fifth cycle of Bonesaw’s work.  Of the crowd that had been gathered in the street, only stragglers remained.

“I wanted to give you all a chance to cut loose before we got down to business,” Jack said.  “It seems a teammate of two of our prospective members wants or wanted to strike a deal.  Cherish, do you happen to know if she is still alive?”

“Tattletale lives.  She’s very close to the buried girl right now.”

“Oh, you hear that, Crawler?  Your candidate and this Tattletale might be friends.”

“No,” Cherish said, avoiding eye contact with anyone in the group, “They barely know each other.”

“Too bad.” Jack shrugged, then he went on, “This Tattletale wants to play a game, leveling the playing field between us and the others.  If we cannot reduce our selection to a single candidate, we take the first to volunteer and we leave.  Our loss, and a hit to our collective reputation as a penalty.”

Why?  It’s a bad idea,” Cherish said, “She knew you’d want to do this, knew you’d set yourself up with a situation where you could fail.  Where we could fail.  There’s no reason to do it.”

Jack shook his head.  “Oh, but there is.  Limitations foster creativity.  Tell an artist to paint anything, and he may struggle, but tell him to create something specific, in a set amount of time, for a certain audience, and these constraints might well push him to produce something he might never have come up with on his own.  We grow and evolve by testing ourselves.  That’s my personal philosophy.”

“That’s not really a test,” Shatterbird spoke, “There hasn’t been a round of testing since I joined the group where we didn’t whittle it down to one candidate.”

“We could forego the final test, pitting them against one another.”

Shatterbird turned to him, “Ah.  But, again, the last test where we had to go that far was… mine?”

“True.  Would there be any complaints if we added another restriction?  Perhaps a time limit?  We take turns.  Three days each to carry out our tests.  A failure, such as the one that Mannequin evidently suffered tonight, and you’re penalized one day.  A successful test might add some hours to your deadline, while the removal of one candidate buys you an extra day.”

“That’s not very fair to the first few of us to go,” Bonesaw said.  “They’ll have to test more people in less time.”

“They also have an easier time removing candidates from the list.  More chances at a longer run.  In fact, just to be fair, we may have to adjust the time awarded for a successful test, so there’s less for the first few of us to have a turn.  Do you all trust me to decide on something fair?”

There were nods or noises of agreement from Bonesaw, Burnscar, Siberian and Shatterbird.

“Mannequin?”

Mannequin tapped one finger on the blade that still extended from the base of his hand, drawing forth a single ‘clink’.

“That’s five of you in agreement.  Crawler?”

The monster stretched, his musculature rippling.  When he spoke, his voice was a rumble of broken sounds that only barely resembled words, “No point.”

“Ah, you feel your only road to self-improvement is your power.  While I would love to return to this particular debate, I can agree to disagree so you all can get back to your fun.  Look at it this way.  Our usual method has our quarry running scared.  To even get them to fight, you have to corner them, which you are admittedly very good at doing.  Like this, however, they have reason to band together, to fend us off, and protect the candidates who decide to eschew our tests and face our reprisals instead.  More would fight you, and you’d have a higher chance of finding another individual who could harm you.”

Crawler tilted his head one way, then the other.  He rumbled, “Fine.”

“Which only leaves you, Cherish, our errant rookie.  You’re dejected because you know Bonesaw has a punishment in the works.  But you mustn’t lose heart.  You’ll still have a chance to redeem yourself, and maybe even escape reprisal for your juvenile stunt.  I think Mannequin should start us off, and he’ll be penalized one day from his time limit for his loss tonight.  And you’ll have to deal with the bug girl, to make up for this embarrassment.   Make her suffer.”

Mannequin tapped once on the blade.

“Cherish, you’ll go second.  Your last chance to impress us.”

Cherish nodded, as mute as her headless teammate.

“Good.  Two days, Mannequin, then three for our Cherish.  To be fair, we should have a rule that says you cannot take out a candidate until they fail your test.  So each prospective member must be informed about the test and what it requires, they must fail, and they must be eliminated or punished, until one remains.  For those of you who want to show how superior they are over their teammates…” he cast a sidelong glance at Shatterbird, “There are several paths to success.  Remove several candidates, conduct a full round of testing, see that your candidate succeeds above any of the others, or all of the above.”

“I like it,” Bonesaw said, “It sounds fun!  But what about Siberian?  How is she supposed to tell them the rules?”

“We’ll help her out on that front.  Same test as usual, Siberian?”

Siberian nodded.  She reached out to Bonesaw’s face and used her thumb to wipe away a  spatter of blood before licking the digit clean.

“In any case, we’ve hashed this out enough.  I’ll think it over tonight and have something proper to present to you and the capes of this city who will be our… opposition.  I can add some rules, to cover loopholes and keep this little event manageable.  Panacea, Armsmaster, Bitch, Regent, the buried girl and Hookwolf.  Burnscar didn’t nominate one, and I’ve already dispatched mine.  That’s six candidates, we need to remove five.  And when we’re done and we’ve established our superiority, we can kill this Tattletale, her friends, and everyone else, just to make our point.  Good?”

There were signs, nods and murmurs of agreement all around.

“Good.  Go.  Have fun.  Mop up the stragglers.  Don’t worry about leaving any alive.  They already know we’re here.  No more than five minutes before we leave.  We can’t have our grand battle with the locals so soon.”

His monsters returned to their carnage.  He watched them at their work and their play, noting all of the little things.  He knew all too well that Shatterbird pretended civility, but she got as restless as Siberian when things got quiet, and she would look up from whatever book she read every thirty, fifteen or ten seconds, as if waiting for something to happen, craving it.  Siberian would begin to look at her group members in a hungry way.  She didn’t need to eat, but she enjoyed the experience, wanted it the same way someone else might crave their morning coffee.  Stimulation.

Crawler, he knew, wouldn’t show any signs of boredom or restlessness.  When he lost patience with things, it was an explosive affair, almost unmanageable.

Keeping this group in line was a matter of balancing carrots against sticks.  A constant, delicate process.  Every member sought something from the others, however solitary they might strive to appear, carrots that Jack could use to keep them as part of the group and entice them to stay, to cooperate.  It was not easy: what served as a stick to one might easily be a carrot to another.

Shatterbird, who had deigned to observe for the moment, hovering over the scene, was an individual who craved validation.  She would be insulted to hear it spoken aloud, but she needed to be powerful in the eyes of others, civilian or teammate.  She could tolerate much, but an insult or a joke at her expense could push her over the edge.  As carrots went, a simple word of praise could satisfy her for a week, and an opportunity to shine could sate her for a month.  It was why he allowed her to ‘sing’ each time they arrived somewhere new, even as he found it repetitive and boring, brooking the same scenarios time after time.  Her stick was easy enough: the threat of physical harm, or the embarrassment of being made to lose control.  Were she to attack a member of the group, Siberian or Crawler would retaliate, and they would hurt or kill her.  It would be inevitable, unequivocal.  The idea of the shame she’d feel in that ignoble defeat held her back as much as anything.

Siberian watched as Bonesaw began excising and stitching together groups of muscle and collections of organs she and her mechanical spiders were harvesting from the fallen.  It was taking on a vaguely human shape.

Siberian was tricky.  He doubted anyone else in the group was even aware, but their most feral member harbored a fondness for Bonesaw.  Siberian had little imagination, and was perfectly comfortable rehashing the same violent and visceral scenarios time and again, but she nonetheless enjoyed Bonesaw’s work.  She saw a kind of beauty in it.  Even more than that, he sometimes wondered if Siberian didn’t reciprocate Bonesaw’s desire for family.  Bonesaw alternately referred to Siberian as an older sister or the family pet, but Siberian’s fondness for Bonesaw bordered on the maternal, like a mother bear for her cub.  Did anyone else in the group note how Siberian seemed to keep Bonesaw’s company, to assume she would accompany the young girl when she went out, and carefully kept Bonesaw in sight at all times?

Siberian’s stick was Bonesaw, the possibility of losing the girl’s company in one way, shape, or form.  Threats against the girl would be met with a fury like no other.  Boredom, similarly, would see Siberian stalking off on her own to amuse herself, a scenario that grounded the group until Siberian’s return hours or days later.  Such usually meant a hasty retreat as the heroes who had realized that they could not defeat Siberian came after the rest of the group.

Bonesaw wanted a family.  Her stick was disapproval, a revoking of any ‘love’ from those closest to her.  She was far younger, emotionally, than her outward appearance suggested.  She had bad dreams at night if she didn’t sleep in the embrace of one of her older teammates, usually Siberian.  When she didn’t sleep, or when her mood otherwise soured, she was as intolerable as any of the others, and among the most dangerous.

Crawler wanted to be stronger, and remained with the group because it put him in constant danger.  His other motivation was more subtle.  He was patiently awaiting the day Siberian might honestly and brutally attempt to take him apart.  The only stick Jack could wield was the possibility that the group might dissolve before that happened.  On the other side of the coin, the day Crawler decided there was no longer any threat that could evolve him further would be… troubling.  It was why Jack had ordered Siberian to let the boy with the glowing hair go.  Finding the lad again would give Crawler something to do, and it would give Crawler a taste for what Siberian had to offer.

Burnscar was more sensitive, in many respects.  She had to be managed, provoked or set up to use her power so she remained in a more dangerous mindset.  Too much one way, and she became depressed and scared, vulnerable.  Too much the other way, and she became reckless, potentially attacking him or one of the others and sparking disaster.

Mannequin had his mission.  Few things bothered him as much as seeing someone try to help others and succeed where he had catastrophically failed.  To keep Mannequin in line, Jack could remind Mannequin of who he had once been.  A simple casual utterance of the name ‘Alan’ served as effectively as a slap in the face to someone else.  He rarely needed such considerations; Mannequin was predictable, manageable.

And Cherish, who would not survive their stay in Brockton Bay… after a fashion.  Hope was her carrot, but she had only sticks waiting for her.  He met her eyes and knew she knew what he was thinking.  She was all too aware an ugly fate awaited her, but didn’t know what it was.  The fear helped curb her.  Still, he would have to watch his back.

Carrots and sticks.  A game of constant balance.  A thousand factors.  Even now, he was taking notes on their candidates, deciding what would work and what wouldn’t.

Armsmaster and Regent were abrasive enough that they would likely prick Shatterbird’s pride.  Bitch would be a risk at first, but he trusted his ability to manage her and stop any fights from erupting.

Siberian would become jealous of any growing relationship between Panacea and Bonesaw.

The buried girl was only a candidate because Crawler hoped she was strong enough to fight him.  Either she would fail to hurt him and he would grow tired of her, or she would succeed and he would have no reason to stay in the group.

That left him two candidates who might work.  He doubted either Hookwolf or Bitch had what it took to stay in the group long-term.  They would soon be replaced, killed by an enemy or a member of the group, but they would not upset his carefully staged balance while they remained members.

He could manipulate the outcome of this little contest, see that one of the two lasted to the end.  It would be hard, requiring the best he could employ in subtlety and head games.

The wind blew flame-heated air at his back, thick with the smell of smoke and the sweet tang of blood.

He smiled.  These challenges, after all, served as his own carrot.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11g (Anniversary Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

A teenager with a red streak dyed into her dark hair strode down the street in rubber boots.  Three hours past curfew, alone.

She drew a smartphone from the pocket of her jacket, then set to untangling the earbuds.  How did the damned things always get so knotted together?  They were like Christmas lights.  Not that she’d ever untangled Christmas lights, but she’d heard how Christmas lights got tangled.

Popping the foam-covered buds into her ears, she began thumbing through the music as she walked.

J’adore-

Sweet Honey-

Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…
Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…

Her head nodded in time with the beat, and she slipped the phone into her pocket.

She supposed she could have bought something to coil up the cord of the earbuds, or replaced the music playlist instead of deleting everything that didn’t appeal.  It wasn’t like she didn’t have money.  It was an option.  What stopped her was the fact that she had a pattern going.  Everything she owned and everything she used day-to-day was stolen.  The shirt on her back, her shoes, the music, her laptop.  She kind of wanted to see how far she could get before she caved and actually bought something.

Love me, you?
Love me, true?

Her boots splashed as she danced a little circle, murmuring the words.  The light drizzle had wet her hair, and she pushed it back out of her face, stretched her arms out and let the raindrops fall against her closed eyelids.

It wasn’t as though she was in a rush.

She’d walked long enough for six songs to start and finish before someone stopped her.

“Miss.  Miss!”  He was barely audible over her music.

She turned and saw a man in military gear, forty-something, his face heavily lined.  He wasn’t wearing a helmet, he had a short buzz cut, a bit of scruff on his cheeks and chin, and his face was beaded with droplets of water.  She pulled out her earbuds.

Crazed, kooky, cracked, crazy, 
Nutty, barmy, mad for me…

The crooning sounded artificial coming from the earbuds that dangled from her hand, nasal.

“What’s up?”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m excellent.”

“There’s a curfew during the state of emergency.  I don’t want to scare you too badly, miss, but there’re rape gangs, murderers and human traffickers on the street.  All people who would prey on a pretty young woman.”

“You think I’m pretty?” She smiled, stepping closer.

“I have a daughter about your age,” he replied, smiling tightly.

“That doesn’t answer my question.  Do you think I’m pretty?”  She stepped even closer, ran her finger down his chest.

“Yes, but-” he paused, gripping both sides of her jacket.  He pulled the jacket together, then did up her zipper all the way to the top, around the heavy box that dangled around her neck.  “That’s all the more reason for you to be careful, understand?  Do you have a home or a shelter you’re staying at?”

She didn’t reply.  Her brows knit together and she undid her jacket and stepped away from him.

He went on, “I can give you directions to the nearest shelter if you want. It’s new, just a little ways up Lord street here.  There may be space.”

“I’m staying with some people.”

“Do you need directions?”

She didn’t reply.  She studied him instead.

“If you’re willing to wait, I can give you a ride when I’m done here.  I’ll get relieved in five or ten minutes, but we could talk in the meantime.  You can sit in my jeep, and you’ll be dry.”

She hesitated.  “Fine.”

The man led her back to his jeep.  She sat in the passenger seat while he stood outside, his eyes on the surroundings, occasionally exchanging words with the person or people on the other end of his walkie-talkie.

After a few minutes, he climbed into the driver’s seat.  “The men who were supposed to take over the watch are late.  Something about fires downtown.”

She nodded.

Crazed, kooky, cracked, crazy,
Mental, dotty, whacked, loopy…

“Do you mind turning off your music?”

“I like it,” she said.  “I hate silence.”

“Well, I’m not about to deny someone their coping mechanisms.  Where do you live, or where did you live, before the attack?”

“Out of town.”

He raised one eyebrow, but he kept looking out the windows for possible trouble.  He put the key in the ignition and started the car so he could use the windshield wipers.  “Sounds like there’s a story there.  People don’t just come into town at a time like this, and if you were just visiting, you would have evacuated already.”

“Oh, we’re visiting because it’s a time like this,” she smiled.

“Thrill seeking?” his voice hardened.  “That’s not only stupid, it’s disrespectful.”

“The people I’m staying with?  They’re the Slaughterhouse Nine.  I’m one of them.”

“That’s not funny.”  His voice went hard, any gentleness gone.

“It’s really not,” she agreed with a smile.

He went for his gun, but he didn’t get that far.  She closed her eyes for a moment, listened for the music that came from his mind and body.  The jangling, dissonant noise of alarm, the throbbing percussion of mortal fear, every part of his body shifting into fight or flight mode.  The underlying notes spoke to his personality.  His love of his family, his fear that he was about to leave them behind, anger towards her, a momentary anxiety that he was overreacting.  She grasped this in the fraction of a second.

Reaching for that mortal fear, she wrenched it.  When that wasn’t quite enough, she pulled at it and twisted it until everything else was squeezed into the far edges.

He screamed, throwing himself as far away from her as he could get, his weapon falling between the seats.

Crazed, kooky, cracked, crazy,
Nutty, screwy, mentally diseased…

She twisted other parts of his emotional makeup until he was compliant, adrift in apathy, obedient.  “Stay.”

He stopped retreating.  He was still breathing hard from his momentary panic, but that would pass.

She leaned towards him and ran her hand along the top of his head.  It was like rubbing a toothbrush, spraying minuscule bits of water onto the wheel and dashboard.

“Good.”

He stared at her.  There was fear in the look, and she didn’t have the heart to erase all of it.  A little was good.

“I want to drive.  Switch seats with me.”

He nodded dumbly and climbed out of the jeep.  She made her way over to the driver’s seat, then waited for him to climb in before she peeled out.

The jeep cut through the shallow water that covered the roads.  Others had noticed her leaving, she knew, and were following in their own vehicle.  She could sense them, each a  fingerprint of emotions in deeply individual configurations.  The mix of personal pride and confidence that she sensed in them suggested they were military.  The soldiers that had been taking over for this guy?

Not much time to do it.  She searched through the feelings of her passenger, found the networks of brotherly love, trust, camaraderie, and adjusted each until the music was one of tension, suspicion, paranoia.  Then she set his fight or flight reflexes into high gear.

“Get the gun.”

He fished for it between the seats, picked it up.

Then he pointed the gun at her.

“No, stop,” she said.  Too unspecific.  Fuck.  Still need to work on that.  She hit him with as much doubt and indecision as she could manage to keep him from shooting her.  Then she stalled all of the ‘music’ that flowed to and from that one point in the very front of his brain.  She knew the music was her way of understanding and interpreting the biological processes that drove people’s emotions.  By listening for it, she knew what they felt, knew what the emotions were tied to, vaguely.

There would only be one thing in his short-term memory that was that important right now.  Her.  With that link severed, he would now feel nothing towards her, couldn’t summon up any self-preservation, anger or hatred.  Another tweak, redirecting the flow of emotion from his family to her, and he would feel an extreme aversion to the idea of shooting her, wouldn’t be able to shoot her any more than he could his own daughter.

He pulled the gun away, dropped it into his lap.  He crumpled over, his hands to his head, then moaned, “No.”

She was close to her destination.  She pulled the jeep to a stop and hopped out, the other jeep pulling up just a ten or so yards away.  Two soldiers got out.

“Hey!” someone shouted at her.

She turned her back to them, slipping her ear buds in.  The music had looped back to the first track.  She got her phone out and skipped forward a few times, pausing to delete one song.  She sang along, “Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…”

“Hey!”

She could sense her passenger climbing out of the jeep, hear the garbled murmurs of warning, questions.  There was a burst of fear from all three, then the sound of multiple guns firing.  She smiled.  The authorities would have a hell of a time figuring out what happened there.

She’d had her doubts about coming to Brockton Bay.  It had been a turn off to know that areas lacked power, that still more areas lacked working plumbing.  But Burnscar and Bonesaw had both been excited to come, and Jack Slash had bent to Bonesaw’s wishes, pushing for the group to come this way.  Crawler, Mannequin and Siberian had seemed fairly indifferent.  Not that Crawler or Mannequin showed much emotion.  She’d thought she had an ally in Shatterbird, at least, but the woman hated her, and the uptight bitch had gone along with the plans to visit Brockton Bay just to ruin her day.

But it was interesting, she had to admit.  The landscape of people here was so different.  So many people here were so insecure, so worried.  Most were on the brink of some kind of emotional breakdown, needing just one event, one piece of bad news before they broke down completely.  Others had already been broken, or they’d turned vicious and started preying on their fellows, seeking out vengeance on those who had wronged them in a past life.  In their pre-Endbringer life.

People here were so deliciously fucked up.

This kind of situation, ordinary citizens were doing things they’d never even have considered before.  Stealing, hurting their neighbors, bartering things they once considered precious for clothing, food, toilet paper and other essentials.  Emotions were raw, far closer to the surface, easier to manipulate.

Her music cut off.  She checked the phone.  An alert on the screen notified her that the battery was dying.

She swore.  No more time to waste.  She dialed a number, but didn’t hold the phone up to her ear.  Good.  Now she had fifteen minutes.

She reached out and started feeling for the outliers.  The emotional fingerprints that stood out from the rest.

The other seven members of the Nine were out there.  Not hard to find.  One or two were interacting with some other outliers.  The most fucked up people in this fucked up city.  She’d studied each of these unknown outliers over the course of a week, watching their emotions shift as they went out about their lives, sometimes visiting the areas they tended to hang around, to get a sense of their environments.  Slowly, she’d pieced them together, created profiles, discerned which ones had powers and described them to the other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Each had made their picks:

The buried girl.  The arrogant geek.  The dog lover.  The daydreamer.  The warlord.  The scaredy cat.  The broken assassin.  The crusader.

And all she wanted was a few minutes to pay a visit to hers.  She didn’t have to name that one.  He was familiar enough.  She smiled.

Two men sat on the steps outside the building.  She knew immediately that they were soldiers, but they weren’t official.  They wore black, and they wore body armor that she hadn’t seen before.

“No,” she stopped them from reaching from their guns with a mixture of doubt, apathy and anxiety.  Complementing her words with a heavy surge of depression, guilt and self loathing, she ordered them, “Kill yourselves.”

It wasn’t immediate, but their willpower wasn’t enough to stave off some of the strongest and most agonizing emotions they would have felt in their lives.  It was quick when their composure cracked, the guns flying to mouth and temple to fire.

She could sense the others inside the building, alarmed at the gunshots, moving toward the front.  Four more soldiers and four others who stayed back.  Not soldiers.

She didn’t wait for them to step outside.  She did the same thing she’d done to the guards stationed outside, crushing them with despair, overwhelming them with loathing and paranoia.  It was only slightly faster than it had been here.  Here, there had been an enemy for the soldiers to focus their negative energies on, to distract them.  It was surprising how important that could be.

Nearly a minute passed before the fourth gunshot sounded, marking the death of the last soldier here.

She tried the front door and stepped inside.  The inside was nicer than the outside, watertight, heavily reinforced.  A feminine looking teenaged boy with a mop of dark curls stood at the other side of the building.  He had two men and a woman guarding him.

“Jean-paul.  Ça va?

“It’s Alec now.  Regent in costume.”

“Alec,” she smiled.  “Still sounds French.  I approve, little brother.”

“Cherie,” he ran his fingers through his hair. “What the fuck?”

“If we’re changing our names, I’m going by Cherish.  I wanted to make an entrance.”

“Man.”

“You’ll find others.”

“Fuck,” he sighed.

She reached for the three people who stood between her and her brother, manipulated their emotions towards Alec.  Filled them with suspicion, paranoia, hate.

They didn’t budge.

“Cut it out, Cherie,” Alec said, “I’m controlling them.”

“If I remember right, you lose control if they’re hit by enough emotion,” she smiled.  She turned up the intensity.

“If I’m farther away.  Seriously, stop.  It’s irritating.”

One of the men fell to his knees.  His hands were clenched at his sides.  Beads of sweat rolled down the faces of the other two, tears appearing in their eyes.

“While I’m doing this, you can’t tell them to attack me.”

“Unless I’ve gotten stronger over the past few years,” Alec answered.  The man who was still standing reached for a knife and started walking towards Cherish.

She hit the knife wielder with fear and indecision, saw him stop.

For nearly a minute, they engaged in a tug of war over the three subjects.

“Seems we have a stalemate,” she said, finally.

“Did the dirty old man send you?” Alec asked.

She shook her head, “Daddy?  I went my own way.  After a bit.”

“How’s he doing?”

“Unfocused.  For the longest time, I thought he was building up to something.  Lots of kids, ensuring they had powers.  Thought he’d try to topple the other gangs and become ruler of organized crime in Montreal.”

“But?”

“But it didn’t happen.  Time passed, he never made a push for it.  Guillaume got his power, you know.  Ten or so of us kids, and three of us could control people one way or another.  Four if we count you.  We had what we needed to pull off something huge, and Daddy decided he wanted a celebrity among his girls.  Took us on a road trip to a film set in Vancouver, kidnapped this star, took her back to Montreal.  So petty.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised.”

“Heroes came after us, from both Vancouver and Montreal.  Half of what we had built and earned as the Vasil family just kind of got trampled in the fighting that spilled out from that.  All because Daddy wanted to bone someone famous.  I got fed up, left.”

“So you’re on your own.  And he didn’t send the others after you?”  Alec moved one of his subject’s legs so she would fall to the ground rather than point her gun at the man standing next to her.

“He did.  Guillaume and Nicholas.  Guillaume just has to touch someone and he can sense everything they do for a good while.  Nicholas just wallops you with pants-shitting waves of terror.  Literally thousands of eyes and ears looking for me, can’t fight when they do get close to me.”

“Right,” he said.

“Anyways, it got old real fast, them constantly finding me, constantly making me pack up and run somewhere else. Besides, the freedom to do what I wanted and go where I wished kind of lost its appeal when the boredom set in.  I would’ve done it even if my big brothers weren’t coming for me, but I joined the Nine.”

She looked at the multitude of small changes that crossed Alec’s expression and smiled.

“Well,” Alec said, after processing her statement, “That was dumb.”

“It’s exciting.  I decided I needed to earn a place on the team, both to scare our brothers away and to add some spice to my routine.  Took out Hatchet Face to do it.”

“I got the info on him a day or so ago, after I heard the Slaughterhouse Nine were in town.  Isn’t he immune to powers?  That’s pretty much what he does.  Super strong, enhanced toughness, big… and your powers just stop working when he gets close.  Or they go haywire.”

“He is immune to powers, but he didn’t get close.  See, difference between me and Daddy is that I have range.  I can use my power even if I can’t see the person I’m using it on.  Through walls, from the building next door.  Hatchet didn’t get close enough to me to turn off my power.  He tried, but it works both ways.  I was prepped to run any time my power stopped working, because it told me he’d found my trail or guessed where I was.”

“Ah.  I sort of remember that bit about your power.  The part that sticks in my head is that you don’t have long-term benefits.  It wears off, and your targets build immunity pretty quickly.”

Cherie shrugged.

“I’m not the best when it comes to strategy, but I’m thinking… I’m going to win here. Eventually.  You can’t run without me getting control over my people and sending them after you, you can’t use them to attack me, and if you stay, I can try doing this.”

Her arm jerked involuntarily.

“Remember me practicing my power on you when it was new?”

“I remember, little brother,” she frowned, looking at her arm.  “Daddy had us all practice on each other.”

“Well, I still remember how to hijack your body, pretty much.  Info that’s stored away in whatever corner of my brain makes my power work.  I’m thinking I could get control over you pretty fast if I tried.”

“Fuck,” she said.  “I think we’d both be happier if you didn’t.”

“Oh?  You going to tell me the Nine will come after me if I don’t let you go?”

She shook her head, then used one hand to brush the hair away from her face.  “No.  This.”

She reached inside her jacket, and Alec made her hand seize up, the fingers striving to bend the opposite way.

“It’s cool,” she said.  She winced with pain, then used her splayed hand to work a metal case the length of her forearm out into plain view.  It dangled from a thick cord that stretched around her neck.  “See this?”

“Yep.”

“It’s a bomb.  Very simple.  A block of explosives rigged to a timer.  Any time I call the right number, the timer will reset.  I did make the mistake of letting my phone battery die, but I figure I’ve still got a couple of minutes.  If you keep me here for any longer than that, I go kablooie.”

“Is that a threat?  Sounds like a win for me.”

“You’ll probably get blown up as well.  Or maimed,” she smiled.

“I could walk away.”

“And lose control over your minions as you get further away?  Please do.  I can make the call when you’re gone.”

His emotions were so muted.  Dim.  How much of that was Jean-Paul or Alec’s personality, and how much was his natural immunity, built up over years of exposure to Daddy?  She couldn’t get a sense of what he was feeling, which was disappointing.

However faint his feelings were, she could sense the slightest change.  A chime of attention.  He didn’t look at any of the puppets that he was struggling to control, but she could sense his attention flicker to the woman.  A thrum of confidence.

They both dashed towards the woman at the same moment.  In their hurry to get to her, they collided, falling to the ground as a trio.

The woman wasn’t in any shape to fight, but Alec did strike Cherie across the head, fairly ineffectually.  She retaliated by kicking him, then grabbed his wrist as he tried to draw the weapon he had in his pocket.  It was a gold-painted stick topped with a crown.  She couldn’t see why he wanted it, but he did and so she wasn’t about to let him have it for just that reason.

He changed tactics, rolling over to drive one shoulder into Cherie.  With his free hand he tried to reach for the gun holster worn by the woman.  That had been what caught his attention, gave him that surge of confidence.  Cherie fought with him, pulling him away, and then got one leg under him to roll him away.  She pinned him, holding his wrists to the floor.

“Got you, little brother.  You still suck at fighting.”

He stared up at her, panting for breath and looking half-bored at the same time.  He used his power, and she let go of his left hand to strike him across the face.  He stopped.

She smiled, “Thought you should know that things got pretty shitty at home after you left.  Daddy got really overprotective, angry.  It sucked.  Sucked worse when we couldn’t find you.”

“Sorry,” he said, in what she judged as the least convincing tone he could manage.

“My payback?  I’ve nominated you for the Nine.”

“Not interested.”

“Doesn’t matter.  You get nominated, you’re tested no matter what you want… and a few of the Nine don’t want to have two Vasils on the same team.  Shatterbird hates my guts, for some reason.  Crawler doesn’t respect me.  Jack thinks it would be boring.  So what I’m thinking is that this test?  The initiation?  It’s going to be a little harder for you.  They won’t be testing you to see if you’re mean enough, bloodthirsty enough, creative enough.  They’re just going to try to kill you.”

“Fuck,” Alec said, his eyes widening.

“Have fun with that,” she smiled, standing.  She had to leap back to avoid being stabbed with the gold-painted stick as she released his wrist.  “Now we’re even.”

“Fuck you.  That’s not even at all!  I leave home, so you arrange to have me killed by some of the scariest fuckers on this side of Earth?”

“Yep,” she smiled, smug.  It was good to see she could provoke him, get a response out of him.  Was that because she’d done it well, or had he gotten more emotional as of late?

He ran his fingers through his hair.  “Lunatic.”

“What I find really interesting is that you’ve got some connections.  A girlfriend, maybe?  No.  Nothing romantic.  You have friends?  A team?”

He stayed silent.

“Come after me, I go after them.  You may be immune, but they aren’t.”

“Fine.”

“And remember, I can always tell Daddy where you are.  He’s pissed you left.  Pissed left, but he’s too scared to come after me.  Not with the Nine having my back.”

“They don’t have your back, Cherie.”

She shrugged.  “Close enough.”

“No.  They’re going to kill you someday.  Probably sooner than later, when you’re no longer useful and they want the thrill of the hunt again.  You’ve probably seen what they can do.  Fates worse than death.  Just don’t ask for my help when you realize it’s happening.”

“Whatever.”

“You just screwed me over, Cherie.  Don’t know why you did it, but I think you did a pretty fucking good job of it.  You trying to be like Jack?  Trying to act like them, pretend you have a place there?  Rest assured, you screwed yourself ten times as bad as you screwed me.”

She scoffed at that.

“You’re way out of your depth.  As good as you think you are, they’re better.”

She smiled and shook her head, “We’ll see.  I’m gonna leave now.  You’re going to let me.  Cool?”

He sighed.  “Can’t really stop you or you’ll fuck with my team, right?”

“Right.  But first…”  She bent down and searched the woman who was sweating, panting, and twitching with the combination of Cherie’s emotional assault and Alec’s physical control.  She found the gun, and then found a cell phone.  She dialed the number to reset the timer on the bomb she wore.

She felt a touch relieved as the call went through.  That could have been a pretty lethal mistake on her part.  She’d have to break her rule and buy a cell phone charger.

“Bye, baby brother.”

“Go die horribly, sis.”

She smirked and turned to leave, putting a touch of extra sway into her walk as she made her way out the door.

She had this.  A few weeks, one or two months at the most, she could be one of the most dangerous people in the world, barring the obvious exceptions like the Endbringers.

What Alec didn’t know was that her power did have long-term effects.  Subtle, but they were there.  Emotions were like drugs.  People formed dependencies and tendencies.  If she hit someone with a minute amount of dopamine every time they saw her, it would condition them until she didn’t even need to use her power to do it.

Just a little while longer, she told herself, and I’ll have the Nine wrapped around my little finger.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11e (Anniversary Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop!” he ordered.

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

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

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

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

The bald man approached.

“Menja.”

Menja stepped through the gathered recruits to stand beside Bradley.

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

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

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

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

Bradley looked to his left, sizing up Menja.

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

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

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

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

“Enough,” Hookwolf said.

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

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

Bradley nodded and stood at attention.

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

She looked surprised to be picked, but she nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you people want?” he asked.

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

“Arrogant.”

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

“You here to make trouble?”

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

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

“I’m fine where I am.”

“This isn’t a request.”

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

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

“Not that interesting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perhaps.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not interested.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it you want?”

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

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

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

“Fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’d need help from elsewhere.

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