Snare 13.8

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“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.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 12

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“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

Plague 12.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“This is not an exit.  Kudos for the reference,” Tattletale said.

“I try,” Jack replied.  He didn’t say anything more, looking us over.  I felt a chill as his eyes stopped on me before moving on to Regent and the Travelers.

Shit, shit, shit, shit.  What options did we have?  Running?  Siberian was bound to be faster than the dogs, and none of them were big.  We’d be dead before Bitch got them to grow.  That was even without considering Jack’s ability to cut us down from where he stood.

Fight?  Again, Siberian was the biggest problem.  She could take all of us on and win.  I suspected the only people who could really go toe to toe with her would be Scion, Eidolon and the Endbringers, and even then, I wasn’t sure if they would really be able to stop her.  At best, Scion and Eidolon would survive and keep her from killing any civilians.  The Endbringers would hold their own, but civilians obviously wouldn’t be a concern.

Could we escape under a cover of my bugs and Grue’s darkness?  I didn’t think Siberian would be able to see us, and if we surprised them, ran back the way we came-

“What’s this?” Cherish asked, cutting off my train of thought. “Someone thinks she’s had a clever idea.  A bit of hope and inspiration there.”

“Who?” Jack asked.

“When I looked at her with my power, before, I called her the Worm.  She spent some time being as low on the food chain as you can get while still being able to move under her own power.  As low as someone can get while still having an identity of their own.  But she’s realized she’s poisonous, dangerous in her own unique way.  She’s useful, like a silkworm we harvest or an earthworm who works our gardens.  She’s even realized she’s not alone, so long as she looks for friends among other dirty… contemptible creatures.  Speaking of which, I forgot to say hi, little brother.”

“Fuck you, Cherie.”

Cherish smiled and stared at me, “The little worm found a nugget of self-worth, she just doesn’t want to look too closely at what that nugget is made of.  If she’s lucky, she’s one of the worms without eyes.  They might be keenly aware of their environment, but they’re happier blind.”

“Poetic,” Jack said.  “I take it Skitter is this clever worm?”

“Yup.”

“Skitter.” Jack looked at me.  “You do anything and Siberian attacks.  I’ll attack as well.  Whatever it is you’re thinking of trying, I’m betting the two of us can cut you down before it works.”

I swallowed, then took a small breath to clear my throat and ensure I wouldn’t stammer or come out sounding even slightly unclear.  “Alright.”

Bad plan anyways.  If we did try to escape under the cover of darkness, Siberian would probably reach us and cut at least some of us down before we got anywhere, even attacking indiscriminately.

“The same goes for the rest of you, but I’m sure you know that.  One or two of you could kill me right now, I’m sure, but you’d die horribly for your trouble, and I doubt any of you are that suicidal.”

Did he know about the role he was going to play in the end of the world?  It might change his stance and self-assuredness.

Jack looked at Cherish and she gave him a small nod.  He turned a winning smile towards us.  “How are our potential recruits doing?”

Recruits?  Plural?  Was he including Noelle?  No.  He would know she wasn’t anywhere near here, thanks to Cherish.

Bonesaw piped up, “I wanted to say hi and meet the people who might be joining the family.  Jack said that if I’m ready, I can tell you what my test is.  Except I haven’t decided.”

“Oh?” Jack looked at her, “I didn’t know you had any ideas yet.”

“I haven’t decided,” she told him, sounding annoyed at having to repeat herself.  “The test might be about challenging them, but I’m challenging myself too.  I don’t want to be boring, so I’m making myself come up with something original each time.”

“How admirable,” Jack said.

“And it has to be fair.  What I have in mind isn’t fair, and I’m worried it’s too similar to the test I gave Burnscar.  I need this to be fair.”

“Why does it have to be fair?” Cherish asked, “Unfair world, unfair test.”

“Because I like them both!  What better way to add to our family than to have two real siblings on the team?  They would fight all the time but they’d really love each other deep down.”

“Ha,” Regent made it more of a word than an actual laugh, “You really don’t know the Vasil family, munchkin.”

“And the dog girl!  I love dogs!  I’ve seen the pictures of them and they’re beautiful.”

I felt a chill.  All at once, Bitch’s presence behind me felt ominous.  She’d been picked by the Nine, and even when asked, she hadn’t said a thing about it.  Why?  And who had picked her?  The members of the Nine we hadn’t been able to nail down candidates for were Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian.

Siberian, I saw, was staring at Bitch.  When I turned to look at Bitch out of the corner of my eye, I saw her staring right back at Siberian, unflinching, holding the sleeping puppy in her arms.

“If I don’t make it fair then it’s like I’m picking one over the other and I don’t want to do that,” Bonesaw said.

“You’re a smart girl.  You’ll work it out.”  Jack turned to our group, where we waited in tense silence.  “A lot going on tonight.  All these meetings, and we didn’t get an invitation.  Almost enough to hurt our feelings.”

“Can you blame us?” Tattletale gave him a shrug.  “We were talking about how to kill you guys.”

I wasn’t the only member of our group to look at her in horror.

Jack laughed.  A little too hard for whatever it was he’d found funny about her statement.  “Of course, I already knew you were plotting against us, and you knew I knew.”

“Sure.”

“Here is what you need to know, Regent, Bitch.  Each of the Nine’s members get to put our recruits up to a test.  Some of us always give the same test, time after time, no matter the candidate.  Mannequin always asks candidates to alter themselves in a way that costs them something.  Siberian waits until half the candidates have been discarded and then hunts the remainder.”

“I hope she doesn’t catch you,” Bonesaw sounded disturbingly earnest as she spoke, “There’s no meat left for me to work with after she’s done.”

“As for me,” Jack said, “I tend to go last, when all the others have offered their tests and only one or two are left.  I like to mix things up, and unlike our dear Bonesaw, I have no interest in playing fair.”

“And if we fail?” Regent asked, “We die?”

“No, no,” Jack smiled.  “Nobody passes every test, and the punishment for failing a test is up to the individual who assigned it.  Sometimes death, yes.  Sometimes something different.  But it’s always worse.”

“What did my sister do for her tests?” Regent asked.

“Hey!” Bonesaw raised her voice, stabbing a finger in his direction, “No cheating!”

Bonesaw wasn’t the only one he’d irritated.  Cherish glared at him.

“Not cheating,” Regent said.  “Call it idle curiosity.  My sister got me in this mess, I figure it would be nice to hear what she had to go through.  You don’t even have to spoil the answers, I can agree not to copy anything she did.”

Jack laughed, “Ah, adding to the challenge?  Fair.  She killed Hatchet Face.  Crawler took that as his test completed in advance, didn’t think of her as worth his time.  Little Bonesaw, for her test, designed a parasite that would stay in her system for forty-eight hours and strip her of her powers for as long as it remained.”

“Because it’s not fair that Hatchet Face didn’t get to give his test.  And I wanted to break her out of her rut, so I made it so the parasite’s effects would be permanent if she didn’t drink lots of blood.”

“Of course,” Jack tapped the heel of his hand against his forehead, “That was an interesting little twist.  Of course, you didn’t tell her how much she needed to drink, or if a certain species counted…  Well.  It broke her stride, didn’t it?  Siberian went after her, starting on day two of Bonesaw’s parasitic infection.  Three days and three nights of cat and mouse.  To her credit, she did very well.  It came down to a hair.  Another ten minutes and Siberian might have caught her a third time.”

A dark look passed over Cherish’s face.

“Shatterbird likes the psychological tests, and she was in a hell of a mood after Cherish nominated herself for the team.  Our Cherie didn’t have five minutes to rest before Shatterbird drove her into a room and sealed her in.  No food, no light, barely any water.  The room was empty, but for one glass shard.  Always edging towards her, ready to prick, cut, slice and stab the second she stopped, the moment she tried to rest.”

I shivered.  Jack hadn’t said how long that lasted, but after three days and three nights without sleep, even a few hours like that would have been nightmarish.

There was a clue there, too.  Credit to Regent for getting Jack to let it slip. Shatterbird had more offensive range than Cherish, if she was able to trap the girl and use the shard without getting affected in retaliation.  It wasn’t much, but it was a tidbit of information, a piece for the puzzle.

“Burnscar’s test, she failed.  Afraid I’m not spoiling that one.  Doesn’t have the same impact if you know it’s coming.  That left only two tests for her to pass.  Go on.  Show them.”

Cherish glared at Jack.

“Show them,” he said.  There weren’t any hints of a threat or any anger in his tone, but she obeyed anyways.  She turned her back to us, grabbed the bottom of her shirt and pulled it off.

“Mannequin demands that a candidate changes themselves, and that it be hard.  Having just faced the punishment Burnscar gave for failing her test, Cherish wasn’t about to pay his.”

The tattoo stretched from beneath the waist of her low-rise jeans and up the length of her back.  The centerpiece was a large festering heart, done as realistically as any tattoo I’d ever seen.  It was all in shades of green, covered with ulcers, sores, patches of rot and live maggots.  The surrounding tattoos gave the appearance of torn skin revealing the bone and organs beneath, rats and roaches lurking behind ribs and atop her kidneys.  Framing the entire thing were words, not done in any elaborate script, but in scrawled letters that looked like they’d been carved into a surface with knives: epithets and invectives.

“She told the artists to make it so ugly she’d want to kill them.  If she didn’t, she promised to kill their loved ones and then kill them.  Took six artists in total.  Inspired.”

Cherish looked over one tattooed shoulder to fix Jack with a stare.  It was then that I noticed two things.  The first became clear as her skin stretched.  There was depth to the tattoos that you didn’t get with a two-dimensional image.  Her skin had been scarred and flensed to raise edges and give the images and words a permanence that simple ink wouldn’t have.

The second thing I noticed was her eyes.  It was like a light had gone out inside her, just standing there with that tattoo exposed.

“That was the hard one for you, wasn’t it?” Jack smiled.  “Even as tired, scared, hurt and desperate as you were after the other five tests, it was when you willingly defaced that young, unblemished body of yours that a little something inside of you broke, and you began thinking of yourself as one of us.  Liminality.”

“What was your test, Jack?” Regent asked.  I couldn’t tell if he was glad to know his sister suffered or sad for her.

“Oh, I knew it would be almost impossible to top Mannequin’s test.  He caught her at the exact right moment, struck the right nerve, and pushed her to her very limits.  Still, I think I managed to top it.  Turn around, Cherish.”

Like an automaton, she did.  More tattoos and scars covered her chest, just as expansive, just as unpleasant to look at.  Two nude women, their entwined limbs like the broken legs of a squashed bug, neither attractive in the slightest.  One was emaciated, the other morbidly obese, and both were old.  More tattoos of rotting and torn flesh framed the scene, and the words forming the border of the tattoos on the front were the opposite of the others, almost worse in their irony and desperation: ‘Take Me’.  ‘Please Desire Me’.  ‘Want Me’, and more vulgar variations of the same.

“I made her do the other six tests all over again.”

“I even brought back Hatchet Face for Crawler’s test again!” Bonesaw grinned.  “No surprise attack that time.  That was one of the three tests she failed in round two, I was so proud of him!”

Seeing Cherish’s shoulders draw together, her expression darken as memories came to mind, the ugly tattoos that guaranteed she would never be able to leave this behind and get a completely fresh start, never have a boy look at her body and just be hungry for her… I had to look away.  I knew she was the worst sort of person, I just didn’t know how much of that came before the tests.

“Well, sis,” Regent said, “I thought you were running headlong into a fate worse than death.  I stand corrected.  You’re already there, and you did it to yourself.”

She pulled on her shirt and snarled, “This is the part where I’d threaten to kill you, except they are going to do it so much better than I ever could.”

“Can’t do it yourself?” Tattletale cut in.  “Why do you have to rely on them?”

Cherish’s eyes narrowed.  “You’re trying something.  I feel smugness from you, too much confidence for where you’re standing.”

Jack smiled and caught the hairs of his beard between his thumb and index finger.  “Oh?  I’m still interested to hear your answer to her question.”

“Fuck that.  You’re getting predictable, old man.  You want to keep things amusing for yourself, you know you’re as smart as anyone else in the room, so you take the hard road so it won’t be too easy.  Why not have Siberian eat her?  Can’t you imagine the looks on her friend’s faces when they can’t do a thing to save her?  I bet it’d light a fire under their asses, rev them up for the tests.  Maybe they’ll even throw themselves headlong into it, to spare the rest.”

“Now who’s trying something?” Tattletale asked.  “She’s trying to manipulate you.”

Jack frowned and yanked out the hairs of his beard he was holding.  He flicked them away, “I know she’s trying to manipulate me.”

“Okay, except I just noticed something else, as I finished that last sentence.  Do you know she’s playing a long con?  She’s setting you guys up, using her power to pull your strings and make you attached to her.  Half a year to a year, she’ll probably have you wrapped around her little finger,” a slow smile spread across Tattletale’s face.

I could see Cherish’s expression change from anger and irritation to wide-eyed horror.

Jack pinched the bridge of his nose, looking down, and I could just barely hear him mutter the word, “Disappointing.”

“It was probably her plan from the start,” Tattletale said.  “She-”

All at once, Tattletale stopped talking, and I was blind.  In that same instant, something slapped against the fabric of my mask.  Wet.  I could taste it against the fabric of my mask.  Salty-sweet, with a faint metallic taste.

“You fucking bastard!” Grue shouted, his voice distorted by his power.

Blood.

I hurried to wipe it from the lens of my mask.  Everything I saw was obscured by the streaks that remained, almost black in the light.

Tattletale lay on the ground a little in front of me, both Regent and Sundancer crouched at her side.  So much blood, covering her face and Regent and Sundancer’s hands.

Jack toyed with the knife in his hands, while Siberian stood between him and the rest of our group, her eyes primarily on Ballistic.

Jack paced back and forth, two or three steps at a time, gesticulating with his knife.  “I was looking forward to Cherish’s attempt.  Bonesaw and I even had a plan in mind.  I wanted to see what she did, how she worked around Siberian’s immunity to her power… then the safeguards Bonesaw implanted in us would have kicked in and released us from her thrall, and oh, the look on her face.  To have seen that would have been so very worth all the trouble.  And that girl just spoiled it all.”

“You know,” Cherish said, shell-shocked.

“Clearly.”

“But my power – I didn’t sense anything as far as your planning, your emotional networking or-”

I dropped onto my knees so fast it hurt, and immediately began trying to help Tattletale, and Regent gave me the space, allowing me to take over.  Jack had cut her from her mouth to the edge of her jaw.  It had parted the skin at the corner of her mouth.  I must’ve been directly in the line of fire for the resulting blood spray.  How was I supposed to put pressure on a wound like this?

Jack was getting heated, talking mostly to himself.  “That was the whole point!  To see how long we could go without tipping her off.  Bonesaw helped with some surgery, even some artificial neural connections that Cherish wouldn’t be able to see.  So much work and preparation ruined.”

“I-” Cherish started, then stopped before she could finish the sentence.  Trying again, she asked, “What are you going to do with me?”

“Not a pressing concern,” Jack said, as if realizing she was there.

My power crackled at the edge of my consciousness.  I had to suppress it, before I gave them another excuse to attack us.  The majority of my attention was on Tattletale, on Lisa. I used my fingers to scrape as much of the blood out of her mouth and throat as possible, then adjusted the angle of her head so any further blood would flow down the side of her face or out of her mouth.

The fabric of my gloves afforded more traction than fingertips would have, but the amount of blood made everything slick to the point that I couldn’t be sure of what I was holding.  I had one hand inside her mouth, her teeth hard against my knuckles, my other hand pressing down from above to sandwich it and press everything as closed as I could get it.  She roused herself enough to pull away, no doubt because I was pulling the tear at the corner of her mouth open.

“Hold her head, Regent, don’t let her pull away.  And cloth,” I said, my voice small, “Need some kind of cloth to absorb the blood.”

First aid classes hadn’t prepared me for this.

There was a tearing sound, and regent handed me a strip of cloth.  I fumbled to put it into place at the corner of her mouth, where the bleeding was worse, then applied the rest along the cut.  The white cloth turned totally crimson in a second.

“More,” I said, keeping my voice quiet so it wouldn’t carry to the members of the Nine that were standing nearby.

“I wouldn’t bother,” Jack said.  “A wound like that, she’ll die of blood loss before you can do anything.”

“You asshole,” Grue growled.

“You really shouldn’t swear!” Bonesaw said.  “It’s crude!  If you agree to be good, maybe I could fix her for you.  Oh, and since her cheek’s already cut, I could change it around so her teeth are on the outside and she wouldn’t have all that skin and flesh just getting in the way.  And, and, I could make it really artistic and beautiful, and change her tongue so she can make all of the speech sounds you’d normally need lips to make, like puh, buh, muh, wah, vuh…”

Regent handed me more cloth, and I wadded it into place.  Tattletale wasn’t really moving, and I couldn’t be sure if it was because of the amount of blood she had already lost or just because it hurt too much.

I saw a flicker of light as Jack flicked his knife out, tossed it into the air and then caught the blade tip between his middle finger and the nail of his index finger.  He snapped it around so he gripped the handle.  “I suppose I should get around to the purpose of our meeting you here, Regent and Bitch.  Unless you want to pose your test to them, Bonesaw?”

“No.  Let me think about it for a little while.”

“Alright.  Well, it wouldn’t do if our candidates died before we even got around to the tests, so I came to offer you two a warning.  Two warnings, as it happens, for each of you.”

Why couldn’t he stop talking so we could take Tattletale somewhere where she could get the help she needed?  My hands were already cramping from trying to maintain pressure and the awkward angle that resulted from  the way I had her head tilted.

“Two of the candidates we chose are heroes, for lack of a better word, and Cherish reported that we may have trouble bringing them in close enough to introduce them to the tests.  Our dear Bonesaw has devised an incentive to encourage their cooperation.”

Bonesaw reached into her pocket and withdrew a small vial.

I felt Tattletale tense and looked down.  She was staring at the vial.

“Biological warfare?” Grue asked.

“Naturally.”

“What does it do?”

“Just in case all of our candidates fail to play along, I would strongly advise you to stick to bottled water.  No filtered water, no rainwater, none of that.  Not unless you’re feeling brave.  Just to be on the safe side, avoid getting your injuries wet as well.”

“And the second warning?” I asked.  I wanted him to finish.

“In…” Jack pulled out a pocket watch on a chain. “T-minus thirty-four minutes, Shatterbird is going to sing loud enough for much of the city to hear her.  She wants to make it known to everyone in Brockton Bay that we’re here, and since there’s no need to maintain surprise with our potential members, I said she should.  With this in mind, you would be well advised to stay away from anything made of glass or any beaches, and be sure to put away anything in your pockets with a screen.”

Dad.  The people in my territory.  I had to warn them, but…

I looked down at Tattletale and felt paralyzed.

“That’s the meat and bones of it,” Jack smiled, “It was nice to meet you two.”

I felt Tattletale move.  Her hand was fumbling at her belt.  Was she going for the gun in the largest pouch?  No.  A pouch near there, just as long, but thinner.

“Sundancer,” I hissed, “Help her.”

Sundancer did.  There were pens in the pouch.

“Help her find the paper,” I said.  Jack and his team had wrapped up and were walking away.

It was a notepad barely larger than a pad of post-its.  Tattletale took the pen that Sundancer held for her, clasping it in a closed fist.  She scrawled out one word.  ‘Deal’.

Then she looked up at me, her eyes wide.

“No,” I whispered.  “We have to get you help, and I have to go warn-”

She stabbed at me with the pen and clenched her teeth against the back of my hand, which must have caused her incredible pain.  I wasn’t sure if it was her pain and mine, but Cherish turned and gestured for Jack, who was already walking way, to stop.

“A deal,” I called out, “I don’t-”

Sundancer had ripped off the first sheet, and Tattletale was writing the next message.

I swallowed, “She wants to know what happens if… if more than one person is left at the end.”

“We pit them against one another,” Jack said.

The next word- I could barely make it out.  ‘Game’.

“She, um.  I think she wants to play a game?”

Tattletale gave me a single, slow blink of confirmation.  She was writing more.

“A game?” Jack asked.

I couldn’t make sense of it.  ‘If there more half left at end.’

“One second.”  I said.  Sundancer ripped off another sheet.  This was excruciatingly slow, trying to parse her shorthand and follow her line of thought.  “Tests.  If there’s more than half of the candidates left at the end of the tests, we win.  You leave with volunteer?  You could leave with whoever wants to join.  But you leave.”

“You expect that half of the candidates could pass the tests?  I’m intrigued.  I don’t think it’s possible, but I’m intrigued.”

“Brockton Bay has its share of badasses, Jack,” I said, my voice hard with repressed outrage.

“I don’t see what we get out of it.”

Tattletale had dropped the pen.  It was up to me to pick up the slack.

“It’s a challenge.  A game.  Changing the routine.  We can do whatever we need to, to keep as many candidates alive as we can.  You guys… do what you do.  It keeps things interesting.”  My eyes fell on Bonesaw, “And maybe it keeps things fair?”

Seconds passed.  I felt the tension ratcheting up another notch with each beat of my heart.  Every moment that passed was one step closer to Tattletale bleeding out or to Shatterbird using her power.

“I like that.  It might be a way to fix the test I want to give.  Let’s do it,” Bonesaw said, looking up at Jack.

He frowned.  “We’ll discuss it as a group.  I suspect we’ll have terms of our own to attach to this game.  Among other things, a steep penalty for when we win.”

And then he turned to leave.

I looked down at Tattletale.  Her eyes were closed.  My hands felt like two blocks of stone where I had them pressed to her injury; rigid, heavy, unable to move.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, barely audible to myself.  I looked up at Grue and said, louder, “I don’t know what to do.”

He didn’t have an answer for me, but he bent down to check on Tattletale.

It was Tattletale who gave me my orders.

“Guh,” she coughed out the word.  As Grue gently pulled my hands away to take over, she repeated, only slightly clearer, “Goh.”

Go.

I stood, wobbling slightly as I backed away from her.  She looked so fragile, lying on her side, blood pooling beneath her head, around her dirty blond hair.  And I was leaving her there.

“We can call Coil,” Ballistic said.  “He can send a car to get you where you need to be.”

I shook my head.  I couldn’t wait and trust that a car would arrive in time, or that it would get me where I needed to be.  There would be detours, areas a car couldn’t pass through.

I turned and I started running.  Out of the parking garage, past Cherish, Bonesaw and Jack.  They didn’t say anything, and they didn’t try to stop me.

I was a block away from them when I got my cell phone out and dialed home, but I already knew the response I would get.  The automated message came from the phone as I held it in one hand, heading directly north.

This phone number is currently out of service.  If you would like to leave a message…

Judging distances wasn’t a great strength of mine.  How many blocks, how far did I have to run to reach my dad?  Five miles? Six?  I was a practiced runner, but the streets here weren’t all in the best shape.  Some were flooded, others strewn with debris, still more suffering in both departments.  There were areas that were blocked off.

And I had less than thirty minutes.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Fuck!” Grue swore the second his boat hit land.

“Let me guess,” Regent remarked to Bitch, “He’s been swearing since we left.”

Bitch nodded.

The Travelers had already arrived.  They stood in a huddle by the water while Genesis disintegrated into several vague floating body parts.

“Coil just bent us over and fucked us,” Grue said.

“I dunno,” Tattletale answered.  “That might have been the only way for him to play things, with the way his power and operations work.”

“That would do a hell of a lot more to ease my concerns if I had any idea what his power was.”

Tattletale only offered an apologetic half-smile and a shrug to that.

I tried to help her out.  “Look, we do know that Coil is smart, he’s proud, and he’s at his best when he’s managing his enterprise.  Being cooped up, he’d be hit hard in all three areas.  Limited tools to work with, limited access to his people, and he’d be less powerful in a way that everyone would be aware of.”

“That doesn’t excuse how thoroughly he just screwed us, without even trying to help us out.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think he’s completely screwed us over.  We know Coil’s got at least one undercover agent, Trainwreck-“

Tattletale interrupted to say, “He’s got a whole lot more than one.”

“Thought he might.  Doesn’t it make sense that he’d assist us by being one himself?  I get the impression he likes the control it affords him and the amount of information he can get this way.”

“Maybe,” Grue conceded.

“We should focus on where we go from here,” I said.

“Agreed,” Trickster called out.

Genesis had finished disappearing, and Trickster was walking over to our group, followed by Sundancer and Ballistic.  He extended a hand for Grue to shake, then turned to Tattletale, me, Regent and Bitch to do the same.  Bitch didn’t take his hand, turning away to focus on her dogs instead.  Trickster took the snub in stride.  “If nothing else, I’m glad we get a chance to talk.  Unless things get a lot worse from here, I’m hoping we’ll all be working side by side for a little while.”

“Let’s hope,” Grue agreed.

Trickster said, “We just sent Genesis back in a more discreet form to listen in.”

“Imp is staying behind as well,” Tattletale informed him, “So we’ve got redundancy there.”

“Christ,” Grue snapped his head from one side to the next, as if he could spot his sister that way.  With a note of alarm in his voice, he asked, “Imp’s still there?”

“She’s okay,” Tattletale reassured him, “They won’t notice her.”

“They could.  We don’t know how consistently her power works, or if it works in a group that large, and we can’t be sure we know every power the people there have, if anyone has some extra senses that might bypass her ability.  Fuck!  This is the exact type of situation I wanted to keep her away from.  The whole reason I let her join this group was to keep her close enough that I could rein in this sort of recklessness.”

“She’s a bit of a rebel, but she’s not stupid,” Tattletale said, “Trust her to hold her own.”

“I wouldn’t trust myself to hold my own in her shoes,” Grue told her.  “Christ.  Skitter, can you send a few bugs over that way, tell me if she’s in one piece?”

I nodded, while Trickster slapped his forehead.

“The bugs,” he said, “I could have told Genesis to stick around while you scouted, wait, no.  Why send Imp if you have the bugs?”

“I can’t see or hear through the swarm, really.  Not well enough to listen in.”

“You did once,” Tattletale told me.

That surprised me.  “When?”

“After the fight with Bakuda.  You were doped up, hurt, you had a concussion, but you were able to tell us the kind of music someone was listening to, and he was way out of earshot.”

“Seriously?  And you didn’t tell me this?”

Grue shook his head.  “Just speaking for myself, I had a lot on my mind, between you and the others being in rough shape and the ABB setting off bombs across the city.  I completely forgot until just now.  Sorry.”

Tattletale nodded.

“That’s huge,” I said, “Do you know how much I could use something like that?”

“Why can’t you now?” Trickster asked.

“Bugs sense things so differently, my brain can’t translate what they see and hear into something I can process.  It’s all black and white blotches, high-pitched squeals and bass throbs.”  I paused.  “Imp’s perfectly fine, by the way.  At least, I can’t find her, but nobody’s reacting like they found a spy in their midst.”

Grue sighed, “Okay.”

“So this sensory part of your power, you stopped trying?” Tattletale asked.

The way she phrased that nettled me.  “In the three months between my getting my powers and first going out in costume, I saw zero improvement in that department.  None, zilch.  When I did start going out in costume, I was worried the useless sights and sounds might distract me at some crucial juncture.  Between that and the fact that it was like hitting my head against a metaphorical brick wall…”

“You gave up,” Regent said.  He was trying to get on my nerves, I knew it.

“I stopped trying.  But now that I know it’s somehow possible, I dunno.  I can start looking for a way.”

The degree to which it would expand my capabilities, it was tempting.  That kind of expansion of my sensory abilities could be a matter of life and death at some point.  I could theoretically listen in on most of the people in my territory.  Would I want to, though?  The invasiveness of that kind of creeped me out, and I had a pretty high creepiness tolerance.

“It might be like your range boosts.  Tied to your mental state,” Tattletale said.

“Except my range boosts are probably linked to me feeling trapped, and I somehow doubt I felt that way when I was doped up and waking up in that hospital bed or ambulance or wherever.”

“It’s something you can work through,” she said.  “And now that you know to look for it, you should push yourself to use that part of your power so you can see when it’s stronger or weaker.”

I nodded, and willed myself to tear down all the mental barriers and safeguards that walled my brain off from the sights and sounds the bugs wanted to send my way.

It was every bit as grating and annoying as I recalled.  This would take some getting used to.

“Listen,” Trickster said.  “Ballistic’s HQ is close by.  Since my group is going to be waiting for Genesis, and you guys will want to hang around and pick up Imp when she’s done, maybe you want to come by and we can discuss strategy in the meantime?”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Grue said.  “Thanks.”

Ballistic gestured toward a nearby street and we all started walking in that direction.

Grue started us off.  “Number one, we know that they were here to recruit.  Who were they recruiting?”

“Me,” Regent said.  That drew a few looks of surprise from the Travelers.  He elaborated, “My sister is their newest member, replaced Hatchet Face.  She did it to fuck with me more than out of a genuine desire to have me join.”

“Armsmaster is another,” I pointed out.  “According to Miss Militia, Mannequin wanted him.”

“The, uh, sixth member of the Travelers is the next recruit, I guess,” Trickster admitted.  “Crawler hit Coil’s place.”

“Sixth?” I asked.  “If there’s four of you, then-“

“We have two group members who don’t see any combat.  They spend most or all of their time at Coil’s headquarters.  I understand if that raises a lot of questions, but I –we– would really appreciate it if you guys could leave it at that for now.  I’m thinking we’ll introduce you to the others soon.”

“I’m okay with dropping it so long as you’re not withholding anything crucial,” Grue said.  “I’m happy to stay on topic as much as possible anyways.”

Trickster tipped his hat.  “Appreciated.  Looked like Hookwolf got hit.  His entire group did.  Shatterbird?”

“Yeah,” Tattletale replied.  “Can confirm that one.”

“Shatterbird, Crawler, Mannequin and…” I trailed off, looking at Regent for help in placing the name.

“Cherish.”

“If the condition of Faultline’s crew was any indication,” Tattletale said, “We can make an educated guess that Burnscar paid them a visit.  Thing is, I can’t even begin to guess who she visited.  Spitfire’s too nice, and none of the others really have the, I dunno, edge?”

“In any case, that leaves the people who Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw nominated.  Any ideas?”

I glanced across our groups.  Nobody moved to reply.

“Maybe they’re not done?” Sundancer spoke up, “Or maybe some of them aren’t picking new members?”

Maybe they’re not done,” Tattletale spoke, “But I think they are.  From what I’ve read on them, and from what my power is giving me, I have the distinct impression they all would have made some kind of move by now.  They either hit all at once, shock and awe, or they draw it out.  This is the former.”

“But are they all picking new members?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “No clue.  We know of four, at least.”

Ballistic led us into a parking garage.  We walked between rows of cars that had been pummelled by the floodwater.  Panels had been dented, windows shattered, and some of the cars had been lifted and pushed into one another.

Sundancer formed a tiny ‘sun’ and held it up for light, while Regent turned on the flashlight he’d brought.  We descended into the bowels of the garage, and stopped at the ramp between the second level down and the third.  It had collapsed, and both rubble and two or three cars sat in the water that flooded the floor below.

“This way,” Ballistic said.  He grabbed a length of pipe that stuck out where the ramp had collapsed and climbed down.  Trickster gestured and we moved to follow.

Clever, clever.  Out of sight from any vantage point on the level above, short walls had been set around the fallen ramp.  They ensured that the flooding and the wreckage were all contained to one area to sell the illusion, and kept everything else on the lowest level of the basement dry.  Cars had been removed, clearing the area for use as an underground base.

Ballistic pulled off his mask and tossed it onto the bed that sat in one corner.  He cleared a few dirty dishes from the table in the middle of the area and invited us to sit while he fetched some extra seats.

He had a bit of a heavy brow and a snub nose, and his short brown hair, damp with sweat, made me think of the jocks that always seemed to gravitate towards Sophia.  Still, he wasn’t a bad looking guy.  If a guy like him had asked me out in some alternate universe where Emma had never stopped being my friend and I’d never been bullied?  Just going by his looks, I might have said yes.

Trickster unmasked as well.  He definitely didn’t remind me of one of the jocks.  His hair was longer than many girls wore theirs, he had light brown skin and an unfortunate hook nose.  Combined with his intense stare, he gave me the impression of a hawk or some other bird of prey.

Grue, Tattletale and Regent all unmasked as well while they got themselves seated.  Trickster offered each of them a cigarette, then offered one to me.  I turned him down, as did the others.

“So what are we discussing here?” Sundancer asked from behind me.  I turned and saw a rather attractive blonde girl with a long neck and delicate features.  Her hair was expertly pinned up behind her head.  “I was under the impression that the Slaughterhouse Nine were pretty much unbeatable.”

“No,” Brian said.  “Some of them, maybe, but others are as vulnerable as you or me.  Thing is, Dinah told us that our odds against these bastards aren’t good.  Our chances of winning are pretty low, and it’s pretty damn likely we’ll get killed if we confront them head on.”

“So we don’t confront them head on,” Trickster said.

Feeling conspicuous as the only one with a mask on, I pulled mine off.  It took me a second to adjust to the blue tint that everything had after I’d spent over an hour looking through the pale yellow lenses of my mask.  I realized Trickster was setting up a laptop.  He placed it at one corner of the table, facing the rest of us.

“Oliver?”

“I’m here, Trickster,” a male voice came from the computer.

“Feel like patching in Noelle?”

“Sure.  She’s in an okay mood.  A little drowsy.  I’ll be right back.”

Trickster pressed a button on the keyboard and then turned to us, “Tattletale.  I’ll be as quick as I can.  Coil promised he’d get you to help us, but he’s taken his time introducing you to our group.  The cynic in me suspects there’s a reason, and the pessimist in me says that reason is that he’s already figured out what you’re going to tell us, and it isn’t going to be pretty.”

“Okay.”  Tattletale was all business.

“Noelle’s going to ask you for help.  Lie to her.  Tell her you’re already on it.  Roll with it if she gets angry, or if she gets impatient.  She’s sensitive.  I don’t know how your power works, really, but if you realize whatever it is that Coil doesn’t want us to know, don’t tell Noelle.”

“She’s the one Crawler visited?” I asked.

Trickster nodded once.

“Hello?’  A girl’s voice came from the computer.  Trickster hit a key, which I assumed was to take himself off mute.  He hit another combination of keys and a webcam feed snapped up to cover the screen.

Noelle had long brown hair and she wore a red sweatshirt.  She looked like someone who was ill.  She was horribly pale, she had dark circles under her sunken eyes, and her lips were chapped.  I was reminded of drug addicts in an early stage of addiction, where they were deteriorating because the drugs took a higher priority than taking care of themselves.  Was Coil drugging her too?

”Noelle, “ Trickster said, “You’ve asked to be included more.  I thought you’d be okay with this?”

She nodded.

“Left to right, we have Grue, Regent, Skitter, Bitch and Tattletale.”

There wasn’t a flicker of a smile or any interest on her face until she heard that last name.  “Tattletale?”

“Noelle,” Tattletale spoke, “It’s nice to finally meet you.  Listen, I’m working on your situation.  Coil’s filled me in on the basics and I’m chasing down some leads, but something’s come up with the Slaughterhouse Nine, and everything’s on hold until we can be sure they won’t try to kill us in the meantime.”

I could see Trickster tense.  Was Noelle so high strung or desperate that she’d throw a tantrum over being asked to wait?

“Coil was telling the truth,” Noelle said, in a small voice, “You can help?”

“Honestly?  I don’t know.  But I’m a fucking genius when it comes to getting answers, and Coil’s got all the resources in the world.  If there’s help to be had, we’ll give it to you.”

“How soon before you know?”

“No idea.  I don’t think it’ll be as fast as you want, but it’s doable, and it won’t take so long that you should give up.”

“Okay.”

“In the meantime,” Trickster cut in, giving Tattletale a thumbs-up gesture from a position outside of the laptop’s  field of view, “We need our old field commander’s brain on the Slaughterhouse Nine sitch.”

“A distraction would be nice,” Noelle smiled for the first time.

Field commander.  She used to be the leader of their group?  I wondered if I could dig up any information about her if I hunted far enough back.

I could see Brian fidget under the table.  He wasn’t liking the constant distractions from the subject at hand.

“Eight enemies,” Trickster said.  “Now, I’m not a serious player of the game, I’m sorry to any of you Undersiders who are irritated by the way I’m about to butcher it, but the way I see it, their leader is like the king in chess.  More raw power than a pawn, but in the end, he’s simultaneously the second weakest piece in the game and the one everything hinges on.  We take him down without getting massacred in the process, I think we win.”

“Jack Slash,” Noelle said.

“Right.  Siberian’s like the queen.  She’s fast, mobile, one of the strongest physically, and the bitch of the matter is, she can’t be taken off the board, and she can’t be contained.  A special queen, if you will.  Physically she’s an unstoppable force and an immovable object any time she wants to be.”

To my right, Bitch picked up the puppy and settled it in her lap.  It curled up and nestled against the cupped circle of her arms and hands.

“Then there’s Crawler, who visited us the other night.  Maybe not as fast or agile as Siberian, and he can be contained, but he can’t be taken off the board.  A special rook.”

“I’m wondering how far you can stretch this chess analogy, Trickster,” Ballistic commented.

Trickster ignored him.  “Shatterbird and Burnscar are like bishops.  They’ve got mobility, reach, and they can bury you damn fast if you don’t have the right kind of cover.”

“What about Mannequin?  Another rook?”  I asked.

“I’d peg him a knight.  He’s more close range, but he’ll catch you from an oblique angle, maybe slip past whatever defences you think you have.”

“Which leaves Cherish and Bonesaw,” Grue said.  “We’ll have to trust Regent to give us the details on Cherish.”

Regent nodded and tapped his finger against his chin, “My sister.  I don’t know if you could call her a third bishop or a knight.  Long range on her power, gets stronger as she gets closer.  Affects your emotions and as far as I’m aware, there’s no way to defend against it or to take cover.  If she decides she wants to hurt you or make you hurt yourself, she can find you and she’ll make it happen.”

“But she has no special defences,” Grue cut in.  “She’s vulnerable to pretty much any knife, gun or power we can hit her with.”

“Can we gang up on her?” Sundancer asked.

“She can affect multiple people at once,” Regent said.  “So it’s not that easy.”

“That means we have to beat her at her own game,” Trickster mused, “Track her, beat her in long-range warfare.”

“I could use puppets to go after her,” Regent said, “But she can paralyze them with the kind of uncontrolled physical reactions I can’t cover with my power.  I am immune to her, for all the good that does.”

“How far does her offensive range extend?” I asked.

“No clue.  I’d guess she can sense emotions across the entire city, which is how she’s finding people, but in terms of attack? I don’t have any basis to make a guess.  Farther than my dad, Heartbreaker, but not city-wide, no.”

“The ability to track us by our emotions is a good enough reason to take her out of action ASAP,” Trickster said.  “So long as she’s active, it’ll be that much harder to catch the others off guard.”

“Maybe…” I started, then I hesitated.  Feeling the pressure of everyone’s attention on me, I said, “…Maybe my power will outrange hers?  Not in terms of what we see and sense, but in terms of who can do more damage from further away?”

“It’s a thought,” Grue agreed, “Risky, but we don’t have many options.  Trickster, where does Bonesaw fit into your analogy?”

Trickster shook his head, “She doesn’t.  She’s relatively weak in terms of raw power, but her presence on the field threatens to change the rules.  She’s a medical tinker.  The medical tinker.  So long as she’s in play, we can’t be certain of our enemy’s attack power, we can’t know that any enemy we clear from the field will stay gone, and there could be harsh penalties if they catch or kill one of us.  It sucks to think about, but if Bonesaw got her hands on, say, Sundancer, I’d be a hell of a lot more worried than if Hookwolf or Skidmark did.”

Sundancer muttered something to Ballistic, but I couldn’t make it out.

“What about our side?” Noelle asked.

“Lots of playing pieces, not all cooperating, and we have one debatable advantage,” Trickster said, “We know in advance, pretty much for a fact, that if any of us, Undersider or Traveler, try to fight these bastards, we’re going to lose, and we’ll lose hard.”

“Tattletale say that?” Noelle asked.

“Coil did,” Trickster answered.

Odd.  So Noelle was staying with Coil, but she didn’t know about Dinah?  Another secret or white lie from her team?

“I can’t help but think of the Desecrated Monk scenario,” Noelle said.  I saw Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic all nodding.  When I turned to my team, they looked as confused as I was.  Was this Desecrated Monk someone the Travelers had gone up against at some point before they came to Brockton Bay?

“Go on,” Trickster encouraged her.

“The rules are unfair.  Half of our opponents are pretty blatantly cheating.  But we have to deal with them anyways.  So either we cheat back-“

“Which we can’t.”

“Or you guys handle it the way we did it before.  You don’t fight the way they want to fight.”

“Okay,” Trickster nodded, “So the first question we ask ourselves is how they want to play this.  What do they want?  In terms a five-year-old could understand.”

“They want their ninth member,” I said.

“Right.”

“They want to hurt, scare and kill people,” Tattletale put in her two cents.

“Why?”

“Reputation, entertainment,” Tattletale said, “These guys are monsters, and pretty much anyone who watches T.V., surfs the web, or reads the papers knows it.”

I saw it out of the corner of my eye.  Noelle’s expression shifted all at once from being animated and engaged to the same look she’d worn when the webcam feed first went live.  Disinterested, hurt, hopeless.

She’d been scouted.  Unlike Regent, it hadn’t been to mess with her.  It had been because a freak like Crawler legitimately thought she was one of them.

If Tattletale was sitting next to me, I would have kicked her under the table.

Noelle suddenly perked up, saying, “They want to hunt.  They’re predators.”

“Okay, how can we use that?” Trickster leaned forward to look at the screen.

“They want to be the predators, we make them prey,” Noelle said.  She was looking more animated again.

“Not sure that’s possible, but keep going.”

“It’s not possible because, um.  You described them like they’re chess pieces, and we’re thinking in terms of a chess game.  What if we changed the game?”

“I always preferred Go,” Trickster said, “But Go is about territory, give and take, less about aggression than an educational sparring match between two master swordsmen, each walking away with a new kernel of knowledge.  Go applies more to taking over the city than it does to this scenario.”

“Shogi?” Noelle suggested.

Shogi.  I got her meaning almost immediately, and I wasn’t alone. Tattletale, the Travelers and I all looked at Regent.

Regent, Bitch and Grue, for their parts, were left looking bewildered.

“Maybe you should clarify?” Grue suggested.

“Shogi is an Eastern variant of chess,” I said, “Some of the pieces move a little differently, though I can’t remember how.  But the big difference is that there’s a rule that says you can take any of the opponent’s pieces you’ve captured and place them on the board as your own.”

“More or less right,” Trickster said.

“So the question becomes,” Grue thought aloud, “Who can we beat in an indirect confrontation, capture and control?”

“Jack, Bonesaw-“ I said.

Grue shook his head.  “They know they’re vulnerable.  Either they’ll be watching their backs or the others will watch their backs for them.”

Regent said, “Siberian is out, and while we might theoretically be able to catch and contain Crawler or Mannequin, I dunno if we could keep them still long enough for me to use my power on them.  If I can.  Their bodies are different.”

I counted the enemies off on one hand, “Leaving Cherish-“

Regent shook his head, “She knows me, has measures in place.”

“Burnscar and Shatterbird,” I finished.

“The bishops,” Trickster said.

“Easier said than done,” Grue sighed.

Noelle’s face disappeared from the webcam, and a blond boy popped up in its place.  Oliver?  “Trickster, Genesis is waking up.  She’s done whatever you had her doing.”

“Long stint,” Trickster replied, “She’ll be groggy.”

“That means Imp is probably done too,” Grue spoke.

“She’ll need a ride back,” I finished his thought.

“Should leave her there for a bit as punishment for staying behind,” Grue grumbled.  Still, he stood and pulled on his helmet.  “But it’s not worth the grief she’ll give me.”

“Softie.” Tattletale grinned.

“Are you coming back?” Trickster asked.

“How long will it be before Genesis is able to brief us on the meeting?”

“Fifteen, twenty minutes?”

“Then we’ll be back to finish the strategy session,” Grue responded.

Trickster turned to his teammates, “Mind giving Noelle and me a minute to talk?”  Sundancer and Ballistic stood.

Joined by the two Travelers, we made our way up the disguised ladder to the second sub-level of the parking garage.  As one of the last to head up, I saw the adorable sight of Bitch managing the sleeping puppy, tucking it against her body with one arm so she could scale the ladder one-handed.

As she reached the top, I could hear Sundancer cooing, “It’s so cute.  Is it a he or a she?”

“He.”

“What’s his name?”

“Bastard.”

“I’m guessing you named him?” Regent asked, as I reached the top and stepped down onto solid ground.  I missed Bitch’s response.  Had she nodded?

“I was surprised you brought him tonight,” Grue said, being remarkably delicate about the fact that Bitch had undercut any presence our group had by bringing the cute ball of fluff.  It would have been better if he’d brought it up earlier, but he might have felt the same way I did about provoking Bitch before a major event, when she’d been so short tempered lately.

Bitch’s response was surprisingly verbose.  “Had to.  For the first year and a half, he’s going to be like a dog.  Need to train him as much as I can, get him used to me.  It’ll be too hard if I wait.”

Like a dog?” I asked.  In the corner of my eye, I could see Tattletale’s expression change as she looked at the dog, clearly realizing something.  As fast as I could turn her way to try and piece together what that was, something else got her attention.

“Shit,” she breathed.  She clutched at my arm with one hand and at Bitch’s with the other, stepping back to pull us with her.  Bitch pulled her arm from Tattletale’s grip, looking angry at the invasion of personal space.

“Oh fuck,” I muttered, as I saw through the darkness to spot what Tattletale’s power had noticed first.

Four of the Slaughterhouse Nine were stepping through the entrance of the parking garage.  The Siberian was in the lead, her waist-length hair blowing in the wind from outside, her eyes practically glowing in the gloom.  Behind her, Jack Slash held Bonesaw’s hand as the young girl skipped to make it so she only walked on the yellow lines that divided the lanes.  They were accompanied by a young woman who might’ve been eighteen or so years old, who bore a striking resemblance to Alec.  Cherish.  None of them wore costumes.  The Siberian didn’t wear anything.  She was as nude as the day she’d been born, her skin patterned with stripes of alabaster white and jet black.

Jack Slash noticed us, and his his eyes drifted around the arch that led from the parking garage to the wet outdoors.  He smiled, “This is not an exit.”

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 11a

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

A howl tore through the air.  It wasn’t the howl one would expect from a dog.  It was ragged, with a guttural undertone that hinted at the size of the one doing the howling.

Before the howl had even finished, more took up the cry in answer.  A second howl, then a third.  More joining in, all at once.  Seven or eight.

Bentley raised his head and joined them, his tail wagging on his undersized hindquarters, almost prancing on the spot in his excitement.  Water splashed around paws as wide around as bike tires as he landed, spraying Bitch.

His enthusiasm was infectious.  She bared her teeth in a wide grin, then whooped, adding her voice to the cacophony.  She hopped up his side, gripping ridges of hard muscle and bony growths so she could throw one leg over his other shoulder.  A spike of bone scratched her upper thigh, beneath her skirt, but she didn’t care.  It was nothing.

“Go, Bentley!” She urged him.  He surged forward like an arrow loosed from a bow.

She could feel the heat of his body underneath her, the rippling movements of his muscles as he ran.  She could smell him, like dog breath and the coppery tang of blood, that faint sweet smell of meat on the verge of going bad.  She could smell herself, her body odor.  She hadn’t washed in two days, but she liked her own smell.  She liked that her belongings and her place all smelled like her.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t take care of herself.  She would, just like she took care of her dogs.  Just as she groomed each of them twice a week or more, she would tend to herself.  But what did some scruff on her legs matter when she was treading down flooded streets or caked in mud up to her knees half the time anyways?  What did some body odor mean, if she didn’t even like the people who were around to be offended by it?

Barker, Biter and the others would be at the locations she had assigned them.  She had given them the most menial of tasks.  Grooming the dogs, feeding the dogs, picking up shit, checking the dogs for sores, cuts, ear infections and ticks like she’d showed them.  She had a good number of dogs in her care, now.  Most had been taken from kennels that hadn’t been in a state to help the animals since Leviathan attacked.  She was eagerly anticipating the moment someone complained.

Barker or Biter would be the ones to whine about the task first.  They had powers.  They had expected to be in charge, to be her lieutenants.  The looks on their faces when she’d given them their tasks had made her day.  Nothing like putting someone in their place.

If they didn’t complain by the time they were through checking and taking care of all of her dogs, maybe they would start when the next batch arrived from the shelters, and they were told they had to do all of those dogs on top of starting afresh with all the ones they had done before.

The moment someone did complain?  Or if they let one tick, one rash or one ear infection slip?  She could make an example of them.  Humiliate them, scare them, insult them.  If she did it well enough, they’d leave.

If she did it really well, they would all leave.

Then she could be alone for a while, alone with her dogs.  Nobody would be able to nag her about the fact that she hadn’t given the henchman thing a try.  Fuck it.  She already had all of the assistance she needed.  The best, most loyal kind.

Lucy appeared from a nearby street, making her excitement known with a noise that was half bark and half something else.  She ran alongside Bentley.

“Good girl!”  Bitch laughed, “Come on!”

Lucy responded by huffing out a noise that might have been a bark.  Her footfalls splashed out of sync with Bentley’s, and they were soon joined by others.  Ink, Magic, Roxy, Buddy, Bruno and Socks.  None of the others were as large as Lucy and Bentley.  This would be their first run.  A taste of her power.  She would give them a little more each time, keep an eye out for the ones who listened, give more training to the ones who needed to be kept in line by the bigger and more obedient dogs.

But this was her territory.  Her space.  Finally a place where she could do what she wanted.  Here, she was free, and that meant she could be dirty.  She could go where she wanted, hurt anyone who got in her face.  She could roam free with her dogs and try her power on them without worrying about people getting hurt.

Which wasn’t to say that people wouldn’t get hurt, of course.  Just that it was her territory, and she was allowed to make the call.  Anyone who hadn’t gotten the message already deserved what they got.

Bentley and the rest of her pack drew towards the source of the howling.  Sirius stood outside an apartment block, filling the evening with that mournful, haunting sound that carried through the air.

She hopped down from Bentley’s back, and used the back of her hand to wipe away some of the sweat, mucus and blood that had transferred from his back to her inner thigh.  “Sirius!  Good boy!”

He wagged his tail, and the tip of it made trails in the water.

“Sirius, guard!” she pointed toward the front door of the building.  “Bentley!  Guard!” She pointed at the little emergency exit at the side.  The two dogs moved to their respective positions.

“Sit!”  Her dogs all sat.  She noted Magic was a little slower than the rest to obey.  Would Magic have listened if the other dogs hadn’t been here?  If she hadn’t been following along with the others?  Bitch made a mental note.

“Stay…” she ordered, drawing out the word.  She could see the group of dogs freeze.

She had a routine with her dogs.  The first priority was making sure they were healthy.  That meant grooming and possibly shaving them, getting their records and shots updated if they hadn’t come from the shelter, cleaning their ears, and ensuring they were kept away from the other dogs so she could check the color and consistency of their shit and track any changes.  Shit revealed a lot about the dog it came from, from the obvious of diet to general health to mood.  An unhappy dog had unhealthy shit.

The second step was training, and every dog got some dedicated attention.  ‘Sit’ was the first command they learned, followed closely by ‘stay’, ‘off’, ‘fetch’ and ‘come’.  Depending on the dog, it could take a couple of days before they had it down solid.  These commands were absolutes.  If a dog didn’t listen to each of those, it wasn’t allowed to go out, and it didn’t get any use of her power.

Once a dog had those commands down, it opened the door to other orders.  A dog that would stay put while she demonstrated with another would be that much more inclined to follow suit.

If only humans were as reliable, as easy to train.

“Dogs, attack.”  The word was quiet, but every dog present was waiting for it.  Bentley and Sirius stayed at their positions, but the rest of the dogs surged into the building, the larger ones leaping through the boarded up windows, the smaller ones surging in the front door.  Growls and barks that were twisted by the unnatural shapes of their throats overlapped into a single noise.

She waited outside the building, one hand on Bentley’s neck.  He wanted to go, she knew it from the tension, but he was obedient.  Good.  This was a test for him.

Another howl sounded, far away, startling her.  If her dogs were here with her… oh.  Only one dog would be elsewhere.  She listened as the howl came again.  Yes.  Angelica’s howl reflected her size and the degree to which Bitch had used her power on her.  More than Bentley, Sirius and Lucy.

She whistled for them to come back, long and loud, and her dogs came tearing back through the building.  She checked, and she couldn’t make out any blood that didn’t belong to the dogs.  Good.  Better to terrorize and inflict light wounds than to maim or murder.  If the people in that building stayed in her territory, she would be surprised.

She climbed onto Bentley’s back, then whistled twice.  Come.

A jerk of the chain collar around Bentley’s neck and a kick to his sides spurred him into action.  The others followed, some yipping or barking with excitement.

Did other people experience anything close to this?  Did Taylor, Brian, Lisa or Alec?  She felt like she was one with Bentley as she caught quick breaths between his jarring footfalls.  Water splashed onto her skin and his.  Her legs pressed against his body, and she could feel the expansion and contraction as he huffed out breaths.  She trusted him, and he trusted her absolutely in return.  It varied from one dog to the next, but the same was true with the others that were following in Bentley’s wake.  They believed in her, and if they didn’t love her yet, she knew it would come in time, with her patience and continued care of them. What did Lisa have that compared to that rush, this security?  What did the others have?

Why, Bitch wondered, are they happier than me?

Unbidden, the answers came to mind.

She remembered living with her mother.  She couldn’t even remember the woman’s face, but that was little surprise.  Mom had worked anywhere from three jobs to none, but she spent little time in the apartment.  When she was home, she was either drinking in her room or partying with friends.  Little Rachel’s questions or attempts to get attention were met with anger, rejection.  She would be pushed away or locked in her room.  Better to stay quiet, watch for an opportunity.  If her mother passed out drunk, bills could be taken from her wallet, secreted away for later purchases of bread, peanut butter and jam, milk and cereal or orange juice at the corner store.  If there was a party, and if she was successful in keeping from getting underfoot, she could often snatch a bag of chips, a box of ribs or chicken wings, to eat under her bed or on the roof.

So she got by.  Until the day her mother didn’t come home.  The food in the cupboards had disappeared, even the cans of pineapple, pears and nuts in foul-tasting syrup that had been left behind by the apartment’s previous residents.  Desperate, terrified to leave the apartment in case the fifteen minutes she spent looking for food were the same fifteen minutes her mother stopped by, she’d turned to trying to cook the rice, standing on a chair to reach the sink and stove-top.  After pouring the rice into the water that had been sitting on the hot stove, she’d accidentally brought her arm down on the arm of the pot, and tipped it all over herself.  In retrospect, it was a blessing that she hadn’t known that the water should be boiling.  Still, it was hot enough to turn her skin pink and leave her screaming enough to drive the neighbors to call nine-one-one.

Then the foster homes.  Home one, where the parents were kind, but lacked the patience to deal with a little girl who child protective services had labeled a borderline feral child.  Her foster-sister there had been a mongoloid that stole things, breaking or ruining what she couldn’t take for herself.  Rachel had responded the only option she could think of, attacking the girl who was three years older and fifty pounds heavier, leaving the girl bloody and sobbing.

They found a new home for her rather quickly, after that.

Home two, where the parents were not kind, and she had four foster siblings rather than the one.  Three years there, a long series of lessons on what she’d done to the idiot sister from the first home, taught with the roles reversed.  An education in violence of every kind.

Unable to keep the feelings bottled up within her, she screamed until she couldn’t breathe any longer.  Then she took a deep breath and screamed again.  Even though she screamed until it hurt, it was tiny and insignificant compared to everything she wanted to convey.

Home three had been the breaking point.  Two foster siblings, a single foster-mother.  She’d overheard her caseworker saying that the new foster-mother would be a disciplinarian, the only person that might be able to turn Rachel into a civilized human being.  Bitch’s opinion, years later, was that this had been a retaliation, a punishment inflicted on her by the caseworker for the countless trips to school or the home to deal with Rachel.

She hadn’t believed that her foster mother could be more of a disciplinarian than her second set of foster parents.  Realizing the nature of her situation had been unpleasant.  The foster-mother brooked no nonsense, and had a keen eye for every failing and mistake on her children’s part, quick to punish, quick to correct.  If one of her children spoke with their mouths full, she would snatch that child’s plate away and dispose of the contents into the trash can.  Never the carrot, always sticks.  Rachel was made to attend school, then after-school make up classes, with piano every other day, as if she couldn’t be bad if she didn’t have the time.

But Rachel hadn’t been equipped for these things, would never be equipped for school or manners or piano.  She fought back, challenged her foster-mother’s authority at every turn, and when she was punished for this, she fought back twice as hard.

She might have gone insane if it wasn’t for Rollo.  She’d stumbled onto the mangy, hostile puppy in an alley between her after-school classes and home.  After earning his trust with scraps of her lunch over the course of days and weeks, she brought him home and chained him up at the very back of the expansive backyard, out of sight of the house.

She had stayed quiet when her foster-mother complained about the neighbor dog’s barking, feeling a confused mixture of smugness and terror every time it came up.  Her lunch money went towards buying the dog scraps of food, guessing at what he needed, and this sacrifice of her lunches coupled with the frequent lack of dinner left her getting headaches and her stomach growling constantly during school.  She would wake up at four in the morning to visit him and play with him, and the lack of sleep left her so tired she would drift asleep in the middle of class.

But a dog couldn’t be chained to a tree, not for twenty-two hours out of every day.  She’d seen him grow increasingly agitated and unhappy, to the point that she couldn’t play with him without him hurting her.  So she’d untied him to take him for a walk.  He’d slipped free and headed for the house.  Her blood running cold, she’d chased after him.

When she caught up to him, she found him in the pool; she couldn’t swim, and he couldn’t climb out.  She’d pleaded with Rollo to come out of the pool, tried to run around the pool’s edge to get to him so she could pull him free, but he’d been scared, and swam away from her.

Then the plastic cover of the pool began to slide closed.  When Rachel had looked to the house, she’d seen her foster-mother standing on the other side of the sliding glass door that opened into the backyard, her finger on the switch.  Slowly, gradually, despite her screams and banging on the locked door, the cover had slid over Rollo’s head, trapping him.  For nearly a minute, there was the bulge beneath the cover of Rollo’s head as he swam in tight circles, his sounds of distress muffled.

Her foster-mother’s punishments always matched the crimes.  There could be no doubt Rachel knew the dog from her pleading and shouts, and having a dog was against the rules.  Or maybe it wasn’t even that.  Maybe it was the fact that she was making a disturbance at five in the morning, or the realization that the barking that had plagued her foster mother for so long was Rachel’s fault.  Whatever the reason, the dog was to be disposed of, much in the same way as a plate of dinner was thrown out for holding a fork the wrong way or sitting at the table with her legs too far apart.

She’d woken to her power in that moment of panic.  Fed by her power, Rollo had grown enough to tear through the cover.  He’d then torn through her foster mother.  The shrill screaming of her foster siblings indoors had drawn his attention, and he went after them too, pouncing on them like any excitable dog might do with a mouse or rabbit.  He’d torn through door frames and walls, and an entire section of the house and collapsed in on her foster family.  In one fell swoop, she lost the closest things she had to a home and family.  It hadn’t been perfect, it had been nightmarish at times, but she’d had so little for so long, she found herself clinging to the scraps she did have.  She ran, then, and she kept running for a long time after that.

Her breath hitched as she drew in a breath.  She shook her head violently, to shake away the tears.  She had stopped screaming, but her dogs were making up for it as their voices had joined hers and continued long after she’d stopped, almost drowning out Angelica’s howls.

So many bad memories.  Memories she wished she could purge from herself, scour from her brain with fire and bleach and steel bristled brushes.

She was unhappy because humans were pack animals, she decided.  Taylor and Lisa and Brian could smile and laugh because they had their pack, they had their family members and they had each other.  Alec was more of a loner, but he could still joke and laugh with Brian.  They had their pack, their dynamic.  She wasn’t really a part of it.

Bitch knew that she wasn’t a lone wolf by choice the way that Alec was.  There was a void there, some part of her that craved that human connection because she was a human and that’s what humans needed.  The way things had played out, things she had no control over, she’d never had a chance to figure out how to deal with people, how to invite them in to fill that void.  Friendships and family, conversations and jokes, being close to others and knowing when to speak up and when to stay quiet?  They were treacherous things, littered with complicated nuances, bad associations and worse memories.  Even if she somehow got something right, she always managed to fuck it up sooner than later.  Easier to leave it alone, easier to stay back and not try.  And if they got in her face, if they challenged her and didn’t let her keep them at arm’s length?  It was easier to fall back on what worked and what she knew than it was to try to guess how to respond.  Violence.  Threats.  It earned her respect, if nothing else.

Then Taylor had made overtures at friendship.  Taylor had invited herself into that place, that void, and had stayed when Bitch fucked up.  The scrawny kid had stood her ground instead of running when Bitch called her out on something.  And maybe, just a little, in some small way, Bitch had gotten a glimpse at what she’d been missing out on.

Only to find out it was a ploy.  An act, so that Taylor could get the group’s confidence.

And now the others had forgiven her?  So easily?  She could see them fawning over the little traitor.  And there was nothing she could do about it.  They liked Taylor more.  They would keep Taylor on the team and make Bitch leave if it came down to it.  She knew it in her gut.

So she’d done something stupid.  She’d tried to get rid of her teammate, and she’d done it in a way that haunted her.  More than anything, more than all of the people she’d hurt, the people she’d accidentally killed, or the days she’d scrounged in the trash for food when she’d been homeless, wandering the cities on her own, she hated herself for what she’d done to Taylor.  She had acted like the people who haunted her memories, using what should have been a position of trust to try to hurt someone.

And she didn’t know what to do about it.

A gunshot startled her from her thoughts.

“Go!” she shouted.  “Go!”

More cracks of gunfire echoed through the night as her pack arrived on the scene.  Angelica was there, her form hulking and rippling with muscle to the point that she couldn’t move as fast as she otherwise might.  That was fine.  Angelica couldn’t move as fast these days, anyways.  Not since Fog had hurt her.  She was more comfortable like this; she was big, strong and able to move without pain.

Angelica flinched and backed away as the shots came, striking her flesh.

There was another shot, and Bitch saw a flash from the window, a glimpse of a face.  Her face twisted with rage.  “Attack!”  her voice was shrill.  She leapt off Bentley’s back so he could go too.  “Fetch them!  Fetch!  Go, go!’

As they’d done at the previous location, her dogs tore through the building.  This time, though, they came back with people in their jaws.  Arms, legs and torsos in fanged grips.  Men, women and children.  Some screamed where the dogs didn’t know their own strength and bit too hard.

She found the man she’d seen in the window and stalked over to him.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” the man repeated the word.

“You insulting me?  You trying to act big?’

“What?”  The man’s eyes widened.  Was he staring at her, challenging her?  Was it a fear response?  Was he rallying to fight, trying to get a wider sense of his surroundings?  She could only guess.

“No,” he said, his eyes moving around, as if searching for help.

Defiance?  Sarcasm?  A lie?

“I don’t think you realize how badly you fucked yourself.  You.  Shot.  My.  Dog.”  She looked at Angelica.  Her baby wasn’t acting too hurt, but he’d shot her.  He could have killed her, if the bullet landed in just the right place.

She kicked him in the face, and his head rocked back.  Blood fountained from his nose.

“I didn’t know,” he managed, huffing out air, blood spraying at his words, where it had run down to his lips.  “Didn’t know she was yours.  She was scary, I- I reacted.”

Was he lying?  She couldn’t tell.  She’d grown up with so many good liars, it felt like everything that sounded honest was a lie.  If he was lying, and it was obvious, she’d look weak if she fell for it.  Others might not get the message about this being her territory, about her dogs being off-limits.  If he wasn’t lying… well, he’d still shot Angelica.

Nobody hurts my dogs.”

“Please.  I have a wife, kids.”

As if family somehow made you better than someone else?  The idea nettled Bitch.  Life experience had taught her that it was all too often the opposite.  People were assholes, people were monsters.  The exceptions were all too rare.  Far too many of those same people started a family just because they thought it was what they should do, and then they were assholes and monsters to a captive audience.

She kicked him again, in the stomach.  He screamed as the kick made his arm, still in Ink’s jaws, wrench the wrong way.

“Angelica,” she ordered.  She kicked him in the stomach again.  “Paw!”

Angelica stepped forward and placed one paw the breadth of a truck tire down on the man’s pelvis.  He howled in agony, his words rapid, desperate and breathless, “Heavy oh god please stop please let me go make it move itscrushingme!”

She looked at him with distaste.  It bothered her that the only time she could be absolutely sure what someone meant, what someone wanted, was in circumstances like this.

“Angelica,” she ordered, ducking beneath Angelica’s outstretched limb, kicking him in the kneecap, “Take it.”

Angelica bent and gripped the man’s legs in her teeth, twisting his body further.  His body was pressed to the ground by her paw, his arm and legs pulled up and away from it.

She stepped close to Angelica, burying her face in the slick muscle and hard tissues that layered the dog, wrapping her arms as far as they would go around Angelica’s shoulders and neck.  Just as her dogs came to trust her as she cared for them, fed them, and nurtured them, she grew closer to them as they shared experiences with her, as they learned and accepted their training.  Angelica was one of the dogs she was closest to.  The only dog she was this close to.  Brutus and Judas had passed, the only dogs she had been with for years.

Her heart broke a little every time she thought about it.

And this man?  This family man?  He’d thought he could take Angelica away from her?

Without looking at him, her head still pressed to Angelica’s neck, she gave the order, “Hurt him.”

She felt the vibration rattle through Angelica’s head and neck as bone snapped and crunched between her teeth.  The man shrieked, there was no better word for it, and others in the vicinity echoed his shrieks with their own.

She gave the hand signal and an order, “Drop him.  Dogs, drop them!”

Angelica let the man drop.  His shins were cracked, the ends of his legs bent at odd angles.  One by one, the other captives were dropped to the ground.  Each of the man’s noises of pain was a little smaller and quicker than the last.

“Why can’t you fuckers get it through your skulls?” she called out.  “This is my territory!”

“We didn’t know,” someone said.  A woman who was clutching a bloody arm to her chest. Her daughter beside her.

“You fucking challenging me on this?”

“No!  No.  We- we just… how were we supposed to know?”

“Are you retarded or something?  It’s obvious,” Bitch couldn’t believe the woman’s stupidity.

“How were we supposed to know!?” the woman raised her voice, sounding plaintive.

“The howling.  If you can hear the howling, you’re too fucking close.  Leave.”

“You could probably hear that halfway across the city!”

“No fucking shit,” Bitch retorted.  The woman was challenging her authority.  She had to respond to it, or the woman would keep talking, Bitch would say or do something that made her look stupid, and others would stand up to her.  Best to stop that sooner than later.  “Socks!  Come!”

The woman shrank back, clutching her daughter, as Socks advanced to Bitch’s side.

“Stop,” a voice ordered.

Bitch turned and saw two capes.  From New Wave, weren’t they?  Brandish and Glory Girl.

Brandish spoke, “Glory Girl, call your sister.  At least one of those people needs medical attention, fas-”

She stopped as Bitch whistled as hard as she could.  Barking and snarling, her massed dogs charged the heroes.

After being ambushed and taken captive by the ABB, she’d learned her lesson.  Hit first, assess the situation later.  Besides, what was she going to do?  Talk to them?

Brandish flicked her hands out, and beams of light drew into vague sword shapes.  As the dogs stampeded towards her she flicked them out to double the length.  They drew closer, almost reaching her, and she reconsidered, banishing the weapons to condense herself into a beachball-sized ball of orange-yellow light. The dogs hit her, there was a spray of sparks, and the ball was sent careening down the street and through the wall of a building.

Glory Girl was flying over the stampeding dogs, a cell phone pressed to her ear, in Bitch’s general direction.  Ink and Bruno leaped to the side of a building and then leaped from that point toward Glory Girl.  She struck Socks across the head, sending him flying to the ground, and Bruno slammed into her, knocking the phone from her grip.  She brought her knee up into the dog’s side and pushed herself away before he could drive her down into the ground.

The heroine went for Bitch, who had only Angelica at her side.  Angelica positioned herself between enemy and master, and Glory Girl hit the dog broadside.  Angelica barely reacted, turning instead to snap at Glory Girl.  Her teeth rebounded off the heroine’s outstretched arm, and Glory Girl darted backward, to hover in the air.  Catching her breath?  Watching the situation?

That wasn’t how you were supposed to fight.  Bitch whistled hard, then shouted, “Magic, Lucy, Roxy!  Come!”

As the three dogs barreled toward her, she used her power.  She felt it extend outward like a vibration from deep inside her.  She felt that power shudder and reverberate, as if to let her know it was making contact with them.  She could see the effect.  Could see them grow larger, see bone and muscle swell and shift.

“Attack!”

In moments, Glory Girl was contending with four dogs.  Angelica advanced implacably, Bitch following at a walking pace.  The other three were attacking from every direction, cutting off escape routes, leaping onto the side of the building, leaping down, running behind her, or flanking her from the sides.

“Mom!” Glory Girl shouted, a note of panic in her voice.

“Run!” Brandish called out her response.  She was facing much the same situation, unable to attack with the relentless pressure the dogs were putting on her.  Instead, she changed herself into that ball form where she couldn’t be touched or hurt, flying away with every hit she took, or controlling the direction so she could make her way for an escape route.  She managed to find enough pause to lash out at one dog and shout, “Get the wounded!”

Glory Girl caught Roxy around the snout as the dog lunged for her, and threw her down at Lucy.  She used the momentary reprieve this granted her to fly straight for the man who’d shot at Angelica, who lay in a heap on the ground.

She stopped mid-flight.

A woman stood over the man’s mangled body, her long hair blowing slightly in the wind.  Which seemed wrong.  With the light rain, her hair should have been wetter.

Glory Girl looked over her shoulder to see the dogs, looked back to the injured man and the woman, and then flew straight up, disappearing into the gloom of the night sky.  She’d left him behind.

The barking and snarling ceased as the fight drew to a close.  Each of the dogs returned, and Bitch noted a few injuries.  A shattered plate of bone here, a gouge where Brandish’s blades had made contact there.  Surface damage.  It was only the damage that penetrated deep, past the layers her power applied, which risked hurting the dogs or doing permanent damage.  Nothing so serious.  Bitch breathed a sigh of relief.

She stalked forward, her dogs joining her to form a loose circle around the woman.  The crazy bitch was naked from head to toe, and her skin and hair were painted in alternating stripes of white and black, like a zebra… no.  Paint would have washed off, and dye wouldn’t be so crisp around the edges.  It was a natural coloring.

When the woman looked up at Bitch, her eyes were yellow and bright, reflecting the ambient light like the eyes of a dog or cat might.  She smiled, and there wasn’t a trace of tension in her body, as though she’d just woken up in a safe place.

“Who the fuck are you?”

The woman didn’t reply.  She crouched down beside the man, then shifted her position so she was sitting sideways, her legs stretched out beside her.  Her fingertips traced the man’s injuries, almost lovingly.

“Answer me,” Bitch ordered.

The woman reached over and pressed her index and middle fingers to the man’s eyes.  Pressing down, she penetrated the orbs, sliding her fingers down until they were two knuckles deep.

“Hey!  Fuck off!”

The woman removed the fingers.  Vitreous fluids and blood flowed from the open wounds in the man’s eye sockets.

The woman turned towards her.  She didn’t meet Bitch’s eyes, instead looking down at Bitch’s feet.  It struck Bitch that the woman was making herself small, was being inoffensive.  It made her feel better, strangely.

Slightly calmer, her words measured, she called out, “I’m going to ask you again.  Who the fuck are you?”

“Siberian,” the woman spoke, her voice barely above a whisper.  Barely audible.

“What the hell are you doing here?  This is my territory.”

“I’ll leave soon.  I just wanted to talk.”  Again, the whisper.

Talking, always talking.  “Not interested.  Go.”

Siberian looked down at the man, who was still writhing and twitching, making small noises of pain.

“Go!”  She shouted.  The woman didn’t budge.  Bitch glanced at her dogs to see who was the biggest, the least injured.  Lucy.  “Lucy!  Attack!”

Lucy pounced on Siberian.  Bitch saw Siberian stretch out her arm, saw Lucy’s jaws clamp down on the limb.

There was no reaction.  Lucy tugged, the full force of her body behind the movement, and the woman didn’t move a hair.

With great care, Siberian stood.  She looked at Lucy, her bright eyes roving over the dog’s face and the length of the dog’s body.

“Beautiful,” she whispered.  She pressed her lips against Lucy’s nose in a kiss, as if uncaring that the dog had seized her arm between jaws that could crush a motorcycle.  Lucy snorted in response.

Then she looked at Bitch.  This time, she made eye contact, and despite her whisper, there was no-nonsense in her tone.  “Your dog lets go of me now, or she gets hurt.”

The confidence in the tone, the authority, the fact that the woman’s eyes didn’t waver in the slightest, they made it abundantly clear to Bitch that the woman was telling the truth.  She was certain enough about it that it was worth weakening her position here.  “Lucy, off.  Come.”

Lucy let go and backed off, moving to Bitch’s side.

“They’re beautiful,” Siberian whispered, looking at the dogs.

Bitch nodded mutely in response.

Siberian approached her, walking with a great deal of care.  There was grace in her movement, and she walked on her tiptoes, each foot carefully placed a measured distance in front of the other.  Her eyes shone through the curtain of her white and black hair.

Bitch felt a moment’s trepidation.

“What…” She regretted opening her mouth the instant she did, but it was already too late.  “do you want?”

You.”

“I don’t understand,” she tried to inject more confidence into her answer.

“They told me I should pick someone.  Someone they can test.  I read about you, I heard about you.  I want you on our team.”

“Team?”  She hated the short answers that were coming out of her mouth, the way that they were uncertain and they put her on weaker footing.

The woman’s response carried over the flooded street, through the growls that slowly ratcheted up from the dogs as the stranger approached their owner, “The Nine.  We have only eight, not enough.  So some of us are picking people.  Then we test them.  I picked you, and I like what I’ve seen.  I’ve been watching you for weeks, now.”  She smiled again.

Has to be a lie, Bitch thought.  Her dogs would have noticed someone following her, wouldn’t they?

The woman was only a few paces away.  The question was, should Bitch retreat and put herself in an even weaker position, or did she stand her ground?

She stood her ground.  The woman stepped closer, within arm’s reach, then another two paces, until her chest pressed against Bitch’s body.  She met the woman’s gaze, unflinching, until Siberian wrapped her arms around her, holding her close, resting her chin on Bitch’s shoulder.

Aren’t you tired of pretending?”, the woman whispered in her ear.

“What?”  Bitch tried to pull away, so she could ask the woman the question to her face, but the limbs were unmoving, more resisting than steel bars would have been.

“Acting like one of them.  Playing and losing their games, decorating yourself in their clothing and their symbols, following their rules?”

“I-” Bitch paused, “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The pause was telling.  She knew it was telling.  The woman understood her, she knew.

The woman understood her.  The thought clicked.  The way the woman moved, her body language, everything, she was making sense to Bitch in a way that so few people did.

The idea left Bitch shaken.  How?  Why?  Was it some power?  From the start, she’d known what the woman wanted to express as easily as she did with her dogs.

“You’re an animal, Bitch.” The woman gave special treatment to that last word.  Bitch stiffened.  The woman pulled away, one hand remaining to caress the side of Bitch’s face.  Her eyes were lowered again, Bitch noted.  She was smiling lightly, her lips pressed together, teeth hidden.  Playful, gentle.  Bitch let herself relax.  It hadn’t been meant as an insult.  The body contact was intrusive, but she could grit her teeth and bear it, at least until she figured out who this person was and how she could fight back.

“We’re all animals,” Siberian murmured.  She walked over to Bentley, and Bitch hurried to give the dog the hand gesture for ‘stay’, then ‘off’ before the woman moved to touch him.  “Some more than others.  You and I, more than others.”

“Philosophy shit?”

Siberian smiled, her hands tracing Bentley’s snout, the exposed muscles and horns.  “Philosophy shit.  Yes.  Touché.  An idea given meaning because people think it should have meaning.  But it’s just words, isn’t it?”

“Sure.”

“Join me.  Stop pretending to be like them.  You know you’re bad at it.”

“I’m fine where I am.”

“Mmm,” the woman smiled, her eyes lowered.  She clasped her hands together and pressed them to her chin, squishing her breasts up against her chest.  She turned, taking in the neighborhood, assessing Bitch’s territory.  “Maybe for now.  You have freedom to run, to do as you like.  It’s nice.  But you’re going to chafe at it sooner or later.  You’re going to realize that you’re still in a cage they made.  You’re still following their rules, in the end.”

Bitch looked around the empty, flooded streets as Siberian was doing.  She didn’t answer.

“Maybe you can be happy like this.  A dog, collar around your neck, a fenced in territory.  You’ll never really understand what they’re all talking about.  The best you can hope for is a pat on the head when you’re good, when you do as you should, maybe some companionship whenever you’re a good girl.  But maybe that’s what you want.

“As opposed to what?”

“Being wild.  Being free.  Truly free.  It’s exhilarating,” Siberian breathed.

Bitch frowned.  Words that sounded nice, but that was all they were.  Just words.

“I’m going to give you two presents, Bitch,” Siberian whispered.  “One will be waiting for you when you go back to your… what do you call it?”

Bitch didn’t answer.

“Let’s call it your den.  I like that.”

Siberian closed the distance to Bitch with a surprising speed, her steps less controlled, carrying her long distances forward as she zig-zagged over the flooded street.  Before Bitch could react, or before the dogs could step in, she was next to Bitch, stopping.  Siberian put a hand on her collarbone.  Bitch was lifted into the air and pushed down into the water, soaked, landing hard enough that the air was forced out of her lungs.

As she struggled to breathe, Siberian whispered, “The second gift is special, a treasure for a kindred spirit.”

Bitch coughed, struggled, but she couldn’t move the hand.

“As of this moment, you’re the only one to hear me speak and live afterwards.”

She kissed Bitch on the forehead, like a mother would with a child.  Bitch tried to twist away, and only succeeded in getting water in her eyes and nose.  She sputtered as she struggled to draw air into her empty lungs.

When she could see again, Siberian was gone.  Her dogs were looking up at a nearby rooftop.

Shaken, she gestured for Bentley to come to her, and climbed up onto his shoulders.

Coughing, snorting water from her nostrils, she gave the order, “Home.”

Her thoughts were chaotic as she rode Bentley down the streets, a dull roar of too many things all at once, all too important to be ignored.  At the same time, she didn’t want to think about them, didn’t want to put those pieces together, because she wasn’t sure she liked where they would lead.

The gift Siberian left her.  Some of her henchmen were at her den.  More important, some of her dogs were there.  Every minute the trip took left her more worried.

She hopped off Bentley as they arrived at the building, shoving the doors open.

Blood.  Trails leading to Barker and Biter, who were on the ground floor, unconscious, still breathing.  One of the girls, the one with veterinary training that Coil had sent to her, was sitting in one corner, nursing an arm that dangled at the wrong angle from the elbow, sobbing.

This was recent.  Siberian had done this in the time it took Bitch to get here.

More blood, one of the boys, a dog groomer with years of experience, lying beside the kitchen counter, his shirt wadded up and pressed to his face.  Around the shirt, she could see the four parallel tracks where Siberian’s fingernails had left gouges running across his face.

None of the dogs were hurt.  She had to double-check them to see.  Most were cowering in the corners.  Some had retreated up the stairs.

The blood had a pattern to it, as though Siberian had painted a picture with the spray.  A line drawing from each of the injured to the center of the room, where a box sat, faintly dusted with flecks of blood.

She was nervous as she opened it, but she couldn’t not.

A furry bundle tried to escape, and she stopped it.  It bit for her fingers.  She pulled her hand back, gripped it by the throat and forced it down to the ground, making her dominance clear.

A husky puppy?  No.  The physical makeup was wrong.  The smaller ears, longer limbs, and markings around the jowls and muzzle.

wolf pup. Where had Siberian found this?

There was a card in the bottom of the box, stained with urine.  Bitch picked it up with the very tip of her finger and thumb.  She’d never properly learned how to read, so she had to work out the individual sounds, moving her lips to try to piece it together.

“Ah… air yoh… you.  Air you a…”  That letter, she didn’t recognize it.  After it was… “oll… wolf.”

She gave up.  She could guess, anyways.

Are you a wolf, or are you a dog?

The rule was to call Coil at a time like this.  To let him know what had happened.  She found her phone in one of her jacket pockets and she fumbled with the keypad to find him in her contacts.  Her finger hovered over the button.

What was she holding on to?  Who was she protecting?  Her friends?  Were they really her friends?  It wasn’t that she wanted to betray them, she wasn’t about to repeat that mistake, but…

She couldn’t articulate the thought, but it was Taylor’s face that flashed into her mind’s eye when she put the phone away.

Maybe she would see what this test was about.  She wasn’t about to back down.  But in the end, she‘d make the call about where she went and what she did.

“You,” she told the man with the gouges in his face, “Go to a doctor.  Take anyone here that needs it.  But I don’t want you telling Coil, I don’t want you using his doctors.  Got it?’

The man looked up at her, staring for long seconds.  Finally, he nodded.  She didn’t know if he would, or if he’d be able to hide it, but if he did inform Coil, it would at least be an excuse to get rid of him and the others.

She looked down at the wolf pup, who was still struggling to bite at her fingers.  She let it go, waited until it tried to attack her again, and pushed it down onto its side once more.

“Little bastard,” she smiled.

Almost without thinking about it, she used her power.  Just the smallest amount.  She felt almost none of the vibrations or shudder she experienced as a visceral feedback on her power with the other dogs.  It was only when she saw his skin splitting that she realized it was actually working.  Faster, quicker, with so little of the temporary exhaustion she so often experienced on her end.

Was it easier with him?  What did that mean?

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The residual foam on my glove made my hand sticky as I reached into the compartment at my back and grabbed my baton.  It took me two tries to get my thumb onto the button so I could whip it out to its full length.

I strode towards Bitch, weapon in hand.  Tattletale hurried to catch up to me, turning to keep an uneasy eye on the ongoing fight with the Protectorate.

“Hey, Skitter!” Tattletale grabbed my shoulder.

I whirled to face her, hand clenching my baton.  I could see the change in her expression as some piece fell in place for her.

Shit,” she swore, “Hey, listen-”

She didn’t get a chance to finish.  White smoke billowed around us.  My first thought was that our adversaries were using some sort of bug spray.

The way today was going, it would be just my luck.

I held my breath and hurried out of the cloud, Tattletale following, and searched for the source.  Assault was taking on Regent and Imp, while Grue and Shadow Stalker were dealing with Battery and Weld.  Bitch and her dogs, on the other hand, were facing down Triumph.  Not the matchup I would have chosen, taking on the guy with the sonic shout using dogs with sensitive hearing.

I almost went after Bitch right then and there, but self-preservation won out over any desire for retribution.  As Tattletale and I made our way around the cloud, I spotted Miss Militia.

A black-green energy crackled in her hand, and she lobbed a grenade my way.  I scrambled back, only for it to turn out to be another canister of smoke, billowing out between Miss Militia and me.

Why the smoke?

The bees I had in the smoke were acting funny.  I was surprised to find out why.  I’d known that beekeepers used smoke to pacify the bees before collecting the honey.  My assumption had been that it acted as a tranquilizer, putting them to sleep.  In reality, it was forcing them to revert to instinctual behavior.  It made them want to eat and feed and to flee.  For those near enclosed spaces or even the corners of walls or the foundations of buildings, it made them adjust their wingbeats to divert the flows of oxygen.

If she’d been intending to use the smoke to screw with my insects, she’d underestimated my power.  I canceled out the instincts and sent the bugs through the smoke, blind, feeling out for her.  I found her running towards us, through the smoke.

“She’s coming!” I shouted.

In retrospect, that was a mistake.

Much as I might have warned Tattletale and the others, I’d also informed Miss Militia on my location.  I turned to run, but she was already raising her gun to fire with an ear-shattering crack.

From the way it cut past my bugs, and the wake of disturbed air the pellets left behind them I could only guess she’d just grazed me with a shotgun.  I collapsed sideways to the ground, and the pain came a heartbeat later, radiating over half of my upper body, from my shoulder to my right butt cheek.  I was guessing it was nonlethal ammunition – it could well have been lethal, for the sheer degree of hurt it delivered, if my costume had prevented it from penetrating.

Before she could shoot again, I directed my bugs to her hands and eyes, hoping to incapacitate her.  I still had a small few of the capsaicin-loaded bugs, and sent them all her way.

As hard as it was to see in the smoke, there was still faint light.  That light disappeared the instant Grue used his power.

Miss Militia was staggering and reeling as her hands and face lit up with stings and burns.  The gun wasn’t in her hands anymore, which meant we weren’t at risk of getting shot.  I sent more bugs across to the other members of the Protectorate, to try to disable them.

Tattletale fumbled around and found me in the darkness, clasped her hand around the same hand I held the baton with, and helped me to my feet.  She gave me her support as we limped away.  Nothing seemed to be broken, judging by what I felt.

The darkness disappeared after we’d traveled across the street.  Grue greeted us.  “Dragon?”

“Kaput, thanks to Tattletale,” I spoke.

He looked back the way we’d come, “Damn that smoke.  Listen, Tattletale, head down this street, wait for us.  Skitter and I are going back in to find and retrieve the others.”

I supposed that would be another benefit of using the smoke.  If you didn’t expect to be able to see, then it didn’t hurt to deny your enemy that same privilege.  Miss Militia had been thinking about this.  If her team wasn’t so sparse on members, she could have done a lot more damage.

“My bugs are telling me they’re over there, there and there,” I pointed in the direction of our teammates.  “That’s all I can do for you.  I kind of got shot, not sure I’m up to running around.”

His head snapped around to face me, “Shot?”

“I’m okay, it was nonlethal.  I think,” I assured him, “Go!”

He did, glancing over his shoulder to look at me before disappearing back into the midst of the darkness.

Tattletale and I made our escape.  We got three blocks away before we found a spot to hide.  Tattletale got out her phone and began sending messages, presumably to Grue and Coil.

Our hiding place was the lobby of an apartment building.  Boards had been placed over the windows, and there were signs that some people had camped out here, not long ago.  It was otherwise similar to Grue’s apartment complex.  Less tidy, obviously.

“You okay?” Tattletale asked me.

“That question seems to come up a lot.”

“I’m sorry.  I knew the gun would inevitably overheat, and what little I could read off of Dragon told me she’d deal with that above anything else.  I didn’t think you’d be stuck there, too.”

“No.  Your gun thing there saved my skin.  The real problem was…” I trailed off.  I still had the baton in my hand – the residual containment foam meant I’d probably have to peel the glove away from the weapon.  I clenched the weapon tight.

We sat in silence for nearly ten minutes before the rest arrived as a massed group.  Shadow Stalker was limping, and two of the dogs were their normal size, draped across Bentley’s back, but everyone was more or less intact.

Bitch’s eyes widened fractionally as she saw me.

I was already standing, barely feeling the hurt from where I’d been grazed.  Blood pounded in my ears, and I could feel the buzz of my insects.

“How-” she started.  I didn’t let her finish.  My baton held in both hands, I struck her in the upper thigh.  When she didn’t fall, I let go of the baton and backhanded her.  She toppled, and protests and shouts echoed around me.

It hurt.  Damn it, I’d never really hit someone with my hands before.  I wondered if I’d managed to break something.

There were still bugs on some of my teammates.  I could sense them approaching, Grue and Imp moving to stop me.  I ducked out of the way of their hands before they could grab me, and then held up my baton, menacing them.  I cast a momentary glance towards Shadow Stalker, then augmented my voice with the buzzing and chirping of my swarm, “Don’t.”

“What the hell are you doing!?” Grue roared.

“Ask her,” my response was barely above a growl.

Grue glanced down at Bitch, who was rubbing her chin, opening her jaw wide, as if testing it.

I dropped down to a crouch so quickly that my knee slammed into the ground.  I grabbed the upper end of the baton and pulled it over Bitch’s head, forcing the bar between her teeth, pulling back hard.

Grue moved to stop me once more, and I shook my head.  He hesitated, then stopped.

Bentley was pacing towards me, snarling at the attack on his owner.  I met his gaze with my own, unflinching, and he didn’t lunge to attack, maybe because he didn’t want to hurt his master in the process.  I didn’t break eye contact with the dog as I spoke with the swarm buzzing in accompaniment, “Regent, this isn’t for Shadow Stalker’s ears.”

“Got it,” Regent spoke.  Shadow Stalker moved to the bench by the elevators, sat down, and buried her face in her arms, covering her ears.  Regent informed me, “She can’t hear much of anything, now.”

“Bitch,” I pulled on the bar, eliciting more struggling from Bitch, “Just tried to fuck me over in the fight with Dragon.  Shoved me into the foam.”

Bitch made a muffled noise, then jabbed me in the side, where I’d been grazed by Miss Militia’s shotgun.  It hurt, and in the interest of keeping her from doing it again, I shifted my position so I could force Bitch onto her back against the ground, her head pinned down by my baton.  She could still hit me and jab me, but my shins could take a lot more abuse than her jaw could.  I belatedly realized I’d taken my eyes off Bentley, but he didn’t maul me.  When I looked up, I saw Tattletale had a grip on his chains.

“You’re a coward, Rachel,” I spoke, “You just did the very same thing you hate me for almost doing.  You stabbed me in the back.  You fucked over your own teammate.”

She mumbled something around the bar.  The look in her eyes made me seriously worry she would kill me when I let her go.

“I’m in a position to hurt you now, and I’m pissed enough to do it,” I spoke, my voice low.  “But I won’t.  This vendetta against me ends, now.  You got your shot at me, you fucked it up.  If you’re still mad at me, you fucking better cope, got it!?”

She snarled out two muffled words.  I suspected they were rude.

When I spoke next, I bent low and whispered the words for her and her alone, “When you’re tossing and turning and trying to sleep, remembering what I did and said here and getting pissed off about it?  Remember that you were the weak one.  You embarrassed yourself, fucked up, you were the weakling, the wuss who couldn’t even confront me face to face.  And knowing you like I do?  I’m betting it’s going to gnaw at you.  That’s as much a punishment as I could inflict, I think.  That’s on you, not me.

“You said it yourself, a while back.  It’s a mistake to underestimate me.  You want another shot at it, it had better be really damn good.  Because if it isn’t, I’m going to survive, I’m going to get away.  And then I might break your jaw for real.  For starters.”

I stood, removing the baton from her mouth and stepping away, to give her room to stand.  Leaning against the wall, I pressed the button and collapsed the baton into the handle.  I stared at her.

Working her jaw, she stood and glared at me.  She either didn’t have a response for me, or she did and her jaw hurt too much for her to try giving it.  None of the others were jumping into the middle of this.

In the face of the silence, I offered one final comment, “I think I’ve already covered what happens if you want to continue this vendetta.  Now I’m going to offer you a deal.  Number three, I think, and my deals with you are usually pretty fair, if I may say so myself.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I fucked up, you fucked up, whatever.  Insult for insult, blow for blow, I’d like to think we’re even.  So now I’m going to trust you to have my back.  I’m going to put myself in more situations where you have a prime chance at fucking me over, backstabbing me, catching me at my most vulnerable.  Because we can’t function as a team any other way.

“I’m going to treat you like a damned teammate, Rachel, but I’ll go one step further.  You think you can put this behind you and satisfy yourself with what you tried to pull earlier tonight?  Cool.  Because if you’re willing, I’ll come with you to help take care of your dogs.  I’ll bring fucking lunch, if you want it.  That’s the deal I’m offering you, pissed as I am right now.  I’ll be your damn friend.”

She looked away, down at the ground, scowling.

“Take it or leave it.”

She decided to leave it, apparently.  Bitch stomped away, slamming the door the moment Bentley passed through it, leaving the rest of us standing there in the rubbish-strewn apartment building.

Grue sighed audibly and looked over our group, “We’d better go.  We should decide what we’re going to do with Shadow Stalker, now.”

“We could keep her,” Imp spoke.

Regent shook his head, “Nope.  There are drawbacks to this, and one of them is that I lose control of anyone I’m controlling while I sleep.  Better to get rid of her on my terms than have her trying to shoot me in the throat while I take a nap.”

“And it’s kind of fucked up,” I spoke.

“I thought you were all-in,” Regent said.

“I am.  But that doesn’t mean I’m an idiot,” I retorted.  “This kind of mind control-”

“Body control,” Regent interrupted, his tone bored, “Her mind still belongs to her.”

“Semantics.  This kind of mind control is pretty high up there on the scale of fucked upness.  People are going to respond to that.  It might be the nudge they need to start responding to us with lethal force.  Think of how different tonight would have played out if Dragon and Miss Militia hadn’t held back.”

“Sure,” he shrugged.  “Whatever.  I don’t know why you’re arguing with me.  I agree, we should get rid of her.”

“What did you do, back in the old days?” Tattletale asked.

“Kept three people I used regularly, with my sister’s help.  But this is fine.  Look, watch.”

Shadow Stalker stood, lowering her hands and arms from around her head, and walked over to the door.  She faced Regent.

“I’m letting you go,” he spoke.

And then he did.  She dropped to all fours on the ground, grunting.  A second later, she was loading her bolt, spinning to point her crossbow at him.  She stopped before firing.

“There’s a catch,” he spoke. “My power?  Once I’ve figured someone out?  It’s a lot easier to control them, after.  Any time you come near me, I can do this.  I can use my power and retake control in the blink of an eye.”

He had her raise her crossbow and point it at her temple.  It was a tranquilizer dart, but the meaning seemed pretty damn clear.

“Next time I get control?  I’m keeping you for a full day.  Maybe two, if I feel like pulling an all-nighter.  And here’s the funny part,” there was no humor in his voice, “I’m going to do it even if I’m in civilian clothes, if my power tells me you’re in range.  You won’t even know when it’s coming.  You’re now a liability to the Wards, and you won’t ever know when or where I’m going to get control again…

“Unless you leave.  Skip town.  Join another team.”

She nodded, slowly.  The movement was jerky, which was peculiar.  Was he giving her limited control of her own movements?

“Now let’s walk you off to the other end of the city before I release you.  I don’t think you’re quite stupid enough to try and follow us, but I think my teammates would be more comfortable if they were sure.”

Shadow Stalker turned and walked through the door.

Regent looked at us, shrugged.  “Good enough?”

“She might be mad enough to come after someone else in our group, but yeah.  Good,” Grue said.  “Let’s go deliver the stuff.”

We didn’t meet Coil in the underground base, and the people surrounding him weren’t all the same uniformed mercenaries that had made up his entourage in our prior meetings.  The meeting place was at the south end of the Docks, near the border to the downtown area, and it was closer in appearance to the refurbished, ramshackle building where I’d reunited with the Undersiders than anything else.

The building was an old quadruplex, and it had been reinforced with metal panels, sandbags and plastic sheeting to keep the interior crisp and dry, much as the other building had.  Small rooms with bunk beds filled half of the lower level, with a bathroom, kitchen and living room taking up the rest.

Finding the lower level empty, we headed to the second floor and found an open space supported by two metal pillars.  There were a half-dozen mercenaries with Coil, as well as a collection of people who looked like they had come from every walk of life.  Teenagers, professionals, and two guys that might have been capes – one thin, short guy with brown skin and a tattoo around his mouth, depicting a mess of sharp teeth penetrating the skin of his cheeks and lips.  The other was burlier, shirtless, and wore a rusty, old fashioned looking mechanical rigging around his hands, with a bear-trap jaw plate.  The frame seemed set up to hold metal claws around his fingertips while allowing his hands the full range of motion.   He had a spiked collar of much the same style.

Coil sat in a black leather armchair, with a laptop set on the table beside him.  Dinah was there, too.  She sat at the base of the chair, on a cushion just beside Coil’s feet, picking at the threads of her white dress with a dazed single-mindedness that told me she had probably received her ‘candy’ pretty recently.

“Undersiders.  Tattletale informed me you were successful, despite complications.  May I see it?”

Tattletale stepped forward and handed Coil the USB thumbstick.  He plugged it into the laptop, then turned the computer so the middle-aged man to his left could type away.

“Data’s corrupted, sir.  Looks like the download was interrupted at the ninety-seven percent mark.”

“Can you fill in the blanks?” Coil asked him.

“Probably.  Will take some time.  There’s encryption.  Good encryption.  Maybe a few days, with the full team working on it?”

“Most likely it is Dragon’s work,” Coil spoke. “Let’s assume it’ll take a week, minimum.  Perhaps Tattletale will be able to assist.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Priority number one, I want the data on the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

I felt a chill, but didn’t say anything.  Was he intending to hire them?  It would be a huge mistake in my book, if he was.

Regent asked the question for me, “The Slaughterhouse Nine?”

“At least some of their members have been seen in town, preying on the locals, disrupting recovery efforts.  The recent chaos makes the city a playground for them,” Coil spoke.  “One of my teams is bound to run up against them soon.”

“How likely is it?” Tattletale asked.  She tilted her head in Dinah’s direction.  “Can you ask her?”

“I suppose.”  Coil put his hand on Dinah’s head, stroked her hair, then slid his hand down the side of her face until he could place his fingertips under her chin, raise her head to look at him, “Pet?”

It was disturbingly intimate in a way I’d rather not think about.  No, not intimate.  That was the wrong word for the impression I was getting.  Possessive.  I looked away.

“Yes?” Dinah asked.

“Likelihood that one of my groups encounters the Slaughterhouse Nine?”

“Who?”

He moved to take the laptop, and the middle-aged man stepped back to let him.  He typed for a few seconds, then turned it around so Dinah could see.  It was a gallery of images.

“Bonesaw.” he spoke.  The girl on the screen looked barely older than Dinah, maybe the same age as Aisha.  The image showed her wide-eyed, a spray of dried blood painted her face at a diagonal.

“Shatterbird.”  A dark-haired, brown-skinned woman with a helmet covering the upper half of her face, in a beak shape.  I was reminded of Iron Falcon, the boy I’d tried to help, who’d died in the Endbringer attack.  From what I’d read, Shatterbird usually used her power as the Nine arrived in a city, to maximize panic and terror.  I supposed they were flying under the radar for now.  Fuck, I’d have to do something about my costume, just in case.

“Crawler.”  No portrait, this time.  It was a still from a surveillance camera, a misshapen silhouette, not even humanoid, in a shadowy area.  I’d come across stories about him when I’d been researching possible superhero names for myself.  Not pretty.

“Mannequin.”  Another long-distance shot.  The figure was standing by Bonesaw in the photograph, with other hulking figures within the shadows of the background.  He stood almost twice her height, and he looked artificial.  His body was in pieces, each section wrapped in a hard shell of ceramic or plastic or white-painted metal – I couldn’t be sure.  His joints were a mix of loose chains and ball joints.  A Tinker with a body-modification fetish.  I couldn’t say how much of the transformation was his own power and how much was Bonesaw’s work.

“The Siberian.”  A woman, naked from head to toe, her body painted in alternating stripes of jet black and snow white.  She had gone up against the Triumvirate – Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon – on a dozen occasions, and she was still around to talk about it.  Or around, at least.  From what I’d read, she didn’t talk.

“Burnscar.” Younger, maybe an older teenager or a young-looking twenty-something.  She looked almost normal, with her dark hair badly cut, but then I saw the vertical row of cigarette burns marking each of her cheeks, and a faint glow to her eyes.

“Hatchet Face.”  This was one I hadn’t even heard of.  The man didn’t wear a mask, and his head was shaved.  He looked like he had been beaten, burned and just plain abused so often that his face was as much scar tissue than flesh, and he didn’t look like he’d been handsome to begin with.

“Jack Slash.”  Jack looked like someone on the attractive side of average, his dark hair cut short and styled with gel.  His beard and moustache were immaculately trimmed so that each had a serrated edge, and his shirt was wrinkled, only half buttoned so his hairless upper chest showed.  He had kind of a Johnny Depp look to him, though he had more of a widow’s peak, a longer face and lighter eyes.  Good looking, if you looked past the fact that he was a mass murderer.  He held a small kitchen knife in the photo.

There were parahumans who were fucked up before powers entered the picture, like Bitch, and there were parahumans who became monsters after they got their powers, like Bakuda.  Then there were the really dangerous ones, the people who had probably been monsters before powers were even on the table, and then they got worse.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, you had Bonesaw, who was like some kind of artist, as psychopaths went.  The sort of person that drew other lunatics to her, just because they wanted to see what she would do next.  Even that wouldn’t normally work as a dynamic, but as I understood it, Jack somehow managed to play them off one another and keep the group more or less intact.  He was familiar enough with the psychology of his group and just plain charismatic enough to keep them from killing one another.

Which wasn’t to say they didn’t.  There were only eight members in their group at present, and the turnover rate was pretty damn high, because they had a tendency towards recklessness, infighting and showy displays.  They thought nothing of descending on an elementary school, just because they could.  When the heroes came for them, they came with lethal force.

“Mmm,” Dinah said.

“What is it, pet?” Coil murmured.

“It’s him.”

“Who?”

She pointed at the screen, at Jack Slash.  “Him.”

“You’re going to have to explain it to us, pet.  What about him?”

“He’s the one who makes everyone die.”

I shivered.  What?

“Everyone here?”

Dinah shook her head, her hair flying out to either side.  “Everyone.  I don’t understand.  Can’t explain.”

“Try,” he urged her.

“Sometimes it’s in two years.  Sometimes it’s in eight.  Sometimes in between.  But if he’s alive, something happens, and everyone on Earth starts to die.  Not that everyone doesn’t die anyways but they die really fast when that something happens, all one after another, and in a year almost everyone is dead.  So I said everyone, if that makes sense and a few live but they die pretty soon after anyways and-“

“Shh, pet.  I think we understand what you’re saying.  Quiet now, unless you think of something important.  We need to consider this.”

Silence reigned for a few long seconds.  You could have heard a pin drop.

“His power isn’t all that, I don’t think,” Grue spoke, slowly, as if considering the words as he spoke.  “Space warping effect, so any blades he’s holding have an edge that extends a horrendously long distance, all with the optimal force behind the swing.  Swings his knife, cuts through an entire crowd.  Doesn’t make sense that he’d be able to murder everyone on Earth.”

“Unless he somehow cuts the planet in half,” Tattletale mused.

That was disquieting.

“No,” Dinah spoke.  “He doesn’t.”

“I think we need more numbers if we’re to understand this, pet.  What is the likelihood that he succeeds in this?  To one decimal point.”

“Eighty three point four percent.”

“You said if he’s alive.  What if we killed him?  Now?  To one decimal point.  If I use my power.”

“Thirty one point two percent chance someone kills him before he leaves the city, if you use your power.  It doesn’t happen until fifteen years from now, if you do.”

“So it still happens?” Coil asked.

“Yes.  Always happens.”

Tattletale spoke up, “He’s the catalyst for something else, then.”

“Is it always successful, pet?  This something that kills everyone on Earth?”

She shook her head, “Not always, not all the way.  Sometimes more people live.  Sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands, sometimes billions.  But millions or billions always die when it happens.”

“If I were to send the Travellers?  How likely would they be to kill him?”

“My head hurts.”

“Please, pet, this is important.  To one decimal point.”

“Twenty two point six percent.  Thirty point nine percent chance some of them die.”

“And the Undersiders?”

“Eleven point nine percent chance they succeed.  Fifty five point four percent chance they die if they fight those people.”

Coil sighed, then straightened.  He looked at the middle-aged man, handed him the computer, “I strongly recommend you get what information you can on the group.  Any detail in the PRT records could be invaluable.  Lose sleep if you have to.”

The man took the laptop, swallowed, and then offered a quick bob of his head.  The others in the assembled group around Coil looked just as alarmed by what they’d overheard.

“We should contact the local heroes,” Grue spoke.  “Let them know what’s up.”

Coil nodded, slowly, “I’ll look into it.  That said, I think the numbers illustrate one thing.  You are not equipped to fight that group.  If you encounter them, you-“

“Sixty percent,” Dinah muttered.

“Sixty percent, pet?”

“Sixty percent chance the Undersiders encounter some of those people.”

Coil turned to look at us.  “So you’re likely to encounter them.  When that happens, you run.  Cede any territory, abandon any job.  I would rather you were alive than successful in a job.”

“Got it,” Grue spoke.

“In the meantime, we move on to the next phase of my plan,” Coil spoke.  “You may be wondering about this location, how it is similar to the new headquarters I provided you.  I have outfitted these areas to be your stations, points from which you will operate, work to seize and keep territory.  I have several more.  If you’re amenable, I would have each of you take one of these stations for yourself.  Grue, this would be your station, shared with Imp, which I assume is alright?”

Grue looked around, “Big place and a lot of beds for two people.”

“More on that later.  Rest assured, I can provide staff, help.  I expect you’ll wish to find and recruit people of your own.  Contact me about funds – I will ensure that anyone you hire is paid well.”

Grue nodded.

“Regent?  Your territory is near Grue’s, close to the water.”

Regent nodded.

“Bitch is absent?”

“Interpersonal stuff,” Grue replied.  “She’ll be back.”

“A shame.  Your other headquarters, where I moved your collective belongings, that will be her station.  Barker and Biter here showed up for the Endbringer fight, and I got in contact with them.  They, alongside these three young individuals,” he gestured to the two parahumans, and three college-aged kids who looked rather intimidated, “Will work under her.  Barker and Biter profess to be fearless, and should have little difficulty managing the dogs, even when Bitch’s abilities are at work.  The men and the young lady I’ve provided have some degree of training in veterinary medicine or handling dogs.  Let her know this.  She is free to accept them or refuse them as she sees fit.”

Grue looked over the five people who would be Bitch’s henchmen, nodded.

“Tattletale, I’ve set up quarters near Lord Street, in one of the ABB’s old locations.  I assume your teammates will want to be in contact, and this area is both accessible, and it can reach any other area readily.  The area is already furnished with computers, and you’ll find staff there, people who are capable at gathering information, be it from media, computers or the streets.  You’ll also find a small force of mercenaries that I’ve assigned to you, so you can act on that information where you see fit.”

“Cool.”

“Skitter, I have set up quarters near the south end of the Boardwalk.  Reconstruction and repair work is still ongoing there, but if you will be patient, it may well be one of the more lucrative locations when things are up and running again.”

I nodded.  That wouldn’t be far from my old home, close to our old hideout.  Did that mean something?  Did he know who I was, or had Tattletale suggested it?  I felt uneasy about that.

“Regent, Grue, Imp and Skitter, I realize I have not detailed any employees to you to begin with.  I leave it to you to start this task for yourself, to decide what you need and how you intend to operate.  Once you have decided this for yourselves, let me know, and I will endeavor to help you fill in the blanks in your individual operations.

“As you leave, you’ll receive emails on the locations of your individual headquarters.  For the time being, all I require from you, for now, is that you establish order and assume some measure of control over your territories.”

There were nods all around.

“Your payment for tonight’s job will be in your accounts shortly, with a bonus for the obstacles you faced.  Any questions?  Any topics you would like to raise for discussion?”

“A few questions, but I figure I’ll see what’s up with this new role we’re taking,” Grue replied, “Then I’ll ask them.”

“Good.”

“I’ve got something I’d like to talk to you about,” I spoke, augmenting my voice with the swarm’s noises to mask it.  “In private.”

“Yes.  That’s fine, I was hoping to have a private conversation with you anyways.  Anyone?  Anything else before we part ways?”

Nobody had anything further to say.  Grue and the others turned to leave, and the crowd around Coil followed them soon after.  One of Bitch’s henchmen – Barker, was it? – leered at me as he passed, dug his hand into his groin in some sort of scratch or a lewd gesture.

Lovely.  He’d get along great with Bitch.

When the group had left the room, I could hear noises downstairs, as they moved about the house.  Or maybe it was Grue, checking his new place.  I was left alone with Coil and Dinah.

I wasn’t sure I liked that our group was being split up like this.  The timing seemed bad.  I’d sort of been hoping I could repair the divide, and that would be hard if we were each in our own territories, doing our own things.

I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

“I heard about the incident at the hospital, following the Endbringer attack.”

I nodded.

“Tattletale told me that you know I was fully informed about your true nature.”

“Yeah.”

“Did she explain how?”

I shook my head.  She’d told me about his power in confidence.

“Well, I suppose I may share that detail at some point in the future.  You understand my desire to keep certain things private?”

“Yeah, no.  I get it.  It makes sense, it’s smart.”

“Mmm,” he murmured.  He turned to his pet, stroked her head like one might with a dog or a cat.  She stared down at her dress, picked at a thread that was sticking out, stretching it out long.  The thread snapped, and she let it drift from her hand to the ground.  Then she started picking at another.  Coil interrupted my observations, “So.  You wished to discuss something?”

“Yeah.  I’ve made a decision.”

“Do tell.”

“Before, back in the limousine, you asked me what I wanted out of all this, what I desired from my deal with you.”

“Yes.”

“I asked you to fix the city, you told me you planned on doing that anyways, that I should ask for something else.”

“And you’ve decided.”

“Yeah,” I took a deep breath.  “Dinah.  Your… pet.”

“You want me to release her.  I’m afraid-“

I hurried to cut him off, “No.”

He stopped, tilted his head slightly.

I swallowed, felt an ugly feeling in my gut, “I know she’s invaluable to you.  I know how useful her talent is, and the lengths you went to in getting ahold of them.  I don’t like it, but I get it.”

He didn’t respond.  He just stared at me, his mask lacking eye holes, just black cloth stretched over eye sockets.

“I… All I’m asking is that you let her go when you’ve done it.  When you take this city, when you succeed in your plan, you release her to go home to her family.  If you do that, I’ll work for you.  I’ll try harder than anyone, to get this city under your control, and then I’ll work for you for as long as you’ll have me, afterward.”

“I’m afraid, Skitter, that this deal doesn’t quite balance out.  I intend no offense, but my initial impression is that my pet is far more valuable to me than you are.”

No.  My heart sank.

“But I can accept it,” he spoke.  “Provided you prove to me that your talents are worth losing hers.  I admit, the active assistance you can provide might prove more useful when the city is firmly in my grasp, when I have less to be concerned about in terms of day-to-day operations.”

I nodded, numbly.

“Anything else?”

I shook my head, then turned to leave, wordlessly.

When I went downstairs, Tattletale and Regent were already gone.  Maybe they were checking out their new places.  Grue and Imp were in the ‘living room’, opening crates of stuff to see the supplies they had available.

I wasn’t up to talking to them, or explaining the recent conversation.

Leaving the building without a word, I sloshed through the water.  I realized my fists were clenched, and my glove was sticking to itself, thanks to the residual containment foam.  Annoying.  I wondered if I could scrub it off.

When I peeled my fingers away from the glove, I realized my hand was shaking.

I took a deep breath, to calm my nerves.  I could do this.  Whatever I had to do, I was going to help that girl.

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