Snare 13.10

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I slept, but it was less like parking a car and more like running one into a ditch.  I’d fallen asleep not by any choice on my part, but because I’d ceased to function.  Over the past few days, I’d hit my limits of endurance, only to push past them over and over.

We’d made our escape without incident.  When we’d gotten Brian settled, I’d planned on staying awake and keeping an eye on him, only to drop off to sleep within a minute of sitting down.  I’d tried to push my limits once more and I’d discovered them.

When I woke up again, it was dusk.  I was curled up in a chair with my head on the armrest.  My eyes were sore and itchy, and I wasn’t sure why.

We’d settled at Brian’s headquarters, because it was close, and there had been the unspoken agreement that it would be better for him to be somewhere he’d be comfortable.

I was still tired, and I kept my head on the chair’s arm, clutching the blanket that someone- I suspected Tattletale- had draped over me.  I could see her in the bed in the other corner of the room, lying beside Aisha.  When I’d dozed off, it had been Brian and his sister sitting on the bed.

The blanket’s presence unsettled me, and I couldn’t put my finger on why.  It was thoughtful, nice, and the fact that I didn’t know who’d done it or that I’d been unconscious and helpless when they’d done it, it shook me from the twilight of near-sleep.

Which meant I was now wide awake when I desperately wanted to get back to sleep, to stop thinking for just a few minutes.  The second I started worrying about things, my shot at a good rest would be gone.  Worrying about things like Dinah, and Cherish’s hints that Coil wasn’t on the up and up about our deal.  Worries about what that could mean in the long run.  The newest were my anxieties over Grue.

No, I wouldn’t be getting to sleep any time soon.  I turned my attention to checking my surroundings, rousing my swarm to check the surrounding streets and rooftops, count the nearby civilians, and get a sense of who was around.

Sundancer was out cold in the bunk beds in another room, and Bitch was sleeping in another bunk, in a heap with Sirius, Bastard and Bentley occupying the open spaces.  Trickster and Ballistic were walking outside, maybe keeping an eye out for trouble.  Genesis was off-site.  She had to be awake for a while to recharge her power, so she’d told us she was going to report to Coil and check on Noelle.  If my bugs were any indication, she wasn’t back yet.

Parian had gone her separate way.  She’d had stuff to deal with; her family was dead or surgically altered, their faces changed to make them near identical to some of the most hated individuals in the western hemisphere.  I felt bad about leaving her with the aftermath of that scene, but we’d been prioritizing Brian.

Seems Brian’s commentary to me on the morning we’d found out about Dinah, the morning Leviathan came, was ultimately on target.  When the cards were down, we protected and helped the people we care about, and we ignored the greater suffering of the world beyond that.

I shifted restlessly.

My bugs ran into a wall of Brian’s darkness in the living room, on the couch.  I could feel it seep through them, tracing their internal organs.  I didn’t move them further.  I didn’t want to wake him if he was sleeping.

He wasn’t.  A hand settled over my bug and covered it.  I felt him scoop up the cockroach and lift it into the air, holding it on the flat of his palm.  The darkness dissipated, and the cockroach heard the bass rumble of his voice.

I made myself rise from the bed.  My ribs didn’t hurt anymore, and my burns were gone, but my muscles had kinked up from my sleeping in the fetal position on a piece of furniture meant for sitting.  I stretched as I made my way to the living room.  He was sitting on the couch with his feet firmly on the ground.

“You say something?”  I asked.

“I said you can check on me in person, if you want.”  The words were kind, but the look in his eyes wasn’t.

His stare reminded me of Bitch.

“Okay,” I replied, feeling dumb. I’d come to do that anyways, hadn’t I?

And now I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I hadn’t mentally prepared or planned for this conversation.  I stood there, feeling an impending panic as I tried to think of what to say.

I couldn’t ask if he was alright.  That might be the last reminder he wanted, in much the same way that I’d been trying to avoid dwelling on my own anxieties and worries.  Could I approach closer, or would that bother him?  If I left, would I be abandoning him?

“Keep me company?” he asked.

Gratefully, I approached the couch and sat.  I could see him tense as I jostled the couch.

“Are you hurt?”  I asked, stupidly.

He shook his head, but he didn’t offer another explanation.

“Can I ask about the new power, or-”

“Yeah,” he interrupted.

There was a pause.  I saw him raise his hand and create a slithering mass of darkness around it.

“Feels different,” he said, “And I can tell where it is, more.  Slower to create, spreads faster.”

“But the other powers?  I counted at least four.”

“One new ability.”

I nodded.  Didn’t want to argue, so I waited.

From the other end of the couch, he raised one hand and pointed it towards my head.  I stayed utterly still as a tendril of darkness snaked through the air, taking its time as it approached.

I stood up, abruptly, and he jumped to his feet in alarm.  I could see his hands clenched, lines standing out in his neck.

An awkward, tense silence reigned, as we stood facing each other.

I waited until he’d relaxed before I spoke.  “Had a bad time with someone else trying to get into my head, not so long ago.  Um.  Can we- can we just skip the demonstration?  Or make it more blunt?”

“Right.”  It was like a shadow had passed over his face.  He stared hard at the shuttered window at the end of the room.

I sat down,  pulling my knees up in front of me so I could wrap my arms around my legs, and I waited for him to rejoin me.  He’d healed himself, but he hadn’t exactly bounced back.  It wouldn’t be right to expect him to.  Was this the kind of interaction Tattletale had wanted to avoid, when she’d urged Aisha to go to Brian, instead of me?

“I’ve talked to Tattletale about this.  My power’s always had some effect on capes like Shadow Stalker.  Her powers didn’t work as effectively in my darkness.”

“Velocity struggled, too.  He was slower, but I wasn’t sure if it was because of the increased air resistance or something else.”

“Yeah.  So we think I always had some effect in that department.  That’s stronger now.  Affects more powers, according to Tattletale.  She’s making an educated guess that this aspect of my power is going to be more effective on capes with a physical power.”

“Right.”

“And when it works, I feel… a circuit?  It’s like the darkness comes alive, a cord or wire between me and the people in my darkness, and I can actually see it.  If I focus on it, it gets bright and hot, and I have access to whatever my power’s sapping from them.  A fraction of a power, one power at a time.”

“So the healing?”

“Othala.  I was so worried she’d escape my darkness before I finished giving you guys regeneration.  I couldn’t just use her power on each of you, because it was only lasting a few seconds after I touched you.”

“And the regeneration was… Crawler?”

He nodded.  I could see that dark look pass over his face.

“And then the duplicate you created would have been Genesis.”

He shook his head.  “No.”

“No?”

“She wasn’t in my darkness, I’m almost positive.  And my power’s weaker than whatever I’m stealing.  It doesn’t make sense that I was able to form myself as fast as I did.  It wasn’t like she’s described it, either.  Remember, I worked with her when we were dismantling the ABB.”

I nodded.

“It was more like… a forcefield.  Except not.  A hole in reality, and it took something out of me to feed and shape itself.”

I blinked a little in surprise.  If Brian was stealing a share of other people’s powers, then-

I blinked again.  My eyes were itchy.

“Damn it,” I groaned.

He gave me a curious look.  Or at least, that’s what I took it for; I was having a hard time reading his expressions.

“Forgot to take my contacts out.  My eyes are going to be sore for a while, and I don’t have a spare pair of glasses to wear.”

He nodded.

“Sorry.  So small a problem in the grand scheme of things.”

“You need to be able to see.”

I reached into my utility compartment and got a small case with the spaces for the individual contacts and contact lens solution, then pried my right eye open to pinch the thing out.

A few seconds later, my other contact was out, and I was half blind.  The way the shadows fell over Brian’s face, the shadows of his eye sockets made him look like he was wearing sunglasses.  I couldn’t see the lines of tension, anger or anxiety.  Whatever it was that’d had him awake, sitting up and staring into space at ten or eleven in the evening.

Maybe I should have left them in.  Risking an eye infection was small potatoes compared to fucking up this interaction.  Except I couldn’t put them back in without having to explain why.

Why was this so hard?

“You get any sleep?”

He shook his head.

“None at all?”

“Didn’t need to.  Didn’t want to.  Felt better about keeping an eye out for trouble than about sleeping.”

“Trickster and Ballistic are out there.”

“I know.  I saw them step outside after Rachel came back.”

I smiled a little.  “Wasn’t so long ago that you were getting on my case for not sleeping enough, mandating that I get a certain number of hours before we moved on the Nine.”

He didn’t respond, and he didn’t move.  I couldn’t read his expression.  Had I said the wrong thing?  Should I not have mentioned the Nine?

“Yeah.”  His reply was delayed, almost begrudging.  It didn’t sound gentle, or kind, or anything like that.  It was more like I’d expect someone to sound if they were giving up the password to a safe at gunpoint.

“Sorry,” I said.  I wasn’t sure exactly what for, but the apology was genuine.  The smile on my face was gone.

For a minute or two, neither of us said anything.

What had we ever talked about that wasn’t about our costumed life?  At first, it had seemed like common sense.  I was new to the cape scene, it was exciting, he was experienced, and he’d wanted to share his knowledge.  We’d talked about our recent jobs, the implications, even jobs we were considering.  I could count on one hand, maybe two, the times we’d done stuff that hadn’t been centered around powers and fighting and violence.

Now that I couldn’t raise those subjects without reminding him of what had happened earlier, I was lost.

“You shouldn’t have come for me.”

“What?”

“Should have left me there.  I was as good as dead.  Throwing away your life and the rest of the team, to try to rescue me?”

“You’re not thinking straight.  There’s no way I’d leave you behind.”

“Right.  Because you’re supposedly in love with me, so you go rushing off to rescue me.”

That stung, more than it should have, and it would’ve hit me hard anyways.  I couldn’t read his expression, so I went by his tone of voice, by the anger, the bite in his tone.  The fact that he’d brought it up so casually.

Emma jumped to mind.  She’d been my best friend once, as I was friends with Grue. She’d also flipped on me, turned hostile, and used private thoughts and feelings I’d shared with her to attack me.

I took a deep breath.  “That wasn’t why we came to help you.  And it wasn’t just me making the call.”

“Really?  Because I remember you were the one who stopped Ballistic from putting me out of my misery.”

I clenched my fists.  Any resolve I’d had to remain calm was gone.  “I would have done the same thing for Bitch!  Or Lisa, or Alec, even!  Are you seriously telling me you wish I’d let you die?  You’re alive now!  It worked out!”

“Because we got lucky!  Christ, you always do this!”

Using my power, I checked on the others.  One of the dogs had perked its head up at the shouting, but nobody else had roused.  I didn’t take my eyes off Brian, though.  The look in his eyes was scary.  Angrier than I’d seen him.  I’d unconsciously defaulted to the same defenses I’d used against Bitch: Eye contact, pushing back when pushed.

I deliberately lowered my voice.  “Always do what?”

“You’re smarter than average, so you count on your ability to think up solutions on the fly, you throw yourself into these reckless situations, push and vote for the risky plans because you know that’s a situation where you thrive, where you offer the most to the group.  Every step of the way, you do it.  Pushing the all-out assault on the Wards at the bank, charging in to fight Lung after taking on Oni Lee, the fundraiser, confronting Purity, attacking Leviathan with zero backup, the attack on the Wards’ HQ-”

“Stop,” I said.  I was getting flashbacks to my conversations with Armsmaster, now.

“You say you’re not manipulative, that your undercover operation was pure in motive, but you are.  You throw yourself into those situations solo, or you join in on whatever fucked up plan the others come up with, and you do it because it makes you useful, because you know we’d struggle without you, you’re making us dependent on you.”

I swallowed past the lump in my throat.  “That’s not- not what I’m doing.  Every step of the way, I had other reasons.  Strategies, or there were people I needed to help-”

“Maybe Bitch was right about you all along.”

“That’s not fair.”  This isn’t him.  He’s still reeling from what Bonesaw did to him.

That excuse did little to shake my worries that this was what he really thought.  Was this the stuff he was holding back, every day he was with me.

“What’s not fair is that I’m the one who’s tried to keep things sensible, to keep this group sane, and when push comes to shove, when I go with the majority because things won’t go smoothly if I don’t, I’m the one who gets captured and tortured.  Your plan!”

“Don’t.”

“Are you going to tell me I’m wrong?”

“It- it wasn’t fair.  You’re right.  But I don’t deserve all of the blame here.  I volunteered to be the person Trickster swapped out.”

“Knowing there was no way you could, with your injury.  So you let me.”  He stared at me with an intensity that I couldn’t meet.  I broke eye contact, looking down at my gloved hands, which were clutched together in my lap, fingers tangled.  “Tell me, Taylor.  If you don’t deserve blame, who does?”

The Nine.  Bonesaw.  But I could hardly say that.  Not after seeing his reaction when I’d casually brought up the Nine before.  However intent he seemed to be on hurting me, I wasn’t going to retaliate in kind.

“That’s what I thought,” he said, to my silence.

I looked up at the ceiling, blinking to get the tears out of my eyes.  “Okay.”

“What?”

“I’ll own up to it.  My fault.  The blame is at least partially mine.  Maybe mostly mine.  I’ve been reckless, and others have suffered for it.  Dinah, my dad, Bitch, the people in my territory.  You.  Maybe I am toxic.  Maybe me and my motivations, my issues, are causing everyone misery.  I can leave the team if you want.  Give me the word, and I’ll leave.”

There was a long pause.

“Christ,” he said.  “I’m not telling you to leave.  I’m just-”

“You’re making it clear I should.  And you’re probably right.

“I’m frustrated, and I went too far.  That’s not what I’m trying to say.”

“Sure sounds like it.”

I stood up and turned away.  I didn’t want to see that look in his eyes.

I tugged my armor into position and made sure I had everything I needed.  It wouldn’t do to get ambushed and killed as I left.  My modified costume was heavier than my old one had been, and between that and the blanket, and this place’s lack of air conditioning, I was sweating.  My hair was stuck to the back of my neck.

He wasn’t saying anything.

“I’m going to go.  Half my territory burned to the ground, my people need some attention.  If you decide everyone’s better off with me gone, just pass on the word.  I won’t make a fuss, I won’t say you wanted me gone.  I’ll just make an excuse and leave.”

I drew some bugs around my lower face and eyes as a makeshift mask.  My real mask was still in tatters.  I noted that the modifications I’d made were no longer necessary.  I wondered if I would go back to skintight leggings.

It’d be good to get back to my people.  To check on them, and ensure they were okay.  Maybe they’d be better off without me.  If Tattletale or Regent took over the-

“Stop,” he said, cutting off my train of thought.

Didn’t need to hear more of his accusations, his condemnations.  I ignored him and headed for the front door.

“Please.”

His tone had changed.  I stopped walking.

“I’ve never really said anything like this to anyone,” he said.  “But I’m scared.  I’m more powerful now, but I feel more insecure than ever.”

How was I supposed to respond to that?  A part of me wanted to sympathize, to hug him and tell him it was okay.  Another part of me was angry, wanted to slap him, scream at him, because he was still focused on himself, himself, himself, after he’d just attacked me.  I understood why he’d done it, but that didn’t make his barbs hurt any less.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’m on edge.  I’m spooked.  I can’t calm down.  I shouldn’t have said what I did.”

“And you can’t stop thinking?  I feel like that, all the time, and I have for a while.”

“They had Aisha.  So much of what I’ve done, I’ve done because I wanted to support her.  Make up for the fact that I wasn’t there when she needed it, before.  Only we’re putting her in more danger, and she doesn’t respect me enough to let me keep her out of danger.”

I turned around.

“And as long as I’m being honest and upfront,” he said, “I was thinking about you when I had my trigger event.”

I swallowed.

“I won’t lie and say I’ve suddenly realized I’m in love with you.  I don’t really know what I feel, so I can only comment on what I think.  I can say I respect you on a lot of levels, even if I can’t figure you out.”

“Sure as hell didn’t sound like you respected me thirty seconds ago.”

“I worry about you.  You throw yourself into these situations like you don’t care if you die, like you’ve got nothing to stick around for except for those people you insist on protecting.  Dinah, the people from your territory.  People you barely know, if at all.  And then you actually make it out okay, so you do it again, only more so.  Riskier stuff.”

I folded my arms.  This was uncomfortably close to what he’d been saying before.

“I start thinking about how I’m supposed to protect you, get you to stop, get you to focus on a goal that’s actually attainable, because you’re so capable that you could be amazing if you stopped acting suicidal.  Then I get pissed at myself and I get pissed at you, because I can’t figure you out, and you move forward so fast that I can’t keep up.  I let my guard drop for one evening to focus on other things, and then I find out you’d gotten in a fight with Mannequin.”

“It’s not your job to look after me.  If you want to get on my case because I’m putting you and the others at risk, that’s fine.  It’s your right to yell at me for that.  But don’t make me feel bad because you can’t be the macho guy, protecting me.”

“That’s not-” he stopped.  “No.  I’m trying to say I think about you more than I should.”

I looked away.  I might have asked whether he thought about me more than he should because he cared, or because I was a fuck up.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answer, either way.

“Stay?  When I asked you to keep me company, I was being genuine.  Rather not be alone with my thoughts.”

I sighed.  “I could do with some tea.  I could make you some coffee if you wanted.”

He shook his head.  “Jumpy enough already.”

“I’ll be right back.”

I headed into the kitchen, put a kettle on and began digging around for teabags.  It wasn’t easy, when I was half-blind.

Once I had the teabags and a mug set, I got my cell phone out.

“Cranston here,” the woman on the end of the line replied.  “What can I do for you, Skitter?”

Cranston was the woman Coil had assigned to me, as he’d assigned employees to the others, so he wasn’t personally dealing with each of us when he had other things to focus on.

“Need glasses.  Coil has the prescription on file from when he got me my contacts.”

“I’ll have them for you by morning.  Anything else?”

“No- wait.  Yeah.  Can you pass on a message to the PHQ?”

“Coil has contact information.  Hookwolf’s contingent exchanged contact details with the other teams, including the PHQ.”

“No.  I mean, without going through Coil’s channels.  I need to give them a message from me.”

“That can be arranged.  I have a pen and paper, if you’d like me to take dictation.”

“Tell them Burnscar’s dead and Bonesaw’s missing a pair of hands for at least a little while.  Four and a half members left.  If they were being honest about waiting for the right moment to strike, this is probably a good one.”

“Mm hmm.”

“We can give them the location of the Nine if they’re interested.”

“Should I give them your contact information?”

“They have enough tinkers that I’d be worried about them tracking me down.  No.  If they want to get in touch, I’ll leave it to them to figure it out.  Not going out of my way.”

“Alright.”

“And one last thing.  Tell them ‘thanks for the help’.”

“I’ll get the message to them promptly.”

I hung up.

I returned to Brian with a mug of tea for myself and a glass of water for him.  The television was on, and he sat in the middle of the couch.  He patted at one cushion.  With the way he was positioned, there was no way for me to sit a distance from him.

At the same time, when I did sit, he didn’t reach out to touch me, to put a hand on my shoulder, or any of that.  We watched terrible late night TV with the volume so low we could barely hear it, not talking, not making body contact, barely even looking at each other.

He’d confessed feelings for me, after a fashion; I had a special place in his thoughts, even if he didn’t know what that meant, exactly.  We were sharing personal parts of ourselves we’d never let others see.  We even cared about each other.

I just hadn’t wanted it like this.

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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

Snare 13.5

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Bentley had been turned on his back, and Sirius had one side of Bentley’s ribs in his jaws, pulling. Bitch was holding the other side, tugging on it with her entire body in an effort to pull it apart.  Bastard was chained to a streetlight, lying on the ground with his chin on his front paws.  He had shrunk from the size he was before.

She’s alive.  After Bitch had gone incommunicado, I’d worried Burnscar had gotten ahold of her.

The flesh of the bulldog’s monstrous form was decaying, sloughing off and putrefying into a liquid slop over the span of seconds.  As the tissues connecting the bones disintegrated, they became loose, bending in place.  Bitch was trying to get the ribcage apart before the remainder of the flesh collapsed in on the dog’s real body.

“Found her,” I spoke into my phone as I hurried towards her, my rain boots splashing.  “Yeah.  Contact the others about meeting.”

The pain in my legs made me gasp if I stretched my foot out the wrong way, and each gasp only triggered the pain in my ribs.  The air was heated, though there were no fires in the immediate area.  The hot, smoke-filled air combined with the pain in my ribs to punish even my shallower breaths.

“The fuck are you doing here?”  Bitch asked.

I drew my knife and held it by the blade, extending the handle towards her.  “Helping.”

She didn’t respond, but she took the knife and climbed partway into Bentley’s body to start cutting him out of the protective sac.  I stepped in and used my shoulder to help leverage the ribcage open.  My legs screamed with the strain, but I could deal with the pain.  It would be better to suffer some pain than let Bitch get crushed inside Bentley’s chest cavity.

She climbed out with the bulldog draped over her arms, falling to her knees the second she was free.  She laid Bentley down on the ground.

“Is he okay?”

She checked.  “He’s breathing.”

“Good.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t act like you care.”

“I do care.”

“Fuck you.  You heard what that psycho whore said and now you think I like you.  I don’t.”

“I’m not thinking anything along those lines.”

“You’re probably already trying to figure out a way to use it against me.  Fucking hate people like you.  Manipulative, two faced-”

“Hey!” I shouted, cutting her off.  Sirius growled at me.

Bitch brandished my own knife, pointing it at me.  “Do you know how much fucking simpler my life gets if I get rid of you?”

“It doesn’t.  You might get the Nine off your case for a few days, but you’d be facing every test after that all on your own.  Believe it or not, I’m on your side.  I want to help you through this mess.”

“Don’t bother.  Go, leave.”  The knife didn’t waver.

“I’m not going anywhere unless you’re coming with me.”

“Getting cocky because you think I can’t cut you.  Don’t forget that you can be chewed.”

I gave Sirius a glance, making sure to keep my head still so I didn’t give off any sign of hesitation or doubt.

“If you were going to hurt me, you would’ve done it while Burnscar was threatening you.”

“I don’t like being told what to do, so no, I wouldn’t have.”

I doubt that, I thought.  You don’t like being told what to do by a stranger, maybe, but I’d bet you could be happy if you had a stable environment and consistent leadership.  “If you carry out their tests and join them, they’ll be telling you what to do for the rest of your life.”

“I don’t care about the test!” she shouted.  I could see Sirius tense, ready to attack.  “I just want to be left alone!”

“I know the feeling.”

“You don’t know anything!”

“Screw that!”  I jabbed a finger in her direction.  “Maybe my life hasn’t sucked as much as yours did, but I’ve been there!  I’ve been hounded every fucking day by people who only wanted to make me miserable!  Every day, getting so tense that I’d feel like throwing up in the shower before leaving for school, and I’d have headaches before noon!  I spent weeks hiding in the bathroom during lunch breaks because they wouldn’t fucking ease up on me!”

“Boo hoo.  I could tell you what I put up with.”

I shook my head, and took a deep breath.  I forced myself to calm down before I spoke.  “I’m not interested in a pissing contest, Rachel.”

“Because you’d lose.”  She poked the knife in my direction, as if to punctuate her statement.

“Because this isn’t a competition, and yeah, I’d lose.  I’m trying to tell you that we’re not that different.”

She scoffed.

God, my legs and feet hurt.  My ribs weren’t exactly sunshine and rainbows either.  I felt like I had to do something to distract myself.  If it hadn’t been my legs that hurt, I would have wanted to pace back and forth, or run, or something.  I tried to focus on Bitch.  “Fine.  Don’t believe me.  Here’s the nitty-gritty facts, then.  You’re a member of our team.  We need you, and whether you like it or not, you need us.”

She scowled.  “I-”

“Don’t say you don’t.  Don’t say you could manage on your own.  You’ve seen these guys, and you’re not stupid.”

She looked down at Bentley, putting one hand in front of his snout, as if to check he was still breathing.  “All you’re spewing out of your mouth-hole are words.  You only want to help yourself.”

I wished there was something I could have hit, something I could have thrown.  I settled for an enraged groan.  “What’s it going to take to convince you!?  Why can’t you understand that I can and have put myself in harm’s way for you?  That despite all the shit between us and everything we’ve gone through, you’re my friend?”

“You are not my friend,” she didn’t look up at me as she uttered the words.

“Fine!  I’ve accepted that.  But you’re my friend, even if I don’t like you half the time.  You’re my teammate.  We’re similar.  The only difference is that you went through your shit years ago, and I just got through dealing with mine a few weeks after I joined this team.  We’ve traveled down the same paths.  Whether you like it or not, we’re kindred spirits.  We both struggle with the social-”  I trailed off.

Bitch had reacted to something I’d said towards the end there, flinched, almost.

I sighed.  This isn’t accomplishing anything.  I looked at my territory.  The plumes of smoke had turned the sky a gray-black in color, some of which glowed faintly orange with the reflected light of the fires.  The occasional spark floated through the air from one of the fires that burned around a nearby corner.

She broke the lingering silence, “Coil told me that people would leave me alone if I got powerful enough.  If I had allies, if I had money, if I scared my enemies enough.”

“When was this?”

“Before I joined the Undersiders.  He didn’t tell me who he was.  Left me a phone with some cash, then called me a while later.  Fucking words that sounded good.  Learned my lesson.”

She’d spent years on her own, on the streets with only the company of her dogs, running any time a cop or cape came after her.  I itched to ask her if she’d suddenly had an increase in the amount of trouble she faced before she came to Brockton Bay.  Trouble that could be precipitated by a certain ambitious supervillain?

No, it wasn’t the time.

“You know that joining the Nine would get you the opposite of that.  It wouldn’t be the kind of power that gets you left alone.  It would be a life of being constantly chased, always in the company of people who are ten times as manipulative and two-faced as you think I am.”

“I know,” she spat.

She picked up Bentley, then adjusted her grip to touch his nose with one hand.

Whatever.  Down to brass tacks.  I gave her a second to cool down, then spoke, “They killed your dog, hurt Bentley, killed my people and torched my territory.  I want to take these fuckers down, no holds barred, and we’re going to need your help if we want to pull it off.  Screw going on the defensive, I-”

“You had me at no holds barred,” she growled, rising from her crouch.

I didn’t dare to open my mouth, not with the risk of angering her and changing her mind.  I nodded instead.

Together, we limped back to my lair.  Every step I took was a chore.  Where Grue and I had supported each other, Bitch didn’t offer me anything.  It bothered me a little; we could have ridden Sirius if we’d cooperated to help each other onto his back, but that wasn’t apparently in the cards.

My bugs found Genesis a few blocks away.  Or, rather, they found something that approximated a blend between a slug and a rabbit.  My bugs identified two bulbous eyes, two tentacles or floppy ears and a body that hugged the ground.  The insects I had resting on the surface of the water could feel it flowing up and to the sides of the slug.  A small mouth jetted streams of it at the fires of a building near her.  I assumed it was Genesis.  Educated guess.

One of these days, I was going to run up against something strange and assume it was her, only to be unpleasantly surprised.

I drew words and symbols with the bugs.  Shortly after, the flow of the water stopped and the consistency of her body began to break down.  She was on her way back.

Charlotte had taken the kids away, so my lair was empty as we made our way inside.  Bitch assessed the area and then headed into the bathroom, going for the first aid kit.

“Want help?”

She glared at me.  Answer enough.

I headed upstairs and stripped my mannequin of the costume I’d largely completed.  Then I removed my rain boots and began the torturous process of peeling out of the costume I was wearing.  I’d put off investigating the damage in favor of finding Bitch sooner.

Removing my mask wasn’t a problem, but unstrapping my armor and getting my arms out of the sleeves made my ribs ache.  A fresh bruise had layered on top of the old one, black and purple over a purple-green.  I had to pause for a minute to catch my breath before I began on the legs.

I’d been wearing waterproof tights under my costume, and I cringed to think of the fact that I’d been wading in filthy water with the injuries exposed.  I got the first aid kit I’d brought down from my room and found a pair of tweezers.  Tatters of melted plastic from the leggings clung to the creases and edges of the burn.  Slowly, carefully, I worked my way down, removing the black fragments, digging in where necessary.  Every area I cleaned, I disinfected.  The largest burn covered my right heel, the top of my foot, and half of my calf, but the toes were okay.  The other marked the left ankle, heel and a patch small enough to cover with my hand on the shin.  There was less damage, but there was more melted spandex crusting it.  If I had second degree burns, it would be there.

The disinfectant virtually hissed as it touched my burns.  I applied it liberally, then got out the gauze and antibiotic cream.

It hurt as much as the lingering effects of Bakuda’s pain grenade, but there was also the knowledge that it would take forever to heal.  I wouldn’t be able to wear skin-tight leggings over the injured area.

Bastards.  This pain was nothing compared to what they’d subjected my people to.  How many people had lost parents, loved ones, friends?  Homes?  I couldn’t even complain to myself about the burn without feeling guilty.

Genesis was the first one to arrive upstairs, carried by one of her remotely controlled images, a crude rendering of a man who draped her in a chair and then faded as she woke.

“I couldn’t put out any of the major fires,” she said.  For someone who had just spent four fifths of the day sleeping, she looked exhausted.

“Thank you for trying.”  I took the wire cutters to the inside of my burned costume’s leggings.  Each squeeze got me only half an inch of cut material.

“What next?”

“I’ve outlined a basic plan with Grue.  He contacted the others.  They should be arriving shortly, and we’ll all discuss it together.  Tattletale doesn’t think Burnscar’s going to come back anytime soon, but I’ve laid out spider-silk tripwires over the area, just in case.”

“A plan?”

“Of attack.  It’s easier if we wait until everyone’s arrived before I get into it, so I’m not repeating it too many times.  Might even be smarter, if Cherish is looking in and trying to read my emotions to figure out what we’re doing.”

Attack?”

“Being careful and being on the defensive isn’t getting us anywhere.”

“It’s keeping us alive.”

I shook out my costume and examined it.  Progress was too slow.  I put down the wire cutters and got the plastic lighter from my utility compartment.  I proceeded to burn through the material on the inside of the leggings, from the cut I’d made all the way to the crotch, then back down the other side, putting out any flame that lingered.  I was nearly done when I finally responded,  “I don’t think it is.  We’re still dying.  It’s just… slower.  Can you honestly tell me we’re going to survive another two confrontations like this?”

“So you want to be aggressive instead?  Suffer a fast death?”

“Yes to the first part, no to the second.  Look, they’re good because they’re experienced.  Jack has been doing this for years.  He knows the exact balance he needs to strike, to be unpredictable enough that we can’t plan against them, but clever enough that we can’t catch them off guard.”

“But you want to try.  To catch them off guard, I mean.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s suicide.  Like, what are the odds you’re going to make it through a third round?  If we have a fifty-fifty chance of dying in a given confrontation, that’s, what, a one in eight chance?”

“You’re better at math than I am.  Sure.  Except we’re not going to fight them head on.  Tell me, what are the limits on your abilities?”

“There really aren’t any.  If it makes sense, if it’s self-sustaining, with organs and an energy supply, it’s easier on me.  I don’t need to take up as much of the load with personal effort.  Bigger and denser forms are more taxing, too.”

“What about materials?  What can you use to put a body together?”

“I… don’t know.  I can control it, sorta, but my power chooses for me.  I visualize it as I use my power, I drift off, and I go into that sort of twilight state when you’re just barely almost asleep, and your mind wanders.  Anything I haven’t firmly put together in my head gets filled in with the stray thoughts and imagination.  I never put too much effort into the material, unless I wanted something like armor or stone skin.”

So ridiculously powerful.  If I had her power… damn it.

“And special abilities?  You can give them to your forms?”

“I have to visualize the mechanism, the organs or whatever that make it work.  I only have a limited time before I’m knocked out, so time I spend on that is time I’m not working on other stuff.  Like the form I was just using, you didn’t see it, but-”

“I saw it.”

“Right.  The bugs, right.  Well, I visualized the water suction system and the water gun, but because I didn’t focus on the body, it didn’t have arms or legs, and it was slow, and because it didn’t have vital organs, it drained me.”

“Okay.”  I held up my costume with the legs and feet reduced to tatters.  I turned my attention to a box behind my chair, tucked beneath a shelf of terrariums.  A small tide of roaches lifted it and carted it to me.  Inside were the scraps of fabric and mask left behind after Mannequin’s first retreat.  I hadn’t wanted to spare any material.

“Why are you asking?”

“Trying to assess the resources we have at our disposal.”

I heard a car door slam outside.  That would be either Grue or a collection of the others.

Genesis used her hands to shift her position in her seat.  I glanced at her legs.  They were thin.  Atrophy.  She’d been in a wheelchair for a while.  When I looked up, I saw she’d caught me looking.

“If you have a question, I’d rather you ask than keep wondering.”

I felt my face heat up, and quickly turned my attention to the fabric of my old costume.  I used the roaches to arrange a patchwork on the floor, using the tattered scraps.  My spiders crawled from the terrariums to begin connecting the pieces.  It didn’t have to be pretty.

“Really.  Ask.”

“Were you disabled because of your power?  A side effect, or something that happened in costume?”

She shook her head.  “I’ve been in a chair since I was four.  No, if anything, it’s the other way around.”

Other way around?  My first thought was trigger event.  The second was, maybe that idea about people being stronger if they get their powers at a younger age is true after all.

As I mentally categorized my musings, I felt them connect with a bunch of other thoughts.  Of the six Travelers, three were among the more powerful capes in Brockton Bay that I’d met.  In terms of sheer destructive effect, Sundancer and Ballistic were top-notch.  Genesis was top of the line in sheer utility and versatility, a combatant that could endlessly return to the battlefield with whatever form she wanted, provided that her real body was left unmolested.  Topping it off, Noelle was apparently so powerful she had to be kept in quarantine.  Trickster was impressive, if not quite in the same class as his teammates, and I had no idea what Oliver was all about, since he didn’t have powers, as far as I knew.

How had they come together?  If I ran with the theory that Genesis somehow had her trigger event at four and was more powerful as a result, did that mean the other powerful members of the group had done something similar?  If so, how were they connected?

Or was I thinking along the wrong lines?

My bugs counted the people who’d exited the car and were heading through the storm drain.  A group.

“The others are coming in.  Your team and Regent.”

She smiled a little, but it was almost a sad expression.  Resigned.

Back when I’d first talked with Sundancer, I could remember asking her about her experience with the Travelers.  What was it she’d said?  Intense, violent, lonely.  Lonely despite the fact that they were constantly in each other’s company.  I couldn’t exactly remember what Sundancer’s explanation for that loneliness had been.  It had been vague, hadn’t it?

Seeing Genesis’s expression, I suspected Sundancer wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

The others made their way upstairs, followed by Bitch.  They gathered around my room, all standing.  I moved to stand, myself, but Trickster gestured for me to stay seated.

“You okay?” Regent asked.

“Alive.  Hurts like hell.”

Through my swarm-sense, I felt a truck park outside.  Grue let himself in through the front door.

Before long, all were present.  Grue dialed Tattletale and put the phone on speaker.

“Yo,” her voice came through.  “Me and Coil here.”

“Skitter wants to attack the Nine, remove a tester before they get their turn.”

Trickster whistled.  “Risky.”

“Look at it this way,” I said.  “Um.  How many police forces and superteams have tried to beat the Nine?  How many divisions of the Protectorate or alliances of cape teams have tried to beat them?”

“Lots,” Trickster said.

“Too many to count.  The Nine play things like my team does on good days.  They pick their fights, avoiding confrontations or disappearing when they aren’t certain they can win.  When they do fight, they hit where it hurts.  We do that.  Look at what Regent did to Shadow Stalker, what I did to Lung on both occasions.  And they terrorize their victims.  We do the same thing, unintentionally or not.  Grue is scary with the darkness, Bitch’s dogs make people shit themselves.  Me?  Everyone’s at least a little creeped out by bugs.  Tattletale and Regent are unnerving in a whole different way.  The Nine are us on steroids.”

“That’s not a very flattering comparison.”  Grue folded his arms.

“No.  But I think it’s on target, and I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that they wound up considering two members of our group for the Nine, Cherish’s motivations aside.  So let’s avoid playing things like Jack wants us to, let’s not do things the way better heroes have tried and failed.  We play this like they play this.  Unpredictable, calculated recklessness, we don’t get caught up in a fight, and we think through every part of the plan.”

Grue shook his head a little, as if in response to some thought that crossed his mind.

“You will have my assistance,” Coil said, “Jack Slash needs to die, and you’ll have access to all of my resources should you move forward.”

“Alright.  Thanks.  Bitch is on board, I think?”

Bitch nodded.

“Everyone needs to be willing to do this if we’re going to move forward.  I’m not just talking about attacking these guys.  Sundancer, Ballistic, you guys have been holding back for a long time.  I know it’s asking a hell of a lot, but… are you guys prepared to kill?”

Silence hung in the air for a few long seconds.

“Yeah,” Ballistic said.  “If it’s monsters like that?  I think I could.”

Sundancer hesitated.  She hugged her arms against her body, lips pursed.

“Mars,” Trickster said, his voice quiet, “You’ve killed before.”

“Accidentally.”

I thought back to her hesitation to use her power, back when we’d fought Oni Lee and Lung together.

“These guys aren’t bystanders, they’re not people,” Ballistic said.  “They don’t even resemble people.  They’re freaks, monsters.  The worst this planet has to offer.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“By killing them, you’re saving dozens, even hundreds of people,” I said.

“It’s not that simple!”

“It really is,” I replied.  “I don’t think we need an answer now, but you need to let us know before we begin.”

“What else do you need?” Lisa asked, through the phone.

“We can’t do anything until you find them.  I know the local technology is down, but-”

“But the local police and capes brought in emergency communications, just like Coil did for us.  I’ve been listening in on the radio transmissions.  Narrowing it down.  I could pull an all-nighter, listen in, and figure it out.”

“That’s as good an excuse as any,” Grue said.  “If I’m going to help with this, I need to know that you’re on the ball.  I don’t do this unless everyone that’s going to be on the battlefield gets six hours of sleep before we begin.  By that time, Tattletale will have a location.”  He faced me square on as he said it.

“I don’t have normal sleep patterns,” Genesis replied, “In fact, I need to be awake to recharge.”

“Exceptions allowed, of course,” Grue said, without turning away from me.

Six hours of sleep, with everything I had on my conscience?

“Sure,” I lied.  “But we attack first thing in the morning, or as soon as Tattletale pins them down.”

“First chance,” he agreed.

“Is there any possibility that we could deploy Noelle?”  I asked Trickster.

“No,” Trickster said.

“If she’s as powerful as you say-”

“If Noelle used her power in this battle you’re talking about, everyone loses.”

The Travelers were way, way too fond of that line.

“Then, Coil, what kind of munitions do you have?”

“Most.  I can provide virtually anything, given time, but for tomorrow morning?  Well, tell me what you need.”

“I’m thinking explosives.  How much can you provide?”

“Hold on,” Lisa cut in.  “You’re talking about Ballistic and Sundancer using their powers without limits, you want to use Noelle, now explosives?”

“And I’m talking about me using black widows, brown recluses and every nasty bug I have at my disposal.  I’m talking about us packing guns and grenades.  All of us.  No holds barred.”

Trickster rubbed his chin.  “Okay.  They broke the unspoken rules between capes, so there’s no reason to actually follow those rules.  Sure.  But do you actually have a plan?”

“Yes,” I replied.  “Keep in mind that this could change pretty dramatically depending on where we find them and what they’re up to when we run into them.”

There were some nods from the others around the room.  My bugs had finished connecting the tattered pieces of fabric.  It wasn’t pretty, but a few tugs to test it showed it was as sturdy as anything I’d made.  I draped it over my lap.  Until my legs healed, I’d be wearing my new costume for my upper body, with the tattered cloth as a skirt to protect my burned legs.

Then I told them what we’d be trying to do.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.4

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Bad, bad, bad, bad.

Burnscar stood with Mannequin just behind her, sporting a red shirt and black jeans, cigarette burns running down her cheeks, and a dead look in her eyes.  Bitch, Grue, Sirius, Bastard and I stood a dozen feet away, walls of flame like bonfires barring our escape routes to the rear or sides.  Droplets of rain fell all around us, making ripples on the inch-high water that flooded the street.  The air was thick with the smell of smoke.

We’d at least had time to mentally prepare for the idea of facing Mannequin.  My strategy had been last-minute, but I’d been in the right frame of mind to fight a tinker, to anticipate ambush and tackle someone with decent offensive abilities, strong defenses and a crapton of tricks up his sleeve.

Burnscar had flipped things on us; she was in a totally different ballpark from Mannequin.  If I had to guess, her offensive capabilities were top-notch, even if they didn’t break the scales like some other members of the Nine.  I couldn’t even guess where she fit on the spectrum of defensive ability, but she’d been with the Nine for a little while and she was still alive, so that was some indication.  And utility?  She had every trick a pyrokinetic like Lung had at his disposal and she could teleport through flames as well, opening up a mess of tricks and avenues of attack.

“Happy now?” She asked Grue.

“Not so much.”

Burnscar’s voice was flat, without humor, like an actor reading the lines from a script without actually emoting them.  “I am following the rules, now.  Let’s see.  Trying to remember how this is supposed to go. Test you, you pass or fail, and then I kill you.”

“You only kill Bitch if she fails,” I said.  Opening my mouth was more automatic than intentional.  The majority of my focus was on our current situation.  Options.  What avenues of attack did we have?  What about self-defense or escape?

I had my pepper spray.  My knife and baton were available too, though I doubted my ability to dish out more hurt than I suffered in an exchange of hits with Burnscar.  Grue had his darkness, and both of the remaining dogs were in okay shape.  I had my bugs, but neither my costume nor my bugs would do well against the flame.

“I can still kill tall, dark and eerie and the alien girl,” Burnscar said.

“Bug girl,” I corrected.

“Don’t really care.  Bitch, the test is an old one, but it’s good.  We don’t get to do it often enough, because it requires research.  Got to do it with Cherish because she gave us the necessary info.  Wasn’t very bright, but she did.  Now that she’s on the team, she can give us all the info we need.”

“You talk too much,” Bitch snarled.  “Get to the point or go the fuck away.”

“You’re going to have to face your greatest fear.  Destroy any hold it has on you with violence, blood and death.  I don’t want you to just conquer your fears.  I want you to murder them, before anyone else can use your feelings for them against you.”  She put a special inflection on the word ‘murder’, making it clear she was being quite literal.

I expected Bitch to say something along the lines of ‘I’m not afraid of anything’.  She didn’t. Her eyes narrowed.

“I’m not going to fucking hurt my dogs.”

“Not asking you to.  Dogs are easy.  Replaceable.  Sure, you might cry when they bite the dust, you love them.”  The lack of inflection or emotion in Burnscar’s voice made the words sound almost mocking.  “It’s sweet.  But that hole in your heart mends, time heals the wound, you get more dogs and you bounce back.”

“I think you’re underestimating how much she loves her dogs,” I said, “A wound like that never heals.”

Bitch turned her head just enough to give me a hard look.

“I’m not saying she doesn’t,” Burnscar shrugged.  “I’m saying the idea of losing them isn’t what scares her the most.  So forget the dogs.  I’m not asking you to hurt them, maim them, murder them or anything like that.”

Bitch glanced at Bastard.  He was growling, barely audible, low and steady, and his hackles were raised.  Were they still hackles if they were mostly fragments of calcified muscle and bone spikes?

“Kill them,” Burnscar said.  She pointed at Grue and I.

Bitch laughed, if you could call it that.  It was more of a snort, with zero humor to it.  “That’s supposed to be my biggest fear?  I don’t give two shits about them.”

“You do.  They’re the closest thing to a human connection you’ve had your entire life.  Maybe you haven’t thought it out loud to yourself, but you’re terrified at the idea of losing them.  You know as well as anyone else that this relationship with your team, it’s like winning the lottery for you.”

Bitch scoffed.

“Sure, it’s shitty as relationships go,” Burnscar continued, “Anyone else would find it depressingly lame.  But they’re the best you’ll get.  The best you can hope for, because you’re fucked up.  Believe me, I know when someone’s fucked up.”

“Like I said, you talk too much.”

“They’re the best you’ll ever get, and according to Cherish, you’re losing them.  Whatever bond you made with them, it’s fucked up now.  Maybe you did it, maybe them.  Maybe both.  But it’s dying a slow death, dog girl.  Rip off the band-aid and finish off these losers who aren’t going to be your friends in a few weeks anyways.  Do it, and I let you and your dogs walk away.”

“Why the fuck should I listen to you?”

“Because if you say no, if you try to run or walk away, if you attack me, I’ll consider your test a fail.”

“So?”

“I’ll have no reason to hold back.  Your team dies, your dogs die, and you’ll wish you were dead.”

“Fuck you,” Bitch retorted, but she glanced at Grue and I, and I could have sworn I saw doubt.  Was it indecision?  The way Burnscar had framed this, Bitch either had to admit she cared about us and fight for our sake, or Bitch could attack us to secure her safety and her dogs.

I couldn’t say which road she’d take, not with any kind of certainty.  My gut told me it wouldn’t be the answer I wanted.

She’s considering it.

Which meant I had to take matters in my own hands.  Burnscar held the advantage, and Bitch was leaning her way.  I needed to flip things and take that certainty away from her.

I drew from the capsaicin-treated bugs in my armor compartment.  There hadn’t been any point in using them against Mannequin, but they might incapacitate Burnscar.  The trick was catching her off guard.

“You’re doing it wrong,” Grue said.

“What?”

“Did you even read the rules Jack gave us?”

“Yes,” Burnscar frowned.  “I did.”

“Then why are you doing it differently than he did?”  Grue pointed at Mannequin.

He was buying us time, using Mannequin’s inability to talk and Burnscar’s less than firm grasp to throw her off her stride.  He didn’t know it, but he’d also provided me with a distraction.

My capsaicin-laced bugs made their way down my back and the backs of my legs.  Near the surface of the shallow water, they spread out, sticking to shadows, the cover of burning rubbish and the darkness that swirled around Grue.

“Doing it differently?  This isn’t that complicated,” Burnscar said.

“How’s it going to look if you do it wrong?  I imagine Mannequin’s going to get punished for fucking up,” Grue said, “But he at least tried.  If you screw up here, right at the beginning, you really think your team is going to be impressed?  No, they’re going to be embarrassed.  And I bet they’ll take it out on the person who embarrassed them.”

Mannequin tapped on Burnscar’s shoulder.  She turned, and he parted his mouth slightly before drawing an ‘x’ over it with one finger.

“Mannequin says you’re lying.”

Crap.  My bugs weren’t in position to attack yet.

“You really going to gamble on that?” Grue asked.

“Yeah,” Burnscar said.  The flames around us swelled in size.

I had no time left for subtlety.  I gave the order for my bugs to attack directly, closing the distance by the fastest and most obvious routes available.

They rose from every corner and shadow in the area, approaching Burnscar from every direction.  I directed them towards the exposed skin of her hands, ankles, face and neck.

The second they landed, they bit, stung and clawed at her.  I even felt a few touch her face.  Then I felt her move.  For an instant, I thought she had some kind of enhanced strength or speed that let her throw herself to one side like she did.  Except it wasn’t her.  It was Mannequin that moved, throwing her to one side, so she landed in the midst of a flaming pile of trash.  The bugs on her were burnt to a crisp and she promptly disappeared.

“Run!” Grue shouted.

Bitch hauled on Bastard’s chain, shouting, “Go!”  She climbed halfway onto Sirius’ back, unable to climb up higher with her injured leg.  Grue and I followed as Bastard crashed into  one of the walls of flame, sending burning trash flying and spreading out the flaming water.  Bitch rode Sirius through the break, and Grue and I hurried after.

Hot.

I stumbled as the heat built.  I was supporting Grue as best as I was able with the pain in my ribs protesting even the slightest movements of my arm, let alone trying to support a nearly-grown teenage boy.  The heat of the flames increased.  I think we could have made it if it was just one or two steps, but it wasn’t.  Five paces failed to carry us out of the flames.  We were too slow to keep up with Bastard and make use of the way he was scattering the flames for us.

I fell in the same moment we finally got free of the flames, and Grue fell with me.  There wasn’t fire underneath us, but I could still feel the heat, intense, accompanied by a blinding pain.  I was on fire.  The water was too shallow to extinguish the fires as they licked around us, and even rolling in it failed to do anything substantial.

Grue smothered us in darkness.  I’d fought alongside him before, I’d been under the effects of his power countless times, but this was different.  I was hurting, I wanted to find solutions, and now I couldn’t see.  I couldn’t even use my swarm sense to assess the situation, because the flames Burnscar had spread around the area were limiting my bugs’ movements.  Our enemies, Mannequin and Burnscar, were similarly out of my reach.  I felt a swelling panic as I thrashed, trying to immerse myself.

I felt something heavy on top of me, then three quick taps on my shoulder.  A signal?  Grue.  I didn’t fight him as he used what must have been his jacket to pat me down and splash water onto me.  I felt the water touch bare skin.

The pain and the heat continued as Grue hauled me to my feet, but the rational part of me knew he wouldn’t do that if I was still on fire.  I was burned.  It hurt, but I wasn’t in imminent danger from anything or anyone except Burnscar and Mannequin.

Using my power, I found difficulty at every turn.  Everywhere I sent my bugs, I encountered fire.  I felt like a blind person tapping their cane around himself to get a sense of the surroundings, encountering only danger, destruction.  A picture was gradually unfolding, and it was an ugly one.

We ran, Grue leading the way.  We fell four times.  My legs and back were burned, Grue had his injured leg, and we were running slightly downhill.  He was clutching my shoulders hard enough that it hurt, and leaning heavily on me with every other step, while my legs had none of the strength needed to support him.

When we moved past the darkness, we were standing in the midst of the shattered Boardwalk.  We half-slid and half-climbed down the ruined area to the beach, and walked over to the water’s edge.  From our new vantage point, we could see what Burnscar had done.

My territory was on fire.

Grue’s shadows still covered the ground levels of the area, but I could make out the tops of the taller buildings.  Not every building burned, but there were enough.  Rain fell around us, but it wouldn’t matter against a blaze like that.  In the gloom, the plumes of smoke that were as thick around as any building appeared black against the light gray backdrop of gray rainclouds.

“Come on, Taylor,” Grue said.  He tried to pull me to my feet, and I didn’t move.  “We can deal with all that later.  Right now, we’ve just got to get away.  We survive.”

“Survive,” I muttered.

I’d been prepared to die against Mannequin if it meant removing one monster from the world.  It was a pretty good indication of how much I valued my life at these days.  I’d cut ties with my dad, dropped out of school, helped get Lung arrested and started chain of events that had led to the ABB terrorizing tens of thousands of people.  I’d served as a distraction so a power-hungry supervillain could kidnap a girl and keep her drugged up in some underground cell for months.  I’d stood by to let a man die.  I’d become a full-fledged villain.  Pledged to protect people and then let them die horribly.  Not once, not twice, but three times.

What the hell had I been thinking, wanting to become a superhero?

“Come on,” Grue urged me.

I stood, leaning against the concrete wall that divided the beach from the street above.

“Genesis is going to be there,” I said.  “We need to go find her and help her.”

“We’re too hurt to do anything,” Grue answered, “Genesis can handle herself.  She can always make a new body with her powers.”

“And her real body?  She had it sent to my lair.”

Grue paused.  “Your lair could be on fire.”

“Exactly.”

He considered for a few moments.  “Alright.  Just let me call Bitch.”

“Don’t.”  I stopped him as he got his phone in hand.

“What?”

“A call at the wrong time, her ringer going off, it could mean alerting the enemy about her position or distracting her.  Wait.”

He nodded, and we ran.

Grue was letting his darkness dissipate, for the most part, as we were under cover and out of the way.  We made our way to the storm drain, using the wall for support.  We headed through the secured doors and into my cellar, then up the stairs to the main floor.

My lair wasn’t burning down, but I could see the faint flicker of flame on nearby buildings through the slits on the shutters.  A quick investigation with my power showed that it wasn’t anything serious.  I set bugs in place as an early warning system.

We headed straight for the bedrooms.  I wasn’t expecting to see what I did.

There must have been fifteen of them.  Kids, none of them older than ten, some as young as four.  There were three to a bunk, sitting up or lying down.  Charlotte was with them, the eldest.

“Don’t be mad,” she said, in a small voice.

“Mad?”

She spoke quietly, as if the kids wouldn’t hear, “I didn’t know where else to take them.  Sierra said we had to hide, that Mannequin was coming.  I saw him killing people without even moving.  He went after families, but he was focused on the parents, not the kids.  He killed them and let the kids run-”

“Stop.”  My voice was harder than I meant it to be.  “I don’t want to hear it.”

This is my failure.

“I didn’t know where else to take them.”

“You did good,” I said.  I sounded like Burnscar did.  No emotion behind the words.  “Someone else should have come here.  A girl or a woman, probably with an escort.”

Charlotte didn’t answer, but moved aside.

Genesis.

Genesis slept on one of the bunks I’d set aside for my employees.  Her face was contorted in an expression of concern.  Average looks, if a little round-faced, she had long eyelashes, and her auburn hair was a mop.

She had to sleep to use her power.  Could we afford to disturb her?  If we tried to move her and she woke up, would it mean taking her out of the middle of a fight where she could do something to Burnscar or Mannequin?

“Where are the rest of my people?” I asked.

“Sierra divided us into teams and sent each of us in a different direction, telling us to get people to evacuate.  I almost ran right into Mannequin.  I hid and saw him attack.”

I felt out with my power, sticking exclusively to the building interiors, to avoid inadvertently barbecuing my bugs and frittering away my resources.  I used the bugs in the area to try to get a headcount.  The geography and the spread of people in this area was becoming familiar to me.  Very few were still alive and in this area.  Too many had died.  How many bodies were there?  Thirty?  Forty?

I didn’t want to think about it.

“Charlotte, did you come in through the front door or the other entrance?”  I asked.

“Front door.  I was thinking about taking these kids and running for it, but I didn’t know if you’d want-”

“Secrecy is not that important right now.  Take them down to the storm drain and stay there.  It’s more or less fireproof, it’s not going to collapse on their heads, and it’s a better hiding spot than this.”

It seemed like getting orders invigorated her.  “Okay.  Come on, guys.  Get ready, shoes on, this way.”

The kids began to get sorted and follow Charlotte’s instructions as she herded them out of the room, staying by the door to ensure nobody was left behind.  There were no complaints and there was nothing like chatter or crying from the kids.  How many of them had watched their parents die for them?  They were so stoic, or shocked.

Grue looked at me, “What are you thinking?”

“They take cover, we stay.  I’m going to try to use my swarm to get a sense of where Genesis is and how the fight’s going.  The second things go south or this area gets too dangerous, we get her out of here.”

“You’ll need this,” Charlotte said.

I hadn’t noticed it with all the people in the room.  At the foot of the bunk, in the corner of the room, there was a folded up wheelchair.

Can’t ever be easy.

“That might complicate things if we have to run for it,” Grue said.

I didn’t have a response to that.

Charlotte left with the kids, and we took the time to manage our wounds.  I headed into the ground floor bathroom to run cold water over the burns on my legs and back.  Grue sat on the toilet’s lid and began gathering the necessary things from the first aid kit.

My power found Genesis, but only briefly.  She was big, some sort of flying pufferfish with a hard exterior and tentacles.  It was a hard image to piece together.  She floated slowly over the streets, and the bugs that I had on her died as Burnscar pelted her.  I tried to send some bugs after her, but she disappeared into the side of a burning building as they approached.  I tried and failed to find where she’d teleported to.  Frustrating.  Whatever her destination, it was a place my bugs couldn’t touch, so I had to wait for her to move away or start attacking from another vantage point.

Nearly half a year ago, I’d gotten my powers when I was trapped in a locker, wanting to be anywhere but where I was then.  I’d reached out, my mind extending out for something, anything to distract me and draw my focus away.

I wasn’t trapped in a locker, but I felt very close to how I had then.  Except it wasn’t the feeling that I was trapped.  My power’s range hadn’t increased.  It felt like that in a different way.

“We can’t do this,” I said.

“Hmm?”  Grue had torn open his pants leg and was suturing one of the cuts.

“We can’t endure this.  We won’t last.”

“We got unlucky and took the brunt of it.  We’ll get a breather.”

“Will we?  These guys are experts in preying on weakness!  They’re going to target us and come after us until we can’t defend ourselves, they’ll kill us, then they’ll go after Panacea, or Armsmaster, or Hookwolf, or Noelle, and they’ll do the same thing!”

“Taylor.”

I pushed myself to a standing position.  “They’re going to do the same thing they’re doing to us, and they’re not just going to win.  They’re going to ruin everything while they do it!”

“Stop!”

I hobbled past him, and he grabbed my wrist.  Between anger and the fact that my sleeve was wet with the water of the shower, I managed to rip my hand from his grip.  “Don’t.  Don’t do that.”

“What do you think you’re going to do?”

“I’m going out there.  They’re just bullies.  They’re powerful, they’ve got every advantage, but that’s all the more reason we can’t let them get away with this.  I’ll bait them out, or find where they’re hiding.  I can take Burnscar down if I can get the right bugs to bite her, or sting her enough times.  I just have to do something.  I can’t just stay here and let them get away with this.”

“You’re so hurt you can barely walk.  If they find you, you won’t be able to run.”

“Sick of running.”

He stood and followed me.  He got ahead of me despite the fact that he was probably hurt worse than I was.  I ducked around him, and he pushed me against a wall.  “Don’t do this.  If you want to get revenge on those guys, if you want to help your people, you need to stop, rest, recover and plan.”

I struggled briefly, but the pain in my ribs and the burn on my back made that far more trouble than it was worth, and it was already pretty futile.

Hated this.  Hated feeling weak, even if it was Grue I was comparing myself to.

My bugs alerted me to movement from Genesis.  I didn’t say anything to Grue, and simply waited as she grabbed her wheelchair, unfolded it and transitioned into it, before wheeling out into the hallway.

“Did we wake you?” Grue asked.

“No.  I can’t be woken by anyone except myself if I’m like that.  It’s more like a coma than sleep.  You were watching me?”

Grue and I nodded.  He must have felt self-conscious, because he backed off, letting go of me.  I did note that he positioned himself between me and the end of the hallway.  I wouldn’t be able to run for the cellar or the front door without going past him.

It didn’t really matter.  He was right.  Maybe I would have gone on if he hadn’t stopped me, using my anger and frustration to drive myself forward until I got myself killed.  Grue and Genesis had, in their individual ways, interrupted that.  I felt simultaneously angry at him and embarrassed that he’d had to stop me.

“What happened?” I asked Genesis, trying not to look at Grue.

She glanced between the two of us.  “Realized Mannequin was using a gas, got a form together to fight that and occupy him, like you recommended, but he wasn’t there when I reformed.  Burnscar was.”

“Mannequin forfeited his turn.  Burnscar went up next,” I explained.

“Ah.”

“You manage to stop her?”  Grue asked.

“No.  I wasn’t prepared to fight her, but she couldn’t really hurt me either.  She left.”

“Can you get a body together to fight the fires?” I asked, hugging my arms against my chest.

“I’ll try.  My reserves are low.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to stop them.”

Grue got his phone out while Genesis retreated back to her bunk.  I made my way upstairs to curl up in the armchair.

So many dead because I couldn’t save them.  I felt doubly guilty because my reasons for regretting their deaths were partially selfish.  It was a deathblow to my plans to seize my territory, earning Coil’s respect and make inroads into saving Dinah, one way or another.

I took off my mask and let it drop to the ground.  My costume, I saw, was in tatters where it had burned.

Our enemies were good, they were smart.  Mannequin had been toying with us, and we’d taken that advantage and beat him to the ground with it.  But every action was calculated.  Cherish was informing them, Shatterbird was apparently smart in other ways, and Jack was the brains of the operation.

Had Jack calculated things so everything would play out the way he wanted, like Mannequin was?

Grue appeared at the top of the stairs.  “Bitch isn’t replying.  We should go look for her.”

“Okay.”

“You okay?” Grue asked.

Pissed.”

“Me too.  Though I get that you have more reason to be angry.”

“I just-” I stopped, clenching my fists.  “I don’t-”

I blinked back tears.  Fucking contact lenses.

He wrapped his arms around me in a hug.

My face was mashed against his shoulder, his grip was too tight, my back was sore where his hand touched a spot near the burn.  There was also that mess of awkwardness from when I’d confessed my feelings for him, that now seemed so minor and distant compared to everything that was going on.

“We’ll get through this.”

“No,” I said, pulling away,  “Not like this, we won’t.  We fight them every time they come, we’re going to be worn out, exhausted from always being on our guard, and if these past fights have been any indication, we won’t make it through eight rounds of this.”

“The way you phrase that, you don’t sound like you did in the shower.”

I shook my head.  “No.  Because I’ve realized Jack wants us to focus on each of his people, one by one, because he knows it’s going to play out like it has so far, and that we won’t make it through eight rounds of this.  Let’s change that dynamic.  We take out testers before they get their turn.  We go on the offensive.”

“Offensive?  Dinah said that a direct attack would be suicide.”

“So we go for the indirect attack.  They want to play dirty?  Let’s play dirty back.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

How the hell was that motherfucker that fast?

He wasn’t even trying to avoid my bugs, so I had a sense of where he was as Grue, Bitch and I tore down the street on our dogs.  I rode behind Grue on Sirius, my arms on his shoulders, while Bitch rode Bentley, Lucy’s corpse lying across her lap.

We’d lost a couple of minutes as we helped Bitch retrieve Lucy’s real body.  It was eerie to see.  When the dogs grew, they really appeared to be adding mass, literally growing and stretching.  Somewhere in the transformation, after they weren’t recognizable as the animals they had once been, their real bodies were reformed inside a placenta-like sac.  Mannequin’s gunshot had opened a hole in Lucy’s chest and penetrated that membrane to kill the real dog within.  We’d used my knife and Grue’s raw strength to help pull the dog free in a grim sort of anti-childbirth.

It might be seen as a waste of precious time in a crucial moment, but I doubted we would have had Bitch in our corner otherwise, and without her, we wouldn’t have a ride, so to speak.

I’d consoled myself with the fact that we had a pair of massive, muscular steeds that could outpace any car you’d see on the street, and Mannequin was limited to his two legs.  The thing was, somewhere around the point where he stopped trying to evade my tripwires and my bugs and picked up speed, when he really started moving, I realized he was actually faster than the dogs.

Mannequin covered a lot of ground with his long legs and seemingly endless energy, and he didn’t have any injuries.  The dogs, Bitch and Grue did.  Mannequin had been aiming at the animals more than he’d aimed at Grue or Bitch, so the damage to my teammates was more or less limited to a few flecks embedded in the legs, buttock and feet.  The injuries were small, but one in Bitch’s stomach worried me.  There were way too many vitals that could be hit with that location, and it was bleeding worse than any of the others.

She wanted to press on, and I wasn’t about to try and change her mind.  I wouldn’t be able to stop her, for one thing, and I did want to help my people.

Mannequin moved in a straight line, onto rooftops, down to the ground, or halfway down and through windows that had been stripped of glass, emerging from the far side.  My bugs swarmed him where I could get them to, trying to snag him with lines and threads of silk and hamper his movements, but I could only get him with a small few at a time.  He was approaching the edge of my effect’s reach, and I knew I’d lose track of him shortly.

Once I did, I wasn’t sure I’d catch him again.  He could apparently see my bugs and since our last confrontation he’d gained the ability to see the spider silk I was placing on him or in his vicinity.  It was remarkably high-resolution vision for someone who hadn’t been able to notice that I didn’t have a pool of blood spreading out beneath me during our last fight.  Or was his inability to see that because he was calibrated to see the small things?

It wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t find him or catch up to him.

“He’s veering left!” I shouted to my teammates, “Faster, Sirius!  He’s getting away!”

I could feel a tremor in Sirius’ body, like the momentary tremor of a twitching muscle, but in every muscle.  My legs spread a fraction further apart as he grew larger, his ribs expanding further in either direction.  The increase in his speed was small but noticeable.

I cast a glance over my shoulder at Bitch.  Her mask had fallen off at some point when we’d been retrieving Lucy or during our ride.  She looked drawn, the lines of her mouth and the bones of her face that much more prominent.  Had I failed to notice she was like that before, was it pain from her injuries that did it, or was it anger?

Whatever it was, I suspected this use of her power was drawing on reserves she didn’t have.

Mannequin disappeared into the penthouse floor of an apartment building, and I positioned bugs at the very periphery of my range to prepare lines of thread and to gather so they could land on him as he emerged.

Somehow, I couldn’t say how, he emerged from a lower floor, mere seconds after he’d entered the building.  He brushed past a small handful of insects, and then he was out of reach of my swarm.

“He’s out of my range!” I shouted.

Nobody responded.  I had to double-check that Bitch hadn’t fallen from Bentley’s back.  She didn’t look any better than she had a moment ago, and she looked out of breath.  I expected the pain of her injuries was taking its toll.  As for Grue, I couldn’t really see anything but the back of his head and his shoulders while I clung to his waist.  I didn’t get the sense that he was about to pass out, either.

No use in responding when you couldn’t spare the breath and everyone knew what the answers would be.  We’d search for him at the last place we’d seen him.  My territory.

Giant paws pounded on the wet pavement as we raced for our destination.

How the hell were we supposed to fight him?  If we could even find him?

He’d have some countermeasure for my bugs and my cocoon strategy.  There was no way he’d let himself get caught up in the same trap twice.  Grue’s power didn’t affect him.  Bitch’s dogs did affect him, but they weren’t bulletproof.

That was without factoring in any additional weapons he had.

One arm around Grue’s waist, I drew my phone from my utility compartment and dialed Genesis from my contact list.

“Genesis here.  What?”

“Mannequin en route to my territory for some kind of revenge against me for our last fight.  How fast can you pull a body together?”

“Two minutes.”

“He’ll be there in five.  Clear people out of the way, and put together a form that can take a beating and hamper him.”

“On it.”

Sierra was the first and only contact I’d entered into the phone beyond the ones Coil had put in prior to giving them to us.  I contacted her next.

“Sierra here, boss.”

“Clear people out of the area, and contact everyone you gave a phone to, telling them to hide and take cover.  Mannequin’s coming back to make trouble.”

“Got it.”

I hung up.  With the jostling movement of the dog’s running, I didn’t trust my ability to put the phone away in the compartment, so I held it in one clenched fist.

During the six or seven minutes it took us to cross from Ballistic’s territory to my own, my teeth were clenched so hard I thought I’d break something, my neck and shoulders so tense they felt more like stone than flesh.

I valued my ability to come up with answers, but my mind was empty.  I wasn’t sure how I’d deal, and the worst part of it was that it wasn’t me that was necessarily going to pay the price.

As we entered my territory, I felt strangely composed for the anxieties that tore through me, a little detached from things.

My bugs swept through the territory, and I did my best to recall where tripwires had been set and figure out which had been broken.  I checked on my people, using bugs to make sure they were standing and that they were somewhere safe.

Could I sweep through my territory using squadrons of flies with dragline silk stretched out between them, to the point that he couldn’t slip past them?  It would take time to set up.

No.  There was no need.  As I approached the heart of my territory, near my barracks, I found him, standing in the middle of the road.

“There!” I called out to my team.  We changed direction and charged toward the street in question.  We stopped when he came into our view.

Mannequin stood in the center of the road, his back to us.  Half a dozen of my people were lying on the road, unconscious or dead.  I couldn’t see any blood.  There were a couple more people in nearby buildings that had fallen as well.  How had he reached them?  Why hadn’t Genesis and Sierra been able to get everyone out?

A quiet horror ran through me like ice water.

Genesis, too, was on the road, in the process of dissolving.  She’d taken on the form of something like a stegosaurus crossed with a scorpion, all brawn and armor plating, with a long, prehensile, wickedly spiked tail.  He’d beaten her.

Very little of the silk I’d laid on him was still intact.  My bugs settled on him, and began to draw out more silk, binding him.

He turned our way, and his mouth opened like a ventriloquist dummy or a christmas nutcracker.  It jiggled up and down, silently, mocking.  Laughter without sound.

“Fucker!” Bitch screamed.  Then she whistled, with a volume and pitch that could make crowds stop in their tracks.  Bentley charged.

The bugs I had on Mannequin began to die.

That took me a precious second to process.  “Bitch!  It’s a trap!”

She turned to look over her shoulder, and Bentley took some cue from that, because he turned slightly.  Maybe that helped, because she hauled him into a hard left turn, wheeling around.

Whatever it was that Mannequin was doing, it spread fast, knocking my bugs out of the air and reaching out past Bitch and Bentley before they realized the threat and started running away from him.

“Get back!” I shouted.

Bitch urged Bentley into a run.  They made it four steps before Bentley collapsed.

Tumbling to the ground, Bitch landed and couldn’t sustain her own weight with her injured leg.  She landed flat on her stomach, and then began making retching sounds as she gasped for air and continued to crawl forward.

Mannequin’s mouth continued jittering up and down, and he took a step closer to us, his hands upturned at his sides.

Gas.  Colorless, scentless, swift to spread and it incapacitated in seconds.  If my bugs were any indication, it also killed its victims shortly after.

I looked around, hoping and praying for some sort of outside assistance.  Nothing.

It was down to me, Grue, Sirius and Bastard.

Bastard looked unnerved.  His master and alpha were out of action.  He took a step forward, then back.  He was unnerved by Mannequin, and I suspected he could smell the gas.

“Bastard!” I said.  He whipped his head around to look at me.

Here’s hoping that Bitch trained him well.

“Get your master!  Go!  Fetch!” I pointed at Bitch.

Bastard turned, started forward, and then stopped.

“Go!  Fetch, fetch!”

He bolted.  Mannequin continued walking slowly towards us.  He didn’t move as Bastard approached and picked Bitch up by the back of her pants.

It would be so easy for him to simply shoot Bastard and slow him down long enough for the gas to take effect.  He didn’t.

“Bastard, come!  Come on!”

The puppy ran back to us.  There was nothing we could do for Bentley.

I hopped down and grabbed Bitch as Bastard came back to us.  He growled as I approached, but he didn’t protest as I took Bitch into my arms and dragged her back toward Grue and Sirius.

Grue didn’t dismount, but I doubted he would have managed well if he had, given his injured leg.  I tried to ignore Mannequin’s steady approach as I propped Bitch’s limp form up against Sirius’ side long enough to lift her arms up to Grue’s waiting hands.  Together, we hauled her up so she was lying astride Sirius’ shoulders, just in front of Grue.

“Gas,” I muttered.  “There’s a cloud of gas around him.”

“Fuck me,” Grue said.  “I’d hoped we could at least hit him.”

I looked at Bastard.  Too small to ride.  He was the size of a pony, but he wasn’t built for riding in the same way, and the spikes and bony plates that covered him were too densely packed for me to find any sort of flat patch to sit on.  I reached for the chain that trailed from his muzzle.

He growled again, vicious.

I was taken aback for half a second.  Then anger set in.  I barked, “Enough!” and I snatched up the chain.

He growled again, and I hauled on it.  The way it was rigged, it looped around his snout so it would tighten around the end of his nose when the chain was pulled.  It was like a choke collar, but focused more on the sensitive snout than on the throat.  He recoiled and tried to pull away, and I tugged again.

This time, he went still, resisting less.

“You’re with me, puppy,” I said, pulling on the chain as I backed away from Mannequin.  “Grue, take Bitch and get to cover.  I can’t see inside your darkness so long as that gas is wiping out my bugs, and he isn’t bothered by it, so remove it as fast as you apply it, but try to push the gas away or displace it or whatever.”

“We need a plan to win this,” he said.

“Priority one is surviving until we think of one,” I replied.  “Genesis will be back in action in a few minutes.”

“A few minutes is a long time.”

“I know,” I looked at Mannequin again.  He’d closed his mouth and was standing still.  I pointed.  “You go that way, I go this way.  Keep an eye on the sky.  If there’s trouble, we signal each other.”

He nodded once.

“Go!”

We split, and Mannequin broke off, chasing Grue.

I headed the opposite way.

Think, Taylor, think!  Mannequin was a smart guy.  Everything he did would be calculated to achieve some specific goal.

Why was he here?  He wanted to hurt me.  He wanted to hit me where it hurt, and he’d done it.  He’d killed no less than ten of my followers.  Charlotte and Sierra could easily be among them.

He had let us find him because he wanted to bait us into a trap.  It had worked against Bitch, for the most part.  She wasn’t dead, I hoped, but she was out of action.

What about the small stuff?  The little things?  After he’d caught Bitch, he hadn’t shot her, and he hadn’t shot Bastard when the puppy was making its rescue attempt.

Why?

He could have been conserving ammunition.  What was that term for ‘the simplest answer is often the correct one’?  It didn’t matter.  It was possible.

I moved my bugs closer to Mannequin, to test his presence for gas.  Only a few perished.  There wasn’t much, if any.  His mouth was closed.  He was catching up to Grue.  Grue must have noticed, because he directed Sirius up into an alley and towards a roof.

Mannequin stopped and raised one arm, then fired.  My bugs felt the concussion of the shot, but no reaction from Grue and Sirius.  There was a pause, then another shot.  Again, no reaction.  Two misses.

Okay.  So Mannequin was shooting now, when he hadn’t been before.

Were there other clues?  What had changed after he’d closed his mouth?

He’d started running, for one thing.

So he hadn’t been running, he hadn’t been shooting…  What had been holding him back?  It could have been him trying to look intimidating, but he could have achieved the same ends by shooting Bastard and making me watch Bitch die.  He could have been just as scary running towards us as fast as he’d sprinted from the ambush site to my territory.

The gas.  If the gas was coming from his mouth, and he was being careful in how he moved, that meant there was something about the gas.  I even had an idea about what it was.

Maybe he hadn’t wanted to blow himself up.

He’d been invested in terraforming, once upon a time.  Making inhospitable environments hospitable.  Chances were he was loaded down with custom-made organisms that were primed to generate the gas he was using, maybe even storing it in a compressed form.  Given his tinker abilities, they could be advanced enough to account for the sheer volume of the gas.  It could even be how his guns operated: with compressed, combustible gas used to fire the shot.

There was no way to say for sure, but my gut told me I was right or I was pretty close to the mark.  His actions, both the obvious and minor ones, make a complete, logical sense if I assumed he was spewing out massive volumes of flammable gas.

Could I even take advantage of that?  The amount of gas he seemed to be putting out would make for a devastating explosion.  It could potentially hurt him, but I couldn’t say if the shockwave or the blast itself would kill me or any nearby innocents.  If there was enough gas, it could even damage or destroy nearby buildings.  Some of the structures around here weren’t exactly sound.

If nothing else, it gave me a clue about what to watch for.  It also gave me a last-ditch weapon if things really went south.  I ordered my bugs into the building I’d designated as my people’s barracks and collected some small items with silk and clouds of bugs working in unison.

A spear of darkness soared towards the sky.  When it lost momentum, it began billowing outward and drifting slightly with the wind. A signal.

“Come on, Bastard!” I ordered.  I bolted for Brian’s location.  I crossed the street, glancing at the fallen Bentley, and I headed toward an alley.

My bugs crossed paths with me, and the items made their way into my hands.  A cheap plastic lighter and a packet of matches.  I stashed the matches between my belt and my hip and slid the lighter into a small pocket in my utility compartment.

I really hoped I wouldn’t have to use them.

Entering the alley, I swept through the area with my bugs, directing them to extend outward with lines of silk between them.  They were gathered close enough to one another that Mannequin wouldn’t be able to avoid them.

I found Mannequin and the black smudge of Grue’s form at the opposite end of the alley.  Sirius and Bitch were a distance away, both sprawled at the base of a building, covered in rubble.  I wondered how this scenario had unfolded.  How had Mannequin hit them that hard?  Grue had reached the roof, the last I saw, and I’d missed what came next because I hadn’t wanted to lose precious bugs from my swarm by getting them gassed.  Whatever had occurred, Mannequin had turned the tables and brought them back to the ground, hard.

Mannequin looked at me, and his mouth was open, engaged in that same shuddering up and down movement as before.  I raised one hand to the fabric that covered my nose and mouth and backed away.  Were Bitch and Sirius close enough to be getting gassed too?  I could feel bugs crawling on them.  Both were breathing, though Bitch’s breaths were rapid and hoarse.  My bugs were alive, as well, which meant they were safe where they were.  A quick test with my bugs told me the cloud around Mannequin was small, with a radius of about four or five feet.  There was no gas around me, either.  The bugs on me weren’t suffering, and they’d be the first to die or feel symptoms.

But Grue?  Grue had surrounded himself in a thick cloud of darkness, to the point that I couldn’t make out his arms and legs in the midst of it.  From what I could gather, he was getting some benefit from it, and was pushing the gas away.  How long could he sustain that, though?  Was the darkness filtering it out, or was he holding his breath, slowly suffocating?

“Mannequin,” I said, sounding a million times more calm than I felt.  “You’re going to back off and you’re going to let him go.”

He cocked his head to one side.

I raised the matchbook and, after checking again that my bugs were gas-free, lit it.  A handful of my bugs carried it into the air.

“Or I light you up,” I said.

Could I?  I believed I could.  Maybe it was fatigue speaking.  Maybe it was the grim recognition of the fact that Mannequin had spoiled any hopes I’d had of winning Coil’s respect and saving Dinah when he’d murdered the people in my territory.  He’d singlehandedly destroyed my reputation and dealt a grave blow to the thing that had been driving me forward.  Maybe a teeny-tiny part of it was hopelessness, knowing that I couldn’t  beat him otherwise.

So yeah, if he was going to snatch my hopes of saving Dinah from me, if Bitch and Grue were about to die anyways, I could turn the tables and blow us all up.  I might not save Dinah, but I could save all the people Mannequin would murder otherwise in the course of his career.  No bluffing.

He stepped back, and I realized his foot had been on Grue’s chest.  I watched as Grue stood and then began limping toward me.  Bastard growled and tugged on the chain I held.

I was in the process of reaching out for Grue to help steady him when I saw Mannequin move.  He closed his mouth, raised one hand, and I could see a hole appear in the base of his palm.  The barrel of a gun.

“No!” the word was as much a grunt as anything else as it came from my throat, too choked for me to say anything normal.  I grabbed for Grue as I’d planned and I shoved him to the ground.

In a movie, that might have been the heroic sequence that occurred in slow motion, where the lunatic villain missed the pivotal shot by a hair and blew himself up in the process.  We’d be left bloody but victorious.

But Mannequin didn’t fire.  He was too collected to do any of that.

He adjusted his aim, directing his hand-gun to where I’d pushed Grue to the ground.

“No!” I said, and the sound wasn’t a grunt this time.  I stepped in the way, putting myself between Mannequin and Grue, arms spread, half-kneeling.  Bastard tugged on the leash again as he stepped forward, and I almost fell on my face.  I could let him go and sic him on Mannequin, but he’d almost certainly die like Lucy had.

“Bastard, back,” I said, tugging him to one side.  I wasn’t about to let a dog take a bullet for me.

Besides, a part of me suspected that Mannequin was going to let me live so he could make me watch while he killed my friends and followers.

I stared at his blank, featureless face, praying my instincts were telling me the truth.

Then he shrugged, and my heart fell.

Three things happened all at once.  The first and most painfully obvious was that I got shot full in the chest.

The second was that I realized Grue was using his power to shroud us in darkness.  He’d probably started the second Mannequin shrugged.

The third was the explosion.

Long, disorienting seconds passed in the aftermath.  The pain hit me like a summer rain.  There was a second of nothing at all, I realized it was starting, and then I was treated to buckets of it.  I writhed, my ribs screaming in agony, trying to find some position where the pain would be less and failing.  I felt like a hot poker was being shoved into the spot on my ribs where I’d taken the hit the previous night.

“Hey, hey,” Grue said, “You’re okay.  You’re in one piece.”

I shook my head, unable to catch my breath.  Each time I inhaled, it seemed to double the pain.

“You gotta stand, T-  Skitter.  Stand up.”

More through Grue’s efforts than my own, I was helped to my feet.  Every movement exacerbated the pain in my chest.

I gingerly touched the site of the gunshot.  Flecks of what looked like glass fell as I ran my hand over the cloth.  Still couldn’t breathe.  The explosion had ignited every piece of rubbish at this end of the road that stood taller than the inch-high water level.  Grue and I weren’t, thankfully, blazing.  My hair hadn’t been ignited either, and perhaps most importantly, we hadn’t been pulverized by the shockwave.  It hadn’t been a huge explosion, but it had been substantial enough.

I looked for our opponent, and I saw Mannequin virtually unscathed, lying in the shallow water.  The blast had knocked him sprawling, but he’d disconnected his parts so only lengths of chain attached each.

An application, perhaps, of that martial arts principle.  How did it go?  An oak is broken by the hurricane’s winds, but the supple willow only bends?  He was already pulling himself together.  There was barely a mark on him.

“Run,” Grue said.

I was about to voice an agreement when I saw Bastard lurch to his feet.  The chain leading to his muzzle wasn’t in my hand.

Bastard pounced on Mannequin, taking one of the villain’s arms in his jaws.  Clenching, he began whipping Mannequin around like a rag doll.  Twice, Mannequin’s lower body was bludgeoned against the nearby wall.

Yeah, didn’t expect us to be that tough, did you?

Mannequin turned the tables in a second.  Between one of Bastard’s shakes and the next, the villain stopped flopping around.  I realized he’d ejected the knives from his toes and staked them in Bastard’s neck and snout for leverage.  His one free hand dangled at his side.

Moving was agony, but I was lurching towards them in a half-run before I fully realized why.  Mannequin raised his free hand and pointed it at Bastard’s left eye.

I caught his arm and hauled it back in the same moment he fired.  Bastard repaid my kindness by whipping Mannequin to one side, striking me.  Both Mannequin and I fell sprawling to the ground.

No sooner had I fallen than Grue was there to help me up.  He was slower than I was with that granular buckshot in his leg, so he’d only just caught up.

Mannequin on the ground, Bastard off to one side, largely untrained with no master and nobody holding his chain, Grue and I both helping one another stand.

That vibrating mouth of Mannequin’s was going again, puffing gas into the air, maybe to buy himself some breathing room from the dog.

“Bastard, stay,” I said.  What commands had I heard Bitch give her dogs?  “Off!”

Couldn’t say whether Bastard obeyed or if he just didn’t want to attack anyways.

I had to check twice to see that there wasn’t anything burning in Mannequin’s immediate vicinity.  No stray garbage to ignite the gas, sadly enough.

I looked behind me, and saw that the flames were raging.  Even the water’s surface was on fire.  How?  Had there been some chemical nearby, or something in the gas that transferred to the water’s surface?  Our avenue of retreat was shrinking.

Whatever.  I reached behind my back and retrieved two items.  The change purse was the first.  I popped it open.  A variety of quarters, dimes and nickels, all kept in place with wadded tissue, and a few small paper packets of smelling salts.

It was stupid to be carrying change around, really, but I’d wanted to have some on hand since it had crossed my mind during my first night out in costume.

I grabbed a tissue and tore it, once, then twice, until I had a series of strips.  Then I ignited them with the lighter, the item I’d grabbed with my other hand.  Dragonflies gripped the burning tissues in the instant I let them fall from my fingers.

Mannequin shut his mouth, stepping back.  Half of the tissues went out or were dropped by the burned dragonflies before they got close enough.  Which meant that the other half made it.

The gas ignited for a second time, but I didn’t get to see it.  Grue shielded us with his darkness once more.  Whether it was to dampen the shockwave or keep us from being blinded by the light or something else, I didn’t know.  I could only trust that it worked.  The darkness dissipated, we were standing, Mannequin wasn’t.

A whistle from Bitch’s direction and a signal that was too brief for me to catch sent Bastard forward.  With Bitch’s condition, I couldn’t imagine how she handled it, but she managed to pump Bastard up.  He grew to half-again the size he’d been, roughly as large as a small car, and when he bit down on Mannequin’s arm this time, he broke the material.  He adjusted his grip until he had Mannequin’s lower body and legs in a hold, but the material there proved sturdier.

Two arms in two fights, I thought, with a grim satisfaction.  The flames at our back were getting a touch too close for comfort, so I stepped forward, supporting Grue.  His arm around my shoulder, we approached as close as we dared to Bastard’s mayhem.

Sirius was hauling himself out of the rubble, with Bitch in the arch that formed with his front legs, chest, and the ground.  She stood, shaky, still breathing funny, making rhythmic facial motions like she was swallowing convulsively or gagging.

Grue limped over to Bitch’s side.  She couldn’t stand without Sirius’s support, but Sirius was shoring up the rubble with his body.  Grue gave her the support she needed and the pair of them made their way towards us.  Sirius stepped away from the wall and the rubble he’d been holding up tumbled to the ground, and he returned to his master’s side.

“Bastard,” Grue said.  “Monster.  Freak.”

Grue took Bitch’s hand and placed it on my shoulder.  She didn’t pull away.  Once he was sure we were both standing, he stepped away.  Bending down with an excruciating slowness, Grue picked up a piece of rubble that had to have weighed fifty or sixty pounds, roughly cone-shaped.

Bitch seemed to follow his line of thinking.  “Sirius, hold!”

The dog lurched forward and placed both front paws on Mannequin’s body, pinning his arm and chest. Bastard growled at the one who was intruding on his quarry, and Sirius growled back.

Bastard quieted.  It seemed he didn’t fully realize that he was bigger, more dangerous and less injured.  He was too used to being the puppy, with Sirius as the full-grown one.

Grue limped around the scene until he stood over Mannequin’s body.

“Ignore the head,” I said, quiet.  “Nothing important in there.  I’m not joking.  It’s a decoy.  Get him in the chest.”

Grue nodded and hefted the chunk of rubble until it was over his head, point facing forward.

Would it puncture?  Hard to say.

Worth a try.

“Do it,” Bitch growled, beside me.  “Killed Lucy.”

“Bentley too, maybe,” I said, quiet.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know if he made it.  There was no way to save him.”

“Do it,” she repeated herself.

Grue didn’t get a chance.  An eruption of fire tore through our surroundings.  Not an explosion.  There was no shockwave, and barely any noise.  It was more like a push, intensely hot and brief.  We were knocked sprawling, dog and human alike.  The agony in my ribs hit me worse than ever as I was knocked flat onto my back in the water and a huff of air was struck from my lungs.

“No,” Grue said.  “You can’t interfere!”

The Protectorate?

It would be disastrous if the Protectorate-

No.  I fixed my eyes on the scene.  Much worse than the Protectorate.

Burnscar tapped her finger to one side of her nose.  “I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“You can’t assist him.  They’re your rules.”

“Jack’s rules, not mine.  But fine,” Burnscar said.  Something about the tone in her voice: it sounded casual, but there was something in it that reminded me of Shadow Stalker and Sophia.  It wasn’t angry like Shadow Stalker was, but it had the same emptiness.  I just hadn’t really picked up on it in the past.

Burnscar gave Mannequin a hand in getting to his feet.  Cracks marred his lower body, and his left arm was a mess of cracked ceramic and pale gray organic pulp.  I heard her murmur something.

Mannequin shook his head.  Burnscar said something else.

He raised one hand, and Burnscar slapped it in a lazy high-five.

She turned towards us.  “There.  He just tagged me in.  Forfeited his turn.”

She cracked her knuckles, and every flaming piece of debris on the street became a pillar of fire, stretching vertically for the sky.  The fire snaked over the surface of the water to cut off our avenues of retreat.

“My go.  I’m taking round two.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Brian was waiting for me as I passed through the door and into Coil’s underground base.  He held a paper out to me.

Sirs and Madams,

The terms of engagement are as follows:
1.  Three days to each member of the Slaughterhouse Nine so we can conduct our tests.  Tests will be performed one after the other, with eight rounds in total.
2.  A successful test or the removal of a candidate who has failed a test will earn the tester bonus time.  3-12 hours for a successful test depending on the number of candidates remaining and 24 hours for an execution.
3.  Should a tester suffer a sound defeat at the hands of any individual during their allotted time, they will be penalized one day of allotted time.
4.  Each tester operates independently, with no hands-on assistance from other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Assistance may be bought, bartered or otherwise rendered in a hands-off manner, possibly including medical assistance, information, provided equipment and suggestions.
5.  Candidates may receive assistance, hands-on or otherwise, from Brockton Bay residents only.  We are fully aware that Legend and his teammates are in Brockton Bay.  Should they interfere with a tester, all candidates will lose the protection of any rules, all terms offered here will cease and the threat implied in point eight will be carried out.  This only applies to confrontations with the active tester.
6.  The Slaughterhouse Nine will handle the punishment of any members of their own team, in the event of failures, the inability of the tester to perform at least a partial round of testing or killing a candidate without notification.
7.  Should the defending parties have two or more candidates remaining when the eighth round of testing concludes, the Slaughterhouse Nine will depart Brockton Bay without incident and refrain from returning for three years at a minimum.
8.  If and when the Slaughterhouse Nine do eliminate five of the six candidates, or if any candidates leave the city, the Slaughterhouse Nine are prepared to penalize the city for their failure.

Mannequin is the first to carry out his round of testing.  He has two days remaining.

We will be in touch.

“Where is everyone?” I asked, handing the paper back to him.

He pointed down the hall.

“Christ,” Brian said, shaking his head as he walked, rereading the terms.  He opened the door for me.

Coil was inside, at the end of a long table.  The Undersiders sat at one side of the table, with Circus sitting at the farthest edge, beside Coil.  The Travellers, minus Noelle, sat along the other side.  I took note of the blond teenager who wasn’t even wearing part of a costume.  Oliver.  Coil was the opposite, as fully covered as ever.  Everyone else was costumed but they had their masks and helmets off.

I got my first good look at Lisa since I’d left her bleeding in Ballistic’s headquarters.  The scar ran from the corner of her mouth to the corner of her jaw, and dark stitches ran down the length of it.  The slang term for this kind of injury was a Glasgow smile or a Chelsea smile, but the term seemed ill-fitting.  Where Lisa often had a grin on her face, the cut pulled the corner of her mouth down into a perpetual lopsided-frown rather than a smile.

Bitch gave me a dark look as I entered, but many of the others were smiling.

“The people in my territory are singing your praises, Skitter,” Ballistic said.

“My territory too,” Alec added.

“I didn’t do anything that special.  My power did the work.”

“And you kicked Mannequin’s ass,” Trickster said.  He leaned back in his chair, balancing on two of the legs, his feet on the table.  “You had a busy night.”

“Honestly, I didn’t kick his ass.  He got some of my people, he thrashed me, I got a piece of him.”

“No,” Lisa said, her voice quiet.  She couldn’t really move one corner of her mouth when talking, so her words came out slightly slurred.

I saw her work her tongue in her mouth and then take a sip of water, wincing.  Brian had updated me: the cut had probably damaged one or more of her salivary glands, and she’d have dry mouth until it healed.  Maybe forever.  The really scary part was that she might have suffered some nerve damage as well.  How much of that half-frown was because of the direction of the cut and the way the stitches pulled, and how much was because her nerves were damaged enough that her face was drooping?

She caught me looking and gave me a wink.  She took another gulp of water and cleared her throat before speaking again.  “They took one day from Mannequin because they thought he lost.”

“If the enemy thinks they lost,” Brian said, “That’s a good enough reason to think you’ve won.”

I privately disagreed, but I didn’t say anything.  I pulled up a chair and sat at the corner of the table furthest from Coil, wincing at the pain in my ribs as I bent down.

“So,” Brian said, “You intend for something like this to happen when you made your suggestion, Tattletale?”

Lisa shrugged, “Sorta.  Thought he’d take the bait, didn’t know how far.”

“It’s not all advantageous,” I said, thinking aloud.  “Yes, we’re now in a position where we could win, with some planning or luck, and the plan we were hashing out at our last meeting might be easier, now.  But we’re also facing pretty heavy consequences if we fail… heavier consequences.  And there’s a lot of places where this could go wrong.  We don’t even know who all the candidates are.”

“Me, Bitch, Armsmaster, Noelle, probably Hookwolf and someone in Faultline’s crew?”  Alec said.

“No.  Jack said they picked two heroes.  Hookwolf, yes.  But their last pick is a hero, not one of Faultline’s,” Lisa said.

“And we can’t say for sure who this person is or what actions they plan to take,” I said.  “Too much hinges on everyone else’s willingness to cooperate and play by the rules, and the stuff that happened at the last meeting of the city’s villains makes me skeptical.”

Brian nodded.  “It’s important that we find this person, make sure they play along, so we don’t wind up losing before this game of theirs even starts.”

“There’s other problems here,” I said, “We can’t forget what Dinah said about Jack.  If he leaves town, it could mean disaster.  If we win, we could all lose in the long run, because it’d mean he left town and Dinah’s prophecy would come true.  Hell, a lot hinges on whether the Protectorate is on the same page as us.  If they arrest him and take him out of town…”

“It could mean the end of the world.”

“Right,” I said.

“Hookwolf has proposed an all-out attack,” Coil spoke for the first time since my arrival.  “He wants to gather the more powerful members of his alliance together into an army and attempt to overwhelm the Nine and kill Jack Slash in the chaos.”

“That won’t work.”  Brian shook his head.  “These guys specialize in dealing with crowds, and they’re experienced when it comes to that sort of thing.”

“Hookwolf believes our local capes are collectively strong enough to do what other groups couldn’t.”

“Maybe they are, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  We should be focused on what we can do,” Brian said.

“You guys are better set up for information gathering and escapes,” Trickster said.  “We could take them on, depending on who it is and how small the group is, but I don’t know how well we’d do in those circumstances.”

“We should mix up our teams, then,” Brian said.  “Just between us, we’ve got three candidates.  Noelle, Regent and Bitch.  Three targets.”

“Crawler couldn’t reach Noelle where we’ve got her stashed,” Trickster said, “I’m not sure what the others could do.”

“What about when Siberian comes after Noelle?” I asked.  “Will the same measures stop her?”

“Probably not,” Trickster replied.

“This would be a lot easier if you’d tell us more about her,” I pointed out.  “Unless you think she can hold her own against the Nine, we’re going to be helping protect her.”

Trickster frowned.  “There’s not much to say.  She’s in containment, and if she doesn’t stay where she is, things would get worse, fast.”

“So she’s dangerous, and she’s not entirely in control of her power?”

He tilted his chair forward until it was flat on the ground and set his elbows on the table, hands clasped in front of his mouth.  He glanced down the table at his teammates.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought maybe he glanced briefly at Coil.

With a resigned tone, he told us, “She’s dangerous enough that if Siberian got to her, I think she’d make it out okay.  The rest of us wouldn’t.”

The table was silent for a moment.  I could see something in the faces of the Travelers.  Pain?  It wasn’t physical, so perhaps it was emotional?  It could be fear, guilt, regret, or any number of other things.

Trickster’s words reminded me of what Sundancer had said back when she and I had fought Lung.  Sundancer had held back in using her power because she was frightened about hurting bystanders or killing the people she attacked.  Her power was too hard to use without hurting someone.  Ballistic was the same.  Was Noelle another case of the same thing?  That same too-powerful ability, only on a greater scale?

Brian sighed.  “We’ll deal with Noelle’s situation when it comes up.  We have three targets they’re going to be coming after, with a fourth if we consider that Mannequin’ll be after Skitter.  If we split into two groups, then we can maintain enough offensive power to defend ourselves against the ones like Mannequin, Burnscar, Jack or Shatterbird.”

Sundancer cut in, “Which makes me wonder…  Sorry if this is a crummy idea, but what if we waited for Jack’s turn, and then tried to kill him?”

“No guarantees there,” Brian answered her.  “I think we’ll have to be proactive in going after him.  Maybe we can use Hookwolf’s distraction, maybe he’ll get cocky and make a mistake.”

“Doubt it,” Tattletale said, “He’s lasted years doing what he does.”

I couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

“Besides, he goes last,” Tattletale finished.

“To get back to what you were saying, you were proposing dividing the teams?” Coil spoke.

“Yeah,” Brian said.  “Bitch has offensive power of her own.  Skitter does too.  If there’s no complaints, we could play this largely geographically.  Maybe me, Imp, Bitch and Skitter?  If you guys can put your differences aside?”

“No problem,” I said.

“Whatever,” Bitch answered, noncommital.

It was only when Brian mentioned Imp that I realized Aisha was present.  I’d almost missed her.  I wanted to believe that it was because she was sitting at the end of the table and there were four of my teammates between us, but I couldn’t be sure.  It would be damn nice if there was some sort of gradual immunity to her power.

“And maybe someone else who isn’t raw offense?  Circus?”  Brian suggested.

Coil spoke before Circus could reply.  “No.  I pulled her off of a task as a precautionary measure, as I had one aspect of my long-term plans derailed last night with Trainwreck’s demise at the Nine’s hands.  I would rather she did not fall to an unfortunate coincidence of the same nature.”

“What happened?”  Sundancer asked.

“They’ve eliminated the Merchants,” Coil said.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.  The Merchants were scum of the worst sort.  It wasn’t just that they polluted everything they touched and did some reprehensible things.  They reveled in it.  They wanted to be the lowest of the low.  On the other hand, it was a point for their side.  Seven or eight parahumans we no longer had to fight the Nine with.

“Also, I would prefer her involvement in my operation stay under wraps.  She can defend Noelle and myself for the time being.”

“Then Trickster?  Or Genesis?”  Brian asked.

“I would rather stay close to Noelle,” Trickster said.  “If Genesis is willing, that would be fine.”

“And that leaves Ballistic, Sundancer, Trickster, Noelle, Regent and Tattletale for the second group.  We stay together, we keep an eye on our territories to watch for trouble from Hookwolf’s contingent, and we keep an eye out for opportunity.  Tattletale?  You’re good watching the downtown areas?”

Lisa nodded.

“And Skitter has the sensory abilities to check areas of the Docks where the Undersiders have territory.”

“I’ll need to visit each area in turn.  Unless we have some people to pass on messages, and a means of communication.”

“I arranged a delivery,” Coil said.  “You’ll each be provided with a satellite phone before you leave, with mobile phones to use when the towers are in operation again.  It won’t be immediate, but I have shipments of new generators, appliances, laptops and other necessities on the way.  With the information Hookwolf has provided us about Shatterbird’s power, I think we could shield the most necessary pieces of equipment with soundproofing in case of a repeat incident.”

“My bugs did hear something just before the blast hit,” I said.  “Is her power ultrasonic?”

“Something like that.  Tattletale believes that Shatterbird’s power causes glass to resonate at a very particular frequency, where it generates that same resonation in other pieces of glass with the aid of her power, perpetuating the effect until it runs out of large pieces of glass to affect.”

“And,” Lisa said, “She probably has a reason for hitting the entire city like she does.”  She took another drink of water.  “Big pieces of glass help transmit the signal, maybe smaller shards help her in another way.  Probably helps or allows more delicate movements.”

“I’m not saying I’m not happy to be getting more concrete information on how they operate.  I just wish it was against the ones we don’t have any idea how to stop.  Like Crawler and Siberian,” I said.

“We use the same strategy we used to fight Aegis,” Brian said.  “When fighting an opponent who won’t go down, you run, you distract, you occupy them with other things, and you contain them to buy yourself time to do what you have to do.”

He was right.  It just wasn’t ideal.  Avoiding or containing them was easier said than done, for one thing, and it was less an answer than a stopgap measure.

“We’ve addressed the most pertinent crisis, then,” Coil said.  “Is there anything else?  Any ideas or requests?”

“I had an idea,” Aisha said.

No,” Brian said.  “I know what you’re about to say, because we talked this over.  It’s a bad idea.”

“Let’s hear it,” Trickster spoke up, leaning forward.  Brian scowled, and Aisha smiled wickedly.

“The biggest threat from these guys is that they could strike at any time, from any direction.  So why don’t we spy on them?  We find out where they are, and then we keep tabs on their movements.  I can handle one shift, Genesis does the next.  They won’t notice me, and Genesis can stay concealed.”

“It’s far too risky,” Brian said.  “You joined this team so I could stop you from getting yourself killed.”

“It would be nice to know what they’re up to,” Trickster cut in.

“They won’t even know I’m there.”

“You think they won’t know you’re there,” Brian said.  “There’s a distinction there.  It’s important, and it could either lead to a minor advantage-”

“A huge advantage,” Aisha said.

“-Or it could lead to you being turned into a human test subject for whatever fucked up idea Bonesaw had recently,” Brian finished, ignoring her.

“No!  I got a power, and it’s a useful power.  Except you don’t want me to use it, because you think it’s going to stop working all of a sudden, or someone is going to see me-”

Dragon saw you,” Brian said.  “And you’re only alive because she doesn’t kill people.”

Looking at Brian and Aisha, I knew this discussion would get worse before it got better.  I cut in before either of them said something regrettable.  “Imp.  It’s a good idea, but they do have a way of sensing you.  Cherish can sense emotions, and if Dragon is any indication, your power primarily works through sight, hearing and touch.  Like Grue’s.  She can probably find you and track you down.”

“We don’t know that,” Aisha said.

“It’s a pretty good educated guess, I think.  I know you want to be useful, but we can make more use of you if you’re with us, going up against someone like Mannequin or Shatterbird, who are far less likely to be able to see you.  Help us defend ourselves.”

“This sucks!”

“Imp,” Grue said, as he glanced at the others at the table and frowned, “We’re in the company of our employers and our peers.  Let’s stay professional and discuss this after.”

Professional?  You asshole, you’re the one who’s refusing to use my talents because I’m your sister.  I’ve been on the team longer than Skitter was when you guys were robbing a bank and fighting the ABB.”

“You’re younger, and she’s more level-headed-”

“Enough,” Coil said.  It served to shut them both up.

For a few seconds, anyways.  Aisha scowled.  “Enough is right.  I’ll see you guys later.”

“Hey!”  Brian stood from his seat.

I think I wasn’t the only one to look up at him and wonder why.  He looked at us, similarly confused, and then sat down just as quickly as he’d stood.

Lisa looked pensive.  I nudged her and asked, “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she replied.  Then she looked at Coil, “Hey, while you’re asking for suggestions, I have an idea?”

“Anything helps.”

“You think you could get your hands on some surveillance hardware?  Skitter’s working on some new costumes, and I was thinking we could have something like small cameras mounted on our masks or helmets.”

“I can inquire with my usual suppliers.  Why?”

“Well, we’ve got one teammate that’s sort of hard for the rest of you to keep track of, and I think it might help.  And if nobody objects, I’m kind of wanting to take a less hands-on approach from here on out.  I’ve batted a pretty low percentage as far as injuries over the last few months of action… Glory Girl, Bakuda, Leviathan, now this incident with Jack.  If I had a means of communication and the gear to give me some eyes on the scene, I think I could be more useful.”

Coil looked at Brian.

“I gave you a hard time about your having to take the same risks as the rest of us, back when you first joined, but I think you’ve done your share.  So long as you’re contributing,” Brian said.

Coil nodded. “I’ll see what we can prepare.”

Lisa smiled a little, using only the one side of her mouth.

Our canine mounts raced through the streets with impunity.  The glass that covered the roads, the lack of windows, windshields or working dashboards in the few cars that still ran all contributed to the glacial pace of traffic.  There was little for the dogs to watch out for, no moving vehicles and few bystanders.  Every stride the dog took made the bag I was carrying bang against my hip and made every injury I had explode with pain.  I clenched my teeth and endured it.  There weren’t many other options.  I could hardly complain to Bitch.

Bitch was well in the lead, and there was a kind of aggression to how she rode.  She pulled ahead, evading cars by only a couple of inches, forcing them to swerve, and she goaded Bentley faster with kicks and shouts.

We hadn’t raised the topic of Bitch and her nomination for the Nine.  I think the others hadn’t wanted to add tension and the possibility of argument or violence to the already complicated situation.  I know I hadn’t.  My last real interaction with Bitch was when we’d parted ways after the fight with Dragon.  I’d told her we were even, but there had been some anger and hurt feelings on both sides.  I was the last person she wanted to have grilling her.

Bitch made Bentley slow to a walk as she reached my territory.  It still took us a good thirty seconds to catch up.

Using my power, I signalled Sierra and Charlotte.  Grue, Bitch and I climbed down from our dogs and then led them forward.

“Mannequin slipped by you once,” Grue said.  “You going to be able to keep an eye out?”

“I had some ideas, but I’m running low on resources,” I said.  “Let me see what I can do.”

Genesis began to appear a short distance away, near Bitch.  A blurry, beige and yellow, vaguely human-shaped figure coalesced into being.  The shape then sharpened into features and alter in hue until there was the figure of a teenage girl, vaguely cartoonish.  By the time we reached her, she looked indistinguishable from a regular girl.  She had auburn hair, freckles, and thick glasses.  A small smile touched her face as she stretched her arms and legs.

“Everything good?” Grue asked her.

“Good enough.  I’m going to keep this shape until Coil’s people can deliver my real body.  Then I’ll need to recuperate some.”

“Sure.”

Bitch scowled at me.  Bastard, her puppy, stood beside her.  He had received the brunt of her power, and looked roughly as large as an adult great dane.  The features were different from her usual dogs.  The spikes had more symmetry to their arrangement, and the muscles looked less like tangles.  It tugged briefly on the chain that led from her hand to its collar, and she pulled back sharply.  It didn’t pull again, though it was easily powerful enough to knock her over.

My people met us as we entered the neighborhoods where my lair and the barracks we’d set up were.  Sierra and Charlotte were in the lead, the three ex-ABB members behind them.  The O’Daly clan stood at more of a distance, all either members of the family, friends or romantic partners.  Other, smaller families filled in the gaps.  My ‘gang’ numbered nearly fifty people in total.

“Holy crap,” Genesis said.

“It’s why we wanted to set up base here,”  Grue said.  “Skitter’s the most established of us.”

“I’ve been focusing on structural repairs and building when I’m not helping my teammates,” Genesis said.  “I don’t have many threats to get rid of, and it was the best way for me to be productive.  And meanwhile you’re further than I expected to get in half a year.”

I couldn’t bring myself to feel proud.  “I guess I’m motivated.”

Genesis whistled, looking around.  There were some looks of confusion as she strode forward into the crowd.  I suppose it was unusual for a teenage girl to be in the company of three known supervillains and a mass of monstrous dogs.

“Sierra,” I said.  “Status?”

“We’re nearly done with the second building.  There isn’t a lot of elbow room, so we’ve been cleaning up the road.”

“Good.  No trouble?”

“Not that I know of.”

I pulled the bag from over my shoulder and handed it to her.  “Distribute these to the people in charge of the various groups.  Work it out so you can pass on messages quickly, and get any necessary information to me asap.”

“Okay.”  She grunted as she took the bag.

“Genesis,” I spoke.  “You said you were doing some rebuilding?”

She slapped her stomach, “Made some mortar, just a matter of sticking stuff back where it’s supposed to be, if it’s obvious enough.”

“Want to see what you can do, before your body gets here?”

She nodded and headed off.  My minions rapidly backed away from her as she began dissolving.

“Charlotte?”

“Yes?”

“How set up is the building you guys were working on?”

“Mess is cleaned out, but we haven’t moved much in.”

“That should be fine.”

“We ready?” Grue asked.

I turned to face him and Bitch.  “Just about.  Bitch, there’s a space set aside that we can use for your dogs.  We’ll patrol through the various territories in an hour or so, stop by your territory and pick up some supplies for them, and you can bring your dogs here.”  I had to resist adding an ‘if that’s okay’.  Firmness would work best with her, even if it did carry the risk of provoking her.

“Fine.”

“Good,” Grue said.  “Let’s go rest and eat.  We can wait for Genesis and the other gear Coil’s dropping off.”

I had enough bugs nearby to start setting up my early warning system.  With the assistance of a horde of flying insects, I began guiding spiders through various points of my territory.  They drew out lines of silk across alleyways and doors, windows and rooftops.  I couldn’t spare the spiders, so I placed ants on each line.  They would feel it if there was a vibration, not as well as the spiders, but well enough.

Ten thousand tripwires for Mannequin to navigate past.

My expectation was for the lines to maybe give me an early warning of Mannequin’s approach, sometime in the coming hours, maybe in the dead of night.

I didn’t expect to find him in the span of a minute.  A figure on a nearby rooftop was striding through the webs and avoiding the bugs.

I stopped.  “Mannequin.”

Everyone else froze.  Even the dogs seemed to mime their master’s stillness.

But he was already leaving, moving with surprising swiftness as he pushed through another few lines of webbing at the edge of the roof furthest from us.  A second later he was on the ground, moving through an alleyway.

“We could go after him,” Grue asked.

“We couldn’t catch him, I don’t think,” I said, “And he may be trying to bait us into a trap.  Or maybe he wants to loop around while we give chase and kill my people.  Shit, I didn’t think he’d come so quickly.”

“We weren’t exactly inconspicuous.”

I frowned.

Mannequin was on guard for a trap, enough that he’d probably noticed the tripwire and decided to retreat.  Mannequin and I had an estimation of one another, now.  Neither of us wanted a direct confrontation.  Both of us would be wary of traps or trickery.  He was a tinker, he would have prepared something to ward against the tactic I had employed last time.  Topping it off, amassing people to please Coil had the unfortunate side effect of making me more vulnerable to Mannequin’s attacks.  He could hurt me without even getting close to me, the second I let my guard down and gave him an avenue for attack.

The only ambiguous advantage we had over him was that he was working with a time limit.  He needed to test Bitch and get revenge on me, in addition to dealing with all of the other candidates, and he had less than forty-eight hours to do it.

I wasn’t so sure that was a good thing.  It was beginning to dawn on me what we were in for.  Forty eight hours of being on the edge of our seats, unable to sleep deeply, constantly watching for attack from Mannequin or from Hookwolf’s contingent.

When we were done, we faced seventy-two hours of the same thing.  We’d be that much more tired, that much more likely to make a mistake.  Then we’d have to do it again.  And again, and again.  Eight rounds in total.  From my altercation with Mannequin, I knew we wouldn’t make it through even the first few encounters without some loss, some injury or casualty.  By the time the eighth round of testing rolled around, what kind of condition would we be in?  What condition would my territory be in?

I’d initially seen Tattletale’s deal with Jack as a good thing, a miniscule chance at success, with some drawbacks and negative points.

The more I dwelled on it, the more daunting it seemed.

“You okay?” Grue asked me.

“A little spooked,” I admitted.

He set a hand on my shoulder.  “We’ll make it.”

Speaking from the perspective of someone who had gone toe to toe with these guys, I wasn’t so convinced.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why could I feel calm now?

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

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

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

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

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

There was one flash in response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not going to happen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two?” Purity asked.

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

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

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

“So?” Tattletale asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

That gave everyone pause.

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

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

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

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

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

really didn’t like that idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trickster nodded at his words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Militia frowned.

“Please.”

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

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

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

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

“Perhaps.”

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

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

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

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

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

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

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

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

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

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

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

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

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

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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