Venom 29.6

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

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

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

“Which crazy mastermind thing?”

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

“Scion,” Satyr said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Imp,” I spoke, my tone a warning.

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe I was too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was Satyr fibbing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fair,” I said.  No effect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel glowered at me.

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

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

Where is she learning these words?

Lung only glowered at Imp.

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

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

The dogs eased up just like she had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For Scion?”

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

There were nods all around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not helpful,” I said.

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

“Capes?” Golem asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadow Stalker nodded.

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

“I like that analogy,” Shadow Stalker said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There is,” Satyr said.

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

“Exactly right,” Satyr said.

“Do you know why he isn’t?” I asked.

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

We stepped up our pace.

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

“How do you know?” Shadow Stalker asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supposedly Scion above.  Who’s below?

“Who’s with the Doctor?” I asked.

Ask her,” he said, pointing at Imp.

I glanced at Imp, who shrugged.

“In the sphere,” Satyr said.

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

Imp looked my way.

“Go for it,” I said.

Imp turned the sphere.

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

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

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

“Don’t say that.”

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

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

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

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

She trailed off.  A second passed.

“Need a bit more information,” Satyr said.

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

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

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

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

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

The emergency lights didn’t come on.

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

“Weaver?”  Satyr asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idiot?  Foolishness?”

“What is it, Satyr?”  I asked.

“I’ve got to ask about your goals.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening?

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

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

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

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

Which didn’t make him any less threatening.

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

His third power was a mover power.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Satyr said.

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

“There isn’t,” he said.

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

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

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

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

Time,” I told him.

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

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

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice quiet.

I clenched my teeth.

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

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

“Bull.”

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

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

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

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

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

Another half-chuckle, wry.

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

He only offered another short laugh.

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

“Probably for the best,” he said.

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

“Enough of this,” Lung growled the words.

“No-” I said, but I was too late.

Flames erupted around his claws.

It cast light on us, on our surroundings.

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

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

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

Simultaneously phasing those parts of him in behind our group.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which made Imp’s maneuver all the more insane.

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

Rotated it, then rotated it back.

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

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

It was Sveta, inside the ball.

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

Don’t, please don’t.

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

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

“Satyr…”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand,” I said.

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

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

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

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

Lung was looking the way we’d come.

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

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

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

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

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

I spoke with my swarm.

Go upstairs, if you want to go.

Give them a way out.

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

I don’t understand.

The others were following.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One by one, we passed inside.

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

But I could guess what had happened.

Even if I didn’t understand it.

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

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

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

Our eyes met.

She bolted, disappearing through the wall.

I headed down, with Golem following right behind.

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Venom 29.5

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Prisoners and case fifty-threes flooded into the narrow corridors, making their way into the special cells.

I gestured, urging others to move.  They shifted until their backs were against the wall.  Golem and Cuff even stepped onto the bed, to get out of the way.

I found myself by the door.  Mantellum wasn’t close enough to blind my bugs, so I could track the people as they came around the corner, approaching the doorway.  A gang of them.

I drew my second knife, then activated the knife Defiant had given me.  Safety… and the trigger.

One… two…

The guy at the head of the group made it into the doorway.  He stopped as he saw Bastard.  I pressed my old knife’s blade against his throat, saw him back away, only to bump into the people behind him.

three… fo-

The knife finished forming the gray blur around it.  Roughly three point seven seconds.  Good.

He didn’t look worried.  So I reached out and dragged the blur against the wall, gouging out a groove a few inches deep.  Smoke expanded.

He froze, his eyes flicking down, as if he could see past his cheekbones, face and chin to the knife I had against his throat.

I nodded slowly.

“Move it, asshole!”  one of the captives said.

He didn’t move.  I saw his eye shift, until it settled on me.  My arm moved, not wholly steady when fully extended, a weight in hand, and I felt the blade rasp against the scruff on his neck.

Not a case fifty-three.  Just an ordinary guy.

‘Ordinary’.  He was here, he would have powers.

“Move!” the guy in the hallway ordered.

Dim byd yma,” my hostage said, without breaking eye contact with me.  Then he added, in a heavily accented voice, “Is nothing here.”

The cheering reached a climax outside.  My bugs could sense the people in an adjacent cell.  They had someone, and were dragging him out as a group.

“Something’s going on,” one of the guys in the corridor said.

“Don’t care.  Move, motherfucker.  I want to see if there’s any shit in there.”

“Is no shit,” my hostage said.  “Empty.”

I nodded slowly.  Oddly enough, he looked more concerned at that.

An issue in translation?  A cultural problem?

The roaring reached a climax.  They had a man with no arms or legs, not fat, but with a goiter-like mass around his neck… hairless.  A case fifty-three.

This one,” Imp said, repeating what the mob’s ringleader was saying.  Shouting, judging by the way he was acting on camera. “This traitor, he is how they controlled us.  How they planned to control you.  He was going to brainwash these ones into a private army… he’s pointing at the weird looking ones they brought from downstairs.  This traitor was going to send the rest of you out without any memories, without identities, as Cauldron’s trash.

“We’re missing it,” the one further down the corridor said.

It’s only the three, now.  The rest backed out to check out the scene.

“I think I know what we’re missing.  It’s not worth seeing.  But first dibs at whatever’s in this cell?  If this fuckhole doesn’t move out of the doorway, I’m going to slide a foot up his rectum, and pry open a new doorway.”

I glanced around the room.  I could see how tense the others were.  Even Lung was rigid, bristling with scale-points.  Primed for a fight.

Imp’s voice came over the earbuds.  “Oh, hey, fun fact.  You can apparently crucify someone without arms or legs, if you try hard enough, and have the right powers.  He’s getting the crowd worked up, trying to start up a witch hunt.  Um.  He’s shouting, who wants to kill the real monster, the monster who did this to us?

The bloodthirsty cries of the crowd made it through even the soundproofing of the cell.  I could sense the emotion, the anger.

Look to your neighbors, the ones next to you.  Are they shouting loud enough?  Are they angry enough?  Because we aren’t going to brook any traitors.

My hostage looked like he was going to have a heart attack.  Caught between two very dangerous people.

I relented, easing up on the knife, then I beckoned for him to enter the room.

Slowly, he obeyed.

The guy behind him spat.  “Fucking liar.  I knew you were lying.  Trying to keep all this shit to your… self…”

He trailed off as he got far enough into the room to see me and the others.

I gave my hostage a push, with the idea that he’d get put off balance for the others to deal with.  Except I failed, completely and utterly, to budge him.  He started to turn, and I left him behind, hurrying forward to slide behind the second man and confront the third before he could catch on to what was happening and alert others.

The others folded in on the first two.

I could see the third man’s eyes go wide as I approached, my bugs swarming.  I had a knife in each hand.

He had other powers.

Fighting capes I don’t know, unfamiliar powers.

A sphere of light surrounded my right hand and knife, more spheres lighting up to surround the largest clusters of my swarm, turning each of them into fireflies in the darkness.

Which put me in the awkward position of figuring out what his power did and counteracting it.  The obvious solution, a solution to most powers, was to hit him before he could hit me with whatever it was he did.

I tried moving bugs outside of the sphere, and the sphere moved with them.  I moved individual bugs in different directions, and I felt them distort, coming to pieces, as if they were blobs of ink and I was pushing them against a hard surface.

Bugs made it through his perimeter, biting and stinging, and he reacted with the appropriate pain.  But the bugs surrounded by light didn’t manage to bite into flesh.  They were soft, their mandibles bending like putty.  Where he swatted his hand against them, both spheres and bugs were distorted and crushed by the movement.

I moved the bug-spheres out of the way, thrusting with the knife-hand he hadn’t yet affected, to cut off his retreat.  I felt the effect surround it as I got closer.  Another sphere.

I pulled back, instead.  I moved my body to block his retreat, and then drove my knee into his stomach.

He staggered back, then cast out more lights, surrounding my elbows, knees…

My head, too.  My vision went… not blurry, but the colors smudged, like bad watercoloring.

Breathing became more difficult.  Not impossible, but difficult.

The bugs who’d bent their mandibles or distorted in the course of making their way outside of the spheres weren’t going back to normal.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to hit this guy with any of my body parts, if they wouldn’t bounce back to their normal shape after the fact.

I wasn’t sure I wanted him to hit me, either.  If my face proved that pliable and he punched it…

He charged me, and I was forced to move out of the way.  He stumbled for the other end of the corridor and for the crowd, a hand pressed to his stomach.  I unspooled lengths of silk cord from the dispensers at my belt and beneath my armor, dragonflies lancing past him to encircle his throat and feet.

I braced myself, ready to try and arrest his forward momentum, but one of the threads was shorter than the others, and he only tripped.  He glanced over his shoulder, then cast out his spheres, so they covered my feet.

I threw myself forward, my flight pack kicking into action.  I lost my orientation, fighting to activate the individual panels in such a way that my hands, feet or head wouldn’t slam into a wall.

Imp said something, reciting a comment, but my focus was elsewhere.

The flight pack cracked against a wall, and I came to a dead stop.  For long seconds, the two of us were stuck.  I was unable to walk, because my own body weight would crush my feet, with this softening effect.  I couldn’t touch anything without turning my hand or whatever into mashed potatoes.

For his part, the guy was caught on the ground, his feet bound by cords too thick and strong to break with his own raw strength.

The lights flickered  out.  I could see him using his power.  An orb of light, surrounding a length of the thread.  He could counter that, while I wasn’t so lucky as to be able to counter him.  He pulled his legs apart until the thread had stretched out to the point of snapping.

He started to climb to his feet, finding other threads and using his power to break them.  He was screaming, but nobody seemed to hear him over the noise of the crowd, and all eyes were on whatever was going on in the Mantellum blind spot.  He wasn’t getting any help, but I couldn’t stop him.

Not with the thread.

So I controlled the swarm, driving bugs into his nose and mouth.

You want to play hardball, Softball?

He collapsed, choking.  Some would have capsaicin, but few of the laced insects would be alive, covered in hairspray and a toxic chemical, so long after I’d last refreshed them.

Slowly, in the order he’d created them, the spheres disappeared.

“Need help?” Cuff asked.

“No,” I said.  Forty seconds ago, yes.  Not now.

“Right,” she said.  She looked at the choking man.  Her voice was a little different as she said, “Okay.”

When the spheres around my feet and hands had faded, I let myself drift to the ground.  I hit the safety and trigger to remove the blur, then sheathed my knives.  Once my hands were free, I clenched and unclenched my hands to make sure everything was in working order, and then grabbed the threads that still remained.  I pulled on the threads until he was in a position where Cuff and I could get our hands on him and drag him back towards the others.

There were cheers.  I looked at my phone, and I could see the weirdly pretty man.  Chains stretched out from the armless, legless figure’s stumps, extending to the high ceiling and the floor, suspending him fifteen or so feet in the air.  Dead, or close enough it barely mattered.

I could also make out Mantellum, at the center of the crowd.  He stood beneath the guy they’d strung up, blood running off of the shroud that seemed to flow from his back and the edges of his face.  His expression was hard to read, but the fact that he seemed to be luxuriating in the blood rather than avoiding it… it didn’t put him in my good books.

It looks like we’ve got a full-on riot here,” Imp commented.  “Armless dude’s good as dead, they’re splitting up the crowd, so anyone that’s not inside the circle has a few guys who can deal with the ghost janitor.”

“The Custodian,” I said, as I rounded the corner.  I shoved the still-choking prisoner to the ground.  The one I’d held hostage was pinned to the wall, arms and legs held fast to the surface by Golem’s projected arms and legs.  Lung stood with his face just a foot away from the man’s.  Bastard stood with his paw on the chest of the remaining prisoner.

Three dealt with, no alert given.

The pretty man and the spiky, yellow guy were holding a prisoner’s hands up the air between them, like they were celebrating a prize fighter.  I could hear the noise of the crowd, as if it were far more distant than it was.  My bugs, outside of Mantellum’s effect, could hear it at full force.

Her.  Right,” Imp said.  “He’s getting them hyped, saying they’re going after the Doctor, but they need to dig.  Picking out the people who have the best powers for the job.  They’re shouting out what they can do.  I think they’re leaving soon.

The small army we were faced with aside, I found myself smiling a little behind my mask.  The situation evoked memories.  Except this time, I had a cell phone.  I had the pepper spray.  I had a weapon.

I’d changed.  I was more prepared to do what needed to be done.

“Less to fight,” Lung said.  “If you are scared, children, you can stay here.  In a moment, I will go.”

Taunting?  Mocking?  No.  Not really his style.  Confident in his superiority, now that he’d changed as much as he had.  Not full changes, not even full coverage with his scales, but he seemed to think he could throw himself into the crowd just outside the corridor and survive.

“We should exfiltrate,” Golem said.  “Lose the costumes, wear other ones, blend into the crowd.”

“Except you need your costume,” I said.  “Cuff’s far stronger with hers.  Imp, Rachel and I benefit pretty heavily from ours.”

“It’s just an idea,” Golem said.

“It’s an idea,” I said.  “Very workable, but it doesn’t address our main issue.  We need to stop them from going after the Doctor.  If we only wanted to escape, then I’d agree with your plan, but for now-”

Looks like they have groups formed,” Imp said.

It was true.  I had to tilt my phone so others could see what I was seeing.  Gaps had formed between the discrete groups, as everyone figured out who they were sticking with.  The main group looked like it had eighty or ninety people.

“That’s a lot of people to stop,” Golem commented.  He gave me a sidelong glance.  “You’re wanting to do something here?”

I nodded.  “Have to, don’t we?”

“Damn it,” he said, but he didn’t argue.

“Canary?” I asked.

Her eyes were on the two guys we had on the ground.

“Canary,” I said, a little louder.

Nothing.

One was still choking.  I ordered the bugs to make their way out of his airway.  They weren’t blocking it, but they were keeping him down.  We had the situation here under control.

Canary didn’t seem to relax any as the bugs flowed out of his mouth and nose.  A few crawled forth from beneath his eyelids.  He coughed and gagged.

She got more tense as I let up on ‘softball’.  Maybe I should have left him the way he was.

Canary,” I repeated myself for the third time, injecting a little more force into my voice.

She looked at me, disoriented.

“Can you sing to them?”

“Just them?”

“If you don’t have control, then yeah.  Just them.”

“I guess.”

“It makes them suggestible?”  I asked.

“I don’t really know.  I never really experimented with my power.”

“Not even in the Birdcage?”

“Not really, no.”

I nodded.

“They’ll listen to me.  If I really get into it, they’ll do anything I say.”

“Are they suggestible to you alone, or everyone?”

Canary shook her head.

“You don’t know,” I said, in the same instant she said, “I don’t know.”

“Can you group them all together?”  I asked.

Lung moved fast enough that it caught me off guard, bending down to grab ‘softball’ and the other guy by the throats.  He slammed them against the wall, putting them beside the guy I’d taken hostage.

Golem bound them in place.

Lung grunted, and I couldn’t read any meaning in the noise.  Irritation?  Satisfaction?

He was restless.  Ready for a fight.  The sound might have been a ‘there, now we can stop talking and do something.’

“Lung,” I said.

“Mm?”

“Go watch the corridor?  Your hearing is good enough you can follow along.  Plus you might not want to be too close to Canary, here.”

“Mm,” he said.

Less verbal, now, because of the transformation?

Canary crossed the room, and she began singing.  Wordless at first, as if sounding out what she wanted to do, then with more character.

Even though she kept her voice low, it still reached me, and that made me more than a little paranoid.

I moved to the other end of the cell, leaning against the wall.  When I could still hear the sounds, I put a curtain of bugs between myself and her, and made them buzz and drone, fluctuating the sound until I couldn’t make out what she was doing.

“What are you thinking?” Rachel asked me.

“Chaos,” I said.  “Ideal world, it won’t be chaos with us at the center.”

Rachel nodded.  “No dogs, then?”

That many parahumans, I suspected the dogs wouldn’t last more than a few minutes.  “No.  Let’s not put them in too much danger.”

“Lovely sentiment,” Shadow Stalker said, just a little sarcastically.  “So how are you pulling off this chaos thing?”

Whatever you’re going to do, do it soon,” Tattletale said.

I gathered my swarm into a cluster.  Then I activated my knife.

Using thread, I bound the knife handle, then lifted the knife into the air.

“What are you doing?” Cuff asked.  She sounded genuinely curious.

The bugs stopped working to carry the knife, and I very carefully grabbed it by the handle, before withdrawing my hand from the mass.

“Had a thought, but it doesn’t work.  It’s too conspicuous, the swarm.”

“Floating death knife?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“That was the basic idea.  But I’ll need to do something else,” I said.  I turned off the effect around it, watched as it dissolved into smoke.  “Custodian.”

I felt out with my bugs.  She reached directly into the swarm, letting me feel the slow movement of her hand.

“Generally speaking, you think you could handle most of the ones out there?”

She slowly floated through my swarm.  The movement of her head… was she shaking it?

I felt a familiar kind of disappointment.  We had the tools.  Canary’s song, Lung, the knife, the dogs, the Custodian, my swarm… but in execution, it didn’t fit together.

The crowd was stomping now, a rhythmic stomping, the crowd working in unison.

If anyone wasn’t game, if anyone wasn’t keen on the lynching of the armless man, they had to be powerless in the face of this much fury.  How could they speak against it?  Defend the man?

It was scary to think about.

Riling them up to go trash the place,” Tattletale said.

There was a crash.  I turned to my cell phone.  A cloud of dust, the crowd was agitated.  Someone had trashed a cell, or a group of cells.

“…If they keep doing that, they’re going to hit these cells awfully soon,” Tattletale added.

I shut my eyes.

“We’ll have to give it a shot,” I said.  “Shadow Stalker?  Leave.”

“Leave?”  Shadow Stalker asked.

“Find a vantage point, away from the crowd.  Be ready.  Your targets are the special case fifty-threes.  When I give you the signal, take out as many as you can.  As many as you safely can.”

“Your concern for my well being is touching, Hebert,” she said.

“I’d be annoyed if you got killed,” I said.  “I’d have that nagging doubt in the back of my mind, wondering if I sent you off into a suicidal situation because of our history.  And because we can’t afford to lose anyone.  Because you’re a human, and I don’t want people on our side to die needlessly.”

“So it’s about pride,” she said.  “Petty, stupid pride, that you think the outcome of this shit is up to you.  And maybe fear?  That you’ll lose too many good soldiers?”

“Whatever,” I said.  “However you want to interpret it.”

“I’m assuming you’ll insist on tranquilizer bolts,” she said.  “Because you don’t want anyone dying needlessly?”

“No,” I said.  I thought of Newter, of the unique physiology of the case fifty-threes.  “Lethal shots.”

She made a funny little laugh as she looked down at her crossbow.  She began loading it with expert, practiced movements.  “Funny how it all turns out.  This, for one thing.  That I can’t anticipate you anymore.  And… that it’s just you.  There’s nobody to mourn me when I’m gone.  Family doesn’t really care.  No friends left.  No teammates, even.  I’m left to console myself with the idea that, if I die, I’ll at least annoy the depressing, creepy little geek from high school.”

“I’d say something reassuring,” I said.  “I want to tell you that you matter more to me than that.  Or that I’m sure you matter to someone out there… but I don’t think you’d buy it.”

“I wouldn’t,” she said.  She wasn’t maintaining eye contact.  “Whatever.  I’m going as far up the stairs as I can, put myself half out the wall, snipe from there.  I’ll be a minute.”

Then she was gone, stepping through the wall, heading towards the stairwell closest to us.

You meant that shit, Skitter?”  Imp asked.  “Wanting to care?  Wanting to reassure her?”

“Pretty much,” I said.  “At this juncture, there’s no reason to lie.”

You’re too forgiving,” she said.

The lights flickered as another impact shook the complex.

They’re going.”

“So are we,” I said.  “Just as soon as Canary’s ready.”

Imp spoke, “Always ticked Alec off, you know.  That you weren’t any good at holding grudges.  Too focused on the present, when it came to picking your enemies and your allies.  I wound up defending you, even.

I was barely listening, trying to focus on the swarm, picking out the places they could operate and the places they couldn’t, tracking the various prisoners as they started moving.

But that last sentence caught me off guard.  “You defended me?”

“For him, it’s his raisin de enter.

Raison d’etre,” Tattletale clarified.

Yeah.  That.  His daddy fucked him up, so it sort of gave him an inner fire where he didn’t have much more than coal inside, y’know what I mean?  Forward momentum, itch to go out and get shit done?  Become a villain with the idea that maybe someday he’d get to pull one over on the old man, become a warlord.  So for him, it was the only reason he really got up in the morning, besides maybe the basic pleasures of life.  My parents fucked me over too, but it was different.  No grudge here, just a whole lot of sad.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I wasn’t sure what to add to that.

So it was a fight.  Closest to a fight as I ever got with that asshole.  Well, if Skitter’s being nice, so will I.  Good deed of the day, since I’m dicking around now, nothing to report…  You listening in, Shady?”

Shady?”

Man, it was eerie to recognize Sophia’s voice over the earbud.

I’ll take that as a yes.  Regent told me about his stunt.  Controlling you.

Canary passed through my swarm.  She was silent, and the glances to the side when Imp was speaking suggested she didn’t want to interrupt.

He took you home.  Gave you a hard time, messing with your mom.  The whole thing with you nearly committing suicide afterwards.

I was very still.  The lights flickered, the ground rumbled, and I didn’t so much as flinch.

Well, I’m not going to ‘prattle’, as Lung would put it.  He was there, obviously.  He told me about it, after the fact.  Just, like, a heart to heart, between two of us who don’t have much heart to go around, you get me?  Neither of us’s the type to get embarrassed, so nothing to hide.  Can share all the stories.  Share each other, just by talking?”

She made it sound like a question.  Like she wasn’t even sure, and she wanted validation from someone.

I remembered how Regent had controlled her.  Seized her with his power.  Sharing each other indeed.

Not a guy that’s in touch with his emotions.  Way I always saw it, they’re there, he’s just oblivious to it all.  Had to be.  So it’s only after he’s through with you that he realizes maybe he was a little hard on you, maybe he twisted the knife harder than he usually would, because it bugged him.  There you are with a family, and he can feel your emotions, and he totally knows you don’t even realize it in the slightest.  He’s blind to his own emotions and you’re blind to the emotions of others.”

Is this going somewhere?”  Shadow Stalker’s voice.  “You’re prattling.

Take it from me, as I tell you what the lazy jerk who body-controlled you told me.  Your mommy loves you lots, Shady.

There was a pause.  “Okay.

That’s all you’re going to give me?  I totally dish all this, and I get an ‘okay’?”  Imp asked.  She was oblivious to the pause before Shadow Stalker had spoken, to the fact that she’d affected Shadow Stalker on some level.

That, or Imp’s wording had taken a second to figure out.

“No arguments,” I said, cutting in before something could start between two of our more volatile members.  “Canary?”

“They’re ready.”

“Good.  Rachel, Golem, Cuff.  If and when we move, I need you to run interference.  When we move, I need you to distract, protect the core group, protect us as we run.  Rachel, keep the dogs large enough they can maybe take a hit or two, but not so big they can’t make their way into the stairwell.  Lung?”

There was no reply.  I could sense him out in the corridor, just at the corner where it looked out into the main hallway with the prisoners and other cells.  He turned in response.  He might have been able to hear me through the comm system, but he could have heard me anyways.

I don’t think he knows how to use the comm system,” Tattletale said.  “Or he does, but he’s changed enough it’s hard to do.”

“Lung,” I said.  “The other three are giving us cover.  You have enough experience I’m not going to tell you what to do.  You’ve been at this cape thing for a decade and a bit.  So go all-in.  Or do what the other three are doing.  Your call.”

There was no reply.  Maybe he didn’t understand the comm system.

“You’re so calm,” Canary said.  “Most of you.  Lung seemed nervous.”

Lung, out in the corridor, clenched his fist.

You annoyed him, saying that.

“I’m shaking,” Canary said, and her strange, melodic voice gave evidence to her fear.  “You can’t tell with these gauntlets I’m wearing, but I’m shaking.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Don’t worry.”

“I’m-” she laughed a little, and the laugh hitched with emotion.  “I’m- pretty worried.”

“We’ve been through worse.  Everyone here has been through worse.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better.  It makes me feel like maybe I had the right idea, back in the beginning when I decided not to do this cape thing.  I’m going to fuck up, and the stakes are so fucking high…”

“Relax,” I said.  “Or… if that’s not possible, just, um.  Tell yourself we’ve got your back.  None of us are about to let the newbie die.”

“That’s not that reassuring,” she said.

“It’ll have to do,” I said.  The ground was shaking, and someone was manually tearing apart a cell block just a distance away.  I could feel Mantellum retreating, the blind spot shifting.

I was just a little impatient.  We were running out of time, and I didn’t even have everything in place.

I parted my swarm, giving myself a view of the three captives.

“You three,” I said.

They raised their heads.

Brutto tik,” the largest one growled.

“Be quiet,” I ordered, as authoritative as I could manage.

He clenched his teeth, lips pressed together.

Does he even realize he’s obeying?

“I’m not your enemy.  Stop treating me like an enemy and listen,” I said.

I could see the tension slowly seep out of them.

“Nod your heads,” I said, experimentally.

They each nodded, out of sync.

“Golem?  Release them,” I said.

Golem created more hands, manually tearing the old ones apart.

The three stood still, looking just a little unfocused.

I turned to the largest one.  “What are your powers?”

He looked confused.

“Tell me your powers.”

“I’m dense,” he said.

Ah.

I extended my disintegration knife in his direction, saw the delayed reaction, the genuine fear and concern.

I turned it around, offering him the handle.

He stared at it, still looking afraid.

“Calm down,” I said.

He relaxed, very slowly, very visibly.

It works on involuntary reactions?

He settled into a state that still looked ill-at-ease, but not nearly as afraid as before.

Or does it work on the voluntary, visible signs of the involuntary reactions?

“Take it,” I said.

He took the knife.

“Hide it.”

He hid it.

“Now don’t move.  Don’t be afraid.”

He went stock still.

“Um,” Canary said.  “A thing…”

“A thing?” I asked.

“He’s not as influenced as my ex-boyfriend was, but… they’re very literal, about what you say.  Even like this.”

I looked at the dense man.  “Okay.  Then-”

“You’re allowed to move to breathe,” Canary cut me off.

The man exhaled audibly.

“Now don’t react,” I told him.

Then I sent my flying bugs to him, collecting them beneath the generic uniform he wore.  They carried silk cord and wound it loosely around his legs and arms.

True to form, he didn’t react.

I thought about it a bit more, and then gave him an excess of silk.  Hundreds of feet of it.

“This cell was empty, there’s nothing inside except people looking for some privacy.  Make your way to an isolated spot where nobody can really see you, wait until the lights flicker out, and then use the safety on the knife.”

He looked at me as though he hadn’t taken in any of it.

“My ex was like that, before went and obeyed me, without my knowledge,” Canary said.  “I think this guy will listen.”

“Then you’re free.  Forget this.”

He left.  I looked at the remaining two.

“You two, shirts off.”

“Yes.  I like the way you think.”

“Be quiet, Imp,” I said.  “We’re moving, be ready.”

And moving starts with sexy times.  Not complaining.

For someone who hates being ignored, she seems to demand it from others, I thought.  “Sit in the corridor, near where the spiky, scaled guy is now.  Tell him to come here.  If anyone comes, kiss.  Convince them they’re interrupting something private, get angry.”

“I’m not comfortable with this bit,” Cuff said.  “It’s creepy.”

“It’s better than Lung having to tear people to shreds or burn them if they happen this way,” I said.  “I’ll take creepy.”

“Okay, if I have to be specific, then I’ll say it’s a bit, um, rapey.”

I frowned.

“Don’t actually kiss,” I told the men.  “Fake it as much as you can.”

Cuff nodded.

The others were all moving, now.

As the two stopped near Lung, he turned to go.

Apparently he was going solo.  He clawed at his already scale-torn shirt and cast it aside, then stalked into the crowd.  He didn’t completely blend in, with his heavy jeans, but he could almost pass for a case fifty-three.

The dense man with the knife stopped.  He’d found a place in a cell where nobody had a good view of him.

He held up the knife, then activated it.   I drew the bugs from beneath his clothes and wrapped threads around the handle.

The lights went out.

I carried the knife up to the ceiling, then started carrying it down the length of the hallway.  With my bugs, I could trace the hallways on either side, sense the general grid with cells in rows of five, I could see the people…

Up until I ran into Mantellum’s blind spot.

A chronic failing of human beings, that we so rarely looked up.  The swarm moved along the ceiling.  If any parahumans had the powers to notice it, they didn’t have a strong enough voice to alert any others.

And, in the interest of using the enemy’s tools against them, I was able to bring the swarm inside Mantellum’s area of effect.  If there were clairvoyants or precogs capable of tracking my actions or what I was about to do, then this would presumably limit their sight just as well as it limited mine.

They’d lynched one of their own kind, were eager to lynch any others who didn’t show absolute loyalty.  They were celebrating, in a way, and they were simultaneously building up the crowd, ensuring that their mob was loyal.  All of them on the same page, for better or for worse.  I couldn’t see, but I could guess that the reason for their slow progress was the press of the crowd between them and the door.

I was blind, here, but I didn’t have to strike aimlessly.

I extended silk thread above the blind spot.  A good two hundred feet of the stuff, level with the ground.  I only stopped when either end of the suspended silk cord I had bugs on either side of Mantellum’s blind spot.

Then I extended more, setting it cross-wise against the other thread.

Not perfect, but it gave me a starting point.  Assuming the blind spot was a circle or a sphere, which it appeared to be, I could find the center point.

Mantellum, the source of the effect, dead center.

I waited until the lights flickered again.  The moment my bugs couldn’t see the lights, the tight swarm of bugs with the threads and the dagger swept down.

“Shadow Stalker, Lung, this is my signal.  Act.  Imp?  Get out of the way, head back to us.”

One pass.  A lazy swoop with the swarm, the knife suspended by threads.

I couldn’t see, even with the camera, but I was aware of Mantellum stopping in his tracks.  The boundaries of the circle stopped drifting in the general direction of the stairwell.

I waited, willed the lights to flicker.  Time passed.

People were reacting, outside the circle.  How much damage had I done?

The lights went out.

Another pass.

Mantellum’s effect dissipated.  The blind spot filled in, a crowd, capes, blood spraying.  My bugs could sense them all.

The lights came back on.  One cape saw the swarm, moving towards the ceiling.

A chunk of ice the size of a small car hit them.  Ice fragments rained down on the crowd.

Many bugs had died in the collision.

The swarm couldn’t keep the knife aloft.  I had to reinforce it, but I couldn’t get enough bugs there in time to do it before it hit the ground.

Fine.

I let it fall.  Let it pass through the ground like the ground wasn’t even there, disappearing into the floor beneath us.

“Custodian,” I said.  “The effect that was blocking you is down.”

I could feel her move.

Lung was advancing, now.  Fire rolled forth from his claws in plumes, surging into cells.  The crowd moved out of his way.

I could hear them cheering.  Oblivious to the fact that he wasn’t on their side, wasn’t just carrying out the raid.

Lung hurled a fireball that passed just inches above the crowd’s heads.

The fireball hit a cell block, scattering more of the crowd.

He was changing now, changing quickly.

“Lung,” I said.  “Tone it down.  If you grow too much, you won’t be able to come downstairs.”

No response.

More fire, more destruction.  The flames were spreading, igniting beds.  I could see on the camera, the meager flames that lingered on stone and concrete.

There was a method to his madness.  Small as the flames were, capes were backing away a touch.  They were cheering him on in his rampage, cheering the destruction of cells that had kept them captive, but they were still falling victim to the strategy beneath it all.

He was walling them off, sectioning off an area with fire and plumes of smoke.  Making it so we only had to deal with a smaller number.

I became aware of Imp as she hopped over a smaller flame on her way to us.  Lung, unaware due to her power or uncaring due to his personality, came dangerously close to frying her as he shored up the barrier, driving people back as the smoke continued to billow.

The cheers became screams of fear and panic as Shadow Stalker’s bolts started hitting the special capes.  Sniping them.

Three shots, and then someone retaliated.  A sonic attack, focused.  The crossbow bolts stopped appearing.

She’s dead?  Just like that?

No.  More crossbow bolts, from a different vantage point.  Fired from within walls, Shadow Stalker poking a barely visible head out into gloom to get a bead, then firing at her targets.

“Go,” I said.  “Shadow Stalker, Lung, we’re moving.  Cover our retreat, follow us if you can.”

No response from either.  They were busy doing what they were doing.

I could feel the Custodians appearing.

A vast quantity.  Filling empty spaces, overlapping.

A duplicator?  I thought.

Like Velocity, the Brockton Bay Protectorate member who’d died against Leviathan.  He’d been a fast cape, capable of outrunning vehicles, striking a hundred times in a minute.  But that came at the expense of a limited ability to affect the world.

The Custodian was the same.

She was weak, standalone, barely a wisp of air.  And she couldn’t turn it off.  Couldn’t get back to a state where she was fully material, capable of affecting the world normally.

But she duplicated, combined her strength, made hundreds of herself, thousands

She tore into the crowd like an elemental force.  My bugs could feel the air ripple, felt prisoners get thrown into cells.

Felt the blood, the limbs being bent in ways that wasn’t possible, when they refused to be thrown.

Energy attacks cut through the open air, and she barely slowed down.

The remaining special case fifty-threes from the floor below started to attack, to use abilities I couldn’t quantify as sound or fire or lightning, and the Custodian let hundreds of duplicates disappear in her attempts to get out of the way.

We headed out of the corridor.  “You two,” I ordered the shirtless duo.  “Help defend us.”

Between the dogs, Golem and Cuff, we had the brawn to force ourselves through the crowd that was in the area Lung had walled off.  Surprise, too, went a long way.  I didn’t have a lot of bugs, but I had enough to blind a few people, to fill their noses and ears and distract.

When Lung turned his fire on the group that was standing their ground, readying to stop us, that was a breaking point.  They scattered.  Two remained, tough and stubborn enough to keep attacking, and Lung picked one of them up, swinging them like a flail to bludgeon the other aside.

Golem’s hands shoved more away.  Cuff’s strikes, using her ability to manipulate metal and her metal gloves, were enough to break bone.  She shattered legs and arms, struck ribs and threw people aside.

I wasn’t proud, but I knew that this cold, efficient ruthlessness was at least partially a result of the time we’d spent together.

Imp caught up with us.  She had a sphere tucked under one arm, with the coiling mass of Weld’s partner within, still moving.

Panting, Imp said, “Couldn’t get him, but I figured she’s bound to be on our side, right?”

I only nodded.  There were other things to focus on, like the ones that had been torturing her.

In the stairwell at the far end of the hallway, the one that mirrored our escape route, the main group, with the beautiful man, the spiky boy and a badly injured Gully were making their way down the stairs.

I was ready.  I already had thread attached to a rivet in the ceiling, thread attached to the knife I’d dropped to the floor below.  It swung into the stairwell, an easy, casual swing.

The disintegration effect carved into the people at the front of the group, into heads, shoulders, necks, and body parts unique to case fifty-threes.

I used the swarm to control the swing, to swing it into the crowd that was hurrying down the stairs.

More struck.  Devastation, people falling over each other as they collapsed on the stairs.

Someone, no doubt someone with a sensory power, reached for the knife, tried to grab it.

I cut the thread with the mandibles of my bugs.  It plunged down into the group, paused as the handle came to rest on writhing bodies.

Then slid off to one side as the blade continued to eat through everything near it.

Again, it ate through the stairs, falling to a floor below.  I did what I could to catch it, using my bugs to grab after the threads that still trailed behind it.

We reached the stairwell, and faced the group within.

They’d barely dented the reinforced metal doors, with their myriad powers.

Cuff ignored them, charging forward, and hit the door with her fist.

The crash was loud enough to stun me, and I was at the thick of the group, furthest from the door.

She did more damage to the door than most of them had.

The Custodian was right.  We wouldn’t have been able to break through here in normal circumstances.  We’d have been cornered, more than we were in the cell.

The damage continued outside.  The Custodian pursued the group in the stairwell, harassing, bludgeoning.  She separated the crowd into groups and then bulled them back, driving them towards empty cells.  I was drawing my bugs back to me in stages, concentrating them on a few people at a time, trying to track what she was doing.

Yet even with that, I couldn’t follow it all.  Flayed skin, people holding their hands against one eye, joints bent the wrong way, bleeding wounds.

Nothing lethal.  Only punishment.

Lung, Cuff, Golem and Rachel dealt with the five threats here in the stairwell.  Shadow Stalker made her appearance, and dealt with the sixth, jamming a tranquilizer bolt into his neck.

Cuff hit the reinforced metal door again.  It bulged as if she were ten times the size, hitting ten times as hard.

She hit it a third time, a fourth…

On the fifth impact, it gave way.

We made our way down.

“Further,” I said.

FYI,” Tattletale’s voice sounded, “Losing you as you get further down.”

“We’ll be in touch,” I said.

Attack in Gimel went.  Not good, not bad, but it went.  Didn’t want to dis…, but now it’s…    …Just wanted to let you know.  Bracing ours… …r nex… he didn’t show at next location… trying…  where he is… Wish us-“

And then radio silence.

I tested the comm.  No luck.

Two stairwells, mirroring, no doubt for the safety of having a backup.  The other group had stalled where the knife had delayed them.  We proceeded further.

Past the fourth floor.

We stopped, panting for breath.

Another reinforced door, open.

An expanse of flat, brushed steel behind it.  A dead end.

And sitting in front of that expanse of steel were Satyrical, Blowout, Floret and Leonid.  Revel and Exalt were nowhere to be seen.

“It seems we’re going to have ourselves a problem,” Satyrical said, looking down at his fingernails.

“No offense,” I said, “But I think we’re a little stronger, in terms of raw firepower.”

“You are.”

“So unless you’ve replaced half of my team with sleeper agents…”

He shook his head.  “Only just became aware of you, honestly.”

“…I’m not particularly threatened.”

“No,” Satyr said, speaking slowly, as if he were picking his words.  “It’s not us.  It’s him.”

Him?

Oh.  Him.

“And the one with the answers is buried under a half-mile of solid steel,” he said.  He bit at the corner of one fingernail, then buffed it on the leg of his costume.  “Like I said.  A problem.”

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Venom 29.4

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Lights flickered as we made our way inside.

It looked like a hospital, but not an abandoned one.  Things were pristine, the walls and tiled floor a clean, untouched white.  It wasn’t a place that had been left to deteriorate.  The stark, clean nature of the place made for a contrast where the damage had been done.  There were gouges in the walls, things torn free from walls and ceilings.  Scorch marks, from both acid and fire, and damaged chairs, cabinets and lockers.

I noted the contents of the lockers and cabinets that had been torn open.  Glass vials, empty, clear fluids, medical tools still in plastic wrappers with paper covers that could be torn away.  But for the disorganization, it was all in excellent condition.  It didn’t look like it had even been touched.

The longer I looked, the less it seemed like a hospital, and the less real it seemed.  It was more like someone had taken sections of a hospital, removing everything like the nurse’s stations and the rooms for the patients, leaving only the hallways and doors that sat flush against the floor, airtight.  I would have thought it was all staged, but a check with my bugs confirmed that there was a minimum of dust even in places people wouldn’t be able to see.

Why take that much time to clean areas that were never going to get used?

“Tattletale?” I asked. “How’s the connection?”

The Dragonfly is relaying the connection from the towers, which are relaying from Gimel.  Kind of impressive when you think about it.

“I’m thinking this stuff tells a story.  Can you fill us in?  Information wins fights.”

I heard a noise from behind me.  A grunt or a scoff.  I turned to look, but couldn’t see who it had been.  Lung?  Shadow Stalker?  Golem?  Cuff?  All were possible, on different levels.  Lung might have been dismissive, Cuff bemoaning the fact that I was harping on that particular point yet again.  I’d reiterated it a few dozen times when justifying the stakeouts and a few cases of infiltration.

“I can see the path they took,” Tattletale said.  “You’re facing the direction the Irregulars headed.  They got more agitated as they made their way through.  Excitement, anger, a mess of negative emotions, bottled up for years, finally released.

I nodded.  I could imagine it now, almost see them in the hallway.

“Forty three of them.  Case fifty-threes.  Weld’s entire group.

“We have data on them?” I asked.  My eye fell on one of the doors.  It looked so ordinary, but someone had hit it, and it had been dented.  Metal, and apparently well reinforced, with a good section of the door fitting into the wall.

Already have files open.  There’s not a lot of details on most of them, but they aren’t exactly in the public eye.  You only get sightings, and apparently PRT paperwork where Protectorate members get sent to check in on them every once in a while, make sure they’re okay.  The others, well, you’re aware of Weld and Gully and Gentle Giant.  I could recap for the people who wouldn’t know.”

“I know enough,” Lung said.  “I would rather not have a voice prattling in my ear when I could be listening for trouble.”

“Oh, hey,” Imp said.  Through the bugs I’d planted on him, I could feel Lung reacting to her sudden appearance.  “I wouldn’t mind hearing this info.  Cliff notes?”

“You’re doing this to irritate me,” Lung said.

He’s sharp, in some ways, I thought.

“Don’t get your gonads in a twist.  I just want to know what we’re walking into.”

I heard a growl, and my first thought that Imp had pushed the wrong button.  I turned, my hand moving to my knife.

But it was Rachel’s dog, Huntress, her nose pressed to a door.

I watched each of the others prepare for a fight.  Or not prepare, as the case was.  Lung remained very casual, almost calm, while Canary backed away, putting as much distance between herself and the door as she could.  She was in better armor than most of us,with one of Saint’s Dragonslayer suits, but she still saw herself as vulnerable.

Hell, I saw her as vulnerable.

My bugs moved around the door’s perimeter, but I could sense only damage around the handle.  As airtight as any door.

I drew my knife, then gave Rachel a nod to go.

She kicked the door handle, and the door swung open.

Blood, corpses.  Three dead case fifty-threes.  Two men and a woman.  A cat-man with far too many teeth in his mouth, even covering the roof and the space beneath his long, narrow tongue, something that looked like keyboards on his forearms.  A reptile, not so different from Newter, but with no mouth or nose.  Only two overlarge eyes.  The last was a girl, squares of flesh intersped with patches of cloth.  Her mouth was only a tear in the cloth.

Their throats had been neatly slashed -the patchwork girl bled like anyone else might- and they’d been dragged into this room.  It was clear from the way that the blood trail suddenly stopped that someone had cleaned up.

Stragglers.  The Irregulars were moving as a tight group, keeping close to one another, but Satyrical and his team blindsided the ones at the back.  Killed them, dragged them off, then one of them cleaned up the evidence.  Floret, probably.”

“And Satyr probably masqueraded as these three,” I said.  “He’s in Weld’s group.”

Probably.”

“Then we need to move fast,” I said.  “Good job Rachel, Huntress.”

Rachel only grunted acknowledgement.

“You’re thanking the dog?” Shadow Stalker asked, incredulous.

“I’m thanking people that are being useful,” I said, my voice hard.  “If you want to be one of them, maybe scout the rooms we’re passing by.”

She didn’t obey right away, but she did obey.  She disappeared through a door.

The lights momentarily went out.  For an instant, I thought Shadow Stalker had been electrocuted, walking straight into a wire.  They flickered on again.

There were no windows, no sources of light beyond the lighting that was supposed to glow evenly from the high ceiling above.  When the lights flickered out again, the darkness was absolute, all-consuming.  As seconds creeped on and the light failed to return, I wondered if we’d be continuing this in the dark.

Lung used his power, creating a flame in his hand.  It didn’t make for much light – only enough to illuminate our groups.  Golem raised his hand to his helmet, then paused.

“Go ahead,” I told him.

The lights mounted on Golem helmet turned on, followed soon after by Cuff’s own lights.  I could see the way they were turning their heads, trying to cover both ends of the hallway.

“I don’t sense anyone,” I said.

No.  Wait.  There was someone.

Something.

I’d sensed it at the meeting the Doctor had arranged.  The spirit, the ghost.  So subtle it was almost impossible to notice.  The currents of the air, the faintest of traces in dust that marked where she’d traveled… all things I’d mentally dismissed.  Air tended to move.  Only the fact that this was a closed space, without any kind of air conditioning or temperature difference made the movements in the air curious.

Paying attention,  I could see that there was a pattern, a consistent repetition in air currents so feeble they might not have moved a feather.

The lights flickered back on, went out, and then settled in a compromise, the dull translucent pane of the ceiling lit up with a patchwork of  maybe two thirds dark to one third light.

“We’re here to help,” I called out.

My voice echoed down the hall.

“I thought you didn’t sense anyone,” Canary said.

“I don’t,” I said.

“Then who are you talking to?”

“I don’t think it’s a who,” Imp said.  “Try ‘what are you talking to?'”

“Shh,” I bid them to be quiet.

I could sense more movements in the air, close… no.  That was a result of Lung’s fire heating the air.

Further down the hall.  If I use enough bugs, try to get a sense of dimensions…

A head, part of a torso.  I could feel the contours of narrow shoulders, the waist.  Female.

She disappeared, or she became less coherent, the movements in the air continuing, but ceasing to suggest a general human shape.  Another appeared behind us, roughly as far away.  No arms, no legs.  Just a broken figure.

“Help me out, Tattletale?” I asked.

Help with what?

“The Custodian.”

I’m not getting anything usable,” she said.  “Video cameras suck like that.

“Right,” I said.  Louder, I called out, “We’re here to help the Doctor!  You’ve got two other groups in here, one that’s definitely hostile, angry and destructive, and another I think is worth being suspicious of.”

A movement, a reaction to that last sentence.

I explained, “Maybe they seem friendly, but they’ve got a bad history of backstabbing, making subtle plays for power.  I think the Doctor would back me up on this.  If she’s cooperating with them at all, she’s doing it with knowledge they’ll capitalize on any weakness she shows… and she’s never been weaker than she is right now.”

The figure turned around, briefly fading out of existence.

She reappeared in a way that made me wonder just how long she’d been there, a foot away from me.

“We’re not your enemies,” I said, holding my ground.  “I want to stop Scion, and the best, easiest way to do that is to get things back into working order here.”

For an instant, she was in four places at once.  Then she settled on three.

It struck me that I’d never fared particularly well against stranger-class powers.

“If it helps,” I said, “I’m pissed.  The Doctor called you the Custodian, which probably means you’re the one taking care of this place.  If you’re not completely emotionless, it hurts, that they’re tearing it apart.  If you care about the doctor, I’m betting you’re worried.  Maybe you feel like I do.  You want to retaliate, but something is getting in your way-”

And then she was gone.

“So.  Uh.  You’re kinda tense there, boss,” Imp said.

“She’s gone,” I said.  “I’m pretty sure.”

“Question is, is there really a crazy janitor lady?”  Imp asked.  “Or is Skitter finally going mad?”

“If there are no more obstacles, we should go,” Lung said.

I nodded.  I started walking at a good clip, reorganizing my swarm to check the areas around corners.

A series of eight or so doors to our right were open, now.  Shadow Stalker lurked at the end of the hallway.  She must have walked through the walls while the power was out, opening every door in passing.

“Just saying,” Imp kept talking, “Custodian?  Knowing what we do about your origins… kinda a thing.  The Doctor, if you think about it… what if we’re all-”

“Imp,” I interrupted her, all too aware of the presence of Lung and Shadow Stalker, “Not now, not here.”

“Righty-o.”

She’s nervous, I told myself, before I could get too irritated.  But her way of dealing with that came at my expense.  I didn’t need to be reminded of my weakest moments.

I really didn’t need any head games, intentional or otherwise.

With the doors open, it was possible to see the room interiors.  Offices, perfectly ordered and empty of people.  Desks, file holders to neatly sort paperwork, book cases with texts.  All of it even, ordered.  No pages sticking up or books missing from shelves.

Still want that briefing, Imp?” Tattletale asked.

“Huh?  Briefing?”

On the Irregulars.

“Oh.  Right.”

I’ll take that as a no.”

I sent my bugs out, directing them to collect a few things.  Two booklets, the most substantial material my bugs could hold and still carry.

They shouldn’t have been able to pull this off,” Tattletale said.

I thought of Contessa, and of the Custodian.

“They did, though,” I said.  “At the worst possible point in time.”

“Weld isn’t dumb,” Shadow Stalker said, as she stepped out of one room and crossed the hall.  “Except maybe with people.  Kind of put his big metal foot in his big metal mouth, I remember.  But he’s not dumb when it comes to powers or strategy.  He’s had a few years to figure this out.”

“Hey,” Imp said.  “You’re not allowed to say nice things about people.  You shot my brother with an arrow, messed with people I respect.  I’ve been waiting for that cinematic moment when you and I find ourselves alone and I get my revenge.  Don’t fucking dilute it by being nice.”

Shadow Stalker stared at Imp, standing her ground as we, Imp included, made our way up the hallway to where she was.

“You’re irritating,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice dripping with condescension, dismissive.  That said, she disappeared through the nearest door.

Better,” Imp muttered.

I used the arms on my flight pack grab the booklets my bugs had brought to me.  The contents of each were bound into books.

I paged through the booklets.  The cover of the first read: ‘ASDEC01 Employee responsibilities, contingency C-2-6’.  The second was ‘ASDEC01 Employee responsibilities, contingency F-4-7’.  Both, at a glance, very similar inside.

I looked at the inside cover.  Contingency C-2-6.  Transmigration.

Then page upon page of jargon.  References to other files, to organizations and places I had no concept of, and things I knew of, but not in this context.  Overseers, terminus, and again, the word transmigration.

It lacked flow, as the writing went.  More of a technical manual, in the end.  I could tell from the structure that things had been done by computer, so that information specific to the employee and the employee’s role could be injected at the appropriate spots.

I flipped through the book, continuing to scout with my bugs and use them to check our surroundings for possible danger.  Only endless hallways.

“You reading over my shoulder, Tattletale?” I asked.  I had the camera on my mask.

I am.”

“Thinking what I’m thinking?”

Accord was two-timing us,” Tattletale said.  “Doubling up so he had enough of a power base to enact his plans, whatever happened.”

“Except for, you know, the whole dying thing,” Imp added.

“Are you getting the gist of this, Tattletale?”  I asked.

Picking up pieces of it.  I’d ask you to scan the thing and let me have access to all of it, but that’s not exactly reasonable, is it?

“Just give me the byline.”

A plan for if the Endbringers win.  A plan for if Scion wins.  A plan if we come out ahead and beat both of them.  Recurring themes in all of the plans.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy,” Lung rumbled.  “Foolish.”

Accord makes pretty fucking good plans,” Tattletale said.

“I do not know this Accord, and I only trust what I experience myself, so this is only prattle to me.”

“How does this turn out?” I asked.  “Cauldron ruling the world?”

Honestly?  I don’t think so.  Cauldron’s primary interest seems to be humanity.  Keeping us going, minimizing chances of war and conflict.  All of this seems to be geared around that.  Setting things up so we aren’t fucked, however things go down.”

“Right,” I said.  “Where do the powers come in?”

I think… well, I don’t have enough to say anything for sure.  But the underlying assumption seems to be that parahumans are going to take charge, one way or the other, so they wanted to set things up so that happened naturally.  They’ve been vetting clients, finding the ones who’d work best.  They don’t identify them by anything except number, but… I think Coil was a test case.”

I nodded.

So were we.”

“We had an idea,” I said.

Yeah.  But there’s more… I don’t know how much more.  Yet.  Can you flip ahead?  Maybe about three quarters of the way through, there should be a bit about the Overseers and the Terminus.  Flip through… slower… show more of the pages… I’ll go back through the video feed to view each page on my own and figure the rest out myself.

Further down the hallway, Shadow Stalker stepped out of a room.  I looked, keeping my head at the same general angle, so the camera would continue to have a view of the book, still flipping.

Shadow Stalker was pointing.

My swarm caught up with her, flowing into the room.

I glanced into the room as we passed.  Two more bodies.  Two men, large, both bristling with horns.  One with curling horns like a ram, the other with horns like a bull.

Satyr,” Tattletale confirmed.  “Again.

“Hmm,” Shadow Stalker murmured.  She was leaning against the doorframe, her arms folded.  “He’s efficient.”

Did she just sound like she was approving?  I lowered the booklet, raising my head to give Shadow Stalker a serious look.

She only made a small, smug sound, like she was pleased, or pleased with herself, and then turned around, her cloak flaring out before she disappeared through the wall.

“This long-delayed revenge thing is getting easier all the time,” Imp commented.

“No revenge,” I said.  “Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re sounding a lot less like Imp and a whole lot like… well…”

“Regent,” she said.

I nodded.  The desire for revenge, the way the wisecracking was veering off course, to uncomfortable or dangerous levels…

“Be nice if he was here,” was all she said.

I nodded again.

The hallway reached a t-junction at the end, with a path going off to the left, and a stairwell to the right that led down, deeper into the building.  I could sense just how thick the floor was.  Most buildings had only a few feet separating each story, but here, there was solid matter nearly as thick as the open spaces.

A fortress?  A fortress has soldiers.

A shelter?  It doesn’t make sense that they’d try to take shelter in a place like this.

It also made the descent to the next floor down take just long enough that it felt like something was wrong.  Winding our way down.

“There are backup plans if the whole parahumans-as-leaders thing didn’t work out.  Brainwashing leaders like they brainwashed the case fifty-threes.  So the leaders were absolute and could be trusted.  Um.  Distribution and organization for getting things going again, depending on how many threats remain after we make it through this.  They didn’t know what the end would be like, what we’d be up against, so they could only ballpark here.  The reason for these offices?  Cauldron’s going to staff this place.  It’s going to be a hub, police, a whole lot more, up until humanity’s got the ball rolling again.

“No way that doesn’t fall apart,” Golem said.

I nodded a little.

“Power fucks everything up, doesn’t it?” he asked.

“Speaking of fucked up.  You should know, Scion just hit Dalet.  It’s ugly.  Getting worse with every attack.  A little more ruthless, toying with specific people, breaking them before he obliterates their friends.  He’s going to hit our settlement again if the pattern holds.  Within the next half an hour to an hour.”

I sighed.  Nothing we could do but hope the defenders could hold their own.  I looked at Lung.

“What?” he asked.

“You wanted to come with us.  Odd choice.”

“I tried, I did nothing in the end.  I do not like being…”

“Impotent?” Imp offered.

Lung growled his response, “A mere bystander.”

We reached a set of double doors.  A foot thick, solid, they overlapped rather than meet, effectively doubling the thickness, allowing for their structure to reinforce one another.  They’d been destroyed, pried apart.  An impressive feat, considering they looked like they were meant to withstand charging elephants.

Or parahumans.

It’s a prison, the thought struck me, as we passed through, getting a glimpse of the floor below.

Rows and columns of cells, connected in strings of ten or so.  Most cells were occupied.

Not case fifty-threes, going by what my bugs told me.  The case fifty-threes were the outliers, here.  These were people who I might have seen on the street in Brockton Bay, all in matching outfits.  Men, women, children.  All young, twenty-five or younger.  All more or less in good health, if a touch thin.  My swarm touched each of them as I tried to take in their total numbers.

“They’re here!”  Someone called out.

They can’t see us from this angle, I thought.

Then it dawned on me that everyone here had powers.  Some had powers that would sense us.

“Did it work?” the person from before called out, a woman.  “Hey!  Did it work?”

“They aren’t the same people as before,” a man said.

We needed to move on.  The double doors leading down to the next flight had been torn apart as well, and that meant the Irregulars, Revel, Exalt, Vantage and quite possibly the Doctor were all downstairs.

But the noise level increased with every passing second.  Cheering, shouts, cries, even threats to urge us to move faster, in a dozen different languages, maybe more.  The noise swelled as others took up the cry.  People screaming at the tops of their lungs.

And they were threatening to draw attention to us in the process.  I drew on my relay bugs, sending the swarm downstairs, trying to figure out if we’d just alerted Weld and the others.

“They think we’re here to rescue them,” Golem said.

“Aren’t we?” Cuff asked.  “I mean, it’s not why we came, but we can’t leave without them.  We’re not heartless?”

That she made it a question was telling.

That she directed that question at me was… I didn’t even have the words to articulate it.

“Yes,” I said.  “Yes, of course.”

“If we rescue them, then it causes trouble.  Too many to look after,” Lung said.

“Chaos could help us,” Shadow Stalker observed.

“We are going to rescue them,” I said.  “It’s just a question of when.  And how.”

I walked forward until I could see the cells and their occupants.

Hundreds of cells, and there wasn’t anything blocking them off.  Open doors, with nothing visible that would keep the prisoners inside.  Most consisted of only three walls and a white line painted on the floor.  Beside each cell was a metal plate, engraved with a number.

“Oh my god,” Cuff’s voice was touched with quiet horror, almost lost in the rising noise.  “Look at how pale they are.  They’ve been here a long time.”

These guys haven’t been here for long,” Tattletale said.  “Or they’re the newest.  Two thousand and fifty cells, I’m thinking, maybe half of them occupied.  All the structural reinforcements, the heavy doors, the traps in the ceiling, it’s to keep the prisoners in.  But you don’t need to put security doors in for going downstairs if there’s no way out.  There’s more cells downstairs, with older patients.  Plus, I think, the hub of Cauldron’s operation.

“This can’t be for humanity’s sake,” Golem said.

It is,” Tattletale said.  “Everything they’ve been doing is for our sake.  Producing better formulas to get more soldiers for the biggest, most important fights, weaning out the bad formulas so nobody important gets them…

“And the case fifty-threes?” I asked.  “Dismissed as bad formulas?”

At first, maybe.  But there’s a use to them.  As a rule, they’re stronger, tougher.  If we’re forced to make a break for it, scatter humanity and survive with the remnants, the case fifty-threes can settle places you or I couldn’t.  I think there’s something else, but I don’t see it… lemme keep looking.  There’s got to be a hint.  Might have to get you to run upstairs to fetch a file or something…

Tattletale trailed off, going silent but for the occasional mumble.

Was this the army that Cauldron wanted to deploy?  Men and women with powers they didn’t ask for, released with stipulations, or simply deposited on a battlefield and left to fight or run?

It felt too thin.  Even this many capes, they were untrained, their powers presumably unpracticed.  They wouldn’t amount to more than cannon fodder.

I stopped, feeling the scale of it all.  Hundreds of cells, hundreds of voices

“Quiet!”  I called out.

My voice was lost in the noise.

Quiet!”  I used my swarm to transmit my voice.

Some listened, as if waiting for me to say something else.

I wasn’t sure what I could say.  I glanced at my teammates, searching for an idea, before something came to me.  “Save your energy.  Don’t exhaust yourselves shouting.

They listened, quieting down.  At first.

But excitement won over.  There was no way to communicate their excitement other than by talking to their cellmates, or the people in cells across from them, but as the general volume rose, they had to raise their voices to be heard.  It didn’t help that the entire area was a giant acoustic sounding board.

“I could sing,” Canary said, raising her voice to be heard, “But I think I’d calm you guys down too.”

Rachel whistled, a shrill sound that almost made my bugs wince in pain.  Not a soothing song.

In the silence that followed, Bastard shook his head a little, then snapped at open air.  Too sharp for his wolf senses?

“Good,” Lung said.  Rachel only scowled at his approval.  He added, “You have to follow this with something that drives the point home.”

“Make them fear us?” I asked.  I remembered Bakuda’s commentary on her lessons from Lung.

“Fear?  Respect,” Lung said.

“Same thing,” Shadow Stalker said.

Lung shrugged.

I didn’t feel like arguing the point, and the crowd was very patiently waiting.  They were barely making a sound now.

Which was good, but was there any guarantee they wouldn’t get riled up as we made our way down to the next floor?

Bastard shook his head again.  Rachel and I both looked at the same time, then made eye contact.

I spread my bugs out through the area.  Felt the Custodian flowing through the air, a little faster than before.

She flew towards me, and I flinched, taking a step back.

She repeated the process, looping back, then charging me.

This time, when I took a step back, it was on purpose.  She’d done it a second time because she wanted me to take a second step.  And a third, a fourth…

“Go,” I said.  “This way.  Move.

We ran.  I focused on my swarm, spreading the bugs out as much as I could behind us and in front of us.

Different cells sat at the end of the hallway.  Bigger cells, arranged so that they faced the opposite direction, with paths leading in, then to the right, then back into the room.

Two-nine-three.  An empty, unlabeled cell.  Two-six-five.  Two more empty, unlabeled cells.

Bastard shook his head again, opened his mouth in an almost yawning, lazy bite.  I could sense the Custodian there, brushing by the side of his face.

I moved the swarm to block the other inmate’s view of us.

“Head-” I started, but Rachel was already making her way inside one of the empty cells.  She’d put the pieces together.  “…right.”

I hung back, looking over my shoulder as the others filed into the cells.  I hurried down the hallway, then kicked the door.  I saw a glimpse of a stairwell, identical to the one we’d used at the far end of the room.

I reversed direction, then ducked into the same corridor the others had entered.  Let the people nearby think we’d left.

I wasn’t sure it was the brightest thing, taking the dead end over the open-ended exit.  But the Custodian had suggested this.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Why?

You’re being followed,” Tattletale said.

I shook my head a little.  I could sense my bugs.  Nothing.

Was it a trap?  Would the Custodian shut some kind of door on us, locking us within?

No.  She had no reason to.  As hard to define as she was.

I pulled the camera free from my mask, then pressed it against the side of the mount on the cell exterior that would have held a number plate.  I ducked inside.

“Tattletale?”

I get it, I get itMight need to ask for help on this one.  Sit tight.

The cell was empty, but it featured a double bed, a television, a computer, a small bookshelf of cases with stuff to watch or play, and an odd little double-layered glass window that looked out onto a wall of gravel.

I joined the others, drawing my phone from my pocket.  It took a moment for Tattletale to manage the link-up.

And you’ve got video.  I’m brilliant.  Admit it.

“You’re brilliant,” I said.

If I’d had the idea earlier, I would have wound up with a better vantage point.  As it was, we viewed the scene from a distance.  I held the phone flat, so our group could circle around to observe from different angles.

The noise of the crowd became a roar, muffled to near-silence by the cell’s walls.  The occupants wouldn’t have heard the other prisoners, except in the most extreme cases.  I could see the Irregulars as they entered from the same direction we had.  I could see the crowd that followed the Irregulars.

Case fifty-threes.  Kind of?

No.  Different.  The way they spread out, their haggard appearances, they made for the best clues when these individuals were just silhouettes seen from three hundred feet away.  But they got closer, and I could see how they differed.  They didn’t take on the traits of animals, nor simple mutations or exaggerations in features.  There was a man that burned, who staggered forward, like it hurt, but he wasn’t consumed.  A woman who floated, every part of her body a distinct piece, separated by open space.  It made her look twice as tall.  A… something that inched forward, occasionally running to keep up with the crowd.  Hands and feet like flippers, but the face was an orifice, and thin worms were spilling out, swarming over the surface of his body in numbers so thick that the flesh underneath was impossible to see.

Case fifty-threes that Cauldron had kept in reserve, it seemed.  I could see the anger in them, the tension, the wariness that came with what had to have been… how long?  With the hair, the beards, maybe years of confinement.  Maybe even solitary confinement.

On camera, I could see this.

I couldn’t feel them with my bugs.  Couldn’t see them, couldn’t hear them.  A revised image, an edited image, as if the whole crowd had erased with some careful photo editing.  Sound editing.  Touch editing?

Oh, hey,” Tattletale said.  “Anyone else having trouble getting a read on those guys?

“I am telling myself we may fight soon,” Lung rumbled, “But my power is not responding as well as it should.  Looking at them, seeing what look to be worthy opponents with little to lose, I should be feeling it build faster, a pressure inside me.”

“I can’t see or hear them with my bugs, let alone touch them,” I told Tattletale.

Over an entire area.  Mantellum,” Tattletale said.  “The guy with the built-in cloak, dead center.

I looked, but the crowd moved.

They were talking.  We didn’t have audio.  There was only the rise and fall of the crowd’s shouts, letting us know when people were talking and when they were reacting to statements.

On camera, people began to leave cells.

It’s a power with layers.  Each successive layer enhances the level of protection.  Except everything on record says the range it blocks powers only extends about fifteen feet.  Get within five feet, no senses work.  It’s not supposed to be a hundred feet like this.

“Six times the range,” Cuff said.

Somehow.

I pursed my lips.  “The Doctor?”

Probably downstairs.  Look at the way the group at the rear is set up.  They’re watching to make sure nobody comes upstairs.  I think they have the Doctor trapped down there.

They have us trapped here too.

I didn’t say it out loud.  Canary looked scared, and both Lung and Rachel looked restless.

There’s this guy that looks like he’s in charge.  You see him?”

It was a voice over the earbuds, but it wasn’t Tattletale.

You’re an idiot,” Tattletale said.  “I love you for this, but you’re an idiot.”

“Who?”  I asked.

Imp,” Tattletale said.

Imp?  It took me a second.

Imp.  Damn it.  Grue would kill me.  She was close enough to overhear, and this many parahumans… so many ways she could be detected.

“Mister beautiful,” Imp said.  “He’s saying they’re free… oh, whoop.  Here we go.”

The cells emptied.  It was almost like the order being given was a stone dropped on the water’s surface, the movement of the cell’s occupants the ripple, the ones who didn’t hear the man speak reacted to the others’ movement, and the chain reaction continued.  Hundreds of people.

Hundreds of victims.

The roar of the crowd increased in volume.  I could feel the floor vibrating.  No power at work.  Just a lot of people, stomping and cheering.

The Custodian moved a little, then stopped.  I could sense her more than before, a disturbance, agitated.

She was the one that had been enforcing the peace, keeping people contained in cells without doors.  Now… either Mantellum or the strange case fifty-threes were keeping her at bay, preventing her from seeing to her duties.

The lights flickered, a little worse than before.

“They’re going to come here,” Shadow Stalker said.  “I spent time in juvie, if someone had a nice toothbrush, cookies from mom, there was jealousy, retaliation.”

I nodded a little.

And a cushy cell like this…

“They will come,” Lung said.  The irises of his eyes were orange, and hive-like lumps were standing out on his skin, where scales threatened to push forth.  “I can win, but you will all most likely die in the time I require.”

I need all the people who can bore through solid steel, he says,” Imp spoke over the comms.

“Lung’s plan can be plan A.  Let’s hear plan B,” I said.

“We run,” Shadow Stalker said.  “Door’s right there.”

“I could make barriers,” Golem said.

The roaring dimmed.  The man was speaking.  The cupboard door beneath the large television seemed to rattle with more intensity.

“Custodian says… door?”

She stopped.

Barriers,” Tattletale said.  “We’d have to get past more security doors, ones the Irregulars haven’t dealt with.  Quite probably other security measures.

Imp spoke up, “Pretty guy’s saying… traitors to our kind.  See they get the justice they deserve.  Oh… hey.

I looked at the phone.

Weld, mangled to the point that he looked more like scrap metal than a person, was heaved forward, thrown to the ground.

A sphere rolled forward.  Something coiled within, behind the colored transparent pane.  Someone in the crowd grabbed it, then made their hands glow.  Fire?  Heating the material?  I couldn’t tell from this distance, but I could see the movement within accelerate in fits and starts.

Weld reached out for the sphere, but his arm was so badly damaged it couldn’t hold his weight.  It bent the wrong way, breaking off.  When he rolled over onto his back, the forearm was stuck to his upper arm, hand to his shoulder and neck.

If he’d been a human, if half that much damage had been done, there would be no way he’d be alive.

“Doesn’t get much worse than a crowd this mad,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice low.  “I can probably make a break for it and get away.  Not usually my thing to be nice, but… you want me to pass on any messages?  Last words?  My memory is shit, but I can try.”

The crowd was reacting, the contents of the room shaking with the sound.  Out there, it would be deafening.

Then they moved.  People were parting the way.  Opening a path to our end of the hallway.

The camera gave us a view of the central gang.  A spiky boy with yellow skin.  A man with exaggerated masculine and feminine features, a caricature, burdened with muscle.  There was Gully, the muscular girl with the shovel, braids and severe overbite who’d helped out against Echidna, looking ill at ease.  A boy with red skin.  Sanguine.

As they got closer, I could feel my power changing, to tell a lie.  No people in the area.  A conspicuous clearing in the gap.  There were enough people to push my insects around, wherever they were, but my brain was revising it to make sense of the scene.  It was unusual enough to grab my attention, though, but not accurate enough for me to use it.

“Feel up to singing?” I asked Canary.

“They’d hurt me before I got anywhere,” she said.  “Probably.  I’ll try.”

I closed my eyes.  I could feel my swarm out there, both inside and outside of Mantellum’s power, but I couldn’t do anything meaningful to the crowd with it.

“Satyrical’s out there,” I said.  “His people…”

Tattletale spoke.  “Probably happen to be the ones who stayed behind to dig for the Doctor.  Nobody there, in Satyrical’s group who’re going to be able to deal with this mob.  Probably nobody in the Doctor’s group, either.

I nodded, drawing my knife.  The one Defiant had given me.

Not enough to cut our way to freedom.  Judging by the gravel outside the double-pane window, we were sitting beside layers of rock.  The knife could get us into the next cell, maybe the cell next to that… but it wouldn’t let us get anywhere fast enough to outpace the crowd.

“Plan A, then,” Lung spoke, somber.  “For your sacrifice, I will grant you a favor.  Tell me if you want me to kill someone, an enemy you want gone.”

“We’re not going to die,” I growled the words.  I began forming the swarm into a decoy.

A distraction.  If I could get the crowd’s attention, lead them upstairs-

The pretty man outside spoke, and I could see his lips move on the camera.  There was no need for translation.

Revenge.

This time, the jeering was just outside our cell.  The mob advanced.

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Venom 29.3

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“We knew it would come to this,” Legend said.

I turned around.  My hands were full as I unbelted a tightly folded blanket and draped it over one of the wounded.

A surprising number of wounded, in the end.  Twenty or so injured from an aircraft that had been partially obliterated, eighteen more people who’d had their legs sliced off.  Nearly forty Dragon’s Teeth with mild injuries, their armor melted to their faces, chests, arms and legs.  Scion had tried his usual assortment of attacks, and they’d evaded them.  Enhanced strength from the costumes, predictive technology from the onboard artificial intelligences.

So he’d used a power they couldn’t dodge, a power they couldn’t block.  A light that radiated outward and melted the materials of their costumes.

Cauldron hadn’t been there to reinforce the group.  If they had been, it might have been a staging ground.  Instead, the group had folded and Scion had come after the portal that was closest.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When we were predicting what would happen with the Endbringers, we said that we’d be forced to regroup, consolidate our forces.  Every fight would result in losses, so we’d have to abandon positions, move people from an abandoned post to keep numbers up.”

“I can see that,” I said.

An outpost abandoned.  The world Defiant and Dragon had been looking after was being abandoned as a lost cause.  There were countless people still alive, but they were spread out, and there was no way to mount a proper defense with our forces spread too thin.

“If there’s an upside,” Legend said, his tone changing as if he were forcing himself to be less grim.  “Tattletale said we’re making headway.  It doesn’t look like it, but we’re taking chunks out of him.  The strongest of us survive, we regroup, see what works, we’re stronger when it comes to the next fight.”

Except he’s indiscriminate.  He’s killing the ones who can actually affect him, because he’s being reactive.  We’re not stronger by virtue of the strongest surviving and consolidating because the only difference between this fight and the next is that we’ll be less.

I kept my mouth shut.

“Defiant and Dragon will be joining you guys here, to make up for the ones you lost.  You’ll have Leviathan, at the very least.  Chevalier and I will be a matter of minutes away.”

A few minutes is too long, I thought.  But I didn’t want to state the obvious, didn’t want to argue.

I was trying to be good, trying not to raise any problems with a guy who could well be sensitive over the fact that I’d murdered one of his closest companions a few years back.

Besides, I knew that this pep talk was most likely Legend trying to reassure the wounded.  Maybe even him trying to reassure himself.

He took his time, putting fresh bandages on a wound.

“I’ve followed your career,” Legend said.  “I’ve seen you on the battlefields, fighting the Endbringers, old and new.  The bugs are noticeable.”

“I’m nothing special.”

“You rendered Alexandria brain dead,” Legend told me.  “That warrants attention.”

“Fair enough,” I said.  I managed to get another blanket unbelted from the arrangement of straps that kept it in a folded position and then draped it over someone.  Legend moved the end of the blanket, where it rested on the patient’s wounded foot.

“I wanted to know who it was that had killed Rebecca.  I kept an eye on everything you did in the Protectorate, looked for the details about your past.  I understand if that seems creepy…”

“I think I get it.  You were close to her.”

“I felt close to her.  In the end, though, there was a gap between my feelings and the reality.  Still is, I suppose.  Go through enough with people, build something from the ground up, you form ties.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I looked over my shoulder.  Mai, one of the kids Charlotte and Forrest were looking after, was there, alongside one of Rachel’s henchmen and a puppy.   Giving comfort to a child from the other settlement who’d been burned by the same effect that melted the costumes of the Dragon’s Teeth.  The burns weren’t horrible, but it made it hard to tell the child’s ethnicity or gender.

But the child was scratching the puppy behind the ear.  Rachel stood nearby, arms folded, stern and ominous.  I felt a kind of fondness, tempered by a kind of hesitance, like I couldn’t let myself hold on too tight to the friendship and familiarity because she could be dead by the end of the day.  Though it was sharper than it had been in the past, it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling.

Legend was looking at me when I turned back to him.  “Yeah.”

“It doesn’t always make for the most sound decisions.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I agreed.  I had to scoot out of the way as some doctors hurried by with fresh tools and equipment.  Removing the dissolved materials from burned flesh was something of a task, and there were a lot of people to help.

“I always knew there was something wrong, underneath it all, but there were bigger things to focus on.  You finish dealing with one Endbringer attack or a potential war with parahuman attacks on both sides, it demands all of your focus.  You’re left drained, dealing with the event or the aftermath, and then you need to recuperate, you have an organization to manage.  There’s never a moment where you can stop, take a deep breath, and then say, ‘now is the moment where I address that nagging doubt I had the other day’.  Now is the moment I call so-and-so out on that less-than-complete truth they used while we were elbow-deep in Indonesian cyborg super-soldiers.”

“I think I know exactly what you mean.”

“I think it’s very possible you do,” he said.

“But you can’t dwell on it,” I said.

“If you don’t give it the necessary attention, then how do you prevent it from becoming a cycle?”

“You don’t.  You look back at your reasons for making the choices when you made the choices, you recognize that you didn’t address or act on your suspicions and doubts because you had higher priorities at the time, and you make peace with it.”

“Have you?  Made peace with it?”

“I’m on my way there, Legend.”

“I’m not sure I want to go there,” he said.  “Give me a hand?  Hold his leg up?”

I nodded.

Gore.  A foot reduced to something unrecognizable.  The man would probably lose it.

But Legend still tended to the limb with care.  Almost gentle.  I tried to be as graceful in keeping the leg in the air.

The soldier made a noise of pain as Legend cleaned the foot, using a laser to sever a tag of flesh that was holding a piece of boot on.  I reached out and held the man’s hand.

“You came in here for a reason,” Legend said.

I looked up.

“It’s not about taking care of the wounded,” he said.  “You’re not devoting a great deal of attention to keeping an eye on Hellhound, either.  Yes, you could use your swarm to discreetly observe her, to discreetly observe anyone in your range, but I don’t think that’s why you came here.”

I started to respond, but the soldier’s leg started kicking, an almost involuntary nerve reaction.  I had to pull my hand from his to hold his leg as still as possible.

We eased it down until he was lying flat, his leg on the bed.  I pulled a blanket over him, as carefully as I could.

“You have a question, or questions,” Legend said, “But you’re not asking them because you’re worried about the response.  Either it’s something touchy, or there’s another reason why you’re holding back.”

I sighed.  “If you don’t have an answer for me, then I’m not sure I know what I’m going to do next.”

“So this is about something only I would know?”

“Basically,” I said.  “We don’t have access to that broad a pool of people, right now.”

“Okay,” Legend said.  “What do you need to know?”

“Cauldron’s portals.”

“Closed.  They’re created by a parahuman called Doormaker.  The Doctor told me he was blind and deaf to his surroundings, but I think it’s far more likely that it’s to do with another parahuman she partnered him with.  Someone who grants sensory awareness.  I think the Doctor gave Doormaker too much exposure to this parahuman and destroyed or atrophied his other senses.  One of those nagging doubts I never acted on.”

We passed by Rachel, Rachel’s minion and Mai.  I gave Rachel a little nod of acknowledgement as we stepped outside.

Then we stepped outside.  There was a shattered sign over the boarded-up windows.  Apparently Tattletale had made some business deals and tried to get things in place for this to become a city like any one in Earth Bet.  The pieces were there, but the furniture had yet to be installed, the food yet to be supplied.  An empty fast food place, now a makeshift hospital.

Eat fresh?  I thought.  Not likely.

I took in the scene.  Capes were still reeling from the attack, and again, it was the monsters and the lunatics that seemed to be standing, while others sat, recovering, catching their breath, mustering their courage.

Nilbog, engaged in conversation with Glaistig Uaine.

Four of the Heartbroken, with Imp and Romp.  A maskless Imp gave Bonesaw a glare as the girl hurried, in the company of Marquis and Panacea, to the fast food place Legend and I had just left.

Lung was alone, looking angry, frustrated, almost more agitated than he’d been before or during the fight.  His eyes were on Leviathan, who was down by the water, but I didn’t get the impression Leviathan was the source of the frustration.

Parian and Foil were together, Foil with her mask off.  They’d curled up in a space between two large bins of food, Foil resting her head on Parian’s shoulder, their hands and fingers entwined.

Tattletale was caught up in a conversation with Knave of Clubs, and fell under the Simurgh’s shadow.  The Simurgh, for her part, seemed to be busy building other tinker devices, drawing on the abilities of tinkers in the immediate area.

Vista was sitting on a rooftop, two stories high.  Her eyes were closed, her hands set behind her so she could lean back a bit.  Her face turned towards the sky.

There were other capes in the area, looking a little more serious, focused on business.  Chevalier was with Defiant and Dragon, Black Kaze, Saint, Masamune and Canary.  Some of them drifted off, making their way towards us.

“If it helps,” Legend said, “I don’t think Doormaker is dead.  There have been two interruptions in his power, to date.  One followed an earthquake.  He was unhurt, but his partner… well, it was a clue that a partner existed.  His doors all went down simultaneously the moment the earthquake hit the facility.  I don’t think his power is the type that would outlast him after death, if it was so easily interrupted while he was alive.”

“So he’s alive because the doors are still open in places.”

“Alive and unable or unwilling to use his power,” Legend said.

I nodded.  “So is it Cauldron running or is it another agency?”

I could see Legend’s expression change.  I’d heard him talk before, saying as much, but his face was what told me, above all else, that he was burdened by regrets.  “I wish I could say it was the latter.”

“But you don’t know.”

“I remain in the dark when it comes to Cauldron.”

“What about Satyrical?” I asked.  “He was investigating with his team, wasn’t he?”

“He was, but he tends towards radio silence, Pretender’s people have since well before the Vegas teams cut ties with the Protectorate.  They claimed it was because there would inevitably be a parahuman who could uncover them if they left channels open.  Now… well, isn’t that the way most things were?  Secrets, lies, conspiracies.”

“It is, but-” I tried to find a way to politely say what I was trying to say.

“But?”

“With all due respect, and I really do mean that because I respect you, I respect that you’ve participated in the fights, I get where you’re coming from…”

“You’re spending too much time couching what you’re saying,” Legend said.  “Rest assured, I can handle what you’re about to throw at me.  I think worse things to myself all the time.”

“I’m impatient.  That’s all.  Scion’s going to attack again, and I don’t plan to be here,” I said.

“You want a portal to get out of here,” Legend said.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t want an escape.  I want to act.”

“We’re acting,” Legend said.

“We’re reacting.”

“If you have ideas for something pre-emptive, I think we could all stand to hear it.”

I shook my head.  “Nothing definitive.”

“Even something that isn’t definitive.”

“I want to find Cauldron.  They have contingency plans we know they haven’t put into effect yet, and they have answers they’ve yet to provide.”

“Cauldron is very good at leading people to believe that they have the answers and then disappointing,” Legend said.  “Take it from someone who knows.  Ah.  I’m doing it again, aren’t I?  Like an old man.”

He smiled, and I smiled a little too.

“You’re an old man?”  Chevalier asked.  His group had just joined us.

“Taylor here was just very politely trying to tell me I’m wasting her time on reminiscing and regrets.”

“You have something better to do?” Defiant asked me.

Defiant,” Dragon said, admonishing him.  She was in her armor, but had her helmet off.  The face was real.  Plain, but real.

She’s an A.I.  A false person.  What else had Saint said?  She’s deceiving us?  It’s all an act?

“…came out wrong,” Defiant was saying.  Very deliberately, he said, “I am genuinely curious what you’re doing, Weaver.”

Dragon smiled a little, as if a private thought had crossed her mind.

The doubts Saint had seeded dissipated.

Ninety percent of them.

“I was telling Legend I want to go after Cauldron,” I said.  “A member of the Chicago Wards was saying that sending Satyrical to go investigate is like sending a fox to guard the henhouse.”

“Satyrical has definite ties to Cauldron,” Dragon said.  “If nothing else, Pretender maintains connections to the group.  If Cauldron is running, or if they are pulling something covert, then it’s very possible Satyrical is on board or is going to be brought on board.”

Chevalier shifted the Cannonblade to his other hand, then stabbed the point into the ground.  It looked different.  His armor looked different.  Gold and black, instead of gold and silver.  “It also means he and the Las Vegas capes are well equipped to know how Cauldron operates, and identify clues others would miss.  We sent them with others we could trust.  They’ve been reporting in on schedule.”

I opened my mouth.  Chevalier spoke before I could.  “-With stranger and master precautions in place.”

I frowned.

“You’re strong when it comes to improvising,” Chevalier told me.  “We’ve got a moment to breathe.  We think he’s hitting another world, one we don’t have access to.  We’re regrouping, figuring out who goes where, and we’re trying to set things up so we can mobilize faster.  I can’t tell you what to do.  I wouldn’t if I could.  But we could use you here.”

“We’re losing, here,” I said.  “Legend was being positive, but… I don’t think we can really delude ourselves that far.  He’s tearing us apart while holding back.  If we put up a fight or if we don’t hold back, he hits us harder, like he hit the Guild.  He can always top us, and he can always say he’s had enough and then just nuke the continent.  That’s not a recipe for an eventual win.”

“I don’t even think that’s the worst of it,” Tattletale said, finally having broken away from Knave of Clubs to join this conversation.  “He’s evolving, maturing.  If you can even call it that.  He was a blank slate, then almost like a baby, flinging destruction around like a baby practices moving their arms, as if to remind himself he could… and then he was like a child in this fight… except for the bit about Queen of Swords.  That suggested he’s almost entering an adolescent phase.  Something more complex than just raw fear and awe.  Loss, despair.  He’s going to start looking for ways to really hurt us.”

“Instead of just annihilating us?” Legend asked.  “Torture?”

“Mental, emotional, more involved physical torture.  Up until he hits adulthood.  Then he probably destroys us, completely and utterly.  I’d be surprised if we lasted more than two days, rate he’s developing.”

“You’re talking about him as if he were human,” Saint said.

“He is,” Tattletale said.  “It’s the only reason he’s doing this, and it’s the only way we have to truly make sense of him, and it’s his primary means of making sense of us.  Which is why he did it.  He’s got our general biological makeup.  He thinks, he feels, he dreams, he hurts, but it’s all buried so far under mounds and mounds and mounds of power and security, it doesn’t really supplant him.  It’s never been exposed to the real world, really, so the human side of him hasn’t matured or developed.”

“A weakness?”  Chevalier asked.

“Yes, but not a weakness we’re going to be able to exploit,” Tattletale said.  “He’s too careful, and he would have foreseen it.  Adapted around it, probably.  Be awfully stupid for something like him to adapt traits of their targets and adapt vulnerabilities at the same time.  Knowing this could help, but it’s not going to be the weak point we can target to finish him off.  That makes zero sense.”

“We know a lot of things like that,” I said.  “A lot of tidbits about his behavior or who he is or what he is.  But a lot of it isn’t reliable information.  He cared a lot about my clone decoys multiplying during the fight on the oil rig, but he didn’t give a damn this time.”

“He’s advancing, evolving.  His focus is changing,” Tattletale interjected.

“We know so many critical details,” I said, “And we need more.  We need a way of paring truth away from fiction, or determining what’s no longer true.  I don’t know for sure what we’re going to do to stop him, but I think any plans I have are going to start or end with Cauldron.”

I looked around the group.  Men and women, all in armor that made them stronger, bulkier or taller, it seemed.  Legend was comparatively small, but he had presence to make up for it, even as tired and worn out as he seemed to be.  Flying, casual flying as Legend tended to do, gave one a little more stature.

I wasn’t short, but it felt like Tattletale and I were mortals in the midst of giants.  Defiant, in particular, seemed somehow imposing.  His body language was familiar with the way he’d naturally set his feet apart, his hand on his weapon.

Even the place we were standing, it stirred memories.  We were at the north end of the Bay, even.

“Yes.  The plan makes sense,” Defiant said.  “I’ll trust you on this one.”

Dragon reached out to grab and squeeze his hand.

“What do you need?” Defiant asked me.

“I was thinking I’d bring some of the capes that can’t or won’t participate in the fight against Scion,” I said.  My eyes fell on Canary.

Me?”  Canary squeaked.

“Anyone, but capes like you,” I said.  “Support capes who can’t support in circumstances like this.  Strangers who can’t use their power on Scion.  Capes like that.”

“And if you can’t access Cauldron?” Chevalier asked.  “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but your actions when you assumed control of the Simurgh were… heavy handed.  You told an ex-teammate in the Wards that you weren’t intending to be a hero anymore.  I don’t want to tell you I won’t cooperate any more than I want to tell anyone I won’t cooperate, but you’d be asking us to put a fair amount of power in your hands by sending capes your way.  I… don’t know that I feel confident sending capes to you, if I don’t know how they’ll be put to use.”

“Would you allow me to talk to other capes?” I asked.  “You don’t have to send them my way, but maybe I could inquire?”

“I’m not going to stand in anyone’s way,” Chevalier said.  “I’m not the bad guy, here.  But I’ve got to lead this battle, and I’ve got to do what I can to make sure things don’t get worse.  If a cape needs to go, if they don’t have the courage to stand and fight, I’m not going to make them.  I’ll try to convince them otherwise, but I won’t make them.  And if they think they’ll be more useful elsewhere, I won’t stop them there, either.”

I nodded.  “I’ll settle for that.”

“What else?”

“Access to computers,” I said.  “Tools.  Resupplies.  The Dragonfly.”

He reached out of his pocket and withdrew a knife.  He reversed it and extended it to me, handle first.

I reached for the weapon, then saw Defiant pull his hand back.  “Be aware of the safety and the activation switch.”

I saw one of the switches, then took hold of the knife.

“Keep it away from heat.  If the growths start knuckling together, then it’s probably clogged at the air intake.  You can unscrew the cap at the butt of the knife and access the air intake there.  Bake it at roughly five hundred degrees to clear it, then thoroughly vacuum.  Pay attention to how long it takes the growths to hit maximum length… you’ll know because the colors at the ends are a lighter gray.  Three point seven seconds is the optimum time.  If it takes shorter then you’ll know something’s wrong with-“

“The knife won’t degrade too much in the next day,” Dragon said.  “And we have spares, thanks to Masamune.”

“You didn’t make this much of a fuss with my flight pack,” I said.

“I included documentation,” Defiant said.

“Thank you,” I said.  I found the holster for my old knife, then put it through the belt at my back, holstering the new knife.

“Where’s the Dragonfly?” he asked.  I pointed.

Dragon said something in Japanese to Masamune and Black Kaze.  There were two nods.

Defiant led the way to the Dragonfly, all business, Dragon, Canary, Tattletale, and me following.  He seemed almost happy to have something to focus on.  A problem that could be solved.

Did he genuinely trust me?  Was there a modicum of hope, here, with me mobilizing to go look into the Cauldron situation?

He continued to hold his weapon, though the fight wasn’t about to start.

I could imagine his outlook, the security the weapon afforded him, a hundred solutions in his hands.  The ability to defend himself, to defend others, to move out of the way of danger.  It made sense.

Dragon, conversely… what was her security blanket?

Different.  I couldn’t put my thumb on it.  But she’d lost to Saint, to the Dragonslayers.  She’d been taken captive, effectively killed.  Killed by a man who saw her as subhuman.

She’d been altered by Teacher.  Not so much she was a slave to him, but something had happened, and that was no doubt a large part of how she was disconnected from reality in the here and now.

I looked back at Saint, Masamune and Black Kaze.  Saint was taking a seat, his back to a chunk of destroyed aircraft, cross-legged.  Calm, relaxed.

“How can you stand to be near them?” I asked.

“Keep your enemies closer,” Dragon said, her voice tight.

“Don’t forget about the friends part,” I said.

She shook her head a little.  “I won’t.”

“When we were waiting for the fight to start, I went around, looking for people I needed to thank.  Important people to me, people who I wasn’t sure I’d get a chance to talk to again.  I missed a few important ones.  My dad… you two.  I know the only reason I got my shot at being a hero, the only reason I didn’t go to jail, was because you vouched for me, because you agreed to cart me back and forth and interrupt your schedule.  I probably didn’t even deserve it, but you backed me up.  I’m just… I’ve never been good at saying thank you and sounding as sincere as I feel.”

“I think we benefited as much as you did,” Dragon said.  “You needed to join the Wards to… make amends, shall we say?  It was the same for us.”

“For me,” Defiant cut in.

“I had my own regrets,” Dragon said.

“You had no choice.”

“Regrets nonetheless,” she said, again.  Her head turned towards Canary, and Canary smiled just a little.  Dragon then looked to me.

Was it possible for an artificial human to look weary?  To look wounded, in the sense that she was bearing some grievous injury from recent events?

We’d stopped outside the Dragonfly.  I bid the ramp to open, controlling the bugs in the operating mechanism.

Then, as it opened, I impulsively gave Dragon a hug.  Returning a favor she’d given me some time ago.

“Let’s get you set up,” Defiant said.

“Hook me in while you’re at it?” Tattletale made it a question.  “Whatever you need to do, so I can communicate with her and her peeps.”

“I’ll see to it.”

Tattletale glanced at me.  “Ops?”

“Please.”

We circled twice before coming in for a landing.  A cave just above water level, inaccessible except from the air.

The receiving party consisted of Exalt and Revel from the Protectorate core group, with half of the Vegas team.  Nix, Leonid, Floret and Spur.  Vantage was waving a rod around, listening to steady beeps.

“Oh god, finallySomething to take my mind off the beeping,” Floret said.  She was petite, her hair in carefully layered waves of pink, with green at the roots.

“Find anything?” I asked.

“No signs of any portals that have been opened in the past.  Harder than cracking Dodger’s gateways, apparently,” Vantage said.  “Or they gave us bad instructions.  How’re you doing, Weaver?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Wearing black,” he said.

“Is everyone going to comment on that?” I asked.

“It’s comment worthy.  How’d the fight… nevermind.  I can guess.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Grim group,” Floret commented.  “I know black’s ‘in’ with the end of the world, but damn.  Only one person with style.”

I looked over my shoulder.  Golem, in silver and gunmetal, his mask solemn.  Cuff, again, in a dark metal costume.  Imp, with her dark gray mask and black bodysuit that actually fit her.  Shadow Stalker, in a black, form-fitting bodysuit like the one I’d given Imp, along with a flowing cloak with a heavy hood.  All spidersilk, but the mask was hers, as was the crossbow.  Rachel followed, her jacket, tank top and pants black, only the fur ruff at her shoulders, where it flowed around the edges of her hood, was white.  Huntress and Bastard flanked her.  Lung was still inside the Dragonfly, but I knew he had only his mask and jeans on.  Barefoot, shirtless.

Canary was the only one, apparently, who met Floret’s standards.  Yellow body armor, her helmet in one hand, her hair and feathers free.

“I remember you,” Spur said.  He smiled.  Teeth that had been professionally done, no doubt.  He wasn’t bad looking, but not quite my type.  Spiky hair, and a costume that mingled barbed wire tattoos with real barbed wire, where his skin was exposed.  Mid twenties, with hair bleached to a near-white and acid washed jeans.  His mask was simple, black, covering the upper half of his face, with only a circle of barbed wire at the brow.  A trademark of thinker powers, to do the whole forehead thing.  A precog who was most effective in the midst of chaos and heightened emotions, and fairly competent otherwise.  “Bad Canary?”

Canary’s eyes widened.  “You remember my stage name?”

“You were famous,” he said.  “The whole trial thing.  You-“

Canary’s expression fell.

“-got robbed,” he said.

Dick,” Floret said.  “Like that’s how she wants to be remembered.”

“I remember the music too,” he protested.

“Yeah,” Canary said.  She rubbed the back of her neck, avoiding eye contact.  “It doesn’t matter anyways, does it?  Long time ago, and we’ve got better things to worry about.”

Vulgarishous,” he said.  “Ur-soundLineless?”

“You’re probably cheating,” she said.

“I could sing the lyrics,” he answered.

“It would make me sure you’re cheating.  I barely remember the lyrics.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Spur answered her.  “Eh, guys?  Back me up.  My power doesn’t give me a way to cheat, does it?”

“No,” Floret said.  “He’s genuine.  And none of us have ways to clue him in.”

I glanced at Revel, who only rolled her eyes a little.  Exalt looked bored.  He saw me looking and commented, “It’s fine here.  We’re using substandard tools to find a portal that used to exist, and we don’t know exactly where it was.”

Imp pushed her mask up until it sat on top of her head.  “Finding a transparent needle outside of the haystack.”

“Well put,” Leonine said.

“Don’t encourage her,” I told him.

He only smiled, which made Imp smirk at me in turn.

Spur was murmuring the lyrics to the song, and he was actually doing a good job of it.  Canary was trying to look like she wasn’t pleased as punch.  It was cute.  Cute and just a little ominous, considering who these guys were.

Some things had come to light after they’d departed their positions in the Protectorate and Wards.  Nothing definitive, but it raised questions that had yet to be answered.  Questions that would probably never be answered, now that evidence lockers and court records throughout Earth Bet had been obliterated.  Problems that had resolved themselves just a little too neatly.  People, both bad guys and witnesses, who’d disappeared.

“If I’m the lion, and you’re the goat…” Leonine was saying.

“I guarantee I’m more dangerous than you,” Imp retorted.

I could sense others in the group getting restless.

“We’ll let you know if anything turns up,” Revel said, as if she’d sensed it.  She smiled a little, a bit awkward, or apologetic.  “Don’t let us waste your time.  It’s the end of the world, spend it with people you care about.”

Her eyes moved to Cuff and Golem, who were hanging back.  The pair were the heroes of our group, so to speak.  They’d feel the betrayal of the Vegas capes more sharply, even now.  They looked at each other.

I did too.  Not that I counted myself as a hero.  But I’d been there.

“I could come with,” Exalt said.  “If you’re going back.  I’m only here to relieve Revel.  I’ll be able to participate in the coming fight.”

“Sure,” I said.  “But I’d like to hear the password.  From Revel.”

“Good thinking.  Belord, six-two, spauld,” she said.

“On my seventeenth birthday,” I said.  “What color was the cake?”

“Seriously?” she asked.  “Do you even remember?  I should get a brownie point for this one.  Because I care about my Wards.  It was white.”

“The frosting?” I asked.

“Blue,” she said, sounding just a bit put out.  “And you barely ate any.”

I nodded, satisfied.  “And… Leonine.”

Me?”  Leonine laughed a bit.  “What kind of shenanigans do you think we’re pulling?”

“He’s one of the Vegas capes,” Imp said, speaking very slowly, like I was mentally disabled.

“I know he’s one of the Vegas capes.  But I think I have to cover all of the bases.  Who was your kindergarten teacher?”

“You researched that?” Spur asked.  “Dug through our entire histories to find something obscure?”

He sounded offended.  Every head had turned his way.

“Do you have a problem with that?”  I asked.

He frowned, but he shook his head, sticking his hands in his pockets as he leaned against the wall beside Canary.  “No.  No problem.”

“Richie,” Leonine said.  “Mrs. Richie.”

“Great,” I said.  “Great.  Now let’s drop the fucking act.”

“I gave you the answer you wanted,” Leonine said, smirking.  “What the fuck?”

“Spur?” I said, “Raise your right hand?”

He did.  There were bugs on the fingers.

“He was moving his hand.  A one-handed sign language.  I assume everyone on your team knows it.”

“I was thinking of Canary’s music,” Spur told me.  He stepped forward, putting a hand on Canary’s shoulder as he did so.  She turned, so they were both facing me.  “Piano keys.  Mnemonic tool.  That is something our team uses.”

“You’re being a little crazy paranoid,” Imp said.  “Just a little.”

“They’ve been playing us since the start,” I said.  “The men were batting their eyelashes at you and Canary, probably the targets they thought they could work.  Revel… I’d think she’s under some kind of compulsion.”

“A lot crazy,” Imp said.  “Way crazy.”

“Maybe Tattletale can chime in,” I suggested.  “Tattle?”

Mostly right.  Exalt, Revel, Vantage, Leonine, Floret, all fakes.”

“No shit,” Imp said.  Her mouth dropped open.  “No way.”

“Jig’s up,” I said.  “We know.”

One by one, the Vegas capes changed.  Flesh altered, and they assumed identical appearances.

Six copies of Satyrical.  Leaving only Spur and Nix.

One of the Satyricals looked at the two who remained.  “Take care of yourself.  I’ll see you shortly.”

“I know,” Spur said.

Satyr looked at us, as if taking us all in.  “And you, I suppose, we’ll run into.  Sooner or later.”

Then the Satyrs died.  Flesh withered, and the Satyrs crumpled up.  They made bloody messes as they hit the ground, like overripe tomatoes might, but with teeth and the occasional bit of withered organ.

Self duplication, and each duplicate had shapeshifting abilities.

I bent down and picked up the devices from the heads of Revel, Exalt and Vantage’s clones.  Earbuds, phones…

“Revel,” Cuff said, her voice small.

“Where are the real ones?” Golem asked.

“With the real Satyr,” I guessed.

“And how did he know the passwords?” Golem asked.

He guessed the cake thing through cold reading.  White with blue, like Weaver’s costume.  Made sense.  That Taylor didn’t eat much… well, look at herThe rest… torture?  Coercion through other means?”

“Torture?” I asked.

Spur raised his chin a bit, but didn’t do or say anything to suggest otherwise.

“Ew.”  Imp said, under her breath, “Ew, ew, ew.  He’s like, forty?  And he was hitting on me.”

“Where’s the portal?” I asked Spur, ignoring Imp.

“No portal.  Or weren’t you paying attention?”

I looked at Nix.  “You know where this goes, if you don’t cooperate.  Circumstances are a little too dire.  We knock you out, your power fades.  So why don’t you drop the illusion and let us see the portal?”

“My power stays up while I’m out,” she said.

I drew my knife.  The one that wasn’t special.

“Woah,” Golem said.  He put his hand on my wrist.  “Woah, woah, woah.”

“She’s bluffing,” Spur said, unfazed.  “She’s scary, she’s got a reputation, but she’s bluffing here.  There’s no way she follows through.”

“I think you’re badly underestimating how pissed off I am,” I said.  I was surprised at just how right I was.  The mounting anger caught me off guard.  “Doing this, screwing around, stabbing people in the back, screwing with the system when we’re trying to save humanity?”

“We’re saving it too,” Spur said.  “Satyr, the others, they’ve got this situation handled.  Give them… two or three more hours, and the threats are going to be dealt with, Cauldron will be secure, or as secure as they can be, after you account for injuries and deaths at the hands of the invading group.  You go in there, you’re just going to muck up a delicate exfiltration operation.”

“Invading?” Golem asked.

“The deviants.  The case-fifty-threes.  Weld’s group.”

Weld?  No.  He’d been one of the only decent ones out there, during my stay in Brockton Bay.  Respectable, honest, kind.  He’d saluted me the first time we’d crossed paths, because we were both going up against an Endbringer.

Fuck it all.

Either Spur was fucking with me, or things were fucked.  Fuck it all.

“People like you are the reason we deserve to lose,” I said, gripping the knife.  “Every step of the way, it’s been people refusing to cooperate, refusing to talk plain truth.  From day one, even.  You’re the reason humanity deserves to get wiped out.”

“Great,” he said.  “You’re still not going to use that knife on either of us.”

It was said with the smug tone of someone who could see the future.

I glanced at Canary.  I could see the hurt on her face.

“I get it,” Spur said.  “See it coming.  If it helps, I do remember the music.”

Rachel stepped forward, giving me a little push to get me out of the way, and then slugged him.

He dropped, unconscious.

Golem set about binding him to the cave floor with hands of stone.

I looked at Nix.  “Her too.”

Golem reached into his costume, and hands of stone gripped Nix.

“To the ceiling,” I decided, at the last second.

“Sure,” Golem said.  Hands of stone emerged, passing Nix up.  She struggled a bit, but she was at an unsafe height by the time she realized what he was doing.

She was bound to the cave ceiling with armholds, leg holds and an arm set across her collarbone.

“What the hell?” she asked.

“I don’t think any of your friends have powers that can break those hands,” I said.

“The hell?” she asked, again.  She tested her bonds.  “The fuck?”

“You better hope we make it out okay,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“Pretty sure it’s to your left.  Start by going ten paces that way.”

I nodded.

We followed the directions.

The illusion broke, dissolving into harmless smoke, as we reached it and pressed hard enough against the wall in question.

With the barrier gone, I could feel the warm air from within, see a dark hallway without lights.

I looked at my teammates.

Maybe humanity deserves to lose, but these guys are why we’re going to win, I promised myself.

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Interlude 26

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

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

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

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

Tangle.

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

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

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

They are running out of time.

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

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

Proposal.

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

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

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

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

Failure to meet these objectives leads to self-destruction.

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

Then, in bits and pieces, it is devoured.

Devoured not for energy, but for material.

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

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

The gray planet makes several revolutions around its star before things reach a climax.  Many of the creatures are so large they cannot subsist in one world alone.  They weave into one world and worm out into another.  Every flank is vulnerable to another of its kind lunging out into a world and attacking, consuming whole chunks at a time.  Heat, cold, electricity and mental manipulations are leveraged in these struggles, slowing their targets down enough for them to wrap themselves around, shear off a section to take into themselves.

More revolutions, and only a handful remain.  Energy is scarce, even with the individual bodies taking up whole oceans of the thin gray mud, absorbing all of the light and radiation they can.  Countless worlds have grown dim, absorbed of all possible life and nutrients in the course of struggles and fighting.

The smallest ones recognize the fact that they don’t have energy, that it would cost them all too much if they continued fighting this uphill battle.  They submit, and are consumed.

Two remain.

They spend time reorganizing themselves, shifting the sheer masses of shards they have acquired into forms useful for another task.

Once they are reformed, they leech all of the heat and energy from countless worlds and concentrate it in a single reality.  The energy boils the oceans of silt-choked waters, disintegrates the landmasses.

Their bodies form into a large, complex shape, with only small fragments in this one world.  The extensions of those same fragments extend into other realms, in concentrated, specific shapes, made for a purpose: to survive the next step.

The energy is released, and the planet shatters.

The shattering is so extreme that it extends into other worlds, through the same channels that the fragments used to extend into other realities.  Every single one of the remaining habitable worlds is destroyed in the ensuing blast.

And the fragments radiate outwards, shedding and dropping their protective shells as they sail into the black, empty void.

Gestation.

Still flying through the void, the entity forms the word in the midst of its recollections.

They are children.  Offspring.  They travel the void, hoping to encounter another habitable world.

This is the beginning.

Countless perished, no doubt, in contact with lifeless moons, expending the last of their energy to search the possible iterations of that moon for life.  More die within moments of the detonation, their outer casing too damaged, vital processes separated from one another

But others made contact with other worlds.

A world with life rooted in landmasses, weathering brutal storms of caustic acid.  The one who arrives on that world struggles to find a means of survival.

It finds refuge in one of the dying plant structures, provides ambient heat to nourish it, so that the openings might close up and the shelter be made more secure.

The planet revolves around its star many times.

Many, many times.

The one that occupies the structure has bred, now, fragmented into clusters of shards that could occupy others.

Some shards have different focuses.  This is the experiment, the test.

Of these plants, some thrive.  Others die.

The creature tests different capacities, different clusters of shards.  It watches, observes and records events into memory.

It borrows of the conflict and stress of this new, alien species.  It borrows of the evolution, of the learning, of the crisis.  In some ways, it is a symbiote.  In others…

Parasite.

The fragments continue to divide, feasting on abundant resources, on light and radiation and the alien food sources it has started to learn how to consume.  It spreads quickly now, across every possible variation of this world that sustains life.

It encounters another.  A later arrival to the same planet, a member of its own species, another that is multiplying and consuming and growing.  This new arrival chose a different means of survival, but it too chose a kind of parasitism.

They exchange shards where they meet.  In these shards are codified memories, as well as the most effective techniques they have observed.

The planetoid is small, the range of options limited.  A message is broadcast.  Mutual agreement.  They will move on.

Migration.

The process is similar.  Drawing themselves together.  There is cooperation, this time, as each shard returns to the source.  The hosts die in droves, and are absorbed for energy.

They gather into the same vast forms that span multiple realities, and they leech energy from other worlds to fuel their exit from a single one.  It takes time.

But something else occurs.  A broadcast from the other, followed by an attack.

A carefully measured attack.  The two creatures ruin one another with friction and pressure, burning hot, and shards are destroyed.  Many are partially destroyed.

The other creature joins shards together into combinations, discards and destroys.  Repeats the process.

New shards are created.  Different functions.  Forced mutation.

The end results parallel the studies the creatures have made of the plant life on this planet with its acid rain.

More blatant than intended in the beginning, but nothing lost.  New strengths, regarding growth and durability.

They concentrate the energy as they form themselves into an encasement around the small planetoid.

Shell.

The detonation of the small planet scatters the individual clusters of shards, and this time, they are better inured to the harsher elements of space.

So the cycle continues.

The next world encountered has sentient life, civilization.  A complicated, rich world.

It is a symbiosis, this time, more than parasitism.  The two species learn from one another.  The shards code the ‘technology’ of this new species into their memories.  They learn of warping space and gravity.

Until the species turns against them.  Those lucky enough to bind with the entity’s offspring war against those who do not.  Some seek to rule.

Monarchs.  The entity forms the thought, defining the memory.

The cycle is cut short by a forced exit, as the shards are rooted out and destroyed by the natives of this civilized world.  They meet, they bind and again they share ideas.  Richer perceptions, complex technologies and more are fashioned in the unity of three larger creatures.  It is through differences in the greater entities that a richness is created, new derivations, new connections that none would be capable of on their own.

The planet is expended, the offspring are cast off in every direction once again.

This time, they are capable of moving, of controlling their course.  Gravity, warping space.

The entity recalls all of this as it swims through the void and makes its way to the next target.  It can reach back into the depths of its memory to recall all of what came before.

Each time the cycle started anew, lessons had been learned, methods refined.  Each time, the spawn that are spewed out from the destroyed planet are more robust, larger, hosting innumerable memories.  Where memories fall in parallel, they are shared out, offered to others.

After more than three thousand cycles, there are safeguards, there are protections.  The arsenal of abilities, powers and protections the creature possesses have been built up.  The entity remembers past failures and has adapted so they will not happen again.

The entities travel with partners now, moving in spirals while maintaining a measured distance from one another.  Each is slightly different from the other, taking on a different role.  Attacker and defender, warrior and thinker, builder and destroyer.

This divide is so they are able to take a different stance, shape their shards in subtle ways and clarify the results when their shards are compared and joined once again – some shall be kept, others discarded.  Some will turn up interesting possibilities that can be explored when new shards are invented at the cycle’s end.

These individual focuses drive the pair, shape their tasks as they approach their destination.

The entity reaches out with clairvoyance, with precognition, and it views its destination.  It communicates, covering vast expanses of space, transmitting signals across channels formed of the very foundation of this universe.  These signals are broadcast only across specific realities, so that no aftereffects or lingering transmissions will contact a version of that world that hosts no life at all.

Destination.

Agreement.

Trajectory.

Agreement.

Each signal is nuanced, shaped with subtle details and clues by the trillions upon trillions upon trillions of individual shards that make up the entity.  Through these nuances, it conveys more information than an entire planet of sentient beings might in a hundred revolutions.

They have settled on a target.  Old lessons are remembered.  It is a planet of sentient lifeforms, more primitive than some the entities have run into, more advanced than others.  Social creatures, forming communities.  These societies teeter on fine balances, but they persevere nonetheless.  A world rife with conflicts, big and small.

Agitation.

The new hosts are to be bipeds, with a binary reproduction.  Not uncommon, and rich with potential.  Such a division and natural competition for reproduction fosters a natural evolution and development.  The entities will focus on them over any of the sub-species.

These bipeds raise structures of hard earth or plant matter for shelter against the elements, draping themselves in softer materials for further protection.  They shape the world around them, but are more immutable, unchanging in form.  Different from the entity, in many ways.

This was the stage in the cycle when the entity is most aware, most focused.  It observes the possible worlds and judges which would be best.

Colony, the entity voices the idea.

With that same signal, the various nuances suggest countless worlds that are to be removed from consideration.  Worlds without enough population.

Agreement, the response comes.

The entity’s counterpart is taking a passive role, investigating only to confirm, to validate.  This is concerning.  Where is the counterpart’s focus, if not on this vital decision?

Study reveals worlds with dominant belief systems, peaceful worlds, worlds crowded with twelve billion individuals.  Worlds with almost none.

The entity pares through these, deciding.

It investigates, and in the doing, it prepares some shards for analysis and understanding of this particular society and culture.  Language, culture, patterns of behavior, patterns of society.  This is something the counterpart should be emphasizing.

The process is interrupted by an arrival.

A member of their own species, approaching.  It was smaller, took a different form.  It used different means to travel.

This was what had distracted the counterpart.

Its ancestors had traveled a different path, easily hundreds of cycles ago, before the entities had begun traveling in pairs.  This new arrival had encountered different worlds, less worlds, and it had developed differently.

The lesser one crossed paths with the entity’s counterpart.  For a duration, they intertwined, meeting through multiple realities, their bodies rubbing and crushing against one another.

A sharing of details, a wealth of knowledge, from hundreds of cycles.  A sacrifice of the same.

The lesser one moves on, bloated with new shards and knowledge, but the counterpart flounders.

It sacrificed too much.

Concern.

Confident.

The counterpart is not worried.  The signal carries notes of hope for the future.  The counterpart will replenish its shards, its stores of knowledge, memories and abilities at the conclusion of this cycle, reuniting with the entity.

The counterpart is supposed to be the passive figure, the thinker, the planner, while this entity is the warrior, the protector.  The entity is forced to make up for the counterpart’s disability, to slow its advance through the void as they approach their destination and devote resources to analyzing, something the other should be doing instead.

The focus is on one reality.  They will subsume it first, then expand to others.  The most efficient route, achieving maximum amounts of conflict.  By testing their own shards against one another, they gather information.  The entity’s shards will fight among each other, and they will fight the counterpart’s, and they will steadily learn.

With a species such as these social bipeds, the entities can draw new conclusions, come up with new uses for shards.  It tracks and records details that allow it to shape new shards at the cycle’s conclusion.

But their new hosts are a weak species, fragile.  The abilities must be limited in scope.  Worlds that are too advanced would be too fragile, as advanced weapons eliminate too many, cut the process short.

Destination.

Agreement, the response is not so complex, is expressed in a softer, quieter manner.

Still, the pair have settled on a set of realities.

The entity focuses on one.  Enough individuals, natural conflict and confrontation.  A balance of physical and emotional stressors.  The environment is damaged, but not so much it would inhibit growth.

Hive.  The entity communicates the decision.

Agreement.  The counterpart grasps it immediately, knows which reality he means.

The focus changes.  An interplay of communications, one bouncing off the other, as they designate realities.  Each shard needs one, some shards need to cluster and reside across multiple realities.  They draw on these worlds for power, for energy, and thus fuel the techniques they have been coded with.

Each shard, in turn, needs a target.  The entity’s focus expands, designating likely partners.  Past mistakes have been accounted for, and the shards will connect in a covert manner.  They will reside in other worlds, uninhabited worlds, and they will remain cloaked and concealed in areas this new host species is unlikely to explore.

It is a negotiation.

Ownership here.

Claim there.

Territory here.

With each statement, they each catalogue the realities.  Similar realities are included together, for both the entities and the shards.  Too many complications and confusions arise when interacting with worlds that are exceedingly similar.  Not an effective form of conflict, when it is the same lessons learned over and over again.  It is better to connect them into groupings, limit exposure to each set of worlds.  One shard is capable of settling in a grouping of near-identical worlds, drawing energy from all of those worlds at once.

The entity looks to the future to check for danger.

Plague.

All signs point to the shards murdering their hosts.

The hosts must be protected, or this will be disastrous, counter-intuitive.  The entity adjusts the innate safeguards, protections to reflect the host species and their tolerances.  The bonding process will protect the host, where the host needs protection.  Shards that are capable of providing flame at will cannot burn the hosts, now.  Shards are reorganized, combined and clustered where necessary, to grant sufficient protection.

Infestation.

Better, but not perfect.  The entity refines the process, limits certain abilities, so they will not eradicate too many at a time.

Soft.  The broadcast is sent out to the counterpart, along with suggestions and tips on how to refine the shards.

Agreement, the counterpart accepts.

But the entity can still see fallout effects.  There are parallels in memory storage.  Not many, but there may be glimmers where the subject is capable of perceiving the information stored in the shard as the connections are formed.

For good measure, the entity breaks up one shard cluster, tunes it, then codes the effect into each and every shard.  It studies the host species further, refines, attunes.

It takes time, but the entity forms a sufficient safeguard.  The host species will forget any significant details.

The broken shard is cast off, joining countless others.  It will bond to a host.  The entity looks forward, checking.

After the target planet has revolved thirty-three times around its star, this shard will connect to a host.

A male guards his offspring, a female, with his size and bulk.  A group of hostile bipeds cluster around them.  They call out, making unusual loud sounds, suggesting intoxication.  One of the hostile ones gestures, gripping its male parts, pulling them free of their coverings.  A sexual gesture follows, waving the organ left and right, thrusting it into the empty air.

Sounds of amusement, laced with hostility.

The male and his offspring retreat as far against the nearest construction as they are able.

The shard connects, attaching to the male.

No.  It is ineffective.  The female is clearly more distressed.

Prey.

There is a way to maximize exposure to conflict.

The entity taps into its understanding of the bipeds and how they operate, recognizes the signs of distress, the nuances such things can have.

It views the future again, with changes made in the code.

This time, the shard settles in the male, then immediately shifts to the more distressed female.

Insinuation.  The shard connects to the host’s neural network.

The bond is created.

The shard opens the connection as the stress peaks, and the host doubles over in pain, bewildered, stunned.  The shard then forms tendrils that contact each individual in the area.  It retains traces of the entity’s tampering, of the studies in psychology, awareness and memory, and is quick to adapt.  It finds a manner in which it can operate, then alters itself, solidifying into a particular state.  The remainder of the functions are discarded, the ones in the shard itself are rendered inert to conserve power, while the ones in the host fall away, are consumed by the shard.  The host’s neural network changes once more.

The female disappears from the awareness of the hostile ones that surround it.

The entity looks to the future, to see if this is sustainable, efficient.

All seems well.

A view of other bondings suggests this emphasizes younger targets, particularly those in a middle stage of development, between a lesser phase and an adult phase.  Emotions are higher at that juncture, and the possibility of conflict increases further.

The entity allows for deeper connections to foster more conflict.  The underlying instructions are already present from previous cycles, and can be left largely alone.  These bipeds war with each other enough.  It will only serve to assist the most extreme cases.

Forget.  The entity informs its counterpart of the changes it made.

Agreement.  The counterpart acknowledges.

Emotion.  More changes.

Agreement.

Before the last response is received, the entity has already begun shedding shards that won’t prove useful or particularly problematic.  Shards for attack and defense, distributed over an even geography, an even timeline.

More complicated shards require more focus.  Ones that harbor stored memory of technology and development in past cycles are prepared so they might bond with a host and transmit that knowledge.

For others, there is no easy way to apply the contained knowledge, so they are coded to draw from the host’s recollection and awareness, or to search the entire planet for details and information on what it might be able to do.

Ones that alter the nature of the host in fundamental ways are planted throughout, so as to add more variables in how the others must adapt to them.  A host that chooses how gravity applies to it.  A host that can become a storm of friction, intensifying all friction in an area around it.  One that becomes immaterial.  Another that can make paths between realities, with safeguards to keep it away from ones the shards are rooted within.

The entity is approaching the galaxy cluster in question now, and it sees its counterpart doing the same, if at a slightly slower pace.  Both are trailed by a cloud of shards now, each cast off in such a way that it won’t reach its target location until a set time and date.

The entities begin to close their spiral dance, drawing together as much as they can with the counterpart struggling.

They approach their destination, and begin to disintegrate in great quantities, until thirty percent remains, twenty, ten, two…

It will take one hundred and sixty revolutions before their destination reality hits critical mass.

Three hundred and thirty-one revolutions before the shards reach a critical mass and enough information is gathered.  To look to the future and seek that information in advance would take too much energy.  To do this and fail would be a catastrophic setback in the cycles.

This suffices.  It spends the least energy for the maximum result.

The counterpart is descending, having selected a destination world.  It is hemorrhaging shards in clusters, due to the excessive exchange of shards with the lesser one, too soon before their arrival at their destination.  These shards are breaking off in huge volumes.

A check confirms these shards are coded, that everything is technically well.

Danger, the entity broadcasts.

Confident, the counterpart replies.

The counterpart remains secure.  Nothing to be done.

There is no more time to devote to the crisis.  The entity focuses on its destination, on the next part of the cycle.

The shards have largely been assigned to hosts.  They will remain latent, they will wait for the first crucial moment of crisis and use that to shape their function, to better assist their host.

It is impossible to check the exact circumstances for each event.  Some shards harbor particular concepts, and will shape their application to the host’s needs.  Others are coded with particular applications, and will either scan viable realities or the host’s frame of reference for how that application will come to pass.

Physical harm will grant physical assets, be it direct or abstract.  Immediate danger will nudge the shard towards defensive abilities.  Ranged attacks against living threats, an ability to shape or affect the environment against environmental dangers.

Successes will help refine the abilities, provide inspiration for the development of new shards.  Failures will help all the same.

In hosts, too, there will be variations.  The shards might seek out different hosts, if others are in range, as the perception-altering one did.  They will fragment and transmit to other hosts, as they grow and develop.

The entity is satisfied.  In terms of raw size, it is but a small fragment of what it once was, barely a cluster of shards now.  Its part in this phase of things is nearly done.

The next part of the cycle begins.

It chooses an unoccupied reality.  A barren planet.  Its perceptions focus on the landmasses in idle curiosity.  Different from the focus reality, but similar.

They have reached the solar system in question now.  They brush up against one another, and the entity shores up its counterpart where it can, sacrificing its own shards in the process.

Acceptance.  Gratitude.

The counterpart’s message is thin, but the entities are but a ten-thousandth of a percent of their original size.

It turns its attention to adapting.

In the course of thousands of cycles, the entities have refined their methodology.  There are no true points where they are vulnerable.

As the whole, as the entity, it is safeguarded by countless abilities, defenses, perceptions and options.  It is fat with the knowledge of every generation that came before, the mistakes, the problems, and the solutions.  While it travels the void, it is virtually untouchable.

But there have been times where the shards were vulnerable, after bonding with hosts.  Even now, there are dim possibilities that they might be rooted out.  There are issues where shards that have been coded to generate conflict could do too much damage, disrupting the cycle.

This is something that must be tended to.

The entity turns its attention briefly to their target reality, observes the various life forms.

Always, in the course of its examination of the possible futures, it was evaluating, checking to see what was necessary.

A quick glance into the future, not so deep a look as to expend too much of its remaining energy.  Conservation is key at this juncture, and from here on out.

The entity’s present configuration is satisfactory.  The chance the cycle can be interfered with has become infinitesimally small.

The shard that allows the entity to see the future is broken up, then recoded with strict limitations.  It wouldn’t do to have the capabilities turned against the entity or the shards.

The fragment it just used is sent off, directed to a small female.

The other fragments in that same cluster are retained.  To see the future is resource intensive, but the entity will harbor it as a safeguard.

More abilities are used to check, investigate, and then cast off.   The ability to communicate and receive signals is unnecessary now.  To transmit signals across wavelengths.  It, too, is intentionally crippled as an ability.  It would not do to have that one being used with regularity.  Such would be distracting for the entity and its counterpart.

When it knows the configuration is absolutely decided, it reaches for the last fragment it will cast off.  This one, too, it cripples, even largely destroys, so as to limit the host from using it in the same fashion.

In a haste to decide matters before it enters the stratosphere of that barren planet, the entity casts it off to a similar location as the future-sight ability.  A similar time, thirty-one revolutions from now.  The destination is a male, thin, in the company of strong males and females, drinking.

And with that, the entity lands on the barren planet.

The planet revolves around its star once before the entity even moves.

The entity rises and extends its perceptions across multiple realities.

It’s time.

Chrysalis.

The entity changes.

A star that burns twice as hot burns for half as long.

Not truly, but the entity is aware of the idioms and patterns of this world, is already thinking periodically in terms of the words and ideas of their languages, to frame thoughts for itself in this pivotal moment.  It serves to help codify the messages and intent.

The entities burn as hot as any star, with their sheer mass, their scale, the power they wield.  This is acceptable while traveling the void, when much of the body remains in a hibernation state.  Stored energy is expended as a resource, to view the future, to perceive and communicate.

But this is not sustainable here, in this phase of the cycle, when the entity is so much smaller.

The entity has cast off all but the most essential parts of itself, distributing the shards throughout this reality.  More shards will shower on other realities in time, likely around the point the first have started fragmenting in greater numbers

Cycle to cycle, the role changes.  Direct involvement, watching from afar, being visible or staying out of sight.  Different roles to shepherd the shards through different worlds.

The entity takes shape.  It retains the capabilities it had when it first arrived.

Imago.  Adult state.

Much of it is still too large for the target reality.  It leaves that portion of itself behind, maintains a connection.  A safeguard.  The body it uses is but an extension, a tendril.

It codifies the thoughts and memories of the society it investigated into a usable fashion.

Then it waits.

Sentinel.

Time passes.  A revolution of the planet around its star.

Something has gone wrong.  It is time, but it has not received a broadcast from the counterpart.

The entity emerges, stepping into the target reality.

It can see its shards showering down from above like meteors traveling the void.   The first to arrive.

It can see the shards of the counterpart.

Not all are intact.

Dead shards.  Damaged ones.  Vital shards, even, going to hosts.

The entity destroys these on sight.  They are corrupt, ruined.  They will fail to provide usable results.

Extending its perception over the world and other realities, the entity can sense everything at once.  It can sense conflict.  Wars.

It remains aware of its limited lifespan.  Three thousand and six hundred revolutions.  To search like this costs a tenth of one revolution’s time.  There is more than enough remaining before the cycle concludes.

Or there should be.

The entity abandons the search.  Enough information has been obtained for it to know.

The counterpart is dead.

For a very long time, the entity is still.  It does not move, and instinctively holds back every ability, as if conserving energy in the face of a vast threat.

But this is not a threat that it can weather, like a storm of acid rain: The cycle has been disrupted.

Worse, it is terminated.  The entities have altered themselves so that each half of a pairing serves part of a role.  It is only with the counterpart that it can gestate, that it can modify the individual shards, cast the next generation out and start the cycle anew.

In seeking to understand the host creatures, the entity had coded shards to emulate them.  It is those same shards that experience the entity’s first ever emotion.

Crushed.

The entity comes to experience a deep, profound sadness, for the very first time.

Time passes, as the entity considers the ramifications.  The sky grows dark, then light again.  Dark, then light.

A structure, a vehicle approaches.  A hull pierces the water as it draws nearer.  A crowd stands on the uppermost surface, gathering.  They stare, even babble among themselves, their voices jumbling together, a hum, a blur.  He can see into the other realities that lie adjacent to this one, similar people, similar crowds.

Drone.

Buzz.

They are communicating, and the entity is unconcerned.  It watches as they draw close to the edge of the vehicle, pressing themselves against the barrier that was erected at the edge.  They reach out.

They worship him.  Of course they do.  His form was crafted to fit the values of this reality.  They hold faith, and the entity chose a shape that fit the most celebrated figures of the most popular faiths.  Race divides this species, so the entity deliberately chose a form that didn’t fit any one race, with skin and hair given the color and texture of another thing they celebrated and worshipped – a mineral.

This is intentional.

The entity sees a shard already taking root in one of the vehicle’s passengers.  One of the dead shards, damaged.  The entity’s vision allows it to see the man’s inside, the damage.  He is dying of a systemic issue in his body, producing the wrong type of cells in the wrong places.

The entity reaches out, feels others touch his hand before the male finally makes contact.  A simple wavelength serves to kill specific cells.

The shard will grow now, damaged as it is.

With that, the golden man turns from the crowd and flies away.

The Entity slowed as a figure barred its path.  A female, with her arms outstretched.  Smaller life forms were arranged around and behind it.

Vaguely familiar.

“Stop, Scion,” the female said.

The entity came to a complete stop.  It could see the connection to the female’s shard, the activity as it broadcast signals, reaching out to contact lifeforms throughout the area, coordinating them.

All around the entity, there were shards in varying states of maturation.  The female’s was among the most mature.  Seasoned by conflict, heavy with information, lessons learned, tactics, applications, organization.  It had already fragmented once, heavy enough with information that it could afford to handle other roles.  The fragment would have a derivative ability, and given proximity, it would hopefully remain close enough to exchange information with the shard that it had split off from.  There were no signs of that exchange.  The female had separated ways from the fragment.

The entity recognized her shard.  The last one that had split off before the entity took on this form.

Queen.

The entity’s despair deepened for a moment.  It was a good thing that the shards were harvesting such good information, but nothing would come of it.  The cycle had been disrupted.

“I know you want to help, but it’s too dangerous.  You’re too strong, and this situation is fragile.  It’ll do more harm than good.”

More harm than good.  Scion accepted that as a given and decided to stay where he was.

The female kept on talking as memories stirred.

A male approached.  No shard, no powers.  The area was dark, the planet turned away from its star.  The entity was hovering over the highest point of a short bridge that spanned a river.

Lost.  It had created itself for a purpose it could no longer fulfill.

The male pulled off one foot-covering, hefted it, then threw it.  It bounced off the entity’s face, not even eliciting a blink.

The male hauled on the other foot-covering, but it was too tightly bound.

He gave up, half-hopping, half running up the length of the bridge, pounded his fists on the entity’s chest, scratched, clawed.  Aggressive actions, but it didn’t matter.  The entity was invulnerable.  It could glance into the immediate future and know there was no potential reality where this male would be able to harm it.

Not that it mattered.

“Damn you!” the male cried out.  “Fucking perfect golden man!  Fuck you!  Just… just bleed!  Fucking feel this!”

A strike to the entity’s face.  The male nearly fell from the bridge.  The entity would have let him.

“You don’t- you don’t deserve this!  This power!”  The male sniveled, mucus running from his nose.  Flecks of spit dotted his lips from the sheer force of his words.

“They keep saying you’re fucking sad!?  What do you have to be sad about?  You weren’t beaten black and blue by a fucking girl you were too chickenshit to hit back!  You haven’t been kicked around by motherfucking teenagers who thought it’d be good for a lark!  Buggered against your will… no!  You get to be untouchable!”

The male clawed and scratched, long dirty fingernails scraping at the entity’s body, clawing at a nipple, at the part the entity had crafted to look like genitalia.  Nothing did any harm.  Even the dirt skidded off, failing to find any traction in the entity’s skin.

The male collapsed, his face pressed up against the entity’s chest.  His mucus and saliva slid off with the same ease the dirt had.

“Fuck you.  Fuck you, golden man.  You don’t… you don’t deserve to be miserable.  Or you don’t deserve to be miserable and useless.  Fucking burden on society, distracting people from shit that needs doing.  Fuck you, you ponce.  You… Fuck you!  Go do something.  Never got that.  All these sad fucks that kill themselves or hide away… if you’re going to be miserable without a damn excuse, go to Africa and help those damn kids who were orphaned in wars.  Go… save people from burning buildings.  Help clean up after disasters.  Work in a fucking soup kitchen or something.  I don’t care.”

The man’s voice had gone quiet, barely more than a whisper.

Another pound of fist against the entity’s flesh.

“I don’t care if it’s penance or if it’s a fucking way to kill time.  Do some goddamn good, and maybe you’ll feel like you’re worth a damn.  Maybe you’ll stop being so fucking miserable.”

The entity continued to stare out over the city.  It absorbed the words, considered them.

It was a task.  A role it could play.

It was something.  What had this male said?  Which were ones the entity could achieve?

Save orphans in wars.  Rescue people from burning buildings.  Clean up after disasters.

The entity took flight once more.

The entity remained patient.  Patient then, patient now.

“…You could go to Houston or New York, even.  That’s far enough away from Jack,” the young female with the administration shard was still speaking, quiet, intense, urging without prodding.

The entity and the young female were still hovering over what was becoming a major site of conflict.  The entity extended its senses over the area.

At the center of it all was a man.  Not at the center, but everything tied to him.  Everything moved in relation to him, and he moved in relation to others.

The entity stared, intrigued.

“…We can’t stay here.  Come on.”  The female host was still talking.

The female paused, waiting.

“Orrrr you don’t understand what I’m saying.  Or you don’t care.  Fuck me.  Listen to me, Scion.  Pay attention.”

The entity turned its attention to the young female.  Its hands found the entity’s, pulled.

There was a meaning behind the gesture, but the entity was too lost in observing what was going on below to care.

A confrontation had started between a young male and an older one.  A fragment of a shard against a very mature shard.  The most mature shard in this area, at a glance.

The more mature power was unleashed.  A wavelength power, a kinetic transmission.

The entity watched, and it recognized the shard at work.

The broadcast shard.  One that had been crippled, just like the shard of the female that floated before the entity now.  The same shard that had managed communication between the entity and its counterpart.

The entity turned to observe another conflict.  One shard was connected to eight individuals.  A lesser shard, connected to eight unusual hosts.

The eight advanced in clusters, moving towards the various individuals that seemed to be hostile to them.  The shards connected to each individual provided more detail than anything else.

“You big golden idiot!  Come on.”

Her subjects formed a thick cloud, blocking the entity’s vision.  No matter.  It could still perceive the world.

“Come on!”

She pulled harder.

The entity turned to follow the confrontations.

The male with the broadcasting power was swinging his sword.  The younger one was erecting defenses, lashing out.

Their shards were reacting.  The entity could see how every aggressive shift in the younger one was met by an instinctual retreat in the older.  Cause and effect, invisible but there.  The nature of the shifts changed as they started speaking.

To strike the one with the mature passenger was akin to trying to catch a leaf in the wind.  The hand moved the air which moved the leaf, and it slid just out of reach, just beyond the hand’s grasp.

Ah.  There.  A narrow miss.  The male slid out of reach, and he prepared to go on the offensive.  His shard shifted, just as ready and able to capitalize on the weakness in offense as he was able to evade trouble in defense.

A shard flared to life, and the entity saw an effect take hold around it.  It reached out and found a barrier it could not penetrate.

Cell.

Its hand was moved back to the previous position.  It was caught in a sinkhole of distorted time.  Over and over again, it moved in a steady loop.

Snare.

A trap.

The city burned, and the entity wielded its power.  Controlled wavelengths disrupted the molecules, extinguished each source of heat, inside and out, rendering it a little cooler than the ambient temperature.

Countless individuals fled for safety, running in droves.  The entity watched, but it did not rest.

It hadn’t rested in years.  The longest it had stood still was in the company of Kevin Norton, where the man gave it a white covering that clung to its body.  As instructed, the entity kept the cloth clean, pushing out energy in patterns and yields that would drive out the soil and smoke while leaving the cloth intact.

It lowered itself to get a better angle on one blaze in the basement area of a library.  In the doing, purely by accident, it lowered itself to eye level with a female on a balcony.

The female was startled, afraid, unable to even breathe.  It could look inside the female and see the emotions as an increased heart rate, hormones and adrenaline churning through her system.

It almost blurted out the words.  “Kto vy?

The entity understood the Russian words as it understood all languages, through the knowledge it had scanned for and codified, prior to arriving.

It remembered the instructions Kevin Norton had provided.  To be polite, to be considerate.

Speaking, nonetheless, was an unfamiliar concept.

How to answer?  The entity did not know what it was.  It had no role but the one ascribed to it by Kevin Norton.

In thinking of the man, the entity thought of a thing the man had said.  A word in the midst of a story about ill-behaved spawn.

As it did most words, the entity had searched its memory for details on the concept.

Zion.

A promised land.

A utopia.  A harmonious kingdom.

The promised land could be this world at its climax, the shards at critical mass, the entity and its counterpart bringing about the end of the cycle.  It could be utopia, as the entity understood the term.

It could be the world at peace, people saved from hardship, as Kevin Norton had described it.

Whether the entity was somehow able to return to its original task or whether it continued carrying out Kevin Norton’s answers in an attempt to find itself, the term fit.

Zion,” it spoke.

Memories.  A refuge, a reminder of how things should be, if the cycle were intact.  There would be more shards, more conflict, but it would be more controlled.  The dead shards polluted the setting, almost too numerous.

The female with the administrator shard had long since fled, covering the retreat with her small army of lesser lifeforms, more traps snapping into place in her wake.

It thinks of Zion, and it thinks of other metaphors and ideas.  In the thirty-three revolutions since arriving on this planet, the entity has had time to think.  It has saved a lot of individuals from harm, heard many prayers.

It was aware of everything that occurred around it.  The planet’s star moved across the sky, above the dark, heavy clouds of moisture.  Small movements, but movements nonetheless.

It thought of the beetle in one mythology, rolling the orb across the sky.

It was an idea that persisted across mythologies.  ScarabChariotThe Brother.  The Sky Barge.

Abstract thought.  Was that the sort of pattern that led to a connection, an inspired idea in the development of new shards?  The entity wasn’t sure.  Its counterpart was supposed to handle such matters, retain that capacity for thought and analysis.

Its physical body continued to loop in time.  It didn’t matter.

The conflict continued.  The broadcaster was moving in and out of trouble, relying on a pronounced projection that was being emitted by a dead shard to provide further protection.  There was another entity nearby.  A boy with another dead shard.  Odd, that they had gravitated towards the broadcaster.

Mature shards, a situation ripe with conflict, so much to be gained, and nothing could be done with that.  The entity felt a hint of another emotion, dismissed it.  The simulation of the host-creature’s psychology was only that.  A simulation.

It would spend some time here.  Nothing would change in any event.  Kevin Norton had passed.

The entity observed the ongoing conflict.  No less than five seconds after it had been trapped, two figures had emerged from a doorway between worlds.  The entity could see the paths forming, trace them back to the source.  Another world, a living world without a shard occupying it.

They engaged the eight with their own perception abilities, intervening to assist a group of others.  As a pair, they opened fire with guns, then waded into hand to hand combat.

The entity looked at the male, and it saw the connection to the same shard as the eight.  His connection was stronger, more mature.

It looked at the female, and it saw a shard that wasn’t its own, but wasn’t dead.

Puzzling.

The fight progressed.  Strikes with weapons and with the creature’s limbs were evaded, a careful dance of attacks where each edge and bludgeon touched skin, many even shaving off the finer hairs from cheeks, noses and chins.

The male fought the eight in such a way that they couldn’t move without exposing themselves to attacks from the female.  Each movement placed the male in a path for obvious harm, a fatal blow, but the eight could not capitalize on that.  At the same time, he positioned himself in such a way that four or five at a time were unable to retreat.  Not just in reach of weapons, but in reach of arms, elbows, for being taken hostage.

The female felled three of the eight, and the situation was decided.  The remaining five dropped to a position where they sat on their knees.  She spoke, and an interdimensional portal appeared behind them.

They crawled through, heads down, and the portal closed.

The pair glanced up at the entity as another wormhole opened.  They stared.

The entity, in turn, faced a different direction, but it could perceive them nonetheless.

They disappeared back into the portal.

Puzzling.

The entity observed as the fight concluded elsewhere.

The broadcaster remained unaware as an individual without any attachment to shards at all entered the confined space, unloading a vaguely familiar substance over the group.  Something the entity might recollect if it had access to all of its memories.  A technology.

It didn’t matter.

The entity watched as the broadcaster was sealed in a time distortion.

A female, standing just outside another time distortion, walked around the effect, charging objects with energy.  The entity could see as the small pieces of alloyed metal unfolded, taking shape in not just this world, but all realities, at the same space and time, bristling with an effect that would sever their attachment to most physical laws.

They were thrown, and they disrupted connections to two shards at once.  The projection disappeared, only to reappear a distance away.  The boy who had created the time distortions fell as well.

Sting, the entity thought.  Once it had been a weapon for his kind, against his kind, back in the beginning, when they had dwelt in oceans of gray sludge.

The others hurried to confine the broadcaster.  They were apparently aware of what he could do.

Interesting.

“Just you and me,” Tecton said.  “That’s what he said.  Between gasps of pain, anyways.  ‘I wish I had better company, but I’ll take what I can get.  Ironic, that you’re so boring.”

Golem looked at his old leader.  “That’s it?”

Tecton shook his head.  “He said, ‘I bet you think you’re noble.  You’re not.  You’re uglier than any of us, sparky.”

“And?”

“And that’s it.  The D.T. guy foamed up the gap, I raised the shelf, you closed the hand, and he was completely sealed in.”

“You’re right.  That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“He hasn’t ever met me.”

Golem shook his head.  “Doesn’t seem world ending.”

I always hated the blank… slates,” Jack groaned the last word.  His utterances were finding an odd cadence or rhythm between the gasps of pain, the fresh wounds that were actively criss-crossing his body, opening his stomach, his intestine being gripped and pulled through the wound as if by an invisible force.

The foam weighed him down, and in the midst of the complete and total darkness, he stared skyward.

“…Never that interesting…”  He grunted.  “Never created art, never… created variation...  you’re worse than… most…”

High above, the entity listened.

Tattletale listened over the earbud microphones as Tecton finished relating Jack’s statements.

She raised her eyes from the computer.  Her underlings were arranged around the room, along with others.  Her soldiers were at the ready, alongside Imp’s Heartbroken,  the first and second in command of the Red Hands, Charlotte, Forrest and Sierra.

Sierra was bouncing her leg nervously.  She’d cut off her dreads, and her hair was short to the point of being in a buzz cut, with a fringe flopping over one side of her forehead.  But for the hair and two small hoop earrings in one ear, she was a businesswoman.  Had to be, when she was the ostensible owner of all of Brockton Bay’s prime real estate.

Charlotte was in the company of one of the children, holding him close.  Her fingers toyed with a paper origami cube, and she was doing her best not to look like she was poised on the edge of her seat for any news at all.

The second she gave the word, they’d be ready to evacuate the city, to get people onto the trains and moved through the portal.

But…

“Things have settled,” she said.  “Jack is contained.”

She could see them all relax as if strings that had held them rigid had just been cut.

“That’s it?”

“I don’t know,” Tattletale said.  She grinned wide.  “But if the world is ending, then it’s an awfully quiet end.”

There were chuckles here and there, nervous relief.

“Go home, or go do whatever,” she said.  “I’ll be in touch with more news, let you know how your territory leaders, past or present, are coping.”

As a crowd, the others began filtering out.  Sierra stayed where she was, pensive, but the nervous bouncing of her leg had stopped.

Charlotte, too, remained.

“Sup?” Tattletale asked.

“It’s him,” Charlotte said.

“Aidan.  Hi Aidan.”

“He triggered yesterday.  It… didn’t take much.  Which is probably good.”

Aidan hung his head.

“That’s excellent,” Tattletale said.  She looked at the seven year old.  “How are you?”

“Okay.  Had a nightmare for the first time in a long, long time.  I woke up and I was sleepwalking, and I didn’t know where I was… I got scared, and then it happened.”

“What happened afterwards?” Tattletale asked.

“Birds.”

“Birds.  I see.  Interesting,” she said.  Her eye moved over to the boards that marked the perimeters of the room.  Each was packed with information in her small, tight, flowing handwriting.  Messy, but she’d gotten good at putting pen to paper these past few years

“I push and the birds go where I pushed.  Or I pull and they fly away from that spot.  It’s hard to do.  I can see what they see, but not while I’m controlling them.”

“Like Taylor, but birds, and not that flexible.  I see.”

“We suspected he would trigger,” Charlotte said.

Tattletale looked up, surprised.

“Aidan had a dream one night, back when the nightmares stopped.  He drew that picture.”

“Picture?”

“I gave it to you.  I kind of emphasized it might be important.”

“Pretty sure that didn’t happen,” Tattletale said.  She stood from her desk.  “Sorry, Aidan, to squabble in front of you, but Charlotte needs to remember I don’t tend to miss stuff like that.”

“All that money you’ve given me for helping to look after the territory?  The money for the kids?  I’d stake it all on what I’m saying now.  I promise, I swear I handed you that picture.”

Tattletale frowned.

“I swear,” Charlotte said, for emphasis.

“Then there’s a fucked up stranger power at work.  Don’t like that idea.  Let’s see.  Um.  I store everything in a rightful place.  If you handed me a picture… was it here?”

“Here.”

Tattletale crossed the room.  She pulled a bin off a shelf, then sorted through file folders.

Charlotte said, “There.”

Tattletale stopped, then went back a page.

“Huh.  I stand corrected.”

There was a beep on the computer.  Tattletale went back to the computer to investigate, shrugged, then sat down.

“Well?” Charlotte asked.

“Well what?”

“The picture.”

Tattletale frowned.  “What picture?”

“What’s going on?” Aidan asked.

Charlotte stalked over to the bin that was still out, grabbed the paper, then slammed it down on the desk.  “I don’t think a piece of paper can have superpowers.  Pay attention.  Focus  Memorize.”

Tattletale frowned.  She turned her attention to the paper.

There was a block there.  She felt it slide out of her mind’s eye, caught herself.

She turned her attention to the surroundings, the underlying ideas.

“Aidan?  Describe it to me.  I don’t know what you drew.”

“Those are kind of like fish, or worms, or whales, but they fold and unfold in ways that are hard to understand, and there’s stuff falling off them.  Those are stars, and-“

Tattletale felt something fall into place.

As though a floodgate had opened, the pieces started coming together.  She stood from the desk, striding across the room.

There were still gaps in her work on the boards, where she was outlining everything, trying to decipher the underlying questions.  Now, she began unpinning things from the board.

She was remembering, and she was putting it together, now.  There was a block, but she’d formed enough connections now that things were going around the block.

The whole.  The idea had stuck with her.

All powers fed back into a greater whole, each was a piece of a greater construct.

Of Aidan’s fish-whale-worm things.

But that wasn’t it.

No.  It didn’t fit in terms of timeline.

There was more.

“Like gods,” she said, recalling.

“Like viruses, like gods, like children,” Charlotte said.  “Back on the day I first met you, you said that.”

Like viruses, infecting a cell, converting it into more viruses, bursting forth to infect again.

Like gods.  So much power, all gathered together.  All powers stemmed from them.

Like children.  Innocents?

Blank slate.

“Oh,” Tattletale breathed out the word.

“Tattletale?” Sierra asked.

“Oh balls.”

“I’m notDarwinist,” Jack gasped.  “None of that… bullshit.  Augh!  I’m… I think it is simple-“

He continued grunting.  His switch to turn off the pain took a second to activate, took deliberate action, but getting in the rhythm meant he could buy himself one or two seconds of relief with each loop.  It was a question of concentration, and his concentration slipped.

“It’s simpler.  Us monsters and…  psychopathswe gravitate towards… predation, because we were originally… predators.  Originally had to hunt…  Had to be brutal, cruel…”

He paused, spending a few moments grunting in pain, letting the loops continue.

“Order to survive.  Violence was what made us… or broke us back… in the beginning.”

The entity was patient.  It had time to spare.

Saint swayed slightly in his seat.

The information continued to stream in along a dozen different channels.

Too much.  It was too much, but somehow, somewhere along the line, they’d succeeded.

Jack was contained.  Things were quiet.

Until he noted someone bludgeoning their way through Dragon’s password security.  A series of personal questions, ranging from a favorite texture to something about a pet name for Dragon to a question about the first results of the ten by ten game.

The first two were answered in order.

DefiantGetting access to the system?

No, too crude, too obvious.

The individual stalled on the last question.

He waited a few long moments, then saw the same individual making calls to Defiant.  Three communiques, initiated within one or two seconds of one another.  Then emails, to the PRT and Defiant both.

Saint intercepted it.

Fuck, finally!”

“What are you trying, Tat-“

Shut up and listen, douchestain.  It’s Scion.  He’s the point where it all catalyzes!  And I just clued into the fact that he can probably sense Jack!  Get Grue back to the area, blanket Jack in darkness, now!  Now, now, now!”

“Mags!” he shouted.  “Dobrynja!  Get Grue back to the scene now!  This is it!”

“On it!” the reply came back.  There was a pause.  “Grue is four miles away!”

“Teleporter,” he said.

“We don’t have any that survived the last few Endbringer fights!”

Saint hesitated.

Too far, it would be too late.

The woman who claimed she could control Scion.

His tired fingers flew over the keyboard.  He dug up the file.

It had been seen to.  They’d taken her name, but there’d been no proof.  Hearsay.

Hearsay was better than nothing.

The cyborg was piloting the closest Azazel.  Controlling it could be seen as an attack.  The cyborg would fight, wrestle him for control.

He opened up the window for a message, instead, even as he used the full access Dragon had for every camera, email and phone message to find this Lisette.

A Hail Mary, if there ever was one.

“Defiant,” he said, overriding everything in his way to open communications with the cyborg.  “Help me.”

The entity followed the movements of the various individuals around the battlefield.  More containment foam was being layered over the broadcaster, burying the area.

A noise, a blare that had people doubling over, covering their ears, started emanating from one of the craft.

The craft launched a second later, flying right for the time distortion.

It crashed into the area of warped time, wrapping forelimbs, tail and rear claw around the irregularly shaped feature.

The blaring noise stopped as a voice emanated from the speakers.

“Scion.  Zion.  Golden Man.  It’s Lisette.  Kevin Norton introduced us.  What the man down there is saying… whatever he’s saying, don’t listen.  Turn away.  Please.

Turn away.

The entity moved, and it broke through the time distortion effect with ease.  The craft fell head over heels before propulsion kicked in.  It had to fly in zig-zags to keep pace with the entity’s slow retreat from the scene.

I- uh.  You broke free.  Okay, good.  Leave.  Run!  Please go.  I’m- I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to talk to you before.  You never came back to that spot, and I could never reach you to talk to you.  There was help you needed and I couldn’t give it.  I went to authorities, and nobody believed me.  But now, now maybe I can give you advice.  We can work on this together?  As a pair?  Is that alright?

The entity didn’t respond.

I hope it’s alright,” she said.

The entity took flight, leaving it all behind.

Leave.  Run.

It didn’t return to the task of saving lives.  For a period, it only flew.

It stopped when it had circled the world twice, hovering over the ocean where it had first appeared.

The broadcaster had finished speaking just a moment before the craft had launched, oblivious to the blaring noise that had been intended to drown him out.  What I don’t understand, is why a blank slate like you would default to doing good deeds, rescuing cats from trees.  Why not turn to that violence, as our ancestors did?  It drove them, just like it drives the basest and most monstrous of our kind.

Had he known he had a listening ear?  Had it merely been a struggle to continue doing what he’d instinctively done for decades?

The shards retained memories, motivated, pushed.

The entity looked to the future, looked to possible worlds, and it saw the ways this could have unfolded.  It burned a year off of the entity’s life, but he had thousands to spare anyways.

There was a scene where the entity stood over the broadcaster’s corpse and ruminated on what had driven the male to such extremes.  The shard wasn’t a particularly aggressive one.

A scene where the man died, and years passed, the entity slowly coming to the same conclusions as it observed the rest of the species.

The entity had done good deeds for years, at Kevin Norton’s suggestion, waiting and hoping for the reward, the realization.  When none had occurred, it had simply kept doing what it had been doing.  Seeking out alternatives wasn’t even in the realm of imagination, because imagination was something it lacked.

It had power, though, and if either the counterpart or the cycle had been intact, they could have filled in for that imagination.

Still, it could experiment.

It gathered its power, then aimed at the nearest, largest population center.  Kevin Norton’s birthplace.

The golden light speared forth, and the island shattered, folding, parts of it rising from the ocean.  Crumpled like paper in a fist.

The entity did not eliminate the smoke or the waves that followed.  It simply let the aftermath occur.

The simulated human mind within the entity felt a glimmer of something at that.  Pleasure?  Relief?  Satisfaction?

Something deeper inside, something primal, tied to memories back in the beginning, before the beginning, responded in a very similar fashion.

The entity extended its perceptions outward, felt the reaction, the outcry.  It turned words around in its head, as if it were broadcasting to itself.

Scourge.

Extermination.

Extinction.

That last one was the one to fit.

An interesting experience.  After so much focus on the species as a whole, the evolution and development of the shards, on the cycle

In this, it almost felt like it was evolving as an individual, moment to moment.

The entity opened fire once again, and this time it struck out at the coastline on the opposite side of the ocean.

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Interlude 26a

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Theo exhaled slowly.  He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath.  Inhaling again, the smell of shit and blood was so heavy on the air it choked him.  His suppressed cough was almost a grunt, almost a gag.

His eyes returned to the two bloodstained spikes that had been stabbed into the wall.  It was the space where Nilbog had been crucified, apparently.  Something dangled from one of them.  A tendon, maybe, a vein, or a strip of meat.  The goblin king had been torn down with enough haste and enough force that some part of him had been left behind.

He’d spent some time staring at the metal spike with flesh dangling from it.  The others were busy.  It made sense to take the time to strategize, to get equipment and gear in order, familiarize himself with every tool and technique this squad of capes had on hand.

Thing was, Theo didn’t want to, even as he knew it was the smart thing.  The others seemed to recognize that and weren’t pushing him, weren’t approaching.  Maybe they’d brush it off as a kind of meditative thinking, a mental preparation for the fight that was to come.  Maybe they’d see it for what it really was.  Avoidance.

Staring at the wall and trying not to think about anything was easier than looking down, seeing the dead members of the Slaughterhouse Nine, and maybe seeing Aster in the mess of bodies.

Being silent was easier than having to look the others in the eyes and pretend he was alright, risking that they’d offer some gentle, kind condolences, and he’d have to be stoic in the face of it.

Men weren’t supposed to cry.  It would be disastrous, shattering their image of him, creating too much doubt at such a crucial juncture.  He could imagine how they’d react.  Some of them would be awkward.  Defiant, maybe, would avert his eyes.  Bitch might say something harsh.

Revel, probably, would be nice about it.  Offer a pep talk, a hug, heartfelt words.  Tecton would be much the same.  Parian and Foil, even, might be kind, if he went by descriptions Weaver and others had offered of them and the little clues he’d seen in interacting with them.

The moment he pulled himself together, if he could pull himself together, Chevalier would be at his side, all business, outlining the situation in clear, defined ways.  Framing it all into plans and setups that would put less stress on Theo, no doubt, but not in such a way that anyone could say anything about it.

Hoyden?  Hard to say.  She lived with this wall that she’d erected around herself.  Layers of defenses, in bravado or being snarky or being sarcastic or aggressive or avoiding the situation.  In combat situations or real life, Theo suspected there were very few things that really got to the heart of Hoyden.  When they did, they hurt.  How would she react to someone being vulnerable?

And then there was Weaver.

She was in the periphery of his vision, sitting on a computer case, staring down at the floor.  As ever, her mannerisms were peculiar.  She was so still.  If it weren’t for the bugs, or the fact that her head would periodically move, as if she were looking over the dead, he might have thought she’d stopped, like a machine with the battery removed.

She would be assessing who was dead, who wasn’t, planning and adjusting her expectations for the coming fight, quite possibly.  Probably.

In the midst of that, was Weaver thinking about Aster?  The fact that she, either by aiming a gun and pulling the trigger or by giving the order to Revel and Foil, had killed a toddler?

Weaver was a hard person to deal with.

Taylor, not so much.

If that was all it was, he wouldn’t have worried so much.

There were other possibilities, ones that troubled him.  What if he approached them, and nobody offered condolences at all?  What if they accepted it as a cost of doing business, a necessity in dire circumstances?

What if he did show emotion, and none of his allies offered any emotional support at all?

Kayden had been the closest thing he had to a mother.  If it hadn’t been for Jack’s game, then Theo suspected he might never have rated.  He wasn’t her first priority.  That would be Aster.  Not her second.  That was her mission, nebulous as it had been in recent years.  He hesitated to believe that he’d even rated third place.

He struggled to convince himself he placed fourth or fifth, even.

But she’d been there.  She’d shown kindness, had stepped between him and Father when the situation demanded it.  There had been gentle moments, like the time they’d been watching television one morning and a cape had talked about how tinkers were their least favorite type of opponent to fight, and he and Kayden had laughed, because Kayden and her group had run into Leet just a week before.

Stupid things, in the end.  Nonsensical.  But stupid, nonsensical things were sometimes the most important.

He’d never had friends, before he got his powers.  Even now, he wondered if he’d have really formed the friendships he had if they’d chanced to meet in some universe where powers didn’t exist.

Being alone as often as he had, Theo valued the connections he had made.  Even connections with Justin, Dorothy and Geoff.  Crusader, Night and Fog.

On the flip side of that same coin, he felt the betrayal of Justin leaving him behind.

Above all, he felt the quiet, perpetual horror of knowing that Crusader was still screaming, his throat never going raw, as Gray Boy’s loop continued without cease.

Kayden would be standing a short distance away, stoic, trying to keep from slowly going insane as Justin’s screams continued without end.

He’d lost people who were important to him, in maybe the most horrible way possible.  He’d lost his father, and Kayden, Justin, Geoff and Dorothy, and now Aster.  He’d lost them to violence and stupidity and madness, and he could see the allure in how the others seemed to be functioning, bottling it all inside.

He could see the twisted logic of it, even.  As if there was a binary to everything, every enemy was somehow a twisted mess of emotion, layered by a seeming calmness, while every ally seemed to be cold inside, with only an act on the surface.

He looked down at his mask.  A metal face with lenses over the eyes.  Stoic, expression neutral, or a little stern.  He’d chosen it at first because his real face was a little too round for a mask, but the PR teams had wanted to get more faces on the team.  He’d compromised, and hadn’t given his mask much thought beyond that.

Except time had passed, and he’d found himself wondering if he liked the message it conveyed.  By necessity, capes went down a road where they had to become cold and unflinching.  They had to become numb, had to inure themselves to hard decisions.  It jarred, to wear a mask that seemed to symbolize that transition, that while wanting nothing less than to walk down that road.

Back in Brockton Bay, New Wave had tried to start something, capes without masks.  It had been disastrous.  The message had been lost in the ensuing celebrity, and that had only intensified after one of the core members of the group was found and killed in her civilian identity.

He wondered if they’d been right to try.  If capes really needed to just… drop the mask.  To cry and let the feelings out.  So many got their powers through trauma, but they bottled themselves up, erected defenses, developed coping mechanisms.  If New Wave’s idea had taken off, would things be better?

Didn’t matter.  Here they stood.

He could make it through this, save the world.  They could find the source of the Endbringers and defeat them, could clean things up, get things in order and stop all of the real monsters… he could go to college, get a career and find a girl and marry her, and at the end of the day, Justin would still be screaming.

Aster would still be dead.

The ugly decisions would have been made.

He stared up at the bloody spikes in the wall, an image that would be burned into his mind’s eye, remembered as the point he stood at the threshold.  A mirror to where he’d been in the beginning, when he’d met Jack.

Bitch paced around the edges of the room, impatient.  She’d had to shrink her dogs to get them to an appropriate size, and was keeping them small in case the portal wasn’t accommodating enough.  Here and there, she barked out orders to get the animals away from the bodies.

It grated.

“None of those invisible fucks,” she said.

“Okay,” Weaver answered.  Her voice was quiet.

Theo almost took her voice as a cue to reevaluate how she was reacting to what had just happened, then stopped himself.  Losing battle.  No point.

Then, for some bizarre reason, Bitch approached him.

A sleek Doberman nudged at his gauntlet with its nose.  He looked down and then scratched it behind the ear.  It didn’t matter if the dog bit him – he was wearing a gauntlet.

When he looked up, he could see Bitch staring at him.  Her face was barely visible behind her hair.

“Can I help you?” he asked.  His voice came out harder than he intended.

She didn’t seem to notice or care.  “You’re her friend, aren’t you?”

I don’t want to talk about Weaver.

He didn’t venture an answer.  He couldn’t say yes, not honestly, but he suspected Weaver had a different answer to the question.

“You’re both acting different.  I can see it.”

“Kind of warranted, in this situation,” he said.  “In case you didn’t notice, the last few members of my family just got killed.  I just need a bit of time alone to think.”

His voice had almost broken.  Couldn’t break down.  Not like this, here, with her.

She hadn’t taken his hint.

“They were buttholes, weren’t they?  Purity and her gang.  The nazis.”

The dog nudged his hand again.  He gave it a more intense scratch before answering, “White supremacists.  They… weren’t the best people ever.  But they were still my family.”

She kept looking at him, almost glaring.  She didn’t answer or elaborate, leaving the conversation to die.

Go away.  I don’t want to hit you.

He kept silent, hoping she would just leave.  Willing her to leave.

“Stay, Huntress,” she ordered.

Then she walked away, leaving the dog at his side.

Theo scratched the animal under the collar, and watched it crane its head to one side, enjoying the contact.

It helped, oddly enough.  Having contact with another living creature without all of the issues and hassles of dealing with people.  No judgement, no worries, just… this.  Being alone without being alone.

His father had always preferred cats, and the creatures had never been easy to bond with.  This was nice.

Theo sighed.  He glanced at Weaver in his peripheral vision, and saw that there was a dog sitting next to her.  A mutt, at a glance.  The animal was resting its chin on her shoulder.

She saw him looking, glanced at Bitch, who was walking with her husky puppy following behind her, then shrugged.

He lowered his eyes from Weaver… no, from Taylor, then scratched Huntress again.

“We have the coordinates.  Waiting for a charge,” Defiant announced.  He was already flanked by the Dragon’s Teeth he’d brought with him.

“All gather,” Chevalier ordered.

Bitch snapped her fingers twice, and her dogs returned to her.

Theo raised his hands to his face to rub his eyes, and he felt damp on one cheek.  One tear, fresh.  He wiped his face, glancing around to check if anyone had seen it.  No, not judging by the angle.

He donned his mask.

Golem now, Golem thought.

“We need to decide who goes where,” Defiant said.  “The first teleportation marked coordinates on Houston.”

Weaver spoke up, “I noted Shatterbirds and Burnscars leaving, some Damsels, bunch of others I didn’t catch, but they had weapons and I’m thinking Winter or Crimson.  There were some I parsed as hostages, but it’s only in retrospect that I’m thinking they were Nice Guys.”

“The second group made their way to New York.”

“Bonesaw and a captive Nilbog that’s apparently rigged to create things on demand,” Weaver said.  “Crawlers, Breeds and a handful of others I didn’t identify.”

Chevalier reacted to that, flinching.

His city, Golem thought.

“And the last group headed to Los Angeles.”

“Jack’s group?” Golem asked.

“Yes,” Weaver said.  “He brought the Siberian, Hookwolf, Gray Boy, all eight Harbingers, and there are Psychosomas and Nyxes.  One or two others I didn’t place.”

“Los Angeles?” Chevalier asked.  “What area?”

That area,” Defiant answered, looking at the computer.

Chevalier nodded slowly.

Golem stared at the screen.  He could see the satellite image, the concentric circles that marked the area around the blinking blue dot.

“Charge prepared.  We can send one group at a time.  They’ve already got a twelve minute headstart.  It’ll be another eight minutes before we can send the second group, eight minutes after that before we can send the third.”

“The first group to arrive can call for help and get support to the other locations,” Chevalier said.

“Then why split up?” Weaver asked.  “We should all hit Jack’s group, trust others to help in New York and Houston.”

“Everyone else is closer to New York,” Chevalier said.  “But Houston…”

“We can call in favors,” Weaver said.  “Moord Nag’s apparently on board, though we don’t know why.  Cauldron’s on board.  If we can get Tattletale in contact with them, that’s handled.  But we can’t do that unless we leave.”

“That’s my city,” Hoyden said.

“I get that,” Weaver replied, “But we’re doing nothing constructive if we split up, and we’re definitely doing nothing constructive as long as we sit here.”

“Once we leave,” Defiant said, “We break the configuration cell and everything here breaks down on a Euclidean level.  There’s no going back, changing our mind.”

“I get that,” Weaver said, “But two or three of us aren’t going to do anything special.  We need big guns.”

Golem closed his eyes.

There she is.  Weaver.

“She’s right,” Chevalier said, looking at Hoyden.  “We’ll send every set of reinforcements we can, but it’s not worth what it costs us, to break up our group.”

“Shit,” Foil said.

Hoyden had gone stiff, bristling for an argument.

“I’m not saying we should abandon Houston,” Weaver said, before Hoyden could speak.  “Defiant, can you postpone the collapse of this area?”

“Yes, but I don’t feel comfortable doing it,” he responded.

“I think you should,” she said.  “Toybox left enough stuff behind.  Use it.  Stay behind, arm yourself, then throw everything but the kitchen sink at them.  You remember how the scar formed in Brockton Bay?”

“Mm,” he said.  “Tinker technology takes time to understand, to prepare.  Too dangerous otherwise.”

“There’s a solution to that.  I’ll point the way.”

Defiant hesitated.

Golem looked around the group, saw the expressions on faces, saw how even Hoyden had relaxed a fraction.  Even the Dragon’s Tooth officers that accompanied them were a little more at ease.  There were no answers in this situation, but there was a possibility.  An option, vague as it was.

“Okay,” Defiant said.

Then, without so much as a farewell or a ‘good luck’, he hit the enter key.

Golem appeared a full four feet above the ground.  He hit the ground and let his legs sink in, absorbing some of the fall.  A second later, he pushed himself out.

Just the use of his power gave him a sense of the area.  Touching the pavement gave him a sense of how all of the pavement around him was organized.  It had been folded into itself, folded around, thinned, thickened, bent at right angles.

Looking around, he could see how the buildings had been altered.  Textures had been removed, similar materials blended into one another, everything fortified, thickened, weaponized.

All around them, the buildings were like tombstones.  Windowless, angular, all expression and human touches removed from them.  Spikes studded corners and blocked alleyways, criss-crossed in front of doors, and carpeted pathways.  Some were metal, others camouflaged.

They’d figured out how to fight Tohu and Bohu during the Los Angeles attack.  The trick was responding quickly, stopping them before Tohu had her masks and Bohu managed her influence.  They’d won, for lack of a better term, managing the fight without the casualties they’d seen in the prior attack, but they’d still lost a chunk of the city in the time it took them to beat and batter the towering Bohu into submission.  Now Santa Fe Springs and all of the neighboring districts were uninhabitable, due to the traps that riddled it, the way the infrastructure had been completely and totally compromised.

Easier to found a new habitable area than to try to fix this, routing new pipes and power, managing traps both subtle and blatant.

Those same traps would be a problem here, but they weren’t entirely incapable.  They’d dealt with this before.

Bitch’s dogs grew abruptly, then shook, sending blood and bits of flesh and bone everywhere.

“HQ, come in,” Chevalier murmured.  He continued to speak, delivering the information about Jack and the target areas.

“Area’s empty,” Weaver said.

“A trap,” Golem responded.  “Has to be.”

“Has to be.  Why else come here?”  Foil asked.

“Nyx illusions,” Tecton said, “He doesn’t know we’re aware of who he brought, so he’s set them up to stall us.”

Nyx.  Her gas is concentrated into solid shapes that move at her will.  Break that shape and it becomes a cloud of poisonous gas.

“Not that easy,” Weaver said.  “Maybe he knows we know, and it’s a double-bluff.”

“Parian?” Weaver asked.

Parian nodded.  She unfurled the bundle of cloth from her back, then quickly shaped it into a roughly humanoid shape.

A moment later, it was stomping ahead, forging the way.

Golem fell in step beside Tecton.  Every footfall on a surface concentrated his awareness, informing him of every surface of a matching material in the area.  Lightning flashes in his consciousness, showing the landscape around him.  He deliberately stepped on other materials to inform himself on concrete, on brick, on steel and glass.  His heavy boots made for a rhythmic sound, accompanied by the sounds of Chevalier and Tecton’s own heavy footfalls, and the rougher patter of the mutant dogs.

Stop.”

A girl’s voice, over the comm system.  Not Tattletale.

Golem, tell them to stop.  Now.”

“Stop,” he said.

A second later, he wondered if he should mention this phantom voice.  A trick on Screamer’s part?

Thirty one,” she said.

“Thirty one?”

More uses of my power.  I’ve been testing it, straining it, figuring out my limits.  I can’t make promises.  Might be less.  Might be able to squeeze out more.  But it’s the best I can give you.

The numbers clued him in, belatedly.

Dinah Alcott.

There’s bigger problems,” she said.  Her voice was quiet.  “In two minutes, everyone but you dies.  Seventy-two percent chance.

He stopped short.

“Golem?”  Hoyden asked.

“Solution?” he asked, he raised a hand.

Can you think in abstracts?”

“Abstracts.”

“You’re… kind of scaring me, Golem my boy,” Hoyden said.

“He’s talking to someone in the comms,” Weaver said.  “Tattletale?  Not Tattletale.”

Red means forward, left, attack, team.  Blue means back, right, retreat, solo… I can only ask a certain number of questions a day.  Ask, I can narrow it down, but it’s less help I can give later.

One keyword, and he had to figure out what option it led to.

Blue, Tecton.  Retreat.”

“Back up,” he said.

Collectively, they retreated several steps.

A moment later, one small group of the Nine appeared, pushing their way through solid doorways, leaving colored smoke in their wakes.

Each was young.  Teenagers.  Each had a matching mask, a snarling face, complete with fangs and glowing dots in the dark eye sockets.  Their clothing flowed, with hoods peaking above their heads.  Each carried a different improvised weapon.  A fire axe.  A two-handed shovel.  A makeshift spear.

“Harbingers,” Weaver said.  “Don’t let them get close!  Finish them quickly!”

“Color,” Golem whispered.

Blue.”

He went with his instincts more than anything else.  “Retreat!  Run!”

Parian’s doll reached out, and the Harbingers slipped out of the way of the hands, dodging by virtual hairs as they spun in tight circles, ducked and rolled.  It was like the thing was moving in slow motion, but it wasn’t.

A fire axe and two kitchen knives slid through the creature’s body, severing seams.  It deflated explosively.

Foil opened fire with her crossbow, aiming so it was on a path to hit two of the enemies, and the Harbingers dodged the shot.

She’s not supposed to miss.

Tecton shattered the ground, but it didn’t make the slightest difference.  The Harbingers didn’t slow down.

They turned to run, belatedly.

Hoyden and Chevalier held their ground as others mounted dogs or took flight.  Golem ran his fingertips along the panels at his armor, feeling the connections to the various substances around him flare, touched the one for pavement.

He thrust his hand inside.  A small hand, emerging as fast as he could shove his hand inside the panel.  He reached for the closest Harbinger’s foot.

The young villain pulled his leg up out of the way, virtually spinning as he stepped to the side, planted the same foot on solid ground, then resumed his forward momentum.  No luck.  It was like Harbinger could see it coming.

Weaver’s bugs were swarming the Harbingers, but they took to spinning, relying on the movement of their hoods and the flowing black clothes to drive the bugs away, batting them aside.  Even the threads seemed to fail to do anything substantial, getting caught up in the approaching villains as they moved.

Like whirling dervishes, they closed the distance.

He thrust his hand into the pavement again, and this time, he created a platform like the one he’d fashioned in Ellisburg.  Raising them up off the ground, out of reach.

If there was any difficulty getting down and resuming their search for Jack, he’d deal with that when they weren’t all about to be murdered.

The Harbingers scaled the sides of buildings as if they were running across horizontal terrain.  Weapons, fingers and boots found traction in the surfaces, and they climbed with an easy, almost eerie ease, as though they were almost floating.

Climbing faster than the hand was rising.

Three reached the top of the building, and as if they’d coordinated, planned this well in advance, they set foot on the edge of the rooftop and kicked off.  They ignored the bugs that plagued them as if they weren’t even there, weren’t binding them with silk.

They flipped heel over head, their backs to Golem, Hoyden, Tecton and Chevalier, the two Dragon’s Teeth.  Rachel, Parian and Foil were on the dog’s backs, and Weaver was airborne.

The Dragon’s Teeth aimed containment foam at the three Harbingers.  The clones pulled off their flowing jackets with sleeves that almost covered their hands, catching the foam, then landed.  One swept the bundle of foam to try to knock a D.T. officer off his feet.  The officer hopped up, then struck out at the Harbinger clone.

No use, Golem thought.  A mistake.  Harbinger caught the arm, almost effortlessly turned around, pulling him in the direction of the turn.  A little push, and the soldier fell.

He’s okay,” Dinah said.  “Blue!”

Run, retreat.  As if there was a place to go.

Two attacks struck in concert, a kitchen knife and a fire axe, and a heavy piece of Tecton’s armor was decimated, one gauntlet ruined.

No use.

One more landed on the heel of the hand.

Revel opened fire with a dozen orbs, but the enemy avoided them with an almost casual ease.  She reprogrammed them, altering the orbs’ properties, and this time they homed in on their targets.  The Harbingers dodged them, used the changed trajectories to lure them into nearly striking the D.T. officer and Chevalier.  She stopped, hanging back.

Chevalier swung his sword, pulled the trigger mid-swing to shoot at one Harbinger that stood on a fingertip of the reaching hand-platform.  Both attacks missed.

The Harbinger closest to him stepped close, almost casually, and drove a paring knife through a slit in Chevalier’s visor.

His good eye, Golem realized.

Nobody had figured out Harbinger’s power, before Harbinger disappeared off the face of the planet.  It was an ugly reality that such questions weren’t always answered.  The best guess suggested a hyperawareness of space and the movements of their own bodies.

But being able to figure out that Chevalier was half-blind, being able to blind his good eye?

One stepped close, holding a ball-peen hammer in each hand.  He closed on Golem, invading his personal space, until their noses were touching.

Golem tried to wrap the Harbinger in a bear-hug, felt only the faint drag of cloth against the metal of his gauntlets, empty air.  His intended target had ducked low.

He drove a knee forward.  Tight, contained movements, give them as little to work with as possible.

No contact.  Of course.

He was rewarded with a swat of the hammer against his mask, shattering one lens.  He’d thought he was out of reach, but the boy held only the very end of the hammer between index and middle finger.  He tossed the hammer in the air, letting it spin head over end.

Golem struck at the flying hammer, but another strike of the hammer caught his arm.  His fingertips fell short, and the handle of the weapon rolled over the back of his hand.  The Harbinger caught it, then thrust it forward in the same motion, driving the top of the hammer against Golem’s nose.

“Don’t kill him,” another Harbinger said.

“I know,” was the reply.

They didn’t even sound winded.

None of the others were doing demonstrably better.  The remaining D.T. officer was holding his own, but the others were being slowly, systematically beaten.

He’s dragging it out.  They’re making this into a game.

No use letting this go on.

He retreated, only to find one Harbinger sticking a foot out, planting a foot on the small of his back.  He was pushed forward, then promptly struck in the abdomen.

Rather than try to defend himself, he tucked his chin to his collar-bone, let himself fall, and thrust his hands into the armor panels for pavement.

Double-thrust, one hand extending from the other, pushing Chevalier off the hand.

Another motion, simultaneous, to bring a hand of stone out of the wall behind Chevalier.  It emerged slower, but it formed a shelf, and Chevalier landed on that ledge.

The Harbingers could dodge, but his teammates were valid targets.

Another thrust, this time for himself.

Selfish, maybe, but he couldn’t save anyone if they were interfering with him.

One struck at his leg as he launched himself off the hand.  It altered his trajectory, put him on a course where there wasn’t anything nearby to catch himself with.

Two hands, into brick.  One connected to the other.  While they were new, he could move them.  Trouble with having them against the side of his body was that he couldn’t get a full range of movement like he could get with his arms.  No matter.  He caught himself by the mask, then pulled himself closer to the building.

Another hand, another shelf.

Hoyden exploded, but the Harbingers didn’t get hurt.  They spun, spreading the damage around like a person might roll to absorb a fall, ducking and sidestepping to put themselves at the periphery of the effect.

Scion’s closing in,” Dinah said.  “Blue, Golem.  It’s still blue.  I can’t use my power too many times today, but your numbers are getting worse and the answer keeps turning up blue.  Retreat, go right, go solo or go back.

Someone needs to intercept Scion,” Weaver said, over the comm system. “We can’t have him get involved.

You go,” Chevalier said.

Golem searched the sky, then spotted Weaver at the fringe of the battle, surrounded by a cloud of bugs.

She took off.

Golem grit his teeth.  More immediate things to focus on.  He tried to launch Tecton to freedom, but the Harbingers intercepted him, driving Tecton out of the way in the same instant the hand appeared.

The D.T. soldier managed to deliver a glancing blow.  Golem couldn’t tell if it was intentional or not, because the hit was followed by the D.T. soldier being caught with a length of cloth wound around one wrist.

Tecton stepped in, drawing attention and striking out with his gauntlets, one damaged and one intact.  It bought the D.T. soldier some room.

Golem took the opportunity to launch the soldier to safety.

There were others on the ground, approaching.

One of these bastards could probably take us apart.  Eight of them, we can’t hurt them, we’re losing time, burning resources.

Tecton glanced at Hoyden.  A communication seemed to pass between them.

They struck the palm of the hand, and the entire thing shattered.

Hoyden, Tecton and five of the Harbingers descended with a shower of rubble.

Hoyden and Tecton broke their fall with uses of their respective powers.  Hoyden hit the ground to generate an explosion.  Tecton punched the earth with his piledriver in the instant he reached solid ground.

The Harbingers didn’t have that ability.  A five-story drop.  People had died or been seriously hurt after a three-story drop.

Nobody told them that.  In the midst of the thin cloud of dust and the chunks of debris, the Harbingers moved without wincing or giving any sign of pain, their black-clothed forms rising from the ground like spectres.

“Talk to me, Dinah,” Golem said.

Situation’s getting worse.  Numbers are getting worse, across the board.  I’m not asking any specific questions, but I can sense it, just… the big picture.  It’s not working.

There’s an answer here, and we can’t see it.

“Blue… Backwards, go right, retreat, solo?  What’s that last one?”

Abstracts.  Nothing specific.  It’s only as meaningful as it helps you come to the right decision.

He stared at Hoyden and Tecton, surrounded by the eight Harbingers.

“If I leave… how does that change the numbers?”

Success.”

“Chances for Tecton and the others?”

Better than they were.

This was hell, Golem mused.  This was the nightmare that had driven Weaver from her home city, drove her to surrender.

The right path, but god damn, did it look ugly.

He bit his lip, then formed another pair of connected hands to launch himself skyward.  He reached the apex of his flight, then created a shelf to land on.  He did it again, and this time the shelf he created was just at the edge of the roof.  He stepped over onto the rooftop, then broke into a run.

“Saving Tecton, red or blue.”

Golem, we didn’t get a chance to go over this earlier, but you need to know… I can’t ask that many questions.  I’ve been saving my power for the last big confrontation.  Tattletale said this is the time to act.  I used my power twice to answer big questions earlier today.  Another three to figure out who I needed to talk to, and that told me-

“I’m the best partner for you?”

Right now, yes.  Listen.  Twenty-six questions left.  We haven’t even found Jack.  I can’t figure it out.

He stood on the rooftop, then extended his arms out to either side.

She couldn’t read his mind, so it was only identifying options.  Everything to the left of his nose was blue, everything to the right was red.

“Red or blue.  Now.”

Blue.  Twenty-five.

“Jack’s to my left,” he said.  He turned ninety degrees.  “Again.”

“Blue.  I’m-  My power’s getting fuzzier.”

Scion.

He looked up at the sky.  Weaver with her swarm was there, forming a great wall across the sky, as if to draw attention to herself.  Scion was approaching, a ray of golden light streaking across the overcast sky above.

Scion shut down precog abilities.

He felt something knot in his stomach, an ugly feeling, ominous.

“Let’s get as much use out of it as possible.  Saving Tecton and the others… Red or blue!”

“Red.  Twenty-three.”

He hesitated.  “It’s not me going back?”

“No.  I don’t think so.  I just asked and it said no.”

Break it down.  Attack, left for blue.  Group, forward for red.  “Again.”

“Golem, we can’t waste questions like this.  We-“

“Please.”

“Red.”

Group or forward, he thought, assigning colors to each option.  “Again.”

“Blue.  Somewhere between eighty and ninety percent chance.  I- I’m going blind here, Golem.”

Group.

Group, but not returning to join the others?

He went with his gut.

“Tattletale, are you listening?”

Yes.”

“Reinforcements.  Call in the big guns.”

“With Jack close?  That’s against the quarantine.”

“Dinah, does it improve our chances, everyone’s chances, as far as this end of the world scenario?”

Yes.  A lot,” she sounded genuinely surprised.  “Twenty.”

Cauldron’s refusing aid,” Tattletale said.  “They said it’s because Scion’s presence is blocking their clairvoyant.  They’re lying.

High above, Scion reached a stop, hovering in front of Weaver, who hung in the air in turn, using her flight pack.

Golem tore his eyes away from the scene.  He glanced down at the street, where Bitch, Parian and Foil were reinforcing Tecton and Hoyden, backing them up as the Harbingers approached.  One Harbinger threw something, and a dog dropped like its heart had stopped.

He shook his head.  He could watch forever, but they were better served by having him elsewhere.

The sooner he got Jack, the better.

“Jack is southwest of my location,” he reported.  “Heading off solo on precog advisement.”

He bolted, running.  His power bridged gaps between buildings.  He set his foot down on the corner of one rooftop, then vaulted himself over a trap that he sensed just a foot in front of him.  His landing jarred it into motion, provoking a deadfall, a slice of building that toppled and dropped onto the narrow street below.

Another hand broke a row of spikes that lined the edge of another rooftop.

Once, he’d been fat.  Once, he’d been out of shape.  Two years and a mission had given him the chance to remedy that.  He wasn’t conventionally fit, still had a bit of stockiness to him, but the fat was gone.  He had muscle.  Running with Weaver had made this doable.

Twenty more precog answers.

“Numbers if I stay on the rooftops?”

Twenty to thirty percent chance of injury or being taken out of action.

“If I’m on the ground?”

Fifty-something.  Eighteen questions left.

Her numbers were getting less accurate, the picture of the situation cloudier.

Too many powerful individuals in the area, too many chances of disaster, too many unknowns.

He set foot on one rooftop that had changed less than most, and the lightning flash was a staggered one, as his feet first touched gravel, then the material of the rooftop beneath that gravel.

The next rooftop wasn’t made of either material.  It wasn’t made of brick or concrete.

He created two hands, chaining them together, and extended the hand into the building.

It detonated into a massive cloud of smoke.

He launched himself away to avoid it, but it wasn’t enough.  The smoke flowed towards him like a wall, too vast to avoid.

Too vast to avoid so long as he remained on the rooftop.  He shoved himself off, created more hands to form a series of ledges that might serve as a staircase.

The smoke still loomed.

He got as close to the ground as he could, then launched himself to safety.

Golem was panting as he rested on the ground.  Psychosoma’s monsters emerged from the smoke, one using the same ledges he’d created to descend, the other crawling on the outside of the building.  Homeless, to look at them, twisted into monstrous shapes.  False shapes.  He could deal enough damage and break the effect, and they’d be human again, unhurt.

Simpler than it sounded.  If he broke the effect for one, the other would tear the freed victim apart.

Golem rose to his feet, backing away as swiftly as he could.  He was out of reach of the smoke, but these things, they were a distraction, a speed bump.

He waited, dropping into a fighting stance as they approached.  They broke into runs, charging him blindly, two figures so thin they didn’t look real, their fingers and feet twisted into claws as long as his forearm.

They plummeted into a pit in the middle of the road.

Golem rose from the fighting stance, then hurried on.  His footsteps continued to mark the surfaces around him, making it clear where there were more of Nyx’s illusions, more traps left over from the Tohu-Bohu attack.

His other enemies wouldn’t be so gullible.

“Left or right?” he asked.  He had a mental map of the surroundings.

Left.  Somewhere around a ninety percent chance Jack’s in that direction.”

Each question narrowed down the possibilities.  From fifty percent of the area to twenty-five percent, then twelve and a half percent… now six percent.  It was a small enough slice that he didn’t need to wonder as much.  If he kept on this course, he could find his target.

Right route,” Dinah said.  “It’s… it’s really fuzzy, but I still feel like the bloody, ugly ends aren’t so close.

“A good feeling,” Theo said.

In a numbery way.

A numbery way.

“Status,” he said.  “Not a question.  Just… I need to know what’s going on.”

The others are… okay,” Dinah replied.  “Defiant just arrived in Houston with a giant robot that only has one arm and one leg, and we’ve got…”

Dinah’s voice continued, but he didn’t hear it.

Golem slowed to a walk as he saw his new surroundings.  The tombstones of Bohu’s area were still here, but they were scarred.

A thousand times a thousand cuts.

“Theodore,” Jack said.

Jack emerged, and he wasn’t holding a knife.  He held a sword, nearly four feet long.  A claymore.  His shirt was unbuttoned, showing a body without a trace of fat.  His beard had been meticulously trimmed, but that had easily been a day ago.  His neck had scruff on it.  Strands of dark hair fell across eyes with lines in the corner as he stared at Golem.

Golem had gotten this far.

Now what?

Jack let the blade’s point swing idly at calf-level, pointed off to one side.  Cuts gouged the road’s surface.  Theo let his fingers trace the panels on his armor.  Steel, iron, aluminum, woods, stone…

His second sense marked various items in the surrounding area that were made of the same substance, even marked the trap off to his left, but it didn’t touch any part of the sword.

“All on your lonesome,” Jack said.

“Yes,” Theo answered, sounding braver than he felt.

His finger touched other panels.  Brick, asphalt, concrete, porcelain…

The sword remained out of his power’s reach.  He’d put so much stock in being able to disarm Jack.

With each contact, he felt the accompanying flashes, tried to put together a mental picture of his surroundings.

Two false building faces, just a little ahead of him.  They had to be Nyx-made.  If he advanced, she’d break the illusion, and he’d be surrounded in the noxious smoke.  At best, he’d pass out.  At worst, he’d pass out and wake up to permanent brain damage and organ failure.  Or being in the clutches of the Nine.

Jack let the sword swing, and Golem tensed.  The blade didn’t come anywhere close to pointing at him, but Jack’s power cut shallow gouges into the surrounding brick, stone and pavement.

“Alone,” Jack said, again.

Because of you, Golem thought.

He clenched his fist.

Tears were forming in his eyes.  Ridiculous.  Wasn’t supposed to be what happened in this kind of situation.

Jack, in turn, smiled slowly.  “Quiet.  I was thinking that after all this time, we could have some witty banter.  You can scream your fury at me, curse me for killing your loved ones.  Then you do your best to tear me apart.”

“No.”

“Oh!” Jack smiled wider.  “Show mercy, then?  Walk away from the fight and show you’re the better man, rather than descending to my level?  I’ve been waiting for someone to pull that ever since I saw it happen in a movie.”

“This isn’t a movie.”

“No.  It’s very, very real, Theodore,” Jack said.  He paced a little, letting the sword drag on the ground.  The blade was white, Golem noted.  White, exceptionally sharp.

Mannequin-made?

Or was this Jack an illusion?  Nyx could imitate voices.  She could create the gouges in the walls by way of the illusory smoke.

Golem paced a little too, mirroring Jack’s movements.

“Well, I’m not sure what you expect, then, Theodore.  The fat little boy promised me he’d become the kind of hero that would put down monsters like me.  I gave you two years, and you’ve made it at least partway.  Did you change your mind on the killing part?”

“No.  I will kill you.”

“So tough!  So brave!  All of this from the-”

Stop talking, Jack.  You’re not that clever, not as sharp as you like to think.  You talked to me about keystones?  Bullshit.  You’re a sad, pathetic killer with delusions of grandeur.”

Jack’s smile dropped from his face.  He held the Claymore with one hand, the blade’s point touching the ground, and spread his arms.  His unbuttoned shirt parted, showing the whole of his bare shirt and stomach.  Showing himself to be vulnerable, exposed.

“Then do your worst, Theodore.  Because if you don’t, I will.”

Dinah,” he whispered.

With you.  Gray boy isn’t near.  Nyx and Hookwolf are.  Fifteen questions.  I had to use one to help the others.

He nodded slowly.

I don’t like the illusory building faces.  Too much poisonous smoke was needed to make that sort of thing, it had to be multiple Nyxes working in concert.  They’d be close, probably.

Which said nothing of the other threats that loomed behind the fog.  Psychosoma’s creations?

Golem reached up to his gloves, then tore off the protectors on his knuckles.  They fell to the ground.  Beneath were spikes.

“Nice touch,” Jack said.

Golem spread his arms.  “What do you-”

Red.”

Mid-sentence, still talking, he let his arms fall, driving them into panels at his side.

Jack hopped back out of reach of the hands, seizing his sword.  He drew it back.

Blue.”

Golem created another hand.  Not to catch Jack, but to catch the blade.

It had backfired, if anything.  The hand caught the tip of the blade, but the sword slid free of the grip and flew around with more force.  Golem leaped back, letting himself fall, and let his feet slide into the pavement.  Two boots rose from the ground, shielding him as the slash caught the surface.

Weaver’s lessons.  Catching the enemy off guard by any means necessary, rolling with the punches, or rolling with the effects of the enemy’s attack.

Had to use Dinah’s ability, divide everything into two equally viable actions, so he wasn’t caught off guard.

Still prone, still shielded and out of sight, he reached into the ground with both hands.

Two hands, flattened, jabbed for Jack’s leg, stabbing at ankle and calf.  Jack backed away again before they made contact, slashed again.

This time, the slash caught a section of Golem’s armor that was sticking out of cover.  The cut made a mark nearly a foot deep in the ground, but it served only to split the pauldron in half.  A section of metal fell to the ground.

He created two connected hands of pavement, then whipped them to throw the section of pauldron at Jack.  The trajectory suggested it would fly a little to Jack’s left.

Golem jabbed one hand into the ground, and a flattened hand stabbed out from the spinning piece of metal, extending as the projectile flew.

Jack ducked, but Golem was already thrusting his other hand into the earth.  It jutted from the hand he’d created, doubling the length in short order.  More of a crude boomerang in shape than a chunk of metal.

It only clipped Jack, just barely.

“Clever boy,” Jack said.  “You-”

“Stop talking, Jack,” Golem responded.

For Aster, for Kayden, even for the others…

He thrust his hands into the ground, repeatedly, and they stabbed at the underside of Jack’s feet.  He leaped back out of reach and swung his sword the instant he touched ground.

The action cut through the remainder of the shield Golem had raised, but it also kept Jack in one place.  He caught the underside of Jack’s foot.  Jack stumbled as he pulled himself free of Golem’s grip.

He reached out to stab out with two interconnected hands, the same technique he used to launch himself.

But Jack evaded it, slid out of the way, almost as if he knew the strike was coming.

Golem moved to get into a position to strike again, and realized in the moment that it would take too long.

He was crouched, still, his hands remained buried, and Jack was already drawing his sword back.  He couldn’t mount a defense in time.

He braced himself.  With luck, his armor could take it.

The attack didn’t come.

No.  Jack laughed, instead.  His icy blue eyes were fixed at a point beyond Golem.

Golem chanced a look over his shoulder.

He saw a figure dropping out of the sky, trailed by what looked like a comet’s trail of black shapes.  Weaver.  Her course changed as she flew away, using the Bohu-warped buildings for cover.

And where she’d been, just moments ago, a dull gray light hung in the sky.

Scion.  Trapped in Gray Boy’s time-well.

Jack’s laugh rang through the area.

The figure inside moved, but only barely.  The well trapped powers within.  Kayden’s lasers wouldn’t exit the area.  Crusader’s duplicates wouldn’t be able to wander beyond the well’s limits.

And Scion didn’t appear to be any different.

“I’m sorry, my boy,” Jack said.

Golem whipped his head around.  Jack had backed up a short distance.

Jack chuckled, as if he still found something funny about the situation.  “Ah well.  I’m disappointed.  I’m not sensing it, your killer instinct.”

“I’m prepared to finish you,” Golem said.

“You’re prepared?  Maybe.  But not practiced.  No.  I don’t see this going anywhere interesting.  It’s about the ripples.  You remember our conversation?”

Theo nodded slowly.  The ripples from a butterfly’s wing.  The effects that extend out from any event. 

“You?  This?  It’s nothing.  What ripples extend from this?  You’re weak.  That?” Jack pointed at Scion, trapped in the sky.

Golem chanced another look.  Nothing had changed.  Scion remained fixed in place.

That interests me.”

He climbed to his feet, eyes on Jack’s weapon.

Jack reached into his belt, then drew a knife.

Golem tensed.  Faster than the sword, if not quite so capable of chewing through his armor.

But Jack didn’t attack him.  He struck at the building faces.

The surfaces dissolved into rolling clouds of smoke.  Golem vaulted himself back twice in quick succession to escape it, then continued to back away for good measure.

“You’ve failed to amuse me.  A shame your sister’s been shot, and there’s nothing interesting to do with the hostages,” Jack called out, his voice ringing along the length of the street.  With no details or features on the outsides of the buildings Bohu had altered, the voice carried in an odd way.

A shadow emerged.  Jack, riding atop a massive six-legged beast.

As Jack approached, he became more visible, and the nature of the beast became clear.  He stood on Hookwolf’s back, between the creature’s shoulders.

Other shadows appeared in the mist, and they, in turn, clarified as they approached.  Crawlers.  Mannequins.  Crimsons.  Others.

Done in by my dad’s lieutenant, Golem thought.  No way he was walking away from this.

“I suppose we’ll kill you,” Jack said.  “And you’ll just have to take me on my word when I say I’ll find something suitably horrific to do as punishment for your failing our little game.”

Theo raised a hand as a shield even before Jack used his power in conjunction with Hookwolf’s.  A hand of pavement, struck by a thousand slashes in a matter of a second, whittled to nothing.  Then he had only armor, and that, too, started to come apart.

The cuts that followed parted flesh.

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Sting 26.6

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The large box sat in between the benches and seats at the back of the Pendragon, beside a heavy device with an ornate looking gyroscope on the top.  I could feel the bugs within.  I instinctively knew what they were, how they operated, and could even pinpoint exact bugs in the swarm, among dozens of their kind.

I focused on them.  It was almost meditative.  I’d taken to focusing more on the conscious uses of my power, so I’d be more aware when I was making unconscious use of it.  There was nothing I could do about the fact that my passenger apparently had a hand in how my bugs were controlled, but I was trying to train myself to recognize it when it happened.

Rachel was focusing on her dogs in much the same way I was focused on my bugs.  Her hands ran over their bodies, fingers combing through their fur, tracing the lines in their athletic little bodies.  Bastard submitted to the touching without complaint or reaction.

I could sympathize with Rachel some, now.  We’d gathered our strike force together from among the people who I was familiar with and the people who were intact enough to fight, but my relationship to each of these people was iffy at best.  Focusing on our minions was easier.

Chevalier sat in a seat that put his back to Defiant’s chair, so they faced in opposite directions.  He was talking in a low voice that didn’t cut through the drone of the Pendragon’s engine.  Defiant responded without taking his eyes off the controls.

Revel leaned back her head back and resting against the vibrating outer hull of the Pendragon, eyes closed, lantern in her lap.  She looked almost meditative, to the point that I didn’t want to disturb her.

Tecton and Hoyden were talking in low voices.  Both were Protectorate members, now.  Tecton had passed the reins to Grace, and Hoyden was now the little fish in the big pond.  I didn’t want to interject.

Parian and Foil were holding hands, sitting with their arms pressed together, heads leaning to either side so that Foil’s temple sat against the top of Parian’s head.  Even now, it was hard to think of them as Undersiders.  Lots of mixed feelings in the background there.  I’d turned Parian onto this path, and in the doing, I’d done the same for Foil.  For Flechette.

There was a crash, and the Pendragon shifted, almost veering into a dive.  Defiant corrected the course.  “Passing over the wall!  One clinging to the top of the ship!”

Revel stirred.  “Do you want me to fly out?  I can escort us in.”

“No.  The Pendragon is built to take a beating.  We’re more secure with the ramp closed and everything sealed off.  Hold tight.  This is going to get worse before it gets better.”

There was another crash.  I debated sending my bugs outside, then rethought it.  No use, for much the same reason sending Revel out wasn’t going to change things.

Rachel looked exceedingly uncomfortable, and the dogs were reading her body language and getting anxious as a consequence.

I winced at the sound of tearing metal, followed by a sudden shift in the ship’s direction.  Something had been torn free.  Defiant corrected course again, compensating.

I wanted to say something to Rachel, to calm her or the dogs down, or simply to reach out and connect in the same way that the others in the craft were finding solidarity.  The problem was, I wasn’t sure what to say.  We’d separated, had walked different paths, and I’d betrayed her on a level.  I’d led her to believe she had a friend in me, and then I’d walked away.

She met my eyes, scratched Bastard at the top of his head, then asked, “What?”

“You’re okay?”

“Yup,” she said.  She didn’t look okay.  She stroked two different dogs, but I almost felt like the gesture was more for her sake than for the dogs.

“Not right now.  Just… in general?  Are you okay in general?  Living on the other world?”

“Yup,” she said.

I sighed, turning my attention back to the box.

“I’m hoping my dogs are okay,” she said, staring down at the metal floor.  “Been a while since I’ve been away from them like this.”

“You have people, right?  People you…” I let the sentence hang as I tried to recall whether trained was something appropriate for people and not dogs.  “People you trained, to look after your dogs.”

“Yeah,” Rachel said.

“Setting down!” Defiant called out.

There was another tearing sound, like nails on a blackboard scaled up to a volume that made it resonate in my bones.  Maybe the worst sound I’d ever heard.

Just that thought brought back recollections.  The dull, faint sound of an old doctor’s body hitting the ground, after Mannequin cut her throat.  My dad’s voice, crying my name, sounding very distant despite the fact that he was right next to me, in the moments before I killed Alexandria and Director Tagg.  The non-sounds Brian had made as he’d opened his mouth, noises so quiet they weren’t even whispers, as he hung in the refrigerator, post-Bonesaw, pre-second trigger event.

No, there were worse sounds than the screech of metal tearing.  Sounds I’d barely registered at the time, but nonetheless sounds that haunted me.

“Tattletale sent us some old guy to teach us how to butcher the bison,” Rachel said.  “None of the others are any good at it, and it’s harder without the dogs there to help haul it off the ground by its back legs.”

The Pendragon set down.

“Taking off will be harder than landing was,” Defiant said.  He didn’t flinch as a creature pounced on the glass of the ship’s windshield.

A heartbeat later, something hit the outside of the craft.  Something big.  The thing on top that was tearing at the metal struck again, no doubt peeling away at an armor panel.

“-And I’m thinking they’re probably getting hungry.  Fucking up good meat, not carving out the fatty bits.  Or they aren’t getting all the blood out.  You have to cut deep to bleed the motherfuckers.”

Distracted by the landing, some of the junior heroes were paying attention to Rachel now.

“What the hell is she talking about?” Hoyden asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.  Then I glanced at Rachel.  “Either of you.  Rachel, they’re going to manage fine.”

“They’re going to manage,” she said.

Defiant was already out of his seat.  He had approached the device he’d placed next to my box and managed to get it going just as Rachel finished speaking.

Every monitor in the Pendragon’s cabin flared to life.  Countdown timers appeared, white numbers on a black background, with fainter, smaller timers above and below.  I knew they would be the minimum and maximum times.  The one in the middle was only an estimate.

The craft was struck again, and a dent in the outer walls nearly knocked Tecton from his seat.  Everyone reached for something to hold on to, as the Pendragon nearly tipped over onto its side.  The dogs barked at the disturbance.

“There are forcefield generators,” Defiant said.  “But they take time to recharge.  We’ll hold out for as long as we can before using it, waiting until they are more numerous, and our options are limited.”

“Four minutes,” Tecton observed, looking at the monitors.

“We- I think so,” Defiant said.  “Plus or minus one minute and thirty seconds.  The forcefield generator is housed in the underside of the craft, to provide stronger defense from below.  It’ll last after the walls come down.”

“Defensive positions,” Chevalier said.

“Protecting the decoder is a priority,” Defiant said.

We stood from our seats, backing towards the center of the craft, the decoder and my box of bugs at our center.  I reached back and opened the box, letting the bugs flow out.

Without my even asking, Defiant opened the ramp at the back a fraction.  Like a flower blossoming, slowly at first, then with increasing speed, I could feel my awareness expanding.  I could feel the outside of the ship, the creatures that were gathering in ever-increasing numbers.  Every shape and size imaginable.

Three were making good headway against us.  I could identify the same creature, I was pretty sure, that had been pummeling the wall at the outer perimeter of Ellisburg.  It was a quadruped, and it moved with a surprising slowness as it paced away from us.  Strands of fur longer than I was tall hung off it, and its head was one armored plate with eyeholes, the edges flaring out and away from its head at the sides and back, allowing its long, pointed ears to freely move behind the plate.  It lowered its head in the direction of the craft and tested the ground with one scuff of a spike-studded hoof against the pavement.

I set bugs to attacking its eyes, driving them into ear canals in hopes of distorting its sense of direction.  It aborted the charge to shake its head violently.

“Possible incoming right in front of you, Tecton.  Any second now.”

“Right,” he said.  He held his ground.

“Might be worth moving,” I said.

He looked back at me.  “Aren’t we supposed to defend the decoder?”

“Switch,” Chevalier said, with no elaboration.  Tecton hurried to take up Chevalier’s position towards the nose of the craft, while Chevalier lowered his cannonblade in the direction of the bulge on the wall.

There were two more creatures that were gouging the hull.  One used oversized claws to pry at metal plates.  Another was drooling acid onto the roof.

I could sense the round-headed bald girl from earlier as well, one creature that moved with a startling speed as it scratched at the outer edges of the craft, one way, then the other, so the gouges in the metal formed hatch marks.  Burrowing, almost.  Burrowing very slowly.

Something howled, and it was loud.

The creations were piling around the craft, with a number gathering on the window over the cockpit.  Tecton tensed.

“The window is stronger than the metal,” Defiant said.  “Don’t panic.”

“It isn’t as flexible,” Tecton said.  “One good hit like the one that dented the wall there and it won’t hold up.”

“It’s designed to take rocket launcher hits head on,” Defiant said.

“That doesn’t mean it’s designed to take them from an angle,” Tecton retorted.  “My power gives me a sense of structural integrity.  I’m saying I’m worried.”

“Fine,” Defiant said.  He watched the ramp, not moving an inch.  “Be worried.”

The charger was incapacitated, its eyes devoured, eardrums perforated, with bugs crawling through the middle ear fluids that were pouring down its ear canals..  I diverted bugs to the thing that was clawing the armor plates off of the outer edges.

An instant later, the charger lunged forward.

No sense of direction, no ability to see, not even any balance, beyond what its four legs offered.

But it was big, and its target was big as well.

“Heads up!” I shouted.

It slammed into the side of the Pendragon, closer to the back than the location of the first hit.  The metal tore where two sections joined together, and a monitor fell to the floor, shattering.

Creatures began crawling through the gap.  Defiant moved his spear to the opening, then activated the gray blur.  He held it there, allowing them to die and be wounded on contact.

Golem used his power, raising a hand of metal to cover the opening.

Defiant lowered his spear and canceled out the blur.

The disintegration effect might have been worth keeping on hand, but I could understand if he was concerned about another impact knocking someone into the spearhead.

Creatures had hopped onto the charger’s back, and were helping guide it, babbling and screeching, tugging on its fur.  It followed their directions, retreating.

I directed my bugs to attack, stinging and biting each of them on the same general side.  They reacted, tugging and pulling away, and the charger changed direction.  Only his flank glanced the back of the craft, and he trampled through a crowd of the little bastards who’d congregated on and around the ramp.

The round-headed girl sat there, half-crushed, and then began to swell.

“Heads up!  Your left, Defiant!” I shouted.

She detonated, and gunk spattered the ramp.  I felt bugs die on contact.

The ramp began to melt like candle wax.

I moved bugs to the fray while Hoyden and Defiant advanced on the ramp.

The creatures came in as a singular mass.  Dozens at once, practically crawling over one another.  A spine glanced off of Defiant’s armor and came within inches of striking the decoder.  Foil swatted it out of the air.

Parian’s first doll joined Rachel’s dogs in reinforcing the space behind Hoyden and Defiant.  Hoyden kicked and punched at the creatures, and small explosions tore through their ranks.  One punch, two or three creatures dead.  One landed on her, claws extended, and then promptly flew away as another detonation of flame and smoke flared from the point of contact.  She was barely scratched.

If those claws were poisonous, though…

Still, she made for a competent front line, beside Defiant with his disintegrating spear.  Every movement of the spear was as precise as Hoyden’s explosions were erratic.  The blur effect cut through the enemy like butter, and in the rare occasions where the target did slip away or dodge the attack, Defiant followed up with jolts of electricity and darts.

The charger steered around and began to pick up speed.

“Chev, incoming!”

I tried to distract the charger again, targeting the riders, but it didn’t work.  This time, they pulled in different directions, or simply dropped off.  It continued on course.

It struck only two or three feet to the left of the first point of damage, and opened up the side.  The thing with claws on the roof, squinting against the steady damage my bugs were doing, hopped over and began to pry the gap open wider.

I moved a swarm over the gap, trying to hide the entryway, but it did little good.  Both Parian and Rachel shifted position to defend the opening.  Golem began trying to patch it up.

“Careful!” Defiant warned, glancing over one shoulder.  “Too much extra weight and we won’t be able to take off!  Containment foam instead!”

The perils of physics-defying powers.  Golem and Rachel both broke the laws of conservation of mass, and now we risked paying for that.  The Dragon’s Teeth stepped forward to take over.

I could see the charger turning around.  One creature was on its back, a heavily armored thing that had hard, multifaceted eyes like an insect.  My own bugs couldn’t damage the orbs.  It cheered in a high voice, urging the charger on, with some English words peppered in the midst of its gibbering.

One more minute to go.  If we were lucky, it could open any second.  If we were unlucky, it would take two and a half minutes.

Two crawled in through the crack in the side, clinging to the ceiling as they made their way in through the cloud of bugs.  I pointed, and Foil slashed at them with her rapier.  Tecton squashed another with his piledriver.

Over where another of the creatures had been trying to burrow into the side, a creature pushed it aside and spat.  The effect was the same as the exploding bubble-head girl from earlier, if less dramatic.  Looking at the exterior wall, I could see the hatch-marks appearing in the side as though they’d been drawn in marker, pale against the dark metal.  They spread, the effect broadening, until the hatch marks were drawn out in white and the surrounding area was paler.

Something punched through, then reached in blindly to scratch and claw.  Golem’s reaching hand broke the claw.

More spots were appearing, though.  Dents, gouges, acid…  I attacked the creatures that were doing the most damage, as far as I could identify them, but there were more waiting to take their places.

“Nilbog’s creatures!”  I spoke, raising my voice.  I spoke through my bugs outside.  “We mean no harm!  We will bring you back your king!”

Nothing but cries of rage and hate in response.  No use.

Thirty seconds, now.

The holes in the exterior opened enough for the creatures to start pushing through.  The acid burned them where they made contact, but that same contact opened the holes wide enough for others to follow.

The charger lunged, charging again.  There was really only one rider it was listening to, but that pilot was a tough one to hurt.

The thing screamed one word in English, twice in quick succession, its voice high,

“Jump!  Jump!”

The charger leaped.  The result wasn’t graceful, nor was it particularly on target.  What it did do was allow the charger to get one foot up on the side of the Pendragon, its upper body partially on the roof.  It kicked and struggled in its attempts to move forward, and found one leg caught in the tear it had made on its last charge.

It placed the foot on top of the hands Golem had raised to block the gap, and sheer weight tore them down.  It slumped, falling, and then brought the end of its nose inside the ship, dragging it against the tear in fits of thrusting, struggling to free both it and its leg, succeeding only in doing more damage.  Reinforced shafts and beams held against the damage, but could see how each wiggle was bending the thick bars.

“I thought you said this thing was tough!”  Foil shouted.

“It is,” Defiant said.

“Forcefield might be a good idea!”  I called out.

Defiant didn’t respond.  Hoyden had made her way down the ramp and was dishing out the hurt close-range.  She was keeping the melee threats on their heels with a constant, aggressive offense, while her secondary powers rendered her resistant to the damage that came from a distance.  Defiant was left to defend the opening himself.

I drew my knife and my handgun and advanced until I was just behind and to the left of DefiantHe shifted position a fraction, allowing for the extra assistance.

Who knew we’d get to this point, Armsmaster?  I thought.

Fighting side by side.  I used my knife to impale one creature in the neck, then kicked it back down the half-ruined ramp.

Two of the countdown clocks had hit zero.  The one clock remained.  The high end of Defiant’s estimation on the decoder’s progress.

“One minute,” I said.

“Maybe,” Defiant said.

Maybe?”

“We took the time this past year to find Dodge’s old exit points, talking to ex-customers of the-” he stopped, grunting as he swept the spear at one persistent spine-spitter, “-Toybox group.  Used it to get readings, test the decoder.  But this portal has different metrics, updated technology.  More recent tech.”

“It’s not a guarantee?”  Hoyden shouted the words, as explosions continued to rip out around her, tearing through the assembled creatures.  They were keeping a healthy distance, now, which meant her very presence was keeping a whole area clear of the blighters.

Nothing’s a guarantee, I thought.

“I never guarantee anything,” Defiant grunted, echoing my thoughts.  “Except for a select few promises I make to people I love and people I hate.”

Rachel’s dogs were tearing into the goblins as they made their way through the gap beneath the charger that had wedged into the gap, each dog biting their mouths down once or twice in quick succession before flinging the things away just so they could have their mouths free to bite others.  Their paws swept out to club and claw at the creatures.  Tecton and Foil guarded the space between dogs, striking out to catch the ones which slipped between the dog’s legs.

I plunged my knife down to stab one of the softer looking targets, then danced back to avoid the spatter of acid that flowed from the wound.

“I’m getting buried!” Hoyden shrieked.  She’d been targeted by some critters that were dissolving into a slurry as they burned, with tendrils extending out to draw in the wounded and dead.

They’re reincarnating, feeding on themselves to make more.

“Stop using your power!” Defiant ordered.

“I can’t!  They’ll kill me!”

I glanced over my shoulder at the clock, then whipped my head back around as a creature pounced, trying to wrap itself around my head.  I shot it, feeling a flare of relief that I hadn’t just been killed, mingled with a regret over the loss of the bullet.

“How is it not done yet!?” I shouted.  “Zero on the clock!”

Defiant didn’t respond.

“Defiant!  Do we take off!?”

The charger, still caught in the gap, found the leverage to strain against one of the reinforcing girders that maintained the craft’s structure.  It began to slide down, and Golem raised a stainless steel hand to keep it from stomping on the decoder.

The hand wouldn’t be strong enough.  If that thing shifted its weight any more-

“Defiant!” Tecton shouted.  “What are our priorities!?  Can we take off?”

“No,” Defiant responded.  “We stay.  Wait, cross our fingers.”

I glanced back to see Golem and Tecton exchanging a glance.  The creature struggled again, sudden, and the beams shifted further.  One more struggle like that, and the little hand wouldn’t hold it up.

A big hand, though, might cement our fate, take away our maneuverability.

“Saint,” Defiant said.

I glanced back at him.

“Don’t fuck us on this.  We need those Azazels.  We need an escape route.”

Saint?

The fact that Dragon was debilitated was another trick, an extremely ill-advised play against the heroes, capitalizing on our distraction with something greater.

“I’m going to fucking kill Saint,” I said.

“If we survive this fucking-,” Tecton said.  He grunted and fell on his armored rear end as a dog jerked to one side, accidentally body-checking him.

“Not a suicide mission,” Defiant said, carrying out only one half of a conversation we weren’t entirely privy to.  “Back us up, now.”

A pause.

Defiant spoke, and his tone of voice had changed.  He wasn’t talking to Saint.

“Toronto, Ontario.  Canada.  Yonge Street.  Just behind a place called Greenway.  I’ve commissioned a thinker-investigator calling himself Gleer to track them down.  If only some of us make it, do me a favor, and remember that Saint is the one who fucked with one of our biggest truces yet.  Saint took down Dragon, and he just left us to die.  The Azazels are apparently better deployed elsewhere.”

The charger bucked, and Golem created a large hand, not to catch the descending foot, but to divert its direction.  It crushed my empty bug box.

This much weight on the craft, the loss of so many external components… we wouldn’t be able to fly.

The roof came partially off.  More streamed in through the resulting gap, dropping down into the middle of the cabin.

Revel unleashed her lantern.  Spheres of light and flame flew out in every direction, burning through the ranks of the smaller creatures, zig-zagging to maximize contact between them.  The charger died, going limp.

A moment’s reprieve.

Defiant used a grappling hook from his glove to try to catch Hoyden, only for it to fly off in another blast of flame.

He tried again, but this time, he whipped the chain, so the length of it wound around her, then yanked her inside.  He signaled, and the forcefield went on.  In seconds, we cleared the few that had survived from the Pendragon’s cabin.

Creatures died as they made contact with the field.

Defiant dropped his spear, turning to the device that Dodge had set up.  Data appeared on the monitor.

“Give me a connect to Alcott,” he said.

Tattletale’s voice sounded through my earbud.  “You sure?  You know-”

“Time is of the essence.  Now.”

Righty-o.”

The rest of us exchanged glances.  Rachel was tending to her dogs, Parian was binding wounds with spare cloth and creating more constructs, and Golem was patching up the damage.  Not fixing anything, but barricading.

She’s on the line.

“Top half of the list, success?”

Zero,” Tattletale said.

“Last quarter?”

Yes.”

Defiant typed on the keyboard.  “That’s it.  Narrowing down possibilities.  Thank you.”

We waited, looking through the spaces where the barricades hadn’t yet gone up, at the creatures that waited.  Hoyden submitted to some bandaging on Parian’s part.

I watched the forcefield flicker.  It seemed to coincide with what Defiant was typing on the keyboard.  A strike of the enter key, and it flickered and went out.

“I’m taking it down early,” Defiant said.  “We need the power.”

Barely a minute.

The creatures approached hesitantly, then broke into a run.  I could see the dogs tense.

“Back up,” Defiant said.  “Now.  Huddle!”

We did, swiftly retreating until we were clustered around the center of the cabin, shoulder to shoulder, our backs to the device. My bugs filled the gaps.  The creatures, in turn, gibbered, squealed, screeched and roared.  They howled and stomped and drummed fists on chests.

Impacts made Golem’s hands bend, and I could hear a dozen points where they were grabbing at the plates of metal and straining to bend and peel them.  That horrible sound, in innumerable places around the craft.

And then silence.  Darkness.  Air rushed around us, equalizing throughout a vast, empty space.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, I thought.

We broke the huddle, our headlights and flashlights going on.  Rachel’s dogs could be seen in the darkness, their eyes glowing red and orange in the reflected light.

“It seems we have company,” Jack said.

I could see the others startle.

“No, I’m not standing next to you.  Borrowing Screamer’s power to broadcast, to have a little chat.”

No.  Couldn’t afford to listen to him.  If any of us were problematic, or if it was someone listening in, anything he said could be the catalyst for the end of the world.

Problem was, Screamer was a bitch to shut down.  Ear plugs wouldn’t be any guarantee.  If she was forced to, she would use the vibrations of people’s bones to transmit words.

Jack continued, “I confess, I do like this part.  The chatting.  It’s safe to keep my distance, but it’s boring, really.  You challenge somebody, pit mind against mind, but how much do you truly get to know them?”

“Move,” I said.  “Fan out, find Screamer as soon as possible.”

My bugs flowed out in advance of the group.

“This, the conversation, it’s what turns a mindless killing spree into something more, an art.  Bonesaw is fond of telling me that true art speaks for itself, but really, there needs to be a relationship between the artist and audience, if only because there’s a lot of idiots out there.  Some people need it spelled out for them.  Hi Theodore.”

Golem clenched his fists.

The area was vast and empty.  Every surface was granite, rough but not so much so that it would be painful to walk on with bare feet.  The wiring was crude, small floodlamps strung out in strings, like oversized, colorless, exceptionally boring Christmas lights.  Wires had been stapled against the walls, fixing them in straight lines, but the excess draped loose at the bases of those same walls.

The lights were bright, but they only covered two-thirds of the area.  The spaces between those same lights were dark to the point of being almost pitch black, the afterimages in my vision making it look like things were moving in the shadow.

“Gray Boy is retrieving your sister this very moment, Theodore.”

Golem stopped in his tracks.

“Yes,” Jack said.  No elaboration.  Answering a question that hadn’t been asked.

“Can’t communicate with our people while we’re here,” Defiant said.

“Keep moving,” Chevalier gave the order.

Jack spoke, his voice smooth.  Or Screamer spoke, mimicking what he was saying, quite possibly in the exact tone and cadence.  “We got video.  I thought about having it be silent, in black and white, but Gray Boy wanted color.”

My scout-bugs found no signs of life.  Only bizarre constructions.  Crystal pillars with more wires stringing to them?  Where was Jack?  We passed through a room with what looked like a dentist’s chair.  Tools and pieces of the mechanical scalpel-spiders littered the room.

Bonesaw’s operating room.

“I like to think this is a win-win situation for me,” Jack said.  “Wait until you hear.  We’ll get the video up in a moment.  Play it on the speakers, maybe, or show it on the computers, if you can find one soon.  Does this break you, or does it give you that burning fury that drives you to go the extra mile and try to kill me?”

We entered the main area, and I stared.

“Oh god,” Foil said.

There was a crunching sound as Chevalier let his sword drop, the metal biting into the floor.

The crystalline pillars were vats.  Cloning vats.  Each marked with a name of one of the Nine.

They were full.  Babies floated within each.

“Cherish says you found the clones.  Yes.  We’re doing another batch.  Didn’t take much time to prepare, and it was bound to be either a nice follow-up or a good surprise for you if you happened to catch up to us here.  You know I’m close.  Do you take the time to eliminate each of these things, or do you come after me and leave them behind?”

“We can have someone stay behind, clean up,” Chevalier said.

“I wouldn’t say that, Chevalier,” Jack responded, his voice carrying through the vast chamber with two or three hundred vats spaced evenly throughout.  “See, we mixed things up a little.  There’s a specialized cleanup area that can kill the Crawler clones.  We gave them their powers right off the bat.  Mixed them in with the others.  You’ll have to be fairly discerning, and devote manpower to the task.”

I thought about using my power, but there weren’t any bugs native to this area.  I was limited to the ones that I’d brought with me.  Not enough to cart two or three hundred children off to some special device.

“A distraction,” Defiant said.  “There’s another option.  A bomb.  If we track down the device Dodge used to create and maintain this dimension, we can collapse it.”

“How fast?” Chevalier asked.

“Fast,” Defiant answered.

“Poor sportsmanship,”  Jack rebuked them.  “Let’s try a different distraction then.”

A computer monitor on the desk flickered to life.

“I’m excited,” Jack said.  “Gray Boy is working on getting the video up.  Funny thing.  The real Gray Boy wouldn’t be able to do this, but we gave this one the memories of a real child.  Came with the necessary skills.  I’m almost disappointed.  People are so much more interesting when they’re flawed, aren’t they?  Oh, here we go.  I haven’t even seen this.  Let’s see…”

The video started playing.  The camera wiggled and wobbled as Gray Boy ascended a staircase.

He came face to face with PRT officers.

“Best not to watch,” Revel said, her voice gentle.  “It’s not worth it.”

Golem didn’t take his eyes off the screen.  Revel approached him, putting one hand on his shoulder.

Others turned to keep scouting the area.

I joined them.  This place was massive, but my power had range.  I needed to find Jack, and that was a bigger priority than seeing the scene as it played out.  Rachel walked between the rows and columns of glass vats with me.  Her dogs trailed behind, their spikes and spurs occasionally tapping or dragging against the glass of the vats.

There we go,” Gray Boy said, his voice high, as he spoke in the video.  I could barely make it out with my own ears, but I had my bugs to help.  It didn’t hurt that the ones who’d remained behind were utterly silent as they watched.

I’d already seen, in a sense.  I’d figured out what was behind the tarp back in Killington.  Gray Boy’s victim.  The only one, as far as I was aware, who was still alive.

But Gray Boy didn’t kill.

Let’s adjust… there,” Gray Boy said.

Please… don’t… please… let…

The voice was halting, cut short at steady, regular intervals.

Me… go… please… oh… god…

Shhhh,” Gray Boy’s voice was a hush, but it carried through the speakers that were planted throughout the area.

I… don’t…

I said be quiet,” Gray Boy said.  “I’ll do you a favor, even.  I can make this painless.  I just need you to talk to me.  Tell me a story.

A… story…?

I’m sure you can come up with something good.  Let’s start with your partner.

There was a scream.  I tensed.

The scream didn’t stop.  It continued, a steady, constant loop, the beginning the same, the ending varying.

What… story?”

The scream changed, intensifying.  It continued looping, just a little louder, a little less usual.

Don’t be a baby,” Gray Boy said.  “That’s only a pocket knife I cut you with.

Trucks… vampir… dragons… what… do… you… want…

Think about it,” Gray Boy said.  “When I come back, I want to hear it.  If it isn’t a good one, I’m going to light a match.  They say a burn hurts more than any other kind of pain, inch for inch.  Look, see!  I’ve got a whole matchbox here.  A whole matchbox just for you two, and all the time in the world.

The man’s oddly rhythmic screaming continued, dropping in volume.  It was barely audible as a door shut.

I forced myself to keep walking, exploring with my bugs.  Tunnels, side-rooms, many occupied with old devices, things belonging to the Toybox residents that had apparently claimed spaces in here for themselves.

“Can your dogs pick up a scent?” I asked.

Rachel shook her head.  “Wrong breeds.  They’re not trained in tracking people.”

I swore under my breath.

“Kayden.”

Golem’s voice, from far away.

Gray Boy had found Theo’s family.

Move your hand,” Gray Boy said.  “You know it won’t work.  I’m too hard to kill.

A pause.

I’m going to give you a choice.  You can put the little girl down and let me have her, and then I’ll use my power on you only, or I can use my power on you both.”

There was no reply.

Don’t be silly,” Gray Boy warned.  His tone was flat, almost without affect.  “Give me the girl.  I promise I won’t do anything to her.  Can’t say the same for any of the others, but you and I both know that nothing they can do even compares to what happens when I use my power.

A sound.  A whimper.

I’ll even let you choose.  What kind of hell do you want to go to?  I can use fire, or knives, or I can hit you with something heavy.  I like that little statue over there.  There’s cold, probably.

A sound, a bang, a crash, echoed over the speakers.

I continued pacing down the row of vats.  I reached the end, then traversed an open, empty space before reaching the start of a complicated, almost labyrinthine tunnel network.  My bugs struggled to trace the contours of the space and find their way to the next area.

When they did, they found it was an even bigger space than the one Rachel and I were in.  A giant robot stood in the center, half-complete.

A toddler started shrieking, her wail audible over a hundred speakers throughout the complex, each just a fraction out of sync with the others, given the speed of the signal traveling as compared to the speed of the ensuing sounds.

Not bright,” Gray Boy said.  “And the baby’s crying.  No wonder, with you trying to throw her out the window.

There was only silence in response.

I thought you’d use your laser instead.  Do you think your baby can fly?  Here.  I’ll make the loop longer so you can talk.

I… had… to… try…

Maybe.  But now I have to punish you.  I could hurt you, like I do with most people.  Hurt you while you’re looping through the same action, so you feel that pain over and over and over and over again.  The only thing that doesn’t change is your brain.  That keeps going.  The pain is always fresh, it never gets easier to deal with, but I’m told there’s a certain point where you crack, and you go around the bend.  Takes a few days for most.  Then you get to a point where you work through your issues.  You don’t want to, but you do, because the only thing you have to occupy yourself with is the pain and your own thoughts… so you get mostly better, and then you crack up again, and you get better, and that becomes a loop of its own…

Fuck… you…

Until well after the sun goes out, they think,” Gray Boy said.  “Speed of thought, can’t turn it off unless I’m using it on myself, and I don’t think anyone’s immune.

Bastar… d…

But I do that to everyone I use my power on.  Like a snap of my fingers, just like that, anyone around me is caught in a loop.  What kind of special punishment could I give you, murdermommy?

There was no reply.  The child continued to cry.

Who’s this one?  The woman?” Gray Boy asked.  “No answer?  How about… now.”

There was a pause.

Most scream when you stab them.  Oh well.  Maybe this one?

I changed direction, walking along the wall to get a sense of the greater complex.  There was no way to check the area at the foot of the giant robot without navigating the labyrinth.  My range wasn’t that long.

Nope.  And… this one!”

A scream.

There we go.

Crusader…

I’ve decided, murdermommy.  I won’t do anything to you for now.  I’ll let you wonder what the others did to your little girl.  Then, maybe, if she’s still alive, I’ll bring her back to you and I’ll use my power on her while you watch.  Maybe a week from now, maybe a month, maybe years.  Decades, even.  A hundred years?  They have cryogenics and brain scans and cloning vats and more!  We could show up a thousand years from now, just to say hi to you.

No…

You lose track of time, like that.  Standing there.  But maybe if you keep yourself sane, you’ll be able to offer advice so it won’t be so unbearable, so you can converse and tell stories and keep each other happy.  Maybe, if you keep it together enough, you can convince me to let her go.  I’ll give you a… one in twenty chance.

No…

Tell her to listen to me.  To obey me.  You know what happens if she doesn’t.  Convince her.

Aster… do… what… he… says…

Good.  You hear that, Aster?  Good.

Come… back…

Her voice was quieter, almost drowned out by Aster’s wailing.

A door shut, the speakers echoing the sound all throughout the complex.

The rhythmic screaming of the PRT officer grew louder.

Sit,” Gray Boy’s high voice sounded.  “Don’t run, little girl.  Listen to me like mommy said.

The man’s screaming grew louder still.

So whiny.  I just cut up his face.  So?  Tell me a story?

Silence.

Okay.

A sound of a match being struck.

We… were… briefed… on… Jack…  we… don’t… know… how… he… ends… the… world… we’re… suppose… to… implemen… quarant… ine…”

I stopped in my tracks.

He… talks… to… someone… and… catalyz… es… someth… ing…

The PRT officer had been asked to weigh an eternity of torment against the lives of billions, and she’d chosen the selfish option.

Every… major… group… helping… teams… defeat… Jack…  Cauldron… Thanda… PRT… Protector… ate… Wards… Brockton B… ay villains… Moord Nag… Irregulars… Faultline… Triumvirate…”

We’d just lost our last major advantage in determining how this could play out.  Jack was getting everything.  He was a wiki-walk away from getting details on everyone who was arrayed against his new Slaughterhouse Nine.

I could sense the others as they moved through the complex.  I beckoned Rachel and her dogs, then mounted up.

I kicked the dog into motion.

Others… I… can’t… recall…  they… are… keeping… powerful… people… away… from… Jack… to… avoid… catalyz… ing… they… are… employing… strike… teams… to… take… down… smaller… groups…”

And you’re here because?

Because… Aster… supposed… trigger… young… usually… one… child… in… family… know… Jack… coming… probably… in… person… chance… she… is… catalyst…

There’s a lot of people who could be the catalyst,” Gray Boy said.  “You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to cover all of the bases.”

Low… chance… but… still… chance… thought… we… could… protect… with… Night… Fog… Purity… Crusader…”

Well,” Gray Boy said.  “That was boring.  I wanted a story with neat monsters.”

I gave serious consideration to switching the earbuds to a setting that would make them serve as earplugs.  I made myself keep listening as the screaming started, keeping my ears peeled for clues.

My swarm-sense, at the same time, was searching more of the area.  I brought bugs to me, then sent them off into new corridors as I reached them.

Too few bugs in this entire place.  No moisture to feed them, no food sources.  Only a scant few that had no doubt been brought in accidentally.

I thought the story was interesting,” Jack said, his voice sounding as though he were speaking in my ear.  “See, I had a plan in mind, but now I’m rethinking it.  If I’m supposed to be a catalyst, then it can’t be any of the others.  Bonesaw would get the credit for any plagues or clone armies we deployed, even if I gave the order.”

I grit my teeth.

“But if the effect is broad, well, giving the order could be a part of it.  Our Harbinger has been giving us some very good advice.  Talking about the critical places to strike.  What happens if we attack certain targets?  The world teeters on the brink of falling to the Endbringers.  Divide my remaining soldiers and attack key points in the infrastructure, and maybe that’s game over for humanity.”

Here.”  A voice over the comms.

Or Screamer fucking with our heads?

“Verify.” I spoke over the comms.

Nobody called back to verify.  A sign I was on the right track?  I kicked the dog to drive him to move faster.

“Or if Gray Boy uses his power on Scion, perhaps?  We could assassinate some key figures.  Win-win, because we either deliver a critical blow or we might run into the right person to bring about the end of the world.  So many possibilities, really.”

I could sense them.  Easily two hundred of the Nine, accompanied by a mess of Nilbog’s creations, hooked up to Bonesaw’s control frames.  Nilbog hung on the wall above the group, limbs splayed, tubes feeding into him as blobs dropped down and were captured by a small army of mechanical soldiers.

I closed my eyes for a moment.  A trick?

No.

Two years of emotions caught up with me in a single instant.  I felt fear grip me, anxiety seizing my entire body, adrenaline flooding through my body.

Yet, when I spoke, my voice was calm.  “Weaver here.  I’m using my first priority passphrase.  Danny and the Rose.  Look for the flare.”

Message received loud and clear, Weaver,” Tecton said.

I drew a flare from my belt and lit it, throwing it to the ground.

That done, I glanced over my shoulder at Rachel.  She nodded.

Jack’s voice echoed through the complex.  I could sense him with my bugs now.  He was pacing back and forth, while all of the other Nine were stock still.  “Attack the cities, target Scion, assassinate all of these powerful capes that are coming after me…”

Or I could do all of the above.”

I hopped off of the dog’s back to make it through the doorway, then ascended the spiral staircase.  The dogs struggled to follow, and I signaled for them to stop.

Couldn’t have them blocking my retreat.

I wasn’t sure what I could do, but there had to be something.

I reached the top of the stairs, then stopped, my back to the wall beside the doorway.  I held my gun.

The sole remaining Cherish said something, a murmur.

Weaver.” Jack said.  Screamer repeated the word after him, and it carried through the air, an echo.

“Hi Jack,” I said.  I hung my head, focusing on what my power was telling me.

The bugs I had in the room clung to particular members of the group.  They were eerily still.

“Gray Boy is standing right in front of me,” Jack said.

“I know.”

“Most are shut down.  Using a control to keep them still.  Too unmanageable in a group like this.  That doesn’t mean you have the slightest chance of accomplishing something.”

“I have to try,” I said, echoing Purity’s words from the video.

“Such sad, small words,” Jack commented.  “You don’t have to.”

I had tricks prepared, but none of them were remotely viable.  Not with Bonesaw so close.

I would die, and she would revive Jack.  At best, I’d slow them down.

“You’re too big for your boots, Weaver,” Jack said.  “You had a few critical successes and you’ve run with them.  Earned yourself a reputation.  But at the end of the day, you’re still the same pathetic bug controller who got her powers because her mommy died.”

He likes to talk.  Every second that passes is a second we’re catching up.

“People probably said the same thing about you in the beginning, Jack,” I said.  “Too big for your boots.”

“They did.  My trigger event was a little more dignified, though.  No matter.  I’ve been at this a long time.  You’re barely a concern.”

“Want to fight, Jack?” I asked.  My bugs moved through the crowd as I noted each of the threats that were present.

“Eh,” Jack said, shrugging,  “I can take you.  Step through that doorway, and I’ll give you a fair fight.  One on one.  Look.  I’ll even put my knife in my belt, hands on my head.”

I had an assessment of their group.  I couldn’t account for Nilbog’s creations, but I knew which members of the Nine were present and where they were situated.

“You said it yourself,” Jack said.  “You can’t afford not to.”

Too true.  The others weren’t close enough yet.

“Why this fixation on ending the world?” I asked.

“Nuh uh uh,” Jack answered me.  “Not going to get bogged down in a discussion.  We have a situation.  I’m going to walk away in about fifteen seconds, unless you want to have a duel.  Knife against knife, or gun against knife, if you prefer.  You win here, it’s a coup for the world.  What better option for the make-believe queen?”

The make-believe queen?

Maybe a name Cherish had given me.  I tightened my grip on the gun, but I kept my finger off the trigger.

Someone advanced.  I felt tripwires snap and break.

Letting a hostage go?

I turned and started to fire before the individual in question could step through the doorway.  By the time I made the conscious decision and started squeezing the trigger, the individual in question was emerging.  The bullet made contact, passing through their head.

A life taken.  A hostage killed.  But I couldn’t afford to take any chances.

No.

I shook my head a little.

A Nice Guy, not a hostage.

He needed to focus on people to use his power.  That focus was far weaker if he couldn’t see someone.  My voice would be another vector, as well as knowing my location.

“That was impolite,” Jack said.

“No tricks.”

“I could send Siberian after you,” he said.  “She wouldn’t even have to kill you.  Just hold you still.  Bonesaw and Gray Boy could have worlds of fun.  Remember what we did to your team leader?  Imagine the eternity of pain Gray Boy could deliver after our Bonesaw has given you more nerve endings to work with.”

“You could,” I said.

The others were getting closer, reaching the foot of the stairs.

Cherish spoke.  “The others are here, Jack.”

“Then your time is up, Weaver.  I hope you don’t regret your hesitation.”

I wouldn’t.

I drew in a deep breath, waiting for the second Jack turned, then stepped into the doorway.

Then I opened fire.

I’d first run into the scenario when I went up against Mannequin, before running up against Glory Girl.  The first time I shot a gun, I hit my target.

Now I had a better idea of why.

Having bugs over the entire area, I had a sense of the area, of the topography, of where everything was.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was an advantage.  Something to help aim the shot, to help give me a sense of the path the bullet would travel.  It was like being able to reach out with my arm in a perfectly straight line, touch my target, then aim along the line.  The same effect I’d granted Foil, so she could snipe Tyrant.

The sole remaining Siberian moved to Jack’s side before I could pull the trigger.

I wasn’t aiming for Jack.  It wasn’t even a consideration.  Like he said, he had Gray Boy with him.  The second I stepped into their sight, I was a goner.

My bullet took Cherish in the head.  Another bullet struck Screamer.

I hesitated.

Then I shot Aster, who was held in a Hatchet Face’s arms.

Manton-

No.  Too dangerous.  Gray Boy was moving, trying to get to a better vantage point.

I turned, activating my flight pack for a boost of speed.

The Siberian broke away from Jack, giving chase.  Crawlers advanced only a pace behind.

In that same moment, I drew out more lines, giving the signal.

Revel and Foil both opened fire, their energy-orbs and bolts tearing through the walls and into the rank and file of the Slaughterhouse Nine.

“No!”  Jack ordered.  “Siberian, with us.  The remotes are programmed?”

“Yeah,” Bonesaw reported.

“We go.  Divide into groups.  One major target each.”

Jack quickly sorted them out, his Siberian touching him, Manton and Bonesaw as the bolts and orbs continued to tear through his crowd.  One or two dead every second.

And then they separated into groups.  Bonesaw paused, then broke away, joining her crowd before hitting the remote.  They disappeared.

Another group gone.

Then the remaining three disappeared all at once.

I collapsed on my hands and knees as I reached the bottom of the staircase.  The others that had managed to reach our location stood over me.

“They’re gone,” I said, panting not from exertion, but the sheer panic of what I’d done.

“We give chase,” Chevalier said.  He looked to Defiant.  “Can we?”

“We can if there is a computer,” Defiant responded.

I only nodded.

“Good,” Defiant said.

I looked up as Golem approached, Revel beside him.

“Aster’s dead,” I said.

He went very still.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Did you-”  He started, then he stopped, staring down at me.

“Nevermind.  Sorry for asking,” he said.  “Whatever happened, it’s for the best.”

He didn’t sound like he believed it.  He didn’t sound confident in the least.

It’s for the best, I thought, as Golem joined Chevalier and Defiant in heading up the stairs.

“Can you tell me the order they went off?”  Defiant asked.

I nodded.

“Good.  Then I think we can figure out which went where.  We can eliminate this place as an escape route.”

Which meant we knew which way Jack had gone, and he couldn’t run anymore.

Final encounter.

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Sting 26.5

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Unholy screams and screeches followed us as we made our retreat, landing beyond the walls of Ellisburg.  In moments, Nilbog’s fairy wonderland had become a hell on earth, thousands of demons crawling from the literal woodwork to attack.  The ground split as subterranean creatures emerged, while others climbed out of buildings that seemed to have been built around them.  One was somewhere between a dragon and a gargoyle in appearance.  Big, leathery wings, with a gnarled body and a leering, fanged face.

The flying creatures, the gargoyle-dragon included, took flight perching atop the walls, then backed down as a barrage of gunfire and superpowered attacks assaulted them.

“Shuffle!” Revel cried out her lieutenant’s name.

Shuffle stepped forward and used his power.  Teleportation, but not teleportation of living things.  Not people, anyways.  Grass didn’t hinder him much.

He teleported the landscape.  A hill was bisected and placed against the ruined entrance of the facility.

His power was unpredictable.  There were metrics he couldn’t quite grasp or understand.  Teleporting things in sometimes teleported things out.  In attempting to shore up the wall, he created gaps.

But this was a known issue, one he’d been dealing with for some time.  Unsurprised, he fixed the resulting hole with two more followup teleports.  If any terrain was removed, it was inside the structure, unimportant.

Something inside Goblintown struck the wall, hard, and then started clawing at it.  I could sense it’s silhouette with the few bugs I had near the area.  It was four-legged, with all of the most effective parts of a rhino, bear and elephant combined, and it was big enough that I suspected it could make its way through the great concrete wall.

Defending capes had gathered in a loose ring around Ellisburg.  Revel and Shuffle were among them, which I took to be a sign that Golem’s group had handled whatever issues had arisen in Norfolk.  The heroes opened fire as the gargoyle-dragon thing explored the upper edge of the wall again, and it disappeared, only to make an appearance further down, trying to find a spot where the defensive line was weaker.

This was the worst case scenario, on so many levels.  We couldn’t afford to be dealing with this.

“Two more attacks,” Revel said.  “Just minutes ago.  Two different cities.  The situation in Redfield is still ongoing, which means we have three crisis situations set up by the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Four, if you count this,” Shuffle said.

The creature hit the wall again.  Shuffle shored it up, placing the other half of the hill against it.

“This is getting out of control,” Revel said.

“You’re implying we had control,” Jouster said.  He stood off to one side, with the defensive line of capes.

More out of control,” she said.

I’d been placed on the ground as the capes landed.  I was aware that someone was checking me for injuries, but it seemed secondary.  I stared up at the overcast sky, watching the rare raindrop tap the lens of my mask.  My mind was whirling while my swarm was feeding me information on the ongoing fight, both inside and outside the walls.

I stirred as I heard Golem’s voice.  He was sitting a short distance from me.  “This is my fault.”

“It was a lose-lose situation,” I said.  I moved my arm to allow the medic to check my ribs.  “Jack set it up this way.”

“I could have done something.  Said something different.”

“No.  We played the cards we had available, it wasn’t enough.  Bonesaw’s power and Siberian’s invulnerability made for ugly trump cards.”

“There had to be a way.”

“We’re coping,” I said.

“Are we?” he asked.  “It doesn’t feel like it.”

“We came through every challenge he set in front of us so far.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re doing okay,” he responded.

I didn’t have a response to that.

He stood.  “I’m going to go talk to some of the people in charge, find out where I can be useful.”

“Okay,” I told him.

He walked off, and I let my head rest against the ground.

Jack had a game plan here, and the more I thought about it, the more the ‘game’ seemed to be a farce.  He knew we were helping.  He was setting up situations where we had to help.  When we’d started winning, maybe even winning faster than he’d anticipated, he’d ratcheted things up.

Just as it had at the outset, the situation now seemed to offer Theo the same dilemma as Jack had aimed to provide early on.  To go after Jack or focus on bigger things.

It was measured, calculated, and it suggested that Jack was fully aware and fully in control of what was going on.

A cape knelt beside me.  “Are you alright?”

We’d only gone through a small fraction of the Nine.  Even assuming every group we had run into had been exterminated, there were so many left to deal with.

My strengths lay in problem solving.  Jack’s strength lay in problem creation.

We came up with a solution to whatever crisis he posed, he responded by creating another, something offbeat enough that we had to change things up.  Specialized groups of his pet monsters, two scenarios at once, and now we had new issues popping up before we’d finished with the last round.

The clones weren’t as fleshed out as the originals.  A little more reckless.  They were being set up to fail.  Were they scary?  Yes.  Were they effective?  Yes.  But we were winning, and Jack wasn’t using them in a way that kept them alive.  They were expendable assets.

It was all too possible that we could keep winning, if the game continued down this road.  We’ll lose some, but we’ll come out ah-

No.

Golem was right.  We’d achieve a steady stream of victoriesNothing more.

“Weaver?”

I pushed myself to my feet.  A cape put his hands on my shoulders, to try to get me to stay still.

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I got the wind knocked out of me.”

“If you have an injury-”

“I’m pretty experienced when it comes to being injured.  I’m fine.  Really,” I said.

He didn’t move, but he did let his arms drop from my shoulders when I pushed them off me.  I found my feet, straightened, and felt aches all across my back where I’d collided with the ground.  I’d be one giant bruise tomorrow.

Then again, if we saw tomorrow, it would be a bonus.

The fighting against Nilbog’s creations was still ongoing.  The flying gargoyle-thing had made it over the wall and was being swarmed by defending capes.  Others were just now starting to climb over, and did their best to avoid the ranged fire that pelted them.  Eight or nine more creatures flew over, only these ones carried smaller ‘goblins’.  The winged ones were shot out of the sky, but many of the smaller creatures managed to survive the fall into trees and the midst of the heroes.   The ones that did went on the offensive with zero hesitation.

“Need the Azazels!” someone shouted.

I directed the few bugs I had in the area to attack, assisting with bites, stings and silk cord.

I would help, but I wouldn’t join the battle.  Not this one.

No, I’d used up every bug in my reach, and the damned goblin-things were too good at killing them.  Nilbog had no doubt designed them to live off of a diet of insects, to supplement their diminishing supply of protein.

I made my way to the Dragonfly, my flight pack dangling from the damaged straps I’d looped around my shoulders.

I’d very nearly told myself that we were coming out ahead.  Golem had been a dose of reality on that front.  We weren’t coming out ahead.  Jack was spreading fear, he was killing innocents, and he was whittling us down.  Doing so with such expendable forces cost him nothing.  Now, with Nilbog in his possession, he had access to that many more monsters and freaks that he could just throw away.

There was no guarantee we would continue down this road unfettered.  Just the opposite.  I fully expected Jack to turn to the rules he’d established at the very beginning and state how blatantly we were cheating.  Then he’d carry out his threat, murder those one thousand people, and move on.

I reached the console, shrugged out of my flight pack and sat down.

I pressed a button, “Defiant.  Not a priority, but get in touch when you can.”

It took a minute before I had all of the individual windows open.  I set it so I could track the feeds provided by the various members of the Wards and Protectorate.  Some were here, others were investigating the sites where more members of the Nine were taking action.

Redfield.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards were holding a defensive position, their backs facing one another.  Foil took a shot at a flesh toned blob that leaped between rooftops, then swiftly reloaded.  Skinslip.

Skinslip was a minor regenerator with a changer ability, allowing him to manipulate his own skin.  I could see him using it to scale a surface.  He extended that ability by flaying people and crudely stitching or stapling their skin to his own.  The regeneration connected the tissues and extended his power’s breadth and reach, but it didn’t prevent all rejection or decay, forcing him to replenish it from time to time.  He was a newer member, but they’d still cloned him.

A quick check of the computer noted the members of the Nine they’d seen and fought.  Three Skinslips.  Three Hatchet Faces.  Three Miasmas.  Three Murder Rats.

Hatchet face excepted, they were enemies who were exceedingly mobile.  Skinslip’s skin acted like a grappling hook, it let him climb, and it broke any fall.  He could also smother and bludgeon his opponents with it, if he felt the need.

Miasma was a stranger, invisible and undetectable but for an odorless gas he gave off that wore away at other’s minds, causing headaches, ringing in the ears, watery eyes and eventual blindness, memory loss and coma.

Murder Rat, for her part, was agile.

It meant they were up against nine opponents that were fast or slippery enough that they couldn’t be caught.  That group was supported by a trio of Hatchet Faces that could steadily lumber towards the group, keeping them moving, ensuring they couldn’t simply maintain a defensive position.

The camera images that Clockblocker and company wore shifted as they scrambled away.  There was a shudder as a mass landed in their midst.

Hatchet Face, dropping down from a vantage point somewhere above them.

Rachel’s dogs went on the offensive, attacking him, but their flesh was already sloughing off, their connection to Rachel shut off, their bodies disintegrating.

Parian’s creations were already deflating.

More range than the Tyrant had possessed, and the power loss was immediate.

Foil shot her crossbow, but it did surprisingly little damage.  Hatchet Face pulled the bolt from his shoulder with no difficulty.

“Behind us!”

The camera swiftly changed direction.  A Murder Rat had landed opposite the Hatchet Face, sandwiching the group between the two villains.  The camera panned, taking in the area, and I could see the silhouettes of other villains on nearby rooftops.  More Murder Rats and Skinslips.

Hatchet Face threw the last dog aside.  It collapsed in a slurry mess of loose skin and muscle.  The dog fought its way free, shaking itself dry.  Bastard was already free.

Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Imp said.  “My power’s gone.

Mine too,” Crucible said.  “Turned off like someone flipped a switch.

I closed my eyes.  I was too far away to help, couldn’t think of advice to offer.

We’re not powerless,” Grue said.  “We’ve got strong costumes.  We know how to fight.

Tattletale’s voice came over the comms, “He’s strong enough to swing that axe through a car, tough enough you could flatten him with a steamroller and he’d get back up when you were done.

We run then,” Grue said.  “We deal with Murder Rat and then we scram.  Make some distance.

He’s not fast, but he’s not a slowpoke either.  You don’t have muscles like that and find yourself unable to run.

Be constructive,” Grue said.  “Solutions?  Options?  Any ideas?

Yeah,” Rachel said.  “This.

She wheeled around, pointing.  Both of her dogs bounded towards the Murder Rat.

I couldn’t see Hatchet Face with the directions the cameras were pointed, but I could see the groups converge on Murder Rat, bull-rushing her as a mass.

Murder Rat swatted at the dogs, slashing Bastard along the ribs, but Rachel stepped in the way, blocking the follow-up attacks with the sleeves of her silk-weave jacket.

Murder Rat, about to be surrounded, leaped up to position herself on a wall, slamming her claws through a plate-glass window to grab the inside of the windowframe.  Blood ran down her wrists.

Foil took aim and fired, and Murder Rat leaped before the bolt made contact.

She tagged the dog.  Mouse Protector’s power,” Tattletale said.  “Watch out.

A camera, Vista’s, focused on the dog.

“Hatchet Face incoming!”

Clockblocker, Crucible and Toggle turned around, but Vista remained fixated on the animal.

The moment the group was distracted by the incoming titan, Murder Rat appeared.  She drove her elbow into the side of Crucible’s throat, bringing one foot up to rake the side of his leg, but didn’t get any further.

Vista fired her gun straight into the villain’s back, then wheeled around and shot Hatchet Face in the chest.

Grue blanketed the area in darkness a moment later, the monitors going silent and dark.

I realized I’d been clenching my fists.  I loosened them, then opened and closed them a few times to ease the strain.

Escalations, I thought.

The situation outside was worsening, but the Azazels had mobilized.  They laid down the metal poles along the tops of the wall, opening fire with their lasers.  That done, they joined the fight against the dragon-gargoyle thing that was continuing its suicidal attack against the defending capes.  Chunks of it were being blasted and torn away, but it was doing a little damage to the defending capes.

The metal poles blossomed into the branching ‘gray blur’ nanotech barrier that would disintegrate on touch.

On the set of screens to my left, the Chicago Wards were joined by others as they ventured into what seemed to be a warzone.  Civilians were fleeing in a panic, while the heroes advanced against the press of the crowd with a steady, wary caution.

The nature of the threat became clear.  Rounding the corner, a single entity trudged forward.  It was tiny, and it bore a large white cube on its back.

To look at it, I almost thought it was an Endbringer.

It wasn’t.  It was only the second-scariest member of the Nine, xeroxed.

Eight Siberians.

One carried the cube, no doubt a container bearing the Mantons within.  The other seven followed a pattern, lazy loops that brought them back to the cube every few minutes.  They plunged through walls and into apartments and businesses, they returned with blood wicking off of their hands, feet and faces like water off a duck’s back.

I opened a communications channel.

“Weaver here.  Don’t fight.”

Wasn’t going to, but what the hell are we supposed to do?” Tecton asked.

Eight Siberians.  Even without any other members of the Nine on the sidelines, it was an impossible fight.

“You need to run.”

Run?  The civilians-

“Will have to run as well,” I said.  “There’s nothing you can do.  Accept it.  You can’t slow her down, you can’t deny her what she wants.”

We have to be able to do something,” he said.

“There are options,” I said, “But it’s not worth it.”

What?  Saving civilians is-

“You’d die,” I said.  “It would be a distraction, but you’d die.  The civilians would die all the same.”

What is it?

“She’s still subject to gravity.  Far as I know, she can’t fly.  You drop her into a hole, she’ll climb out.”

No point,” Grace said.

“No point,” I agreed.  “Unless you get lucky.”

Lucky?

“Drop the one that’s carrying the cube into a fissure or pit, if she falls far enough and the cube gets wedged in the crack, you’ll separate her from the cube.  You’d have to destroy it before another Siberian makes contact with it, kill all of the Masters that are generating the Siberians.”

It could work,” Wanton said.

“Unless she moves fast enough to avoid the fissure,” I said.  “Which she can.  Unless she’s digging her claws into the outside of the cube for a handhold, which she might be.  Unless another Siberian returns before you manage to break into that cube, which is very possible, considering that cube looks like something a Mannequin made.”

“We have Grace, and we’ve got Cuff.  We have Cadence and Enforce here, too.”

Enforce?  Oh.  N-Force.

“I don’t think it’ll be enough,” I said.  “There’s too many maybes.  You become a target of the Siberians the instant you try something, and you die if this doesn’t work out perfectly, which it won’t.”

You want us to let civilians die.

I stared at the screen.  They were backing away swiftly now.  A Siberian hopped onto the top of the cube, then looked directly at the group of heroes.

A moment later, she leaped off to one side.

Flaunting their invulnerability.  Taunting.

“Walk away,” I said.  “We’ll send others in.  Others who can do something.”

Who?”

I thought of how Rachel had changed tacks, ignoring the biggest target to go after the Murder Rat.  It hadn’t been much, but it had caught the villain off guard, baited the Hatchet Face into an aggressive charge rather than a slower, more strategic advance.

“Switch it up.  Go to Redfield.  You guys specialize in containing and crushing the enemy.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards can head to your location at the first opportunity.”

I didn’t wait for a response.  My console was displaying an incoming message.

“Gotta go,” I said, closing the comms channel, hanging up on Tecton.  I responded to the message.

Defiant here.”

“Was just about to contact the Undersiders.”

I heard.  I’m already giving orders for them to back out.  Sent a helicopter in to pick them up, hoping it gets to take off again.”

“Helicopter?”

A.I. suits aren’t cooperating.  I’d send one against Hatchet if they were-“

Defiant?

“One suit just took off.  Reinforcing the Undersiders.”

I could sense the fighting outside.  My bugs were doing precious little against Nilbog’s rioting army.  The capes were whittling them down, killing them in droves, but it was time and effort taken away from containing the Nine.  Which was exactly what Jack wanted.

In the same instant Defiant had talked about the suit taking off, one of the Azazels had gone still.

Something was seriously wrong.

What do you need, Weaver?  I have things to handle.”

“Two years ago, I was told we couldn’t go after the Nine, because we can’t decode the portal without knowing the exit point.  They just used one.”

It’s in Ellisburg.

“It’s our fastest route to Jack.  How long does it take to tap into the portal?”

Depends on the means we use.  It doesn’t matter.  The portal isn’t accessible.

“We’re losing, Defiant.  We’re winning the fights but we’re losing in the long run.  We need to act decisively.  End this.”

You want to use the portal entrance, knowing where it is?

“Yes.  We just… we need capes that we can count on, on a lot of levels.  And I need your help.  Can you arrange for a sturdier ship?  The Dragonfly won’t cut it.”

Yes,” he said.  “That can be arranged.  I’ll have to pilot it myself.

“If this doesn’t work out, if we get overwhelmed, then that’s it.  We can’t afford the losses at this juncture. I get that.  But we can’t afford to not take this opportunity.”

Another pause.  Was he typing something?

“What’s the status?”

“We’re losing containment in Ellisburg.  Siberians are racking up casualties, and Redfield isn’t doing great either.  Your Undersiders will be evacuating if they can make it another two blocks to the helicopter without getting intercepted… I’m not sure what they can do against eight Siberians.

“More than the Chicago Wards can.  But that’s not enough on it’s own.  We need to call in the big guns.  We know Jack’s nowhere nearby.  It’s a safe time to put them into play.”

We have people on call, but we’re holding them back,” Defiant replied.  “Jack will hold his strongest cards in reserve for last.  Chevalier advised that we catch him off guard.

“There’s no point anymore.  Stop holding back.  Jack’s escalating when we do.  We established a tempo, he’s matching us.  Let’s go all-in.  We’ll get him to play every card he has on hand, and maybe in the process, we’ll see him make a mistake.”

He’s not one to make mistakes.

“We lose nothing, and we gain time,” I said.  “Which big guns do we have?”

The Thanda.  Cauldron has volunteered the services of their two elite members.  The Las Vegas Capes offered help, as did the Ambassadors.  The Alcott girl has her ability to foresee the future, but she’s trying to reduce the strain she experiences so she can offer more assistance at the most critical juncture.

“The fight with Jack.”

Yes.

“Okay.  That… probably makes sense.  Listen, I’ll handle what I can from here, take some of the load off your hands.  I’ll see if I can’t get recruits from among the capes I trust to handle their own.”

Do.  And I would appreciate it if you would consider me one of them.  I’ll be there with the Pendragon in twenty minutes, I just need to pick up the technology for hacking the portal.”

“Bring me some bugs when you come.”

“Yes.”

That said, he hung up.  No pleasantries.

It was a relief.  Down to business.

Fifteen minutes to go.

I waited impatiently for the capes in question to gather.  We needed good capes, powerful capes.  Too many were occupied elsewhere.

A whole contingent had deployed to Hyde Park.  None of my teams.  Dragon’s Teeth, the New York teams, the Texas teams.

I picked Jouster’s point of view.  I knew him, and it would afford me the most opportunities to see other capes and figure out their identities.

Population of three thousand five hundred, and the place was empty.  No victims, no members of the Nine.  No blood, no violence, no signs of any disruption.

But the first wave of capes had been whittled down, going silent on the radio before disappearing entirely.

Now, as the teams moved through the city, there was nothing on the video, which ruled out Nice Guy.  That left only a few options.

Stranger protocols in effect,” the captain of the Dragon’s Teeth reported.  “We’re going full dark.  Eyes on the lightning.

“Eyes on the lightning,” I responded.  For the moment, I was filling in for Dragon’s absence and Defiant’s preoccupation.  I knew about the Dragon’s teeth, had studied their operations book.  I wasn’t an armchair general, but I’d have to settle for being one here..

They were using those full-face helmets to block off all sight, to shut out all sound.  Their uniforms offered full coverage.  The only things they would rely on were video cameras on their helmets and the battle computers that were wired into their helmets.

It wasn’t enough, apparently, to see anyone or anything.  Things seemed eerily quiet.

Jouster jumped as one cape cried out.  The man’s back arched, first one way, then the other.

“Psychosoma,” I reported.  “Stranger four, master seven.  First squad, get guns trained on him, everyone else, scan the area.  Master protocols.  Confirm everything.”

“Don’t shoot without confirmation,” someone warned, off-camera.

“How the fuck are we supposed to confirm?  Let them attack us?”

Nobody responded to that.

Still, they obeyed the instructions.  Jouster was among the ones who turned to search the surroundings.  The point of his lance was visible in the corner of the screen, as he held it ready.

Nothing.

The man screamed louder.

He twisted, his ribs distending, his mouth yawning open.

It’s an illusion, I thought.

Kind of.  Sort of.

Not really.

It was really nice to think of it as a really convincing illusion.  That was a reassuring way of handling it.

Because the alternative was that Psychosoma was doing the sort of thing Labyrinth did, pulling otherworldly things into our reality to replace objects and people.

When killed, they’d revert back to how they’d been before.

The man continued to twist and distort until he wasn’t recognizable anymore.

The thing whirled around, reaching back with one claw, preparing to strike at a comrade.

A cape incinerated him before he could get any further.

The illusion was dispelled.  The wrong illusion.  Purple smoke flowed out from around the corpse of the young hero.

Nyx!” someone spat the word.

Jouster swiftly backed away.  Every cape in the group was wearing a gas mask, but that was not an absolute guarantee.

Two more people in the group began changing.

A mix of Psychosomas and Nyxes.  Who else?

“She’s covering the area with her smoke,” I spoke, over the channel.  “You need to clear it.”

“On it.  Cover your eyes!”  Jouster hollered.

Jouster raised his lance, then struck out at a light pole.  Lightning flared out, impossibly bright, and the camera briefly went on the fritz.

Somewhere in the midst of that, reality became clear.  Bloodstains everywhere.  Corpses were draped over every surface where the investigating capes weren’t likely to step – on car hoods and roofs, on light poles and in trees.

And in the midst of the crowd, there were the enemies, simply standing and observing.  Nyxes, Psychosomas and Night Hags.  The Nyx were women with pale red skin and black eyes, fog bleeding out of the vents at their arms and backs.  The Psychosomas were men, tall, bald and narrow, with pencil-thin mustaches and beards, spidery fingers and clothing that hung off them like it had been draped on.  The Night hags, by contrast, were women, dark haired, dressed in black, with skin as white as chalk.  Their dresses seemed to bleed into the surrounding landscape, so that everything within fifteen feet of them was covered in that crumpled-looking black cloth.

The Nyx clones and Psychosomas ran for cover.  The Night Hags were the cover.  D.T. soldiers and Wards opened fire.  Hoyden struck a car with literal explosive force, and sent it flying.  Ninety percent of the offense was directed at the Night Hags.

The women practically disintegrated as the bullets, flames and other projectiles made contact.  Their bodies shattered into thousands of black shards.

Moments later, they emerged from the landscape.  One park bench distorted and reconfigured into a new Night Hag.  That Night Hag was summarily slain, and reformed herself out of a nearby patch of grass.

Location possession, in a way, but it was shallow.  She was most effective with materials that stood above the ground’s surface.

In the midst of dealing with the approaching Hags, the D.T. officers and heroes were left to handle the victims who had appeared to be transforming.  When the smoke had burned away, one had been revealed to be fine, crouching with his hands over his head, the other was still afflicted.  They shot the victim and broke the effect.

More smoke was flowing in with surprising speed and quantity, erasing the images of blood and bodies.  The Night Hags were turning translucent, nearly invisible-

And they were gone.

Jouster moved to strike the light-post again, only for black hands to grab him and pull him into darkness and illusory fog.

The image on my screen distorted, then went utterly black.

There was a sound, like a slow, wet grinding sound.  Chewing, as if from a dozen mouths at once.

I changed camera perspectives.

“-break up the fog!”  someone shouted.  Two more of their allies were starting to change.

Someone threw a flashbang.  It didn’t disrupt the smoke.

What do we do!?” one of the capes shouted.  He was almost more frantic than the Dragon’s Tooth soldiers around him.

The sound of a gun being cocked turned heads.

The camera turned as well.

It was Contessa, accompanied by the Number Man.  Both held guns.

She shot one of the afflicted, then walked past the other, ignoring him.  She opened fire in the fog.  One clip, each shot aimed and measured, fired with a peculiar rhythm.  One, then two in rapid succession, one, then two in rapid succession.  She reloaded with an almost casual ease, then slid the gun into its holster.

The Number Man had her back.  He fired into the darkness three times.

It took two minutes for the smoke to clear.

Two Nyx dead.  Three Psychosomas.  Four Night Hags.

The doorway was already opening for the pair to make their exit.

“Dude, who the hell are they?”

“The bogeymen,” Hoyden said.

“Shit,” someone said.  One of the capes.

“They’re on our side?”  Another asked.

“Apparently.”

“Then why don’t they go after Jack?” a cape asked.

Because she fits in the same category as Eidolon, I thought.  Too dangerous to allow her to make contact with the man.

I wasn’t even that comfortable with them helping here, but there weren’t a lot of excellent options for thinker capes who could simply cut right through the layers of deceptions the enemy had been using.

I noted the capes who were present and still in fighting shape.  I’d hoped for Jouster.  No such luck.

I dialed Hoyden’s phone, watched her pick up on the video.

“Need a hand with something,” I said.  “I’m going to send a ship your way.”

Ten minutes to go.

The Undersiders stood far enough away from the Siberian cube that the camera couldn’t even make out the one who carried the thing.

“This,” Imp said, “Is your classic case of putting all your eggs in one basket.  Really.”

He finds the Siberians boring, I imagine,” Tattletale commented, over the channel.  “Before, they were an enigma.  Now they’re just… the same thing, over and over.  Tearing people apart.”

“Just tell me this isn’t going to be the moment of idiocy that ends the world,” I said.

No way,” Tattletale said.  “I promise.”

“You’re absolutely certain?”

Ninety… three percent certain.

“That’s not good enough.”

Geez.  You’ve lost your sense of humor these past few years.  I’m kidding.  I’m sure.

“You’ve been wrong.”

I’m right.  I swear.  Now stop fretting!  Wait…

The Siberians left, engaging in another brief spree, attacking civilians.

“Let’s not wait too long,” I said.  I felt a sick feeling in my gut.  Had I been right to send away the Chicago Wards?  Seven or so people were dying every one or two minutes.

Wait…

The last group of Siberians abandoned the cube, leaving the carrier holding it.

Wait…

One more returned after a very brief trip, cast a glance around, and then fled.

Now.

Clockblocker fired his threads from his gauntlet.  They surrounded the cube-carrier, and he froze them.

Unstoppable force against an immovable object.

Which won?

The Siberian made contact with the thread and flickered out of existence, and the thread went limp.  The cube fell with a crash.

Others began to return.  Vista was distorting the cube, creating gaps, weak points.

Thanda,” Tattletale said.

Clockblocker activated the device on his back.  A dome unfolded around him, almost like a tent, though more rigid.

Rachel had already fled with her dogs.  Even so, it was tight, everyone pressed together inside.

He froze the dome.

I regretted that I didn’t get to see the follow-up attack.

The Thanda had a cape that was sort of in the same vein as Shuffle.  A teleporter of landmasses.

This cape didn’t need to teleport things onto solid ground.  In fact, he specialized in the opposite.

A large building was teleported into the stratosphere, where it summarily fell on the cube.  I could hear the crash through the cameras the Brockton Bay Wards wore.

Siberians down, I thought.

One more group to handle.

“Rachel’s on her way to me,” I said.  Grue was out – I didn’t trust him in a face to face confrontation against the Nine, and he hadn’t volunteered.  Imp was out as well.  Too risky, too much of a coin toss, whether her power would be seen through.  “Foil?  You know what we’re doing.”

On my way.

I’m coming too,” Parian said.

I’ll be on the comms,” Tattletale responded.

Tecton slammed his gauntlets into the ground.  Murder Rats were knocked down from the walls.  The streets had been shattered, and the dismantled craft lay in the streets, with one dead Miasma nearby.

Another slam, combined with an activation of both piledrivers, and he created a fissure, breaking up the ground beneath the two remaining Hatchet Faces.

They made steady progress anyways.  They were too strong, their stride too long.  Tattletale had been right.  Running was difficult at best.

Cuff used her metallokinesis to heave a small disc of metal.  Effective enhanced strength, along with the ability to control the rotation of the projectile, the ability to control the flight of it after it left her hand…

It slammed into a Hatchet Face’s collarbone, burying into his flesh.

He broke into a run, axe held aloft.

She prepared to throw another disc, only for a Murder Rat to leap onto her from above.

The metal blades of Murder Rat’s claws were swept aside as if Cuff had parried it with something physical.  Cuff settled for striking Murder Rat across the eyes with the razor edge of the discus.

Grace followed up with a crushing kick from a steel-toed boot.  A Murder Rat pounced on her, then vaulted off with enough force that Grace’s head struck the ground.  Grace didn’t get up.

Skinslips moved to flank, simultaneously reaching out with cloaks made of skin and shielding their real bodies with the amorphous limbs of stolen flesh.

Romp’s animated constructions stumped forward, providing just as much raw mass to defend against the reaching attacks.  They picked up speed as they moved, charging like bulls, catching the Skinslips well off guard.

The fight was well in hand.  Murder Rats leaped up onto building faces so they might be able to leap down and strike a vulnerable target, but Tecton made the entire neighborhood shake.  The Murder Rats were trapped where they were, clinging to the surfaces, unable to attack.

One caught a discus with her claws, then let it fall to the ground.

No.  There was one more threat.  Tecton’s helmet caught it on camera as it loomed on a nearby building.  A Mannequin.

Only it was three times the usual size.  Fat.

Cuff flung another discus.

It’ll glance off, I thought.

It penetrated.

Pressurized moisture exploded outward, crusted immediately into a small, spiky mass of ice.

Ah.

It leaped down, and the ground shook.

Then, casually, it grabbed the most unhurt Hatchet Face with both hands and whipped its upper body a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees around to fling him into the mass of defending heroes.

Tecton punched, his piledriver extending, but it did surprisingly little damage.

And with the Hatchet Face so close, the Chicago Wards were left powerless.  Only tinker devices worked.

The Mannequin charged.

Being a tinker, the Mannequin didn’t suffer at all in the midst of Hatchet Face’s power.

Direct your attacks on the Hatchet Face, now!” I ordered.

A piledriver-gauntlet hit him, followed by another.  Cuff used a discus to slash at his throat, but it barely cut.

He was still alive – his power wasn’t canceled out.

The Mannequin let blades extend from his wrists and elbows.   Not long, sleek, elegant blades like the original Mannequin had used, but heavy, crude ones, like axe heads.  Cuff screamed as he brought one down onto her armored shoulder.  She folded over in an awkward way as she collapsed to the ground.

He spun around, almost skipped to one side to avoid Tecton, then directed attacks at Romp.

She took shelter behind her no-longer-animated creation, and the Mannequin-thing turned away, directing his attention at Tecton, who was trying to bash the Hatchet Face’s head in.  It was a narrow window of opportunity, here.  The other, injured Hatchet Face was approaching.  If he didn’t manage it in five or so seconds, there would be two to contend with.

A heavy bullet caught the Mannequin in the back of the head.  Ice cascaded out the back in a giant spike.

Tecton used the opportunity to slam the upper ridge of his gauntlet into the Hatchet Face’s mouth and extend the piledriver full-force.

That did it.

More bullets pummeled the Mannequin.  One resulting chunk of ice partially encased Tecton, only to shatter when he pulled back.

Further shots followed, but they veered in awkward directions, sinking to hit the ground too early.

He has another power.  One that was being canceled by Hatchet Face.

Winter’s Power, I realized.

But Grace had powers now too.  She grabbed Hatchet Face’s weapon and swung it, was nearly trapped in the ice that exploded out from the wound.

Romp’s creation charged the ceramic man, and Tecton raised a shelf of ground around him to limit his movements.

He was being abused, battered.

Tecton’s head turned, and I could see Chevalier on the camera.  Revel was beside him.

Chevalier fired his cannonblade again.  One shot to polish off the remaining Hatchet Face that was closing the distance, and another directed at the Winter-Mannequin.  The Winter-Mannequin’s power took the impetus out of the second shot.

The Wards were moving slower now too.  Reacting slower.  Tecton barely resisted as the Mannequin seized him in one hand.

Didn’t even get up after the Mannequin virtually punched him into the ground.

Blades extended from his palms, the Mannequin spun like a top.

Chevalier charged, and the Mannequin changed tacks immediately, using a chain to draw himself up to a rooftop, where he clumsily climbed over the edge.

Ranged attacks didn’t work, and he was deceptively dangerous in short range.

Revel launched energy-orbs, but they barely seemed to touch the Winter-Mannequin hybrid.

Then Wanton closed the distance.

Ice chipped away, and the resulting chunks flaked away at the other pieces of ice.  It was soon a localized blizzard, and the large hunks of ice that clung to the Mannequin’s suit began to break away.

More ice appeared, but it, in turn, was broken by the yet-larger chunks that had been picked up.

The storm began to slow as the Winter-Mannequin concentrated his power on a smaller area.  The storm came to a standstill.

Chevalier raised his cannonblade to fire, only to stumble, dropping his weapon.

Miasma.

Indiscriminate attack, Chevalier!” I said.  “Revel, get down!”

Chevalier swung, very nearly striking Revel as she dropped flat to the ground.  He connected with something, and Miasma appeared in an explosion of thick green smoke.

The villain rolled, then disappeared again.

But Revel was following up, spitting orbs of energy out of her lantern.  Miasma wasn’t fast enough to dodge all of them.  He, and another Miasma behind him were burned, holes the size of softballs punched through their torsos.

Cuff was helping Tecton stand, using her metallokinesis to push at his armor.  Once he was standing, they worked together to outfit Tecton with one of the specialized shots we’d prepared.

The Mannequin wasn’t going to go down to fast moving projectiles or short-range attacks.

They’d take him down the same way I’d fought him ages ago.

Tecton used his piledrivers as a sort of gun, launching two cup-shaped hunks of metal with material strung between them.

The net unfolded in the air, and it draped over the Mannequin.  Spider Silk and metal wire interwoven.  It caught on the ice and the extended blades, and snagged on fingers and chains.

The Mannequin was still struggling to escape when Chevalier slowly closed the gap, bringing his sword down like a great guillotine.  He had one hand pressed to the side of his helmet.  Blood streaked down his arm.

Last group, for now.  I watched as they checked on the injured.  Chevalier’s eye had been stabbed, but not perforated, and Grace had suffered a heavy blow to the head.  Cuff’s shoulder socket had been broken by the Mannequin.

I almost hated to ask.

“Tecton,” I said.  “We’ve got a game plan.  Maybe a way to get Jack.  You up for helping?”

My team isn’t in good shape.

“If you want to stay, keep doing this-”

No,” he said.  “No.  Just… maybe my team should sit the rest of this out.”

You’ve all done good work,” Chevalier said.  “Above and beyond the call of duty.  You don’t even have to ask.

I’ll come on this mission, if you have a use for me,” Tecton said.

“I do.”

I’ll come as well,” Chevalier said.

“You’re injured.”

A pause, as if waiting for me to realize what I was saying.  This was the guy that had gone up against Behemoth face to face, scarcely an hour after suffering critical injuries in an assassination attempt.

I’ll come,” he said, again.

“Glad to have you,” I said.

It was suicidal.  Returning to Nilbog’s kingdom, where his creations had riled themselves up, hungry for blood.  I could only hope that their forces would be thinner towards the center, with the sustained attack on the surrounding capes.

I glanced around the back of the craft.

Chevalier.  Revel.  Hoyden.  Tecton.  Bitch.  Two dogs and Bastard.  Foil.  Parian.  Me.

Two Dragon’s Teeth to round out the group, so we had people trained in the use of containment foam and other PRT munitions.  Veteran PRT soldiers outfitted with the best gear the Guild could provide.

And Defiant up at the cockpit, rounding out our group.

I felt my pulse quicken.  My hand traced over the box that Defiant had brought, with all the bugs I needed.

Nilbog’s army seemed endless.  We’d only seen a fraction of it.  It flowed over, under and through the walls, in numbers that tied up the defending capes.  Our battle lines couldn’t hold a position for long before something threw them off.  Someone vital would get injured, or a creature would burrow out from beneath the ground.  Something would fly over to land in the middle of the back line, forcing a reorganization.

We weren’t being overwhelmed.  Any cape was stronger than the typical starved, desperate, reckless monster.  But this was definitely not helping.

A man’s voice came over the comms.  “Three new locations with attacks.  Coordinated strikes.  Harbingers sighted.  They are reinforced by Nilbog’s creations.

Bonesaw got something set up already, I thought.

Defiant was clenching his fist.

Who was the man?

“Doesn’t matter,” Defiant said.  “Our focus is here.”

“Fuckin’ right,” Hoyden said.  She turned to smile at Rachel.  “Right?”

Rachel only frowned, turning her attention to the dogs that sat between and on either side of her legs.

Hoyden punched Rachel in one arm, then grinned. “Right?”

“Right.”

“Right!”  Hoyden grinned.

Heavy metal boots banged against the ramp as our last attendee made his way into the back of the craft.

Golem sat down opposite me, silent.  He briefly met my eyes, and I nodded.

He didn’t react, casting his eyes downward.

It was nothing.  A minor thing in the grand scheme of it all.  I tried to tell myself that he was strong when it counted, whatever his doubt in the quiet moments.

The ramp closed with a bang.  Golem jumped a little at that.

It didn’t do a lot for my confidence.  I glanced around at the others, wondered who else had seen it.

The Pendragon took off.

And off we go, into the lion’s den.

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Sting 26.2

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It started at the center of town, a rolling plume of fire, sparks and smoke that seemed to almost lurch skyward, in fits and starts.  Each set of charges that went off pushed the flame up through the smoke of the ones that had come before.

Then the charges around the perimeter of the city went off, each focused inward.  The rolling mass of fire and superheated air at the center of the city shot through the cloud cover, and the entire sky turned colors.  Reds, oranges and yellows, interlaced with the gray and near-black shadows of the smoke.

Killington was officially gone, the buildings leveled, the bodies and bloodstains scoured from the earth.  Families wouldn’t get to put their loved ones to rest the way they wanted, but that was on the Nine, not on us.  There was no safe way to recover the bodies, to ensure that there weren’t any traps or time delayed tricks in each and every one of the corpses.  It also meant Breed’s minions were torched before they reached an adult stage.

The area would be marked off for a duration after this, in case there were any heat-resistant bacteria or the like.  Cheap, prefabricated walls would seal in the area, and roads would be put in to allow people to make detours.

Quarantine, I thought.  Every step of the way, we had to be on guard.

It was time to move on.  I looked to the book in my lap, turned down the corner of the page to mark it, and then stood, stretching.  It was a nice spot, a long porch just outside a cabin, one that was probably rented out at a premium price during the skiing months.  Far enough away to be safe, high enough to serve as a vantage point while letting me reach to the necessary areas with my bugs.

The entire porch was layered with pieces of paper, organized into rows and columns with some overlap.  The edge of each paper was weighed down by a mass of bugs, almost insufficient as the hot air from the quarantine measure blew past us.  Millipedes that had been moving across the various pages remained still, striving only to stay in place.

The moment the wind died down, I bid the bugs to shift position, carrying the pages to me, sorting them into the appropriate order.

I bent down and began collecting the pieces of paper.  I could feel the raised bumps on the pages as I brushed them free of specks of dirt and leaves.  Each set of bumps corresponded with a letter or punctuation mark, which had been printed over the dots in thick, bold, letters.

I gathered the pages into file folders, then clipped them shut, stacking them on the patio chair.  I made my way to the patio table, bending down to collect the pages as they made their way to me.  The writing on these was different; the letters were drawn in thick, bold strokes, fat, almost as if I’d drawn them in marker.  My notes: thoughts, things that needed clarification, ideas.

At the patio table, I took hold of a beetle and used its pincers to pick some petals out of the shallow bowl, grabbed the caterpillar I’d been using as a brush, then tossed the two bugs over the porch’s railing.  I tipped the ink from the bowl back into a small jar, then screwed it tight, sliding it into a pocket at the small of my back.

I was still getting organized when Defiant appeared, ascending the stairs on the far end of the porch.

“Quite a view,” he commented.

I looked at the resort town.  The fire hadn’t yet gone out.  It was flattening out, scouring everything from the area.

Almost everything.  One or two things would remain.  Probably until well after the sun went out.

“Pyrotechnical’s stuff?”  I asked, distracting myself.

“And some of Dragon’s.  Are you ready to go?”

“I’m ready,” I said.  I picked up the files, then passed them around behind me, where the arms of my flight pack pinned them in place.  I was left with only the book to hold.

He walked beside me as we made our way down to where the craft had landed. His suit had been augmented and altered, and he now stood a foot and a half taller than he had when I’d first met him.  Broad ‘toes’ on either side of his boots helped stabilize him, while his gloves ended in clawed gauntlets that extended a little beyond where his hands should be.  His spear was longer, and both ends of the weapon were heavy with the devices he’d loaded into it.

On his forearms, shoulders and knees there were panels that were like narrow shields, each three or four feet long, each marked with designs like a dragon’s wings, or with a dragon’s face engraved on the front, mouth open, with red lights glowing from within.  Wings on his back served less to let him fly and more to accentuate his movements, a more complex, bulkier system than I had with my flight pack.  Then again, I was only a hundred and thirty pounds at five feet, ten inches in height, and Defiant must have weighed six hundred pounds, with all that armor.

I’d seen him fight Endbringers in that suit, seen how he could move as fast as anyone who wasn’t a speedster, turning his spinning weapon and those shield-like extensions on his armor into a whirling flurry of nano-thorns, cutting through seventy to eighty percent of the Endbringer’s flesh before they reached material too dense to penetrate.

Which was when he’d use his other weapons.

I envied him a little, that he could take the fight to the enemy like that.  We were similar, on a lot of levels, but we differed on that front.  On a good day or otherwise, I’d never be able to truly fight an Endbringer.  I had to depend on others.  The best I could do was coordinate.

“The moment you or one of your teams lets something slip, this falls apart.”

“I won’t fuck up.”

“You will.  Or someone working under you will.  You’re good, but we can’t account for every contingency.  Something’s going to go wrong at some point.  The later that occurs, the better.”

“Yeah,” I responded.

“Every minute that passes is a minute where we can gather information, close in on Jack and figure things out.  We’ve got a lot of good minds and good eyes working on this, but there are a lot of bases to cover.  We let Golem get close, mop up everything we can and contain everything else, and then we take Jack down.”

I nodded.  “But we don’t want to stand back and wait when people could be hurt, or when every second that passes is a second that Jack could be making contact with that critical person.  Causing a certain trigger event, saying the wrong thing to the wrong individual…”

“There’s a balance.  I trust you’ll find it.”

“I hope I can,” I said.

We’d interacted less and less in recent months, and those interactions had been short and to the point by necessity.  It didn’t hurt that the two of us weren’t terribly social people.  We didn’t revel in small talk.  We could be adroit when circumstances forced our hands, but we could also stumble, say things in a way that was just a little off, or give the wrong impression.

I liked that we had a professional relationship, that we didn’t have other stuff getting in the way.  No pleases and thank yous.  We both knew what was at stake, we were on the same page, and we were doing what we felt we had to in order to get the necessary shit done.

“I spoke with Alcott,” he said.

I drew in a breath, then sighed.  “What does she say?”

“The numbers haven’t changed dramatically.  The window’s closed, but not considerably, which suggests a lot of things.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Ninety-three point eight percent chance the world ends,” Defiant said.

Up from Eighty three point four percentThat’s not considerable?

“She’s done us the favor of plotting the changes in the numbers over time.  When things stabilized for a considerable length of time, she scaled down from noting the numbers twice a day to noting them once.  Eighty-three point four percent, as of the beginning of the crisis in Brockton Bay, the Nine’s attempt to test and recruit new members.”

“I remember,” I said.

“Eighty-eight point six percent after they escaped the city.  It was quite possibly our best opportunity at killing Jack, and we missed it.”

I frowned.

“With each destination the Nine reached after Brockton Bay, the numbers shifted, and not for the better.  Half a percent here, two percent there.”

“Chances where someone could have theoretically killed him but didn’t.”

Defiant nodded.  “We ran things by the thinkers, and that’s the general consensus.  Low chances, but he had the Siberian with him up until the fight in Boston.

The same fight where Dragon and Defiant had taken on the Nine, and the Siberian had been killed.

“We had one opportunity there.  That failure is on me.”

He turned his head slightly, then amended his statement.  “On us.”

I didn’t disagree.  Denying that would mean denying my own responsibility in failing to kill Jack in Brockton Bay.

“Ninety-three point eight,” Defiant repeated, for emphasis.

“Six point two percent chance we’ll pull this off,” I said.

“It remains tied to him.  If we kill him in the next ninety hours, the chances vastly, vastly improve.  Depending on how we kill him, it could mean reducing things to a mere twenty-two percent chance or a one percent chance.”

I nodded, making a mental note.  “Theoretically, if we nuked the northeast corner of America…”

“Only a sixty percent chance of working, with some decimal points that Dragon’s urging me to include as I speak, and a high chance we set things in motion anyways.  Twenty eight or so.”

He asked Dinah, I thought to myself.  The same question I had in mind, give or take.

There were clues there.  “A nuke won’t kill him for sure.  Bomb shelter?”

“Possible.  Or he’s keeping Siberian close at hand.”

“And whatever role he plays… he greases the wheels, he doesn’t guarantee it.  You’re saying there’s a chance things get set off even if he dies.  If that doesn’t happen, then there’s some point in the future, roughly fourteen years from now, where things get set off anyways.”

Defiant nodded.

“Every time I think about it, I can’t help but think it’s a trigger event,” I said.  “Someone getting a power that finally breaks something essential, or a power without the limits that keep other powers in check.  But I don’t want to think along those lines if it keeps me from seeing the obvious.”

“Sensible.  But let’s not dwell on it.  The thinkers are handling it, as best as they can, and we have to devote attention to this crisis.  We’ve got all of the big guns lined up.  The moment things fall apart and Jack decides the rules of his game, Dragon is going to try and jam communications, and each of us moves in for a quick decisive victory over the members of the Nine on site.”

I nodded.

We were just arriving at the perimeter of Killington.  I could see some of the big guns Defiant had been talking about.

Two Azazels had set up thick hedges of that blurry gray material just behind the barriers the heroes had erected to protect themselves and contain the fire.  I also saw the Dragon’s Teeth.

Soldiers was the wrong word, but it was close.

Each wore armor in gun-metal and black, with parallels to the standard PRT uniforms I was more familiar with.  Their helmets, however, had three eyeholes, with blue lenses glowing faintly from beneath.  Two lenses for their eyes, a third for a camera.  The armor was bulky, offering thick protection around the neck and joints, with a heavy pack on the back for both oxygen and for the computers they wore.

They were, in large part, wearing stripped-down versions of Defiant’s outfit.  Sacrifices had been made to account for the fact that their suits didn’t render them seven and a half feet tall.  Each carried a sword and a laser pistol.

I’d never liked the cameras.  Heads turned as I approached, and I knew they were recording, tracking details about me and feeding them back to a main server, where they compiled information, discarded excess.

The combat engines that the Dragon’s Teeth were wearing were still in early stages, the data patchy, depending on the target.  The people in uniform had spent weeks and months training with the things, learning to shift fluidly between their own tactics and awareness of the situation and the data that was provided.  Protectorate Capes and Wards that were just starting out were being trained with the things, but those of us that had experience fighting tended to find them a distraction.

Useful?  Yes.  A bit of a boost, a bit of an edge.  But not quite at the point where everyone could benefit.

Not yet.

Not that there was much room for developing any of it if the end of the world went ahead on schedule.

I could see Narwhal, standing off to one side, two of the Dragon’s Teeth flanking her.  Masamune wasn’t present, but from what I knew of the guy, he wasn’t even close to being a front-lines combatant.   They’d recruited him from the ruined area of Japan, a somewhat crazed hermit, and gave him work in figuring out how to mass produce their stuff without the maintenance issues snowballing out of control, like tinker tech tended to do in large quantities.

Thanks to him, they had the Dragon’s Teeth, they had the combat engines and they had top of the line gear for various members of the Protectorate and Wards.

Of the other members of the Guild, the only other one who could theoretically be on the front lines of the fight would be Glyph.  I could only assume she was somewhere close.

The Thanda weren’t here.  If Dragon had managed to get in touch with others, they hadn’t yet arrived.  I could only guess as to what Cauldron might be doing.  Faultline’s crew, the Irregulars…

Too many maybes.  With Endbringers attacking every two months, a lot of people were busy reeling from recent attacks or preparing for the next.

I looked at the assembled capes.  The Undersiders, two Wards teams, the Protectorate, the Guild.  Clockblocker, Vista and Kid Win were in the other Wards team.  A little older.  Clockblocker had expanded his costume, adding some light power armor that seemed primarily focused on holding a heavy construction at his back.  Vista, for her part, was a little taller, her hair longer, tied in a french braid that was clipped just in front of one shoulder. She was packing a heavier gun.  Probably something Kid Win had made.

And Kid Win was hardly a kid anymore.  I hesitated to call him a teenager, even.  His rig looked like it packed more artillery than any of Dragon’s craft.  No neck, no arms, he barely looked capable of walking.  Just two stumpy legs, a simple gold helmet with a red pane covering his face and enough gun nozzles that he looked like a hedgehog.

“This is probably the last time we’ll all be standing here together before this ends,” Chevalier said.  “I won’t do a big speech.”

He turned his head to take us all in.  “I’ve done too many of them over the past two years, I’d only repeat myself.  Everyone here knows what we’re here for, why we’re doing this.  We’ve talked this over with each of you in turn and you don’t need convincing, you don’t need a reminder of what’s at stake.  You already know the role you’re going to play in this.  Words aren’t going to change any of that.  Good luck, be proud, and maybe say a little prayer to God, or ask for a little help from whoever or whatever you believe in.”

The instant he finished, the Azazels and other Dragon-craft began opening up, doors sliding apart and ramps lowering.

“The one time I do show up for one of these things, and no speech.  I feel gypped.”

I didn’t see who had muttered the comment, but I could guess it was Imp.

“No dying,” I said, as everyone started moving.

“No dying,” others echoed me.  The voices of the Undersiders and the Chicago Wards were loudest among them.

My teams gathered in the Dragonfly, while the Chicago Protectorate and Brockton Bay Wards made their way to Defiant’s larger ship, along with a contingent of the Dragon’s Teeth.

Golem stood apart, until my ship was nearly at full capacity.

“It all comes down to this,” he said, as I joined him at the base of the ramp,  “All the training, all the planning and preparation, studying about the Nine backwards and forwards…”

“Yeah,” I responded, as I stepped up to stand beside him.  Our teams were getting sorted out, finding benches and seats.  I reached behind my back to get the file folders I’d brought with me.

“I’m sorry if I was harsh yesterday.”

I shook my head and reached out to put my hand on his shoulder.  It was support, and maybe a bit of a push.  He made his way up the ramp.

Stepping inside just behind Golem, I used the same controls that managed my flight pack to indicate that the ship could close the door.

The Chicago Wards had seated themselves on one side of the ship, the Undersiders on the other.  Something of a mistake, that, because it meant they sat facing one another as we made our way to our destination.

A little awkward.  I sat with them behind me as I took the cockpit.  The thing flew itself, but it freed me to focus on other things.

Chevalier had talked about making peace with the powers that be.  I frowned, staring at the control panel as the ship lifted off.

Passenger, I thought.  Been a while, trying to figure out how to make peace with the fact that you’re there, that you’re affecting me somehow, taking control whenever I’m not in my own mind.  I think we’ve made strides.  I’ve sort of accepted that you’re going to do what you’re going to do, whether that helps me or hurts me. 

So maybe, just maybe, you could help me out today.  Whatever it is you do, whatever motivates you, I can continue to play along, but I need a bit of backup here.

My eyes fell on the bugs that crawled on the back of my hand.  Not even a whisper of a movement.

Yeah, didn’t think I’d get a reply.  Guess we’ll see.

The ship’s acceleration kicked in, and the bugs took flight.

My eyes scanned the screens in front of me.  I had camera feeds from Clockblocker and Revel, from Chevalier, Imp, and the airborne Azazel.  They all focused on a single area, each from a different direction.

A thick white mist lingered throughout an area.  It was early in the morning, and that might have played a role, but there were no people.  Even for a smaller city like Schenectady, that wasn’t so usual.  At nearly eight in the morning, there should have been people leaving for work, people running errands.

Desolate.  White fog.

“Winter’s here,” I said, speaking over the comms.  “Others to be confirmed.  We’ve talked about this one, Golem.”

I turned the computer off and strode out of the ship.  Rachel was waiting for me outside, standing guard with her dogs and her wolf.

Winter means Crimson too, doesn’t it?” Golem asked.

“Probably.  Probably means-“

We see you,” The words were like a whisper, barely audible.  See you standing there.  Oh, I do hope you’re not Theodore.  Tell me you aren’t, because it means we get to play all we want.”

“Screamer,” I informed the others.  Early Nine member, psychological warfare, pressure, distraction.  Sound manipulation.  Her power meant her voice didn’t get quieter as it traveled great distances.  That wasn’t the full extent of-

“Nice weapon,”  Her voice sounded in my ear, at a normal speaking volume.  I didn’t flinch.  I could sense my surroundings with my bugs, and I could hear things with them, hear how the sound panned out in a weird way over the entire area.

“You’ve got friends, Theodore.  I sure hope they aren’t planning on helping you.”

It was a sinuous sound, seductive in how convincing it was.  Every time she spoke, she sounded a little more like me.  It would be the same for the others, hearing themselves.

She was somewhere in the area.  The question was how she’d gotten a sense of our voices so quickly.  There was supposed to be a limit to how quickly she could pick up on that stuff just from overhearing us.

Confirm, team leader,” Golem said, over the channel.  “And can we use the password system we talked about?

“Queen.  Password system is a go.  What do you need confirmation on?”

Ring.  Enemy headcount.

“Stag.  No headcount given, I think that’s Screamer fucking with you.  Others include Winter, probably Crimson, and probably Cherish, if she’s finding us like she is.  All allied capes, be advised, we’re putting passwords into effect.  Stay calm, don’t panic.”

I do like it when they make it challenging,” Screamer’s whisper hissed in my ear.  It had changed in tone, pitch, cadence.

The Dragonfly took off as I made my way closer to the site.  Outside of the area, there were people reacting.  Some fled, others were taking cover, followed by disparate voices.

Haymaker.  I’m engaging,” Golem said.  “Recommendation?

Screamer interrupted, “Getting advice is against the spirit of this challenge, isn’t it, Theodore?  You are Theodore, aren’t you?  I think you should confirm for us.”

“Mantis,” I said, voicing the password,  “Don’t respond to her.  It’s what she wants.  Take out Cherish ASAP, if she’s here, Screamer after that.”

I’m hurtI rate second after the new girl who barely lasted a month?

Have to find them first,” Golem said.

I’ll help with that, I thought.  Then I stopped.  “Golem, the password?  Horsefly.”

Steeple.  And gauntlet, to reply to the last one,” his voice came over the comms.

I stopped.  We’d agreed on a simple password set.  There was a pattern, each corresponding to our powers and the various pieces on a chessboard.  Mine were related to bugs, his to hands.  It was abstract, something that tended to only make sense in retrospect.  The chess ones we knew off by heart, because they were the first ones we’d practiced.

And steeple wasn’t one of them.

“Steeple?” I asked.

I’m drawing a mental blank,” Golem responded.  “It works, doesn’t it?  Pinkie.

Screamer wasn’t stupid, but was she that smart?  The ‘stag’ should have thrown her off regarding our pattern.

“It works,” I said.  “Ant.  I’m close.

If that was Golem, he wasn’t as focused as we needed him to be.

I could feel the effect as my bugs entered the radius of Winter’s power.  She wasn’t concentrating it, so it was mild at best.  Slowing the movements of molecules, cutting down the ambient temperature, to the point that the moisture in the air froze.  It also affected my bugs.  Torpor.

For anyone within, it would include a mental torpor.

If the only members of the Nine who were present were Crimson, Winter, Cherish and Screamer, then this was a fight that involved attrition.  Attacking Russia in the wintertime.  Psychological warfare, emotional warfare, the effects of Winter’s power… it meant that Winter’s guns and Crimson’s power were the only physical threats.

They were going easy on him at the outset.

Golem was walking on rooftops at the edge of the effect, and he was surrounded by a nimbus of whirling material.  By Wanton.  We’d already altered all of the data on the group, to imply by news reports and Golem’s powers on the websites that Wanton’s telekinetic storm was Golem’s power.

The vantage point put him high enough that he could stand above the mist without being in it.  From the moment he engaged, he’d have to move fast.  He’d have to be indirect-

Weaver,” Golem said, interrupting my thoughts.  “Iron fist.  She’s offering to tell me where Jack is.

“We expected this,” I answered.  Iron fist was the ‘king’ in our chess sequence of passwords.  Crab.  Get the info and go.”

I’m not that foolish,” Screamer whispered, her voice extending throughout the entire area.  “Underestimating me, for shame.  I give up the information, and you leave me for your clean up squad to executeI want concessions.”

Concessions?”  Golem had left his channel open.

Let’s ensure your friends aren’t in a good state to mop up.  We’ll start with this Weaver.  Why don’t you cut off your toes, Weaver?  Keep you from running after us.

I frowned.

Oh, you’ve got an alternative?  Something you can cut off or throw away?  Yes.  Let’s put off the self-mutilation and have you throw that off the edge of a building.

Chances were good that she was in Cherish’s company, getting information from the source.

What if she tosses it, then walks into the mist?” Golem suggested.

No, not Golem.  Her.  Screamer.  An easier suggestion to acknowledge if I thought it came from a teammate.

Not buying it, huh?” he asked.  She asked.

She’d narrowed down my location, was refining her voices.  That had been convincing.  I had to move, make it harder for her.

I advanced, but I didn’t step into the mist.  The closer I got, the more of the affected area I could sense.  The torpor forced me to be efficient, to manage where bugs went and how, to check areas in a cursory way.  There were a number of people still in Winter’s area of influence.  People were standing utterly still, slowly dying as the cold ate away at them.

I want to kill myself.

My own voice, indistinguishable from the one in my head.  Fuck me.  She had a bead on me, now.

It’ll be painless, a way to avoid all of the horror, so I don’t have to watch my friends die.  So I won’t have to watch Bitch or Tattletale or Imp die the way Regent didSo I don’t have to watch Grue die.

No, a moment’s consideration and the spell was broken.  I’d stopped thinking of Rachel as ‘Bitch’ some time ago.

Aw,” Screamer whispered.  “Golem’s refusing my deal, and Cherish says you’re not playing along with the rest of it, so I’m gonna have words with some of the others.”

I raised a hand to my ear, opening my mouth to warn them, “…”

My lips moved, but my voice didn’t come out.  Bare whispers of sound formed, instead, even as I raised my voice to a near shout.

That would be the next stage in her tactics.  Isolate.  She had a sense of my voice, the way I spoke, and was canceling it out.

I signaled Golem with my bugs.  I drew a smiley face in the air with my bugs, crossing out the mouth with an ‘x’.

He nodded.

So he was on mute as well.

There.

In the midst of a small duplex, there were two young women huddled together on an upper floor.  There were computers arranged around them, and each was playing a different video.  In some cases, it was the same video playing, just from a different point in time.  Me in the lunchroom with Defiant and Dragon.  The New Delhi Endbringer fight.  Golem on the news with Campanile.

She had to be almost as good a multitasker as me to take all of that in.

Tattletale here.  Wormtongue.  Doing damage controlI’ve got your video feed, so you can spell things out for me if you want to give the signal.

I spelled out the word ‘thanks’.

My bugs had died inside the area of cold.  The people inside wouldn’t be doing much better.  I had to send another batch in.  This time, I knew the destination.

Cherish was acting as the eyes, Screamer as communications.  No doubt Screamer -all nine of the Screamers- was providing communications between this group and the nearest group of Nine.  She was talking, in a low and steady voice, but her voice wasn’t more than a murmur.  No doubt someone in a more distant location was receiving the intel at a normal volume.

And all of that raised the question of what Winter and Crimson were doing.  I scanned the building.  Nothing on the top floor, or the next lowest.  Further downstairs, a number of people were in the sway of Winter’s power, their thoughts slowed to a crawl.

The basement of the same building.  Winter, Crimson, and their hostages.  Some would be the ones from Killington.  Others were ones that had fallen into the sway of Winter’s torpor.  Crimson was feeding on them.

His schtick was a little bit of a vampire one, but the end result was more Mr. Hyde.  Big, muscular, fueled by rage and impulse.

The ones lying on the floor, cold, they’d be dead already.

I spelled out basic instructions for Golem, pointing the way to the building, drawing a cloud over the building to mark it.  He gave me a thumbs up.

Another arrow pointed him to the concrete rooftop behind him.  There, I drew out a basic layout.

And in that same moment, Cherish cottoned on to what we were doing.

“They’re attacking,” Cherish said.

Screamer’s voice reached all of us.  “Cocky, cocky.

Screamer turned her head, swatted at the bugs that crawled on her face, and then spoke, silent to the insect’s hearing.

Winter and Crimson reacted.

Sure hope your boy can fight.  Screamer was talking in my head again.  Not telepathy, only hearing a voice that sounded damn close to the one in my head.

“Fuck off, Screamer,” I muttered.

“Grue no!” Imp’s voice.  I flinched despite myself, before I remembered they weren’t anywhere nearby.

Screamer laughed, her voice floating through the area.

Crimson made his way outside.  His flesh would be engorged, purple-red, the veins would be standing out.  He’d be as hard as iron, strong.  His sword was as long as he was tall.  I couldn’t get a good measure of its appearance or quality.

Winter hung back with the hostages.

I wrote out the information with bugs.  Tattletale relayed it.  “Crimson Incoming.  QuislingGot confirmation and you’re good to go.  Six stories, elbow deep.

Golem turned his head, no doubt in response to the warning, then turned back to my diagram.

I’d given it a title, words running along the top.  ‘Slap them down.’

Golem’s uniform was roughly the same as the early incarnations, though solidified into a more solid color scheme, dark iron and silver.  The materials differed, but it matched.

There had been one or two additions, though.  The rigging of different panels included a frame that looped over the shoulders, much like a rollcage.  Golem paused, then drew out a panel, attaching it to the right.  He began to reach inside.

And a hand emerged from the center of the street, large enough that it could hold a car inside it.  Crimson paused as he watched it appear.

Then he moved.  It was the kind of movement that came with super strength, a bounding, powerful stride that could have carried him through a wall.  He had to pause before he reached the base of the building Golem stood atop.

The hand had emerged up to the second knuckle.

Abandon the fight,” Tecton’s voice.  “Run!  Move!  You’ve got six Siberians headed your way.”

No password?

“Tecton, confirm.”

Confirm what?

And a chuckle from Screamer, just in my ear.

Crimson ascended, climbing the outside of the building while holding his six-foot blade in his teeth, blood trickling down from the corners of his mouth where the blade was cutting into flesh.

My bugs died of the cold before I saw what happened next.  I was forced to send in a second wave to see.

The bugs were too slow, but the upper edge of the roof was outside of Winter’s realm of influence.  I could sense Golem reaching out with a hand of brick, a gentle push on Crimson’s collarbone with his left hand, pushing him away from the roof, away from any point where he could get a grip.

Crimson reached out and up for the hand, but the material broke apart as he put too much weight on it.  He dropped.  I’d bemoaned the effectiveness of rooftop combat, but Golem made it his own.

Golem advanced to the edge of the roof and created more hands, trying to bind the villain to the street.  An arm lock, a headlock…

Crimson pulled his way free of the asphalt shackles through sheer brute strength.  More appeared, but he destroyed them faster than they could be created.

Screamer and Cherish had to know what we were doing, yet they weren’t moving.  Cockiness?

No.  They had to have an escape route.

Except they didn’t have a teleporter.  That left only a few options.  Siberian wasn’t one I could do a whole lot about, but she’d be fighting if she were anywhere nearby.  The others…

I drew out silk thread in their direction.  Only so much to spare.  I knotted it between their necks and the computers that surrounded them.

Theo’s massive hand was still growing, the wrist exposed.  Almost halfway there.

Crimson ascended the building once more.  This time, he had support.

Together, we’d gone over the various members of the Nine, past and present, we’d detailed battle plans, the techniques we knew about, even contacted heroes who had encountered them in the past, for stuff that might not have gone on record.

But Screamer was called screamer for a reason, and there wasn’t a lot we could do to stop it, not unless we wanted to deafen ourselves.

Crimson was three stories up the side of the building when Screamer used her namesake power.  She could ensure that everyone within a mile’s radius could hear her voice as if she was right next to them, and she used it now, producing a high-pitched, full volume scream, right in my ears.  In Golem’s ears.  Everyone’s ears.

I joined Golem in doubling over, using my hands to try and ward off the sound.  It didn’t help as much as it should have.  It was loud, deafening, and it was leaving Golem vulnerable as Crimson closed the distance.  He wasn’t recovering fast enough.

Bugs flowed into Screamer’s open mouth, much as they had with Alexandria.

I gave Tattletale the signal.  All out attack.

This was it.  They’d been okay with a little bit of involvement on our part.  Tattletale had speculated they would.  There were only a few who were so regimented they would report it to Jack at the first opportunity.  Winter was among them, but she was largely in the dark, here.  Screamer wouldn’t fill her in if it meant spoiling the fun.

In truth, the only ones who wouldn’t let us get away with this were Mannequin and King.  King was distinct enough for me to notice, and Tattletale was ninety-five percent sure Mannequin would need more time to set up.  This was an approach we could only use with this first skirmish.

But whoever we were up against, the moment they started losing, the moment we actually pulled an offensive, the line was crossed.  This was an all or nothing.

Stinging bugs attacked Cherish, going for the eyes, nose and mouth.  Screamer choked.  Somewhere in the midst of it, they managed to give a signal.  It wouldn’t be Screamer.  Cherish?  Creating an emotional push?

Winter made her way out from downstairs, hefting a grenade launcher.

I spelled out words for the camera: Need Reinforcements.

The other teams are getting harassed, can’t close the distance.

I was going to spell out a response, get further details, but my focus shifted as Winter caught sight of Golem and Crimson and advanced.

Her dynamic with Crimson was one of synergy.  She captured people so he could feed.  He was the front line so she could safely attack from range.  She slowed down opponents so he could advance.  He was immune to her munitions fire, in large part.

My bugs swarmed her, but she was already concentrating her power.  Smaller area, greater effect.  She still held the people in the building in the area, but my bugs were lasting only a fraction of the time.  Seconds.  I activated my flight pack and approached.

Golem finished creating his hand, but there was a limit to what he could do with it.  It stood there, tall and useless.

No, his focus was on escape.  He thrust both hands into two different panels, slightly out of sync.  One hand was created, almost twice the usual size, and another was simultaneously created from the palm of that same hand, a fraction smaller.

Campanile’s idea.

Both hands thrust out at virtually the same speed that Golem might have stuck his own hand out into the air, but that speed was compounded by the fact that both hands thrust out in unison.  Golem set one foot down and vaulted himself up and out to land on the adjacent building, one story up.  He spun around as he landed.

Crimson gave chase, crossing the rooftop with heavy footsteps.

Golem jabbed out with one hand as Crimson bent his knees to leap.  The hand that appeared jabbed at the underside of one foot, lifting it.

It was the sort of trick that would only work once on an enemy.  The next time, the enemy would adjust, or jump off one foot.  Here, it caused Crimson to stumble.  He missed his mark, the jump failing, and he nearly ran straight off the end of the rooftop.  He struck out with his sword, slamming it into the brick of the building face opposite him.

Winter raised her grenade launcher and fired.  Golem managed to vault himself away as he had earlier, a shallow movement that was forceful enough to nearly launch him off the building.  He rolled on landing as the grenade disintegrated a corner of the building.

These two were warriors.  Crimson was a mainstay of King’s era, when he’d ruled the Nine as more of a brute squad, not dissimilar to the Teeth back in Brockton Bay.  I had trouble marking why Winter had been recruited, but it likely had more to do with how she was off the battlefield, her predilections for torturing people she’d caught in her torpor.

I reached the edge of the battlefield.  My bugs streamed forth, a silk cord trailing between and behind them.  The silk streamed out from the spinning spool at my belt.  Hundreds of feet of material, and it extended out towards Winter.

It was only a matter of feet from her when she jumped, startled, leaping to one side.  I missed, and my bugs were dying in a matter of seconds.  The cord went slack.

A moment later, she was looking around, confused.

Cherish, I thought.  She alerted her, a burst of alarm.

It didn’t matter.  My swarm approached from the other direction, finding and picking up the dropped cord.  Moving them within Winter’s effect range was a matter of relay, handing off to fresh bugs as they died.  Slow but steady progress.

The moment the silk thread was around Winter’s neck, I dropped down to the edge of the rooftop, and used the mechanical arms on my flight pack to reel in the cord.

Darwin’s spider silk.  Stronger than kevlar, a narrow cord of it made for a thin, almost unbreakable cord.  The noose cut into her neck, and my arms and legs provided leverage to keep me still as the combined efforts of the mechanical arms provided the strength.

When she reached the base of the building I stood on, she was lifted off the ground.  I shifted my position to improve my leverage and waited, hiding.

I could barely tell in the midst of her power, but I sensed her raising her arm.  Raising the grenade launcher.

Nets of spider silk peeled away from the gray-white portions of my costume as my bugs pulled them free.  I drew it out, connected the narrow sheets with knots of more silk.

It moved into place just in time to catch the projectile out of the air.

Golem managed to find a moment to use his power.  A hand of stone struck the grenade launcher from Winter’s hands.

He was holding his own against Crimson, who was adapting.  Golem thrust one hand into his armor to create a hand beneath Crimson, and the villain leaped closer, forcing Golem to vault himself away and maintain a safe distance.  The sword swipe that followed after Golem’s retreat passed within a foot of the hero.

Wanton, surrounding Golem, advanced on Crimson, and Golem tossed out a bag.

Wanton took hold of the bag and emptied it of its contents.  Razor blades, caltrops, hooks and my threads joined the miniature maelstrom, and Crimson was slowly bound.  He tore some free, but it found its way into his flesh again a moment later.

Then Golem slid his right hand into his armor.  Crimson leaped in anticipation of an imminent attack, landed, and then glanced back at the point where he’d come.

Nothing.

Golem continued sliding his hand into his armor, slow, inexorable.

Crimson charged, and Golem backed away, using his free hand to erect barriers.  Wanton ran defense, and Crimson stumbled.

A rumble marked Golem’s real direction of attack.  A second hand, down on the street below, gripping the large, six-story tower he’d created earlier in the fight, pulling it down.

It toppled on top of the building that Winter and Crimson had emerged from.

Toppled towards Screamer and Cherish.

In that same moment, Chuckles made an appearance.  He moved so fast it was almost as though he teleported, appearing beside the two girls.  My bugs barely had time to make contact and try to get a sense of him before he was moving again, holding the two villains this time.

They jerked to a stop.  I felt a fraction of the same confusion Chuckles no doubt did.  I sensed his arms, extended to ridiculous lengths.  He realized they were caught, bound to the computers.  Too entangled to take along.

And then he was gone, out of the building as the hand struck home.  Two floors crushed, the two villains crushed with them.

Tecton had provided the calculations on what the building could withstand, I’d provided the general data and information on where the hostages were.  The damage was controlled, the hand crashing a specific, certain distance into the building before coming to a halt.

Bitch and Foil tried to intercept Chuckles just now as he left the city.  He escaped, but Foil hit him with one shot,” Tattletale said.

“Right,” I said, even as I swore to myself.  Shit, shit shit shit.

Far too soon for Jack to get a report on the fact that we’d helped.

Chuckles can’t talk,” Tattletale said.  “He laughs, but he can’t talk.

I shook my head.  Couldn’t worry about that right now.

Crimson was only staring at the wreckage.  He mumbled something around a bloated tongue.

Does he think Winter’s still in there?

Then Crimson charged Golem once again.

Golem had both hands free, and he used the same double-hand technique to strike again.  A second hand, sprouting from the first, which emerged from the rooftop in turn.  The hands caught Crimson in the side of the leg, slamming into the knee, using the curve of the thumb to catch the leg and limit the range of movement.

Strong as Crimson was, he was still bound by physics and general physical limitations.  Being struck in the knees hurt, and he still needed to maintain a sense of balance.  He toppled.

Another double-hand strike, and Golem caught Crimson in the groin as he landed on his hands and feet, shoved him off to the right.

Two more strikes, this time not doubled-up, catching Crimson in the left arm and left leg, respectively, keeping him off-balance.

The key was to deny leverage.

An arm looped over one leg and one arm, binding them to the rooftop.  Crimson tore free with little effort, but the act meant he shifted his weight to one side.  Golem capitalized on it with another double-speed strike to his side, pushing in the same direction the blood-gorged killer was already moving.  That was followed in turn by one larger hand, moving slower, to scoop Crimson up and tip him off the edge of the rooftop.

Crimson fell.  Not a fatal fall, but it would hurt some.

A gauntlet of concrete seized the large hand Golem had just created and tore it free of the rooftop, then let it roll free to fall right on top of Crimson.

With the villain in an alley, the ensuing takedown was just as brutal and tenacious as before, with the added advantage that there were walls on either side to strike from.  Hands struck out, and they remained there.  As the villain was denied any footing, any balance, the hands around him increased in number, folding around him, sliding into gaps.

It was a parallel to Kaiser’s pyramid of blades technique, that he’d used to try to entrap Lung.  I’d passed it on to Golem, but I hadn’t told him the source.  I got the sense he wouldn’t appreciate it.

I turned my attention to Winter, who dangled beneath me.  She’d gone silent and still.  I continued to wait, but I raised one hand to my ear.  “Tattletale?  All four are down.”

I could speak.  A benefit to Screamer being dead.

Good.  Too soon to tell if Jack’s got wind of what you’re doingBut if Chuckles passes on word, or if there’s a Nice Guy in the area…

“I wouldn’t think he’d use the same guy twice in a row.”

No,” Tattletale agreed.  “The numbers fit, makes sense he’d start with four with a fifth as backup, considering how he can scale up the numbers in successive attacks.  Still-

“There was no graceful way to do it with Cherish there, and I couldn’t not help.  Golem was incapacitated.”

I’ll let Chevalier know what happened?” she made it a question.

I sighed.  No point in keeping secrets amongst ourselves.

“Do.  And send Foil here,” I said.  “She can punch a few holes in Crimson while he’s trapped.”

Will do.”

I waited another minute as Winter dangled from the thread, then cut her free.  Her body crumpled in a heap at the base of the building.  I made my way over to Golem and Wanton, where Wanton was still in his breaker form.

This was the warm-up, for the Nine, for us.  Four down, two hundred and seventy-some to go.  Jack had a little information on us, no doubt.

I didn’t dare hope it would stay this simple.  We still needed to find a way to narrow down Jack’s location, killing him.  He already had an advantage, wearing us down, costing us time, and he surely had some intel on us.

I could only hope that intel didn’t include the fact that Golem had help.

Chevalier here.  We have reports that they’re showing themselves for the next locations.

I met Golem’s eyes.

“Locations, plural?”  Golem asked.

“They want you to choose,” I answered him, as the realization dawned on me.

He stared at me, lost.  He was heaving for breath, his hands shaking visibly, even with gauntlets on.

“Go with the Chicago teams.  I’ll take the Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards to the other location,” I said.

He nodded, pressing one hand to his ear as he started making his way to the ground.  I watched him for a moment, then took off.

This was a statement, I suspected.  I could guess what that statement was.  Jack fully intended to double down on the challenge each time we came out ahead.

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Sting 26.1

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One of Rachel’s dogs growled, long and loud, an alien, unsure sound.

She shushed it, setting her hand on the side of its head.

“Ugh,” Cozen mumbled, “The smell.”

The smell.  Summer heat, the mingled scent of blood, shit and overripe bodies, with traces of other things in the wind.  Caustic chemicals, ozone, smoke, burned flesh and plastic.

It wasn’t unfamiliar.  Not an exact combination of smells I’d smelled before, but it put me in mind of Brockton Bay in the days soon after Leviathan had attacked.

I looked up at the man who’d been strung up overhead, spread-eagled.  Chains stretched from his wrists to buildings on opposite sides of the street, and more chains extended from his ankles to the bases of the same buildings.  A number was carved on his chest.  One-seventeen.

Beneath him, the sign from outside the town limits had been slammed down onto the hoods of two cars so it stood upright.

Welcome to Killington.  Heart of the Green Mountains.

They probably thought it was funny.  Especially with the bloody handprint on the word ‘heart’.

“They got the children too,” Cozen whispered, as she averted her eyes from a mother who had died holding her child, both burned black.  The only parts of their body that hadn’t burned were patches of skin in the shapes of numbers.  Two-fifty-four.  Two-fifty-five.

Two of the Red Hands, Getaway and Rifle, had come along for the ride.  They were sticking close by her, and formed a small contingent with Grue as a consequence.  Getaway wore a cowl with a hood that peaked in the front, to the center of his mask.  His costume had straight, clean lines, as though he’d modeled it after a car.

Rifle, by contrast, didn’t look like he wore a costume.  He was dressed like a special ops agent, complete with a complicated night-vision mount around his eyes, a number of scopes with lenses glowing in hues ranging from blue to red.  Violet scopes were currently fixed over his real eyes.  He carried a weapon, a modified gun that wasn’t, as far as I could figure it, an actual rifle.  It looked like it was set to fire specialized loads from canisters.

Of course they got children, I thought.  I had to bite back a retort.  Why was she here, if she wasn’t ready for this?

But she wasn’t a fighter.  None of the Red Hands were, really.  They were professional thieves.  Break in, get out, sell the goods.

They were, maybe, what the Undersiders might have been with a little more luck, slightly different personalities, and a quieter existence.

Without me, even.

The Undersiders had made it for a year and a few months with their original strategy, avoiding fights, slipping away, staying off the radar.  They would fight when they had to, but they didn’t make it a thing.  The fact that they didn’t have firepower meant they couldn’t make it a thing.  If anyone got into trouble, it was the dogs.

And then I joined.  Starting with the bank robbery, I pushed them to switch up tactics, catch the enemy off guard.

If I’d never joined, what would have happened?  Maybe the bank robbery wouldn’t have worked out, and one of them would have been picked off and arrested.  Maybe they would have taken a different direction with the robbery.

Bakuda might have killed them, Coil might have pushed them to be more aggressive as he scaled up his plans.  Or they could have found a way, could have continued going the way they did, less violent in general.

Some good, some bad.  Rachel might never have reached the point she was at now.  Grue wouldn’t necessarily have gone through what he did.  Regent might be alive.

I glanced again at Cozen, saw her looking at me in turn.  Catching me looking, really.

“What?” she asked.

You don’t need to be here.  You’ll be happier in the long run if you aren’t.

“Nothing,” I responded.  She looked annoyed, but she didn’t say anything.

There was a kind of art to the setup.  No doubt at all that it was a display, a showpiece.  Trails of blood, ash and other substances marked where bodies had been moved.  They were spaced out just enough that we would run into a fresh one just as we left the last behind.

I might have missed it if not for my swarm-sense.  The bodies were placed at positions high and low, the methods of death differing here and there, but there was a pattern to their distribution.  The kind of pattern that might become clear if one were to set up a map and note the location of each body on it.  A spiral.

I pointed the way to the central point of the spiral.  I could see a plume of smoke in that general direction.  Not the middle of Killington.  Skewed off-center.

Weaver, report,” Revel’s voice.

“I’m here,” I responded.  I kept a finger at my ear to make it clear that I wasn’t talking to myself.

Killington?

“Yes.  Progress is slow.  I’m sweeping the area for traps and potential ambush, and I’m marking a path to travel for when the others get here.”

We saw the two traps at the outset.  There are more confirmed?”

“Yeah.  I’m not touching anything.  Pass on word that any capes entering the area should be hands off.  I activated one and it was only a decoy, a prelude to a gas attack.  One of Bonesaw’s, I think.  Grue warded it off.  No casualties.”

I’ll make doubly sure to pass on word about the traps and about the route you’ve cleared.  I would have warned them anyways.  The initial casualties were enough, with the helicopter and first responders.  Give me a second.”

I led the way as our group rounded a corner, and saw the smouldering wreckage of the helicopter, smoke still streaming skyward.

The collision apparently hadn’t been enough to topple the corpse that stood upright in the middle of the intersection, desiccated.  A number was drawn on the mummy’s chest in blood.  Number thirty-six.

I could make out a tripwire strung between him and another corpse, a woman.  She had apparently been shot execution style, propped upright on her knees.  A number, again, had been drawn out in the midst of the blood spatter from the original wound.  Number two-sixty-five.

The tripwire was almost obvious, coated in congealed blood.

Red string, I thought.  In Japanese superstition, it was the string that bound lovers.

The pieces suggested Crimson and Winter.  Neither was Japanese, but the idea of mingling romantic imagery with violence in that way fit them.  The red knight and the soldier.

I’ve got the feed open now,” Revel said, “Seeing what you’re seeing.

“Only part of it.  The way the bodies are laid out, it’s a spiral.  I think it all points to something.  Making our way in.”

Technically you aren’t.  You’ve stopped.”

“Tripwires,” I said.  “Being very, very careful.”

“I like being careful,” Imp commented.  She’d only be hearing one side of the conversation.  “Careful is good.  Keeps us alive.”

“Being too careful gets you killed,” Rachel commented.  Of everyone present, she seemed least concerned with the amount of death that surrounded us.  Then again, that didn’t surprise me.  “Have to act when you see the chance.”

“You want to hop on your dog’s back and charge ahead?” Imp asked.  “Go activate every trap between here and wherever?”

Rachel frowned.  “No.”

“I like careful,” Imp restated, for the record.  “Let’s be careful.”

“Yeah.  Fine.”

I pointed to indicate.  “Obvious tripwire here.  Covered in blood.  Connects to the two bodies and… I think claymores, at the base of that building over there.  There are other tripwires around it.  Look too hard at it, miss the others.  I think there’s a pressure plate, too.  I’m not sure what to call that.”

“I don’t see anything that could be a pressure plate,” Grue observed.

I pointed at a pane of glass at the base of a pile of rubble.  It was broken, with a narrow thread of wood still attached along the one edge that was straight and unbroken.

“Maybe.  Kind of hard to believe,” he said.

Because we could see through it?  Yeah.  But it was situated beside a pile of rubble, and the balance of the glass with the surrounding brick and concrete seemed too convenient.

Was there something attached to the edge of the glass where we couldn’t see?  If the glass was broken, would the wood weigh the remaining fragment down and pull something?

“Let’s play it safe.  We avoid the tripwires, we avoid the glass.”

“Whatever you say.  I’m all for playing safe,” he responded.

I led the way around the trap.  I left a trail of dead bugs behind us as we made our way to the center, murdering them with larger bugs and mashing them into the ground.  A path.

I wondered about Grue.  Couldn’t read his expression, couldn’t note his tone either.  Was he thinking about the same thing I was thinking?

We’d already fallen for one trap.  Not here, but back in Brockton Bay.  Back then, when he’d had his second trigger event.

It had been the Nine, back then, and though he wasn’t giving me any clues there was something wrong, he wasn’t indicating that he was his old self, from back in the good old days.  I suspected he hadn’t fully bounced back, even after all this time, might never.

We circled around eight teenage girls, sitting in a circle, crowns of splintered wood nailed through their skulls.  One had fallen over in response to the wind, but the others were still upright, propped up with wooden planks nailed into their spines.  Less blood than the head wounds, I noted.  Some pre-death, others post?

The numbers were on the pieces of wood, registration numbers or something from the crate that had been smashed for materials.  One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, nine.

I looked up.  Number eight sat on the bulb of a street light, a long dress blowing in the wind, directly above the circle.  Her crown was the tallest, and for her to be so rigid, there had to be a whole assortment of planks nailed to her.

“Nine Kings,” I said.

“A woman king?” Imp asked.

“She’s the victim,” I said.  The killer is her… husband, for lack of a better word.”

They’ve resurrected all of the old members.  Cloned them,” Revel said.

Clones, I mused, agreeing.  My suspicions were confirmed, and I wasn’t surprised.  I’d hoped for different, but the reality of what we faced had been hinted at early on, when it had been revealed that the Nine had hit a tinker’s laboratory and made off with materials that could be used to mass produce lifeforms.

King.  The leader, the founder of the group.  Were the numbers in an order corresponding to when they had joined, then?  Would the second member of the Nine be ten through eighteen?

“Got a live one!”  Imp called out, interrupting my thoughts.  “…Kind of alive.”

I turned to look.  A fat man was shifting in a restless way, his chest rising and falling quickly in unsteady movements.  One arm jerked.

“Leave him,” I said.  “Don’t touch.”

“He could be a witness,” Rifle said.

“Or a trap,” I responded.  “I doubt he’s in a state to fill us in on anything.  We’ll move on, wait for heroes to follow the path I’m marking.  They’ll handle medical care for wounded.”

“That’s fucked up,” Rifle said.  “We could at least put him out of his misery, then.”

“I’m not willing to get close enough to check,” I said.  “And I’m not willing for you to get close either.”

“I-” Parian started.

Then she stopped.  The fat man deflated in an instant as a small collection of what looked like trilobites found their way out of his rear end.  Slick with gore, they darted forward a short distance on their hundreds of little legs, then turned our way, bristling with spines.  Tails trailed behind each of them, twice as long as the foot-long creatures, narrow, with stingers on the ends.

I could hear a hissing, but I wasn’t sure if it was from the creatures or the way the spines rubbed against one another.

“Oh… god,” she said.  She took a step back, with Foil stepping forward, as if to defend her.

“Breed’s power,” I said.  “They’re mostly harmless, for now.”

“For now?” Rifle asked.

I watched as they made their way up the side of a building to a corpse that was hung there.  The corpse had been cut into sections, the arms and legs each severed at the joints and reconnected with lengths of chain.  Breed’s creatures found their way into the body through the holes in the neck, mouth and rear end.  It jerked a little as they worked bodies the size of footballs into apertures only a fraction of that size, then went still.

“For now,” I answered Rifle.  “They start off the size of a lemon, lurk in spots where they can get access to orifices or sites of injury, or like you see here, corpses.  Inside beer bottles, in toilet bowls, bedcovers, on the underside of kitchen tables, even inside food.  Then they burrow inside, wait until the target is still and quiet for an hour or two, paralyze the target, and emit pheromones to call others of their kind to them.  They devour the target from the inside out, molt once or twice as they digest the fats and proteins they ate, then find a new target.  It’s a process that takes a week to two weeks, depending on the availability of food sources.”

I could see Getaway shift position, folding his hands behind his back, as if he could shield his rear end.  His mouth had shut into a firm line.

His nose was still unprotected, I noted.

Even Rachel seemed a little concerned.  She glanced at her dog.

“They aren’t a danger to us,” I said.  “Probably.  They choose easier targets over harder ones, and there are enough corpses around here that we aren’t worth the trouble.  What we should worry about is the later stages.  When they’re about the size of a full-grown human being, they’ll do two or three major molts with big physical changes, gaining some natural weapons, including a pellet-spit that kind of acts like a shotgun blast with fragments that dissolve into flesh-melting acid.”

“Um.”  Rifle said.

“You know this how?” Imp asked.

“Read his file,” I answered.

“Shouldn’t we kill them before they get big?”  Foil asked.

“Not worth the time it would take to track them down,” I said.  “We don’t have any strong offensive powers, they’re durable against stuff like conventional ammunition and physical blows, and he generally produces about nine or ten per day.”

“That was ten,” Getaway said.

“Even assuming it’s only been one day since Breed woke up,” I said, “The scenes they’ve left behind suggest there are nine clones of each copy of the Nine.  Going by the numbers-”

Twenty-nine copies, at least,” Revel said.

“Twenty-nine copies,” I said.  “Two-hundred-and-fifty-plus members of the Nine currently active.  Nine Breeds among them, meaning there’re probably nine other clusters around here, taking advantage of abundant food.”

Breed’s creatures.  Can you control them?” this from Revel, taking advantage of the stunned silence.

I glanced up at the body the things had invaded.  I tailored my response so both Revel and the Undersiders could make sense of it.  “I can’t control those things, and I can’t sense them either.”

A shame.  That would simplify things just a little.”

It would.  I wouldn’t have minded the firepower, either, even with their particular diet.

“Let’s keep moving,” I said.  “If we stop for every horror show, we might be stuck here a while.  My gut’s telling me time is of the essence.”

“I’m feeling a little out of my depth,” Getaway said, his voice quiet, as he fell into step to keep up.

“That’s a good instinct,” I replied without looking at him.  “Trust it.”

“You’re telling me to leave?”

“I can’t make you do anything,” I said.

“But you think I should leave?”

“If you feel like you should, yeah.”

“And does that extend to me and Rifle?” Cozen asked, her tone cold.

“I don’t know.  Yeah, if your instincts tell you to go, then get going now,” I said.  I pointed at the ground around a hose.  There was a puddle that had spread beneath the hose’s opening.  My bugs had died on contact with it.  “Acid, not water.  Don’t walk in it.  Rachel, watch your dogs.”

Rachel grunted acknowledgement.

“Don’t change the subject.  You want us gone,” Cozen said.

“No.  All the help we can get is appreciated,” I said.  I glanced at her.  “At the same time, if push comes to shove and you can’t hold it together, it’s going to hurt us all.”

“You don’t think we can hold it together?” Cozen asked.

“You’re an unknown quantity.  Anyone else that’s here, I can trust them to hold their own because I know how they operate.  I don’t know you.  I don’t know how you react in a crisis, how you’ll respond if you’re pushed to the edge, one way or another.  Grue and the others are vouching for you, so I’m shelving those concerns and trusting they have a good sense of your abilities.  I’ll maintain that trust until you give me an indication I shouldn’t.  Getaway saying he’s spooked is an indication.”

I’m spooked,” Imp said.  “Can I go home and sit on the couch in my underwear, eating cake?  I’ll cross my fingers for you guys, if you want.”

“You’re talking like you’re in charge,” Cozen said.  “Grue leads the Undersiders.”

“I’m not an Undersider,” I said.  “It doesn’t matter.  I’m in charge anyways.”

And Grue can speak for himself, I thought, but I didn’t say it aloud.

I could see her reacting to that, even without the extra quip.  I watched expressions cross her face: irritation, anger, indignation, and a trace of fear.

“Grue is a good leader,” I said, “But this is my project.  Something I’ve been working towards and thinking about for the last two years.  Leaving the Undersiders, making contacts, helping hold things together, maintaining the peace and eliminating possible issues.  Everything I did, it’s been to prepare for this in some fashion.”

“A little unilateral, don’t you think?”

“It’s her project,” Grue said.  “My orders are to follow her orders.”

I could see how little she liked that.

But she maintained a professional demeanor.  “Accepted.  You realize we don’t have to follow your orders?”

Grue nodded, silent.

Cozen seemed to come to a decision.  “We will anyways.  As Weaver pointed out, this is unfamiliar ground for us.  We’ll defer to your experience.”

“Thank you,” Grue and I said, almost in sync.

I turned away to hide my smile, in case it could be made out beneath the fabric of my mask.

Progress was slow.  The traps seemed to accrue in number as we drew closer to the center, as did the corpses.  More than once, we were forced to take the long way around, as traps or pools of acid barred our paths.

We passed an area with rows of identical looking cabins, then ran into the Protectorate.  Chevalier, Exalt, and others, examining the area, a block and a half away.

I got their attention, then pointed in the direction we were headed.  It wasn’t much more effort to mark out traps around them as well.  I made sure to mark each with a cluster of bugs, and bug-letters spelling out the nature of the danger.  Less trouble to move in parallel directions than reunite.

The center of the spiral wasn’t the center of the town in a geographic sense, but in a sense of where the town’s heart and focus were.  We closed in on the front steps of what looked to be a town hall.  Empty ski racks stood to our right, two draped with corpses that had been flung and broken over them.

By the time we were halfway through the plaza, navigating a maze where we tried to find a path that didn’t force us to tread on potential traps or corpses, Tecton and the others had caught up, reaching the edge of the area.

Thoughts?” Revel asked.  “Before you reach the center of the display?

“He wanted to present this for effect,” I said.  “It’s why he set up Pyrotechnical’s stuff to blow any aircraft out of the sky.  The traps are to force us to take our time, force us to savor it.”

“Savor?” Grue asked.

“Everything Jack does is for effect.  The same way a dog sort of raises its hackles to look bigger, tougher, or the way we used our reputation to seem more unstoppable than we were, Jack keys his actions for psychological effect.  All of this is to scare, to drive us to hesitate when it comes to confronting him, push us to think of ways to avoid dealing with him instead of ways to catch up to him and beat his face in.  Or, conversely, some personality types might get pushed to be reckless, to deal with him so he couldn’t bother them anymore.”

I glanced at Rachel as I said that last bit.  She’d instructed her dogs to stay, so they wouldn’t trip any of the traps in our way.

I made my way over a hump of bodies.  The members of the Nine who’d spilled acid all over the place had melted nine police officers and left them in a heap.  Crawler?  Only one that fit.

Our destination was the kind of spot, like a courthouse’s steps, where someone could give a speech.  There were two objects covered in tarps, a man who was in a reclining position at the far end of the stairs, and ten dead bodies arrayed in a star shape, limbs bent to mark the direction of the spiral.

I checked under the tarps, then bit my lip.

I turned around and gave Golem instructions as he made his way past the traps.  He created platforms to step over to serve as a shortcut.  Grace, Tecton, Wanton and Cuff hung back, looking grim.  They were joined by Chevalier and the others.

Golem joined me at the top of the stairs.

“How’s your headspace?” I asked.

“Terrified.”

“In a way that’s going to impact our job here?”

“No.  No.  You told me what to expect.  Kind of.  I didn’t imagine this.”

I shook my head.  “No.”

There was a voice from beneath the other tarp.  A strangled scream.

“What was that?”

“A recording,” I lied.  Then I elaborated.  “It’s a trap.  Two tarps, have to guess the right one.  Guess the wrong one and you blow up.  This one.  Move the tarp.”

He hesitated.

“Trust me,” I said.  Even as I lie for everyone’s benefit.

Rachel and Golem worked together to move the tarp aside.

A television.

“The tape’s already in the machine, you can hit play to start it,” the man sitting at the edge of the stairs said.

Wait, Weaver, stop.  Who was that?”  Revel asked.

“Who?” I asked.  “What do you mean?”

Look to your right.”

I did.  The other tarp, more corpses, the man who was now standing at the edge of the stairs, the little crenelation at the top of the stair’s railing, then beyond that, cabins, restaurants, hotels and motels, the rest of the town, and mountains in the background.

“Not sure I get what you’re saying,” I said.

“What’s wrong?” Grue asked.

“I don’t know.  I’m getting communications from Revel, and she’s acting funny.”

“Here,” the man said.  “Let me get that for you.”

The others stepped out of the way as he approached me, Golem, and the television set.  He reached for the play button.

I caught his wrist.

He’s dangerous,” Revel said.

“I beg your pardon?” the man asked.

Attack.

Attack?

I shook my head a little, releasing the man’s wrist.  “I appreciate the offer, sir, but let’s be safe and make sure this isn’t a trap.”

“Can’t argue with that,” he said, smiling.

This is what hell is like,” Revel said.  “Listen to me.

“Tattletale, are you there?”  I asked.

I am.

Tattletale?”  Revel asked.  “Damn all of you.  It doesn’t matter.  Listen, Taylor, Master and Stranger protocols are in effect.  Your perceptions are altered, understand?

I felt my heart quicken a little at that.  “I understand.”

There is a person to your right.  Not a teammate, former or current.  I need you to kill that person, don’t ask why, don’t think too much about it.  Draw your knife.

I drew my knife.

Look.  I’ll tell you who to attack.

I glanced to my right, my eyes falling on Rachel.  It was a bit presumptuous to say she wasn’t a teammate.  Not a team player, but she’d done her share.

No, to her right.

I looked past the man and set my eyes on Golem.

“I’m more inclined to think you’re a voice in my head that’s fucking with me, than to suspect Golem’s up to something, but-”

Oh hell,” Revel said.

I got this.  Taylor, do me a favor, give the order to ‘go dark’.

“Go dark,” I said.

To my left, Grue surrounded himself in thick darkness.

Nothing happened.

It didn’t work.”

Wait.”

A spray of blood leaped from the man’s throat.  We each stepped away, and I hurried forward to stop Rachel from backing into the other tarp.  We watched in stunned silence as blood poured from the wound.

“Hey,” a female voice said, “Do me a favor, let me know if there are any traps at the bottom of the stairs?”

“Who-” Golem started.

“Just tell me.”

“Acid,” I said, raising my knife so I could defend myself if I had to.

Imp appeared as she booted the bleeding man in the small of the back.  He rolled down the stairs, leaving spatters and sprays of blood as he made his way down, and then collapsed in a pile of bodies.  He started screaming, a gurgling sound.

I could see Chevalier and the others staring in shock, adopting fighting stances, unsure of how to proceed.  It looked like Chevalier was talking to someone, gesturing with his free hand.  Was it Revel, on the comms?

“My schtick,” Imp spat the words at the dying man.

I could mark the moment he died, because the blanks in my perception began to fill in.

Nice Guy, I thought.  I’d badly underestimated the severity of his power.  I’d known he would be in their roster, had kept it in mind throughout, even told myself to be ready for him, and then the moment we ran into him, well, he was another face in the crowd.  The connection wasn’t possible.

I watched as the acid ate away at him, burns creeping upward and spreading across his flesh, bubbling as it reached the cartilage of his nose and ears.

Thank you, Tattletale,” Revel said.

All good.

I… think I can tolerate your presence on this channel for the moment.  Provided you don’t cause any trouble that makes me regret it.

I’d do that anyways.  So.  One more trap down.  Keep in mind there are eight more of him.

“What was he going to do?” Golem asked.

Probably ask you all to stand there and stay still while he murdered each of you in turn,” Tattletale said.

“Oh.”

“Tattletale,” I said.  “Call my phone, and I’ll put you on speaker.”

Okay.  Let’s see.”

Six-three-zero-five-five-” Revel started.

My phone rang.  I picked up and put Tattletale on speaker, as Revel sighed audibly in my ear.

“Is the video player safe?” I asked.  I turned my head towards the television.

Yeah.  All the rest of this, it’s to scare.  It’s also meant to delay.  Jack probably expected the heroes to take a little while to find this, to get by the traps.  The spiral you mentioned, it would have been maybe a day or two before they put the pieces together, then another three to six hours before they navigated it to the center.

“Yay us,” Imp said.

She got more powerful, I thought.  She’d been able to speak while using her power.  Nuances.

Press play.”

I hit the button.

It was Jack, here, in the center of the plaza.  The camera wobbled as someone followed him, recording.  I could see shadows of the other Slaughterhouse Nine in the background.  Hookwolf.  Skinslip.  Night Hag.

“This message is intended for Theodore Anders.  Kaiser’s son.  Stop the video here and go find him.  Time is of the essence, I should say.  How much essence and time you have available depends on how incompetent you heroes are.  Hurry now, I’ll wait.”

No need to wait,” Tattletale commented.  “He’s standing right here.

There were a few looks of surprise at that.  Eyes fell on Golem.

There was a pause, then Jack started speaking.  “You missed the deadline, Theodore.  Simple game of hide and seek, and you had two years to do it, to find and kill me.  You failed.”

Golem’s gloves made a small creaking sound as he clenched his fists.

“You remember the deal, right?  Two years to find me.  Two years, you fight past my minions, you look me in the eye, and then you kill me.  And if you fail?  A thousand people die.  Your sister joins them, and you’re the last on the list.”

Golem,” Revel said.  She started to say something else, but Jack cut her off.

“That pain you feel, that self loathing?  The fear and dawning realization of what you’ve done?  Capture that, Theodore Anders.  Hold on to that feeling and use it, because I’m pulling your leg.”

Golem startled as if he’d been slapped.  His eyes had lowered, and now they returned to the screen.

“Circumstances beyond my control delayed me.  So I’m going to do you the favor of extending the deadline, and you’re going to do me the favor of forgiving my lateness.  Agreed?  Agreed.”

“Can we not agree?” Imp asked, uselessly.

Jack continued.  “This is a prelude.  See, all of these guys just woke up, and they needed a chance to stretch, flex their abilities and make sure everything works right.  Turn the camera around, Bonesaw dear.”

The camera panned around.  There were other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine present, standing in a loose half-circle.  Hundreds of them.  Nine of each.  Thirty groups.  I recognized most, could guess as to the others, who didn’t have their powers or full transformations going.

In the middle of that semicircle, lying on the ground, civilians had their hands folded on the backs of their heads.  In many cases they’d been stacked like cordwood.  Many bound, others too terrified to move.

“Oh god,” Golem said.

Jack spoke, his voice calm, clearly relishing this.  The camera returned to him, focusing on his face.  “I promised a thousand bodies.  A thousand kills, if you failed to meet the challenge we set in our bargain.  Except there’s a bit of a problem.  See, things have changed.  The Endbringers have apparently doubled down.  Terror is a fact of life.  As commodities go, this one has depreciated quite a bit in the time I’ve been gone.  We’ve really got to step up my game if I’m going to pass muster and get on the front page of the paper, don’t you agree?”

“No,” Golem said.

Silent, I took his hand, holding it.  My eyes didn’t leave the screen as I studied it for details, matching members of the Slaughterhouse Nine to the files I’d studied in recent months.

“Now, I’m still a man of my word,” Jack said.  “The original deal stands, of course.  That’s why each member of my army here is going to walk away with three or four of the locals here.  We’ve whittled down the number to an even nine hundred and ninety-nine.  Let’s say you have… hmm.  Until the twenty-fourth.  Five days.”

We watched in silence.

What’s the rub, the trick?

“If you fail to kill me, I disband the Nine.”

“What?” Imp asked.  “What?”

I frowned.  Not what I expected.

“That’s not an enticement to leave me alive,” Jack purred the words, sounding pleased with himself.  “See, Bonesaw did a very good job of putting my army together.  Each is in the prime of their life, fit, in fighting shape.”

“Aw shucks,” a girl’s voice said, offscreen.

“Their psychologies are close to what they should be, all things considered.  Except for tweaks, here and there.  I’m good when it comes to wrangling the wicked, but Bonesaw apparently felt two hundred and eighty would be too many, even for me.  She’s made them loyal.  They’ll listen better.  The most unpredictable and dangerous have been touched up, the edges rounded off.  While interacting with me, anyways.  I won’t sully your experience on that front.

“No.  They’re obedient and servile only when I require them to be.  If you fail in your task, then I’ll give them one last task, to kill the one thousand people we agreed to in the terms of our wager, and then I’ll disband the group.  They’ll be free to run rampant, to do as they see fit.  Wreak chaos.  I’ll take a vacation, sit back with a Mai Tai and watch the show.”

Fuck me,” Tattletale said.

“Fuck,” I echoed her, agreeing.

Golem, for his part, had gone stone-still.

“I’ll be leaving members of the Slaughterhouse Nine behind at regular intervals as I beat a not-so-hasty retreat.  Your choice if you deal with them or leave them be.  But if I get one report from them that you’re getting help, one report that you’re using others as a crutch, then that’s it.  Order goes out, hostages die, Nine go off leash, and you get to watch the body count rise.”

“Five days, Theodore.  Noon on the twenty-fourth.  I look forward to meeting you.”

The video cut out.

“Tattletale?” I asked.

Already on it.  Word’s going out to all the major players.”

I noted Chevalier’s approach.  He had used Golem’s platform to reach the base of the stairs, stepping around Nice Guy.

“Major players?” Grue asked.

“Everyone Tattletale’s been meeting with,” I said.

“I heard through the feed,” Chevalier said.  “The restrictions stand.”

“The restrictions stand,” I agreed.  I explained for the benefit of the others.  “We treat this as a Simurgh situation.  Control feedback, control exposure.  Anyone and everyone that potentially comes in contact with Jack could be a factor in Dinah’s end of the world scenario.  Powerful individuals are especially important in this.  The more powerful they are, the more important it is to minimize or prevent contact.”

“Um.  I probably sound dumb as I ask this,” Imp said, raising a hand as if she were asking a question in class, “But what about the nearly-three-hundred lunatic psycho people with crazy powers that he’s threatening to unleash on the world?”

“We’ll deal with them,” I said.  “With your okay, Chevalier?”

He fell silent.

“Chevalier, I thought-”

“Yes.  You proposed your strike squad. You’ve shown their ability to deal with different situations.  Fine.  But I’m assigning two tertiary squads to you.”

“Chicago and Brockton Bay teams.”

“I was going to say-”

“They’re teams I’m familiar with,” I said.  “Please.”

He fell silent again.

“Work with me here, and if we’re all standing at the end, I’m yours.  Whatever you want to use me for, however, it doesn’t matter.  If this blows over and the end of the world doesn’t happen, like some think it won’t, then the deal stands.”

“I’ll get in contact with Miss Militia and Crucible.”

“If it’s alright, can we have Clockblocker take control of the Wards for this excursion?”

“Whatever you need,” Chevalier said.  “You realize we’re pinning a lot on you?”

“On Golem more than me,” I said.  “We’re going to cheat our way through this, bend every rule, but it all hinges on Golem being able to hold his own.”

Jack’s going to try to set Golem up with a long chain of lose-lose situations,” Tattletale said.  “Force him to either let the innocents die and maintain the chase, or let Jack pull away.  We already got one big advantage by getting to this tape as fast as we did.  Let’s not show our hand.  Dragon’s on the line.  We’ve got Dragon’s Teeth and Azazel models moving to the front.

“Close in the net, then act decisively,” I said.  “Coordinated strikes.  If the Thanda are willing, a meteor strike in the right time and place could do wonders.”

There were nods of agreement from around the group.

Golem turned around and walked away.

“Golem,” I said.

He was already halfway down the stairs.  He used the panels at his waist to form an even footpath, with hands turned at right angles, positioned where he could put his feet on them.

“Golem!” I called out.  I handed my phone to Grue, then hurried after him.

He stopped as he set his foot on the first outstretched hand of pavement, but he didn’t turn around.  His voice was low, barely a whisper.  “Stop, Taylor.  Leave me alone.  Please.”

“You’re running?”

“I’m… no.  I’m definitely in.  I have to be, don’t I?”

“But?”

“But this is a lot to take in.  Jack, he talked to me about ripples.  About stuff extending outward, the lives that are affected.”

“I remember.  You told me that.”

“Right here, in this dinky little ski resort, he murdered a few hundred people, just as a warm up.  How many people on the periphery of it all are affected?  How many people across America, across the world, know people in Killington?  Or know the people who know people in this town?”

“You can’t think about things on that scale.”

“I have to.  Jack does, and I have to understand him.  If I don’t pay attention to it, if I ignore it all, pursuing only the end result, the target, then I’m acting like my dad.  Kind of.  Either way, I lose.”

“You care about the people who died, and you’re thinking about them that way for a good reason.  That’s not putting you on a path to being like either of them.”

“But that kind of consideration, letting it really sink in, it eats away at you, doesn’t it?  Shouldn’t it?”

“It should,” I said.

“There’s a reason we go numb, and I get that, but I don’t want to go down that road, not so quickly.  Not knowing just how easy it would be to revel in it, or to stop caring about the dead.  I’m there, and I’m…”

“What?”

The stoic face on his helm stared down at the ground.

“Theo?”

“I hear you guys talking about it, and you’re right there, in your element.  This is something that you’ve been working on for a long time, and there’s almost an excitement to you.  Like you’ve been in a kind of stasis for the entire time I’ve known you, and only now are you really coming back to life.”

“It’s not like that,” I said.

“No.  I mean, I’m not blaming you, or saying you’re a bad person.  You’re good at this, at taking a challenge head on, finding workarounds, manipulating the system to our advantage.  You’re doing it for good reasons, to help, to stop bad people.  I saw glimmers of that excitement, of the real Weaver, while you were dealing with our bosses, and making connections, offering deals to the bad guys you thought you could bring to our side.  But I’ve spent a long time thinking about Jack and watching old footage of him, and figuring out my enemy, my nemesis, and it’s like… that’s you.”

“Me.”

You’re his nemesis, Weaver.  I’m the reason he’s here, the reason these people died like this.  But you’re his counterpart, his mirror.  You’ve got that same excitement Jack has, you think along the same lines, in strategy and counter-strategy.  You thrive on conflict, just like he does.  And I… I’m not like that.”

I couldn’t muster a response.

“So right now?  You should go back.  Forget I said this, because it’s… I’m regretting opening my mouth already.  Work on formatting the strategies you already worked out to fit around the rules of Jack’s game, because that’s a good thing.  It’s what we need.  But let me have half an hour or an hour or however long I need to myself.  Until we stop waiting and stop letting Jack think we haven’t found the tape yet.  Let me take a moment and think about these people.”

“You’re not to blame for them,” I said.  “The Nine would have killed anyways.”

“I know.  I get that.  But I played a part in the sequence of events, and maybe these people wouldn’t have been the ones to die if I hadn’t made that wager with Jack… and I guess I think everyone else that cares has better things to do.  You trained me, the others trained me.  I- I guess I’m as ready as I could ever be.  I’ll fight when the time comes, wade through the gauntlet he sets in his wake and I’ll succeed or fail.  But I’m not a strategist, and these people need someone to mourn them.  Let me be useful in my own way, right here, right now.”

I opened my mouth to voice a reply, then shut it.

A moment passed, and Golem set about walking on the hands he’d raised from the ground, just two or so feet above the bodies and the streets that were painted with blood.

I stood where I was, watching as he steadily made his way to the safe zone I’d drawn out on the ground.  He stopped only to gesture for Tecton and Grace not to follow, then walked on, out of sight.

It’s not that I don’t care, I thought.  But-

But what?

I couldn’t articulate my thoughts.

But… we need a strategist, we need a plan, before all hell breaks loose, I thought.  Developing that, coming up with answers, fighting, it’s going to do a lot more good in the long run than compassion all on its own.

I looked down at Nice Guy, at the foot of the stairs, a fleshy mess that was slowly dissolving into the acid pile, which only spread and served as more acid to melt flesh.  I realized I was still holding my knife, from the time of the brief skirmish.  I sheathed it.

Then, as Golem had told me to, I pushed him, the dead, the maimed and the lost out of mind and turned back to the core group, to offer my services, to coordinate and administrate.

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