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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Scarab 25.4

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Touché, PRT. 

You got me.

Touché.

You’re attempting to reach Glenn Chambers, co-president of Faceti.  For our mutual convenience, please categorize your message.  Press one to contact my personal assistant, who can get your message to me in text asap.  Press two if you got my number from my business card.  Press four if you are an employee.  Press five if this is a personal call.  Press nine if the call is of utmost urgency, to put yourself on the line immediately if I’m on the phone, or set off an alarm if I’m not.

I seriously debated pressing nine.  I felt like this was a nine.

I hit one instead.

This is James, receiving a call for Mr. Chambers.

“It’s Weaver, I… I don’t know who else to call.”

I wasn’t coherent, which was unusual, considering how I could normally keep myself together in a crisis.

Oh, Weaver!  He’s actually talking to someone about you right now.  I got his attention.  He’ll be with you in a second.

“I’m not sure I have a second,” I said.  There was no response.  He wasn’t on the line.

“Oh man,” Golem said.  “I’m… oh fuck.”

Quite possibly the only person who was as concerned as I was.

Glenn here.  You should have called earlier.”

“I didn’t get a chance,” I said.  I would have explained, but time was precious here.

I imagine you didn’t.  Well, there’s good news and bad news.  You’ve already run into the bad news.  Here’s the good.  This?  It’s my plan they’re using.”

I could believe it.  I didn’t respond.

Their timing is off.  I would have done this differently if I were your enemy.  It’s too much of a gamble as it stands.

“They planned this, have been setting it up for a while.  I expected interference with the missions, being supplanted with the Protectorate squad, not this.  I just need to know-”

There was a fanfare, musical, light and jazzy.  By the time it faded, a crowd I couldn’t see had started applauding.

It’s starting,” Tecton said.  He was a pillar of confidence here.

Glenn was talking, but I couldn’t hear over Tecton and the crowd.  I stepped away, my free hand raised to block out the noise.

…nds like the show just started.  They have to have leverage against you if they’re pulling this.  Your probation?

“They’re threatening to declare a breach if I don’t play along.”

Play along.  I heard what you did, announcing what the PRT was doing to the entire building.  Word got around, in certain channels.  Do not do that again.  Don’t call your bosses out and let people know that you don’t want to be here.  They’ll be ready for it, and you’ll hurt worse than they do.”

“Okay,” I said.

Did they prep you?

“No.   I got off a six-hour graveyard patrol with Gauss and returned to the base to hear about this.  They even put our new Protectorate member on the comms to keep me out of the loop, then fed me just enough information I had to listen without telling me enough.  I’ve never even seen this show, and I barely had time to get my costume brushed off and my hair in order.  They tidied it up some here, but-”

Glenn cut me off.  “Okay.  It’s not the end of the world, but I don’t think this show will help you.  These shows almost always result in a ratings dip over timeIt boosts your appeal but hits you on respectability.  It’s only worth it if there’s merchandise or media to sell, which there isn’t.  They’re tanking you.  Still, this is minor in the grand scheme of things.

Being in front of millions of people was minor.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t had appearances before, but most had been without my knowledge.  The unveiling of ‘Weaver’ was a good example of how tongue-tied I was liable to get.

“What do I do?  How do I approach this?”

I’d tell you to just be yourself, but that’s a terrible idea.  Be yourself as you normally are with the Wards.  Be the teenager, the friend.  Play up the fact that you’re a group, that there’s camaraderie.  Build a relationship with the audience by sharing things they probably don’t know.  Nothing sensitive.

I wondered if the dildo prank that the Wards had initiated me with would qualify as sensitive.

More than that, I wondered if I even had enough of a bond with the others, something I could draw on.

Be engaging.  It’s more important to keep the conversation moving than it is to say what you want to say.

“Wards!”  A woman called out.  “All together.  Hurry up now.  You’re on in two minutes.”

Like a kindergarten teacher herding students around.

“Two minutes,” I said.  “I should go.”

Good luck.  This is a day the strategist needs to take a vacation, understand?  Or delegate a task to it.  They’re putting you out there because they think you’ll either take a hit to your reputation or you’ll try to be clever and self destruct.  You stand to lose more than they do, and this isn’t live, meaning they can pull anything they don’t want on the air.

“I get it,” I said.  “They aren’t just giving me enough rope to hang myself with, they’ve put me in a rope factory.”

Exactly.

“Thank you, Glenn.”

I joined the others, my heart was pounding with enough force that the thumps rocked my entire body.  Tecton was closest to the stage, followed by Grace and Wanton.  The core team members, the veterans.  Veterans in one sense.  Wanton didn’t have half the field experience I did, even with our sustained campaign against the local villains, starting to help out in Detroit and trying to deal with that one jerkass in Milwaukee who we hadn’t yet managed to pin down.  Tecton and Grace were a little more seasoned, but not by a lot.

The stage manager was checking the microphones everybody wore.  She paused by me, and ensured it was plugged in, and that the connection was unbroken.  I was essentially wearing the same costume I had in the winter, but had skipped the extra layer beneath.  I suddenly felt intensely conscious of every wrinkle and all of the grit that had gathered up around my ankles and feet as I’d patrolled.

The costumes the others wore were immaculate.  Wanton had styled his hair to be messy in a good way, and was draped in flowing, dark blue clothing with lighter armor situated across his chest, his waist, his boots and along the length of his arms.  I suspected that the cloth afforded him more protection than the thin plates of metal, but it served to mask his artificial arm.

Grace’s costume was light, in contrast to the dark of Wanton’s.  Her new costume was white cloth, almost a martial artist’s outfit, but designed to offer more coverage.  Reinforced pads were situated at every striking point, complete with studs to offer more traction and focused impacts.  There wasn’t a single hair out of place beneath her combination headband, hairband and mask.  She had glossy, wavy locks I was a little jealous of, and a trace of lipstick.

I wish I’d considered some make up.  Not that I wore a lot, or that I’d had the time.  I had only what they’d given me in the studio, and they hadn’t gone overboard, on the assumption that I’d keep my mask on.  No, if anything it forced me to keep it on.  Heavy eyeshadow to make it easier to see my eyes behind the blue lenses.

Cuff seemed to be in the same department as Grace.  She’d done herself up, with a more ornate braid to her hair, and had altered her costume a fraction, to allow for more decorative tailoring at the ends of each panel and the nose of her visor.  Slivers of skin were visible between some slats of armor at the upper arms and collarbone.  Of everyone here, she seemed the most excited.  She couldn’t sit still, but she was smiling, and it was a genuine expression.

That left Annex and Golem.  Golem was uncomfortable, and I couldn’t blame him.  Like me, he had details he’d want to hide.  His family, his background, the fact that he was in foster care.  His costume, too, was a work in progress.  It was a resource for him, and maximizing that resource often set him back in the appearance department.  Annex, by contrast, had settled into a ‘look’.  It was plain, intentionally so.  The white cloak was form-fitting, with ribs to keep the fabric straight and close to his body so it was easier and quicker to absorb.

“Grace,” Tecton said.  “No swearing.”

Wanton snickered a little.

Tecton pitched his voice lower.  “Golem?  You’ve got to stop calling adults sir while you’re in costume.  You do it as a civilian, dead giveaway.  Hasn’t mattered up until now, but this is the test.”

“I probably won’t say much,” Golem said.  “I’m so nervous I feel like I need to puke.”

“No puking,” Wanton said.

“No puking is a good idea,” I agreed.

“Weaver…” Tecton said.  He gave me a look, with only his eyes visible behind his helmet.  “…I don’t even know.  But I’ve kind of gone the extra mile for you, and you’ve done a lot in return, but-”

The stage manager stooped down a little to talk to us, even though both Tecton and I were both taller than her.  “Alrighty, guys!  You’re on in five, four…”

“I still owe you one.  I’ll be good,” I told Tecton, just under my breath.

“One!”

The jazzy fanfare played.  As if that wasn’t cue enough, the stage manager gave us a little prod, literally pushing Tecton forward.

It was surprising how small the studio was, both the stage with its slate gray floor and fake cityscape behind it and the studio audience.  Tecton led the way to the half-circle of a table with the three hosts on the far side.  The largest chair closest to the hosts was undoubtedly his, shipped here by the PRT so he could sit down in his armor without crashing to the floor.

We sat down.  Tecton, Grace, Wanton, me, Annex, Cuff and Golem, in that order.  The music died as we took our seats, opposite the three hosts.  An adult man, African-American by the looks of it, a woman with peroxide blond hair and a girl who could have been her daughter, a brunette who bordered on overweight, with a winning smile and an overly generous chest.

“Welcome back to Mornings with O, J and Koffi,” the woman said.  “School’s out for the day and we’ve got the Chicago Wards here for breakfast.  Good morning, guys.”

We voiced our replies.  Wanton gave me a look, smiling, and I made myself smile as well.

The young girl gave a small wave, “So nice to meet you.  We had the team here before, but you guys have definitely changed things up since.  Campanile was the team leader then.”

“Campanile graduated to the Protectorate a little while ago,” Tecton said.  “He said to say hi.”

“You were there too, weren’t you?” Koffi, the man, said.

“In my old costume,” Tecton said.  “Which I’d prefer we didn’t talk about.”

There were chuckles from the hosts at his comment, and the audience echoed them.  It was oddly surreal.  I intended no offense to Tecton in thinking it, but the comment just wasn’t that amusing.

“The updated costumes look good,” Koffi said.

“We can thank Weaver for that.  Any cloth you see is spider silk,” Tecton said.

“Spider silk, wow!”  This from the blonde woman.

“Cuff and I sort of missed out on that front,” Tecton added.

“I don’t know whether to be amazed or freaked out,” the younger woman said.

“We had a giant Japanese crab on the show just a month ago, I think.  Jo had to leave the stage,” Koffi said.  “I think she’s a little nervous with Weaver here.”

“That was so embarrassing,” the young woman said.  I made a mental note of her being ‘Jo’.  “And you’re never going to let me live it down.”

More laughter.

Oh hell, I thought.  It was all so fake.  Fake responses, fake conversation.  The personalities, the way they were over-talking, it was like they’d taken everything that irritated me and condensed it into this, and situated it all in front of countless viewers so I couldn’t even respond the way I wanted to.

“I don’t dislike you, Weaver,” Jo said.  “It’s bugs I don’t like.  I’m not nervous.”

“Thank you.  Good,” I said.  Then, in an attempt to recover the clumsy sentence, I added, “I’m glad.”

The blonde, who was ‘O’ by the process of elimination, said, “There’s been a fair bit of attention directed at your team.  The leaked video thrust you all into the spotlight.  Then you dropped off the radar.”

“Recuperating,” Tecton said.  “We’re teenagers.  We go to school and play video games and being a cape is only part of it.”

“Except for Weaver,” Wanton said.

Both Tecton and I shot him a look, and then I remembered that there were eyes on me.  There was a reaction from the audience.  Light laughter.

“What do you mean?” Jo asked.

How could I even explain that I was working towards stopping or mitigating the degree of the world ending, when I wasn’t allowed to mention the fact?  Or that we were systematically targeting the most problematic villains, when I didn’t want anyone to see the show and hear the battle plan outlined for them?

“Wanton has been poking fun at Weaver about how she doesn’t go out or maintain any hobbies,” Tecton explained.  “Which isn’t entirely fair.  My apologies to Weaver bringing this up, but it’s not a secret that she’s on house arrest.  She’s on probation, and so she’s limited in what she can do.”

Koffi seized on the topic.  “You had a pretty colorful life as a villain, Weaver.  We’ve seen the cell phone video of you in the cafeteria of your high school, opposite Dragon and Defiant.”

I felt simultaneously glad that the conversation was moving and horrified that I was the subject.  I blamed Wanton.

Still, I said, “Clockblocker too.  I wasn’t actually attending school, though.  It was a couple of unlucky circumstances that put me there, and… yeah.  At that point in time, I’d wanted to focus on taking care of my part of the city.”

“That’s interesting, isn’t it?” O asked.  “You were a criminal overlord.  How were you even qualified for that?”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said.  I was more nervous now, half-convinced I was damning myself further with every sentence.  I’d inevitably come off too harsh and ‘dark’ for the civilians who were watching and too soft for any villains who happened to see.  Damn it.  “Taking the territory and being a villain were independent things.  Related, but different.  It was after Leviathan attacked, food, water, shelter and safety were hard to come by.  It was a way to help.  If I’d been a solo hero then, I’d have done much the same thing.  I’d have been gentler, but yeah.”

With less money to spend, I thought.  I’d avoided mentioning I was an undercover, aspiring hero when I’d started out.  That had never worked out for me, and only complicated things.

“And Alexandria?  I think everyone’s curious about your thoughts there.  You were shocked, in the video, when she made a reappearance.”

I shook my head.  “It’s not her.  I’m… I’m not happy, obviously, to see her up there.  It’s an ugly reminder of what happened.  But to have another person fighting Endbringers?  I’m okay with that part of it.”

“A long, bumpy road, and it’s brought you here,” O said.

“With the Chicago Wards,” I said, in a vain hope to turn the conversation away from me.

She took my cue.  “New costumes, a new group.  Behemoth is defeated and it looks like the Endbringers might have reverted to the schedule they had pre-2002.  An attack every four to five months.”

“Yes,” Tecton said.  “Everything’s new.  There’re a lot of changes going on.”

“Are you excited?” Jo asked.

Oh man, was I ever starting to dislike her.

“I’m really excited,” Tecton said.

The response caught me off guard.  Was he lying for the sake of appearances or was it honest?  How could someone be excited when the end of the world was nigh?  Did he not believe it was coming?

Whatever the answer was, I felt oddly disappointed in him.

Cuff shifted in her seat, and metal scraped against the metal of the chair’s footrest with a high-pitched noise.  She whispered, “Sorry.

O leaned forward.  “It’s fine.  Let’s hear from some of the others.  Wanton, your thoughts?  Are the changes good?”

“The changes are good.  I give Weaver a hard time, but she really kept us alive.”

“She did, by the looks of what happened in that video,” O said.

Bringing the conversation back to me.  Again.

“Grace?” she asked.  “Thoughts on your team member?”

“If you told me way back on the first time we met that I’d come to respect her, I’d have been surprised.”

Jo looked at me.  “Does that bother you?”

“No.  I respected and liked the Chicago Wards right off the bat, but I don’t blame them if there was any suspicion,” I said.

“Pretty generous.”

“If anything, I was pretty amazed by how they all pulled together in New Delhi.  Three of them were new, two hadn’t even been in a real fight before, and they went up against Behemoth?”

Cuff was perched on the edge of her seat, doing her best not to move and make things squeak again.  She had the ability to liquefy the metal touching her skin, which would have eliminated the problem, but the act would have ruined the look of it.  Part of that stiffness was anticipation, like a child who hadn’t done their homework, sitting at their desk and dreading the moment where the teacher called on them.  A stark contrast to her excitement earlier.  Had the screech knocked her off cloud nine?

“Cuff,” Koffi said.  “What do you think?  We saw the video, and you were pretty scared at the start, there.”

“Terrified.”

“You got injured?  We didn’t get to hear how.”

“A burn,” Cuff said, smiling a little.  “I recuperated in a few days.”

A lie.  She still hadn’t fully recuperated today, eight months after the fact.  She might never.

“I love to ask this question,” Jo said.  “What’s it like, being a superhero?”

She loved that question?

“It feels weird to think of myself as a hero,” Cuff said.  “I’m… I don’t think I’ll ever be one of the big heroes.  I’m not a cape at heart.  Fighting isn’t in my personality, and I got powers like this.”

“Cuff is a girly-girl,” Wanton commented.  “Her bunk at the Wards headquarters has pink sheets and rainbows and there’s a unicorn picture on the-”

Cuff leaned around me to mock-punch him.  “I’m not that bad!”

“You’re bad, though.”

Tecton raised a hand to cover Wanton’s mouth.  “I’m thrilled to have her on the team.  She hasn’t disappointed me yet.”

Cuff smiled at him.  “Thank you.

I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to say the same about Cuff, but my standards might have been higher.  She’d always done the job, but there was a reticence to her that wasn’t going away.  Three months ago, in our first real conflict outside of fighting Behemoth, she’d needed a push to carry out an offensive.  Four days ago, in Milwaukee, she’d needed that same coaxing.

Cuff was competent.  She had her strengths, and was stellar in some narrow cases.  At the same time, I still worried if a moment’s hesitation on her part would get one of us hurt somewhere down the road.

She was talking, happy to be in the limelight, stage fright forgotten.  “I was saying what it’s like being a hero.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s something that eats into every part of your life even if you want to limit it to four hours a day, four times a week.  If you don’t train and exercise then you fall behind.  If you don’t read the briefings on the bad guys, then you look stupid when you do run into them and have to ask someone.”

“I certainly hope you’re not getting into serious fights,” Koffi said.

“Um,” Cuff said.  Stage fright back in full force.  She’d touched on something that would get her a slap on the hand from the PRT, and now she didn’t have her footing.

I was trying to think of a way to rescue her when Tecton said, “Fights happen.  We’re actively trying to avoid direct confrontation, but we patrol and we practice our abilities so we can handle ourselves in the real crisis situations.  Many of our members patrol with other capes so they can get experience while having someone to rely on in case of an emergency.”

All true, but he was omitting the fact that we were actively seeking out indirect confrontation.  It was an admirable spot of double-speak, simultaneously reinforcing the atmosphere we were hoping to establish.  Heroes are safe.  Everything is under control.

“I kind of like those times,” Annex said.  “You get to hang out with the local powerhouses, hear what they have to say, learn from them.  I had a brief stay in a few other teams, but the one thing I really like about Chicago is that everyone is okay with me asking questions, and I have a lot.”

“Who’s your favorite cape to hang out with?” Jo asked.

“Shuffle.  Our powers work well together, if we’re careful not to let them interfere.”

“And Golem?  I can almost guess.  When Campanile appeared in the evening news, he had some promising words to say about the Protectorate’s newest member.  When we asked him who the most promising new recruit in the Wards was, he named you.”

“Ah,” Golem said.  “Yeah.”

“Do you think you can live up to that?”

“I hope I can,” Golem said.

The conversation was faltering.  I thought of what Glenn had said.  Showing some of the bonds between team members.  If I had one with anyone, it was with Golem.  The running, the shared perspective on the end of the world, the fact that we were both Brockton Bay natives…

“Everything Tecton has been saying about Cuff is true for Golem,” I said.  “If he’s getting praise from the heroes, he deserves it.  He’s a classic hero at heart.”

“A classic hero?” Koffi asked.

“He’s like Tecton.  Grace and Annex are too, to a lesser degree.  He’s genuinely good-natured and kind.  When everything starts falling apart, he’s still there, naturally courageous.”

“I like how I’m omitted from that list,” Wanton said.  “Only person who hasn’t been praised so far.”

I think you’re awesome,” Jo said, smiling.  The audience cooed.

“Golem’s steadfast,” I said.  “He’s working out, he’s studying hard for both regular school and cape stuff.  And with all of that going on, he’s still generous enough to help me out with my stuff.  Like Tecton said, I’m limited in where I can go and when, and Golem helps with that.”

The running, primarily, but not wholly that.  He’d walked with me to the mall once or twice.  I didn’t want to share details, though, in case people decided to try to find us while we were out, with Golem not in costume.

“Do relationships develop in this environment?” O asked.  “Anything besides friendship?”

“If you’re talking about Weaver and me, then no,” Golem said.  “We’re friends.”

“Friends,” I asserted.

“You had a thing going on with Grue,” Wanton chimed in.

“And this is the third time you’ve turned the conversation awkwardly back to me,” I retorted.

He gave me a sheepish grin.

“A tender moment on the battlefield,” O said.  “I think a lot of people were surprised.”

It was a personal moment, I thought.  If I harbored any ill will towards Glenn, it was for that.  He’d deleted sound or video where it gave up identifying details, like the nature of Cuff’s injury.  He hadn’t erased the scene with the woman in the suit, but the reception hadn’t held up that deep underground, so there was no need.  He’d also been kind enough to erase the scene where Imp had promised to get revenge on Heartbreaker.  The villain hadn’t been notified of her plan.

But all of the bonding, the closeness, leaving interactions with Rachel open for hundreds of millions of people to speculate on?  That was scummy.

Necessary on a level, but still scummy.

I hadn’t replied to his statement.  I almost wanted to let the silence linger awkwardly, just to nettle them and drive home that it wasn’t their business.

Jo didn’t give me the chance.  “You talked about Tecton and Golem as naturally heroic people.  What about you?”

Man, her questions irritated me.  Asking questions where they already knew the answer or where the answer was so immaterial…  Who watched this kind of garbage?

Why was I being forced to support it by my presence?

“I was a villain for three months,” I said.  “Maybe I’d like to think I was a little bit heroic as a villain, and I’m a little bit villainous as a hero.  But I’m working on that last part.”

“Hold on, hold on.  You think you were heroic, before you switched sides?” Koffi asked.  “By all accounts, you killed Alexandria and a law enforcement official.  You were quoted as talking to schoolchildren about the huge quantities of money you earned from criminal activities.”

Was he just sitting back, waiting for an opening?

Grace stepped up to my defense.  “She said a little.  She fought the Slaughterhouse Nine.  She helped the people in her district.”

“That actually sounds impressive,” Jo said.  “If that’s a little, then I wonder what being a little bit of a villain nowadays is like.”

She tittered along with the audience’s reaction.

“No response?” Koffi asked.

They were ganging up on me.  I wished I knew who these guys were, what their normal style was, so I could roll with it.

“I’ll let my actions speak for themselves,” I said.

Tecton was quick to speak, backing me up.  “I think that’s the best way to go about it.  It’s untreaded ground, in a way, to have a notorious ex-villain on the team.  Whatever happens, people are going to wonder where she stands, if I’ve been corrupted by association, or if this is all some elaborate scheme.  But we can work on it.  She can keep doing good work, and hopefully a few months or years down the road, I’ll still be able to say that Weaver’s a good person at heart and she’s done a lot for the good of the city and the world, you know?  Some people won’t be convinced no matter what she does, but time and reliability should let Weaver prove her worth.”

“Makes sense,” O said.  “We’re rapidly approaching another ad break.  I don’t suppose we could get any of you to step up to the plate?  A demonstration of powers?  A neat trick?”

I almost volunteered, but then decided against it.  I didn’t want to spend more time in the spotlight.

Annex stood from his chair.

“One of the new members!  Excellent!”  Jo said.  “We’ve got a crash test dummy, a beat up car…”

“I can do something with the car.  Maybe we could remodel the exterior?” Annex asked.  “Maybe the audience could name a car?  What should we make?”

Jo hopped out of her seat, arm raised like a kid in class.  She was short.  I mentally re-evaluated my estimation of her age to put her closer to her late teens than her early twenties.

A series of beeps, not even a half-second apart, interrupted all of us.  Our phones?

I was still drawing my cell from my belt when I saw a commotion backstage.  People who’d been standing still were running now, talking into headphones.

My cell phone screen was surrounded by a thick yellow border.  A text was displayed in the middle.

Stand by.

Disturbance recorded.

Possible Class S threat.

The others had identical messages on their screens.

There were murmurs among the audience members as someone from backstage stepped up to talk to Koffi and O.

“It can’t be,” Cuff said, her voice quiet.

“We got texts just like this for the incident where we met Weaver,” Tecton said.  “It could be a similar situation.”

The lighting changed.  Tecton stood from his seat, and I joined the others in following suit.

A studio employee advanced to the front of the stage.  When he spoke, the microphone headset he wore carried the sound, “A possible emergency has come up elsewhere in the world.  If this blows over in the next few minutes, we’ll edit out anything problematic and resume the show.  For now, remain calm while we prepare for an emergency broadcast from the news team upstairs.  There is no danger here.”

My phone buzzed.  I checked it to see another text.

Chicago Wards are to remain at current location.

Transportation en route.  Will deploy to studio B parking lot for quick pickup.

A little more ominous than the ‘maybe’ the studio employee had given us.

Panel by panel, the backdrop of the ‘Mornings with O, J and Koffi’ set transformed, images flickering to show a composite of a grainy, long-distance shot of a city.  It had been taken with a cell phone, and the resolution didn’t translate well with the size of the ‘screen’.  There were tall buildings, neon signs glowing in the late evening.  Somewhere in Asia.

“Japan,” Wanton said.

The camera was shaking, and the view on the screen reacted in kind.

Dust rose in clouds, billowing, until they obscured the camera’s view.

The audience was reacting.  Moans, cries of alarm and despair.  They knew what was going on.

“Please be the Simurgh,” Cuff said, her voice small.  Grace put an arm around Cuff’s shoulders.

That may be the first time in history anyone’s thought that.

She’s right, too.  Even the Simurgh would be better than this.

The timing, the fact that it was happening so soon after Behemoth had died… it was all wrong.

Behemoth had come from deep underground.  Leviathan had emerged from the ocean.  The Simurgh had approached from the far side of the moon and descended to hover just above the tallest building in Lausanne.

The fourth, it seemed, was appearing in plain sight.

The dust took forever to clear.  But for a few mutters here and there, small animal sounds of despair from the audience and studio employees who were watching, the studio had plunged into quiet horror.

It stood somewhere between Leviathan and Behemoth in height, if I ballparked by the number of stories in the adjacent buildings.  I waited patiently for the view to clear, revealing more details.  Clues, as if there was a solution to what we faced here.

I pegged him as a he before I saw too much else.  He was broad, a Buddha in physique, if more feral in appearance.  He was as black as night, with something white or silver giving definition around the edges of his various features.  He didn’t wear clothes, but he had features somewhere between leaves and fins, with elaborate designs at the edges, curling away from elbows, his wrist, his fingers and around his legs. It made his fingers and toes into claws, and left dangerous looking blades elsewhere.  His face was a permanent snarl, frozen in place, his teeth silvery white behind the ebon lips.  Tendrils like the whiskers of a catfish marked the corners of his mouth.

All across the exterior of his body, there were gaps, like the gills of a fish, and that brilliant white or silver glimmered from beneath, a stark contrast to the absolute black that marked the rest of him.  It made me think of a tiger.  And at the center of it all, quite literally, there was a perfect sphere of that same material, a marble or a crystal ball, his body perched on the upper half and his legs attached to the lower half.

Arms extended out to either side, he took a step, almost waddled.  He floated as though he were walking on the moon.

“He’s not a fighter,” I murmured.

“No,” Tecton agreed.

“What is he?” Grace asked.

People were fleeing, still in close proximity to the site, evacuating tall buildings.  The Endbringer stopped and extended a hand.  His arms weren’t long enough to reach around his girth, but his upper body rotated on the sphere that formed his midsection, giving him the freedom of movement needed.

The camera shook as he used his power, and an unseen cameraman had to catch it before it fell.  A faint glowing line appeared on the ground, a perfect circle.   The light gradually intensified, reaching higher, and the space within the circle seemed to darken in equal measure.

It moved, the circle roaming, the glowing lines adjusting to scale obstacles and account for higher ground and dips in the terrain.

When it intersected a building, the effect became clear.  Barely visible with the camera’s range, they were nonetheless a blur, moving within the circle’s perimeter.

“They’re trapped,” Golem said.  “He’s manipulating time in there and they’re trapped.”

Golem was right.  How many days were they experiencing in there, with only the food they had on hand?  Was water reaching them?  There didn’t seem to be power.

“Oh god,” Cuff said.  “Why isn’t anyone stopping him?”

“There’s no heroes on scene,” Tecton said.  “Japan doesn’t have many dedicated heroes anymore.”

It took six or seven seconds for the blurring of their movements to slow.  In another second, it stopped altogether.

He left his power where it was.  The glass on the building’s exterior cracked.  Cracks ran along and through the other material, in the street and at the edges of the structure.  It leaned, then toppled, and the destruction was contained inside the effect.

Wanton spoke, almost hesitant.  “Is that- doesn’t that remind anyone of-”

“Yes,” Grace said.  “The barrier, the time manipulation.  It’s similar.”

Similar to what we did.

All in all, the Endbringer was there for a minute.  The effect moved on, and it left a ruined husk of a building behind.  Though there was no sun shining, the stone and terrain had been sun bleached, worn by elements, eroded.

The Endbringer extended his hands out to either side, and two more glowing circles appeared.  Like the first circle had, they flared with light.  Like the first, they moved, drifting counterclockwise around him.  It was a slow, lazy rotation, slower than a moving car but faster than someone could hope to run.

He advanced with floating steps, and the circles maintained a perfect, steady distance away from him and from each other, orbiting him like the shadows cast by three invisible moons.  Here and there, people and cars were caught inside.  He wasn’t a full city block down the street before one circle had a crowd trapped within, half-filling the base of it, another circle perhaps a quarter of the way full.

He moved through a less populated area, and he left trails of skeletons in his wake, in odd fractal patterns that followed the circles’ movements.

He chose what entered and he chose what left.  An attack form that couldn’t be defended against, only avoided.

“Movers will be important,” I said.  “Maybe shakers too, if we can find a way to stop him or his circles from progressing.  His threat level depends on how fast and how much he can move those time-stop areas.”

There was no reply from the others.

I glanced at Cuff, and I saw that she was hugging Grace.  She was silent, but tears were running down her face.  Grace was more resolute, but her eyes were wet.

The timing, it was wrong.

Strategy, figuring out a battle plan, it was crucial here.  The first attacks were often some of the worst for cape casualties, if not necessarily the overall damage done.  Too many lives would be lost in finding out his general capabilities.

But it didn’t matter.

I reached out and took Cuff’s hand, holding it.  A glance in the other direction showed me Golem.  I took his hand too.

This was the key thing in this moment.  Not the future, what came next.  Support, morale and being a team in the now.

Silent, we watched as the heroes engaged.  Eidolon and Legend joined the Japanese heroes in fighting the unnamed Endbringer, keeping a safe distance.

One circle disappeared, and the Endbringer reached out.  Defending capes were too slow to escape the perimeter before the effect took hold, a new third circle forming.  Eidolon tried hitting the effect with three different powers, but it didn’t break.

No, no, no…” Cuff whispered.

In a minute, the capes were dead.

Our phones beeped, and I felt a moment’s despair.  We’d have to fight this thing.

Ship is outside if you want it, Chicago Wards.  Attendence not mandatory.

Temp. codename is Khonsu.

“I’m…” Cuff said, staring down at the phone.  “I’m staying.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re going?” she asked.

I nodded.

She nodded back, swallowed hard, before she turned her eyes back to the screen.  In that moment, the Endbringer, Khonsu, reversed the direction the circles were drifting, extending the distance they were orbiting around him in the same movement.

Capes who’d been trying to time their advance to close the distance to Khonsu were caught.  Four trapped and doomed to die a slow death, a fifth caught between a building and the orb’s perimeter as the circle continued its rotation.  When the circle had left the building behind, there was only a bloody smear where the fifth cape had been.  Skeletons for the rest.

Now he stood still, weathering attacks with the same durability the other Endbringers had.  Damage to his flesh exposed silver, and damage to the belly or other silver parts showed ebon black.  The onionlike layers Tattletale had described, plain to see.

I tore my eyes from the screen, marching towards the emergency doors.

So much was wrong with this.

It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right.  Fucked on so many levels.

A woman was sobbing in the hallway as we passed.  A group of twenty-somethings in dress shirts sprinted down the hallway, carrying bags.

The dragon-craft was waiting for us outside, ramp doors open.

Odd, to see the sky so bright, when the battlefield was shrouded in night.

We stepped inside, entering the center of the craft.  I found a seat by a monitor, with a laptop ready and waiting for use, login screen displayed.  The monitor was showing the battlefield, roving over the dead, the buildings that had collapsed under the weight of years.  Oddly, the cameraman wasn’t focusing on Khonsu or the defending heroes.  A few heroes were fleeing, but most weren’t in view.

“We’re ready,” Tecton called out.  “Ship?”

The craft hadn’t taken off.

My growing sense of dread was confirmed as the image on the monitors changed.

Even with those circles being as devastating as they are, it wasn’t enough.  There wasn’t the same broad scale, the promise of lingering devastation.

No.  There was something more to Khonsu.

The monitors showed him in a different city.  A caption on the bottom of the screen showed the words ‘Cape Verde’.

He’d teleported halfway around the planet.

All of the problems with getting to Endbringer fights on time, with mobilizing and dealing with the fact that half of our best teleporters and movers had been slain in past battles… he was capitalizing on that weakness.

My phone vibrated to alert me to a new text.  I didn’t need to read it to guess what it said.  I read it anyways.

Stand by.

“No,” I whispered to myself.

The heroes were engaging, now.  Legend and Eidolon had caught up.  Khonsu had situated himself near some kind of military installation, and they’d wasted no time in readying for a fight.  Missiles and shells exploded around him.  The columns of frozen time that rotated around him caught many, and they exploded within the delineated structures.

For long minutes, he fought.  I watched, my eyes fixed on the screen, to see his behavior, to look for the cue.

He waded into and through the arranged military squadrons with their parahuman supplementary forces.  He was as tough as Behemoth or Leviathan.  No attack delivered more than scratches or nicks.

Five minutes, six, as he leisurely tore through the forces he’d caught off guard.  Eidolon ducked between two of the pillars of altered time and delivered a punch that sent the Endbringer tumbling.  The orbiting columns were pulled behind Khonsu as he moved, and Eidolon came only a hair from being caught.

Alexandria and other capes joined the attack.  Too few.  Everyone else retreated.

Khonsu didn’t pursue.  He remained where he was, arms extended out to either side, palms down.

Then he disappeared in a massive, tightly contained explosion.  Trucks and sections of fence were thrown into the air by the movement.

Long seconds passed.  Then my phone vibrated.  Another text.

Cannot deploy until we have a way to pin him down.

Stand by until further notice.

I struck the laptop that sat in front of me.  One hinge holding it in place snapped.  I shoved it hard, and it fell to the floor of the craft.

“Fuck!” I shouted.  “Fuck it!”

I kicked the fallen laptop, and it went skidding across the floor, down the ramp and into the parking lot.  My foot stung with the impacts.

The other Wards were gathered, sitting or standing around the craft that was taking us nowhere.  There was no way to approach if he’d teleport by the time we arrived.  We’d never catch up to him.  The others were as quiet and still as I’d been violent, haunted, scared.

Nobody talked.  Nobody volunteered ideas, because we didn’t have any.

I wasn’t sure any of us knew how to fight this one.  Nobody in the Chicago Wards did.  Nobody elsewhere.  Speaking, commenting on the situation, it would only remind us of what we were facing.

Above all else, I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about the detail we hadn’t spoken aloud.  The thing, above everything else, that made this so fucked up.  In the nine years that we’d been fighting Behemoth, Leviathan and Simurgh, they’d never attacked this close together.

Even if we found a way to beat this Khonsu, to mount a defense and stop him from picking us apart, settlement by settlement, darker possibilities loomed.

Two attacks, two months apart.  Had their schedule changed?  Would the next attack come in a mere two months, or would it be more unpredictable than that?

No, I thought, with a dawning horror.  No, it was worse than that.  The Endbringer’s schedule of attack had always depended on the number of Endbringers in the rotation.

If they were keeping to their usual rules, it promised a fifth, waiting in the wings.

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Scarab 25.2

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“Sorry… I’m… so…”

He didn’t finish the sentence.

I could sense him slowing, using the bugs I’d planted on his costume.  I stopped and waited for him.

“It’s fine, Theo.  You’re doing me a favor.”

“Doesn’t feel like it,” he said.  He bent down, hands on his knees.

I waited for him to get his breath.

“I might throw up,” he added.

I backed away a step.  “Just getting the chance to run, it’s cool.  Not many others are willing to meet me at seven to run, much less six weeks in a row.  Grace is athletic, but she got sick of it fast.”

He mumbled something I couldn’t make out.

“What?”

“I’m not athletic.”

“You’re getting better.  We just got a whole two blocks.  That’s not bad.  About as good as I was when I started.”

“Not fair to you, make you suffer for how much I suck.”

“It’s fine.  It’s nice to get outside.  Kind of a pain to have to get someone to come with if I want to go outside for no particular reason.  If I don’t get the exercise here, I can use the treadmill back at the headquarters.  Don’t feel obligated, if you’re not enjoying this.”

“I don’t.  I’m… it’s good.  I want to get fit.”

“Well, in that case, don’t worry about it.  We’re both benefitting,” I said.

He made it another few steps before he was hunched over again, still breathing hard.

I felt a pang of sympathy, suppressing a smile at the same time.  “Come on.  We’ll walk one block, then try running another, walk the rest of the way.”

He was still panting for breath as he obliged.

I found myself missing Brockton Bay.  It wasn’t the most beautiful city, or the most active.  Or the most anything.  There were already things going on around the portal, but it wasn’t a city with a lot going for it, and it hadn’t been even before the intense series of events had laid waste to the shoreline, set a water-filled crater in the northwest corner of the downtown area and left an entire swathe of the city so fucked up with random, horrifically dangerous effects that it had to be walled off.

Maybe I wouldn’t have felt the same way if I hadn’t grown up there, but I liked the balance in Brockton Bay.  The way there was everything I could want, as far as malls, shopping centers, theaters.  It was a big enough city.  Yet there was just as much room to wake up early in the day, when others weren’t out, and have Brockton Bay to myself.

Chicago wasn’t like that.  It was busy, and it was busy in a way that got in my way.  People were already up if I got up at six in the morning to go run.  Some were still up from the previous night, having spent the entire evening at clubs or whatever else.  Everything was taken to an extreme, it seemed, in drama, opinions and ideas.  It made it a little harder to sympathize with Chicago’s equivalents to the people I’d been helping in Brockton Bay.  A little harder to sympathize with anyone, really.

I was feeling cramped.  I wasn’t a social person at my core, and being here, like this, never allowed to be out and on my own, it rankled.  I liked time on my own, with the internet or a good book, even a bad book, to get my mind settled down, my thoughts in order.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like people, that I didn’t like company, but too much was too much, and I had no elbow room here.

Whether they knew it or not, the PRT directors had found a fitting way to punish me.  Hopefully it wouldn’t go any further than this.  I’d done as they asked, I was staying under the radar, and though I didn’t plan to stay there, I didn’t think they had any reason to make my life more difficult.  I had my suspicions that my phone and computer were tapped, so I was careful about what I browsed and how I communicated.

With luck, they would forget about me until I was active again.  With more luck, I wouldn’t have to worry about them much longer.  The Director from Toronto, the guy I hadn’t been able to place, had already quit.  Wilkins and West were still active, but the woman at the end of the table was under scrutiny.

There was stuff going on behind the scenes, and speculation was rampant on the Parahumans Online site.  Satyrical’s name had come up.  As far as  could tell, the Vegas capes had gone rogue, and they were apparently targeting the more corrupt elements of the PRT.

I wasn’t a hundred percent sure how to feel about that, but I wasn’t complaining if someone was taking down my enemies for me, especially if it was in a more or less safe, legitimate way.

“Hey,” Theo said.

I turned to look at him.

“When you were dealing with the Slaughterhouse Nine back in Brockton Bay, you fought Jack Slash, right?”

“Yeah.  Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“He doesn’t really fight, unless he’s got his people around him and the fight’s unfair.  Mostly, I was chasing him around, trying not to get killed in the process.”

He frowned.

“Worried?” I asked.  “You’ll have help.”

“So will he,” Theo pointed out.

“True.”

“I’m… I’m not good at this.  Everything Kaiser was, I’m not.”

“That’s not a bad thing.  He was an asshole.  You aren’t.”

Theo managed a weak smile.  It was hard to identify just how he would react in regards to things.  Backed against a wall, faced with a serious threat, he showed courage.  I’d seen him on patrol, and for all his worries, he did follow through.  He had against Behemoth, in what was almost his first time out in costume.  Talking about his family, though, I couldn’t pin down just what he’d say or do.

The feeble smile, was that genuine?  Had I hurt him, left him in a position where he wanted to defend his family but couldn’t because of what they were?

“I don’t fit the typical cape mold,” Theo said.

I resisted the urge to tell him I didn’t either, but I didn’t.  I remembered a tidbit of advice I’d heard Tecton giving, and listened instead.  “You’re feeling nervous.  Anyone would.”

“The running, I don’t feel the difference,” he said.

“Slow gains, but they’re there.”

“The training helps,” he said.  “The training feels concrete, like I’m getting significantly better.”

“You want to train when we get back?”

“I don’t have long before I have to patrol.  A short one?”

“Sure.  Come on.  Run one more block, throw up if you have to, then we walk back.”

He made a sound partway between a gurgle and a groan, but he followed me as I took off.

Running at first, then walking, we took a different route coming back than we’d taken on our way out.  The trees by the lake were aflame with autumnal colors, and I could see a handful of college students and older folk gathered, enjoying the serenity of the lake, the perfect temperature.  Tranquil.

That was something I could get behind.  I would have loved to sit by the lake, given the opportunity.  The trouble was, I never got the chance.  I was leashed to other people’s schedules, my excursions had to be in another person’s company, and nobody had really seemed keen on the idea of going out solely to go and sit at the lakeside.

As penance went, it was pretty light, but the overall effect of this restriction was wearing on me in a way that the jail cell hadn’t.

We reached the PRT headquarters, one of two in Chicago. It was squat, broad, and not terribly pretty, but it sported a statue on the roof that had been paid for by an old member, Stardust.

Once inside, we made our way up to the top floor, where the Wards’ rooms and the ‘hub’, as the others called it.  It was a label that made me think of prison, and that, in turn, pushed me to think of it more as a common area or a lounge.

“Gym?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Theo said.  “Let me get my stuff on.  I’ll meet you there.”

I tapped into the supply of bugs that were stored in my workshop, withdrawing an assortment of flies, beetles and cockroaches, depositing the ones that I’d collected during the ‘run’.  It wasn’t many, but I didn’t need much.  Enough or three or four swarm clones.

I stopped by the kitchen to collect some silverware, then made my way down one floor to where the gym was.

Golem arrived a minute after I got there, decked out in his costume.  It had changed from its first iteration, complete with a layer of spider silk and heavy armor over top of it.  He wore a mask with a neutral, almost solemn face, and fan-like decorations at his waist and shoulders, the spaces stretching between the slats painted white, a darker metal composing the frame and edges.

The image consultant was having fits, no doubt, but the first and most important goal was for Golem to be effective.  We were getting there.  Image would come later.

“Hey,” Kirk greeted us, stepping out as Golem arrived.  He wore a t-shirt and yoga pants, and was glistening with sweat.  His head was shaved, and his skin was a striking jet black.  “You guys sparring?”

“Training,” I said.  “Not sparring, really.”

“Can I watch?”

I looked at Golem, “Are you okay with it?.”

“I’m the one embarrassing myself, you mean.”

“I think you’re past the point where you’re embarrassing yourself,” I said.

“You can watch if you want, Annex.  Wouldn’t mind helping clean up,” Golem said. “I can’t promise it’ll be anything special.”

“Not a prob,” Kirk responded.  “Kind of curious to see where you’re at.”

We made our way inside.

The area was divided, with workout machines taking up one half, and an open area for sparring and dance and whatever else on the other half.  Floor panels, varying in the depth and degree of padding offered, were neatly stacked in one corner.

We moved to the open area, but we didn’t set up any padding for the floor.  My bugs flowed through vents and from the hallway outside, and they filled the room, covering every surface.

The bugs congealed into a human figure, and Golem took action.  His fingertips ran along the white ‘fans’ at his waist, then he jabbed one hand inside.  A hand of concrete lunged out of the floor to dissipate the swarm.

A little slow, but not bad.

Another part of the swarm congealed into a rough decoy, and Golem clutched it in a fist of concrete.  Faster this time.  The bugs seeped out through the gaps in the fingers as the hand retreated into the floor’s surface.

Each panel of the fan was a different material.  Concrete, steel, granite, wood.  Common materials were in easy reach.  Less common ones were a gesture away.  Two at once, this time.  Two figures to strike.  Golem caught one with his right hand, but I moved the other as he reached for it with his left.  He wasn’t quick enough to catch it, and the angle was poor.

I drew a butter knife from the pocket of my shorts, raised it above my head.

Golem was watching for it.  He dug his fingertips into the topside of one panel, his thumb into the underside.  Identical digits sprouted from the knife, forming half of a fist that had closed around the edge.  The knife became a club, one with no cutting edge.

I threw the weapon aside and turned my attention towards creating more decoys.

I feinted, now, misleading him about where my clones were moving.  He struggled but managed to deliver the hits.  Dragonflies and faster insects formed a more mobile body, and I avoided the strikes, right up until he started creating hands that sprouted forth from limbs that were already sticking out of the ground: branching barriers to limit movement.  I tried to simulate the general effect of the obstacles, and Golem took the opportunity to deliver a finishing blow, crushing another swarm-decoy..

“Hit them harder now,” I said.  Running, I tried to raise expectations for myself.  Here, I did much the same for Golem.

The movements became more violent.  A hand cupped around one swarm and then pulled it against the ground, melding back into the surface.  Bugs were squished against the spacial distortion field, and my swarm’s numbers were severely reduced.

Another was squashed against the wall, but the surfaces were different materials, and the hand couldn’t simply sink back in.  This time, there was an audible thud, eliciting a heavy rattling from the exercise machines on the other side of the gym.

I drew my swarm together into a rough shape, not a person, but something larger, a touch bigger than Crawler, smaller than Echidna, bipedal.

He hit it, and I reformed it.

“Hit it harder,” I said.

He hit it again, drawing two hands together as if he were squeezing it.  There was no substance to the monster’s body, though.  I judged that he wasn’t doing enough damage and simply reformed it.  The monster advanced on him.

I stepped a little closer, raising my voice.  “Come on, Theo!  Hit harder!”

Golem dropped a foot as one leg slipped into the concrete floor.  A facsimile of his boot rose out of the floor, complete with cleats.  The speed and force of it would have been enough to lift one of Rachel’s dogs, so I obliged by moving the ‘body’ of the swarm monster, raising it.

As the foot continued to rise, Golem’s leg disappearing up to the knee in the floor, he pushed one hand into the fan, causing a limb to drop from the ceiling right above the rising spiked platform that was Golem’s boot.  My creation was sandwiched between the two, and the collision had enough of an impact to make Kirk and I stumble.  I had to turn my head to keep the dust from getting in my eyes.

“Is that-” Golem started.

Before he finished the sentence, I had a second butter knife drawn, the tip pressed to his throat.

“Keep your eye on the threats,” I said.

“Not very fair,” Kirk commented.  “Playing dirty.”

“No,” Golem said.  His voice wavered, which was odd, considering I wasn’t doing anything that was actually threatening.  Something else had shaken him.  Had he taken the lesson to heart?  “I’s good.  That’s the kind of lesson I need to know.  It’s why I’m training.”

“Jack’s going to throw some scary motherfuckers at you,” I said.  “But he’ll be looking for an opening.  Always, always watch your back.  Don’t forget to watch your friend’s backs too.  You probably won’t die if you do, but you might wish you were dead, when you see what Jack and his gang do to them.”

Golem withdrew his arm from the panel, but his leg was harder to free from the ground.  By the time he was standing straight, the leg that stuck out of the floor had become more or less permanent.  In another area, fingertips stuck out of the floor.  There were also the branching ‘trees’ of hands that had formed barriers.  Without us even asking, Kirk stepped forward, his body liquefying as he flowed into the surface, smoothing it all out as though we’d never been there.

When he was done, he emerged to survey his work.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Interesting to watch.  Figuring out ways to apply his power?”

“Pretty much.  Tricks for his repertoire, building some familiarity with using his abilities, attacking to recognize threats and attack without hesitation when needed.”

“You really buy that Jack’s going to wake up from some cryogenic sleep just to fight some kid who didn’t even have powers when they last met?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Believe it or not, with what I know of Jack, it makes perfect sense.”

“Huh.”

“You’re on board, right?” I asked.  “With the plan?”

Kirk nodded.  “Seems a little crazy, but doesn’t hurt, given the stakes.”

“End of the world,” Golem said.

“End of the world,” I agreed.  “We’ll get as many on board as we can.  Either we avert it, or we soften the blow.”

“Assuming we can figure out what it is,” Golem said.

“Yeah,” I said. “You said you had patrol soon?”

“Eight twenty.  Then school after that.  I’ll see you this afternoon?”

“Yeah,” I answered.  I made my way to the common area and took the first unoccupied spot at the computer.  Grace was there, but she wore a school uniform, and had homework spread around her.

“Don’t say a word,” she told me, clearly annoyed.

“Wasn’t going to,” I responded.

I logged in, and was greeted by the customized desktop.

C/D: Endbringer
-3:21:45:90

C/D: End of World
593:19:27:50

The first counted upward, the other counted down.

Three days had passed since the estimated arrival of either the Simurgh or Leviathan.  Behemoth had been early, but whatever factor pushed that to occur wasn’t at play here.

It made sense that they wouldn’t maintain the schedule they had been.  Since the Simurgh had arrived, roughly three and a half months had passed between each attack.
These coming days and weeks would speak volumes.  Were the Endbringers going to alter their tactics?  Would the schedule continue at its accelerated pace, with Behemoth appearing in seven to ten months?

Something else altogether?

My eyes fell on the second clock.  The countdown.

593:19:25:23

“No joke?” I asked, the second the elevator doors were open.  Cuff was waiting on the other side.

“She’s here,” Cuff said.  “Not here, here, but she’s showed up.”

I was in full costume, my flight pack on, an insulated box for my bugs tucked under one arm. my phone in hand.  I was chilled to the core of my body, my lenses fogging up from the adjustment from outdoor temperature to indoor temperature.

I didn’t need to ask who.  I knew well enough.  It was a question that had been lurking on everyone’s minds.  Which one, where?

I pulled off my mask as I followed her to the common area, and reached out to accept the glasses my bugs were already fetching to me, putting them on.  The same images played on each of the screens.

The Simurgh, her silhouette barely visible in the midst of the clouds.

“What city?” I asked.

“Not a city,” Tecton said.

Sure enough, the camera angle changed.  Water.  Coastal?

No.  Too much water.

Ocean.  She was attacking the ocean?

It clicked when I saw the text at the bottom of the screen for one news report.  BA178 under siege.

Of all of the sensitive locations in the world, the Simurgh had chosen a passenger airplane.

“Are we-” I started to ask.

“Can’t,” Tecton said.  “No solid ground, and none of us fly.”

“I fly,” I said, but I could already guess the follow-up answer.

“Vehicles and tinker equipment aren’t going to cut it.  Too easy for her to interfere with,” Tecton said.

“Order came down from the top.  Natural fliers only,” Wanton added.

“We’re too late to join in anyways,” Grace said.  “I can’t imagine this’ll be a long, drawn-out, knock down fight.  We got almost no warning.  It’s like she dropped straight down from where she was and picked a fight with the closest target.”

I thought of Armstrong’s insistence that we capitalize on our victory, mass in numbers to allow for another decisive victory, instead of showing up in smaller groups, with inevitable attrition.

All this waiting, all of the restlessness, watching the countdown clock tick well beyond the estimated date, and we couldn’t even fight.  I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

I watched on the screen as Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon engaged the Simurgh.  She avoided the worst of their attacks, primarily through the only cover available – the airplane.

Half of the screens were showing the same video footage, though they were different channels, different organizations.  The other half were showing information.  The flight route, the people in the plane.

If anything here was special, the only one who knew would be the Simurgh.

My teammates didn’t talk much as we watched the fight progress.  In one instant, it seemed, the dynamic changed.  The heroes began trying to attack the plane, and the Simurgh started trying to defend it.

For eleven minutes, she managed, using her telekinesis to move the craft, her wings and body to block it from being damaged.

A fire started on the body of the ship as Eidolon tore into the Simurgh with a reality warping power of some kind, complete with lightning, fire, distorted light, and ice.  The Simurgh cast the craft aside in the following instant, letting it flip, burn and tumble before hitting the water and virtually disintegrating.

That done, the Simurgh ascended, rising into the clouds.  A few capes tried to follow, but Scion wasn’t among them.

“How long was the fight?” I asked.

“Not long enough for Scion to show,” was all Wanton said.

“Forty minutes?” Tecton asked.  “About forty minutes.”

I’d spent more than half that time hurrying back to headquarters, hoping I wasn’t missing my ride.  Now this.  It was a farce.

“Now we wait,” Grace said, “And if we’re lucky, we find out what she just did.”

That was it.

It was almost a letdown, more than a relief.  I couldn’t say she’d been softballing us, because it was the Simurgh.  For all I knew, this was the most devastating attack yet.  We wouldn’t know until later on.

Virtually no casualties, the planeload of people excepted.  Nobody was reporting anything about heroes dying, but it had been clear enough from the footage that this hadn’t been a serious loss.  Barely forty capes had been out there, and I hadn’t seen any die.

Yet I felt irrationally upset, if anything.

I turned and walked away.  I let the strap of the incubation box slip from my shoulder to the crook of my elbow, caught it with my hand, and then transferred it over to the arms of my flight pack.  It meant I didn’t have to stop or bend down to set the incubation box at the base of the stairs.  I didn’t go up to my room or my workshop, though.  I made my way downstairs, instead.

I was grateful to see that Mrs. Yamada hadn’t left yet.  Her things were packed, but she’d settled into the office, and was reading a small book.  A television was on in the corner, muted, showing what was happening with the Simurgh.

“Taylor.”

“Do you have a minute?”

“Of course.”

She stood and crossed the room to close the door.  I hadn’t realized I’d left it open.

“It was about the best we could hope for, going by what we know now,” I said, “And I feel worse about it than I did about New Delhi.”

“You’ve been preparing for this, anticipating it, for some time.  Mentally, you were preparing yourself for more losses, steeling yourself.  That takes a lot out of you, and you were robbed of a chance to do something.”

My phone buzzed.  I glanced at the screen.  My dad.  I sent him a message letting him know I was fine.

“Sorry,” I said, putting the phone away.  “It was my dad.”

“Don’t be sorry.  It’s a good sign if you’re reaching out to your dad, or vice-versa.”

“It’s bad manners,” I said.  “But okay.  Back to what we were saying before.  I’m almost feeling… disarmed?”

“Disarmed.  Good word.”

“I’ve been sort of enjoying the peace, the fact that the Protectorate are dealing with the meanest bastards around, the Folk, the Royals, the Condemned.  But I was telling myself it came down to the Endbringer fight.  That I’d participate, I’d wake up, fight.”

“Isn’t it better if you don’t have to?”

“No,” I said.  I stared down at my gloved hands.  “No.  Not at all.”

“You came from a bad place, and, like we’ve talked about, you reinvented yourself.  Maybe a lot of your identity is rooted in your concept of yourself as a warrior.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “But whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t change how I feel.”

“I expect a lot of people around the world feel the same way.  It’s very possible she calculated things to achieve this effect.”

I nodded.

“What do you think would be a best case scenario, Taylor?  If everything went the way you were hoping it would, deep down inside, what would happen?”

“New Delhi would happen,” I said.  Except without the severe losses.  We’d lose people, some place would get damaged, but we’d kill another Endbringer.”

“Is that realistic, do you think?”

“No,” I said.  “I know it isn’t realistic.  We went decades without killing one, and it’s stupid to imagine we could kill two in a row.”

“What’s a more reasonable expectation?”

“That she’d show up, and we’d fight, and we’d drive her off without too many casualties.”

“In either of these scenarios, do you envision yourself playing a role?  Maybe as big a role as you played in New Delhi?”

“I’m… Sort of?”

She didn’t seize on anything there, nor did she ask a follow-up question.  I took the opportunity to reflect on it.

“Yeah,” I eventually said.  “Maybe not as big a role.  Again, that’s unrealistic.  But I want to help.”

“If the Simurgh wanted to deliver a hit to morale, this would be a way to do it,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “After New Delhi, a lot of capes were hoping to make a difference, to be heroes.  Her choice of venue, the short battle, the narrow focus, it denied everyone the chance.  Not just you.”

“I need to be stronger,” I said.  “I’m supposed to be one of the people that’s around for this prophesied end of the world.  Except I’m not getting chances here.”

“Can you talk to your superiors?  To Revel?”

“I’ve hinted at it, that I could stand to sidekick around on patrols.  Nobody’s taken the deal.  Not with me.  They took Golem, but the adult capes like him, because he’s polite to a fault, works his ass off, and his power is good.  I’m good, but I wind up being a partner more than a sidekick.”

“You’ve been training with Golem.”

“Yeah.”

“You’re due some of the credit for his forward strides, I’m sure.”

“I’m not-” I started, then I made myself stop.  Too much emotion in my voice.  Calmer, I said, “I’m not looking for reassurance, or for compliments.  I’m just…”

I struggled for a way to end the sentence.

“Let’s use the ‘I feel because’ line.  Frame your emotions better.”

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed.  “I feel spooked, because something’s coming and it’s going to be ugly, and I’m not prepared.  I feel less prepared with every day where nothing happens.”

“I imagine your teammates feel spooked too.  You’ve mentioned what they’re going through.  Golem is likely going to be baited out by Jack Slash at some point in the future.  Cuff has limited dexterity with her right hand, to the point that she’s having to relearn to write and type.  I’m not discussing anything confidential, to be clear; only what you’ve mentioned to me in our previous sessions.”

I nodded.

“Golem has your support, I know.  They all do, in some respect.  In terms of what Cuff is going through, I know your team is dividing the workload in helping her with paperwork.  That says a lot.”

“Supporting each other.”

“It sounds trite, but I think there’s a truth in it.  You have legitimate fears about what comes down the road.  But keep in mind that you’re not alone in this.  Maybe you’ve hit a ceiling for the time being, in your own growth and development.  But you can still progress, if you’re helping your teammates, assisting them in conquering their demons and improving their abilities.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It doesn’t feel like enough.”

“It may not be, but it’s constructive.  Perhaps you’ll feel less disarmed if you focus on the tools and, so to speak, the weapons at your disposal.”

“Maybe,” I answered her.  “But I hate feeling helpless.”

“Part of the reason you feel that way is because you’re waiting for opportunities to come to you.  You waited for the Endbringer, so you could flex your talents in unimaginably high stress environments.  It’s good, I think, that you waited, that you had a moment to breathe.  I think you should strive to retain that peace, because it may help you enter a better headspace.”

It was similar advice to the parting words Glenn had left me with, but they opposed on one front.  Mrs. Yamada would have been happier in general if I maintained this indefinitely.  Glenn would be wanting to see me acting.

It was time to act, whatever Mrs. Yamada said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You feel a little better?”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “I’m not even sure I understand all my feelings.  But I feel like I’ve got more of a plan, now.  I appreciate it.”

“It’s what I’m here for.  Or at least, I’m here for one more hour, and then I fly back to Boston.  I’ll be around next Friday, after I finish another circuit.”

“Cool,” I said.  “I’m glad you were here today.”

“I am too,” she answered.

When I stood from my chair, she did too.  She stepped forward and gave me a hug.

I wasn’t sure how normal that was, but I’d remarked once on how few hugs I got, and how some hugs I’d given or received in the past had been meaningful moments for me, and she’d asked if I wanted one from her.

Somewhere along the line, t had become something of a habit, as we ended our sessions.  I gave her a little smile as we parted.

I made my way back to the common area, and seated myself at the computer.  The others were still following what was happening on the larger monitors.  The defending heroes had frozen the plane’s half-submerged wreckage and they were preparing quarantine measures.

Whatever the reason for this particular attack, I doubted it would be clear anytime soon.

Instead, I seated myself at the computer, and logged myself in.  The timers ticked away.

Once I’d updated the timer for the recent attack, it read:

C/D: Endbringer
149:22:59:59

C/D: End of World
579:07:14:53

Inching down steadily.

Mrs. Yamada had been right, I mused, as I found the files on the local kingpins and warlords.  I was doing myself a disservice by waiting for opportunity to come to me.  If I was going to do as Glenn had suggested, and make a calculated play, I needed to act, rather than hope for another chance like we’d had in New Delhi.

Looking at the others, I wondered if it was best to manipulate them or get them on board.  Manipulation was almost kinder, because it absolved them of guilt.  Simply making sure we were in the right place at the right time, luring a local power into a fight, with  a plan already in mind…

No.

Chevalier’s Protectorate, ups and downs aside, was more about honesty.  I wanted to tap into Skitter’s strengths, her ruthlessness, but I also wanted to be a hero.  That was at the core of what I had achieved in New Delhi.

“Tecton,” I called out, as my eyes fell on a portrait of a supervillain with a mask of an upside-down face.  An established power, located at the city’s edge for nearly ten years.

Too established?  I didn’t want to set another ABB fiasco in motion.  There were advantages to being open.  The ability to ask questions, get feedback.

“What is it?” he asked.

“There’s something I want to talk to you about.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Scarab 25.1

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“This is exactly what I was talking about.  She’s a dangerous influence.”

“She’s a sixteen year old girl with strong opinions, Wilkins,” Armstrong answered.  “Nothing more.  She holds onto those opinions and her core worldview, and vulnerable people get caught up in her momentum.  Cult leaders will do the same thing, only it’s purposeful in their case.  Get people tired, get people worn out, scared and hungry, and then give them someone with presence to give them support.”

“You’re saying she’s an accidental cult leader?”

“She’s in a position where it’s very easy to sway others.  A lot of the parahumans out there fit the criteria I’m talking about,” Armstrong said.  He glanced at Glenn, who looked distinctly unhappy.  “So, apparently, does our staff.”

“I think you’re off target,” I said.  “You’re talking about Foil, I get it, and Parian, and now the Chicago Wards and Glenn.  But all of the decisions they made were when I wasn’t anywhere near them.  Unless you’re implying I have some sort of mind control.”

“No,” Armstrong told me.  He didn’t fit his name; he looked more like my dad than anyone, though he had a peculiarly prominent jaw and a forehead that made it look like he was perpetually glaring.  “It doesn’t matter if they’re near you.  The message and the idea stays with them even after they leave your presence.”

“Tecton just wanted someone to call the shots, to replace Raymancer,” I said.  He was defending me, but it wasn’t helping.

“We saw the video,” Director Wilkins said.  “We know what he said.  I think it’s best if you stop talking.”

I bit my lip and turned my eyes to the table.

“Well,” Glenn said.  “What’s done is done.  Can I suggest that perhaps, because it’s been a long day, we should retire?  All of us will still be here in the morning.”

“It sounds like a good idea,” Armstrong said.  One or two heads around the table nodded.

“We’re going to handle this tonight,” Wilkins said.

“While the girl’s so tired she could fall asleep sitting up,” Glenn observed.  “Or is it that you want to resolve this while Chevalier is in the hospital?”

“Chevalier doesn’t matter,” Wilkins said.  “This is PRT business.”

“I agree.  His input would be appreciated, if he was in a state to give it, but it’s ultimately not his decision,” the Washington director said.  He reminded me of Piggot, but he wasn’t fat.    Heavy, but not fat like she’d been.  It was more the way he held himself, his tone and approach.  His graying hair was cropped close, and he had a combination of paler skin and dark circles under his eyes that made me think of a corpse.  Director West.

“We lose nothing by waiting,” Glenn said, calm, unflappable.  I’d seen that confidence before, in people who’d had nothing to lose.  I’d had that confidence before.

“We lose time.  If we’re going to respond to the press and the public, we need to act sooner than later.”

“My concern…” a woman said, drawing out the thought, “Is that her actions go against the spirit of the PRT and the groups under the PRT’s umbrella.  Conspiring with a known terrorist, betraying the truce, even, for a subtle advantage in dealing with that terrorist, returning to her old team against all terms of her probation, rejecting orders, and taking reckless risks with PRT personnel, getting two injured.  A longstanding goal of the PRT has been to reassure the public, and this only paints heroes as something dangerous.”

I already didn’t like her.  I wasn’t even sure what city she was from.

“That doesn’t even include the fact that this leak shows capes going all out.  When the joy at the victory wears off, people are going to look at the footage and wonder if they’re in danger,” West said.

We won, I thought.  We beat him, and you’re quibbling over details.

Why were they doing this?  Why were they so intent on railroading me?  Screwing me over?

These guys, or some of them, were the old guard.  Defenders of the status quo.  Tagg would have fit into this little cadre.

Maybe that was part of the reason.

“-Birdcage.”

The word hung in the air.

I snapped to attention, fully awake in an instant.  I had to take a second to look at the faces of the people around the table before I realized who’d said it.  Armstrong, the man who’d been my advocate an instant ago.

“A little extreme,” West said.

“The next few fights are going to be crucial.  Every time the Endbringers come, there are major losses.  We lose good capes.  Others step in, but they don’t have the experience or the organization, so we lose more.  New Delhi was very nearly the culmination of that.”

“We won New Delhi.”

We lost.  Scion won,” Armstrong responded.  “Participation will be up for the next fight.  Let’s use that.  We bolster the numbers further, by tapping the Birdcage.  There are powerful capes in there, and some are cooperative.”

Oh.  They aren’t talking about me.

“And if they start wreaking havoc afterward?  Or turn on us?”

“We can be select about it.  Dragon’s willing to give us a searchable database of all of the conversation and behavior records within the Birdcage.”

I raised my head at that.  “Dragon’s alive?”

“She got in contact with us a short while ago.”

I nodded.  I felt a little dazed, confused.  Too much in a short time.  I was reaching the point where I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take it all in.

“It’s not worth it,” West said.

“A moderate risk for a chance to save hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives,” Armstrong said.

“How many lives do we lose because of the monsters we set free?”  West retorted.  “Those criminals were put there for a reason.”

“At first,” Armstrong said.  “But the rationale for indefinite detention has been getting weaker, and the number of capes going in has been increasing.  I-”

“It’s not going to happen, Armstrong,” West cut him off.

Armstrong deflated a little, settling back in his chair.

“The media is already reaching out to us to ask for interviews with Weaver,” one of the other Directors said.  “They love her or hate her, but this won’t die down anytime soon.”

“Primacy effect,” West said, frowning.  “That video is going to be the first thing people will think about when they think about people in the field during an Endbringer attack.”

“So we drown it,” the woman from before said.  “Release the footage we held back, footage with a more favorable effect on us.  Weaver gets lost in the shuffle, and we quietly address the unbecoming conduct.”

We won, you bastards.  I clenched my fists beneath the table.

“Address how?”

“It’s a violation of her probationary membership.  She’s off the team for the time being, if not permanently.  She fulfills the remainder of her sentence, then remains in our custody as a consult.  ”

I noticed that my bugs were acting of their own volition, treating this as a crisis scenario.  They were massing, and they were winding silk threads around the PRT uniforms that guarded the room, around the containment foam sprayers and guns that they held.

I’d missed the Undersiders, hated that I wasn’t there with them as they said goodbye to Regent.  Part of the reason I’d become a hero had been to reconnect with my dad, but the gap seemed too wide.  I’d killed, and he’d seen me kill.  He was afraid of me.

It would be easy to disable the PRT uniforms, attack the directors and simply make my way to Brockton Bay.  I could patch things up with Grue, help Rachel, ensure that Imp didn’t go to a dark place.

But it wouldn’t get me anywhere.

He wanted to play hardball?  I’d play hard in return.  I turned my attention to my swarm for a moment.

“I think you’re underestimating how badly the public would react if Weaver was punished,” Glenn said.

“We’re facing a lose-lose situation, Mr. Chambers,” Chief Director West said.  “We cut our losses, take a hit in PR, but we can continue operating as we need to.  So long as it’s quiet, she goes to prison and doesn’t go out on another big excursion, I don’t think anyone’s about to make a big deal of it.”

…make a big deal of it.  I turned the words around in my head.  Manipulating the media, manipulating the local capes.  Damn.  I’d had high hopes for Chevalier’s new Protectorate, but it didn’t seem to extend to the PRT.

“We can deflect,” the woman from before said.  “Raise another issue, change the focus of the public.”

“Not so easy,” Glenn said.  “It’s been done too often in the past.  They’re watching for it, even anticipating it.”

“But the majority won’t be,” she responded.  She turned to Director West.  “The alert, educated minority will complain, but they won’t achieve anything meaningful.  They never do.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Director West said.  “It’s not pretty, but it’ll suffice.”

Why?” I asked.  “You can’t deny I helped.  I didn’t deliver a serious blow, but I helped to coordinate, I had ideas, I used them.”

“There’s other smart capes out there,” a man said.  He didn’t give me the impression of a PRT director.  Another staff member?

“I did a lot of good, and you’re railroading me.  Is it because you’re losing control of things and I make an easy target?  Because you’re afraid of me?”

“Because you’re consistently unpredictable.  Unreliable.  We set rules and you break them,” West told me.

“Rules don’t generally apply during an Endbringer attack,” I said.  “The only thing that matters is taking the motherfucker down.  We did.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Armstrong said.  “This is going a step too far.  She did well.”

A few heads nodded around the table, but they didn’t have the majority, and they didn’t have the clout that Chief Director West did.  Glenn had spoken of a fifty-fifty split in the reactions, and he was more or less on target.  But the power held by the people who were standing up for me was nothing compared to the clout the others had.

“This is beyond the Endbringer attack.  It’s overall conduct,” the woman at the far end of the table said.

“When? Can you name incidents?  Beyond the Endbringer attack?”  I challenged her.

“Spiders in the less traveled areas of the prison,” West told me.

Spiders in the prison.  Shit.

I felt myself deflate a little, but I managed to keep my face straight.  “If there are any, they’re eggs that recently hatched.”

“And the costume?  A weave of silk cloth hidden out of sight.”

Damn.

“That predated my discussion with the Warden,” I lied.  “I got rid of the spiders, moved on.”

“You could have reported it.”

“That an abandoned time-killing project was stuck in behind some pipes?  Why?”

“Because this happens.  There’s no reason to believe you.”

I clenched my fists.

“You’re dangerous, Taylor Hebert.  Unpredictable.  You’re deceptive, clever enough to come up with tricks, but not clever enough to stick to the straight and narrow from the beginning.  Armstrong said it himself.  You’re good at manipulating people.”

…Manipulating people, I thought.  Not as good as I wanted to be.

Armstrong spoke up, “You’re twisting my words, West.  I said she was well situated for interacting with vulnerable people, and stalwart enough in her own worldview that others can get swept up in her flow.”

“Regardless.  Ms. Hebert was right about one thing.  It’s late.  It’s been an emotionally exhausting day.”

“Physically exhausting too,” I said, not taking my eyes off the Chief Director.  “You know, running around, fighting Behemoth while you guys sit in your-”

Glenn shifted one leg under the table, pressing it against mine.  A nudge, not overt.

I stopped.

My power crackled at the edge of my attention.  My bugs were moving again, without any direct instructions from me.  I reined them in, and then distributed them through the building.  Was there someone I could contact?  Something I could communicate to the right person, to change what was happening here?

West ignored my comment, turning his attention to Glenn.  “Mr. Chambers, you’re relieved of duty.  You likely knew this already.”

“I understand,” Glenn said.

“We’ll discuss on our own whether we need to press charges.”

…Press charges.  Bastards.

“Okay,” Glenn said.

West met my eyes.  “Taylor Hebert, you violated the terms of your probation.  You’ll return to Gardener tonight, and you’ll carry out the rest of your sentence.  Your test run with the Wards teams is over.  Offer rescinded.  Provided you do not talk to the media, we stop there.  We’ll talk to you when you turn eighteen, to see about plans for the future.”

“This is a mistake,” Glenn said.  “Chevalier had a number of plans, and you’re unraveling them.”

“Naturally, Mr. Chambers.  We’re aware of the thrust of those plans.  Recruiting villains.  A darker, edgier Protectorate.  Provided he keeps to the rules, we’re willing to let that be.  But with the administration, the underlying framework that makes his teams possible, we have to maintain a balance, keep the public and the President happy.  He won’t have our assistance.”

…He won’t have our assistance, I thought.

I heard the words, and my bugs spoke them.  Every bug, within the building, repeated him, verbatim.  The good, the bad, the details that damned me.  It wasn’t a question of finding the right person, or saying the right thing.  It was everyone, saying everything.

In that manner, my bugs repeated it to staff members, to the Chicago Wards, and to the Protectorate members who’d accompanied their Directors here.  It was too late for reporters to be around, but I didn’t deny the possibility.

Tens of thousands of bugs speaking words at a sound barely above a whisper, louder in places where more people congregated.

Dispatch and Exalt were the first to make their way to our floor.  They entered the room without knocking.

I met Dispatch’s eyes.  Not the rescuer I’d hoped for.  We’d worked together, but he’d disliked me from the outset.

“Dispatch?”  West asked.

Dispatch didn’t reply right away.  He glared, and it wasn’t at me.  It was at the Director.

“We’ve been listening,” Exalt said.

Listening?”

“You’ve been bugged,” Dispatch said.  “Only the bugs are the ones outside.  They’ve been talking.  Reciting.”

I could see Chief Director West’s eyes narrow as he looked at me.  He would be replaying the conversation in his head, trying to figure out if he had said anything damning.

“No guarantee she’s telling the truth,” West said.

“Provided he keeps to the rules, we’re willing to let that be,” Dispatch said.  “Spiders in the back areas of the prison.”

“Yes,” Director Armstrong said.  “That’s accurate.  I can’t speak to particulars or the little details, though.”

“I repeated everything verbatim,” I confirmed.

“The goings-on of this meeting are confidential,” Director West said.

“Nobody told me that,” I answered.  “It doesn’t matter.  I violated my probation anyways, apparently.”

“Anything goes against Endbringers,” Tecton said, from the hallway.  He’d just arrived with Grace and Annex beside him.  “We wouldn’t have done half as well if it wasn’t for her.”

“Tell that to Kismet,” one of West’s flunkies commented.  “Or Particulate.  You don’t really want her on your team.  Not when she’s going to stab you in the back for a better margin of victory.”

“I do,” Tecton said.  “All of us do.  We watched the video together.  We talked about it.  Kismet made a mistake.  As far as Particulate, we looked him up.  He’s reckless, dangerous.  Not the best way she could have handled it, but it worked.”

West didn’t take his eyes off me.  “Even if we ignored everything else, this kind of behavior, it’s-”

“It’s exactly what Chevalier wanted,” I said.  My eyes dropped to the table.  I didn’t meet his gaze, didn’t try to engage the visitors.  “Open, honest.  Exposing the rot at the center.”

“You’re saying you’re not rotten,” the woman at the end of the table said, almost mocking.

“Maybe I am,” I told her.  “I’m not all good, not all bad.  I’m just… getting by.  Doing what I can, not holding back against enemies who don’t deserve it.  And under Chevalier’s system, Glenn’s system, I guess I’m revealing all of that stuff we usually keep hidden, and it’s up to others to make the call whether they can roll with it or not.  Up to the public, my potential teammates.”

“Honestly,” Tecton said, “If you’re going to lock her up after all this, you can consider me done.  You’re going to undermine Chevalier, when what he’s doing worked?  I’m gone.”

Here and there, there were murmurs of agreement.

There was a very long pause.

“Weaver,” Director West said.

I met his eyes again.  I could see the hate.

“You’ll make your way to Chicago at the end of the week, and provided everything goes well, you will be a member of the team.  If you’re wise, you won’t take interviews, and you won’t take any action that draws attention to you.”

I drew in a deep breath, then nodded.

“You’ll wear a tracking device at all times, and any time you leave the defined area within the Chicago headquarters, you’ll have an escort, a longstanding member of the team in your company at all times.”

“Okay,” I said.

“See to it that you follow these rules.  You’ve got the backing of the heroes here, maybe you’ve got the public’s favor, but we will remove you if you give us an excuse.”

“I understand,” I said, suddenly very weary.

Beside me, Glenn stood from his chair.  I took his cue.

The PRT uniforms stepped out of the doorway, where they’d been barring the small crowd access.  We made our exit, joining the Wards and PRT staff members.

“Weaver,” the Chief Director called out.

I turned around.

“You didn’t make any allies in this room today.”

“I think you were my enemies before we even met,” I said.  “You’d never have given me the chance to be your ally.”

“You’re wrong.”

I shrugged, then turned to walk away.

Tecton gave me a nod as I approached.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Not a problem,” he said.  “You kept us alive, I figure we owe you one.”

“I don’t think you owe me much, but I’m not complaining,” I said.

“We should go.  We were in the middle of something.  See you soon, I hope?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

When they’d broken away, it was Glenn and I, together.

“That was foolish,” Glenn commented.

“They wouldn’t have given us any slack.  Nothing we could have said or done would have changed the outcome, unless we attacked from a different angle.”

“There’s a habit some people have,” Glenn said, “Where they divide people into enemies and allies.  It’s in your records, as a matter of fact, your propensity to define people as enemies and act without mercy, while being gentle and kind to your friends.  The Chief Director is another person who is very similar.  Pairings you two together, you could have been great allies or great enemies, but there’s not much middle ground.  It’s a shame you have a powerful enemy, now.”

“I still don’t see how we would have been friends.”

“I don’t think you would have been.  But humiliating an enemy is a dangerous thing.  Doing it again would be terminal.  You’ll need to be clever about your approach from here on out, so you aren’t threatening them to the same degree.”

“I’m too tired to strategize any more, Glenn.”

Think.  What’s motivating the Directors?  First thought that comes to your mind.”

“Fear.”

“Of?” he asked, without a heartbeat of hesitation.

“Me?”

He shook his head.  “More specific.  If they don’t act now, what happens in the long run?”

“They can’t control me.”

“People would recognize it, that the PRT didn’t have the ability to control all of its heroes.  Some would act on it.  It would be devastating, damaging on a fundamental level.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” I asked.  “Your ‘harbinger’?”

“It is.  Can you guess what I’m going to suggest, now?”

“You want me to make a move.  Powerful enough to shake them, break the status quo, not powerful or blatant enough to break my probation or give them an excuse to drop the book on me.”

“You’ll be with the Wards by the week’s end, if someone doesn’t trip you up.  Do you think you can manage it?  A big success?”

“Maybe,” I said.

“The moment you drop out of the public eye, you become vulnerable.  You’ve got a reprieve, but when you do act, you’re going to need to act big.  And you can’t stop once that’s happened.  Once you act, you’ll be giving them an opening, and you have to keep moving after that.  Understand?”

“Yeah.”

“Keep the ramifications and the scale of your actions in mind at all times.  Use that strategic brain of yours.  Above all, be patient.”

“Now hearing case two-seven-two-four, Weaver.”

I stood.  “I’m here.”

“For the matter of committee record, would you affirm that your full name and identity are a matter of public record, and that the committee is free to use it?”

“I will.”

“Will you state your name for the record?”

“Taylor Hebert.”

“Your date of birth?”

“June nineteenth, 1995.”

“You are a minor.”

“Yes.”

“Will you testify that you were not coerced into this arrangement?”

“I’m here of my own free will.”

“You were not offered any bribes or incentives that are not already a matter of record?”

“To the best of my knowledge, it’s all been aboveboard.”

“As a minor, we ask that you have a guardian or respected professional to help guide you through the process, and to help verify what you’re testifying.”

Before I could speak, I heard someone’s chair scraping against the floor somewhere behind me.  Standing up.  “Her father.”

I felt my heart leap.  I hadn’t seen him when I’d peeked through the crowd behind me, but I hadn’t been using my bugs either.  No use disturbing anyone.  I kept my eyes fixed in front of me.

“Would you please approach?”

I could hear him walk, but didn’t turn to look.  Fuck, I was still hurt, still angry, even in the moment I was filled with relief.  He came to stand next to me, and my hand found his.  I squeezed, hard, and he squeezed back.

He was here now, at least.  Not while I was in prison, not when I’d started my forays into the Wards.  But he was here now.

“Your name?”

“Danny Hebert.”

“State again for the committee record, your relation to her?”

“I’m her father.”

“You’re aware of her standing in regards to the law?”

“I am.”

“And you’ve read the documents detailing her probationary status within the Wards?  Document two-seven-two-four-A?”

“I have.”

“You’ve read the statement and accompanying paperwork provided by Taylor Hebert, AKA ‘Weaver’, document two-seven-two-four-B?”

“I have.”

“Do you hereby attest that all statements disclosed in the latter document are the truth, to the best of your knowledge?”

“Yes.”

I watched as the committee members paged through the documents in front of them.

My heart was pounding, and it wasn’t just my dad’s impromptu arrival.  This was it.  The moment my future hinged on.

I’d made enemies in the upper echelons of the PRT.  The question was whether they’d pull a maneuver, do something sneaky to undermine me or screw up the case to leave me stranded without anyplace to go but jail.

“I believe each of us have reviewed the files?” the man at the center of the table finally spoke, looking to the others for confirmation.  “Case two-seven-two-four has met the requirements for probationary admittance to the Wards.  She is to follow the stipulations as outlined in document two-seven-two-four-A.  Failure to comply will result in a return to medium security detention for a span of one and a half years or until such a time as she turns eighteen, whichever is longer.  Further, failing to meet the terms for probation will result in a forfeiture of any earnings or rights granted her by the PRT, which will be held in trust until such a time as she reaches the age of majority.  Do you understand these terms?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Yes,” my dad said.

“With that, you are now a probationary member of the Wards, until such a time as you turn eighteen or violate the terms of your probationary membership.  Congratulations, Taylor Hebert.”

There were cheers from the sidelines.  Tecton and his group were among them.

“Next case,” the committee members said.

My dad and I retreated into the aisle.  We made eye contact for what felt like the first time in an age.

“Thank you for coming.”

“I wasn’t necessary.  You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have someone else lined up.”

“It matters, dad.  More than you know.  Thank you.”

“Is this fixable?  Us?”

I frowned.

“What?” he asked.  He opened the door so we could step out of the committee room and into the hallways of the PRT office.

“I’ve kind of come to hate that word.  ‘Fix’,” I said.

“You don’t think-“

“I don’t,” I interrupted him.  “We can’t fix ‘us’, society can’t be fixed.  It’s impossible.”

He frowned.  “I don’t think it is.”

“Things change.  Destroy them, rebuild them, you’re just causing change.  Can’t we… isn’t it okay if we don’t try to go back to the way things were?”

“You don’t want to be a family?” he asked.

“I do.  But… we tried to go back, after the city started to rebuild.  It didn’t feel right.  It was nice, but we were playing roles, and there was more stuff unsaid than said.  Lies, unasked questions.  Kind of unhappy at the root of it, you know?”

“I know.”

We found an empty bench and sat down.  I could see the Chicago Wards stepping out into the hallway, but they kept their distance.  Revel made her way out the door a few seconds later, and started talking to them as a group, at the opposite end of the hall.

“You’re so far away,” he said.  “Doing things I can’t even imagine, facing serious danger, even on a more mundane level, the way you’re going to be living at the headquarters.  It’s a fourteen hour drive.”

“Can’t we visit, though?”  I asked.  “Send emails every day, videochat?

“We can.  I’ll come see you at the headquarters before I leave for home, see how you’re getting by.  Maybe, if you need me to, I can pick up some essentials.  Things you wouldn’t want to ask them for, or things they wouldn’t know your preferences on.”

I wondered momentarily if my dad even know what my preferences were, nowadays.  I didn’t voice those thoughts.  At the same time, I meant what I said as I told him, “That sounds amazing.  Yes. Please.”

He smiled, but the expression faltered as he glanced a little to one side.  “I think your team wants to talk to you.”

I nodded.  “Talk to you in a bit?”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow,” I replied, standing from the bench.  The Wards had turned to face me.

When I approached Revel and Tecton and the others, I cast a glance back.  My dad was still sitting on the bench.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step forward.  It had to count for something.

“This space was for vehicles, but Stardust graduated three years ago, died a year after joining the Protectorate.  We’ve been using it for storing paperwork, and your moving in was a good excuse to get some things sorted out.  Your workshop.”

I nodded, doing my best to maintain eye contact.  Campanile was about eight feet tall.  I’d been given a complete physical and fitness test right off the bat, and I was five feet and nine inches tall.

The height difference put my eye level just a couple of feet above Campanile’s hip level.  He wore a skintight suit, and there was little left to the imagination.  I thought I might have seen a ridge or a vein, in that split-second I’d glanced down to make sure my eyes weren’t fooling me.

If I were more well adjusted, I would have been embarrassed, even offended.  Instead, I almost wanted to laugh.  Neither would have done well in terms of first impressions.

Focus on your bugs, I told myself.  Look interested.

“Talk to Tecton before you grab anything from the build room.  That’s where we keep all the panels, portable walls and furniture for customizing our spaces.  Tools and everything would be down there too, but it’s easiest to let Tecton keep it all in his workshop.  He’s our only tinker, and it’s not any harder to ask him for something than it is to go all the way to the basement.”

“Got it.”

“You’re distributing this stuff to other groups, right?  The silk?”

“After I’m done outfitting my team, and you guys, our Protectorate.”

I’ll give Campanile thicker fabric below the waist, maybe, I thought.

“Well, there’s a budget, so negotiate with Tecton on that front.  We all use the account, but the rest of us usually just dip into it to replace broken pads or lenses, stuff like that.  Tecton pays for materials, which is usually enough to empty the budget, but he makes and maintains knick-knacks and tools that he rents out to other groups.  Earns a bit of money to make up for taking an unfair share.”

“Got it.  I can do the same?  Selling the silk?”

“Yeah.  Might be easier, since your stuff can be mass-produced.”

I stared out at the workshop, glad for the excuse to look away.  Did he know how tightly the costume was clinging to him below the waist?

“It’s good,” I commented on the workshop.  Better than the one in my old lair.

“Your bedroom isn’t with the others at the hub, since there’s not a lot of privacy there, and people are always coming and going.  It’s more a place to kick back and nap if you’ve had a long patrol, keep some books and magazines, maybe some games.  You do have a nook, though.”

I nodded.  Maintain eye contact.

“You’re just down the hall.  Here.”

I checked out the bedroom.  It was better than my cell, but plain.  The fact that I could come and go when I pleased was a plus, even if I was confined to the building when I didn’t have an escort.

“I can buy stuff to make it my own, right?”

“Yeah.  But you should know that they’ve got cleaners to do the PRT supplied laundry, sheets pillows, towels, the generic skintight suits.  You’ll have to do your own laundry, and that includes any sheets you buy or whatever.”

“Got it,” I said.  I very nearly glanced down to make sure the protrusion in his skintight outfit was still there, stopped myself.  Even in my peripheral vision, it stood out.  Seriously, that thing’s as long as my forearm.

“Computer’s here.  PRT issue laptop.  Take some time, remove the crap.  If you don’t know how, or if you’re not sure what’s dead weight on the system, ask Tecton.  Username is your codename, password to start with is your birthday.  Month-day-year, followed by your middle name.  Once you type that in, it’ll set everything up automatically and prompt you for a new password.”

“Okay.”

“You’ve got a small bathroom just down here,” he pointed down a short hallway, “No shower, sorry.  There’s one in the main area, not a lot of privacy, but you’ll figure out the patrol schedules, and figure out when you can go shower without a chance of being bothered, if you’re shy.”

Shy.  I very nearly cracked a smile at that.  He was the one who should be bashful, but he just radiated confidence, instead.

“I’ll manage.”

“Let’s see… there’s the phone and earpiece, they’ll get that to you soon.  Identification, the same.  Can you think of anything you need?”

“A few million Darwin’s bark spiders,” I said.  “I could do with even just a hundred, but it’d mean a slow start.”

He didn’t even flinch.  “We can probably arrange it.”

“Black widows would work too.  Easier to find, but not nearly as good.  Maybe just need an escort so I can go out for walks.”

“We could arrange that.  I’m going out in an hour, meeting some kids at the hospital.  If you don’t mind the detour, we could swing by a park or something.”

I tried not to imagine him in the pediatric’s wing of a hospital.  You’d need to change.  Or wrap something around your waist.

I didn’t voice my thoughts.

“The hub is right down here, bottom of the stairs.  Command center, nook-slash-temporary bedrooms, spare costumes, televisions and everything else.”

Tecton, Wanton and Annex were at the bottom of the stairs.  Grace, Golem and Cuff were sitting at the computer bank against the one wall, but they were watching.  Grace had a wicked smile on her face.

I realized why.  The bastards.  They were pulling the same trick Campanile had, stuffing something in the front of their costumes.  Tecton, for his part, wore a mechanical suit, so he’d simply bulked out the crotch portion of his armor with additional armor plating.  Obvious, not even trying to hide what they were doing.  Wanton gave me a cheeky smile as I made eye contact with him.

For my part, I managed to keep my expression straight.

Over the course of seconds, Annex seemed to get more and more uncomfortable.  I made eye contact and maintained it as he squirmed.

“She’s not reacting, and I’m feeling really, really dumb,” he said.

“Aw, Annex, c’mon,” Wanton groaned.  “She would’ve cracked up.”

Grace was laughing, now.  Cuff, by contrast, wasn’t moving her eyes from the computer screen.  She was probably the ideal target for this kind of prank.

“Don’t sue me for sexual harassment,” Annex told me.

I smiled a little.  “I’m not going to sue.  I’ve been around people who did worse.”

“It seemed funnier when we were talking about it before,” Tecton said.  “It’s… kind of awkward, right now.”

“It is funny,” I said, smiling, “You guys did get me, I was so busy trying not to stare at Campanile that I barely heard what he was saying about the tour.”

There were a few chuckles.

“I was thinking it was a bad idea,” Golem said, “With your background, that you might not like being picked on.  They gave me one, but I thought it was a bad idea to test you.”

“It was a terrible idea,” Tecton said.  “Juvenile.  But sometimes you need a cheap laugh.”

“They’re embarrassing themselves worse than they’re embarrassing me,” I told Golem.  “I’m okay with it.  I’m glad to have an initiation into the group.  Could have been far worse.”

“Alright guys, joke’s over,” Tecton said.  He unclasped and removed the metal codpiece from his armor.  “She’s right.  We’re just embarrassing ourselves now.  Get rid of the damn things.  And I don’t want to see them lying around anywhere.”

“I could keep it this way,” Wanton joked.

“No you couldn’t,” Tecton said.  “You’ll forget about it, switch to your other form without absorbing it and wind up bashing someone unconscious with a foot-long silicon club.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Campanile, and saw him standing by the trashcan, no longer endowed.  He didn’t look quite so ludicrous now.  Freakishly tall, yes.  Not freakishly long, so to speak.

“Sorry,” he said.

I shrugged.  “I figure I’ve got blackmail material now.  Just need to get my hands on the security camera footage.”

He smiled and shook his head.  “Welcome.  Be good.”

“I don’t think these guys are setting the bar that high on the ‘good’ scale,” I told him.

He clapped one hand on my shoulder, then turned around to go up the stairs, leaving.

Annex had fled, but Wanton was taking his time in leaving, with Tecton giving him the occasional push to get him to walk faster.  Over by the computer bank, Grace and Golem were wrestling with something.

“Do it,” I heard her.

“No way, no way,” Golem responded

“Do it.  Just a little.”

She said something else I didn’t make out.  It didn’t go much further before Golem gave in.

Wanton doubled over mid-stride, falling to the ground.  Once he realized what had happened, he started thrashing in his effort to get the offending object out of his pants.  I had to avert my gaze before he inadvertently flashed me.

“Geez, guys,” Tecton groaned, “Too far.”

Golem rushed over, apologizing, while Wanton cursed at him, throwing the lump of plastic at his teammate.  Grace had fallen out of her chair laughing, and Cuff had done the opposite, putting her unburned arm on the desk and burying her face in the crook of it.

In the midst of the chaos, I made my way over to the computer bank and leaned over the keyboard, typing in the username and password I’d been given.  The desktop was up and running in heartbeats.  Access to nice computers was apparently a perk of being a hero.

I dug around for the files on the local powers, and began studying.  I tried, anyways.  Grace’s continued laughter was so infectious and unashamed I couldn’t help but join in.

My new home, for better or worse.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 24 (Donation Bonus #1)

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“Well bandaged.  They did a good job,” the doctor had to raise her voice to be heard over the helicopter’s rotors.  She was older, blond to the point that it was hard to distinguish if her hair was still blond or graying, her expression creased in concern.

Wanton nodded mutely.

“What happened?” the doctor asked him.

“Falling debris,” Tecton offered, from the other side of the helicopter.

The doctor nodded.  “We’ll leave it as it is.  The pain’s okay?”

“Meds help,” Wanton said.  “Feel like I’m almost dreaming.  And I’m going to wake up, and none of this will have happened.”

“It happened,” Tecton said.

“Why isn’t everyone cheering and hollering anymore?”

“Really fucking tired,” Grace said.  She was beside Cuff, who’d been stripped of her armor from the waist up, with only a thin covering of near-liquid metal on her upper body for modesty’s sake.  A nurse was attending to her arm.

“Really tired,” Golem said.  “Oh my god.  My entire body hurts, and I didn’t even take a direct hit.”

“The roars and shockwaves might have done internal damage,” the doctor said.  “You’ll each need a CT scan and MRI.  Let me know if there’s any acute pain.”

“I think it’s more that I’ve never exercised this much in my life,” Golem said.

“You’ll hurt worse tomorrow,” Grace commented.

“Damn.”

The doctor, for her part, turned her attention to Wanton.  “We’ll need to double-check for bone fragments when we get back to the hospital.  You’ll need surgery.  Chances are good this was a rush job.”

“I… my arm,” Wanton said, lamely.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor responded.

“No, it’s like… I should feel worse, but I don’t.  Maybe it’s the drugs, but I feel this rush, like I’ve never been so glad to be alive.  I’m pumped.”

“You may be in shock,” the doctor observed.

“We’re all in shock,” Tecton said.

There were murmurs of agreement across the helicopter.

“Is anyone else a little freaked out?” Cuff asked.

“Freaked out?” the doctor asked.

Cuff shook her head, not responding.  Her attention had shifted to her arm, as the doctor bound it.

Tecton ventured a reply instead.  “I think I understand what Cuff means.  It’s hard to believe he’s gone.  It’s like, you’re five years old, and Leviathan appears for the first time, and your parents have to explain that a bunch of people died, and it’s because of these monsters and yet nobody has figured out why.”

“Yeah,” Cuff said.  “What happens next?  Leviathan or the Simurgh?  We kill them?  Stop them from blowing up or doing their version of blowing up?  I can’t really imagine that we’d beat them, give our all and hope that Scion shows up and fights like that again, kill them, and then have everything be okay.”

“You just got powers, barely a month ago, and you’re already this grim?” Wanton asked.

“I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of the Endbringer attacks for a while,” Cuff said.  Her eyes were on the floor, and an expression of pain crossed her face as the doctor cut away a tag of burned skin on her shoulder.  The scar was like a snowflake carved into the skin’s surface, angry and red.  Her arm seemed to tremble involuntarily.

“It’s okay to worry,” Tecton said.  He gestured towards Weaver.  “Weaver said as much.  They’ve got a nasty habit of escalating, in the fights themselves and in the grand scheme of things.  Behemoth got too predictable, so Leviathan started to show up.  We started to coordinate defenses, get the world on board to deal with them, Simurgh comes.”

“And now we killed one, so how do they escalate from there?” Grace asked.

“It’s a concern,” Tecton said, “And it’s one that people all around the world are going to be discussing.  Rely on them.  Don’t take the full weight of the world onto your shoulders.  We fought, you guys made a good show of it,” Tecton said.

“I could’ve done more,” Cuff said.

“You’re new.  Inexperienced, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.  As far as jumping in with both feet first, you guys managed it.  You, Golem, Annex, you stood up there, shoulder to shoulder with veteran heroes, and you fought, even though you’re rookies.  You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, okay?”

Cuff didn’t reply.

“Okay?” Tecton asked.

“When my family got killed in Hawaii, I made promises to myself.  It’s why I came.  I don’t feel like I did enough, to fulfill my own end of those promises.”

“There’s always next time,” Tecton said.

“You say that like it’s a good thing,” Wanton said.

“Yeah.  Shit,” Grace muttered.  “It’s not quite over yet, right?”

“Right,” Tecton said.  “But there’s time before the next one.  Let people in the know handle the worrying.  We did everything we could.  Now we recuperate.  We celebrate, because was deserve to.  We take the time to heal.”

In response to the glances cast his way, Wanton waved his stump around.  “Going to take getting used to.  Getting dressed, eating…”

He moved the stump in the direction of his lap, jerked it up and down.

Cuff looked and squeaked in embarrassment before averting her eyes.

“…writing,” Wanton finished, a goofy smile on his face.

“Your handwriting must be awful,” Golem said.

There were chuckles here and there from among the group.  Even the nurse tending to Cuff smiled.

“We did good,” Tecton said.  “And some people will recognize that.  Others are gonna see all the bad that happened in New Delhi and point fingers.  Be ready in case you fall under the crosshairs.”

There were nods from the rest of the Chicago Wards.

Tecton glanced at Weaver, then back to his team.  “What do you think?”

“You have to ask?” Grace asked.

“You weren’t keen at the idea at first,” Tecton replied.

“I’m still not, not a hundred percent.  But whatever little doubts I have, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”

“Yep,” Wanton said.

“Golem?”  Tecton asked.  “Have you even talked to her about it?”

“I’m a little scared to,” the boy said.  “I mean…”

He glanced at the doctor.

“Everything here is confidential,” Tecton said.

“Well, given my past, the people I was with before I came here, I’m worried there’s hard feelings.  They were in the same city.  I don’t know what exactly happened.  What if one of them did something to Weaver or her friends?  Is she the type to hold a grudge?”

“Going by what apparently happened in Brockton Bay,” Wanton said, “Not so much.  If she has a reason to hold a grudge, you don’t tend to live very long.”

Golem frowned.

“You’re not being helpful, Wanton.  Or fair to Weaver,” Tecton said.

“I’m suffering, Tec,” Wanton said, making the words into an exaggerated groan.

Tecton shook his head, turning to Golem.  “Tell her.  Explain your circumstances, let her know you’re from the same city, that you don’t share your family’s ideology.”

“The name should say as much,” Golem said.

Tecton nodded.  He drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.  The adrenaline was burning off, and with it, a deep exhaustion was settling in.

He looked at Weaver, where she sat at the far end of the bench.  Her old teammate had insisted on coming with her, along with a small cluster of dogs.  They’d fallen asleep within two minutes of takeoff.  Weaver had been first, her head leaning against her friend’s shoulder.  Her friend had been next to drift off, a dog in her lap, others lying underneath the bench.

“We’ll talk to the bosses,” Tecton said.  “See about taking Weaver onto the team.”

How was this supposed to work?

“Door me,” Pretender said.

A light sliced across the floor of the alleyway, three feet across.  When it had reached its full length, it began thickening, raising up until the portal was a full four by seven feet.  There was a long white hallway on the other side.

Carefully, he stepped through, with legs that weren’t his own.

“Pretender.”

He stopped, then turned around.  “Satyr.”

“You don’t have to go with them,” Satyrical said.

“I think today proved I do.”

“And everything we were working on?  Everything we were working towards?”

“I talked to some powerful people.  People behind the scenes we’ve barely heard of,” Pretender replied.  “What we were working on in Vegas doesn’t even compare.  Small potatoes.”

“Doesn’t feel like small potatoes.  What’s so important that you’d run off?”

Pretender frowned, an expression hidden by the helmet he wore.

“You can talk to me.  You know I can keep secrets.  Or are you talking about the Endbringers?  I think today showed they can deal with Endbringers on their own,” Satyr said.

“It’s bigger things.  Bigger than Endbringers,” Pretender answered.  “End of the world.”

Satyrical sighed.  “Of course it is.”

“I’ll help you with the little things, when I have the time.  We have resources, and maybe we can use you guys.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Satyr said.  He approached Pretender, extending a hand.

Pretender shook, gingerly, unsure of the full extent of Alexandria’s enhanced strength.

Satyr held on to the hand, caressing it.  “They say you should marry your best friend, and now that you’re a woman…”

Pretender chuckled a little before withdrawing his hand from Satyr’s.  “That line again?  I don’t think that’s what they meant.”

“She’s yours for keeps?”

“Brain dead.  Her body’s peculiar.  Doesn’t really age.  Hair doesn’t grow, nails don’t grow.  Wounds don’t really heal or get worse.  She used cosmetics to look older, to throw people off.  Only the brain was left pliable, adaptable.  Even then, most of it was hardened, protected, those duties offloaded to her agent.”

Satyr studied Pretender’s new body without shame.  His eyes rested on Pretender’s forehead.  “I see.  And with that plasticity, the brain was left more vulnerable.”

“Only a little.  Enough to be an Achilles heel.  She’s a case fifty-three, I suppose.  All of us may be.”

“All Cauldron capes?”

Pretender nodded.  “To some degree or another.”

Satyr seemed to take that into consideration, rubbing his chin.  When he spoke, though, he spoke of something else.  “What you did… you knew that they’d figured you out, and that I was next in line, that I’d get questioned too.  You killed her for my sake, to buy me time.”

“Are you mad?”

Satyr shook his head.  “We’ve killed before.  Selfishly, selflessly.  Only difference is you got caught.”

“Well, I got away.”

“In a fashion, yes.  You got away,” Satyr said.  “You’ve even reached a higher position in life.”

“Wearing someone else’s skin, living their life,” Pretender replied.

“Yes, well, that was always going to be your fate, wasn’t it?”

Pretender chuckled.  “I’ve missed you, buddy.”

“Likewise, you freak of nature,” Satyr responded.

“Just because we’re doing different things now, it doesn’t mean goodbye.”

“Good.”

“We stay in touch,” Pretender said.  “I’m sure my new group can use you, and you can draw on our resources, I’m sure.  Our goals are more or less aligned.  Only difference is scale.”

“Well then.  Good luck with saving the world.”

“And good luck with saving civilization from itself,” Pretender answered.  He looked skyward for a moment.  “Close the door.”

The portal closed.

Connecting to “agChat.ParahumansOnline016.par:6667” (Attempt 1 of 55)
Resolving Host Name
Connecting…
Connected.
Using identityIblis”, nick “Iblis”
Welcome to Parahumans Online Chatroom #116, ‘The Holdout’.  Rules Here.  Behave.
  Obey the @s.
Ryus: shorthand for seismic activity.  earthquakes.
Kriketz: any word on deaths yet
Divide: No word on deaths.  This is Behemoth.  It’s normal to see a radio silence like this.  Divide: They can’t report deaths because the armbands get knocked out.
Spiritskin:  Hi Iblis!
IblisWord is first capes are returning home.
Aloha:  !
Loyal: Who?  Who?  Names!
Deimos: how is new delhi?
@Deadman@:  I’m in contact with main channel, can pass on details if you can verify.
@Deadman@:  PM me.
Iblis: Loyal – Not sure.
Iblis: Deimos – City hit bad.
Iblis: Deadman – Not sure how to verify.  Only have texts on phone.  Sending PM.
Poit: they made it
BadSamurai:  how bad?
Ultracut:  Poit nobodys saying they amde it
Poit: they stopped him or they wouldn’t be leaving
Deimos: Nooooooo! new delhi hit bad?
Aloha:  X(
Iblis:  Texts I’m getting from cape-wife friend are saying Scion finished Behemoth off.
Iblis: Absolute annihilation.
QwertyD: Troll
Groupies: no fucking way
Aloha: O_o
Deimos is now known as Absolute Annihiliation
@Deadman@: Verify now or ban.
Absolute Annihilation: fuck yea Scion!
Arcee: Omg wat?
Iblis: sending PM with texts.

Colin shifted his weight restlessly, watching the screens.

There was a process, he knew.  He’d been filled in on the details, forewarned.  That didn’t make this any easier.

Too many years he’d spent alone.  Too many years, he’d had nothing to care about.  Nothing and nobody to hold precious.  A dad who worked two jobs, a mother who traveled.  They’d divorced, and virtually nothing had changed in the grand scheme of things.  They’d looked after him, but they hadn’t been there.  They had been occupied with other things, with dreams and aspirations that had never included him.

Colin knew he had been the weird child.  Had never made friends, had convinced himself he didn’t want or need them.  He was efficient in how solitary he was.

He’d even prided himself on it, for a time, that there was nothing to hold him back.  That he could, should the mood strike him, pick up and leave at any time.  He’d modeled his life around it, had led a spare existence, devoid of the little touches of home, of roots.  He’d saved money so he had the ability to travel, to get a new place in a new city if the mood struck.  It had even been an asset when he had joined the Protectorate, the ability to relocate, take any open position.

It was only now, a full fifteen years later, that he started to wonder what he’d missed out on.  Did most people know how to handle this sort of thing?  The absence of someone they cared about?  Did they have an easier time handling the moments when they weren’t sure if they’d ever see those people again, or was it harder?

He’d altered Dragon’s code.  It wasn’t a tidy thing.  Tinker work rarely was.  There were too many factors to consider, and a tinker who didn’t specialize in a particular area would never be able to plumb the depths.  Too many things connected to other things, and the full extent of the connections was impossible to fathom in entirety.

At best, he could study each alteration as much as was possible, act in ways that could minimize the damage.

Every adjustment, even on the smallest levels, threatened to damage a dozen, a hundred other areas.

And now he would find out if Dragon’s backup would restore properly.

Error: Temporal Modelling Node 08 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge.

Error: Horospectral Analysis Node 1119 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…
Successful Load: Circadian Checkmatch Node ER089.  Require 2/3 more stable child routines for acceptable bridge.
Error: Metrological Chronostic Node Q1118 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…

Error: Stimuli Tracking Node FQ has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge.

Successful Load: Orientation Patch Node FQ02903.  Require 3/3 stable child routines for acceptable bridge.
Error: Parietal Space Node FQ161178 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…
Error: Recognition Demesnes Node FQ299639 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…

He pulled off his helmet, setting it on the bench beneath the monitor.  He rubbed one hand across his head.  He’d taken to shaving it close, in part for the efficiency of it, in part because the surgeries to replace his eye and the implants he’d set into recesses in his skull had required incisions in his scalp.  Dragon had handled that.

His fingers traced the faint, almost imperceptible scars that ran neatly across the sides and top of his head.  Marks she’d left him.

More errors appeared on the screen.  The estimated time of a successful backup clicked upwards with each one.  Two hours.  Three hours.  Six hours.

At the same time, in Colin’s head, the odds of a successful load were going down.  Twenty-five percent.  Twenty three.  Fifteen.

There were other backups.  He suspected the ones that had been uploaded after his tampering would run into the same issues.  The same errors.

The ones before?  Before he’d altered anything?  It would be a different Dragon than the one he’d come to know.  She would watch the video feeds, listen to the tapes, even experience some of those things for herself, where the system had taken it all online.  But she wouldn’t be the same Dragon he knew.  The organic A.I. architecture would develop in different ways, with different nuances.  So many things connected to so many other things with each new experience, and the connections would occur in a different fashion.

No, he realized.  Even worse.  He would have to head her off before she got access to the data.  If he had to load that backup, he would be loading her as she was before he freed her of the PRT’s shackles.  She would be obligated to fight him.  He’d managed a sneak attack the first time.  The second?  She’d see what he did, force him to try another means.

And he’d have to be more ruthless, knowing he was doing harm to her, injuring her to her core.

He couldn’t bear to watch further.  It was too soon to try another backup, both in terms of the system’s ability to handle the task and his own ability.  But sitting here, watching the list of errors grow, it was angering him, and it was an anger without a focus.

Touching two fingers to his lips, Colin moved those fingers to the monitor’s frame, pressing them there.  The gesture was sentimental enough it felt unlike him, somehow false.  Doing nothing would feel wrong too.

That was his current state, stranded inside his own head, in the midst of his own feelings.

Uncharted territory, in a way.

He pulled on his helmet and stepped outside, and hopped up onto the nose of the Tiamat II.

New Delhi loomed before him.  Ruined, damaged, impossible to recover.  The sun was only now setting, and the sky was red, mingling with the traces of clouds that still remained in the sky.

He wanted to contact Chevalier, to know that his friend was okay, that the Protectorate was okay.  He didn’t trust himself to stay calm, to keep from saying something about Dragon, from venting, being emotional.

Chevalier would understand, he suspected.  But Colin’s masculinity would take a hit, and it would only cause more trouble than it fixed.

Staring out at the city, and the crowds of people in hazmat suits who were moving in for relief, for search and rescue, he frowned.  He and Dragon had had some intense discussions on the subject of what it was to be a ‘man’.  To be human, to be masculine, feminine.

Dragon had been pissed when he’d suggested she was the feminine ideal.  That, in the eternal crisis that any woman faced between being the virgin, the madonna, and being sensual, sexual, she was both.

He wished he understood why she’d been so angry.

To be a man, though, it wasn’t much easier.  The standard society set was just as high.  To be a provider, a rock, to be sensitive, yet to avoid being emotional.

For long minutes, he stared out over the city, watching the sun dip beneath the horizon, the smoke and dust making the distant star’s light hazier, fuzzier.

“Tiamat II,” he said.  “Alert me when the system is finished the backup process, one way or another.”

Yes, Defiant.”

Uncomfortably similar to Dragon’s voice.  He felt an ache in his chest.

He hopped down from the nose of the craft, then used his spear to help himself down from the craggy edge of terrain that had been raised up from the earth in the chaos.  He strode forward, towards the city proper, calibrating his helmet to help identify any warm bodies.

“Annex?  Kirk?”

Kirk sat up from the hospital bed.

“You can stay where you are,” the doctor said, not looking up from the clipboard.

“I’m okay,” Kirk said.

“Your test results are taking some time, I’m sorry.  We can expect a two or three-hour wait.  Half an hour for the MRI, forty-five minutes for the CT scan.”

“At least it’s something to do,” Kirk replied.

“You’d be surprised at how quickly it gets boring,” the doctor answered.

Kirk winced.  “Okay.  Can I maybe use a phone in the meantime?  Call my parents?  They’ll be wondering.”

“They’ve already been informed,” the man answered.  “They’ll be here shortly.  There’s paperwork they’ll have to sign, because a few of your teammates are also walking around without any protection for their identities, but I don’t imagine that’ll take long.”

“Maybe I can call my friends?  They’ll be wondering how I’m doing.”

“They know about your life in costume?”

“They were there when I got my powers.  I just want to call someone, anyone I know, to occupy my thoughts, to talk.”

“There’s a phone at the nurse’s station, center of the floor.  Ask and they’ll punch in the number to dial out.”

“Okay,” Kirk said, smiling.  He gripped the side of his hospital gown to bind it shut.

“I…” the doctor started, he stopped and frowned.

Kirk had halted in his tracks, shifting his weight to keep his bare feet from making too much contact with the cold floor.

Odd, in a way, that he had to.  But his power tended to be all or nothing.

“I shouldn’t tell you this, and I’m not naming names, but the first test results have come in, for some of the others who were at your side in New Delhi.  Here, and in other cities.  The tests for radiation are coming back negative.”

Kirk blinked.

“No promises it’ll be the same for you, but…”

“A bit of hope?” Kirk asked.

“With luck.”

“Thank you,” Kirk said, smiling for the first time.  “Thank you.”

“I should be the one saying that to you,” the doctor said.  “Just… don’t be too disappointed if the answer isn’t what you wanted, okay?”

“Deal,” Kirk answered.

…further reports are coming in from multiple sources.  The Endbringer Behemoth has been reported as being slain in New Delhi!”

“Yes, Lizbeth.  Video footage is always scarce when dealing with the Endbringers, but verification has been consistent from multiple sources.  It seems the footage seen earlier of the great shaft of light was an attack from an unknown party, debilitating the Endbringer.  Defending forces held the injured monster off until Scion could arrive, delivering a finishing blow.”

“Earlier in the year, for those of you who don’t remember, Chevalier boasted of a new Protectorate, clear of the sabotage and interference from its own leaders.  Today may serve as a testament to that boast.”

“All around the world, people seem to be celebrating, but it’s a markedly cautious celebration.  Early polls on the UKCC web site suggest that a full eighteen percent of people who voted are waiting for more information or verification before celebrating the heroes’ victory, and ten percent of people don’t intend to celebrate at all.”

“Not at all?”

“No, Lizbeth.  In the comments thread of the poll, a common trend seems to be the feeling that he isn’t or can’t be dead, that the heroes were mistaken, or that this might even provoke a response from the remaining Endbringers.”

“Amazing.  We’re just now getting more information…”

“Dad?”

“Taylor!  Oh my god.  You’re alive.”

“I wasn’t sure if you wanted me-”

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m okay.  I just got the tests back, and there’s no sign of ambient radiation or any of that.”

“I’m glad.”

“Me too.  I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to call.  You haven’t replied to my messages, about being there if and when they invite me to the Wards.  And you were there for court, but you didn’t talk to me.”

“I am glad you called.  About my not-”

“We killed him.”  The words were blurted out.

There was silence on the line.

“Behemoth is dead.”

Silence, still.

“We killed him,” the words were a repeat of earlier.  As if that summed it up.  “I think it’s already on the news.”

“I know.  I saw, but I didn’t quite believe it.  I’m dumbfounded.  Amazed.  I’m so proud of you.  Wow.”

“I wanted to tell you before you heard from others, but there’s so much goddamn bureaucracy going on, and they wouldn’t give me a phone in the hospital room.”

“Were you- did you help?  Were you a part of that?”

“Yes.  Of course.”

“I’m just… I’m trying to wrap my head around it.  Wow.”

There was a silence on the other end, this time.

“Taylor?”

“I’ve had a lot of time to think, to wonder why you didn’t come.  Why you haven’t visited me.  You’re afraid of me.”

“Taylor, that’s not-”

“It’s true, isn’t it?  And all of the doubts I had before dialing the phone and calling you, they were right, this makes it worse.  I have a rap sheet that’s like, eighty pages thick, and I killed a man, and then I killed Director Tagg and Alexandria.  She is dead, by the way.  If you see her on the news, it’s just a cape that stole her body.  Her corpse.  And now you hear about me fighting Behemoth and it makes it worse.  I can’t even talk about what I did without digging the knife in deeper.”

“Taylor, no.  It’s not fear.  I saw some of your friends, not long ago.  I wanted to talk to your employee, Charlotte, and the others came.  And I saw this whole other life, this side of you I couldn’t recognize at all.  Little things that I recognized, yes, and then big things that I could barely fathom.  I’ve never been able to handle loss well, with Annette, and now feeling like I maybe lost you…  I just… I want to adjust, to get my head around this, and then I can visit and things will be like they were.”

“Things aren’t going to be like they were, dad.  I don’t want them to be.  I’m trying to put as much distance between the person I was then and the person I am now as I can.  I’m sucking pretty hard at it, but I’m trying.  Except maybe today, I found a middle ground.  And it worked, in a way that makes me proud and terrified and amazed and confused and apparently I’m in trouble for something I did.  I’m in trouble because I was wearing a camera and they saw the footage and I was walking that middle ground between the person I was and the person they want me to be, and I did a lot of borderline sketchy shit just to get by and they don’t understand.”

There was a note of emotion in the last word, a break in the rant.

“Taylor…”

One word, and then silence.

The voice was calmer this time, more measured.  “I’m sorry.  I’m really tired.  I’m going in soon.  To talk to them.  They’ve made it clear they aren’t happy.  Except I think they’re a little bit afraid of me too.  Afraid of me like my own dad is.”

“That’s not fair.”

Deny it.”

There was a pause.

“I’m not afraid, Taylor.  If there’s any fear, my love for you outweighs it by far, understand?”

But the phone was already steadily buzzing with a dial tone.  The pause was enough.

♦  Topic:  Footage
In:  Boards ►
World News ► Main
Bagrat
(Original Poster)
Posted on July 26th, 2011:

Link here.

Mirrors here, here and here.

Came directly to me.  Cuts in and out, but that’s to be expected.

More info later.  Better to watch and see for yourself than get it here.

(Showing page 39 of 39)

►  Thatdude
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
@ Bystander
I don’t know, but holy shit was that intense.  I wish there was more at the end.

►  Mane Magenta
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
When Scion uses his power it disturbs electronics.  Its why when he flies you can’t track him unless its with your eyes.
Omg.  I’m only halfway through.  This is almost a feature length film.

►  Dawgsmiles (Veteran poster)
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
anyone else have to look up some of the people in there?  i almost thought one or two weren’t villains

►  Saskatchew
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
It’s kind of terrifying, isn’t it?  There’s only like twenty in my province but you think maybe **one** can do something like we saw partway through and its like wow holy shit I could run into them in the street at any time

►  Feychick
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
holy fuck holy fuck holy fuck
(56 minutes in).

►  Ne
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
@49:00 When she’s talking to the guy in blue.  Who is that?  Not in the wiki.  How do you even SPELL that?  She turns on her friend?  What happens to that guy?  Did he die?  Did she get him killed?

►  Forgotten Creator
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
@ Dawgsmiles – I had to look up one or two.  There was a short doc about some of them a bit ago after Alexandria died.  You can find it here.

Logs
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
Let’s see:

  • Note the link back to this thread just earlier today.  (Kid has Weaver show up for Wards event at park.)  Paraphrasing hearsay: ‘I had everything, I gave it up’.  You can see how much she cares about them.
  • Is the Echidna thing tied to the mysterious info-blackout in Brockton Bay re: time portal created?
  • Wondering about Tecton.  Liking his talk about powers and building teams, but he defects leadership to known ex-villain who knows little to nothing about his team?
  • Anyone else wondering why they went with the ‘V’ hand sign?  That’s a rude gesture in New Delhi, 99% sure.  Americans.
  • Intimate moment b/w Weaver and Grue.  Anyone else feel like a pervert watching this?  Can’t see anything, but I think they’re kissing.  If I thought this was staged I stopped when this happened.
  • Regent/girl with gray mask (forget name) funny as hell.  Hoping they all make it out okay.
  • Have to stop at 12 minute mark.  Burned girl.  Too real.

General Prancer
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
anyone else really interested in learning more about Weaver?
edit:  @Logs: don’t get too attached to anyone.

Noveltry
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
This cuts out at the most frustrating times.

End of Page.   1, 2, 3, 4, 538, 39

Glenn reached across his keyboard to refresh his email, then hit the key on his keyboard to shut down the machine.  While the screen went through the motions, Glenn walked around the desk to kneel on the floor.  The computer itself was set into a recess in the floor, and he worked at unplugging and unscrewing each wire in turn.

A butterfly flew across his field of vision, and he jumped despite himself.

“Weaver,” he said, turning around.

“Glenn,” she said.  She wasn’t in costume, but her glower was intense enough that she might as well have been in her full garb as Skitter, complete with shawl, skirt and the carpet of insects crawling on her.

“Recuperating?”

“Not as much as I’d like,” she said.  Her voice was hard.  “I’m not having the best day, on a lot of levels.”

“Still waiting for the tribunal to convene?”  Glenn asked.  “It’s been hours now.”

“The secretary’s supposed to call me.  They gave me one of the superhero phones so I could call my dad, told me to hold onto it.  I’d take it as a good sign, except there’s a video circulating online.  My video.  Well past the point where anyone could hope to control access to it.  Mirrors, bitsharing, hardcopies…”

“I see.  Upsetting.”

“Yeah.  Just a little,” she said.  The tone was light, but her expression remained the same.  “Packing up?”

“Yes,” Glenn said.  He tried to lift the desktop, found more wires attached at the bottom, and set it down to unplug them.

“I expect I’ll be fired.  They’ll make me clean out my office, so I figured I would get a headstart.  I don’t keep anything permanent that isn’t on my personal computer, so this box is all I need.”

She didn’t respond.

He tried to lift it again, only to find more wires connected on the front.

“No need to worry.  If you’re here to inflict some bug-induced torture on me, you can save yourself a lot of effort by leaving me to my own devices with this damned box.  I promise you, I’ll figure out something worse to do to myself.”

Butterflies circled her as she stalked forward.  Glenn backed away a step before he realized what she was doing.  She wasn’t even a third of his weight, and the only insects she seemed to have on hand were butterflies, but he felt a touch intimidated nonetheless.

Were the butterflies supposed to be ironic?  A gesture?

She knelt down beside the computer, fiddled around and disconnected the remaining wires, then lifted the box up to the floor beside the recess.

“Thank you.  I’m good with computers, with software, but laughably bad with the technology.”

Why, Glenn?  It was private.  It was supposed to be for therapy.”

“Wasn’t my choice to parcel it out.  Dragon was killed, by all accounts, and Director Wilkins made the call to hand it out, for your pending conduct review.”

“And you made the call to release it online.”

“I suppose Tattletale informed you.  Do you know how frustrating it is to be a mere human being among powers like you and your friend?”

“I dunno,” she said.  “I figure you can relieve your stress by uploading their personal videos to the internet.”

Glenn sighed.  “You’re tired.  You’re not being rational.”

“Oh, yeah.  That’s totally the way to talk to a girl.”

Glenn stepped forwards, resisted the urge to flinch as the butterflies briefly invaded his personal space.  He met her eyes, waited for her to look away, then snapped, right in front of her.

Her eyes locked onto his, and she looked even more irritated.

“Stop,” he said.  “Look me in the eyes.  I want to talk to Weaver the strategist, not Taylor.”

She didn’t move a muscle, but he wondered if the butterflies changed course.  She remained silent, glowering.

“I know you’re tired.  Today took a lot out of you,” Glenn said.  “But think.  What purpose does it serve to upload the video?”

“It’s the best footage you have of the event.  The best way to sell the win, the PRT’s involvement.”

“Think bigger.”

“That’s pretty damn big.”

Bigger, Weaver.  Come on.  Do you think I got to where I am by thinking one dimensionally?  What else, why?  I’m getting fired.  I knew I’d get fired.  Would I do it just for that?”

“Probably, if there wasn’t another way.”

“With an ego like mine?”

“Honestly, your ego can’t be that big if you wear those clothes.”

Despite himself, he was a little stung.  He’d cultivated his image to demand attention.  Even his weight was calculated, to make it clear he was not one of them, that he was someone with power, presence.  His clothes were admittedly awful.  They were intended to be awful.  But they didn’t diminish his sense of pride in the least.

It was a shame he was undoubtedly going to lose his job.  It would be nice to discuss the idea of image from two very different perspectives.

“I’m not your adversary, Weaver.”

“No.  I can’t help but feel you’re an albatross around my neck.  I keep hearing that you’ve done stuff to help, but I keep experiencing this… this.”

“I’m your ally, Weaver.  You think I don’t recognize the issues in the PRT?  The corruption that’s still at the core?  The need for change?  There has to be some sacrifice, and there has to be someone to step forward, a harbinger for that change.  Chevalier may be the hero of the day, he can lay the groundwork for change, but he can’t be that harbinger.  He’s too entrenched.”

“You want me to be the harbinger.”

“It’ll be hard, but I think you’ll manage with that.  Putting this video online, it’s going to achieve a lot of things.  I think, seeing you in the thick of it, it’s going to change people’s opinion of you.  There’ll be controversy, some will hate you.  But others?  This will be their first view of what it’s truly like on the battlefield.  They’ll have to like you, to sympathize.  But the rule of three says you won’t be forgotten about.”

“Rule of three?”

“Three times, you’ve been forced into the public eye.  As the leader of Brockton Bay, as the newly christened Weaver, slayer of Alexandria, and here, in the video.”

“I was just thinking about something like that, in a totally different way.  Twice now, I’ve betrayed my teammates.  At first, when they found out I was an aspiring hero, an undercover operative.  Then I became Weaver.  This’ll be the third.  I had the camera, stuff was said and done, private stuff talked about, and they won’t like it.  They didn’t ask to be in the spotlight any more than I did.”

“Some of it will endear you to the public,” Glenn said.

“Being worshipped as a god wouldn’t be worth hurting them again,” Weaver retorted.  Her voice was hard again.  “Grue believes that image and reputation are a kind of protection.  Being seen as soft, when he’s dealing with people in the criminal underworld?  It could get him killed.”

“They’ll forgive you that setback, I’m sure.  They’ll understand you didn’t choose to do it.”

“Rachel’s not the understanding type.  I’ve fought an uphill battle to get her trust, and if she feels hurt by this, or if she registers that others are hurt, and that I’m the culprit in any way-”

“With luck, public opinion and an insight into the bond you have with the team will make it easier to interact with your old team.  You’ll have more chances to fix any damage.”

Weaver shook her head, staring down at the ground.

“It’s an honest look into what the heroes do, Weaver.  What you capes face every day.  Why there’s so much gray in the moral palette.  With this, Chevalier’s new Protectorate won’t be something that exists in name only.”

“You could have asked.”

“You would have said no.  And there was no time.  We needed to make it absolutely clear just what you and the rest of the heroes did on the field, so Scion couldn’t overshadow you.  We needed to do it right away.  Cement the idea into the public mind so it was the first concrete piece of information they got.”

She stared at the ground.  The lines in her face were deep with exhaustion.  The butterflies had landed on her shoulders and arms.

He let the idea sit.  Better to let her speak next.

She did.  “Chevalier is laying the groundwork, I’m the harbinger… and you’re the sacrifice, then?”

He met her eyes.  “They won’t be as upset with you as they are right this moment.  I’ll draw the initial heat.  By the time they’re done with me, my career and any possible job in a related field will be ashes in the wind.  For you, well, it’ll tip the scales.  If you’re halfway into the ‘deserves a medal’ camp and halfway into the ‘needs to be punished’ camp, this will help.”

“I could have done some things better, but was I that bad?”

“Consorting with villains you were supposed to avoid, putting Wards on the line to help them, dealing with Phir Sē without contacting any superiors.  You ignored the rules regarding image, took gambles-”

“I had to.  All of that.  I was told that rules are relaxed on the field.  You can’t seriously expect me to use butterflies against Behemoth.”

“Of course not,” Glenn responded.  “Do you think I’m stupid?  I know this.  But there’s a lot of people paying attention to this.  Many people who will be in that room won’t know these things, won’t fully understand.  Some won’t even watch the video before they pass judgement on what occurred in it.  Never underestimate the stupidity of people.”

Weaver made a sound, halfway to a sigh, halfway to a laugh.

Glenn smiled a little.  “The video burns one bridge.  No more butterflies.  Though they won’t hurt, because it makes it a hell of a lot harder for any common criminals to complain about an excess use of power, but I’m digressing…”

Weaver’s phone beeped.  A moment later, Glenn’s vibrated.  He checked it.

Convening to discuss Weaver’s conduct in room F.  Please attend.

He closed the message window.

“Thank you,” Weaver said.  “I think.  I’m supposed to go now.”

“Me too.  Join me?”  Glenn asked.

Weaver nodded.  Her collection of butterflies led the way out of the office.

Glenn spoke without looking at her.  “I don’t expect you to like me.  Never really did.  One of the first and biggest problems you ran into was with your image.  It’s a problem even now, I suspect.  It will continue to be a problem, especially now that you’re in the limelight.”

“Uh huh.”

Glenn reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a case.  He opened it, removed a business card, and handed it over.

“My number.  In case you need advice.  Well, use my cell.  My work number probably won’t be mine for much longer.”

Weaver stared down at the card.  She didn’t need to look up as she walked, as the butterflies checked her path for her.  Other bugs had joined them.

“Just do me a favor,” Glenn said.

Weaver glanced at him.

“Make friends with whoever they hire to replace me.  Listen to them.  You’re allowed to hate them too, but hear them out.  Can’t hurt.”

She nodded.  She looked down at the card again, then looked up at him.  “Can I call this in now?  It’s about my dad.”

Defiant?

Defiant couldn’t move, as he held a heavy concrete slab out of the way for emergency crews.  He used the cursor embedded in his eye to select the ‘answer’ command, and shut the vents around his mouth.

“Tiamat II, hold off on any reports for now.” Can’t take it, not right this moment.

It’s me.

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Crushed 24.5

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The damage Behemoth was wreaking in New Delhi was, I thought, a microcosm of what was happening all over the world.  Three or four attacks a year, since the Simurgh had appeared.

The fight with Leviathan in Brockton Bay had been a good day.  We’d lost people, we’d lost good capes, but we’d more or less bounced back, made it three-quarters of the way back to where we needed to be, in a matter of months.  There had been ugliness, infighting, a hell of a lot of doubt, but we’d started to make our way back to where we should be.  It had been the lowest number of casualties we’d had in an Endbringer attack in years, not counting a few of the Simurgh attacks.  A good day.

This?  This isn’t a good day. 

Behemoth roared.

This is the other end of the scale.

For nearly twenty years, we’d endured intermittent Endbringer attacks, and the end result was, globally, what was happening here in a matter of hours.  We were divided, scared, fighting among one another, and our defenses were being eroded.  We were being forced into pockets of defense, instead of a united one where we all stood together.  Those pockets, in turn, were at risk of being wiped out with a series of decisive blows.

Yes, we had our good moments.  Doing as much damage to him as we just had, that was a good moment.  But we had bad ones too, and the end result was always the same.

The bastard –the bastards, plural– kept coming.

Phir Sē’s light had cleared smoke and dust from the sky, though it had been almost entirely directed upward, with concentric rings still marking the skyline.  Smoke was free to rise, and Behemoth was in plain sight.  He was moving on three limbs, planting hands on the ruined, half-toppled and flame-scorched buildings to stay more upright.

His body, though, was a mix of high contrasts.  His flesh, what little was visible through the black ichor that dripped from his frame, glowed a silver-white.  The remaining material of his claws, teeth and horns remained black.

Tecton had pulled ahead of the group, and turned abruptly, skidding to a stop.  Cuff’s body was folded over the back of the bike, limp.  The Yàngbǎn had two more bodies with them, as well.  I’d taken my flight pack back from Imp, and was airborne as he raised a gauntlet to get my attention.  I descended to meet him, and we were soon joined by Dispatch, and Exalt, who carried an unconscious Revel.

“Where to?” Tecton asked.  His voice was hoarse.  He was recovering, it seemed.

“If we’re sticking with the regular plan,” Dispatch said, “We should gather with other capes, form another defensive line.  I think we should hold to the plan.  Working together with a less than ideal plan is best, until we can come up with something better.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Behemoth’s barely visible profile.  How far away was safe, if he was emitting that kind of radiation?

Far, far away, I answered my own unspoken question.

“Weaver?” Tecton asked me.

I ventured, “There’s a temple, not far from here.  Tattletale’s there, medical facilities.  Direction he’s moving, he’s headed in that general direction.  We protect them, hold position, see if we can’t figure out a way to keep him away from Phir Sē.  It fits with Dispatch’s idea of sticking to the plan.”

“Why don’t we press the offensive?”  Grace asked.  She still sat astride her bike.

“Believe me, I really want to press the offensive,” I said, “But I don’t want to get close to him while he’s glowing like that.  That would be a pretty good reason unto itself.”

“He won’t be using the radiation forever,” Tecton observed.

“There’s another key reason,” I said.  “Our guys are scared, maybe a little desperate.  It’s not a good mindset for fighting.”

The heroes turned to look at the others, who had apparently taken our stopping as an excuse to tend to other business.  Golem had stopped to raise some hands, more lightning rods between us and the Endbringer, and others were flanking him.  The Yàngbǎn were looking after their injured.

“Desperate,” Exalt said, gazing at the rank and file troops.

I wanted to join the others, to get involved and help, offer what little medical care I could, and the mental and emotional support I knew they needed, but we needed a greater direction, a mission.  I turned my attention back to Exalt.  “Regent was desperate, maybe, and he died.  I’m scared that our side would take risks or put themselves in danger if we ordered them back into the fight.  This is getting uglier by the minute, and we’re prone to doing stupid shit if we’re backed into a corner, or if we feel like we need to end this fast so our friends can get the medical help they need.  Let’s get the medical help, catch our breath.”

“There’re more capes joining the fight now,” Grace said.  I wasn’t sure if that was a rejection of my plan or an agreement.  I followed her gaze to see a torrent of flames making its way in Behemoth’s general direction.  A cape was hurling fireballs with some sort of space-warping effect tied to them, so they swelled dramatically in size with each second they were airborne.

I assumed it would be to Behemoth’s advantage, to have access to that kind of flame, but he wasn’t deflecting them.  The fire exploded through the area around him, and I could see him lose his grip on a building as he reeled from the impact, slumped down to a place below the distant skyline of damaged and half-collapsed buildings.  Orange light lit up the area around him, marking the areas that had been set on fire.

The fireball hurler, barely visible as a speck against a backdrop of black-brown smoke, stopped abruptly.

“Why’d he stop?” I wondered aloud.

“The radiation?”  Grace offered.

“The radiation was there before he went on the offensive,” I said.  “I don’t see Behemoth retaliating, but the cape stopped lobbing fireballs.”

My bugs noted Eidolon’s descent.  I turned around to see him depositing Rachel on the ground.  She shrugged out of his grip without so much as a ‘thanks’.

“He went underground,” Eidolon informed us.

“He ran?  It’s over?”

“No,” Eidolon said.  He didn’t elaborate as he watched Rachel back away and whistle to call her dogs.  The opaque pane of his mask was heavily shrouded beneath the heavy hood he wore, a dim blue-green glow emanating from within.  He was burned, his costume scorched and shredded in places, but the body armor beneath had more or less held.  Shaped to give the illusion that he had more muscle than he did, it seemed.  I could see blood running along the cracks at one panel of armor, where he’d apparently sustained a heavy blow.  He was mortal, after all.  Eidolon could bleed.

Fitting, that he layered disguises behind disguises.  Regent had done the same thing, to a lesser degree, had worn armor behind the deceptively light and delicate shirts he’d worn, had padding beneath his masks to cushion any blows, had hid a taser in his scepter.

I felt a pang of guilt, a swelling lump in my throat.  I’d never really gotten to know Regent, not to the extent that I’d gotten to know the others.  He hadn’t really revealed much about himself, either.  I’d reminisced before about the intimacy of friendships, about the sharing of vulnerabilities, allowing others to be close, exposing oneself to possible harm.  I’d done it with Emma, back in the day, and I’d suffered for it.  I’d allowed myself to form a kind of intimacy with the Undersiders, and it might well have been a reason we’d survived this far.  Regent hadn’t established that kind of intimacy with us.

Except maybe for Imp.

He’d hidden so much.  I’d only glimpsed the seriously disordered personality that lurked beneath the outer image of the lazy, disaffected teenager, had only seen traces of that part of him that just didn’t care that he could enslave a person’s body and leave their mind as little more than a helpless observer.  And beneath that aspect of himself, he’d had something else, something that had driven him to distract Behemoth so Imp might live.

My eyes fell on Eidolon.  Was there a similarity to Regent?  Lies, deception, a false face behind a false face behind a false face?

What was at the core?

Eidolon turned away from his observations of Behemoth, and he briefly met my eyes.

I felt intimidated, despite myself, but I didn’t look away.

“Alexandria,” I said, “How is she-”

And he took off, not even waiting for me to finish.

“-still alive?” I finished.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel commented.

“Nobody does,” Dispatch said.  Rachel seemed to accept that with a measure of satisfaction.

“And why won’t this motherfucker die?” Rachel asked, looking towards Behemoth.

“He’s been fighting us for twenty years and he hasn’t died yet,” I said.

“So?”

“So… he’s tough,” I said.  It was hard to answer a question so… what was the word?  Innocent?  Guileless?

“We’re tough.  Let’s fuck him up.”

“I was arguing for that,” Grace said.

Oh great.  They’re of like mind.

“But,” Tecton cut in, turning his head her way, “Skitter had a good reason as to why we shouldn’t.  We need to recover, recuperate.  Other heroes are picking up the slack, applying some pressure.  Or they were until he burrowed,”

Rachel snorted.  “We do the chain thing again, cut him in half at the middle instead.  Or cut off his head.”

“Honestly?” I spoke up, “I’m not sure he’d die if we cut off his head.  And correct me if I’m wrong, but he could go after the people that carry the chain.  Even if it’s someone like Eidolon, he could overheat and melt the part they’re holding on to.”

“You’re really a buzzkill,” Grace said.

I didn’t deny it.  “There’s one more reason we should go, though.  He’s going to-”

Retaliate.

Behemoth rose from beneath the ground a distance away.  In a heartbeat, things shifted from a near-quiet to chaos.  He was still glowing, and his claws crackled with electricity as he struck quickly, violently, and indiscriminately.

Three capes taken down, struck out of the sky by the bolts of electricity.  Even if they’d survived that much, the kill aura and the radiation would end them.

He turned, facing us, but the Wards were already moving, their wheels squealing on the pavement before they peeled away.

It’s the Endbringer’s pattern.  We hurt them or stall them enough, they change tactics, hit us back.

“Go!” I shouted.

Rachel moved, climbing astride her dog in an instant.  She whistled for her other dogs, directing them to Imp, Parian, Foil and Citrine.

Golem’s hands absorbed some of the lightning that crackled around us.  Not one stream, but a storm, with Behemoth at the eye of it.

And he was standing.  He didn’t necessarily have a full leg, but he had the ability to stand upright, now.

And Rachel, as I saw her making her way to the Undersiders, looked determined.

Was it weird that she seemed more comfortable in the here and now than she had before the fight started?  It wasn’t that she didn’t look scared, I could see the way her entire body was rigid, her hands clenched, white knuckled.  But she had a role here, she fit into a dynamic.

We took off, moving behind cover, running, as Behemoth crashed through a line of buildings.  Heroes from even half a mile away were lobbing attacks, and the stray shots that missed the Endbringer crashed down around us, tearing through buildings, turning stone to liquid, igniting nonflammable materials, one doing little damage but detonating so violently with the impact that my mounted teammates were nearly thrown free.

Behemoth roared, and I could see the Wards and Undersiders suffering.  A dog shook its head in an attempt to shake off the noise, and lost its sense of direction.  It crashed into a bike and sprawled.  Parian, Foil and Grace were dismounted.  Grace landed on her feet and physically ran, reaching for Tecton’s outstretched gauntlet.  He extended a piledriver to give her something to hold onto.

Few bugs had managed to keep up, much less the ones with wires, but I brought a curtain between us and Behemoth.  I was past the point where I wanted to conserve them.  If it was lightning, I could only hope that Golem’s makeshift lightning rods and my wires would protect us.

But it was flame.  It sheared through my swarm, and it splashed down around Parian, Foil and the dog.

The Endbringer had more aim than I’d expected.  He wasn’t blind, despite the fact that his eye socket was empty.  But he wasn’t entirely on target otherwise.  Was he relying on another sense?

The Yàngbǎn intercepted the attack, raising forcefields.  Parian did something with her thread, slapping the dog’s hindquarters, and it bolted.  They were carried off, tied to its side, a flame still burning on Parian’s sleeve and the hem of her dress.

Someone, an Indian cape capable of getting inside Behemoth’s kill aura, closed the distance, and Behemoth was momentarily distracted by orange cords that bound his head, lashing him to the cape.  With that, the others had a chance to escape.

“Regroup!” I called out, as I descended to the midst of the Undersiders and Wards.  “I’ll point the way!”

The sound of the fighting stopped with a crash.  Where was the motherfucker?  I rose higher to check, but saw neither Behemoth nor the cape who’d been binding him.  He’d burrowed.

It was quiet, all of a sudden, if not quite silent.  The defending capes were spreading out, and were hovering in place or holding positions, rather than bombarding the landscape.  The lightning and fire had stopped, and no shockwaves ripped through the city.  The rumbling was intermittent, mild when it wasn’t almost imperceptible.  The ringing in my ears was louder than the ambient noise.

This was his new tactic, burrowing, surfacing.  But where was the retaliation?  Their whole damn pattern centered around repaying us twice over for any abuse we inflicted on them.

The armband crackled, and I jumped, despite myself.  The first message didn’t come through the static, but the second was clearer.  “Be advised, seismic activity suggests the Endbringer is still local.  Regroup and form defensive lines.

I did a little mental math, then pressed the button on my armband.  “Armband, note that Behemoth may have a likely target, roughly eight to fifteen miles north-northwest of India Gate.”

At least, that was my best guess, judging by the flight speeds Defiant had noted for my flight pack and the time it had taken me to travel.

Every armband in earshot repeated my message.

“Keep going!” I called out.  “Keep moving!”

Surely he couldn’t keep up with us while moving underground.  I didn’t want to underestimate his intelligence, but was he even capable of holding a grudge?

What was Behemoth really doing?

The travel was uneventful, uninterrupted and eerily quiet, as we made our way to our next destination.  Three times, we stopped to pick up wounded, fashioning another quick sled for the dogs to accommodate all of them.

We reached the temple and delivered the sled to the temple doors.  The Chicago Wards stopped to park their bikes off to one side.  I waited for the Yàngbǎn to gather, extending my range, before I reached out to Phir Sē.

He’s underground.  He may be coming for you,”  I informed him, speaking through my swarm.

“I assumed,” Phir Sē responded.  “Thank you.”

You need to leave, soon.”

“I have a way out.  I’ll leave when trouble begins.  Could you rid me of the bugs?  When you leave them, they fly about me, and I cannot afford distractions.”

I hesitated, then removed the bugs, shifting them to nearby rooms and corridors.  I left only a pocket of them to communicate with.  “Be safe.

“You as well, Weaver.  Thank you, for the cooperation.”

Have you gained a bit of faith?

“Faith gained in this, perhaps, faith lost in another.”

I know what you mean.

“Good bye.  If we both live, perhaps we talk again, in a less dangerous time.”

Good bye,” I responded.

I drove the remainder of my swarm from his chamber.  It once again became a blind spot, an emptiness in my power’s range.

“You okay?” Tecton asked, as he caught up with me.  He held Cuff in his heavy armored hands, as though she were a small child.

“Saying goodbye to a self-professed madman.  Is she okay?”

“She’s breathing, but I can tell she’s hurting.”

I nodded, glancing over my shoulder as the others caught up.  Bitch brought her dogs.

We entered the front door, and I saw the amassed capes within.  Innumerable teams, looking after their wounded, lacking in direction.  The temple interior had no benches, and bedding had been laid out flat on the ground, capes set down in rows.  Medical teams were scrambling to take care of them, and capes with first aid experience were hurrying to help.  Dispatch already had his costume jacket off, his sleeves rolled up, and his hands dirty, taking care of a cape in power armor.  Parian was sitting on a mattress, tearing at her sleeve to show the burn, with Foil and Citrine beside her.

I couldn’t help but notice that more than half of the capes were covered in white sheets.  That wasn’t counting the innumerable capes left lying dead in the streets, like we’d done with Regent.  Behemoth killed more easily than he wounded.

Clockblocker had fallen.  I looked for him in the crowd of injured.  I didn’t see him.  Then again, I had my suspicions already.  This only helped justify them.

Too many others I needed to track, to watch for.  But I couldn’t use my bugs, and the dust and smoke had desaturated the colors.  Blood, in other places, marred the colors further.

“Miss,” a local man in white said, in an accented voice, “You cannot bring these animals.”

He was talking to Rachel, who glowered in response.

“Leave the dogs outside,” I said.

“I’m not leaving my fucking dogs,” she said, her voice hard.

Damn itMy eyes roved over the crowd, but I couldn’t see Grue or Tattletale.  I didn’t want to use my bugs, not in a sterile environment.  It was left to me to rein her in some.

“You can come and look for Grue and Tattletale with me, or you can stay outside with the dogs.”

She scowled, and for a second, I thought she’d stride out of the doors.  Instead, she pointed, barking out orders, “Out!  Go guard!”

The dogs filed out of the double doors of the temple.  I could see the man relax visibly.

Don’t let Grue be dead.  Don’t let Grue be dead, I thought.  Tattletale was okay, she was okay the last time I saw her.

“My friends, they were stable,” I told the man in white.  I saw Tecton crossing the room to lay Cuff out on one of the thin mattresses, turned my attention back to the man.  “They were here since a little while ago.  Where are they?”

“Stable?  They were better?”

“Mostly better.”

“Up,” he said, pointing at the nearest stairwell.

I used my flight pack without thinking, to give myself extra speed as I headed to the stairs.  Rachel was just behind me, her boots thudding on the floor.

There were more wounded above, recuperating in a long, narrow room with beds on one side.  In a grim twist, like a reminder of how close they’d come to dying, the opposite side of the room had more mattresses on the floor, more bodies.

How many dead, all in all?  Fifteen in this room alone, placed side by side, their shoulders touching.

“Skitter,” Grue said, as I approached. Tattletale stood at his bedside, her phone in hand.  There were no curtains here.  No privacy.  This was all improvised, care facilities hashed together with what the locals had on hand.  He still wore his helmet, but he had his jacket off.  He noted the arrival of the others.  “Imp.  Bitch.”

“It’s Weaver now,” I corrected him.

“You’ll-”

“I know,” I said.  I looked at his arm.  The burned flesh had angry blisters.  “You okay?”

A hand pushed at me, moving me out of the way.  Imp.  She approached her brother’s bedside.

“Hey kid,” he said.  Beside him, I could see Tattletale’s reaction.  She was silent, silenced by the damage to her throat, but she communicated well enough, that she’d drawn the full conclusion from our presence.  Her eyes closed, her head lowered.  There was no smile on her face, as she heaved out a whistling sigh through the plastic tube taped to her throat-wound.

“Regent’s dead,” Imp said.

I could see Grue go still.

As if reminding us of the culprit, there was a distant rumble.  It grew steadily in intensity, then stopped abruptly.  As far as I could tell, with bugs spread out over the area within two thousand feet or so, the Endbringer wasn’t moving any closer to us.

“I should have been there,” Grue said.

“Yeah, well, you weren’t,” Imp retorted.

I put a hand on her shoulder.  She tried to knock it away, and I dug my fingers in as I refused to cooperate.  It must have hurt; my old costume’s fingertips had clawed points.  She didn’t say anything on the subject.

“No, Grue,” I told him.  “You want to feel bad?  That’s allowed, but I forbid you from taking the actual blame for this.”

“You can’t do that,” he said.  His voice was hard.  “I’m team leader, not you.  I’m supposed to pick up the slack, remember?  I’m supposed to manage these guys.  So don’t turn around and decide shit like this, when you leftI dropped the ball.  I didn’t move fast enough, I got hurt, and because of that, I wasn’t there to help, to lead.”

“You’re not allowed to take the blame, because if you start, then I’ve got to own up to it too,” I said.  “I-”

My breath hitched.  It caught me off guard.  I had to stop and take a deep breath.

Staying calm, composed, with my words carefully measured out, I said, “-I was there, and there was nothing I could do.  And if you’re saying you could have done better, I’ve got to think I could have too.  So I’ll match you one for one on any guilt trips.”

He sighed, heavy.  “Fuck.”

“Fuck,” Imp echoed him.

“Fuck,” Rachel followed, from the entrance to the room, as if we were toasting Regent in our own messed up way.  Tattletale was nodding.

Fuck,” I agreed.

“Christ,” Grue said.  “What do you even say to that?  How… how do you even pay your respects to a guy like him?”

“He was a jerk, and worse,” I said.  I saw Imp bristle, but held on to her shoulder, “And he died for Imp’s sake.”

Grue looked startled at that, as much as one could look startled with an all-consuming costume like the one he wore.  Tattletale, beside him, was unfazed.  She frowned a little.

“Christ,” he said, again.

“So maybe we respect him by respecting that.”

There was no response to that for a few seconds.

“Yeah,” Imp said, her voice small.  “I’m going to fucking kill his dad for him.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I said.  “I meant we should remember the best part of him.”

“That part of him would’ve killed his dad too,” Imp said.

I sighed.  I wouldn’t win here.

I changed the subject, seeing how quiet Grue was.  “You should know, Grue, we got ours back.  We hurt him.  Behemoth.”

Grue raised his head, meeting my eyes with the empty black eye sockets of his mask.

“The others will explain,” I said.  I let my hand fall from Imp’s shoulder.  “You wouldn’t believe how much I want to be an Undersider again, right this moment… fuck me, I want to remember the guy, to reminisce.  But this isn’t over, and I’ve got another team to help look after.”

“We’ll-”  Grue started.  He stopped as some doctors came barreling in, wheeling in beds with unconscious capes.

“Out!” one of them shouted at us.  “No more visiting, there isn’t room!”

“Asshole!” Imp snarled, jumping out of the way as someone moved the bed beside Grue’s, nearly sandwiching her between the two.

Go,” Grue ordered her.  “Go irritate someone who isn’t loaded with painkillers.”

“A way of remembering Regent?” she asked, as if she were trying to be funny, but there was a break to her voice as she altered the pitch to make it a question.

“Exactly,” he said.

“Fuck it,” she said, under her breath.  “Fuck it, fuck it.”

We left the room, with only Grue and Tattletale staying.  The three of us made our way down the stairs, Rachel just to my right.

I glanced over my shoulder at Imp.  Her head was lowered a fraction, her arms folded.  Her gaze was on the rows and columns of injured and dead capes in the main hall.

We hadn’t brought Regent’s body.  We’d left it lying in the streets, too busy trying to stay alive to collect it.  Was that what she was thinking about?

There was a rumble, with a shaking that affected the whole structure.  Something distant, beyond my power’s range.  A heavy crash.  Somewhere in a northwesterly direction.

Phir Sē, I thought.  Had that been his complex?

At the entrance to the temple, heroes were gathering.  Our last stand.  I could see the Chicago wards at one corner.  Tecton was talking to Wanton, who was on crutches.  Wanton’s right arm ended in a stump at the elbow, bandaged with crimson on the end.

Bad luck, I thought.

I joined Tecton, only to realize that Rachel had accompanied me.  I supposed she didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Imp didn’t either.  Another glance showed her lagging behind the group, clearly lost in thought.

I lowered my voice “Rachel, maybe you can do me a favor?”

“Hm?”

I ordered my thoughts, then voiced them, “Grue and Tattletale are too injured to help out.  I’m focused on other stuff, and Parian and Foil are looking after each other.  Can you keep an eye on Imp?”

Rachel made a face.  “I thought you wanted me to do something.”

“This is key,” I said.  “She needs someone to be there, right now.  That’s all.”

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do.  What if she gets…?”

Rachel trailed off.  Emotional?

“Support her,” Tecton cut in.  I suppressed the urge to wince.  He went on, “She’s your teammate, right?”

“How the fuck do I support someone?” she asked.  “Stupid.  Not my thing.”

“You-” I started, but Tecton was already talking, his voice deeper, his conviction stronger.  Grace was listening in as well, now.

Empathize,” he said.

Rachel glowered at him, unimpressed.

He tried again, earnest, “Okay, here’s a cheat I learned in a leadership seminar.  It’s called active listening.  Someone says something, a complaint, or a criticism, or they’re excited about something that happened to them.  For a lot of us, our instinct is to offer a solution, or expand on an idea, to fix or offer something.  The key is to think about how they’re feeling, be receptive to that, and parrot it back to them.  They just got a new car, and they’re happy about it?  A simple ‘that’s excellent’ or ‘you must be so proud’ works.  It leaves room for them to keep talking, to know you’re listening.  For your teammate who just lost someone she obviously cared about, just recognizing that she’s upset and she’s right to feel upset, that’s enough.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but I couldn’t even begin to sum up how useless this advice was to Rachel in particular.

“That’s retarded,” Rachel told Tecton.

“It works.  And I know Grace is going to say something to me about it, about it being fake or false, but the thing is, you do that, and you start to do it because it’s genuine, because you care about their feelings, or because-”

I cut him off.  “Tecton.”

He fell silent, turning my way.

“We don’t have time to get into anything complicated,” I said.

“It’s retarded anyways,” Rachel added.

I turned to her.  “Rachel, did you ever have a dog with a deep attachment to another person or dog?  Someone they lost, before they found their way to a shelter, or to you?  Where they were still dealing, after the fact?”

She gave me a one-shouldered shrug.

“How would you treat that dog?”  I asked.

“Dunno, depends on the dog.”

“Basically, though?  You’d just be there, right?  Do that for Imp.  Stay close, make sure she doesn’t run off, as much as that’s even possible with her, and give her the benefit of your company without intruding into her space.  Make sure she has all of the basics, both in the near future and in the next few days.”

“Okay,” Rachel said, frowning a little.

“I know it’s not the easiest thing, but she’s a teammate, all right?  It’s what we do for our team.”

“Right.”

“And just like a dog that’s had a recent bad experience might snap, bark or growl, you need to understand that she might do the same.  Only it’ll probably take a different form.  She’ll swear a lot.  She’ll probably try to get a rise out of you, try to provoke you or someone else.  That’s how Imp growls.”

Rachel didn’t even offer me a monosyllabic response at that.  She frowned instead.

“Trust your instincts, Rachel.  You’re smarter than you think, and your gut responses, the decisions you make on the fly, they’re good ones.  Turning around and using the chain for a second cut, back there?  That was good.”

Anyone else might have accepted the praise with a smile, but her frown only deepened.

“How was your advice better than mine?” Tecton asked.  He sounded a touch offended.

“Customized to the individual,” Grace said.  “Don’t be a sore loser.”

“I’m not sore.  I’m just usually pretty good at this, and I got called retarded.”

“The advice was called retarded,” I said.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll explain another day, if we make it through this.  How’s Cuff?”

“Skin’s badly burned, but the burn didn’t go much further than that.  She’ll have the most amazing scars, too.  No serious internal or mental damage, as far as we can tell, but her muscles convulsed so badly they broke a bone.”

I winced.

“She’ll make it to tomorrow, provided this doesn’t turn ugly,” Tecton said.

I nodded.  I sensed a rumble.  I couldn’t tell how distant the attack was.

Where the hell was the bastard?  I was a little caught off guard by how quiet things had gone.  He was giving us a chance to regroup?  Or was he letting us gather, so he could take us all out at once?

“Don’t suppose you can sense seismic activity?” I asked.

“Not with my suit.  My computers got toasted.  I’m running purely off the basics, and my intuitive understanding.  Stuff I reinforced, so I wouldn’t get trapped in my suit like I did with Shatterbird.”

I nodded.

“Generally, though?”

“He’s taking his time.”

If he was massing his strength for one good retaliatory hit, how would he do it?

Volcanos?  Earthquake?

“Let’s go,” I said.

“Go?”

“I’ve got a bad feeling,” I said.  I turned to look for Rachel, saw her a distance away, her arms folded as she stood beside Imp.  They were looking at the sea of injured capes.  “Rachel!”

I saw her attention snap to me.

“Go!  Get your dogs!”  I said.  I turned to the Chicago Wards, “Wards!  Bikes!”

“You’re serious,” Tecton said.

“Everything I know about Endbringers, about basic parahuman psychology, it demands retaliation.  What’s he done so far?  Saturated an area in radiation?  Thrown a few lightning bolts around?”

“You’re expecting worse.”

“I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Go.  Spread out.  We might need to respond to an attack on another location, with no time to spare.”

Tecton nodded.  He turned to his Wards, “Go!”

I pushed my way through the gathered crowd.  I could see Defiant, with Dragon beside him.

“Weaver,” he said.  “Dragon says that was you, with the blast.”

I shook my head.  “I helped coordinate, nothing more.”

“You hurt him.”

We hurt him.  And he’s burrowed.  He’s looking for a target, and I can’t think of a better place for him to hit than this.”

“We’d be able to put up a fight.  We have defensive lines.”

“Probably,” I agreed.  “But my guys are moving out anyways.  We’ve never done this much damage to him, and yet he’s sticking around.  What I’m wondering is, why?”

Defiant glanced at Dragon, then spoke.  “He’s-”

The ground shuddered.  Again, as before, the rumbling intensified.

This time, it didn’t stop.  It got worse with every passing second.

“Reinforce!”  A cape hollered.  Someone else took up the call in an Indian language.  Hindi?  Punjabi?

I could see Annex flowing into the entryway, soaring through the wall’s surface to the ceiling.  Golem created his hands, protecting the rows and columns of injured capes.

There was a press as the bodies flowed out the door.  I used my flight pack to fly over their heads, but even then, I bumped shoulders with others who could fly.  I wanted to help, but there was little I could do inside.

Eidolon and Alexandria had arrived at the building.  Eidolon touched the exterior wall, and an emerald green glow started to surround the structure.

The rumbling reached the point where capes were unable to keep their balance.  I raised off the ground, but the movement of the air in response to the shuddering was enough to make me sway.

Tattletale.  Grue.  Parian.

Behemoth emerged with a plume of gray-brown smoke, and the landscape shattered.  It was Tecton’s natural power, taken to an extreme.  Fissures lanced out in every direction and disappeared into each horizon.  Secondary fissures crossed between each of the major ones, like the threads of a spider’s web.

As far as the eye could see in every direction, terrain shifted.  Hillsides abruptly tilted, standing structures fell like collapsing houses of cards.

A full quarter of the temple collapsed.  The bugs I’d kept to the edges of the room could sense it as a small share of the capes who were in the entry hall were caught beneath the falling rubble.  The ones furthest towards the back.  Eidolon’s protective effect kept the remainder intact.

Behemoth emerged from the smoke.  He was more robust than he had been, but that wasn’t saying much.  Seventy percent burned away, perhaps.  The regeneration had slowed, but it was still functioning to a degree.  He’d recuperated, built his strength, and he’d used the time to, what?  Burrow through strategic areas?  Had the distant rumbles been controlled detonations or collapses at key areas?

The temple was the one building that stood.  Everywhere else, there was devastation.

How many refugees had just died, with this?  How many had stayed within their homes, rather than try to evacuate?

I felt hollow inside, just standing there, stunned, trying to take it all in.  The area around us was still settling, sections of land tilting and sliding like sinking battleships sliding into the water.

How many of us were left?  Seventy?  Eighty?  How many of them were hurt, exhausted, their resources spent?  Could we even coordinate, with so many of us speaking different languages?

“Last stand!” a male cape I didn’t know hollered the words, his voice ragged with fear and emotion.

Behemoth, three or four hundred feet away, responded to the shout with a lightning strike.  Our capes were too slow to erect barriers, and the protection insufficient.  Capes died.  For the first time, I averted my eyes.  I didn’t want to know how bad the casualties were.  Our numbers were too thin.

I saw our Protectorate, what remained of it, stepping forward to form our defensive line.  Our last defensive line.  The major ones, the ones I’d been introduced to, too many had died, or were injured.  These were unfamiliar faces.  The ones who were second in command, if that.

Eidolon landed to one side.  The Triumvirate had often posed in that classic ‘v’ formation, with Legend in front, Alexandria to his left, Eidolon to the right, the lesser members in the wings, Eidolon was now apart from the rest of the group.  His cape didn’t billow, his posture was slightly slumped.  He was tired, on his last legs.

There were murmurs as Alexandria advanced from within the temple.  Unlike so many of us, she didn’t flinch as Behemoth struck out with lightning, the barriers holding this time.  Golem had raised lightning rods on either side of the road, fingers splayed as if he could gesture for Behemoth to stop.

Alexandria found her way to the end of the crowd opposite Eidolon, to our far left.  Satyrical and the other Vegas capes followed her.  Only a small fraction of them remained.  Others had apparently been injured or killed in battle.

Alexandria glanced over our ranks, and her eyes moved right past me, not even recognizing me.  For the briefest instant, I met her eyes behind that steel helmet of hers, and I saw that one had a pink iris.

That answered my question, I supposed.  Pretender couldn’t take over a corpse, but there was no reason for him to take over Alexandria if she was alive and well.  Cauldron had collected Pretender, and they had him controlling her because she was no longer of any use to them on her own.

Our side was busy getting sorted into groups, spreading out so he couldn’t hurt too many of us at once.  We were finding our formations, as our toughest capes absorbed and redirected the lightning he was throwing in an almost experimental manner.  He changed tacks, throwing flame, and a team composed entirely of pyrokinetics caught and redirected it with a concerted effort.  I backed away, and found Tecton at my back, with the remaining Chicago Wards.  Bitch stood just off to one side, her dogs ready.

One structure among several hundred thousand still stood, and our adversary was wounded, though undiminished.  Our ranks had been thinned in the most violent ways possible, through fire and lightning and a roar that could render organs to mush.  We weren’t stronger than we’d been at the start of all of this.  I couldn’t even say that the weak had been thinned out, or that we’d been united through hardship or loss.  Behemoth had picked off some of the strongest of us, and the trust between our factions was thin at best, with some eyeing the Yàngbǎn, others watching Satyrical’s contingent.  We were just less.

“Hold the line,” Exalt called out.  Other capes translated for him, echoing his words with only a few seconds of delay, in four or five different languages.  “We defend until the ones inside can be evacuated, and then we leave.  There’s nothing left to protect here.”

A thin heroism, but that was heroic, wasn’t it?  Protecting the wounded, defending the ones who’d put everything on the line to stop this monster.

If this was all a kind of microcosm for the world at large, that small heroism had to count for something.  I wanted it to so badly I ached for it.

Behemoth roared, and the last engagement opened.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Crushed 24.4

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Particulate said something, and the amount of invective in his tone was enough to make it clear, even if I couldn’t understand the language.

Phir Sē said something in response, his voice calm, almost as though he were talking to a child, then took another drink of his water.  His eyes didn’t leave the screens.

Behemoth had nearly reached India Gate.  The defense continued to be staggered.  One to four parahumans working together to slow him, to impede his progress and buy time for the others to wear him down.  When they failed, the measures circumvented or the capes in question killed, he advanced, the heroes retreated as best as they were able, and they enacted the next counteroffensive.

But each time they fought, he did damage.  Capes perished, tinker devices were turned into lumps of hot metal.  Each time the capes mounted a defense, the defense was weaker.

“Something is wrong,” Phir Sē said.

“Chevalier was attacked,” I answered.  “They were planning a coordinated defense, I think, but someone beheaded our group at the worst possible time.”

“I see.”

“I’m not going to ask any questions about how you guys operate, but it’s obvious you’re organized.”

“Careful,” Phir Sē told me.  He didn’t even look at me.  The defensive line was using Clockblocker, now.  They’d erected a loose grid of wires, almost invisible, but for the flashing lights set at regular intervals.  Alexandria and Eidolon were trying to hammer the Endbringer into the barricade.

“You’ve got secrets to protect.  Fine.  Cool.  I’m not going to pry.  But maybe we’ve walked similar paths.  We had similar practices, probably.”

He cast me a momentary glance over his shoulder, meeting my eyes for a second before he turned back to the screens.  An acknowledgement, without accepting or denying my point.

“My old team wasn’t nearly as effective as you guys seem to be.  But we operated in secret, we understood some key elements.  The need for information, having to know when to go on the offense, being unpredictable against enemies who are already expecting you to try and catch them off guard.”

“Talk slower, please,” Phir Sē told me.  “My English is not strong, and I am very tired.”

He looked like he might drop any minute, like he’d barely eaten, hadn’t slept…

“How long has it been since you slept?”  I asked.

“Three days.  We thought an Endbringer would attack soon, so I prepared, to be ready when the time came.  Too early, I had to stop, restart.  This time, he came, but I am weary.  The talking, is good.  Distracting without being dangerous.  Continue, please.”

What happens if he nods off?  I wondered, looking at the ‘time bomb’.  The same thing he’d stated would happen if he were killed or knocked out?

“Okay,” I answered.  I took a second to compose my thoughts.  “You mentioned how you have to be hard, heavy handed if you’re going to succeed in a situation where your enemies are as scary as the people you and I have gone up against.”

“Yes.  Heavy handed.  Like the judge’s hammer…”

“Gavel,” I supplied.

“The gavel.  Harsh justice.  Crush the enemies who cannot be converted to your side or convinced to do otherwise.”

“Yes,” I said.  I thought for a second, then made my argument.  “And you know the power of having all of the information.  The power of having a group that can communicate that information.  Communication is key, and a group that doesn’t even need to communicate because they function so well together is better yet.”

“You had this.”

With the Undersiders.  “We were close.  And losing that, it’s scary.  Maybe the least fun part about being a hero.  But you understand?  You agree, about information and communication?”

He didn’t respond, as he watched the screen.  Is he going to nod off right here?

On the monitors, a successful hit on Eidolon’s part struck Behemoth into the grid of wires.  It had taken time for the Endbringer to approach the wires, set safely outside of his kill range, and some were already coming free of Clockblocker’s power.  Still, they sank deep, cutting a diamond-shaped pattern into his hide, shoulder to heel.  Alexandria charged, trying to drive it home, and Behemoth struck out with one claw, a swipe.

He must have captured all of her forward momentum and motive impact and redirected it at her, because he didn’t move an inch in response to the hit, and she crashed into the ground at a shallow diagonal angle.  Her body carved a trench a few hundred feet long, judging by the cloud of dust that rose in her wake.

Behemoth lurched forward, and the grid of wires cut him again on their way out.  Chunks of flesh were carved free.

The Endbringer clapped his hands together, and forcefields went down, defenses and defending capes falling in response to the impact.

Clockblocker’s grid of wires dropped out of the sky, blinking white lights falling like sparks from a large firework.  I suspected that I knew what it meant.

Shit.  I hoped he was okay.  Clockblocker wasn’t a bad guy, as heroes went.

“I agree,” Phir Sē told me, belatedly.  “And I think I see what you are going to say.”

“Let’s communicate with them.  With everyone.  Half the screwed up crap I’ve seen, it’s been because we’re fighting between ourselves.  The best achievements, the truly heroic stuff I’ve seen?  It’s been when we worked together.  So let’s maximize our chances.”

“You have been doing this how long?  A year?”

“Months.”

“I have been doing this for ten years.  I admire you for retaining your…” he trailed off.

“Idealism?”

“Not a word I’m familiar with, Weaver.  Faith?”

“Faith works.”

“I have none left, after ten years.  No faith.  We are a wretched, petty species, and we have been given power to destroy ourselves with.”

“Ironic, given what you’re trying to do here.  You’re going to kill people, kill bystanders, on a gamble.”

Phir Sē peered at me.  “What chances would you give this gamble?”

“One in three?”

His stare was cold as he met my eyes.  “One in three.  That is… perhaps unfair.  No matter.  If I’m wrong, we lose this city.  If I’m right, we kill Behemoth.  I would take those odds, Weaver.  I would take them, I would watch this city be wiped from the earth, knowing that people I am fond of would die.  I live in a civilian guise most days, waiting until I have a task from those more powerful than I.  I would perhaps be killing the butcher I talk to every day when I walk to the store for food.  I would kill the widow who lives next door to me, her child, if they have not evacuated.  I have mentioned my daughter, much like you in her abundance of faith in people.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call myself an idealist to that extent,” I said.  I paused.  “Phir Sē-”

We’d started talking at the same time.  He talked over me, half of his attention on the screens.  “I will take this gamble and perhaps kill those people in the process.  I will kill those people who can make me smile and feel more human than I am, I will grieve their deaths, and then I will take that gamble again.  Because one city, however grand, is worth that chance.”

I thought of doing that, of rolling the dice like that, with my father, with the people in my territory.  “Easier to say than do.”

“I have done it, Weaver,” Phir Sē told me.  “My wife, my sons, years ago.  A similar problem on a smaller scale.  I can walk through minutes, I could have walked back to save them, but I let them die because it meant a monster would remain gone.  What merit is a gamble, a sacrifice, if you stake things that matter nothing to you?”

I stared at him.  He was young, no older than thirty-five, but the lines of his face, the slumped posture, the slowness with which he moved… they spoke of a horrendous exhaustion.

I didn’t have a response for Phir Sē’s question.  He smiled a little, and turned back to the screens.

Behemoth was roaring, a sound that didn’t reach us underground.  With the monitors on mute, it didn’t translate there either.  Still, the images vibrated, the flickering intensified, and the defenses the heroes had established were crumbling.  India Gate was damaged, an incidental casualty of the fight more than a target.

My bugs sensed motion to my left.  I glanced at Particulate, and saw him holding his scanner behind his back.

It was pointed at Phir Sē’s ‘time bomb’.

His other hand was drawing a slender gun from a pocket in his combination lab coat and jacket, a gun like something from retro science fiction, with no barrel.  There was only a small extension on the end, much like a satellite dish.

Another disintegration gun?

He saw me looking, glanced at Phir Sē, who had his back turned, then looked back at me.  His eyes flicked over in Phir Sē’s direction, his intention clear.

He had a solution in mind.  A way to disable the explosion and stop Phir Sē.

I had only an instant to decide, before the teleporter intervened, or Phir Sē noticed what was going on.

I met Particulate’s eyes and nodded once, curt.

The scanner disappeared into a pocket, and he drew something like a grenade from within his flowing coat.  Then he drew the gun on Phir Sē.  I felt the tug of the thread in my hand, attached to the gun.

Without thinking, I hauled on it, pulling it off-target.  The gun hit one screen, two feet to Phir Sē’s right, at stomach level.  It exploded into a swirling cloud of black dust.

Phir Sē whirled around.  He barked out a word I couldn’t understand.

“No!” I called out.

Phir Sē made a gesture with his hand, just as the teleporter flickered into existence.  The man didn’t intersect Particulate, but appeared behind him, deftly disarming him of the grenade and pistol before flickering back out of existence.  He took Particulate with him.

“Don’t kill him,” I said.

“You would feel… blameful?” Phir Sē asked.

Blameful?  “Guilty,” I corrected him, before I realized what I was doing.

I could see the small smile on Phir Sē’s face, disappointed and proud and a condemnation at the same time.  “I watch you.  In reflection of screen.  You set him up, to put yourself in my good will.”

Had I?  Not wholly consciously.  I’d set up the string, but how much of that was intentional?  Was it habit, now, to have a measure on hand when dealing with any weapon?

I focused on the swarm, focused on the cords and threads that traced the room.  One in the doorway, one at each of Phir Sē’s feet, just waiting for me to finish the deal and bind him.  Others extended between us, spiders poised to cut the threads or tie them, as the situation demanded.

The passenger, or was it me, being wary?

“I guess I did,” I said.  I made the spiders cut the threads between us.

He shook a finger at me, “I was not born yesterday.  This silliness could have gotten you killed.  Would have, if I did not feel need for outsider to challenge my ideas.”

“I guess…” I said, searching for the phrase, “A gamble’s not meaningful if you’re not staking something important, right?”

He smiled a little, and there was a slight twinkle in his eye, “Your life?”

“I suppose,” I said.  My heart was still pounding, my mouth dry, and it wasn’t just the Phir Sē thing, or the teleporter.  The passenger.

“You think.  So we know where you stand, now.  You are crafty, dangerous.  Underhanded.  You turn on an ally and use him as a pawn to express something to me.”

“He wasn’t quite an ally,” I said.  “He helped us get inside this underground base.  But he was reckless.  Breaking into this chamber in the first place, preparing to attack you.  A chaotic element.”

“I do not know this ‘chaotic’ word, but I get your meaning, I think.  There was no communication,” Phir Sē said.  He smiled as though we shared a private joke.

“I’m doing what I have to, to ensure we all come out of this ahead.  Just like you, but I didn’t get the ability to manipulate time, or to create this sort of ‘time bomb’.  I work on a smaller scale.”

“I get the joke,” Phir Sē told me.  “It is joke?  Small?”

“Sort of,” I said, and I smiled a little in return, behind my mask.  This guy was borderline unhinged, too much power in too unstable a package, and I almost liked him.

“What is it you wish to express to me, Weaver, that you would sacrifice a pawn and risk your own life?”

I wasn’t sure I had a response to that.  I tried anyways.  “You want to hit Behemoth with your time bomb?  Okay, let’s do it.”

“Oh?  You protested only minutes ago.”

“I’m not about to change your mind, I’m not about to stop you.  So let’s make it happen.  We’ll let the defending heroes know what’s up, set up something-”

“Slower.  Speak slower.”

“Let me go.  We work together with the heroes.”

“The heroes will die in minutes.  Before you arrive.”

I glanced at the screen.  How bad was it?  It was so hard to get a sense of how many heroes still stood.  An ugly feeling gripped my chest.

“We’ll try.  Let me try.  I can give you a signal.  You strike then.”

“You are asking me to have faith.”

Let me go, Phir Sē,” I told him.  “You said you have to stake something that matters on a gamble.  Stake your doubt.”

“I do not understand this,” he said, suddenly sounding weary.  “My English-”

“It’s not your English; what I’m saying doesn’t make a lot of sense,” I said.  I had to resist the urge to rush and hurry through the explanation.  “But your doubt, your lack of faith, it’s something safe.  No disappointments, no fear things won’t work out.    Risk that.  Risk losing that.  I did, when I became a hero.”

“Not such a hero,” he said.  “Bargain with the madman, turn on an ally.”

“I’m realizing I’m a pretty lousy hero,” I agreed.  “But I’m trying.  I made a leap of faith.  I’m asking you to as well.”

He smiled a little, then reached forward and took my hand.  He raised it, simultaneously bending over, and kissed the back of it.

“One more,” he said.

“One more?”

“To wager on a gamble.  A pleasant conversation I might look forward to.  Gone, when you die.”

Die?

He spoke a word, and I tensed.  I tried to pull my hand back, but he held on, my fingers wrenching painfully as I tried to get away.

The teleporter appeared just behind me.  His manifestation was followed by a gentle brush of air, as oxygen was displaced from the area his body now occupied.  I could feel my heart skip a beat, the air catching in my throat.

No pain.  A second passed as I made an assessment, realized that he hadn’t impaled me with one of his limbs.  Only surprise, and that vague sense of a killer instinct.

The man’s hands settled on me.

“Fifteen minutes, Weaver,” Phir Sē told me, releasing my hand.  “Fifteen minutes, or if the heroes cannot put up fight any longer, whichever is first.”

And I was gone, out of the basement, planted in the midst of the battlefield.  Phir Sē wasn’t even in my range.  I’d made the call to work with him, and now it was set in stone. There would be no going back to change his mind, to stop him.  He’d strike, guaranteed.

Even with the filter of my mask, the smell of ozone and the heated air burned the edges of my nostrils.  Acrid smoke was so thick in the air that I could taste it, breathing in through my nose.

And Behemoth loomed in front of me, far too close for comfort, his silhouette shrouded in the smoke around him.

I turned and activated the antigrav panels, running to help get up to speed before it could help me lift off.  

The ground abruptly tilted under my feet, a steep shelf of street and underlying rock rising in front of me, blocking my path.  I managed to grab the uppermost edge with my hands, hauling myself forward enough that the flight pack could take over.

No bugs.  I’d left them behind in Phir Sē’s lair.  If I’d thought about it, I might have asked for time to collect them.  At the same time, I couldn’t have spared the minutes.

Two or three thousand bugs, the only silk I had were the cords that were still attached to me, the ones I’d stretched between Phir Sē and myself and then cut.  I had my taser, laughably petty in the face of Behemoth, a small canister of pepper spray, and the flight pack.

Long odds, even at the best of it.  I pressed the button on my armband, spoke into it, and got only silence in response.

My bugs moved throughout the battlefield, and I marked every cape I came across.  Shelter was scarce, and hard to make out in the smoke.  Each flash of lightning marked an unfortunate cape who’d found themselves too far from cover and in Behemoth’s sights.

In the midst of it all, I could speak and I couldn’t make myself out.  It was almost like being in Grue’s darkness, before his second trigger event.  Couldn’t see.  Couldn’t hear.  My movements, even, were harder to judge.  I felt like there was a pressure, here, as if the smoke had substance, and even Behemoth’s existence, somewhere nearby, was weighing on me.  Was I tired, or was everything heavier?  Or, it struck me, maybe the oxygen content in the air was lower.

I wasn’t sure about the ramifications of that.

So few bugs to draw on.  Five to ten touched a single cape, allowed me to check if they were anyone I recognized, then all but one would leave.  One bug per cape, the rest scouting.

Ligeia was the first I recognized.  The conch shell mask, one of Accord’s people.  Citrine would be close by…

Or not.  I swore under my breath, touched ground to reorient myself, then hurried around a corner.

She was creating a massive portal, widening it with every passing moment.  It made me wonder if there was a reason there were so few recordings of the Endbringer attacks, if the PRT hid this sort of thing.  They’d hidden the particulars of the Echidna attack, and one of the reasons Alexandria had argued, a reason I had argued in favor of that, was because it wouldn’t go over well with the public to know just how much devastation a single parahuman could be capable of.

Her portal was perhaps twenty feet across, circular, and cold water gushed out, as if forced by an incredible pressure.

It was the sort of defensive measure that you employed when there weren’t any frontline combatants left.  A desperate, violent one, like Sundancer’s sun.  My bugs found her ear, and I communicated as clearly as I could, “Run.”

She didn’t hear.  Doggedly, she stood her ground, drenching Behemoth, widening the portal’s radius.  So hard to tell just how much, without losing bugs to the spray.  Twenty five feet?  Thirty?

Run,” I tried again.  I muttered, “Run, Ligeia.”

He erupted with lightning, and I could momentarily see his silhouette in the distance, the light cutting through the thick clouds of smoke and dust.  I could see the tendrils of lightning as though through a strobe light, holding positions as they followed the flow of the water, then changing to other targets, finding solid conductors to latch onto.  The entire geyser was lit up.

She changed tacks, and the portal began sucking.  The lightning disappeared, and Behemoth stumbled forwards towards the opening, the water now reversing direction.

Eidolon appeared like a spear from the heavens, striking him between the shoulderblades.  Behemoth nearly crashed through.  His claw settled on the portal’s edge, as though it had a physical mass to it, slipped through.  The lightning wasn’t traveling far, now, and the image of it was soon lost in the smoke.

The portal closed, and Behemoth managed to claw his way back, simultaneously fending off Eidolon, the lighting growing stronger with every passing second.

He lurched, and dropped several feet, the ground shaking.  The light show marked the geyser spraying up around his leg, apparently having sunken into a portal.

Close it, I thought.  Sever it.

But she didn’t.  Not an option, it seemed.

Move, Taylor.  Deal with your own jobs first.  How long did I have?  Fifteen minutes?  Thirteen?  Twelve?  So hard to keep track of time right now.

My underlings.  Wanton, he was nearby.  Larger.  He carried stretchers with the wounded, which moved around the very periphery of his range, where they rotated slower, and other objects closer to his core.  An armband, a dismembered arm with scorch marks at the base.

His or someone else’s?

Once I caught up to him, I found the others a distance away.  Tecton had fashioned something crude to attach to his armor, a shelf on his back that would hold injured capes.  He rode his three-wheeled bike forward, stopped to slam his piledrivers into the ground to erect a wall of stone, punched through an obstruction, made more forward progress, and then created another wall.  A staggered retreat.  Grace, Cuff and Golem followed, each with wounded behind them on their vehicles.

Annex?  I couldn’t find him with my bugs.  He was either swimming alongside them, helping to clear the way, or he was injured.

I was on my way to catch up to them when Ligeia was struck down.  A chance lightning bolt had struck her, just like that.  Behemoth surged to his feet.  Lightning traced the arc of the water that still geysered up, less impressive with every passing second.

Even killing her hadn’t forced the portal closed.  Damn.

I came to a stop at Tecton’s side.

“Sorry,” I panted.  My voice sounded so rough-edged.  So hard to breathe.

“Tecton can’t talk,” Cuff said.  Her voice was oddly level, in contrast to how she’d acted early in the fight.

“What happened?”

“Clipped by another cape,” she said.  Still with no emotion, no affect.

“Doesn’t matter,” Grace cut in.  “Where the fuck were you?”

Tecton’s hand moved, settling on her shoulder.  Grace backhanded it away.

“I found what Behemoth wants,” I told her.  “Where’s Rime?”

“Dead,” Golem said.  He carried a small child, and was falling behind,

“Who’s next in command?”

“Prism, but she’s injured,” Grace said.

“I need to communicate with someone in charge, and we don’t have time,” I said.  “Dragon?  Defiant?”

“Metal suits are all toast,” Grace said.  “No clue about Defiant.”

“Revel?  Your boss?”  I asked.  Then I corrected myself.  “Our boss?”

“Saw her two minutes ago.  No word on chain of command.  She said we should run, take anyone we can help.  Scion’s dropped off the radar, but last we heard, he was heading north.  Not east, not west.  He has to be trying to avoid this fight,” Grace almost snarled the words.

“It’s not hopeless,” I said.  “We’ve got a shot, here.  Behemoth’s target is a weapon.  Kind of.”

“A weapon?” Golem asked.

“A bomb.  Maybe big enough that it makes an atom bomb look like a hand grenade.  Something that’s supposed to take down Endbringers.”

“No shit?”  Grace asked.  I could see a trace of hope in her expression.

“An energy weapon,” I clarified.

I saw that hope become confusion.  “But that’s-”

“It’s something that could go really right or really wrong,” I said.  I saw the confusion become a momentary despair.  “Which is exactly why we need to get in touch with someone that matters.  Where are the heroes?  Where was Revel?”

Golem pointed.  “That way.”

“Citrine?  Woman in yellow dress.”

“Yellow bodysuit now,” Golem said.  “She stripped out of the dress when he pushed past the command center.”

Fuck me.  Now that he mentioned that, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d sensed her with my bugs and dismissed her as a stranger.

“I think I know where she went,” I said.  Same direction Revel went.  I was already lifting off the ground.  “Go, drop off injured, then come back if you can.”

“Revel told us to scram,” Grace said.

“I’m telling you that we need to distract that motherfucker for five seconds,” I said.  “Where’s Annex?”

“Here,” Annex said, from behind me.

I turned to look as he stepped out of a building.

“You’re with me,” I told him.  He didn’t have any wounded with him.

“I need to ride something,” he said, “Not fast enough.”

“Define ‘something’,” I told him.

“Something heavy enough to hold my entire body mass.”

Could I hold an entire other person?  No.  I could hold a child, but that’d be a stretch.

“Climb inside my costume,” I told him.  “The flight pack too.”

He gave me a bewildered look.  “You realize I’d be right against-”

“Move!”  I barked.  How long did I have?  Not enough time.  Modesty was not an issue.

He flowed into my costume, and I could feel him against my skin, his body strangely cold and smooth.  A lump of him stuck out over one shoulder.  His head, not quite normal, not quite his specter form, had formed itself in my shoulderpad.

And we were too heavy for the antigravity.

I’d have to gamble, make compromises, take risks.  I looked to the others, “Reach deep inside, find your second wind.  Find your third wind, if you can.  Rendezvous with me over there if you can make it in eight or ten minutes.”

Then I deployed my wings, activated the propulsion system alongside the antigrav.  It was slow to lift off, but it was faster than running. 

If I got shocked, or if the electromagnetic radiation got any worse, this could cut out on me any second, but I needed to move.  I needed assets, even if I didn’t know for sure what I’d do with them.

The Chicago Wards peeled away behind me, abandoning the defensive walls and careful retreat in favor of speed.

We found the defensive lines in a minute, if that.

The Undersiders were there, fighting.  Three stuffed goats and the dogs provided an added barricade for them to hide behind, while Foil was firing her needles.  Regent held her quiver, handing her bolts to fire, while Imp lurked on the far side of the street, her back to the wall.  Citrine was peering between two dogs, erecting a field of golden light near the Endbringer.

Grue wasn’t with them.

“Gah!”  Regent cried out, as I landed, folding the wings back into place.  “Jesus fuck!”

Right, I had two heads.  “Out, Annex.”

Annex flowed out of my costume and straight into the ground.  Within seconds, he was shoring up the wall, drawing in debris and using it to rebuild and reinforce.

“Where’s Grue?” I asked.

“Hospital.  Burns,” Imp said.

I nodded.  “Bad?”

“More mentally than physically.”

Ah.

I could only hope he’d bounce back.  To business. “Revel.  American cape with sort of an Asian-themed costume, lantern.  Where is she?”

“Zapped,” Regent said.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

My disbelief was tempered by a measure of alarm.  I was limited in time, and that was bad enough, but if Phir Sē decided our defending forces weren’t sufficient to put up a fight, he could strike sooner.  If I couldn’t find someone capable of leading the defense, if we were little more than scattered remnants, why would Phir Sē wait?

“Revel absorbs energy, kind of,” I said.  “She might be okay.”

“She got hit by lightning,” Regent told me.  “Kind of lethal.”

Rachel snorted.

I glanced at the dogs.  She didn’t seem to mind that they were somewhat exposed, huddled against the ruined wall the Undersiders were using for cover.  One of the dogs seemed to be reacting badly to the lightning strikes, and was huffing out deep, very un-doglike noises each time one struck nearby.

“Listen,” I said.  I flinched as lightning touched nearby.  He was focusing more on a quantity of bolts than on the really heavy hits.  Cleaning up the remanants of our defenses.  “Revel.  Where did she fall?  Or you could point me to anyone else that might be in charge?”

Parian pointed, almost absently.  I couldn’t tell if she was dismissing me or if her focus was taken up by the stuffed goats.  One took a lightning bolt, and she was patching it up and reinflating it within a second.

I took off.  Again, I tried my armband.  Static.  Better than nothing, but not ideal.

I passed over the contingent of Yàngbǎn.  Just getting near them, I could feel my powers swelling, my range growing, a crackling at the periphery of my attention.

And then it was gone.  I was leaving them behind.

Eerie.  Uncomfortable, even, with the recent reminder of how my powers were feeling vaguely out of my control.  A boost in range wasn’t worth any surprises on that front.  Bugs were almost useless here, more bugs wouldn’t make a difference.

Revel was in Dispatch’s company, alongside a cape in white, with a starburst worked into his helmet, radiating from the eyeholes and the gap for his mouth.  She was lying down, using a piece of rubble for cover.  She stirred as the ground rumbled, marking Behemoth’s rapid footsteps.  Not a run.  It felt off, saying something like him was running.  But a lope, like how a gorilla might move, that fit.

“She conscious?”  I asked, as I landed.

“She is,” Revel answered for herself.  She seemed to have to work to focus on me.  “Weaver?”

“I found what Behemoth is after.  Who can I talk to?”

Dispatch stepped out of the way, so the man in white with the starburst helm was free to act.

“Me,” the man in white said.  “I’m Exalt.  Interim leader.”

“The Texas Protectorate leader.”

“Houston Protectorate, yes.”

“A local cape has gathered up a whole mess of energy.  Enough to wipe India off the map.  He’s planning to hit Behemoth with it, in two or three minutes.”

“It won’t work,” Exalt said.

“I know it won’t work.  But he’s going to try, no matter what we do, and we need to distract the Endbringer long enough to give it a chance.”

He exchanged glances with the others.

Hurry, I thought.  I was panting, my mouth thick with the taste of ozone.  Even with my lenses, my eyes were watering from the peripheral smoke.

“Go,” Revel said.  “Expend it.”

Expend?

“It’s too soon,” Exalt said, “And we don’t have all the informat-”

“No time!  Decide now!”

I saw him hesitate.

Swearing under my breath, I turned on my heel and flew away.

I was burning bridges, but that was a hell of a lot better than everyone here dying.  How long did I have?  I couldn’t even begin to guess.  Two minutes?  Eight?

Big difference between the two.

Fuck it.  A waste of time.  I’d burned precious minutes finding them, and they’d been too slow to help.  I wasn’t sure I could work with the Protectorate, with the Wards.  Not if they failed us like this at this crucial juncture.

Assets.  Didn’t have enough resources here.  We needed to pull something decent, something that could…

I had no fucking idea.  How were we supposed to keep Behemoth sufficiently still and distracted, controlling a detonation that had the potential to level a continent?

The Chicago Wards were arriving, minus Wanton.  I signaled them with bugs to fine-tune the direction they were traveling, putting them en-route to the Undersiders.

And behind me, as if they were feeling guilty, Exalt and Dispatch were giving chase, rapidly catching up.  Dispatch moved in bursts of speed intersped with moments where he ran at a normal pace, Exalt flew with Revel in his arms.

I found the Yàngbǎn and approached.  They were reacting even before I’d landed, turning, hands raised to attack.  There were twenty of them, or close to.

“English?” I asked the Yàngbǎn.

They were silent, almost cold in response.

They were nationalist capes.  I was a foreigner, maybe an enemy by default.

“English, please.  This is it, the deciding moment.  Your help, it’s… it’s essential.”

No response.

Exalt, Revel and Dispatch were slowing as they approached me.  I drew an arrow in the air with the few bugs I had left and pointed them to the Undersiders.  They ignored the instruction, setting down just behind me.

“Weaver,” Exalt said.  His voice was grim.  “They aren’t allies.

“We need all the help we can get,” I said.

“The Yàngbǎn pulled an assassination attempt on Chevalier,” Exalt told me.

My eyes widened.

“A traitor among us,” a young man spoke, his voice badly accented.  Another snapped something at him, and he responded in Chinese.

None of the heroes replied.  I couldn’t bring myself to speak, couldn’t think of a single thing to say that would be remotely diplomatic, in the midst of this.

“We do need all the help we can get,” Exalt said, not taking his eyes off the group.  “You want to make amends?”

The English-speaking one translated for the others.  I fidgeted nervously.  How many minutes, now?  Why hadn’t I asked for more time?

Shì de!” one cried out.

“Shì de!” the group called out in unison.

“That’s a yes,” Exalt said.  He was already turning, taking flight.

Twenty Yàngbǎn members.  Exalt.  A dazed Revel.  Dispatch.  The Chicago Wards.  The Undersiders.  Citrine.  Me.

The sum total of our defensive line.

And Behemoth was getting too close.  A hundred and fifty feet?  A hundred and twenty? He was swiftly approaching the hundred-foot mark we’d been warned about, where he could close the distance with a single leap.

There were so few heroes capable of holding him back.  He was covering ground at twice or thrice the speed he had been earlier, and the Undersiders didn’t have the means to know.  They were on the ground, blinded by the ambient smoke and the dust of the hundreds of buildings that had fallen across the city.

Run,” my bugs communicated.  But nobody responded, nobody reacted.  Too much ambient noise.

Run, they spelled out words, shaping letters with their bodies.  Too much smoke.

I bit them, stung them, and that spurred them into motion.  Maybe too late.

He wasn’t even a full city block away from them.  Only a few half-destroyed buildings stood between him and the Undersiders.  They were still sorting themselves out, getting mounted on the dogs for a retreat, but it was too little.

Behemoth leaped.  Not the monumental leap he’d used early in the fight, but a leap nonetheless.  He landed in the midst of a building, knocking much of it over, and the impact was enough to bounce Citrine off one dog, to knock Tecton over.

The Endbringer had closed half the distance.  A mere twenty feet separated them from his kill aura, if that.

I landed beside Citrine, helping her up, using my legs and the antigrav to try and help her  onto the dog’s back.  She kicked her heels the second she was seated, shouted an order I couldn’t make out.

The dog, scared, growled and held its ground against Behemoth.

“Rachel!” I screamed the word.  “Call him!”

She whistled, sharp, and it seemed to break the spell.  The dog lurched around and ran, nearly knocking me to the ground.

The Yàngbǎn were landing in the Undersiders’ midst, joining the fray.  I could feel my power swell, my range increasing by one block, two…

I could sense the underground complex, where Phir Sē was.  He swatted absently at the bugs that had been left behind, uncontrolled in my absence.

Wait,” I communicated to him.  “Almost.”

Either we’d manage this in the next few minutes, or we’d be dead and it wouldn’t matter.

I called the bugs, leaving only enough to speak to Phir Sē.

The Yàngbǎn opened fire with lasers, and erected forcefields to ward against the lightning bolts.  Golem’s hands rose, faster with the Yàngbǎn’s help, but too slow to make a substantial difference.  Tecton’s walls, similarly, couldn’t rise high enough to block Behemoth’s line of sight.  The power boost would increase his tinker abilities, but it wouldn’t empower the results of his technology.

Citrine’s power intensified in the depth of the yellow-gold light, in size.  Grace shimmered, Cuff was better armored, Annex covering more ground.

Why couldn’t the Yàngbǎn have helped like this sooner?  From the very start of the fight?  Damn people.  Damn them all, for their idiocy and selfishness and their small-mindedness.

This wasn’t enough.

Behemoth reached out, and lightning plowed through our ranks, left to right.  The Yàngbǎn forcefields fell in the lightning’s wake, and Tecton was struck from his bike.  Cuff was too far back, unprotected, dropped in an instant.  I ducked low, covering my head, as it crashed against a quadruple-layer of forcefields the Yàngbǎn had provided.  One of them was knocked prone as the last forcefield shattered.

A stray Yàngbǎn member, too far to the right, was knocked to the ground.  She started to struggle to her feet, then collapsed a second later.

Revel flew to the injured Wards, but didn’t have the strength to stand.  Instead, she raised her lantern, ready for the next strike.

The Yàngbǎn hadn’t even raised their forcefields again when he hit us with lightning once more.

Revel absorbed the initial impact, sucking it into her lantern.

I wasn’t close enough to benefit.  I saw the lightning twist in the air as Behemoth swept his hand out to one side, striking another two Yàngbǎn members, just out of the lantern’s reach.

Dispatch appeared next to me and other Yàngbǎn members, and in an instant, everything went still, quiet.  My ears roared with a high pitched whine.  My breath sounded too noisy, my heart beat so fast I couldn’t even see straight.

Like Clockblocker’s power extended a temporal protection, almost impossible to break, Dispatch’s power seemed to do the same, even if he was effectively achieving the opposite, accelerating us with the outside world moving at a snail’s pace.

The effect ended just as Behemoth moved on to other targets.  Another Yàngbǎn member was struck down.

And, inexplicably, he continued his lightning strike, carrying over to the far end of the street.

There was a yelp, and I could see Imp, all at once, sheltered by a wall that was shrinking in size with every second the blast continued.  She held the Yàngbǎn member who’d strayed too far away from our main group in her arms.

He’d seen her.  Sensed her.  And now, behind a wall no more than three feet high, she had nowhere to run.

I pushed past Yàngbǎn members, unstrapping my flight pack, tearing at the parts that fed down to my gloves, to get it off.  If I could get it to her…

I couldn’t.  I stopped, the pack in my hands.  The lightning would break the thing before it could carry her away.

If Grue’s alive, he won’t be able to forgive us for letting her die.

Citrine drew a yellow glow around Imp, and the lightning fizzled as it passed the perimeter.

The Endbringer switched to fire, and it passed through.  It seemed to halve in intensity, but that was enough.  I could hear Imp scream in alarm and fear.

He advanced a step, and the fresh angle afforded her even less cover.  His kill aura… if he simply ran forward a few steps, he’d murder us all in seconds.

But Golem’s hands held his legs.  One had sunk deep into a pit, hands of pavement gripping the knee, melting at the close contact, even as others rose to reinforce.  The other leg was raised, but held in much the same fashion.

Imp screamed again as he directed another wave of flame her way.  It was a scream of pain this time.

Foil shot him, but he didn’t turn away from Imp and the Yàngbǎn member.  Instead, one hand stretched out, casting flame towards her.  The cloth goats blocked it, and were promptly set aflame.  He maintained two columns of flame from his hands, one directed at Imp, one at Foil and Parian.

Revel launched a mess of spheres at his chest, and the surviving Yàngbǎn followed up with lasers.  Behemoth simply maintained the assault, almost uncaring as the lasers and disintegration spheres ate into his torso.  Negligible damage, in the grand scheme of things.

“Fuck it,” Regent said, his voice almost inaudible.  He was looking at Imp.

“Regent,” I said.  When he rose to his feet, I raised my voice, “Regent!”

“Hey Shitcrumb!”  Regent hollered, backing away from cover.  “Easy-”

Behemoth dropped the flame attack.  I could see Yàngbǎn members raising forcefields as he reached out, casting a bolt of lightning in Regent’s direction.  The forcefields did nothing, not even softening the blow in any measurable way.

Regent was snuffed out, dead.

A small sound escaped my mouth.

But there was no time to react.  Reeling, grieving, it would cost us.  He’d done what he did for a reason.  The antigrav on the flight pack kicked in, I waited until it started to drag me, then let it go.  It skidded across the gap, across the road, to Imp.  She caught it, and I controlled the motion of it to drag her away.

Retreat!” I called out, and my voice was strangely ragged.  “Citrine, cover!  We need forcefields too!”

And Exalt.  We needed whatever power he could bring to the fore.

Eidolon landed between us and Behemoth.

He said something I couldn’t make out, then raised his hands.

A forcefield, taller than Behemoth, separated us.  For seconds, Behemoth was muted.  He swiped his claws at the forcefield, fell short.  He couldn’t advance, with the way Tecton and Golem had him held with one leg buried up to the knee, couldn’t reach far enough to touch the forcefield.

One claw dashed a hand of asphalt to pieces.  Golem started to raise another to replace it, but Behemoth torched it, turning it to a liquid or a glass.  Something flat, shiny.

We pulled ourselves together.  I changed Imp’s direction, brought her to us.  She let go, and the thing careened dangerously, striking the ground a little too hard.

She crouched by Regent, touched his throat.

She shouted something.  A string of swear words, insults aimed at Regent.

Come on!” I screamed the words at her.  It took me a second to get the flight pack going again.  I steered it, like a fish on dry land, towards her, as Rachel hauled me up onto a dog’s back.

“Weaver,” Phir Sē said, almost half a mile away, still in the room with the monitors, “If he advances any closer to me, I won’t have any option but to strike.

Wait,” my bugs communicated.

Reluctantly, Imp reached for the flight pack, hugged it to her chest.  Not the best option, given the options I had for controlling it.  Still, it was a way to get her moving towards us.

Some heroes were pelting Behemoth from another direction.  So little, in terms of effect, but it was a distraction.

We needed to regroup.  Needed to form some kind of plan, however haphazard.

Fuck it.  Foil had the facemask… who else?  Citrine and Foil… the back of the head of the dog they rode.  Dispatch wore a helmet… but I could use bugs to draw an arrow on the ground.  That left Annex, where the hell was he?  My bugs couldn’t sense him.

My eyes could.  In the midst of the smoke, I saw the bike Tecton rode was lighter than the rest.  Annex was inside it.

I pointed them in the same direction I’d sent the others.

We converged on the same point.

“Dispatch!” I called out.  “Huddle!”

He reached the midst of our group, and his power surrounded us.

Silence, stillness.  The buzz of my power at the periphery of my consciousness was a fraction of what it might otherwise be, limited to the bugs that crawled in the recesses of my costume.  There was only the press of bodies, two dogs and all of the rest of us in an area smaller than my jail cell.

I tried to speak, and emotion caught my voice.  It threw me, as if it didn’t match how I felt, didn’t match the composure I felt like I had.

Nobody cut in, nobody used the silence to venture an opinion.

When I did speak, I did it with care, shaping each word, speaking slowly, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself again.  “How long?”

“This?” Dispatch asked.  His voice was low, grim.  “This many people?  Those dogs?  Four minutes.  Maybe two, if we’re all breathing this hard.  Once we run out of air, I gotta cut it out.”

I nodded.

Think, think.

“Sorry about your pal,” Tecton said.

I shook my head.  A denial?  He was important to me, but… what, then?  Was I wanting to focus on the situation?

“Not now,” I said, sounding angrier than I meant to.  “Need a plan.”

“A plan?” Dispatch asked.  “We run.  We pray.”

“Last I heard, Scion was nowhere near,” Foil said.  “Nobody to pray to.”

“Not funny,” Dispatch said.  “This isn’t the time to fuck around on the subject of God.”

I shook my head again.  Plans.  Options.  I had an idea, half-formed in my head, and I couldn’t bring it to the fore.  Some missing element.

“Rachel.  You wanted revenge on that motherfucker?”

“Yeah,” she said, “Leviathan killed my dogs.”

“Behemoth killed your friend,” Tecton added.

“And Leviathan killed my dogs,” Rachel said.  “They both pay.”

“They both pay,” I agreed.  “What the hell’s Exalt’s power?”

“Aerokinesis and telekinesis,” Dispatch answered me.  “But he spends a charge, takes a day or days to build it up again.”

Which explained why he hadn’t helped.  Fuck.

“Eidolon’s power… he chooses what powers he gets?”

“He gets the powers he needs,” Dispatch said.  “He can be receptive to new ones, hold tighter to ones he wants to keep, but that’s it.”

I nodded.  He was at the mercy of his passenger, it seemed.

I glanced to my right.  “Foil.  Can you use your power on just the tip of an arrow?”

“Yeah.  But why would you want me to?  Fucks up the trajectory.”

“Just thinking,” I said.

“You have a plan,” Rachel said.  There was a measure of smugness in her voice.  No, I was reading her wrong.  Satisfaction?

“Maybe, yeah,” I said.  I glanced at the space outside the bubble.  The people were moving at a glacial pace, heads turned our way.  Eidolon flew in the sky above.  “We need to hurt Behemoth, and hurt him badly enough that he gets distracted.  Then I signal Phir Sē, and hopefully we aren’t vaporized in the wake of all that.”

“Explain,” Dispatch said.

“Each of us has a role to play,” I said.  “Timing’s essential.  So’s luck…”

The bubble burst, and we moved into action.  Behemoth had barely advanced from his position.  The others were still running.  We’d earned ourselves two minutes to think, to plan and discuss.

I’d gathered countless bugs through my journey across the city.  I’d briefly lost track of them when I was teleported away from Phir Sē, but they were still there.  Relatively few had died, even from the start, their lives thrown away to test the boundaries of fires or gushing water, or shielding people from the roar.

A lot of bugs, held in reserve.

“Golem!”  I called out.  “Metal hands.  Doesn’t matter how big.  Find a way.”

He glanced at me, still jogging away from the Endbringer.  Still, he managed to find a shop with a metal shutter at the doorway.  He plunged his hand inside it, and hands appeared in various places across the street.  A large one from a rickshaw, another from a car’s engine block, small ones from the metal grilles covering windows.

Half of my bugs gathered.  Another half began chewing through power lines.  The transformers here were nightmares, tangled messes, and had an abundance of wires.

Each of the others was carrying out their tasks, their roles.  Rachel had a chain stretched between two dogs, and was attaching the chain from one dog’s harness to it to extend the thing further.  Annex stretched it further, extending it so each link was nearly two feet long, thin.  Citrine was tinting the area between us and Behemoth.

Dispatch called to Eidolon, and the ex-Triumvirate member descended.  Dispatch contained them.

Eidolon needed time, and he needed to hear the details of our plan.  Dispatch would give him both.

In the distance, Behemoth pushed his way through the forcefield, shattering it.  We had a minute, if that.

I waited impatiently as the others tended to the chain.

Dispatch’s effect ended.  He and Eidolon relocated to the other end of the street, Dispatch took a second to catch his breath, and then he used his power on Eidolon again.

Come on, come on, I thought.  This could go awry with one lucky shot from Behemoth.

“Yangban!” I shouted, no doubt mispronouncing the title.  “Forcefields!  Protect the teams!”

Lightning crashed against the forcefields only moments after they went up.  Some diverted to the metal hands.

And my swarm started to arrive.  Millions of insects, bearing power lines that they were still stripping of insulation, hauling the wire itself, bearing the ones who bore the wire in turn, or hauling on silk that was attached to the wire.

I’d hoped to drape it over the hands, to wrap it around.  I was forced to attach it to the base of the hands instead.  Too heavy to move otherwise.  Conductive hands, conductive wire.

“Go!” Foil shouted.

The dogs moved.  Bitch rode one, hollered commands to get them to stay apart.  The chain stretched taut between them, long, thin.

I saw Dispatch’s effect end.  Eidolon took flight, following.

“This’ll work?” Imp asked.  Her voice sounded more hollow than Grue’s did when he used his power.  I jumped a little to hear her suddenly speaking beside me.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Because if this is revenge for Regent, it has to work.”

“It’s for him if it works,” I said.

“Mm,” Imp said.  “I’ll kill you if it doesn’t, then.”

“We’re all screwed if it doesn’t,” I said.

“Mm,” she said, and she didn’t say anything else. 

The Endbringer lashed out with a mess of lightning.  It caught one dog before it disappeared behind cover.  The dog slowed, but it recovered and found its pace, redoubled its efforts to catch up, as Rachel continued to shout commands to keep the chain taut.

Behemoth used fire, instead, targeting Rachel, and Citrine’s power dampened the effects.  That was her role in this.

It was just a question of whether it would run out prematurely, if the dogs would get far enough.

He clapped, and a shockwave tore through the area.  Rachel was already directing the dogs; they moved so there was cover, buildings between them and Behemoth.  The chain, imbued by Foil’s ability to shear through anything, cut through the buildings as though there was nothing there.

And just like that, they made it.  The dogs passed Behemoth, a hundred and twenty feet of chain maintained between them, and the chain cut through him as easily as Foil’s arbalest bolts had.

Too low.  There was just a little slack, and they weren’t high enough off the ground.  The chain cut through the soles of his feet, through the lower part of one ankle.  Insignificant.  He didn’t even fall over.

Then I heard Rachel through my swarm.  A shout.  “Back!”

The dogs stopped, one doing so so abruptly that Rachel was nearly thrown to the ground.  Nearly touched the chain, losing a limb.

The Endbringer moved his hands in anticipation of a clap, and Exalt used his power.  Blades of wind, a hundred strikes in a moment, a thrust of telekinetically controlled air from across the city, rushing past Behemoth, making the Endbringer stumble.  The clap arrested.

Rachel held on as the wind hit her, held on as each dog turned a hundred and eighty degrees.  They passed Behemoth a second time, only this time, Rachel shouted another command.  One of the first I’d heard her give.  I knew now that it was the command for ‘up’.

Her dog leaped up to the highest point on a ruined building, and the chain caught Behemoth at the knee this time.

They got halfway before Foil’s power wore off.  The dog tumbled in midair, Rachel thrown, flipping head over heels.

Behemoth crashed to the ground, one leg a stump.

Eidolon caught Rachel with one arm, and extended the other towards Behemoth.

Now,” my bugs told Phir Sē, as the field surrounded the Endbringer, a forcefield, extending into the Earth, surrounding Behemoth on all sides, a cylinder.

Phir Sē’s portal opened beneath Behemoth’s feet, aimed upward, and a plume of light speared into the sky, consuming Behemoth, covering him.

Eidolon’s power held.  He’d had the situation explained, had been given time to let his power build up to full strength, and his passenger had supplied something with a durability on par with Clockblocker’s ability.  Inviolable.

“That’ll do,” Imp said, quiet.  The light continued to flow upward, a narrow column no more than fifty feet across, billowing out only slightly as it reached the top of Eidolon’s barrier, parting smoke and clouds in a circular ring, revealing the intensely blue sky above.  The entire sky seemed to brighten as the light dissipated beyond our atmosphere.

Phir Sē’s light faded, and the barrier collapsed.

Dust continued to fill the area, plumes of it.

Behemoth lurched forward.

Not quite Behemoth, but a skeleton, something like a skeleton.  Emaciated, a black-red frame dripping with ichor, it had all of the key features, the basic underlying structure with the horns and the gaping mouth, the claws and the way the shoulders were broad enough to host his bulky frame, but a good eighty percent of him had been torn away, shredded.  A skeleton covered in a veneer of meat.

Go,” I whispered, feeling a quiet despair.  “Go home.  Go underground.  Leave.  We hurt you as badly as we’ve ever hurt you bastards.  That’s enough.”

He reached out, and lightning reached across the landscape, striking Golem’s metal hands, into the grounding wires I’d rigged.  The hands melted with the intensity of the strikes.

Behemoth wasn’t any weaker than he had been.  Not in terms of what he could dish out. As much as he was wounded, he was healing.  Even from where we stood, I could see him healing, flesh expanding, swelling, regenerating.

The Endbringer lurched forward on three intact limbs, starting to glow with that radioactive light of his.  He was ignoring or ignorant to Eidolon’s escape, as the ‘hero’ carried Rachel away, the dogs following on the ground.

He was continuing to make his way towards Phir Sē, who had formed another portal, was gathering power for a second strike.

“Retreat,” I said, only to realize I wasn’t loud enough for anyone but Imp to hear.  I raised my voice for the others.  “Go!  Retreat and regroup!”

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Crushed 24.3

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Eidolon and Alexandria had settled into something of a rhythm.  Though his powerset was similar to Alexandria’s on the surface, the eerie noises and the dimming of the light around the areas his punches landed suggested he was transmuting the kinetic energy of his punches into something else altogether.  Between Eidolon’s strikes and Alexandria’s, Behemoth couldn’t quite adapt to the point where he was redirecting every strike, let alone the barrage of ranged attacks that the other capes in the area were directing his way.

The Endbringer staggered under the onslaught, but he was slowly adapting.  They’d managed to pin him for a minute, even costing him some ground by driving him back once or twice, but each successive minute saw him rolling with the punches more, advancing further when he found a second or two of mild reprieve.

His target: the command center.  Our flying capes weren’t working fast enough to clear the entire rooftop, and every shaker we had -every cape capable of putting up a forcefield or creating a portal, raising a barrier- was busy trying to slow down the brute.  The Chicago Wards, or most of the Chicago Wards were among them.

I tensed, but I couldn’t move without exposing myself to one of the lances of electricity that were crashing down around us.  The capes on the rooftop were protected by an arrangement of tinker-made forcefields, it seemed, but those wouldn’t hold.  Fuck, hanging around on rooftops was dumb.  I’d learned my lesson on my first night out on costume, had avoided being put in that position since, excepting the fundraiser, where we’d been on the attack, and the time Defiant and Dragon had dragged me up to one, just a bit ago.

The guys up there were tinkers and thinkers.  They were our communications, supporting roles, strategists and healers.  A few of them were long-ranged capes.  Not really people who could hop or fly down five stories to the ground and walk away unscathed.  Not without help.

I waited and watched as Behemoth engaged the other capes, tracking what powers he was using and when.  He was presently staggering forward when he could, otherwise holding his ground, deflecting and redirecting attacks.  When he was free to do so, he reached out with his claws, and lightning lanced out to tear through the assembled capes.

Golem, to his credit, was going all out.  Hands of stone and metal rose from the ground to shield defending capes and balk Behemoth’s progress.  I could make out Hoyden, leader or second in command of the Austin Wards.  She wasn’t on the front lines, but was defending the mid-line capes.  It made sense with how her power worked, as her defensive powers provided more cover from attacks at greater ranges.  She threw herself in the way of lightning bolts and stood between Behemoth and the wounded.  When lightning struck her, detonations ripped out from the point of impact, seeming almost to short out the currents.

“Come on, come on,” I muttered.

I could see Tecton creating fissures in the ground, no doubt intended to reduce the reach and effects of Behemoth’s stomps.  Annex was creating bridges so heroes wouldn’t fall into the gaps.

Dispatch, vice-captain of the Houston Protectorate team, zipped over to a group of wounded with accelerated speed, only to seem to pause, as though he and his immediate surroundings were only video footage.  Color and space distorted violently in an irregular area around him as he hung there, just an inch over the ground, one hand at his belt and another reaching for someone with intense burns.

A half-second later, the effect dissipated, and they were all moving.  Dispatch was carrying one of the most wounded, gloves off and the sleeves of his costume pulled up, dried blood up to his elbows.  Others were bandaged and sutured.  His name, I knew, came from his ability to pick out targets in a fight, closing the distance to them and catching them in his temporal distortion effect.  He’d have minutes or hours, however long it took the air within the effect to run out, to end the fight with his super strength, durability and the close confines of the bubble.  To any observers, it appeared as though he’d won the fight in a heartbeat.  Apparently the idea extended to medical care.

Revel, leader of the Chicago Protectorate and official overseer of Tecton’s Ward team, was stepping up to the plate.  Floating up to it, whatever.  She rose into the air, and caught one full current of lightning inside her lantern.  The sheer force of the blast knocked her back, and she struck a wall, pressed against it with her lantern held in front of her.

She began releasing spheres of light from the lantern, each larger than a human head, slow-moving but numerous.  Their trajectories were unpredictable, some striking friendlies, others carrying forward towards Behemoth.  Where they struck friendlies, they only exploded in brilliant showers of sparks.  When they touched Behemoth, they sheared right into him, cutting two or three feet deep before flickering out.

When she saw it was working, she only intensified the assault, spending the charge she’d accumulated to create fifty more orbs, before hurrying forward to intercept another stream of lightning that was flowing from Behemoth’s claw-tip.  It was impossible to actually get in front before the lightning appeared, to save the lives that Behemoth was taking with the initial moments the lightning appeared, but she was stopping the lightning from flickering to the fourth, fifth or sixth target.

That was what I was waiting for.  My limited experience with Endbringers had taught me one thing.  When someone actually found a way to respond, to cancel out the attacks or to deliver a measure of real damage, they changed tactics.

Some capes were already responding.  Captains and leaders were giving orders, and various barriers were being reinforced or thrown back up.  Some were trying to give the warning, but their voices disappeared in the midst of the chaos around us.

“Take cover!” I hollered, and my swarm carried my voice.

It was only two or three seconds later, as the second wave of spheres drifted to Behemoth and began to cut into his torso and groin area, that he responded.  His ‘mouth’ opened, the craggy spikes of obsidian ‘teeth’ parting.

And he roared.  A sound that was slow at first, growing steadily more powerful.

Sound was a bitch of a thing.  It could be muffled, but blocking it entirely?  We didn’t have Grue.

I fled, cranking my antigrav to ‘high’ and risking unfolding my wings to use the propulsion systems as I made my way to for cover, putting as many buildings between Behemoth and I as I could.

My swarm responded to my call, assisting the capes who weren’t fleeing fast enough.  They rose as a singular mass, a wall of tens of thousands, and absorbed the worst of the scream.  I wasn’t sure it was enough.  Even with some distance and a dozen buildings between Behemoth and I, I had no defenses as it reached a crescendo.  My sense of balance went out the window, my very bones hurt.

Closer to Behemoth, capes were bleeding from their ears, vomiting, passing out.  Organs and brains would be reduced to jelly as he continued.  My bugs weren’t doing much to muffle the noise or soften the damage, if they were helping at all.

But my focus was on the rooftop.  I’d been waiting until he stopped using his lightning.  There was nothing saying he wouldn’t use it now.  He could use multiple attack forms at the same time.  Still, he was more focused on picking off the defending capes, the ones who were suppressing the noise.  Was Citrine among them?  I could see the golden glow of her power in the distance.

Director Tagg had given me an effective ranking of two for every single power classification.  Ostensibly, it had been because he hadn’t wanted to underestimate me.  Was there a note of truth to that, though?  I wasn’t sure about the ‘brute’ or ‘mover’ classifications, but did my power over bugs afford me a versatility that let me cover the bases on other fronts?

They still hadn’t completely evacuated the roof.  The people who might have helped them down were disabled or otherwise occupied.  Getting them down was key, here.  The flying capes were more focused on assisting the capes near the front lines, helping the ones who could deal damage escape Behemoth’s implacable advance and avoid the kill aura that accompanied him.

The roaring made it impossible to hear.  Even seeing was difficult, as my vision distorted and lost focus.  I very nearly tipped over, until I turned to my swarm sense.  Not perfect.  Even they were suffering, scattered and dying, at close range to the roar.  But it gave me an orientation, a plane to compare the tilt and angle of my body with.

I looped to one side to intercept some of my bugs, collecting the strands of silk they’d woven in one hand, then made my way around to the back of the building the heroes were clustered on.  Flying capes were settled on the ground, pausing to recuperate from the roar.  I took a second, myself, to get my bearings.  My back against the concrete, I could feel the building shuddering in response to the roar.  But at least there was a small degree of reprieve, here.

When I’d caught my breath and reassured myself my insides hadn’t been vibrated to pieces, I flew to the rooftop.  My bugs swept over the crowd.  No Tattletale that I could see.  No Accord, either, for that matter.

Two capes approached me, not quite Caucasian but lighter-skinned than the Indian capes.  One had a costume with a spiral to it, the other wore armor with tiny faces that looked like baby’s heads.  Was he a villain?  They were rattling off something in French or Spanish as they reached out to take my hands.  Their eyes were wide with fear and alarm.

“I can’t carry you!” I shouted, raising my voice to be heard over the perpetual roar.  “My flight pack isn’t strong enough!”

They clutched at me, and one even pushed at another cape who’d gotten too close.

A little too much.  Too intense, here, too forceful.  I just want to find Tattletale.  I’ll find a way to help you once I’ve done that.

“Back off!” I said, raising my voice.

The guy with the faces on his armor shouted so forcefully that spit flew from his mouth, as he pointed to the ground beyond the building.  He approached me, trying to hug himself tight to my body.  I pushed him away and backed up, trusting the antigrav to hold me aloft.

One of the capes on the rooftop approached me, pushing her way through the crowd.  She wore a golden mask with a woman’s face, the mouth parted a fraction, with a black bodysuit.  It was softened a touch by the loose black cloth that draped down from her golden shoulderpads and breastplate.  The black didn’t look so dramatic as it might have, mottled a brown-gray by the loose dust that had accumulated on it.

“Weaver,” she said, her voice melodic.

“Arbiter,” I responded.  One of Rime’s underlings.  The one with the social danger sense, forcefield and sonic beam.  I supposed her forcefield wasn’t quite large enough or versatile enough to offer a bridge down to the ground.  “I’ve got other stuff I need to pay attention to.  Don’t suppose you speak French?  Or Spanish?”

“Portuguese,” she said.  “And no, but give me a moment.”

She turned to the capes, but a heavy crash interrupted her before she could speak.

A building had fallen, toppling, and Behemoth hadn’t done anything to precipitate it.  Nothing except the roaring.

Was that enough?  Was this building coming apart beneath us?

Where the hell was Tattletale?  My bugs flowed into cracks in the building, checking rooms only to find them empty.

“Hurry!” I said.  I turned my attention to my swarm.  They extended out beneath me, forming into neat lines.  My bugs were slow to move through the structure.  I had to use the cracks that already existed in the walls, ducts and vents that just happened to be open.

“Speak to me,” Arbiter said to the Portuguese capes.

The one with the spiral costume chattered out something I couldn’t even guess at.  Arbiter nodded.  In very broken Portuguese, she asked a question.  The spiral man looked at the one with him, gesturing.

In less broken Portuguese, she spoke again.

That prompted another burst of explanation, or what I took to be exclamation.  They sounded desperate, afraid.

When she responded, she spoke just as quickly and flawlessly as the two native speakers.  She’d picked up the language in a matter of three exchanges.

I bit my tongue as the roar abruptly intensified, jarring me enough that my jaw was slammed shut.  It wasn’t that he was roaring louder; one of the capes who’d been keeping the worst of the noise at bay had fallen.

Focus.  My bugs extended lines of silk to the ground, while others held it aloft and kept it more or less straight, allowing the lengths to be carefully measured, the amount of slack controlled.

“Weaver!” Arbiter said, raising her voice so I could hear her.

I turned around.

“I don’t quite understand, there’s a gap in translation, but he says he’s pregnant with his dead teammates,” she said.  Her voice cut through the noise, “They’re asking for him to be rescued next.”

Pregnant with dead teammates?

Suddenly the little faces on his armor seemed twice as creepy.  I really hoped that was a tragically bad translation.  Parahumans could be so fucked up sometimes.

“He gets rescued with everyone else,” I said.  “There’s no way to prioritize.”

“Right,” Arbiter said.

I secured the lines of silk on the roof’s edge and on the ground.  I then pulled off a shoulderpad and retrieved the strip of silk that had held it in place.  I folded it over the cord and stepped over the edge, letting myself slide down the length of the cord.  Both ends were tied, and the slack was enough that it should ease people to the ground.  I was okay with doing the test run, as my flight pack could handle the fall.

It didn’t break.  Good.  Better than nothing.  I flew back to the rooftop, and I could feel the roar rattling me as I made my way up past the more solid cover.

“Should be fairly safe,” I said, “Silk cord got warm, from what my bugs are feeling, but I’ve got six arranged.  One person at a time, delay by about… twenty seconds, at least, between trips, so the heat and friction doesn’t wear through the silk.  It’s not the strongest thread I’ve ever made.”

Arbiter glanced over the roof’s edge.  I followed her gaze.  The silk was barely even visible.

“You’re sure they’ll hold?”

“No,” I said.  I glanced over at Behemoth, “But I’m less sure this building’ll be standing in five minutes.  If a cape falls and dies, I’ll take the blame.  Better than having everyone up here die.”

“You’re not convincing me,” she said, but she said something to the cape with the spirals on his costume.  With gestures and careful explanation, she got him to step up to the front, pulling his glove free of his fingers, using the excess fabric to slide down the silk line.

My bugs checked it after he’d passed.  Warm, but not so much that I was worried it’d split.

“Go!  Go!”  Arbiter said, grabbing the attention of the capes who’d been standing back and watching.

In seconds, we had capes sliding down the lines.  Arbiter was careful to keep them from overloading or applying too much friction too fast to the makeshift ziplines.

Behemoth had stopped his endless roaring.  He was using fire, now.  There was none of the uncanny precision the lightning had, but the fire moved with intelligence, spread easily, burned hotter than it should have, and it was virtually impossible to stop all of it.  It slipped between force fields, between the fingers of Golem’s stone hands, and it ignited any fabric and wood it touched, set grass alight.

I had to pull back my bugs.  I’d managed to keep the vast majority from dying, some fires and casualties from the roaring excepted, but this wasn’t a place where they’d help.

Six more capes made their way down the line.  Arbiter used her forcefield to block some more agitated capes from making their way down before it was time.  She spoke in one of the local languages to the group.

“Thank you,” I told her.  “For helping keep this sane.  If it comes down to it, and the cords don’t hold, I’ll lend you my flight pack.  I can control it remotely.”

“Give it to someone else before you give it to me,” she said, without looking at me.

“Right,” I answered.  “Listen, I’m-”

A cape gripped the cord for his turn, only to turn out to be far heavier than he looked.  Arbiter placed a forcefield under him, but it didn’t do much more than slow his descent as he crashed through it.

Five cords remained, and there were too many capes here.

Fuck,” I said.

“He’s okay,” Arbiter observed.

But the others seemed more reticient now.

“What the hell is going on downstairs?  Are stairs too difficult?”

Arbiter shook her head.  “Government building, it’s set up to lock down in a crisis, which it did.  A rogue cape turned on the people inside, so the metal doors closed to protect others.  We’ve been reeling since.  Command structure’s down, our battle lines collapsed-”

“You’re talking about Chevalier.”

“Yes.”

“Then where’s Tattletale?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Teenage girl, dirty blond, costume of black and light purple.  She would’ve been with a short man wearing a suit.”

“I saw them.  They went downstairs with Chevalier.”

I could feel my heart in my throat.  “Where are they now?”

“With other wounded.  We’re relaying them a half-mile that way,” Arbiter pointed.  “Far enough away that Behemoth won’t be endangering them anytime soon.”

Behemoth generated a shockwave, and one forcefield at the front of the roof flickered and died.  A tinker moved forward to try to restart it, and was struck down by a bolt of lightning before she could.

A wave of capes mustered the courage and slid down.  There were only eleven of us on the rooftop now, myself and Arbiter included.

I checked the lines, then cut one that was too frayed.  Four left.

“Four lines left,” I reported, before someone reached for one that wasn’t there.  My thoughts, though, were on Tattletale.  Injured or dead.

“Go,” Arbiter said.  “To your friend, your teammate, your partner, whatever she is to you, she’s important.”

I shook my head.  “You need me.  I can use my bugs to check the lines are okay.”

“There won’t be any major difference if you’re here or not.  Three more trips-”

A flying cape touched the rooftop only long enough to take hold of one of the people on top, then took off again.

“Maybe two trips, and we’re clear.  I’ll go last.  Go.

Another shockwave knocked out another forcefield panel.  A tinker was working on the generator, best as she could while hunkering down behind the sole remaining panel.  She said something frantic.  I couldn’t understand her, whatever her language, but I could guess.  It wasn’t her tech.

I hesitated, wanting to take the offer to escape.  Then I shook my head.  “I’ll stay.  Tattletale’s important to me, but so is doing what I can here.  I can check the lines in a way nobody else here can.”

Arbiter only nodded, her eyes on the ongoing fight.

I drew up decoy-swarms, placing them across the rooftop, and stepped off the rooftop, hovering and using the building for cover.  Arbiter raised her forcefield to fill some of the gap in the tinker-created field, crouching in the crowd of swarm-people.  Others followed suit.  I covered them as much as I could without obscuring their vision.

Seconds passed before Arbiter gave the go-ahead.  Capes evacuated the rooftop.

Behemoth’s lightning strike flashed through our ranks, right over Arbiter’s squatter forcefield, through two decoys and striking a cape.

The crash of thunder seemed almost delayed, synced more to the cape going limp than the flash itself.  The body struck the roofop, dead before it touched ground.

Had the decoys spared two people from being hit, or was it chance that the bolt had made contact with them?  Fuck.  Having more information would be key, here.

Behemoth was continuing to suffer blows.  His progress had all but stalled, but he wasn’t changing tactics.  Why?

Did he have a strategy?  The Simurgh was supposed to be the tactician, Leviathan had the brute cunning.  Was Behemoth harboring a certain degree of intelligence?

I didn’t like that idea, but I couldn’t think of a good way to explain just why he was willing to stand there and take abuse.

Flying capes evacuated two more.  Arbiter gave the go-ahead for more to use the ziplines.

That left only the two of us here, and I had cover, at the least.

Lightning lanced past us, burning much of its initial charge on the forcefield.  It danced through the ranks of my decoy bugs.  Arbiter was left untouched.

“Damn,” she muttered.  “Damn, damn, damn.”

“Fuck waiting for heat to dissipate, just use the zipline,” I said.  “Hurry.  Second one, it’s least worn, coolest.”

She half-crawled, half-ran to me.  I handed her the strap that I’d used for the test run, and she looped it over the line.

I followed her to the ground, my hand on the armor at her collar.  I probably didn’t have the lift to keep her from falling, but I might have been able to soften the blow.

Not that it mattered.  The zipline remained intact, and she touched ground with a grunt.

I found Rime, casting wave after wave of crystals at Behemoth.  He was using shockwaves and fire to prematurely detonate or push away Revel’s spheres, and Rime’s attacks were suffering from a similar angle.

Rime was second in command, wasn’t she?  Or was it Prism?

Rime would be more receptive to listening, either way.  I used my bugs to speak to her.  “Command center evacuated.  Can relax front line if you need to.”

She didn’t respond to me, but I could make out her orders as she shouted the words, “Fall back!  Stagger the retreat!”

I exhaled slowly.

“You’ve done your duty.  Go to your friend.  Figure out what’s going on,” Arbiter said.

I nodded and took off.

Through my bugs, I spoke to Tecton, “Back shortly.

He mumbled something I couldn’t make out.  It might have been ‘okay’.

As I got more distance, I felt safe to withdraw the wings again.  I picked up in speed, putting Behemoth and the fighting behind me.

I found a temple with wounded inside.  The exterior was opulent, the interior doubly so.  Now it was a triage area.  There were more burns here, crushed limbs, people coughing violently.  It wasn’t damage suffered from direct confrontation with Behemoth.  It was secondary damage, taken from the fires and smoke of burning buildings.

And inside one curtained area, there were the wounded capes.  I approached, folding the wings away and moving forward with antigrav and the occasional touch of foot against ground to propel myself forward further.

I stopped by Tattletale’s bedside.  I’d found her within instants of the temple falling in my range.  Her lips moved as she recognized me, but no sound came out.  My eyes moved to the tube sticking out of her throat.

“You really gotta stop doing this,” I said.

She only grinned.  She reached over to the bedside table and retrieved a pen and notepad.  Her grin fell from her face as she wrote something, then tore the page free, handing it to me.

he’s going easy on us.  all Endbringers are.  but Behemoth holding back, even from moment he arrive.  taking more hits than he should.

“We already knew that they’re holding back for some reason,” I said.  “The way they space out attacks, they could accelerate the timetable or coordinate their strikes if they wanted to fuck us over.”

Another note:

they want to lose I think.  set themselves up to fail.  but not fail so bad they risk dying.  levi was after something, noelle I think.  but why didn’t he show up closer to downtown?

“I don’t know,” I said.  I felt a little chilled at the idea that this was the Endbringers pulling their punches.

big b wants something.  not at india gate.  somewhere past it.  why not come up right underneath it?

“I don’t know,” I repeated myself.  “It doesn’t matter.”

matters.  looked at past attacks.  pattern.  small pattern.  behe attacks nuclear reactor, appears some distance away.  attacks birdcage, appears in rockies, no sign he was close or beneath cage.  pattern says he wouldn’t emerge this close if he just wanted to attack india gate.  He attacking something north of it.

“Just tell me, is there anything I can do?”

I was trying to find his target.  accord was trying to find way to stop him, coordinate counteroffense.  accord dead, I useless.  get me computer?  maybe I can help still.  Ppl here not helping.  scared of me.

Accord was dead?  What did that spell for the Undersider-Ambassador alliance?

No.  I couldn’t let myself get distracted.  There were more immediate concerns.

“Computers are probably down,” I said.  “I think there’s too much electromagnetic energy, no cell towers, no radio, no internet.  Armbands aren’t working, and I’d expect them to be the last thing to stop working.”

She spent an inordinate amount of time writing the next message.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other while I waited for her to finish, then accepted the note and read it.

FUCK

Each letter had been traced over several times, and the entire thing had been underlined twice.

I glanced at her, and she was scowling, already writing the next message.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.  “You’re a distance away from the fighting, maybe a phone works.”

But she was already handing me the next piece of paper.

you go.  find it.  find his objective.

“There’s other capes better for that than me.”

get help then.  but you can use swarm.  search.  we win this by denying him his target.

I frowned, but I didn’t refuse her.  I started to leave, then hesitated, turning back to her.  I opened my mouth to speak, then saw the note.

go already.  I ok.  I get healer another day.  not worried.

And I was gone, flying over the heads of the wounded as I made my way to the front door.

The availability of healing made for an interesting, if ugly, dynamic.  Capes like Tattletale, capes like me could be reckless, we’d get our faces slashed open, our backs broken, our throats severed, blinded and burned, and we’d get mended back to a near-pristine condition.  Tattletale still had faint scars at the corners of her mouth, regenerated by Brian after his second trigger event, but she’d mended almost to full.  I’d had injuries of a much more life-altering scale undone by Panacea and Scapegoat.

If we died, we were dead, no question, unless I gave consideration to Alexandria’s apparent resurrection.  But an injury, no matter how grave?  That was something that could be remedied, it lent a feeling of invulnerability, an image of invulnerability.  So we continued being reckless, and we would continue to be reckless until something finally killed us off.

Was there a way to break that pattern?  Could I afford to?  My ability to throw myself headlong into a dangerous situation was part of the reason for my success.

I looped back towards the main confrontation, finding the thinkers I’d helped off the rooftop.  Some were moving to assist allies, others were fleeing.  One pocket, at a glance, seemed to be trying to form a second command center.

I moved towards the cluster of them.

Two Indian capes, one Caucasian.

“English?” I asked.

“Yes,” the Caucasian said.  “Just me.”

“Trying to enlist help.  Names and powers?”

“Kismet, balance thinker,” the Caucasian said.  He wore a white robe with a hard, faceless mask that had only slits for the eyes.

“And the other two?”

“As far as I can tell, Fathom and Particulate.  Best translations I can give.  My Punjabi isn’t strong.”

“Their powers?” I asked, with a restrained patience.

“Displaces people or things to another dimension, filled with water, brings them back.  Particulate’s a dust tinker.”

What the fuck is a dust tinker?  Or a balance thinker, for that matter?

“Okay, I’m going to find others,” I said.

“Wait, what’s the project?”

“A mission.  Finding whatever it is that Behemoth wants.”

“We’ve got others on that already.”

“Nobody’s reported back,” I said, “Or at least, nobody’s formed a defensive line or put safeguards in place.”

“You’re sure he’s after something?  They’ve attacked cities just to kill people before, and this is a dense population center.”

“He’s after something,” I said. “He’s got a direction, and a friend told me he’s targeting a point beyond where the heroes are searching.”

“We’ll help look,” he said. He rattled off a few lines of Punjabi to the capes in his company.  One of them, Particulate, I took it, removed what looked like a fat smart phone from one pocket.  He peered at it.  Some sort of scanning instrument.

“Hey, either of you have a phone?”  I asked.

Kismet nodded, then handed me the phone.

“Can I keep it?”  I asked.  “I can get it back to you later, probably.”

He made an exasperated noise.  “I thought you wanted to make a call, not keep it.”

“It’d be for a good cause,” I promised.

He sighed, “Take it, then.”

I wound silk around it and then had bugs carry it off in Tattletale’s direction.

“You think it’s a cache of nuclear weapons, or what?”  Kismet asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Go look, towards India Gate.  I’m going to round up others.”

“On it,” he said, before speaking another line of Punjabi.  “And kid?”

I hesitated in mid-air.

“Thanks, for the escape route from that rooftop.”

I didn’t respond, taking off.  Rude, maybe, but taking the time to respond was stupid, when there was this much going on.  Making me wait while he thanked me was similarly dumb.

I waited until the phone reached Tattletale’s hands, then drew closer to the fighting, and the capes who were closer to the battlefront.  When Rime was in my power’s reach, I contacted her.

Tattletale thinks she has a lead on Behemoth’s objective.  Mobilizing thinkers to find it.

I was nearly drowned out by the chaos of the fighting.  Behemoth was standing partially inside a building, and it was blazing, pieces of it falling down with every heavy impact the heroes delivered.

“Say again,” she said.

I repeated myself, speaking the words aloud under my breath, to gauge the proper way to form the sounds with my swarm.

“Good,” she said.  And that was all.  She was fighting again, trying to freeze the building so Behemoth was encased.

I found two more thinkers and gave them directions.  We’d search the area beyond the Rajpath.

Behemoth generated a shockwave, and I could sense the heroes reacting to it.  The only cover here was cover heroes like Golem were creating, and the concussive shock traveled through the air, knocking capes off their feet or out of the air.

I grit my teeth and pressed my back to a building as it rolled past me, fell over at the impact.

The Endbringer strode forward, using the momentary break in the attack to cover more ground.  Unfortunate capes who’d been pushing their luck were left trying to run for cover, only to be caught within his kill aura.

Rachel rescued one or two, though the heroes might have debated the nature of the rescue.  Her dogs seized people in their mouths, running, dropping them at a safe distance, before moving in to retrieve more people.  Some of the rescued individuals were left slowly climbing to their feet, no doubt bruised from the dog’s teeth and dripping with drool.

One dog, a person in its mouth, was struck by a bolt of lightning.  It fell, sprawling, then slowly climbed to its feet.  I could tell with my bugs, that the person in its mouth was no longer alive.  Still, it dutifully carried the body to safety and deposited it on the ground, before limping back towards the battle.

I belatedly remembered to pay attention to my team.  Tecton was busy erecting barriers, raising the earth in shelves with his piledrivers. Annex was reinforcing everything, fixing other people’s work, providing loose cover for ranged heroes to hide behind, and delaying collapses.  Powerful.

Grace, using her strength to carry the wounded.  Wanton was venturing into more dangerous ground with the safety of his telekinetic body, returning to human form to help the wounded and trapped, then retreating with the same form, moving on to the next person.  Cuff was helping a tinker.

Golem was forming barriers, limiting the movements of Behemoth’s legs, and shoring up the building the Endbringer was wading through.

The constructions weren’t doing enough.  We needed to change tactics now that this wasn’t working, sort of like the Endbringers did.  If not constructions, then maybe destructions.

Tecton, pits.  Have Annex cover them,” I ordered.  “Think controlled collapses.

I couldn’t make out his response.  I hoped that didn’t mean he couldn’t make out my statements.

You’re in charge until I get back.  I have other orders,” I added.

I returned to collecting thinkers and other stray capes, taking only a minute before heading for our destination.

There were heroes and PRT officials at India Gate, and lined up across the Rajpath.  A handful of thinkers and tinkers were here.  Not ones I’d sent, but official ones, directed to scan and search for whatever Behemoth might be after.

Search north,” I communicated, sending moths and butterflies to pass on the message.  I didn’t wait to see if they’d listen.  I kept moving.

I zig-zagged across the landscape, scanning every surface with my bugs, as the fighting continued in the distance.  Behemoth wasn’t quite visible from this vantage point, but the cloud of smoke and the lightning suggested it wouldn’t be long.

How many capes had he killed?  How many more would die?

I crossed paths with Particulate, who had apparently been filled in by Kismet.  He handed me one of the scanning devices, and I took off.

Damn tinkers.  Their stuff was making life so complicated, now.  Too many things to keep track of.  Antigrav, propulsion, sensing things with my bugs, paying attention to what I was sensing with my bugs, coordinating people, with sectors for them to cover, and now tracking the stuff with the scanner.

Not that it was impossible.  I was managing everything but the bugspeak without a problem.

The scanner showed me only gibberish at first, with sixteen bars divided into eight individual pieces, each of which could be any number of colors.  Each rose and fell as I moved and as I turned the scanner.  Moving past Particulate, I noted that the rise and fall of the bars was linked to my relation to his scanner.

We were triangulating.  Or did we not have a third?  Kismet was somewhere out of my range, at present, as was Fathom, so I couldn’t be sure.

The bars rose as I pointed in Behemoth’s direction, a mix of blues, greens, yellows and reds.  Was it tracking energy?

I turned away, and found another bump, almost all white, the rest yellow.  Nothing tracked in any significant quantity at Behemoth’s location.

It was something.  I circled around until the bars reached a peak, every single one of them topping the charts.

Nothing.  I used my power, but I couldn’t find anything more complex than a desktop computer.

Then it adjusted.  The bars each dropped until they were only four or five high.

Was Particulate doing something on his end?

It dawned on me, as I tried to narrow down our target, that this was big.  Something that topped the basic readings just by being within a mile of it.

And I found it.  My bugs could sense an underground chamber.  Concrete walls, impenetrable to earthworms, and no obvious entrance.  I looped back to communicate to the others.  The English-speakers, anyways.

Then, as the faster and the closer thinkers caught up with me, I approached the site.

Particulate and Kismet joined me.

This underground chamber was different from the one I’d seen closer to Behemoth.  There was no ramp leading up, nothing to suggest an elevator.

“Not sure how to get through,” I said.

“Smart of them,” Kismet said.

“I know, but it doesn’t help us.”

Kismet said something to Particulate, and the tinker drew a gun from a holster with an excess of care.

Then he fired.  There was no beam, no projectile.  There was only a corridor, three feet across, carved into the earth, and plumes of dust.

We backed away, Kismet coughing as he caught some of it.  Particulate, a tinker with a narrow, overlong bald head, said something in his language, almost musical, humorous.  He glanced at me, his eyes covered by goggles, his mouth covered by a fabric that hugged every wrinkle of his lower face, as though it were a micron thick, and smiled.  I could see the contours of his teeth and gums behind the strange fabric.

“Battery,” Kismet said, stopping to cough, “is dead.  Three shots.  Tried two on Behemoth, didn’t work.  He likes that it was useful.”

“Damn,” I said.  If they had worked…

I didn’t waste any more time.  I handed them a length of cord, then disappeared down the hole.  My feet skidded on the smooth, almost glassy surface, but my flight pack gave me some lift.

Now that I was lower, I was free to feel out the surroundings, and mentally map out the entire complex.  It took time, but the others were slow to descend to the lower corridor.

Was there a whole undercity beneath New Delhi?  Some kind of subterranean realm of corridors and rooms, large and small?  Did the good and bad ‘cold’ capes accidentally dig into each other’s corridors at any point?  Collapse sections of each other’s undercity?

Geez, it wasn’t like the city wasn’t large enough already.

I was drawing a mental picture as my bugs spread out.  There were people here, but they weren’t doing anything special.  Sleeping, cooking, fucking, smoking some sort of pipes… no.

And in the midst of it, as Particulate adjusted his tracking device to further narrow the sensitivity, we closed in on a void.  A part of the underground chamber my bugs couldn’t touch.

Particulate said something, arching his eyebrows as he looked down at the scanner.

“A lot of energy,” Kismet translated.

“How much is a lot?” I asked.

Particulate spoke without Kismet translating for him.

“More than Behemoth has given off during his entire stay in New Delhi,” Kismet said.

I stared at the little scanner and the white bars.  “There’s no way in, as far as I can tell.”

“There wasn’t a way into this base either,” Kismet said.  “Maybe they have a way to enter and leave.”

“Okay,” I said.  “We know where Behemoth’s target is, even if we don’t know what it is.  Let’s retreat, communicate with-”

But Particulate was already moving, tampering with the gun that had created the corridor.

“Stop him!” I said.

Kismet reached over, but Particulate was already tossing the gun to the point where the floor met the wall.

It started flashing rapidly, increasingly bright, and Particulate bolted.  It was almost comical, as though he’d been taught to run by a textbook.  His hands were out flat at his sides, his arms and legs bent at rigid right angles as he sprinted away, almost robotic in the movements.  He shouted something in Punjabi.

Almost comical.  When you saw a bomb disposal team running, as the joke went, you ran to keep up.  The same applied to any tinker and a device that flashed like that.  Kismet and I ran after him.

The gun exploded, silently, without fire or light or electricity.  There was only a roughly spherical opening carved into the area.  It was wide enough to lead into the tunnel above and below us, and had sheared through the five or six feet of solid earth that separated each floor.  At the far end, I could see where it had cut into a corner of the previously inaccessible room.

We approached, and I could see a cape inside, or a parahuman, if ‘cape’ applied.  He was disheveled, with dark circles under his eyes, his skin pale, his beard and hair bedraggled.  His clothing, by contrast, was opulent, clean: a rich indigo robe, a sapphire set in a gold chain, a gold chain for a belt, and a golden sash.

And above him, the energy.  There were two golden discs, and something almost alive seemed to crackle between them.

“It’s Phir Sē,” Kismet said, backing away.

“The glowing thing in the air or the person?”  I asked.

“The person.”

“Who’s Phir See?”  I asked.

Sē.  He’s one of the reasons the American girl’s PRT can exist,” Kismet said.  “When they talk about disbanding it, the PRT only reminds them that monsters like this lurk elsewhere.”

The man slowly turned to face us.  He wasn’t an old man, but he moved like one.

“Monsters?”  I asked.  “I’ve fought monsters.  Just tell me what kind of monster he is.”

“The kind that is too smart for all of our good,” Kismet said.  He’d frozen the moment the man set eyes on him.

Phir Sē spoke, “That is compliment?  Yes?”

“Yes,” Kismet said.

“Then I thank you.  Girl?  I recognize you from American television.”

“I go by Weaver, now.”

“I do remember.  You had much power.  You turned it down.”

“It wasn’t for me,” I said.

“You are more comfortable where you are now?” he asked.

“Now as in here, in this fight, or as a hero?”

“Either.  Both,” he stated.

“Honestly?  No on both counts.  I’m still figuring it out.”

He inclined his head.  “This is to be respected.  Making hard choice.  The challenge of the young adult.  To find identity.”

“Thank you,” I said, still wary.  Everything about Kismet’s reaction was telling me this guy was to be feared, so I had to step carefully.  “Can I ask what that thing is?”

“A weapon,” he said.  “A… how do you Americans say it?  Time bomb?  Only this is joke.”

“He makes portals,” Kismet said.  “Using them, he can send things back in time.  Something goes in portal B, comes out of portal A a few minutes earlier.  Or the other way around.”

“Or, as I discover, I make loop,” Phir Sē said.  “Weaponize.  Simple light, captured in one moment, redoubled many times over.  I move gate, and that light will pour forth and clean.”

I could remember what Particulate had said.  More energy than Behemoth had created since arriving in this city.  Only this would be directed at a single target.

“Clean isn’t the word you want,” I said. “Scour?”

“Scour,” Phir Sē said, he inclined his head again.  “I thank you.”

“Behemoth wants his hands on it,” I said.  “On that energy.”

“I want this on Behemoth.  Do great harm.  Even kill.”

“Shit,” Kismet said.  He backed away a step.  “This is-”

“Stay,” Phir Sē said.  His voice was quiet, but it was clear he expected to be heeded.

Kismet glanced up at the glow, then turned to run.

He wasn’t even turned all the way around when there was a flicker.  A man appeared just in front of Kismet.  A teleporter.

And his forearm extended through Kismet’s chest.

Then he flickered, like a bad lightbulb, and he was gone, leaving only a gaping hole where the arm had been.  Kismet collapsed, dead.

A teleporter who can bypass the Manton effect.

“Stay,” Phir Sē told us, again.  He hadn’t even flinched, but the space between his bushy eyebrows furrowed as he stared down at Kismet.

My heart thudded in my throat as I glanced down at the body.

Particulate said something, spitting the word.

Phir Sē said something in Punjabi, then turned to me, “Is rude, to speak in language you cannot understand.  He call me evil, so I not speak to him further.  But you understand, do you not?  You know what form this war take?  The danger we all face, from monsters like that, from others?”

“I don’t think many top the Endbringers,” I said.

“Maybe not so.  Maybe.  But you have tried being cold.  Killing the enemy, yes?  Because ruthless is only way to win this war.”

“I met some people.  I think they were your adversaries,” I said.  “Glowing eyes?  Reflective?  Like mirrors?”

“Yes.  Enemy.  They petty evils that walk this city.  Organize crime.  Slave, prostitute, murder, mercenary.  My side, we root out corrupt.  Ruthless.  Government prefer them to us.  Paint us as evil, pay them to carry on.  But you know what this is like, yes?”

“More or less,” I said, not breaking eye contact.  “And those guys, they’re ruthless in the same way you described, I guess?”

“More, less,” he said, as if he were trying on the phrase, “Yes.”

“You want to hit Behemoth with this… time bomb,” I said.  “But… I think that’s what he wants.  He’s holding back.  My thinker friend, she said so.  He’s taking more hits than he should, and I’m just now realizing he might be doing it because he wants to be ready for when you hit him with this.  He’ll push it out into the ground, or into the air.”

“Yes.  This is likely,” Phir Sē said.  “This is what he may want.  I hoped for the Second or Third.  This will have to do.”

“They’ve tried this stuff before,” I said.  “Nukes, gigantic railguns, tricks with teleportation and portals.  It doesn’t work.  You won’t do anything except get a lot of people killed as collateral damage.”

“We time this.  Strategic,” Phir Sē said, calm, as if he were talking to a panicked animal.  “Come.  Step in.”

Right, I thought.  Approach the temporal bomb.

But I did.  No use ticking off the guy with the murder-teleporter on call.  Particulate followed me as I navigated the way to the room’s interior.

There were television screens all across the wall.  Five showed the ongoing destruction from distant cameras.  Two showed grainy camera footage.  The last showed what looked to be an Indian soap opera.

“Thirsty,” Phir Sē commented.

The teleporter flickered into existence, then disappeared.  Phir Sē had a bottle of water in his hands that he hadn’t held before.  He turned our way, bushy eyebrows raised as a faint smile touched his face.  “Might I offer you anything?”

I shook my head.  My stomach was a knot, my heart was pounding.

Particulate said something, but Phir Sē ignored him.

“We watch the First,” Phir Sē said.  “He let his guard down, I strike.”

“I’ve seen an Endbringer fool another brilliant man who thought he had a surefire way to win,” I said.  “They’re cleverer than we think.  What if Behemoth fools you?”

“Then New Delhi pay for my mistake,” Phir Sē answered me.  “I have daughter there.  She join bright heroes, popular ones.  She pay for my mistake, if she still lives.  I live, down here, spend life mourning.”

He looked genuinely upset at the idea.

“You want to win?” I asked.  “You take that thing, aim it for the sky.  Deplete it, so Behemoth’s entire goal for coming here is gone.”

“Is a chance,” Phir Sē told me.  “To strike them harder than anything yet.  You tell me, is that not worth it?”

“Worth risking this city?  Your daughter?  The lives of the heroes here?”

“Yes.  Is worth.”

“No,” I retorted.

He looked at me, and I could read the unhappiness in his expression.  Not a condemnation or even him being upset with me.  Disappointment in general.

The woman in the suit told me there were people with their own agendas.  Monsters.  This is one of them, and he thinks we’re kindred spirits.

“I tell you because you are ruthless, Weaver.  Do not stop me,” he said.  “I die, focus waver, time bomb explode.  Aimless, no direction.”

“Indiscriminate,” I supplied a better word.

“Indiscriminate,” Phir Sē echoed me.  “India gone.  You die, even down here.

I raised my head, staring up at the two golden discs and the current that seemed to run between them.  I would have thought it would be brighter.

“Hero fall.  We wait,” he said.  “When fight cannot be won, I strike.”

I tensed as I watched the fighting on the screens.  They flickered intermittently in a delayed reaction to Behemoth’s lightning strikes.

“Very soon,” he said, his eyes fixed on the monitor.  “You stay.”

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