Pitch – 6.3

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No plan survived contact with the enemy, but I hoped it would at least be recognizable in the aftermath.

Phase two.  Contain and besiege.

We staggered our retreat, with Capricorn walling off the path behind us before the group moved again.  The Fallen sent some people our way, but I had the impression the people were scouts, figuring out where we were and then getting scared off by the razor-forcefields and antisonic booms.

Rain stuck with Narwhal’s group, and even contributed some of the suppressive fire.  As I flew around the treetops to keep an eye on things from above, I saw the occasional tree topple, as Rain’s power and something else hit a tree around the same time.

Trees falling was good.  It helped to cover our retreat in the same way Capricorn’s walls did.

He kept giving me looks.  I couldn’t read his expression while his mask was on, but I could make assumptions.  He hadn’t liked leaving, or even pretending to leave, and I knew he wanted to help Erin.

Mama Mathers was powerful.  It wasn’t that she had the clout some other top tier capes did, but her existence created a blind spot where we couldn’t keep tabs on the Fallen’s side.

Another wall snapped into existence.  Fluke gave the call to move on, and the group ventured further into the woods, away from the area where the Fallen camp was nestled.  Narwhal’s offensive team followed behind the retreat, with Fluke staying back to report to her as she caught up with him.  Weld was hurrying forward to stay near the front of the group, taking on a semi-leadership role.

With each phase in our retreat, Capricorn’s walls went up faster and bigger.  Vista was sticking by him, and from what little I could see as I used my advantage of mobility to check on everything, they were getting along great.

Yeah.  I needed to have a chat with her.

Sveta was sticking with Weld, even though they had different focuses in the moment.  Weld was directing people and making sure the coast was clear, while Sveta had Weld’s phone in hand, a brick of a thing with push buttons that she needed two hands to hold.  He would have dialed for her, or answered for her while Looksee called.  Our kid tinker was on the other end.

My phone was in my pocket, the cord of my earphones running up beneath my armor and hair to my ear, where it was covered.  I was looped into the conversation.

With the rain pattering down around us, cool but not cold, my setup meant I could keep my hands and face dry, without risking that my phone might get wet.

“I had my moment of heroism, I even caught some bad guys,” Looksee said.  “It’s probably kind of lame compared to what you guys are doing, but it’s my first win!”

“Your first win,” Sveta said.

“Mine and mine alone, yes!  I was keeping an eye on everything around the camp and the moment things started, a bunch of people in the town got in cars and raced off in your direction.  I told my friends here and they told Narwhal and her group, but nobody was in a good spot.  So I programmed like lightning, and repurposed the projector box.”

“Not too many details,” I jumped in, wincing at the offhand mention of the trap.  “We don’t know who’s listening in.”

“Sorry.   But I put up projections of police officers and vans and some heroes.”

“What I’m hearing in this is that you’ve taken the time to capture and keep images of police officers, vans, and some heroes,” Chris said.

He was in on the call too, apparently.  I hadn’t known before he spoke up.

“I didn’t keep anyone’s faces or anything, and I changed up the hero costumes,” she defended herself.  “I even asked most of them if I could take their picture.”

“Says the girl who could probably make a camera that steals literal souls if she tried.  Totally innocent thing to ask, and they have no idea at all.”

“Could not.  Souls are for God to handle, numbnuts.”

“Be nice, both of you,” I said.  “Tell your story, Looksee.”

Capricorn was jogging along, with Vista at his side.  He produced orange sparks, and she distorted the space around them.  He shook his head, and the sparks winked out.

It was really, really weird to look at the pair and realize they were about the same age.  I’d heard about Vista from Gallant before I ever even met her, and I’d tried my best to take her as a fellow hero first and a kid second, at his suggestion.  But she was seventeen, now.  Crazy.

“I finished picking out the code and put up my projections just before they came around the corner.  They rolled up and stopped because they had a bunch of guns pointed at them.  I called the guy Victoria mentioned-”

“Gilpatrick,” I said.

“Yes!  I feel bad for forgetting his name.  He’s nice.  I really like him.”

“You like everyone,” Chris said.

“He’s likable,” I said.  “One of my favorite people.”

I heard an audible increase in excitement when Looksee responded, simply from the fact I’d validated her impression.  “I see why.  They sent a van super quick and took all the people into custody.  Fallen, hanging back in the town.”

“They would have been the ones keeping an eye on things,” Sveta said.

“Reinforcements,” Looksee said.  “They had guns.  The assholes.”

It was Chris who answered that.  “We know about the guns.  The Fallen and Hollow Point guys have been shooting them all over the place.  Victoria got shot.”

“What!?”

“I’m fine.  Already patched up,” I said, as I thought,  I might need physiotherapy, and there’s a sensation in the center of this mess that makes it feel like the bullet is still in there, but I won’t die.

“I got shot too,” Chris said.  “Not that anyone cares.”

“When?” Sveta asked.

“I was Dark Introspection.  It didn’t do much of anything, but I still got shot.”

“Don’t talk like that, you guys,” I heard Looksee.  “I’m teary eyed even thinking of you guys being seriously hurt.”

Okay, we needed a distraction.  “Looksee.  I’m thinking of a plan, beyond what we already talked about.  You’re a key part of it.”

“What we just talked about, with our reinforcements?”

“Yes,” I said.  Our reinforcements.  Good to phrase it that way.  Tattletale.

“I’m looking into it,” Looksee said.

“Good,” I said.  “This is separate.  If you’re up for it.”

“Reinforcements?” Sveta asked.

“Rain or I can fill you in after,” I said.

She didn’t respond immediately.  Down on the ground, I saw her look up at me, her Brute-and-gauntlet-wearer class phone still held to her ear.

“Okay,” Sveta said.

“Looksee,” I said, hurrying to lay it out now that I’d cleared some of the obstacles and interpersonal issues.  “You may have people coming down the road.  It’s the easiest way for them to get out if they want to make a run for it.”

“I’ll be ready.  With reinforcements, maybe.  Depends.  They’re not answering.”

“Okay,” I said.  “How hard would it be to set something else up?  Gilpatrick is wrangling an awful lot of people.  What if those people were waiting elsewhere?”

“Elsewhere?” Looksee asked.

“Or… in as many places as you can manage.  I’m thinking we put the evacuees in one place, or spread them out.  They’re people the Fallen have some reason to care about.  We put images of the evacuees in other places, or we fill out the groups.  We give them a reason not to shoot the moment they come storming down that dirt road or out of the woods.”

“I’d need to grab images and write some code.  I’d have to change the spectrum angle on the- thing.  There’s a lot of stuff.”

“Can you?” I asked.

“I can try, but it’s going to be hard, and I’ll be distracted.  I might have to hang up so I can focus.  Um.  Is there anything else I need to do or plan for?”

“No,” I said.

“I’m going to hang up then!  Will call back soo-” she announced, hanging up before she’d even finished the sentence.

There was a pause.

“Is the world ending again, or did she really just say that?” Chris asked.  “She decided of her own volition to hang up on friends.”

“She’s excited to help,” Sveta said.

She was, I suspected, but I wasn’t sure I’d heard excitement, exactly.

Hard to pin down.

Capricorn was building the next wall within Vista’s distortion.  He turned blue, and the wall turned to water.  There were shouts as people near the wall had to jump back to avoid getting sloshed.  Some couldn’t avoid it and were soaked or partially soaked.

Narwhal raised her voice.  I double checked what I could see of the woods, to make sure nobody was coming or passing by our flanks, then dropped from my lookout position.

I hung up my phone as I descended.

“-of you showing off?” Narwhal asked.  I’d missed the start of the sentence.

“No,” Capricorn said.  He was back to being Tristan, and he was drawing out the wall even as Narwhal grilled him.

“This is a serious mission.  Your team posed it as such, and you were there- you saw how high the stakes are.”

“Absolutely,” Capricorn said.

“Yes ma’am,” Vista said.

“What were you doing?” Narwhal asked.

“Trying something,” Capricorn said.  “Vista saved me time earlier, I thought we could afford to lose some to try this, because it could save us a lot of time.”

“Capricorn, I get the impression you’re a good cape, the walls are good, you’ve kept a level head.  But the people back there- they’re the ones who can’t afford for us to screw up or let the Fallen catch up with us.”

Rain was standing a bit off to the side.  He’d been with Narwhal before, and he’d approached, because Capricorn was his friend.  He looked at me as Narwhal said the last bit.

Soon, I pledged mentally, without saying it out loud.

“Yes ma’am,” Capricorn said.

“What were you trying to do, powerwise?” I asked.

“Seeing what translates when I change out, if there’s a way to have her help make it bigger, not just move the sparks around faster, and keep it big even after she withdraws her space warping.”

“You were trying other stuff before,” I said.

“Yeah.  Flubbed this one, I think something went wrong.  The plan was to swap out, swap back a second later, so the wall mostly held… one second.”

He turned blue.  Byron.

“Didn’t go according to plan,” I concluded.

“There was a resistance to swapping back,” Byron said.  “Had to push in a way I never have.”

“Okay,” I said.

Back to Tristan.

“Scary,” Tristan noted.  I was already listening for the sound difference between the pair of them, so I wasn’t relying on sight alone, and I didn’t miss that he’d said the word in a voice that didn’t sound like either of them.  Or maybe it was the voice that fell in the venn-diagram overlap of how they were the same, in the middle of their case-seventy situation.

Narwhal gave me a long look.  As if I was some kind of judge or voice for the weirdness of the team.

“It’s a tricky power,” I tried answering the look.  “If they did figure out a way to save time and let them put up taller, thicker walls, I think you and I would be complimenting them on their ingenuity.  This didn’t cost us much.”

Narwhal looked over in the direction of the biker and Fallen we’d collected.  Afflicted by Mama, they were dealing with the worst she could deal with.

“We’re backing off anyway, and they aren’t pressing hard.  We’ll figure out another angle,” I added, sounding as confident as I could.  It felt strange to try to convince someone of Narwhal’s stature.  “Maybe figure out how to help them.”

“We can try some things once we get far enough out, and that’s why I’m mindful of wasted time,” Narwhal said.  “I miss having thinkers, but we couldn’t conscience bringing them with us, with the risk.  They could crack this and help those people.  It’s frustrating.”

“It is,” I said.  I glanced at Rain.

And there’s Tattletale, ignoring Kenzie’s calls, doing something out there, I thought.  I don’t know if she could crack this, but she doesn’t seem too interested in trying.

Narwhal turned to the Capricorn-Vista pair.

“Right now we need steady and reliable, with no surprises.  Please,” Narwhal said, with emphasis on the please.  “And no more small talk.  Let’s stay focused on the mission.  I overheard when I caught up to you two.  We should save the… complex  inter-cape interactions for later.”

Oh, so she’d noticed too.

“Got it, ma’am,” Capricorn said.

Vista didn’t voice her response, and from the way she held herself, I wondered if it was because she didn’t feel comfortable speaking in the moment.  She only nodded.

“Vista,” Narwhal said.  “Can you cover our flank?”

“Narwhal, ma’am,” Capricorn said.  “She does help me put them up faster and better.  I’d like her to keep helping.  You don’t need to separate us.  We’ll stick to what we know works, and we work well together.”

“Vista,” Narwhal spoke in a lower voice, not taking her eyes off of Capricorn.  “From what I know of your power, you don’t need to be close to make it work.”

“No ma’am, but I have to put it between the trees and it helps if I’m not too far away, so I can see instead of only feeling.”

“I’ve been aligning the walls to work with her on that,” Capricorn said.

“No small talk,” Narwhal said.  “You can stand further back and keep an eye on more of our flank while you work, Vista.”

“Yes ma’am,” Vista said.

Fluke grabbed Narwhal’s attention, and she reached up and over for a forcefield that appeared over her hand, gliding over to him.

“That sucked,” Capricorn said.  He was working on the wall again.  “I generally pride myself on being a kickass, professional cape, and I just got told off by someone global in stature.”

“I’m on the exact same page as you, Cap,” Vista said.  “Except I was a Ward, not a shill, and that’s my actual boss.”

Capricorn didn’t give a visible reaction to being called a shill.  Something they’d talked about earlier?  A joke?

“I think she’s nervous,” I said.  “This whole thing is worse than we thought it would be, and we thought it would be awful.

“She’s very nervous,” Vista said.  “We’re all nervous.  So much going on at the borders between worlds and we find out there’s something this rotten this close to home?  Things are supposed to be getting better and these guys seem really fucking committed to taking things in the other direction.”

“She’s looking,” Capricorn said, as he turned his head toward his wall.  “And we’re still talking.”

“Vista, can we talk?” I asked.

She followed me off to the side.

“I’m going to be cringing about this for the next five years,” Vista said.  “I goofed and got distracted, and everything went splat in front of my team leader, my team, my old team leader, you, Capricorn… and I think my boss knew why.”

I had been able to tell what was going on when I was a hundred feet in the air.

“First off,” I started.

“Yes?”

“The bad moments?  Never as bad as they are in your own head.  You couldn’t predict that.  Take it from the bystander and friend, don’t cringe for five years.”

She didn’t respond immediately, but then she nodded, sighing as she did it, like she was letting something free.

“Okay?”

“Okay.  What’s second off?”

“Second… do you want it blunt or do you want it gentle?”

“Blunt,” Vista said.  “I’m a fighter.  I can take it.”

“You have a problem,” I told her, quiet.  “You have a thing for unattainable guys in heavy armor.”

I saw her react, like she’d been punched in the gut, before she steeled herself.  I could even work out the thought process, as she noted that others were in a position to see us and her.  She couldn’t react too visibly.

“Dead son of a cunt, I might actually,” she said, under her breath.  “Unattainable why?”

“Can’t say.  He’ll tell you soon, I think.  He thinks you’re cool.”

“They always do,” she said.  “When things are calmer, you need to help me with this.”

“I can try, but before we talk about that-”

“We should talk about it another day.”

“Okay.  But on this, just to clear things up in a way I can explain, he has a twin brother.  The one in blue-”

“Oh.  That’s what that was.”

“It’s not a secret, but it’s not something we tell the bad guys either.”

“Got it.”

“I won’t say go for it, because… messy.”

“We’re all messy.”

“Messy… in a way beyond the cape usual.  I don’t think they can date, as it is.  And a very different personality.  Brace yourself for that.”

“Okay.”

“I think he could use a friend, but again, being blunt-”

I stopped as my phone rang, the earphone still in my ear, cord hidden by hair and armor.  I held up a finger for Vista.

“Yes?” I asked.

“It’s Looksee.  So I’ve got a thing.”

“Talk,” Sveta said, on the other line.

“I’m getting footage of the Fallen evacuees, two cameras out there, one up close to get the people and one pulled back to track light sources and get another angle.  My pulled-back is freaking out.”

“Freaking how?” Sveta asked.

“Literal ghost in the machine freaking?” I asked.

“Yes!  Yes, exactly.  I’ve never heard that term before but it fits exactly.”

“How has a tinker never heard-” Chris started.

“Don’t look at it, don’t dig into the code,” I talked over him.

“Wasn’t.”

“It’s Mama Mathers,” I said, loud enough for others to hear.  “With Gilpatrick’s patrol squad.”

“She was approaching, not with them yet, I think,” Looksee said.

“Looksee, call Gilpatrick!” I warned.  “I’m on my way.”

“I’m coming,” Sveta said.

I thought of the secret message to Kenzie.  The plan.  I’d pledged something to Rain, too.  “Has Mama affected you at all?”

“Barely.  Ears.”

“Rain, how hurt are you?”

I moved the hand of my uninjured arm at my side, where only he was really in a position to see.  A slash, side to side.

“Really hurt.  Snag did a number on me,” he said.

With luck, he was lying, and he got my intent.  We needed him as the one person who Mama couldn’t control, operating in a place she couldn’t see- away from those she’d infected.

“Situate yourself, cover us to our south,” I said.  Again, I made the slash.  “Be ready to join whoever, but stay put.  Sveta, escort him, then come to us?”

“Okay,” Sveta said, looking at Rain.  “Can do.”

“Rain?  Fill her in on anything you can on the way.”

“Understood,” Rain said, with a slight emphasis.  Rain jogged northward.

“C and I will follow, or we’ll hold down the fort.  I’ll call when we can confirm,” Capricorn said.

“I’m pretty mama’ed up,” Chris said.  “I’m dealing but it’s distracting.”

Distracting?” Capricorn asked.  He sounded slightly incredulous.

“Seeing the surface of everything peeling away to show the shrieking flesh beneath distracts me.  Sue me.”

Capricorn turned his head.  “Narwhal’s fighting.  I think the Fallen coordinated things so they’d hit all sides at once.”

“She can do that,” I said.  “Seeing what she sees.”

“You realize you’re going alone?  Until Sveta catches up with you.”

“I realize,” I said, raising myself up off the ground a bit.

I flew, zig-zagging to avoid the worst of the branches, ducking my head and letting smaller ones graze my hood.

I had a view of the broader landscape, and I could see where the roads formed an almost hammer-and-sickle image, the half-circle of road with forest cupped in it, and the line stabbing through the southeast or east, leading to the Fallen camp.  Gilpatrick’s group was to the northeast.

The wind blew at my hair and pulled my hood back as I flew.  Something I’d need to fix.  My arm throbbed with renewed pain, not because I’d moved it, but because I’d changed the angle of my body and that changed how the blood flowed through me.

“Are you with us, Looksee?” I asked.

“I am.  I called Gilpatrick, told him.  You sound windy.”

I sounded windy because I was flying.  Looksee, though- she sounded quiet, and not nearly as talkative as before.

“Are you okay?  No effect through your tinkering?”

“No effect,” she said.

I was especially aware of the fact that she hadn’t verified she was okay, and she didn’t sound okay.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.  “Cut the others out of the call if you need to.”

“Already did.  Victoria- Damsel is with Gilpatrick.  She’s sitting in the back of a van.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“What did I miss?  Don’t leave me out.”

“I’m not,” I said.  “I haven’t talked with the others about it, they saw, but I don’t think Rain knows yet.  We’re digesting.”

“Digesting what?”

“She snapped, Looksee.   Not quite like we’ve seen before.  I think- she went there because she needed a time out.  I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Okay,” she said.

I could see Gilpatrick’s trucks.  I could imagine where we’d last seen Mama, and where she might have gone.  I averted my eyes from the part of the forest where Mama might be.

“Did someone die?” Looksee asked.

“Someone died,” I said.

“She looks like someone died,” she said.

“I’m at Gilpatrick,” I said.  “I’ve got to focus.  Step back.  Get away, phone her, or-”

“I want to help.”

“Then work on projections, or try again with our ‘reinforcements’.  Throw yourself into this if the distraction helps.  Just don’t look at Mama on camera, don’t dig into code she’s affected, and listen to the little voice inside you if it has doubts about doing something.”

“I’ve got your back,” she said.

Below me, a few people fired into the trees.  There was no returning salvo.

I dropped out of the sky, landing more softly than I usually did, on account of my arm.

No Mama.  The Fallen were remaining in the trees.

“Victoria,” Gilpatrick said.  “Thank you for the warning.”

“No trouble?”

“We had a sudden influx of evacuees.  No guns, no problems.  We cut it off, told them to stay back.”

“And?”

“And if Looksee is right, I think your problem cape thought she’d conceal herself among hostages and catch us by surprise.”

“If you hear or see her, she can affect you,” I said.

“Great,” Gilpatrick said.  “Master-stranger!  Noise protection, eyes down!  Yellow for open fire, you better remember the rest!”

People scrambled to listen.

“Hey!” came a male voice from the woods.

“How fast does it take effect?” Gilpatrick asked.

“Fast, but limited exposure isn’t too bad.  Hallucinations, auditory and visual.”

“I risk exposure, to know what’s going on?”

I nodded once.  “I don’t see a better way.  Unless you want me to deal with it alone.”

“No.”

Gilpatrick looked like an entirely different man, with the tension in his face and neck.  He’d ceased being the tough-but-fair teacher and had become the soldier who had fought real-as-shit monsters.

He held his gun in one hand and a small remote in the other.  The active squad members who weren’t managing the Fallen that had already evacuated were standing with ear protection on, caps pulled down with brim blocking some of their fields of view, their heads bent so they stared at the ground a few feet in front of them, instead of looking forward.

Some of them looked pretty fucking scared.

In the background, I saw Ashley emerge from the back of one of the trucks parked on the road.  Not repainted schoolbuses, but a heavy metal van that might have transported money once.  She walked around to the side and leaned against it, one hand over the wound on her arm.

I nodded once.  She nodded back.

Well, some sort of backup, in the event of a dire situation.

And the guy in the woods was still making noise.  “Hey!”

“What!?” Gilpatrick called out.

“Don’t shoot!” the guy said.  “I’m unarmed, she wants to talk.  I’m talking for her.”

Gilpatrick looked at me.  I wasn’t sure what response to give.  I knew this might be safe in the technical sense, with emphasis on might.  This guy could have powers and he could have powers from the same branch of the family, but odds were that he was unpowered and unarmed as he said.

“She might want to talk, but she’s going to use the chance to threaten to do something horrible to hostages,” I said.  “And she’ll do those horrible things.”

“Better to open dialogue,” Gilpatrick said.

I nodded.

“You and you alone, come out!” Gilpatrick called out.

The Fallen was a skinny shirtless guy with a beard, tattoos up his neck and tattoos on the whites of his eyeballs.  He stood at the edge of the woods.  We stood on the road, a ditch with tall grass just in front of us, a hundred feet of uneven ground with rocks and weeds spanning the space between the ditch and the guy.  Gilpatrick’s group had made a makeshift bridge with two stretchers side by side, for the evacuees to cross the ditch.

The bearded man paused.  “She says her son needs medical attention.”

“We can negotiate,” I said.

“She says you need to think about the long term.  You might not like her, but you want her in power.”

“I somehow doubt that,” I said.

“The Crowleys can’t and won’t accept peace.  The guns were theirs.  She only wants to be left alone with her congregation,” the man said.  “They are attacking Advance Guard right this moment.  If you stop her and you don’t stop them or wipe us out completely, they will gather up the remaining Fallen and go to war.”

“The hallucinations stop now, and they stay stopped,” I said.  “We’ll take Valefor to a hospital.”

“She says he’s your leverage then.  To keep the hallucinations gone.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I glanced at Gilpatrick, and he nodded once.

“She says she expected to see Rain here.”

“Let’s stay focused on one topic at a time,” I said.  “You want Valefor to get help.”

“Same topic, she says.  We were talking about leverage.”

Erin stepped out of the woods.  She moved slowly, and she stopped, standing just behind and to the right of the man with the beard.  Her expression was drawn.  She met my eyes, and I saw the recognition.

I saw her look at Ashley.

“Give us Rain, and we’ll give you her,” the man said.  “Tell Rain, and he’ll agree to it.”

The trading of hostages, less valuable for the more valuable, maybe.

Rain had powers, so he counted as valuable, and he was immune to her powers, so he was a threat.  Hopefully he was a threat who was operating in the background now.

Yeah, I wasn’t about to tell Rain.

The man continued, passing on Mama’s words, “Prancer’s group is done.  They’re a non-threat now.  They’ll leave with their tails between their legs if we let them, and we’re not ready to let them.  Agree to leave us be, and we’ll call back the Crowleys.”

“And you keep your ‘congregation’,” I said.

“Even if you killed the leaders of each family, the congregation would remain,” the bearded man said.  There was a feral look in his eyes.  “We’re here to stay, unless you’re willing to kill us to the last man, woman, and child.  Learn to deal with us.  Negotiate.  Do you want peace, or do you hate us so much you’d prefer a mindless war?”

“It’s not my place to make deals of that scale,” I said.  “I’d have to pass it up to the people at the top.”

“There’s nobody at the top except God,” the bearded man pronounced.  I wondered if he was a preacher, with that passion.  He was a little less enthused as he went on to say, “No government, no law, no kings or queens.  You can decide what happens to Rain and Erin here, you can decide the little things, and we’ll all keep your secret.  That will be the shape of our negotiations today.”

“Hi, Erin,” I said.

“Hi.”

“You okay?”

“Not very.”

I nodded.

“Time matters, ‘hero’,” the bearded man said.

“Back off,” I said.  “We need to talk a minute.”

“Your loss.  The Crowleys are winning.  Our offer stands.”

I looked at Gilpatrick, and at the row of his soldiers that were ready to shoot.  Erin was among the targets, and there were presumably others in the trees behind.  Indiscriminate fire would be disastrous.

I looked back at Ashley, who leaned against the van, almost crushing her forearm in her grip, the grip was so tight.

“You’re right,” Gilpatrick said.  “This isn’t our call to make.”

“They aren’t about to wait and let us call up Chevalier and wait for him to finish whatever he’s got scheduled today, and they aren’t going to let us try to track down someone in government who might have the clout to okay this.”

“No,” Gilpatrick said.

I wondered if this was even something we could possibly do.  To compromise with a group that was uncompromising and unwilling to change its mind at its core.

“Tick tock,” the bearded man said.  Using tactics to make us feel rushed to make a decision.  My mom had employed that on me, once, as something illustrative.  I’d been too young to appreciate the lesson, at the time.  I’d mostly been pissed off.

“There’s no clock,” I said.  “Advance Guard can hold their own.  They’re good.”

Stupid on a macro scale, but I’d liked how they functioned in a scrap.  I could trust that.  I wouldn’t get pulled into their tempo.

“They’re outnumbered.”

“They’re good enough that doesn’t bother me,” I said.

“Tick tock,” the man said, again.  It irritated, which might have been the point, but it irritated me because it was so stupid and unintuitive.

“Valefor has to be dying, with that wound.  If anyone’s feeling the clock, it’s you guys,” I said.  “No mother wants their child to die.”

“She says lots of mothers do, but they keep it to themselves,” the bearded man said.  “We have time on our side in more than one way.  He’s dying slowly, she says.  Slowly.”

Slowly.  The Speedrunners.

They were operating in the background and every time they intervened, they made this whole situation vastly more difficult.

The old side of myself wanted to kick their asses.

“Tick tock, last chance,” the man said.

Last chance?  What was I missing?  My eyes scanned the surroundings.

“And it’s done,” the bearded man said.  He turned to walk back into the woods.  Erin looked bewildered, but he motioned for her to stay.

“Stay put!” Gilpatrick called out.

The bearded man froze in his tracks, his back to us.

“I’m okay with dying, motherfuckers” the bearded man said, but he stayed put.  “She’s telling me that one of our powered just got your Rain… and Rain wasn’t where you told him to be.  He was coming up on us from behind.  Secondhand caught him and now your girl in the armor is cornered.  Four against her.”

I drew in a breath.

“Erin here has outlived her usefulness.”

Erin bolted and I flew.  Nothing to lose.  I flew to where Erin had been, and raised my forcefield.  I felt it drop as a bullet hit it, and dropped to the ground.

It was because I was at a weird angle and because my peripheral vision was untouched that I saw it.  Two streaks from above, straight down.

I heard the metal crash, and saw circuitry and metal housing scatter.

The gunman behind Erin had lost his rifle and he held his hand in an awkward way as he used the other one to reach down for the rifle.  Gilpatrick shot him before he could claim his weapon.

The metal- pieces from Looksee’s camera.

One dropped from the sky to hit the gunman’s hand.  The other-

Children and other unarmed individuals emerged from the trees.  A wall of bodies.  the woman behind them was supported by two Fallen.

The woman was bloody, a scrape down one edge of her forehead and a messy patch of skin and blood toward the top end, hair already matted into it.  Blood streamed down her face.

The blood meant I hadn’t immediately recognized it as Mama Mathers.  The moment meant I hadn’t even realized the hallucinations had stopped.

Kenzie had dropped one of her flying cameras on her.

And the Fallen – there had been a good number in the woods.  Possibly the bulk of Mama Mathers’ faction.

They were charging forth, a wall of hostages goaded to stay in front of them, and they brimmed with all the fury and menace of the legions of hell.

Gilpatrick used the remote to flash.  Two red flashes, bright enough that the people looking down at the ground would see the color change.  I knew the code from my training with the patrol block.

Get the hell out.

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Pitch – 6.2

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Narwhal’s group were some of the more experienced heroes around, hand-picked from teams like Foresight, the Shepherds, and Advance Guard.  They were veterans with years of experience, many of them ex-Wards who had grown up with their powers.  The Undersiders had taken over Brockton Bay’s underworld and had allegedly compromised its overworld, with fingers deep in the pie of government, local business, and the local hero teams.

Now villain and hero sat together, crouching and kneeling on wet grass and in mud, hands over their ears, expressions grim.

We’d backed off a bit, and now we huddled, with Capricorn erecting more defenses.

Rain had moved his hands from his ears, lowering them.  Fluke looked at him and then nervously started to lower his hands.  Rain motioned for him to put the hands back, and Fluke wasted no time in doing so.

Rain had put his hands up only to show us and convey the urgency of it.  Now he could be our ears, and he had his phone out of his pocket, his fingers tapping on the onscreen keyboard.

The whispers I heard were indistinct, but they came with a return of the white snow in my vision, moving in my peripheral vision and creating shapes that weren’t really shapes, like the way faces could seem to stand out from a pile of leaves or the light and shadow in a cloud.

Rain’s head turned, and I followed his gaze to look at Rachel.  Her hands were pressed to her ears, and her mouth was open in an ‘o’.  I saw her stop, mouth closing, her chest expanding as she drew in another breath.  The water from the branches above poured down onto her, and she didn’t seem to care in the slightest.  Her shaggy mane of auburn hair was plastered across her face, and aside from rubbing her forearm across the edge of her eye to move the hair so she could peer between the wet locks, she seemed fine with it.

Again, she did the thing with the ‘o’ shape, and I could tell she was putting a good amount of effort into the sound she was making.

When the mutant dogs responded to her howl, I could feel the low sound run through me, and it was clear the others could too.  Rain winced in pain, covering his ears again.

Rachel was shouting, but I couldn’t hear her with my hands where they were.  The mutant dogs in the woods moved, running off to our right and left.  Around the camp.

My arm throbbed, and I wasn’t sure I could keep covering my ears, even when the effort was mild and I was hunched over, bringing my head down to my hand more than the inverse.

I chanced a momentary listen, and I could only hear howling.  Mama Mathers was being drowned out.

Rain typed out his message, and held out the phone for Sveta, Capricorn and I.  Vista and Foil drew close enough, and so they got a look too.

If you see mama you will start to see things.
If you hear… start to hear things.
Etc for touch/thinker senses
She can see/hear/thinker through these things

I nodded.  I’d known and inferred most of that.

Loose color scheme: white is leader/important Mathers

“Valefor and Mama Mathers,” I said.

Rain nodded, then typed.

Bamet mutates with a touch. Permanent physical mental change. Uses stolen features to alter animals and make them smarter.  Would be near stables.

“He wears white?” I asked.

Rain nodded.

He typed, and I felt a pang of irritation at the fact that Rain hadn’t shared this earlier.  I could understand that he hadn’t been able, but some of this would have been really good to know.

Coronzon pulls himself into portal and builds up strength. Ive never seen but he comes out messy and big.  Has cancer/is not active much except in sitting in as elder in council

“This is the leadership again?” I asked.  “White?”

Rain nodded again.

He was typing more when a dog came barreling out of the woods, straight for us.  Its mouth was open wide, tongue lolling out the corner, and it howled with the howl momentarily interrupted each time its feet slammed into the earth.

Vista’s power increased the space between the dog and us.  The dog might as well have been running on a treadmill, but the treadmill was real ground.

I started to move forward, ready to intercept, and I glanced at Rachel to double check.  Some of it might have been that she knew her dogs best, and I could use her reaction to know what to do.  Another part of it was that I knew she had a violent history.

I’d already made the mistake of letting that go too easily with Ashley.

Rachel, hands over her ears, was approaching.  She shouted something to Vista, but Vista couldn’t hear.

I leaned forward, and I used my good arm to pull Vista down.  The level of noise the dog was making was unreal, and I could hear shouting and commotion, including Rachel’s cussing.  I remained ready to shield the others as the dog lunged forward, faster in running than Vista’s distortion was extending.

The dog broke free of the distortion and closed the distance.  I saw the slobber flying, the rain splashing off of its back, and I saw the eyes, recessed in eye sockets framed in spiky bone.

I threw myself to the ground.

The dog leaped over us, and over Capricorn’s wall.

The Fallen were in the woods, closing the distance to us while we couldn’t look or see without risking running into Mama Mathers.

I covered my ears again, and I risked looking.

With my hands over my ears, I could hear my heartbeat, and I could hear the lowest sounds the dogs were making, the impacts when they ran too fast and hit a tree with the broad side of their bodies, and the crashing thumps when they hit one of their targets.

The patter of the rain was gentle and the moisture was cool against my lower face, the light from the overcast sky was mild and softened by the branches overhead.   But for the conflict, the monster dogs and the mass of people in costume, it could have been a really nice day for a walk in the rain.

It was an odd thought, I knew, but I was struck by the contrast.

I wondered if Chris experienced a bit of this, his headphones muffling the outside world, as he took stock of it.

Strange, too, to have the monster dogs present, but not to be having to deal with them as a horrific kind of opposition.  I didn’t have to try to get between them and civilians.  I didn’t have to worry about failing to save a civilian from the dog that had maimed them.

If and when I heard the howling in the distance, I wouldn’t be reminded that the outskirts of my hometown were being stalked by these kinds of monsters, sometimes with innocents getting hurt.

I really didn’t like Rachel, but…

Paradigm shift, I supposed.

Fuck, my arm hurt.  Pulling me back to reality.  Civilians were still a concern.  The first wave looked like Fallen soldiers.  Others might come.

I took flight, going from a position low to the ground to the upper reaches of the trees.  I took my hands away from my ears, and the only sound I could hear was the incessant howling of the dogs and the faint static sound of rain against leaves.

Dangerous to use my thinker-one power when Mama could be in the area, but my instinct was that she wasn’t. Now that I was thinking about her, the whispering was back.  The snow was the same as before.

The power wasn’t really a power, but the benefit of flying.  A bird’s eye view, being able to see the battlefield from a semi-decent vantage point, provided I could get up high enough.  I could see motion through the trees, but I couldn’t see much else.

No white.  Seir had dressed in black – if Rain had continued to talk, would that have been part of it?  How set was it?  I could imagine the Fallen identifying themselves as closer to the Simurgh sticking to white or silver, while the Leviathan-favoring Crowleys might prefer green.

No green, no black, no white.  I wasn’t even sure if it was that hard-set, or if my speculations were off-point, but it helped on a level.  It helped validate my assumption that Mama Mathers wouldn’t be part of a headlong rush, and I liked even the idea that my enemies’ costumes might be conveniently color-coded.

Valefor and Mama Mathers were scary, or Valefor had been scary, but they weren’t warriors, and they weren’t generals.  Their weakness in this was that they were subtle players and the small-scale war wasn’t subtle.

I descended, aiming for the group where the Fallen were more numerous and the one dog was alone.

One cape, that I could tell.  She wore a biker helmet, with fragments of helmets worked into her costume.  Her arms looked like melted plastic, swords with the blades curved into hooks on the end.  Weld was fond of the design- what the hell had he called them?  She was using them to climb the dog, hacking at its face, and missing as it shook and twisted its head away.

There was a limit to what I could do when my arm was hurt to the point my entire body was feeling it.  I grabbed her by the helmet with the one hand, and pulled her back into a more upright position, until her stomach was exposed.  I drove my knee into her stomach, and felt some resistance.  Light armor.

I kept my knee where it was, and flew straight up, twisted around so my bad arm was furthest from her.  She pulled back, trying to get into a position to hit me or fight back, and I used my grip on her helmet to jerk her head down, until her ass was higher than her head.

My old mantra, from before.  This was the disorientation.

The issue with her weapons was that they had reach, where the more dangerous part of the weapon was the hook, and I was in too close for her to properly use it.  Toward the base of the weapon, the melted plastic was sharp in places and jagged, but it wasn’t going to gut me.

Hook swords.  That was what Weld had called them, back when we’d been on a team together.

She brought the crude base of the hook-sword against my armor, and it caught on the breastplate.  She used the catch to reposition, twisting around.

I could see that her helmet had changed.  It had waves and ripples that looked almost like hair, and it had a melted-plastic emblem as part of the visor, appearing where the eyebrows might meet.  It was no larger than my palm, and looked like a star with the bottom two legs removed, spikes radiating up.

It was my emblem.

The armor I’d felt at her middle was my breastplate starting to form.  It was completely formed now.

Faceless, featureless, biker girl wrestled to get to a more upright position, and she leaned back far enough to catch the hook of her right hand on my breastplate.  She reared back, other arm back, and I did a barrel-roll.

The hook came at me as she fell away, a last-ditch effort to catch herself.  I brought out my forcefield just long enough to deflect it, and the hook caught on that instead.  When I put the Wretch back where it belonged a moment later, she fell.

Biker-girl was eerie, because of the black melted-plastic look, the faceless visor, and the fact I hadn’t heard her make a sound.

I flew after her, faster than she fell, and I was ready to catch her if she needed it.  I watched as she used the hook-arms to swipe at the tree branches, trying to find traction.  She caught one branch with two hooks, and one slipped free of the thinner edge of the branch.  She swung in a quarter-circle before the other hook came free as well.

She made her descent, hooks finding more purchase, until she found a branch thick and sturdy enough to catch her body weight.

She swung forward, backward, and then lifted the hooks free, performing one flip in the air before landing square on two feet, hooks out to the side.

I hit her a second later, literal flying kick to ribs.  She bounced off of a tree before collapsing to the ground.  I winced at the pain in my arm, as the impact from the vibration traveled through my body to the injury.

I flew to her side and checked her vitals.  The plastic was melting into black ooze, breastplate included.  I heard and felt her cough and saw her whole-body flinch in reaction.

“Ribs?” I asked, as I put my hand to her bodysuit-covered collarbone and felt the already wheezy vibration of her breath.  She nodded, tight.  I asked, “Do you have any fight left in you?”

She shook her head.

“You’re biker, right?”

A nod.

“Stay,” I said.  She slumped back.  I checked my directions and used Capricorn’s wall as a reference point, as the wrestling in the air had turned me around.  I looked down at biker girl, “Nice descent, by the way.”

“Thank you,” she said, her voice soft but strangled, before she coughed hard, with more full-body flinches.

“You guys have got to stop fucking working with the Fallen,” I said.

“I-” she started.

Then I heard her try to scream, and I saw her try to move, as if to get away from something, only for both things to fail.

Mama Mathers.

Rain’s refresher- she watched, she heard, and she could pull something like this, to take any of her people out of commission or make them suffer for a perceived failure.

Or to mess with us.  Like with the breaker.  Also a biker, now that I thought about it.  They were expendable in her eyes.

Nothing I could do except deal with Mama Mathers sooner, or pave the way for others to do the same.

I flew to the others, looking for Weld amid the dogs and Fallen, and finding him taking on four unpowered Fallen and one biker.  The dogs kept their distance while Weld fought, barking and howling with a volume like cannons firing.

“Go down!” I called out.  “Getting beat by Weld is better than somehow winning and the dogs coming after you!”

“Eat cocks, heathen!” a Fallen soldier shouted.

I approached at a walk, keeping the guy between Weld and I.  I saw his agitation grow, as he tried to keep Weld in focus while not ignoring me.  He couldn’t run out to one side either, with the dogs around.

A face in the corner of my eye made my head turn.  Visual snow.  The guy ran from Weld and came after me while I was distracted, machete held high.

I hit him with my aura, and I saw his expression change.  His attack was delayed, thrown off by the surge of emotion, and I flew up a bit to put a foot on his chest, my hand down and ready to smack the blade with the Wretch out if it looked like he’d cut me.

I used my foot and my flight to push him in Weld’s direction.  The Fallen soldier landed on his ass at Weld’s feet, and Weld stepped on one of his calves.  I could hear the bone crack.

A young ‘punk’ Fallen in the group surrendered, dropping to his knees, hands up.  One Fallen hefted a baseball bat while approaching his surrendering kin, but then backed off as Weld quickly advanced on him.

It hardly mattered.  Maybe the bat would have been more merciful.  The surrendering Fallen slumped over and fell to the ground, eyes wide, twitching.  No screams, only a near-immediate catatonia.

Those who remained looked and saw, and then they turned toward the most vulnerable target they could see- me.

I hit the ground to spray them with dirt and mud, flying back a little, and one of the dogs lunged in, trampling them.

Weld and I remained where we were, checking that nobody was going to get up anytime soon.  We relaxed when they didn’t.

Well, insofar as I could relax, seeing the person Mama Mathers had taken out.

“You get Mathered?” I asked.

Weld glanced at me, then tapped his ear.  He turned his head to show me.

No ear canal.  He’d welded his ears shut.  It was one way to do things.

I gestured, and he nodded.  We headed back to where the others were at the more fortified wall, a short distance into the woods proper.  Another wall was at the wood’s edge- this group had to have climbed it, and beyond it were the two farmhouses that were near.  The denser settlement was a few minutes of jogging beyond the closest farmhouse.

We’d have to leave the fallen Fallen where they were.

As I rejoined the others, I could see more signs of fighting.  Fallen had flanked this group.

Prancer’s group was struggling, but these capes knew what they were doing.  Sveta, Narwhal, Vista, Capricorn- Rain was just about the only cape present who didn’t have a lot of experience in crisis situations.

Parian was at the far end of the clearing with Foil.  As she rejoined us, she tossed something at me, levitating it with her telekinesis.  I caught it.

Cloth set around beads or something hard, with thread binding it shut.  I saw her tap her ear, and I nodded.

The makeshift earplugs fit snugly, and the cords trailed out a bit.

Rachel looked annoyed.  She said something, and nobody could hear her.  Imp laid a hand on her arm, indicating her ear, and she gave Imp a more annoyed look.

I turned to Rain, and waited as he typed his message into his phone.

Missing dog.

I raised a hand, then did my best to indicate with gestures that I’d look.

If someone or a group of someones was capable of tying up a dog, then there was a chance it was one of the more problematic factors in play.

I used the bird’s eye view, moving carefully at first, then checking with more confidence as I verified that Mama Mathers wasn’t close.

There was movement.  Something big.  I flew down to where Rachel could see and indicated a direction.

I flew to the dog.

The dog prowled, the low growls it was making deep enough that I could feel the vibrations in the air, even though I couldn’t really hear.  It was a gangly thing, as Rachel’s dogs went, and the plates were lighter.  I wondered if it had started as a chihuahua.  I was pretty sure breed factored in.

I realized it was focused on something, and flew closer.  It snapped at me as I got closer, and I flew back and up.

A small movement made the dog jump back.  It saw me and jumped back again.

I realized what the movement was- a figure, camouflaged.  The camouflage was dying out, and it wasn’t nearly as effective as it had been.

“It’s you,” I said.  I pulled out an earplug.

“-get this thing to stop growling at me?  You’re supposed to be strong,” Chris said.

“What are you doing this close to the fighting?”

“Get this thing off me!  What are you, deaf?”

I flew down between him and the dog, and in facing the dog, I could see Rachel approaching at a jog.

“Can you call him off?” I asked, gesturing.

She whistled, and the dog backed off, going to her side.

Thank you,” Chris said.

“What are you doing here?”

“Keeping an eye on things, trying to be ready with my next form if we need it,” he said.  His features were almost visible as he moved and the camouflage shifted.

I looked over in Rachel’s direction.  “Dog spotted him sneaking up on us.  He’s friendly.”

“Hi friendly, I’m Imp,” Imp said.

“Ha ha,” Chris said, humorless.  He turned his camouflage-cloaked face my way.  “Should I transform?”

I considered for a moment, then shook my head.  In a softer voice, I said, “The form’s slow, you said.”

“Yeah.  I could keep an eye on things, though.”

“We have someone we’re trying very hard to avoid keeping an eye on, out there,” I said.  “You should get those headphones of yours on before we go to the others, because we don’t want to hear her either.”

I heard him rustle.

“Besides,” I said.  “We might want to move to a phase two kind of approach.”

“I didn’t think you guys made that much progress,” Chris said.

“Speak for yourself,” Imp said.  “Please.  I have no idea who you are or what you do, so speak, fill us in.”

“Don’t be annoying,” Rachel said.

“You have a really bad gauge of what annoying is, for the record, especially when you bring Yips along all the time now-” Imp said, indicating the gangly dog.  “And Yips is your worst dog.”

“I’m trying to make him a better dog, like I’m trying to make you a better human.  Don’t be annoying.”

“Fine.  You handle this without my help.”

“Fine,” Rachel said.  She reached out, then let her hand drop to her side.  She looked my way.  “You found my dog quickly.”

I nodded.

“Good work.”

“Okay.  Thank you,” I said.  There wasn’t a follow-up and there wasn’t really anything for me to say or ask her, so I turned to Chris.  “We didn’t make much headway, but they have a crapton of capes and the Hollow Point guys seem to have crumbled.  I’m thinking phase two, but I haven’t brought it up with anyone else.”

“Phase two?” Rachel asked.

“Contain,” was Chris’ blunt response.

“Okay,” Rachel said.

I wanted to explain further, but my eye and ear were somewhat compromised.  Would Mama hear and adapt?

That’d have to do for an explanation.  I’d outlined a multi-stage course of action with a list of priorities, and we were already having to skip to the next big phase, without having removed the capes Rain had mentioned.  Valefor was out of action, but Mama was in play, Bamet the animal herder was out there, Coronzon the monstrous changer was there, and then there were the Crowley brothers.

As far as I knew, they were the only Fallen left.  The Mcveay’s were kaput, the Behemoth-worshipers with the strong religious bent hadn’t survived the apocalypse.

The Crowley brothers weren’t really water manipulators, by and large.  They and their immediate family members tended to riff on the duplication theme, often duplicating things that weren’t themselves.

I’d really wanted to knock out at least most of the leadership before moving on to the next phase.  Taking out all of the major leaders would have worked too.

“I recognize you,” Rachel said, interrupting my thoughts.

“What?” Imp asked.

She was talking to Chris.

“You know him?” I asked.

“What?” Chris asked.  “No she doesn’t.”

“I know of him,” Rachel said.

“No she doesn’t,” Chris said.

“What?” Imp asked, again.  “Wait, the changer thing- this kid is the fucked up bird thing we saw and the crawly skull thing we heard about?  And the tentacle thing from the video Tats showed us?”

“Video?” Chris asked.

“Is he?” Rachel asked.  “Oh, okay.”

“What?  How is that okay?” Imp was incredulous.  “You can’t just raise a topic like that and say oh okay.”

“Whatever.  It’s not important,” Rachel said.

“You have me on video?” Chris asked, sounding as alarmed as I’d ever heard him.

“No big deal,” Rachel said.  “Not important.”

“It’s important to me!  I don’t like people recording me without my permission.  I get enough of that with the one teammate.”

“Fuck me,” I said, under my breath.  Louder, I said, “Guys.”

“You know him?”

Rachel shrugged.  She laid a hand on her dog’s neck, and the dog jumped.  She sounded like she was trying to be soothing as she told Imp, “Forget I said anything.  And you’re being annoying again.”

“Guys.”

“Rachel, you know I love you in the most hetero of ways, but telling people to calm down never works and it’s not working here.”

“I told you to stop being annoying, not to calm down.”

“It’s the same thing, with me.  I get stressed, this is how I deal.  And I get stressed when you say you know him-”

“She doesn’t, by the way,” Chris said.  “Needs to be said again.”

“-I have a right to be irritated when you don’t finish the thought.”

“Thought’s finished.  I recognize him.  Thought started and ended.”

“How?  Who?  When?  Where?  When?  Who?  Explain.

“Too much hassle now that you’re being annoying,” Rachel said.  “I’m fine leaving it be.”

“I can and will do horrible things to you without you knowing,” Imp growled.

“I’m fine leaving it be too,” Chris said.

“Good for you two, but I’m not fine!” Imp retorted.

I pushed out with my aura, getting their attention.

“We have a job,” I said.

“Good,” Rachel said.  Imp, meanwhile, only huffed.

We backtracked to rejoin the others.  Chris stuck by me, adjusting his clothes so that the garment he wore in monster form cloaked him like a poncho, the folds covering his lower face.  He wore the headphones, but he didn’t have the braces on.

“You’re okay?” I asked.  “Not seeing things?”

“I’m seeing lots of things.  I need distractions.”

“There are others who are comatose right now because she got to them.”

“Emotion powers don’t affect you as much, right?” Chris asked.

“Yeah.”

“Monsters don’t get to me.”

I thought about responding, but we were back where the others had gathered.

Sveta was with Weld, Narwhal had most of her team, Foil was with Parian, and Vista was sticking close to her team with Capricorn sitting next to her.  She was saying something in Tristan’s ear, while he held the earplug just slightly out of his ear, ready to put it back in at a moment’s notice.

I needed to say something to her.

Rain was just far enough ahead of the others that I thought he wasn’t part of the greater group.  He was with the stragglers in Narwhal’s team, Fluke included, and they were coming back from a brief excursion, carrying some of the injured they’d collected.  The biker girl with the broken ribs was one.

“Can you hear?” Rain asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“We grabbed these guys because we need to see if we can shake them free of the effect.  I wrote up more on my phone, to catch you up.”

“Snag did a number on you.”

He nodded.  “But I want to help.  Take my phone.  It’s a resource.”

I nodded.  I took the phone, then gestured to the others.  “Come.  I want to discuss this.”

When I approached Narwhal, Vista and Weld, it was with Sveta, Rain and Chris at my back.  Capricorn was already hanging out with Vista, so he had to take only a few steps to join us and be part of our group again.

We were missing two members.  We’d soon have another backing us, if Narwhal was game.

“I’m thinking phase two,” I said.

“If we can’t crack this army of theirs and knock out their leadership, do you really think we can contain it?” Weld asked.

“I think we have to change venues,” I said.  “We leave.  We make this a siege.”

That’s phase two?  No,” Rain said.  “They still have hostages, and they have the food to drag this out.  Hostages.

“We’re hurting the hostages by being here,” Narwhal said.  “The Fallen and their allies are being subjected to mental torture the moment they fail expectations.”

“We can back off, and you can fill us in so we’re armed with knowledge,” I said.  “The closer we get to them the more we get caught up in their rhythm, so I want to pull back.”

“You’re sure about this?” Sveta asked.

“I think so,” I said.  “I don’t see a clear other way.  We’re pinned down, and that’s even with us having heavy hitters.  We can’t get close if seeing or hearing one person can destroy us.  The big issue is that they’re united in their horribleness, and we’re… all on different pages.”

Rain hissed, “If I can contribute anything at all, let it be me telling you that you can’t let these guys have a chance to regroup.”

“Multiple buildings are damaged, Prancer’s group set fire to a number of them.  They’re in disarray,” Narwhal said.

“They revel in disarray,” Rain said.  “W- they were the fastest growing settlement to start from scratch.  They’re good at kicking ass when they have nothing going for them.”

“I know you’re concerned about the hostages,” I said.

“Victoria,” Capricorn said.

I moved my hand.  The same gesture he’d given me, before.  Flat, angled so it wasn’t quite a ‘stop’ gesture, not facing the grass and mud beneath us either.

“Fuck,” Capricorn said.  “Rain, I get what you’re saying, but you left.  You’re out of the loop.  We really discussed this and planned this, and we took it to the heroes.”

“Not that it worked out great so far,” Chris said.

“Don’t snark,” Sveta said, quiet.

“We’ve been accommodating of your situation,” I said.

“You’re playing that card?” Rain asked.

“We’ve been accommodating,” I said, again, reinforcing it.  “We’re here, and a big part of the reason we’re here is because you wanted this.”

“I wanted to save good people in a bad situation.”

“Accommodate us,” I said.  “Please.”

I saw him make a fist.

“Please,” I said.

It took him a moment, but he relented.

“I’ll talk to Advance Guard,” Narwhal said.  By her resigned tone, I could tell she didn’t want to pull out.

I nodded.

“We’re with Prancer, you know,” Foil said, behind us.

“I know,” I said, turning around.

“If you go, we’re staying.  We’ll do what we can here.”

“We’ll have to dodge March if she’s still around,” Parian said, quiet.

“Yeah,” Foil said. “This isn’t a good day.”

“Be safe,” I said.

“That’s the plan,” Foil said.

Narwhal called out the order.  Rachel called out another.  Her dogs were guarding the perimeter, and they drew closer.  Some capes took up the job of watching for trouble.

I grabbed Rain by the wrist, as we walked away.

With Mama Mathers infecting us, there was a limit to what I could do.  As it was, I dragged my finger along his wrist, and I spelled out words.  They weren’t very clear words, only ‘ERIN’ and ‘NO-‘.  I didn’t get to write the ‘W’, because he pulled his hand away.  He stared at me through the lens of his mask.

I heard him sigh.

I made sure the others were secure and Narwhal’s team was ready to go, and then I flew skyward, until I was high enough up to be safe.  I made a call.

“Looksee,” I said.

“Oh my gosh, you have to fill me in on everything.”

“Soon,” I said.  “Can you do me a favor, though?”

“Yes,” Kenzie said, with no hesitation.  No qualifiers, either.

“Tell me how things have gone on your end, first.  Distract me.”

Sure enough, I could trust Kenzie to talk nonstop at the slightest provocation, and I could use that in the moment.

I asked because I needed a bit of cover to give me time to type a message that was easily in my top three messages I never thought I’d write, while not looking at the screen.

Shh. Find Tattle. Coordinate with us & undersiders.

I heard Kenzie’s voice pause as the text reached her.  She kept talking, but I heard the renewed excitement in her voice.  What kid didn’t love a secret mission?

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Pitch – 6.1

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Capricorn’s weight tore him out of my grip, helped by the fact that I was lost enough at recent events that I’d almost forgotten I was holding him.

He fell ten or so feet and landed in a wet field.  The field was set on a slope and he slid a few feet before his feet found traction.  Ahead of us, Love Lost had already slumped to the ground.  Nothing to do with the fact that I’d hit her- everyone in Rain’s cluster had dropped.

I could try as hard as I was able and it was insignificant, whether it was holding onto Capricorn, talking to Ashley, or hitting Love Lost.  It didn’t feel like I was having an impact on things, and I’d cornered and help catch Mama Mathers, the one in charge.

I liked things when they were simple.  I could pick the biggest or most important target, remove them from the equation, and things would be better.  It was what I’d done with Mama.  It was what I’d done with Valefor, smashing his face in.

It was harder to justify causing that kind of damage to Mama Mathers, when we’d needed her for a trump card against the greater conflict, and when so many long-duration powers kept running when the user was incapacitated or killed.

Not that it had worked.  The Speedrunners had her and were escorting her to safety, the hostages were now both hostages and hostiles at the same time, and the fighting was more vicious than it had been before.

“Get Rain,” Capricorn said, below me, barely audible over the shouting and the echo of ceaseless gunfire.

“On it,” I heard Sveta, just as I started to fly.

Her handling it was faster and safer than me taking action.  I dropped from the sky to land beside Tristan, crouching to use the slope for some measure of cover.

“In over my head,” Tristan murmured, not hunching over so much as he slid down, resting against the slope with his arm back to prop himself up slightly.

“You mean the scale of this?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.  I had some more exposure to the really bad stuff than Capricorn did, but I could sympathize.  I’d seen something like this with the Slaughterhouse Nine, but I hadn’t been there for the duration of it.  That situation had been fewer individuals, but the individuals had been worse.  In both cases, it kind of made things easier.

I’d been there for Leviathan, but that didn’t really translate to a small-scale war.

Sveta returned.  A moment later, she dragged Rain to us.  I pulled Rain close, and reached beneath the collar of his outfit to touch my fingertips to his throat.

“Alive,” I said.

Something exploded nearby.  Damp ground was sent skyward, and joined the rain in pattering down around us, speckling everything.

Sveta turned her face skyward, rain running down face and the curling leaves or tentacles of her mask.  She hadn’t collected or put on her wig again, which made her silhouette seem incomplete.  In contrast, I hunched over slightly, my hood keeping the rainwater out of my eyes.

“I know I’m kind of the leader,” Capricorn spoke, his voice quiet, “But I can’t think straight like this.”

“I know,” I said.  My eyes scanned what I could see of the battlefield, while my back remained to the worst of the fighting.  March and her group had backed off, the heroes were holding position at the woods to our left, and the Fallen were gathered across two farmhouses and the surrounding structures and fences, the two big buildings about two hundred feet apart.  They were using them for cover, and as a place to drag their wounded.

Prancer’s group was having a harder time, further north.  They had some vehicles they’d used to approach this area, but battle damage had rendered the vehicles immobile, and the trucks and cars didn’t offer much when  they were trying to protect themselves from both hero and Fallen.  Compared to the defensive line that Vista and Narwhal could provide, and the actual structures the Fallen had, the vehicles weren’t much, and the group had to work to huddle in the half-circle of vehicles.

Not that we were in a better situation.

The Valefor-controlled hostages filled the space between it all.  The group was shrinking as hostages charged after one group or another and were incapacitated or trapped.

“If we don’t have a plan I want to go to Weld,” Sveta said, quiet.  Her expression was grim, her face paler than usual in the gloom, damp with water.

“It’s a plan,” I said.  I tried to sound confident.  “We go to the heroes.  We back them up.”

Sveta nodded.

Capricorn twisted around, looking at the situation behind us and to our right, where the heroes were.  Orange lights began to flow across the gap, like fat, lazy fireflies.

Guillotines of ice or hard crystal flew from the heroes’ side into the mass of hostages.  The guillotines weaved between the hostages, avoiding them, and slammed into the farmhouse the nearest group of Fallen were using for cover.  A moment later, the guillotines disappeared, and the section of wall sagged without breaking.

Narwhal’s forcefields.

The Fallen cape with the horse’s head mask or helmet was facing Narwhal head-on, again.  He created shadow duplicates, and they struck out at the forcefields as the things hurtled past or toward them.  The effect was minor, changing the courses of the fields slightly, but as each construction tore past them, cleaving shadow duplicates in half, seeming to even hit the source of the duplicates, the guy persisted, and he produced duplicates faster than the fields cut them down.

Other capes in Narwhal’s group were turning focus onto him, and yet he was staying in the fight.

One of the lieutenants or leaders of a sub-family, it seemed.

Capricorn’s wall snapped into place, blocking my view.  We hurried along it, using it for cover against gunfire, with Sveta lunging ahead to the far end of the wall with Rain in one of her arms.  Capricorn lagged behind some, but he had to travel on foot.

We reached the treeline.  Two capes knelt by Rain.

“It all went to shit,” a cape I recognized as Fluke reported.

“I noticed,” I said.

I heard a grunt from Bay, a cape younger than me with a tower shield, and saw him struggling.  A shadow duplicate of the horse-head Fallen was perched on his shield, reaching down to grab him by the helmet.  Bay’s mask was meant to open, but the jet black form of the heavyset Fallen’s shadow was gripping it, holding it closed, and making his weight fully apparent.

Another cape blasted him, and he dissolved into wisps of shadow.

I moved to a tree I could use for cover, and assessed the situation.  I could see a shadow become not-shadow, at the same time the real Fallen became shadow.  He could swap places with any of his active shadows, and he was able to make them quickly, with those zig-zagging cords of darkness.

“Sveta,” I said.  “We might need you to do the flag trick.”

“Against a human?” she asked.  “I’d hurt or kill him.”

“You don’t have to, but-”

Two more duplicates appeared.  The cords of energy were dense enough near the frontline that it seemed like he could create duplicates near us at will.

“It’s Seir!” Narwhal called out.  “He had a kill order.  If you’re willing to kill, this is a time it’s okay!”

Seir.  I’d heard something about him some time ago, but not in the context of his powers or position in the Fallen.  The Mathers family kidnapped people, and Seir had taken a kidnapping victim for a ‘wife’, to use a loose definition of the term.  She was one of the ones who had escaped, and her story had been one of a few things that had marked the turn in the wider public perception regarding the Fallen.  After that, and some similar stories, the public and started to see them less as detestable pranksters and more as the horrific cult they were.

And from what little I could remember of her story-

“He deserves to die,” Rain said.

“Okay,” Sveta said.  Quieter, she said, “I don’t think I can bring myself to kill again.  I’m sorry.”

Bay was being harassed again.  Narwhal was flanked by two copies, and a cape used a tinker gun to obliterate one while narrowly missing Narwhal, while a forcefield appeared in a position that bisected the other.

Bullets hit trees and pinged off of the forcefields Narwhal had created to give the heroes cover.  Each time a forcefield was hit, it briefly became brighter, the edges and lines standing out in bright purples and blues.

“I think the cords are counting as living tissue!” Vista called out, from a point in the group of heroes I couldn’t immediately see.

Behind Seir’s living self, Imp appeared.  She jabbed out with a taser, and she touched only the shadow that he left behind.  It swung a punch, and she ducked, backing away as four of the ten active shadows turned on her, surrounding her.

The Undersiders were here.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

Capricorn’s walls sprung up just ahead of where Narwhal’s forcefields were, and she canceled the forcefields.

“Thank you!” Narwhal called out.  When she went on the offensive, it was with more fields and projectiles, less intent on Seir himself, and more intent on cutting through the cords that arced up into the air and down into the ground.  Seir’s numbers began to decrease.

A localized storm of power came tearing at us from an angle, like a tornado, but less of a cone and more of a sphere, with a bright green tint toward the center.  Narwhal had to stop her offensive to layer forcefields between herself and the sphere.

One of Parian’s stuffed animals marched out into the field just beyond the trees, and was immediately swarmed with three Seirs.

“I know I should, but-” Sveta said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  After Ashley, I wasn’t about to push Sveta to test a boundary.  I hadn’t known Ashley’s boundary had been as tenuous as it was.  I had more of an idea with Sveta.  I wanted to jump into the fray, but I wasn’t sure what I could do.

Rain groaned, to my right.  I turned my attention to him- one cape was helping him to stand.

“Do you know Seir?” I asked.

“He’s an asshole,” Rain said.

“We can’t seem to touch him.  He just dodged an attack from behind,” I said.

“What color are his eyes?” Rain asked, too battered and out of it to really stand or focus on the fighting.

“Yellow,” Bay called out.

“He teams up with another cape in the family, they’ll be someone in the background with glowing eyes.”

Narwhal began attacking with a different angle, aiming at one of the farmhouses.  Seir’s real self twisted around to look.

Rain filled us in, in a voice that made it obvious he was still hurting from his fight with Snag.  “That’s Ahrima.  She gives him danger sense and boosted perceptions by giving up hers.  She was supposed to be one of Mama’s helpers, she traded and paid for capes who could protect her if she needed it, but Ahrima didn’t work for her.  We still kept her around for others.  Get him while she’s distracted.”

Narwhal’s focus was on keeping the thinker-augment Fallen on their heels.  I looked at the battlefield.

“Vista!” I called out.  “Open space to the right!  Keep gunfire away!”

“Yep!” I heard.

I took off.  I flew low to the ground, my soaking wet costume making me feel heavy enough I might be pulled down into a crash landing, even though it wasn’t that big of a difference.

As I approached, I could hear the gunfire and see the bullets hit mud, with the occasional eruption of dirt appearing off to the side.  Where the light hit the rain in the right way, I could see the odd slant of rain, and I knew Vista had my back.

I used the clear route to get as close as I could to Seir before I changed course and flew at him.

Fighting on the ground meant using footing to get the most out of one’ strength.  A punch delivered from a stance with bad footing was ineffectual.

Fighting in the air meant using the same techniques one did with a leaping or jumping attack, with whole body movements, use of weight, but it was a constant use.  Delivering an effective attack meant using twists and whole-body rotations, downward or forward force, and timing all movements of the body to work with the flight and where the enemy was at.

I was out of practice, but I was reasonably happy with how I delivered my kick.

I was less happy that he looked past the eyehole of that hideous horse mask with glowing yellow irises and he turned to shadow the moment before my kick caught him across the small of the back.

My kick tore through his shadow’s midsection, and the upper half reached out to catch me by the throat with shadow hands.  It had no lower body, and it was keeping up the fight.

Ahrima had given him a bit of help at the right moment.

I hadn’t wanted to use the Wretch to hit Seir when Vista couldn’t necessarily protect me.  Now?  I could use it like this.  I let it unfurl, expanding out from me to cover me and extend into my immediate surroundings.  Teeth, legs, arms, hands, feet, without much in the way of rhyme or reason.

Fuck you for making me do this, I thought, and I pushed my aura out hard.

The Wretch tore through the shadow and several of the surrounding channels of Seir’s dark energy.

The Wretch and I began to go on the offensive, adding to the pressure on Seir by removing shadow duplicates and cutting off his power before it could extend too far out.

A bullet hit the Wretch, and I felt it disappear.

Seconds passed, where the painful weight of the Wretch was lifted.  The danger of the gunfire and powers around me paled in the face of the danger of the feeling.  It was deceptively exhilarating to have the Wretch gone, no longer available at a heartbeat’s notice.  I knew it was temporary and how temporary it was, but when everything else was so heavy, just that one deceptive moment caught me off guard.

I continued to go after Seir, chasing his real self in a mad, dangerous game of whack-a-mole, where the mole always won and the person with the hammer could be shot at any moment.  The Wretch returned, and a well-timed punch from a shadow Seir destroyed it a moment later.

The yellow eyes weren’t there all of the time, or even ten percent of the time, but Seir was evasive, capable of creating doubles and swapping places with them constantly.  He didn’t need danger sense to give us a one in twelve chance of hitting the real him.

Others were joining the fight now.  A Fallen cape or one of the bikers was approaching, grown tall, his flesh alternating between something that seemed hard, like calcified armor plates, and flesh that seemed too soft and fluid.  Another was approaching with arms raised above her head, and she seemed to be the source of pitch black circles that were now dotting the landscape and air around us.

I just needed to tag Seir at the same time the danger-sense cape was distracted.  I needed to do it soon, before he had help.

Forcefields flew past me.  Narwhal.  The forcefields that didn’t hit Seir’s copies arrived between us and the Fallen capes, then stopped on the spot and rotated, forming a wall of crystal to bar their path.

I heard the impact as the big cape hit the crystals, and I saw the colors flare, brighter than they had when the bullets hit them.  The portal cape was running around to try to get around the wall, and was stymied when the wall moved with them.

I destroyed two more shadow copies.  A projectile I only barely saw destroyed another two with one shot.

We’d reduced it down to three Seirs.  I went after one before more duplicates could spring into being, hit it, and reduced it to tufts of shadow.

The big guy battered through Narwhal’s shield.  He broke into a run, long limbs stretching and heavy feet pounding against the ground, charging me.

A forcefield hurtled into him, but this forcefield had a passenger.  Narwhal rode it, and she leaped off as the big guy caught the slice of crystal.  She landed, and her hair was still settling around her when the forcefields sprung into being to her left.

I punched another two Seirs, well aware I was fighting an uphill battle.

They had formed so each forcefield was a foot apart, and the stack of forcefields overlapped with the fluid armor brute, dividing him neatly into roughly eleven slices.

But the distraction had bought Seir time to make more doubles.  With yellow eyes glowing, he evaded the moving forcefields and changed just before new forcefields could cut him in half.

Two more Fallen and one biker joined the skirmish, jumping onto the black portals, which served to send them flying into the next black portal.  Each portal was a kind of teleportation gimmick, but they littered the area and were letting the Fallen maneuver with ease.  I saw their eyes glow like Seir’s did, and their focus was mostly on me.

That focus was partially by design.  My aura still blasted everyone nearby, and that drew their attention.

Still… fuck this.

“Narwhal!?  Can I leave you!?” I called out.

“Go!”

I flew away from the scene.  I looked back, saw Vista, and saw her give me the go-ahead.

Ahrima was my target.  I knew her general location, and she was too dangerous as a force multiplier.

I heard a series of gunshots nearby, and changed direction.  The first gunshots didn’t hit me, because Vista was altering trajectories, but as I spotted the shooter, I saw them firing recklessly, putting bullets in the air at random.  By pure luck, the shooter was able to land one shot and hit the Wretch.

My change of direction made me harder to track.  I flew back and down, touched the ground, and flew toward the sound of the gunfire, trying not to move in straight lines.  I saw the cover they were hiding behind and flew around it.

Staying low to the ground, I felt the Wretch re-emerge.  Limbs and digits dug into the ground, and tore up the earth below me.  My aura roared, the dirt flew around me, and I was within the center, cold and angry.

The shooter had been peering over cover, but the sound of the Wretch carving its way through the ground drew their attention.  They turned my way just in time for me to get in their face.

I swatted my hand through the air, and the Wretch followed suit.  The difference was that my hand hit air, and the Wretch hit the shooter’s gun hand.

The gun was torn from their hand and sent flying into the dark, wet field behind the shooter, and several of their fingers were broken in the process.

I hated guns.

I changed course, flying out toward Ahrima again, rising higher as I did.  I could see the rank and file Fallen soldiers, and I could see the Fallen with powers.  There was a concentration that suggested they were defending a car.

I flew at the car, and given how my course went from the shooter I’d disarmed to the vehicle, I approached at an angle where they weren’t really expecting trouble.  It let me hit the roof of the car with the Wretch, tearing it off, and between the flying pieces of roof and the aura, Fallen were left ducking for cover.

I saw the girl who could only be Ahrima, eyes glowing yellow, her demon mask featuring an eye on the forehead.  She was roughly Kenzie’s age.

My hesitation cost me.  Fallen rallied, and soldiers opened fire.  I spun in the air and spiraled down, and not because I was delivering a heavy hitting attack from the air.  An intense pressure caught my arm, and my first thought was that a power had made a black hole open up in my bicep, with the muscle, bone, and skin being sucked into it.

I landed in the mud, the pressure mounting in my arm.  I shut off my aura, because I didn’t need to draw attention to myself when I didn’t know for sure what had happened.

My heart beat, and the beat was hard like a hammer hitting concrete, and between that beat and the next, I felt the first hint of pain and realized what had happened.

Just a normal bullet.  I retroactively strung the events together in my head.  It had been a burst of fire from something that wasn’t a hunting rifle or pistol, three shots, all at once, and Vista hadn’t been able to curve the shots away from me.  One shot had hit the Wretch, and one had hit me.

I remained where I was for a moment.  While I had the benefit of shock to dampen the pain, I needed to figure out my next step.

I was surrounded by Fallen, I needed to deal with them before Ahrima.

If I was a cop, dealing with people with weapons, it would be okay to shoot first.

These guys had weapons and worse.

My rules weren’t like Sveta’s rules.  She never wanted to hurt anyone again.  I wanted to only hurt people if I thought it through and if it was right, lawful, and if I wouldn’t regret it.

Fallen were circling the vehicle, approaching me, and I flew at them.  My aura helped to slow their reactions as I bowled into them.

The collision hurt the soldiers.  My attention was on the masks in the group.  I needed to go after the ones with powers.

I saw the first one, and I flew at them, fingers dragging against skin until I touched a strap.  I grabbed it, brought out the Wretch, and used the Wretch’s strength to toss them skyward.

Bursts of strength, letting the Wretch start to emerge, but not letting it unfold to its full breadth, reach, and intelligence.

I flew to intercept and brought out the Wretch for a moment, so their legs would hit the Wretch or hit my invincible self as they descended. If I didn’t break their legs or feet outright, I would at least make it so they couldn’t walk for a good little while.

My arm throbbed.  Each time I became aware of the pain, it was doubly worse than before.

People backed away and used the car for cover against me, and I threw myself at the car.  I pushed it along wet dirt driveway and I pushed it into the group.

Not that effective, but it did make them relinquish their cover, backing up and spreading out.  They had guns, but they didn’t fire.

Ahrima was still in the car, which still had its roof torn off.  She slumped in the driver’s seat, draped over the wheel.  Shooting at me would risk shooting her.

I hadn’t intended that, but I wasn’t about to complain, either.

As a deterrent, it only worked against one select group of people, though.  Prancer’s group opened fire on our area, and a bullet hit the hood of the car.  Mud sprayed as a bullet hit the ground near the Fallen group, and they took that as an indication to retreat toward the house.

I flew to pursue, and someone in the group used their power while the others ran.

A beam, or a column of energy, transparent.  It enveloped me, and my forward movement stopped when I was only a couple of feet from the group.  I could fly side to side, and even slip out of the column of energy, but as it centered on me again, I couldn’t fly toward the source.

That black-hole pressure in my arm made it feel like the muscles in my shoulder and forearm were being twisted up and wrenched into the wound.  I pressed a hand against the approximate location of the bullet, and blood oozed between the fingers.

I flew straight down, Wretch out, and I hit the ground with all the strength I had.  The person shooting the beam lost their footing, found it, and centered the beam on me again.

Even with the Wretch taking the impact, the vibration and the shift in position doubled the pain in my arm.  For an instant, I wished I could pass out and be relieved of it.

Other thoughts flickered through my mind, almost in the same way that idle thoughts ran through one’s mind while they drifted off to sleep.  These weren’t restful thoughts, though.  It was the people writhing on the ground, and the old conservative woman I’d rescued.  It was the graffiti in Hollow Point.

I almost collapsed into that sequence of thoughts in a confused, angry haze.  I didn’t.  As I rallied, I felt my thoughts clarify with the images.

I couldn’t approach while the beam was locked on me, and I could feel other kinds of pressure mounting, like the head-rush from doing a handstand, but concentrated in my shoulder blades, back, buttocks, calves and feet.

I did as I’d done when Amy had pursued me, after the barbecue.  I swung, and I let the Wretch hit the ground.  Dirt and mud sprayed into the air and sprayed toward the cape with the beam.

The beam kept the stuff from flying into them, but it didn’t stop the clumps and clods from arcing up and over the beam, landing on and around them.

For a moment, they were blinded and left stumbling back by the force of the mud slapping against them.

It was a Fallen woman with a mask that hid most of her eyes and left only the mouth visible.  Her costume was molded to the body, erasing lines and features in favor of more smooth rubber expanses of ‘flesh’ like the ones around the eyes.  Only a few isolated symbols and words were carved into the rubber ‘flesh’, painted to be red and angry-looking.

I grabbed her by the rubber between her breasts and lifted her up into the air.  One-armed, I heaved her around and rammed her into the car’s hood, hard enough to knock the sense out of her.

A demon loomed in my vision.  I tensed- and I saw the demon reach down to the beam demon, applying the taser.

Imp.  She was the one who had knocked out Ahrima.  She leaned back, settling into the car’s passenger seat.

Right.

“We had the same idea,” Imp said.  “Go after this one.  I was quicker, y’know.”

My arm twisted in pain.  I looked back, and I saw that Seir was dealt with, as were his reinforcements.

“Oh, you’re hurt,” she said.

I wasn’t up to talking, so I gave her a curt nod instead.

“Go get yourself looked after.  I got her.  We got her, since you saved me the trouble of having to find out who had the car keys.”

I winced, in part because of the pain, and in part because it was another thing where it felt like actually changing the course of this greater thing was hard to do.

I’d broken the Fallen ranks, at least.  I’d stalled Seir and then played a part in Ahrima being disabled.  I’d have to console myself with that.

I gave Imp another curt nod, and flew back in the direction of the others.

Capricorn had been busy, raising walls between the various fighting factions.  It was changing the flow of the fight, and for better or for worse, the Fallen were focusing on Prancer’s group because it was the easiest to hurt.

Weld had reunited with the others, and the other Undersiders, March’s group, Narwhal’s squad with Vista included, and my team were all together, hunkered down by the wall.  I landed, and I dropped to one knee when it turned out my legs had surprisingly little strength to them.

Sveta and Rain were talking to Narwhal.  Sveta glanced at me, shot me a smile, and then returned to the conversation.

I was aware that March and Parian were talking, further away from the wall and the group.

Given where I’d landed, it was really Vista and Foil who noticed and approached me.  Foil saw the blood, and dropped to my side, reaching to her belt for basic supplies.

“Thanks,” I managed.

She glanced back at Parian and March, then turned her full focus to my gunshot wound.  The wound sucked at my fingers as I pulled them away from the bloody mess.

Vista waved somebody over.  The wave got Sveta’s attention, and she   hurried to a spot behind me, where she could support me from behind and look over my shoulder.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I got reckless.”

“My fault,” Vista said.  “I couldn’t get something up in time.”

“I didn’t leave enough of a gap between me and the people with guns.  Nothing you could do,” I said.

The hero from Narwhal’s group had a first aid kit.

“That could have hit the artery,” the cape said.  “This is something we can patch up, but you’re going to need more attention later.”

I nodded.  “Thank you.”

“You’re leaving?” Rain asked, voice carrying.  I followed his line of sight and saw March collecting a bag as her coterie gathered in a group just behind her.

She answered him, “It seems I’m not welcome here.  I’m leaving these guys alone, but I’ll be around until this thing is done.  We’ll talk.”

“Okay.  We’ll talk.”

March saluted, made a sound like she was chuckling under her breath, and ducked beneath a branch as she headed further into the woods.

“Good riddance,” Foil hissed under her breath.  In a different, softer tone, she said, “It’s been a long time, Victoria.”

“It has,” I said.  I didn’t like how my voice sounded, but I couldn’t devote the focus to sounding more like a proper wounded superhero. “You doing alright these days?”

“Present mess and end of the world aside?”

I smiled when I probably shouldn’t have.

“Yeah.  Surprisingly alright,” she said.  “You?”

I turned to look at my injured arm.

“Present situation aside?” she asked.

“Others said you were invulnerable,” Bay said.

“Ran into a power dampener earlier,” I said.  I turned my head to look over my shoulder at Sveta, who had her hands on my shoulders.  “It might have played a role.”

“Probably did,” Sveta said.

I turned to Foil, looking to change the topic, “What’s the story with this March thing?”

“Long story.  We’ll talk later, but- not in polite company,” Foil said.

I nodded.  The aborted conversations were rough, when I wanted any conversation at all that could take my mind off the pain.

Capricorn, not in my immediate field of view, reported, “Threw up some walls.  Prancer’s not having a good day.”

“Stupid to attack like he did,” I said.  I watched as Rachel Lindt emerged from the deeper woods, a mutant dog behind her.

Rachel Lindt was not my favorite person, but Vista raised a hand in a wave, and Rachel returned it, her expression dour.  I could let this particular sleeping dog lie, if Rachel was willing to do the same.

“There’s more to the attack than it might seem,” Foil said.  “The Fallen are growing too fast.  Thinkers, Tattletale included, concluded they were about to connect with some other groups and lock  up a bigger alliance.  They would have been too big to take down.”

“They needed to communicate with the heroes,” I said.  My expression twisted as the hole was pulled closed as part of the stitching.  They hadn’t even taken the bullet out, as far as I could tell.  I was aware that Rachel Lindt was staring me down with abject antipathy, and it bothered me that I was showing pain in front of her.

“They couldn’t communicate with the heroes.  The Fallen apparently have allies hidden in the Wardens’ sub-teams,” Sveta said, her voice a whisper.  “By the time thinkers rooted them out, others would have made moves.  Or at least, that’s what the Undersiders are saying.”

“Yeah,” Foil said.  “This is bad, but the alternatives were worse.”

“We didn’t expect it to be this messy,” Parian added, almost apologetic.  Foil nodded.

“You did a good job letting us get Seir, Victoria,” Narwhal said.  “Thank you.”

I nodded a bit, head bent in a nod, “That was Imp, mostly.”

Weird words to say.

“Maybe in part, but there were a lot of Fallen there that were focused on you, not us,” Narwhal said.  In a tone that suggested she wasn’t going to accept any dissent, she repeated the former, “Thank you.”

I nodded my acknowledgement, because saying anything would’ve meant having to acknowledge it when it didn’t feel wholly appropriate.  It was Narwhal being a leader and getting everyone in the right frame of thinking.

“Do we want to take the opportunity to walk away from this?” Capricorn asked.

“You want to run?” Bay asked.

“No,” Capricorn retorted, annoyed.  “Retreat.  We have outside resources, ones I won’t detail, not when we were just talking about potential Fallen assets in the Wardens, and you guys are Wardens.  No offense.”

“None taken,” Narwhal said.

“We can go, hold the wider perimeter, figure out what we’re doing.”

A few people talked all at once.  I was one of them.

The talking died down.

It was Weld who spoke up, clearly enough to be heard.  “This might be our one shot.  Dealing with the Fallen means getting close enough to go after the key members.  We might not get another chance.”

“They have a lot of power synergies,” I said.  I swallowed through the pain that radiated from my arm and shoulder, the swallow caught, and I was without words until I could swallow properly and speak.  I tried to sound normal as I explained, “The chaos plays a role, because it means they can’t coordinate one hundred percent.  There’s more room to break up synergies and teamwork than there would be if we pulled back and gave them an hour to talk and sort themselves out.”

“I can tell you who the big names are, and who the key lieutenants are,” Rain said.  “I know a lot-”

“Rainnnn!”

The woman’s voice echoed through the trees, thin and haunting.

“Cover your ears!” Rain said, taking his own advice.  “Don’t look!”

Don’t look.

I covered my ears, but I heard whispers even with all sound blocked out.

Mama Mathers.  Awake.

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Shadow – Interlude 5.y

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Jonathan held the diaper-clad zombie in his arms with a ginger care.

“I understand not wanting to give it up.  This is something special,” he said.

“We might not give it up.  We’re here about the price, so we can see what our options are,” the guy said.

The couple Jonathan was talking to were fidgeting.  They were young- twenty-five or so, and the guy had tattoos up and down his arms, geometric, with Q-bert on one arm.  The woman had a cartoon character partially hidden by her sleeve.  As whimsical and bright as the tattoos were, they looked tired and worn out, and their clothes were somewhat washed out in color.

“I had friends who were into preparing for the end of the world,” Jonathan said.  “Stockpiling food, guns, and learning survival skills.  They loved the zombie movies, naturally.”

“I’m a fan too.  I never did the prep stuff though, except for having a chainsaw in our display cabinet.  I don’t know if that counts,” the guy from the couple said.

“The scary movies we watch are always tied into the fears of the times.  As things got worse and the bad guys seemed to get ground, we got more zombie movies.  The inevitable demise.”

“Absolutely,” the husband said.  “But whenever we had a movement like that, there was always a turnaround.  Things got better, didn’t they?  And when they did, so did the movies.”

“Deconstructions, reversals, parodies.”

“I liked the parodies,” the husband said.  He indicated the doll.  “Like Lenny.”

“Second date,” the wife said.

He glanced at his wife.  “Lenny there was an anniversary present.”

“He’s great.  You shouldn’t give him up if he’s that important,” Jonathan said.

“He’s important,” the guy said.  He looked at his wife again.  “But we can’t stay in the tent cities.  It’s more important that we have a proper house.  We’re selling a lot of the things we brought over.”

Jonathan saw the wife pass her hand over her stomach.

“Ah,” he breathed the sound.  “Got it.”

“It’s hard,” the guy said.  “Silly as it sounds.”

The man looked like he might cry, and it was because he was looking at selling a life-size doll of a baby with a bite mark in its middle and flesh missing from its snarling face.

“I don’t think what the prepheads were doing ended up mattering, when the end of the world came.  The guns didn’t matter much.  Different sort of end to the world, they might have, but not here.  The food helped in the early weeks, but what really ended up mattering most was having the right mindset.  When the end of the world actually came it was a pretty heavy emotional blow.”

“Yeah,” the guy said.

“The people who seemed to do best weren’t always the preppers.  It was the people who could get back up after being hit that hard, and the ones with an idea of what to do when they’d been left with nothing.  It was better to have the right skills than the right things.  Having drive.  Preparing for the end of civilization… less so.  So long as there’s more than five people around, we’re going to have something like civilization.”

“I think you’re right,” the wife said.  “I think it’s true for a lot of people who I’ve made friends with recently.  My sister wasn’t a prephead or anything, but she worried a lot about the Endbringers, and she spent all her money traveling to try to get away from where they might attack.  When everything finally fell apart, so did she.”

Jonathan nodded.

“She made it.  That’s what counts.  Hopefully- I’m hoping she figures out how to push forward, like you said.  There’s a world out there.”

“I’m not trying to give you the sales patter, because that’s really not me,” Jonathan said.  “But if you’re prepared to sell something as important as Lenny…”

He let the sentence hang a moment.

“I am,” the husband said.

“Then it’s good.  This stuff…”

He indicated his shop.  The cartoons and figurines, the board games and video games.  Some things had a secondhand look to them, because they were very much secondhand.

“…It’s not so important when we’re trying to put it all back together again.  Save it for when you’re secure, when you have everything you need.”

“That’s the plan,” the husband of the couple said.

Jonathan stroked the baby’s head.  “I could give you three hundred in trading dollars.  What do you think?”

He could see the flicker of surprise on the man’s face.

“The place we’re looking to buy an apartment in is using N.D.”

“Then it translates to four hundred new dollars,” Jonathan said.  “It’s dying currency, be careful.  The value drops every day.”

The husband fidgeted as he stared at the little life-size figure.  Jonathan couldn’t tell if he was doing it because he was about to break and try to find another way, or if he was trying to etch the figure’s details into his mind’s eye because he was about to give it up.

Jonathan bit his tongue.  He was tempted to offer more, but he couldn’t.  As it was, he’d barely make back the money selling the figure, if he made any at all.  He needed to eat and pay for the store space.

“We don’t have to,” the wife said.

“We need to,” the husband whispered.

“This isn’t a pawn shop,” Jonathan said.  “I’m looking for stock that certain people want.  I can’t hold onto things.  Be sure you want to give it up if you sell it to me.”

He saw the husband frown, fidgeting more.

“If you give it to me, and if I sell it, I’ll get the contact information from the buyer.  Somewhere down the line, if you want, you can talk to me, I can give you that information.  Maybe you can track it down and offer them enough to buy it back.  That’s the best I can do.”

“Okay,” the husband said.  He nodded.  “Yeah.  Let’s do it.  For New Dollars, please.”

Jonathan nodded.  He moved the articulated doll over to the nearest empty space on a shelf, then walked over to the register, popping it open with the painful metal-on-metal sound he hadn’t quite become used to.  He began counting out the money.

“Can you handle this, babe?” the husband asked.  “I’m going to run an errand.”

“Sure,” the wife said.

Jonathan glanced up to see the guy walk away.

Nothing was easy.

“Is it hard?  Running a store like this?  It seemed difficult to run comic or games stores on the old Earth, and things are different now.”

“It’s not the easiest,” Jonathan said.  It was an understatement; he had lost twenty pounds since starting the store, because he didn’t eat more than one meal most days, and some days he ate none. “My brother owned a store like it, in the old Earth.”

“Is he helping you?” the wife asked.

“He’s gone.  He- I guess he helped, my initial stock included some of the things I was able to get from his store.  He didn’t make it past Gold Morning.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“This place helps me feel a little closer to him.  I’m contradicting everything I told you guys, but this is what connects me to my loved ones the most.”

“I don’t think that contradicts,” she said.  She rested one hand on her stomach.  “We’re doing what we can to hold onto those things most important to us.  Civilization wins out over madness.”

“I think so,” he said.  He passed the money across the counter to her.  “Let me give you my number, in case you ever want to track it down.  And you can give me your name.”

“An anniversary present for a year or two from now, if we’re lucky,” she said.

He smiled.

“Thank you,” she said.  She looked at his nametag.  “Jonathan.”

“You’re very welcome,” he said.

She left the store, and he moved the figure from the spot he’d given it to another place.

Nothing was easy.  He hadn’t known what to say, so he’d spoken from the heart.  The things weren’t so important, it was being able to get up again.  That was what got him through the day.  He and his brother had lost their parents early on.  He’d lost his first job because a manager had shifted blame downhill, and he’d been blackballed from the local industry.  Forced to choose between moving elsewhere to find work and staying close to his remaining family, he’d chosen the latter.

Now he had neither.  He pressed on.

He helped some more customers, until a torrent of stern words from across the shopping center’s concourse turned his head.

A red haired woman, berating her daughter.

It made him uncomfortable.  It was a move away from the civilization and society he hoped things were trending toward.

He retreated further into his shop.

The Fallen kid screamed as he smashed his chair against the invisible barrier.  Over the course of four impacts, he smashed it to pieces.

He’d just relived the nightmare.  Everything, from his point of view, playing over again, with scattered context from elsewhere.  He’d seen fleeting glimpses of his brother, he’d seen the store, and he had heard the explosions.

Then his world had turned upside-down and emptied out.  No store, no money, no peace and healing.

He’d gotten out of the hospital and he’d made his way straight to the shopping center, using his new power to get past the tape and barricade.  Everything was gone, from the zombie doll to the boxes of cards and the crate of comics he’d liberated from his brother’s store.  There had been a comic in there that might have let him make an emergency payment on the store for a month, and now it was gone.

Then he had keeled over early into a sleepless night, and he had relived that night.  Now he was here again.

The boy with the glasses sat with his face in his hands, glasses pushed up.

The woman had had a breakdown the first night and now she looked like she was going to crawl out of her own skin, fingers in her mouth, teeth biting down on flesh.

And the Fallen kid -the fucking kid with the demon mask- went from railing uselessly against the walls of his cage to taunting Jonathan and the others.

He kicked the dais in the center of the room.

“Stop,” Jonathan said.

The kid backed up, got a running start, and kicked the dais again, hard enough he should have broken his foot.

“Stop.  You’re not going to do anything.”

Grabbing the edge of the dais, the kid tried to shake it loose.

“Stop!” Jonathan raised his voice.

“He isn’t going to listen.  He’s a moron,” the boy with the glasses said, without raising his face from his hands.  “He wouldn’t wear that mask if he wasn’t.”

“Fuck off,” the Fallen boy said.  “You don’t know anything about us.”

“You assholes set a mall on fire and trapped us inside!  You were there at the door!” the boy with the glasses shouted.  “Fucking idiots, what were you even trying to do?”

“You call us idiots, but we were right.  We said the world would end, and it did.  Now you’re all getting complacent again.  You still don’t listen to us, so we make you listen.”

“People died,” Jonathan said.

“Their fault, from what I saw,” the Fallen boy said.  He sounded sullen.  “Through your eyes.”

The woman pulled her fingers from her mouth, and she screamed.  She slammed one hand against the invisible barrier, and she dragged her fingernails down the surface until Jonathan thought that one would be pried off.  She found her breath and screamed again.

“Shut up!  Fuck off!” the Fallen boy shouted.

She’d broken.  That she’d broken to the degree she had scared Jonathan, because he wasn’t sure how intact he was.

He might lose it entirely if every night was like this.  This was only the second.

They’d all seen into his head, through his eyes.  Was it random?  One random person every night?  An assortment of the things dropping out of the darkness above, distributed by chance?

He looked at the dark fifth of the room.

“You seem to be doing better than any of us.  Except maybe that asshole over there,” the boy with the glasses said.

The idea surprised Jonathan.

“I’m not doing okay,” he said.  “I feel-”

His voice distorted on that last word, rougher, painful to make the word ‘feel’.

“You feel what?”

“I feel,” Jonathan said, in that painfully rough voice, “Hollowed out.  Numb.  Angry.  Lost.”

“Yeah.  Me too.”

“My voice-” he said.

“It changed just now.”

“It changed on the day.  Smoke inhalation.  I’m not wondering why it’s different.  Why was it normal?”

The woman crumpled to the ground, hands up above her head, pressed to the wall, her head hanging.  The Fallen boy with his crude demon mask stood above her, looking down.  He didn’t say or do anything.

“Maybe it’s catching up,” the boy with the glasses said.  “Why are we wearing the clothes we’re wearing?  Why is he wearing that mask?”

Jonathan remained silent.

Nothing had fallen from the sky.  He looked skyward, and saw only the darkness, the ceiling could have been twenty feet above them or it could have been a thousand feet above them, and he wouldn’t have known.

He walked over to the dais, past barren shelves that echoed his shop with no usable stock.  He cast aside the debris and let it disintegrate.

He found the shards of glass, and thought of the skylight.  Past the smoke, the light of the sun had been so bright on that day.  This place was so dark.

He had extra shards today.  He held them up for the boy with the glasses to see.

“Why glass?” the boy with the glasses asked.

The answer was the same as it was for the other things.  It explained the shelves.

It was him.  It was Jonathan’s, intrinsically.

His mover power let him treat any direction as down, with some nuance when it came to propelling himself forward.  He used it to ‘fall’ up to the top of a Fallen home.  His combat boots had enough gravel on them to crunch against the overlapping wooden slats.

Love Lost was with Nailbiter and Beast of Burden.  That let Snag operate between Prancer and the Undersiders.  It was an awkward place to be, because both groups had a way of dancing around things, identifying their own things to do, but those things weren’t in alignment and their way of doing things once they identified a task was different.  Prancer tended to apply pressure, if he committed at all, and the Undersiders tended to surgically strike.

Prancer wasn’t far, and the pressure he was applying seemed to be focused on pushing the Fallen out of cover and into the areas where there wasn’t much cover.  The area was the point where the settlement of buildings with each building next to the last was thinning out, and it became field and ditch, pond and forest, dotted with large farmhouses.  The Fallen in the farmhouses had guns, and periodically opened fire, which made it hard for Prancer’s offensive.  More Fallen kept showing up.

Snag wanted to go and help, but Cradle was already there, Love Lost was somewhere nearby, prowling for stragglers, and the Undersiders were dragging their heels, talking and checking those who had been killed or injured, periodically kicking in doors and checking inside.

Biter, Bitch, Foil, Parian, and Imp were all gathered together.

Snag looked down and watched.  Two black stuffed animals, each twelve feet tall, were at the group’s back, as they walked down the street, checking doors.  The dogs were at the forefront of the group, sniffing.

As they drew nearer, he growled, “Is this what we’re paying you for?  The fighting is that way.”

“Blame her,” Imp said, indicating Bitch.  Bitch pushed her.

“Protecting our asses,” Bitch said.  “Some might be in the building, and if we don’t check it’s clear, they’ll attack us from behind, whichever group we go after.”

“Whichever group?”  Snag asked.  He stepped off of the roof and let his arms catch his weight before setting his feet down.

She pointed back the way they’d come.  “South and east.  That way and that way.  Doon thinks there’s lots of scared people that way.  And lots more that way, of course.  North.  That’s the bulk of the fighting.”

Toward Prancer’s group, with the fighting.

“If they’re civilians and they’re staying out of the way, we can decide what to do with them later.  We leave them alone for now.”

“I hope we leave them alone for good,” Foil said.

“They’re Fallen,” Snag said.  “Civilian doesn’t mean innocent.”

“You know our terms for helping,” Foil said.

“I do,” he said.  And I know Tattletale’s are different.  “Don’t dawdle.”

“Not dawdling,” Bitch said, her own voice becoming a growl.

“Snag, man,” Biter said.  “Not worth it.  I’m biased, but these guys have some practice.  Let them do their thing.”

Bitch spoke as if Biter hadn’t said anything.  “I’m covering our rear.  Against this many dangers, we can’t get surrounded and we can’t get caught off guard.  Doon, nose.”

The mutant dog pressed its nose to the dirt.  It sniffed, and it huffed out a breath.  The other dog raised its head and brought one leg up, the joint pointing forward.

“Good girl.  Show me,” Bitch said.

Snag raised one arm as the Undersiders went ahead, and slapped a large mechanical hand against the forearm.  Gripping the arm, he rotated it until words lit up along the length.

“Love Lost.  Cradle.  I’m at point B.  Points A, C, and O, roughly, have fighting, with H being the focus.  A and O might be civilian clusters.  Clearing B at Undersider suggestion, will move to H.”

“Cradle here,” Cradle’s voice was distorted by the makeshift transmitter.    Snag raised a hand to get a better reception.  Cradle’s voice came through clearer.  “No sign of him.  Fighting’s bad.  Prancer won’t commit with this much gunfire.”

“They have to run out sometime,” Snag said.  There was a series of two beeps, and he rotated his arm until a display came up.  The map, with points marked out.

Love Lost had made her reply.  She’d found Fallen, further south.

Off to the northeast, there was commotion, but it was too far away for Snag to intervene or act.  People fleeing into the trees.

And the Undersiders- he snorted in impatience.

He let himself fall forward, periodically touching ground for the reassurance of it or pushing off of the ground with a hand.  As heavy as he was in general, in the outfit he wore, the boots, and the arms that weighed a hundred and ten pounds each, he could feel the ease and flow of movement, the wind rushing through beard and long hair.  Power was at his fingertips both through the mechanical arms and the power that let him punch through inorganic things.

His version of the Fallen kid’s power.

He caught up with the Undersiders.

“Drag marks,” Bitch said, pointing at the dirt road.

Her head turned as she looked at a nearby house.

“Coast is… not clear but not unclear.  Irredeemably weird,” Imp said.  Snag startled a little at the suddenness of the voice from his peripheral vision.

“Weird?”

“I asked Tattletale and she said it was one of the same people as yesterday.”

Snag frowned.

Foil held her rapier, with knives in her other hand, one knife poking up between each pair of fingers.  She took the lead.  Bitch followed.

Only Biter and Parian remained.  Biter didn’t go in, and Parian remained behind with the stuffed animals and dogs.  Snag pushed the door open and followed the others up the stairs.

He could hear a whispering and a rustling.  As he reached the top of the stairs, he could see past Bitch and Foil to the large cluster of black feathers, illuminated by light from the windows.  Four spindly black bird’s legs gripped nearby walls and floorboards.

It spoke, but in a voice so quiet he couldn’t make out the words.

“Sssh,” the bird thing made a sound, and the words that followed were like breath through rustling leaves.

“Hey,” Foil said.  “Creepy.  I need you to back off and leave them alone.”

Them?

The bird-thing twisted around, until it peered at them with one large eye, the pupil misshapen, like the impression of a skull pressed into ink or mud.  As the pupil dilated, the shape filled out to look more like a face.

Beneath it, Nursery, Magnate and a Fallen were lying in a heap.

The bird-thing moved slowly, looking around the room.  There was a window to one side.

Snag pressed two fingers against the center of his gauntlet’s palm.  He felt the vibrations as the inner cylinder rotated through his options.  He settled on the shuriken.  Scraping one finger against the palm, he set the loadout.  Paralyzing despair.  The arm throbbed silently to provide tactile feedback as it loaded the charge from the battery into the loadout of shuriken.

The bird-thing twisted around more, curling up until it was condensed, instead of the broader form that had let it envelop three individuals.  Snag could see two smaller bird-limbs pull tight against its body as it withdrew that section into the center.  He could see clothes, and he could see hints of other things near that central core.

“Step away from them,” Foil said.  “Trust me, you do not want to get on the wrong side of this rapier.”

The bird-thing dragged itself closer to the window.

“That’s fine,” Foil said.  “Who are you and who are you with?”

“Tats said it’s the same thing as the screaming skull thing they described from yesterday,” Imp said.

Snag tried not to startle at Imp’s sudden appearance, but the bird-thing did.  It jumped, lunging for the window, and Snag fired the burst of shuriken between it and the window.

They exploded into a crackle of energy, intense enough that he could feel a trace of the effect himself.

The bird-thing didn’t seem to care.  It shoved itself out through the window, past window-frame and glass.  It landed outside, as the group rushed to the window.

Snag could have jumped out, but broken windows were dangerous.  He was reminded of the shopping center, of the corridor, with the skylight above, and the window he’d wanted the girl to crawl through.

It wasn’t like the movies.  Even with his outfit, it was dangerous, and it looked like that thing was pretty fast.

What was it doing here?  Did its presence mean the others were here too?

A growl escaped his lips as he turned toward Nursery.  Foil was already checking her and the other two.

“Alive.  Burned.  I don’t think that kid did it,” Foil said.

“Kid?” Snag asked.

“Tats said it’s a kid,” Imp said.

“Based on what?”

“Based on Tattletale,” Bitch said.  “We should hurry, clear the rest of the area.  Do you want to bring them?”

“These two are allies,” Snag pointed.  “He isn’t.”

“I’ll restrain him,” Foil said.  “Can you grab them, carefully?”

Snag picked up Nursery, easing her around until she was over his shoulder.  He headed to the stairs.

He felt nothing.  No compassion.  Nothing of the him he’d once been, that had cared for his brother.  In a way, it was easier.  Even on his worst, most frustrating days, it was easier to put the feelings away.  Dealing with people seemed easier when he could choose if he cared about them, and he only needed to care about a few.

In another way, he hated it.  He hated what it represented.  That he had once had a tie to his brother, and he’d lost that family connection when, as he communicated with his brother on the phone over hours, the line had suddenly gone dead.  It had been by word of mouth, days later, that he’d heard New York had been hit.  Struck by a sweep of golden light.

He’d tried to forge something in the shop, and the shop had gone up in flames.

And the ashes, the memories, they had been stomped on, repeatedly, night after night, mixed with the memories of others, drowned out by a select set of events that were replayed ad nauseum.

He switched to communication.  “Love Lost.  Cradle.  The heroes that have been plaguing Hollow Point might be here.  Be aware.”

He adjusted his grip on Nursery.

“Hey Foil,” Imp said.  “Parian.  You’re going to love this tidbit of news from our operations leader.”

“Oh no,” Foil said.  “Me specifically?”

“You have three guesses.”

“Old teammates of mine.”

“Okay, yes.  Vista and Weld showed up.  But that’s not it.  This is a lot more fun than that.”

Imp sounded more sarcastic than her usual as she said it.

“March.”

“Geez.  You had three tries to get one right, and you got two right in two tries.  What’s the fun in that?”

“Oh no,” Foil said.

“You know March?” Snag asked.

“Did you invite her?”

“No,” he said.

“Yeah.  I know her,” Foil said.  “She’s been after me since… forever ago.  She turned up in Brockton Bay twice, after the portal, before the end of the world.  She kidnapped Parian once.”

“She wanted to recruit me, months ago.”

“She collects multi-triggers,” Parian said.

Cradle, Love Lost, and himself, then?

Snag frowned.  “Let’s go.”

Snag was silent as he stared out at the other group.

Everything had gone still and quiet as the small band of heroes, March, and March’s coterie approached from the settlement.  The Undersiders were circling around to talk to the heroes that had cut off the Fallen’s retreat, Foil’s old teammates included, and the battle lines held.

March saw him, then saluted.

He didn’t return the gesture.  His focus wasn’t on her.

Every night, he dreamed.  Every night, he saw the others.  He heard them, and he talked to them, saw their reactions.

Kiss and Kill.  He could understand it, even if the dreams were unique to his own particular group.  He knew these people as well as he might know any person he’d been married to for a year.  He spent hours every night locked in a room with them, separated by invisible dividers.

What started as a seed of an idea became something more when his eye fell on the one with the hood, draping sleeves, and the faux-machine mask.

The way he walked and held himself- the fact that his presence could explain both the presence of March and the inexplicable intervention of the heroes…

“It’s him,” he growled.

“What?” Cradle asked.  He sat on a mechanical hand, one leg dangling.

“With the hood, near March.  It’s him.

Cradle had goggles as part of the suit that networked with his robot.  He adjusted one.

“Be subtle,” Snag murmured.

The Fallen were surrendering, now that their leader had been caught.  They seemed pretty reluctant to do it.  The various groups Snag had hired were talking among themselves, or figuring out what role they needed to play in this cleanup stage of things.  Nursery ventured into the no-man’s land, drawing closer to Cradle and him, because she didn’t have a role to play in this.  She had a bandage around her burns at her arm and leg.

“Some privacy?” Cradle asked, looking down at her.

“Hmm.  Okay.”

“She can stay,” Snag said.

“If you say so,” Cradle said.

“What are you two murmuring about?” Nursery asked.

“We found the one who killed Love Lost’s child,” Snag said.

Nursery fell quiet.

“We would like some time alone with him.  Which we can’t do, because this is wrapping up too neatly.”

“It’s not okay,” Nursery said.  “I’ll help if I can.”

“Thank you,” Snag said.

“Don’t be an asshole like you were at the community center,” she said.  “You have more potential than that.”

She sounded like she was his elder, talking down to him, when she was a fair amount younger.  She peered at him through the slash in the cloth mask that encased her head, cinched tight around her neck by the cord she’d wound there.  There was blood on the cloth.

“You’re right.  This is wrapping up too neatly,” Cradle observed.  “It’s eerie.”

Snag pulled his attention away from Nursery and the likely Fallen boy and the heroes he’d inserted himself in.

He made eye contact with Secondhand, and Secondhand looked alarmed.  A moment later, the man disappeared.

“Careful!” Cradle said, with alarm.

At the center of things, where the Fallen had been using a farmhouse and the surrounding environs for cover, several of the heroes had disappeared.

End of Days.

Narwhal was slowed.  That would be Final Hour.  He could slow one target at a time.  Snag had helped him work on the frame that helped him apply a variety effects to those slowed.

And Last Minute-

Snag lunged, using his power.  He found a grip on one of Cradle’s limbs, and used it to reorient himself, trying to spot his target.

Last Minute was short with a combination of muscle and fat that created a frame that made Snag think of the games store and time with his brother and his brother’s hobbies.  He was like a conventional fantasy dwarf, minus the beard.  The man had an arsenal of gadgets at his belt, and he’d already drawn some.

Snag couldn’t get to him in time.  He focused on getting to cover.

Last Minute wielded a shuriken design he’d learned from Snag, in exchange for a collection of data on lesser gadgets.  That exchange had included Last Minute helping Snag with the loadout chamber in his right arm.

That weapon design, he knew what it did.

“Take cover!” he bellowed.

Last Minute threw.  The shuriken exploded, with a slight temporal effect applied to all within the area.  But he used his power in conjunction with it, and the explosions repeated, layering effects.

Snag jumped.  Last Minute used a grappling hook to pull himself away.

Betrayal.

“Why!?” Snag roared.

“Someone’s gotta represent the fourth,” Secondhand’s voice could be heard from the crowd.  Everything was dissolving into chaos.

The fourth.

The fourth Endbringer.  Khonsu.  A time manipulator and teleporter.

They were Fallen?  Had they been all along?

Snag roared, giving chase to Last Minute.  He had a mover power and his arms.  He knew Last Minute had a bag of tricks.

A grenade here- Snag used his power to change direction in mid-air.  The grenade exploded, and the people near the epicenter were thrown away in fast-motion, their falls as they landed outside the bubble slower but harder for the lack of equilibrium.  Each one moved as it exploded, then exploded again.

There were others, some decoys, some traps, others laying groundwork or sowing chaos, so the crowd of allies were a detriment to Snag.  Holograms appeared, repeated, forming clusters of two, three, four.

He saw the boomerangs and shielded himself with his arms pressed together.

He kept them there, as matching boomerangs time-looped to strike his arms over and over.

“Focus!” Cradle shouted.  A mechanical hand pointed.  Secondhand was already across the battlefield, unloading his charge.  “Switch with me!”

He’d leave the Speedrunner traitors to Cradle.

He had someone else to go after.  The boy had been sent flying by Secondhand’s trickery.  The blast would have hit him hard.  He’d be reeling.

Snag used his power to hurl himself back, nearly colliding with Nursery.

The fight was turning the wrong way, now.  There was more gunfire, more chaos that served the Fallen’s ends.

Snag let himself fall straight up, zooming up and away from the battlefield.  Rain pattered lightly against the side of his neck and his ear.  The exaggerated tactile responses of his gloves fed him details on each raindrop, more clear and real than his own body’s senses.

The anger was crystal clear, and everything else was muted and cold.  A part of him had died in that shopping center, as a little girl slipped from his grasp, a doll he shouldn’t have bought from a couple for the amount he did burned, and everything stopped making sense.

It hadn’t been a quick death, but the killing blow had been struck, and he’d gone hollow in the ensuing months.

In the gloom, the Fallen shithole and the battlefield were small below, lit by tiny points of light.

He controlled his descent, falling, but not at a velocity that would hurt him, not if his arms took the landing.

Which wasn’t to say Snag intended to land gently.

He dropped out of the sky, and he struck the ground with an overhead swing of both fists.  He narrowly missed making contact, as the boy threw himself back.  He thrust a fist forward, and the boy ceased moving back in mid-air, then resumed moving, to the side, instead.  The punch grazed him.

The boy created curved silver blades in his hands, and swung.  Snag pulled back before they could reach.

“It’s really you,” Snag said.

“Offer stands,” the boy said.  “Help.  Look at them.  We can’t let the Fallen win.”

“I don’t intend to,” Snag growled.  He took a step forward, and the boy threw one of the silver blades.  It crossed Snag’s mechanical forearm.

His first thought was that it was like March’s power, drawing lines that then exploded at the endpoint.  There was no fuse, no sign of anything more to it.

He pointed his other hand at the boy, and fired an emotion grenade.

The explosion sent the boy sprawling, and forced Snag to put the hand with the line in it behind him, to steady himself.  He felt the tactile response, the metal scraping metal.  There was a line carved out of the arm, deep enough he could feel the air rushing in to graze the back of his hand, where it gripped a handle at the arm’s elbow.

A time-delayed slash?

“We’re resistant to each other’s emotion powers,” the boy said, as he climbed to his feet with a groan.

Snag stood straighter, raising one arm to point it at the boy.  He used his damaged arm to spin the forearm, the loadout within switching through the weapons he’d packed into the arm.

The boy tried to sprint to one side.  Snag aimed and fired a spray of needles, only to see the boy arrest his movement mid-step, then immediately reverse direction.  He created more blades and threw them.

Snag used his own power to dash to one side.  He could see movement in his peripheral vision.  March’s group.

He switched weapons, charging up a rocket with the battery, and fired it so it would land between himself and the woman with the rabbit mask.  The rocket soared high, and as he turned toward the boy, Snag chopped his hand down.  The rocket followed the motion, turning in the air and spiking into the ground before detonating on impact.

Purple smoke filled the air around the impact site.

It would buy him time.

The boy had shitty versions of their powers.  He hadn’t shown his hand with the tinker power, or with the emotion one.

Snag aimed, and he fired the last of the shuriken, no emotion loaded into them.  Wide-area spray.  They grazed the boy, even with the change of direction.

He anticipated the silver blades and avoided them with a use of his power.

He paused to catch his breath, watching his opponent, double checking that nobody was about to attack him from the flanks.  There was an odd chance he’d be caught by a stray bullet, but it wasn’t worth walking away from this for that.  Everyone was embroiled in the conflict.

He was clear.  He could make this just about him and the boy.

“For all your big words, you’re weak,” Snag said.

“The only words I’ve spoken in the last six months have been pleas for mercy and cooperation,” the boy said.  “Innocents- the innocents fighting back there, they don’t deserve that.”

Innocents.

Snag turned to look.

He switched loadouts, then aimed a hand back at the crowd.

“No!”

The boy charged him.  He turned to fire at the boy instead, and felt the silver blade intersect his arm again.

He grabbed the boy around the head with his arm, felt two hands grip his arm, and with a wrench, tore the arm clean off.

He used his own power to keep from falling, while the boy did hit the grass.  Shucking off most of the metal below the elbow, he reached down with both hands.

Two ordinary hands gripped the mechanical arm, one silver blade flaring, then dying as it made contact.  Snag felt the divide in the metal, though integrity mostly held.

His ordinary hand, reaching for the boy’s throat, was gripped by two smaller metal ones, narrow and spindly.

“Give up,” he growled.

“I can’t,” the boy grunted, straining.  “I have things I need to do.”

The spindly metal arms creaked and popped as the metal broke under the downward pressure.  Cracks ran down the housing, and Snag was very aware of the flaws in the design.

“I’m going to put the Fallen shit- unh.  Behind me.  I’m going to build something.  If you’d just… Let me!”

Building something.

There was a part of Snag that was horrified by the contrast, the inversion of it all.  That part of him disappeared into the noise, the screaming and the shouting, the conversations and the straining to hear the whispers.  Everything from the room that seemed like it would drive him mad and drive him further from the peace he’d once found, that never felt like it had truly stopped.

He felt numb, and above all else, he felt so very tired.

He wanted to end the Fallen boy in the same way his old self had wanted to put his head down to a pillow after a long, tiring day.

It would be so easy, and… he’d be out like a light.

Metal creaked and popped.

The metal shattered, and Snag’s hand reached the boy’s throat.  He felt the pain in his forearm.

Two blades had punctured his arm, in through the wrist and out the back.  His weight coming down made them move, turning the two wounds into one wider one.

He pulled back, and blood flowed from the hole.  He tried to staunch it, but his oversized mechanical arm wasn’t designed to reach to something that close to him.

With his hand numb, fingers refusing to work as they should, he tried to undo the catches that attached his oversized arm in place.  He dug one finger into the gap, and when he pried, it came free, the fingernail breaking, a trail left on the surface of his arm.

Help.  He’d get help.  He turned-

He felt the impact of the silver blade.  A line marked his body.

Two more lines appeared, as the boy struck him.

“Either let me help… or get no help at all,” the boy said.

Snag twisted around.

“Don’t move too fast.”

Rainwater was pattering down around them.  Snag’s hair and beard were wet.

“Let me help.  I have the things.”

Snag didn’t move.  Water joined blood and trailed down his arm to fingertips, then joined mud.

The first of the lines faded.

“You could let me go,” Snag said.  “If you had any mercy in you at all.”

“If I let you go, you’ll come after me again.”

“Yes,” Snag said.

He felt the faint tingle of the lines start to fade.  The boy hit him again.  Two more.  One at the neck.

“No,” the boy said.

Snag took a step forward.  With his second step, he brought his one intact arm up, and drove it down in a heavy punch.  The boy let himself be hit, only bringing his arms up to shield himself.

The impact, dampened as it was, vibrated through Snag’s body.  He felt the line at his neck rupture.  The blood from his head and neck flowed down and out through the open wound, which extended from shoulderblade to clavicle.  With the blood, he felt his thoughts struggle, and he dropped to the ground.

He was back in the room.

No dream to precede it.  No others.

There was a surrender in the moment, as he stood there, and realized why he was there.

Frustration peaked, and then dissipated.

Anger flowed freely, then found it had nowhere to go and nowhere to settle.

He was alone in the room, and for once, there was none of the chaos.  None of the jostling or noise, no babble, no overflowing emotion.

He felt like himself again.

No anger, no numbness.  He missed his brother, his store.  Was it that the connection had been severed, or that this mad quest had ended?  His time as a cape was over.  There was no going back.

Light and shadow distorted, becoming vague impressions of people that clarified into the people themselves.  The Fallen boy was in his room now, bending down to pick up his chair.  The boy looked in Jonathan’s direction.

“You really did it,” Cradle said.

Love Lost appeared at nearly the same time.  She approached the dais with a quick stride.  She met Jonathan’s eyes, looked down.

Jonathan touched the wounds of his arm, his wet beard.  There was no pain as he touched the wound at his neck.

The light in Jonathan’s fifth of the room dimmed, then returned to its normal strength.

“I don’t get it,” the Fallen boy said.  “I don’t see why you’d die just to hurt me.”

“I hope that by the time she and I get to you, you will get it,” Cradle said.

“Cradle,” Jonathan said.  “The way we’re going about this-”

The lights dimmed as he spoke.

“I can barely hear you, Snag,” Cradle said.

“It’s not worth it,” Jonathan finished.  He looked at Love Lost as the lights dimmed, strengthened, then dimmed more.  “It’s not worth it.”

“We can’t hear you, Snag,” Cradle said.

The Fallen boy looked at Snag, then looked down.  There was blood on his hands and clothing.

Interesting, the things they brought and didn’t bring into this space.  Love Lost had her mask and outfit, but not the claws.  Cradle was always mundane, always with the scratched glasses.

Objects dropped from above.

Three pieces of glass, striking the pointed peak of crystal at the center of the dais, bouncing off unpredictably.

Two landed in the Fallen boy’s space.  One landed in Cradle’s.  Love Lost ignored them, didn’t even glance at them.  She stared across the dais at him, trying to see him in the growing darkness.

She reached up to her mask, and she undid it, pulling the clasp free.

She spoke, her voice disused and broken by a throat raw from screaming, “Rest, Jonathan.”

He opened his mouth to reply, but he knew it would be useless.

“We’ll get your revenge,” she said.

“No,” Jonathan said.  “It makes us into monsters.”

“No,” the Fallen boy said, echoing him.  “This… it isn’t worth it.”

She did up the clasp, glaring at the Fallen boy.

“I hope I’m not going to wake up to find my throat slit,” Cradle said.

The lights and shadows distorted.  The three others left the room.

Snag felt cold fear seize him.  He approached the dais, and found his space empty, devoid of litter, of glass, of anything else.

He bent down, searching the space below the dais.  He’d discarded things last night.  Was there anything?  As he got closer to the dais, he felt both sides of the invisible wall converging.

The other three areas were growing dim, going dark as the barrier faded.

The lights went off, the barrier went down, and he gained something of an understanding of what, not who, was in the fifth space, that had been between his and the Fallen boy’s.

With that knowledge, he slipped into dreams of a different sort, knowing that even if they paused or were broken up by visits to the room, there would never be an end to them.

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Shadow – Interlude 5.x

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“Deaths.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You’re acting on feeling, not fact.  If we do as you suggest, people will die,” Jeanne Wynn said.  She stood from her seat and used one hand to slide a laptop across the long table, until it was in front of Mr. John Druck.  She fixed the angle of the laptop, then stood back.  “These are the travel times for the supply trucks, these-”

She leaned over and struck a key.

“Are the production rates for the farms and the expected yield.  When we asked, the agriculture groups were conservative.  We asked others and did an independent estimate.  Our numbers are less conservative, but we’re still cutting it close.  We don’t have enough to feed people, and we don’t have enough to shelter people.”

“The workers need protections,” Sierra Kiley said.

“We do,” Mr. Druck said.  He leaned back in his seat.

“Absolutely,” Jeanne said.  “Speaking for Mortari, we’re not against labor law.  We have some notes on future proposals for you to take home, which you should like.”

“Should I?  Will I love it?” Mr. Druck asked.

“Not love.  But you’ll like it fine.  Everything cascades, Mr. Druck.  One thing leads to another.  We like a lot of the things that fit into the labor protection and we need to be mindful of some of those cascading factors.  Shorter working hours improves health, and health is something that is going to rear its head before we’re done dealing with war and winter.”

“The specter of war, not the reality.  Don’t try to scare us, Mrs. Wynn,” Sierra Kiley said.

“It’s a reality,” Jeanne said.  “But it’s not what I want to focus on right now.  Refugees reaching us from Bet are coming with some severe health issues.  The worker surveys you were complaining about last week are giving us information today.  People are reporting severe fatigue.  It looks like your workers are sick, Mr. Druck.  They need to account for that, because it’s not going to get better, they haven’t been getting paid while they’re striking, and the weather is getting colder.”

“Of course your surveys are giving you convenient points of data,” Sierra Kiley said.

“What kind of sick are you talking about?” Mr. Druck asked.

Jeanne reached down to the keyboard and moved the cursor before striking a key.

Mr. Druck stared at the screen.

“Show me?” Sierra asked.

Mr. Druck slid the laptop closer to her.

“Is it the power plants?” Mr. Druck asked.

“No,” Jeanne said.  “Believe it or not, most nuclear power plants are remarkably safe.  Capes and countermeasures were ready to handle most of them the moment we knew what was going on with Gold Morning.  There is a radiation problem in Bet and it’s not from that.”

“Because of him?” Buckner asked.  The man was prematurely graying, but attractive.  He was also the man in charge of most of the news media, new small screen endeavors and new movie projects.  In the next year, his work would start to see fruit.

He’d asked about ‘him’.  Scion.

“We thought it was industrial contaminants, but it may be deeper than that.  Some of it might be how Scion decided to use his power.  More of it is the sheer damage he did to the planet itself.  There’s a degree of it that’s impossible to know for certain, that has to do with the Class-S phenomena.  Portals to other worlds, tinker tech left to molder.  It’s not only the radiation either.  Methane levels are rising, food stockpiles on that side are dwindling fast, and the people there are getting sick for a variety of reasons.  We’re facing some immediate sacrifices if we want to keep the remaining people in Bet alive,” Jeanne said.

“I’m always leery of those who say others need to make sacrifices,” Mr. Nieves said.

Jeanne raised an eyebrow.  Gary Nieves was a little on the portly side, and if he wasn’t at least forty, he certainly looked it.  Otherwise, the man looked after himself and portrayed a good face to his constituency.  Of the five people contending for mayorship over the city, where roughly half of the North American survivors of Gold Morning were staying, he polled in fourth place.

Still, of the five people in the running, he was one of the three who were present and discussing things.  In a sense, really.  He was slow to provide workable solutions and quick to criticize.  In another era, he might have been a politician who rose up by being an effective critic of the incumbent.  In this era, there was no incumbent.

“We’re all going to need to make sacrifices,” Jeanne said.  “You can see our proposals online.  The reception is strong.  I can give each of you the first look at what we’re looking at doing, so we can all be on the same page.  Anyone can visit our website and see the roadmap we laid out.  This, what we’re talking about today, with labor law.  It will improve employee health by one stage of separation.  General happiness, satisfaction, keeping the peace, lower crime, all are minor factors or two steps or more removed.”

“That doesn’t mean they’re insignificant,” Mr. Druck said.

“Not insignificant.  I would say…”

“Relatively less significant,” Jeanne’s assistant and husband Kurt said.  He had his own laptop in front of him, and his eyes didn’t leave the screen, peering past thick-framed glasses that faintly reflected the image on the glowing screen.  The sky beyond the window was dark, even with it being the middle of the afternoon, and the lights in the meeting room were off.

“Thank you dear,” Jeanne said.

Mr. Druck’s expression twisted.  With Jeanne standing beside him, he had to push his chair back to take her in in full.  He growled out the words, “Relatively less?”

“Compared to projected deaths in the millions,” Jeanne said, gently.  “You can push us on this, but I think you’ll find that when the bodies start stacking up and people start finding out that their loved ones still on Bet are suffering or coming back with cancer, people will start asking why we weren’t more ready.  You won’t have people on your side if it comes to that.”

“You’re going to suggest they ask, aren’t you?” Sierra Kiley asked.

“No.  But I don’t know what Mr. Buckner will do,” she lied.  She glanced at the media mogul.

“The news would report the truth, of course,” Mr. Buckner said.

“Of course,” Sierra said.

Jeanne moved her laptop, sliding it to her end of the table.  Kurt handed her four ring-bound booklets without her asking.

She paused, laying one hand flat against the booklet on top of the short stack.

“Our proposal,” she said, returning her focus to the room.  She distributed the booklets to Mr. Nieves, Mr. Buckner, Ms. Kiley, and Mr. Druck.  “Read it.  It’s our suggestion for worker protections and remediation, to go into effect in April of next year.  If there’s an aspect of it you don’t like-”

April?” Mr. Druck interrupted.

“-You may want to see our website.  You can add and subtract factors and adjust the numbers, and it will note the effects, based on peer reviewed study and the input of some great minds.  You don’t have to agree with the numbers, but they may help you predict our responses.”

April,” Mr. Druck said, with more emphasis.  “They’re not going to stand for this.”

“You riled them up, Mr. Druck, or you allowed them to be riled up,” Jeanne said.  “This is in their best interests.  Have them return to work.  If they work themselves to the bone, lives will be saved, and they could be heralded as heroes in their own right.”

“A tainted word, hero,” Mr. Nieves said.

“People aren’t machines, Jeanne,” Sierra Kiley said.  “They’re not numbers on a spreadsheet.  They won’t want to go back to work without any incentives.”

“I’m trying to save as many people as I can.  If people are reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet here, it’s because we have to work on that scale, we’re doing it in the best ways we can, for their benefit.”

“People are irrational,” Sierra said.  “Brockton Bay and New Brockton are platinum standards when it comes to rebuilding after a disaster.  Trust me when I say that people don’t act in their own best interests.  Especially when it comes to making sacrifices.”

“The only way we save those millions –tens of millions- is if we bring them from Earth Bet to here and give them the care they need.  We have to let the remaining refugees in before winter takes hold and before war necessitates barring passage.  It means throwing paperwork out the window and focusing on transporting them in, and it’s going to be hell.  It’s also going to need people to help it happen.”

“Mr. Druck’s people,” Sierra said.

“And yours.  New Brockton is important in this.  Talk to your workers.  If the ones who were in Bet too long start working now and get sick, they’ll be protected financially.  It’s in the proposal.  That’s your incentive.”

Ms. Kiley and Mr. Druck leaned together, whispering.

Jeanne took a seat next to Kurt, situating her laptop back in front of herself.  She checked her messages.  The attack on the Fallen was underway.  There were already deaths, and it would get worse before it got better.

No other news.  It was the other news that concerned her most.  Others were playing a different game, and their perspectives were… distorted.  They might have said the same for her, even with her ongoing efforts to maintain some objectvity.

“I think this may be my last day sitting in on these meetings,” Mr. Nieves said, interrupting her thoughts.  She noticed that he hadn’t opened the booklet she’d placed in front of him, or even moved it from the position.

“Why?” Jeanne asked.

“I serve a dwindling base.  Every day that passes that we don’t go back to Bet to rebuild is a day I lose the faith of my supporters.”

“We’ll be sorry to see you go, Mr. Nieves,” she said.

“No you won’t,” he said.

“Your perspective has always been valuable.  A dissenting voice is valuable,” Jeanne said.

“An ineffectual voice, if an essentially critical one,” he said.  “Don’t flatter me.  I’m not interested, and I don’t want flattery from you.”

The tone of those last few words saw Ms. Kiley and Mr. Druck stop talking and start paying attention to Mr. Nieves.

“I thought we got along fine.”

“I’ve always wondered about these booklets and your computer program.  Others wonder too.”

Website, not computer program, Jeanne mentally corrected.  “Wonder?”

“The exacting numbers, the complexity. This was made by parahumans.”

“We consulted them, yes.”

He pushed the booklet her way.  “This is parahuman, not human.”

“All of us are in this together, Gary,” Jeanne said.  “Human and parahuman.”

“It’s as if we’re locked in a cage with a wolf,” Mr. Nieves said.  “Except I have to wonder about the ‘we’ part of it.  Ms. Kiley is a vaguely familiar name.  Not to her credit, but familiar.  I could believe she’s not a parahuman.  I don’t think she would be a good leader, but she’s not one of them.  You, though.”

Not a trailing thought, not a question.  A statement.

“We believe in using every resource we have to do the greatest amount of good,” Jeanne said.

Gary Nieves stood from his seat.  He picked up the book, holding it by one corner.  He looked like he was going to say something, then stopped.  When he did speak, it was with a different expression- sadder than angry.

“Sitting at this table, being a part of discussions with other Earths, talking to the Wardens, everything else, it affords us a privilege the people don’t get.  We have to hear how bad it really is.”

Sierra spoke, “I’d phrase it as ‘we get to hear’, not ‘have to hear’.”

“It’s an opportunity to help,” Jeanne said.

Mr. Nieves shook his head.  “Every time I come here, I hear about new disasters.  Machinery that should never have been built, now with dead owners, still running.  People that snapped with the end of the world.  Broken quarantines.  Every time I come, three to five days a week, something new.  Today I hear about a war outside of New Haven, and innocents will die, many will come out in body bags.”

“The straw that broke the camel’s back?” Mr. Buckner asked.  The media mogul sounded more casual than anything.

Nieves didn’t sound casual.  “It’s one more thing.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s the parahumans.  It’s wolves people like me are trapped in a cage with, and they’re gathering into packs and reverting to their feral programming.”

“Wolves were domesticated to become dogs,” Jeanne said.

“These wolves killed billions,” Gary Nieves said.  “I don’t think we can afford to give them more power over us.  We don’t have that much left to spare.”

“What would you propose as an alternative?” Jeanne asked.  “If you’ll read the booklet, I think it’s sound and there’s nothing especially strange in there.”

Gary’s smile was tight, fighting to become a sneer, because of the feelings he was holding back.  Disgust.  “I’ve talked to people about it.  Ex-PRT, police, scholars.  Those conversations were back when I thought I could get a foothold here, when I thought people might see what you’re doing and where it comes from.”

‘What are we doing?” Jeanne asked.

“Using powers.  I asked about these proposals and I got a lot of answers and information about powers, the push toward violence and the dramatic, the loss of the human in the midst of it all.  There was a time when many people with powers wanted to use their powers for mundane things.  Rogues.  It kept going wrong, didn’t it?”

“We could have a discussion on that,” Jeanne said.  “If it’s a concern, I’d like to address it, because it’s nuanced.”

Nieves shook his head, expression twisting again.  “If you know, then you know.  When powers are used to produce materials, generate powers, there are traps, aren’t there?  The powers don’t want to be used for simple, stupid things like nine to five jobs or manual labor.  They want to fight, to hurt, or to cause chaos.”

“Many of them do, yes,” Jeanne said.

“Even when they seem tame, it ends in disaster.  Hidden catches, or materials that were conjured from nowhere start to go back to nowhere after months or years.”

“Other worlds, not nowhere.  But yes.”

Gary Nieves threw the booklet across the table.  “What’s the catch?  Where’s the trap?”

“There’s a subset of powers that seem to buck the trend, Mr. Nieves.  That’s what I’d like to discuss with you, if it’s a concern.”

Powers derived from other sources.  Powers bought and bartered for.

But to say it here, with people like Mr. Druck and Mr. Buckner at the table?  Too dangerous.

“I’m done,” Mr. Nieves said.  “You don’t need to worry about me anymore.  I’m not a general who can handle this war that seems so inevitable, and I’m not someone who can come up with computer programs that break something this chaotic into something deceptively elegant-”

Kurt sniffed slightly.

“-And frankly,” Mr. Nieves said, “It fucking terrifies me that you’re one or both of those things.”

Those were the man’s parting words.  Mr. Nieves gathered his things, including an umbrella, and marched from the room that was far too large for the table in its center.

“We’ll look this over and we’ll discuss,” Sierra said.

“I’ll discuss with people, sound them out,” Mr. Druck said.

“Thank you,” Jeanne said.

“I’ll talk to some people about it as well,” Mr. Buckner said.  “I’m going to go before there’s any rain.”

“What we discuss here stays off the record,” Jeanne said.

“Yes, yes.  Off the record, but still important.”

A power player of another sort, but at least he was cooperative.

Mr. Druck and Mr. Buckner left.  Two very different people- the working class spokesman and the master of media with his expensive suit.  They talked as they went.

Kurt, Sierra, and Jeanne remained.

“Any word?” Sierra asked.  “You were looking at your computer.”

“Seven fatalities.  Both villain groups had guns.  I haven’t heard about any of your… compatriots being hurt.”

“Citrine-” Sierra started.  “Jeanne.  There was an occasion about three days ago that I was updating them on our meetings here.  Tattletale said that Cauldron once told the Undersiders that they had no interest in being in charge.”

“I’m not Cauldron,” Jeanne said.

“It looks to me like you married in,” Sierra said.

Jeanne looked at her hand, then at Kurt’s.  The bands were Damascus, not gold.  Hers had a yellow diamond inset into it.  Gold had seemed crass, but a yellow gemstone had seemed essential.

“And,” Sierra said.  “I couldn’t help but notice you haven’t denied you want to be in charge.”

“Humanity is wounded on an extradimensional, macro level,” Jeanne said.  “Finding solutions for this kind of damage requires the perspective of people with a sense for the big picture.  The biggest kind of picture.”

“But do you want it?  That position, where you’re finding the solutions and looking down on things from that high a seat?”

“Yes,” Jeanne said.

“You might be the only person that really wants it,” Sierra said.

“We might be the only ones who can do it,” Jeanne said.

“Gary’s right.  That’s spooky,” Sierra said.

“I don’t think that’s fair.”

Sierra nodded.  She gathered her things.  No umbrella or raincoat.  Jeanne had always felt Sierra was more the type to walk in the rain and let it pour down onto her than to be wearing business casual in a room like this.

The book was the last thing Sierra picked up.  She looked at the cover.

“Want another copy to give to Tattletale?” Jeanne asked.

“Sure.”

Jeanne tapped her power, covering the table’s long surface with a yellow tint.  In a second mind’s eye, she could see that slice of space as a world unto itself.  There were around sixty thousand variables that Jeanne was aware of, but she had to look for them to grasp them.  Friction.  Tuned… seventy five units.

She gave the book a push, and it sailed across the table like an air hockey puck, rotating.  Sierra stopped it with one hand.

One of Sierra’s fingers tapped the cover.  “Accord?”

“Yes.”

“Spooky,” Sierra said, again.  She collected the book, putting it with the other, and gathered her bag.

Jeanne continued to feel it wasn’t a very fair assertion.  She sat back down beside Kurt, at the empty table in a hall that could have hosted an elegant ballroom dance, with tables at either end, a bar, and more room for groups to gather by the windows and socialize.

She poked at the key on her keyboard to refresh the page.

No news.

She moved over to the side of the keyboard to hit the key combination to switch windows, and her fingers met Kurt’s.  He was already there, reading her mind, switching the window for her.  She hit the key to refresh that page too.

More deaths.  Tattletale had broken away while the other Undersiders had ventured into the fight, and Jeanne had no idea why.  What was Tattletale doing?

Her fingers knit together with Kurt’s, but backward, knuckles crossing knuckles.  The smooth surface of her ring grazed his finger.

Holding her knuckles like that, he raised her hand up to his mouth and kissed her palm, then her wrist.

“You’re worried about something.”

“The Wardens didn’t ask us before they signed off on this, yet they have people devoted to idiotic things like rescuing people from time bubbles and loops.  Tattletale is maneuvering and I don’t think she has a good perspective when it comes to the big picture.  There are monsters like the self-styled Goddess out there.”

“The Blue Empress of Earth Shin.”

“Sleeper is still parked in Zayin.  I wanted to tell Gary Nieves that Cauldron capes are stable.  We have the power and we’re not as driven toward violence and drama.  We’re safe.”

“Safer,” Kurt said.

“Safer.  Yes.  None of the others are that safe.  They threaten to weaken us at a time we can’t afford it.  This idiotic business with the Fallen could leave us without enough people watching the portals.  Earth-C could attack and having critical people in an asinine fight could be what leaves us vulnerable.”

“If you wanted it, you could seize the reins.  The others are down or out.  You could take charge and start making decisions.”

Jeanne leaned back in her seat.  She surrendered her defenses, for one fleeting moment.  She gave Kurt a look, worried, momentarily insecure.

Kurt was the only person she’d ever allowed herself to show that insecurity to.

He leaned over and gave her a brief kiss.  He looked her in the eyes, and he said, “I know where you come from, Jeanne.  Somehow, I don’t feel like I’m a species of one when I’m with you.  Don’t doubt your ability to do this.”

Jeanne smiled.

Jean slouched in her seat.  All around her, people were talking with lawyers, with parents, with family and friends.  There were only fifty girls at the institution, all wearing navy blue sweats, or sweat bottoms and white t-shirts.  Guards were stationed at points around the room.

Every week, it seemed, someone left, and someone came back in.

“Do you know who I am, Jean Brown?” the man sitting across from her asked.  He was young, but short.

Jean shrugged.  “Someone my parents hired?”

“I’m someone that hires, not someone who is hired,” he said.  “I own several businesses in Boston.”

Boston.  She made the connection and immediately started paying more attention.  She sat up, gripping the seat with both hands to push herself up to a sitting position.

“I’ve been made aware that you recently had an altercation with a girl from Boston.”

“Yes,” she said.  “Yes sir.”

“Tell me how that went.”

What was she supposed to say or do?  Tell the truth?  Beg?

He seemed like the no-nonsense type.  For perhaps the first time in her life, she decided to play things straight.

“When they brought me in here, I was given the tour by another one of the girls in juvie.  They pointed out Lindsay.  They said everything had to get run by her.”

“Phrasing,” he said.  “‘Get run’ is not proper English.”

“What are you, my teacher?” she asked.  Reflex.

He leaned forward, meeting her eyes with his.  “I may end up being one, Jean Brown.  Keep in mind that some lessons are more final than others.”

She felt the thrill of terror as she heard that.  One of her hands slipped from the edge of the chair she was gripping and she adjusted her position in the seat, hands clasped together and pressed down into her lap.

“Continue,” he said.

“I didn’t want to run things by her.  She was telling us when we could get ourselves- when we could get commissary, and when we could go to the bathroom.  Right away, I knew I didn’t like her.”

“This dislike and frustration led to you pinning her down, cutting her lower eyelid off, and lacerating the other eye?”  He arched an eyebrow as he asked it.

“I would’ve cut all of the eyelids off without cutting the eye itself if she hadn’t thrashed so much.  Either way, I was placed in S.T. and they brought me out to see you.”

“She was mine, Jean Brown.  She did me a favor and that favor led to her confinement here.  She interpreted one of my instructions too loosely, and that is why she was to spend the one year here before she turned eighteen and graduates out, instead of finding her way out right away.  She had a position waiting for her.  Now I have to figure out what I’ll do with her… and I have you to deal with.”

Jean swallowed, and found it harder to swallow than she wanted.  She tried to look nonchalant.

“She’s not the first person you’ve grievously injured.  You have several more years here and after that you’ll graduate to an adult prison to see out the remainder of your sentence.”

Jeanne looked away.

“Look at me.”

She did.

“I’ve noticed the pattern behind your actions here, and I’ve identified it as a desperate grab for standing.  It was crude, rising up by cutting people down.  You used a razor on a classmate’s face and attacked a teacher.”

She hesitated, then asked, “Sir?”

“Yes, Jean Brown?”

“Can I ask why you’re talking to me instead of having someone hurt me like I hurt her?”

“You may ask,” he said.

When he didn’t follow up, she connected the thought, and asked, “Why, sir?”

“Because, Jean Brown, I understand the desire to rise up and desperately make sense of a world that seems so senseless.  I read every file that can be found about you, and I don’t believe you ever had a chance to be civilized.”

“Civilized?”

“Please speak and inquire in complete sentences.  I know who your stepfather is, I know who your teachers have been.  Your judge remarked on your privileged background, but you were the last file he looked at after an overworked day.  He hadn’t had a vacation in five years and his retirement was imminent.  He was lazy and he didn’t see you.”

Jean felt a thrill similar to the fear that had run through her earlier.  This time, however, it was at the realization that maybe this man sitting in front of her saw her, like the judge hadn’t.

“A lawyer will take and appeal your cases.  Lindsay will change her mind about who attacked her, and your other cases will be addressed.  You will be out shortly.  You’ll get and accept a scholarship for a private school in Boston and then you will rise to the top of the class.  You will make no fewer than five friends of standing and class, and you will attend private tutoring classes after school that will round out your education in other things.”

Her head spun with the paradigm shift.

“This will be far more difficult than juvenile prison, and even more difficult than being a newly minted eighteen years old in an adult’s prison, Jean Brown.  You will want to do as I instruct, regardless of this difficulty.”

She wanted to ask why, and her instincts told her that she couldn’t and shouldn’t.

Failure wasn’t an option.

“You get one chance, Ms. Brown.”

“Ms. Kiley’s polls are down,” Kurt said.

“The spike was because of how closely New Brockton is affiliated with industry and construction.  It was always going to be short lived.  I think she knew it, when she walked away today.  Mr. Nieves is gone, Kiley is out.  Russel isn’t really trying.”

“Leaving only Mrs. Songmin.”

“She hasn’t attended any of the meetings or discussions.  She’s campaigning, but that’s all there is.”

“She is a politician.  She knows how these things work.”

“She’s a contender, but not a concern,” Jeanne said.  “I’ve never run for any seat or position, but I’m more of a politician than she is.”

Kurt laughed, head going back.  The laugh echoed through the empty room.

“You know it’s true.”

“Oh, I do know.  I like how succinctly you put it.”

“Being succinct was essential to surviving among the Ambassadors,” Jeanne said.

“I did like Accord,” Kurt said.  “Peculiar, but he was an asset.”

Two hours had passed, and neither of them had left the hall or their seats at the table, except to bring a cup of coffee to the table or to use the facilities.  The laptop screens glowed and the light from overhead was more mood than office lighting.  The rain poured.

Hours ago, things had turned for the worse, in that localized war outside of New Haven.  Those things, to an extent, had little to do with them.  When they got back to their home and business, they would get the full update on the dead and lost.  Documents would be updated, and some plans would be shifted around.

Every five to fifteen minutes, Jeanne checked news and cell feeds to see if there had been an attack from zealots or another crisis taking advantage of the distraction.  That possibility concerned her more than the death of Tattletale, the swelling of Fallen ranks by way of mind control, seizing most of the survivors, or any other hypothetical scenarios she might imagine.

Kurt had fallen silent, as he checked his information.  His screen was a tide of numbers and account balances for several moments.  He refreshed a page, then turned his laptop for her to see.  With black text on a white page, and the room so dim, it was glaring, and her tired eyes had to adjust to interpret.

“We found him.  The thief.”

“If I found him, others might have too,” Kurt said.  He stood and closed the laptop.  The acknowledgement that they would have to act was left unspoken.

Others.  Jeanne knew who they were.

Jeanne stood as well.  Laptop closed and placed in a messenger bag, joined with the booklets and papers she’d brought with her in case more showed.

There were no portals.  They couldn’t speak a word and request a doorway to any place or alternate earth.  The act of getting to the old headquarters was… arduous.  The way to the old Cauldron headquarters was to travel to Cote D’Ivoire and use the spare portal there.  It was easier to situate themselves in the city.

Besides.  The old base had been commandeered.

Kurt had his phone out and at his side, his thumb typing.

“You’re requesting your brothers?”

“The pair.  I’ll reach out to several of the employees.  It might be overkill to call in a favor.”

“Worthwhile overkill if it helps us deal with him.”

The car was waiting outside.  Every other car on the road was a dark shade or dark gray, but her sedan was yellow.  She had a weakness for finer touches like that.  She preferred to drive, but she acknowledged that it was better if Kurt handled it, for instances like this.  Again, the unspoken communication between them had him going straight to the driver’s side.

He peeled out, with no regard to speed limit or the vagaries of traffic.

Kurt spoke, “Friction, plus fifteen, one hundred feet ahead, in five, four, three, two, one.”

She placed the effect of her power.  The car turned, wheels skidding.  The nose of the vehicle grazed the back bumper of a truck that was slower to make the turn.  She knew there wouldn’t be a mark.

“Forty three minutes away,” Kurt said.  “With up to one minute added time for maneuvering around traffic.”

So many things were reliant on resources.  Money- they handled money and they had money.  Kurt had arranged the trading dollar and he’d made it work.  A city couldn’t run on barter, and a megalopolis was far more involved than a city.

People were another resource.  They had people, but it was scattered.  She had seen and worked out the state of Cauldron over the years, after taking over Accord’s position as head of the Ambassadors.  She’d known it to be a very large place with very little staff.  That much remained true now.  When they needed it, as they did now, they could tap their scattered group and make things happen.  It was the nature of their group and the people they collected that when they gathered together, they worked together like a perfectly engineered machine.

Knowledge, they were keeping something of a handle on knowledge.  Information on friends, on enemies.  They still talked to Tattletale now and then because she was a prime source of knowledge, albeit of the uncertain sort.

Things grew more difficult, past that point.  Time was a harder resource to obtain.

Nine minutes into their trip, time and people converged as elements.  Kurt rolled down the back windows of the sedan.  The windows were barely rolled down when lithe forms slipped into the back of the vehicle, as it tore down a forty mile an hour road at seventy-five miles an hour.

“Thank you for coming,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” Kurt’s younger siblings said.  They’d cleaned up, and loosely matched Kurt in presentation, though they’d gone for something more fitting for teenagers.  Both wore the thick-framed glasses, however.

Kurt became annoyed with them very quickly, so it had ended up being her responsibility to corral them and give them direction.

If she ever had a doubt that she was Kurt’s type, the fact that his clones were so bad at hiding their fondness for her would have banished the thought.  It never failed to put a smile on her face.

“Red vehicle.  Wind shear slow, type three, offset by three feet left.  Make it a minus five, whenever you please.”

She produced a brief field to encompass the left side of a red truck, causing it to pull to one side.  Kurt navigated between two vehicles, her sedan centered on the dotted line as it squeezed between the two.  The red truck saw them and braked suddenly, pulling further to the side.  She canceled out her power before another vehicle could intercept it or the red truck could be forced off course.  Kurt picked up speed once he was clear of the gap.

“Could you give the engine special treatment?  I know effects on moving things are hard to maintain, but I can keep the speed constant.”

“Time is of the essence,” she said.

She placed the power over the engine, focusing to get it centered.  Acceleration.

“This would be easier if we had Fortuna,” she said.

“She gave her all to get us this far.  It would be asking a lot, for her to give us the remainder of her years.  We’ll see ourselves the rest of the way.  She can live her life as she sees fit.”

Jeanne privately disagreed, but she didn’t make a point with it.  Not with Kurt’s younger selves in the car.

There was one more resource, time aside, that they were critically short on.  Not power, specifically; it looked as though she had a mostly uncontested path ahead of her to the leadership over Earth Gimel’s largest population.

Powers, though?  Any authority over powers themselves would be dangerous in the wrong hands.  That kind of authority threatened to wipe away any kind of meaning when it came to money, people, knowledge or time.  She knew because she leveraged it.

It was an arm’s race to maintain that leverage and it was ruin to lose it.

Which led them to the thief, wheels barely maintaining the necessary traction on the road.  They’d started forty-three minutes away and they took twenty minutes to get to their destination.

They came to a stop and the wheels of the car smoked.

“He’s still here?” she asked.

“He hasn’t owned a car in all the years we kept tabs on him, and I had systems set to freeze all transportation.  Knowing his usual habits, he’ll know something is wrong and he’ll be running out into hills.  More help is arriving.  We’ll save time if we wait.”

“Who are we after?” one of the two boys asked.

Kurt rattled off a series of numbers, for facial measurements and metrics.

“We’ll go ahead?” the other boy asked.

“Don’t stray far.  Go out that way,” Kurt said.

The two left.

“I never did that,” Kurt said.

Jeanne smiled.

“They’ve picked up other things.  I don’t know if it’s because they copy me when they see me or if it’s because they’re getting it in other ways.”

“You should have studied more about powers,” Jeanne said.  “I think it’s the latter.”

He frowned.

“You seem annoyed if they’re dissimilar to you and you’re annoyed if they’re similar.”

“I’m offended they exist,” Kurt said.

“I like them.  I see them and I’m reminded of how I used to be.  We traveled similar journeys, didn’t we?  We were vicious once, and now we’re civilized.”

“We’re still vicious,” he said.  “Good grooming doesn’t clean that slate, nor should it.”

“Fair,” she said.  “Who are we waiting for?”

“A handsome fellow known as Barfbat.”

“I know Barfbat.  He took us out to eat, remember?  The restaurant had chickens in cages just outside the door.”

“Was that him?  Right.  Well, speak of the devil and he’ll appear.”

Barfbat winged his way down.  Tumorous, fluid-filled growths deflated and his wings retracted.

“Hi Barfbat,” Jeanne said.

“It’s nice to see you, Jeanne.  This is really it, Number Man?  I’m done?”

“This will be the last favor we ask of you, and your contract from June 1998 will be considered finished,” Kurt said.

“It’s about time,” Barfbat said.  “Decades of my life spent keeping a phone nearby.”

“We’ve helped you out along the way, as payment for having you in reserve.  But time is of the essence.  Can you sniff out our man?  I think he’ll be scared.”

Barfbat nodded.  A slit appeared down the center of his face, and then it parted in layers, each layer adding to a flower-like bloom that was a comprehensive nose that obscured eyes and ears both.  Tumors swelled and filled with fluid around his neck and shoulders, stretching out until the skin was transparent, veins standing out where the light hit them.

He broke into a run, arms extending until he could use them to help run, and Jeanne and Kurt both followed.  As they reached the outskirts of the little town, they caught up with Kurt’s younger ‘brothers’.

Barfbat had an augmented body, but Kurt and his brothers had efficient movement.  Jeanne was fit, she exercised and ran every day, and she could use her power to help traverse obstacles or reduce wind resistance, but it was still an effort to keep up.

They caught up with the thief.  It didn’t take long.  The terrain was hilly, and that slowed their quarry more than it slowed any of them.

‘The thief’ was a middle-aged eastern Indian man, forehead creased in concern.  He’d grown out a beard and his hair was long, tied into a knot at the back.  He dressed simply, ready for the outdoors.

“Balminder,” Kurt said.

The thief, Jeanne thought.  The Dealer.  He absconded with as many vials as he could take.  Kurt had said that along with Manton’s defection, it was one of a series of betrayals that led to Cauldron keeping their roster small and disconnected.

Kurt waved the others back.  Barfbat and the two boys backed off, keeping a respectful distance, so the conversation would be quiet.

“I make one mistake,” Balminder said.  “Less than an hour later, you’re here.”

“We’ve always known where you were and what you were doing, Balminder,” Kurt said.  “The time has come.  You have a fair amount left.  Give it to us.”

“You’ve hunted me for half a decade.”

“We kept tabs on you for three years and hunted you for the last two.”

“Why not take me right away, if I was so easy to find?”

“Because, Balminder,” Kurt said, “You were plausible deniability and a scapegoat, if we needed one, and you were one of a dozen pieces we kept in play, as people who could be arranged to rescue Cauldron if it was ever lost, if we gave someone a power that gave them absolute control over us.  It was good to have some vials out there that would take concerted effort to find.”

“It was a small supply,” Balminder said.

“I know for a fact this ‘small supply’ was not exhausted.  You have some left over.  It should be a hundred and thirty to a hundred and forty vials.”

“The number is zero,” Balminder said.  “They’ve been claimed.  I thought they were you.”

“Zero is my least favorite number,” Kurt said, in an uncharacteristically dangerous voice.

“Don’t kill him,” Jeanne said.  “We can get answers out of him.”

“We know what those answers will be.”

“We’ll ask,” she said.

Kurt deferred, stepping back.

“Claimed,” Jeanne said the word.  “Explain.”

“By a man.  A month or two ago.  He called himself Teacher.  I didn’t even slip up, he just- he appeared.  And he had a small army of people with powers with him.”

“A small army,” Jeanne said.  “It’s good to know.”

“It is.  Thinkers and tinkers, Balminder?  Negligible powers?” Kurt asked.

“Not just those.  Not negligible.  I know my powers, Number Man.  I know my shit.  This wasn’t trifling.”

“Maybe not an Ingenue tweak,” Jeanne observed.

“He has other avenues of access, then,” Kurt said.  “He has the old base, and what was empty is now fully staffed.  Now he has an army.”

“We might have to revisit the truce we made,” Jeanne said.  “We thought the Undersiders knocked him down enough pegs that he wouldn’t recoup fast.  It seems he’s more resourceful than that.”

“Teacher’s Cauldron,” one of the two boys said.

“The Cauldron is fractured,” Kurt said.  “Like so many things.  We can’t afford the resources to mend the divide or deal with this army, small or otherwise.  The city would fall while our backs are turned.”

It might fall nonetheless, Jeanne thought.  It was possible to do everything perfectly and to still fail, and try as they might, they wouldn’t get everything right.

“We’ll take the city,” she aid.  “No use delaying now.  If he has Cauldron, we’ll take everything else.  If we take the city, we can control the Wardens.  If the Fallen come out ahead, we’ll control them.”

“Um,” Balminder said.

“You can come with us or you can go and keep your mouth shut,” she said.  “We’re a splinter of Cauldron, but we could count it as you coming back into the fold.”

“We were never upset,” Kurt said.  “Not really.”

Balminder frowned.

“Think on it,” Jeanne said.

She and Kurt walked a short distance away and let Balminder do his thinking.

“You sounded almost as if you hope it will happen,” Kurt observed.  “The Fallen winning.”

“Not hope.  But I think it’s more likely than not, so I’m planning accordingly.”

“I don’t disagree.  Anything to deal with Teacher, is it?  Even deals with the devil.”

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Shadow – 5.12

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Against a backdrop of screaming and writhing, with clouds rolling across the overcast sky, and both dust clouds and smoke rolling over the ground, the three assembled groups were very still and careful.

“Stop it,” Rain called out.  “Leave them alone.”

“Can’t,” Valefor said.  “She isn’t here.  But if she sees you stand down, this might end.”

There were kids in that group of writhing individuals.  There was an old man with the lines in his neck standing out taut, teeth bared and clenched together.

“I can’t stand down,” Rain said.  “Reversing the protection takes time and effort to undo.”

“Then this is your righteous punishment,” Valefor said.  As he started talking, I brought my hands up near my ears.

My powers were still wonky.  I could tell.  My flight and aura didn’t feel readily available.

Beside me, Capricorn had morphed.  From Tristan to Byron.

The Fallen guy I’d just been fighting said something low and under his breath, to Valefor.

“No.  The immunity isn’t him,” Valefor said.  “Not if the rest of them are the same.  Someone helped.”

Capricorn had changed again.  Back to Tristan.  He walked a little, moving away from me.  What were they doing?

The woman with the bunny mask walked, almost strutted around the periphery of things, her rapier in hand.  The capes with Valefor kept their attention on her, while Valefor was oblivous or uncaring.

“We’ve got other capes showing up, Valefor,” a Fallen soldier said.  Young, and possibly powered.  I wasn’t sure if I could read too much into costumes or outfits when unpowered and powered were so diverse, but if I was going to, I’d assume powers for the ones who had more identity to their costumes, with confidence rather than conformity in the designs.  This guy had bright colors and a hard mask that wrapped around the top and sides of his head.  It was made such that it looked like it had been nailed on, with blood, old and fresh, seeping out from the points the nails went in.

“The ones we fought earlier,” the one with the round mask said.  The round plate of a mask with four eyeholes cut into the hard was an identity of its own.  It stood out.  I knew there were powers there, already.  He supported the woman with the four-horned mask and red wrappings.

Those two aside, there were six other Fallen that kept Valefor company.  Nine in total.

“Team,” Rain called out, raising his voice to be heard over the screams.  “There’s one Fallen that isn’t here.  Mama Mathers.  She’s close.  You can’t look at her without her infecting your mind.  Her voice and touch does the same thing, but gives her other avenues of attack.  Mentioning her gives her a big opening, it’s why I couldn’t say anything earlier.”

Well, that cleared up something that had been plaguing the good guys for a long time.

“I saw a glimpse of her,” I said.

“You see things?” he called out.

“Yeah.  Some.  She got our Changer worse.  He seems to be dealing alright, though.”

“He’s enduring because he’s weird,” Capricorn said.  “What can we do here?  These people-”

“You don’t do anything,” Valefor interrupted.  “They’re ours.”

“Yours!?” Tristan-as-Capricorn asked, voice raised, blurring.  Byron-as-Capricorn shook his head, and offered a more sedate, “No.”

He was almost drowned out by the shouts and screams from the people on the ground.

“Where is Mama Mathers?” Rain asked.

“You should ask her, Rain,” Valefor said.  “Let her in, let me in, and pledge to obey.  We’ll let you drag these people away, so long as you stay.  They’re expendable, you’re blessed.”

“How are you immune?” Tristan-as Capricorn called out.

“Friends,” Rain said.  He created blades of silver light in each of his hands.  “Found these guys while researching powers and options.  March put the pieces together about who I am and where I’m from.”

He’d indicated the woman with the bunny mask.  March continued pacing around the group.  Her rapier’s tip dragged along the ground.  It left a trail behind it, like the water rippling in the wake of a stick being moved in it, and that water had hues of blue, purple, and black running through it for a second or two after the contact.

“I thought it was another kind of brainwashing after I heard about Valefor’s exploits in Brockton Bay, with the arrest and trial,” March said.  “It’s a good thing that my group has a lot of powers to work with.”

A lot of powers.  Cluster capes?

“A good thing, yeah,” Rain said.

“I’m not poaching him,” March said.  “He’ll help me out in exchange for this, here, but he can stick with you guys.”

“With the heroes here, not the Fallen,” Rain clarified.

“Oh yes,” March said.  She nodded and the one ear at the top of her mask bobbed where it was folded at the tip.  “I should’ve been clear.”

My eyes moved away from March to the people on the ground, then to the nearby buildings.  I couldn’t lose sight of the major goal here.  Was Mama Mathers there?  I could look at the civilians on the ground without a problem, which meant she wasn’t there, or her power was more subtle than that.  I’d caught a glimpse earlier, though, so she couldn’t be too far.  There were a dozen buildings in our immediate vicinity.  Was she watching through the window?

The trouble was, if I saw her, I risked being affected like the people on the ground were.  If I didn’t see her, she had the advantage and she could catch us by surprise at a time of her choosing.

The idea of losing my mind like that terrified me, to the point I felt like my gut and my brain were bound in knots.  I tried to focus that terror into a cold, rational look at what I needed to do.  Mama Mathers was the biggest danger.  Valefor was the second.  They were Masters and Strangers, the PRT classification for those who controlled others or minions, and the classification for those who infiltrated or deceived.  Mama Mathers and Valefor were squarely in the overlap between the two.

I found myself missing my old team.  New Wave had had its problems, but I’d known the team and how it worked.  I wasn’t a strategist, but I could do fine if I could identify the big problems and solve them.  My tendency back in the day had been to hit hard as my method of solving, and to rely on my instincts and the team.

These guys were hard to rely on.  New Wave had been all about straight lines of attack and barrier defenses.  Lasers and punching, shields and forcefields between danger and the vulnerable.  The most indirect we’d been was when my dad made his grenades bounce off walls or when my cousin had created forcefields in unconventional but otherwise simple shapes.

Here?  Sveta had disappeared while all attention was on others.  Capricorn was… it looked like he was changing forms rapidfire to switch identities, so no one self heard a single whole utterance referring directly to them.

Chris was off doing something, hopefully far away from this.  Rain was- he’d contacted people I barely recognized.  I’d seen March’s mask before, but it had been in passing.  An article about one of the big cities.  There’d been a weird dynamic there, but I couldn’t afford to dwell on it.  My mind went to a bizarre combination of upper-class and low-class crimes, like corporate espionage and petty vandalism, but I knew almost right away that I was thinking of the wrong person.

It had been something offbeat like that, though.  If the people hadn’t been screaming, and if I wasn’t focused on Valefor’s body language and Mama being somewhere nearby, I wanted to think I could’ve placed it.

I still had my hands by my ears, as a crummy and unreliable solution to a serious problem.

My powers had been disrupted, put out of reach and made unreliable, but the effect was dissipating with time.  It killed me that the time was time innocents were suffering.

There were goddamn kids in there.

If I flew and hit someone, would I be risking the innocents on the ground?  They were close enough together that people on foot wouldn’t be able to get to Valefor without trampling the civilians.

“There’s a pretty one lying next to me,” Valefor said.  “Short black hair, or so I hear, she tends to wear-”

“I see her,” four-eyes said.

“That’s all you needed?  Hm.  Step on her throat.  Not enough to kill.  Enough to give our Rain a time limit.”

The guy with the four-eyed mask transitioned the four-horned girl to another, more mundane Fallen.

Rain hurled his crescent blade.  Four-eyes drew his own, creating the diagrams- two faint and one clear, and he drew the clear one as part of the same motion.  His crescent-shaped sword was just in time to meet Rain’s power.  Both fizzled out.

I saw as the other silver blade Rain held fritzed, distorted, and faded away.  He looked down at his hands.

“He threw something at me,” Four-eyes said.

“If it hit you, don’t move.”

“It didn’t hit me.  I stopped it.”

“Then step on the girl, Amaymon.”

I flexed my aura, straining, praying it wouldn’t falter.  I saw people turn in my direction, including both Four-eyes and Valefor.

I saw Valefor pause for half a second, catching his breath, drawing it in deeper, and I clamped my hands over my ears, bending over, eyes shut.

Whatever he shouted, I didn’t hear anything muffled than a one-syllable word.  He had to refer to us to catch us, and now that I knew that, I could watch for tells.  If he drew in a deep breath to shout, or if he said something like ‘You’ or “Everyone’, I could cover my ears.

All around us, most people stopped in their tracks.  Capricorn, blurring, changed to blue armor, but he kept walking.  I was able to move, and the group with March and Rain seemed unaffected.

Valefor shouted out something, turning in my general direction as he did it.  Two words.  I didn’t try to make them out.

The Fallen were bringing their powers to bear, now.  A snake shaped out of intestine and barbed wire- one I’d seen before.  The Fallen that summoned it was drawing a gun with the other hand.  Amaymon was creating his four diagrams, reaching for the sphere.

He didn’t manage to touch it.  Sveta grabbed him and Valefor both, dragging them out of sight.  The afterimage of the diagram hung in the air for a moment before disappearing.

Another was going breaker, arms and bony limbs reaching skyward in a fountain of parts that grabbed their other parts and forced them down in the swell, a large human skull that ate their head, then was swallowed up by a larger animal skull, like a wolf’s, only horned.

They grew larger as they rose skyward, all white bone and jet black body parts.

I tried to fly so I could fly to it before it grew any larger, and my flight only sputtered out.

The one with the intestine snake lashed out, snake lunging from the palm of their hand to Capricorn and I.  They aimed and fired the gun at the same time.  Wild shooting.

I brought out the Wretch, stepping between Capricorn and the shooter, and even with the Wretch being a larger target, none of the bullets hit it.

I heard the shooting stop, the sound of the small pistol ringing in my ears.  I dropped my defenses for just a moment, so I could have the Wretch closer to me when I connected my fist to the Snake’s ‘head’.  It slammed into a building, shattering the stones and mortar that lined the lower half of the ground floor.  A half-second later, white noise filled my vision.

If that had happened a second earlier, I might have missed.  The noise persisted.

I scowled, stopping in my tracks, trying to find out what I needed to do.  I couldn’t run in and use the Wretch, not when people lined the ground like that.  Not when I couldn’t trust my eyes.  She wasn’t making me hallucinate, but she could obscure what I saw.

“Down!” Capricorn said, behind me.  “Give me a clear view!”

There were blue motes appearing around the snake-intestine cape and the giant breaker thing, which was slowing in its growth, but was a pretty considerable size already.  I realized the noise had gone away.

 

Ahead of me, the Fallen woman disconnected the snake-thing from her left hand, and passed the gun to it.  The motes above and behind her turned to water, spraying down on her and at the giant breaker.

The motes snapped into a solid form, making a creaking, cracking noise as they became a growth of stone that encased part of the snake-woman’s head and shoulder and part of three of breaker’s arms.

The weight of the stone pushed her down and snared the breaker.  A moment before she was crushed beneath the stone, it became water again.  She was down on three limbs in an awkward position as it all cascaded and sprayed down around her, stirring the packed dirt road into thick mud spray.

I leaped forward toward the spray, flight kicking in at half-strength to give me downward velocity.  I came down with one foot on her gun-hand, crushing it beneath my heel.  I stepped down by her face, and moved my foot off of her hand.  I pushed at her shoulder with my foot, flipping her over, then bent down for the gun.

“Good,” Capricorn said, behind me.  He was Tristan, but the water was remaining water.

“Careful you don’t drown the people on the ground,” I said.  “They’re helpless.  People can drown in shallow water.”

He nodded, quick, before turning his attention back to the big thing, which was adjusting its balance.  The unexpected weight on one arm had brought it partially down.

I had to do something.  I didn’t want to keep my head down.

I ran to the side.  Down toward the direction where Sveta was, away from the big thing.  Against my instincts, but I had an idea of what I could do.

Mama Mathers had been here.  She was close.  If I couldn’t see her without problems, I could only make assumptions.  Aura out, I ran along the side of the street, keeping one eye on the battle and the people on the ground, in case I was needed.  Women.  Young men.  Someone elderly.  Kids.  

Shit.

Ahead of me, Sveta was dealing with Amaymon and Valefor.  She’d pulled off her wig and stuffed it into Valefor’s mouth, and was now wrestling with Amaymon.  The cape broke her grip and pushed her to one side, and she collapsed into a heap, instead of catching her balance.

He created his diagram while she was down.  He touched the javelin-dart, and he sent it plunging into Sveta’s chest before she could stand.

I charged at him, running three steps and then flying the remaining twenty feet.  My knee connected with his jaw and he dropped.  I landed and made sure he wasn’t getting up.

“Sveta,” I said.

“I’m okay,” she said.  She sat up.  A tendril stuck out of the hole in her chest, feeling around it before withdrawing.  “I’m okay.”

“You have a patch?” I asked.

She nodded.  “You have your aura going.  It’s distracting enough I can’t coordinate.”

I nodded, and I temporarily eased up on it.  “Your power is okay?”

“Yes.  Why?”

She hadn’t seen, she’d already backed off before Rain’s had been shorted out, so she would have been too far away.  Staying out of Valefor’s earshot, possibly.

“He cancels out powers.”

“You can’t really cancel out being Case fifty-three,” Sveta said.  “You’d better get back while I get patched, if your forcefield is weird.”

I could have clarified, but I just nodded.  “Good luck.  Be safe.”

“You too.”

My aura back on blast, I flew across the street, then back toward the fighting.  March and her band of oddballs had been on the far side of Valefor’s cluster of capes.

The large thing had fallen over, one hand planted on the ground near some of the civilians.  March ran up its arm, ducking and using momentum to slide up the slope of the arm as a bony claw reached for her.

She ran along the shoulders, cutting as she went, leaped as the head sank into the morass of the body and became two avian skulls that pecked at the air, and then came down, stabbing her rapier into the chest and dragging the point against the giant thing’s torso, cutting as she went down.  The blue-purple-black watercolor spread in the wake of the blade’s tip.

She pulled it free, stabbed at a reaching hand, and used it to reorient her fall.  She landed hard, her feet planted on either side of a screaming teenage girls’ head.  A slight misstep, and she would have caved in the poor girl’s face.

March snapped her fingers and flicked with her blade.

At the shoulder, where the long cut had started, there was a flare of the watercolor spray.  Purple and blue, with deep shadow in the midst of it.

Her rapier swept out, pointing.  She called out, “Rain!”

The flare was tracing along the line she’d cut like a flame down a cartoon bomb’s fuse.

“I can’t!” Rain called out.

The ‘fuse’ reached its terminus.  What had been a flare became a fierce explosion, right down at the base of the breaker.

I flew toward it, bringing out the Wretch, so I could catch it if it toppled onto March and the civilians.  It didn’t, falling backward and dissolving as it did.

The breaker form dissipated, and there was only the Fallen with the demon themed skull mask, tipping backward to land on his ass.  March plunged her rapier into his chest, then flicked it up, toward his throat.

“It would have been perfect if that had also cut it in two, Rain,” March said.  “It was still perfect, but in a lesser way.”

“Can you not use my name?” he asked.  “And Amaymon nullified my power.”

The Fallen was patting his chest where he’d been stabbed.  He touched his throat.  Intact, but the line of watercolor marked him.

“Valefor used your name,” she said.  She snapped her fingers.  “And you didn’t give me another one.”

Still floating in the air, I could see the flare appear at the breaker Fallen’s chest.  He brought his hands to it, quick, frantic, then tried to pat it out.

“Hey!” the Fallen cried out.  He lurched to his feet.  “Stop!”

March was walking away.

“Hey!  Fuck!  Help me!”

She flourished with her blade and sheathed it, in the very same moment the fuse reached its terminus.  The explosion was smaller, but it was sufficient to take out the front of the Fallen’s throat.  He dropped to his knees, still moving inarticulately, eyes wide and stunned, and then collapsed to the ground.

I- I didn’t like the killing, or the casual ease with which she’d done it.  These were Fallen, but they were low-level Fallen.

I didn’t want to say not to kill, but…

But there were civilians suffering.  Other things to focus on.

I changed course, flying back to where I’d been.  I continued down the street.  I was putting the bulk of the lopsided engagement behind me, passing by Rain, by two twenty-ish capes with steel-gray hair, and that meant I could fly faster.  I kept my eyes on the people and goings-on behind me.

I found what I was hoping for.  The screaming, just briefly, changed.  The aura extended through the hostages to Mama Mathers, and she affected the hostages in turn.  I had a sense of my range, and through that, I had a good sense of her location.

“Rain!” I called out.

“What is it?”

“If she gets me, get people to take out the building.”

“You found her?” he asked.

I dug fingernails into the doorframe, then activated my forcefield.  I tore door and part of the frame away from the front of the store.  It was one of the smaller buildings on the street, and it was styled as a general store.

The screaming trailed off altogether.  I gripped the damaged wall where the doorframe had been attached, and tore at that too.  The Wretch struck at other things.

“She says to stop,” a voice said.

It wasn’t one of the people who’d been on the ground.  He was older- one of the soldiers.  In the eerie quiet, with people whimpering and making small noises, he still had to raise his voice to be heard, with distances.

He was possibly unpowered, and he was holding an axe.  He was average height, but muscular, and had a slight belly, such that his body looked more like a solid slab than a chest that tapered down to a stomach or had any proper shape.  His skin was sun-tanned, his hair blond with white shooting through it.  A bandanna with a demon’s mouth on it covered his lower face.

“You’ve disappointed her, Rain,” the soldier said.  Then he said, “You disappointed all of us.”

“For one of the first times in my life, I feel like I’m doing something right,” Rain said.

“No, Rain,” the man said.  “She says you might be doing good, objectively, but not right.  She says… she’ll surrender herself to your custody.  She’ll withdraw her power from everyone here.”

“From everyone,” Rain said.

“As you wish.”

March put the sword nearer to the man’s neck.  He gripped the axe tighter.

“Don’t,” Rain said.  “He’s a relative.”

She lowered the sword, and she poked the handle of the axe with the tip.  She said something I didn’t hear.

The soldier dropped the axe.

Rain was kneeling by Erin.  He placed a hand on a little boy’s arm, where the boy lay next to her, hands at his ears.

He reached out for Erin, and she pushed his hand away.  When he stood, it was abrupt.

“This feels like a trap,” I said.

Rain approached me.  He looked at the building, then raised a hand.  In the recess of one voluminous sleeve, I could see another hand hidden within.

“What is it?”

“One person,” he said.  “I think.”

“It could still be a trap,” I said.

“Yeah.  But… this gets people out safe.  If we went after her and she hurt them in the last moment, and if we couldn’t turn it off…”

I nodded.

March was walking toward us.

“You got a look at her.  She’s in you?” Rain asked.

“Barely,” I said.  “She blinded me once or twice.”

“Okay,” he said.

March joined us.  She put out a hand for me to shake.  I hesitated a moment, paranoid, then shook it.

“We have things to talk about,” she said.  “People we both know.  Power things.”

I nodded.

“I’ll go in to get her,” she said.  “I’m immune.”

“So am I,” Rain said.

“This is personal for you,” she said.  She put a gloved hand on his shoulder.  “It’s the objectivity that makes us valuable to each other.”

She winked at me, then sauntered indoors.

She bothered me.  I didn’t like whimsical and show-off in someone that could easily kill.  The mask and the marching band outfit only marked out the contrast.

“Immune?” I asked.

Rain indicated the two capes with gray hair, a young man and woman.  Both had eyepatches, the steel-gray hair, and costumes with white and black.  Chris’ age, or a bit older.  “Dino and Enyo.  They’re multi-triggers, and they’re also twin triggers.  One of their powers is that they can transplant body parts, with some special rules.  I’m borrowing someone else’s eyes and ears, and a few other bits, so she can touch me and make it hurt, but it’s dulled, and she can’t do anything else.  The transplant recipient is back at our base, sedated.”

“All multi-triggers?” I asked.

“She… collects them.  I guess.  She studies them.  It’s supposed to be important.”

Rain was looking back in Erin’s direction.  She had the little boy with her, and two adults.  From the resemblance, a sibling and her parents.  She and they all looked like anyone might after having seen things that had them screaming for ten or fifteen minutes straight.  Weary, eyes wide, defensive.

But, all that in mind, she seemed to find refuge in her parents.

“What-” I started.

“This power I lost.  Do I get it back?”

“Yeah.  I got mine back after ten minutes or so.”

Rain nodded.

“What happened with Erin?”

“The Fallen ruined it.  I ruined it.  She wouldn’t leave.  I couldn’t stay.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t let me hurt Mama.  I’d do it in a stupid way that might get people hurt,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.  I nodded slowly.  “One day, maybe you return the favor on that.”

He made a small, amused sound.  Aside from a laugh here or there, at the bad cape names, or a good moment with Tristan, I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen that from him.

“Sure,” he said.

“All set, coming down!” March called out.  “We’re taking this slow.”

“What would you have done, if she hadn’t called it off?” Rain asked.

“Controlled collapse of the structure,” I said.  “If she had hostages in there, I’d set it up so she’d have to tell me.”

The whiteness in my eyes flared up.  I rubbed at one eye, uselessly.

“There’s a chance she’d throw their lives away to fuck with you,” Rain said.

I drew in a deep breath, sighed.  “Yeah.  That was a risk.”

“With some people, you don’t get to win,” Rain said.  “She’s that kind of person.  Be careful.”

I nodded, folding my arms.

“I like the costume,” he said.  “March told me I shouldn’t be so negative all the time, so I figured I’d say it.  I feel like I’ve missed a lot.”

I winced.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Damsel happened.”

“Damsel?” he asked.  “Is she okay?”

“She’s alive and mostly intact,” I said.  “Damage to her prosthetic.  But someone else is dead.”

“Shit.  Is it-”

I could hear March.  “I’ll catch you up on particulars later.  But you should know, because we’re going to have to explain it to Looksee.”

Rain nodded.  “Shit.”

March emerged.  She had Mama Mathers wrapped in a bedsheet, which was bound with cord that had tassels on the end.  Something from her costume, it seemed.

I didn’t know or trust March.  “Is it her?  That’s Mama Mathers?”

“It’s her,” Rain said.  “I’ve seen her enough to know.”

“You and I need to have a conversation about your power,” March said.  “The emotion power.”

“I forgot to turn it off while you were inside.”

“I know what it does,” she said.  “It’s not strong.”

“It’s never strong.”

“But it’s not useless either.  Nearly useless,” she said.

March walked the Fallen leader out to the street.  From the other end of the fight, Sveta had Valefor, the wig stuffed in his mouth and tied in place with lengths of hair knotted together.  Her head seemed slim without ears or hair to bulk it out.  She looked more intense in expression and demeanor, her ‘scalp’, the sides of her head and her neck formed of the muscle-like gatherings of tendrils.  Everything was bound down firm with the metal rings, only the shortest of tendrils curling up and out, an inch or two long, each.

The boy of the eyepatch pairing had a syringe with him.  He looked grim as the girl -his sister, I was assuming- reached out to wrap her fingers around Mama Mathers’ arm.  She flinched back.

The boy held out the syringe, and the girl depressed the plunger to squirt some out.

They inserted the syringe and injected the contents.  Mama Mathers slumped, and then collapsed into waiting arms.

Rain nodded, watching.  Capricorn and the others were catching up, with Capricorn reaching out to grab Rain’s hand as he reached his friend.  The soldier from before was shackled, the pair with eyepatches went to March’s side.

The civilians were a herd of people, wounded and scared.  Some approached us.  Others backed off.  I had to wonder about the latter group.

“We’ll reunite with Narwhal’s group, to give or get backup,” Capricorn said.  “Then we cut across… just about everything, and we evacuate out.”

“Sounds good,” March said.

“We’ll help Weld if he needs it,” Capricorn said.

I weighed the alternatives.  There weren’t any great answers.  Going it alone and trying to get to Gilpatrick’s group meant we could be intercepted, and it left the others fighting a nasty sort of fight, where guns were being brought into things.  Going to the others meant possible problems could complicate things.

The practice of getting ourselves to the western edge of the wider settlement was a bit of a herding game, keeping a dozen traumatized people moving, while simultaneously managing our hostages, Valefor and Mama Mathers.  Half of the group kept gravitating in the pair’s direction, and the other half seemed scared of them, even when they were bound and tranquilized, respectively.  Erin seemed to do more with an active focus, so she took on some of the cheerleading duties, especially with the younger ones.

One of the Fallen groups was led by a cape with a horse’s head and a dozen shadowy duplicates in his company, all connected together by a mess of black lighting with weirdly curved arcs.

In any other circumstance, the Fallen would have been losing against the Wardens’ bench team and young members, but there were twenty or so civilians with them, and the civilians had assault rifles, and the Fallen capes in their group seemed both confident and costumed enough to be of some importance.

There was a flanking group of the Fallen who’d fallen back and were taking cover by a building.  Some Clan capes were mixed into the group.  Guns were pointed in our general direction as we emerged, but the guns immediately pointed skyward as they realized who we had with us.

That effect seemed to sweep over the Fallen.  I made special note of the Fallen who weren’t immediately going still and quiet.  There were ones in elaborate costumes, many with tattoos of text or numbers down their arms.  They’d be the leadership.

The one with the horse head mask wasn’t backing off, either.  He just gathered his shadowy clones around him.

I kept my distance from the rest of the group, floating out in front, the Wretch active.  March was doing much the same, but without the benefit of invincibility.  The rapier was extended out, pointing at the people with guns.

Hollow Point’s capes were on the fringes, gathered like they had when Advance Guard had turned up in Cedar Point, with a divide marking the distinction between Prancer’s side of things and the others.  Beast of Burden’s group, minus both Beast of Burden and Damsel, a twenty foot gap with only three capes in it, and then Prancer’s assembly, with an injured Moose, an injured Velvet, Bitter Pill’s group with Bluestocking frothing at the mouth, and the Speedrunners.

I recognized the three capes in the no man’s land as Love Lost, Snag, and Cradle.  The clients who’d paid for this whole thing, with the aim of getting Rain in the midst of the chaos.  If they had an assassin, I couldn’t tell who it was.  Nobody seemed especially out of place.

It was my first proper sighting of Cradle.  He wore a bodysuit and an elaborate sculpted mask with a hand worked into it, fingers and thumb curled into claws, worked into his face and around his eyes and nose as if seen from the side.  His bodysuit had much the same design, white hands against black mesh fabric.

More noticeable was the mech, if it could be called that.  He stood on a platform that looked like an outstretched hand.  A framework of six mechanical arms and four giant hands extended out and around the platform.

With our arrival, the gunfire had stopped.  The heroes’ side wasn’t sending any volleys or attacks out, now that the Fallen seemed more subdued.

Someone on the Fallen side said something, and guns were put down.

“It’s over!” Capricorn shouted.  “Stand down!”

They were rule-breakers, killers, child kidnappers, addicts, and worse.  They included racists in their number without flinching, because it served their ends.  They’d celebrated the end of the world, where billions had died.  Maybe tens of billions or more, depending on how much damage Scion had done to parallel worlds.

If they didn’t listen- if they even got desperate, this would be a disaster.

Please stop, I thought, even as I simultaneously thought about what I’d need to do if they snapped.  When they snapped.

I had zero faith they’d back down.  By body language alone, it seemed Rain felt the same way.

I watched as the first one stepped away from cover, hands raised.  Others followed.  They glared, looked tense, even said coarse things.

What was the catch?  The trap?

Not because they were outnumbered.  They’d always been outnumbered.  That left me considering other traps, along a broader line.  Access to certain people?  Would Valefor reveal his eyesight power when people like Narwhal were close?  Did Mama Mathers hope to catch someone important with her power?

Or was it more mundane?  Surrendering and going to the overtaxed courts could be a way for them to get a voice, with a wealth of attention.  If the lawyers and administration on our side wasn’t up to things, and if the Fallen matched it by playing things particularly well, then they could walk away more or less free, with many more followers.

I heard Rain and Capricorn exchange words.  Rain turned toward Sveta and I and subtly indicated what he and Capricorn were talking about.  Snag was staring us down from the far end of the battlefield, with hilly, rocky ground between us, the trees and Wardens to the left, and the assembled Fallen and their allies to the right.

“March reached out to him before she reached out to me.  He knows who she is, which… isn’t great.”

“You think he knows who you are?” Sveta asked.

“We’ll see, I guess,” Rain said.

Prancer had emerged from Cedar Point’s group, and was approaching heroes, hands raised.

If I accepted that things were going reasonably well here, this was a good outcome.  Civilians had been hurt, people had died, but Prancer hadn’t achieved his win, and Snag’s group wasn’t going to get their opportunity.

If I accepted it.  I couldn’t bring myself to.

There were powerful capes here.  Mama Mathers hadn’t had enough people defending her.  Had it been that she’d been caught off guard by Rain being prepared?  Or was my initial impression of this being a trap correct?

What did she want and what did she get?

I heard a commotion.  Noises of surprise and alarm.

The Fallen who had been turning themselves in were now turning on heroes.  People were picking up guns.

The number of heroes there had diminished.  Heroes had disappeared.

What followed was like dominoes falling, as the trap fell into place.  Narwhal created her crystalline forcefields, only for the forcefields to change tint.  The horse-head cape sent a duplicate her way, and she wasn’t able to get her forcefields up or into place in time.

From that, I knew the culprits of this turnaround.

More heroes were disappearing.  A member of Prancer’s group threw something into the midst of their group, and that something exploded.  The explosions repeated, one after another, at steady intervals.

The other-

From our first briefing on them, we’d know they had a guy who could appear at our most vulnerable point and catch us off guard.

I turned away from the spectacle in front of me, looking for the one who might be coming after the ones who’d gotten Mama Mathers and Valefor.  Behind us, to the sides-

In the midst of us.

Secondhand looked average, with flat, opaque goggles and a flat top cap, but he flickered intensely with afterimages and suggestions of places he might be in the future.  The images were violent enough he looked ready to burst, and he was right in the middle of our group.  I swung a punch, and he moved with enhanced speed, ducking it.

The quick movement pushed him over the brink, or so it seemed.  He detonated, and everything moved like it was slow motion, as I was thrown off my feet, the wind knocked out of my lungs.  Others were shoved back and away from him too.  My skin felt like it was tearing apart, because the slow motion was real, and different parts of me were slowed, while others weren’t.  My lower body was more affected, as was the part of me closer to the front.

It hit everyone except for Mama Mathers, who Secondhand zipped over to, to catch out of mid-air, and Valefor, who blurred, hair moving slightly, but the rest of him remained unaffected.

That would be Final Hour.  The targeted slow-motion, granting a kind of protection.

I used my flight to keep myself from being thrown back too much, canceling out the inertia and then flying toward them.  I didn’t have long, and with them this coordinated, they’d dogpile me in an instant.

I went straight for Valefor.

He was still protected as I brought the Wretch out.  When I punched him, I could feel the Wretch meet that invisible barrier.  I could see, in slow motion through both the expulsion of Secondhand’s detonation and Last Minute’s protective effect, the destruction of Valefor’s lower face as the Wretch passed through the barrier.

I couldn’t bring myself to kill, even now.  I canceled out my power of my own volition, when it was clear that I’d destroyed his jaw.

As one, the hostages we’d rescued were taking action.  They moved in near-unison, some reacting to the movements of others by taking up the call.  They climbed to their feet, and they reached for us, clutching.  Their expressions weren’t the ones they’d worn a moment ago.

The disconnection in my thinking and the speed of our immediate reality let me connect that dot too.  Valefor hadn’t managed a secret command.  He’d planted one on the group before Mama Mathers had laid them out flat.

Telling them to attack us when we were off guard, or when he gave some signal.  Erin was coming after Rain.  So was her little brother, who couldn’t have been older than nine.

The slow was wearing off.  I had only a moment.  I flew to the others, grabbing them, dragging them away.  Sveta and Capricorn.  Capricorn had a grip on Rain’s arm, so I brought Rain too, my fingers straining as I tried to hold onto three people for just a moment.  I’d never tried or even thought about it, but in the instant, I pulsed my forcefield on and off, to try to keep the Wretch from getting enough of a presence to reach out and hurt anyone.

I just needed to carry them for a few seconds.

Capricorn disappeared from my grip, and for an instant, I thought I’d lost my grip on him.  and my hand crackled as he did.  I turned to look, and saw the man with the goggles and mustache pointing his finger at us.

End of Days, I thought, as I headed toward the ground.

He wasn’t even a time manipulator.  I felt deeply offended at that fact, or I must have- it was a poignant enough feeling that I could feel it even as I took in the magnitude of just how the tides had turned, and how bad a thing that was.  They’d hit each of our groups, and they’d hit us hard.

I heard an assault rifle fire, and others took up the call.  It was more one-sided, this time, not two sides shooting at each other, but one side shooting at the rest.

I landed on the far side of a slope, with just Sveta.  I took the moment to try to gather my senses.  I hurt all over, and I had blood in my eyes.  The slow-motion effect from Secondhand.

Sveta had a rip in the edge of her face, but she barely seemed to care.  She was more focused on getting to her feet.

Capricorn had disappeared.  Damsel wasn’t here.  Chris and Looksee were on the fringes or not even in the area.

I could feel droplets of moisture on my bare skin.

Rain.

I flew close to the ground, using the hill as cover, Wretch out in case a stray bullet came my way or cut through the dirt.  I peeked around the edge of the hill’s slope.  My eyes took in the scene at a glance, and partway through that glance, the scene changed.

Darkness.  No sun shining through overcast clouds.  Only darkness.  Light leeched in through some other way, giving just enough to outline the surroundings.

The air smelled like ash, and it was dry enough that it felt like my mouth and body were being leeched of moisture.

End of Days.  He’d caught me, seeing me before I’d seen him.

My heart was pounding.  I couldn’t bring myself to speak, because I was afraid I’d scream.  The best case scenario was that at this vital, critical moment I’d been shunted out and away, to some strange, dark place.

The worst case scenario was that it was a permanent shunt.

A small sound escaped my throat as I looked around.

A minute passed.

Two minutes.  When my eyes played tricks on me through the darkness, I saw Valefor’s jaw shattering.  I imagined the battlefield, as it had been.

Anger took over the devastation and surprise.  I fidgeted.  I adjusted my costume.  I flew around in circles, trying to get a sense of what this place was like.  I stopped when I flew into a tree I couldn’t see.

I watched as the light grew brighter, as if it shone in through invisible cracks that were widening.  The cracks soared tall and wide, and the light flooded in, blinding.

I was hauled out of that dark, strange world and back into my reality, and I felt the change in air pressure, the moisture of the drizzling rain. and I saw that things had happened in the meantime.

Sveta and Capricorn were fighting side by side, with Love Lost and a crowd of controlled civilians between them and Rain.  The presence of the mob of Valefor’s affected hostages kept Sveta from getting to any of us, and complicated her skirmish with Love Lost.  Two of March’s group members were part of that same crowd, trying to fend the civilians off, and they weren’t trying to be gentle about it like Sveta was.

Rain, meanwhile, was trying to fight Snag.  Snag was above him, pushing him to the ground, knee on Rain’s stomach.  He’d destroyed one of Snag’s arms and his two good arms were at the remaining, damaged one, which had a slice taken out of it.  His other two mechanical arms were gripping Snag’s normal arm, no longer encased in the giant, oversized prosthetic part.  Even with their combined strength, the two mechanical arms were losing, cracking and splintering under the pressure.

This was the chaos Snag had wanted.

I flew to him, praying I wouldn’t get another End of Days timeout.

I was halfway to him when Rain’s arms broke.

The blades fixed in the midst of the breakable shells continued up and out, piercing Snag’s forearm and scissoring the space between them as his weight came down and made them shift.

Snag hauled back, pulling away, swinging his damaged prosthetic arm, while holding his damaged regular arm out.  Blood poured from the ragged wounds in his arm.  One of the blades had gone in one side and out the other.

In any other day, any other circumstance, I never would have imagined I’d have let this go.

But others needed help.  Rain was mostly in the clear, as he and Snag parted.  Sveta and Capricorn weren’t.

I flew down to where Sveta had been pulled to the ground.  Her balance wasn’t good, and when she was brought down, it was hard for her to find her feet again.  Once I touched down in the middle of the pack of people, it was a question of getting people back without hurting them too badly.  I grabbed her and used flight as much as anything to haul her up and away, so we were above the fighting.

It was a vantage point for me to see Rain facing off against Snag.  He’d hit Snag with a crescent blade, and the man had a line of silver across face and shoulder.  He didn’t move, and blood continued to seep down his arm and hand.

Sveta reached over, grabbed grass, because it was the only thing to grab, and hauled herself to the ground over there, to where she could talk to Rain or help Snag.

I flew down to Capricorn.  Love Lost leaped up at me, intercepting.  Her initial contact broke through the Wretch.  Her mover power let her connect to me despite the interruption in her course.  I felt her claws scrape my breastplate.

I punched her, and she dropped down and away, landing amid people.

Rain had hit Snag again.  Keeping him from moving.

On my second try, I got to Capricorn.  I pulled him free, holding him with both hands, my arms straining.

I saw Love Lost get to her feet, reaching for her mask.

I saw her sway and then fall, like the lights had gone out.

Snag had already fallen.  Either he’d been hit, or he’d elected to try moving, because one of the silver lines had split.  His neck was gouged where it joined the shoulder, a wound deep enough it should have exposed shoulderblade and collarbone.  It didn’t, because the blood was thick, and his beard was dense.

Rain was on the ground.  In the distance, perched on a hill, Cradle slumped on his platform.

The drizzle became rain, punctuated by gunfire.  There was fighting everywhere, and even the people that were holding back were hitting pretty damn hard now.  Not dissimilar to how I had with Valefor.

Not heroes and villains.  Only monstrousness and madness.

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Shadow – 5.11

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“Damsel!” Sveta cried out, as the initial shock wore off.

Everyone was backing away from Beast of Burden and from Damsel, who caught her footing and looked down at the body.  Sentences were an overlapping jumble.

“What did you do?” Disjoint asked, eyes wide.  His mask was a black stick-on sort, but it was divided into two halves, one for the brow and one for the cheekbones.  As his eyebrows went up and his eyes went wide, the two halves separated, revealing red-painted skin beneath.

“What I did is obvious,” Damsel said.

Fuck,” Sidepiece said.  She ran her fingers back through the sides of her hair, and there was enough residual fat and blood on them from her using her power that her hair stuck where it was pushed.  “He hadn’t paid me yet.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Why did you do this?”

“He stepped on me.  He struck me.  In a fight?  That’s fine, you can hit me in a fight.  But like this?  When I’m helping?  I’ll hit back.”

“That’s not a hit,” Sveta said.

Damsel paced a little.  People were giving Damsel and the blood spatter a wide berth, and as she moved, people backed up more.

Nailbiter was on the far side of the group, furthest from me.  She prowled on elongated limbs, silent, staring.

Damsel spoke up, “I will not be stepped on.  I will not be beaten down and take it with a smile.  He wanted to be a tyrant but he couldn’t lead.  He didn’t know his own place in things and he thought to tell me mine?

“So he dies?” I asked.

“He knew what he was doing,” she said.  “He-”

Her power misfired.  She staggered a bit, and Capricorn and Sveta backed away more.  Damsel found her balance, but when she did, her hair draped down in front of most of her face, and she let it hang there.

She continued, “He knew the risks when he went toe to toe with me.  When he struck me, it wasn’t heated.  It was cold, logical.  He knew if he didn’t do something, he’d lose his team.  He calculated the risk and he calculated it wrong.”

“You pushed him to that point,” I said.

Sveta touched my arm.  Fear that I was provoking Damsel when she was in a dangerous state?  Or because I sounded accusatory?  Both?

“I calculated wrong, I thought he was smarter.”

She said.  She stuck out a foot, and rested her foot on Beast of Burden’s forehead.  His helmet had tipped back by its own weight, exposing a face with narrow eyes, and a muttonchop beard.  His head was resting on the part of the helmet that had once been behind his neck.  She moved his head around by moving her foot.

“Stop that, please,” Sveta said.

Damsel paused.

Sveta pointed at the foot.  “Please.  Even if he wasn’t a great person, he was human.  He deserves common decency.”

Damsel stepped back, placing her footsteps where there wasn’t too much blood.  There was a dusty print on Beast of Burden’s forehead now, with some small rocks settled into the corner of his eye, by the bridge of his nose.

“Thank you,” Sveta said.

In the background, lights danced around the shadows of the trees at the west edge of the settlement.  Vista and Weld’s group.  It caught Sveta’s attention, and I saw her focus her balance, swaying slightly less.  I could imagine it as a tension in the tendrils within her body.

On the other side of things, while everyone else turned to look at the shifting reds and blues and greens, my focus was on Ashley.  I saw something in her expression, as she looked at Sveta, then at Capricorn, and finally met my eyes.  It was fleeting, spooked, more like how an ordinary person might look if they were at the mercy of ex-Slaughterhouse Nine member Damsel of Distress, than Damsel of Distress herself.

Hardly the imperious bearing she had a moment ago.

I saw the expression pass before any of the members of the other group could react.  Love Lost tilted her head a little, walking around the periphery of the larger group- a wide periphery, given how we’d spread out and backed off.

“This is the true world of parahumans,” Damsel said, turning to look at Love Lost.  Damsel’s chin rose a little, as she went back to being the villain queen.  “The other things fall away, but this remains a constant.  It’s why we all die young.”

“Endbringers and end of the world helped,” Sidepiece said.

“The end of the world never stopped,” Damsel said.  “This is it, continuing, wearing demon masks and cheering about fucking over the rest of us.  It’s wearing stupid helmets with horns as long as my legs and thinking it can find its way to power by killing its enemies and stepping on anyone in its way.”

“It’s blasting a hole in someone with a stupid helmet,” Disjoint said.

She turned on him.  He stepped back some more.

“Don’t blast a hole in the guy with the stupid limb teleporting power,” he said.

She started to talk, then stopped as her power misfired again.  She gripped her arm, pressing down on the hole where she’d dug her thumb in.  I assumed it was the point where her arm stopped and the prosthetic started, interrupting the connection.

I was lost.  She’d always been tricky to deal with, but I’d mostly had a good sense of what made her tick.  I’d been able to talk her down a few times, I knew what she liked and what she wanted.

I didn’t know, here.

“Fuck me,” Capricorn said.  “I don’t know what to say.  This needs to be answered, but there are people with lives on the line right now.”

“Go,” she said.  “You guys seem to be good enough at finding us and showing up at inconvenient times.”

Capricorn shook his head.  “Fuck this,” he said.  Angrier, he said, “This isn’t over.”

“No,” Damsel said, her chin rising a bit more.  “I didn’t think it was.”

“This isn’t good,” Sveta said.  “This is pretty far from okay.”

“I’ve always been a long way off from good and okay,” Damsel said.

“That’s not an excuse to turn your back on those things.”

“Oh fuck off, you sanctimonious cyborg,” Sidepiece said.

“Clearly not a cyborg,” Damsel said.

“I’m- yeah.  Not a cyborg.  And I’m fucking off, don’t worry.  People to help.  Damsel of Distress?”

“Fuck offff,” Sidepiece said, head lolling back.  She stopped as Damsel raised a hand.

“What?”  Damsel asked.

“Help yourself so others can help you,” Sveta said.

Sveta and Capricorn were ready to go.  I hesitated.

Everything kept coming back to the same scenarios, moments, and scenes.  There were parallels, comparisons, things about people I noticed.

A therapist I’d talked to while Mrs. Yamada was away had explained it to me as a consequence of trauma.  Some things were just so big in our own heads that they had their own gravity.  They demanded to be dwelt on and they leveraged that dwelling to tie everything back into themselves, every detail they invoked and every question they raised.  They were impossible to figure out but we had to try, and that trying became more leverage.

She was fundamentally broken as a person.  I didn’t know a lot but I knew that, standing here and seeing her standing over a dead body.  I’d been there, I’d been a witness, and I’d been galled then too.  I’d witnessed a breakdown of someone extremely dangerous.

I one hundred and fifty percent understood Capricorn and Sveta’s reactions.

Those who had their trauma get too big were the types to extend it to everything.  A bad event became a fear of the world, or of men, of capes, or it became self-loathing that permeated every part of one’s own being.

The remedy was to talk to someone, to get perspective.  Complicated by the fact that sometimes people weren’t equipped to understand or to listen.

I stared at Ashley and the villains who stood around her.  They hadn’t rejected her outright.  Love Lost, Cleat, Disjoint, Sidepiece, Nailbiter.

They weren’t equipped.  Just the opposite.

“I’d like you to turn yourself in, and submit yourself into our custody,” I said.

Her eyes widened slightly.

“There it is,” Nailbiter said, in that eerie voice with its whistles and hisses of breath through teeth.

“There what is?” Sidepiece asked.

“Our hooded girl here called Damsel by her real name.”

“There’s a history,” I said, at nearly the same time as Damsel said, “History.”

“Uh huh,” Nailbiter said, disbelieving.  “The timing’s off.  When these guys showed up.  When you did.”

Damsel spoke without taking her eyes off me, “She probably came after me.  I fought her family in Boston.  My second trip, a while later, I fought her boss in the Protectorate.”

“Not my boss,” I said.

“No?”

“I wasn’t a Ward for long, and he wasn’t in charge at the time.”

Damsel shrugged, very easily and casually, as if she wasn’t standing over the body of the man she’d murdered.

“I’ve fought your family, and we’ve had run-ins,” she said.  “Bonesaw, who brought me back from the dead, fucked up her sister and attacked her family in their home.”

“Don’t go there,” I said.

She raised her hands in a ‘I give up’ kind of way.  Her power arced around the one, an aimless stream shooting off skyward at an angle before fizzling out.

“Come into custody, we’ll take you with us, we’ll have you stand down and stay off to the side until this whole thing wraps up,” I said.  “I know you’ve benefited a lot from the amnesty.  There are people you talk to and people who help you maintain a normal life.  If you walk away from this scene, that ends.”

“Holy shit, heroes are annoying,” Sidepiece said.  “Let’s go.  I’ve got a bingo sheet to fill out, and I’ve gotta land a direct hit with a bit of uterus or set off a combo explosion with a spleen toss if I want to clear a row.”

She approached Ashley, reaching out.  Nailbiter barred her way.

Was it worth it?  The ruse didn’t matter anymore, we weren’t going to keep her in this role.  Like so many things, she’d been great when the going was good.  When things got rougher- we needed to figure something out later.

It only mattered in that if we didn’t end up taking her away from this and revealed her role, she’d end up in danger.

“If you come, Damsel, I can’t promise there won’t be consequences, but I’ll testify about circumstances.  It’s a chaotic situation with Valefor as a factor, and everything else.  They’re mitigating factors.  Protect the amnesty, here.”

I saw her start to lift her foot from the ground.  Her power flared, and she bent over at the waist, catching one knee with her good hand.  It wouldn’t have been enough to catch her balance entirely, but Nailbiter had draped fingers along the one side.

Damsel put a hand on Nailbiter’s finger to steady herself as she straightened.

“You have people to help,” she said.  She pushed at Nailbiter’s finger.  “And I’m done with this.  I’m going to get my arm fixed before I start killing everyone I see out of pure frustration.”

“Good plan,” Disjoint said.

Will you confess?  I wanted to ask.  Will you tell someone?

I couldn’t ask it out loud, because there was no answer she could give that would suffice for all parties involved.

Leaving wasn’t as good as her staying in our sight, but it was better than staying with this bunch.

Sveta and Capricorn were making their careful way toward Valefor, moving slowly for my sake, and to keep an eye on my exchange with Damsel.  I flew to them, and they started moving faster as I joined the group again.

There was still the situation further into the settlement proper.

“She’s walking away,” I said.  “Best we can get.”

“I didn’t know it would be that hair-trigger,” Capricorn said.

“I figured it was,” another voice said.

We stopped.  Tristan summoned some orange motes around his hand.  Sveta brought up one hand, holding her forearm.

The terrain moved.  It was the camouflage blur that was Chris, except the effect I’d seen was patchy and inconsistent, and Chris was almost seamlessly fitting into the environment.  The form was mostly faded, but I could see the spikes and ridges that were feathers.

“I must be the only person who wasn’t surprised by that,” Chris added.

“How the hell did you get that good with the camouflage?” Tristan asked.”

“Staying still helps.  Being a genius helps too,” he said.  He made a dry cackling noise.  “Not that I’m a genius, exactly.  I’m good at getting into the mindset and physical form that makes me good at doing something.”

“And being a weird spiral bird helps with camouflage how?” Capricorn asked.  He edged closer to the corner of a building, trying to get a peek of the situation.”

“The introspection-self-reflection-reflection-grief wing of things?  Great for self awareness, which is great for knowing just how I’m positioned and how I look.  Don’t spend too long looking, Capricorn.  They’ve got a fucky-”

I saw the camouflage distort as he brought his hands to his head.

“-power,” he said.

I thought about the visual ‘snow’ and it flared back into existence at the lower right corner of my eye.

“The anti-thinker measure,” I said.

“Yeah.  Guess so.  One of the Fallen with the hostages.  Valefor’s there.  My Dark Introspection form disconnects mind from body, which is great if I want to put my body on autopilot or leave it with instinctive actions, but it doesn’t stop my mind from being fucked with.”

“You shouldn’t be this close to things,” I said.

“Well, I am.  I did stuff while you guys were running around.  I get fucked up when I do the deep self-dive with that form, so I told my body what to do and interjected a few times with new input.  I think I’m having a good day, my body definitely was, but it’s hard to tell with the emotional aftertaste.”

“A good day?” Sveta asked.

Yeah,” Chris said, with a note of something that might have been incredulity, or even curious emphasis.  “This is why I’m in the game.  Running with the big guys, dealing with the big things.  Lives on the line.”

“You’re a kid,” Capricorn said.

“Right now?  I’m halfway toward being a freaky personification of Dark Introspection and being a pink skinned scoundrel.  We’re all special cases, Cap.  Ashley snapping should drive that home, if your daily schedule hadn’t already.”

Sveta looked back in Ashley’s direction.

“You’re talking a lot,” I said.

“I’m desperately trying to ride an excited high here, because the alternative is slipping into Introspection or dealing with the fact some power is trying to drive me nuts.  Work with me.”

“I’ll try,” I said.

I wanted to sound more confident and authoritative, but- I didn’t like how we’d left Ashley, or how we’d let that happen.  That was something that weighed on me, and the melancholy I’d noted earlier in the day was giving way to something that riffed on the panic I’d experienced with Valefor.

Except the hints of panic I felt wasn’t about one situation with Valefor, or even about this greater conflict.  It was about big picture stuff, and one impulse call by Ashley had brought the big-picture concern into focus.  I knew she’d called it calculated, not impulse, but I couldn’t see how it could be.

I wanted things to be better and right now, they weren’t.

But I needed to focus.  I needed to work with these guys, like Chris had said.

I glanced at Sveta, and she looked just about as lost as I felt.

I reached for her hand and gave it a waggle.

“Hostages,” I said.  “We want to deal with Valefor too.”

“I prepared another form in case we needed to fight,” Chris said.  “It’s slow.”

“Vigilance,” Capricorn said.

“Yeah.”

“Save it.”

“Fourteen hostages, by the way.  There are five Fallen, one Valefor, two people from the Clans, and someone who might be the guy in charge of the bikers.  I spent a while looking, and I’m seeing ghosts now, I think.”

“Not good that that’s a thing,” Capricorn said, “But this is good to know.”

He extended a hand down toward Chris, who was still camouflaged, albeit less tidily than before.  He straightened, moving his arm like he was pulling Chris to his feet.

“Fuck,” Chris hissed.  Things clattered to the dirt around him.  Some were camouflaged.  Others were containers.  “I thought you were shaking my hand or something.”

“What is that?” I asked.

“Food.  Because I need to fuel up, and my next form is dense.  Some meds.  Plus my walkman and pocket atari, and some other stuff.  I was sorting out my stuff after getting dressed again.”

Walkman?” Capricorn asked.

“We’re post-end of the world, I’m not going to bring my phone and risk it getting broken or losing it and having someone use it to figure out my secret identity.  Fuck, it’s hard to see it now that it’s not on me.”

“You can’t bring all this stuff,” Capricorn said.

“Fuck off,” Chris replied.  “I do things how I do them.”

Capricorn sighed faintly and bent down to help.  I took Capricorn’s spot at the corner of the building, peering carefully around.

Chris protested, barely audible but clearly pissed.  “No, don’t help.  You’re just moving it around, and it’s hard enough to keep track of things when holes are appearing in everything.”

“Holes?” Capricorn asked.

“Holes.  Flesh with holes in it like it’s rotting, but round, fleshy, and damp, ground with pockmarks, walls with more holes, and-” his voice became slightly higher pitched as the intensity of them ratcheted up, “Things are looking at me or wriggling on the other side of the holes.  It’s not the coolest!  I’m trying not to think about it!”

“Shh,” I said.

They stopped talking, but Chris continued to rummage and rustle, and Capricorn stood back, arms folded.

Conversation continued in the distance, as the people managing the hostages talked.  I could peer around the corner and past a tree to see a slice of things between two buildings, but it wasn’t much.  I didn’t want to move too much and alert anyone.

“Problem?” Sveta asked.

“I wanted to see if I could overhear anything.  Chris is seeing things, why aren’t they affected?  Is it selective?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” she said.

“I’m going around,” Sveta said.  She swayed a little and touched the wall with one hand to steady herself.

“Okay.  Be careful.  Don’t let them affect you like they did Chris.”

She extended her arms out, reaching out with tendrils that had the arms at the ends to hamper them and weigh them down, then pulled herself away with less noise than Chris made as he packed up his stuff.

The Fallen settlement was wedged in between a ‘v’ of forest, with the road cutting in from the east.  The settlement proper was a denser cluster of rustic buildings, and houses dispersed out into the wider area, thinning out the further they were from this settlement.

I had the impression that this was the city center.  The main road cut through the cluster of buildings, about two houses down from where I was, and it seemed to do so with a weird angled turn in it.  It made me think these buildings had been some of the first, and the road had been an afterthought.

The hostages, from what I’d seen from my bird’s eye view, were being made to sit in the road, corralled by a group of people with powers.  Valefor among them.

I ventured further along, checking the coast was clear, then skip-flying over to the next vantage point by pushing off the ground with my foot and flying from there once airborne.  The buildings remained dense between myself and the Fallen.

Sveta dropped down from above me, scuffing the wall as she did.  It seemed intentional, to keep me from startling too much or lashing out in anticipation of an attack.

She pressed her fingers to my mouth.  Leaning in close, she murmured in my ear, “Two to your left.  Two to our right.  They were told where we are.  About twenty feet away.”

I nodded.

She pulled away and turned to one side.  I turned to the other, so my back was almost touching hers.

My instinct was to go up.  I flew, and at roughly the same moment, Sveta went low, torso almost flat against the ground, and she pulled herself in the direction of Capricorn and Chris.

I brought myself up to the roof level, and navigated the rooftops while using them as cover from anyone on the street.

Gunfire in the distance was met with more gunfire.  Prancer, Velvet, Moose, Narwhal, Weld, and Vista, with some of the Undersiders.

My heart pounded.  I moved with only light contact using toes and fingertips to guide myself as I stayed as close as I could to the rooftop while not putting any weight on it.

I saw them.  A man and a woman.  He was wearing a costume with ragged black leather enveloping most of him, and a round metal mask surrounded by leather that obscured the shape of his head.  The skin of his arms was tanned with arm-hairs sun-bleached.  His visible skin was dripping with sweat.  It wasn’t that hot a day out, with the sun hidden behind the clouds but that much leather had to be intense.

The woman was Fallen.  Her mask inverted her face, so she peered through the mouth-hole, and horns swept out from the top and bottom corners, for four in total.  She’d dressed lightly enough she had to have been cold, with a strapless top bound to her body by thin chains.  More chains wrapped around the red cloth wraps that encircled her forearms, pelvis, and legs.

As I looked down from above, I could see that she was touching the wall as she walked by it, leaving a trail of what looked like gaseous glass.  It formed edged, hooked shapes as she left it behind.

I flew a course intended to take me behind them, so I could do something quick and decisive.

Yellow lights flared along the length of the glass, gaseous smoke.  Eyes.

The smoke billowed out, taking on a more solid form as it became a nebulous mass of teeth, barbs, claws, and razor edges.

I raised my forcefield and smashed it.

My forcefield won, but only barely.  The beast-smoke I hit broke into solid chunks, some as large as my head.

The woman- I turned to look and saw her creating more smoke as something that billowed toward me in a wave.  I backed away until my forcefield was up, then crashed into it, hard.  I saw her stumble back, arms around her face.

Behind her, the guy with the circular mask had four lenses spaced evenly around the mask flare with energy.  Four shapes manifested in front of him- long and slim, round, thicker crescent, and a star-like shape with radial spokes.

I pushed out with my aura before he could do anything.  The woman stumbled and landed on her ass.  The guy weathered it, paused, and then touched the long, slim one.

The other three images disappeared, but the one he’d touched flew at me like a javelin.  I threw myself to one side, but it wasn’t even aimed at me.

It flared with a dark amber light as it embedded into the wall, then faded.  I put some distance between myself and it.

The woman created more smoke, sending it down the side-street in a wave that grazed buildings on both sides.  I flew up and away.

I pushed out with my aura, and it failed.  Like a car failing to start, it sputtered and died out.  On my second try, it did work, but it felt weak.

Power dampener.

My flight felt fine.  The wretch, unfortunate as it was, felt okay too.

Was it because my awe power was the one I’d been using?

The woman with the glass smoke sent a column skyward.  As I flew back and away, I could see it expanding out into the air.  More demon imagery ran through it, all the overlapping chaos of hell, snapping jaws, and ripping claws.

The guy was creating another diagram.  Three images remained, now.

Yeah.  This group that was with the hostages was important, if they had people like this as bodyguards and errand-runners.

I flew away from them, trying to get a sense of how vulnerable Valefor’s group was.  I was aware he’d gotten some hooks in me earlier, but I wasn’t feeling it as much.  I wasn’t sure if the emotional shock of Ashley had shaken me of some of it, or if it was subtle in a scary way.

I saw another glowing object pass through two walls and part of a short fence before hitting the ground twenty feet below me and twenty more feet to my right.

It detonated with the impact, expanding out into the space around it, getting thinner as it did.

The moment I realized it was expanding at a rate that would catch up with me, I flew toward the ground, away from the bubble.

My flight sputtered out, maneuvering dying, speed cutting out, and the entire thing threatening to just give up on me altogether.

I landed hard, with a grunt.

Explosion bomb, javelin dart, and two more, and my flight and aura were both in tatters.

I could at least reassure myself that these things didn’t tend to be permanent unless they were power theft.  Powers wanted to be used, and submitting to a power-canceling effect on a permanent basis didn’t make sense.

A mixed feeling, when I thought about the Wretch being permanently removed.

Now it was more or less all I had.  I could hear the smoke creatures.  I could see the spire that had been sent skyward, that now was a rigid pillar.  After they attacked, they seemed to solidify into solid fixtures.

“Work with me,” I whispered.

I brought out the Wretch, and I hit the nearest building, shattering the wood exterior.

I remained where I was, feeling that fluttery panic feeling again, tinged with the heavy feeling that always came with the Wretch.  I used the moment to retrieve my metal mask and don it.

I reached out in the direction of the shattered wood, and I grabbed one lengthy piece.  “Arm yourself,” I said, my voice muffled by the mask.

The wretch reached out for other chunks of the wall.  It bit into them, drummed them with impacts that made the whole building complain, and shredded solid struts with fingernails, punches, and kicks.

I canceled the field, then brought it out again.  I seized another long bit of wood, a supporting beam, and hauled on it.  The Wretch hit it, and broke it at the base.  I stumbled as it came free.

One-handed, using only my regular strength, I tossed the three feet of two-by-four up.

The Wretch caught it.

They were getting closer.  I could hear them.

My heart sank as the Wretch gripped the two-by-four so hard it splintered and broke at the middle.

“Use it as a weapon,” I said.

There was no indication the Wretch heard.

The pair were making their approach.  The guy had one glowing circle on his mask, now, and a crescent moon of manifested power-canceling energy that he held like a sword.

The smoke woman unleashed her power on me.  I charged in, crashing into it, and shattered the first ten feet.

The Wretch threw the two feet of two-by-four, or it let go of the piece as it dissipated.

The block of wood hit the masked woman in the face hard enough to knock her off of her feet and break the horn at the right side of her her chin.  The smoke ceased flowing, and the forms went still.

I’d hoped it would use the weapon to break stuff before it broke down in turn.

I watched as she tried to get to her feet, stumbled, and then fell back down again.  On her second attempt, she created two columns of her power, letting them solidify, before using them as leverage to stand.  She slumped against one, then slowly slumped back down toward the ground.

That left me to deal with the guy who could disrupt powers with his arsenal of minor abilities.  Right.

He went to the girl first, still holding his blade, and bent down by her.

“She okay?” I asked.

He didn’t respond.  Slowly, he helped her get to her feet.

In the same instant, the two of them looked off to one side, as if they’d heard a loud noise.

He dismissed the sword, one of his eyes lighting up, then drew out the star thing.

He cast it down at the ground, hard.  He and the girl disappeared.

The direction they’d been looking.  The Fallen that had been watching the hostages.

I ran after them, trying flight when I could.  It took a few running steps before I had something that was better than legging it.

Capricorn and Sveta had arrived.  That was the only thing I could see as a more or less unambiguous plus.

There was a group on the scene, facing down Valefor and the other Fallen, with the power nullifier and glass-smoke woman having already rejoined them by teleport.  A woman with a bunny mask and marching band outfit, ears poking up through the brim of the flat-top, feathered cap.  There were three people in costumes that I didn’t recognize, and there was Rain, with the metal mask, gloves, and dark hood.  He was tense, and he was tense for damn good reason.

Their arrival had precipitated something I’d seen as more or less inevitable.  With as many players in this game as there were, the hostages were always going to be the last card the Fallen group could play, so a part of me had trusted and hoped that they would hold off on playing it.

Something Rain or this mystery group had done had spooked them enough that they’d played the card.

The battlefield was the dirt road that cut an odd angle through the settlement center.  On that dirt, Erin was among the hostages that writhed and screamed as they lost their minds.

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Shadow – 5.10

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“Valefor,” I said, just loud enough for the others, Damsel included, to hear.  “Hypnotist Master.  I wrote about him in the document.  Don’t look him in the eyes.”

Chris was in his bird-spiral Dark Introspection form, and he curled up further, eyes nestling in deep, so his eye only barely peered out.

We backed up as the Fallen advanced as a crowd.  Chris prowled around behind us on long, black, bird limbs, his eye peering over our heads.  the pupil resembled a human face in shape, but more a cross-section of the middle of the face.

I wished I’d asked for more details on just how his forms functioned.  He might not have answered me, but on the off chance that he did, I’d have some sense of what we could do to defend ourselves.  I just knew it was maybe a solution of sorts in the face of Mama Mathers, the anti-thinker measure, her family, or some combination thereof.

Crises tended to highlight things.  They brought out the best and worst of us, whether it was courage in the face of danger to our loved ones or craven behavior in the midst of desperation.  They showed us who our friends were and how much they cared.  I was getting a sense of things I really needed and wanted to work on with these guys, and where our strengths as a team were.  Case in point: I needed to figure things out with Chris.

I’d never really had to think about it.  I’d grown up with my first team, and I’d known them intimately by default.  They had been there by default, up until a crisis bad enough it had broken us.

“You wanna piece of me!?” Sidepiece screamed out the words.  She put too much pitch in the higher sounds, and managed to get some vocal fry in the mix.

“You’ve got to stop saying that,” Disjoint said.

Love Lost wasn’t screaming, and the others in her group weren’t attacking.  Cleat, Etna, they only retreated in our general direction.

“You want some of this!?” Sidepiece screeched.

“Silence!” Valefor called out.  He pointed his cane in her direction, as he shouted it, and a few people tensed from that action alone.

Sidepiece shut her mouth.

“If the intrusive twits give each other advice, I think we should listen,” Damsel said.  “Don’t look at him.”

Sidepiece shook her head.

“She wasn’t looking,” Beast said.

“Let’s go,” I said.  I turned to go, hand on Sveta’s shoulder.

“Don’t run!” Valefor called out, at the top of his lungs.

My stride halted, and I swayed a bit before finding my footing.  Introspection Chris had been quicker to stop, and I bumped into him in the midst of my retreat.

“Don’t go anywhere!” he cried out.  His arms were out above his head, as if he shouted it to the heavens.

I turned around to look.

The others were reacting in a similar way.  Beast of Burden was one of the last to stop moving, and nearby bowled over the teammates that were using him as a human shield.  Sveta lost her balance, tipped over and crashed to the ground, arms paralyzed around her, not moving fast enough to break her fall.

Shit.

I took off, flying straight for Valefor.  I wasn’t the only person with the same idea.  Nailbiter attacked, fingers stabbing out.

One of Valefor’s people said something, distant enough he was barely audible, his hand on Valefor’s shoulder.  Other capes were protecting the group against Nailbiter.  One was producing a plume of red smoke that moved in slow motion.  The claws hit the smoke and stopped like they’d hit inviolable steel.

The cane swung out my way.  “Stop.”

I canceled my flight, dropping down to the ground.  I took a few steps forward before I could stop.  Our side was twenty or thirty feet behind me, and Valefor was another sixty or seventy feet ahead of me.

Nailbiter kept up the offense, bringing her claws back like she’d been hurt by the curling smoke, and then swiped in from the side, trying to catch the group from the other side.  The defending Fallen threw more smoke in the way of the attack, so red it looked like plastic, opaque and moving through the air at a crawl, once it left the Fallen man’s hand.

“Attacker,” someone said, hand at Valefor’s shoulder, indicating Nailbiter.

Sidepiece joined in.  She didn’t advance or retreat, but darted out to the side, fingers clenched in her guts, ripping something out.

Cease,” Valefor called out.

Both Nailbiter and Sidepiece were affected.

Nailbiter stopped, then withdrew her fingers.  Breathing hard, Sidepiece held a chunk of what might have been appendix or ovary in her hand, blood dripping freely down her arm and off of her elbow.  More blood flowed from the fresh injury in the roadkill mess that was her gut, over her pelvis and the rise of her low-rise jeans, and splattered onto her sneaker.

She dropped the bit at her feet.  It detonated, and she was flung to one side.

“Clever, but no.  You lie there, guts girl,” Valefor said.  “Don’t move a muscle.  The rest of you?”

Damsel used her power, hurling herself forward.

No powers,” Valefor called out.

Damsel stopped.

“No weapons, no tools.  None of you.  Stay still and wait.”

I hadn’t been looking at him.  I glanced at him, and I could see that his eyes were still covered.

The instructions he was getting.  He couldn’t see.  His power worked without him needing to see?  Or had he tapped into another source, replying on a cape that granted vision like Mapwright could get and grant mental images of areas?

My heart pounded, and I felt nausea welling up.  The Fallen chuckled.  A few of the young hooligan types cackled and danced around, arms waving as they approached, spreading out.

We’d been too tied up with Beast of Burden.  What should have been a brief engagement, taking out the two powerful Fallen and then retreating had become a thing.  Valefor had gotten into earshot, and apparently that was all he needed.

I was having trouble thinking straight.  Paralysis seemed to freeze my thoughts as much as it did my body.  I’d dealt with it for two years, being unable to move under my own weight.  The need to move became something fluttery in my chest, which fanned the swell of nausea.

It felt like colors were different, as was the clarity of my vision, as if I had someone else’s eyes.  I was acutely aware of the feeling of my clothing on my skin, every breath and how they weren’t measured to the breaths before or after them.

No powers, he’d said.  I couldn’t bring myself to fly.  I couldn’t bring the wretch out.  I glanced at Love Lost’s group.  They’d been bound by words in the same way.

I looked down and tried to focus.

The Fallen closed the distance.  I’d charged in, and that put me front and center.  I got a good look at Valefor as he approached.  There were white feathers in his hair and around his collar.  He bent his head at an angle while talking in a whisper with the person leading him.

His companion stopped him a few feet in front of me, thumbs hooked in the slim belt at his waist.

“Mama told you to help us,” Valefor said.  “You didn’t.”

“We did,” I said, still looking down.  “We got your people to safety and protected them.”

“I’ve been told there are Fallen casualties,” Valefor said.

“Pazuza and Gel are dead.  Smashed to a pulp.  Jay and Nell,” his companion said.  A guy with a face tattoo visible in the gaps of a ragged head-covering that only let his eyes peer through.  “Some injured.”

“Family,” Valefor said, sticking his cane in my direction.  “Don’t lie to me.”

The fact that he was talking to me meant that I was off limits for the rest.  The hooligans with demon masks and the darker, more adult Fallen walked past me, toward Beast of Burden and the others.  We were quickly getting surrounded, except surrounded was the wrong word.  We were stones in a river, and the Fallen were the water.

“We didn’t kill your people.  We did protect and evacuate some,” I said.  “That’s the truth.”

“Evacuated?  Yeah, that’s not a good thing,” he said.  He walked around me, reaching out until he touched my arm.  I flinched a little at the contact.  His fingers traced over the decoration at my shoulder.

I felt angry at that.  I was reminded of being in the hospital, of being manhandled by nurses and carers that only wanted to get on with their days.  When you were a certain kind of helpless, people took it as their right or common sense that they got to touch you.

“You’re going to help us.  Tell me you understand.”

“I understand,” I said, the words escaping my lips, barely audible.

“You’re going to help us.  You’re going to serve us.  Tell me you’re going to serve us.”

“I’m going to serve you,” I said.

Amy.  The thought sprung to mind.  Amy.  Amy.  For two years it had been Amy this, Amy that.  All my thoughts in service to being with her, thinking about her, wanting her.

Another compulsion.  Then and now, when I’d hit my limit, frustrated-

He reached up to my cheek, and gave it two sharp pats, audible.  “Good.”

Anger became indignation, enough to choke me, together with the irregular breathing and the nausea.  My head shook a little, my vision grew dark around the edges, and I teetered slightly.

I tipped over the brink, past the point where the use of my power was willful and wanted and at the point where it was something I had to hold back.

In surrender rather than intent, I lashed out with fear and self-admiration, and I let the Wretch loose, with Valefor in arm’s reach, in that order.

Had it been the other way around, the Wretch might have gotten its hands on the man.  But intimidation took hold, and Valefor was assisted by his manservant, who hauled him back and away.  He sprawled in the grass.

The manservant was slower to get back, his attention on helping Valefor.  Compulsion, possibly.  An invisible hand struck him in the arm, and the arm folded backward, wrist slapping against elbow, skin tearing from the blunt impact and the bones cutting him from within.

What was the rule I’d set for myself?  Seventy-five percent?  Seventy-five percent of the harm done was fair.

I wasn’t sure how to quantify physical harm against the emotional and mental harm done.  Standing where I was, Wretch active, Fallen backing away from me, I was in a fugue, emotions a storm as things I’d been bottling up sought release.

Valefor’s distraction had apparently freed people, or served as a kind of punctuation to end his ongoing commands.  I was free, even as the ‘serve’ command lingered in the corner of my mind’s eye.

It was like the Amy compulsion, the desire I couldn’t fulfill, painful to think about and unwanted even in its straightforward way.

Amy, Amy, Amy.  A wild, repetitive thought.

I could keep it in the corner and avoid thinking.  A trap I wouldn’t fall into if I didn’t take a step or clear partisan action.  I wouldn’t help Valefor, but I wouldn’t or couldn’t hurt him either.  I couldn’t speak.

I flew up and back to get myself safe.  Neutral.

Others were taking advantage.  Capricorn slugged a hooligan that was up in his face, gauntlet to chin.  Nailbiter, Beast of Burden and the others tore into the crowd that had moments ago thought they could pass through our group without incident.

Love Lost screamed, aiming the scream more at the Fallen stragglers.  The red smoke Fallen had already thrown some defenses up around Valefor, so the two of them seemed unaffected.

Others were caught in the effect, and their demeanor shifted.  Some looked happy in a demented way, others went cold, and it was hard to tell with others, as their costumes and masks covered them up too much.  They charged at Love Lost, and she met them with hands out, claws outstretched.  Cleat was a few paces behind her.

Some weren’t getting up.  Sveta.  I could see her looking up at me.  Sidepiece lay where she was.  Others weren’t fighting.  Chris in particular had backed away.  Good.

I still felt nauseous.  My skin still crawled.  I was still pissed, but it was bottled-up pissed again.

I looked in Prancer’s direction, and saw that he was moving on, heading away from us, not toward.  Some of his people looked back.

We were facing the casualties of Beast of Burden’s decision to split apart.  Prancer had to know we were here, with the noises and shouting, he wasn’t that far away, but they’d decided to go.

“Stop!” Valefor called out.  “Freeze!  No powers!  No weapons!  No tools!

Again, Beast of Burden was the last one to stop.  I turned to look, and saw Damsel off to one side.  Her arm was limp at her side, and she gripped her forearm with her hand.  Blood ran down to her fingertips.

Valefor had affected his allies, too.  There had been a note of emotion in his voice, frustration and a bit of fear.

He couldn’t see.  His voice was his control over the situation and he’d momentarily lost it.

There had been a time he’d needed eye contact.  Now he used his voice.  The trouble with a voice was that it wasn’t focused.  I could remember the cane, and the way both Nailbiter and Sidepiece had obeyed at the same time, earlier.

It worked on someone if they thought they were being referred to.

There were mental tricks I imagined someone could do.  It seemed like a noose that could be slipped, especially when he referred to people in the general.  I just wasn’t sure I could do it.

“Pagan, stand at ease,” Valefor said.  He tilted his head slightly and said the words like they were a joke.  “Report.”

The one the Wretch had hit shifted his weight until he could roll over enough that his knees were under him.  He knelt on the ground, clearly unsteady as he worked his way to his feet as best as he could without his hands.  His good arm cradled the damaged one.  “Two dead.  Ten injured, my best guess.  I’m one of them.  I need help soon.”

Two dead.

Were those dead on my hands?  I’d created a momentary opening, others had taken advantage of it.

What would have happened if we hadn’t been here?  Would there be less lives lost?  Or would some of the dangerous individuals be Valefor’s captive audience?

Could I afford to even think about that?  We were- we were caught again.  So long as we could talk and we could hear him, there wasn’t a good way to avoid his effect.

“Fallen, you can move,” Valefor said.  “Look for anyone that’s covering their ears.”

Fallen that had been paralyzed started moving

Fear was making it hard to breathe.  Could I use that again?  Another disruption?

“Girl with the spikes that I was just talking to.  Calm down.  Don’t try to be clever.”

Just like that, my thoughts were dulled, and I found myself going back to the little meditative phrases and mental loops.  Old PRT case numbers, a mantra I’d started to go over once when I’d needed to break a loop of thinking, which had inadvertently become something that calmed me down.

We’d been prepared for Valefor as he was, with outdated records and a printout of a wiki page that had been salvaged from someone’s laptop after the slow process began of rebuilding the internet.

Case zero was Scion.  He was also, I presumed, the last case.  Case one was the Siberian, technically the one who had first started the case files, as the PRT consolidated old data and tried to get information from other government agencies.  Case two was Behemoth, his rise had incited the creation of the PRT.  The case series had been an excuse to gather data from international agencies, too.  Case three was the lie of the virus, an early claim about the origin of powers, propagated by an early online newsgroup.  Case four was The Player, an early Thinker mastermind who had required some greater cooperation across multiple agencies to root out.  Later on, The Player would be a case-in-point for the formation of Watchdog and its core purpose.  Kenzie’s would-be group.

The first cases had inspired things, major functions and interests.  Committees had been formed and those committees had become something.  Even though a whole chunk of the early ones were minor or fabrications in the end, the virus theory included, they’d led to things like a dedicated parahuman science department.

Ordered, interesting, familiar.  It was calming, even if I didn’t want to be calm.

We’d talked about how to deal with him.  Tricks, techniques.  I’d thought I could use my aura, to try to override or distract.  I’d been right.

I’d gotten two Fallen killed and the ensuing fracas had led to roughly half of them being injured.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.  The idea of death weighed heavy, even if it looked as if it was Beast of Burden and Nailbiter’s doing.  Violence and death didn’t weigh heavy for them.

“Our side matches yours in number.  From what I’ve been told, you’re divided, fighting among yourselves.  We aren’t.  The strength of faith,” Valefor said.  He said it almost ironically.  “Let’s tip the scales.  You’re going to serve us.  You’re going to fight for us.  I’ll talk to you one by one and I’ll have you pledge allegiance, starting with-”

I heard Damsel’s power, brief.

Beast of Burden said something, his voice a growl.

“I said not to be clever,” Valefor said.  He drew in a deep breath, then tilted his head as far to the left as it would go, where ear would have been touching shoulder if his mask didn’t cover it.  “Do you want to see what I can do if I get creative?  Someone assist me.”

A Fallen woman near him hurried to his side, supporting and guiding him.  She had her tits out, and every inch of her was caked in goopy black paint, which obscured her features and hid details.  Where her lips parted, the paint had cracked, so there was only a broken hard ridge, with lips, teeth and tongue behind.  It even caked her hair.

It didn’t look like a Tempera sort of thing.  Just costume.

They navigated the crowd, Fallen moving out of their way, our guys and the violent capes frozen in place.

Valefor was far enough away from me that I could barely hear him.  He stood in front of Damsel.

Her power flared.  She stumbled.

The woman with Valefor said something.

Stop,” Valefor said.  “Don’t do that again.  Move your hand.”

She pulled her hand away from her forearm.  There was a hole where she had dug her thumb in under the skin.

We’d talked about this, but not- not quite like this.

“You-” Valefor started.

The power flared again.  She stumbled, spell broken, and then brought her good hand around, toward Valefor.

The woman in black paint let go of Valefor and caught Damsel’s wrist, forcing it upward.  The power shot well over their heads, and Damsel fell.

Cease,” Valefor said.  “Let’s distract you.  Kill your friends.”

Damsel wheeled around, turning toward Nailbiter and Sidepiece.  Then she hesitated, looking up at me.

The woman in black paint moved, lunging to intercept another attacker.

Chris, leaping in.  The woman in black kept him from getting his talons on Valefor.  He was a spiral twist of feather and scaly talonflesh, with eyes and hard ridges in the mix.  His spindly talons raked and grabbed, but the woman in black was fast, strong, and possibly a precog.

He’d picked this form with Masters in mind.  Capes that controlled people.  He hadn’t been willing to say just how or why it helped, only that he was unsure how well it would work.

At the time, I’d told myself he’d be kept back and out of the way, so it barely mattered, especially if we couldn’t be certain how reliable it was.

Chris got two of his four talons on Damsel, and he tossed her.  She used her power while mid-air, and landed roughly on her feet, one hand touching the ground.  Her injured arm hung limp.

The arm sparked and she fell.

Fallen pushed past our people to help Valefor, as Introspection Chris tried to reach around the woman in black and scratch him.  Powers came to bear: red smoke, a snake that looked like it was made of intestine and barbed wire, sprouting spikes that crackled with electricity- Introspection Chris disengaged and leaped back as the Fallen came rushing at him.

Him was really a quirky word to use when he had this form.

There were two with enhanced speed, and the barbed intestine snake had reach.  He wasn’t that fast in this form, even if he was faster than a normal human might have been.  The speedy Fallen tackled him.  The snake caught his leg.

I flew a little closer, unconsciously, wanting to keep an eye on things, make sure he was okay.  Mrs. Yamada had charged me with their care.

The two Fallen with enhanced speed looked related.  They sped up, but as they did, their bodies deformed.  Legs bent the wrong way, operating digitigrade, the tops of their heads twisted, until their lower jaws pointed the opposite directions that their upper jaws, noses, and eyes did.

From the way he reacted to their hits, they hit hard too.  Strength, speed, but at a cost to fluidity of motion, steadily increasing clumsiness and facility.

He shook them, and the first fell, the second slipping and the getting a hold of one taloned foot.  Fallen advanced on Chris as a larger group.

The two awkward Fallen speedsters were bleeding, I saw.

Just as the group seemed poised to go after him, I pushed out with my aura, hard.

Heads turned.

I hadn’t even meant to.  It was instinct, and it was instinct on behalf of Chris.  I didn’t even care that much about Chris.

The act on his behalf brought the pledge to Valefor to mind.  I’d promised to serve, and it was a loop in my thoughts now.  The usual techniques didn’t help to break it.

It was a peculiar battlefield, so many people frozen in place, the combatants on the Fallen side not wanting to break the spell by jarring anyone too much.  I hadn’t experienced it myself, but it seemed that if people were told to stop, and were set to moving by a stumble or a push, that was enough that it needed to be renewed.

Damsel had broken her prosthetic hand to make her power spark, each stumble forcing a renewal.  Now she stalked toward the group.  Her last order had been to kill her friends.

Thought process:  I needed to help Valefor.  I needed to help the others.  I couldn’t break the mental loop and I couldn’t remain neutral anymore, now that the thought was heavy in my mind’s eye.  I would help Valefor.

I flew to Valefor, while everyone’s attention was on Chris.  Fallen turned, the woman in black first among them, skin red and sunburned beneath the cracked black paint.  There were veins of red through the paint that weren’t sunburned skin peeking through, either, and I saw she had horns, now that I was closer.

I brought the Wretch forth as she lunged for me.

The Wretch was invisible, and she had planned her punch and tackle to hit me, not a force a few feet in front of me.  She bounced away, and the Wretch disappeared.  Others were so distracted with Chris and now Beast of Burden, who had been jostled in the fighting, they didn’t even seem to notice.

I collided with Valefor fairly hard as I put my arms around him.  He couldn’t see me coming, so he couldn’t even brace against the impact.  I would help him in such a way that he couldn’t tell me to stop helping and put himself in danger again.

Collecting him, I flew away from the scene.

I would help and serve him.  That was the idea he’d planted in my head.

Before he could catch his breath from the impact, I flew in a spiral tight enough his legs went out to the side, and then gently deposited him on a rooftop.

I flew away before he could catch his footing, get a lungful of air, and give me another command.

The compulsion wasn’t gone.  It was there.

But it had abated.  I’d served the rule, but not the spirit.

The tide had turned.  The villains that were assisting us were B-listers, but the Fallen weren’t the cream of the Fallen’s crop either.  I flew past the group, jostling people, grabbing them and letting go a moment later.

Valefor wouldn’t find his way back in time, I hoped, and the Fallen were already injured from the brief surprise attack.

A spray of cold water from Capricorn woke up everyone I hadn’t been able to reach.  The Fallen retreated, the intestine-snake snatching up two and yanking them back.  I did much the same in finding Sveta lying in tall grass, her suit and wig without a head beneath.  A knife impaled her back but hadn’t penetrated the shell.  I carried her away, feeling the reassuring thump of her presence within.

“You okay?” I asked, once we were in the air.

“Embarrassed,” Sveta said, her voice sounding a bit like it came from the depths of a well.

“Okay,” I said.  I landed a distance away, just far enough away we could keep Beast and Damsel’s group of capes in sight.

Once four-legged, now three-legged, Chris limped his way to us.  He breathed hard and curled up tight.  Byron followed.

“Hey guy,” I said.  I wished we had a name for him.  “Mr. Introspection.  You’re missing a leg.  You okay?”

He blinked once.

I had no idea what that meant.  Go figure, that he wasn’t any more forthcoming when he didn’t seem to have a working mouth.

“What did you end up doing?” Byron asked.

“Took Valefor away.  He’s still out there,” I said.  “Unfortunately.”

I eyed Damsel, who was at the periphery of Beast of Burden’s group.  There was a dark look in her eye as she talked to that group, clearly heated and I wasn’t there to talk her down.

“Tristan couldn’t switch to me, I don’t think,” Byron said.  “When we were talking about capes we might run into last night, we theorized it was a thing we could do, that if he switched to me I might not be compelled, but he didn’t switch.”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “We knew there were a half-dozen things we could maybe do, and some worked, some didn’t.”

“I hate- I hate losing control.  I only have control over half my life to begin with,” Byron said.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  Her face peered up through the neckhole of her suit.  “There’s- Careful, Victoria.  Or, Byron, can you put your gauntlets over this gap, fasten it when I say so?”

“Sure,” Byron said.

“Be careful,” Sveta said.

She’d undone a clasp at the shoulder.  She brought her head out,  twisting it around in a way a neck couldn’t.  Her tendrils were bound with metal rings into a loose column that disappeared into her suit.  She began working her way into a comfortable position.  “Not having control, it sucks.  Fuck that guy.”

“Agreed on both counts, but the lack of control helped us,” I said.  “It’s how I used my aura.  It’s what Damsel did.”

Sveta pursed her lips.

Damsel was stalking.  Sidepiece and Nailbiter were sticking with her.  Disjoint hung back, talking to Beast of Burden.  Etna, Love Lost, and Cleat seemed to be a sub-clique in that group.

Byron blurred.  His armor shifted tints from blue to red.

“It’s what Dark Introspection here did,” Tristan said.    “Mind-body disconnect, right?  Looking inward, elective connection.”

Chris curled up tighter.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  He bent down to give Chris a pat.  “You’re so weird.”

“You did good,” I said.

I could see the looks on faces throughout our small group, or what I could see of faces.  Chris being wound together, Sveta looking so deeply unhappy, Tristan’s eyes being narrower.

It wasn’t just us.  The violent capes were more agitated.

I felt that way.  The panic that had let me tap into the aura and Wretch wasn’t going all the way away.  I wore armor and a costume that made me feel like standing tall and I felt very small.

Fuck that guy was right.

“What did he tell you?” Tristan asked me.  “Orders, compulsions?”

“To serve, to help.  I helped by removing him from a dangerous situation.  I’m not all the way resolved, there.  I don’t want to run into him again.”

“Did he tell you to lie?”

“Stop that,” Sveta said.  “She would have to say no if he did, so it doesn’t matter.”

“Not always,” Tristan said.  “Sometimes you get loopholes.  It’s worth asking.”

I shook my head.  “He didn’t tell me to lie.  He was distracted, I think.  He tried to pull a big gambit to turn the tides and he’s operating blind.  Literally, I don’t think he can see.”

I still had the traitorous, general thoughts and impressions from the compulsion.  I was familiar with having thoughts that weren’t mine in my head.  The mind was supposed to be sacrosanct, the thoughts it contained purely sourced from oneself and for oneself.  Valefor had violated the former, like Amy had violated the latter.

On a level, I was just happy I hadn’t killed him.  I knew there was an argument for why I should have, had I had the opportunity.  I also knew it would have been a betrayal of myself and the me I wanted to be.

For all these reasons and more, mind control was another one of the parts of the game.  Too many people found it viscerally horrifying, myself included, and the way things could break down if mind control saw common use was too big of a problem.  The natural reaction from society, or from our sub-society, was to fight back.

Valefor obviously didn’t care.

He didn’t give me the impression of someone at home in a big thing like the one we’d been in, especially after the fighting had started, and he’d still been pretty damn scary.

“We could go,” I said.  “We caught them off guard once or twice there, and we got some lumps in.  It’s not quite breaking the back of the Fallen, but we could pull away, regroup with others, and plan for the perimeter and Looksee’s trap.”

“I want to do more,” Sveta said.  “I was useless back there.”

“I can’t back down from this,” Tristan-Capricorn said.  “I think if we run into him again, if I’m alert, I might know what to do.”

“If you’re sure,” I said.

He nodded.

I looked down at Introspection Chris.  “How about you?  You good to retreat to the background?  Gallop in if you see the need and feel up to it?”

He lurched to his feet, curled and uncurled like he was stretching, and then loped away, swaying a bit to compensate for the missing forelimb.  He bucked a bit, claw reaching up, and then the iffy camouflage kicked in.

“Okay,” I said.  “I have a lot of questions.”

“His whole thing is he doesn’t like answering them,” Capricorn said.

“He’s doing his part,” Sveta said.  “That was brave.”

“It was insane,” Capricorn said.  “No offense intended to present company, brothers, or self.”

“Fine line between bravery and insanity,” I said.

I looked across the clearing to Beast of Burden’s group.  Damsel wasn’t pacing anymore.

Capricorn approached and stood next to me, his armored shoulder touching the spikes at mine.  Sveta stood at my other side, looking in that direction.

“Do we try this?” Capricorn asked.

“We might have to.  I don’t like leaving her alone like this.”

“Okay.”

Capricorn put a hand up.  Disjoint was watching us, and nudged Beast of Burden.

Their group went quiet.

I was well aware that Love Lost was a danger to Rain.  I was aware of how dangerous these guys were in general.  Beast of Burden had killed two members of the Fallen’s inner circle, it sounded like.  They’d been people Valefor was close to.

We approached, slow and steady.

“Can we try this a second time?” Tristan asked.  “Truce?  We deal with this whole situation.  There are hostages we need to rescue and we can’t afford to fight.”

“I like the idea,” Disjoint said.

“Backup would be awful nice,” Sidepiece said.  She had a really annoying voice.  I’d noticed it earlier.  A bit of the teenage vocal fry, trying a bit to sound cute, but she wasn’t a teenager and I didn’t think she was cute.

“Not your call,” Beast of Burden said.

“Is it supposed to be yours?” Damsel asked.

“You can be quiet,” Beast of Burden said.  “I’ve heard too much from you today.  Earn your stripes first, then talk.”

“Hey, Damsel of Distress,” I said.

She turned to me.

“You good?  Any lingering compulsions?”

“No.  I don’t have much goodness to go around, but I don’t have any compulsion either.  I don’t have friends.”

“You gave me a look,” Sidepiece said.  She had hair over one side of her face, but she didn’t take very good care of it, and a mask in the same cut as the phantom of the opera one, albeit cruder, covered part of her face.  Black makeup filled her lower eye socket and distorted the impression of her eyeshape.  “A very flattering murderous look.”

“I thought about it,” Damsel said, imperious and proud, chin rising a bit.  “I don’t know if you qualify as a friend, when I barely know you, but I don’t mind your company, Sidepiece, and I can respect a lady with the discipline to have a… twelve inch waist?”

She smiled a bit.  Her arm sparked, her power ripping between the wound at her forearm and her fingertips.  and she stumbled into Disjoint.  Frowning, she backed away until she was a short distance from everyone else.

“Sixteen inches, last I checked, but thank you.  You’re a dear,” Sidepiece said, ignoring the power misfire and maintaining her intentionally frayed voice as she feigned higher class.

“Will you help us?” I asked.

“No,” Beast of Burden said.

Nailbiter and Damsel exchanged a look.  Nailbiter looked over at Sidepiece.

“Yes,” Nailbiter said, voice whistling slightly.

Beast of Burden wheeled on her, finger pointing.  “Not your choice.”

“Democratically?” Sidepiece asked.  “I think most of us want the help, Bob.”

“This isn’t a democracy,” Beast of Burden said.  “This is a fucking tyranny.  You signed on for it, and you agreed I’m leader because I’m good for the business and track record.  You also agreed that if the crown is moving to another head, it’s going to do so outside of jobs.  Leaders can’t be second guessed on the field.”

“Either we run or we press on,” Damsel said, second guessing him.

“Enough,” Beast of Burden said.

“If we press on, we’re going to face worse than we just did.  I agree with Sidepiece and Nailbiter.  It makes sense,” Damsel said.

Her power sparked again.  She maintained her balance, overcompensated, and stumbled a step the other way.

“You okay?” Sveta asked.

“Just fine,” Damsel said, curt and sounding anything but.  She turned back to Beast of Burden.  “Don’t be a wuss, Beast.  You look weaker trying to go this alone than you do taking the help.”

Before Beast of Burden could reply, Love Lost approached him from behind.  She rapped claws with blood still on them on the back of his armor.

He turned.

She pointed at Nailbiter, then at us.

“She’s the client,” Damsel said.

He stabbed a finger her way.  “Last warning.”

Her power sparked.  This time she fell.

“Good.  Stay like that,” Beast of Burden said.  He stepped forward and placed one iron boot on the edge of her dress.  Damsel remained where she was.  Struggling would have been futile.

“Don’t be a dick,” I said.

“Don’t interject yourself into our business.  If the client wants help, fine.  We’ll do this.”

“We need to find the hostages.  We’ll reunite with another group we’re working with and use their thinkers or other resources.  If there’s a confrontation, we work together,” I said.

Beast of Burden shrugged, spreading his gauntlet-clad hands slightly.  He stepped off of Damsel’s dress, and went to walk in the direction the fighting had gone.  It seemed with Prancer mobile and Velvet having some emphasis on enhanced maneuverability when driving with her telekinesis, they were moving around a lot, and the Fallen were giving chase.  They had moved away since the fight with Valefor.

Love Lost pointed.  She didn’t spare Damsel a glance as she walked on.  Some of the others joined her.  Nailbiter, Disjoint, and Etna.  Sidepiece lingered as Damsel picked herself up.  Her arm sparked twice, but she didn’t fall.

She gave us a look, then stalked away.

We cut through the north end of the settlement, toward the northwest corner, and the sound of ongoing confrontation got us jogging after them.  Well, I flew, but the rest jogged or ran.

Prancer was engaged.  They were fighting with hit and run tactics, and when the Fallen didn’t take the bait or stopped to pause, Prancer’s group assaulted buildings.  There was a shop on fire, and a large garage with a truck in it that now had a chunk missing.

A big part of what let them do that was the heroes at the west end of the settlement, and the presence of the Undersiders.  Bitch and her dogs were standing beside Vista.  Narwhal was close, and two black stuffed animals reared up at the edge of the camp.  Foil was there, but Tattletale was not.

No Valefor, but I could see a core group of Fallen with fancier costumes and that kind of presence.

Nobody that looked like they could be Mama Mathers, either.

The pressure was on, and the Fallen looked to be losing ground.  There were world-class capes lined up against them.  If the actual groups were even in power, and I wasn’t sure they were, then Prancer’s group was playing it in such a way that even if the Fallen won, they wouldn’t have a town left after.

My phone buzzed.

I pulled it out.

Looksee:
Not peeking am reporting what others saying.  Precog with me says Vista says that the hostages you want are toward south end of town.  Map attached.

The text had an image attached.

I flew skyward, looking.

A group.  Valefor’s group, with Fallen civilians and others.  The hostages.

We could figure something out.

White flickers danced in the corner of my vision.  I looked away, but they persisted.  Like the motes of dust in my eye, but akin to snowflakes.

If that was their anti-thinker measure, which might well be Mama Mathers, then even the thinker-esque advantage of having a bird’s eye view was enough to give them an in.

I grit my teeth.

I’d seen the building Looksee had marked on the map.

Dropping out of the sky, I landed beside the group.  “This way.  The-”

Turning toward Beast of Burden’s group, I was just in time to see him backhand Damsel across the face.  It was a casual swing, but he was strong and he wore a gauntlet.  She hit the ground hard.

“Jesus fuck, no wonder your team is mutinying,” Capricorn said.  “You can’t play nice with others in a crisis?  There’s stuff going on!  Be a professional.”

“She didn’t even say anything!  This time!” Sidepiece said, bending down beside Damsel.  Damsel pushed her away.

Her damaged hand at her face, the other used to get to her feet, Damsel worked her way to a standing position.  I didn’t see anything resembling Ashley in her eyes.

“I gave her a final warning,” Beast of Burden said.

“Hey,” Capricorn said.

“Damsel,” I said.  “Ashley.

“Stop,” Beast of Burden said, pointing at Damsel, talking over me.

One hand still on her face, she pointed at him and blasted before his expression could change.

Darkness, shadow, distorted space and visual static ripped through armor, flesh, and armor again, tearing a hole clean through him.  The hole caved in on itself, metal creaking as it bent, blood fountaining out and splashing up on half the people nearby.

You stop,” she said.

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Shadow – 5.9

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A fence gave us cover as we made our way to the nearest house.  It had been damaged earlier in the skirmish, to the point that a third of the house was missing, part of the ground floor and part of the upper floor.  A good chunk of that part of the building was strewn over the small field behind the house.

The ongoing fight was still far away.  I could hear gunfire and see periodic light shows.  I would have liked to take a hand in things, but I didn’t want to break from the plan to work the edges of the scene.  The innocents first.  Evacuation.

“Hey!” Capricorn called out.  “Civilians?”

“Try us and see!” was the response, coming down from above.  The man was upstairs.

Capricorn looked over at Sveta and I, giving us a dumbfounded shrug.

“We’re good guys!” Sveta called out.  “We’re evacuating people who aren’t part of the fight!”

“Yeah?”

“We’ll tell you where to go.  There are people in uniform waiting at the edge of the woods.  They’ll take you somewhere safe,” Sveta said.

There was a murmured conversation between the people on the upper floor.  I could only hear the sound of it.  Worried, tense, a word that might have been a swear word from the guy.

“We were stranded up here.  Stairs got trashed, and floor looks unsteady,” the guy said.  “We’ll take that offer if you help us down.”

Someone else upstairs spoke to the guy, voice tense and urgent.

“We can do that,” Sveta said.

The voices upstairs went quiet.

“I could use my power to secure the building,” Capricorn said.  “Making it permanent would mean taking the barricades I made between here and either getting rid of them or making them permanent too.”

I looked back.  As we’d made our way between the forest and the first house, Capricorn had erected short walls for cover against gunfire.  Some cut into field and road.

It seemed like such a simple thing, but it said a lot about our presence here and what we were doing.  The more walls, the safer the route for people to follow as they evacuated, but it also made life harder for anyone who came back here to live in the settlement again.  With some of the walls edging into the road, it also created the low-level risk that if Hollow Point was going to end the attack and leave, they’d have a hard time getting out.

Did we want to burn their bridge behind our enemies, when they were fighting something bigger and nastier?  The best case scenario here was that the Fallen were neutralized and Hollow Point was left without any true merits to their name.  Setting up Hollow Point to find there wasn’t a place to run to?  To die?  Worse?

No.  Not when I’d seen the breaker woman go through the ‘worse’.

“Can you clear away the walls near the road?” I asked.

Capricorn nodded.

He started toward the edge of the broken wall, so he’d be able to see what he was working on.  I put my hand out, flat against the front of his armor, stopping him.

The people upstairs were too quiet.  After the tense conversation among the members up there, the silence felt off.

I checked to make sure the ongoing fighting was still far away and that our flanks were clear of trouble, put the forcefield up and ventured out first.

At the edge of the broken floor, a pair of men were crouching.  What seemed to be two families were gathered in the room behind them, peering through the door.  The men and their wives looked more like older teens or twenty-ish, and the kids I could see were four or five.

The floor was shattered, that section of the upstairs open to the outdoors.  Slats of the floor that hadn’t been broken when the damage had been done now stabbed out into open air.

“I can bring the kids down,” I said.

“My wife first,” the older of the two guys said.  “She’ll look after them as you bring them down.”

“Sure,” I said.

Behind me, Capricorn ventured out.  He began drawing the motes.  I watched how the younger of the two guys kept his eyes on Capricorn, then leaned forward a bit, floor creaking under him, as he tried to peer down at the orange lights and the outlined trails.

A narrow young woman with brown hair and a red bandanna at her neck ventured forward along the more intact portions of the floor.  She hesitated, looking at the guy I presumed was her husband, a blond guy with peach fuzz facial hair and greasy, medium-length hair combed into a fauxhawk.  He had tattoos at his neck and at the backs of his hands.

“Go on,” he said.

She ventured forward.  The damaged floor creaked ominously, and she stopped.

I flew closer to her, one eye on the two men.

“I’ve got you,” I said, taking her wrists in my hands.

Her husband reached behind his back and drew a handgun as I focused on making sure I had a grip.  I could have reacted, but I didn’t, focusing on the woman instead.  He leveled the weapon at my head.

“I’m trying to help you and your family,” I said.

“You’re going to help us, yeah,” he said.  “You’re going to stay with me, and your friend down there is going to do what I say.”

This wasn’t an auspicious start.

“You alright, Victoria?” Capricorn asked.

“I’m fine,” I said.  I verified the wife wouldn’t fall if I let go, then released her wrists.  She backed away.

The guy didn’t seem to like how unbothered I seemed.  I was worried, I knew what might happen if he fired two bullets, and if he panicked, he might empty the gun at me.  I’d had someone do that, once.

Downstairs, Capricorn picked his way across the shattered floorboards and bits of roof as he walked backward.

“You stay,” the guy with the fauxhawk and the gun said.

Capricorn looked off to his left.

He was looking at Sveta.  That worked.

The wife with the red bandanna ushered the kids further into the room.  She shut the door.

Just the two men, Capricorn and I.

And, faster than I’d expected, Sveta at an open window, past a door into another room upstairs.

“You’re going to go run off that way, armor boy, staying where I can see you until you’re a speck in the distance,” the man with the gun said.  “Direction of the big house.  It got trashed, but there should be people around there.  I want you to report some things, starting with the fact we’re holed up here, and the attacking group went past us.  We can get them from behind.  Got it?  Then you’re going to come back the same way and report-”

I met Sveta’s eyes and nodded.

“-to us.  Why are you nodding, bitch?” the man asked.

Sveta’s hand went out.  She missed the gun, but stopped extending her arm.  It came to rest on his arm, fingers hooking over the top, and pulled it back and away.

Wretch up, I flew into the floor beneath the man’s feet.  Already damaged, it broke further, the floor under him becoming a slope.

I reached out to catch, and got my hand around the gun.  He fell the rest of the way, his hands out, wrists catching the worst of the impact on uneven ground.  He fell to his side a moment later, groaning.  The timing of the fall was weirdly off, but only because he’d had to figure out how to pull back and not be resting his upper body weight on two injured wrists.

The other guy put his hands up.

“Can you do cuffs?” I asked Capricorn.

“I can.  I can splint, while I’m at it,” he said.  He bent down by the guy.  “If I do it wrong, though, it’s going to be fifteen pounds of rock hanging off of those hands of yours.  You going to cooperate?”

The guy on the ground below spat.

“Yeah.  Big man.  Keep those arms still,” Capricorn said.  He gave me a look, eyes visible behind the eyeholes of his helm.

The door cracked open.  The woman peered out.

“Do we need to worry about you too?” I asked her.

“No.  Are you still offering that way out?”

“Yeah.  Come on, hurry up,” I said.

“Sorry my husband’s an asshole,” she said.

“Mom,” the kid behind her said.

“He is,” she said.  “Don’t be like your dad, okay?”

Good enough, I supposed.

I flew her down to the ground, then flew the kids two at a time.  The second wife and then the man were last.  We led them back and away, and the gunman with his lower arms encased in a single growth of stone was last.

I imagined he could use that stone as a makeshift weapon if he had a mind to, but it was hard to picture him being very effective that way, especially when possibly broken wrists were encased in the middle.  Knee-buckling pain, I imagined.

I wasn’t sure if Capricorn had similar reservations, but he withdrew a bit of cord from his belt, and he used orange motes to fix one end to the cuffs and another bit to the guy’s belt.  He steered the guy with one hand at his shoulder.

Sveta came around the corner of the house.  She put out one hand, and I slapped her hand with mine, holding it for a moment in a victory squeeze.

This?  As melancholy as everything else could be, I liked this.

“You’re leaving.  We’re going to head that way,” I said, indicating the path we’d made, with the walls for cover.  “Any advice on where to go?  Houses with children?”

“Most houses have children or people under eighteen,” the wife said, guiding her kids much like Capricorn guided her errant husband.  “The red house.  Abby looks after some of the children when the parents go to war or go into the city.”

“Do they have weapons?” Capricorn asked.

“Of course.  We hunt deer and rabbit when we can.”

“The leadership’s house is totally gone,” the other woman observed.  “They hit it first.”

I looked in the direction she was facing.  At the corner of the camp, near the point where the road disappeared into the forest, one of the larger houses had been leveled.

On the alert for any drawn weapons, I caught the man putting his hand on his wife’s arm.  She looked down.

I hated that.  I hadn’t seen it often, over the years, but it got under my skin when I did.  From the time I was young, my mom had drawn attention to those things after the fact, when we did some crisis point stuff, responding to domestic violence calls, or when she introduced me to a police detective and his wife she knew.  She’d remark on the dynamics between husband and wife, the power plays, and the signs that something else was going on.  The intent was to make me aware, and to ensure I’d avoid those same things when I got into a relationship.

“If we send these guys out to the people at the edge of the forest, will you stick with us?” I asked the wife.  “I don’t want to repeat this thing with having to fight you guys to help you.”

She looked at the other woman.  “You’ll look after my kids?”

“Of course.”

“She’s my sister,” the wife said.  “If she’s got my kids, then I’m okay giving you directions.”

“Go,” Capricorn said.  He gave the one guy a shove.  “Straight line that way.  They’re not going to arrest you unless you cause trouble.”

“Don’t be an asshole, Tony,” the wife said.  “If you did break your wrists, you’re going to need someone to wipe your tush.  I’ve told you before, I’ll only make your life easy if you return the favor.”

“Fuck off,” Tony said, with an exhausted sort of emphasis on ‘off’.  “We’re going.  I’m getting away from Nan.”

“Yeah,” the other guy said.

The family made their way.  They ducked low by the walls, and Tony had to squat and waddle in way I found a little amusing, his knees apart and hands down.

“Nan?” I asked the wife.

“Yeah.  Short for Nancy.”

“Alright,” I said.  “You’re good, here?  I don’t need to worry about you?”

“Family first, friends second, Fallen and faith third,” she said.  “If this is what we’re having to deal with here, I don’t want it.  I’ll help you get some others I know out.”

Right.  It wasn’t because it was ‘right’, but because of her specific priorities.  Something to be careful of.

“We ran into someone who wigged out, full sanity breakdown,” Capricorn said.  “Same with you?”

“Not with me.  I’m… background.  I can’t say much more.”

“Yeah, we got the same from them, too,” he said.  “Come on.”

Anyone who was anything had a gun to their heads, it sounded like.  The people with powers, the people who’d come in to help were now obligated to, and nobody seemed willing or able to elaborate on particulars.

It made me nervous.  The idea of the brain-fucking stuff bothered me more than the shackled guy turning into the Wretch-like flesh puddle, back in the woods.  My heart didn’t race, but each pound of it felt monumental and heavy in my chest.

We made our way to the next house.  It was more intact than the last, but getting to it without risking being shot by anyone in the windows was tricky.  Too much open space between buildings.

The woman pulled off her bandanna, then held it over her head, venturing into the open space.  Nobody shot.  She approached the house, and the side door opened.  A middle-aged man met her on the extended stairs that acted as a kind of porch.

She beckoned for us to approach.  I decided to do it, because I had my defenses.

I was very aware that the sound of the ongoing confrontation had changed.  Things had moved closer.  It was hard to map out just where people were, because the camp had a more village-like settlement stabbing through the lower half of it, dense enough to block the view of the streets and the far side.  The settlement was densest in the southeast, closer to the road and the ‘big house’.  There were more scattered houses and fields to the north and west.  Those would be harder to reach.

I flew to the house, landed on the grass, and walked to the porch.  Arriving directly at the porch could be seen as threatening.

“What’s on the far side of the trees?” the middle-aged guy asked.  He had a salt-and-pepper beard and broad shoulders.  He looked like a farm worker, with tattoos that would’ve been fit for a sailor if they had been less biblical and more nautical.

“People in uniform,” I said.  “They’re armed, but they’ll only shoot if they see weapons.  You should leave yours behind.”

He glanced at Nan.

“They’ll guard you, and they won’t arrest you,” I said, firmly.

“You say.  We don’t have guarantees.”

“You don’t,” I said.  “But as much as people don’t like you guys as a whole, people have no grudge with you and the amnesty holds until you’re charged with something.  Only the ones in charge are a concern, and that’s mostly because that’s how they handled this whole thing.”

“It’s cute you think that,” he said.  “We never had fair treatment, and I don’t think we’re going to get it now.”

“We’re here.  Some of our people are risking getting shot, even by some of you guys.  Do you want to be treated fair?  Take the help that’s offered.”

“If we want to be treated fair, the only sure way is to rely on each other,” he said.  “That’s not saying we won’t listen to you, but I’m not sure, here.”

I set my jaw, lips pressing together momentarily, because the alternative was that they’d part and I’d say something.  I didn’t like these guys.  I didn’t respect what they were about.

“Tony and Nan’s sister left,” I said.  “They didn’t have as much of a problem with it.”

“Tony had a brain infection when he was young, and he was never that right after,” the guy said.

“He’s nice to look at, though,” a woman said, from the background.

“Mm,” Nan grunted.  She sighed.  “You guys were the first I came to, to let you know.  I thought that was right of me.  Do me a favor?  Let these people go on their way.  They can collect the… ones who are scared.”

“The less loyal,” the woman from before said, from behind the guy with the salt and pepper beard.

“We’re not all soldiers, Mare,” Nan said, and her voice was hard.  “Some have kids and they won’t know what to do except run or lose their minds.  Houses are falling down.  Mine’s gone, Tony and my bed, even.  It makes sense to run, I think.  That doesn’t mean we’re disloyal.  It means we’re fucking trying to survive.”

“Fighting’s tilting this way,” the guy said.  “I think the intruders are coming here.  We’re going to hold the line, make sure they can’t retreat back this way.  You want to go?  Go.  You come back after.”

“I’m not going to fucking disappear on you, Enoch.  I’m a believer.  I’ve put up with Tony, for fuck’s sake, from the end of the world to the hereafter.  Four months, I dragged him and two kids around until I found you all again.  Why would I leave now?”

“How should I know what squirrely thoughts you have in your head, Nan?  If you’re going, then fuck off.  The fighting’s getting closer.  You don’t have long.”

“I can take the kids if you want.  Get them out of your hair.”

“You can fuck right off,” Enoch said.

I folded my arms.

“Enoch,” the woman from before said.  “Let ’em.  We had one of the little ones with a bullet in his mouth, twenty minutes ago.  They were suckling on the thing.  Nan’s right.  They’re in the way.”

“The little ones.  Maise and Jake can stay.  Maise is ten and she can hold a rifle.  Jake’s a decent shot.”

“You’re insisting on staying?” I asked.

“I said what I said.  I’m playing nice here.  If you want to be a hardass on this, I can be less nice.”

I hated these guys.

“Get the kids,” Nan said.

I backed away, and waited for Nan to round the people up.  Capricorn had created a barricade that intersected the fence around the field, blocking some of the path too.  He and Sveta knelt by it.

“They’re rounding up some kids,” I said.  “A good size group is inside.  Guy called Enoch.  They’ve got some kids in there, and they’re going to start shooting if Hollow Point shows their faces.”

I heard a distant holler that might have been Beast of Burden.  The fact they were close enough for me to hear-

“Fighting is trending this way,” Capricorn said.  “Sounds like that might happen soon.”

“Victoria, you worded that like the kids were going to be doing the shooting,” Sveta said.

“Some are.  The very young are getting evacuated.  I’ll go back and get more info, but there are kids Kenzie’s age and younger with guns in their hands and parents expecting them to shoot.”

“No,” Sveta said.  “No, that’s not right.”

“No,” I agreed.  “Do you think you can do anything about it, Capricorn?”

“Without tipping them off?” he asked.  He looked at the building.  “Shit.  I’d need to keep an eye on things and stay close.”

Meaning we’d be close to any fighting that erupted and we’d have to deal with Enoch’s group if they found a way out and happened to be pissed off.

A stray bullet clipped the side of the house, twenty feet from us.  I huffed out the half-breath I’d intended to use to say something.

“Do it,” I said.  I flew over to the house.  Nan was gathering the kids.  Some had bags.

“We’re ready.”

“Through the woods.  Keep going as straight as you can.  There are more hero capes to the far north, you don’t want to go that way.  Too far east and you might run into the villains as they back out.  Northeast.”

Nan nodded.

“They’ll take you into custody and keep you safe.  What other houses here do I need to go to?”

“Three houses down,” she indicated.  “Tony’s cousin.  There’ll be kids.”

I hadn’t missed what she’d said earlier.  The friends and family thing.  She protected her own, and her advice was suspect for that reason.  “What about the houses between here and there?  Empty?”

“One should be empty.  Last night it was all soldiers, and they’re off fighting, or they should be.  House with the sheets hanging on the line is only one person.  She does the services some days.  It’s not worth the time or effort, the cranky bitch never listens to anyone.”

Yeah.  There we were.

“Tony’s cousin.  What can I tell them, that they’ll think it’s from you?”

“Tell him Nan said Tony’s gonna need him.”

“Alright,” I said.  “Go.  I’ll handle it.”

Sveta hauled herself over the fence, then approached so she stood a distance away.  As Nan began getting the kids and one man that looked to be about seventy on their way, Sveta guided them, bending low and giving the kids instructions on where to go.

Most looked back to Nan for guidance, and she urged them on.

“Vic!” Capricorn called out.

I turned his way.

“When they get to the woods, have ’em call for Self-reflection!”

“Nan,” I said.

There were sixteen kids, and Nan was still near the door, urging them on.  She had some of the young ones stay close to her, and when someone slightly older came out, she paired them up, clasping their hands together, before sending them on their way.  She had to take ten or so seconds to get kids sorted before she could spare a moment to respond to me.

“What?”

“When you get to the woods, call out ‘reflection’, loud as you can.”

“Why?”

“Because like you said to Tony, we’re helping you, so help us a bit.  This only helps you guys where it counts.”

She frowned a bit, but she nodded.

I took flight, leaving things to Sveta and Nan.

The ‘cranky’ woman’s place first.  I flew to the door, and knocked, hard.  The mailbox had only ‘Sims’ on it.  No number.

“What?” the answer came from within.

“I’m a hero from out of town.  We’re evacuating people.  Fighting’s coming this way.”

The door opened.  The woman was older, but not as old as I’d expected.  Her hair was black, with streaks of white running through it.  Her clothing style was very severe, much of the neck covered, sleeves to the wrists, dress to the ankle.  She looked me over, staring through the screen door.

“If you want to go, there are people waiting.  Some buildings have been knocked down.  It could happen here.”

“Who else is going?”

“Nan’s family, I’ll be talking to Tony’s cousin next door in a second.”

“Screws loose, all of them,” she said.  “The nonsense they spew, the criminal stuff.  It’s all madness.”

“You can get out,” I said.  “Just head into the woods, go straight, it’s not that thick a patch of woods, and there are people on the other side.  They’ll take care of you.”

“I’ll go,” she said.  “Thank you.”

“Of course,” I said.

Before I could go, she grabbed my wrist.  Her fingers were bony.

“I’ve got others to help,” I said.

“There’s right and there’s wrong,” she said.  “You can do everything right, moment by moment, and still end up on the wrong side, too beaten down to fight things anymore.”

Why this?  Why now?  I had the feeling it was more of a confession than advice.  She wasn’t Fallen, not at heart?  She’d just… ended up here?

How the hell did that happen?

Maybe that in itself was the confession.

“I’ve been beaten down before,” I said.  “I’ll find a way to keep fighting.  Humans are resilient.  We made it through Gold Morning.”

“It’s very easy to lose sight of how beaten down you are,” she said.  “Don’t let the little things slide.  We have to be vigilant.”

“We do,” I said.  “Part of my vigilance is making sure those kids survive.  I need to go next door.  If you want help getting out, ask for a guy called Gilpatrick, okay?  He’s one of the best people I know, and his whole job is knowing and providing resources to people who need it.”

She looked back at her house.  She released my wrist and pulled the door closed, drawing herself up taller.

“Bless,” she said.  “Many of these people do not deserve to be saved.”

I could have responded.  I decided to keep my mouth shut.  I wanted her to go so I could help others, not to get caught in a conversation.

Ducking low, she ran across the field, and I flew between her and the worst of the fighting with the wretch out, to provide a bit of a shield.

At the edge of the settlement, where the buildings were thinning out, there was a thick cloud of black smoke.   Beast of Burden was there, and Damsel was standing behind him, using him as a shield.  I could see the spidery form of Nailbiter and I could make out crackles of lightning backed by dark smoke, along the dirt road and a nearby lean-to or outhouse.  There were some gunshots, and I could hear the revving of more bikes.

I flew to the next house.  Someone was already on the porch, watching me and the distant fighting.  No gun pointed at me, only a look of worry from a guy with a high forehead and blond hair that really needed combing.  He had a boy with him, a bit younger than Kenzie, just as blond, just as disheveled, hair-wise.  No tattoos – I wouldn’t have known him for Fallen if I’d seen him on the street.  They looked like their clothes and even their bodies badly needed washing, like both were homeless, despite having a fairly large farmhouse to reside in.

“Nan says Tony needs you,” I said.  “You need to get going.  Through the forest, people are waiting.  Don’t take any guns, or you might get yourself or your kid shot.”

He asked something, his voice a mumble, as if his lack of self-care extended to not even bothering to form coherent words.

“What?”

“Tony went?” the kid interpreted.

“Yeah,” I said.

That was reason enough for them to go.  They took nothing except themselves, and they stuck close together.

The fact that people were streaming from houses to the woods seemed to be cause for others to take the same route.  Three teenagers were running for it, now.  A girl with brown-blonde hair ran, guitar bouncing at her back.  There were two teenage boys, younger, with dark hair.  They ran to intercept Tony’s cousin and the boy, maybe to get answers.

These were people Rain had lived with, seen every day.  This place, down to the guy who silenced his wife with a touch, the old woman, the people who didn’t take care of themselves, it had been his existence and the building blocks of experience he’d had to use to pull himself together.

No sign of Erin.  I did want to help her.

There were gunshots, close.  The people at Enoch’s house were shooting.  I could see the orange motes around the building, still weaving their way around and up.

I flew in that direction, going higher to stay away from any likely stray bullets.  Over the ‘Sims’ house, over the empty house, then to the roof, where the peak would provide some cover.  Sveta and Capricorn were staying close together on the ground by the barricade.  Sveta peered over it.  Capricorn sat with his back to it, facing the house.

More gunshots from within.

Tristan had his hand clenched into a fist.  He opened it, and the points of light and traceries took form.  The building was wreathed in stone, blocking the windows and doors and shielding it from gunfire.

The job was done, and Sveta and Capricorn both moved away from house and barricade, getting closer to the fighting, dropping down from the path to the field.  The dirt for the dirt road to this row of houses had been piled up, so the water would run off the sides, with stones rolled over to separate the looser dirt from the fields.  The two of them stayed closer to the stone divider, hunkering down so the hump of road provided some protection.

The people in the house weren’t happy.

We’d have to protect it.  We’d assumed that responsibility.

I peered around the peak of the building as the people drew near enough I could see their costumes in detail.

Beast of Burden was constantly backing up as others advanced.

A guy with the proportions of an older teenager that hadn’t quite grown to match his lanky frame was advancing, arms out to his sides.  A hood of what looked like flesh was wrapped around a hard mask or helmet.  It looked like two human faces with distorted features had been cut away from their owner’s heads, carved into strips, and then bound together, with gaps in both the skin-strips and helmet for him to peer through.  A ‘mouth’ yawned open around one eye, and a diagonal slash of a gap between two other strips provided an opening for the other.  His eyes were blue sparks of light.

I could see the range of his power.  He was the source of the dark smoke and blue arcs of lightning that danced over every surface, Beast of Burden included.  Everything in his field of view was affected, and wooden fences, weeds, and bits of wood on the road sparked and ignited.  Things closer to him seemed more affected.  At about thirty meters, the effect seemed negligible.

Nailbiter backed away, moving with some agitation as her pointed feet stuck into the softer dirt of the road, her mobility hampered.  Light arced briefly and fiercely between two of her extended fingers, and she shook her hand.

I could see Sidepiece and Disjoint as part of the group.  Beast of Burden’s clique, separated from Prancer’s and now matched in number.

There were other Fallen.  A young woman, with a face-concealing hood and scarf that was wound around her hair and down her back, voluminous sleeves around her arms, and no actual torso section to her costume.  A black belt at her chest covered only what was essential, and tattoos decorated the tanned skin of her stomach and sides.  She was guarding the one with the electric sight.

Evacuating the innocents in the camp was one step.  Chances were that they’d go back to the Fallen after.  There was no way to get them to cooperate and refuse them that freedom, and the amnesty, as much as it sucked, protected them, even if their leaders were apparently breaking rules.

Anarchy was the word, really.  We had to deal with the really problematic ones.

Fallen-aligned capes on dirt bikes tore around a corner, kicking up dust behind them as they joined the fray.  Some of that dust reached up to the edges of roofs on two story buildings behind them.  Hoodlums, tattooed and wearing cheap demon masks.  Boys and girls.

Maybe they were older than I was, but it was hard to see them and assign any kind of maturity.  I could hear them whooping as they split up, half of them racing along the right perimeter the darkness and electricity, half along the left perimeter.

The first of them hit the edge of the dirt road Beast of Burden was on, using it as a ramp to go airborne.  Others followed suit.  They sailed to either side of Beast of Burden’s group, landed in fields and skidded around so they were behind the group, facing Damsel.

Nailbiter reached out.  Her fingers struck one of the last bikers to jump.  They collided with the thin bars and she drew her fingers back to normal size.  The withdrawing and the motion against the biker’s front created slashes at the face, collarbone, chest, and lower stomach.  The last looked deep.

Sidepiece, too, clawed her navel away from her midsection in an effort that took a second tug to separate some strings of still-connected skin, and then hurled that flesh to strike the ground a moment before the biker landed.  It detonated, and the biker bounced to the ground ten feet from their vehicle.

Our side joined the fight.  Sveta yanked another one off of their bike.  Blue lights began appearing around the larger group as Capricorn started using Byron’s power.

I took to the sky, trying to get a better sense of the battlefield.

Prancer wasn’t that far away.  I could see people I was pretty sure were Speedrunners.  Prancer’s crew had guns, and they were shooting blind, because a power was obscuring their view of the street and things beyond.  Fallen were moving to flank.

On the very far side of the confrontation where Prancer was involved, I could see the distortion of Vista’s power.

We’d help this group first.  I looked for a good place to dive.  I could drop down by lightning-eyes, but I wasn’t sure about the hooded girl.

Besides, it seemed like he was keeping Beast of Burden tied down.

Fallen dirt-bikers first.

Beast of Burden’s group second.

I dropped down at a point more or less between one dirt-biking Fallen and Nailbiter, standing so I could see both.

The Fallen in front of me raised a hand.  A deep black ellipse appeared at his fingertips, above his head.

I could feel what he was doing, as the air seemed to leave the ‘room’.

A black hole?  No.  Nothing non-gaseous seemed to be getting drawn in.  But my intake of breath felt thin, as if it supplied far too little.

“Whoooooo!” he called out, and the cry was distorted and magnified by the dark blob he held overhead.  He revved his bike and charged me.

I moved to meet him, holding my breath so I wouldn’t lose any.  The blob had an effect like my aura, but it was physical, changing the rules of the area around him, not anything emotional, and he seemed to have nuanced control.  His buddies weren’t suffering.

I met his ambient effect with my own.  As he drew nearer, I pushed out with my aura, hard.

I saw him waver.  On the other side of me, Nailbiter’s mouth yawned open, and her teeth speared out, criss-crossing, stabbing into dirt, field, stone, and toward the biker and me.  I was already flying back and out of the way.

The guy threw his arm down.  The blob crashed into the road, and the bike rode the explosion as the effect released, taking to the air.

Her hand went out.  She caught him out of the air with extended fingers, and let the bike fall while she held him in the air.

She flicked her arm, hand going out.  As before, the rapid slide of finger against flesh had the effect of a serrated knife edge.  He was cut five different ways, and he crashed into the ground not far in front of lightning-eyes.

The guy screamed and convulsed as the effect crackled over him, burning skin and setting his hair on fire.

A dirt biker with a demon mask with red rips and gouges in pure white latex ‘skin’ drew a submachine gun, aiming it at Damsel.  Sveta grabbed his weapon, but failed to disarm him, as he maintained his grip.

Instead, the biker with the white mask turned ghostly.  The ghostly image separated.  Several bikers now, each with variants on the theme, red mask with radioactive green gouges and blood, and a blue and yellow mask with red gouges and blood.

All three had guns, and Sveta had only two hands.

Capricorn’s image of blue lines and sparks came into being.  Water sprayed, violent and focused largely outward at the bikers.  Where it cascaded into the road, it left gouges of mud.  Beast of Burden stumbled as one spray caught him from behind.

Ashley was already using the distraction to move.  She fired her power, directing it at the road, and launched herself into the air, dress and hair fluttering behind her.  The multifacted biker tried to get a bead on her, arms raised to shield eyes from spraying water, and she shot again, changing direction in the air.

“Damsel!” Beast barked.  “I told you to not fucking shoot that so close to me!”

I was already flying toward the multifacted Fallen bikers.  I used my aura to distract, and closed the distance, Wretch around me.

Had someone been paying attention, they might have noticed the water tracing the edges of the Wretch.

There was that melancholy feeling again.

I closed the distance, and as it happened, so did Damsel.  I came at them from the northern end and she came at them from the southern side.  The one of the three that had a gun free turned to aim at Damsel.

She shot with her power before he could pull the trigger, and crashed bodily into him.

He split into another set of varieties.  Yellow-green, green-red, and purple-green.  Two of them drew knives.  One of the others was joining the fray too.

I could see how wide Damsel’s eyes were, and I could see her lips move.

Her hand went out, and she blasted.  The two in the range of the blast were quick enough to dodge away, and they didn’t move quite like humans anymore.  Too fast, too jerky.

“Damsel!” Sidepiece called out.  “Get clear!”

Damsel blasted, aiming at the ground with both hands and firing with both, kicking up dust and debris, and catching the front of the motorcycle, shredding it.

The things avoided that blast as well, but as she moved skyward, Nailbiter and Sidepiece both went on the offensive.  Sidepiece threw two chunks, and Nailbiter clawed out.

Several of the things seemed to die.  Others folded back into each other, and used the momentum of that reabsorption to leap backward.  They scrambled for the bike that had been abandoned when Sidepiece screwed up the rider’s landing.

I could see Damsel panting hard.

“Wretches!” she howled the words.  “Scum of the earth!  You do not deserve the breath you draw!”

She was going to go over the top on them, and I wasn’t sure she was going to hold back or be just bark with no bite.  Not like she had during the test skirmish or the train ride with Presley.

“Damsel!” I called out.

She wheeled on me.  I saw her eyes widen as I dove.

I put my hand at her neck and another at her arm.

Carrying her, I flew her back and away from the fight.

I could hear the sound of Byron’s power going off again, cutting into the earth, but my focus was on Ashley’s eyes beneath the black mask, lacking any pupil.  Her lips were parted to show teeth, and it wasn’t a smile.

Off to the side, her fingers opened, spreading.

She fired her power into the air.  I was flying, carrying her, and with the blast, we were forced off course.  We hit the soft dirt at the edge of the dirt road and landed in a heap together.

I could have sworn at her, I could have been pissed.

It wasn’t worth it.

“Hi,” I said.  We were far enough away we wouldn’t be overheard by others.

She pressed her lips together.  Her hand went to my neck, like I held hers.  Her fingers felt like real flesh should, but they were cooler than fingers should be.

“This is an act, remember?”

“I’m all out of patience,” she said.  “I’m ready to kill someone.”

At the hospital, I’d dealt with a tinker who had the freak-out rants.  I’d dealt with people with distorted views of reality.  Mostly I’d dealt as an observer, sitting in for the group therapy.  I’d thought about what I wanted to say, cringed when people said the wrong things, and I’d written emails to support them or give advice after the fact.  Glacially, slowly.

I wanted to handle this in a way that wouldn’t have any observers cringing.

“Let’s not,” I said.  “We’re making progress here, okay?  Mission is going mostly according to plan, and you’re handling your bit well.  People are over-the-top amazed at how well you’re selling this.  Keep it a sale.  Keep it an act.  It’s good.”

She exhaled, like she’d been holding in a breath or ten.  I felt her fingers relax at my neck.

“You’re pissing him off?” I asked.

“He’s pissing me off,” she said.  “But I’m getting to him.”

“Good,” I said.

“Damsel!” Sidepiece called out, drawing out the first sound into a longer ‘damn’ sound.  “If you’re done making out, we could use some help!”

Some of the bikers that had been tossed from their rides were on their feet.  Lightning-eyes was pressuring Beast of Burden, forcing him into that plodding, slow retreat.

“Can’t off her without risking her tearing my head off in a death-spasm!” Damsel called out.

“Suck it up and figure it out!” Sidepiece called out.

“So annoying,” Damsel hissed.

A bike revved.  I could hear the approach.

Damsel and I separated as it rode up the sloped side of the dirt road.  She blasted to create more distance for herself, and caught the edge of the bike’s tire.

The blast served to throw the bike out from under the girl who’d been riding it.  The girl landed, skidding across dirt that had been packed by the passage of countless vehicles.

“Stay down,” I said, as the Fallen girl started to get to her hands and feet.  I pushed out with my aura.

She gave up, collapsing face down onto the road.

Did she even have powers?  Did this particular group mix up those that did with those that didn’t?  What a hassle.

Byron had directed most of his power at the road for the second blast.  It hampered Beast of Burden’s footing, and it dissolved a chunk of the road.  Sveta, as was her tendency, was lurking, looking for an opportunity to reach out.

Crackling with lightning, Beast of Burden called something out- and Nailbiter snatched up two bikes, one damaged, that the convoy of Fallen had been riding.  She hurled them at Beast of Burden, and he caught one with each hand.

Pressing them together into a makeshift shield, he charged at the lightning-eyes Fallen.  He made it nearly to the guy before the girl with the hood reached up and out.  Giant hands wrapped in black rags materialized between Beast of Burden and the two Fallen.

Beast of Burden pressed on.  Another hand materialized, grabbing him, and he carried on forward, metal treads scraping through mud.

Disjoint danced out to the side, practically skipping as he went from mud to solid ground, and slashed out with one hand, his hand disappearing.

The woman with the hood fell, and she might have been grabbed by the same hand.  The hands disappeared, and Beast of Burden was momentarily reduced to only darkness and electricity as he took the brunt of the blast from lightning-eyes, even with the two motorcycles as an intervening barrier.

He brought a motorcycle down as a club, and he swatted the Fallen guy with the vision power.  Then he brought the other bike down, hitting the girl who’d been thrown aside twice with overhead smashes.

The lesser Fallen who remained didn’t have much fight in them.

Beast of Burden’s horned head swiveled to look at us.  I flew back and away, so I’d have a good view of things.

“Beast of Burden,” I called out.  “Bob.”

He hurled a motorcycle at me.  He was a distance away, but he was strong.   Twenty feet above the road, I flew to one side to evade.

Grudges.  Even if we had the same enemy, he wasn’t willing to even talk.

He threw another bike.  This one was more on-target.  I flew to evade, and saw motion in the corner of my eye.  Nailbiter.

Sveta grabbed my arm, tugged, but with my flight not moving me in that same direction, there was a moment’s lag.  Nailbiter’s fingers stabbed at me, and I was forced to throw up the Wretch, forcing Sveta’s hand away.

Fingers and motorcycle glanced off of the wretch within a half-second of one another.

“Asshole,” I said.

“She was mine.  I was dealing with her,” Damsel said.

“Shut up,” Beast of Burden said.  “Now.”

I flew back and further away.  Byron and Sveta were retreating, cutting through taller grass along the side of a fence.  Nailbiter, though, had a bit of the height advantage.  Even though she didn’t fly, her body was long.  She pointed at them.

That was Disjoint and Sidepiece’s indication to go on the offensive.  Beast of Burden trudged back to the road.  Sidepiece dug out a fragment of bone and hurled it like a dart.

“Dodge!” I called out.

Sveta did.  She pulled herself away, grabbing Byron, and then tugged him away.  It didn’t get him free and clear, and he was at the very periphery.  It looked as though his armor protected him.

He blurred and became Tristan.  More confident in a skirmish, maybe.

Beast’s clique began advancing through the field, closing the distance.  Damsel joined them.

They had only barely finished managing dealing with these Fallen, with our help, and now they were turning on us.  They fully intended to tear through any and all opposition, to be the last ones standing.

I wanted to help, but throwing myself into the midst of that group was difficult.  Too many powers, too easy to get hit from multiple angles.

I flew for one of the pieces of debris.  A bike engine.  Beast of Burden turned on his heel to keep me in view, and said something to the others, keeping them focused on Tristan and Sveta.

I threw the debris, and Beast of Burden slapped it aside before it could hit anything.

I’d meant it more as deterrent than anything.

Disjoint grabbed Sveta, and I could see her stumble.  Sidepiece prepared to hurl something.

It was Chris to the rescue.  I was pretty sure it was him.

Black, feathered, and wholly unintuitive in construction.  He had four legs like a crow’s talons, but large and spindly, and his body wrapped in on itself, with thick scale-like plates like the talons that extended around his ‘face’ and front.  The actual features weren’t birdlike, but were nestled in the ‘conch’ of his physical form.  If he’d been a banana, the eyes, mouth, and useful features would have been on the inside curve, the outside curve facing forward.  But he was more of a tight spiral than a banana, confused by the crests and flares of large, glossy black feathers that filled the gaps.

It was only because his eyes were spaced out that he could rotate them and look out to the sides, each eye yellow with a distorted pupil.

The feathers were heavy and hard, I realized, as he blocked one blast from Sidepiece by rearing up and fanning the feathers out.

He stumbled in response to the explosion, then dipped back and into the field of wooden racks and greenery.  Beans, it might have been.

Dark Introspection, he’d called this, if I remembered right.

The addition of an unknown player gave them pause.  It was our opportunity to back off.  Beast of Burden’s group gathered together.

“I would have had her,” Damsel said.

“Will you shut up?”

“You’re strong but slow,” she said.  “You lack grace, and you need mobility to deal with mobility.”

“Enough.”

I could see the others getting together.

I could also see that the Fallen were gathering.

Snag had said he outnumbered these guys?  It didn’t look that way.  I could see Love Lost and a few others.  Cleat.  Etna.  There were a few mooks, rounding out their number to ten or so, but not many with powers that I also recognized.

They were backing away from a larger group of Fallen, twenty-strong.  More young Fallen with cheap masks, less in the way of tattoos.

Their leader wasn’t like that.  He had an aura to him.  As dark and grungy as the others were, as cheap as many of their costumes were, their skin cluttered with tattoos, he was all in white.  White hair, white mask of overlapping segments with no eyes and black lipstick across the feminine mouth, white tunic, white leggings, white cane.

Valefor.  He’d attacked my hometown.

He’d be leadership, or he’d be up there.  He had that pedigree.

The plan had been to evacuate people, knowing they’d go back.  I’d come to terms with that.  But the hope, the focus, was that we’d deal with the leaders.  If we could deal with the Fallen capes and the lieutenants who were willing to go to war, maybe we could break the back of the larger group, leaving them aimless.  Maybe some of those aimless people would find their way back to society.

Twenty of them, and if there were unpowered in there, they were gussied up like the ones with powers, confusing things sufficiently that we couldn’t discount them at all.

Fuck me if this wasn’t about to be one heck of an uphill battle.

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Shadow – 5.8

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The gunfire continued.  I flew back to the others, positioning myself a good twenty feet from them.  My power was active, serving to shield them.

“Get behind cover,” I said.

I was glad to see them listen.  Not only did they get to safety, but they weren’t in a position to see if the wretch reached out to any nearby vegetation.

The rules of ‘the game’ were that guns were verboten.  ‘The game’.  Gangs liked the terminology, and I was pretty sure it had stemmed from that culture.  It was the nature of social groups to self-moderate.  Things that were selfish and advantageous but that went against the group’s greater interests were acted on.  Capes leaned pretty heavily on that abstract moderating force, because the laws had never kept up with us and we’d had to moderate ourselves.

That was the game.  It was the walking of the line between the selfish things we did for ourselves and our teams and what served the greater good.  Secret identities were to be left alone.  Families weren’t to be touched.  The day to day of the city and civilian lives weren’t allowed to be disrupted.  No killing; no guns.

Capes used swords, crossbows, they used bows and other weapons that were just as lethal as a gun, given a chance.  Most of the time it was to coordinate with another power.  Capes threw explosive chunks of their bodies, among other things.  My home town had had Miss Militia in a role as lieutenant of the Protectorate and then as leader of the team, and she had guns as part of her power.

It came down to symbols, to what the gun meant, and whether the person with the gun was playing along.  With a sword or bow, the assumption was yes.  When a gun was drawn or fired, barring any context, the assumption was –had to be, even- no.  Carrying a gun as a cape and using it implied things that other weapons didn’t.

Tattletale had aimed a handgun at me once, and she had pulled the trigger.  In that, at least, she had been playing along.  It had been a tool, not a weapon.  I had some grievances when it came to her, but that wasn’t one of them.

The Fallen and the villains of Hollow Point?  They weren’t playing any games.  Powers were used, and a tight cluster of three or four explosions in quick succession were followed by creaking, snapping sounds that might have been trees or a building collapsing.

I heard the sound of wood splintering near me, and I turned my head in time to see the side of a tree crunch inward, as if two axes had bit into it.  Bit.  The wretch was taking a bite out of the wood.

There were other signs of the wretch’s restlessness nearby.  Bark was scraped from trees by hands.

I dropped my forcefield and stepped around a tree until it stood between me and the ongoing gunfire.  My back to the tree’s trunk, facing the others, I asked, “You guys okay?”

“I don’t think they’re firing in this direction,” Capricorn said.

“Can you provide some cover?” I asked.  “I don’t think anyone’s close.”

“Yeah.”

The orange motes began to dance between trees.

“We move toward the road,” I said.  “We’ll cross it, and then we cut toward the settlement.”

“Victoria, you take point.  Sveta, put yourself between her and us.  Kids, with me.  Looksee, watch what your camera is looking at.  I don’t want you getting hit by the anti-thinker measures.”

“Uh huh.  Tattletale went into a building with some henchmen.  She waved at the camera and smiled, which was kind of nice, if you look at it a certain way.  Foil, Parian, Hellhound and Imp are leaving and going up your way.  If you guys decided you had to run with the guns, you could come back and come after her.  That could be good.”

“Brevity,” Chris said.  “This is a situation, Looksee, use fewer words.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Let’s stick to the plan,” Capricorn said.  He gave me a sidelong look as he said it, and I nodded in response to the unspoken question.

He moved his hand, and walls snapped into existence where the orange motes had been.  Their height was such that if I stood straight, I could look over the parts where the spikes didn’t stick up.  So long as I crouched, I was clear.  I flew low to the ground, the walls to my left, in the direction of the road.

I could hear something that might have been a motorcycle or dirt bike.  Others started up.  Gunfire answered the revving.

At the end of the wall, I crouched lower to the ground.  Flight let me move silently.

The revving got louder, until I could feel it in my chest.  I could hear the sound of wheels kicking stuff up, the snapping of branches, and in my efforts to tell where the bike was on the road, I was totally lost.  It sounded like it was coming right toward me.

As the bike drew nearer, the sounds became clear.  The tearing sound of the wheels wasn’t from wheels on a dirt road, but underbrush.  I canceled my forcefield and drew my arms closer to my chest, so they wouldn’t be out to the side.

The bike flew past me.  It was a road bike, with metal teeth on the wheels, probably for situations just like this one.  One hand on a submachine gun, an Uzi, the other on the handlebars, he zig-zagged heavily, riding it through dense forest, throwing his bike to one side or the other with all of his body weight.  Each turn seemed like it might be his last.

His rear wheel skidded along a growth of roots that was as broad as some trees, he popped a wheelie, and when the wheel came down, he came to a stop, now facing more in my direction.  Young-ish.  Maybe thirty.  His hair was long and he had a longer beard, black and narrow at the chin, a metal thing just below his lip.  With the cut of his mustache, the points at his eyebrows, and his sunglasses all resembling the shape of the wings of the bats on his leather jacket, I was getting a sense of his theme.

I wasn’t sure if he’d seen me.  I remained still.  I realized a moment later that, given the theme, that might be a dumb thing to do.

His head bent down, facing the ground, and he was panting for breath.  He passed his gun to his right hand.

The wind blew past us.  Dust from his trip across the forest floor was riled up further, instead of settling down.

His head turned my way.

I took off, not flying directly at him, but to a point off to his side.  Forcefield up, I kept trees between us for good measure.

He shot a burst, and it sounded more like one sound than a series of distinct ones.  I could feel the forcefield collapse like a bubble popping.  The collapse was almost instantaneous, but not entirely.  The bullet had touched a point somewhere behind my feet, and once the forcefield gave, the breaking of the field cascaded from there in the blink of an eye.

My hand went out, and I grabbed a tree to help stop myself as I ceased flying.  Tree between us, I flew straight up, arms around my head to shield myself from intervening branches.

Covered by the thickest of the trees, I circled around him.

The engine revved, wheels digging for traction.

He rode off in the direction of the dirt road, and I went after him, staying at the level where the peaks and upper reaches of the trees provided some cover, but were far enough from one another that I could easily fly through the gaps and keep one eye on the biker.

He rode away from me like he knew where I was.  Even though he was riding recklessly, he still needed to zig-zag, and I wasn’t sure he would have been any faster than me on a clear path.  I could get ahead of him, above him.

He fired.  I could hear the submachine gun fire one burst, then another.    I could hear the bullets cutting through the air, but they didn’t touch the wretch or me.

I dove, wretch active, and when I cut through the leaves and found a large branch in my way, I let the wretch collide with it.  He’d made enough noise with that gun, and I could make some by breaking the branch clean off the tree.

The bike roared as he kicked it into life, using it to get himself clear of the falling wood.  Couldn’t get a bead on me, so he was running.

I was already moving, though.  The moment I knew where he was going, I moved to intercept.  In his haste to get going and find his balance, he’d laid the uzi against one of the handlebars.  He wasn’t in a position to aim it at me.

I caught the weapon and the hand that gripped it.  He tried to adjust, another wheelie with a spin as everything rested on the back wheel as a kind of forced stop or attempt to bring the bike around to collide with me.  I hauled him back and away from the bike before he could finish the motion.  He tumbled into moss, stones, and weeds, emtpy-handed.

Wretch out, uzi held firmly in my hand, I flew at the bike as it tumbled to the ground.  I swung my hand, backhanded, and the wretch followed suit, demolishing it.

Bat-biker didn’t get up or do much except lie on his side, panting hard.  The fall hadn’t been hard enough to incapacitate him.

A fear response?  I didn’t even have my aura out.

I approached him and set one foot on his wrist, so it would be easier to keep an eye on the other.  “I’m betting someone like you has other weapons.  Tell me where, and don’t touch them unless you want me to treat you like I treated your bike.”

He went very still.

I pushed out with my aura, keeping it small.  I didn’t want to tip anyone else off about my presence.

“Weapons.  Now,” I said.

When I moved my hand, still holding the uzi, he responded by moving his free arm, hiking up his jacket.  I could see the handgun there.  A beefy, overcompensation sort of gun, which didn’t really suit his average frame.

It seemed he respected the gun more than the person with powers.  Stupid.

I collected the handgun.  Kicking with one foot, I pushed one of his pant legs up, then the other.

Knife at the ankle.  I kept the gun trained on him, released his wrist, and retrieved the knife.  He didn’t resist as I stepped on his wrist once again.  My hands were pretty full at this point.

“What else?” I asked.

“That’s it.”

Prodding with my toe, using flight to avoid putting too much weight on his wrist, I investigated his jacket.  Something rattled.

“What’s here?”

“Cigarettes.”

“Remove them.  Throw them aside.  Slowly.”

He did.  It was a large carton of cigarettes, but as it landed, there were needles with caps on inside, sitting at an angle.

I raised an eyebrow.

“Medical, really,” he said.  “Helps with the headaches from my power.”

“Don’t leave stuff out,” I said, amping up my aura some more.  I poked more with my toe, and found another weight at the vest pocket of his jacket.

“Phone,” he volunteered.

I kicked down, catching the phone between my heel and a rock.  I heard something break.  I did it again.  I saw his expression change, a snarl.

I flew up and away from him, until I could see the surroundings.  I spotted a hole in a tree, and put the weapons within.

He was on his feet by the time I got back to him.  He backed away a step, then fell on his ass.

“Bikers.  You’re on the Fallen’s side in this?”

He twisted up his face into a scowl so fierce that it looked like a pretty sure thing he wouldn’t open his mouth.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said.

I flew at him.  He swung a punch my way, and I put my forcefield up.  His arm was too far out to the side, and he didn’t even hit me hard enough to drop my defenses.

I moved right into his personal space, and the sour sweat smell of him made me wish I hadn’t.  Seizing his belt buckle in one hand and his belt in the other, I flew.

He was heavy, as I dismissed my defenses.  His arms were free and he could have swung a punch, but it would have done more harm to him than to me.  Instead, faced with my aura and a very swift ascent, he grabbed onto the top edge of my breastplate for leverage.

We reached the treetops, where the branches were thinner.  I roughly deposited him on something that looked reasonably sturdy and unreasonably high up.  The impact of my setting him down helped to break his grip on me.

I could hear the gunfire continuing.  It had moved.  By the sound of it, Hollow Point’s group was venturing along one edge of the camp, moving counter-clockwise along the perimeter.

“Stay put,” I said.  I seized his foot and pulled it down, then undid the laces on his boots.  I tied them around a branch.  “I can make you more comfortable and leave you a way down if you talk.”

“Fuck you,” he said.  He clung tight to a branch.

I tied the laces of his other boot to another branch.  Then I identified a few key branches he could use to climb down, and, strength up, demolished the first with a sharp strike.

“Shit!” he said, voice going higher as the branch he was on wobbled.  “Shit!”

I broke another.  Not the cleanest break, it might have served as a foothold or handhold.  I kicked it again to make it less of one.

When three branches were broken and there was a good ten feet between the branch he was on and the nearest handhold or foothold, I flew back, assessing the situation.  He couldn’t let go of the trunk in front of the branch he was sitting on, and he couldn’t bend low enough to untie his laces, even if he could let go.

“I’m not going to say shit,” he said.

You just did, a few times, I thought.  My expression remained deadpan.

I didn’t give him a response.  Instead, I left him where he was, and flew down to the ground.

There was a time when using my powers had made me feel powerful.  Having superstrength had made me feel strong.  Having an aura that instilled awe had made me feel awesome.

I didn’t feel that same rush now.  I felt melancholy.

There were more coming through the trees.  They didn’t seem especially aware of me, or mindful of the earlier gunfire.

More people in leather jackets.  Beards and some sunglasses.  I flew up to a higher branch.

Bikers, except these guys didn’t have bikes with them.  They’d be part of the Fallen’s network.  While Prancer’s side of Hollow Point seemed to be willing to play by the rules of the game, the Fallen hadn’t been so inclined, even before Gold Morning.  They hadn’t felt the social pressures because they hadn’t been part of society, living on the fringes and putting a wall between themselves and others.  They’d had allies of necessity for certain events and causes, and the bikers had been some of those allies.

When people hadn’t been able to go after the Fallen, the pressures and responses for the Fallen’s actions had come to rest on the heads of the bikers and other allies.  People had been less willing to deal with them, more force had been used against them, and the message had been driven home.

The problem with the cycle was that being on the outs made them more likely to bend or break the rules.  The wedge between them and everyone else had also made them more inclined to simply fold into the Fallen, especially after Gold Morning.

The amnesty was a thing, crimes had been pardoned, but feelings were still feelings.  The bikers had backed up some of the shittiest people around, and that was hard to let go of.

There were three people moving through the trees as a group.  Their attention seemed to be fixed on flanking Hollow Point.  That would’ve been the motorcycle guy’s intention too, then.  Getting around behind and opening fire.

Two of them were heavy, and could’ve been brothers.  One of the heavy ones had a tattoo that was partially obscured by his glasses, and a goatee.  The other had a metal shackle of a collar around a neck that really was too wide for most metal collars.  It made skin bulge out the top and bottom.  Similar shackle-like cuffs were at his wrists and ankles, but they weren’t so bulgy.

The one in the center was a breaker.  He was a wraith of a person, a statue broken up into solid segments that were hard and almost ceramic in appearance, with electric blue lines spiraling around each of the jet black, ceramic-ish, solid parts.  They were connected to other parts by only a deep blue smoke that was hard to look too deeply at.  His face was less of a face and more of a solid, triangular surface with a series of six or seven holes bored into it.  Each hole was ridged with a corkscrew pattern, cone-shaped.

He didn’t walk and he didn’t fly.  He had legs that existed as a jumble of segments, they moved, and he kind of was in places.  It reminded me of the animated optical illusions where circles continually rippled outward and appeared to grow endlessly, but they didn’t actually grow.

In his case, the lines and edges of the harder body moved and rippled back, he appeared to stay in place, but he actually moved, with the indigo-blue smoke billowing out behind him.

Two guns.  Shackle-guy had a handgun, and the guy with the goatee had a shotgun.  Breakers didn’t tend to have gear.

I flew over their heads, and I saw that the breaker’s face wasn’t three dimensional.  It was such that no matter what angle I viewed it from, it always faced me.

He didn’t react like he saw me, though.  Not just yet.

One of the most underrated things about flying was that it was silent.

I took advantage, lowering myself down behind the guy with the goatee.

The spiraling on the breaker’s arm intensified.  I adjusted my flight course- realized belatedly that he was swiping at me.  It was hard to process his movements, because he seemed to retroactively be wherever he was going.  It was my perceptions, I was pretty sure, and not time manipulation or anything.

He swiped again, and I maneuvered, moving around his buddy at the same moment.  He had reach, arm extending as the gap widened between the floating segments of forearm, and parts of a hand.

I shone with my aura, no longer being subtle, seizing the shotgun and put my foot on the goatee guy’s shoulder.  I flew up and pushed down and out with my foot.  My interest was twofold- to kick him toward his breaker buddy’s arm, and  to use full-body leverage to get the shotgun out of his hand.  He had good trigger discipline, and so me pulling the gun away didn’t also pull the trigger against his finger.

I had the shotgun and I’d put myself far enough away to be out of the blue breaker’s reach.  I brought out the wretch and had it demolish the shotgun in my hands.

If I was going to use an all-or-nothing weapon, I’d rather use the ones I was familiar with.

Still turning in the air, I traveled an unpredictable course, arcing down to the ground, hugging the ground as I traveled a quarter-circle arc, ever-mindful of the guy with handgun.  He aimed at me and fired.

His bullet hit the wretch, and I hit him at the knees, bowling him over.

Before he was on his feet, and before the blue breaker could swipe at me, I grabbed him by the ankles.  Flying, I dragged him across the forest floor.  More to the point, I dragged him in a way that put his upper body and face closer to the ground as I dragged him.

He grabbed me by the wrist, and it took me a second to realize the how and why of it.  I’d had him by the ankle, and his foot was now a hand.  He was strong- enough that I thought something would pop or break if he squeezed any harder.

I changed course, and I flew him into the base of a tree trunk.  I heard the solid impact, and I felt the ‘leg’ I was holding jerk in reaction to the pain, but I didn’t succeed in breaking his grip.

He had a foot where his head had been, and hands at the end of neck, ankle, and each arm.  The shackles seemed to be the point where the changes happened.  When he bent to bring a hand toward my face, it was with a crease between what should have been crotch and shoulder and far more flexibility than a man his size should have managed.  I struck his hand away with a backhand strike, my forearm catching his wrist.  Another hand grabbed me by the belt.

My focus, though, was on the hand that still held the handgun.  He had his bearings, and he brought it around to point it at me.  I seized it, fingers hooked around barrel and handle both.

I hated guns being brought to a cape fight.

I twisted around, heaving him up and bringing the wretch to bear for some added strength at the last moment.  I slammed him into the tree, harder.

His grip weakened.  I wanted to fly away, but we both still had a mutual, contested grip on the weapon.

The breaker was coming for me, swelling in my vision.  It reached, and fingers brushed through foliage.  The greenery stretched like it was ooze, strands and bends and all.

When it snapped, it coiled and curled away like smoke, black with blue sparks in it, like a burning paper might have orange.

The rule for fighting breakers was to not fight them in their breaker state, because the breaker states tended to cheat the rules.

I couldn’t wrestle the handgun free, even with the shackled biker weak from his second visit to the tree’s trunk.  I bent his wrist back as far as it could, his fingers bending backward as I brought the gun over to one side.  His hand began changing, the front of the hand becoming the back, fingers finding angles to grip the gun.  He reaffirmed his grip.

He did, however, also lose a bit of ground around the trigger.  I checked, then shifted my grip more to the handle and the area around the trigger guard, before pulling the trigger repeatedly.  Not easy, given the angle.  Not easy, when each shot kicked and was loud, and I had a breaker lurking at the corner of my vision, not registering as having any depth in my depth perception.

I wasn’t quite sure what would happen, but I gripped one of the shackles.  For just a moment, I let the wretch out, giving myself the strength to crush it in my hand.

For that same moment, the wretch did something, and the entire body jerked, cloth ripping.

The metal shackle broke, and the hand spasmed, letting go of the handgun.

There was a wound in his stomach, and it closed as he lay there.  At the same time, his hand multiplied, swelled, had fingers and teeth appear, and became a misshapen blob.  The effect crawled up his arm to his body, which bloated and swelled.

A mouth opened in the middle of it.  It snapped in my general direction.

I pushed my aura out as hard as I could.  The mass of flesh withdrew into itself.  The breaker stopped.

I stared down at the changer-in-flux.  A mess of hands, a mess of legs, teeth, fleeting facial features.

My aura radiated intense fear and awe, enough to stop grown men and monsters in their tracks, and in the midst of it all, I felt that melancholy.

“This?” I spoke.  “What you’re feeling is a four.  The dial goes up to ten.”

The breaker’s fingers traced the side of a tree.  The wood became goo and it stretched.

“You can feel the intensity of it, can’t you?” I asked.  “You do not want me to turn up this dial.  Because thisThis is a six.

I was close enough to trees and ground that when I brought the wretch out, it could reach those things.  It broke up the dirt and it bit into wood with fingers.  The wood creaked until hands clenched hard enough to break it, and then it broke explosively.

“If I turn it up any higher, you’ll feel that too,” I said.  I had the handgun.  I looked down at it to figure out how to release the magazine.  I threw the magazine down to the ground and held out the gun.

There was a moment’s pause, and then the wretch took hold of the weapon.  It flung it out, slamming it into a tree hard enough that it sank into the wood of the trunk.

Still maintaining a grip on the weapon, the wretch dragged it about a foot toward the base of the trunk before it couldn’t anymore.  A moment later, the metal began distorting.  Something broke and fell.

“You, blue breaker.  Go back to being human.  All of you stand down.”

Goatee looked at his friend or brother.  The wretched thing at the base of a tree.  He didn’t stand down, and the breaker didn’t go human.

Maybe it was a minion for goatee guy.  It was a hell of a minion, if so.  Whatever it was, minion or breaker, I wasn’t about to change my policy on staying the hell away from it.

The breaker started toward me.  It stopped when orange motes began appearing.  I dismissed the wretch, watching as they looked around.

“That,” I said.  “Is an eight.”

The breaker reached out and touched a mote.  It stretched the mote in the air.  There were lines around it, and it pushed through trails that had been left behind motes, distorting them too, stretching them like it had the leaf.

“I’m pretty sure you don’t want to do that,” I said.

It stopped.

Sveta’s hand reached through the trees, grabbed goatee guy, and hauled him into the orange motes.

Everything snapped into being, except the lines the breaker had altered.  They remained where they were, jumping around, wiggling and distorting, before they found a solid form as a spray of rock fragments.  I brought my defenses up just in time to deflect the worst of it.

The goatee guy was caught, orange motes around his legs.  The breaker waded through it like it was glue.

The stone became water.  The breaker no longer waded through it, instead struggling to hold its general shape as the water pushed and sprayed through the smoke.  Some of the water was forceful enough to bring small branches down from trees overhead.

As the water’s spray dissipated, the breaker sagged.  The smoke was mostly gone.  It crumpled, and the segments dissolved into a thicker smoke.  As they blew away, one of the bikers was left in the center.  A mid-thirties woman with a blue tank-top with a faded motorcycle logo on the front, a potbelly, and a complexion to match the most acne-ridden teenager from my old high school.

“It’s an eight,” I said, quiet and mostly to myself, “But it’s not my eight.”

She started to get to her feet, then slipped in the mud.  She remained hunched over.

“We need to have a conversation,” I said.

She spat.

“Your friend.  He okay?”

“He gets like that sometimes.”

“Okay,” I said.  I tried to avoid looking at the shuffling mass of flesh.  Before, it had been only the hands, feet, and head that had changed.  Now it was everything but those things.

On a level, I felt bad that I couldn’t look straight at it and that I’d been hurt by others that had once been unable to look straight at me.

On another level, I knew even I’d had a hard time looking straight at me, when I’d been that way.  I still did.  I’d never really blamed anyone.  For abandoning me, yes, but not for not looking.

“You’re going to tell us the layout of the Fallen camp.”

“Can’t,” she said.  “Fuck.”

“The anti-thinker measure.  Where and who?”

Can’t.

The others emerged from the woods.  Sveta.  Capricorn in blue.

“You’re going to need to give me something,” I said.

“We came to help out the Crowleys.  We hang with them sometimes.  They’re harmless,” she said.  “The- other branch, it isn’t.”

“The Mathers,” I said.

“I’m being told to tell you something.  You don’t need to hide at the fringes.  You’re welcome to join in, and you’re expected.  They- they’ll embrace you with open arms.”

“You’re being told?”

“Fuck them, and fuck this,” the woman with the blue top said.  “Not what I signed up for.  They got us in here, we were partying last night, and then, out of nowhere-”

“Hey,” the guy with the goatee said.

“Her,” she finished.  She turned her head away.  “I can’t explain.  She says she has hostages.  People you know and people who those people care about.  You can mess with the attackers, but if you get in the way of the Fallen, people are going to lose body parts.”

Byron spoke up, “Can you take a message back to her?”

“I don’t know,” the biker woman said, sullen.  “I don’t-”

She paused.

“What?” Byron asked.

“She says no, no messages.  Other stuff.  She-”

Her eyes went wide.  She looked around, her eyes not focused on anything in particular.

The woman’s voice carried forward, but it was an inarticulate sound, one that became higher, then a warbling shriek, followed by a gasp for air with a sound of its own.

She dropped to the ground, fingers clawing in dirt, twisting like she was trying to get away from everything at once.  The noises she made were horrible, and I’d heard some awful noises in my life.

Goatee guy started to approach her.  He stopped when I flew a little closer.

“Stop.  What do you do?”

“Do?  I’m decent with a gun.”

“That’s your power?”

“No.  No powers,” he said.  He sounded stunned by the question.  In the moment, I could see how bothered he was and I had trouble believing he could concoct a good lie.

The woman was curled up now.  She pulsed, and with each pulse, dark cracks ran across her body and over her clothes, then faded away.

After a few tries, she stopped trying.  She shrieked, and then strangled the shriek.

“Is there anything we can do for her?” Sveta asked.

“We could try knocking her out,” Capricorn said.  It was Tristan now.  “But it’s not like in movies.  That kind of thing does brain damage.”

“I think this does damage of its own,” I said.

“Yeah, well, if you want to try the middle ground of making her brain go dark without breaking her head open, you go right ahead,” Tristan said.

“Let’s not fight, please,” Sveta said.  She looked at the thrashing woman.  “Shit.

I flew to the woman.  It took me a second of wrestling with her before I could get my hands around her throat.  Her hands reached beneath my sleeves and got a few scratches in at my forearm.

I shifted my grip, and I choked her, heels of my hands pressing in.  I pulled away when she went limp and the struggling ceased.  Unconscious, not dead.

I didn’t need to ask before orange motes began to appear.  Restraints, so she wouldn’t hurt herself.

“You’ll need to stay with your friends,” I said, to the guy with the goatee.

He nodded, slumping to a sitting position on the ground.  He didn’t even seem to care he was sitting in mud.

Tristan walked away, and Sveta and I both followed.

“Where’s our fourth?” I asked.

“Sent him ahead.  He’s out there and he’ll change soon,” Tristan said.  He pointed.  North and deeper into the woods.  Chris would be closer to the Patrol block guys, then.

Good enough.

We were wordless from that point on.  We cut through the woods, and we reached their edge, where tree stumps of varying height speared up from the ground.

Across the clearing were hills with stones piled up around them, no doubt cleared from the fields, and houses, large but rustic.  Two of those houses were on fire, and one had been partially leveled.

A blip of something green shot from the sky to the ground, far enough away it felt like it was on the horizon, when it was really on the far side of the settlement.  The ground shook where we were in response.

If that wasn’t indicator enough of where the focus of the fighting was, I could hear the distant shriek of Ashley’s power.  I made eye contact with Sveta, then Capricorn.

Hostages.  Guns.  Turning allies into pawns.  Inflicting something that serious on someone?

No games here.  No illusions of any games, even.

For all the issues of our motley team, where so often we could have three people on entirely different pages, I could look at Sveta and I could look at Tristan, and I could know they understood this.  The Fallen in particular had gone off the deep end.  They’d abandoned their last vestiges of responsibility as capes and as human beings.

That left us the responsibility of giving them an appropriate response.

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