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“If you’re right then I’m a big fucking idiot,” Precipice said. “That’s supposed to be a pick-me-up? Good news?”
“No,” I said. I was going to follow up, but I didn’t get a chance.
“That’s not right at all! You have to look on the bright side!” Candy said, with enthusiasm, her eyes flitting this way and that as she took in the extended constructions of flesh that ringed the area. There was an edge to her voice that betrayed her alarm at the situation. “If she’s right, you’re a secret genius.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Precipice said.
“Very very secret,” Aroa muttered. “The kind of secret that people might notice in a hundred years, if they cared enough to study you. Which they don’t.”
“Closer,” Precipice said.
I shook my head, focusing more on the battlefield than anything. Lord of Loss was pulling himself together, his thugs gathered around him. Nursery had her own backup, but she wasn’t doing so well with them or at all. Half my reason for hanging back in the now was to see if any cracks formed that we could exploit, there.
Then again, we had to keep the cracks from forming on our side too. Foil was focused on Parian, the kids were scared. Precipice was about as unsure of himself as any teenage boy would be, dealing with mercenaries hired by the woman who wanted to kill him, after having spent the latter part of the evening having his head screwed with by an attractive girl. I tried to reach out, “Precipice, if you’re agreeing with Aroa, the girl who said she laughs when old people get hurt-”
“Babies or old people, really,” Candy supplied. Aroa pointed a finger at her cousin without looking at her, nodding.
“-then you might be being a little hard on yourself,” I said.
“I’m an expert at being hard on myself,” Precipice said. “It’s either that, or I’m the biggest asshole alive, and I’d rather hate myself than be an asshole.”
Well, not a lot I could say to that.
Chastity, though, was entirely on the ball when it came to rebuttals. “Alternative, Precipice mon chou? Find someone else and show them how hard you can be for them. Having an external pressure release can be very nice.”
Precipice turned his head her way.
“I did not mean me, but I’m flattered,” she said, laying a hand over the triangle of cleavage she’d left strategically in place, with an amused tone that told me she’d wholly meant to imply herself. “I meant our big man there, or the sea of horrific baby-makers that are waggling themselves at us as we speak.”
“Sorry,” Precipice said, apparently one hundred percent believing her. “Yeah, that sounds like a good temporary plan.”
“It helps that Lord of Loss has a punchable face,” I said. “Help me punch it.”
He created a silver blade in his hand.
“That’s part of it,” I told him. “What we just talked about? I need you to use your power. We’ll try it out.”
“Are you fucking serious?” he asked. “Now?”
“In a safe, controlled training environment?” he asked, with a tone like he was almost angry. Incredulous. A part of it was probably that I was reversing course on things I’d told him again and again.
“Fun fact,” I said. “Powers don’t tend to jibe with safe and controlled environments. For every cape that I know who picked up a trick in PRT labs or whatever, there are ten more who figured their tricks out because they had to. You want to make it work? Field test, be confident, be creative.”
“How many tried to pull something inventive and got their asses kicked?” Precipice asked.
“Lots. But our alternative is that if we don’t up our game then we get our asses kicked here, now. The way this is going we’ll have to surrender or get captured, and we’ll have to deal with a woman who will probably impregnate us as an alternative to handcuffs and a guy who’s so unreasonable he thinks smileys should be appended to every sentence in an email. Not even good ones.”
“If we surrender, they arrest us, not you,” Foil said, her voice low. I hadn’t been sure she was with us at all, she’d been so quiet. “You fly away, get help.”
I looked at her- I would have locked my eyes to hers to read her expression, but she wore a fencer-style opaque pane that covered her face. Her costume was form-fitting, sleek and stylish because of course it had to be when she was partnered with a fashion designer, but that costume was normally adorned with a fanned-out array of spikes where the javelin-like bolts were in her quiver, darts mounted at her forearms, hips and thighs where she could grab them. Most were empty now.
“How is she?”
Parian coughed, hoarse, and her shoulders and arm drew together at her upper body. A length of cloth moved telekinetically, crossed under her mask, wiping her mouth, and came away bloody.
She gave me a thumbs up. Foil, by contrast, was rigid, stricken.
“Foil. We deny them what they want and what they want is you. That’s the job. You and the Heartbroken focus on finding an escape route. Get clear. If you can’t, you focus on keeping anyone else off of Precipice’s back, so he can help me.”
“Okay,” Foil said. She gripped the handle of her rapier with both hands, even though it was a one-handed weapon.
She was in shock as much as Parian was, if not more, but she was pulling herself together in a visible way now that she had strict orders. She wouldn’t be someone who had lived through six Endbringer encounters and the end of the world if she wasn’t.
“Do your best,” I told Precipice.
“Do my worst, you mean?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Nursery wasn’t accepting the help of her henchpeople, but getting to her wasn’t easy either, because her power was thickest closer to her. Lord of Loss was hunched over, his outer body in a state of change where he was all over the place, half-falling apart. It looked like as good a time as any, but appearances were deceptive.
My eye fell on the cabling that Lord of Loss had shucked off and left on the ground.
“I’ll be going where Lord of Loss is now. Be ready. We all move at the same time.”
I took off, not flying for Lord of Loss, but at Nursery. The group started running, the Heartbroken and Undersiders heading the opposite direction from Lord of Loss. Precipice hung back a bit.
Nursery was aware of me, it seemed, and the wreath of moist appendages drew in closer to her in anticipation, spooking her henchpeople. A loud noise to my right marked Lord of Loss taking action.
He emerged like a cannon shot. Nursery-modified building skeletons crumbled as Lord of Loss scampered forward, almost running on the walls. A wolf drawn out in a spindly, sleek way, a face like a spear-head, feet like spear-points. Bands were gathering out and unfolding, bulking him up as he ran.
Much as the bird had first appeared from the failing other form, Lord of Loss had been maintaining that in-the-works, haphazard construction as a feint, while forming a denser real body within.
That was fair. I’d gone after Nursery as a feint, too.
I flew down, diving, to hit the ground hard, and the section of road that had turned to floorboards shattered beneath the Wretch as it hit. Flesh beneath bruised and gouged, and it was that flesh that provided the real stopping power.
Hitting something hard provided the momentum for me to stop, so I could immediately fly the opposite direction, with an emphasis on immediate, because the gory impact was immediately followed by tongues and probosci trying to close in around me or latch on.
Even with the sleek form, Lord of Loss was slower to adapt, to turn. It was similar to the bird, which had needed to take wide turns to fly. It was still building in mass and scale, the spear-feet becoming paws as calcified metal strips folded and wrapped around. He was aiming to win on the raw power front, and by outlasting me.
I landed at the safest point in the bloody mess around Lord of Loss’ landing spot, where flesh bulged and overlapped. The primary threat I had to consider was a braid of umbilical cords with tiny faces peering out between the gaps. I kept one eye on it, and almost missed the other, independent cords that were peeling up and away, trying to sneak their way to me.
The primary threat. There were others. Lord of Loss had moved quickly, escaping the remains of his prior form, but his soldiers had been gathered close and they hadn’t moved far. Their focus had apparently been on getting clear of the worst of Nursery’s power, not on getting to a good place for stopping me or the others.
Problem: two had guns.
“Can’t be worth it!” I raised my voice. “Throw down your weapons!”
They didn’t. The only reaction I got for my trouble was from the umbilical tendrils, which seemed to hear the noise and turn my way.
I chose my course so the one large braided mass was between me and the gunman with the best angle to shoot at me. Rather than fly around, I flew straight at it. I hit it with the Wretch and struck it down with a direction in mind. It slapped hard against the ground nearest one guy with a gun, shattering his footing.
I flew after him, ignoring my main objective for the moment.
The kind of shooting most people practiced was shooting while at the range. Feet planted, shoulders square. Not possible when three-quarters of that person’s footing and immediate surroundings were uneven fields of meat that wanted to pump them full of fast-gro mutant fetuses.
I hit the ground hard, just to the one gunman’s right. They didn’t even pop off any shots as I made the approach, because they were focused on not getting sucked into the meat. My landing broke more of the flooring. If he’d been on an isolated section of ice in the middle of a frozen lake before, he was standing on ice cubes now.
“Drop it,” I told him, as his eyes widened and he realized his predicament. I reached for his wrist and he didn’t fight me or try to get away.
The gun tumbled from his grasp.
Immediately, I took off, gripping him hard around the armpits with one hand, my other hand at his arm. It was a precarious hold and he seemed to realize it, because he made a prolonged, frightened sound that wasn’t quite wail or whimper. More of a ‘murrr’.
He was my human shield as I flew at the other gunman. I let go of him, and I let him crash into the other guy. Floorboards beneath them cracked but didn’t break like eggshells. The building between this spot and Nursery had probably absorbed the worst of the mist.
I half-floated over to them, half-stalked. With one stomp, I put the gun through the floor and into the meat.
“What the hell kind of money are you earning, that you’re willing to put up with this?” I asked. “You know one of your buddies got a fetus stuck in their ear, right?”
“Not money,” one of them said, crawling backwards to get away from where the ground was bulging, a soft wet mass crowning at the aperture. “Homes.”
“On a safe world. Big houses with two servants each. Room for our families.”
I could hear Lord of Loss making his approach. The building next to us shuddered, steel girders disintegrating and bending beneath Lord of Loss’s mass.
“Next time, throw down your weapons. It’s not worth it. Someone else would have killed you.”
“If we die, our families still get the homes.”
“If they get those homes-” I started. Lord of Loss reached the edge of the building, metal screeching as it crumpled beneath him. He looked down at me. “-they’ll be living somewhere under the thumb of a guy who would throw away their loved ones without a second thought.”
“He has second thoughts,” one of the ex-gunmen said. “He was clear about the rules. The job comes first.”
“He’s better than others,” the other said.
Lord of Loss leaped down. I flew back around the corner to where the braided umbilical thing had been.
I wanted to have a long, long discussion with them, but I wouldn’t get that chance. When this was all over, we’d either be in Lord of Loss’s clutches or we’d be hurrying to help the other groups.
I really hoped for the latter.
In the lot, the braided umbilical thing was rousing, finding added length as it broke free of the container that had been Lord of Loss’s body. A tendril with a draping of placental sacs was reaching in from the building Lord of Loss had damaged with his weight, and the ground was dissolving into a morass of reds, pinks, and layers of veiny translucent films.
I flew to the only area where the ground was semi-solid and the cable still aboveground, seizing up the length of metal in my gloved hands. It jerked to a stop and the ice-crusted metal scraped against my gloves, tearing cloth. I tapped into my super strength to get the power necessary to pull the rest of the cabling and hook free of the meat that had gripped it.
Lord of Loss prowled, hopping up to a nearby building to skip over the pool of crimson, past the groping sea of meat.
Alright, I thought, as I gripped the cable in my hands, feeling the Wretch periodically bat at it and grip it. I clenched my jaw. Hit me.
Lord of Loss chuckled, padding his way forward in the body of a burly wolf made up of overlapping strips of white. The strips mingled at the spine, forming an uneven spiked ridge. Where his feet set down, the ground broke and bled.
This is a stupid idea.
I cocked my head to one side.
Hi Rain, I thought.
I was aware of what he was doing, and instead of getting out of the area or getting angry, I kept my jaw clenched, and I endured it. I made sure the Wretch had a grip on the crane’s cabling that we’d cut free, and then I spun, swinging the hook around.
Lord of Loss leaped, first up to the side of a building, then at me. Aiming to get me before I could get the momentum sufficient to turn the hook into a means of real damage.
He was still confined to physical form, and bound by laws of physics. Where his breaker form distorted rules was in allowing his sheer mass to stay functional, and in altering how he worked when he repeated actions.
I flew under the arc of his jump. The timing was wrong to bring the hook to bear, but I could swat at him with the ends of the cables. The hook had a pulley that was apparently locked, and four cables extended from it. I had one cable firmly in my grasp, another in the Wretch’s grasp, but as the hook turned in its arc, the cables I wasn’t holding swung out on their own.
They’d been cut clean, and they were razor-like at the edges. Sparks flew as they struck across his underbelly and back legs.
Not good enough.
Rain threw a silver blade, and it clipped Lord of Loss in the moment he landed.
I followed up, still spinning. The hook came down, while Lord of Loss was still marked by the silver blade.
He hopped out of the way, and the hook carved a line through floorboards. I saw the silver flare in the moment he finished his hop. Slats began to extend and unfold, patching the injury.
He twisted, angling himself like he was going to leap to another building as a springboard to come at me again. He didn’t. He leaped sideways, twisting in the air, one shoulder partially unfurling to extend my way, claw breaking apart to be half as dense, the points twice as long.
I tried to bring the cable around, holding the midpoint and catching him with the cable-ends on the approach and the hook on the departure. I only managed the former. Too fast, too much momentum, and I had to get away from those extended claws.
The damage was less than minimal. Too choked-up on the grip- like I was swinging a baseball bat at someone and trying to hit them with the end closest to my hands.
He was building up the strength of his lunges faster than I was figuring out a means of attack.
This sucked. Every bit of it sucked. It sucked that Lord of Loss had more cachet with regular people than we did. It sucked that this neighborhood was a nightmare, and someone was going to track the damage, blame all parahumans, and it would land in our laps before it even touched Lord of Loss.
Just like the community center.
Win the battle and lose the war? It pissed me off that with this asshole, we didn’t even get to win the battles and we still lost the war. He lucked out, he got a good power, and he leaned on consistency, doing jobs both small and big, building up a reputation, and never having cause to lose it.
Meanwhile, those of us who were trying to salvage things and manage a bad situation were getting kneecapped. The public turned against us.
It was petty, it made me a smaller person, but I wanted to hurt his smug-ass face and knock him down a peg. Take away that consistency and knock him down a peg.
And it galled me that it probably wouldn’t work. At best we’d eke out a draw.
Momentum was key, so long as I was using the cable. The Wretch was grabbing and plucking at the cable, which threw off the rotation a bit, but enough arms and teeth were holding on to keep my weapon firmly in my grip.
Anticipate the approach, assume he’ll time his attacks to avoid the hook-
He did. I tried to maneuver myself in the air, to bring the hook around faster, so I could catch him, and I failed.
Not good enough.
I was starting to feel the accumulated effect of Precipice’s power. It was like being on the basketball court, a thousand eyes watching me, and failing. Failing in the eyes of my parents, failing in the eyes of my boyfriend, my sis-
This wasn’t as simple as a hard shove in the direction of a second trigger. I was pretty sure I didn’t qualify. Second generation capes triggered ‘easier’, but there had never been a second generation cape who’d second triggered. Whatever resources the power devoted to passing itself on seemed to rule it out, and I doubted the universe would be so kind as to let me be the first. It would be too easy.
Multi-triggers were in the same boat. Which might have been the universe being kind, given how many were lined up against us right now.
Lord of Loss was prowling below, changing himself in little ways. He chuckled, a low sound that reached me up in the air. Right. I couldn’t retreat into cape geekery as the normal defense mechanism.
No, the only way to deal with this was to fucking deal.
I kept the hook spinning around me in loose circles, experimenting with passing it from hand to hand, with trying to find the balance between using my strength to keep it moving and maintain my grip and not having the Wretch in a position where it was hurting more than helping. Here and there, the cable slipped against my hand, metal edges cutting at the fabric. Tough fabric, but it was a lot of wear and tear. Past a certain point and it would be cutting my hand.
This was a losing battle. Every pounce and lunge he made was stronger than the last. Because of his physical configuration, and because the power source he was drawing on as part of his breaker form was aligning to fire all engines in the right directions and ways.
For now, we were at an impasse. If given the chance, I could go after Nursery. If given the chance, he could go after the others. With the way he grew, he would soon reach the point that he could catch up to them in one or two lunges, then be back here in a third in time to keep me from taking Nursery hostage.
They just weren’t making enough progress. I wasn’t doing enough damage. This whole fucking thing wasn’t enough.
The cable slipped in my hand. It caught on the bandage at my burned hand, which pulled at yet-unhealed flesh. Pain lunged up my arm, and I almost dropped the apparatus.
Layered injuries and stupid moments of failure. I felt like I was under the watchful eyes of my mother, being treated with kid gloves by Uncle Neil, and having my moods tolerated by Dean at the same time I knew that mood was unreasonable, all at once.
I felt shitty.
You’re better than this, I told myself, and the voice in my head was my mom’s, my uncle’s, an Dean’s, all at their most critical and condescending.
I went on the offensive. Lord of Loss hopped to one side, more nimble and quick than he’d been when he’d first emerged as a spear-throw of a wolf from the husk of the bird. Throwing off my timing.
And my timing was thrown. I tried to adapt, pulling back hard, strength active, to shift the arc of the hook. He hopped again, easily avoiding it.
I didn’t let up this time. If anything I had to break his momentum, force him to adopt a new form and a new course of action. I flew in, kicking.
He pulled his head away from the kick, retreating. I shifted my course, pulling the slack in the line taut, and let the current momentum of the hook finish its rotation. It smashed him in the right shoulder and then carried on to hit the ground by his left forelimb. He hopped, three-legged, to get back, already regenerating by morphing his form.
Still not good enough.
“I got advice once, that I should pick some forms and stick to them,” he boomed. A man’s voice spoken from a body made of energy, at the heart of his form, magnified out by the shell he’d encased himself in. “Then new advice, from your uncle, I think he is? To experiment, diversify. Think outside the box.”
He chuckled. “I had a little help, to ease the learning curve.”
“Then you fucked up,” I told him. “There isn’t a single person I can think of who could do that for you, that wouldn’t be a huge mistake.”
“You don’t know enough people,” he boomed. Talking down to me.
“I like this. Experimenting and testing out my new approach. Thank you,” Lord of Loss uttered it with a chuckle. Fucking gracious and fucking magnanimous. “I’ll go easy on you in exchange.”
Well, if I’d wanted something to drive this sensation home, being condescended to would do it. I built up the hook’s momentum again, passing cable from hand to hand. Here and there, the little fuckups, that Precipice’s power drove home. A loss of momentum. A bad timing of the Wretch. Better to do two sharper half-circles with a pause between them- a long ellipsis rather than a circle. It let me switch the Wretch off and on.
I was sweating, my jaw hurt from clenching it. This was hard, demanding focus while he did everything effortlessly.
I was a second or two away from feeling like I had the momentum necessary to deliver a good hit when he leaped in the direction of Precipice’s group.
I flew after him, and saw him veer to one side. Claws latched onto the wall of a building. Going up, gripping-
I shifted course.
-and he bounded off of the side of the building, collapsing a part of the construction as he sailed upside-down toward me.
Again, the hook struck him. This time it was across the face. The impact changed his orientation and gave me the opportunity to strike out, kicking. I remembered the lessons I’d had learning to fight while airborne, and applied them. Rotation was key, and my rotation was helped by the fact that the hook’s weight was pulling me one way. Wretch active, heavy blow delivered.
The Wretch broke and I had to pull my hands away before the cable tore right past my hands and shredded them. Wrong timing. The only saving grace was that I’d just delivered a heavy hit, and all of the momentum was gone. Cables swung through the air and the damaged hook and pulley combination tumbled end over end.
I caught it. Not a great catch.
Rain had stopped for a second before resuming the use of his emotion field. I wasn’t sure why. I looked back, and saw he wasn’t that far from the building Lord of Loss had used as a springboard. Dangerously close.
Lord of Loss wasted no time, lunging again, though he hadn’t fully healed. Catching me before I could get my momentum. I tried to hit him and I failed.
He caught my cable, forcing me to either go with him or lose my weapon.
I went with him. I let him pull me down, then added my flight to the downward momentum. The Wretch and I slammed into him, turning what had been a landing into a crash.
While the Wretch was inactive, I used the cable to bind one leg to snout. The moment the Wretch was available, I hit him again.
Something seized my foot. Beneath Lord of Loss was a pool of gore-slick floorboards and scattered pastel-painted furniture. Reaching from that wreckage was another tongue, though this time without elbows. Instead, it was covered in polyps.
Not polyps. Tiny heads and limbs. They had me by the calf, and groping fingers, hands, and gummy mouths were working at my boot. One head bulged, swelling overlarge as another mass was pumped through the tongue and out the mouth, into the top of my boot.
I shook it free before it took root or whatever. The mess in my boot was still wet, creeping down toward my toes, but the larger mass had fallen free.
I roped the tongue to Lord of Loss’s leg with more cable, before delivering the heaviest hit to him I could. The timing of the hit was off, as he lurched to an upright position.
You’re forgetting your lessons, I told myself. You had this exact same sensation as you tried to spar with Uncle Neil, and he recovered too quickly.
You’re better than this, I told myself, with the voice of everyone I’d disappointed, and a dark, joyless feeling in my gut. Swimming uphill, drowning. Falling. Suffocating under disappointment.
Timing, I thought, as I hit out. Account for who I’m fighting. Keep my grip on my weapon…
He reared up, limbs up in a flash, then coming down just as quickly, like a half-dozen guillotine blades with a truckload of weight driving them. I flew under.
Remember the lessons Uncle Neil taught you about fighting, and stay inside their reach.
I flew to the underbelly. Nursery’s growths reached up to me. Slats like blades were above me. To my left, the tongue, bound to one limb by cables. He was shrugging off the cables.
I flew to the looser section of that cable, so I caught one at my shoulder. The Wretch absorbed the impact as it pulled short, but it didn’t extricate me. The cable pulled against my shoulder, and I spun in the air, hard. My arm throbbed.
I’d killed the tongue, pulling the cable tight enough against it to cut it in two.
You’re better than this, I told myself, and it was a condemnation. A feeling that had followed me all my life. You have so much potential, my teachers had said. But if I focused on friends my teachers would point it out, saying I needed to focus on my schoolwork. If I focused on my school, I lost friends, got called stuck up. If I was Glory Girl I was neglecting my life in the daylight hours and if I was Victoria then I was neglecting my dreams. If I separated the two then I fell to pieces and if I commingled then I fucked that up too. That was when I couldn’t be sure if my friends were with me because me or because I was a superheroine, and when my mom had to tell me to take my headphones off or correct how I dealt with the public.
A silver blade caught Lord of Loss. He turned to go after Precipice, and he was strong enough in his bounding that I had trouble keeping up. He got faster with every few paces.
So much fucking potential, I told myself.
There had been very few people who had apparently accepted me as me. Two. One had made me her plaything before discarding me, and-
Rain’s power enhanced that stab of guilt that came in the wake of a thought I knew was unfair, glossing over context for the sake of absorbing the brunt of the hurt.
-and the second was Dean, and I’d let him die.
I plunged, driving my foot toward Lord of Loss’s tailbone, to drive his hips down and break his stride. He dodged me, and I shattered floorboards instead.
I flew straight for him. He had lost momentum, as part of that change in direction.
The cable was still partially wrapped around him, caught on slats and ragged edges of his white metal strips. I could see those parts moving, even pushing the cable out.
I pushed myself a little further, to reach that cable, to not allow him to so deftly dodge. Expect it.
My hands caught the cable. The Wretch gave those hands strength.
My hands at the cable at lowest point of Wolf-form-Lord-of-Loss’s chest, I hit him with Wretch and pulled the cable taut.
He retaliated. I hit him as he did it, before flying inside his effective reach.
I found the hook, dangling off the side of his neck. I hauled on it. It hadn’t worked with the bird, and I could remember Precipice’s power catching me as I’d failed to alter Lord of Loss’s flight course. Failed to alter it enough.
This time, at least, I could haul his forelimbs off the ground, denying him leverage.
With back legs, he hopped.
I hit him while he was in the air, to throw him off course, and to alter the rotation of his body. It was slight, but while the Wretch was gone, I could fly around, unwinding the cable.
Retrieving my weapon.
I didn’t use the full slack. I wanted the ability to move tighter. To bring the hook around faster. I hurled it around me as I dove.
He landed, all four limbs back on the ground. He wasn’t on the ground for a second before I hit him again. The hook and pulley assembly came down as a dense fifty or sixty pounds of metal, a punch to follow up the diving kick.
“Shut the fuck up!”
He started reconfiguring. I saw parts that had been gradually moving around his exterior stop moving.
Timing, I thought. I brought the hook around in another tight swing. He leaned back, I flew in. The distances and trajectory of the hook lined up. A heavy blow to his neck.
He swung. Dodge better. I ducked under the sweep of the claw – now more of an arm.
It wasn’t a major factor. It was a factor. Making the lessons learned in the midst of the fight a little more pointed. Driving them home.
Regret and shame were our mind’s way of teaching us, and Precipice instilled a kind of regret, a kind of shame.
A bitter, black kind of schooling. One that could go awry so easily, because the things we felt shame over weren’t always the most accurate.
I hit him twice with the Wretch and twice with the crane hook before he got me. He spiked me down into the ground, and floorboards shattered. In an instant, I was mired in gore.
A hand slipped between my mask and my mouth, and it was moist, soft and boneless. A tiny finger hooked at my eyelid, pulling down hard enough that my chin was hauled to my shoulder.
The hand at my mouth swelled, a thumb pressed against my lips, then a golf ball, swiftly and almost instantly becoming the size of a softball. It burst, flooding my nose with fluid that tasted like sugar water mixed with urine. The sensation, my head tilted back, fluid flowing straight into the sinuses and throat, it prompted a sudden, involuntary, whole-body reaction, my back arching.
Fierce enough that even though it was fleeting, it kept me from noticing the initial push of solid mass at my mouth.
Like containment foam, I thought, grasping for safety in the midst of horror. Like taking a drink of water and finding a slug in it sliding right past the tongue, except not water, and the slug didn’t end- it branched, twisted around itself, and varied in texture.
Straight to the back of my nose, punching the soft flesh there, straight down my throat, like a slug followed by a fist followed by a knobby arm with too many elbows, all wreathed in slick, loose flesh.
All growing to a dangerous size in the time it took me process what was happening. To process that another was at my fucking boot again, for some fucking reason.
I flew backward and away. Using flight to give me the initial tug, to get things moving the opposite way.
Lord of Loss caught me in the air before the tug happened.. My head dangled, the growth still attached.
“Good effort,” he said. “Let’s go find your friends.”
No! Bad effort! Fuck you! Panic tinged my thoughts. There was a growth just behind my collarbone, in the midway point of my throat, that I could feel growing to size and stretching things there. I couldn’t breathe, I-
Air pushed into my lungs. I could see openings in the growth that connected to me widening and closing as it sucked in air and supplied it to me by some column or tube in the midst of it all.
Which didn’t help the fact that it was still expanding inside my throat like it was going to tear everything internal to pieces. I thought about using the Wretch in my panic, them remembered that if it tore the growth in half, then one half would be inside me, not retrievable without surgery.
I would not go to a hospital like that. I would not see those looks on the faces of medical staff. I wouldn’t be a sideshow. Not again. I’d sooner go out fighting.
In the distance, Rain created a blade of silver. I saw him throw it.
Lord of Loss didn’t move, nor did the growth. The blade sailed through the air, missing us completely. It hit a distant building.
Fuck you, Rain!
I tried to pull away, which triggered my gag reflex. The only effect was that gorge rose in my throat and squeezed into every gap, burning my throat where it rested. The ‘breathing’ of the growth gurgled in that small amount of fluid.
Another two blades appeared. Rain threw one- aimed at the growth this time.
Lord of Loss shifted position, putting his own body between the blade and the growth. It hit him.
I hit him. A kick, strength active. It was enough to do damage, but the damage wasn’t enough to change things.
Rain threw for the third time. A scythe cutting through the air, traveling end over end.
Lord of Loss took a step to the side, so it would miss.
With abdomen and flight, I kicked out, bringing my foot up, catching the growth and repositioning it.
The blade caught my leg and the growth.
The growth swelled in my throat again, and this time the swelling forced it down, moved the whole mass. I brought the leg with the silver line on it back to kick-
Lord of Loss gripped the growth and pulled- enough to break it where the line had caught it. I could feel some of the strength go out of it. Slowing it down, reducing some of the immediate swelling, which also had the effect of causing the gorge in my throat to sink, not quite swallowed. The gurgling was worse, and I couldn’t breathe in the moment, even with the apparatus inside me.
“Don’t be stupid,” he said.
Staring him down, I brought my leg back again, to kick him.
He caught me with another clawed hand, around the pelvis, limiting my movement.
I still had the chain in my hand, for all the good it did. I had the growth in my throat, two hands gripping me awkwardly, simultaneously too gentle and too constricting, covering my body from shoulder to mid-thigh.
I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the swelling at my nose, that felt like it was going to expand until my nose was just a hole a baseball could fall through.
I used the Wretch. I felt it expand around me, pressing out, clawing at Lord of Loss. I felt the grip loosen slightly.
I dropped, slipping free.
“Aha!” he said, almost happy. “So that’s your forcefield. I was having trouble putting it together.”
The Wretch grabbed and tore at the growth that was still jutting from my face, just as I’d feared it would. In an instant, before I could react or realize just where and how fiercely it was gripping the appendage, flesh was torn away and I was left with four to six inches of raw, slippery flesh outside of my mouth, and what felt like three feet of flesh inside.
I flew up, twisting in the air to find an orientation that would let the thing fall out. It didn’t. Instead, there was only the sensation that when it came out, a sock of windpipe would be dangling past my teeth. That was the grip it had, the expansion within my throat.
I still held the cable, and in an effort to hold onto it, I wrapped my legs around it. I let cable slide through my fingers in fits and starts, the weight of the barely-intact hook pulling it down.
I found the end, and I had to fumble with fingers wrapped in bandages and gloves that had been shredded over the course of the fight. I found the individual bands of metal that made up the cable, and I tore.
A thinner length. Bendable. I wrapped it around the stump of flesh.
The hook was too blunt to use. But a tight binding of metal served to give me a grip where I wouldn’t have otherwise had one.
With a burst of strength, I pulled it partway out.
I used more Wretch-strength, and pulled again. Another two inches of progress.
Every pull threatened to see it go to pieces, or to have one piece drop off and settle somewhere inside me.
I hauled on it once more, and this time, the lump returned to my throat, impossibly large for how narrow the passage was. I was forced to pull- and in doing so I stopped being able to breathe.
In the darkness and the cold, high above Nursery’s mist, where up and down no longer mattered, and the entirety of my reality was confined to a few feet of foreign flesh and the Victoria-flesh that surrounded it, I pulled it out by half-inches, now.
The gag reflex helped and hurt. Because each retching was movement out, but the involuntary swallowing and the way my throat seemed to forget how to work, freezing up in the aftermath, it made it harder.
When the worst of it was past my teeth, there wasn’t one slug, but a hundred, of varying fatness and lengths. Vomit followed.
Can’t ever do that again, I thought, and it was a lesson etched in a hair deeper than already fucking necessary by Rain’s power. An aftertaste. That black kind of lesson.
The thought was immediately followed by me getting a grip on the cable and dropping out of the air. From hovering to falling to diving, being a projectile.
Straight back into the situation that the messy, bloody lesson was telling me I should stay clear of.
Because if I didn’t, I knew, I wouldn’t ever. This was a potential ‘retire from costumes’ level of badness and bitterness.
There was no way this was okay. Not by law, not by morals, not by regrets.
I caught Lord of Loss as he was shoving Rain head-first into more of Nursery’s power-stuff with one hand, and doing the same to Chastity with the other. The ‘caught’ was more in the line of spear-fishing than net. I was the spear.
I broke through his shoulder, slammed the hook in with all the downward momentum for some added punch, then flew back, relying on the hook to catch him and pull him off balance.
As he was pulled back and away, Rain was pulled up and out of the mess. His mask had protected him, by the looks of it. Chastity had wrapped both arms around her face, protecting nose and mouth, but she had a growth at her ear. She hurried to pull it out. Precipice helped her.
Another at her cleavage- less urgent, and Precipice didn’t help her with that one. Instead, he sat on the ground, one eye on nearby appendages, and the other on me .
I started to speak, then coughed.
That didn’t work. Instead, I gestured. A ‘come hither’.
He started to rise to his feet.
I shook my head.
Another ‘come hither’. I punched at my chest with a fist.
This time he got it. He hit me with his emotion power.
I rolled my head around, my throat burning like fire, yet somehow too fluid. My neck was all tension.
My feelings were black loathing.
I took the fight to Lord of Loss again. Timing, as I brought the hook around. Evasion. More evasion this time. I couldn’t trust my forcefield to take a hit if that hit was going to deliver me to Nursery’s babies.
Baby, I reconsidered. I could see enough of the battlefield where floorboards had broken that I could see that it was all one continuous mass.
Last time, I’d scored two hits with my own hands and feet, two more hits with the crane-hook.
This time, lessons etched in a little more, I landed three and two. He swung at me, and I flew back and out of the way.
Not again. That didn’t need Precipice’s power to etch it in, but I had it regardless.
I’d been good at fighting from a young age, courtesy of good instructors. I’d learned to fight big threats, and I’d learned to fight the ones who didn’t go down. Lord of Loss was both of those things, and he was reasonably quick. I didn’t give him a chance to rest, returning immediately to the fight, and I could tell how he was deflecting my hits, bringing fists up to block, and blocking just a bit more aggressively each time.
I threw. The hook sailed over him. I pulled back, and the chain slid between neck and shoulder. If the hook caught-
He batted it away.
The hook did catch his hand. I used my strength for a bit more oomph, and it it pulled him slightly off balance. I was immediately on top of him.
He elbowed me aside. An eyeblink later, and he might have hit me without the wretch protecting me.
Can’t let him do that, I thought. Another lesson to etch in.
Can’t let him block. Time the hook-swings now that the hook is free again. Can’t let him hit me.
My senses were just a little bit sharper, my focus at its limits because anything less than perfect meant he got the upper hand, and it meant feeling that pit-of-the-stomach self-loathing and disappointment. It meant feeling like I had once upon a time, not measuring up to a family that was superhuman, just for a simple missed swing.
Somewhere in the midst of it, I felt like I had his number. He swung hard and blocked harder and I didn’t care because I could hit him low while he was defending himself up-top. I hit him with strength that I could have used to lift up a truck, and then I did it a few more times.
I created an opening , drove him onto uneven footing where there was only flesh beneath him, and then flew to the opening. The Wretch expanded in the opening, tearing it wide. He reached up and I flew away before he could grab me.
Precipice was throwing out blades, catching Lord of Loss in the legs. One stumble severed a leg, and it gave me an opportunity to redouble my efforts, focusing on the offense, sacrificing defense.
Finally, the villain toppled. Finally, the hand fell away and I could access that opening I had created, that he had only partially repaired.
Into the cavity, to where the glowing figure was protected by a spider web of slats and segments. Some were threading out, repairing the shell. Others turned inward. I was the girl in the box, as the magician thrust swords inside.
The first one cut me. No.
The second glanced off of my armor at my chest. The third did much the same, at my leg.
The third, too, cut me. No!
The fourth, I avoided.
I flew in, punching past a webwork of calcified steel slats, losing ground as they constricted around me. As I felt my forcefield return, I pushed out with the Wretch, to expand the slats around me and give myself a way out. I reached the glowing figure.
As I grabbed him by the neck, the body that was Lord of Loss stopped. The life went out of it, and the light of the body in the center dimmed.
It all crumbled. The man in my grip was thirty or so. He had a nice haircut, if a bit young for his age, an earring in one ear, a coat, a gray shirt, and black slacks. If he was wearing anything but that gray shirt past the coat, I couldn’t see it.
Nice clothes, but ones that lacked nuance. The kind of outfit that Dean had once described to me, where a person with a bit of money walked into a store, insecure, pointed to a mannequin, and bought the outfit the mannequin was wearing.
“Good fight,” Lord of Loss told me.
I punched him in the mouth. No Wretch. Just the mild brass-knuckle effect that came with having four metal rings, each with a spike sweeping backward over the knuckle.
“I might deserve that,” he said.
“S-” I started. I coughed. No blood, at least. “Start talking, Loss.”
My voice still sounded a hair too low. I hoped I hadn’t permanently fucked up my vocal chords.
“What if I don’t?” he asked.
I looked over at the nearest appendage of Nursery’s power. The area was diminishing by the looks of things – it seemed she’d made a break for it.
“I could throw you in,” I said.
“Would you really?” he asked. He smiled. “You’re too noble.”
I pulled off my mask and pulled down my hood. I waited, staring him down. As his eyes studied my face, his expression faltered.
Did we get through?
“I don’t normally see people’s faces while I’m changed,” he said.
“That doesn’t excuse anything,”
“Didn’t want it to,” he said. “I’m only commenting.”
“What are your employers up to?”
“I don’t know. Didn’t ask, didn’t care. You might have a better idea than I do.”
“Just following orders,” Precipice said.
“Rule, not order,” Lord of Loss said. “Rules help. Before- before I was Lord of Loss, I was just this man you see here. He was broken, before he had rules.”
“You’re still broken now,” I said. “Whatever made you make those rules in the first place, you need to go all the way back to square fucking one and revisit it. Because this? Not remotely fucking cool. Someone else might have killed you for it.”
He smiled. I resisted the urge to punch him in the face again.
Chastity, though, was on her feet, striding forward. She backhanded him across the face, and he went down hard.
“Others are awake,” Chastity said.
“Okay,” I said. “You’re going to have to drag him.”
She made a face.
“Your fault,” I said. My voice caught, a burr or frog in it that wouldn’t go away.
Fuck, my skin crawled. I couldn’t even be sure my system was clear. I wondered what I could drink that was caustic enough to discourage those things from growing.
Maybe alcohol. A lot of really strong alcohol.
“He wanted to delay us,” Precipice said. “He succeeded.”
An utter fucking disaster, I thought.
“You can turn your power off,” I told Rain.
That could have been better, I thought. But at least we got him.
I almost didn’t want to check. I brought up the disc, and found it out of position, pushed to one side. A click unfolded it, a tap at the rim once it was unfolded brought it to life.
“Are they okay?” Foil asked.
I clicked through, my heart sinking.
“No,” I said.
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