“You’re pissed,” Spright replied.
“Why?” I asked, again, stabbing my finger in his direction. He stepped back out of the way of it. “What the hell is Advance Guard doing?”
“This is how we operate,” Spright said. He put the binder he was holding down, moving a few things to look at the things on the table. Having verified something or verified the lack of something, he gave Sveta and I his full attention. “We identify targets in need and we handle them. We’re good at it.”
“What about jurisdictions?” I asked.
Spright paused. One finger tapped the desk. “This is Foresight’s. They got this territory when we held a lottery for the major areas of the city.”
“Did you talk to Foresight?” Sveta asked. Her tone was a marked contrast to mine. It sounded pitying or pleading. Spright had already pointed out how I sounded.
“You think this is your territory,” Spright voiced his realization aloud.
“Did you talk to Foresight?” I repeated Sveta’s question in my own way.
“Not me personally,” Spright said. “Okay. We need to talk this out, but now isn’t the time. Let me do my thing, two to five minute investigation, then if you wanted to let me copy some of your powers to make a graceful exit, I’d appreciate it. Then we have a conversation.”
He put one hand on the binder. I put my hand down on the corner of the binder, and slid it away from him.
“ReSound got sliced up,” I said.
I could see Spright tense. “How sliced up?”
“Enough that I’m mentioning it,” I said. “And enough that we need you to go straight back to your team and tell them to leave. Then we can have a chat.”
“Okay,” Spright said. He walked around the table, putting it between us. “I hear what you’re saying.”
“Time is of the essence here,” I said. The change in position worried me. Was he going to bolt? Or anticipating violence from me?
I changed my stance, forcing myself to relax my posture.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve raided enemy territory or the first time someone was hurt. We have a pattern we operate by. I handle my part and I trust the others to handle theirs.”
“And Cedar Point?” I asked.
“Will be better off in the long run,” Spright said.
“Capes aren’t liked right now,” Sveta said. “The local villains have been pressuring people here who can’t afford to leave, which makes feelings toward capes even lower. We were doing something here. You can’t just…”
The pity or pleading in her voice gave way to frustration at that last part, to the point she couldn’t finish her own sentence.
“…Create a mess and trust they’ll be better off,” I said.
“Yes. Exactly, thank you,” Sveta said.
“Others have been coming-”
“Were invited to come,” I said. “Screened, to avoid a screwy situation.”
“We were invited too!” Spright said.
There. Now the situation made some sense. Advance Guard had been invited. It wasn’t by us. Someone looking to screw us up or throw a wrench into the works.
Sveta and I exchanged glances.
“What?” Spright asked.
“You may have been played,” I said. I had to keep in mind that the clairvoyants could be watching. “Maybe you should walk us through your side of the story.”
“Any minute now, people could come after me. They’ll figure out we’re in here,” Spright said.
“Fast version,” I said.
He moved, taking two quick steps to one side, before slapping his hand down on the table. “It wouldn’t be out of the question for you to be working with the bad guys. Stalling me, throwing a wrench into our plan. It’d even be a good cover, for a team like Prancer’s B-listers to try to corner or confuse the hero jurisdiction too.”
“Completely out of the question,” I said.
“Not a moment’s hesitation?” he asked. “No outrage or indignation?”
“It makes sense for you to say it. But not if you do any digging. I’m a cape from a cape family. Every surviving relative I have is a hero or ex-hero. If I pulled something like that, I’d get caught and I’d lose my entire family and their respect.”
“I’m dating and living with Weld from the Wardens,” Sveta said. “He’d lose everything, and I wouldn’t do that to him.”
Spright’s head turned. He analyzed Sveta, then me, peering through the lens of his future-elfin mask. “Straight to talking about your relationship to other people. Nothing about yourselves. Good cops have crooked cop kids and girlfriends.”
“References and connections matter,” I said. “I could say any number of things about myself, but that’s my words out of my mouth. Talk to my dad? My cousin? They’ll give you a clearer picture of who I am.”
“I remember her. I’ve talked to Weld,” Spright said.
“Fuck,” Spright said. “Alright. Fast version? We caught wind of what was going on here when someone was commenting on the stupid cape names here. We asked around. Teams building bonds, taking turns to help out in a place that needed help.”
“People talked about stuff that they needed to keep their mouths shut about,” I said.
“They didn’t talk,” Spright said. “Not as far as I know. But secrets are hard to keep when powers are in play. They didn’t talk Cedar Point, but they were psyched about working together on a level outside of what the Wardens are negotiating. On a lower level, I mean. We have the meetings at the Wardens headquarters, and people were stopping in at the same place.”
“And you asked Foresight?”
“Not me. Mayday. He said we were clear to go.”
Who the hell had Kenzie’s old boss talked to, that we weren’t roped in?
“Foresight is tied up with war stuff right now,” Sveta said.
“They are,” he said.
“Is it possible the key people were tied up, and Mayday talked to lower-level members of Foresight?” Sveta asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“Hold the questions along those lines,” I said. “Good theory, Sveta, but we should get the particulars later. Time’s short.”
“Okay. I’ll check the window,” Sveta said.
Time was short, and the clairvoyants were possibly listening in. There was a degree to which I didn’t want to reveal too much to them, at the same time I wanted to get the situation straight.
Was it a play, then? Or was it bad circumstance?
Hard to know without talking to Mayday.
“Our version?” I asked. “We’ve been juggling multiple teams, trying to keep on the down low, and we’re holding the fort until a team decides to settle in permanently.”
“You, specifically,” he said.
“Us, as a group. We’re setting up as a team,” I said. I thought of the clairvoyants. “We’re getting ourselves set up, we’re still getting costumes and names, headquarters, and a long-term plan. This is an interim job, and it gets us some money, connections, and favor.”
“And you think we bypassed that?”
“You bypassed it. The team is getting paid by people who want a chance to get some practice in and mess with the Cedar Point guys while they’re bewildered. We’re getting resources. We’re draining their resources. They’re spending money to hire help, they’re losing people. They pull favors from major players, get answers or other stuff. What I arranged, my part in this, is that one of those players gives us a cut each time we provoke these guys to call. It drains the bad guys and I can give these guys their startup cash.”
Sveta was walking around the perimeter of the office. She stopped and looked my way. “You’re telling him?”
I’m telling Cedar Point. They want answers, and I’m going to give them Tattletale.
I hadn’t wanted to do it so soon, but it was something in keeping with my warrior monk philosophy. My goal here was stability. To minimize the ripple effects and keep things from pinging off of one another to cause a greater disaster. I wanted things to stop.
“Yeah, I’m telling him,” I said.
I could see Spright consider it.
If this madness continued without a scapegoat or a target, then it would only continue unabated, with endless escalation. So long as Cedar Point thought they knew what was going on, they would move predictably, rather than windmilling their arms around and stirring up chaos.
“You were just talking to me about how the company we keep and our references matter. You’re working with the villains?”
“Working with heroes. Accepting the big picture villains are a part of the picture we’re not going to be able to shake, and adapting to that. Trust me when I say I do not have any fond feelings for who I’m talking to. If you knew the name and did some digging into my background, you’d know that.”
He reached down to the table and fidgeted with a carving, the shape only partially blocked out. Wood shavings surrounded it.
He didn’t give a response, seemingly considering.
“Spright,” I said, dead serious.
“I don’t like the way you’re doing this,” he said.
“I like you, Spright. I liked our talk before everything went to shit, when we first met. But the feeling is mutual. I don’t like how you guys are doing this either.”
I watched as he nodded slowly.
“We were here first,” I said. “I’d really like to cooperate with you guys like we’re cooperating with other heroes. But either someone’s messing with us by giving you a false go-ahead, or you guys fucked up somewhere. Whichever it is, you can’t be here.”
“Or Foresight fucked up,” he said.
“Or that,” I said. I didn’t believe it. I repeated myself with more emphasis, “Whichever it is, you can’t be here. If you were supposed to be here, it wouldn’t be a surprise to us.”
He flicked the wooden figurine across the table. “Damn it.”
“Go talk to your people, convince them to quit this,” I said.
“I will,” he said. “Can I use your powers?”
“You don’t want to use mine,” Sveta said. “If you even can.”
“You sure?” he asked. “I get an intuitive sense of movement-related powers. Yours seems okay. Coded weird, but I can push past that.”
“Mine’s dangerous,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, “Be careful.”
“I’m terrible at careful,” he said. He turned to me. “Flight. And… shadows of feet and fingers groping for handholds? I don’t think that one would move me very far. Only by inches.”
It was the most direct reference to the Wretch I’d heard someone make. I wanted to reply, to look normal, and I couldn’t.
My heart pounded more with the one question and two follow-up sentences than it had with all of my irritation and anger at Advance Guard.
“Can you use only the flight?” I managed.
“Yes. Absolutely,” he said. His feet left the ground. “Cover me? We’ll take the direct route.”
I followed, meeting Sveta before we reached the window. As Spright passed through the open window, I saw the look my friend gave me. I saw it again as I passed through the window, turned around, and put my arm around her waist as she made it through the window in a more than slightly awkward way, prosthetic body not cooperating fully.
My arm around her waist, her arm around my shoulder, we flew after Spright.
Airborne, a ways ahead of us, Spright put his arms out to his sides. Ribbons extended out from his wrists, loose in the air, one from each wrist.
I gave him a wide berth as I realized what they were supposed to be.
He gave us a sly look over one shoulder, then reached out. The ribbon moved faster than the eye could follow, reaching for a ventilation duct on a roof. He pulled himself to it, in a very familiar way, reached out with the other, and through a combination of flight and use of the two ribbons, sped well ahead of us.
I realized what it was I was seeing.
“I’m kind of not a fan of these guys,” I said.
“I kind of get what you mean,” she said. With the wind in my ears, I looked at her to track what she was saying better. The look on her face broke my heart a little. It was a longing look, where she didn’t take her eyes off of Spright and his casual use of her power until he was out of sight.
A trash can was knocked down here, the contents blown around by wind. A section of roads had cracks in it that I was pretty sure weren’t from the road settling.
In the distance, I heard Love Lost’s scream. The mob. She and Nailbiter had returned to the scene, it seemed.
I reached for my phone, and I hit the button.
“It’s me. Update?”
“I can talk? Are you there? Did you leave?” Kenzie. Looksee.
“I don’t think they’re listening in on phones, no,” I said. “Codenames only, to be safe.”
“Codenames. It’s Looksee here with Capricorn. He’s on the phone. I lost track of who with. I’m at the perimeter. Are we good to go?”
“Not yet,” I said. “Hand me over to Capricorn as soon as he’s free?”
Closer to the scene where the fighting had initially broken out, things were more chaotic. I stopped at a rooftop to try to get a sense of it all.
Eight members of the twelve initial Advance Guard capes were present. Spright was near someone I presumed was Mayday, a guy who wore a costume with red and black armor panels and a cape that covered one shoulder.
“Handholds and footholds?” Sveta asked, quiet.
I pressed the phone against my chest, to muffle it. “Yeah. I guess.”
“That’s the wolf? I saw the expression on your face.”
In the midst of the fight, Advance Guard was actually faring well enough, even though I couldn’t tell where four of their members were. Spright was having a conversation with Mayday, as villains approached them, crowding in. Mayday raised a hand, palm flat, then brought it down, so it pointed forward. Villains started scrambling out of the way.
From the distance, a flare of red light rose against the blue sky at the horizon, framed with something shadowy and dark that made it stand out clearly.
It was deceptive, in its general oblong shape, which became a circle and became oblong again, and its apparent lack of depth.
I realized what it was and put my hand at Sveta’s arm, in case I needed to pull her away. A projectile of some sort. It soared toward us, and touched down in the middle of the battlefield, with Mayday running to intercept it, getting clipped by one of Nailbiter’s claws on the way.
It hit him, almost dead on, and smashed into the road like water might, a mess of red strands that glowed to the point they were almost neon, in a sea of darker and darker strands. The webbed ball dissipated, broke up, the lines spreading out to run through, around, over and under almost everything on the ground. The larger portion of the mass skidded nearly a hundred feet before breaking up. Mayday’s team had been carried along with the skid, and as the strands dissipated, they were on their feet, standing in formation. The villains who hadn’t scrambled out of the way were at the edges, lying down, or pushed between parked cars. No property damage had been done.
They were outnumbered two to one, but Advance Guard wasn’t losing. They looked battered. Two of them were being locked down by one of their fellow teammates. Affected by Love Lost’s scream, it seemed.
The phone’s speaker buzzed against my chest. I picked it up.
“The bad guys have reinforcements coming,” Looksee reported. “From your five. I think that’s how it works, right? Five is behind and to your right? Or is twelve o’clock directly behind?”
“That’s how it works, Looksee,” I said. “Five is right. We’ll keep an eye out.”
I looked back over my shoulder. Did I want to get involved in the brawl like this?
“Victoria?” Sveta asked.
Down on the road, Advance Guard were using an area that had become a bit of a bottleneck, with one section of sidewalk fenced off with railings that had been bolted down, so there could be a patio outside one restaurant, and several cars were parked beyond that fence and on the opposite side of the street. Mayday retreated through the bottleneck with a flying ally shielding him by catching some flung balls of flame in what looked like a web of glowing lines in geometric shapes. Mayday raised both hands, palms flat, forming a ‘y’, and then brought them down.
In the distance well behind him, twin flares of red energy appeared at the horizon. One of them might have been headed straight for me.
I fixed my grip on Sveta’s arm, then carried her skyward.
Up, away, clear of the immediate fight, until the figures on the battlefield were specks. I stopped there, at a height I was pretty sure the clairvoyants couldn’t track me, where the phone I held still had two bars of signal.
Comfortably away, secure, and private. Close enough to see if the reinforcements appeared.
“Scary, being up this high,” Sveta said. “Scarier that you aren’t answering my question.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be sorry. Answer me.”
I nodded. The sick feeling that had hit me when Spright had commented on the wretch’s existence hadn’t gone away. It was worse, if anything.
Mayday’s power hit. Two shots, barreling in from the horizon in a matter of seconds, each half the size of a house. The red balls were more oblong than before, where the last one had only appeared that way because of its arc. The shape might have been why they traveled further as they hit, carrying people away. While villains scrambled to get to their feet. Lines spread out, forming overlapping triangles, circles, squares, and stars, extending in a pattern around the woman who had been shielding Mayday.
I pressed the phone down against my chest.
“You’re being weird,” Sveta said. “And weird can be allowed, believe me-”
She let out a small, hollow laugh.
“-But bad weird isn’t. You’re not just pulling away. You’re pushing away. Throwing me away, literally.”
“You threw me aside, Victoria. Literally. You didn’t warn me.”
“I wouldn’t throw you if I couldn’t catch you, okay?” I asked. I wanted to put my thoughts into words without blurting them out, but I couldn’t do that while defending myself and simultaneously making sure I didn’t leave the heroes down below undefended.
“It’s not okay,” Sveta said. “I feel shitty for bringing this up now, but it’s really not okay that I barely recognize you sometimes, and it just got shoved in my face twice.”
“I don’t want you to recognize me.”
“Not that. Not- mostly not that. Not- I’m glad you’re you again. I’m glad I can communicate with you without you bringing every conversation back to the topic of your sister.”
I flinched. I didn’t blurt, but I did voice something safe and reliable, something I’d already said, because it was safer than that. “It’s the wolf.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything. Spright told me more than that. I really, really don’t want to find out stuff from other people instead of you, Victoria.”
“It’s- My forcefield moves with a mind of its own,” I said.
She didn’t retort, and it was my instinct that I’d hear her retort. That wasn’t based on her, not on the time we’d spent together at the hospital, where we’d kept each other company, communicated, shared a computer and tried to keep each other sane. It was based on what I’d want to do. She’d been pressing me, attacking, aggressive. Were it my old self, without the two-year long reality check, I wouldn’t have been able to just stop after being on that verbal offensive. I would have pressed.
“Since the hospital,” I said, for elaboration.
“Moves on its own? Does it make you move?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“But it fits your body.”
“Not anymore,” I said. “Not this body.”
I didn’t elaborate, because I didn’t have it in me. I waited, let her put it together. I saw her expression change, and I focused instead on Advance Guard against Hollow Point down below.
We were higher up than a ten story building would be.
“Sorry,” I said. “Having this conversation with you when you can’t storm off or walk away.”
“Don’t drop me,” she said.
I nodded, stiff.
She shifted her grip, extending an arm to reach for my shoulder. Her prosthetic foot tapped against mine, then her toe settled on top of it. I held my foot rigid while she pushed herself up a bit, pulling on my shoulders until she’d raised up.
It took some doing, and it took me realizing and helping her a bit, but she found a position where she could wrap her arms around me in a hug.
My eyes remained on the scene below as I hugged her back with one hand. My other hand still held the phone against my chest, and Sveta’s hard chest pressed hard against the back of my hand. It hurt and I didn’t make her stop.
I wanted to hug tight, but the pain reminded me it didn’t matter, because it was only her shell.
“Thank you,” I said, instead. “Thank you, thank you.”
“Idiot, moron. Tell me.”
“I haven’t even told Mrs. Yamada.”
“Lamebrain. You don’t think I one hundred percent get it? You don’t think this stuff makes sense to me? More than anything or everything else?”
“Maybe I didn’t want it to be got,” I said.
She moved her head, knocking it against mine. She did it again.
It made me think of the hospital. Of a time shortly before she’d left with Weld. A couple of weeks before, maybe. Physiotherapy, working on my manual dexterity, they’d given us video games and controls we could use. Sveta had done a lot of it, and picked up more of it for the social aspect, so she’d joined me to egg me on.
She’d done the head-knock out of frustration then too. I’d been so focused on trying to get movement out of my hands and translate that to the controls that I hadn’t been paying much attention to the game.
It was a bittersweet memory, which was about as good as things had gotten, then. Two or so weeks later, Weld had gone to see her. I could remember her anticipation leading up to the meeting. She’d been so upset over the Case fifty-threes defecting en-masse from the Protectorate and Wards, and Weld’s visit had turned that around.
It hadn’t gone well. I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened. Then Weld had come to see me. He’d treated me with more human decency than I’d had out of anyone but my therapists, patient advocate, or the other patients for months. He’d been patient, ignored my ramblings, he’d been gentle, asked what he could do for me. It couldn’t have been easy. I’d been a mess.
I’d convinced him to go back to her, with a renewed perspective. Later on, I’d given them my blessings. She’d walked away from the hospital with her hero and freedom. Weld had gotten my only real friend and one of my only unabashed, unpaid-for allies.
I drew in a deep breath and sighed.
Sveta spoke first. “There was a time I was with a team. Things came to a head, a climax. It turned out half of the team had one idea of what we wanted, and the other half had another. Blood was shed. People died. Really- really cool people. The deaths weren’t as bad as the betrayals. I don’t want this to be a repeat of that.”
“Neither do I.”
“So I want to ask, because I didn’t ask then. What the hell are we doing?” Sveta asked.
“Hugging. Trying to keep this situation from getting too out of control.”
Whatever reinforcements Kenzie had mentioned hadn’t caught up with us yet. The battle lines were separating, now. Advance Guard was now a group of seven people. I wasn’t sure where the eighth had gone. Spright was at Mayday’s side, talking in short sentences. Here and there, enemies lashed out.
“Those things are now,” Sveta said.
“I think… we know what it is to be powerless, and to be stuck like that, and not always having people able or willing to help. Just about every member of the team does.”
“We’ll help those people. Cedar Point is a group of those people.”
“Colt included,” I said.
“Can we get in there?” Sveta asked.
“This is our jurisdiction.”
I put the phone to my ear. “Looksee?”
“Where are those reinforcements?”
“Fighting in the ranks. They’re gathering themselves together. Eight more.”
“Okay. Is Capricorn there?”
“He’s on the phone. Talking to Foresight now.”
“I want to move now. Before this ends one way or the other. Have him hang up and give him the phone. We make an appearance.”
I pulled the phone away from my ear at the enthusiastic noise she made.
“I’m here,” Capricorn said, on the other line. “I spent five minutes on the phone with Natalie before giving up.”
Giving up? I remembered trying to convey the situation with Hookline and Kitchen Sink, before having to resort to video evidence. Maybe we’d need to get her access to Kenzie’s feed.
“I was talking to Foresight, they don’t know what’s going on with Advance Guard,” he added.
“Neither does Advance Guard, apparently. It’s time. We should act before things get worse.”
“Ok. On our way. E.T.A. five minutes.”
Sveta shifted her grip on me at the same moment I flew straight toward the ground. Her hand slipped from my shoulder, and I caught her.
Fucking Advance Guard, fucking Prancer’s people, fucking wretch, hospital, mom, Amy.
It couldn’t be easy.
The thoughts flew through my mind and I left them behind as I plunged. I slowed and stopped as we reached the ground, still landing hard enough my legs bent, and I nearly dropped to one knee.
I’d put us right in the middle of Advance Guard’s group.
“They’re friendly!” Spright called out.
“You sure about that?” Shortcut asked. He was on the periphery, holding his polearm.
“Pretty sure,” Spright said.
On the other side of the bottleneck were sixteen villains with a scattered few mooks. Mooks augmented with Bitter Pill’s tinker stuff, it looked like. Foaming at the mouths, in a way.
Snag was there, in the back. Love Lost had retreated as well.
No, there was more to it. There was a division in the enemy ranks. Prancer, Moose, Velvet, Etna, and someone who might have been a thinker, in one group. They moved and talked to one another like they were cooperating. There was a faint red fog around them, heavier at the ground, at ankle height.
Bitter Pill’s group had Bluestocking, the six mooks, Crested, Birdbrain, and Foggy Idea. That group was more visually distinct, all but the mooks being tidier, and they hung back. The mark between them and Prancer’s group was subtle. They were at the edge of the fog, and they held themselves differently. Crested with his fan and Birdbrain with a bullwhip were the only ones with weapons.
Compared to that subtle distinction between Pill’s group and Prancer’s, the Nailbiter, Love Lost, Snag, Damsel, and a couple of the more violent and dangerous looking ones, like Sidepiece and Disjoint, were standing such that there was a fifteen foot gap between them and the others.
Anxiety Chris was in the distant background, perhaps a block away, screaming. His change would be fading soon, I imagined.
Eighteen of them.
Seven Advance Guard, Sveta and I, with Capricorn and Looksee on the way.
Love Lost screamed, and the diagram-drawer blocked it. Nobody caught at the edges. I imagined it helped the group had shrunk to seven.
“I can’t convince you guys to up and leave?” I asked.
“Our teleporter is pulling one at a time,” Mayday said. “She’d pull us all at once, but the impression got scrambled when the scream hit our thinker.”
Sidepiece and Disjoint were moving to flank the group, sneaking around a parked vehicle. A diagram-wall appeared to block them off. Disjoint hopped up onto the vehicle and was knocked off as Mayday swung a hand in his direction, casting out a tiny version of the red projectile he’d been bringing in from the horizon. As Disjoint landed at her feet, Damsel started cussing him out for getting in her way.
“It’s going to take a bit,” Mayday said. “Gets harder as our group shrinks. Injured go out first, then the less mobile.”
“They have reinforcements incoming,” I said. “Infighting is slowing them down, but the enemy group is going to get larger while yours gets smaller.”
“We know this,” Mayday said. He had a deep, rich voice, which was muffled slightly by his mask. “The thinker I mentioned, Mapwright, showed us before evacuating out.”
“They have more strong capes than we were led to believe,” the diagram-woman said.
“We need to talk about who you talked to,” I replied, under my breath.
The good guys were stuck, in a way. Powers aside, the vehicles and nearby railing were the only things that kept the Hollow Point villains from charging in all at once. It wasn’t that they were that great an obstruction to a group of people like Nailbiter, Moose, or Prancer. It was that they made it so that for people to pass that point, they needed to approach in ones and twos.
“We need to talk, Prancer!” I called out.
He didn’t answer, verbally or otherwise. There was a dark look on his face, and it was the violent clique that grew louder. Not Snag, not Love Lost, but Nailbiter and her fellows. Damsel didn’t jeer, but she said something, and one of the villains smirked.
“Let’s call a ceasefire!” I raised my voice again.
At the front lines, Velvet flung a rusty newspaper box with telekinesis, more to take away something that contributed to the bottleneck than to outright attack. It crashed hard, squealing as the metal side slid against the rough textured road.
That would be their answer, then?
Moose stepped forward, and Shortcut took a step to meet him. The road distorted, space rippling and appearing like water, spray and all, and he leaped forth at Moose’s side. Shortcut was there, pole in motion, the blade at the end making the end heavy even as he used the dull side to connect with the back of Moose’s leg.
Moose didn’t go down, and swatted in Shortcut’s direction. Shortcut disappeared, appeared again, swinging. This time the blade was more apparent. Moose was forced to take a step back.
Bitter Pill had a group of six men and women around her, toward the back. They looked like zombies. Each had their heads lolling back, and black fluid flowed from their mouths like water from the edge of an overflowing sink. She was giving them orders, her voice lost in the other noises.
Mayday raised his hand, then brought it forward. The entire assembly of villains reacted. Etna, who wore a revealing robe in glossy silk, and a black mask with six horns, threw globs of superheated glass. The robed woman who drew the magic-circle diagrams raised her defenses, only to be caught off guard when Moose, feinting to throw Shortcut off, charged her.
Moose’s charge meant much of Advance Guard leapt to the fray, Spright included, and Bitter Pill gave the order for her zombies to attack. They charged, spilling black fluid from their mouths in the same way someone with a very full jug of water might have water sloshing out.
That was Sveta and my cue to get involved. I flew forward. Sveta snatched out with a hand to pull one’s ankle out from under it, dragging it into the middle of Advance Guard’s ranks.
“Don’t hurt them! They’re people!” someone called out behind us.
I changed direction, as I saw Love Lost get a boost from Snag, which segued into her running up the side of the building. Two long, lunging steps, with metal glittering around her one leg, dangling like extensive jewelry, damaged in an earlier fall or at some point in this altercation.
Still, she grabbed onto a windowsill, twisting around to reach up with her mask.
Sveta’s hand went up. Love Lost shifted her grip, her back to the wall, arms out to either side to grip different windowsills with her claws. She refused to go down.
It did mean she couldn’t remove her mask and scream. I flew skyward, out of the group assembled behind the bottleneck, toward the building’s edge.
Nailbiter was keeping her eye out for me. In the midst of this kind of chaos, with this many witnesses, she couldn’t go for the lethal strike, but she could interfere.
Brutes had a way of gravitating toward Brutes in a fight. It was a kind of weird rock-paper-scissors thing, where rock tended to favor smashing rock.
I used my forcefield to swat aside Nailbiter’s claws. So soon after the conversation with Sveta, to bring it out and be acutely aware of it, to think briefly of the hospital, it was disorienting. It made the moment dark.
More of Nailbiter’s claws shielded Love Lost, keeping me from getting to her and pulling her free. Not directly. I saw Love Lost lower her head and raise her more intact clawed foot. She was using it as another hand.
Flying higher, I looked to Sveta. I reached out my hand, and she sent hers to me.
She pulled herself to me, then reached down, grabbing Love Lost from above.
To hold the windowsill and avoid being pulled down was one thing, but being pulled up was another.
Love Lost slashed, raking at Sveta’s arm and tendrils. Sveta let go, and let Love Lost drop.
It was Snag who leaped out, flying in a straight line to catch the woman in one mechanical arm, before she could crash into the midst of the crowd of villains.
Sveta pulled herself back down to ground level. Meanwhile, I flew over the enemy group, putting myself behind the herd of enemies, while they scrambled to do something or get clear of the incoming Mayday projectile.
It was intimidating, being on the ground, while a ball of abstract energy the size of a one-car garage hurtled toward us. I was pretty sure it was very selective about who it affected, catching people up and depositing them in a way Mayday thought appropriate, but even with that, I found it distracting.
I’d put myself close to Bitter Pill and her group. The thinkers, the clever ones. I used my aura, to pressure them, to catch their focus while the projectile sailed toward us.
It was Crested, folding fan in hand, who turned my way as I walked in their direction. All of the darkness of the hospital was in my eyes. My anger at everyone I couldn’t change or fix was in my body language. The aura was one thing, but I could be the focus of those feelings of fear and awe that my power stirred in them.
Crested swung the fan. I knew what to expect, and I wasn’t surprised when the fan spun, the folded metal slats multiplying, as the fan became a circle that became a spiral, each multiplied slat larger than the last. The effect was reminiscent of an ammonite fossil. A shield of interconnected metal slats that bit into the road and formed a wall between me and them.
“Crested!” Bluestocking called out. “We need a barrier against-”
Crested started to fold it up, but it was too slow. I flew forward, forcefield up, and hit the barrier, just to add to the intimidation and shake the other guys.
I hit the barrier again.
It kept them from erecting a defense. Prancer grabbed Velvet and leaped up to higher ground. Others ran for cover in the last seconds. Some tried to approach me, to use the other side of Crest’s barrier to defend themselves. I pushed out with my aura to discourage them in the last moment.
I was barely touched, as it washed over me like hot air from a hair dryer. Others were dragged a hundred feet down the road, pushed back and away from the bottleneck. Bluestocking’s blue stocking was shredded by the contact with the road, stained red.
They were a jumbled heap. They hadn’t pushed past the bottleneck or delivered a serious blow to Advance Guard before the bizarre siege weapon hit.
I flew back to our side.
“Let’s end this!” Mayday called out.
“Are you surrendering? Six of you and your two helpers,” Prancer said. “And-”
Behind him, Beast of Burden was arriving with reinforcements. The leader of the violent clique. No blood, no barbs or spikes, but the armor he wore was steel, and it looked like slabs had been cut off of tank armor. Helmet blended into body armor, so broad and heavy it didn’t leave a hint of a neck. The helmet had bull’s horns longer and thicker around than my leg and only slits for eyeholes. The chest armor was a slab shaped roughly like chest armor, and similar measures had been taken for the metal segments that encircled parts of his arms and legs. Cleat was with him, and Cleat was spiky in a way I’d anticipated Beast of Burden being.
Beast of Burden, ‘Bob’, was quick for a guy wearing armor as heavy as his.
But we had reinforcements too.
At our rear, Capricorn, Rain, and Looksee were arriving. Looksee had her armor on, much as she’d designed it. Four spheres at the back of her head, to encapsulate hair buns, five lenses at her face, lime green and gray color scheme.
Rain had gone with something relatively simple- a combination of loose clothing with a hood, a mask that made his face look like a robot’s, and gloves that did much the same. He wasn’t wearing extra arms.
Did he look sufficiently different to mask him for Love Lost and Snag? Nothing about their expressions suggested anything.
We were gathered. All together, or as together as we could reasonably be. Chris had run off, and Ashley was on the other side, walking the fine line of being hard to manage and believable.
“Hey, Mayday,” Looksee said.
He was silent, as he turned to look at her. She had her flash gun out.
“Aw shit no,” Mayday said.