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!”
“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.
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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“When you get to the woods, call out ‘reflection’, loud as you can.”
“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.
“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.”
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.