“Valefor,” I said, just loud enough for the others, Damsel included, to hear. “Hypnotist Master. I wrote about him in the document. Don’t look him in the eyes.”
Chris was in his bird-spiral Dark Introspection form, and he curled up further, eyes nestling in deep, so his eye only barely peered out.
We backed up as the Fallen advanced as a crowd. Chris prowled around behind us on long, black, bird limbs, his eye peering over our heads. the pupil resembled a human face in shape, but more a cross-section of the middle of the face.
I wished I’d asked for more details on just how his forms functioned. He might not have answered me, but on the off chance that he did, I’d have some sense of what we could do to defend ourselves. I just knew it was maybe a solution of sorts in the face of Mama Mathers, the anti-thinker measure, her family, or some combination thereof.
Crises tended to highlight things. They brought out the best and worst of us, whether it was courage in the face of danger to our loved ones or craven behavior in the midst of desperation. They showed us who our friends were and how much they cared. I was getting a sense of things I really needed and wanted to work on with these guys, and where our strengths as a team were. Case in point: I needed to figure things out with Chris.
I’d never really had to think about it. I’d grown up with my first team, and I’d known them intimately by default. They had been there by default, up until a crisis bad enough it had broken us.
“You wanna piece of me!?” Sidepiece screamed out the words. She put too much pitch in the higher sounds, and managed to get some vocal fry in the mix.
“You’ve got to stop saying that,” Disjoint said.
Love Lost wasn’t screaming, and the others in her group weren’t attacking. Cleat, Etna, they only retreated in our general direction.
“You want some of this!?” Sidepiece screeched.
“Silence!” Valefor called out. He pointed his cane in her direction, as he shouted it, and a few people tensed from that action alone.
Sidepiece shut her mouth.
“If the intrusive twits give each other advice, I think we should listen,” Damsel said. “Don’t look at him.”
Sidepiece shook her head.
“She wasn’t looking,” Beast said.
“Let’s go,” I said. I turned to go, hand on Sveta’s shoulder.
“Don’t run!” Valefor called out, at the top of his lungs.
My stride halted, and I swayed a bit before finding my footing. Introspection Chris had been quicker to stop, and I bumped into him in the midst of my retreat.
“Don’t go anywhere!” he cried out. His arms were out above his head, as if he shouted it to the heavens.
I turned around to look.
The others were reacting in a similar way. Beast of Burden was one of the last to stop moving, and nearby bowled over the teammates that were using him as a human shield. Sveta lost her balance, tipped over and crashed to the ground, arms paralyzed around her, not moving fast enough to break her fall.
I took off, flying straight for Valefor. I wasn’t the only person with the same idea. Nailbiter attacked, fingers stabbing out.
One of Valefor’s people said something, distant enough he was barely audible, his hand on Valefor’s shoulder. Other capes were protecting the group against Nailbiter. One was producing a plume of red smoke that moved in slow motion. The claws hit the smoke and stopped like they’d hit inviolable steel.
The cane swung out my way. “Stop.”
I canceled my flight, dropping down to the ground. I took a few steps forward before I could stop. Our side was twenty or thirty feet behind me, and Valefor was another sixty or seventy feet ahead of me.
Nailbiter kept up the offense, bringing her claws back like she’d been hurt by the curling smoke, and then swiped in from the side, trying to catch the group from the other side. The defending Fallen threw more smoke in the way of the attack, so red it looked like plastic, opaque and moving through the air at a crawl, once it left the Fallen man’s hand.
“Attacker,” someone said, hand at Valefor’s shoulder, indicating Nailbiter.
Sidepiece joined in. She didn’t advance or retreat, but darted out to the side, fingers clenched in her guts, ripping something out.
“Cease,” Valefor called out.
Both Nailbiter and Sidepiece were affected.
Nailbiter stopped, then withdrew her fingers. Breathing hard, Sidepiece held a chunk of what might have been appendix or ovary in her hand, blood dripping freely down her arm and off of her elbow. More blood flowed from the fresh injury in the roadkill mess that was her gut, over her pelvis and the rise of her low-rise jeans, and splattered onto her sneaker.
She dropped the bit at her feet. It detonated, and she was flung to one side.
“Clever, but no. You lie there, guts girl,” Valefor said. “Don’t move a muscle. The rest of you?”
Damsel used her power, hurling herself forward.
“No powers,” Valefor called out.
“No weapons, no tools. None of you. Stay still and wait.”
I hadn’t been looking at him. I glanced at him, and I could see that his eyes were still covered.
The instructions he was getting. He couldn’t see. His power worked without him needing to see? Or had he tapped into another source, replying on a cape that granted vision like Mapwright could get and grant mental images of areas?
My heart pounded, and I felt nausea welling up. The Fallen chuckled. A few of the young hooligan types cackled and danced around, arms waving as they approached, spreading out.
We’d been too tied up with Beast of Burden. What should have been a brief engagement, taking out the two powerful Fallen and then retreating had become a thing. Valefor had gotten into earshot, and apparently that was all he needed.
I was having trouble thinking straight. Paralysis seemed to freeze my thoughts as much as it did my body. I’d dealt with it for two years, being unable to move under my own weight. The need to move became something fluttery in my chest, which fanned the swell of nausea.
It felt like colors were different, as was the clarity of my vision, as if I had someone else’s eyes. I was acutely aware of the feeling of my clothing on my skin, every breath and how they weren’t measured to the breaths before or after them.
No powers, he’d said. I couldn’t bring myself to fly. I couldn’t bring the wretch out. I glanced at Love Lost’s group. They’d been bound by words in the same way.
I looked down and tried to focus.
The Fallen closed the distance. I’d charged in, and that put me front and center. I got a good look at Valefor as he approached. There were white feathers in his hair and around his collar. He bent his head at an angle while talking in a whisper with the person leading him.
His companion stopped him a few feet in front of me, thumbs hooked in the slim belt at his waist.
“Mama told you to help us,” Valefor said. “You didn’t.”
“We did,” I said, still looking down. “We got your people to safety and protected them.”
“I’ve been told there are Fallen casualties,” Valefor said.
“Pazuza and Gel are dead. Smashed to a pulp. Jay and Nell,” his companion said. A guy with a face tattoo visible in the gaps of a ragged head-covering that only let his eyes peer through. “Some injured.”
“Family,” Valefor said, sticking his cane in my direction. “Don’t lie to me.”
The fact that he was talking to me meant that I was off limits for the rest. The hooligans with demon masks and the darker, more adult Fallen walked past me, toward Beast of Burden and the others. We were quickly getting surrounded, except surrounded was the wrong word. We were stones in a river, and the Fallen were the water.
“We didn’t kill your people. We did protect and evacuate some,” I said. “That’s the truth.”
“Evacuated? Yeah, that’s not a good thing,” he said. He walked around me, reaching out until he touched my arm. I flinched a little at the contact. His fingers traced over the decoration at my shoulder.
I felt angry at that. I was reminded of being in the hospital, of being manhandled by nurses and carers that only wanted to get on with their days. When you were a certain kind of helpless, people took it as their right or common sense that they got to touch you.
“You’re going to help us. Tell me you understand.”
“I understand,” I said, the words escaping my lips, barely audible.
“You’re going to help us. You’re going to serve us. Tell me you’re going to serve us.”
“I’m going to serve you,” I said.
Amy. The thought sprung to mind. Amy. Amy. For two years it had been Amy this, Amy that. All my thoughts in service to being with her, thinking about her, wanting her.
Another compulsion. Then and now, when I’d hit my limit, frustrated-
He reached up to my cheek, and gave it two sharp pats, audible. “Good.”
Anger became indignation, enough to choke me, together with the irregular breathing and the nausea. My head shook a little, my vision grew dark around the edges, and I teetered slightly.
I tipped over the brink, past the point where the use of my power was willful and wanted and at the point where it was something I had to hold back.
In surrender rather than intent, I lashed out with fear and self-admiration, and I let the Wretch loose, with Valefor in arm’s reach, in that order.
Had it been the other way around, the Wretch might have gotten its hands on the man. But intimidation took hold, and Valefor was assisted by his manservant, who hauled him back and away. He sprawled in the grass.
The manservant was slower to get back, his attention on helping Valefor. Compulsion, possibly. An invisible hand struck him in the arm, and the arm folded backward, wrist slapping against elbow, skin tearing from the blunt impact and the bones cutting him from within.
What was the rule I’d set for myself? Seventy-five percent? Seventy-five percent of the harm done was fair.
I wasn’t sure how to quantify physical harm against the emotional and mental harm done. Standing where I was, Wretch active, Fallen backing away from me, I was in a fugue, emotions a storm as things I’d been bottling up sought release.
Valefor’s distraction had apparently freed people, or served as a kind of punctuation to end his ongoing commands. I was free, even as the ‘serve’ command lingered in the corner of my mind’s eye.
It was like the Amy compulsion, the desire I couldn’t fulfill, painful to think about and unwanted even in its straightforward way.
Amy, Amy, Amy. A wild, repetitive thought.
I could keep it in the corner and avoid thinking. A trap I wouldn’t fall into if I didn’t take a step or clear partisan action. I wouldn’t help Valefor, but I wouldn’t or couldn’t hurt him either. I couldn’t speak.
I flew up and back to get myself safe. Neutral.
Others were taking advantage. Capricorn slugged a hooligan that was up in his face, gauntlet to chin. Nailbiter, Beast of Burden and the others tore into the crowd that had moments ago thought they could pass through our group without incident.
Love Lost screamed, aiming the scream more at the Fallen stragglers. The red smoke Fallen had already thrown some defenses up around Valefor, so the two of them seemed unaffected.
Others were caught in the effect, and their demeanor shifted. Some looked happy in a demented way, others went cold, and it was hard to tell with others, as their costumes and masks covered them up too much. They charged at Love Lost, and she met them with hands out, claws outstretched. Cleat was a few paces behind her.
Some weren’t getting up. Sveta. I could see her looking up at me. Sidepiece lay where she was. Others weren’t fighting. Chris in particular had backed away. Good.
I still felt nauseous. My skin still crawled. I was still pissed, but it was bottled-up pissed again.
I looked in Prancer’s direction, and saw that he was moving on, heading away from us, not toward. Some of his people looked back.
We were facing the casualties of Beast of Burden’s decision to split apart. Prancer had to know we were here, with the noises and shouting, he wasn’t that far away, but they’d decided to go.
“Stop!” Valefor called out. “Freeze! No powers! No weapons! No tools!”
Again, Beast of Burden was the last one to stop. I turned to look, and saw Damsel off to one side. Her arm was limp at her side, and she gripped her forearm with her hand. Blood ran down to her fingertips.
Valefor had affected his allies, too. There had been a note of emotion in his voice, frustration and a bit of fear.
He couldn’t see. His voice was his control over the situation and he’d momentarily lost it.
There had been a time he’d needed eye contact. Now he used his voice. The trouble with a voice was that it wasn’t focused. I could remember the cane, and the way both Nailbiter and Sidepiece had obeyed at the same time, earlier.
It worked on someone if they thought they were being referred to.
There were mental tricks I imagined someone could do. It seemed like a noose that could be slipped, especially when he referred to people in the general. I just wasn’t sure I could do it.
“Pagan, stand at ease,” Valefor said. He tilted his head slightly and said the words like they were a joke. “Report.”
The one the Wretch had hit shifted his weight until he could roll over enough that his knees were under him. He knelt on the ground, clearly unsteady as he worked his way to his feet as best as he could without his hands. His good arm cradled the damaged one. “Two dead. Ten injured, my best guess. I’m one of them. I need help soon.”
Were those dead on my hands? I’d created a momentary opening, others had taken advantage of it.
What would have happened if we hadn’t been here? Would there be less lives lost? Or would some of the dangerous individuals be Valefor’s captive audience?
Could I afford to even think about that? We were- we were caught again. So long as we could talk and we could hear him, there wasn’t a good way to avoid his effect.
“Fallen, you can move,” Valefor said. “Look for anyone that’s covering their ears.”
Fallen that had been paralyzed started moving
Fear was making it hard to breathe. Could I use that again? Another disruption?
“Girl with the spikes that I was just talking to. Calm down. Don’t try to be clever.”
Just like that, my thoughts were dulled, and I found myself going back to the little meditative phrases and mental loops. Old PRT case numbers, a mantra I’d started to go over once when I’d needed to break a loop of thinking, which had inadvertently become something that calmed me down.
We’d been prepared for Valefor as he was, with outdated records and a printout of a wiki page that had been salvaged from someone’s laptop after the slow process began of rebuilding the internet.
Case zero was Scion. He was also, I presumed, the last case. Case one was the Siberian, technically the one who had first started the case files, as the PRT consolidated old data and tried to get information from other government agencies. Case two was Behemoth, his rise had incited the creation of the PRT. The case series had been an excuse to gather data from international agencies, too. Case three was the lie of the virus, an early claim about the origin of powers, propagated by an early online newsgroup. Case four was The Player, an early Thinker mastermind who had required some greater cooperation across multiple agencies to root out. Later on, The Player would be a case-in-point for the formation of Watchdog and its core purpose. Kenzie’s would-be group.
The first cases had inspired things, major functions and interests. Committees had been formed and those committees had become something. Even though a whole chunk of the early ones were minor or fabrications in the end, the virus theory included, they’d led to things like a dedicated parahuman science department.
Ordered, interesting, familiar. It was calming, even if I didn’t want to be calm.
We’d talked about how to deal with him. Tricks, techniques. I’d thought I could use my aura, to try to override or distract. I’d been right.
I’d gotten two Fallen killed and the ensuing fracas had led to roughly half of them being injured. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. The idea of death weighed heavy, even if it looked as if it was Beast of Burden and Nailbiter’s doing. Violence and death didn’t weigh heavy for them.
“Our side matches yours in number. From what I’ve been told, you’re divided, fighting among yourselves. We aren’t. The strength of faith,” Valefor said. He said it almost ironically. “Let’s tip the scales. You’re going to serve us. You’re going to fight for us. I’ll talk to you one by one and I’ll have you pledge allegiance, starting with-”
I heard Damsel’s power, brief.
Beast of Burden said something, his voice a growl.
“I said not to be clever,” Valefor said. He drew in a deep breath, then tilted his head as far to the left as it would go, where ear would have been touching shoulder if his mask didn’t cover it. “Do you want to see what I can do if I get creative? Someone assist me.”
A Fallen woman near him hurried to his side, supporting and guiding him. She had her tits out, and every inch of her was caked in goopy black paint, which obscured her features and hid details. Where her lips parted, the paint had cracked, so there was only a broken hard ridge, with lips, teeth and tongue behind. It even caked her hair.
It didn’t look like a Tempera sort of thing. Just costume.
They navigated the crowd, Fallen moving out of their way, our guys and the violent capes frozen in place.
Valefor was far enough away from me that I could barely hear him. He stood in front of Damsel.
Her power flared. She stumbled.
The woman with Valefor said something.
“Stop,” Valefor said. “Don’t do that again. Move your hand.”
She pulled her hand away from her forearm. There was a hole where she had dug her thumb in under the skin.
We’d talked about this, but not- not quite like this.
“You-” Valefor started.
The power flared again. She stumbled, spell broken, and then brought her good hand around, toward Valefor.
The woman in black paint let go of Valefor and caught Damsel’s wrist, forcing it upward. The power shot well over their heads, and Damsel fell.
“Cease,” Valefor said. “Let’s distract you. Kill your friends.”
Damsel wheeled around, turning toward Nailbiter and Sidepiece. Then she hesitated, looking up at me.
The woman in black paint moved, lunging to intercept another attacker.
Chris, leaping in. The woman in black kept him from getting his talons on Valefor. He was a spiral twist of feather and scaly talonflesh, with eyes and hard ridges in the mix. His spindly talons raked and grabbed, but the woman in black was fast, strong, and possibly a precog.
He’d picked this form with Masters in mind. Capes that controlled people. He hadn’t been willing to say just how or why it helped, only that he was unsure how well it would work.
At the time, I’d told myself he’d be kept back and out of the way, so it barely mattered, especially if we couldn’t be certain how reliable it was.
Chris got two of his four talons on Damsel, and he tossed her. She used her power while mid-air, and landed roughly on her feet, one hand touching the ground. Her injured arm hung limp.
The arm sparked and she fell.
Fallen pushed past our people to help Valefor, as Introspection Chris tried to reach around the woman in black and scratch him. Powers came to bear: red smoke, a snake that looked like it was made of intestine and barbed wire, sprouting spikes that crackled with electricity- Introspection Chris disengaged and leaped back as the Fallen came rushing at him.
Him was really a quirky word to use when he had this form.
There were two with enhanced speed, and the barbed intestine snake had reach. He wasn’t that fast in this form, even if he was faster than a normal human might have been. The speedy Fallen tackled him. The snake caught his leg.
I flew a little closer, unconsciously, wanting to keep an eye on things, make sure he was okay. Mrs. Yamada had charged me with their care.
The two Fallen with enhanced speed looked related. They sped up, but as they did, their bodies deformed. Legs bent the wrong way, operating digitigrade, the tops of their heads twisted, until their lower jaws pointed the opposite directions that their upper jaws, noses, and eyes did.
From the way he reacted to their hits, they hit hard too. Strength, speed, but at a cost to fluidity of motion, steadily increasing clumsiness and facility.
He shook them, and the first fell, the second slipping and the getting a hold of one taloned foot. Fallen advanced on Chris as a larger group.
The two awkward Fallen speedsters were bleeding, I saw.
Just as the group seemed poised to go after him, I pushed out with my aura, hard.
I hadn’t even meant to. It was instinct, and it was instinct on behalf of Chris. I didn’t even care that much about Chris.
The act on his behalf brought the pledge to Valefor to mind. I’d promised to serve, and it was a loop in my thoughts now. The usual techniques didn’t help to break it.
It was a peculiar battlefield, so many people frozen in place, the combatants on the Fallen side not wanting to break the spell by jarring anyone too much. I hadn’t experienced it myself, but it seemed that if people were told to stop, and were set to moving by a stumble or a push, that was enough that it needed to be renewed.
Damsel had broken her prosthetic hand to make her power spark, each stumble forcing a renewal. Now she stalked toward the group. Her last order had been to kill her friends.
Thought process: I needed to help Valefor. I needed to help the others. I couldn’t break the mental loop and I couldn’t remain neutral anymore, now that the thought was heavy in my mind’s eye. I would help Valefor.
I flew to Valefor, while everyone’s attention was on Chris. Fallen turned, the woman in black first among them, skin red and sunburned beneath the cracked black paint. There were veins of red through the paint that weren’t sunburned skin peeking through, either, and I saw she had horns, now that I was closer.
I brought the Wretch forth as she lunged for me.
The Wretch was invisible, and she had planned her punch and tackle to hit me, not a force a few feet in front of me. She bounced away, and the Wretch disappeared. Others were so distracted with Chris and now Beast of Burden, who had been jostled in the fighting, they didn’t even seem to notice.
I collided with Valefor fairly hard as I put my arms around him. He couldn’t see me coming, so he couldn’t even brace against the impact. I would help him in such a way that he couldn’t tell me to stop helping and put himself in danger again.
Collecting him, I flew away from the scene.
I would help and serve him. That was the idea he’d planted in my head.
Before he could catch his breath from the impact, I flew in a spiral tight enough his legs went out to the side, and then gently deposited him on a rooftop.
I flew away before he could catch his footing, get a lungful of air, and give me another command.
The compulsion wasn’t gone. It was there.
But it had abated. I’d served the rule, but not the spirit.
The tide had turned. The villains that were assisting us were B-listers, but the Fallen weren’t the cream of the Fallen’s crop either. I flew past the group, jostling people, grabbing them and letting go a moment later.
Valefor wouldn’t find his way back in time, I hoped, and the Fallen were already injured from the brief surprise attack.
A spray of cold water from Capricorn woke up everyone I hadn’t been able to reach. The Fallen retreated, the intestine-snake snatching up two and yanking them back. I did much the same in finding Sveta lying in tall grass, her suit and wig without a head beneath. A knife impaled her back but hadn’t penetrated the shell. I carried her away, feeling the reassuring thump of her presence within.
“You okay?” I asked, once we were in the air.
“Embarrassed,” Sveta said, her voice sounding a bit like it came from the depths of a well.
“Okay,” I said. I landed a distance away, just far enough away we could keep Beast and Damsel’s group of capes in sight.
Once four-legged, now three-legged, Chris limped his way to us. He breathed hard and curled up tight. Byron followed.
“Hey guy,” I said. I wished we had a name for him. “Mr. Introspection. You’re missing a leg. You okay?”
He blinked once.
I had no idea what that meant. Go figure, that he wasn’t any more forthcoming when he didn’t seem to have a working mouth.
“What did you end up doing?” Byron asked.
“Took Valefor away. He’s still out there,” I said. “Unfortunately.”
I eyed Damsel, who was at the periphery of Beast of Burden’s group. There was a dark look in her eye as she talked to that group, clearly heated and I wasn’t there to talk her down.
“Tristan couldn’t switch to me, I don’t think,” Byron said. “When we were talking about capes we might run into last night, we theorized it was a thing we could do, that if he switched to me I might not be compelled, but he didn’t switch.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “We knew there were a half-dozen things we could maybe do, and some worked, some didn’t.”
“I hate- I hate losing control. I only have control over half my life to begin with,” Byron said.
“Yeah,” Sveta said. Her face peered up through the neckhole of her suit. “There’s- Careful, Victoria. Or, Byron, can you put your gauntlets over this gap, fasten it when I say so?”
“Sure,” Byron said.
“Be careful,” Sveta said.
She’d undone a clasp at the shoulder. She brought her head out, twisting it around in a way a neck couldn’t. Her tendrils were bound with metal rings into a loose column that disappeared into her suit. She began working her way into a comfortable position. “Not having control, it sucks. Fuck that guy.”
“Agreed on both counts, but the lack of control helped us,” I said. “It’s how I used my aura. It’s what Damsel did.”
Sveta pursed her lips.
Damsel was stalking. Sidepiece and Nailbiter were sticking with her. Disjoint hung back, talking to Beast of Burden. Etna, Love Lost, and Cleat seemed to be a sub-clique in that group.
Byron blurred. His armor shifted tints from blue to red.
“It’s what Dark Introspection here did,” Tristan said. “Mind-body disconnect, right? Looking inward, elective connection.”
Chris curled up tighter.
“Yeah,” Tristan said. He bent down to give Chris a pat. “You’re so weird.”
“You did good,” I said.
I could see the looks on faces throughout our small group, or what I could see of faces. Chris being wound together, Sveta looking so deeply unhappy, Tristan’s eyes being narrower.
It wasn’t just us. The violent capes were more agitated.
I felt that way. The panic that had let me tap into the aura and Wretch wasn’t going all the way away. I wore armor and a costume that made me feel like standing tall and I felt very small.
Fuck that guy was right.
“What did he tell you?” Tristan asked me. “Orders, compulsions?”
“To serve, to help. I helped by removing him from a dangerous situation. I’m not all the way resolved, there. I don’t want to run into him again.”
“Did he tell you to lie?”
“Stop that,” Sveta said. “She would have to say no if he did, so it doesn’t matter.”
“Not always,” Tristan said. “Sometimes you get loopholes. It’s worth asking.”
I shook my head. “He didn’t tell me to lie. He was distracted, I think. He tried to pull a big gambit to turn the tides and he’s operating blind. Literally, I don’t think he can see.”
I still had the traitorous, general thoughts and impressions from the compulsion. I was familiar with having thoughts that weren’t mine in my head. The mind was supposed to be sacrosanct, the thoughts it contained purely sourced from oneself and for oneself. Valefor had violated the former, like Amy had violated the latter.
On a level, I was just happy I hadn’t killed him. I knew there was an argument for why I should have, had I had the opportunity. I also knew it would have been a betrayal of myself and the me I wanted to be.
For all these reasons and more, mind control was another one of the parts of the game. Too many people found it viscerally horrifying, myself included, and the way things could break down if mind control saw common use was too big of a problem. The natural reaction from society, or from our sub-society, was to fight back.
Valefor obviously didn’t care.
He didn’t give me the impression of someone at home in a big thing like the one we’d been in, especially after the fighting had started, and he’d still been pretty damn scary.
“We could go,” I said. “We caught them off guard once or twice there, and we got some lumps in. It’s not quite breaking the back of the Fallen, but we could pull away, regroup with others, and plan for the perimeter and Looksee’s trap.”
“I want to do more,” Sveta said. “I was useless back there.”
“I can’t back down from this,” Tristan-Capricorn said. “I think if we run into him again, if I’m alert, I might know what to do.”
“If you’re sure,” I said.
I looked down at Introspection Chris. “How about you? You good to retreat to the background? Gallop in if you see the need and feel up to it?”
He lurched to his feet, curled and uncurled like he was stretching, and then loped away, swaying a bit to compensate for the missing forelimb. He bucked a bit, claw reaching up, and then the iffy camouflage kicked in.
“Okay,” I said. “I have a lot of questions.”
“His whole thing is he doesn’t like answering them,” Capricorn said.
“He’s doing his part,” Sveta said. “That was brave.”
“It was insane,” Capricorn said. “No offense intended to present company, brothers, or self.”
“Fine line between bravery and insanity,” I said.
I looked across the clearing to Beast of Burden’s group. Damsel wasn’t pacing anymore.
Capricorn approached and stood next to me, his armored shoulder touching the spikes at mine. Sveta stood at my other side, looking in that direction.
“Do we try this?” Capricorn asked.
“We might have to. I don’t like leaving her alone like this.”
Capricorn put a hand up. Disjoint was watching us, and nudged Beast of Burden.
Their group went quiet.
I was well aware that Love Lost was a danger to Rain. I was aware of how dangerous these guys were in general. Beast of Burden had killed two members of the Fallen’s inner circle, it sounded like. They’d been people Valefor was close to.
We approached, slow and steady.
“Can we try this a second time?” Tristan asked. “Truce? We deal with this whole situation. There are hostages we need to rescue and we can’t afford to fight.”
“I like the idea,” Disjoint said.
“Backup would be awful nice,” Sidepiece said. She had a really annoying voice. I’d noticed it earlier. A bit of the teenage vocal fry, trying a bit to sound cute, but she wasn’t a teenager and I didn’t think she was cute.
“Not your call,” Beast of Burden said.
“Is it supposed to be yours?” Damsel asked.
“You can be quiet,” Beast of Burden said. “I’ve heard too much from you today. Earn your stripes first, then talk.”
“Hey, Damsel of Distress,” I said.
She turned to me.
“You good? Any lingering compulsions?”
“No. I don’t have much goodness to go around, but I don’t have any compulsion either. I don’t have friends.”
“You gave me a look,” Sidepiece said. She had hair over one side of her face, but she didn’t take very good care of it, and a mask in the same cut as the phantom of the opera one, albeit cruder, covered part of her face. Black makeup filled her lower eye socket and distorted the impression of her eyeshape. “A very flattering murderous look.”
“I thought about it,” Damsel said, imperious and proud, chin rising a bit. “I don’t know if you qualify as a friend, when I barely know you, but I don’t mind your company, Sidepiece, and I can respect a lady with the discipline to have a… twelve inch waist?”
She smiled a bit. Her arm sparked, her power ripping between the wound at her forearm and her fingertips. and she stumbled into Disjoint. Frowning, she backed away until she was a short distance from everyone else.
“Sixteen inches, last I checked, but thank you. You’re a dear,” Sidepiece said, ignoring the power misfire and maintaining her intentionally frayed voice as she feigned higher class.
“Will you help us?” I asked.
“No,” Beast of Burden said.
Nailbiter and Damsel exchanged a look. Nailbiter looked over at Sidepiece.
“Yes,” Nailbiter said, voice whistling slightly.
Beast of Burden wheeled on her, finger pointing. “Not your choice.”
“Democratically?” Sidepiece asked. “I think most of us want the help, Bob.”
“This isn’t a democracy,” Beast of Burden said. “This is a fucking tyranny. You signed on for it, and you agreed I’m leader because I’m good for the business and track record. You also agreed that if the crown is moving to another head, it’s going to do so outside of jobs. Leaders can’t be second guessed on the field.”
“Either we run or we press on,” Damsel said, second guessing him.
“Enough,” Beast of Burden said.
“If we press on, we’re going to face worse than we just did. I agree with Sidepiece and Nailbiter. It makes sense,” Damsel said.
Her power sparked again. She maintained her balance, overcompensated, and stumbled a step the other way.
“You okay?” Sveta asked.
“Just fine,” Damsel said, curt and sounding anything but. She turned back to Beast of Burden. “Don’t be a wuss, Beast. You look weaker trying to go this alone than you do taking the help.”
Before Beast of Burden could reply, Love Lost approached him from behind. She rapped claws with blood still on them on the back of his armor.
She pointed at Nailbiter, then at us.
“She’s the client,” Damsel said.
He stabbed a finger her way. “Last warning.”
Her power sparked. This time she fell.
“Good. Stay like that,” Beast of Burden said. He stepped forward and placed one iron boot on the edge of her dress. Damsel remained where she was. Struggling would have been futile.
“Don’t be a dick,” I said.
“Don’t interject yourself into our business. If the client wants help, fine. We’ll do this.”
“We need to find the hostages. We’ll reunite with another group we’re working with and use their thinkers or other resources. If there’s a confrontation, we work together,” I said.
Beast of Burden shrugged, spreading his gauntlet-clad hands slightly. He stepped off of Damsel’s dress, and went to walk in the direction the fighting had gone. It seemed with Prancer mobile and Velvet having some emphasis on enhanced maneuverability when driving with her telekinesis, they were moving around a lot, and the Fallen were giving chase. They had moved away since the fight with Valefor.
Love Lost pointed. She didn’t spare Damsel a glance as she walked on. Some of the others joined her. Nailbiter, Disjoint, and Etna. Sidepiece lingered as Damsel picked herself up. Her arm sparked twice, but she didn’t fall.
She gave us a look, then stalked away.
We cut through the north end of the settlement, toward the northwest corner, and the sound of ongoing confrontation got us jogging after them. Well, I flew, but the rest jogged or ran.
Prancer was engaged. They were fighting with hit and run tactics, and when the Fallen didn’t take the bait or stopped to pause, Prancer’s group assaulted buildings. There was a shop on fire, and a large garage with a truck in it that now had a chunk missing.
A big part of what let them do that was the heroes at the west end of the settlement, and the presence of the Undersiders. Bitch and her dogs were standing beside Vista. Narwhal was close, and two black stuffed animals reared up at the edge of the camp. Foil was there, but Tattletale was not.
No Valefor, but I could see a core group of Fallen with fancier costumes and that kind of presence.
Nobody that looked like they could be Mama Mathers, either.
The pressure was on, and the Fallen looked to be losing ground. There were world-class capes lined up against them. If the actual groups were even in power, and I wasn’t sure they were, then Prancer’s group was playing it in such a way that even if the Fallen won, they wouldn’t have a town left after.
My phone buzzed.
I pulled it out.
Not peeking am reporting what others saying. Precog with me says Vista says that the hostages you want are toward south end of town. Map attached.
The text had an image attached.
I flew skyward, looking.
A group. Valefor’s group, with Fallen civilians and others. The hostages.
We could figure something out.
White flickers danced in the corner of my vision. I looked away, but they persisted. Like the motes of dust in my eye, but akin to snowflakes.
If that was their anti-thinker measure, which might well be Mama Mathers, then even the thinker-esque advantage of having a bird’s eye view was enough to give them an in.
I grit my teeth.
I’d seen the building Looksee had marked on the map.
Dropping out of the sky, I landed beside the group. “This way. The-”
Turning toward Beast of Burden’s group, I was just in time to see him backhand Damsel across the face. It was a casual swing, but he was strong and he wore a gauntlet. She hit the ground hard.
“Jesus fuck, no wonder your team is mutinying,” Capricorn said. “You can’t play nice with others in a crisis? There’s stuff going on! Be a professional.”
“She didn’t even say anything! This time!” Sidepiece said, bending down beside Damsel. Damsel pushed her away.
Her damaged hand at her face, the other used to get to her feet, Damsel worked her way to a standing position. I didn’t see anything resembling Ashley in her eyes.
“I gave her a final warning,” Beast of Burden said.
“Hey,” Capricorn said.
“Damsel,” I said. “Ashley.”
“Stop,” Beast of Burden said, pointing at Damsel, talking over me.
One hand still on her face, she pointed at him and blasted before his expression could change.
Darkness, shadow, distorted space and visual static ripped through armor, flesh, and armor again, tearing a hole clean through him. The hole caved in on itself, metal creaking as it bent, blood fountaining out and splashing up on half the people nearby.
“You stop,” she said.