“Damsel!” Sveta cried out, as the initial shock wore off.
Everyone was backing away from Beast of Burden and from Damsel, who caught her footing and looked down at the body. Sentences were an overlapping jumble.
“What did you do?” Disjoint asked, eyes wide. His mask was a black stick-on sort, but it was divided into two halves, one for the brow and one for the cheekbones. As his eyebrows went up and his eyes went wide, the two halves separated, revealing red-painted skin beneath.
“What I did is obvious,” Damsel said.
“Fuck,” Sidepiece said. She ran her fingers back through the sides of her hair, and there was enough residual fat and blood on them from her using her power that her hair stuck where it was pushed. “He hadn’t paid me yet.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why did you do this?”
“He stepped on me. He struck me. In a fight? That’s fine, you can hit me in a fight. But like this? When I’m helping? I’ll hit back.”
“That’s not a hit,” Sveta said.
Damsel paced a little. People were giving Damsel and the blood spatter a wide berth, and as she moved, people backed up more.
Nailbiter was on the far side of the group, furthest from me. She prowled on elongated limbs, silent, staring.
Damsel spoke up, “I will not be stepped on. I will not be beaten down and take it with a smile. He wanted to be a tyrant but he couldn’t lead. He didn’t know his own place in things and he thought to tell me mine?”
“So he dies?” I asked.
“He knew what he was doing,” she said. “He-”
Her power misfired. She staggered a bit, and Capricorn and Sveta backed away more. Damsel found her balance, but when she did, her hair draped down in front of most of her face, and she let it hang there.
She continued, “He knew the risks when he went toe to toe with me. When he struck me, it wasn’t heated. It was cold, logical. He knew if he didn’t do something, he’d lose his team. He calculated the risk and he calculated it wrong.”
“You pushed him to that point,” I said.
Sveta touched my arm. Fear that I was provoking Damsel when she was in a dangerous state? Or because I sounded accusatory? Both?
“I calculated wrong, I thought he was smarter.”
She said. She stuck out a foot, and rested her foot on Beast of Burden’s forehead. His helmet had tipped back by its own weight, exposing a face with narrow eyes, and a muttonchop beard. His head was resting on the part of the helmet that had once been behind his neck. She moved his head around by moving her foot.
“Stop that, please,” Sveta said.
Sveta pointed at the foot. “Please. Even if he wasn’t a great person, he was human. He deserves common decency.”
Damsel stepped back, placing her footsteps where there wasn’t too much blood. There was a dusty print on Beast of Burden’s forehead now, with some small rocks settled into the corner of his eye, by the bridge of his nose.
“Thank you,” Sveta said.
In the background, lights danced around the shadows of the trees at the west edge of the settlement. Vista and Weld’s group. It caught Sveta’s attention, and I saw her focus her balance, swaying slightly less. I could imagine it as a tension in the tendrils within her body.
On the other side of things, while everyone else turned to look at the shifting reds and blues and greens, my focus was on Ashley. I saw something in her expression, as she looked at Sveta, then at Capricorn, and finally met my eyes. It was fleeting, spooked, more like how an ordinary person might look if they were at the mercy of ex-Slaughterhouse Nine member Damsel of Distress, than Damsel of Distress herself.
Hardly the imperious bearing she had a moment ago.
I saw the expression pass before any of the members of the other group could react. Love Lost tilted her head a little, walking around the periphery of the larger group- a wide periphery, given how we’d spread out and backed off.
“This is the true world of parahumans,” Damsel said, turning to look at Love Lost. Damsel’s chin rose a little, as she went back to being the villain queen. “The other things fall away, but this remains a constant. It’s why we all die young.”
“Endbringers and end of the world helped,” Sidepiece said.
“The end of the world never stopped,” Damsel said. “This is it, continuing, wearing demon masks and cheering about fucking over the rest of us. It’s wearing stupid helmets with horns as long as my legs and thinking it can find its way to power by killing its enemies and stepping on anyone in its way.”
“It’s blasting a hole in someone with a stupid helmet,” Disjoint said.
She turned on him. He stepped back some more.
“Don’t blast a hole in the guy with the stupid limb teleporting power,” he said.
She started to talk, then stopped as her power misfired again. She gripped her arm, pressing down on the hole where she’d dug her thumb in. I assumed it was the point where her arm stopped and the prosthetic started, interrupting the connection.
I was lost. She’d always been tricky to deal with, but I’d mostly had a good sense of what made her tick. I’d been able to talk her down a few times, I knew what she liked and what she wanted.
I didn’t know, here.
“Fuck me,” Capricorn said. “I don’t know what to say. This needs to be answered, but there are people with lives on the line right now.”
“Go,” she said. “You guys seem to be good enough at finding us and showing up at inconvenient times.”
Capricorn shook his head. “Fuck this,” he said. Angrier, he said, “This isn’t over.”
“No,” Damsel said, her chin rising a bit more. “I didn’t think it was.”
“This isn’t good,” Sveta said. “This is pretty far from okay.”
“I’ve always been a long way off from good and okay,” Damsel said.
“That’s not an excuse to turn your back on those things.”
“Oh fuck off, you sanctimonious cyborg,” Sidepiece said.
“Clearly not a cyborg,” Damsel said.
“I’m- yeah. Not a cyborg. And I’m fucking off, don’t worry. People to help. Damsel of Distress?”
“Fuck offff,” Sidepiece said, head lolling back. She stopped as Damsel raised a hand.
“What?” Damsel asked.
“Help yourself so others can help you,” Sveta said.
Sveta and Capricorn were ready to go. I hesitated.
Everything kept coming back to the same scenarios, moments, and scenes. There were parallels, comparisons, things about people I noticed.
A therapist I’d talked to while Mrs. Yamada was away had explained it to me as a consequence of trauma. Some things were just so big in our own heads that they had their own gravity. They demanded to be dwelt on and they leveraged that dwelling to tie everything back into themselves, every detail they invoked and every question they raised. They were impossible to figure out but we had to try, and that trying became more leverage.
She was fundamentally broken as a person. I didn’t know a lot but I knew that, standing here and seeing her standing over a dead body. I’d been there, I’d been a witness, and I’d been galled then too. I’d witnessed a breakdown of someone extremely dangerous.
I one hundred and fifty percent understood Capricorn and Sveta’s reactions.
Those who had their trauma get too big were the types to extend it to everything. A bad event became a fear of the world, or of men, of capes, or it became self-loathing that permeated every part of one’s own being.
The remedy was to talk to someone, to get perspective. Complicated by the fact that sometimes people weren’t equipped to understand or to listen.
I stared at Ashley and the villains who stood around her. They hadn’t rejected her outright. Love Lost, Cleat, Disjoint, Sidepiece, Nailbiter.
They weren’t equipped. Just the opposite.
“I’d like you to turn yourself in, and submit yourself into our custody,” I said.
Her eyes widened slightly.
“There it is,” Nailbiter said, in that eerie voice with its whistles and hisses of breath through teeth.
“There what is?” Sidepiece asked.
“Our hooded girl here called Damsel by her real name.”
“There’s a history,” I said, at nearly the same time as Damsel said, “History.”
“Uh huh,” Nailbiter said, disbelieving. “The timing’s off. When these guys showed up. When you did.”
Damsel spoke without taking her eyes off me, “She probably came after me. I fought her family in Boston. My second trip, a while later, I fought her boss in the Protectorate.”
“Not my boss,” I said.
“I wasn’t a Ward for long, and he wasn’t in charge at the time.”
Damsel shrugged, very easily and casually, as if she wasn’t standing over the body of the man she’d murdered.
“I’ve fought your family, and we’ve had run-ins,” she said. “Bonesaw, who brought me back from the dead, fucked up her sister and attacked her family in their home.”
“Don’t go there,” I said.
She raised her hands in a ‘I give up’ kind of way. Her power arced around the one, an aimless stream shooting off skyward at an angle before fizzling out.
“Come into custody, we’ll take you with us, we’ll have you stand down and stay off to the side until this whole thing wraps up,” I said. “I know you’ve benefited a lot from the amnesty. There are people you talk to and people who help you maintain a normal life. If you walk away from this scene, that ends.”
“Holy shit, heroes are annoying,” Sidepiece said. “Let’s go. I’ve got a bingo sheet to fill out, and I’ve gotta land a direct hit with a bit of uterus or set off a combo explosion with a spleen toss if I want to clear a row.”
She approached Ashley, reaching out. Nailbiter barred her way.
Was it worth it? The ruse didn’t matter anymore, we weren’t going to keep her in this role. Like so many things, she’d been great when the going was good. When things got rougher- we needed to figure something out later.
It only mattered in that if we didn’t end up taking her away from this and revealed her role, she’d end up in danger.
“If you come, Damsel, I can’t promise there won’t be consequences, but I’ll testify about circumstances. It’s a chaotic situation with Valefor as a factor, and everything else. They’re mitigating factors. Protect the amnesty, here.”
I saw her start to lift her foot from the ground. Her power flared, and she bent over at the waist, catching one knee with her good hand. It wouldn’t have been enough to catch her balance entirely, but Nailbiter had draped fingers along the one side.
Damsel put a hand on Nailbiter’s finger to steady herself as she straightened.
“You have people to help,” she said. She pushed at Nailbiter’s finger. “And I’m done with this. I’m going to get my arm fixed before I start killing everyone I see out of pure frustration.”
“Good plan,” Disjoint said.
Will you confess? I wanted to ask. Will you tell someone?
I couldn’t ask it out loud, because there was no answer she could give that would suffice for all parties involved.
Leaving wasn’t as good as her staying in our sight, but it was better than staying with this bunch.
Sveta and Capricorn were making their careful way toward Valefor, moving slowly for my sake, and to keep an eye on my exchange with Damsel. I flew to them, and they started moving faster as I joined the group again.
There was still the situation further into the settlement proper.
“She’s walking away,” I said. “Best we can get.”
“I didn’t know it would be that hair-trigger,” Capricorn said.
“I figured it was,” another voice said.
We stopped. Tristan summoned some orange motes around his hand. Sveta brought up one hand, holding her forearm.
The terrain moved. It was the camouflage blur that was Chris, except the effect I’d seen was patchy and inconsistent, and Chris was almost seamlessly fitting into the environment. The form was mostly faded, but I could see the spikes and ridges that were feathers.
“I must be the only person who wasn’t surprised by that,” Chris added.
“How the hell did you get that good with the camouflage?” Tristan asked.”
“Staying still helps. Being a genius helps too,” he said. He made a dry cackling noise. “Not that I’m a genius, exactly. I’m good at getting into the mindset and physical form that makes me good at doing something.”
“And being a weird spiral bird helps with camouflage how?” Capricorn asked. He edged closer to the corner of a building, trying to get a peek of the situation.”
“The introspection-self-reflection-reflection-grief wing of things? Great for self awareness, which is great for knowing just how I’m positioned and how I look. Don’t spend too long looking, Capricorn. They’ve got a fucky-”
I saw the camouflage distort as he brought his hands to his head.
“-power,” he said.
I thought about the visual ‘snow’ and it flared back into existence at the lower right corner of my eye.
“The anti-thinker measure,” I said.
“Yeah. Guess so. One of the Fallen with the hostages. Valefor’s there. My Dark Introspection form disconnects mind from body, which is great if I want to put my body on autopilot or leave it with instinctive actions, but it doesn’t stop my mind from being fucked with.”
“You shouldn’t be this close to things,” I said.
“Well, I am. I did stuff while you guys were running around. I get fucked up when I do the deep self-dive with that form, so I told my body what to do and interjected a few times with new input. I think I’m having a good day, my body definitely was, but it’s hard to tell with the emotional aftertaste.”
“A good day?” Sveta asked.
“Yeah,” Chris said, with a note of something that might have been incredulity, or even curious emphasis. “This is why I’m in the game. Running with the big guys, dealing with the big things. Lives on the line.”
“You’re a kid,” Capricorn said.
“Right now? I’m halfway toward being a freaky personification of Dark Introspection and being a pink skinned scoundrel. We’re all special cases, Cap. Ashley snapping should drive that home, if your daily schedule hadn’t already.”
Sveta looked back in Ashley’s direction.
“You’re talking a lot,” I said.
“I’m desperately trying to ride an excited high here, because the alternative is slipping into Introspection or dealing with the fact some power is trying to drive me nuts. Work with me.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
I wanted to sound more confident and authoritative, but- I didn’t like how we’d left Ashley, or how we’d let that happen. That was something that weighed on me, and the melancholy I’d noted earlier in the day was giving way to something that riffed on the panic I’d experienced with Valefor.
Except the hints of panic I felt wasn’t about one situation with Valefor, or even about this greater conflict. It was about big picture stuff, and one impulse call by Ashley had brought the big-picture concern into focus. I knew she’d called it calculated, not impulse, but I couldn’t see how it could be.
I wanted things to be better and right now, they weren’t.
But I needed to focus. I needed to work with these guys, like Chris had said.
I glanced at Sveta, and she looked just about as lost as I felt.
I reached for her hand and gave it a waggle.
“Hostages,” I said. “We want to deal with Valefor too.”
“I prepared another form in case we needed to fight,” Chris said. “It’s slow.”
“Vigilance,” Capricorn said.
“Fourteen hostages, by the way. There are five Fallen, one Valefor, two people from the Clans, and someone who might be the guy in charge of the bikers. I spent a while looking, and I’m seeing ghosts now, I think.”
“Not good that that’s a thing,” Capricorn said, “But this is good to know.”
He extended a hand down toward Chris, who was still camouflaged, albeit less tidily than before. He straightened, moving his arm like he was pulling Chris to his feet.
“Fuck,” Chris hissed. Things clattered to the dirt around him. Some were camouflaged. Others were containers. “I thought you were shaking my hand or something.”
“What is that?” I asked.
“Food. Because I need to fuel up, and my next form is dense. Some meds. Plus my walkman and pocket atari, and some other stuff. I was sorting out my stuff after getting dressed again.”
“Walkman?” Capricorn asked.
“We’re post-end of the world, I’m not going to bring my phone and risk it getting broken or losing it and having someone use it to figure out my secret identity. Fuck, it’s hard to see it now that it’s not on me.”
“You can’t bring all this stuff,” Capricorn said.
“Fuck off,” Chris replied. “I do things how I do them.”
Capricorn sighed faintly and bent down to help. I took Capricorn’s spot at the corner of the building, peering carefully around.
Chris protested, barely audible but clearly pissed. “No, don’t help. You’re just moving it around, and it’s hard enough to keep track of things when holes are appearing in everything.”
“Holes?” Capricorn asked.
“Holes. Flesh with holes in it like it’s rotting, but round, fleshy, and damp, ground with pockmarks, walls with more holes, and-” his voice became slightly higher pitched as the intensity of them ratcheted up, “Things are looking at me or wriggling on the other side of the holes. It’s not the coolest! I’m trying not to think about it!”
“Shh,” I said.
They stopped talking, but Chris continued to rummage and rustle, and Capricorn stood back, arms folded.
Conversation continued in the distance, as the people managing the hostages talked. I could peer around the corner and past a tree to see a slice of things between two buildings, but it wasn’t much. I didn’t want to move too much and alert anyone.
“Problem?” Sveta asked.
“I wanted to see if I could overhear anything. Chris is seeing things, why aren’t they affected? Is it selective?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” she said.
“I’m going around,” Sveta said. She swayed a little and touched the wall with one hand to steady herself.
“Okay. Be careful. Don’t let them affect you like they did Chris.”
She extended her arms out, reaching out with tendrils that had the arms at the ends to hamper them and weigh them down, then pulled herself away with less noise than Chris made as he packed up his stuff.
The Fallen settlement was wedged in between a ‘v’ of forest, with the road cutting in from the east. The settlement proper was a denser cluster of rustic buildings, and houses dispersed out into the wider area, thinning out the further they were from this settlement.
I had the impression that this was the city center. The main road cut through the cluster of buildings, about two houses down from where I was, and it seemed to do so with a weird angled turn in it. It made me think these buildings had been some of the first, and the road had been an afterthought.
The hostages, from what I’d seen from my bird’s eye view, were being made to sit in the road, corralled by a group of people with powers. Valefor among them.
I ventured further along, checking the coast was clear, then skip-flying over to the next vantage point by pushing off the ground with my foot and flying from there once airborne. The buildings remained dense between myself and the Fallen.
Sveta dropped down from above me, scuffing the wall as she did. It seemed intentional, to keep me from startling too much or lashing out in anticipation of an attack.
She pressed her fingers to my mouth. Leaning in close, she murmured in my ear, “Two to your left. Two to our right. They were told where we are. About twenty feet away.”
She pulled away and turned to one side. I turned to the other, so my back was almost touching hers.
My instinct was to go up. I flew, and at roughly the same moment, Sveta went low, torso almost flat against the ground, and she pulled herself in the direction of Capricorn and Chris.
I brought myself up to the roof level, and navigated the rooftops while using them as cover from anyone on the street.
Gunfire in the distance was met with more gunfire. Prancer, Velvet, Moose, Narwhal, Weld, and Vista, with some of the Undersiders.
My heart pounded. I moved with only light contact using toes and fingertips to guide myself as I stayed as close as I could to the rooftop while not putting any weight on it.
I saw them. A man and a woman. He was wearing a costume with ragged black leather enveloping most of him, and a round metal mask surrounded by leather that obscured the shape of his head. The skin of his arms was tanned with arm-hairs sun-bleached. His visible skin was dripping with sweat. It wasn’t that hot a day out, with the sun hidden behind the clouds but that much leather had to be intense.
The woman was Fallen. Her mask inverted her face, so she peered through the mouth-hole, and horns swept out from the top and bottom corners, for four in total. She’d dressed lightly enough she had to have been cold, with a strapless top bound to her body by thin chains. More chains wrapped around the red cloth wraps that encircled her forearms, pelvis, and legs.
As I looked down from above, I could see that she was touching the wall as she walked by it, leaving a trail of what looked like gaseous glass. It formed edged, hooked shapes as she left it behind.
I flew a course intended to take me behind them, so I could do something quick and decisive.
Yellow lights flared along the length of the glass, gaseous smoke. Eyes.
The smoke billowed out, taking on a more solid form as it became a nebulous mass of teeth, barbs, claws, and razor edges.
I raised my forcefield and smashed it.
My forcefield won, but only barely. The beast-smoke I hit broke into solid chunks, some as large as my head.
The woman- I turned to look and saw her creating more smoke as something that billowed toward me in a wave. I backed away until my forcefield was up, then crashed into it, hard. I saw her stumble back, arms around her face.
Behind her, the guy with the circular mask had four lenses spaced evenly around the mask flare with energy. Four shapes manifested in front of him- long and slim, round, thicker crescent, and a star-like shape with radial spokes.
I pushed out with my aura before he could do anything. The woman stumbled and landed on her ass. The guy weathered it, paused, and then touched the long, slim one.
The other three images disappeared, but the one he’d touched flew at me like a javelin. I threw myself to one side, but it wasn’t even aimed at me.
It flared with a dark amber light as it embedded into the wall, then faded. I put some distance between myself and it.
The woman created more smoke, sending it down the side-street in a wave that grazed buildings on both sides. I flew up and away.
I pushed out with my aura, and it failed. Like a car failing to start, it sputtered and died out. On my second try, it did work, but it felt weak.
My flight felt fine. The wretch, unfortunate as it was, felt okay too.
Was it because my awe power was the one I’d been using?
The woman with the glass smoke sent a column skyward. As I flew back and away, I could see it expanding out into the air. More demon imagery ran through it, all the overlapping chaos of hell, snapping jaws, and ripping claws.
The guy was creating another diagram. Three images remained, now.
Yeah. This group that was with the hostages was important, if they had people like this as bodyguards and errand-runners.
I flew away from them, trying to get a sense of how vulnerable Valefor’s group was. I was aware he’d gotten some hooks in me earlier, but I wasn’t feeling it as much. I wasn’t sure if the emotional shock of Ashley had shaken me of some of it, or if it was subtle in a scary way.
I saw another glowing object pass through two walls and part of a short fence before hitting the ground twenty feet below me and twenty more feet to my right.
It detonated with the impact, expanding out into the space around it, getting thinner as it did.
The moment I realized it was expanding at a rate that would catch up with me, I flew toward the ground, away from the bubble.
My flight sputtered out, maneuvering dying, speed cutting out, and the entire thing threatening to just give up on me altogether.
I landed hard, with a grunt.
Explosion bomb, javelin dart, and two more, and my flight and aura were both in tatters.
I could at least reassure myself that these things didn’t tend to be permanent unless they were power theft. Powers wanted to be used, and submitting to a power-canceling effect on a permanent basis didn’t make sense.
A mixed feeling, when I thought about the Wretch being permanently removed.
Now it was more or less all I had. I could hear the smoke creatures. I could see the spire that had been sent skyward, that now was a rigid pillar. After they attacked, they seemed to solidify into solid fixtures.
“Work with me,” I whispered.
I brought out the Wretch, and I hit the nearest building, shattering the wood exterior.
I remained where I was, feeling that fluttery panic feeling again, tinged with the heavy feeling that always came with the Wretch. I used the moment to retrieve my metal mask and don it.
I reached out in the direction of the shattered wood, and I grabbed one lengthy piece. “Arm yourself,” I said, my voice muffled by the mask.
The wretch reached out for other chunks of the wall. It bit into them, drummed them with impacts that made the whole building complain, and shredded solid struts with fingernails, punches, and kicks.
I canceled the field, then brought it out again. I seized another long bit of wood, a supporting beam, and hauled on it. The Wretch hit it, and broke it at the base. I stumbled as it came free.
One-handed, using only my regular strength, I tossed the three feet of two-by-four up.
The Wretch caught it.
They were getting closer. I could hear them.
My heart sank as the Wretch gripped the two-by-four so hard it splintered and broke at the middle.
“Use it as a weapon,” I said.
There was no indication the Wretch heard.
The pair were making their approach. The guy had one glowing circle on his mask, now, and a crescent moon of manifested power-canceling energy that he held like a sword.
The smoke woman unleashed her power on me. I charged in, crashing into it, and shattered the first ten feet.
The Wretch threw the two feet of two-by-four, or it let go of the piece as it dissipated.
The block of wood hit the masked woman in the face hard enough to knock her off of her feet and break the horn at the right side of her her chin. The smoke ceased flowing, and the forms went still.
I’d hoped it would use the weapon to break stuff before it broke down in turn.
I watched as she tried to get to her feet, stumbled, and then fell back down again. On her second attempt, she created two columns of her power, letting them solidify, before using them as leverage to stand. She slumped against one, then slowly slumped back down toward the ground.
That left me to deal with the guy who could disrupt powers with his arsenal of minor abilities. Right.
He went to the girl first, still holding his blade, and bent down by her.
“She okay?” I asked.
He didn’t respond. Slowly, he helped her get to her feet.
In the same instant, the two of them looked off to one side, as if they’d heard a loud noise.
He dismissed the sword, one of his eyes lighting up, then drew out the star thing.
He cast it down at the ground, hard. He and the girl disappeared.
The direction they’d been looking. The Fallen that had been watching the hostages.
I ran after them, trying flight when I could. It took a few running steps before I had something that was better than legging it.
Capricorn and Sveta had arrived. That was the only thing I could see as a more or less unambiguous plus.
There was a group on the scene, facing down Valefor and the other Fallen, with the power nullifier and glass-smoke woman having already rejoined them by teleport. A woman with a bunny mask and marching band outfit, ears poking up through the brim of the flat-top, feathered cap. There were three people in costumes that I didn’t recognize, and there was Rain, with the metal mask, gloves, and dark hood. He was tense, and he was tense for damn good reason.
Their arrival had precipitated something I’d seen as more or less inevitable. With as many players in this game as there were, the hostages were always going to be the last card the Fallen group could play, so a part of me had trusted and hoped that they would hold off on playing it.
Something Rain or this mystery group had done had spooked them enough that they’d played the card.
The battlefield was the dirt road that cut an odd angle through the settlement center. On that dirt, Erin was among the hostages that writhed and screamed as they lost their minds.