Against a backdrop of screaming and writhing, with clouds rolling across the overcast sky, and both dust clouds and smoke rolling over the ground, the three assembled groups were very still and careful.
“Stop it,” Rain called out. “Leave them alone.”
“Can’t,” Valefor said. “She isn’t here. But if she sees you stand down, this might end.”
There were kids in that group of writhing individuals. There was an old man with the lines in his neck standing out taut, teeth bared and clenched together.
“I can’t stand down,” Rain said. “Reversing the protection takes time and effort to undo.”
“Then this is your righteous punishment,” Valefor said. As he started talking, I brought my hands up near my ears.
My powers were still wonky. I could tell. My flight and aura didn’t feel readily available.
Beside me, Capricorn had morphed. From Tristan to Byron.
The Fallen guy I’d just been fighting said something low and under his breath, to Valefor.
“No. The immunity isn’t him,” Valefor said. “Not if the rest of them are the same. Someone helped.”
Capricorn had changed again. Back to Tristan. He walked a little, moving away from me. What were they doing?
The woman with the bunny mask walked, almost strutted around the periphery of things, her rapier in hand. The capes with Valefor kept their attention on her, while Valefor was oblivous or uncaring.
“We’ve got other capes showing up, Valefor,” a Fallen soldier said. Young, and possibly powered. I wasn’t sure if I could read too much into costumes or outfits when unpowered and powered were so diverse, but if I was going to, I’d assume powers for the ones who had more identity to their costumes, with confidence rather than conformity in the designs. This guy had bright colors and a hard mask that wrapped around the top and sides of his head. It was made such that it looked like it had been nailed on, with blood, old and fresh, seeping out from the points the nails went in.
“The ones we fought earlier,” the one with the round mask said. The round plate of a mask with four eyeholes cut into the hard was an identity of its own. It stood out. I knew there were powers there, already. He supported the woman with the four-horned mask and red wrappings.
Those two aside, there were six other Fallen that kept Valefor company. Nine in total.
“Team,” Rain called out, raising his voice to be heard over the screams. “There’s one Fallen that isn’t here. Mama Mathers. She’s close. You can’t look at her without her infecting your mind. Her voice and touch does the same thing, but gives her other avenues of attack. Mentioning her gives her a big opening, it’s why I couldn’t say anything earlier.”
Well, that cleared up something that had been plaguing the good guys for a long time.
“I saw a glimpse of her,” I said.
“You see things?” he called out.
“Yeah. Some. She got our Changer worse. He seems to be dealing alright, though.”
“He’s enduring because he’s weird,” Capricorn said. “What can we do here? These people-”
“You don’t do anything,” Valefor interrupted. “They’re ours.”
“Yours!?” Tristan-as-Capricorn asked, voice raised, blurring. Byron-as-Capricorn shook his head, and offered a more sedate, “No.”
He was almost drowned out by the shouts and screams from the people on the ground.
“Where is Mama Mathers?” Rain asked.
“You should ask her, Rain,” Valefor said. “Let her in, let me in, and pledge to obey. We’ll let you drag these people away, so long as you stay. They’re expendable, you’re blessed.”
“How are you immune?” Tristan-as Capricorn called out.
“Friends,” Rain said. He created blades of silver light in each of his hands. “Found these guys while researching powers and options. March put the pieces together about who I am and where I’m from.”
He’d indicated the woman with the bunny mask. March continued pacing around the group. Her rapier’s tip dragged along the ground. It left a trail behind it, like the water rippling in the wake of a stick being moved in it, and that water had hues of blue, purple, and black running through it for a second or two after the contact.
“I thought it was another kind of brainwashing after I heard about Valefor’s exploits in Brockton Bay, with the arrest and trial,” March said. “It’s a good thing that my group has a lot of powers to work with.”
A lot of powers. Cluster capes?
“A good thing, yeah,” Rain said.
“I’m not poaching him,” March said. “He’ll help me out in exchange for this, here, but he can stick with you guys.”
“With the heroes here, not the Fallen,” Rain clarified.
“Oh yes,” March said. She nodded and the one ear at the top of her mask bobbed where it was folded at the tip. “I should’ve been clear.”
My eyes moved away from March to the people on the ground, then to the nearby buildings. I couldn’t lose sight of the major goal here. Was Mama Mathers there? I could look at the civilians on the ground without a problem, which meant she wasn’t there, or her power was more subtle than that. I’d caught a glimpse earlier, though, so she couldn’t be too far. There were a dozen buildings in our immediate vicinity. Was she watching through the window?
The trouble was, if I saw her, I risked being affected like the people on the ground were. If I didn’t see her, she had the advantage and she could catch us by surprise at a time of her choosing.
The idea of losing my mind like that terrified me, to the point I felt like my gut and my brain were bound in knots. I tried to focus that terror into a cold, rational look at what I needed to do. Mama Mathers was the biggest danger. Valefor was the second. They were Masters and Strangers, the PRT classification for those who controlled others or minions, and the classification for those who infiltrated or deceived. Mama Mathers and Valefor were squarely in the overlap between the two.
I found myself missing my old team. New Wave had had its problems, but I’d known the team and how it worked. I wasn’t a strategist, but I could do fine if I could identify the big problems and solve them. My tendency back in the day had been to hit hard as my method of solving, and to rely on my instincts and the team.
These guys were hard to rely on. New Wave had been all about straight lines of attack and barrier defenses. Lasers and punching, shields and forcefields between danger and the vulnerable. The most indirect we’d been was when my dad made his grenades bounce off walls or when my cousin had created forcefields in unconventional but otherwise simple shapes.
Here? Sveta had disappeared while all attention was on others. Capricorn was… it looked like he was changing forms rapidfire to switch identities, so no one self heard a single whole utterance referring directly to them.
Chris was off doing something, hopefully far away from this. Rain was- he’d contacted people I barely recognized. I’d seen March’s mask before, but it had been in passing. An article about one of the big cities. There’d been a weird dynamic there, but I couldn’t afford to dwell on it. My mind went to a bizarre combination of upper-class and low-class crimes, like corporate espionage and petty vandalism, but I knew almost right away that I was thinking of the wrong person.
It had been something offbeat like that, though. If the people hadn’t been screaming, and if I wasn’t focused on Valefor’s body language and Mama being somewhere nearby, I wanted to think I could’ve placed it.
I still had my hands by my ears, as a crummy and unreliable solution to a serious problem.
My powers had been disrupted, put out of reach and made unreliable, but the effect was dissipating with time. It killed me that the time was time innocents were suffering.
There were goddamn kids in there.
If I flew and hit someone, would I be risking the innocents on the ground? They were close enough together that people on foot wouldn’t be able to get to Valefor without trampling the civilians.
“There’s a pretty one lying next to me,” Valefor said. “Short black hair, or so I hear, she tends to wear-”
“I see her,” four-eyes said.
“That’s all you needed? Hm. Step on her throat. Not enough to kill. Enough to give our Rain a time limit.”
The guy with the four-eyed mask transitioned the four-horned girl to another, more mundane Fallen.
Rain hurled his crescent blade. Four-eyes drew his own, creating the diagrams- two faint and one clear, and he drew the clear one as part of the same motion. His crescent-shaped sword was just in time to meet Rain’s power. Both fizzled out.
I saw as the other silver blade Rain held fritzed, distorted, and faded away. He looked down at his hands.
“He threw something at me,” Four-eyes said.
“If it hit you, don’t move.”
“It didn’t hit me. I stopped it.”
“Then step on the girl, Amaymon.”
I flexed my aura, straining, praying it wouldn’t falter. I saw people turn in my direction, including both Four-eyes and Valefor.
I saw Valefor pause for half a second, catching his breath, drawing it in deeper, and I clamped my hands over my ears, bending over, eyes shut.
Whatever he shouted, I didn’t hear anything muffled than a one-syllable word. He had to refer to us to catch us, and now that I knew that, I could watch for tells. If he drew in a deep breath to shout, or if he said something like ‘You’ or “Everyone’, I could cover my ears.
All around us, most people stopped in their tracks. Capricorn, blurring, changed to blue armor, but he kept walking. I was able to move, and the group with March and Rain seemed unaffected.
Valefor shouted out something, turning in my general direction as he did it. Two words. I didn’t try to make them out.
The Fallen were bringing their powers to bear, now. A snake shaped out of intestine and barbed wire- one I’d seen before. The Fallen that summoned it was drawing a gun with the other hand. Amaymon was creating his four diagrams, reaching for the sphere.
He didn’t manage to touch it. Sveta grabbed him and Valefor both, dragging them out of sight. The afterimage of the diagram hung in the air for a moment before disappearing.
Another was going breaker, arms and bony limbs reaching skyward in a fountain of parts that grabbed their other parts and forced them down in the swell, a large human skull that ate their head, then was swallowed up by a larger animal skull, like a wolf’s, only horned.
They grew larger as they rose skyward, all white bone and jet black body parts.
I tried to fly so I could fly to it before it grew any larger, and my flight only sputtered out.
The one with the intestine snake lashed out, snake lunging from the palm of their hand to Capricorn and I. They aimed and fired the gun at the same time. Wild shooting.
I brought out the Wretch, stepping between Capricorn and the shooter, and even with the Wretch being a larger target, none of the bullets hit it.
I heard the shooting stop, the sound of the small pistol ringing in my ears. I dropped my defenses for just a moment, so I could have the Wretch closer to me when I connected my fist to the Snake’s ‘head’. It slammed into a building, shattering the stones and mortar that lined the lower half of the ground floor. A half-second later, white noise filled my vision.
If that had happened a second earlier, I might have missed. The noise persisted.
I scowled, stopping in my tracks, trying to find out what I needed to do. I couldn’t run in and use the Wretch, not when people lined the ground like that. Not when I couldn’t trust my eyes. She wasn’t making me hallucinate, but she could obscure what I saw.
“Down!” Capricorn said, behind me. “Give me a clear view!”
There were blue motes appearing around the snake-intestine cape and the giant breaker thing, which was slowing in its growth, but was a pretty considerable size already. I realized the noise had gone away.
Ahead of me, the Fallen woman disconnected the snake-thing from her left hand, and passed the gun to it. The motes above and behind her turned to water, spraying down on her and at the giant breaker.
The motes snapped into a solid form, making a creaking, cracking noise as they became a growth of stone that encased part of the snake-woman’s head and shoulder and part of three of breaker’s arms.
The weight of the stone pushed her down and snared the breaker. A moment before she was crushed beneath the stone, it became water again. She was down on three limbs in an awkward position as it all cascaded and sprayed down around her, stirring the packed dirt road into thick mud spray.
I leaped forward toward the spray, flight kicking in at half-strength to give me downward velocity. I came down with one foot on her gun-hand, crushing it beneath my heel. I stepped down by her face, and moved my foot off of her hand. I pushed at her shoulder with my foot, flipping her over, then bent down for the gun.
“Good,” Capricorn said, behind me. He was Tristan, but the water was remaining water.
“Careful you don’t drown the people on the ground,” I said. “They’re helpless. People can drown in shallow water.”
He nodded, quick, before turning his attention back to the big thing, which was adjusting its balance. The unexpected weight on one arm had brought it partially down.
I had to do something. I didn’t want to keep my head down.
I ran to the side. Down toward the direction where Sveta was, away from the big thing. Against my instincts, but I had an idea of what I could do.
Mama Mathers had been here. She was close. If I couldn’t see her without problems, I could only make assumptions. Aura out, I ran along the side of the street, keeping one eye on the battle and the people on the ground, in case I was needed. Women. Young men. Someone elderly. Kids.
Ahead of me, Sveta was dealing with Amaymon and Valefor. She’d pulled off her wig and stuffed it into Valefor’s mouth, and was now wrestling with Amaymon. The cape broke her grip and pushed her to one side, and she collapsed into a heap, instead of catching her balance.
He created his diagram while she was down. He touched the javelin-dart, and he sent it plunging into Sveta’s chest before she could stand.
I charged at him, running three steps and then flying the remaining twenty feet. My knee connected with his jaw and he dropped. I landed and made sure he wasn’t getting up.
“Sveta,” I said.
“I’m okay,” she said. She sat up. A tendril stuck out of the hole in her chest, feeling around it before withdrawing. “I’m okay.”
“You have a patch?” I asked.
She nodded. “You have your aura going. It’s distracting enough I can’t coordinate.”
I nodded, and I temporarily eased up on it. “Your power is okay?”
She hadn’t seen, she’d already backed off before Rain’s had been shorted out, so she would have been too far away. Staying out of Valefor’s earshot, possibly.
“He cancels out powers.”
“You can’t really cancel out being Case fifty-three,” Sveta said. “You’d better get back while I get patched, if your forcefield is weird.”
I could have clarified, but I just nodded. “Good luck. Be safe.”
My aura back on blast, I flew across the street, then back toward the fighting. March and her band of oddballs had been on the far side of Valefor’s cluster of capes.
The large thing had fallen over, one hand planted on the ground near some of the civilians. March ran up its arm, ducking and using momentum to slide up the slope of the arm as a bony claw reached for her.
She ran along the shoulders, cutting as she went, leaped as the head sank into the morass of the body and became two avian skulls that pecked at the air, and then came down, stabbing her rapier into the chest and dragging the point against the giant thing’s torso, cutting as she went down. The blue-purple-black watercolor spread in the wake of the blade’s tip.
She pulled it free, stabbed at a reaching hand, and used it to reorient her fall. She landed hard, her feet planted on either side of a screaming teenage girls’ head. A slight misstep, and she would have caved in the poor girl’s face.
March snapped her fingers and flicked with her blade.
At the shoulder, where the long cut had started, there was a flare of the watercolor spray. Purple and blue, with deep shadow in the midst of it.
Her rapier swept out, pointing. She called out, “Rain!”
The flare was tracing along the line she’d cut like a flame down a cartoon bomb’s fuse.
“I can’t!” Rain called out.
The ‘fuse’ reached its terminus. What had been a flare became a fierce explosion, right down at the base of the breaker.
I flew toward it, bringing out the Wretch, so I could catch it if it toppled onto March and the civilians. It didn’t, falling backward and dissolving as it did.
The breaker form dissipated, and there was only the Fallen with the demon themed skull mask, tipping backward to land on his ass. March plunged her rapier into his chest, then flicked it up, toward his throat.
“It would have been perfect if that had also cut it in two, Rain,” March said. “It was still perfect, but in a lesser way.”
“Can you not use my name?” he asked. “And Amaymon nullified my power.”
The Fallen was patting his chest where he’d been stabbed. He touched his throat. Intact, but the line of watercolor marked him.
“Valefor used your name,” she said. She snapped her fingers. “And you didn’t give me another one.”
Still floating in the air, I could see the flare appear at the breaker Fallen’s chest. He brought his hands to it, quick, frantic, then tried to pat it out.
“Hey!” the Fallen cried out. He lurched to his feet. “Stop!”
March was walking away.
“Hey! Fuck! Help me!”
She flourished with her blade and sheathed it, in the very same moment the fuse reached its terminus. The explosion was smaller, but it was sufficient to take out the front of the Fallen’s throat. He dropped to his knees, still moving inarticulately, eyes wide and stunned, and then collapsed to the ground.
I- I didn’t like the killing, or the casual ease with which she’d done it. These were Fallen, but they were low-level Fallen.
I didn’t want to say not to kill, but…
But there were civilians suffering. Other things to focus on.
I changed course, flying back to where I’d been. I continued down the street. I was putting the bulk of the lopsided engagement behind me, passing by Rain, by two twenty-ish capes with steel-gray hair, and that meant I could fly faster. I kept my eyes on the people and goings-on behind me.
I found what I was hoping for. The screaming, just briefly, changed. The aura extended through the hostages to Mama Mathers, and she affected the hostages in turn. I had a sense of my range, and through that, I had a good sense of her location.
“Rain!” I called out.
“What is it?”
“If she gets me, get people to take out the building.”
“You found her?” he asked.
I dug fingernails into the doorframe, then activated my forcefield. I tore door and part of the frame away from the front of the store. It was one of the smaller buildings on the street, and it was styled as a general store.
The screaming trailed off altogether. I gripped the damaged wall where the doorframe had been attached, and tore at that too. The Wretch struck at other things.
“She says to stop,” a voice said.
It wasn’t one of the people who’d been on the ground. He was older- one of the soldiers. In the eerie quiet, with people whimpering and making small noises, he still had to raise his voice to be heard, with distances.
He was possibly unpowered, and he was holding an axe. He was average height, but muscular, and had a slight belly, such that his body looked more like a solid slab than a chest that tapered down to a stomach or had any proper shape. His skin was sun-tanned, his hair blond with white shooting through it. A bandanna with a demon’s mouth on it covered his lower face.
“You’ve disappointed her, Rain,” the soldier said. Then he said, “You disappointed all of us.”
“For one of the first times in my life, I feel like I’m doing something right,” Rain said.
“No, Rain,” the man said. “She says you might be doing good, objectively, but not right. She says… she’ll surrender herself to your custody. She’ll withdraw her power from everyone here.”
“From everyone,” Rain said.
“As you wish.”
March put the sword nearer to the man’s neck. He gripped the axe tighter.
“Don’t,” Rain said. “He’s a relative.”
She lowered the sword, and she poked the handle of the axe with the tip. She said something I didn’t hear.
The soldier dropped the axe.
Rain was kneeling by Erin. He placed a hand on a little boy’s arm, where the boy lay next to her, hands at his ears.
He reached out for Erin, and she pushed his hand away. When he stood, it was abrupt.
“This feels like a trap,” I said.
Rain approached me. He looked at the building, then raised a hand. In the recess of one voluminous sleeve, I could see another hand hidden within.
“What is it?”
“One person,” he said. “I think.”
“It could still be a trap,” I said.
“Yeah. But… this gets people out safe. If we went after her and she hurt them in the last moment, and if we couldn’t turn it off…”
March was walking toward us.
“You got a look at her. She’s in you?” Rain asked.
“Barely,” I said. “She blinded me once or twice.”
“Okay,” he said.
March joined us. She put out a hand for me to shake. I hesitated a moment, paranoid, then shook it.
“We have things to talk about,” she said. “People we both know. Power things.”
“I’ll go in to get her,” she said. “I’m immune.”
“So am I,” Rain said.
“This is personal for you,” she said. She put a gloved hand on his shoulder. “It’s the objectivity that makes us valuable to each other.”
She winked at me, then sauntered indoors.
She bothered me. I didn’t like whimsical and show-off in someone that could easily kill. The mask and the marching band outfit only marked out the contrast.
“Immune?” I asked.
Rain indicated the two capes with gray hair, a young man and woman. Both had eyepatches, the steel-gray hair, and costumes with white and black. Chris’ age, or a bit older. “Dino and Enyo. They’re multi-triggers, and they’re also twin triggers. One of their powers is that they can transplant body parts, with some special rules. I’m borrowing someone else’s eyes and ears, and a few other bits, so she can touch me and make it hurt, but it’s dulled, and she can’t do anything else. The transplant recipient is back at our base, sedated.”
“All multi-triggers?” I asked.
“She… collects them. I guess. She studies them. It’s supposed to be important.”
Rain was looking back in Erin’s direction. She had the little boy with her, and two adults. From the resemblance, a sibling and her parents. She and they all looked like anyone might after having seen things that had them screaming for ten or fifteen minutes straight. Weary, eyes wide, defensive.
But, all that in mind, she seemed to find refuge in her parents.
“What-” I started.
“This power I lost. Do I get it back?”
“Yeah. I got mine back after ten minutes or so.”
“What happened with Erin?”
“The Fallen ruined it. I ruined it. She wouldn’t leave. I couldn’t stay.”
“Don’t let me hurt Mama. I’d do it in a stupid way that might get people hurt,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. I nodded slowly. “One day, maybe you return the favor on that.”
He made a small, amused sound. Aside from a laugh here or there, at the bad cape names, or a good moment with Tristan, I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen that from him.
“Sure,” he said.
“All set, coming down!” March called out. “We’re taking this slow.”
“What would you have done, if she hadn’t called it off?” Rain asked.
“Controlled collapse of the structure,” I said. “If she had hostages in there, I’d set it up so she’d have to tell me.”
The whiteness in my eyes flared up. I rubbed at one eye, uselessly.
“There’s a chance she’d throw their lives away to fuck with you,” Rain said.
I drew in a deep breath, sighed. “Yeah. That was a risk.”
“With some people, you don’t get to win,” Rain said. “She’s that kind of person. Be careful.”
I nodded, folding my arms.
“I like the costume,” he said. “March told me I shouldn’t be so negative all the time, so I figured I’d say it. I feel like I’ve missed a lot.”
“What happened?” he asked.
“Damsel?” he asked. “Is she okay?”
“She’s alive and mostly intact,” I said. “Damage to her prosthetic. But someone else is dead.”
“Shit. Is it-”
I could hear March. “I’ll catch you up on particulars later. But you should know, because we’re going to have to explain it to Looksee.”
Rain nodded. “Shit.”
March emerged. She had Mama Mathers wrapped in a bedsheet, which was bound with cord that had tassels on the end. Something from her costume, it seemed.
I didn’t know or trust March. “Is it her? That’s Mama Mathers?”
“It’s her,” Rain said. “I’ve seen her enough to know.”
“You and I need to have a conversation about your power,” March said. “The emotion power.”
“I forgot to turn it off while you were inside.”
“I know what it does,” she said. “It’s not strong.”
“It’s never strong.”
“But it’s not useless either. Nearly useless,” she said.
March walked the Fallen leader out to the street. From the other end of the fight, Sveta had Valefor, the wig stuffed in his mouth and tied in place with lengths of hair knotted together. Her head seemed slim without ears or hair to bulk it out. She looked more intense in expression and demeanor, her ‘scalp’, the sides of her head and her neck formed of the muscle-like gatherings of tendrils. Everything was bound down firm with the metal rings, only the shortest of tendrils curling up and out, an inch or two long, each.
The boy of the eyepatch pairing had a syringe with him. He looked grim as the girl -his sister, I was assuming- reached out to wrap her fingers around Mama Mathers’ arm. She flinched back.
The boy held out the syringe, and the girl depressed the plunger to squirt some out.
They inserted the syringe and injected the contents. Mama Mathers slumped, and then collapsed into waiting arms.
Rain nodded, watching. Capricorn and the others were catching up, with Capricorn reaching out to grab Rain’s hand as he reached his friend. The soldier from before was shackled, the pair with eyepatches went to March’s side.
The civilians were a herd of people, wounded and scared. Some approached us. Others backed off. I had to wonder about the latter group.
“We’ll reunite with Narwhal’s group, to give or get backup,” Capricorn said. “Then we cut across… just about everything, and we evacuate out.”
“Sounds good,” March said.
“We’ll help Weld if he needs it,” Capricorn said.
I weighed the alternatives. There weren’t any great answers. Going it alone and trying to get to Gilpatrick’s group meant we could be intercepted, and it left the others fighting a nasty sort of fight, where guns were being brought into things. Going to the others meant possible problems could complicate things.
The practice of getting ourselves to the western edge of the wider settlement was a bit of a herding game, keeping a dozen traumatized people moving, while simultaneously managing our hostages, Valefor and Mama Mathers. Half of the group kept gravitating in the pair’s direction, and the other half seemed scared of them, even when they were bound and tranquilized, respectively. Erin seemed to do more with an active focus, so she took on some of the cheerleading duties, especially with the younger ones.
One of the Fallen groups was led by a cape with a horse’s head and a dozen shadowy duplicates in his company, all connected together by a mess of black lighting with weirdly curved arcs.
In any other circumstance, the Fallen would have been losing against the Wardens’ bench team and young members, but there were twenty or so civilians with them, and the civilians had assault rifles, and the Fallen capes in their group seemed both confident and costumed enough to be of some importance.
There was a flanking group of the Fallen who’d fallen back and were taking cover by a building. Some Clan capes were mixed into the group. Guns were pointed in our general direction as we emerged, but the guns immediately pointed skyward as they realized who we had with us.
That effect seemed to sweep over the Fallen. I made special note of the Fallen who weren’t immediately going still and quiet. There were ones in elaborate costumes, many with tattoos of text or numbers down their arms. They’d be the leadership.
The one with the horse head mask wasn’t backing off, either. He just gathered his shadowy clones around him.
I kept my distance from the rest of the group, floating out in front, the Wretch active. March was doing much the same, but without the benefit of invincibility. The rapier was extended out, pointing at the people with guns.
Hollow Point’s capes were on the fringes, gathered like they had when Advance Guard had turned up in Cedar Point, with a divide marking the distinction between Prancer’s side of things and the others. Beast of Burden’s group, minus both Beast of Burden and Damsel, a twenty foot gap with only three capes in it, and then Prancer’s assembly, with an injured Moose, an injured Velvet, Bitter Pill’s group with Bluestocking frothing at the mouth, and the Speedrunners.
I recognized the three capes in the no man’s land as Love Lost, Snag, and Cradle. The clients who’d paid for this whole thing, with the aim of getting Rain in the midst of the chaos. If they had an assassin, I couldn’t tell who it was. Nobody seemed especially out of place.
It was my first proper sighting of Cradle. He wore a bodysuit and an elaborate sculpted mask with a hand worked into it, fingers and thumb curled into claws, worked into his face and around his eyes and nose as if seen from the side. His bodysuit had much the same design, white hands against black mesh fabric.
More noticeable was the mech, if it could be called that. He stood on a platform that looked like an outstretched hand. A framework of six mechanical arms and four giant hands extended out and around the platform.
With our arrival, the gunfire had stopped. The heroes’ side wasn’t sending any volleys or attacks out, now that the Fallen seemed more subdued.
Someone on the Fallen side said something, and guns were put down.
“It’s over!” Capricorn shouted. “Stand down!”
They were rule-breakers, killers, child kidnappers, addicts, and worse. They included racists in their number without flinching, because it served their ends. They’d celebrated the end of the world, where billions had died. Maybe tens of billions or more, depending on how much damage Scion had done to parallel worlds.
If they didn’t listen- if they even got desperate, this would be a disaster.
Please stop, I thought, even as I simultaneously thought about what I’d need to do if they snapped. When they snapped.
I had zero faith they’d back down. By body language alone, it seemed Rain felt the same way.
I watched as the first one stepped away from cover, hands raised. Others followed. They glared, looked tense, even said coarse things.
What was the catch? The trap?
Not because they were outnumbered. They’d always been outnumbered. That left me considering other traps, along a broader line. Access to certain people? Would Valefor reveal his eyesight power when people like Narwhal were close? Did Mama Mathers hope to catch someone important with her power?
Or was it more mundane? Surrendering and going to the overtaxed courts could be a way for them to get a voice, with a wealth of attention. If the lawyers and administration on our side wasn’t up to things, and if the Fallen matched it by playing things particularly well, then they could walk away more or less free, with many more followers.
I heard Rain and Capricorn exchange words. Rain turned toward Sveta and I and subtly indicated what he and Capricorn were talking about. Snag was staring us down from the far end of the battlefield, with hilly, rocky ground between us, the trees and Wardens to the left, and the assembled Fallen and their allies to the right.
“March reached out to him before she reached out to me. He knows who she is, which… isn’t great.”
“You think he knows who you are?” Sveta asked.
“We’ll see, I guess,” Rain said.
Prancer had emerged from Cedar Point’s group, and was approaching heroes, hands raised.
If I accepted that things were going reasonably well here, this was a good outcome. Civilians had been hurt, people had died, but Prancer hadn’t achieved his win, and Snag’s group wasn’t going to get their opportunity.
If I accepted it. I couldn’t bring myself to.
There were powerful capes here. Mama Mathers hadn’t had enough people defending her. Had it been that she’d been caught off guard by Rain being prepared? Or was my initial impression of this being a trap correct?
What did she want and what did she get?
I heard a commotion. Noises of surprise and alarm.
The Fallen who had been turning themselves in were now turning on heroes. People were picking up guns.
The number of heroes there had diminished. Heroes had disappeared.
What followed was like dominoes falling, as the trap fell into place. Narwhal created her crystalline forcefields, only for the forcefields to change tint. The horse-head cape sent a duplicate her way, and she wasn’t able to get her forcefields up or into place in time.
From that, I knew the culprits of this turnaround.
More heroes were disappearing. A member of Prancer’s group threw something into the midst of their group, and that something exploded. The explosions repeated, one after another, at steady intervals.
From our first briefing on them, we’d know they had a guy who could appear at our most vulnerable point and catch us off guard.
I turned away from the spectacle in front of me, looking for the one who might be coming after the ones who’d gotten Mama Mathers and Valefor. Behind us, to the sides-
In the midst of us.
Secondhand looked average, with flat, opaque goggles and a flat top cap, but he flickered intensely with afterimages and suggestions of places he might be in the future. The images were violent enough he looked ready to burst, and he was right in the middle of our group. I swung a punch, and he moved with enhanced speed, ducking it.
The quick movement pushed him over the brink, or so it seemed. He detonated, and everything moved like it was slow motion, as I was thrown off my feet, the wind knocked out of my lungs. Others were shoved back and away from him too. My skin felt like it was tearing apart, because the slow motion was real, and different parts of me were slowed, while others weren’t. My lower body was more affected, as was the part of me closer to the front.
It hit everyone except for Mama Mathers, who Secondhand zipped over to, to catch out of mid-air, and Valefor, who blurred, hair moving slightly, but the rest of him remained unaffected.
That would be Final Hour. The targeted slow-motion, granting a kind of protection.
I used my flight to keep myself from being thrown back too much, canceling out the inertia and then flying toward them. I didn’t have long, and with them this coordinated, they’d dogpile me in an instant.
I went straight for Valefor.
He was still protected as I brought the Wretch out. When I punched him, I could feel the Wretch meet that invisible barrier. I could see, in slow motion through both the expulsion of Secondhand’s detonation and Last Minute’s protective effect, the destruction of Valefor’s lower face as the Wretch passed through the barrier.
I couldn’t bring myself to kill, even now. I canceled out my power of my own volition, when it was clear that I’d destroyed his jaw.
As one, the hostages we’d rescued were taking action. They moved in near-unison, some reacting to the movements of others by taking up the call. They climbed to their feet, and they reached for us, clutching. Their expressions weren’t the ones they’d worn a moment ago.
The disconnection in my thinking and the speed of our immediate reality let me connect that dot too. Valefor hadn’t managed a secret command. He’d planted one on the group before Mama Mathers had laid them out flat.
Telling them to attack us when we were off guard, or when he gave some signal. Erin was coming after Rain. So was her little brother, who couldn’t have been older than nine.
The slow was wearing off. I had only a moment. I flew to the others, grabbing them, dragging them away. Sveta and Capricorn. Capricorn had a grip on Rain’s arm, so I brought Rain too, my fingers straining as I tried to hold onto three people for just a moment. I’d never tried or even thought about it, but in the instant, I pulsed my forcefield on and off, to try to keep the Wretch from getting enough of a presence to reach out and hurt anyone.
I just needed to carry them for a few seconds.
Capricorn disappeared from my grip, and for an instant, I thought I’d lost my grip on him. and my hand crackled as he did. I turned to look, and saw the man with the goggles and mustache pointing his finger at us.
End of Days, I thought, as I headed toward the ground.
He wasn’t even a time manipulator. I felt deeply offended at that fact, or I must have- it was a poignant enough feeling that I could feel it even as I took in the magnitude of just how the tides had turned, and how bad a thing that was. They’d hit each of our groups, and they’d hit us hard.
I heard an assault rifle fire, and others took up the call. It was more one-sided, this time, not two sides shooting at each other, but one side shooting at the rest.
I landed on the far side of a slope, with just Sveta. I took the moment to try to gather my senses. I hurt all over, and I had blood in my eyes. The slow-motion effect from Secondhand.
Sveta had a rip in the edge of her face, but she barely seemed to care. She was more focused on getting to her feet.
Capricorn had disappeared. Damsel wasn’t here. Chris and Looksee were on the fringes or not even in the area.
I could feel droplets of moisture on my bare skin.
I flew close to the ground, using the hill as cover, Wretch out in case a stray bullet came my way or cut through the dirt. I peeked around the edge of the hill’s slope. My eyes took in the scene at a glance, and partway through that glance, the scene changed.
Darkness. No sun shining through overcast clouds. Only darkness. Light leeched in through some other way, giving just enough to outline the surroundings.
The air smelled like ash, and it was dry enough that it felt like my mouth and body were being leeched of moisture.
End of Days. He’d caught me, seeing me before I’d seen him.
My heart was pounding. I couldn’t bring myself to speak, because I was afraid I’d scream. The best case scenario was that at this vital, critical moment I’d been shunted out and away, to some strange, dark place.
The worst case scenario was that it was a permanent shunt.
A small sound escaped my throat as I looked around.
A minute passed.
Two minutes. When my eyes played tricks on me through the darkness, I saw Valefor’s jaw shattering. I imagined the battlefield, as it had been.
Anger took over the devastation and surprise. I fidgeted. I adjusted my costume. I flew around in circles, trying to get a sense of what this place was like. I stopped when I flew into a tree I couldn’t see.
I watched as the light grew brighter, as if it shone in through invisible cracks that were widening. The cracks soared tall and wide, and the light flooded in, blinding.
I was hauled out of that dark, strange world and back into my reality, and I felt the change in air pressure, the moisture of the drizzling rain. and I saw that things had happened in the meantime.
Sveta and Capricorn were fighting side by side, with Love Lost and a crowd of controlled civilians between them and Rain. The presence of the mob of Valefor’s affected hostages kept Sveta from getting to any of us, and complicated her skirmish with Love Lost. Two of March’s group members were part of that same crowd, trying to fend the civilians off, and they weren’t trying to be gentle about it like Sveta was.
Rain, meanwhile, was trying to fight Snag. Snag was above him, pushing him to the ground, knee on Rain’s stomach. He’d destroyed one of Snag’s arms and his two good arms were at the remaining, damaged one, which had a slice taken out of it. His other two mechanical arms were gripping Snag’s normal arm, no longer encased in the giant, oversized prosthetic part. Even with their combined strength, the two mechanical arms were losing, cracking and splintering under the pressure.
This was the chaos Snag had wanted.
I flew to him, praying I wouldn’t get another End of Days timeout.
I was halfway to him when Rain’s arms broke.
The blades fixed in the midst of the breakable shells continued up and out, piercing Snag’s forearm and scissoring the space between them as his weight came down and made them shift.
Snag hauled back, pulling away, swinging his damaged prosthetic arm, while holding his damaged regular arm out. Blood poured from the ragged wounds in his arm. One of the blades had gone in one side and out the other.
In any other day, any other circumstance, I never would have imagined I’d have let this go.
But others needed help. Rain was mostly in the clear, as he and Snag parted. Sveta and Capricorn weren’t.
I flew down to where Sveta had been pulled to the ground. Her balance wasn’t good, and when she was brought down, it was hard for her to find her feet again. Once I touched down in the middle of the pack of people, it was a question of getting people back without hurting them too badly. I grabbed her and used flight as much as anything to haul her up and away, so we were above the fighting.
It was a vantage point for me to see Rain facing off against Snag. He’d hit Snag with a crescent blade, and the man had a line of silver across face and shoulder. He didn’t move, and blood continued to seep down his arm and hand.
Sveta reached over, grabbed grass, because it was the only thing to grab, and hauled herself to the ground over there, to where she could talk to Rain or help Snag.
I flew down to Capricorn. Love Lost leaped up at me, intercepting. Her initial contact broke through the Wretch. Her mover power let her connect to me despite the interruption in her course. I felt her claws scrape my breastplate.
I punched her, and she dropped down and away, landing amid people.
Rain had hit Snag again. Keeping him from moving.
On my second try, I got to Capricorn. I pulled him free, holding him with both hands, my arms straining.
I saw Love Lost get to her feet, reaching for her mask.
I saw her sway and then fall, like the lights had gone out.
Snag had already fallen. Either he’d been hit, or he’d elected to try moving, because one of the silver lines had split. His neck was gouged where it joined the shoulder, a wound deep enough it should have exposed shoulderblade and collarbone. It didn’t, because the blood was thick, and his beard was dense.
Rain was on the ground. In the distance, perched on a hill, Cradle slumped on his platform.
The drizzle became rain, punctuated by gunfire. There was fighting everywhere, and even the people that were holding back were hitting pretty damn hard now. Not dissimilar to how I had with Valefor.
Not heroes and villains. Only monstrousness and madness.