Jonathan held the diaper-clad zombie in his arms with a ginger care.
“I understand not wanting to give it up. This is something special,” he said.
“We might not give it up. We’re here about the price, so we can see what our options are,” the guy said.
The couple Jonathan was talking to were fidgeting. They were young- twenty-five or so, and the guy had tattoos up and down his arms, geometric, with Q-bert on one arm. The woman had a cartoon character partially hidden by her sleeve. As whimsical and bright as the tattoos were, they looked tired and worn out, and their clothes were somewhat washed out in color.
“I had friends who were into preparing for the end of the world,” Jonathan said. “Stockpiling food, guns, and learning survival skills. They loved the zombie movies, naturally.”
“I’m a fan too. I never did the prep stuff though, except for having a chainsaw in our display cabinet. I don’t know if that counts,” the guy from the couple said.
“The scary movies we watch are always tied into the fears of the times. As things got worse and the bad guys seemed to get ground, we got more zombie movies. The inevitable demise.”
“Absolutely,” the husband said. “But whenever we had a movement like that, there was always a turnaround. Things got better, didn’t they? And when they did, so did the movies.”
“Deconstructions, reversals, parodies.”
“I liked the parodies,” the husband said. He indicated the doll. “Like Lenny.”
“Second date,” the wife said.
He glanced at his wife. “Lenny there was an anniversary present.”
“He’s great. You shouldn’t give him up if he’s that important,” Jonathan said.
“He’s important,” the guy said. He looked at his wife again. “But we can’t stay in the tent cities. It’s more important that we have a proper house. We’re selling a lot of the things we brought over.”
Jonathan saw the wife pass her hand over her stomach.
“Ah,” he breathed the sound. “Got it.”
“It’s hard,” the guy said. “Silly as it sounds.”
The man looked like he might cry, and it was because he was looking at selling a life-size doll of a baby with a bite mark in its middle and flesh missing from its snarling face.
“I don’t think what the prepheads were doing ended up mattering, when the end of the world came. The guns didn’t matter much. Different sort of end to the world, they might have, but not here. The food helped in the early weeks, but what really ended up mattering most was having the right mindset. When the end of the world actually came it was a pretty heavy emotional blow.”
“Yeah,” the guy said.
“The people who seemed to do best weren’t always the preppers. It was the people who could get back up after being hit that hard, and the ones with an idea of what to do when they’d been left with nothing. It was better to have the right skills than the right things. Having drive. Preparing for the end of civilization… less so. So long as there’s more than five people around, we’re going to have something like civilization.”
“I think you’re right,” the wife said. “I think it’s true for a lot of people who I’ve made friends with recently. My sister wasn’t a prephead or anything, but she worried a lot about the Endbringers, and she spent all her money traveling to try to get away from where they might attack. When everything finally fell apart, so did she.”
“She made it. That’s what counts. Hopefully- I’m hoping she figures out how to push forward, like you said. There’s a world out there.”
“I’m not trying to give you the sales patter, because that’s really not me,” Jonathan said. “But if you’re prepared to sell something as important as Lenny…”
He let the sentence hang a moment.
“I am,” the husband said.
“Then it’s good. This stuff…”
He indicated his shop. The cartoons and figurines, the board games and video games. Some things had a secondhand look to them, because they were very much secondhand.
“…It’s not so important when we’re trying to put it all back together again. Save it for when you’re secure, when you have everything you need.”
“That’s the plan,” the husband of the couple said.
Jonathan stroked the baby’s head. “I could give you three hundred in trading dollars. What do you think?”
He could see the flicker of surprise on the man’s face.
“The place we’re looking to buy an apartment in is using N.D.”
“Then it translates to four hundred new dollars,” Jonathan said. “It’s dying currency, be careful. The value drops every day.”
The husband fidgeted as he stared at the little life-size figure. Jonathan couldn’t tell if he was doing it because he was about to break and try to find another way, or if he was trying to etch the figure’s details into his mind’s eye because he was about to give it up.
Jonathan bit his tongue. He was tempted to offer more, but he couldn’t. As it was, he’d barely make back the money selling the figure, if he made any at all. He needed to eat and pay for the store space.
“We don’t have to,” the wife said.
“We need to,” the husband whispered.
“This isn’t a pawn shop,” Jonathan said. “I’m looking for stock that certain people want. I can’t hold onto things. Be sure you want to give it up if you sell it to me.”
He saw the husband frown, fidgeting more.
“If you give it to me, and if I sell it, I’ll get the contact information from the buyer. Somewhere down the line, if you want, you can talk to me, I can give you that information. Maybe you can track it down and offer them enough to buy it back. That’s the best I can do.”
“Okay,” the husband said. He nodded. “Yeah. Let’s do it. For New Dollars, please.”
Jonathan nodded. He moved the articulated doll over to the nearest empty space on a shelf, then walked over to the register, popping it open with the painful metal-on-metal sound he hadn’t quite become used to. He began counting out the money.
“Can you handle this, babe?” the husband asked. “I’m going to run an errand.”
“Sure,” the wife said.
Jonathan glanced up to see the guy walk away.
Nothing was easy.
“Is it hard? Running a store like this? It seemed difficult to run comic or games stores on the old Earth, and things are different now.”
“It’s not the easiest,” Jonathan said. It was an understatement; he had lost twenty pounds since starting the store, because he didn’t eat more than one meal most days, and some days he ate none. “My brother owned a store like it, in the old Earth.”
“Is he helping you?” the wife asked.
“He’s gone. He- I guess he helped, my initial stock included some of the things I was able to get from his store. He didn’t make it past Gold Morning.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“This place helps me feel a little closer to him. I’m contradicting everything I told you guys, but this is what connects me to my loved ones the most.”
“I don’t think that contradicts,” she said. She rested one hand on her stomach. “We’re doing what we can to hold onto those things most important to us. Civilization wins out over madness.”
“I think so,” he said. He passed the money across the counter to her. “Let me give you my number, in case you ever want to track it down. And you can give me your name.”
“An anniversary present for a year or two from now, if we’re lucky,” she said.
“Thank you,” she said. She looked at his nametag. “Jonathan.”
“You’re very welcome,” he said.
She left the store, and he moved the figure from the spot he’d given it to another place.
Nothing was easy. He hadn’t known what to say, so he’d spoken from the heart. The things weren’t so important, it was being able to get up again. That was what got him through the day. He and his brother had lost their parents early on. He’d lost his first job because a manager had shifted blame downhill, and he’d been blackballed from the local industry. Forced to choose between moving elsewhere to find work and staying close to his remaining family, he’d chosen the latter.
Now he had neither. He pressed on.
He helped some more customers, until a torrent of stern words from across the shopping center’s concourse turned his head.
A red haired woman, berating her daughter.
It made him uncomfortable. It was a move away from the civilization and society he hoped things were trending toward.
He retreated further into his shop.
The Fallen kid screamed as he smashed his chair against the invisible barrier. Over the course of four impacts, he smashed it to pieces.
He’d just relived the nightmare. Everything, from his point of view, playing over again, with scattered context from elsewhere. He’d seen fleeting glimpses of his brother, he’d seen the store, and he had heard the explosions.
Then his world had turned upside-down and emptied out. No store, no money, no peace and healing.
He’d gotten out of the hospital and he’d made his way straight to the shopping center, using his new power to get past the tape and barricade. Everything was gone, from the zombie doll to the boxes of cards and the crate of comics he’d liberated from his brother’s store. There had been a comic in there that might have let him make an emergency payment on the store for a month, and now it was gone.
Then he had keeled over early into a sleepless night, and he had relived that night. Now he was here again.
The boy with the glasses sat with his face in his hands, glasses pushed up.
The woman had had a breakdown the first night and now she looked like she was going to crawl out of her own skin, fingers in her mouth, teeth biting down on flesh.
And the Fallen kid -the fucking kid with the demon mask- went from railing uselessly against the walls of his cage to taunting Jonathan and the others.
He kicked the dais in the center of the room.
“Stop,” Jonathan said.
The kid backed up, got a running start, and kicked the dais again, hard enough he should have broken his foot.
“Stop. You’re not going to do anything.”
Grabbing the edge of the dais, the kid tried to shake it loose.
“Stop!” Jonathan raised his voice.
“He isn’t going to listen. He’s a moron,” the boy with the glasses said, without raising his face from his hands. “He wouldn’t wear that mask if he wasn’t.”
“Fuck off,” the Fallen boy said. “You don’t know anything about us.”
“You assholes set a mall on fire and trapped us inside! You were there at the door!” the boy with the glasses shouted. “Fucking idiots, what were you even trying to do?”
“You call us idiots, but we were right. We said the world would end, and it did. Now you’re all getting complacent again. You still don’t listen to us, so we make you listen.”
“People died,” Jonathan said.
“Their fault, from what I saw,” the Fallen boy said. He sounded sullen. “Through your eyes.”
The woman pulled her fingers from her mouth, and she screamed. She slammed one hand against the invisible barrier, and she dragged her fingernails down the surface until Jonathan thought that one would be pried off. She found her breath and screamed again.
“Shut up! Fuck off!” the Fallen boy shouted.
She’d broken. That she’d broken to the degree she had scared Jonathan, because he wasn’t sure how intact he was.
He might lose it entirely if every night was like this. This was only the second.
They’d all seen into his head, through his eyes. Was it random? One random person every night? An assortment of the things dropping out of the darkness above, distributed by chance?
He looked at the dark fifth of the room.
“You seem to be doing better than any of us. Except maybe that asshole over there,” the boy with the glasses said.
The idea surprised Jonathan.
“I’m not doing okay,” he said. “I feel-”
His voice distorted on that last word, rougher, painful to make the word ‘feel’.
“You feel what?”
“I feel,” Jonathan said, in that painfully rough voice, “Hollowed out. Numb. Angry. Lost.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
“My voice-” he said.
“It changed just now.”
“It changed on the day. Smoke inhalation. I’m not wondering why it’s different. Why was it normal?”
The woman crumpled to the ground, hands up above her head, pressed to the wall, her head hanging. The Fallen boy with his crude demon mask stood above her, looking down. He didn’t say or do anything.
“Maybe it’s catching up,” the boy with the glasses said. “Why are we wearing the clothes we’re wearing? Why is he wearing that mask?”
Jonathan remained silent.
Nothing had fallen from the sky. He looked skyward, and saw only the darkness, the ceiling could have been twenty feet above them or it could have been a thousand feet above them, and he wouldn’t have known.
He walked over to the dais, past barren shelves that echoed his shop with no usable stock. He cast aside the debris and let it disintegrate.
He found the shards of glass, and thought of the skylight. Past the smoke, the light of the sun had been so bright on that day. This place was so dark.
He had extra shards today. He held them up for the boy with the glasses to see.
“Why glass?” the boy with the glasses asked.
The answer was the same as it was for the other things. It explained the shelves.
It was him. It was Jonathan’s, intrinsically.
His mover power let him treat any direction as down, with some nuance when it came to propelling himself forward. He used it to ‘fall’ up to the top of a Fallen home. His combat boots had enough gravel on them to crunch against the overlapping wooden slats.
Love Lost was with Nailbiter and Beast of Burden. That let Snag operate between Prancer and the Undersiders. It was an awkward place to be, because both groups had a way of dancing around things, identifying their own things to do, but those things weren’t in alignment and their way of doing things once they identified a task was different. Prancer tended to apply pressure, if he committed at all, and the Undersiders tended to surgically strike.
Prancer wasn’t far, and the pressure he was applying seemed to be focused on pushing the Fallen out of cover and into the areas where there wasn’t much cover. The area was the point where the settlement of buildings with each building next to the last was thinning out, and it became field and ditch, pond and forest, dotted with large farmhouses. The Fallen in the farmhouses had guns, and periodically opened fire, which made it hard for Prancer’s offensive. More Fallen kept showing up.
Snag wanted to go and help, but Cradle was already there, Love Lost was somewhere nearby, prowling for stragglers, and the Undersiders were dragging their heels, talking and checking those who had been killed or injured, periodically kicking in doors and checking inside.
Biter, Bitch, Foil, Parian, and Imp were all gathered together.
Snag looked down and watched. Two black stuffed animals, each twelve feet tall, were at the group’s back, as they walked down the street, checking doors. The dogs were at the forefront of the group, sniffing.
As they drew nearer, he growled, “Is this what we’re paying you for? The fighting is that way.”
“Blame her,” Imp said, indicating Bitch. Bitch pushed her.
“Protecting our asses,” Bitch said. “Some might be in the building, and if we don’t check it’s clear, they’ll attack us from behind, whichever group we go after.”
“Whichever group?” Snag asked. He stepped off of the roof and let his arms catch his weight before setting his feet down.
She pointed back the way they’d come. “South and east. That way and that way. Doon thinks there’s lots of scared people that way. And lots more that way, of course. North. That’s the bulk of the fighting.”
Toward Prancer’s group, with the fighting.
“If they’re civilians and they’re staying out of the way, we can decide what to do with them later. We leave them alone for now.”
“I hope we leave them alone for good,” Foil said.
“They’re Fallen,” Snag said. “Civilian doesn’t mean innocent.”
“You know our terms for helping,” Foil said.
“I do,” he said. And I know Tattletale’s are different. “Don’t dawdle.”
“Not dawdling,” Bitch said, her own voice becoming a growl.
“Snag, man,” Biter said. “Not worth it. I’m biased, but these guys have some practice. Let them do their thing.”
Bitch spoke as if Biter hadn’t said anything. “I’m covering our rear. Against this many dangers, we can’t get surrounded and we can’t get caught off guard. Doon, nose.”
The mutant dog pressed its nose to the dirt. It sniffed, and it huffed out a breath. The other dog raised its head and brought one leg up, the joint pointing forward.
“Good girl. Show me,” Bitch said.
Snag raised one arm as the Undersiders went ahead, and slapped a large mechanical hand against the forearm. Gripping the arm, he rotated it until words lit up along the length.
“Love Lost. Cradle. I’m at point B. Points A, C, and O, roughly, have fighting, with H being the focus. A and O might be civilian clusters. Clearing B at Undersider suggestion, will move to H.”
“Cradle here,” Cradle’s voice was distorted by the makeshift transmitter. Snag raised a hand to get a better reception. Cradle’s voice came through clearer. “No sign of him. Fighting’s bad. Prancer won’t commit with this much gunfire.”
“They have to run out sometime,” Snag said. There was a series of two beeps, and he rotated his arm until a display came up. The map, with points marked out.
Love Lost had made her reply. She’d found Fallen, further south.
Off to the northeast, there was commotion, but it was too far away for Snag to intervene or act. People fleeing into the trees.
And the Undersiders- he snorted in impatience.
He let himself fall forward, periodically touching ground for the reassurance of it or pushing off of the ground with a hand. As heavy as he was in general, in the outfit he wore, the boots, and the arms that weighed a hundred and ten pounds each, he could feel the ease and flow of movement, the wind rushing through beard and long hair. Power was at his fingertips both through the mechanical arms and the power that let him punch through inorganic things.
His version of the Fallen kid’s power.
He caught up with the Undersiders.
“Drag marks,” Bitch said, pointing at the dirt road.
Her head turned as she looked at a nearby house.
“Coast is… not clear but not unclear. Irredeemably weird,” Imp said. Snag startled a little at the suddenness of the voice from his peripheral vision.
“I asked Tattletale and she said it was one of the same people as yesterday.”
Foil held her rapier, with knives in her other hand, one knife poking up between each pair of fingers. She took the lead. Bitch followed.
Only Biter and Parian remained. Biter didn’t go in, and Parian remained behind with the stuffed animals and dogs. Snag pushed the door open and followed the others up the stairs.
He could hear a whispering and a rustling. As he reached the top of the stairs, he could see past Bitch and Foil to the large cluster of black feathers, illuminated by light from the windows. Four spindly black bird’s legs gripped nearby walls and floorboards.
It spoke, but in a voice so quiet he couldn’t make out the words.
“Sssh,” the bird thing made a sound, and the words that followed were like breath through rustling leaves.
“Hey,” Foil said. “Creepy. I need you to back off and leave them alone.”
The bird-thing twisted around, until it peered at them with one large eye, the pupil misshapen, like the impression of a skull pressed into ink or mud. As the pupil dilated, the shape filled out to look more like a face.
Beneath it, Nursery, Magnate and a Fallen were lying in a heap.
The bird-thing moved slowly, looking around the room. There was a window to one side.
Snag pressed two fingers against the center of his gauntlet’s palm. He felt the vibrations as the inner cylinder rotated through his options. He settled on the shuriken. Scraping one finger against the palm, he set the loadout. Paralyzing despair. The arm throbbed silently to provide tactile feedback as it loaded the charge from the battery into the loadout of shuriken.
The bird-thing twisted around more, curling up until it was condensed, instead of the broader form that had let it envelop three individuals. Snag could see two smaller bird-limbs pull tight against its body as it withdrew that section into the center. He could see clothes, and he could see hints of other things near that central core.
“Step away from them,” Foil said. “Trust me, you do not want to get on the wrong side of this rapier.”
The bird-thing dragged itself closer to the window.
“That’s fine,” Foil said. “Who are you and who are you with?”
“Tats said it’s the same thing as the screaming skull thing they described from yesterday,” Imp said.
Snag tried not to startle at Imp’s sudden appearance, but the bird-thing did. It jumped, lunging for the window, and Snag fired the burst of shuriken between it and the window.
They exploded into a crackle of energy, intense enough that he could feel a trace of the effect himself.
The bird-thing didn’t seem to care. It shoved itself out through the window, past window-frame and glass. It landed outside, as the group rushed to the window.
Snag could have jumped out, but broken windows were dangerous. He was reminded of the shopping center, of the corridor, with the skylight above, and the window he’d wanted the girl to crawl through.
It wasn’t like the movies. Even with his outfit, it was dangerous, and it looked like that thing was pretty fast.
What was it doing here? Did its presence mean the others were here too?
A growl escaped his lips as he turned toward Nursery. Foil was already checking her and the other two.
“Alive. Burned. I don’t think that kid did it,” Foil said.
“Kid?” Snag asked.
“Tats said it’s a kid,” Imp said.
“Based on what?”
“Based on Tattletale,” Bitch said. “We should hurry, clear the rest of the area. Do you want to bring them?”
“These two are allies,” Snag pointed. “He isn’t.”
“I’ll restrain him,” Foil said. “Can you grab them, carefully?”
Snag picked up Nursery, easing her around until she was over his shoulder. He headed to the stairs.
He felt nothing. No compassion. Nothing of the him he’d once been, that had cared for his brother. In a way, it was easier. Even on his worst, most frustrating days, it was easier to put the feelings away. Dealing with people seemed easier when he could choose if he cared about them, and he only needed to care about a few.
In another way, he hated it. He hated what it represented. That he had once had a tie to his brother, and he’d lost that family connection when, as he communicated with his brother on the phone over hours, the line had suddenly gone dead. It had been by word of mouth, days later, that he’d heard New York had been hit. Struck by a sweep of golden light.
He’d tried to forge something in the shop, and the shop had gone up in flames.
And the ashes, the memories, they had been stomped on, repeatedly, night after night, mixed with the memories of others, drowned out by a select set of events that were replayed ad nauseum.
He switched to communication. “Love Lost. Cradle. The heroes that have been plaguing Hollow Point might be here. Be aware.”
He adjusted his grip on Nursery.
“Hey Foil,” Imp said. “Parian. You’re going to love this tidbit of news from our operations leader.”
“Oh no,” Foil said. “Me specifically?”
“You have three guesses.”
“Old teammates of mine.”
“Okay, yes. Vista and Weld showed up. But that’s not it. This is a lot more fun than that.”
Imp sounded more sarcastic than her usual as she said it.
“Geez. You had three tries to get one right, and you got two right in two tries. What’s the fun in that?”
“Oh no,” Foil said.
“You know March?” Snag asked.
“Did you invite her?”
“No,” he said.
“Yeah. I know her,” Foil said. “She’s been after me since… forever ago. She turned up in Brockton Bay twice, after the portal, before the end of the world. She kidnapped Parian once.”
“She wanted to recruit me, months ago.”
“She collects multi-triggers,” Parian said.
Cradle, Love Lost, and himself, then?
Snag frowned. “Let’s go.”
Snag was silent as he stared out at the other group.
Everything had gone still and quiet as the small band of heroes, March, and March’s coterie approached from the settlement. The Undersiders were circling around to talk to the heroes that had cut off the Fallen’s retreat, Foil’s old teammates included, and the battle lines held.
March saw him, then saluted.
He didn’t return the gesture. His focus wasn’t on her.
Every night, he dreamed. Every night, he saw the others. He heard them, and he talked to them, saw their reactions.
Kiss and Kill. He could understand it, even if the dreams were unique to his own particular group. He knew these people as well as he might know any person he’d been married to for a year. He spent hours every night locked in a room with them, separated by invisible dividers.
What started as a seed of an idea became something more when his eye fell on the one with the hood, draping sleeves, and the faux-machine mask.
The way he walked and held himself- the fact that his presence could explain both the presence of March and the inexplicable intervention of the heroes…
“It’s him,” he growled.
“What?” Cradle asked. He sat on a mechanical hand, one leg dangling.
“With the hood, near March. It’s him.”
Cradle had goggles as part of the suit that networked with his robot. He adjusted one.
“Be subtle,” Snag murmured.
The Fallen were surrendering, now that their leader had been caught. They seemed pretty reluctant to do it. The various groups Snag had hired were talking among themselves, or figuring out what role they needed to play in this cleanup stage of things. Nursery ventured into the no-man’s land, drawing closer to Cradle and him, because she didn’t have a role to play in this. She had a bandage around her burns at her arm and leg.
“Some privacy?” Cradle asked, looking down at her.
“She can stay,” Snag said.
“If you say so,” Cradle said.
“What are you two murmuring about?” Nursery asked.
“We found the one who killed Love Lost’s child,” Snag said.
Nursery fell quiet.
“We would like some time alone with him. Which we can’t do, because this is wrapping up too neatly.”
“It’s not okay,” Nursery said. “I’ll help if I can.”
“Thank you,” Snag said.
“Don’t be an asshole like you were at the community center,” she said. “You have more potential than that.”
She sounded like she was his elder, talking down to him, when she was a fair amount younger. She peered at him through the slash in the cloth mask that encased her head, cinched tight around her neck by the cord she’d wound there. There was blood on the cloth.
“You’re right. This is wrapping up too neatly,” Cradle observed. “It’s eerie.”
Snag pulled his attention away from Nursery and the likely Fallen boy and the heroes he’d inserted himself in.
He made eye contact with Secondhand, and Secondhand looked alarmed. A moment later, the man disappeared.
“Careful!” Cradle said, with alarm.
At the center of things, where the Fallen had been using a farmhouse and the surrounding environs for cover, several of the heroes had disappeared.
End of Days.
Narwhal was slowed. That would be Final Hour. He could slow one target at a time. Snag had helped him work on the frame that helped him apply a variety effects to those slowed.
And Last Minute-
Snag lunged, using his power. He found a grip on one of Cradle’s limbs, and used it to reorient himself, trying to spot his target.
Last Minute was short with a combination of muscle and fat that created a frame that made Snag think of the games store and time with his brother and his brother’s hobbies. He was like a conventional fantasy dwarf, minus the beard. The man had an arsenal of gadgets at his belt, and he’d already drawn some.
Snag couldn’t get to him in time. He focused on getting to cover.
Last Minute wielded a shuriken design he’d learned from Snag, in exchange for a collection of data on lesser gadgets. That exchange had included Last Minute helping Snag with the loadout chamber in his right arm.
That weapon design, he knew what it did.
“Take cover!” he bellowed.
Last Minute threw. The shuriken exploded, with a slight temporal effect applied to all within the area. But he used his power in conjunction with it, and the explosions repeated, layering effects.
Snag jumped. Last Minute used a grappling hook to pull himself away.
“Why!?” Snag roared.
“Someone’s gotta represent the fourth,” Secondhand’s voice could be heard from the crowd. Everything was dissolving into chaos.
The fourth Endbringer. Khonsu. A time manipulator and teleporter.
They were Fallen? Had they been all along?
Snag roared, giving chase to Last Minute. He had a mover power and his arms. He knew Last Minute had a bag of tricks.
A grenade here- Snag used his power to change direction in mid-air. The grenade exploded, and the people near the epicenter were thrown away in fast-motion, their falls as they landed outside the bubble slower but harder for the lack of equilibrium. Each one moved as it exploded, then exploded again.
There were others, some decoys, some traps, others laying groundwork or sowing chaos, so the crowd of allies were a detriment to Snag. Holograms appeared, repeated, forming clusters of two, three, four.
He saw the boomerangs and shielded himself with his arms pressed together.
He kept them there, as matching boomerangs time-looped to strike his arms over and over.
“Focus!” Cradle shouted. A mechanical hand pointed. Secondhand was already across the battlefield, unloading his charge. “Switch with me!”
He’d leave the Speedrunner traitors to Cradle.
He had someone else to go after. The boy had been sent flying by Secondhand’s trickery. The blast would have hit him hard. He’d be reeling.
Snag used his power to hurl himself back, nearly colliding with Nursery.
The fight was turning the wrong way, now. There was more gunfire, more chaos that served the Fallen’s ends.
Snag let himself fall straight up, zooming up and away from the battlefield. Rain pattered lightly against the side of his neck and his ear. The exaggerated tactile responses of his gloves fed him details on each raindrop, more clear and real than his own body’s senses.
The anger was crystal clear, and everything else was muted and cold. A part of him had died in that shopping center, as a little girl slipped from his grasp, a doll he shouldn’t have bought from a couple for the amount he did burned, and everything stopped making sense.
It hadn’t been a quick death, but the killing blow had been struck, and he’d gone hollow in the ensuing months.
In the gloom, the Fallen shithole and the battlefield were small below, lit by tiny points of light.
He controlled his descent, falling, but not at a velocity that would hurt him, not if his arms took the landing.
Which wasn’t to say Snag intended to land gently.
He dropped out of the sky, and he struck the ground with an overhead swing of both fists. He narrowly missed making contact, as the boy threw himself back. He thrust a fist forward, and the boy ceased moving back in mid-air, then resumed moving, to the side, instead. The punch grazed him.
The boy created curved silver blades in his hands, and swung. Snag pulled back before they could reach.
“It’s really you,” Snag said.
“Offer stands,” the boy said. “Help. Look at them. We can’t let the Fallen win.”
“I don’t intend to,” Snag growled. He took a step forward, and the boy threw one of the silver blades. It crossed Snag’s mechanical forearm.
His first thought was that it was like March’s power, drawing lines that then exploded at the endpoint. There was no fuse, no sign of anything more to it.
He pointed his other hand at the boy, and fired an emotion grenade.
The explosion sent the boy sprawling, and forced Snag to put the hand with the line in it behind him, to steady himself. He felt the tactile response, the metal scraping metal. There was a line carved out of the arm, deep enough he could feel the air rushing in to graze the back of his hand, where it gripped a handle at the arm’s elbow.
A time-delayed slash?
“We’re resistant to each other’s emotion powers,” the boy said, as he climbed to his feet with a groan.
Snag stood straighter, raising one arm to point it at the boy. He used his damaged arm to spin the forearm, the loadout within switching through the weapons he’d packed into the arm.
The boy tried to sprint to one side. Snag aimed and fired a spray of needles, only to see the boy arrest his movement mid-step, then immediately reverse direction. He created more blades and threw them.
Snag used his own power to dash to one side. He could see movement in his peripheral vision. March’s group.
He switched weapons, charging up a rocket with the battery, and fired it so it would land between himself and the woman with the rabbit mask. The rocket soared high, and as he turned toward the boy, Snag chopped his hand down. The rocket followed the motion, turning in the air and spiking into the ground before detonating on impact.
Purple smoke filled the air around the impact site.
It would buy him time.
The boy had shitty versions of their powers. He hadn’t shown his hand with the tinker power, or with the emotion one.
Snag aimed, and he fired the last of the shuriken, no emotion loaded into them. Wide-area spray. They grazed the boy, even with the change of direction.
He anticipated the silver blades and avoided them with a use of his power.
He paused to catch his breath, watching his opponent, double checking that nobody was about to attack him from the flanks. There was an odd chance he’d be caught by a stray bullet, but it wasn’t worth walking away from this for that. Everyone was embroiled in the conflict.
He was clear. He could make this just about him and the boy.
“For all your big words, you’re weak,” Snag said.
“The only words I’ve spoken in the last six months have been pleas for mercy and cooperation,” the boy said. “Innocents- the innocents fighting back there, they don’t deserve that.”
Snag turned to look.
He switched loadouts, then aimed a hand back at the crowd.
The boy charged him. He turned to fire at the boy instead, and felt the silver blade intersect his arm again.
He grabbed the boy around the head with his arm, felt two hands grip his arm, and with a wrench, tore the arm clean off.
He used his own power to keep from falling, while the boy did hit the grass. Shucking off most of the metal below the elbow, he reached down with both hands.
Two ordinary hands gripped the mechanical arm, one silver blade flaring, then dying as it made contact. Snag felt the divide in the metal, though integrity mostly held.
His ordinary hand, reaching for the boy’s throat, was gripped by two smaller metal ones, narrow and spindly.
“Give up,” he growled.
“I can’t,” the boy grunted, straining. “I have things I need to do.”
The spindly metal arms creaked and popped as the metal broke under the downward pressure. Cracks ran down the housing, and Snag was very aware of the flaws in the design.
“I’m going to put the Fallen shit- unh. Behind me. I’m going to build something. If you’d just… Let me!”
There was a part of Snag that was horrified by the contrast, the inversion of it all. That part of him disappeared into the noise, the screaming and the shouting, the conversations and the straining to hear the whispers. Everything from the room that seemed like it would drive him mad and drive him further from the peace he’d once found, that never felt like it had truly stopped.
He felt numb, and above all else, he felt so very tired.
He wanted to end the Fallen boy in the same way his old self had wanted to put his head down to a pillow after a long, tiring day.
It would be so easy, and… he’d be out like a light.
Metal creaked and popped.
The metal shattered, and Snag’s hand reached the boy’s throat. He felt the pain in his forearm.
Two blades had punctured his arm, in through the wrist and out the back. His weight coming down made them move, turning the two wounds into one wider one.
He pulled back, and blood flowed from the hole. He tried to staunch it, but his oversized mechanical arm wasn’t designed to reach to something that close to him.
With his hand numb, fingers refusing to work as they should, he tried to undo the catches that attached his oversized arm in place. He dug one finger into the gap, and when he pried, it came free, the fingernail breaking, a trail left on the surface of his arm.
Help. He’d get help. He turned-
He felt the impact of the silver blade. A line marked his body.
Two more lines appeared, as the boy struck him.
“Either let me help… or get no help at all,” the boy said.
Snag twisted around.
“Don’t move too fast.”
Rainwater was pattering down around them. Snag’s hair and beard were wet.
“Let me help. I have the things.”
Snag didn’t move. Water joined blood and trailed down his arm to fingertips, then joined mud.
The first of the lines faded.
“You could let me go,” Snag said. “If you had any mercy in you at all.”
“If I let you go, you’ll come after me again.”
“Yes,” Snag said.
He felt the faint tingle of the lines start to fade. The boy hit him again. Two more. One at the neck.
“No,” the boy said.
Snag took a step forward. With his second step, he brought his one intact arm up, and drove it down in a heavy punch. The boy let himself be hit, only bringing his arms up to shield himself.
The impact, dampened as it was, vibrated through Snag’s body. He felt the line at his neck rupture. The blood from his head and neck flowed down and out through the open wound, which extended from shoulderblade to clavicle. With the blood, he felt his thoughts struggle, and he dropped to the ground.
He was back in the room.
No dream to precede it. No others.
There was a surrender in the moment, as he stood there, and realized why he was there.
Frustration peaked, and then dissipated.
Anger flowed freely, then found it had nowhere to go and nowhere to settle.
He was alone in the room, and for once, there was none of the chaos. None of the jostling or noise, no babble, no overflowing emotion.
He felt like himself again.
No anger, no numbness. He missed his brother, his store. Was it that the connection had been severed, or that this mad quest had ended? His time as a cape was over. There was no going back.
Light and shadow distorted, becoming vague impressions of people that clarified into the people themselves. The Fallen boy was in his room now, bending down to pick up his chair. The boy looked in Jonathan’s direction.
“You really did it,” Cradle said.
Love Lost appeared at nearly the same time. She approached the dais with a quick stride. She met Jonathan’s eyes, looked down.
Jonathan touched the wounds of his arm, his wet beard. There was no pain as he touched the wound at his neck.
The light in Jonathan’s fifth of the room dimmed, then returned to its normal strength.
“I don’t get it,” the Fallen boy said. “I don’t see why you’d die just to hurt me.”
“I hope that by the time she and I get to you, you will get it,” Cradle said.
“Cradle,” Jonathan said. “The way we’re going about this-”
The lights dimmed as he spoke.
“I can barely hear you, Snag,” Cradle said.
“It’s not worth it,” Jonathan finished. He looked at Love Lost as the lights dimmed, strengthened, then dimmed more. “It’s not worth it.”
“We can’t hear you, Snag,” Cradle said.
The Fallen boy looked at Snag, then looked down. There was blood on his hands and clothing.
Interesting, the things they brought and didn’t bring into this space. Love Lost had her mask and outfit, but not the claws. Cradle was always mundane, always with the scratched glasses.
Objects dropped from above.
Three pieces of glass, striking the pointed peak of crystal at the center of the dais, bouncing off unpredictably.
Two landed in the Fallen boy’s space. One landed in Cradle’s. Love Lost ignored them, didn’t even glance at them. She stared across the dais at him, trying to see him in the growing darkness.
She reached up to her mask, and she undid it, pulling the clasp free.
She spoke, her voice disused and broken by a throat raw from screaming, “Rest, Jonathan.”
He opened his mouth to reply, but he knew it would be useless.
“We’ll get your revenge,” she said.
“No,” Jonathan said. “It makes us into monsters.”
“No,” the Fallen boy said, echoing him. “This… it isn’t worth it.”
She did up the clasp, glaring at the Fallen boy.
“I hope I’m not going to wake up to find my throat slit,” Cradle said.
The lights and shadows distorted. The three others left the room.
Snag felt cold fear seize him. He approached the dais, and found his space empty, devoid of litter, of glass, of anything else.
He bent down, searching the space below the dais. He’d discarded things last night. Was there anything? As he got closer to the dais, he felt both sides of the invisible wall converging.
The other three areas were growing dim, going dark as the barrier faded.
The lights went off, the barrier went down, and he gained something of an understanding of what, not who, was in the fifth space, that had been between his and the Fallen boy’s.
With that knowledge, he slipped into dreams of a different sort, knowing that even if they paused or were broken up by visits to the room, there would never be an end to them.