Pitch – 6.1

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Capricorn’s weight tore him out of my grip, helped by the fact that I was lost enough at recent events that I’d almost forgotten I was holding him.

He fell ten or so feet and landed in a wet field.  The field was set on a slope and he slid a few feet before his feet found traction.  Ahead of us, Love Lost had already slumped to the ground.  Nothing to do with the fact that I’d hit her- everyone in Rain’s cluster had dropped.

I could try as hard as I was able and it was insignificant, whether it was holding onto Capricorn, talking to Ashley, or hitting Love Lost.  It didn’t feel like I was having an impact on things, and I’d cornered and help catch Mama Mathers, the one in charge.

I liked things when they were simple.  I could pick the biggest or most important target, remove them from the equation, and things would be better.  It was what I’d done with Mama.  It was what I’d done with Valefor, smashing his face in.

It was harder to justify causing that kind of damage to Mama Mathers, when we’d needed her for a trump card against the greater conflict, and when so many long-duration powers kept running when the user was incapacitated or killed.

Not that it had worked.  The Speedrunners had her and were escorting her to safety, the hostages were now both hostages and hostiles at the same time, and the fighting was more vicious than it had been before.

“Get Rain,” Capricorn said, below me, barely audible over the shouting and the echo of ceaseless gunfire.

“On it,” I heard Sveta, just as I started to fly.

Her handling it was faster and safer than me taking action.  I dropped from the sky to land beside Tristan, crouching to use the slope for some measure of cover.

“In over my head,” Tristan murmured, not hunching over so much as he slid down, resting against the slope with his arm back to prop himself up slightly.

“You mean the scale of this?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.  I had some more exposure to the really bad stuff than Capricorn did, but I could sympathize.  I’d seen something like this with the Slaughterhouse Nine, but I hadn’t been there for the duration of it.  That situation had been fewer individuals, but the individuals had been worse.  In both cases, it kind of made things easier.

I’d been there for Leviathan, but that didn’t really translate to a small-scale war.

Sveta returned.  A moment later, she dragged Rain to us.  I pulled Rain close, and reached beneath the collar of his outfit to touch my fingertips to his throat.

“Alive,” I said.

Something exploded nearby.  Damp ground was sent skyward, and joined the rain in pattering down around us, speckling everything.

Sveta turned her face skyward, rain running down face and the curling leaves or tentacles of her mask.  She hadn’t collected or put on her wig again, which made her silhouette seem incomplete.  In contrast, I hunched over slightly, my hood keeping the rainwater out of my eyes.

“I know I’m kind of the leader,” Capricorn spoke, his voice quiet, “But I can’t think straight like this.”

“I know,” I said.  My eyes scanned what I could see of the battlefield, while my back remained to the worst of the fighting.  March and her group had backed off, the heroes were holding position at the woods to our left, and the Fallen were gathered across two farmhouses and the surrounding structures and fences, the two big buildings about two hundred feet apart.  They were using them for cover, and as a place to drag their wounded.

Prancer’s group was having a harder time, further north.  They had some vehicles they’d used to approach this area, but battle damage had rendered the vehicles immobile, and the trucks and cars didn’t offer much when  they were trying to protect themselves from both hero and Fallen.  Compared to the defensive line that Vista and Narwhal could provide, and the actual structures the Fallen had, the vehicles weren’t much, and the group had to work to huddle in the half-circle of vehicles.

Not that we were in a better situation.

The Valefor-controlled hostages filled the space between it all.  The group was shrinking as hostages charged after one group or another and were incapacitated or trapped.

“If we don’t have a plan I want to go to Weld,” Sveta said, quiet.  Her expression was grim, her face paler than usual in the gloom, damp with water.

“It’s a plan,” I said.  I tried to sound confident.  “We go to the heroes.  We back them up.”

Sveta nodded.

Capricorn twisted around, looking at the situation behind us and to our right, where the heroes were.  Orange lights began to flow across the gap, like fat, lazy fireflies.

Guillotines of ice or hard crystal flew from the heroes’ side into the mass of hostages.  The guillotines weaved between the hostages, avoiding them, and slammed into the farmhouse the nearest group of Fallen were using for cover.  A moment later, the guillotines disappeared, and the section of wall sagged without breaking.

Narwhal’s forcefields.

The Fallen cape with the horse’s head mask or helmet was facing Narwhal head-on, again.  He created shadow duplicates, and they struck out at the forcefields as the things hurtled past or toward them.  The effect was minor, changing the courses of the fields slightly, but as each construction tore past them, cleaving shadow duplicates in half, seeming to even hit the source of the duplicates, the guy persisted, and he produced duplicates faster than the fields cut them down.

Other capes in Narwhal’s group were turning focus onto him, and yet he was staying in the fight.

One of the lieutenants or leaders of a sub-family, it seemed.

Capricorn’s wall snapped into place, blocking my view.  We hurried along it, using it for cover against gunfire, with Sveta lunging ahead to the far end of the wall with Rain in one of her arms.  Capricorn lagged behind some, but he had to travel on foot.

We reached the treeline.  Two capes knelt by Rain.

“It all went to shit,” a cape I recognized as Fluke reported.

“I noticed,” I said.

I heard a grunt from Bay, a cape younger than me with a tower shield, and saw him struggling.  A shadow duplicate of the horse-head Fallen was perched on his shield, reaching down to grab him by the helmet.  Bay’s mask was meant to open, but the jet black form of the heavyset Fallen’s shadow was gripping it, holding it closed, and making his weight fully apparent.

Another cape blasted him, and he dissolved into wisps of shadow.

I moved to a tree I could use for cover, and assessed the situation.  I could see a shadow become not-shadow, at the same time the real Fallen became shadow.  He could swap places with any of his active shadows, and he was able to make them quickly, with those zig-zagging cords of darkness.

“Sveta,” I said.  “We might need you to do the flag trick.”

“Against a human?” she asked.  “I’d hurt or kill him.”

“You don’t have to, but-”

Two more duplicates appeared.  The cords of energy were dense enough near the frontline that it seemed like he could create duplicates near us at will.

“It’s Seir!” Narwhal called out.  “He had a kill order.  If you’re willing to kill, this is a time it’s okay!”

Seir.  I’d heard something about him some time ago, but not in the context of his powers or position in the Fallen.  The Mathers family kidnapped people, and Seir had taken a kidnapping victim for a ‘wife’, to use a loose definition of the term.  She was one of the ones who had escaped, and her story had been one of a few things that had marked the turn in the wider public perception regarding the Fallen.  After that, and some similar stories, the public and started to see them less as detestable pranksters and more as the horrific cult they were.

And from what little I could remember of her story-

“He deserves to die,” Rain said.

“Okay,” Sveta said.  Quieter, she said, “I don’t think I can bring myself to kill again.  I’m sorry.”

Bay was being harassed again.  Narwhal was flanked by two copies, and a cape used a tinker gun to obliterate one while narrowly missing Narwhal, while a forcefield appeared in a position that bisected the other.

Bullets hit trees and pinged off of the forcefields Narwhal had created to give the heroes cover.  Each time a forcefield was hit, it briefly became brighter, the edges and lines standing out in bright purples and blues.

“I think the cords are counting as living tissue!” Vista called out, from a point in the group of heroes I couldn’t immediately see.

Behind Seir’s living self, Imp appeared.  She jabbed out with a taser, and she touched only the shadow that he left behind.  It swung a punch, and she ducked, backing away as four of the ten active shadows turned on her, surrounding her.

The Undersiders were here.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

Capricorn’s walls sprung up just ahead of where Narwhal’s forcefields were, and she canceled the forcefields.

“Thank you!” Narwhal called out.  When she went on the offensive, it was with more fields and projectiles, less intent on Seir himself, and more intent on cutting through the cords that arced up into the air and down into the ground.  Seir’s numbers began to decrease.

A localized storm of power came tearing at us from an angle, like a tornado, but less of a cone and more of a sphere, with a bright green tint toward the center.  Narwhal had to stop her offensive to layer forcefields between herself and the sphere.

One of Parian’s stuffed animals marched out into the field just beyond the trees, and was immediately swarmed with three Seirs.

“I know I should, but-” Sveta said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  After Ashley, I wasn’t about to push Sveta to test a boundary.  I hadn’t known Ashley’s boundary had been as tenuous as it was.  I had more of an idea with Sveta.  I wanted to jump into the fray, but I wasn’t sure what I could do.

Rain groaned, to my right.  I turned my attention to him- one cape was helping him to stand.

“Do you know Seir?” I asked.

“He’s an asshole,” Rain said.

“We can’t seem to touch him.  He just dodged an attack from behind,” I said.

“What color are his eyes?” Rain asked, too battered and out of it to really stand or focus on the fighting.

“Yellow,” Bay called out.

“He teams up with another cape in the family, they’ll be someone in the background with glowing eyes.”

Narwhal began attacking with a different angle, aiming at one of the farmhouses.  Seir’s real self twisted around to look.

Rain filled us in, in a voice that made it obvious he was still hurting from his fight with Snag.  “That’s Ahrima.  She gives him danger sense and boosted perceptions by giving up hers.  She was supposed to be one of Mama’s helpers, she traded and paid for capes who could protect her if she needed it, but Ahrima didn’t work for her.  We still kept her around for others.  Get him while she’s distracted.”

Narwhal’s focus was on keeping the thinker-augment Fallen on their heels.  I looked at the battlefield.

“Vista!” I called out.  “Open space to the right!  Keep gunfire away!”

“Yep!” I heard.

I took off.  I flew low to the ground, my soaking wet costume making me feel heavy enough I might be pulled down into a crash landing, even though it wasn’t that big of a difference.

As I approached, I could hear the gunfire and see the bullets hit mud, with the occasional eruption of dirt appearing off to the side.  Where the light hit the rain in the right way, I could see the odd slant of rain, and I knew Vista had my back.

I used the clear route to get as close as I could to Seir before I changed course and flew at him.

Fighting on the ground meant using footing to get the most out of one’ strength.  A punch delivered from a stance with bad footing was ineffectual.

Fighting in the air meant using the same techniques one did with a leaping or jumping attack, with whole body movements, use of weight, but it was a constant use.  Delivering an effective attack meant using twists and whole-body rotations, downward or forward force, and timing all movements of the body to work with the flight and where the enemy was at.

I was out of practice, but I was reasonably happy with how I delivered my kick.

I was less happy that he looked past the eyehole of that hideous horse mask with glowing yellow irises and he turned to shadow the moment before my kick caught him across the small of the back.

My kick tore through his shadow’s midsection, and the upper half reached out to catch me by the throat with shadow hands.  It had no lower body, and it was keeping up the fight.

Ahrima had given him a bit of help at the right moment.

I hadn’t wanted to use the Wretch to hit Seir when Vista couldn’t necessarily protect me.  Now?  I could use it like this.  I let it unfurl, expanding out from me to cover me and extend into my immediate surroundings.  Teeth, legs, arms, hands, feet, without much in the way of rhyme or reason.

Fuck you for making me do this, I thought, and I pushed my aura out hard.

The Wretch tore through the shadow and several of the surrounding channels of Seir’s dark energy.

The Wretch and I began to go on the offensive, adding to the pressure on Seir by removing shadow duplicates and cutting off his power before it could extend too far out.

A bullet hit the Wretch, and I felt it disappear.

Seconds passed, where the painful weight of the Wretch was lifted.  The danger of the gunfire and powers around me paled in the face of the danger of the feeling.  It was deceptively exhilarating to have the Wretch gone, no longer available at a heartbeat’s notice.  I knew it was temporary and how temporary it was, but when everything else was so heavy, just that one deceptive moment caught me off guard.

I continued to go after Seir, chasing his real self in a mad, dangerous game of whack-a-mole, where the mole always won and the person with the hammer could be shot at any moment.  The Wretch returned, and a well-timed punch from a shadow Seir destroyed it a moment later.

The yellow eyes weren’t there all of the time, or even ten percent of the time, but Seir was evasive, capable of creating doubles and swapping places with them constantly.  He didn’t need danger sense to give us a one in twelve chance of hitting the real him.

Others were joining the fight now.  A Fallen cape or one of the bikers was approaching, grown tall, his flesh alternating between something that seemed hard, like calcified armor plates, and flesh that seemed too soft and fluid.  Another was approaching with arms raised above her head, and she seemed to be the source of pitch black circles that were now dotting the landscape and air around us.

I just needed to tag Seir at the same time the danger-sense cape was distracted.  I needed to do it soon, before he had help.

Forcefields flew past me.  Narwhal.  The forcefields that didn’t hit Seir’s copies arrived between us and the Fallen capes, then stopped on the spot and rotated, forming a wall of crystal to bar their path.

I heard the impact as the big cape hit the crystals, and I saw the colors flare, brighter than they had when the bullets hit them.  The portal cape was running around to try to get around the wall, and was stymied when the wall moved with them.

I destroyed two more shadow copies.  A projectile I only barely saw destroyed another two with one shot.

We’d reduced it down to three Seirs.  I went after one before more duplicates could spring into being, hit it, and reduced it to tufts of shadow.

The big guy battered through Narwhal’s shield.  He broke into a run, long limbs stretching and heavy feet pounding against the ground, charging me.

A forcefield hurtled into him, but this forcefield had a passenger.  Narwhal rode it, and she leaped off as the big guy caught the slice of crystal.  She landed, and her hair was still settling around her when the forcefields sprung into being to her left.

I punched another two Seirs, well aware I was fighting an uphill battle.

They had formed so each forcefield was a foot apart, and the stack of forcefields overlapped with the fluid armor brute, dividing him neatly into roughly eleven slices.

But the distraction had bought Seir time to make more doubles.  With yellow eyes glowing, he evaded the moving forcefields and changed just before new forcefields could cut him in half.

Two more Fallen and one biker joined the skirmish, jumping onto the black portals, which served to send them flying into the next black portal.  Each portal was a kind of teleportation gimmick, but they littered the area and were letting the Fallen maneuver with ease.  I saw their eyes glow like Seir’s did, and their focus was mostly on me.

That focus was partially by design.  My aura still blasted everyone nearby, and that drew their attention.

Still… fuck this.

“Narwhal!?  Can I leave you!?” I called out.

“Go!”

I flew away from the scene.  I looked back, saw Vista, and saw her give me the go-ahead.

Ahrima was my target.  I knew her general location, and she was too dangerous as a force multiplier.

I heard a series of gunshots nearby, and changed direction.  The first gunshots didn’t hit me, because Vista was altering trajectories, but as I spotted the shooter, I saw them firing recklessly, putting bullets in the air at random.  By pure luck, the shooter was able to land one shot and hit the Wretch.

My change of direction made me harder to track.  I flew back and down, touched the ground, and flew toward the sound of the gunfire, trying not to move in straight lines.  I saw the cover they were hiding behind and flew around it.

Staying low to the ground, I felt the Wretch re-emerge.  Limbs and digits dug into the ground, and tore up the earth below me.  My aura roared, the dirt flew around me, and I was within the center, cold and angry.

The shooter had been peering over cover, but the sound of the Wretch carving its way through the ground drew their attention.  They turned my way just in time for me to get in their face.

I swatted my hand through the air, and the Wretch followed suit.  The difference was that my hand hit air, and the Wretch hit the shooter’s gun hand.

The gun was torn from their hand and sent flying into the dark, wet field behind the shooter, and several of their fingers were broken in the process.

I hated guns.

I changed course, flying out toward Ahrima again, rising higher as I did.  I could see the rank and file Fallen soldiers, and I could see the Fallen with powers.  There was a concentration that suggested they were defending a car.

I flew at the car, and given how my course went from the shooter I’d disarmed to the vehicle, I approached at an angle where they weren’t really expecting trouble.  It let me hit the roof of the car with the Wretch, tearing it off, and between the flying pieces of roof and the aura, Fallen were left ducking for cover.

I saw the girl who could only be Ahrima, eyes glowing yellow, her demon mask featuring an eye on the forehead.  She was roughly Kenzie’s age.

My hesitation cost me.  Fallen rallied, and soldiers opened fire.  I spun in the air and spiraled down, and not because I was delivering a heavy hitting attack from the air.  An intense pressure caught my arm, and my first thought was that a power had made a black hole open up in my bicep, with the muscle, bone, and skin being sucked into it.

I landed in the mud, the pressure mounting in my arm.  I shut off my aura, because I didn’t need to draw attention to myself when I didn’t know for sure what had happened.

My heart beat, and the beat was hard like a hammer hitting concrete, and between that beat and the next, I felt the first hint of pain and realized what had happened.

Just a normal bullet.  I retroactively strung the events together in my head.  It had been a burst of fire from something that wasn’t a hunting rifle or pistol, three shots, all at once, and Vista hadn’t been able to curve the shots away from me.  One shot had hit the Wretch, and one had hit me.

I remained where I was for a moment.  While I had the benefit of shock to dampen the pain, I needed to figure out my next step.

I was surrounded by Fallen, I needed to deal with them before Ahrima.

If I was a cop, dealing with people with weapons, it would be okay to shoot first.

These guys had weapons and worse.

My rules weren’t like Sveta’s rules.  She never wanted to hurt anyone again.  I wanted to only hurt people if I thought it through and if it was right, lawful, and if I wouldn’t regret it.

Fallen were circling the vehicle, approaching me, and I flew at them.  My aura helped to slow their reactions as I bowled into them.

The collision hurt the soldiers.  My attention was on the masks in the group.  I needed to go after the ones with powers.

I saw the first one, and I flew at them, fingers dragging against skin until I touched a strap.  I grabbed it, brought out the Wretch, and used the Wretch’s strength to toss them skyward.

Bursts of strength, letting the Wretch start to emerge, but not letting it unfold to its full breadth, reach, and intelligence.

I flew to intercept and brought out the Wretch for a moment, so their legs would hit the Wretch or hit my invincible self as they descended. If I didn’t break their legs or feet outright, I would at least make it so they couldn’t walk for a good little while.

My arm throbbed.  Each time I became aware of the pain, it was doubly worse than before.

People backed away and used the car for cover against me, and I threw myself at the car.  I pushed it along wet dirt driveway and I pushed it into the group.

Not that effective, but it did make them relinquish their cover, backing up and spreading out.  They had guns, but they didn’t fire.

Ahrima was still in the car, which still had its roof torn off.  She slumped in the driver’s seat, draped over the wheel.  Shooting at me would risk shooting her.

I hadn’t intended that, but I wasn’t about to complain, either.

As a deterrent, it only worked against one select group of people, though.  Prancer’s group opened fire on our area, and a bullet hit the hood of the car.  Mud sprayed as a bullet hit the ground near the Fallen group, and they took that as an indication to retreat toward the house.

I flew to pursue, and someone in the group used their power while the others ran.

A beam, or a column of energy, transparent.  It enveloped me, and my forward movement stopped when I was only a couple of feet from the group.  I could fly side to side, and even slip out of the column of energy, but as it centered on me again, I couldn’t fly toward the source.

That black-hole pressure in my arm made it feel like the muscles in my shoulder and forearm were being twisted up and wrenched into the wound.  I pressed a hand against the approximate location of the bullet, and blood oozed between the fingers.

I flew straight down, Wretch out, and I hit the ground with all the strength I had.  The person shooting the beam lost their footing, found it, and centered the beam on me again.

Even with the Wretch taking the impact, the vibration and the shift in position doubled the pain in my arm.  For an instant, I wished I could pass out and be relieved of it.

Other thoughts flickered through my mind, almost in the same way that idle thoughts ran through one’s mind while they drifted off to sleep.  These weren’t restful thoughts, though.  It was the people writhing on the ground, and the old conservative woman I’d rescued.  It was the graffiti in Hollow Point.

I almost collapsed into that sequence of thoughts in a confused, angry haze.  I didn’t.  As I rallied, I felt my thoughts clarify with the images.

I couldn’t approach while the beam was locked on me, and I could feel other kinds of pressure mounting, like the head-rush from doing a handstand, but concentrated in my shoulder blades, back, buttocks, calves and feet.

I did as I’d done when Amy had pursued me, after the barbecue.  I swung, and I let the Wretch hit the ground.  Dirt and mud sprayed into the air and sprayed toward the cape with the beam.

The beam kept the stuff from flying into them, but it didn’t stop the clumps and clods from arcing up and over the beam, landing on and around them.

For a moment, they were blinded and left stumbling back by the force of the mud slapping against them.

It was a Fallen woman with a mask that hid most of her eyes and left only the mouth visible.  Her costume was molded to the body, erasing lines and features in favor of more smooth rubber expanses of ‘flesh’ like the ones around the eyes.  Only a few isolated symbols and words were carved into the rubber ‘flesh’, painted to be red and angry-looking.

I grabbed her by the rubber between her breasts and lifted her up into the air.  One-armed, I heaved her around and rammed her into the car’s hood, hard enough to knock the sense out of her.

A demon loomed in my vision.  I tensed- and I saw the demon reach down to the beam demon, applying the taser.

Imp.  She was the one who had knocked out Ahrima.  She leaned back, settling into the car’s passenger seat.

Right.

“We had the same idea,” Imp said.  “Go after this one.  I was quicker, y’know.”

My arm twisted in pain.  I looked back, and I saw that Seir was dealt with, as were his reinforcements.

“Oh, you’re hurt,” she said.

I wasn’t up to talking, so I gave her a curt nod instead.

“Go get yourself looked after.  I got her.  We got her, since you saved me the trouble of having to find out who had the car keys.”

I winced, in part because of the pain, and in part because it was another thing where it felt like actually changing the course of this greater thing was hard to do.

I’d broken the Fallen ranks, at least.  I’d stalled Seir and then played a part in Ahrima being disabled.  I’d have to console myself with that.

I gave Imp another curt nod, and flew back in the direction of the others.

Capricorn had been busy, raising walls between the various fighting factions.  It was changing the flow of the fight, and for better or for worse, the Fallen were focusing on Prancer’s group because it was the easiest to hurt.

Weld had reunited with the others, and the other Undersiders, March’s group, Narwhal’s squad with Vista included, and my team were all together, hunkered down by the wall.  I landed, and I dropped to one knee when it turned out my legs had surprisingly little strength to them.

Sveta and Rain were talking to Narwhal.  Sveta glanced at me, shot me a smile, and then returned to the conversation.

I was aware that March and Parian were talking, further away from the wall and the group.

Given where I’d landed, it was really Vista and Foil who noticed and approached me.  Foil saw the blood, and dropped to my side, reaching to her belt for basic supplies.

“Thanks,” I managed.

She glanced back at Parian and March, then turned her full focus to my gunshot wound.  The wound sucked at my fingers as I pulled them away from the bloody mess.

Vista waved somebody over.  The wave got Sveta’s attention, and she   hurried to a spot behind me, where she could support me from behind and look over my shoulder.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I got reckless.”

“My fault,” Vista said.  “I couldn’t get something up in time.”

“I didn’t leave enough of a gap between me and the people with guns.  Nothing you could do,” I said.

The hero from Narwhal’s group had a first aid kit.

“That could have hit the artery,” the cape said.  “This is something we can patch up, but you’re going to need more attention later.”

I nodded.  “Thank you.”

“You’re leaving?” Rain asked, voice carrying.  I followed his line of sight and saw March collecting a bag as her coterie gathered in a group just behind her.

She answered him, “It seems I’m not welcome here.  I’m leaving these guys alone, but I’ll be around until this thing is done.  We’ll talk.”

“Okay.  We’ll talk.”

March saluted, made a sound like she was chuckling under her breath, and ducked beneath a branch as she headed further into the woods.

“Good riddance,” Foil hissed under her breath.  In a different, softer tone, she said, “It’s been a long time, Victoria.”

“It has,” I said.  I didn’t like how my voice sounded, but I couldn’t devote the focus to sounding more like a proper wounded superhero. “You doing alright these days?”

“Present mess and end of the world aside?”

I smiled when I probably shouldn’t have.

“Yeah.  Surprisingly alright,” she said.  “You?”

I turned to look at my injured arm.

“Present situation aside?” she asked.

“Others said you were invulnerable,” Bay said.

“Ran into a power dampener earlier,” I said.  I turned my head to look over my shoulder at Sveta, who had her hands on my shoulders.  “It might have played a role.”

“Probably did,” Sveta said.

I turned to Foil, looking to change the topic, “What’s the story with this March thing?”

“Long story.  We’ll talk later, but- not in polite company,” Foil said.

I nodded.  The aborted conversations were rough, when I wanted any conversation at all that could take my mind off the pain.

Capricorn, not in my immediate field of view, reported, “Threw up some walls.  Prancer’s not having a good day.”

“Stupid to attack like he did,” I said.  I watched as Rachel Lindt emerged from the deeper woods, a mutant dog behind her.

Rachel Lindt was not my favorite person, but Vista raised a hand in a wave, and Rachel returned it, her expression dour.  I could let this particular sleeping dog lie, if Rachel was willing to do the same.

“There’s more to the attack than it might seem,” Foil said.  “The Fallen are growing too fast.  Thinkers, Tattletale included, concluded they were about to connect with some other groups and lock  up a bigger alliance.  They would have been too big to take down.”

“They needed to communicate with the heroes,” I said.  My expression twisted as the hole was pulled closed as part of the stitching.  They hadn’t even taken the bullet out, as far as I could tell.  I was aware that Rachel Lindt was staring me down with abject antipathy, and it bothered me that I was showing pain in front of her.

“They couldn’t communicate with the heroes.  The Fallen apparently have allies hidden in the Wardens’ sub-teams,” Sveta said, her voice a whisper.  “By the time thinkers rooted them out, others would have made moves.  Or at least, that’s what the Undersiders are saying.”

“Yeah,” Foil said.  “This is bad, but the alternatives were worse.”

“We didn’t expect it to be this messy,” Parian added, almost apologetic.  Foil nodded.

“You did a good job letting us get Seir, Victoria,” Narwhal said.  “Thank you.”

I nodded a bit, head bent in a nod, “That was Imp, mostly.”

Weird words to say.

“Maybe in part, but there were a lot of Fallen there that were focused on you, not us,” Narwhal said.  In a tone that suggested she wasn’t going to accept any dissent, she repeated the former, “Thank you.”

I nodded my acknowledgement, because saying anything would’ve meant having to acknowledge it when it didn’t feel wholly appropriate.  It was Narwhal being a leader and getting everyone in the right frame of thinking.

“Do we want to take the opportunity to walk away from this?” Capricorn asked.

“You want to run?” Bay asked.

“No,” Capricorn retorted, annoyed.  “Retreat.  We have outside resources, ones I won’t detail, not when we were just talking about potential Fallen assets in the Wardens, and you guys are Wardens.  No offense.”

“None taken,” Narwhal said.

“We can go, hold the wider perimeter, figure out what we’re doing.”

A few people talked all at once.  I was one of them.

The talking died down.

It was Weld who spoke up, clearly enough to be heard.  “This might be our one shot.  Dealing with the Fallen means getting close enough to go after the key members.  We might not get another chance.”

“They have a lot of power synergies,” I said.  I swallowed through the pain that radiated from my arm and shoulder, the swallow caught, and I was without words until I could swallow properly and speak.  I tried to sound normal as I explained, “The chaos plays a role, because it means they can’t coordinate one hundred percent.  There’s more room to break up synergies and teamwork than there would be if we pulled back and gave them an hour to talk and sort themselves out.”

“I can tell you who the big names are, and who the key lieutenants are,” Rain said.  “I know a lot-”

“Rainnnn!”

The woman’s voice echoed through the trees, thin and haunting.

“Cover your ears!” Rain said, taking his own advice.  “Don’t look!”

Don’t look.

I covered my ears, but I heard whispers even with all sound blocked out.

Mama Mathers.  Awake.

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