She regretted sleeping. There were businessmen and entertainers who could be up for seventy-two hours without sleeping, and she was pretty sure she understood why. She chased that. She liked to think of it as hibernating and storing energy for the days she needed to do more.
Sleeping was dangerous when every second counted.
Sleeping was a soft reset, and when things were working, a reset was the last thing she wanted.
But the body had its demands, and as she felt the aches and pains of the skirmish the night prior, a skirmish where she hadn’t even touched anyone, she had rationalized that she needed rest to let her body repair itself. She didn’t even remember the act of lying down.
Damsel didn’t feel any less sharp than she had the day before, but her mood felt like it rested at a different angle. She still had momentum, she had the ability to do this if she could keep her power under control, but her thoughts kept looping back on themselves.
Not second guessing. No, she was confident. She was also very aware of how any one person, situation, or even bad luck could pull the rug out from under her.
Very, very aware.
The others were standing around their car. Stocky brick buildings lined this street, and a path between two buildings led to a narrow strip of grass and sidewalk at the edge of a little river. She couldn’t stand still, so she walked around the block, traveling the line of the river. She paid attention to rooftops, and to the residential buildings with signs of being lived in.
Sleep was dangerous because she couldn’t know what it would take away. She had rolled the dice, and she counted herself lucky that she had woken up ready to safeguard her accomplishments.
She had minions, and she had an objective. Her triumphs from the night prior were stacking up with other recent wins. Evading the PRT, dodging the cops at the station, an intimidating show as she revealed her cape self to the local teens. They weren’t important, she hadn’t even bothered to remember their names or which one it had been that had invited her to dinner. The show had been the important thing.
Damsel knew she needed to eliminate someone important to make room for herself to step into the scene. She didn’t want a big neighborhood, not to start.
The Brothers were sounding like they wanted to cooperate with the Clockwork Dogs. That took them out of the picture. The Four might go elsewhere.
There were people in other areas, but she wanted Deathchester. That left two opponents, and they were in the area to look into one of them.
A little wooden bridge with railings that looked like they were made entirely of rust gave the residents of these row-houses and blocky apartments a way to get past the river and approach the water. Damsel approached the bridge and stood up on the middle bar of the railing, the top bar pressing into her shins.
With the higher vantage point, she could see a man by the water. He wore a costume that was predominantly an armor of interwoven branches in a Celtic knot pattern. Black and green cloth beneath covered most of the rest of him, with what might have been hints of black skin visible at the back of his neck and between where his sleeve stopped and his woven-branch gauntlet began.
He had his back to her, reaching up to trees and gathering leafless branches, or stooping down to pick things up off the ground. Now and then, he put a branch into a gap in his armor, so it stuck up and away. Some still had dry leaves on them.
One of Blastgerm’s capes. She turned away.
Even the simple act of pulling her hood down was something she had to calculate. It required use of her hands, which meant she had to calculate the risk against the reward. What was the chance she was seen and her white hair was recognized? Adjusting her hood to hide her hair and face reduced that chance, but it introduced the chance her power would activate.
What would happen if she accidentally used her power? People would notice the sound, and she could find herself in a fight.
If it came to that, she could deal with him.
Destroy the bridge, if he was slow. It would force him to jump over. If he was faster, she could go to the building.
If she could make enough noise and cause enough damage while getting away, it would draw the attention of the heroes. That, in turn, would make the Blastgerm group’s life harder.
She adjusted her hood, tense, and tucked her hair behind her ear.
The villain with the wooden armor continued to gather branches, stopping to pick up a dandelion, placing it in the pile.
J had arrived in the time it had taken her to walk around the block of buildings. Bar, Bar’s friends, and Angel were already there. Angel’s brother was absent.
J had brought food. Breakfast sandwiches and coffees.
“Help yourself,” J said.
Eating was risky like sleeping was risky. Eating was supposed to be a social thing, but for her it was a gamble, with the odds badly tilted against her. A loss meant embarrassment. A win meant ‘normal’.
“Why?” Damsel asked, instead of taking the offer.
“Why this? What’s your angle?”
“Angle?” J asked.
“Not everyone and everything has an angle,” Angel said.
Naive girl. Still, naivety was something Damsel could live with, if Angel remained competent elsewhere.
Damsel ignored the statement and stared at J, waiting for her answer.
J gave. “You’re paying me, hopefully. Them? They’ll probably have my back if we end up doing something risky.”
“Yeah,” Damsel said. It made sense. She could even respect it. Looking around, she asked, “See anyone or anything on your way in?”
“Sorry, I wasn’t looking,”
“Look next time,” she said. “This entire city is enemy territory. Everything matters.”
“Yes ma’am,” J said.
She turned her gaze toward him. There wasn’t any hint of sarcasm or irony in the ‘ma’am’.
The others looked serious. For now, at least, she had their respect. There’d be the one who questioned her- there always was in the movies and television shows. It was human nature, to push against authority. It stood to reason, then, that someone in the group was harboring seditious thoughts.
She would have to make an example of them, the moment they revealed themselves. For now she would work with her new subordinates.
“One of Blastgerm’s capes is on the other side of the building. There will be more,” Damsel said. “Are we expecting anyone else from last night to show up?”
“No,” Bar said. “I could call others if you want.”
Damsel shook her head. “Let’s get in the cars.”
Bar had one car, and J had another. Damsel got into the passenger seat of Bar’s car, and he started it up. Angel and one of his friends were in the back seat.
They made it a block before they saw more. A woman, tall and slender, had pointed ears and black hair that was ankle length even when braided. Her mask was a rounded plane with grooves etched into it, black beady eyes built in. Her costume was a skintight suit with lines on it in the same pattern as the grooves, running vertically and crossing into flourishes at the top and bottom. She had two other capes with her- a man in a skintight top and heavy pants with a pillar that he rested one hand on. His weapon. Rotten Apple was with them, talking or telling them something.
On a rooftop nearby, a cape with a green hood covering their head, stylized horns protruding, had wings or a cape that draped around them in a loose spiral or wrap, sufficient to cover ten people.
Blastgerm hadn’t been lying. They’d put out a call and they had more capes actively guarding or patrolling in their general territory than a lot of teams had in their whole roster.
Angel whistled, long and low.
“No need to whistle. This is nothing,” Damsel said.
People were hanging around in the general vicinity of the capes. It wasn’t a lot- one here, one there. But they were entirely too comfortable with the presence of villains to not be affiliated with them.
Not soldiers, at a glance, but people who ran errands and handled things beyond fighting, like J seemed to want to do for her faction.
“Blastgerm was always small,” Angel said. “Dealers you heard about in the news once a year. Sometimes it’d be just Blasto or just Poison Apple.”
“Or Rotten Apple. She changes it around sometimes.”
Ashley nodded. “They’re not small now. It’s fine.”
She spotted another one. There was a crowd of a type she recognized. Back in Stafford, there had been Kidney Stan’s group. Useless fuckheads, stoners, imbeciles. They’d been the point of failure for one of her jobs. She had her suspicions that they were the ones responsible for tipping off the heroes about her trip to Boston. The cops at the station, Edict at the truck raid.
The group was surrounding the cape that had been in the company of Blasto and Rotten Apple the night before. The half-lizard, half-snake creation with the wooden head had climbed up him, and was perched on his shoulder.
“See that?” she asked.
“Geez. Out of the woodwork,” Bar said.
“The names are so disappointing,” Ashley said. “Blastgerm? Blasto? Rotten Apple? Woodwork would have been better, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes,” Bar said.
“I like Damsel of Distress,” Angel said.
“Sucking up?” Bar asked. “I’m joking.”
Jokes? Ashley wondered. Where did she draw the line in a subordinate testing her limits of authority?
“No. I like the name, is all,” Angel said.
“That’s because you have good taste,” Ashley said. “Clockwork Dogs? Why not the Cogs of War?”
“They have names that mean peace and cooperation,” Bar said.
Ashley snorted. Her eyes scanned the surrounding area for more. A few minutes passed. When she didn’t see more, she indicated for Bar to stop.
The other car caught up with them as they climbed out of the vehicle.
Ashley paced a little, thinking. She was annoyed. They were so small, and all they had to do was send a message online to get that many people? How was that right or fair?
“That’s a lot,” one of Bar’s friends said. “Too much?”
“No,” Ashley said, stopping. “No. I could handle that, given a chance. I’ll have to. I will take over this area.”
“Blasto’s a tinker, you know,” Bar said. “He’s working on something big. He keeps pulling in resources.”
“You hear about that sort of thing,” J said. “Tinker keeps a low profile for a while, keeping busy, and then they do something big. Building penthouse folds away to reveal the death laser with city-wide range.”
“The building mounted death laser only ever happened one time,” Bar said.
Ashley wasn’t laughing. “Talk to me about Detente’s group. He’s established?”
“Newly,” Bar said. “He and Accord have a bunch of people with powers. They’ve put up a good showing. Smart, efficient, rich.”
“Where is he from? Where is Accord from?”
“They come out of nowhere and they’re this prepared? They have this much money to throw around?”
“That’s them having mastermind powers, maybe,” Bar said.
“They’re small fish,” J said.
“Nobody’s a small fish when they have powers,” Damsel said. “Everyone’s a threat. Everyone has to be dealt with.”
“Sure,” Bar said.
“What about Digger? The biker.”
“Less of a good showing.”
“They’re around. They haven’t done much,” Bar said.
“They were active in New York for a bit,” Angel said. “They’re freaky.”
“I’m scary too,” Ashley said. “I’m not worried.”
“If they didn’t have any powers at all, I’d be scared of them,” Angel said. “They’re into bioweapons. Their mindset is to poison everyone, and have their guys recover faster. They use healing powers and equipment to reduce the damage to their side.”
J spoke up, “They’re weirdly popular, I think it’s the style. There are galleries of art online with them surrounded by their colorful plague clouds.”
The idea nettled Ashley. It made her want to go right after the Four.
It wasn’t a good impulse. She shoved it down deep inside her, and she looked in the direction of Blastgerm’s claimed neighborhood. Blasto and Rotten Apple.
“You have a plan?” Bar asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “For now, hang around Blastgerm’s area. Figure out where they’re going and where they hang out. If they’re selling anything, figure out where things come from and where they go.”
“How long?” Bar asked.
“Until evening. I don’t want to waste time.”
Bar nodded slowly. “I guess this is where I bring up money, then.”
Damsel stood up straighter. Her eyes narrowed.
“You haven’t paid us anything yet. You said you’d pay what Marrow was asking for. Two thousand or five percent.”
“This is part of that.”
“This is a full day of our time,” Bar said. “For promises?”
“I showed you what I can do last night. I’ll show you something tonight, and you’ll be glad you helped when it comes together.”
“I don’t get it,” he said. “This plan, the long-term goal.”
“You don’t need to get it. You need to listen,” she made her voice cold.
She watched as his expression rotated between three different emotions.
She couldn’t put a name to each emotion, but she could imagine what sort they’d be.
“Yeah,” Bar said. “Two thousand or five percent of the take?”
“And a better position when I take power and territory for myself.”
Bar’s eyes moved as he seemed to engage in some mental calculations. “Yeah. Okay, fine, we’ll go take a look around.”
He signaled his friends.
Damsel thought about making an example of him. She couldn’t be sure if he was leaving and not coming back or if he was going to go through the motions while putting little effort in.
She looked at the two who remained. J and Angel.
“Are you going to run too?” she asked. “You’ll regret it later.”
“I’m not going to run,” Angel said. She rubbed the back of her neck. “I’m not good at anything except punching people and being punched. I heard we can hang around the beach or the fighting pit at the south end, and sometimes people will round up helping hands for work. I’ll put on a stupid costume and be a henchman if it pays.”
“No need for a stupid costume,” Damsel said. She reconsidered. “Maybe a costume later on, but it won’t be stupid. I don’t do stupid.”
Angel shrugged. “I’ll do this, ‘cuz I don’t lose anything. I can learn stuff, seeing how they operate. You need me for a job later, I’ll do that too.”
“You’ll be rewarded,” Ashley said. She smiled. “Go. We meet at the same place as this morning.”
“I’ll pick you up if you want,” J told Angel. Angel smiled at him.
“Sure. But I’ll walk in,” Angel said. “We’ll cover more ground if we stay separated.”
“Good,” Damsel said.
Angel walked away. J remained, walking around his car. He held out the remaining sandwich for her. She took it.
“This needs to count,” he said. “Even for Angel, and Angel has low expectations.”
“How it counts is my business, not yours,” she said.
J nodded. “Sure.”
“It will count. Loyalty will be rewarded,” she said. “I think I understand what Angel wants. She makes sense to me.”
J nodded. “I’ve seen her around. She’s cool. Just don’t make her mad.”
“I don’t intend to. I think I know what will speak to Bar’s type. To others. Money.”
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Money,” he said, without hesitation.
She met his eyes, studying him. Brown eyes, a face covered in freckles, brown hair, and an expression with a measure of determination.
“Go earn it then. Gather information.”
Things threatened to crumble. One partial night’s sleep, and people had forgotten her triumph, doubted her power, doubted her. Her own doubts seeped in.
It was her against what seemed like a dozen people with powers.
This was what I was meant for, she thought. Excitement swelled in her chest as she considered the options, the idea of coming out the other side victorious.
Pyrokinetics thrived when there were nearby fires. Capes who could manipulate water could operate at peak efficiency when near a body of water.
So it went.
She wielded annihilation and chaos. If that was so, then she would do the equivalent of the pyrokinetic setting fire to the building they were in.
That she was doing this with no other powers on her side, against so many enemies?
Not a concern, she told herself, a cold sort of excitement setting up shop in her chest as she worked to banish the doubts. Not a concern. Everything has been preparation for this.
Even the fact that I’ve been completely alone for three years.
Ashley stretched as she left the court office. The patrol guard cleared his throat.
She didn’t stop stretching at the throat clearing.
The court office was in recess. People stood, stretched, and headed in the direction of the vending machines.
“That could have gone better,” Tristan said. “Rain got an easier set of proctors.”
“I didn’t expect to get it easy,” Ashley said.
Kenzie was fidgeting, distressed. Ashley put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder, and her little friend looked up at her with a smile. The fidgeting stopped.
That fidgeting would be because of the video. Kenzie would want it to be shown and be anxious about it being shown at the same time. The group wouldn’t like it if the video came out, Kenzie would be dreading both the idea of the video coming out and the video not coming out.
“I don’t think they were being fair,” Sveta said. “You weren’t uncooperative.”
“She wasn’t,” Victoria said. “I’m really hoping they’re open to giving us a chance to talk at the end. I want to hammer that in. I had a letter from Gilpatrick, but they haven’t mentioned it.”
Ashley didn’t think it was fair either, but she kept it to herself. Going down that line of thinking was the kind of thing that set herself off.
Tristan added, “I took my letter for Ashley in after Rain’s tribunal, handed it to the one guy who looks like a mortician. He was pretty dismissive.”
“Could it have been process? Not wanting to seem biased?” Sveta asked, almost hopefully.
“No excuse to be rude,” Tristan said.
“Maybe he didn’t like your face,” Chris said.
“Then they have no taste,” Kenzie said. “I think Tristan and Byron have very nice faces.”
“I’m really not sure how to take that,” Tristan said.
“Is there a process, if this tribunal doesn’t handle things appropriately?” Sveta asked. “Higher court we can go to?”
“No,” Victoria said. “The purpose of this is to handle stuff without getting tied up in more complicated procedures. Weeding out the obvious cases before it gets put in front of the proper court.”
“There should be some process. Some emergency go-to,” Sveta said.
Ashley felt agitation creep over her. It was fear and conviction with an energy to it, and the anxiety, impulses, and restlessness could in of themselves generate more anxiety, impulse, restlessness and energy.
Left to run rampant, these feelings and experiences that multiplied themselves would grow in ways that formed constructions and ideas, like how a cloud could resemble a face or a dog.
Some of the therapy she’d had helped her to recognize it for what it was. Actually dealing with it was the harder thing.
“If it’s okay,” Ashley said, with more force than necessary, aiming the statement at nobody in particular. “I’d rather not talk or think about the tribunal right now.”
“Sure, sorry,” Sveta said.
“We can talk about anything you want,” Victoria said.
“Talk about anything,” Ashley said. “The noise of talking would be nice, so long as it isn’t about this.”
“I’m making a camera that takes pictures and video of the past,” Kenzie said. “It’s only twenty five pounds, and I’m slimming it down.”
There were overlapping responses. People sounded impressed, enthused.
“That actually sounds awesome,” Chris said.
“Kenzie is awesome,” Ashley said. “It’s about time you caught up with the rest of us, Chris.”
Kenzie looked up to her, then tipped over, head smacking into Ashley’s shoulder. She put her arm behind Ashley’s back in a one-armed hug.
“There are catches,” Kenzie said.
“Of course,” Chris responded. He made no mention of the hug.
“It takes a while to spin up. I’m still working on that. And it reads particles that don’t move in straight lines, so it gets fuzzy fast.”
“Fuzzy can be workable,” Victoria said. “In forensics alone, that kind of camera could be a lifesaver.”
“I’m still figuring out balances. Time is something I usually work around if I can,” Kenzie said. Her legs kicked below the bench. “I stole some tech.”
“Stole?” Chris asked.
“Tinkers can read powers and people and get data that they can then use for their tinkering stuff. A tinker who makes flamethrowers can use my blueprints and figure out how to do some targeting tech. Or, like, even if it’s not powers, I could do deep scans of a thinker and I could get power data I could use for my cameras. Which is where right now I wish I could talk to a really good precog or postcog, and see how their power works.”
“Don’t we all,” Victoria said.
“Anyway,” Kenzie said, “We saw some of this with Snag and the others, remember?”
“The Speedrunners,” Tristan said. “Yeah.”
“Yeah. Every tinker is different so it’s not every tinker that does it, but it’s most, I think. We all want our data and inspiration. When I went to pick up my big projector box, I sent some flying cameras in. Which was safe to do since Mama Mathers was gone, right?”
Ashley imagined that was the same time Kenzie had collected the image of the landscape where she’d killed Beast of Burden, for the falsified video.
“So I searched around to see if there was anything interesting. Some of the tinker throwing stars and junk were lying around. I had my camera grab that. Now I’m reverse engineering it.”
“That’s great,” Ashley said.
“Except the team’s falling apart, and I don’t have anyone to do this with. You might not be there to see it.”
“I might not,” Ashley said. She felt a pang.
She didn’t want this. Rain did, but for her, it was something she had to do, a necessary evil.
“But you didn’t want to talk about that. I’m sorry,” Kenzie said.
Ashley shook her head.
Victoria took the empty space on the bench beside Ashley. She showed her her phone.
It was a picture of Presley, hair dyed an inconsistent color that was more gray-white than pure white.
The freckles reminded her of Amy, which would have been a tricky topic to raise.
It reminded her of J, a memory from a past life. Trickier still to bring up or raise.
There was a low, deep rumble as her power did its work. She had to run to get away from the cloud of dust that exploded out in every direction.
She was already moving to the next point. She lashed out with a sweep of her warped darkness, targeting one corner of a building. Her arm raked out, trying to cover as much area as possible, to destroy as much brick and beam, insulation and strut. A blast of her power provided the kick to get her clear of the area as the wall came down.
She did the same to the other corner of the building. Where bricks were stacked atop one another, they started cascading down in sheets, crashing to the ground. Other things fell down, and the sound of the impacts and cracks had a beautiful sound to them, with the water magnifying some of the acoustics.
J’s car was a lawn and a sidewalk away from her, moving at a slow but steady clip as he tried to stay close to her and keep away from the rolling cloud of debris.
This was the distraction. They were near the water, not that far from where the bridge and the cape with the Celtic-knot wooden armor had been. Her power was taking down segments of old buildings with no lights on. A glance inside had verified they were empty.
Now- she felt the strain in her legs as she ran, catching up with the car. She didn’t hop in, but hopped on, standing at the edge and bracing her forearm against the door and the top of the car. Her power flickered but touched only the air.
On impulse, as they passed a large tree, she blasted it. It toppled behind her, and it made a hell of a lot of noise.
J stepped on the gas. The car peeled out.
This would help draw capes away from the center of operations. Others were out there- only some of Bar’s group, the ones that had been most curious about what they were doing, and Angel was out there, keeping watch.
The trick was to get enough speed that they could circle around and hit the target from the side or behind. Going straight there wouldn’t work, because it would mean running headlong into anyone coming to see what was happening.
One empty building toppled, another two with one exterior wall partially or wholly collapsed. One tree brought down to block a road.
They passed through an intersection, and she had the briefest of glimpses of the capes on the next road over. A larger group than she’d expected were on their way to investigate.
J stopped the vehicle. She hopped off, kicking the door closed, then broke into a run.
Lights streaked across the sky.
That would be phase two of the distraction.
Damsel had made Angel notify the heroes that Blastgerm were up to no good.
At worst, what? She was outnumbered thirty to one instead of twelve to one? Past a point, it didn’t matter.
At best? They were out of position and tied up with outside concerns.
Her power blasted the door open. A heavy thud behind her marked the arrival of a cape, a moment after she disappeared inside. A big guy- not one of the ones she’d seen during the day’s patrols. He had a metal helmet and painted skin, and walked with a hunched back.
Angel and J had independently come to the conclusion that this was Blasto’s headquarters. It was where the capes kept entering and leaving. Those who sold drugs apparently came and went from here as well.
Not bright, to shit where one ate, but he might have told himself that he had more than enough powered bodyguards.
The big guy was stampeding his way inside. She hit the stairs and she went up. The big guy followed, charging his way after her.
Time to burn this building down, she thought.
She blasted behind her, and she took out a chunk from the floor of the hallway. The angle meant she was thrown up and back, and it wasn’t her usual style. With the usual sort of blast, she could at least try to keep her balance. Here, she toppled and slid on the smooth laminate floor.
The big guy, catching up, had to stop to avoid falling in. He gathered himself together on the most solid ground, muscles standing out, and he leaped.
She wasn’t even fully to her feet as she stuck her hands out. A wide area blast, concentrated to get as much of the floor as possible, where he was due to land. It gave him less chance of finding some footing, and it kept pieces from raining down on the unsuspecting below.
He crashed into the edge of it, and he fell through.
She used her power with wanton abandon. Doors? Gone. Walls? Gone. One blast knocked out the power on her floor.
Empty rooms, offices, a room with bunk-beds and storage crates.
Nothing on this floor.
She blasted a hole in the floor and dropped down.
The big guy was on the floor below, in the midst of trying to scrabble up to the floor above. He slipped, fell, and spotted her.
Her power flared involuntarily, costing her a moment. She tried to make it look intentional by blasting the nearest wall, as if it was a prelude to the full maneuver.
The big guy barreled toward her, and she had to find traction amid dust before jumping into the hole she’d just made. Another hole in the floor made it hard for him to follow her.
Walls and doors were nothing. They were a gesture away from being an opening. She used that opening, navigating the floor, while the big guy gave chase. Somewhere along the line, he stopped running after her.
She cleared the floor, found nothing, and dropped down.
On this floor, she could smell the drugs. She followed the smell and found a conference room turned to nefarious purpose. Packaging, plastic bags, and mounds of green leaves were set out.
She didn’t have to go far to find the office with some of the money. She was careful with her hands as she picked up a stack of bills.
Something detonated just to the left of her. A cloud of noxious green gas surrounded her, and she stumbled away.
“That’s not yours.”
Damsel smiled, walking around the room to avoid the expanding cloud of gas.
“This was a decent headquarters,” Rotten Apple said. A green sphere appeared in her hand, then levitated above it. “Now look at it.”
The ceiling in the hallway sagged in tatters. There were holes in quite a few walls, large enough for a person to walk through. The gas was thinning out at its periphery, giving the room a general green haze.
A second orb appeared, joining the first one that still orbited Rotten Apple’s hand. The costumed woman gripped it, drawing her arm back to throw.
Damsel brought her arm around, pointing at the money. “Do anything and I obliterate it.”
“You don’t want to do that.”
“You don’t want me to do it either. But I will if I think it weakens your group.”
Rotten Apple’s eyes narrowed.
“Surr-” Damsel started, before being interrupted with coughing. The gas.
“Surrender,” she said, succeeding on the second attempt at speaking. “Believe me, you don’t want me to keep going. You might have an army, but they have to get here first, and they’ll need to watch their footing. I can bring this whole building down, and I’m betting I can be the one that survives if we’re both inside when I do it.”
“Sure,” Rotten Apple said. She looked at the money. She flicked the ball and it flew through a hole in the wall to explode in another room. “There. I’m unarmed.”
“Hands up,” Damsel said.
“That doesn’t matter when it comes to parahumans.”
“Call it a token thing. I like my gestures of respect.”
Rotten Apple slowly raised her hands, until both were visible.
She’d had another orb, before. Where was it now?
Damsel looked, and she spotted it at the last second, almost invisible with the haze of gas in the room. It was on the ground, and it had rolled past her.
The orb detonated with some force, and the money was scattered into the air throughout the room. Damsel was forced to back away from it as the miasma visibly colored the air.
Rotten Apple was already preparing for another shot.
Damsel could have used her power to shoot the money, but it was so scattered that she would have hit a relatively small fraction.
Instead, she ducked through the doorway and blasted the floor of the hallway.
Down. Down to safer territory.
Rotten Apple followed. Another orb was thrown, and Damsel wasn’t quick enough to get out of the way. The detonation knocked her over, and the resulting fall was unexpected and hard. Gas swept over her as she worked to find her feet.
It felt like standing up took a lot of effort. Was that the gas?
As the gas burned at her nostrils and tickled her throat, threatening to force her into a coughing fit that would have her inhale more gas, she raised a hand.
The use of her power knocked her over and did force a resulting, involuntary intake of breath, but it also destroyed the gas that was touched, and it annihilated the very air.
Gas flowed into the resulting vacuum, where it could be blasted again.
It didn’t eliminate everything, but it thinned the gas, and it gave her a way to hold things off until she could find her feet properly again.
She saw Rotten Apple lob another sphere, and blasted, hoping to get the gas before it could expand too far. Instead, the power connected with the sphere. It was wiped out of existence, with no gas resulting.
Damsel made her way down to the floor below, putting another hole in the ground and jumping through before Rotten Apple could do anything.
The ceiling of the floor below, as it turned out, was a little higher than average. She had to use her darkness blast to break the velocity of her fall. Her landing was a hard one, all the same, knees banging on the floor.
A lab. Improvised, dirty, panes of plexiglas with whatever glue or caulk had been used to connect them together running in dribbles and gobs. Metal bands helped keep them from coming apart- which was good, because each seemed to be under pressure.
Damsel straightened, aware that Rotten Apple would be coming after her as soon as she could access the stairs.
Vats. A row of them against one wall, dirty and smeared enough that the contents weren’t immediately obvious.
Humanoid figures, each one different from the others.
Blastgerm’s large roster of villains from this online ad they’d put out. They weren’t real people.
Damsel smiled, looking at it all.
There was something else at the far end of the room. It looked like a boiler, but it had the same rushed, improvised feel that the vats did. Metal, welding, tubes winding around it, and a glass aperture, showing a sea of what looked like green moss on the other side.
“Step away from that,” Rotten Apple said. She was breathing hard.
Ashley extended a hand out toward a vat. The intention was to threat, but her power sparked out. It cut into thick glass, into water, and into the figure on the other side. She flinched back, holding her arm against her chest as she stumbled away.
She stood up straight, forcing a smile she didn’t feel. The remains of the body were tipping forward as the fluids emptied from the vat, and they were breaking apart like wet toilet paper as they brushed against the edges of the broken glass.
Rotten Apple wasn’t acting like Damsel had just killed someone.
“Of course Blasto isn’t around, at a time like this,” Rotten Apple said. “The asshole is probably doing something stupid like sleeping.”
“Can’t afford to sleep if you want to claim your piece of Boston,” Damsel said.
“You realize we’re going to come after you. If you fuck us on this Boston thing, we’ll make it a lifelong goal to come after you.”
“Don’t bother with threats,” Damsel said. “I don’t scare easy, and I hold the cards right now. I can do more damage to all of this than you can do anything to me.”
Rotten Apple shook her head. “The soldiers we sent out are due back soon. Blasto could wake up any time, and he could wake these guys up.”
“Or,” Damsel said. “You could give me a share of that room for the money, along with a pledge that you won’t take Deathchester, and I’ll keep silent about what you’re doing with these legions of false capes that are joining you.”
“Armsmaster against Bastion, who wins?”
The replies overlapped. People were amused, happy. Angel and her brother were here. There were a few scattered others that J had invited. Ashley wasn’t sure how to label the scene, even, where J and Angel both wore bathrobes, like they were some kind of honor. Drink was being passed around freely among the teenagers.
They’d opted for slightly less money and roughly equivalent value in the drugs. Ashley didn’t care about the drugs, didn’t want to be intoxicated, but she was content to let her immediate underlings take what made them happy.
Now they were being celebrated, if that was the right word. They were teenagers or men and women in their early twenties, and they’d wanted an excuse to party. Thin justification, but she wasn’t going to say no. They had provided the information, she had conducted the raid, and money had been collected and doled out. It helped that the excuse for the partying was that she’d succeeded. People were paying attention to her triumph.
It felt like a dream. She felt important, she felt good, and it wasn’t being poisoned or undercut in any way.
“Armsmaster has discipline,” Ashley said. “He has more tools.”
“The rules are important,” Angel’s brother said. “What location? How far apart are they to start?”
“Wait, wait,” someone said. “Who benefits from more distance?”
More replies overlapped.
She didn’t know how to deal with this. Her power had flickered a few times, even kicked once, and people were mostly ignoring it. There had been one question from a newcomer, and then there had been nothing.
She couldn’t bring people to her empty lair, so she had consulted J. J had provided some ideas, and she’d picked this. With some of the money, she had rented some hotel rooms. It was an easy way to have comfort, food, and a bit of luxury for Angel, who needed or wanted that. For some of these people, people in this age range who did this kind of work who hadn’t been around the other night, this was luxury, something that could draw them into her fold.
She’d tried and tried again. Sooner or later, she’d taken a risk and it had failed. She’d been sabotaged, by people or by her power.
Somehow… not this time. There had been a moment where Angel’s brother had walked past her, reeking of alcohol, and her eyes had watered very easily.
Fatigue threatened to catch up with her, and she couldn’t afford to sleep.
Instead, as the discussion got sillier, she took the opportunity to stand.
“Make sure you can work tomorrow night, because we have more to do,” she said. She smiled. “Enjoy yourselves. That’s an order.”
There were cheers. She felt like she was drunk, just from the emotional reaction to the cheer.
It wasn’t a far cry from this to being worshiped.
It felt like every thing she could do was the wrong thing. She had spent three years alone and now she finally had allies. They were people who understood her, and as she rode the emotional high, she retreated to her room to be alone again.
She felt like she could sleep for two straight days, and sleeping terrified her, because unlike the cliche, it was a very real possibility that she could wake up and the spell would be broken. She’d wake up from the dream. She could move her hands the wrong way, and the dream would be broken, as surely as anything was broken by her power.
She couldn’t even trust the success. It felt like a pressure, closing in on her, and the solitude of her room wasn’t enough. The room was almost too much, too white, too clean, the towels too fuzzy, the sheets too soft. All too easy to break and ruin, like so many other things in life.
She stepped outside. There was a danger she would destroy her key card, but she could always knock on the window of the others.
Ashley hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but she couldn’t be inside.
She might have spent a full hour of that cool summer night just outside the side door of the hotel, looking at nothing in particular, far from sleep and yet too tired to think.
The door opened, and J stepped outside.
“Need anything?” he asked.
“Want company?” he asked.
He walked over, and he leaned against the wall beside her.
His arm touched hers as he stood there. He did nothing else.
She’d been right. He’d lied- it hadn’t been the money that had motivated him.