“It’s drawing attention to the city.”
“Everyone here was doing that already,” Rotten Apple said. “They sent everyone they could spare, you think they’re going to send more.”
“There’s more nuance than that,” Detente said. “It’s taller than any of the Endbringers. People will stop what they’re doing to respond.”
“That’s my concern, not yours,” Blasto said. “If they aren’t here already, then they’re going to kill my giant and leave. You’re fine, it’s chill.”
“It is not ‘chill’,” Accord said. “That phrasing makes me want to kill something.”
“You’re imagining shit,” Blasto said. “Making up hypothetical situations, then treating them like they’re real. Not many new people have showed up, and a lot of people have actually left, since some of the worst elements were weeded out. They haven’t brought out the big guns and none of those nonexistent guns have been pointed at any of you. So chillax.”
Accord made a noise. “I know why they haven’t gone on the offensive. You haven’t acted yet-”
“And I won’t act without cause,” Blasto interrupted.
“-And they have thinkers. You worked the genetic material of people with powers into your giant, to give it the strength to stand despite its own weight. It’s tougher than it would appear.”
Blasto smiled. “Yeah.”
“What do you intend to do with it?” Damsel asked.
“Hm?” Blasto asked. He looked surprised that she’d spoken up. “It’s there as a threat and a symbol. Some of the villains and vigilantes I recruited are going to stick around, others are leaving or they’ll rotate in. They’re all there in case someone comes after us. The territory is on lock. South Boston is ours, with some office space given to some other villains.”
“What if we wanted to challenge that?” Burning Sensation asked. One of the small-timers. Punks.
“If you want to challenge our claim, talk to the giant first,” Rotten Apple said. “You’ll have to deal with him one way or another.”
“Yeah,” Burning Sensation replied. “No thanks.”
“You’re keeping it out of Deathchester?” Damsel asked.
“Sure, why not?” Blasto asked.
“Then I’m not going to take issue with it,” she said. “Carry on.”
“Sure,” Blasto said.
“There will be opposition,” Accord said. “I hope that when it happens, there won’t be too much damage. If it reaches us or makes doing business harder, then we’ll be forced to act.”
“I’m sure a smart pair of guys like you think you have a way to answer this.”
“We do,” Detente said, “But our current plans don’t require it. We’re leaving.”
“You’re leaving Boston?” Taper asked. Another one of the small timers.
“We’re leaving the south-end, south-Boston, Roxbury areas,” Detente said. “This is not the only moot that we’ve been attending. We’ve been talking to other groups and we arranged a compromise.”
“What did you assholes do?” Burning Sensation asked.
“We’ve traded territory. Much as the Four moved to Hyde Park, we will take Charlestown. Our numbers have swelled, and in the interest of building connections and ensuring that we can take Charlestown without any incident, we’ll be loaning out our capes to other factions.”
“What the fuck is that about?” Burning Sensation asked. “Who?”
“The Mystic’s Mass, Morning Glory, the Unmasked, who do wear masks, and perhaps most notably, Dark Society,” Detente said.
Ashely tensed. That last one was a name that had come up in the noise of the television and the radio that had always been playing in her place in Stafford. She’d heard of the others since coming to Boston, but she hadn’t imagined she would have to deal with them.
That time felt so long ago.
“What the fuck?” Burning Sensation asked.
“They’ll be arriving soon,” Detente said. “Our powered soldiers will be unpaid liaisons or ambassadors for these four groups, helping against any group or force that isn’t already receiving our aid.”
“Make your plans quickly with this information in mind,” Accord said.
“Against any force that isn’t receiving your aid. You mean us,” Ashley said.
“Clearly,” Detente said.
Was this what the Director had wanted to tell her? That this was coming?
“The plan had been for each of the four groups to take one of the four territories up for consideration here,” Detente said. “But with Blastgerm having made the play it did, adjustments may be in order.”
Ashley clenched her fist, power crackling, as she saw the headlights on the road that looked over the beach.
Lots of lights.
They were professional, organized teams like the ones she’d been whittling at for the past three weeks. People who had been active in the background, that she had told herself she wouldn’t need to deal with.
Mystic’s Mass, with a vague and dark religious theme, thorny halos mounted on their costumes, pointed hoods, and swords with cross iconography worked into their handles. Eight of them, with more, presumably unpowered individuals by the cars.
Morning Glory, less stylish. Angel had mentioned them, which was what tipped Ashley off to the fact that they were mostly or wholly Irish. There wasn’t much in the way of ‘morning’ or ‘glory’ about them, from an aesthetic standpoint. Their leader reminded her of her dad, in the way he held himself and his stature, but he had red hair, he had a mask on, and he had bright blue floral tattoos up his arms, in stark contrast to his masculine image. Five capes. More by the cars.
The Unmasked wore masks with little in the way of eyeholes or airholes for breathing. Self-harm seemed to be the theme. One had a noose around his neck, the excess length wound tight enough that flesh bulged between the coarse rope. There was one with nails driven between every joint of their hands. The leader, or the one who the rest seemed to be deferring to, had nails driven through the hard surface of the mask and into his eye sockets. Hands had strips of flesh peeled away, scars, or a combination of both where the damage from flaying had been clearly cauterized. Sometimes there were designs, sometimes it looked like they’d just cut and pulled away as much flesh as they could. Five capes.
And then there was Dark Society. White bandages hid their heads and faces, their hands or arms. The rest of them was covered in fine clothing in maroons, forest greens, royal purples and midnight blues. The bandages were marred- not with blood or anything from being hurt, but with what looked like ink applied with thumbs and fingers. A smear for each eye, making each one blurry, inconsistent and vague in the light of the fire.
Three members of Dark Society approached the fire, but more of the bandaged heads stared down from the road above the beach, peering with the black ink eyes. One had a smiley face of the same ink fingerpainting, and something told her that he was the leader, not even attending this meeting in person, but watching.
“A bonfire?” the leader of Morning Glory asked. “We’re going to have to change venues.”
“The last venue burned down,” Detente said. “The culprit was dealt with, but the groups couldn’t decide on a neutral territory.”
Damsel was tense as she watched the groups make their way down the slope. Burning Sensation and his group backed away- they hadn’t been that close to the fire, but they still ceded ground. Taper followed suit.
They were lesser.
The Mullen Brothers were next to walk away. They’d had a voice at previous moots, but they weren’t contenders.
Damsel remained where she was as the villains filled the space around the fire.
“She is?” one of the members of the Mass asked.
“Damsel of Distress,” Detente said. “Dorchester.”
“I can speak for myself,” Damsel said.
“I wouldn’t,” Rotten Apple said.
“Those of us who have been here for the past two weeks know the state of your common sense, Rotten Apple,” Damsel said.
Rotten Apple smiled. “You’re such a pain in the ass.”
“I’m more than a pain in the ass,” Damsel said. “Rest assured.”
Her words were confident, but she was very aware of the maimed Maskless capes to her left, close enough that they could have seized her by the neck, using a hand with nails through it. Morning Glory stood to her right, a man in a blue tunic with a blue mask over three-quarters of his face stood with his arm almost touching hers.
She clasped her hands in front of her, telling herself it wasn’t defensive- it was her moving her arm so an errant burst of power wouldn’t take a chunk out of the man.
“Enough,” Accord said. “Let’s keep to the rules of order. The night is only so long and we don’t have time to waste on the bickering of children.”
“I’m assuming our first priority is standing out in the water there,” the leader of the Mass said.
“You would assume correctly,” Accord said. “Blastgerm claims South Boston so long as the giant stands. They engage in the low-level drug trade, some robbery, and if their claims about their subordinate capes are to be believed, they’ll maintain some ideological commitments as well.”
“Protecting nature and all that shit,” Blasto said.
“Are we going to war, Blastgerm?” the leader of Morning Glory asked.
“If we have to. That big guy is strong, you know. If you fight him, you won’t come out unscathed. If you have some injured and others don’t, then that could be the point where the other people standing around this fire come after you.”
“Would you compromise?” Detente asked.
“Blastgerm gives up a fifth of South Boston, they share the rest?” Blasto asked. “No fighting, loose alliance, we all defend our borders from the outside?”
“We could discuss that,” the leader of Morning Glory said. “Speaking for my group, we had our hearts set on getting one quarter. Now it’s twenty percent? Give us a share of your revenue.”
“Say please,” Rotten Apple said.
“Please, Blastgerm,” the red-headed man said, and his accent was stronger as he injected a joking tone into his voice. “Might we have five percent of your territory and a five percent cut of proceeds?”
Rotten Apple smiled. “Five percent is a lot.”
“It’s a nice even number, isn’t it?”
“One point two five percent,” she said. “If we give you five percent, they’ll want five percent, and so will they, and so will they. All of a sudden we’re making twenty percent less. We’ll give you guys five percent of our revenue, but you split it between you.”
Damsel made eye contact with Rotten Apple. Rotten Apple shook her head.
She was being cut out. Treated like she wasn’t there.
To lose it all like this? Not a grandiose loss, no challenge, but to be reduced to nothing with no ceremony or tact? She had arrived at this fire tonight with every intention of taking and holding her place.
She shivered, and it wasn’t because it was cold. Over the two, three seconds of her mind racing, recalibrating, trying to see the way forward, her thoughts were noise.
“Be aware, I will not be giving up Deathchester so easily,” Damsel announced.
“Are you legitimately insane?” Blasto asked.
“She’s referring to Dorchester,” Accord said.
“We know the slang names,” Morning Glory’s leader said.
“I prefer to use proper names wherever possible,” Accord said. “Slang is crass.”
“We’re well aware of how peculiar you are, little man,” the tattooed man from Morning Glory said.
“Damsel,” Rotten Apple said. “I don’t like you, but I don’t want to see you do this. Your buddies behind you look like they just shit buckets.”
“I claimed Deathchester. I drove out the groups there. We’ve been doing business there uncontested for a week, even with the city being a contested location. I have forty-seven employees under me, and I have connections to other groups.”
“You have forty-one employees,” Accord said. “You exist because of luck, and because you are so insignificant that nobody will be bothered to chase you down.”
“Rationalize your fear however you like,” Damsel said.
“You have no power,” Accord said. “No political connections, no meaningful income, no headquarters, and no information to broker. You’ve not only evidenced no education, little girl, but you’ve made several irritating word substitutions in the past week that lead me to believe that you haven’t attended high school or even read a book in recent memory.”
“I have power,” she said. Her chin raised. She moved her hand and her power crackled. The words sounded hollow, when her chest felt like claws had dug into her heart and her lungs and clawed them down and out of her chest. “If you disregard something like this or someone like me, then you don’t deserve to call yourself a mastermind.”
“No,” Accord said. “No. You are trivial. The only impact you have made is that you’ve wasted far more time than you’re worth, tonight.”
“You’re making dangerous enemies, Accord,” she said.
“I move to remove her from the meeting.”
“Yes,” Detente said. “I would have been kinder about this, but- yes.”
No. She tried to think of something that would wound him. “You’ve lied to others, setting up deals you betrayed, and now you’re trying to set these people up too. You’ve been dealing with the local PRT, handing them others on a silver platter.”
“Jesus,” Rotten Apple said. “Stop.”
The light of the fire danced around everyone present, making shadows shift and masked faces become even more macabre than they were.
“You’re pathetic, Clockwork Dogs! You cling to order and being proper because you’re scared, deep down inside. Like a furtive little pair of rodents, you make deals and you betray and you narc to the heroes, and all you do is spin in place.”
He wasn’t even looking at her.
He was checking with the other groups. A nod here, a nod there.
Her voice rose, and she made it imperious, proud, convicted. It was the voice of a queen, and in a world that was right and just, it would slap them in the faces and they would kneel.
A hand touched her shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!” she slapped. Her power flared out.
It crackled, and it roared into the air- but that air was cool, and it was empty. No heat from the fire, no smoke, no light. A wave crashed against her legs and soaked the bottom portion of her dress.
She was standing in the water, so far down the beach that she could raise one hand and block out her view of the fire and the figures that surrounded it.
“Three or four times, she asked for permission. She was mindful, she was careful, she was smart. I gave you all the written testimony of the Patrol leader in charge and of the witnesses, and I’m pretty sure they agree with me on this. If every parahuman acted the way she did then, then we would not have a tenth the problems we do now.”
Victoria spoke with passion, with no paper to read from. She knew how to speak and how to hold herself.
Her mother was a lawyer. Ashley had heard that from Amy.
She could see it.
“With all due respect, Ms. Dallon,” the proctor that looked like a mortician said, “If all parahumans acted the way she did when she killed another parahuman, we would have half the number of parahumans. Some people out there might say that would be a good thing, I don’t know, but in my eyes and the eyes of my colleagues?”
“If this were a proper court and if the framework of these proceedings let us draw a thread through things, then any decent lawyer would be able to illustrate a long list of extenuating factors. Beast of Burden led a group of people that maim and kill as a matter of routine. We were in a situation with fire, more hostile powers than I could list, and bullets flying. This man, who has an established history of violence well past Gold Morning, threatened her, ground her into the dirt, and then struck her using enhanced strength. Anyone would be rattled.”
“Rattled would not be the word I would use for what written testimony spelled out here. A calm response, a pause that indicated consideration, and then the lethal blow.”
“To be a cape is theater,” Victoria said. “In that situation, she was threatened not just by Beast of Burden, but by the proximity of several violent capes. If she were surrounded by wolves, with one intending to tear her throat out, killing that one would not be enough. She would need to scare off or intimidate the others. To preserve her own well being on multiple fronts, she needed the theater. She needed to maintain her undercover role.”
“Wasn’t it a mistake to put her in that dangerous a position?” the woman with chin-hairs asked.
“Look at the field reports from the incidents. Mr. Troth can probably give you some comments on the matter, sharing what he knows about the Wardens’ response, but I can tell you that everyone thought that the situation would be smaller scale and easier to steer.”
“It was a clusterfuck,” the man in the Wardens uniform said.
“Yes, thank you,” Victoria said. She was so into the argument. “Top heroes, top law enforcement, lesser heroes, sole individuals, and the villains from Cedar Point that attacked the compound and set off the whole scenario. We didn’t think it would be that bad. Is some of that on my shoulders? Yes. Yes, and I would take a share of her punishment for my role in things.”
“I would too,” Tristan said. “I’m the de-facto leader of the team.”
“Co-leader,” Ashley whispered.
“That’s not how we operate,” the woman with the chin-hairs said.
“It bears repeating that this is not a proper court, Ms. Dallon. Capricorn. Our job is to handle her case and decide if it warrants the court’s attention. You paint a compelling argument, but the courts are the ones who should hear it and make the appropriate judgment.”
“They are, absolutely,” Victoria said, the words punctuated like she was using the span of the word ‘absolutely’ to give herself the time to construct a complete argument. She wasn’t letting up. It made Ashley almost want to laugh, to see it. “But you do have the responsibility of deciding the terms of her confinement while she awaits her turn at the court. She has cooperated at every turn, mitigating factors abound, and she is dependent on a tinker for the use of her hands. I would plead with you-”
Victoria paused, clasping her hands in front of her. She looked so serious.
“-Assign her house arrest. The same means and mechanisms that would keep her in an ordinary jail cell can be applied to a stay in her apartment in Stratford. She has a number of friends who would be more than happy to bring her groceries and see to it that she was comfortable. It would be a lower burden on the system with resources being as constrained as they are, and-”
Ashley looked down at her hands, clenching them together as much as their limited functionality allowed.
Victoria was such a simpleton. An imbecile. Such a feeble minded girl.
Ashley had given her that apartment. Now Victoria was trying to give it back.
“-and frankly, the options you’re considering would only increase the chance of conflict. I know her therapist would argue the same, if she were with us. It just makes sense.”
“Thank you, Ms. Dallon. To hear your impassioned arguments, I’d imagine you were Ms. Stillons’ counsel.”
Ashley glanced at her counsel. If only he’d been quite so impassioned. He’d been one to file the paperwork and smooth things along, dotting the ‘i’s and slashing the ‘Q’s
“I’ll take that as a compliment. Thank you, sir.”
“However, there are other people to hear. Mr… Chief Armstrong?”
Ashley saw Mr. Armstrong stand from the bench. He was a funny man, his head too wide at the top, his chin narrow. The beard he’d grown out helped.
Victoria, meanwhile, retreated to her seat behind Ashley, flashing an easy and almost convincing reassuring smile.
She got it, Ashley knew. Victoria understood it all, just as well as Ashley did. The there were monsters out there, and that the dark could get so dark that there was no hope of being able to see.
It was clear from the way Victoria held herself, how she made her arguments and picked her clothes: she understood the image and the theater, too. She understood that without both of those things, they had nothing at all.
Forty-seven or forty-eight underlings. Ages sixteen to twenty-five, for the most part, and a mix of cultural backgrounds. Many of them were streetwise, with knowledge of the underworld or the things to watch for. There were connections, and there was a buzz of gossip and slivers of rumor that could expand into something greater.
There were others with other skills. Something as simple as the confidence to drive a large truck could open doors and create opportunities. Even among young criminals, the ability to get in a fight in a hairy situation and not loose one’s cool was rare. To be able to throw a punch? It was essential.
The morning after the moot, eighteen remained, and four of those eighteen were mercenaries she was paying a premium for. Bar was gone, again, the cowardly fuck was content to help when all was going well and he disappeared the moment it wasn’t.
Angel being one of the people who didn’t arrive this morning hurt more.
She was sitting on the steps that led from the side door of the hotel to the parking lot. It wasn’t much of a distance, with only two stairs.
She didn’t like being out here like this, where people could see her be mundane and less than fully confident, but she liked the idea of being in the hotel room less. She didn’t like what it represented, or that her people were inside, giving her wary looks.
J hung back, leaning against the wall by the door, his phone out. O’Brien was also here, out by his car in the parking lot, his arm on the leg of a boy his age that was sitting on the hood of the car.
J being loyal made a degree of sense, but O’Brien staying was a surprise in much the same way that Angel’s departure was.
She would rise triumphant and she would claim Boston. She would remove underlings from beneath the leaders of each group, set them against each other, and then she would go after each one in turn. She would make them piss themselves and then sit in the piss. She would have them lick the undersides of her boots after she had walked through gravel, and use their tongues to work the gravel free where it was wedged into the lines of the sole.
And, as part of that plan, she would reward the loyalty. She would have to spend more time with O’Brien, to know the kinds of things he liked so she could bestow the right gift. She knew the kinds of things J liked, but it would be tricky to get those things when J was the person she would usually send to make purchases.
“We could hire more mercenaries. We pull a few jobs, it would draw people in,” J said.
She shook her head.
“Taking a few days off could be healthy,” he said. “Rest, recoup, let people remember that they want to earn money, let them come crawling back.”
“Crawling back is a good turn of phrase, but no,” Ashley said. She stood from the stair and brushed herself off. O’Brien perked up, dropping his hand from the boy’s leg. Ready to join her and take orders.
She raised her hand, motioning for-
Her power flickered.
-for him to stay. He relaxed, leaning against the car and the boy that sat on the car.
“We could make an example of one of those cretins that left,” J said.
“No we couldn’t,” Ashley said. “And you’re trying to cheer me up by talking like that.”
“Is it working?” he asked.
“No, but try again later. Let me pretend I’m corrupting you. I’m going to go for a short walk. I have an idea of what I need to do.”
“Plans are good.”
“Look after things. Tidy up. If this goes well, I want to be ready to have people gather and give them a job.”
“On it,” J said.
“Give me your phone,” she said.
“You don’t use phones,” he said.
“Not often. Your phone.”
He handed it over. He used the keycard to let himself into the hotel, where he would do his tidying and get ready for a potential job.
Though she had no idea what that job would be. There was a good chance that there wasn’t one. She would have to improvise if there wasn’t.
She handled the phone with care. It would be too easy for her power to destroy it.
The hotel wasn’t far from the water, and a band of trees and grass separated the hotel’s parking lot from the water below. She made her way into the trees and toward the nearest spot she could find to sit down.
She kicked off one shoe, and she sat with her hands at her side, the phone on the slope of a rock with its long side against one of her feet. Her other foot crossed over, second toe pulled under the big toe.
“Operator speaking. How many I help you?”
“Could you connect me to the Boston PRT?”
There was a pause.
“Front desk at the first Boston PRT Department building. How may I help you?”
“I would like to speak to Director Armstrong. It’s- Ashley. He’s expecting my call.”
“One moment, please.”
Ashley stared up at the branches of the trees.
“Would this be Ms. Stillons?”
“Don’t get your hopes up or anything. I’m calling because of business.”
“I heard what happened at the moot. There are dangerous individuals edging into your territory.”
“I’m more dangerous than they are, Armstrong. Don’t try to scare me or manipulate me.”
“There are a lot of things I would like to talk to you about, Ashley, now that I have you on the phone. Licit raised some of them, but-”
“Licit can eat fecal matter for all I care,” Ashley said. “And Edict can lick the plate. Or the other way around, for all I care. They’re oversized maggots and you’re the bloated fly that put them in front of me.”
“Evocative. I won’t bring them up, then. How about that?”
“Licit said you had information about the Clockwork Dogs. It’s clear that they’re taking a lot of power and pulling strings.”
“Yes,” Armstrong said. There was a noticeable change in tone. He was guarded. Was he going to change his mind now? “Yes. They’re one of three major players who are pulling the strings.”
“We have a mutual interest in removing them from the picture.”
“I wouldn’t phrase it quite that way.”
“They’re dangerous and they’re deranged. If you wimp out on me now I will find you and I will find heretofore undiscovered ways to end your existence.”
“If only I could recruit you, what a shame,” he said. Then his tone changed, more serious. “I could tell you things, but they’re not the sort of thing that would help you against them.”
“Then why do you exist? You’re useless.”
“Listen,” he said. He was serious. “Damsel of Distress. Accord has and is leveraging some very, very powerful help.”
“How do I put this? Some of this is classified, and there’s information I can’t give you. Accord’s power made him very valuable to people who are playing on a level on par with the PRT, understand? I can’t tell you who they are, but Detente is one of them. He’s a powerful individual from halfway across the planet, and as far as we can tell, someone sent this guy to Accord to help establish him in Boston. Detente is liable to disappear or fake his own death. He’s been going back and forth between his roles.”
Ashley shifted position. She sat on the soil, sand, and the scattered leaves and leaned back against the rock. The phone sat on the rock, near her ear.
“You cannot touch that man. You will end up face to face with those people who were this eager to establish a working relationship with him and powerful enough”
“I’m not scared,” she said.
“You have other reasons to be concerned. There’s more to it- I would want to talk to you face to face to explain it.”
“Ah, there’s the trap. You craven, sad man. So predictable.”
“Damsel,” he said. “Damn it. Do you want revenge?”
“Yes. You are on that list, Director Armstrong, just so you know.”
“Do you want revenge against Accord?”
She stared up at the branches. Her hand reached, positioned as if it could grab a branch two dozen feet away, and closed around air. Her power crackled, and the phone crackled in response.
“Are you there?”
“I want revenge against Accord.”
“Join my Wards program. You would have powered allies, some really genuinely great people. You’d be in Boston, where you could work against Accord, and as part of the PRT, you would have some insulation against Accord’s backers.”
She brought her knees up, and she pressed her forehead against them.
“We could send him to prison. Maybe even the Birdcage. He would be so miserable there. That would be the ultimate revenge, I think.”
“You have very little imagination, then. No dismemberment? No glass or fun uses of household chemicals?”
“You’re in danger, Damsel,” Armstrong said, his voice very serious as it came through the speaker.
“Tell me something I don’t know. I’m always in danger, because danger breeds more danger and I’m dangerous. That’s being a cape.”
“Are you alone? I hear water and rustling leaves.”
“I’m alone,” she said. She didn’t hear water and rustling leaves.
Maybe he was tracking the phone’s location. Such a worm of a man.
“Accord is tracking you with powers. Maybe you could take it as a compliment, that he is and was concerned about you, but you’re unpredictable and he hates the unpredictable.”
“Let him come. I’ll destroy him or whoever he sends.”
“My concern, Damsel, is that he knows you could be dangerous if you’re given a chance and he won’t give you that chance. It will be a bullet from a rooftop you can’t see. He’s a problem solver and he can coordinate attacks with great precision.”
“Thank you for the warning,” she said. “I’ll keep an eye out for trouble.”
She mashed her fingers on the phone’s keypad to hit the ‘disconnect’ button. It was fifty-fifty odds as to whether her touch would destroy the phone.
Did she believe him?
Yeah. If she read between the lines, it made a great deal of sense. He lied and he twisted the truth, and he probably convinced himself it was for her own good.
But she wasn’t stupid.
She picked up the phone with care, and she made her way up the slope to the parking lot. O’Brien wasn’t by the car, but his friend was.
Do your best, Accord, she thought. I’m not that easy to deal with.
She had to walk around to the front of the hotel. She wondered if they were paid by Accord. It was hardly discreet, and she was easy to recognize.
She wanted to go cold, to crush her feelings and press them deep down inside. What she’d feared had come to pass.
The door was unlocked and left ajar. She pushed it open with her toe.
J was at his computer, looking at websites. As he changed windows, a map of Boston with the territories appeared on it. Useful stuff.
“Welcome back,” he said. “Mission success?”
“Kind of. I know how to get him.”
“You do? Just like that?” J asked.
“Yeah,” she said. She walked around the bed, and she gave J his phone.
She watched as his expression changed. To an extent, he knew her as much as anyone could know someone after nearly three weeks together. But he didn’t live with having the hands she did. For him, the consideration of where her hands went and why wasn’t something he had to work out every moment.
When she pressed the phone into his hand, her hand lingered, a dangerously close distance to his.
He pulled away, and she caught his hand, holding it and the phone both. Her power flickered along her knuckles, but it didn’t touch him. He froze, seeing it.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Accord is using powers to watch me? He could kill me at any time, I’m told. But if I’m a problem and Accord is capable, why hasn’t he done it already?”
J stared at her, a hint of fear in his eyes.
“Because he thinks he can manipulate me,” she spoke in a low whisper. “He can make the unpredictable predictable, this way.”
He tried to pull away, and she held on. She whispered, “Don’t. I might involuntarily use my power. We’ve been so careful, it would be a shame if something happened to you now.”
He spoke, “They’re manipulating you. They know how you work and think and they’re using it to fuck with you.”
She reached out and she touched his face. He flinched, and the fear in his eyes was real.
It was her first time touching him with her hands, instead of being touched.
“What’s the power?” she asked. “Figuring me out? Something else?”
J shook his head.
“What’s your real name? How long have you been doing this?”
“It’s J. I’m on your side, Ashley,” J said.
“What do they call you? Do you have a cape name?”
He pulled his hand and phone away from her hand. Her power arced out, a band only a foot long, stretching and wiggling through the air.
“Hnnnnng!” He grabbed the ruined stump of an arm.
“I did warn you not to pull. What was your goal!? What were you going to manipulate me to do!?”
“I’m not- I wasn’t-”
“Stop lying!” she shouted.
O’Brien appeared in the doorway.
“Help,” J said, but it sounded more like ‘hep’, with his voice being strained as it was. He tried to stand, and she pushed him down, and her power took the top corner off of his shoulder, where it was attached to his still-intact arm.
She grabbed his arm and she used her power, clinging to the cold and the agitation that had snuck up on her amid the rush of adrenaline and the crush of emotions she wasn’t ready to feel or embrace.
“Just run, O’Brien,” she said. “Go. Be happy and treat your boyfriend right, and don’t mention this to anyone.”
She looked, and he was gone. She wasn’t sure he’d heard.
She hoped he would be okay. She hoped he would keep his mouth shut, for his sake.
“Talk to me, J,” she said. Her eyes widened, a smile touching her face. Agitation thrummed through her and made her feel just a little bit drunk. “That’s an order, and I’m supposed to be the boss.”
J shook his head. He was sweating so much that it looked like there was more sweat than blood. Except there really wasn’t. The shadows of the desk and the bed hid some of the growing puddle.
“Armstrong didn’t want to tell me because he was worried this would happen,” Ashley whispered. “Eliminating you will upset Accord. That’s as good as I’m going to get for now. I can’t go after him.”
J opened his mouth, but no sound came out except a squeal.
“Yeah,” she said. “I don’t have the fight in me. I’m a warlord at heart, but things never go according to plan.”
“You will never,” J said. His expression twisted with pain, and he bent forward.
She heard the tone of his voice. The words. She told herself that the J she’d known was too kind and too cool to say that, even with grievous wounds.
One point for me, she thought.
No, she deserved to be greedy. Ten points.
“Never… Another… Me. Never. This.”
“You’re not making sense anymore, J,” she said, even though she fully understood his meaning.
It was all she could do not to wipe him from existence. She had to hold back, because- because it would be too easy to destroy him.
She took his legs with a sweep of twisted darkness.
Then she watched, and she waited.
Not fast, like her dad had been. Her mother.
Fast was too kind, if he deserved it. If that five percent of her that doubted this was right, then he deserved the chance to say something that would hurt her and stay with her.
He was silent, but for pained breaths and grunts.
When she was sure it was done, she used her power on the hotel room. She was aggressive, and she was thorough, and coldness became something desperate and mad as she eliminated every trace of evidence, turning blood pools into splinters. She picked her way through it, blasting anything that was recognizable.
In the midst of it, she found one oblong bit of condensed matter. Dense, twisted in space and time until only a kernel remained, while the kernel in her breast had unfolded into something that scared her and fluttered in her chest.
And then, because she was sure police or heroes would be on the way, she ran. No things but what she wore. No bag, no books.
Her thoughts were a blur and her feelings were worse, too smeared and stained to be make sense of.
She was ready to leave Boston.
She was ready to go until she saw the giant wading through the water, as it had done the day prior.
Ashley changed direction.
Judgment was hard and judging time was harder. The giant was like a building in the distance that she kept closing the distance to, where she could have told herself she would be there in five minutes. Five minutes later, she would be saying much the same thing.
Forty-seven or forty-eight employees had worked under her. Then there had been eighteen. Fourteen if she didn’t count the mercenaries.
Then thirteen, because O’Brien had run.
Then twelve. Of those twelve, some had likely arrived, heard the news, and they wouldn’t have turned up tomorrow.
O’Brien would communicate to the ones who remained. They wouldn’t show up to look for her. As the decisions were made, the imaginary ticker of people in her employ would dwindle to nothing. It might have been inevitable.
Eight, and then seven.
Six, and then five, four employees. They left. Had they been hers or had it been convenience?
She got close enough to the giant to see its scale.
She scaled the side of it like she’d scaled the building face, on the evening the giant had first appeared. With reckless, haphazard blasts, feet scrambling for footing and legs working to keep her more or less upright.
The tentacles unfolded. They didn’t move fast, but as they slapped against the upper body of the giant, they shook the mossy skin and a shower of dust and debris rained down on her. It stuck to the spatters and gobbets of blood that her power hadn’t erased from her hands and arms.
Her emotions were twisted, now. As she climbed, working her way to a height well above the building face she had scaled, a false, excited joy swelled in her breast, at odds with where her heart was.
Three, then two. Who would be among the last to truly abandon her and lose faith? Had there been any faces in that crowd who had liked everything about her, who would hold out a hope that she would turn up and that things could resume? One person that she hadn’t talked to enough?
This was as close as she’d ever gotten and J might well have been right in suggesting she would never get there again.
She wanted to feel something and she felt no connection to the feelings in her chest. They didn’t count at all.
She reached the neck and the head, and she blasted. The blast sent her skidding along the stone-like, mossy hide of the giant. The blast tore, ripped, cracked, and annihilated, but of all the things she had blasted, it was the most durable. Remnants remained, condensed and twisted. More than she had ever seen. She found a ridge and stuck her foot out, stopping herself.
Tentacles reached up and the sky seemed to darken as they loomed above her.
They came down atop the beast, as if it had no regard for its own well being. The thing’s hide was tough enough that the wood-like tentacles didn’t hurt anything, but where she had cracked and destroyed, the impacts broke things further.
It struck again, tentacles scraping, and she vaulted herself into the air with another shot. The thing lurched- no longer under her, and she used another shot to reorient. She crashed in the ragged, ruined section of neck.
Here, she had footing. Here, she could blast without worrying about sliding off.
She blasted. Again and again, condensing, destroying, thinning out. She tore apart a mountain one shot at a time. Tentacles reached overhead, and swept over the exterior, but only one reached into the crevice. She blasted at it until it was no longer there.
The material around her creaked, wood that was so stone-like it might have been petrified, and she saw the cracks widen as the thing’s own weight worked against it.
Tentacles stopped reaching for her. She heard water splash.
Slowly but steadily, the damage she’d done began to fill in. The thing was healing moment by moment.
She could have escaped, gone up, gotten out and then down.
She threw herself further down with a furious, intense despair, suffocated with emotion that didn’t feel like it was hers.
The way out closed up above her.
She carved her way deeper into the monster, giving chase to a heart that wasn’t there. There was only structure.
One. One remained, she told herself.
At her peak she had forty-seven or forty-eight. Now… one.
Again, material creaked and cracked. The structural damage spread to the area around her, to the front and back chest walls of the giant, and then, with a deafening sound, it soared skyward, up to the giant’s shoulder, where she had made her entrance. What had healed wasn’t as strong as the rest, and a certain amount of strength was needed to hold it all together.
There was something deeply wrong with her. She knew that.
But she couldn’t go to the heroes. Not now, even if she’d allowed herself to consider it for a moment.
The giant split, stumbling, and the crack in the wall became a gap.
She hurled herself out in the opposite way the giant was falling. It crashed into buildings by the water and into the water itself, the water it had been drinking to reinforce its own body. She-
She soared through the air. She fell, bloodied arms out to either side, her hair flew around her, her dress was partially in tatters because the use of her powers had caught the bottom edge a few too many times.
One. One last person in her group.
She’d needed to reaffirm that faith. To leave some impact.
A use of her power interrupted and slowed her downward velocity, but saw her spin through the air, blasting once, then twice, in an attempt to correct her angle and cancel out her velocity.
She landed, and she landed hard, tumbling. Something popped in her hand with a jolt that she felt in her belly, and pain followed.
In the background, the giant was stumbling, the structural damage cascading. Much of it dropped into the water.
The pain in her hand expanded with every heartbeat.
“Ow,” she mewled the word, and she hated the sound. A sixteen year old shouldn’t sound that young and small, she knew. Moisture welled in her eyes, and she tried to blink it away. She hadn’t cried three years ago. She wasn’t supposed to start now.
One hand gently holding the injured one, she limped away from the scene.
There was, at least, a grim satisfaction to it.
She’d told Blasto to keep it out of Deathchester, and it was her territory until she left it.
This would have to do, for the leaving end of things.