A droplet of blood fell from Capricorn’s gauntlet. Amid the patchwork of glare and deep shadow that illuminated the prison, this droplet fell while he jogged through the light. I was hyperalert enough that it caught my eye, and it struck enough nerves to stay with me for far too long after the fact.
I was flying, which gave me some ability to twist around and rotate in the air. I’d been glancing to one side, checking our flank, but in the aftermath of seeing that droplet, I found myself flying backward, looking back toward the group rather than out ahead of us. It took Sveta meeting my eyes and a few simultaneous glances from the others to bring me back to reality.
Weird that she was talking to Rain like she was. Did I need to worry? I felt like Capricorn and I were more on the same page-
Worrisome given the blood and the flare of temper. Me back at the hideout. Him just now, with that Teachered Officer.
-But Rain and Sveta seemed a lot cooler about Goddess, and the protocols of proper caping were far less ingrained in them.
Tristan was talking to them about Goddess. About trusting protocols. The blind led the blind.
I wanted my own blind self to join in, but I didn’t trust myself to string coherent thoughts together.
Battle mode, Victoria.
Thinking about the ingrained things helped.
How many nights had the teenaged me gone out in costume? White costume with the dress and the skintight shorts beneath for modesty, gloves, knee-high boots, short cape, my tiara with its spikes radiating out. That was physical. I’d stretch, check on any injuries from the night before, adjusting my costume to cover any hints that I wasn’t invulnerable, and then I’d be out the door, running first and then flying. All of that was the physical, the external.
Internally, it was excitement, anticipation, reminding myself of all of Mom’s little tricks about how to present oneself when out in costume. I would be thinking about the recent crime maps, the online listings of last known sightings by villains, and mom and dad’s rules for my costumed activities.
The lines blurred at times, but it was very much a role I wrapped around myself, past and present. A mode.
It hadn’t been that long ago that hands tattooed in red, black, and gold reached out for me in a place I’d thought safe and mine. I was shaken. I remained shaken enough that a droplet of red threatened to bring me back to that wretched place where Sveta had been forced to grab me and stop me.
But routine left its- its scars, I supposed, even though I didn’t think of them as bad scars. It wasn’t just the bad experiences that left their mark. A route walked through the wilderness enough times became a dirt path, a scar through nature. Cities were harder to alter, but a cape or team of capes making an area part of their regular routine changed that area. A pair of gloves and knee-high boots could be washed and worn enough times that they came to fit perfectly. Scars and marks, impressions. Impressions had been the idea I’d been searching for, and I was glad to have it.
I had to be able to do this. I had to find that worn path, that image that I could wear as comfortably as any pair of gloves. I had to be able to settle into that mindset.
Any alternative to being functional was not okay. Not for right this moment, with so many people counting on us. Not for the long term, when it meant I might have nothing at all in the aftermath.
There were too many Welds, Crystals, Vistas and Major Malfunctions out there. Too many Jaspers, Gilpatricks, Yamadas, Natalies, and Darnalls.
A droplet of red, blood red fingers.
I pushed the image out of my head. There was a desperate edge to my thoughts as I forced myself back on track. Into that well-trodden mindset.
The head office of the prison and many of the administration buildings were toward the south end of the complex, with the yard situated at the middle-south, minimizing travel time from any of the cell block apartments. Those in the higher security cells to the north had to walk further, but I had to imagine they didn’t get yard time or they got less. Either way, we had two options, only one of which was a good option. The bad option was to head south, loop around the bottom, and make our way to the women’s half of the prison. That route put us closer to the prison entrance, where Lung currently was.
We would have to deal with that, with him, but not now. I was happy procrastinating on that particular encounter.
“Rain!” I heard the voice. It was higher, but it was from the guy’s side of the prison. “Crystalclear.”
The voice came from one of the apartment buildings near Rain’s. I flew up for a better view, and saw the man at the window. He was heavy, with the kind of double chin that hung over his collarbone. He had wiry stubble, and there wasn’t much helping to distinguish the end of the facial hair and the start of body hair. His hair was short and uneven, and it was greasy, which made the uneven spikes that much more noticeable.
Most notable was his mouth. He looked like he had chewed on an ink packet. His teeth were yellow-white, but the spaces between them, the lines around his mouth and his tongue were all black.
“…and a villainess? Heroine?”
He gave me an up-down look that made my skin crawl. Still staring at me, he called down. “How are you out, boys? What’s this commotion about? I’m offended you interrupted my motherfucking meal, and I’m more offended you’re running around with two legs.”
“Special dispensation, since we used to be heroes,” Rain said. “Two masters are fighting over who gets to take over the prison, deactivate the ankle bombs and recruit everyone inside.”
“Yeah? Are we hoping they win?”
“One of them, maybe,” Rain said.
“Neither of them,” Crystalclear said, loud enough to be heard from the second floor. At a more regular volume, he said, “I think your judgment isn’t that good right now, Rain.”
“Neither,” I echoed Crystalclear, not sure I sounded like I believed it.
Crystalclear moved his arm, pointing, and Coalbelcher leaned over the railing to see him better. While the prison boss wasn’t looking, I gave Cyrstalclear a slight nod.
The others hurried on their way. I saw Coalbelcher practically twitch, seeing them leave without a goodbye. He was the boss of the men’s side, and he’d been ignored.
I could afford to stay. I had to think about the future, consider options. If we pissed this guy off, we could win today and see Rain suffer for it tomorrow. “They have to run. Time’s critical, and the guards are coming. We don’t know which of them we can trust.”
“Hm. I could be useful there. What do ya think about getting me some of that special dispensation?” Coalbelcher asked. He licked his fingers, then smudged the black spit around one eye. It looked more like grainy black paint than anything.
“I have trouble believing you were a hero,” I said.
His fingers dragged slowly down one cheek, smearing black there. Between the black eye socket and the cheek, it was the initial steps toward a skull face.
“A lot of trouble,” I said. “If you try to leave, they’ll take your leg. Sorry.”
“You sure? I said I can be useful, and I see fires over there,” he said. He pointed in the direction of the prison entrance. There was a diffuse orange glow. “I love fire. Maybe I save lives if that gets out of control.”
With guys like this, it was all about respect. It was hard, though, when nothing about his appearance merited it, and his vaguely lecherous approach shattered what little I was able to sum up. Still… “Our old teammate talked you up. He said you were the guy in charge, and we could use some of that to keep the prisoners under control if things get hairy. Would if I could, Coalbelcher.”
“Find a way, yeh?”
That kind of order felt vaguely like a threat. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I simply nodded, then flew after the others.
A part of me had hoped for reasonable from the guy. I wasn’t sure if I’d made anything better, but I wasn’t sure I’d made it any worse either. Rain and Crystalclear running without saying goodbye had put the guy in a worse mood, but I wasn’t sure anything short of being part of the action would have put him in a good mood. I’d tried, I’d left a door open.
It would have to do.
Rain had used his blades to cut through the fence and the wall separating the two halves of the prison, and the group was through. Halogen lights were on and being manually operated, and the lights roved across the prison complex. I saw one start to move in the direction of the group and the hole in the wall,and I flew in that direction to intercept. If they had rifles-
The light stopped moving, then turned in the direction of the front gate, panning over the empty yard, over a group of officers who were hunkered down by a building, and then casting a light on the distant scene where, presumably, Lung was engaged in a fight.
I flew closer, just to double check it wouldn’t spin around, and I saw Sveta perched on the fence by the light. I stopped short when I saw the disjointed tentacles poised around her.
“It’s okay,” she said. My eyes were adjusting to the gloom, but the adjustment to seeing her face was helped by the fact her face was as pale as it was. I could see the black tendrils at her face and around her battle damage. “These are courtesy of Rain.”
It was what he’d been talking to her about on the ground.
The ‘tentacles’ were arm segments, repeated over and over. Black tendrils snaked through the connecting mesh, but didn’t snake out, which was the important part.
“Is it fragile?” I asked.
“Are you okay with it?”
“I want to be useful. I don’t have to be human-shaped.”
“You want to be human shaped.”
“Yeah. I guess that’s something Sveta gets, but Tress will have to put it off if she wants to operate at her best,” she said. She stood up straighter, moving the prosthetic tentacles in the weird, stilted way that I’d seen her walk when I’d first seen her at the group therapy session. She braced herself against the platform, then moved the tentacle down to the catwalk at the searchlight tower’s edge. She grabbed an officer and pulled him along the grating that was the catwalk floor, where the glow from the spotlight illuminated him. He was as young as either Tress or I, black, wearing a uniform. An earring glinted at his ear. “Can you check his cuffs for me?”
I did. One was loose. I tightened it.
“You’re unhurt?” I asked the officer.
I could see his nostrils flare, his lips pressed into a line. He glared up at me.
“Situation normal’s all fucked up. We’re here to help, really.”
This wasn’t being a hero in a neighborhood, even a hostile neighborhood like Hollow Point or the worst areas of Brockton Bay. We were invaders, people who didn’t belong. Whether it was guard or prisoner, we had few people we could count as true allies.
I met Tress’ eyes. She nodded.
We left the tower, heading in the direction the others had gone. Capricorn was leading the way to Ashley’s cell, the projector compass in hand.
Not that it was necessary. I’d been before.
As I flew closer, I could see the pair of Swansong and Damsel at the balcony. both wore the prison-provided coveralls, but Swansong wore a white undershirt or camisole under hers, the front left open. Damsel wore only a black sleeveless top, her coveralls tied at the waist. Fitting those claws through the sleeves would be very difficult. They gripped the railing, metal blades long enough for her to scratch her toes without bending over, a thin, ripped webwork of skin stretched over them.
It was only Swansong who hopped down from the balcony. Her blast interrupted her descent, and interrupted many of the shouts and calls from the woman inmates at the other doorways and balconies.
Swansong was as elegant as her raw, crude detonations of darkness and warped space were violent. At the same time, I could see the tension in Damsel as she looked down at us, claws gripping metal railing, her eyes wild. She looked like she could barely resist jumping down as well.
Capricorn and I were the first at the scene, as Tress dropped down to Rain’s side, touching one of her new parts.
It was Tristan and Byron, Swansong with Damsel looking down, and then myself. Our halves removed by one step, one way or another.
“Your… sister?” Capricorn asked.
“She’s stuck where she is,” Damsel said, referring to herself in the third person. She didn’t look like she could sit still, her claws moving, metal scraping metal.
“I could come. We’re on the same side,” Damsel made it sound like she was being intentionally insincere.
I met Swansong’s eyes.
“She watched the meeting with Goddess,” Swansong said, as if that summed it up. She tilted her head to one side. “Where are Cryptid and Lookout?”
“Lookout is with Goddess,” I said.
Swansong’s stare was level. Again, that curious stillness.
“Your little friend is in good hands,” Damsel commented from above. She smiled.
Everything in her micro-expressions was different. The degree to which she fractionally widened and narrowed her eyes in the course of a single sentence, the slight movements of her bladed hands, as if to create implications as she said ‘hands’, the intonations. All of it was keyed in a way that suggested an implicit threat or imminent action, like she was coiled up and ready to… blast with her power or lash out.
This wasn’t the Ashley I’d come to know. This was the Ashley I could imagine working with the Slaughterhouse Nine.
“Is she safe?” Swansong asked.
“She’s-” I started to answer. “She’s with Goddess.”
Swansong nodded, “And Cryptid?”
“Cryptid left. On an errand for Goddess with my sister.”
“He’s being more Cryptid-like than usual today,” Tristan observed.
“Of course he is,” Swansong said. She glanced at me. “Your sister?”
All around us, prisoners were noticing the scene. Women’s voices were raised. Pleading to be let out, threatening, commenting. Less lewd than the guys’ side had been, but there was still lewdness.
My skin crawled at the thought of Amy. My heart raced like I was only a step away from attacking Amy again, yet she wasn’t anywhere near here, and I wasn’t that angry in the moment.
“The less said the better,” I answered her, as diplomatically as I could.
“Then I won’t say anything.”
Rain and Tress caught up.
“Those are my arms,” Swansong said.
“What?” Tristan asked.
She pointed at Tress’s new addition. The black wire mesh connected individual cylinders… pale shells that would have once been parts of Swansong’s arms.
“Uh, yeah,” Rain said. “I wanted to do something more practical when we thought things were getting bad. I made a few prototype versions of your arms. With levers, switches, and wires inside, like the snapshots Lookout took of the inside of Tress’ suit.”
“Sneaky,” Damsel called out, smiling.
“There’s a limit to what I can do with your hands without leaving you worse off,” Rain sounded apologetic as he explained to Swansong. “And I had a few days where my tinker power was working better. Not that that is very tinkered up. Half and half.”
“It’s fine,” Swansong said. “If you’re going to use anyone’s arms as a model, you at least used tasteful ones.”
“I appreciate the thought,” Tress said. “And thank you, Swansong, for being okay with the use of your arms.”
“Your hands are okay?” he asked Swansong. “They’re working fine?”
“They’re sufficient for tonight, thank you. Let’s focus on Lookout and the prison, not me.”
“We have one more person to grab,” Crystalclear said.
Tristan held up the compass.
“I’ll get her,” Crystalclear said. “You catch your teammate up.”
He wants to tell her that we’re Goddessed.
That was fine.
Capricorn clapped his gauntlets together. I didn’t miss the flash of dark red across the back of one gauntlet. He spoke with authority and confidence, “Then let’s talk goals. Goddess, Lookout and Natalie are after the assistant Warden and the Wardens Teacher co-opted. Lung and Teacher’s soldiers are at the front and are presumably after Goddess. Prisoners are staying put, but we’re in a weird place right now.”
“Weird how?” Rain asked.
“It’s about confidence and doubt,” I said. “Prisoners could riot or test their ankle bombs if they get too agitated or overconfident, and that leads to either casualties or an unsalvageable situation. They could betray us if they think this situation doesn’t work out for them, you never know with all the powers we have around us. Officers don’t know who to trust, but they could start shooting people or people with the power could start detonating bombs if they panic.”
“That’s without getting into Teacher and Goddess,” Capricorn said.
“Or us,” Tress said.
“Or us,” he conceded.
I looked away, back toward where the fighting was worst. The fires extended from the hole Goddess had put in the wall to a nearby administration building.
“We support Goddess first,” Swansong said. “Get Lookout, get Natalie, get control of the situation. All four of those things are tied into one another.”
“I don’t entirely disagree,” Capricorn said, “But Goddess is complicated. Do you know what master-stranger protocols are?”
“No,” Swansong said.
“It sounds like the kind of thing the annoying Protectorate mooks would use,” Damsel threw out her remark from a distance, as if it was an extension of Swansong’s ‘no’.
“It is,” I said, my voice firm. “But let’s settle for saying that the situation is complicated. The nicest way I can think of framing it is that if we help her too blatantly, we hurt ourselves in the long run.”
“Why do we care? Deal with tomorrow when it comes. I know at least two of us are clever enough to come up with something,” Damsel remarked.
I wondered if we could or should just walk away. If we weren’t waiting for Crystalclear to catch up with us again…
“Maybe we think of it as a question of reputation,” Swansong said. “If we appear to be too subservient…”
“Mm,” Damsel made a sound.
“Mm,” Swansong echoed her. She glanced at me and rolled her eyes slightly.
“I don’t really care about status,” Rain said. “I want people to be okay, and… I want us to be okay too. I’m here for a reason, and I don’t want that to get flipped upside-down or screwed up along the way. I know that’s a crummy thing to prioritize when there are higher priorities, like people’s safety, Goddess, keeping the peace, and keeping Teacher from becoming the most powerful man on all the earths.”
“If he isn’t already,” Tress’s expression and tone were dark.
“It makes sense to go to Goddess,” Swansong said.
“It makes sense to split up,” Crystalclear said, as he rejoined us. “We have other issues.”
He’d returned from the apartment with the other undercover member of Foresight. The girl was short, her uniform not really fitting her, and she had improvised a mask of several pieces of paper and tape, several sheets forming a cone that encapsulated her face, with holes for the eyes that had pen scribbles surrounding each hole, darkening the perimeters. Sheets of paper were connected at one corner each to form ears at the sides of her head.
“Ratcatcher, meet Breakthrough,” Crystalclear said.
“I’ve theen thome of them around,” she said. “Thveta and I talked thome before I came.”
“Tell them what you told me.”
“A little friend of mine thayth that Teacher ith in the tunnelth beneath uth,” she said. She pronounced Teacher like ‘tee-shirt’ with a silent t at the end, and little like ‘liddle’.
“What’s in the tunnels?” Rain asked.
“Networking,” she said. She raised one leg, tapping the bomb. “Control and everything that goeth out of the prithon.”
“He’s turning to his backup plans,” I said. “We de-fanged the Warden and deputy Warden, the assistant Warden is on our side. The person with the control of the portals and the bombs effectively has control of the prisoner population.”
There was a detonation near the front of the prison. I saw the flame leap high.
“Fuck,” Crystalclear swore. “That fire is painful to look at with my senses being what they are.”
The fire. Purple flame.
I could connect the dots, even if it was a little belated. Multiple dots, now that I thought about it. Multi-layered plans and contingencies.
We were fighting a mastermind after all.
“He paired Lung and the Pharmacist,” I voiced my thought aloud.
“Who and who?” Ratcatcher asked.
“Teacher picked a mercenary tag-team who want to level the prison just as much as Goddess does. If we don’t want people to get hurt, then we’re going to need to step in. Lung is… an old enemy. Since half my life ago, about.”
“You know him?” Crystalclear asked.
“Yeah. More or less.”
“You handle that then, if you’re comfortable. I’ll go with Ratcatcher to the access tunnels.”
“We could use a thinker and a level head,” I said.
“I’m kind of under orders to be the level head for Ratcatcher, and I don’t want to go anywhere near that fire, in case I blow a mental fuse. I don’t think this is really negotiable,” Crystalclear said.
“Ugh,” Ratcatcher said.
Ugh is right. Crystalclear is just about the only person who isn’t Goddess influenced, who knows what’s going on.
“I can’t change your mind?” I asked.
“No,” Crystalclear said. “No, this is the network. It’s important.”
I connected to what he was thinking. The others, going by their faces, might not have.
The network. Possibly with the means of calling for help.
“Alright,” I said.
“You know the way, Rat?” Crystalclear asked.
“I do,” Ratcatcher said. “We’ll want more firepower. My friendth reported a few powerth.”
“Then I’ll come,” Tress said. “It’s- it has to be better than talking about master-stranger protocols and doubting myself or my teammates.”
“I’m still not sure I get those protocols,” Rain said. “But I’ll do what the team needs. Do you need wall-breaking power? Get past any secure doors?”
“No,” Ratcatcher said. “I can get through motht lockth quick. Or my friendth can.”
As if to punctuate that last statement, a mouse poked its head up from her prison uniform collar, followed by a much larger rat.
“You talk to rodents?” Rain asked.
“No. Not mush. Only crathy people talk to rodenth. But rodenth talk to me. Very different.”
“Handy,” Rain said.
“Yes. But we don’t need handy. We need firepower,” Ratcatcher said.
“Still?” Tristan asked.
“I’ll come,” Swansong said. “If the rest of you think you’ll be okay?”
The rest of us. Tristan, myself, and Rain.
“Why go?” Tristan asked.
“Because I trust myself more doing this than I do being near that.”
“Can you fight in tunnelth?” Ratcatcher asked.
Above, Damsel shook her head, as if it was already known.
“We’ll find out,” Swansong said, contradicting her ‘sister’. “But I know I’m very good at fighting brutes like Lung. Too good. I don’t want to put myself in that situation again, not this soon.”
“I… can’t argue with that,” Tress said.
“Take my phone,” Capricorn told Crystalclear. “We’ll stay in touch.”
As a quartet, Ratcatcher, Crystalclear, Swansong, and Tress hurried for a spot at the midpoint between three buildings. If there was an access hatch, I didn’t see it. Women looking down from balconies hurled obscenities, complained about the delays for their dinner, and shouted to each other, asking what was going on with us being down here and the fires at the gate.
It left Capricorn, Rain, and I as the strike squad. When we reunited with the others, we would have Goddess and Lookout. If there was anyone at the other side of the portal, then we could sure use them too.
But Lung was a problem.
And- I moved as Tristan took a step forward. My hand caught him right in the middle of the chest. He stopped here he was, me in front of him, hand against his chest.
Lung was a problem, but so was Tristan.
My hand moved down to his gauntlet. I grabbed it and lifted it. Had we been on the other side of the portal, the gauntlet would have been cleaned by the freezing rain. It wasn’t cleaned.
“I think we need Byron,” I said, moving his hand so the light highlighted where the blood was. “We can’t have you acting like you did with that guard.”
“He had something going on mentally. Wouldn’t stop,” Tristan said. “It wasn’t as uncontrolled as it looked. I was just trying to apply enough force to get him to stop.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that.
“You told me to rein you in. I’m reining. We need Byron.”
Tristan was still for a long moment.
Too long a moment. The fires were growing in the distance, and there was too much going on.
“No joking here, Tristan. Change.”
“You had to ask like that. Evoking the Tristan-Byron protocol?”
“If you ask, I’m switching,” he said. “Just- there’s no guarantee he’s on board.”
“We’ll trust him,” I told Tristan. “He recommended the protocols to me when he was clear and I wasn’t. I have to believe he’ll abide by them now.”
He nodded, and then he passed me the compass.
Dissolving into a blur, he shifted to become Byron. Lighter armor, in multiple senses of the word. No blood marked his gauntlet.
“Okay?” I asked. “We’re on the same page?”
“Master-stranger,” Byron answered.
We cut across the yard, with Rain using his power to slice through the fence. It looked like posts were now being abandoned because of the chaos at the front gate. Inmates were getting more agitated, and the guards weren’t at nearby towers or posts to tell them to shut it. People were heading to where the fires were, to put them out or put the causes of the fire down.
“Fill us in on Lung, since it looks like he’s our biggest problem,” Byron said.
“Lung is a changer, with powers hooked into the change,” I said.
“Like Cryptid?” Rain asked.
“Different than Cryptid. Lung changes to the same thing every time, slow progression, but a steady ramp-up the longer he’s in a fight. Metal armor, pyrokinesis, enhanced senses, physiology, quickness, added parts. He’s a warlord by temperament, but he was always missing something that let him take his gangs to the next level.”
“He has pyrokinesis?” Byron asked.
I nodded, content to let the scene that we were approaching serve as the more complete answer to Byron’s question. Fires, purple and otherwise, spread out across ground that should have been exhausted of all fuel sources. The heat was being turned up on the admin buildings and the entrance.
Teacher wasn’t the type to sic Lung on Goddess and expect a win. He was the type to sic the combination of a fireproof monster who manipulated fire and a person who set powers on fire on Goddess and expect a win.
Lung was already partially changed as we sighted him. He had enough scales that the officers who shot at him weren’t getting through, and he was big enough that the bullets that did make contact seemed to lack stopping power. Each couple of gunshots was answered by Lung throwing out a rolling wave of flames. The flames would travel a ways, hit one of the lingering purple flames on the ground, and then explode in size by three times. Whole squadrons of officers were sent running.
No Pharmacist to be seen. She was nearby, but it seemed to be the peeking-through-a-window nearby, not standing on the battlefield nearby.
No Blindside, no Kingdom Come.
Plenty of armed Teacher thralls.
Lung used his pyrokinesis, and purple flames swelled, billowing in his direction. The flames would draw close, then the Pharmacist would extinguish the flames closest to the brute of a man and his underlings.
Byron began drawing out blue motes. Rain created his silver scythes.
“Careful,” I murmured.
“Purple fire ignites powers,” Byron said. “I remember.”
His water splashed down on one of the worse blazes at the admin building. It had been the building where the Warden, his deputy and his assistant had all been set up.
It served to get Lung’s attention, pulling it away from Goddess and presumably Lookout.
“Dallon,” Lung growled the word. Still capable of speech. “Pests. Too many of you remain.”
They were hard words to hear put out there so casually. Words that made me think of Crystal’s family, of too many funerals in too short a span of time.
He moved one hand in an almost casual way, and the flames expanded, becoming a slow-motion, rolling detonation, with a sound like the thunder of a dozen lightning strikes. A lick of purple flame caught it and ignited the pyrokinesis itself, the purple disappearing in the rolls of blinding oranges and reds. Lung’s regular pyrokinesis manipulated those flames, in turn, expanding them.
No games, nothing held back. Only a wall of flame that could have swamped many houses and conventional buildings, produced in mere seconds. A ball passed between two people, growing with each toss, with us in the line of fire.
I saw it coming, braced myself, and activated the Wretch, positioning myself between the wall and my teammates.
For a moment, an eye-blink, I saw the Wretch outlined.
Byron had bent his head down, armored arm shielding his eyes. Rain was the one who seemed to suffer the most from the ambient heat, with no shield or barrier to protect him.
“Go,” I told him, indicating.
He bolted for the building. I saw Lung move, drawing a hand back with flame appearing in the palm. I pushed out with my aura, taking flight, with every intent of interrupting his throw.
A fast-moving spark struck the Wretch, leaving me without my defenses. Another hit me dead center in the breastplate, making me sag in the air as my body was momentarily paralyzed, my heart skipping a beat with the intensity of the shock.
Other shots were aimed at Byron, who seemed to endure, and at Rain, who didn’t. I saw Rain fall where Byron and I had withstood the hits, not making it to the door into the admin building before the momentary paralysis gripped him.
“Go,” Byron said.
I flew in Rain’s direction, while Byron stopped using his water to put out fires and started using it to get at Lung from oblique angles. Here and there, the water caught purple flames, and became gouts of the stuff. Wherever she was, the fires extinguished before they reached Lung.
If he was immune to it, there was no reason to continually extinguish it. It was very possible that the Pharmacist’s fire could ignite Lung’s fire immunity. But she had eyes on the situation, and she was keeping him safe from her power, while he thrived in an environment where fire and heat were so ready at hand.
Lung ignored Byron’s water, ignited or no, and threw out flame, walling off my access to Rain.
In the midst of it, I saw Rain using one of his lesser-used powers. I could see it only because I saw the purple sparks and the lesser purple flames in the grass swell.
Reinforcements had to be on the way. Crystalclear was working on it in the access tunnels. We had Cryptid on the far side. We had- fuck me, we had my sister, of all people. The people we’d lined up on the far side to delay Teacher were no doubt regrouping.
We had to survive long enough for help to come, while keeping the monsters like Lung from doing any real, lasting damage. If we could do that, then our lesser sins might be forgiven or looked past. The harm of guards, our means of gathering information. The false pretenses by which we’d arranged our visits, when we had a real stake in things.
We had to endure. We had to endure against a man-turned-dragon who would burn any normal individual to a crisp, and a hidden woman who would expertly burn the abnormal out of anyone else. Until reinforcements.
They were showing up now. Help. Assistance.
The first of them, unfortunately, were Lung’s reinforcements, not ours. A blood-spattered Warden and Deputy Warden.
Our reinforcements were worrisome in a completely different way. When Goddess lowered herself from the top of the building to the ground, voices went quiet in nearby buildings. She was essentially alone. Natalie and Kenzie were close enough to see, but they were apart from Goddess. They had the assistant warden with them. Our guy, who theoretically was able to detonate the bombs that were strapped to most prisoner’s ankles, or to leave them be.
It looked like he was closer to panic than not, for what little it mattered. He, Lookout, and Natalie were in the company of a woman who stood behind Lookout, hands on our teammate’s shoulders. Monokeros. The child-killing Unicorn IV.
And I couldn’t even afford to do anything about it.
Lung roared, as only a person with an enhanced physique could, and then he leaped forward.
Goddess matched him, lifting herself up, the purple fire catching and then tracing the invisible diagrams and forces that buoyed her, only a few feet behind her because she moved fast enough to outrun its pace. More fire traced other powers she was using, blinding her and burning away the invisible, abstract forces that reached out from her and toward Lung’s brain.
It didn’t seem to give her pause. She flew forward, no doubt straight into the convoluted trap that Teacher would have planned out weeks before.
I took flight, past flames and toward blue motes and lines, into that selfsame snare.