I’d fought Lung before. He was the very first bullet point in a handful, when it came to the fact that some people really hated emotion powers. Which was fair- I still felt something small twist up inside me when I even thought about Snag’s feeling-of-loss attacks. But Lung was part of the handful I’d fought where I could input fear and get anger. Dean had run into the same thing, with emotions other than fear returning the same output.
Some people, especially those of a more feral stripe, just processed things in a different way. The upside was the tactical advantage in it, if I could adjust my expectations fast enough.
The downside was that I had to make that adjustment. Most of my costumed fighting experience was that my enemies would hesitate, get sloppy, or back off, but Lung, like Bitch, like the cooler but still dangerous Krieg or the seemingly unflappable Victor who would still act differently when under the influence of my power, attacking faster and more recklessly. They were the people who were angry at the world, or those with the natural predisposition to fight rather than fly.
It meant I had his attention. Even before I activated my aura, it still meant he was keeping an eye on me, because he had experienced it before. Actually using my aura helped, provoking him on an emotional level.
With just a little more provocation coming from the hot purple apocalypse my aura was spreading across our shared battlefield.
I flew hard, chased by a stuttering spear of purple flame and a staccato, rolling explosion of fire where my emotion aura pulsed out and caught fire. The aura pushed out, and the fires that caught traced in that direction, before flowing back in and toward me, stopping when the pulse ended. That was what I assumed was responsible for the rolling part of the wall of explosions.
There was a crashing sound. Goddess was dealing with the mooks, breaking the earth and then hurling that broken ground at them from one direction, while throwing other debris at them from another. They were forced to run for cover. Into the same building as Monokeros and Lookout.
I started to fly to pursue.
“No!” Byron shouted, barely audible given the distance and the hellscape of flame below. “Only… deal with Lung! You! I can’t!”
I wanted to argue. Lung wasn’t dealt with. Not by someone like me. Byron and Tristan were a better answer than a brute like me.
I stopped myself. Byron was already making his way inside.
I at least knew Lung.
There was a strategy in what I’d been doing, in using my aura. There were many strategies in this. Lung wasn’t used to being on the defensive, and he had to limit what he did, even stepping to one side as the purple fire swelled and the pharmacist was slow to recognize and react to the problem. Goddess hurled a metal beam at him, and he leaped to the side, where he was struck by a volley of something else. Slivers or spikes. Some impaled him, but they didn’t slow him down.
My eyes were open, and in the relatively dark area, Lung was bright and easy to see. Where he was covered in metal scales, the metal reflected the flames. The rest of him was more of a silhouette against the bright flames. I could see the dragon mask, different from the one he had once had, with chains cutting through short black hair, tying the mask to his head.
I’d hoped for a tell, that the easily provoked Lung would turn his head around and shout at the Pharmacist for her failure to be careful. That he’d look to a nearby window to make sure she was still alive, and that he didn’t have to worry about burning to death for-
I had no idea how old he was, I realized. No idea how long it had been since he’d had to worry about burning to death.
No idea, and no indication that he was looking to any specific location for the Pharmacist.
The other tell that I was looking for was in the movement of purple flame- it was why I was paying attention to the flame that nipped at my toes as it burned at the motive forces of my flight, and to the purple explosions that flared up each time I pulsed out with my aura. It was the approach I’d used when dealing with Mama Mathers. Cape out of sight? Watch their power instead.
With each pulse of my aura, the flames grew, and the Pharmacist dashed the flames, extinguishing a swathe of the fire around Lung as if throwing invisible water on the area. I could pulse it, see the response time, repeat, see if it changed. I could establish a rhythm, then fake them out. How fast did they respond then?
Lung started hurling streams of fire into the sky. Easy enough to dodge.
Still pushing with my flight to keep ahead of the trail, tracing a wide circle around the area, I pulsed my aura again. Was there a shape to the extinguished area? It wasn’t circular or neat. Did it vary? Why?
I was heading for a gap between two streams of fire when they ignited with the purple flame. It was as though the streams of fire were gas, and the gas had been ignited. With momentum already in play, I could only drop my forcefield, stop flying, stop using my aura, and let myself sail through the area.
Knees tucked to my breastplate, hands inside my hood, at the back of my head, elbows shielding my face, my hood pulled down, I hurtled through the purple fire. I was in a cannonball tumble, and felt the wash of heat around me. It was blinding in its brightness, so close to me, and the rest of the world was pitch darkness.
Setting fire on fire.
I opened my eyes, and the world was spinning around me as I tumbled head over heels through the darkness, still in the cannonball pose, still with none of my powers active. With the surroundings being as dark as they were, I had only glimpses of the world, of the swathe of orange-yellow and purple-red fire, of stark spotlights, of the lights inside apartments and windows.
I used the sea of purple fire to orient myself, the dots and slices of yellow and orange serving as my position-reference for where the apartments and staff buildings were, and put everything into that perspective frame.
I lurched to the side as if by some telekinetic force, found nothing recognizable, and glimpsed another sea of fire, of red and orange. Fear stabbed me in the chest as I tumbled through a world that made no sense. The sea of purple I’d seen before was dissipating, breaking up, and a wall of fire loomed before me, pulling me toward it with an insane, inviolable force.
I forced my frame of reference to shift again. I’d had everything the wrong way around. The sea of purple fire had been the residual fire from Lung’s attack, the dots of yellow and orange just sparks in the air, not the faces of buildings. A moment of dizziness, of disorientation and limited lighting.
In the moment that I made sense of the world again, I could confirm to myself that there was no purple fire near me. I used my flight to stop falling, and flipped myself around to the right orientation. My heart pounded. I was in a place where the air was cold.
I could smell burned fabric, but I wasn’t on fire. I had to check myself twice before settling on the conclusion that I was alright.
Lung’s focus was consumed with Goddess, now. She was dismantling the entrance building of the prison, using the components to mount her attack. Beams, chunks of rubble, volleys of- the slivers or spikes from before. They were pulled from concrete. Rebar.
I saw Lung fire out the long gouts of flame that pierced through the sky, illuminating the scant clouds above and turning them orange. He placed them all in Goddess’ vicinity, and she used her telekinesis to scatter the flame. The fires didn’t go out, instead licking through the heavy smoke in the air like slow motion explosions.
Lung was keeping the air aflame using his pyrokinesis.
In the moment that she turned to the nearby building, her focus wasn’t on Lung. He was still in action, leaping to a steel beam that had pierced the ground, his weight making it sink until it came to rest against a nearby fence. The burning smoke above swelled, the beams connecting again.
“Goddess!” I shouted. “Get away!”
Too far away to be heard. Rain hurled a scythe, and it sliced through the beam, tracing a silver line. Lung sprung from the beam, and the force of the movement made it sever.
While airborne, he slashed with one hand, flames at his fingertips, and fire moved in a similar pattern a dozen feet below and behind him. The movement of the fire connected one of the columns of fire he’d made near Goddess to a nearby patch of purple flame. It ignited, and Lung leaped back as the purple swept up the columns of fire, toward Goddess. She didn’t react in time, and the three expanding columns of fire grew to the point there was no space between them.
Lung’s landing in a spot of clearing was a heavy one. With the landing, the forces that were gathering the fire of the columns together began to dissipate. The purple fire had nothing to burn, so it went out too. I saw Goddess flying away from the point the growing columns had converged, on fire and not moving in straight lines.
My first impulse was that I had to help her. I thought of master-stranger protocols, but the only thing to cross my mind was that I still needed to stop Lung.
Lung marched through knee-high fire, grabbing one of his wrists, hauling on it. His shoulder came apart almost as if he’d torn it partially off, a gap visible in the flesh over where ball met socket. Spikes and scales spilled out, stabbing through flesh and filling the gap, layering the surrounding area. Rain’s silver blades curved through the air before hitting rubble, beams, and ground- by my vantage point, I could see that he was firing blind. One came within ten feet of Lung, and I saw Lung change course, striding into flames taller than he was. Disappearing into the fire, where he had cover.
There was something colder in him than I’d seen in any of our past encounters. The feral edge was still there, but the Lung I’d known wouldn’t have ducked into the flame to-
A column of flame stabbed skyward like an giant’s spear, forged of explosions. I flew out of the way, and the spear curved, following me. I tried to fly back toward the base of the column so that the ‘head’ with the momentum behind it would have a harder time chasing me, saw a light pulse within it, and I put some distance between myself and the column. The column expanded- regular orange fire, and not purple. He was holding back on the purple.
If he didn’t want it, then I would provide it.
I used my aura, with an eye on where the purple flames were still burning below. The purple fire on the ground expanded, touched other flames and spread through them. It was a domino effect, and one that Lung seemed aware of. He used his power to extinguish fires around him, a sharp intake of breath’s span before the purple fire spread to that area. From her vantage point, the Pharmacist did much the same, extinguishing more of the purple fire.
But the purple fire traced its way up the column that I was still getting away from. It put it out of Lung’s reach, because his power didn’t work on purple fire so much as it just fed a given area with more fire. The Pharmacist had the ability to manipulate the purple flame, but she didn’t have the versatility or strength to go with it that a leveled-up Lung did.
I’d knocked down the column, even spooked him. My use of my aura was a slap in his face.
He was colder than he’d once been, but he still got mad. I had his attention again.
Columns and tapered spikes of fire speared up without much warning or reasoning as to where they came from. Lung wasn’t near all or even most of them, but he fired, and the orange light illuminated me. As Teacher’s thralls had done with their anti-air guns, Lung was trying to box me in, caging me. Five spikes in a couple of seconds, all curving in the air as I changed my direction. One ignited, turning purple, and the ignition caught on my flight trail.
If I slowed enough to fly around instead of forward, that flame would catch me.
I flew forward, instead, full speed, with a column looming in my way. Nearer to the ground, I saw Lung connect it to purple fire, and that augmented flame climbed faster than I could fly forward. It would balloon in size before I got past it, and each pulse of my aura made those flames lunge higher.
I kept using my aura, all the same.
At the last moment, a change of direction, then nothing at all.
As before, I tumbled through darkness. No forcefield, no flight. Only a general arc of travel with me as a dark shape against a night sky. Sweat drenched me just from the ambient heat, and that sweat stung my eyes as my head rotated and the droplets traveled across my face.
I let myself fall, powers dark, the wind alternately freezing and skin-searingly hot as it whipped at my face, at my costume and my hair.
As I fell down, fire spiked up, aimed right for me. I flew, and purple flame below me and around me billowed out, swelled, and lanced toward me, depending on its shape, chasing that flight.
As I made my aerial maneuvers around flares that worked like explosions constrained within invisible cylinders, the heat in the air sucked all moisture from my mouth and eyes. Had I been running, the heat would have knocked the wind out of me, saw me crumpling to my knees.
My flight didn’t draw on any well of physical capacity like that. Where anyone else might have been drained, I was… I was drained of something closer to my humanity. I was my power in action, my focus, my battle-sense.
I was more a Glory Girl than the Warrior Monk right now, and that was okay. If the focus of a dangerous, barbaric teenage me was going to keep me in the game in a moment like this, I would tap that focus with no regrets.
Maybe wrong to think that within a few seconds of recognizing how I was letting more human, fair parts of me fall away.
His senses were improving, going by his ability to track me in the gloom. More eruptions were coming.
Frustration welled in my chest. I was fighting like Glory Girl and that kept me fighting, but she was someone who charged in, and that wasn’t a possibility in the now. The purple fire burned away powers, and Lung’s heat burned away… my reserves. I couldn’t fight in a battlefield this hot for that long, and the others didn’t seem to have many more opportunities, either.
When I’d played basketball, ‘giving 110%’ was the refrain, over and over again. With my mom, it had been to ‘give my all’. Even Amy-
Fuck. With the name, there were a hundred mental pictures, a hundred scenes and feelings, crashing in. Focus gone, the image in my mind’s eye so intense that my efforts to push it away only dragged it in closer.
Double fuck, I thought, as fire came down from above, far too close to me. He’d manipulated the fire of a spear of flame that extended high above me. The prickle of heat and the wave of it that seemed to soak into my core and take the breath from my lungs and the oxygen from my blood hit me harder than the last time. It was that staggering, fall-to-my-knees kind of heat, and it hadn’t been a direct hit. This time, even though there wasn’t a physical component to it, my flight wavered, my speed suffered.
All at a time it counted most.
Fuck, I thought, and it wasn’t an angry, forceful, empowered fuck, in defiance of the world. The fuck that I couldn’t even voice was the kind of sound that came out with a whimper, that made someone sound half their age, uttered just before they broke down into tears, slumped against a wall.
And even that image evoked half-formed images of my sister, hollowed out, harrowed, her hair greasy because she’d spent the last few days working on me. Her arms and her old costume had been crusted with bodily fluids, my bodily fluids. With dogs and cats, insects, and rats, probably, pulled apart into their constituent parts and used to build me.
To have it driven home that my weak point was this weak, this capable of breaking my focus. There were moments my emotions choked me up, gripped my throat, tied my stomach into knots, paralyzed me or made me agitated.
But to act as Glory Girl, to have Amy so easily take that away, all over again? It made me feel like my essential being, my heart, wasn’t even there anymore. That heartless emptiness inside me wasn’t anything new. But it had never hit me to this degree at a moment that I felt like I was functioning.
It wasn’t me that I heard or imagined with that small, nothing-left fuck, but her on the other side of a room, as someone banged on a door. A scene framed not by wood, but by a length of my body, by hands that reached up, groping at the air, toward her.
The moment after she’d let me start registering memories again.
I landed, and my legs buckled beneath me. I dropped to my knees, fires burning high just twenty feet away. A steel beam gave me a modicum of cover, but it had been lying in the blaze long enough that I could feel the heat radiating off the metal, which didn’t help manners.
One hundred and ten percent. Give it your all. Do your best, Victoria. An endless refrain I’d heard for far too long. From my mom, from my dad, from my teachers, from my teams.
I couldn’t figure out what mode to shift to, where I had that one hundred and ten percent to give. I couldn’t reach for the Scholar or the Warrior Monk in this moment and have it fail me. I needed something else. Something more raw.
Wretch, I thought. Forcefield up, I reached for the beam. My hands fell short, but the Wretch didn’t.
Glory Girl can’t win this.
So what does a one-hundred and ten percent Wretch look like, then?
I lifted up the steel beam, The Wretch dug fingers in with enough force to leave indents in the warm metal’s surface.
I took off. Lung was preoccupied, sending flame in the opposite direction from me. I had a moment, so I looked up, flying higher to where the air was cooler. A twenty-foot steel beam dangled from the Wretch’s hands, one end held firm enough that metal distorted in multiple places, the other end swinging below us.
In the cool air, looking up and trying to find my center, trying to tell myself I wasn’t making a mistake by bringing the Wretch into this, I could see the blue circles and lines.
A constellation drawn against the night’s sky, directly above Lung and the scene. The motes weren’t moving, though. It was being drawn.
I exhaled slowly, and my breath shook slightly in the process. A tension I hadn’t realized I’d had was released. If Byron was capable of doing this, then he’d confirmed Kenzie was okay. That situation was dealt with.
In the weirdest, most twisted way, it wasn’t even a good ‘dealt with’. That tension had helped in its way, holding me together. Now I had to deal with me.
So stupid, that a mere thought could take me out of the zone and lead to a critical mistake. That gout of flame that could have hit me, if I’d been a half-second slower.
Even when Glory Girl was at her peak, working with reactions primed and giving her supposed one-hundred-and-ten-percent, she had- I had been splashed with acid and enzymes, dissolved alive.
One hundred and ten percent Wretch. But I’d pause first before going there. A nod to the Warrior Monk, who was so tired, so beleaguered, her efforts frustrated. I pulsed with my aura, and I watched the aftermath, Lung’s slight head turn, the extinguishing and the shape of the extinguishing.
Goddess was back, and she had friends. People from nearby apartments. Goddess was shielding them as they got into position.
Are we there already? She’s just taking the people she wants, and the people with the ability to detonate the ankle bombs are… secured? Did she and Lookout get them all?
The Warrior Monk recoiled at the idea, recognized it as a cause for alarm, printed in black ink on white paper, all caps, underlined.
If she’d gone that far, if we were already there, it was possible there was no coming back from this. There was no getting through this night in such a way that things returned to square one.
That idea shook me. The Warrior Monk faltered. From sixty percent to fifty percent. ‘110%’ so far away it wasn’t worth reaching for.
Behind Lung and behind me, the building began coming apart again. Each chunk that flew away from the building flew toward Lung. Rain hurled his silver blades, but Lung was keeping an eye out for them.
He was big now, but he was nimble. A corner of the building hit the ground and rolled through the fires without breaking up. Lung leaped on top of it, then leaped to another point, the beam that Rain had sliced. It was just the tip, cut at a diagonal, and left leaning against the fence. Lung had one foot on the tip, another on the top of the chickenwire fence, barbed wire crumpled underfoot. No skin showed, his arms, legs, spine and neck were all extended now, and the mass along the length of his body was swelling steadily. He reached up with claws of steel, seized his mask, and tore it free, casting it off.
The face beneath was even less human.
Lung lifted one claw, moving it through the air. Fire swelled dramatically. I could see that the point where he didn’t even need the purple fire anymore wasn’t that far away.
And then what? Were we supposed to abandon the prison? Leave it for Teacher? He would find a way to seal the door, the prisoners would be trapped inside, and he would claim them, one by one.
No, I thought. With the Wretch out, the memory of the hospital was all around me. The helplessness, the lack of hope, the altered mental state. That was what Teacher wanted.
I closed my eyes..
She was scarily close to what I wanted, and I wasn’t sure how much of that was the master-stranger effect that was supposedly in place. One hundred and ten percent. The study of powers. The authority, people organized and listening to her. Even now, she was sorting out the people she’d brought from the apartments.
Lung was leaving the area, moving toward Goddess. He would leave the area beneath Byron’s sword of Damocles, beneath the constellation of stars and the lines that wove them together.
Because it wasn’t enough?
I dove for Lung, the Wretch gripping the beam in a way that was not at all drawing it back for a big swing. I’d deal.
Twenty feet long, give or take, a foot and a half tall. I’d picked up cars before, always an awkward affair, and even this impressive chunk of metal was only a third or quarter the weight of those vehicles.
“Hit him,” I whispered the words. “Swing this at him. Come on!”
Lung was drawing out fire, sending it toward Goddess’ crowd. She was atop one of the damaged apartments now, her people organizing into battle lines. A forcefield went up, as did something that looked more like an energy gate or portal than a forcefield or wall. Off to the side, a lopsided, top-heavy minion made of slime or mud drawing itself out of the ground.
Goddess interrupted the first wave of flame. The second, laced with purple fire, spilled over. The fire ignited the forcefield, the minion, and the gate. The gate fluctuated, drawing the fire toward its center, condensing it into a brilliant point, with the edges vibrating more intensely with every second.
The gate crumbled. Free energy lashed out, and two people died. the forcefield went out, and people were forced into a retreat.
I reached past the Wretch’s hands to touch the metal, gripping the lip of the beam in my burned hand. I pulled, straining to draw it back. The Wretch didn’t obey.
A moment later, I was flying into flames, so bright and chaotic after the darkness above that I couldn’t breathe or tell purple from orange. It was almost like slow motion, seeing Lung start to turn his snake-like neck around to look at me with one eye that glowed like a drop of molten metal. A distended face broken up into five sub-sections contracted together in an alien grimace.
The beam wouldn’t hit. I canceled the Wretch, and let it hit the ground a few feet from Lung.
I hit the beam, rather than Lung. One end remained mostly in place, the other coming around to strike Lung. The effect was nowhere near what I would have achieved had I been able to swing the beam like a bat. As it was, it knocked him back toward the area that burned. Purple flames were extinguished in the moment before Lung could roll through them, and he sprung to his feet. Before I’d recovered from the act of striking out, he was on his feet, hands moving, and the flames around me swelled.
Rain was still throwing out his crescents. Many were being intercepted by swells of purple fire. It likely didn’t help that I was close.
I flew to the beam, grabbing it and trusting the Wretch to grab it on pure reflex. It was a narrow shield and a deflection that kept the worst of the flames from knocking the Wretch back out of existence. It was my weapon, to keep Lung at bay, to try and knock him down. This time we swung.
He caught the beam with both arms, feet skidding in dirt.
Then it was only one foot in dirt. The other came up, forward, and stomped down on the length of metal. The Wretch broke, and the end of the metal beam struck the earth with enough force to send dirt pluming over my head, above me and behind me.
His weapon now. He drew it back, adjusting his grip as he did to account for the lack of traction, ready to swing.
He was still adjusting when Goddess used her telekinesis on the beam. He was sent skidding back, tumbling into fire and the piles of wreckage that had been telekinetically hurled at him while he’d cultivated the fires around him and worked himself up.
“Capricorn,” Goddess said. Her voice wasn’t pitched at a level that would be heard with the distance between herself and him.
The water came down all the same. To say the water fell would have been wrong. It was directed down. Faster than falling water. It was sent down like it was shot from a gun.
Where the water hit earth, it became a geyser of mud, and if Lung hadn’t slipped away at the last moment, then he was being driven down as mud was sent flying up to heights taller than some of the staff buildings nearby. The purple fire caught the water and ran through it, more intense, not less intense, for the water.
It was loud, and then it was silent, the contrast so stark that it left my ears screaming.
Where there had been water, there was now a small mountain of stone, all spikes radiating up and out from the epicenter. The licks of purple flame were going out.
Look, I told myself. Put the desperate struggle aside for a second, focus on the objective. I’m proud of Victoria the scholar, the person who studies powers and keeps an eye out for the solutions.
Some purple fires lingered. Some faded. If I imagined that the spike of stone blocked the Pharmacist’s view, I could eliminate some positions.
“That was good,” I heard Goddess behind me.
“Was?” I asked. I shook my head.
She had her good points. She had her great points. She had her amazing points, even. This wasn’t one of them. I paused for a second, then decided it was endearing. Then things were good.
“I wouldn’t say for sure that it’s over,” I said. “And if it isn’t over, we won’t have much of an opportunity.”
“I’d use my danger sense, but the fires blind me,” she remarked.
“Teacher’s lessers went into the building. The tinkers, the thinkers.”
“Capricorn got them, I think.”
She stopped speaking as something glowed deep within the stone.
“That’s Lung for you,” I said. I sounded calmer than I felt. I realized I still had the Wretch active. I hadn’t let it go. A good thing that Goddess hadn’t approached me. “He gets stronger over time. If we haven’t beat him yet, we might not be able to.”
“I don’t fucking lose or draw,” Goddess said.
The use of her telekinesis was wilder, now. It was hasty, geometric shapes cutting through mud and dirt, carving lines into the beams and wood that she lifted into the air. Like lines in something tightly coiled that had come free, the telekinesis struck out at random around the things she was lifting. Mud splashed and rubble was demolished.
One by one, she sent spikes of wood flying. She sent beams, sheet metal and corrugated steel crushed into lances and spears. They plunged through the stone, into the glowing heart. Each impact was an ear-splitting screech of metal on stone, of stone breaking, nails on a chalkboard with the volume turned up to twenty out of ten.
The volley was still going when stone cracked at the very edge of Capricorn’s stone fixture. Compared to the noise of the ongoing assault against the glowing center, Lung rising from the mud and cracked stone was almost quiet. The glow had been a decoy.
The fires around us had been mostly quenched by the cascade of water, but his scales were shiny. Black mud settled into cracks while the scales caught the orange light. His eyes seemed brightest of all, and they narrowed in pain as purple fire crept along his arm and shoulder.
The Pharmacist extinguished fire, but it seemed she was limited to extinguishing what she could see. Fire burned in crevices, crept out further with more and more speed. It hurt him, and where it hurt him, he healed, and the healing made it burn hotter. With the way it crept along the exterior of his body, she wouldn’t have been able to see all of the flame without being here.
Even with that, he didn’t go running to her. He turned toward us and he growled. The face with the multiple sections that could pull away or draw in had expanded, and the growth included his neck now, with sections that could pull back, revealing teeth within. There were spots that looked like they were scales that caught the light really well, but I was suspicious that they were eyes glowing molten.
Goddess sent the remainder of the volley at him. When he moved, it wasn’t as fast as before.
“Careful!” I voiced my alarm, even before I could articulate what I meant.
He was slow, but it was an intentional slow. As a steel beam slammed into his arm, crushing part of it, driving through flesh and scale, he didn’t look surprised or bothered. He lunged out of the way of the remainder of the volley, and then he seized his damaged flesh.
Where scales had been parted, he dug in claws, and he tore away the flesh that burned. Damage that would have killed another man served for Lung to have a handhold in his own altered flesh. He tore into chest and arm, the chunks burning like crimson rags soaked in gasoline.
I took flight before he could finish. I saw him tear away fifteen pounds of mass with blade-like scales embedded in skin, in muscle, and in one fragment of bone. I saw the blood spill to the ground by modest buckets worth, and he barely seemed to care. His focus was on the hand that he’d used to tear, that now burned.
Goddess was using the weapons she’d already used for her earlier volley. They were pulled free all as one, then sent out in another volley. As Lung brought his wrist to his mouth, the volley struck home. Spikes that were ten feet long impaled his legs and fixed them to the ground. Others caught him in the chest. One struck his face and knocked a mouth-part free, and sent the burning hand flying.
At his back, wings unfolded. He opened the various mouth parts to drool out the last chunks of his hand.
Wretch, one hundred and ten percent. I flew at him.
Fires swelled around him, faster and larger than before, and where purple flames still burned, they caught the fires and made them swell.
While Lung was missing half of his right arm, shoulder to wrist, a pectoral and his left claw, I had slim opportunity.
The Wretch seized one spike as we passed it. My first stab was uneven, mis-aimed because the Wretch didn’t coordinate. Lung swatted the point aside with a stump of a wrist at the end of a long limb. He exhaled, and breathed a plume of fire my way.
It swept over the Wretch, but it didn’t ignite her. As I passed over him, his snake-like neck let his head rise, point straight up, then point back, with no difficulty.
I landed at a point beyond him, boots skidding in mud.
The Wretch started with a shape like me, and it expanded to a different shape. I gripped a spear that had deflected off of scale, aware that fires around me were growing larger.
I turned the Wretch on, then off, on, off. It was an inconsistent, lurching strength, one where I was handling a metal lance that had to weigh more than I did and I was handling it with ordinary human strength, then a moment later hands that weren’t mine gripped it, and it might as well have been weightless.
I found the orientation I wanted, as Lung brought his injured arm down and made every square foot of space around us burn.
I flew through the hellscape of flame and smoke, where Lung was only a dim silhouette and a position I remembered. My grip on my weapon was a shaky one, one that alternated between me having the strength to hold the weapon and the ability to direct my posture while holding it.
Two seconds of flying forward, trying to keep the weapon on target.
A moment, caught between heartbeats, where Lung was suddenly visible, looming in my view.
And then another moment, as my racing heart contracted, where he gripped my weapon, catching it in one hand. Even with half of his arm missing, he managed to fight the Wretch’s strength.
He jerked the weapon to one side, his strength matching the Wretch or catching it off guard. The handle of the weapon tore through my forcefield.
There was no fire immediately around us now, but that was because Lung and the Pharmacist both wanted to keep Lung away from the purple fire. Both used their ability to extinguish flame to maintain a clearing.
Which didn’t mean it wasn’t roasting here. Sweat ran down my face in streams. My hair was wet against the back of my neck, and my body was drenched in it, armpit to ankle.
I have eight hands that aren’t Victoria Dallon’s.
I caught another fallen weapon, trusted the Wretch to catch yet another. While Lung’s hand was occupied with the lance I’d used, I attacked him with two more weapons, aiming to impale him.
His wings flapped, and he was working on freeing himself from the spikes that nailed him to the ground. The Wretch drove him back down, bringing two more points down to his position.
He reached out, breaking one- manipulating flame with the other, to drive me closer to him. I went up, back, and down to the ground again, feet sticking into sucking mud.
Tristan’s mass of spikes was an arsenal. The Wretch’s invisible hands gripped stone, gripped the spikes that Goddess had driven into the heart of this structure.
Fire washed over the Wretch. If it broke, I would burn or I would choke in the heavy smoke, but it was stronger against sustained onslaughts.
He pulled free of the spikes that impaled him to the ground. A tide of dirt caught him. Powers lashed out, from Goddess’ new retinue, and I could only see a flash of green through a haze of smoke, hear a crack, see the shadow of the top-heavy slime minion.
Work with me. Fight him. This is what we both want.
I moved my arm, flinging it forward, bidding the Wretch to do the same. It threw three. Two were thrown in a way that would have hurt him if they hit points forward, and one was on course to hit Lung.
He was occupied with Goddess, but he still had the ability to strike it aside.
I still held more. I closed the distance, spearing toward him with multiple points. These too he fended off, with enough force that the Wretch was broken.
To get away from any fire and away from the heat, I had to fly up and away, into choking smoke that demanded I hold my breath. My eyes watered.
Below me, a silver scythe-blade cut through the smoke. I saw it hit Lung.
I had the Wretch surrounding me again, and then was back in the fray. More weapons scooped up, my throws timed for when I thought I could land a blow. I could see the line of silver across Lung’s chest.
He ducked the volley. Claws dug for dirt in purchase, his wings thrusting him forward. Powerful, but not powerful enough to disturb that silver line.
My eye was on the line, and I knew I could well be killing a man if I connected a blow.
I still grabbed the shattered trunk of a tree that had been thrown at an earlier part of the fight, and swung it at him, aiming for an undodgeable wallop more than a decisive blow. I hoped it would connect and split him.
Goddess needed it to. We needed it to. If we couldn’t, Lung would kill us all.
The hit connected, and I saw the spray of blood as one side of his chest cavity opened. Sternum to lower rib. Sliced through the lung.
There was no humor in the irony, only a chill, as I saw blood fountain out.
In the midst of smoke, I saw him stagger. I saw him draw in a deep breath, his chest coming apart in sections, like twenty fragments breaking apart, then coming back together in another configuration. His back popped, scale scraping against scale as it extended.
Then the wind turned, and the smoke was heavier. It was pitch black out and the smoke made it even harder for the light we had to illuminate the scene. People on the periphery were unable to do much.
It hadn’t even slowed him down.
“Goddess!” I shouted. We needed to coordinate on this.
“She’s gone. Getting more help,” a woman’s voice cut through the smoke.
Too little, too late.
The Wretch wasn’t enough.
Even if I’d been one hundred percent coordinated, it wouldn’t have been enough.
The purple flames surged, diffuse in the gray-black haze of smoke. Lung’s eyes were molten white, larger than before.
I heard him chuckle. He knew. That we were past the point where we could do it.
Hollow words, to give my ‘all’. Hopeless words.
I’d needed this. I’d needed to be able to do this on some level. And I hadn’t been able to. It scared the shit out of me.
Water sprayed, cutting through the smoke, as cold as the air was hot. With that, there was a moment where others could see Lung, and Lung could see them.
Everything told me to run, that we had to evacuate.
Goddess- if the stories about her were to be believed, if the refugees from her world were telling the truth, then her world would suffer for her return. I couldn’t really buy it, the long list of ifs, but it was the most critical way of parsing things.
If Teacher won, if we couldn’t beat Lung and keep Teacher from getting what he wanted, then none of the worlds would be okay.
We couldn’t run.
Water splashed Lung, and water became stone. I flew at him, catching a large piece of rubble on the way. My aim was to fly by him, to smack him with two or three hundred pounds of concrete. Then I saw the blade of silver carving its way through the air, leaving a trail behind it, as it left its mark on smoke particles, making them more prone to splitting.
It caught Lung across the belly, and I closed in, ready to deliver the final blow.
Lung leaped up, wings flapping.
Disappearing into the smoke and darkness.
I flew after him.
By the time I found him, the mark on his stomach was gone. He cast flame down toward the ground, and this time there was no reason for the pharmacist to extinguish it.
To distract him, I flew at him. I used my aura, and it touched the purple fire on the ground. Where Lung’s fire extended down, purple fire raced back up, cascading up the trails left behind each blast, climbing higher, higher, expanding as I fed it with my aura, until he had to stop for a moment to let it all dissipate.
Then I had his focus. Two spears and one stalagmite of rock floated in the air beside me, gripped by invisible hands. One was gripped so tight it was going to break in the middle.
The others couldn’t help me here. We’d driven him to the air where only a few people could challenge him.
We. It was a corny thing, too belated when Byron had ducked inside, used his power from a window, probably. When Rain had been on the periphery, firing mostly blind into smoke and fire, and when Goddess had very understandably been caught up with the trials of directing an unruly group of prisoners.
But we’d been stronger as a group. We were too fractured.
I watched Lung, my eyes burning with contact on the air, no doubt more red than white after all the trace contact with smoke. The air was relatively clear here, and my vision was still bleary, my eyes like sandpaper. My mouth hung open, so dry and layered with films of smoke that I didn’t dare swallow, for fear of choking.
I saw his head turn. Then he dove.
I pursued. I had to.
One hundred and ten percent. Giving my all.
All of the Wretch- the moment his focus wasn’t entirely on me, I flew after. He flew with wings and power. I flew with something freer, impulse, something from within me.
The moment I was about to close, driving my spear-points into his wing, he tucked his wing in, rolling through the air. Eyes, mouth, and the cracks between the segments of his body glowed red.
Fire exploded through the air around him as he continued to plummet.
The Wretch heaved the spears at him. One hit him, the other two were duds.
It was frustrating but I accepted the frustration. Tears streaked my face from the smoke-stained eyes.
His wings unfolded, their breadth catching his weight, arresting his descent.
I plummeted past him.
One hundred and ten percent of the Warrior Monk.
I used my aura. Calculated, watching for the danger, where the purple fire was.
I provoked him, because I knew he was easily provoked, even in this state. As mighty as he could be, this got past scale and muscle and it bothered him.
He sent out another cascade of flame. I changed direction to avoid it, realized it was too wide in scope to escape, and let the Wretch absorb the blow instead.
Except the fire kept coming. I accelerated my downward plummet, heading toward the building where, in another situation, I could have hoped to use that building for cover.
Here, I did the opposite.
The fire chased me, filling the air around me and to either side of me. I headed away, headed down, the lip of the building’s roof so near to me that my breastplate periodically scraped against it. He cut off the fire.
I looked back, and I saw him maneuvering. He turned his attention to the others, to my team.
He wanted to stay near the purple flame. It secured him against most of the powers that could stop him. And… I had to let him.
He was a brute, and brutes had a way of forcing you to deal with them.
The thought made me think of Dean.
There was a strength in that, a part of that one hundred and ten percent. The Victoria Dallon part of me.
I’d never fought when I felt this low. Even at the community center, I hadn’t been as tired, as caught up in multiple things. At the Fallen camp, I’d had hopes, and I’d been more singular of purpose. I’d been able to focus on the others.
Here, the challenge was me. Figuring out how to be strong when I needed to be strong.
I went through a window, turning my back on Lung, aware that I might be letting Byron and Rain burn.
I tapped the Wretch, and I tore through a wall.
The scholar. I’d been trying to track where the flames were and where the Pharmacist operated. I’d been dimly aware of Lung’s favored position. He knew where she was and by operating within a certain area, he gave clues.
That had narrowed it down.
That he hadn’t been willing to throw out fire and hit this side of the building, abandoning his pursuit of me?
The Wretch came back. I went through another wall.
Bystanders. They were huddled together. A guard had cuffs on, binding him to a cot.
“Where is she?” I asked.
I saw them exchange glances. The guard looked back, off to the side, more in the way I’d come.
I flew back through the hole in the wall, then through the open door to the hallway.
I cut a path through the staff building, no running footsteps or pants of breath to impede my hearing. I swallowed and choked back a cough. Then I flew more, silent. My hand slapped against a wall as I used it to stop myself sooner, so I could fly down a different hallway.
I heard her running footsteps.
Me, the scholar, working out powers. The Patrol lieutenant, investigating, keeping an eye out for the troublemaker.
It wasn’t about finding that one part of me and executing it beyond perfectly. The Warrior Monk, the Wretch, the Scholar, the Girl.
“While you’re running, you’re not helping Lung,” I called out. I pushed out with my aura.
I escalated the pressure.
“He needs you!” My voice rang through the hallways of the staff building.
More aura. More fear.
Then I heard it, saw it. A flash of purple. The aura igniting. I canceled the aura, but that didn’t stop the fire that had already been created. In an enclosed space I had to duck, throwing myself around a corner, hood pulled down. My feet thudded against the ground as I stopped flying.
It swept past me.
“You just told me where you are!” I called out. I ran.
There was no fear aura, but there was more panic now. She cast fire out behind her, blocking the path.
I took another route, going out the window, around the side of the building. One window was open, and I flew in through it, muddy boots skidding on tile.
An electric whine caught my attention.
Teacher’s tinkers, protecting the woman. I saw her past them, looking at me. She’d learned her lesson from previous encounters, and she kept her fire put away. There would be no blowing it up with my aura, getting her minions in the process.
I flew away, instead.
Mom told me to focus on the objective. What does the enemy want?
She wanted away, to get back to where she could help Lung.
Lung wanted to be strong, to stay near the purple fire, to take over this prison for Teacher, presumably because he was getting paid, or because he was a Teacher thrall.
Out through the window, around the building… in through a window with a crash.
Another thrall, an older guy. He was slow to react, slower with my aura blasting out. I shoved him against the wall on my way through the door, and slapped his tinker gun away. The Wretch demolished it in passing.
The mission. There was a dangerous feeling of triumph when it felt like I was taking the bad guys down a peg, dismantling their plans. The tag team was disrupted. She was running, and I was catching up.
She’d gone downstairs, I realized.
My aura burned, pressuring her. “You’ve lost, if you’ve abandoned Lung. Does that mean you don’t get paid? Or will Teacher be disappointed? How does this work, Pharmacist!?”
“Shut up!” I heard her.
I lunged to one side, and then the Wretch tore through the floor. I came down on top of her, catching her while she was bent over, shielding herself from the debris that was falling down on top of her. I shoved her into the ground, hard.
I had spikes on my glove, that started at rings on the fingers and extended back toward my wrist, almost flat against my hand. The points now rested against the most vulnerable part of her throat.
I saw her expression change. Ten emotions in a matter of two or three seconds.
“Don’t even think about it,” I told her.
“More will come,” she said. “He has an army.”
“And we have you,” I said. I reached up to my shoulder, my finger tracing the spikes there. Nothing. I checked my breastplate, where tines radiated up from the icon just above my sternum. I found a loose one and snapped it off.
The point still pressed against her throat, I led her to a standing position. Then we walked, me holding the long spire of gold-layered steel against her jugular.
Fires still burned when we stepped out of the building, but the battle was over. Goddess had brought others, and they all stood by. Byron and Rain were sitting down on rubble, and Rain gave me a bob of the head in greeting as he saw me. There might have been a smile behind Byron’s mask.
I spotted Kenzie off to the side. Still with Monokeros. She gave me a small wave as she saw me. At the back, people were guarding Natalie along with the three heads of the prison staff. Two were Teacher’s. One was ours.
Behind Goddess… it looked like she’d collected most of the prisoners. I could see Seir and other Fallen. Coalbelcher and his second in command. I saw Damsel.
No Crystalclear. No Ratcatcher. No Sveta. No Ashley.
Lung stood by Goddess. He folded his arms as I brought the Pharmacist nearer.
Goddess approached, standing square in front of the Pharmacist. I lowered the point of the tine from the Pharmacist’s throat, then backed off.
The Pharmacist and Goddess stared each other down. Everyone around us seemed okay with this.
I started to approach Lookout. Rain got my attention, a motion of the hand, followed by a shake of the head.
I went to Rain and Byron instead, my arms folded. Breathing hurt. I was pretty sure the Wretch had filtered out a lot of smoke, but it hadn’t filtered out all of it. Even now, the smoke was heavy in the air.
“You serve me now,” Goddess told the Pharmacist.
“Yeah,” the Pharmacist replied.
“You’ll tell me about the drugs you brought into the prison.”
“Taken to the cafeteria, to be applied to the food. A berserker formula. Turning everyone he couldn’t use into ravening monsters.”
“She’s lying,” a woman in the crowd said.
I could see the Pharmacist tense.
“It’s a power nullifying chemical,” the same woman said. She stepped forward. Words were tattooed beneath her eyes, so they traced straight lines down to her jaw. ‘Crock’ and ‘Shit’. Colorful, for words in black ink. More ink put scales at her arms and neck. “Nullifying your influence, Goddess.”
“And you took some,” Goddess told the Pharmacist.
“She did. And she already got some to key prisoners,” Crock o Shit said. “The maximum security ones, who get meals delivered.”
Purple fire surrounded the Pharmacist’s hands. She reached for Goddess, and she made it one step before someone swung a guard’s baton into her throat. She fell to the ground, fire extinguished.
“If she doesn’t suffocate from that, let her live,” Goddess said. “The drugs will wear off.”
The crowd was pretty eager to drag the Pharmacist off. Goddess turned her attention to Lung. “Did you take the drug?”
He shook his head.
“Truth,” Crock o Shit said.
“He regenerates,” I said. “Drugs have reduced effect.”
Weird to be on the same side as him now.
“The guards are dealt with, but Teacher isn’t going to leave it at this,” Goddess said. “And we still have some loose ends to tie up.”
I didn’t miss the fact that she made eye contact with me, with Byron and Rain.
She was thinking about our teammates.
“Get organized,” she told us.
We hurried to obey.