…and all of the junior heroes I want to ensure have a place in this world, and every damn member of this team needs a full time friend to guide and help and I can’t be everywhere at once, least of all for my best friend. I’m worried about Sveta and Weld and yet they’re the easiest thing to mentally set aside in the moment and I’m worried it’ll be weeks of moments and then I won’t have a chance to help. I’m worried about Kenzie and I’m worried about Rain and about Tristan and about Byron and Ashley and Damsel and even Natalie-
I’m worried about me, too.
Reality came crashing home with a massive impact that crushed the Wretch. The object in question hit the ground and tipped over, moving in my direction.
I flew back, halfway to get out of the way of the thing- the section of building. Halfway to get away from the mental effect.
Can’t- can’t let this get to me like this. Can’t let it distract me. Fucking stupid of me. How many times did we mentally go over the list of techniques and approaches to fending off mental and emotional effects?
I shook my head. The overwhelmed feeling slipped off of me like a caking of soap under warm water. The condemnations stuck.
I pulled myself back to reality. I’d gone after the breaker again. Again, I’d been repelled by the effect. The overload. She flew over me, using blades she’d created at her hands to cut at the building and bring debris tumbling down. I’d been trying to stop her before she could rain something down on the van, she’d got me, and while I was out, she’d gone ahead with her plan.
The armored van rested on its side. Concrete and rubble littered the top, covered the side and the door that pointed the sky, and some pieces had even fallen within. A pillar-like mass of brickwork had been what had almost hit me.
Dangerous. If I got remotely close to her, I got hit by that effect and it took me out of the fight for however long it took me to pull myself together. Fucking stupid, that I’d thought I could chance it.
I shook my head.
Those feelings, the doubts, the hesitations, I knew where they were coming from. Somewhere down there, near the driver’s seat, Precipice was extending his power up toward me. I had to face those feelings, use them to forge myself into someone more effective, or quash them. Were they useful to Victoria Dallon? The Scholar? The Warrior Monk? Hell, I wouldn’t even rule out the Wretch.
If they weren’t useful to any of the above, then I had to burn them out of me.
I grabbed a piece of concrete, and I leveraged my strength to hurl it. The Wretch’s extended limb clipped it, sending it off course. Too low.
As if it had sensed I had been thinking it might somehow be useful.
I felt agitated, frustrated in a way that went beyond screaming about it, pounding a punching bag, or decking a bitch.
Don’t get angry, get even. My mother’s words in my own voice, running through my head. A condemnation, even though the tone was level, instructive. And Precipice’s power was making that all the more pointed. Turning every failure into a sharp, painful lesson.
I hurled another piece of concrete. She adjusted course to avoid it, slashed at a building wildly to bring down more chunks. This set- not aimed at the armored van, but at Rachel’s dogs. There was a wild, untrained edge to the attack. A woodcutter hitting one side of the tree over and over until things came loose, instead of carving out notches… but it was a fresh swing every second, and her blades cut deeper than an axe did.
Focus. Be constructive, The Warrior Monk told me.
I’d hoped to skim the periphery of the effect, to see if I could get her to use that power, test if there was a time window before she could use it again. There wasn’t. It wasn’t like there was a better time or opportunity to test, either. She was full-bore, all-out, holding nothing back. If I waited until she wasn’t dropping chunks of building then the fight would be over before I got an opportunity to figure out a way forward.
I could draw on the practical side of the condemnation aura to process the same feelings that it woke in me. Logic, careful processing, consideration.
“Fuck youuuuuu!” a distant Bit- Rachel could be heard, the last word drawn out, lost in the huffing and growling, howling noises made by her dogs.
I’d been disoriented enough I hadn’t accounted for Rachel’s contingent. She’d sent one dog, Yips, after the breaker, while she and her henchman fended off Nailbiter, Rachel riding the largest dog, curiously symmetrical, while her henchman had been riding the ‘soft mouthed’ dog. Past-tense. Nailbiter had unseated the teenager.
The distracting emotion blast didn’t seem to work on the dog, so as it managed to climb up a building face, a part of its narrow face bashed in, the breaker had no recourse but to fly away. Away from the rooftop, toward the armored van.
I was ready, picking up more concrete to fling, while Yips reached the edge of the building rooftop and began acting agitated, like it was trying to psych itself up to jump down. It was five stories, though, and I couldn’t imagine that even Rachel’s dogs could handle that. Not with half of the dog’s face smashed in and the meat and bone hanging off of the skinny frame.
Yips leaped down to a lower rooftop, then across to the face of the building, running horizontally along a vertical surface, the undamaged side of its face looking down. I saw it tense-
I threw concrete at the breaker, knowing the breaker would have to evade both the throw and the dog at the same time.
She changed course. Flying toward Rachel, toward the two dogs, and toward Nailbiter. Abandoning the van.
“Heads up!” I shouted, and the shout was a painful reminder that my throat wasn’t wholly intact.
Stupid. Don’t do that.
No need to use Precipice’s power to condemn any overcorrection or anything, I decided, as I took flight and chased after. It had been stupid. I had to pay attention to my injuries.
There wasn’t any convenient measuring stick I could use to figure out if that anxiety overload was going to hit me or not. Worse, even though I’d been hit twice, the state I’d been left in immediately after getting into range hadn’t been the ‘remember exact distances’ sort. I was forced to give her a wider berth. I was faster, but instead of using that extra speed to catch up, I used it to keep a roughly equal distance, but also maneuver while I did it. Instead of straight forward, I arced up-
She blasted Rachel and the henchman. I didn’t see any sparks, flash, or glow. Only the immediate, visceral reaction, where the dog continued forward, but Rachel bent her head down, twisting away and back, almost hurling herself off the spot where she’d leashed herself to her ride. The beast hesitated, but then Nailbiter moved, and it lunged.
The henchman just scrambled back, head shaking, curling into herself and uncurling to crawl, then stagger away. Like she had bees in her brain and there wasn’t anything she could do but get away from the beehive.
Rachel screamed, and it was an angry scream, a roar and a howl. It caught me off guard, and it seemed to catch the breaker and Nailbiter off guard too.
Right. I remembered that from the attack on the bank. Dean had remarked on it after. Rachel was the kind of peculiar where emotion powers didn’t always produce intuitive responses. I’d used my own power to scare people only to make them angry, yes, but I’d also run into people who had been seemingly unaffected outwardly, except to become more friendly and submissive, and one rare case who had been the horny kind of submissive, possibly helped by the substances he’d been partaking in. No parahumanity involved. Just… wiring.
I had to ignore her. I’d already noted just how open and vulnerable that emotion blast had left me. Rachel was in a serious fight with Nailbiter, and she needed cover.
In my effort to keep a good distance from the breaker, I’d flown up. I was working on the assumption that the power emanated as a rough sphere or ovoid, or it had a singular target and a range that target could be affected at, and the effective zone of control had that spherical or sphere-ish shape to it. Either way, the arc of my flight was like the arc of a rainbow, putting the curve of the sphere beneath me. I closed that rainbow arc, flying down, straight for Nailbiter.
Her fingers and teeth had elongated, and riddled the mutated dog, plunging through face and exiting the top of the head, and plunging through chest and forelimbs, exiting the other side. The animal was suspended mid-pounce.
But Nailbiter was suspended in a way too. I saw the whites of her eyes as I came down.
Limbs extended, torso and head morphing to stretch out further, adjusting her position and making my target a narrower one to hit.
I did hit her though; while she was impaling that dog, she had to extricate herself to move anywhere. The hit was a glancing one, and I didn’t bend, break, or apparently bruise anything I hit. I landed on the road behind Nailbiter. Above me, her head couldn’t move while her teeth were in use, but her eyes did move, tracking me, staring down.
Pinky and ring fingers withdrew from the dog, hands straining and adjusting the lengths of wrists, fingers, and palms, just so she could get those fingers curled around and lance through me.
My instincts warred with one another as I collected myself post-landing, taking in the scene. Throw up the Wretch, one instinct said. Protect against that imminent attack. Never use the Wretch while in close proximity to another living person, another instinct said. That instinct told me to fly away. A third instinct was that I had to start resolving things, because a breaker scenario I couldn’t change and a changer I couldn’t break would just tie us up until the rest of Breakthrough and the Undersiders were caught.
What had to be three of the longest seconds I’d experienced in recent memory passed, my eyes darting across Nailbiter, looking for the next angle of attack and seeing nothing pointed my way. My own breath was cold against my face, which was a reminder that I had a mask and I hadn’t put it on in this case.
Probably better that I maintained my peripheral vision.
Three seconds to consider, to give the Warrior Monk time to protest, to call this madness or pettiness.
The Wretch unfolded and unfurled, and I was close enough to Nailbiter that it could find things to grab. A forearm, an elongated torso, a leg. Twisting, crushing, pulling. She gained durability as she stretched out, but durability wasn’t invincibility.
I stood straighter, rolling my head to one side, then the other, a gloved hand adjusting the armor at my front. I turned to see what was happening with Rachel and the henchman.
The Wretch, for the time being, didn’t move while I moved within it.. Fingers dug into ground, scraped at wall, and invisible teeth gnashed at air. But for the most part, the Wretch maintained its hold on Nailbiter’s extended body parts.
I didn’t want to kill, so I moved in a more measured way, walking at first, until the scratched underside of my damn foot made contact with the cold surface of the road, making my knee buckle. I used flight as a crutch to keep me upright while advancing.
In this floaty, walky way, I approached the nearest wall- a three foot fence concrete that bounded a parking garage’s lot. I put my hand out and felt the Wretch. A tensile membrane, hard energy. My two years of waking nightmare. It slid under my hand. A length of stomach, back, or thigh that was in the process of trying to get into place to do something. I could feel the curvature of it, my hand pressing against the inside of that nightmare-shaped shell.
I hadn’t really had an occasion to deal with a scenario like this. When the Wretch was firmly anchored and I wasn’t. Normally, it moved with me. Now?
I pushed against that surface, the Wretch moved, and Nailbiter moved with it. There was no resistance. No situation, as far as I could tell, where the Wretch would anchor to something and I’d smack into it from within.
With flight and a strong push of my hand, I smashed Nailbiter into the short concrete rim. The dog’s paws touched ground, and it began to pull away, the pencil-thin fingers pulling out of its head and torso.
I flew back, dragging Nailbiter away, then smashed her into the barrier again. It was like trying to smash a balled up bundle of barbed wire flat. Too much spring, too many parts sticking out, too much tensile strength in there.
Not good enough, I thought.
I’d hoped I had an ally, but the big dog who’d helped pin Nailbiter reached a point where it had backed far enough away and slumped to the ground. The amount of blood it was shedding and the mass of the creature created a splash of blood as its weight crashed down to the road.
I chanced a look to my right. The breaker was backing away from her attempt at getting Rachel, who was sitting in the middle of the street, supporting her henchman. Two dogs were protecting their master, with the gangly Yips clinging to the side of the building, tail and tongue hanging straight down.
I spotted the moment when the breaker decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. She took off- straight toward me.
I couldn’t leave this like this. Nailbiter was too hard to break or take out of action, even if I’d hurt her some. Worse, she was just getting a grip on things now. Once I had her full focus, this would be harder.
She withdrew a hand, elongated upper arm, forearm, hand and fingers becoming normal, but for some horrendous bruising and tissue damage around the wrist.
There weren’t three seconds to consider and measure my response. A heartbeat. I dropped the Wretch, flying in past a tangle of elongated, nail-ified fingers and leg. A point scratched my arm through the sleeve.
Diving through the thorns, the barbed wire, the- however I interpreted Nailbiter’s altered form. I reactivated the Wretch in the moment before impact.
She reacted, her arm started to grow, moved as I closed in. Too slow on both counts. I twisted in the air for some added torque, my foot came down on her wrist, drove it into and against her elongated calf, and broke something. I felt the impact through my body, saw her entire body twist and arch in reaction, twenty-foot lengths of finger sweeping through the air with the whistling, whooshing sound that normally came with the swing of blades.
Teeth retracted, her head turning my way.
I flew away. From her, the teeth, and the breaker that was flying down the street, straight for me. I was faster in a straightaway flight, which meant-
Meant what? Meant I’d broken Nailbiter’s wrist but done nothing else, meant that I had a breaker to deal with, friends who were being dragged away, other friends and allies in a toppled armored van that might be hurt-
The breaker’s emotion power. I tried to find anger, roaring, and it didn’t really work. She tackled me, and the power I wanted to use was lost behind a fog of rattled thoughts. She was small, I realized. Hard to tell when she was in the air, but she was almost a full head shorter than I was.
Have to deal with this short breaker, Nailbiter, have to catch up to the van. We have no idea how team yellow is doing-
She stabbed me with a blade of black energy, right through the chest. Zero hesitation. I gasped, felt the power slide through me, but it was her that seemed most surprised by her action.
Her that seemed surprised by the fact that when she withdrew the blade, it had penetrated my costume and cracked the armor at my front, but it hadn’t touched my skin.
She reared back and backhanded me. I partially blocked the blow, and I felt how little power there was behind it. It reminded me of how I’d had to learn how to fight while airborne, maximizing the delivery of each blow.
She was in a position where she should have had leverage, straddling me while we were on the ground, but the arm she was using to try and strike me didn’t have bones or muscles. It was a construction of her power.
I blasted my aura, saw it didn’t have an effect on her, and struck at her instead.
Of course, she didn’t have bones, blood, or muscle in the place I’d hit her, either. The blade cut both ways. I tried to fly away, and she used her impulsive, instant-acceleration, instant-stop flight to shove me hard into the ground, so I’d be scraping the back of my hood and head against the snow, ice, and pavement if I kept flying that way.
I could fly up, but…
I used the Wretch instead. I hit her with my strength active, and I saw her reel, hurting.
Still not as much as it should have been.
She blasted me with the emotion power, in retaliation, and to fend off further attacks.
The Wardens are trying to save the multiverse, and of all the people trying to save a single ‘verse’, I don’t trust Advance Guard because they’re reckless, I don’t trust the Shepherds because they’re driven by the wrong things, and Foresight, while decent, isn’t a save-the-city kind of group. They’re a figure-things-out group that’s currently trying to figure out how to deal with the recent death of their leader.
Which means that on top of everything, I don’t trust anyone else to save the city from itself.
I flew, and she followed, pressuring me with that power.
I can’t even deal with my own family and I’m taking that on.
With no recourse or way of dealing that wasn’t flying face-first into the emotional onslaught, I pushed myself to keep flying away, and that worked.
The disorientation stuck with me for long seconds. Fortunately, it also seemed to stick with Nailbiter. She’d been in the power’s radius. She, if I was interpreting things right, felt it a hell of a lot more, for a hell of a lot longer.
So it affected multiple targets, then.
I was supposed to be resistant to emotion powers. This effect I’d experienced, it was the reduced-power version.
I fought to get my thoughts in order. I didn’t have Precipice’s power effect on me, which meant he probably didn’t have enough of a view of the battlefield- nobody had emerged from the toppled van. Not yet.
But Hookline was near that van, chain in hand. The disgraced ex-flunky of Beast of Burden with the invincible chain, a mask that was just chain wound around their face, with spaces for the eyes and mouth to peek through.
Another factor in play.
The biggest dog was back on its feet now, injured, and limped toward its master. She put a hand on its side. I could see the bones grow and regrow, the blood welling out with more intensity, before the wounds began to close. The weakened Yips with its flesh hanging loose looked tighter, now, like everything had drawn back in together. The wound at its face was mending.
On the other hand, Nailbiter was back on her feet. She looked battered, hunched over, but she was back on her feet, regardless. The hand with the broken wrist was hanging limp at her side.
Nailbiter was… not impossible to deal with. Except as I tried my evasive maneuvers, circling around, the breaker was putting herself between Nailbiter and me. I started toward Hookline and the van, and the breaker was quick to shift position, trying to block me off.
Slower than I was, but maneuverable, and there was a really large radius around her where I couldn’t fly, walk, or run.
Breaker, I thought. On-off power or powerset, typically a whole-body transformation. Contrasted from changers by the fact that the transition to breaker was usually sudden, instantaneous, and the forms or qualities they adopted were of the breaking-reality or powers sort. Of course, there were lots of people in the middle-ground between the two, leading to a mess of cross-classifications and mix-ups.
Breakers tended to be strong, but it was a limited strength, not in measure, but in the limited circumstances. The powers required the form, and the form didn’t come free. So it made sense that this breaker had powers on a level above Precipice and Love Lost. The compact with the alien in the breaker’s head was that they got to burn the candle at both ends, but only while in the form.
That would be why PRT advice for dealing with breakers was to catch them when they weren’t breaker. Without the form, they were often powerless or far weaker. The less PRT, more-capey sort of answer to the threat was that breaker forms came with protections, but they also came with weaknesses. My for-a-short-time teammate Shadow Stalker had been impervious to physical blows and conventional weapons, but a minor electrical shock threatened to kill her, and I’d heard that even a strong static shock had delivered actual injuries that had translated to muscle damage after she had turned human again.
My own feeling was that assumptions were dangerous. Normal rules did not apply. I’d run into it when crossing paths with Night and Fog at one point. Being breaker could mean that they didn’t see through their eyes, and their entire body was a lens through which they saw in every direction. It could mean they relied on other senses.
So when I took flight, I was careful to note how the breaker turned her face to track me.
That was something I could use. I couldn’t get past her, and she was intending to keep me away by warding me off, but I could consume her focus so she wouldn’t catch Rachel off guard again.
Flying, I circled the battlefield, blocking off her view for moments, timing my changes in direction for when she couldn’t see me. I passed the section of building that she had already damaged, and pulled away a chunk of concrete.
The Wretch seized it as I held it, tore it from my hands, and I had to cancel the Wretch and fly with the chunk to catch it again.
Bursts of strength, to maintain my grip, to get leverage, and keep that chunk alive, without letting the Wretch unfold.
A dart in one direction, and she moved to cut me off.
In the other direction- again, she moved.
I hurled the chunk in Nailbiter’s general direction, as she and Hookline approached Rachel and the three mutant animals.
Her reaction was near-instant, but her first reaction was to grab the chunk. She didn’t have the muscles or power for it.
She darted forward and under it, slashing at it instead.
Yeah, that’s the catch with that particular form. You don’t have any actual strength when it comes to dealing with the real world, just… the ability to cut things really efficiently.
Breakers had other drawbacks that weren’t like Shadow Stalker’s weakness to electricity or the electric breaker that I’d fought and his ability to be involuntarily conducted.
Some were time limits, like only being able to stay breaker for a set amount of time. Some were internal batteries, a power supply that filled up over time before they had to turn human and absorb more.
If she had either of those things, she wasn’t acting like she felt it was urgent. Then again, she reeked of inexperience. Not knowing the lack of her own strength, for one thing.
Some had a need for something environmental, like a water breaker who needed a body of water to manipulate and absorb. I could scratch that off the list. I could almost assume it was a lack of environment that drove her, given her tendency for staying in the air, but she’d been close to the building she’d hacked up and she’d been on top of me when she’d shoved me to the ground. Not… power driven from being in the open air.
There were others. The ones who needed people, the parasite-breakers and those who drank up emotion to fuel themselves. Not that emotion was something so physical, but the thing that supplied the power liked and valued the emotions they churned up and the reactions those emotions got. It would be the kind of thing they wanted to set up.
I flew to keep forcing her to cut me off. Her back was to Hookline, who was whirling the hook around him in a figure-eight. If I could land- wincing at the pain in my foot as I did, I could put myself close to the ground and compel her to match my level. Could I manipulate her into getting into the way of Hookline’s whirling hook? Was she that dumb or unaware?
I saw her turn her head slightly. She’d heard the hook whooshing through air, probably.
Fuck me, what else? Think, think! You call yourself a powers geek!
As was becoming reflex, I turned my head to check to see if Precipice was there. The windshield was pointed my way, and Precipice was on the other side. More importantly, Foil was climbing out the window at the top.
Think, I thought. You wanted to study this in University.
Powers. Environment, people, and powers. Was there a possibility that she was like the Pharmacist’s purple fire, that burned powers? A breaker form that relied on powers, in a trump-like way? Was she drinking in nourishment for that form every time that I used my flight or pushed out with my aura?
Would that tie into her having similar powers? Similar powers to me, at least in the loosest sense of the flight and ‘aura’? But how or why, when I hadn’t been anywhere near when she’d taken the form, and she seemed to have this narrow suite of powers. She had no strength at all. It suggested something too selective, picking at random instead of drawing on a theme like Spright did.
I wasn’t sure I had any evidence of it, and the fact that my powers didn’t feel drained counted against it, but I could put a pin in that one. I could test the hypothesis a bit by pulling away from her, flying up, to see if she lost strength or defaulted to staying near the others, when I was far enough away that she probably couldn’t drink from my flight and she had nobody nearby to draw on.
She flew up to follow. She wasn’t an experienced flier. As I flew over her head, she kept her feet pointed toward the ground, turning that mask-like face with its wreath of silvery, glowing smoke-hair up toward me, rotating to keep me in her sight.
If I could get around and past her…
I kept testing her, occupying her attention. Hookline and Nailbiter were focused on Rachel and the dogs, and if this breaker was focused on me, then maybe I wouldn’t fuck this up too badly.
I could feel Precipice’s power coloring the edges of my thoughts. I was still being affected.
There were the consequence breakers. There was no limit to the time they could spend in the form, except for the penalty waiting at the end, heavy on their mind. It could be tied to any of the other drawbacks. Things like pain, of a magnitude and duration related to how long or how much power was expended while breaker, or madness, or having one’s mortal body age at a hundred times the rate while in the breaker state. Vista had just mentioned a breaker she’d been friends with, a magenta cat, that had missed her opportunity to turn human too many times, and had decided to stay in the form rather than face the consequences waiting for her.
Night Hag had been a Slaughterhouse Nine member once upon a time. She had also made that choice, but more to shirk her humanity, to revel in her altered state.
If my enemy here was a consequence breaker, then there was nothing I could do except play an extended game of chicken, seeing if she would give up out of fear the consequences had grown too heavy.
But again, I didn’t see the urgency in how she acted.
I couldn’t rule out that she had no idea. I was thinking of her as dumb, again, immature, and drawing on that to jump to a conclusion, and it was dangerous to do so, but I was pretty sure the only data points I had was that she hadn’t already thoroughly tested her own limits, she was small, and her way of hacking up the building had been clumsy.
Or… reckless? Off-kilter?
There were breakers who had a profound mental change as part of the break. Ones who lost all compassion and became cold, ruthless, and machine-like. Ones who were filled with rage and destructive impulses, to be stopped only when the little coherent bit of humanity that watched its actions through a window undid the form. People who hallucinated while in their other form, or who saw the entire world as something nightmarish.
I thought of how she’d chopped at the rooftop. Her demeanor as she’d come after me. The way she danced between targets, seemingly forgetting about the last as she moved on to the next, her power facilitating that dance with the manner of flight it gave her, so abrupt and quick to move elsewhere.
Which meant there were maybe chinks in the brain. Or in the heart.
“Can we talk!?” I shouted the words across the empty void.
I was really hoping that Foil was able to use the fact that our enemies were distracted to do something and turn the tides.
She shook her head, wispy hair drifting around the mask-like face, slow in following the movement, as if she were underwater.
She touched her mouth.
No voice. No bones, no muscle, no lungs, no breath to form words. No lips, for that matter. What had been lips were hard ridges of tooth-like protrusions.
She was reckless, almost drunk, wild and I needed to find a way to use that against her.
If your enemy is choleric of temper, agitate the fuck out of them. A lesson from my childhood, paraphrased. Except she wasn’t choleric of temperament. It was an outdated model by a few centuries, but I was willing to latch onto anything for inspiration. Even if it was the wrong label in an outdated system.
Choleric tempers were the ‘warrior’ tempers, as I interpreted it. The rulers, the warlords. The decisive doers. Sun Tzu’s idea had been to dismantle that organization and focus by upsetting them and inflaming their tempers.
This woman was… more whimsical, no passion in what she did, instead doing it as a kind of expression of her self. Of her new self, if I was interpreting her lack of experience right.
Lack of experience, or a mental effect of being a breaker with a mental state attached to the form.
Whimsical made me think sanguine and sanguine was the ‘happy’, creative, wandering sort of personality. If I wanted to take that apart in the same way… could I take away from the whimsy? Could I go after her on an emotional level, without using my aura?
But I didn’t know what agitated her or brought her down to earth. I didn’t know her.
I flew in wide circles around her to make sure I had her attention. If I could pull her far enough away from the rest of what was going on, there was a possibility that I could make a break for it. Beat her there.
Every second I waste is a second that the others might be getting hurt, or imprisoned.
“They’re planning on hurting a lot of people,” I said. “Everyone we talk to that has any power that gives them info says that March is going to do something that’s as bad as whatever happened to the portals, like the ones in New Brockton or Norwalk. People are going to die and you’re letting this happen?”
She seemed to have realized that ‘down’ meant nothing when you defied gravity, and shifted her orientation to face me more fully without craning her head up.
It gave me a better view of her, too. I knew she was she was probably new to her power, really new, and the breaker decorations suggested a belt buckle, regular clothes, built up around the back of the head like whatever she’d worn and incorporated into the breaker form had included a hood.
This never works. Talking to people about the harm being done, the stakes.
“People have been chopped up, left alive. People who made it their life’s work to get people out of slavery. By helping these guys, you’re helping the people who hurt those people. You’re helping slavers. Monsters!”
I did see a slight reaction as I raised my voice at the end.
I reached for another talking point, I thought about family, and something fell into place. Before I could ask if they had any family in the city, I found myself able to see past the mask, metaphorically speaking.
“Colt?” I asked.
She flinched more than she had when I’d shouted ‘monsters’.
“It’s not worth it,” I said. “It may be fun in the moment, but that power you’re using, it never comes easy. There’s a consequence or a price or a limitation and I don’t think you’ve figured it out a hundred percent. Whoever brought you into this, they haven’t showed you or told you the ropes.”
Her hand went up, touching the side of her head, skeletal doll fingers in the midst of wispy glowing smoke hair.
“And there are situations where people get powers and make some bad first moves, and they pay for it for the rest of their lives. Swansong- Damsel could probably fill you in on that.”
I saw the recognition on that alien face.
“Colt, Damsel spoke highly of you. She worried about you when we were watching the villains. If you came with me, if you helped, then there would be at least one face you recognize. We can help with family, home situation, with fending off Love Lost, any debts you’ve incurred-”
I saw her shake her head.
Got it wrong, I thought. Not even a small shake of the head or a dismissal. Something stronger than that.
No debts. Maybe the opposite. That she felt she owed them?
“You’re starting a whole new phase of your life, make your first steps the right ones. You don’t owe them anything.”
“Colt,” I said, repeating her name to try to stress the reality I wanted to bring home. “You don’t have to betray them. I’m not asking you to fight. Just… make a mistake. Let me by. Or tell them you were getting a handle on your power, you lost track of things. Mistakes happen and they can be forgiven.”
She shook her head. A small shake this time, more for herself than for me.
“Make a mistake, let me fly past. Then you fly down a short while after and do what you have to do. If my side wins, you come with us. If their side wins you go with them. It’s smart.”
Not that I was sure I could win, but I hated not having an opportunity to try.
“All you have to do, for five seconds, is do nothing.”
She was statue still, floating there. I saw her turn to look at the portal on the horizon. A slice of a different Earth’s night sky.
I dove. She didn’t move to intercept, and I had no idea if it was because she’d decided to let me or if it was because that mental state of hers was making her more easily distracted.
It was Colt, and Colt had no relation to the mall cluster other than the fact that she’d spent a few weeks in the company of Love Lost. Yet her powers fell eerily in line with the cluster’s. She also had the flight, and a kind-of-aura-esque take on the emotion power, which seemed like a me thing.
I plummeted and brought up the Wretch in time to make contact with the ground, just behind the newest Parahuman to enter the fray. Kitchen Sink was at the van, throwing stuff at and into it. Both fists and my unscratched foot struck hard ground and cracked it.
He twisted around, a handful of foot-long centipedes gripped in one hand. In his haste to turn and react, he threw them in a loose fan that only sent one flying in my general direction.
I hit him across the collarbone, I used my power, but controlled the velocity of the hit, striking him with a flat hand.
Sufficient to break bone.
He crumpled to the ground, rolling back, twisting in agony and groaning with the agony that came with twisting when he really shouldn’t.
Dealing with him meant that he couldn’t get at the people at the van. Foil was evading Hookline, and Nailbiter was dealing with Rachel.
Two dogs down. Yips included. Only the biggest and Rachel remained, and Rachel had been unseated.
Foil was supposed to have her gun, but I hadn’t heard gunshots. Was she reluctant? Was there a problem? No, well yes, but she’d been disarmed- I had to look to find who I was looking for. Disjoint, standing on a snow-covered balcony. His white mask and black hair made him hard to spot in the gloom.
And that left two members of this particular group, assuming they’d all stayed together. Sidepiece and Love Lost. It was hard to imagine Sidepiece missing this action, and Love Lost…
I flew up, trying to get a better vantage point, looking for her. I couldn’t afford to get into the fray before identifying everyone in play.
Hookline and Nailbiter were the biggest threats. Disjoint was assisting both. Probably unseating Rachel and taking Foil’s guns. Rachel was holding her own, while Foil was… she was stuck evading, it looked like. Relying on her power to help with the timing and deflection, but against an opponent with impossible reach and flexibility.
I went after Hookline first. In the worst case scenario, I figured I could buy her a chance to act. I landed, because being on the ground made it easier to control my strength, strode toward him in the floating walk that kept me from having to put too much weight on my scratched foot, and drew my fist back.
A hand caught it. Disjoint’s.
I caught his hand between both of mine. I used my power-
A scream ripped through the area, distorting the meager light that was available, filling every inch of space with a kind of energy, ambient and agitated. That energy soaked into me.
Reflexively, my hands tried to crush the hand that was clamped between them. It slipped free in the last instant.
Reflexively, emotions boiling over in a release of the frustration I’d felt earlier, I went after Hookline. A flying charge. I’d break him-
The hook caught Foil, who had been hunched over. Swept her into my path. I had to divert course.
Attack, was the impulse.
The length of the hook and chain doubled up in loose loops that filled the space between Hookline and me. A snare, waiting for me to fly into it.
With the artificial emotions running through me, I felt like flying right through it and winning regardless was a really fucking good idea, because fuck that two-bit villain. Fuck everyone responsible here.
I changed course as I reached the length of chain, adjusting my orientation to cannonball through one of the spots he might not have anticipated. It closed around me, but while it dragged at me, slowing me down, it didn’t catch me.
The hook reversed course, flying my way. Invincible, high-velocity, and the first step to me being wound up and then hurled around however he chose.
In the surge of emotion, I hoped he’d try. I could try things.
I didn’t get a chance. Though her face was red and her movements restless, Foil jumped forward, through the same fence of loops and barriers. Her timing and position were good, and there was less coverage because I’d already been snared, which meant she managed to slip through. The movement and the distraction meant I had enough slack to withdraw. Foil, on the other side of the airborne, telekinetically-moved chain, was now in close quarters with Hookline.
She swung to club Hookline with something she wielded, and Disjoint caught her wrist. Immediately, she shifted footing, her left shoulder almost touching Hookline’s right. Blocking Disjoint’s view. Her knee came up-
Hookline grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her to the ground with him.
It was a good move. I couldn’t interfere as much as I wanted, because the chain was twisting through the air between me and the Foil-Hookline fight.
Love Lost, meanwhile, stalked closer. She whipped out her hand, and the fingers on that hand extended into a metal whip. She retracted it. She turned a circular dial at her shoulder, and electricity crackled between two fingertips.
Colt dropped out of the sky, landing behind her. For a brief moment, Colt turned human. She swayed on the spot for a second, before Love Lost caught her.
Colt said something, then went Breaker again.
Fuck. I could see some resolve in her stance: the hands clenched at Colt’s sides, the framing of the shoulders.
I could also see how she floated in the air. By the looks of it, her powers hadn’t changed. One point against the trump thing. I’d almost thought there were power copying shenanigans going on, but it didn’t make sense that it would be this static, this particular set.
I floated toward the rubble that Colt had brought down. I saw Colt react, making sure to create the black blades with ethereal white haze around them.
Did she think she could chop it out of the air if I tried hurling one at Love Lost?
A silver blade cut through the air. Precipice’s answer to Love Lost’s scream. It hit the chains that Hookline had made, but it drew no silver lines.
They’re protected by Hookline’s power, I thought.
I turned to look at Precipice, who crouched with Chastity’s support on the side of the armored van. They’d climbed out of the open door in what was now the ceiling. Aroa and Candy would still be inside.
Another silver blade flipped end over end as it whipped through the air. Foil, a chain around her neck, hands trying to keep it from tightening, flipped backward, feet at Hookline’s stomach. Flipping him up and into the way.
The silver blade grazed him. Foil kicked him backward, sending him crashing down to the road. The silver lines that marked bicep, deltoid, and pectoral split, and blood gushed out.
Costume and flesh cut.
I’d had the same lines drawn on me just an hour ago, when fighting Lord of Loss, before the meeting with Rachel, before the travel.
“Does that girl have my cluster’s powers?” Precipice asked.
“Yeah, looks like,” I said.
“Usual way? I don’t know, Precipice. She blasts you if you get too close, by the way.”
Foil bolted, running in Disjoint’s general direction. He caught her leg and she nearly tripped, but she managed to find her stride a moment later.
Love Lost motioned, and it was Colt who flew to bar Foil’s way.
“Go, help her,” Precipice said. “I’ve got Chastity for backup, and Rachel’s on her way.”
I turned to look. Rachel had polished off the fight. One of her dogs followed beside her at full size. The other two were small. A chihuahua and a golden retriever with a black patch at one side. She’d beat Nailbiter.
“I don’t think Chastity can beat Love Lost,” I told him.
“Hey, fuck you!” Chastity said.
I bit my tongue before sharing my other worry, because it was even more controversial than doubting Chastity’s skill. Honestly, Rain, I’m not sure you won’t put yourself in a situation where you’re forced to kill her.
I only imagine that because I’m trapped in my own hell of other people, and even though it’s as good as it’s going to get, it still eats at me. She’s in another world and there’s little to no chance she shows up in my life again until I reach out… but it eats at me.
I can sympathize if you want her dead.
The two of them hopped down. Aroa climbed out the door, perching on the wheel.
“Candy?” I asked Aroa.
“Hurt,” Chastity answered. “You should go. We’re good.”
I took off, escaping the area just in time to hear Love Lost scream, a sound matched by the tromp of Rachel’s mutant dog’s charge.
A hand covered my eyes as I flew his way. I tore it away, and it was gone when I looked to see.
Colt blocked our way, focusing her attention on Foil. I saw Foil stagger back, and sought opportunity, helped by the distraction of Precipice, Rachel, and Chastity going toe to toe with Love Lost. There was a violent metal against metal sound, a flap of cloth, with Love Lost airborne- she’d used the charging dog as a stepping stone, scratching its snout as she sprung free, going right for Precipice. Chastity stepped forward, unsteady- she’d been using Rain for balance as much as he’d used her. Her face was scuffed and she had a red mark down the length of one leg.
Three against one, but all of the three were injured, worn out, or both.
I used the distraction, going over, because Colt still wasn’t in the mindset for aerial combat, was slow to look up. Disjoint was helping Love Lost, thinking he was too safe in Colt’s range. At worst, what, he’d get stunned?
I saw what Foil was after. Disjoint had disarmed her, stealing her guns, and she’d brought three or four. I saw one in pieces, the slide removed and tossed away, and I saw another lying in the snow. A dark, unmistakeable shape.
“Foil!” I shouted.
Colt whipped around, alarmed, looked back at Foil, who was recovering from the latest stunning. Immediately, Disjoint tried to grab me again.
I threw the gun, lobbing it high.
Foil ran. While she did, I went after Disjoint, so he couldn’t slow her down.
If this was going to work like I’d hoped, we couldn’t be interrupted or interfered-with. Disjoint was the bigger problem.
I crashed into the balcony, breaking it. I grabbed at him, not holding him up so much as I reserved the right to arrest his fall at the latest second if it looked like anything fatal or injurious.
It didn’t, so I let him land the hard way, amid dust and uneven concrete.
Colt had taken too long to realize what Foil was doing, or what I’d done. She’d moved to protect Love Lost, and that wasn’t where she needed to be.
The gun fell from the sky, and Foil, who had timing and accuracy powers, was in position to catch it, nearly dropping it not because she was off, but because it was probably heavy and falling at a high velocity.
Colt, adjusting her battle plan, was maneuvering around the fight. Picking a spot where it looked like her emotion power would catch Precipice and Chastity, but leave Love Lost out of it.
Colt was caught by apparent indecision, unsure of who to stave off, or maybe if she was considering my offer, figuring out the way this was turning. Love Lost’s henchmen had fallen or retreated. It was just Love Lost and Colt now.
Was she debating running?
Whatever it was, she was choosing a spot that meant I couldn’t be confident about flying over.
Chastity wore the glove that Precipice had taken from Love Lost’s workshop. The finger extended like a whip, maybe ten feet long, more to deflect and combat what Love Lost was doing than to go on the offensive.
She did the offense thing with a bullwhip.
Love Lost, for her part, was agile and scary. Her leaps gave her traction on the side of the building, and let her choose where she jumped down to, instead of it being any kind of foregone conclusion decided by trajectory and human limitations.
Her weapon was the other half of the same glove that Chastity was using. It was longer, stronger, and unlike Chastity’s, it left gouges where it impacted the ground. Many of those gouges were reserved for the snapping mutant hound.
Foil fired. I saw her bend over, and I saw the blood pour out.
I flew to her. What happened?
She’d shot herself?
Colt remained where she was, staring at Foil, turning to look at Love Lost. Chastity and Rain whipped and threw silver blades, the dog nipped, and Rachel whistled to give it an order.
I reached Foil’s side.
Her left hand was what had been injured. The gun dropped to the ground.
“What the hell?” I asked.
She indicated Colt.
The breaker had touched ground, and wasn’t moving from the spot. I could see why. A shot of the gun, penetrating the toe of one foot. With the bullet passing through, fusing everything solid enough that it touched as her power effect wore off, it had sealed the breaker’s foot to the ground.
“That doesn’t work with guns.”
“Works,” she said. “Ow, this hurts. The reason I use a crossbow is I can touch the tip and affect it, fire it before it affects enough of the bolt that trying to push it would destroy my crossbow. For the gun, I had-”
“You had to touch the live bullet?” I asked, placing pressure on the wound.
“It worked,” Foil said. “Fired through a hole I made in my fist,
“Clearest shot, and if I hit Lost, then the breaker would hit everyone with that emotion power.”
I set my teeth.
Colt bent down, starting to hack at the ground.
“Shit,” Foil said.
Wretch out, hitting hard. There were probably no vitals to worry about. Only a supply of energy animating a puppet that had been phased into our world.
I hit her, hard, and I knocked her to the ground. The section of foot broke away violently, and she flickered, turning normal. A fourteen year old teen, the toe of her boot torn up, blood welling from the tear.
I stepped on her, pinning her to the ground. She stopped where she was, staring up at me.
Leaving only Love Lost.
Who looked way too okay with current circumstances, all considered. She glared at Rain enough that it was probably impacting her combat performance, but I didn’t see desperation.
Had she distracted us enough?
She backed off, holding up a hand. I was reminded of how she’d looked when we’d encountered her at the Lyme center, after we’d destroyed all the guns.
She wasn’t normally one to back down or accept a graceful loss. Too bloodthirsty, too angry. But twice now, she’d backed away.
She felt confident. Confident she’d get her revenge.
“Can we talk?” Precipice asked. “I’d like to have a conversation.”
A firm shake of the head, a glare. One claw clenched into a fist, the other remained up, urging us to stop.
The clenched claw opened. She began tapping at the air. I could see faint squares appear and disappear in mid-air as the claws pierced them.
“Trap?” I asked, raising my voice to be sure the others heard.
Love Lost shook her head.
The typing continued.
“She’s spelling out words,” Precipice said “Five of-”
A synthesized voice that didn’t come from Love Lost, but seemed to radiate off of nearby power lines. “My team walks away. You get some of your people back. Decide now.”
“Hostages,” Chastity observed.
Love Lost nodded.
“Imp?” Candy asked, from atop the van.
Love Lost nodded.
“My brothers and sisters?”
I was tense. I wasn’t sure I bought this.
“What’s the catch?” Precipice asked. “You put a lot of effort into this. You’ll give up your stakes? You’re not even asking for me to turn myself in?”
She didn’t respond.
“You don’t want Rain?” Chastity asked.
That, Love Lost responded to, turning her attention to Chastity. She shook her head. Again, she began typing.
We waited, tense.
“You’ll turn yourself in to our care another time.”
“What if we say no?”
No response. Only a glare.
“What if we say we won’t let your guys go?” Chastity asked.
Love Lost drew a claw across her throat. Then she waved a hand in one direction.
Was that the direction they were? An accidental hint?
I had a bad feeling, but I felt stuck.
“You need to call off March,” I said. “This thing she’s doing, it’s bad for all of us.”
Love Lost shook her head.
“It’s going to get kids killed. Thinkers we talked to seem to think it’s something along those lines.”
She went still.
I could see agitation in her hands, in her claws.
I saw it start to fade.
“Kids, Love Lost. Like your fucking daughter!” I shouted at her.
At that, I saw a flare of anger, enough I worried she’d do something reckless. Then-
She stared down at the ground for a long moment, and nobody broke that spell.
Then her hand went up. A claw, four fingers and a thumb extended. A hand pointed in one direction.
Five of ours for some of yours.
“Who are you keeping, out of our groups? Tattletale?”
There was no response. Instead, fingers typed.
I expected another audio message.
Instead… wailing. Panicked sounds.
A hollow sound, magnified times ten by the fact it seemed to resonate out from everything from wires to engine block.
A young girl’s voice, caught up in sobs that made the words impossible to make out.
For an instant, I forgot how to breathe. My heart forgot how to beat. I wouldn’t have been sure I knew how to stand if I couldn’t fly to keep myself upright.
Candy reacted, I saw, hands at her mouth. Chastity visibly flinched.
Rain… he looked angry and harrowed at the same time.
“Take your people. Tell us where ours are,” I said.
Nobody on our team disagreed with me. Nobody looked like they doubted the call. Not while the sounds continued.
Love Lost tapped her wrist and she pointed at me.
I looked at my own wrist. The disc was still mounted there, slightly ajar after the fighting.
I tapped it, activating it. It brought up the red team, Kenzie and Ashley with hands bound, back to back. The other Heartbroken kid a distance away, looking like she was digging.
A tap brought up the yellow team.
Noise, no directional indicator.
Love Lost gestured, and that was apparently the key for some tech to kick in.
The noise remained, but there was an indicator.
In an instant, the others were hopping up onto the dogs for a ride, Rachel giving a hand to the more battered members of our team. Love Lost stepped to the side.
I turned her way. My foot was still on Colt’s chest.
“That was a kid,” I told Love Lost. “I thought you had some principles.”
She didn’t move an inch.
“What the hell did Cradle do to you? Or… what compromise did you make in yourself, that this is okay?”
Not a bat of an eyelash. The mouth of her mask was a perpetual roar, and her eyes matched it in intensity and simmering anger.
“You brought her into this?” I asked, my voice choked, as I pointed down at Colt.
“I brought myself into this,” Colt said. I could read her expression now. I could see a look of regret pass over her face.
I didn’t care in the slightest, either, because regret wasn’t worth a speck of shit if it didn’t change anything.
I let Colt go, and stepped closer. Love Lost moved her claws, and the image at my disc broke up, the location data fading.
When I backed away a step, she returned it. That information was her insurance.
There was a whistle, shrill and loud. Rachel, at the very far end of the street.
They needed guidance.
I checked the direction and I checked my phone, before flying down to Precipice and Rachel.
“University. I’ll meet you there,” I told them.
“What if you get ambushed?” Precipice asked.
“I’ll manage,” I said, my voice hoarse. “I’ll have to manage.”
“That’s not good enough,” Foil told me.
“It’s good enough,” Rachel said.
Good enough. I flew.
Better that I forge ahead. I could move faster than the dogs, especially when intervening buildings were taken into consideration.
Fifteen minutes of flying.
Then the University. Closed for the weekend, but with students still milling about. No lights of emergency vehicles.
The lights in the building that the disc led me to were off.
Snow and cold had a way of obscuring the nose and eating smells and sounds. It said a lot, then, that the smell of blood was as strong as it was.
Disturbances in the snow in a relatively abandoned area were my second clue, helping me to verify that I had the right building. I tried the door, found it locked, and broke it.
If I’d had any doubts, the smell of blood and bodily fluids erased them.
I heard the wailing. It hadn’t stopped since I’d entered. Someone was shushing them.
Tristan, bisected, lay on the ground, panting for breath.
“Ant- Vic,” he managed, between huffs. “Are they gone?”
“They left, I think,” I told him.
He let off a string of Spanish expletives before burring. Becoming Byron.
“I’ve been trying to give medical care, get people sorted,” he said. “But we couldn’t afford to let them know we- fuck!”
“It’s okay,” I said.
I saw the look on his face, eyebrows drawn together.
It’s not okay.
“Show me,” I told him.
Bags were the first thing I saw. Bloody gym bags, with blood leaking out the bottom. Then… body parts.
Kenzie’s friend Darlene was the source of the wailing. Her arm was in her lap, and it wasn’t attached to her shoulder. Chicken Little lay on his side beside her.
“Y-you’re back,” she said, to Capricorn. then she looked at me. “Can you fix this?”
“We’ll get your arm attached, okay?”
“Not this. Him. They hurt Chicken Little and it’s supposed to be a rule, that you don’t hurt the Chicken!”
“Your friends did, or-”
“The bad guys did! But it’s a rule! It has to be a rule!”
“Shh,” I said. I bent down, offering a hug. She took it, seizing me in a deathgrip.
I put a hand on Chicken Little’s side, and he flinched.
“Can you sit up?” I asked.
“He can’t-” Darlene started, before stopping. “Can’t hear. Don’t make him take off his mask, either, because he needs that to hold things in place.”
“Juliette’s here,” Byron told me. “Tattletale’s over there. Swansong and Lookout are in the other room, they were the last ones brought in. I didn’t want to break in in case they noticed and saw me. I thought we needed someone mobile.”
I couldn’t even move, with Darlene hanging on me. She shifted position as I tried, and I saw where one of her legs terminated at the knee.
“Sveta?” I asked.
“They broke her suit. She’s staying at the end of the hall.”
It took doing, especially when I was sore, but I could use flight to help. I lifted Darlene, and immediately she started fighting me.
“I need to be with Chicken Little,” she said. “We can communicate some with my power, but being connected means he hurts more. I don’t know what I’m supposed-”
“Shh,” I said, easing her down.
“I check in now and then.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s good. Can you stay for a second?”
Her hand clutched at my leg. Like she didn’t want me to go.
She couldn’t leave Aiden and she wouldn’t let me go.
“One minute, okay?” I asked. “One minute, you can count the seconds. Can you count?”
She nodded. Without speaking, she mouthed the words.
Sixty seconds to see how bad it was.
“Let’s get Swansong and Lookout out,” I said.
I hesitated as I saw damaged equipment. Something not all that dissimilar to Love Lost’s whip claw, but it had a handle, and it was broader. Split in two.
“The device we’d need to undo the damage,” Byron said.
I flinched, looking away.
“You should know. They severed pieces of Swansong and Lookout,” he told me.
I nodded. I was almost numb now.
I only had a minute, then I had to go back.
Juliette was lying on a table. As hurt as anyone, with a burn at her side that had damaged her clothes.
And on the ground, half of Tattletale. One arm, one leg, no head.
Some of our team was here, I realized, with a sick feeling. That’s how Love Lost put it.
“Everyone’s accounted for?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Byron said, “But…”
He didn’t finish the statement.
Everyone is accounted for… but only some of our team is here.
They took the rest hostage.