I was about to leave back through the portal when I saw our reinforcements. Quick, to get here in what must’ve been half the estimated time. Damsel was wearing her black dress and a black coat that buckled at the neck, lace up to the underside of the jaw. She had black eyeliner around her eyes and eyeshadow smeared around eyes without pupils or irises. Her blades gleamed on her left hand. On the right, the shine was dulled by streaked blood. It looked like she had tried to wipe it off and had only dragged it along the length of the blade.
Two people accompanied her. The reinforcements from Citrine, I was assuming. After she got new information or had second thoughts about how fucking useless she was being, she’d volunteered two of her contacts.
The two contacts matched, boys shorter than Rain, both wearing peacoats and wearing hard white masks like hockey masks, that were cut out to trace the edges of thick-rimmed glasses. Another hard mask segment covered the foreheads, cut to fit to the top of the glasses, and each of the upper-face sections had a number stamped on it. One and Two. Hair was parted and combed back with some gel that made hair look both perpetually wet and rigid.
“Damsel, thank you for coming,” I said, glancing over the crowd of people we’d leveled earlier. “Thing one, thing two, I presume?”
“That works,” one of the boys said.
“Pilum,” he said.
“We’re good, then. Let’s go. They’ll close the door after us.”
We turned to go, the boys falling into step on either side of me. Something was eerie about the way they moved. That Damsel had a regal glide as she walked behind me almost seemed to accentuate it.
I turned my eyes forward.
“You’ve heard?” Thing One asked.
“Pretty sure,” I said. “Brockton Bay? Unless there’s other bad news warranting a question as ominous as ‘you’ve heard’.”
“Yes. Brockton Bay.”
“Please tell me the situation hasn’t gotten worse in the last few minutes.”
“It’s worse,” Thing Two said. “But not exponentially worse.”
“A derivative kind of worse,” Thing One said. “If you bomb a city, the fires that follow are derivative of the bomb. Worse, but not in the way you mean.”
“Good,” I said. “Let’s hope this stays on the borderline side of catastrophic.”
“It’s not,” Thing One said, quiet.
My heart sank. “Past borderline?”
The two boys nodded in unison.
The sensation of gut sinking joined the feeling at the center of my chest, and swept through my entire body. That down feeling, the sick drop that was associated with the moments before disaster struck.
We passed through the portal.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“My brothers,” Damsel said. “After a fashion.”
Brothers? My mind turned to that particular riddle. Ashley had never mentioned anything which meant she wasn’t talking about blood brothers. She was talking about a different kind of kinship. They’d been cloned, and that meant these two were Slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouse meant-
I went through a filing cabinet in my mind’s eye, a dozen faces and masks making their fleeting appearances.
“Jack?” I asked, my heart skipping a beat. “No. Harbingers?”
“Yes,” she said.
“You were close,” Harbinger One said.
“You were active pre-internet. That’s my excuse,” I said. “Can I trust you?”
“Does it change anything if we say no?” Harbinger Two asked.
I saw a wounded Ashley, knew Tristan was inside Byron, cleaved in half. I had the grisly image of Lookout and Darlene, of Juliette, Amias, Flor… the Navigators. Sveta.
I could see the others. Looking back, I saw Sveta just beyond the portal’s boundary, which was marked in tape on the floor. The tendrils were gathered into a rough human silhouette, many long enough that they had to coil or wrap around her like a spring. Some were weaving into one another to form complex braids.
“No,” I decided.
I gave the signal to the other group. Rain hit the button.
The portal behind us crackled as it shifted. The ‘view’ distorted, a texture like television static rippling across the periphery. I hadn’t even realized it had a proper shape beyond being a rough three-dimensional blob. It had been a building, of some peculiar architecture, it seemed.
I turned away.
“Swansong, there you are,” Damsel said, as we drew nearer. “How clumsy of you, to lose a foot.”
“It’s clumsier to taunt the woman who is very irritated at having lost a foot,” Swansong retorted. “The pain is making my temper short. Don’t test it.”
“Bad mood. I might have to make it worse, not that I want to,” Damsel said.
“Worse?” Rain asked.
Damsel met my eyes.
Oh. She wants to mention the situation in the city.
I beat her to the punch. “March got to one of the time effects. It was the Killington Mayor, in an area that was folded into Brockton Bay.”
“What happened?” Brandish asked.
“Broken trigger,” I said, my voice soft. I could remember the last one I’d been present for. The construction worker’s rally. It had been bad. This was apparently worse by orders of magnitude. “It incapacitated everyone in the ruins of Brockton Bay and left them defenseless while the initial effects took place. They’re calling it a Class-S problem. Not a threat, because that implies a consciousness, but…”
“Everyone on duty offworld and internationally has been pulled to assist,” Harbinger One said.
“Really?” I asked.
He nodded. So often a steady gaze was associated with confidence, but his eyes searched without wavering, and they were more disconcerting because of it. “It’s dangerous to enter the city, and it’s dangerous to move around, but as soon as this storm passes, March will continue going after her prize. Precogs and other thinkers are still having nosebleeds or hitting walls when trying to figure out a way to get ahead of her.”
Same as before. That meant this wasn’t an isolated incident. It was even possible that everyone who was released from time bubbles was going to trigger the instant they were released. Possible that everyone who was released was going to be a broken trigger.
There was a whole group of people caught in a time effect in the scar. Three at once?
I wasn’t going to rule out worst-case scenarios.
“Should we turn back?” Capricorn asked.
“If you do, you’ll find yourself waiting at the periphery of the effect with everyone else,” Harbinger One said. “There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to help.”
“No guarantee I won’t,” Capricorn answered.
Harbinger Two said, “The employer of my brother and myself is of the opinion that we’re best utilized to go after her co-conspirators. We should find out what they know and what they want. There are hints they know too much and we’re curious how.”
Harbinger One said, “Prime example: we have logs of exchanges between them referring to the broken triggers by a much more accurate label.”
“What?” I asked. “You know something about broken triggers?”
“They called it a structural issue, which isn’t our terminology, but it’s better terminology,” Harbinger One said.
“I hate to interrupt,” Rain interrupted.
I reached out, grabbing him by the front of his costume. “Don’t.”
“Victoria,” my mom said.
“And you- don’t do that,” I said, to my mom, still holding Rain by his front. “This is important. Harbingers, what’s going on with the broken triggers- the structurally flawed triggers?”
“Time’s short,” Rain said, behind me, before either Harbinger provided me an answer. “By my watch, it’s only going to be a few minutes before my cluster passes out. Me included.”
I turned to look at him. His head hung a little. He didn’t want to be in this position.
“There will be time for answers later,” Harbinger One said. “Make your arrangements for Precipice.”
No there won’t, I thought, incensed by the interruption and the derail. We always need more answers than there’s time to get them.
Pushing for the information now wouldn’t work, and there were too many other things to do. As if tacitly acknowledging this, Harbinger One was stepping over to the window to peer outside.
“You’ll want to give them very specific orders,” Swansong said. She was leaning against a wall, her hair in an atypical sort of disarray. “Don’t get distracted.”
“These two?” Capricorn asked.
“It would be smart,” Harbinger One said. “We’d do things our way, but we’ve been forewarned that you wouldn’t like our methods.”
“What methods?” Flashbang asked.
Swansong gave the answer. “They’d go out the front door, into the hail of gunfire. They’d kill or maim every threat and every potential threat and then torture answers out of the survivors.”
“You oversell us,” Harbinger One said. “Not into the hail of gunfire. Not in the late evening when visibility is low.”
“I stand corrected,” Swansong said.
“If it was just capes who were aware of what Cradle’s group did and were condoning it, maybe,” I said. “But there are civilians in that town, and I doubt capes living out in the corner worlds are fully aware of all the context. No killing.”
“Then we’re at your disposal,” Harbinger One said. “No killing.”
“No maiming, no permanent damage. Not civilians.”
“No permanent damage includes mental scarring from trauma. Don’t break them,” Foil said.
The Harbinger spread his arms, before uttering the least believable, “We’ll be good,” I’d ever heard.
I looked over the group. Some strong, capable capes. A lot of people I trusted and knew how to work with. And then the handful I didn’t.
And three overlarge canines, who were on the dangerous side of neutral.
“You trust Cassie?” I asked Rachel.
“Mm,” was the unhelpful response.
“Why?” Cassie asked.
“Someone has to take the controller that unlocks the portal, and someone needs to look after Precipice,” I said. “You don’t have powers?”
She shook her head. “And I’m glad.”
My estimation of her rose by just a little, even without the approval from Rachel.
My glance in Rachel’s direction as I thought that seemed to be a cue for her to say something.
“She’s never disappointed me,” Rachel said. “Some of my old teammates, but not Cassie.”
I saw Cassie react to that, like someone could have knocked her on her ass with the gentlest push.
“You’re good with it?” I asked Rain. “We’ll leave you with her.”
“Take Yips,” Rachel said.
“Yes ma’am,” Cassie said.
Rain joined Cassie, at the side of the group. A dog loomed above him, but he didn’t look too intimidated.
My mom and my dad were talking, standing by one window. The two Harbingers took another window. Damsel and Swansong hung back, having a murmured conversation. One long clawed finger pointed at the Harbingers.
As help went, they seemed like more complication than actual assistance.
“What’s it look like out there?” I asked. Byron was standing by the window.
A gauntleted finger pointed, indicating. “Lights are on, including some bigger lights, not much cover of darkness. Some people outside, some armed. A good number of capes.”
“Any sign they’re guarding a specific building or direction?”
Byron shook his head.
“It’s warmer here than back home,” Flashbang said, from a few feet away. “But they’re still motivated to stay where they’re out of the wind and weather. They’ve been told to be on guard, but nothing specific.”
Back home, I thought. Having an apartment, I’d almost reached the point that I could start thinking about it as home, and then the original occupant had arrived. Two of her, in a manner of speaking. I didn’t think of Gimel as home, hadn’t thought of Crystal’s apartment or my dad’s apartment as home.
I hadn’t thought of the care house as home. Or the hospital room.
Home was Brockton Bay and home had been in ruins even before today happened.
Byron moved out of the way, and I peered out the window. I could see the construction lights that had been rigged up in place of streetlights, too bright and wide-area. Homes were small and one-story, all prefab and few with any attempt to hide the fact that they were prefab.
“Even if you find Cradle or Love Lost, maybe Colt, you won’t be able to wake them,” Rain was telling Foil.
“Pain? Drugs?” Chastity asked.
“No, I’m pretty sure. Cradle tried using a power to throw a wrench into things once. When I talked to March about it, she said that Cradle hired someone called Snaggletooth, a cape that invaded dreams. The woman ended up brain dead.”
“You have someone else now,” I said. “Colt. Is that going to be an invasion or an addition?”
“I’ll find out in a few minutes,” Rain said, looking at his phone. I saw him sigh.
The settlement around the station was tricky. So much of it was illuminated so brightly that it seemed to cast the remainder into darker shadow. There were places where I wasn’t sure if the dark shapes were buildings, rocks or trees. With the construction being so cheap and so quick, even down to there being corrugated steel roofs and plywood, the windows weren’t exactly of the insulated double-pane sort. They were drafty and to deal with drafty many of the residents put up heavy blankets or blocked the windows outright, at least for the colder months.
I’d seen enough of it while working with the Patrol.
And blocked windows didn’t shed light unless someone peeked out.
I wished we had Lookout, to map this area. It would have changed everything about our approach. But she was still getting medical care, for what little it was worth.
Byron tapped the glass of the window we were looking out of. “If we leave out the front door, then we’ll have twenty eyes on us. Ten seconds later, we’ll have a good hundred people ready to deal with us.”
“Side door, then. Has to be.”
“The layout of this place is pretty simple. It’s not a big station. It might not have one.”
“It’s a station though. It has employees on a good day. Let’s look for the employee entrance, wherever they go for a breath of air or smoke.”
Some stayed behind to keep an eye out the windows and the glass of the door, while, at my indication, the rest of us fanned out, checking the building. Rain’s blades cut the bulletproof glass that walled off the security booth. I flew through, while he retreated back to Cassie and Doon.
There was a side door, by a supply area that looked like a quadruple-size broom closet and small workshop combined. Some old construction material lay by the wall.
The door was securely locked, at the top and by the knob.
A bit of light in my peripheral vision got my attention. I could hear the familiar crackle, and stepped aside.
My mother pushed a spike of light through the lock, then reached up, letting the spike extend to reach the one above. White-hot metal dripped down.
“Lights,” she said.
I turned and flicked the lights off. The only illumination was from the station interior. The storage room and this employee-only area were dark, illuminated only by the spike.
She held the spike out of the way while she cracked the door open, pressing her head to the crack, then pulled back. The spike was held against palm with her thumb to provide illumination as the four fingers were held up.
The hallway here being dark would mean that anyone outside wouldn’t see a sliver of light appear. And that was good, because there were apparently four of them.
“Assault rifles. Your dad could deal with it, but that gets noisy.”
Four of them with guns.
I hesitated. I could send the Harbingers, but I didn’t trust them.
“Go back, tell others to clear the way, then have Sveta come here. She can deal with it. She should be hanging back near the portal.”
My mother nodded.
Others had filtered into the back area. I bid them to draw nearer. Chastity and the Harbingers. Once they were in the storage room, I partially closed the door.
“I love how in sync you two are,” Chastity said.
At first, I thought she’d meant me and my mom, and I wanted to laugh. Then I saw she was talking to the Harbingers.
“It’s not on purpose,” Harbinger One said. “When you’re very good at doing what makes the most sense in a given moment, you usually do the same things most moments.”
“It helps that we have the same DNA, we grew up together, and we enjoy each other’s company,” the other one clarified.
“Believe me, growing up together does not mean you get along,” Chastity said.
I closed my eyes, blanking out my thoughts to avoid connecting that thought to anything relevant.
She continued, “What happens if you diverge? Does that screw up the sync?”
“If we go our separate ways, then we go our separate ways,” Harbinger One said. “The coordination follows from other things, not from us. Understanding. A little bit of programming.”
“But we won’t go our separate ways,” Harbinger Two added. “Probably.”
“If one of you got a girlfriend..?” Chastity asked, “Hm?”
“Wouldn’t happen,” Harbinger Two said.
“Ah-ha. What a shame.”
“No,” Harbinger Two said. “We like girls. But it wouldn’t be one of us. We’d come as a set.”
“Yes,” Harbinger One said. “We get jealous.”
“Two boys who care about their appearance, in good standing with the Mayor, even. Lucky girl.”
“Five boys,” Harbinger One said.
Chastity made an amused sound. I just shook my head.
I heard the rustling that was Sveta tumbling into the area. I flicked the light switch off and on in the storage room.
I felt the jostling at the knob a second before the pull came, forceful enough to potentially tear the door from its hinges. I was ready for it, and held the door firm as Sveta pulled herself to the end of the hallway and the employee door.
“Hi,” she said, from the other side of the door. “Rai- Precipice passed out.”
“Alright. As expected.”
“Sorry that took a second. We had to wait until people got out of the way. I figured you had your forcefield. Or… a door.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You wanted me?”
“Wondering if you feel up for this?” I asked. “Four people outside. Heavily armed. We need a silent takedown. We have Chastity here.”
“As well as Thing One and Thing Two,” one of the Harbingers said.
“I can try,” she said. “It really does help. Precipice’s power. It’s awful while it’s working, but… I feel like I did when I left with Weld. As ready as I’ll be. Scared, but part of that’s the fear you get when it could work out okay.”
Left the Asylum.
“Focus on arms and legs.”
“Yeah,” Sveta said, her voice soft. “I can do that, at least.”
If all of this goes wrong and she does end up hurting someone, it’s best it’s kept to serious damage to an arm or a leg.
“Can you get the door?”
“I think so. Be ready in case I toss anyone your way.”
“Got it. Whistle?”
“You know I suck at whistling. I’ll shout if I can’t do it.”
“Not too loud,” I told her.
I heard the door open. I felt the cold air pour into the station. Not that the station was warm.
“-wiped the asses and changed the diapers of cold-behind-the-eyes killers,” Chastity was murmuring. “Doesn’t scare me.”
“Chastity,” I said.
“Full-grown, or-?” Harbinger One asked.
“When they were babies. But they were screwed from the get-go. Heavy exposure to emotion powers before they had teeth.”
“Chastity,” I said, “Focus on the task at hand.”
“What do you need?” she asked.
“Outside. We might need takedowns.”
She nodded, approaching the door. I stepped around the door of the workshop broom closet.
“All I’m saying is I’m not scared,” Chastity told the Harbingers. “I grew up with hot-blooded killers, cold-blooded killers. I saw them evolve, I know most of the tricks.”
I flew. Out the door, into the cool outside. Compared to the temperature back in the city, it didn’t feel right to call it cold, but it was borderline freezing out, and a light rain was pattering down.
As I stepped outside, I felt a tendril encircle my neck.
Wretch, the idea crossed my mind. My forcefield extended from my skin, then unfurled. The tendril squeezed, limiting expansion, then released as what it was gripping became ten feet across.
I whistled, one quick sound. To confirm I was okay, and to signal for the teamwork.
The first hired gun was flung our way as if by an invisible force, whipped through the air by one limb, that arm twisting awkwardly as it absorbed the force of the whipcrack.
Chastity stepped out of the building. I put myself between Sveta and her.
No need to worry. The tendril at my neck had been an isolated incident.
Chastity slapped the man who had fallen a few feet from the door.
Two more, one after the other. One was flung by the waist, the other was disarmed, backing away from her, which meant he was moving in our direction. A multi-tendril strike thrust him out as a massive push.
I flew, orienting myself to catch him, then use the rotation of my body and the direction of my flight to heave him more in Chastity’s direction.
Chastity knocked out one more, and was starting to move toward the third when a fourth was hurled at us. Immediately after that fourth were more. Pulled from around the corner.
“Too many!” Chastity shouted.
I intercepted two. Rather than leave them for her to deal with, I hit them while they were airborne. Ribs cracked, leg broken. I winced as I saw the one with a broken leg land with his leg under him. His scream was strangled.
There had been a squad of hired guns just around the corner, to the left of where the main door jutted out of the front of the building, all huddled in a corner where two of the station’s walls blocked off the wind and the overhang kept the rain off.
Sveta wrapped herself around a post. For a moment, in the gloom, she looked like a person of indistinguishable silhouette, her face pale.
Every movement was calculated. Even the distance to the post.
I ventured closer, aware of the range mostly by how aware she was of it. I put my hand out flat, toward her.
“Stop?” she asked, quiet.
“You mean stop?”
“No,” I said. I kept the hand where it was, waiting.
“Oh,” I heard her.
The tendril slapped my hand in a high-five.
“Don’t be so down on yourself, okay?” I asked. “If the two of us are being careful, I think we’re alright.”
“It’s been a long time,” she said. “I haven’t been doing exercises, except for that misery-training with Rain before.”
“You’re doing fine.”
I could hear the slaps as Chastity knocked out the last people.
We stood in the shadows at the very edge of an area one of the construction lights illuminated. The heat from the light had melted snow in a patch, while leaving snow intact just an inch away. The other members of the group joined us. My mom and dad. Capricorn. Foil. Ashley and Damsel. Rachel and… two very non-mutant dogs.
“Your teammate cut them out,” Rachel said.
“They weren’t leaving the building without going through the front doors,” Foil said. “He cut them open so we could get the dogs out.”
“Whatever works,” Capricorn said.
“The scent trail leads through the town,” Rachel said, her hand on the hound’s back, as it sniffed at the ground, lifting one leg so the ‘wrist’ pointed forward.
Through an armed populace. Past a settlement where capes that didn’t want to integrate into proper society were collecting.
“Go around,” I said, pointing. “It doesn’t make sense that they’re in this town, so close to things. We’ll see if we pick up a scent at the perimeter.”
Rachel made a small whistling sound. The wolf and hound followed her. Others began jogging, taking the indicated path.
I floated, hesitating and watching. Sveta stayed where she was.
“Go,” she said.
“Did you catch everything earlier, when we were all talking?”
“Most of it. The Harbingers. The broken triggers that aren’t broken.”
“Don’t worry about me. Don’t feel you have to, okay? I’ll manage. I can deal with the bad days. I’ve got support, friends. Jessica’s back, and she’ll get in touch soon. Weld is out there, and all I’ve wanted to do from the beginning was to stand shoulder to shoulder with him.”
I thought about my conversation with Weld.
“I’m sorry it’s a bad day.”
She gave me a push, hard enough I would have fallen if I hadn’t been flying.
“I’m figuring out how to do my part, I’m doing what I wanted, even if it isn’t pretty. Thank you for giving me an excuse to risk it. But I’ll manage. Really. Go help the people who won’t manage.”
I looked at the other group.
“Yeah,” I said.
Sveta took the long way around, going up onto the top of the station, then circling around through the shadows of the encampment on the far right, while we traced a route along the left. Swansong was struggling with her footing, so I floated down, giving her support.
The hound huffed, almost barking, until Rachel shushed it. I saw its tail wag.
“Found it?” Foil asked.
Byron said, “We’re moving forward on foot. Are they in a car, is there any clue?”
“If they’re hitching a ride, then they have the windows open. And I don’t see fresh tire marks.”
Rachel indicated the half-frozen mud.
“I’ll take your word for it,” Byron said.
“It’s a good skill to know,” my mom said. “Admirable.”
“I don’t care,” Rachel said. “I just want to hurt the people who hurt the kids.”
“I agree,” my mom said. “One hundred percent.”
I turned to look back. A group of villains and corner-world civilians, all banding together. If there was a situation where I could have laid out the facts, told them the stakes, then how would they react?
“They might follow,” Chastity said. “Attack us from behind.”
“They might. They’re reinforcements for the people we’re really after,” I said.
“I can slow them down,” Foil said. “I count eight vehicles.”
“From this range? You don’t have any crossbow shots.”
“Range barely matters when you ignore gravity and air resistance,” she said. She had darts- though ‘dart’ was a misnomer. They were pencil-length, sharpened at both end, and looked to be singular pieces of metal.
“Do it,” I heard Swansong.
Flechette threw. One dart per throw.
There were no explosions. No dramatic movements or responses.
“Done,” Foil said.
I could see Crested down in that crowd, now that we were almost on the far end of the encampment. That meant Bluestocking was here or hereabouts – she had broken Crested out just a few days ago. I saw Moose, with another figure that might have been Prancer.
Factors to consider. That they had the means to detect us but hadn’t- they might be a consideration later. That they had a few people who could catch up. People who fit in weirdly- seeing Moose made me think of the weirdly civil true-to-the-‘game’ interactions I’d had with the guy. What would he think about Cradle’s whip?
So far, we hadn’t been detected. So far, we weren’t being chased. So far-
-So far, not so good. Not while it was a disaster in Brockton Bay. Not while we were stuck playing catch-up.
We hurried to catch up to others. Swansong looked unsteady, so I continued to offer her my shoulder.
“My new leg keeps digging into the ground,” she said. “The parts that look soft and muddy are hard and slippery and the parts that should be hard are soggy enough I sink in. It’s ridiculous.”
“I hear you,” I told her.
“I think less of any gnatwit that would live in this sty.”
“If you’re going to be a villain, at least have some pride. Manors, mansions, towers. Have roads, not slicks of frozen mud.”
“Marquis was like that,” my mother said.
I couldn’t help but involuntarily tense when she engaged the discussion.
“Credit to him,” Swansong said. I could see how drawn her expression was. Walking was hard, even with my supporting arm, and she was in pain.
“He lived here, in this mudpit, so maybe not so much credit,” I said. The tension was worse, because I knew the line we were straddling. Where my mom stood. Where Swansong stood on the topic of villainy. That Damsel was off to the side and how Damsel couldn’t help but pick at weaknesses, especially when that weakness was demonstrated by a reflection of herself. They squabbled and bullied each other in an ongoing effort to ensure they each met their mutual standards, and that was fine until one of them needed a supporting hand rather than a push forward.
Damsel was being very, very good, all considered, but this was a topic loaded with buttons.
“Can we drop it?” I asked. “The topic?”
“You can,” Damsel said. “We lived in a trash-heap, once upon a time. Hiding from the law. Didn’t we, Swan?”
“Marquis moved on to rule a world,” Damsel said.
“We could quibble about the definition of rule,” my mom said. “But I’m biased. I don’t think much of the man.”
“Really.” Damsel sounded genuinely surprised.
“We have a complicated history with him,” I said, my voice more curt than I intended. I’d really wanted this conversation to die, and it wasn’t. A part of me hoped that the people involved would catch the tone or read the signal, or that an abrupt rejoinder to the conversation with no easy follow-up would bring it to an awkward halt.
That part of me was really fucking stupid, because nobody that was participating was good at stopping. Fuck me.
“You don’t have to like him,” Damsel said, “But if you know his power you should fear him, and if you know what he’s accomplished you should respect him.”
“I don’t like him, I don’t respect him, and I don’t fear him,” my mom said. “I’ve wrestled with my feelings about him for a long time and I’ve decided that he’s not worth thinking about. He’s pathetic.”
“Woah,” I said.
“He ended up in a position of power with underlings, money, fine things, respect, power, and fan followings. He’s reached a point that others only dream of.”
“There’s a flaw in your thinking,” my mother said. “You say he ended up like this, that he reached a certain point. It doesn’t work that way. Where he is, it isn’t the end. He has the rest of his life to live, and I guarantee you, he won’t be where he is now in five years. Because any fear or respect he claims to have isn’t earned, it’s stolen. It’s forced. And that never lasts. It never leads to a legacy. He is small.”
“Then what are you? I don’t even know what team you belong to. What credits do you have to your name? That you can wear a tight-fitting costume without completely embarrassing yourself at your age? What do you even do?”
“I’m a lawyer of some repute. I’m a mother. I’m a heroine of some capability.”
“A lawyer in a world without any laws, a heroine I’ve never seen or heard of, and as for the mother part, if it isn’t obvious seeing two of you interact for five seconds-”
Damsel made a small scoffing sound.
I could see my mother’s expression change at that. Shock. Like it was somehow a surprise. Because it was a thing? Or that it was that obvious?
“Hey,” I said. “Damsel. My business, not yours.”
Was I defending my mother, interrupting Damsel? Should I have been?
“This is between me and her,” Damsel said, indicating my mom.
“No,” Swansong said. Her hand clutched my arm a little tighter. “When my teammate and our housemate draws the line, respect it. Or you’re disrespecting both of us.”
I saw Damsel pause. She was riding a high, being combative, going toe to toe with my mom. Enjoying it, as bitter as the discussion objectively seemed .
“Fine,” she said.
“What he steals and earns, he doesn’t keep,” my mother said, and her voice was hard, now. While we’d talked and debated among ourselves, my mom had been formulating her argument. I was more than familiar with it, from my times getting in trouble as a teenager. “He might live in a manor for a few weeks or months, but he spends years in jails. He’s never married. He’s never celebrated an anniversary or enjoyed the quiet kind of love, if he’s ever known love at all. He never held his daughter when she was a newborn because her mother was scared to bring up the pregnancy. He, as I understand it, never celebrated a birthday with his daughter that wasn’t in prison.”
I winced at the mention of Amy.
“Some people don’t want those things,” Damsel said.
“He wants it,” my mother said. “I saw how he looked when he had to give his daughter away. I saw how he looked when he greeted her in prison, roughly ten years later. He’s a hollow man. The more he dresses up or surrounds himself with pretty things, the more obvious that hollowness becomes. In the end, he’ll die ignobly in a fight against another cape, and he’ll leave absolutely nothing behind except for a lick of his DNA.”
“You don’t know anything,” Damsel said, and her voice was harder. “You’re bitter and you’re straining yourself to paint him as something lesser, because doing anything else would be admitting you’re a distant second to him, as a washed-up heroine and a lawyer without a job. His daughter chose to be with him. Your daughter can’t wait to be out of your presence. So what kind of legacy do you think you’ve left?”
“Hey,” I said. “I drew the line, you just crossed it. That’s it- conversation done.”
Damsel seemed to take that declaration as more of a victory than an admonishment. Chin raised, she stared down at my mother. My mother met her gaze with a level stare.
“Split up,” I said. “Each of you, separate. Please. What we’ve got lined up is going to be hard enough without infighting.”
They didn’t budge. It took my dad stepping in. Quiet through the fights as always, because he liked to think, to do instead of say, but that sometimes meant doing nothing and saying nothing at times when things really needed to be said.
But he guided my mom away, to watch our flanks.
I was aware of how incensed Ashley was as Damsel walked off to the side.
“I’m afraid to ask,” I murmured. Is that you being upset at Marquis being slandered, just as Damsel is, is it in my defense, both, or neither?
“Best don’t,” she said. She gave my arm a pat, flinched as her broken arm crackled, and leaned away, walking on her own.
Other buildings were in view now. They were closer to the manors and towers that Ashley had declared so essential than the rush-built homes closer to the station.
“We’re getting closer,” Rachel said. “Go slow. Something’s off with the road.”
“Off how?” Capricorn asked.
Rachel didn’t reply, only pointing.
In the mud of the road, a hole had been left, angled. As if someone had done a really shitty job of planting a flag, pulled it out, and carried it off.
She pointed at another.
“Slower,” she said. Her wolf’s ears twitched, and as it turned to look, Rachel and Foil did. I was next, and others followed my cue.
Only darkness, off to our left. If there was anyone out there, they were well hidden.
Chastity backed up, stepping onto the slope nearer the ditch.
“Don’t,” Rachel said, when she saw. “Move carefully.”
“Traps?” Foil asked.
“It’s something,” Rachel said. Her hand went out, indicating the direction that the enemy group was, as they moved through the darkness. Her other hand rested on her half-grown wolf’s head. “It’s not going to be a good something.”
The glow was visible through the glare, almost mistakable for a phantom image from looking at other lights. It hit the road, streaking across it before going from red hot to a red-black, then black.
“Etna,” I said. I took to the air. “Bluestocking’s group, she’s-”
The molten glass globs sailed our way, and this time there was no mistaking the volley for a trick of the eyes. I flew forward to intercept, but they were spread out enough I could only block one. Swansong and Damsel used their powers to try to blast shots out of the air. Damsel succeeded. Swansong missed.
The group backed up, and I heard Rachel bark, “No!”
Red lights flared, all around the group. I saw the Harbingers spring up and back. One landed on Capricorn’s back, the other on Flashbang’s shoulder, perching.
A carpet of red lighting crackled between the points of red, where traps had been laid. It lanced through legs and the bodies of those who were crouching.
The group toppled. The Harbingers sprung forward from their perches on higher ground, landing back on the road, while others tipped into the ditch of fell flat.
Swansong hadn’t suffered as much, because she had only the one leg, and she hadn’t been as close to the ditch. Her sister had fallen. My mom and dad were down. My mom hadn’t managed to orb up. Rachel was down, as was the hound, but the wolf remained up, alarmed and growling. Byron had fallen, landing belly-down on the ground.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Spasms,” my dad grunted. “Every muscle twisting and cramping. Fuck!”
They weren’t bouncing back. Not fast enough it would matter.
Chastity, off to the side, reached out to a Harbinger for support. They caught her, but as her leg spasmed, she fell. They eased her down.
“We’re going to be ungentlemanly and leave you behind while we deal with this,” one of them said to her.
I could see the enemy now. A tall man in flowing clothes. Two case fifty-threes. Etna. One of the Fourth Sect mercenaries.
We had multiple people who were down. Myself. The Harbingers. Sveta. Ashley.
“Paris,” Byron said, identifying the tall man.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I could have killed him-” he stopped to grunt. “Last time.”
“We can kill him,” the Harbingers said. “Just say the word.”
I saw Byron hesitate.
He wasn’t a killer. Now that I knew Chris was Lab Rat, I could peg just about everyone in Breakthrough, Byron and myself excluded, as people who had taken lives. It was in files. Tristan had taken life in only a loose sense, murdering his brother, and charges of attempted murder had been considered, because that was the closest equivalent they could find in the law.
But for Byron and I, it meant something else.
“I feel responsible,” Byron said. “I know I shouldn’t, I know he’s scum, but-”
“He saw what Cradle did?” I asked.
“He helped,” Byron said, voice tighter. “Fuck this hurts.”
The red lightning had stopped, but the spasms were clearly continuing.
“If he helped, then the Harbingers can kill him.”
I let those words stand. Cold even in the winter air.
They dashed forward. Red lights began to blink across the field, and they were swift enough to be clear of the area before the red lighting happened, legs cutting through the heaped lumps of snow where bushes or crops had been, skipping over the divots and dips where irrigation ditches had been. They were faster than some would be on flat ground.
My first mind was to playing defense. Etna was hurling globs, and her intent clearly wasn’t to hit our group. She wanted to herd, to take the group that was struggling and force them into continual retreat, deeper into the patch of traps.
But her aim wasn’t perfect. One splash landed close, and it splashed, gobbets flying toward the group. One hit Byron’s armor, only missing his eye because he ducked his head at the last second. Another hit my mother, a quarter-sized lump.
I caught and blocked the next. I could see her floating above the field, a heat shimmer surrounding her, the air steaming.
Swansong’s power blasted. As I went high, she went low. I went right, and she seemed to watch me, darting left. She stumbled, used her power, skidded and almost tripped over irrigation. But she was closing the distace and helping to apply pressure. Etna threw one globe at each of us, but in her haste to do so, her aim sailed widely off the mark.
It hit everyone present like a truck. In one moment, I could hear the grunts of pain and frustration. The bursts of power. Sveta and the Harbingers were focusing on Paris’s main group. It was noise. Flashes of power and light. I could see Capricorn’s constellation.
Then it was silence, just for an instant. A flicker of an image across my mind’s eye, a blip in the senses, and my power went out from under me like collapsing scaffolding.
As I fell I could see Paris lurch forward, catching one of the reeling Harbingers. I saw Swansong fall, reaching out to use her power to counter-balance and not finding it.
I saw Sveta go utterly limp, too close to the enemy.
And I fell. It was only a few seconds, but a few seconds of falling made for a hard landing, especially when that landing was on hard earth. The air went out of me.
None of us here were in a position to trigger for the first time.
Couldn’t be a second trigger. Too brief, no excuse for it, at the opening of a fight.
No. It felt heavier and weaker. Like the crackle of thunder as lightning struck a long distance away.
Already, I could feel my power start to creep back in, but it was a hundredth of what it was supposed to be.
Too little to matter, as red lights illuminated around me, triggered by my proximity or the impact of my landing.