I stared into the glare of a red light that shone out of a hole in the ground. The two Harbingers had found the time to leap up onto the backs of others. I wasn’t so nimble, not after a fall. I chose to rely on base instinct. Fight, flight, or freeze. The latter two were out. I punched the red light, putting fist into glass.
I rolled to my feet, and by the light of a sliver of a moon, the dark gray of snow wasn’t a factor, nor were the combatants, the road, the rises and dips of ground. The only thing that mattered were the handful of red lights near me.
In my hurry to get back I performed a movement that was probably only logical or sensible if one were a seal or if they spent far too much time flying, half-rolling, half kicking, transitioning into a mad lunge-
In my hurry to get away from two lights I found myself with three in my immediate proximity. I started to pull away, seeing them go from stationary red to a mad blinking.
“Forward!” was the shout.
I hurled myself at the red lights, drawing on that one-twentieth of the ability to fly that I’d recouped to move a little faster.
The whip struck the earth by the side of the road. It didn’t break the lights, but it disturbed the placement of one, where it was in muddier. As I pushed forward, the red lightning arced across my upper body instead. A glancing hit, momentary, as the arc lanced through me, cut out, then resumed behind me.
The shock and the sudden pain made my heart skip, and it didn’t start again. My muscles spasmed and joints strained across my arms, shoulders, and hands, and I couldn’t convince my body to take a breath, nor could I make my heart beat in a way that meant anything.
I toppled, landing with my head and upper body on the road, arms curled up in front of me, trapped between my torso and the road. My legs, insignificant in the moment, were left draped along the steep incline between ditch and road.
I would have called out for help or first aid, if I could’ve breathed.
Time of death was given at the moment of the flatline, the arrest of the heart. Was I already dead and unaware of the fact?
I twisted, kicking out with one leg to try to get to a position where I wasn’t staring at the ground. I could see some of the road and some of the field where the villains had been making their approach. Harbinger one was down, and two was wounded, making a limping retreat.
Etna had fallen out of the air too. Paris didn’t have his power but was putting up a fight, keeping the remaining Harbinger on his heels. One of the case fifty-threes was grabbing Sveta by the mass behind her face, where organs were hidden in the morass of tendrils. Sveta and the other case fifty-three were limp, barely moving. The powers that gave them the ability to move weren’t, at least for the moment.
I could hear a small, high pitched sound that seemed to rise in volume by the second. It wasn’t in my head either. The higher-pitched noise drew the attention of Rachel’s animal, which no longer had a handler. It pawed closer, head low, every inch of it radiating hostility and tension. And it was mutated and nearly its full size, which meant there were a hell of a lot of fucking inches of it.
A short whistle from Rachel made the animal stop. The ongoing sound made its head turn back in my general direction again.
In a lapse between alternating twinges and spasms of my shoulder, I felt a vibration at my throat, and realized the sound was coming from me.
I made the strained whining sound stop, a process that saw me making an ‘agh’ gasp, then figured out breathing as an extension of that. With breathing resuming, air surging into my lungs, I felt my heartbeat flutter, blood pumped, and the spasms became worse.
A whistle drew the wolf’s attention again, and this time it walked off, staying as close to its master as it could without treading into dangerous, trapped ground.
Every fucking one of my nerves were kicking off, forcing movements, causing muscles to jerk, pull, or just hold a too-flexed position until they cramped. At any given moment there were at least six points in my arms and hands where it felt like wedges were being driven in deep into center mass of muscle or between muscle and bone.
My power was still just not there. Flight that couldn’t actually hold me up. An aura that felt like a memory of a feeling. The Wretch- a forcefield so small that it didn’t extend any further than my clothes. So fragile that my attempt at moving scraped it across the ground and destroyed it.
Swansong used her power, and it was a spitting of power, barely extending a foot and a half past her hand. She’d fallen, sliding into the ditch, and the use of her power destroyed one of the red lights.
Chastity had pulled herself up onto the road, but it looked like her legs were mostly disabled, and the spasms there made it hard for her to even sit up. Byron was beside her, and he was pretty badly off.
As traps went, it was effective. Most of our group was out of action. Now-
I shifted my weight, leaned back, then threw myself forward, getting to my feet. My flight did about five percent of the work. My boots skidded on the side of the road, putting me further into the ditch, while reminding me I had a row of stitches on the underside of my foot. As my boots hit the lowest point of the ditch, a red light appeared, joined by others, further away. I stumbled away as they crackled to life.
Each trap generated the red arcs about two feet around them, just on their own, but they also activated nearby traps that were even ten feet away, and the chains of electricity that connected each were what created the carpet.
I could make headway, I was pretty sure, but it was staggered headway. If I was at the edge, I could avoid the worst of it, triggering them, waiting, then advancing until I triggered others. Each crackle made my arms spasm almost sympathetically.
They were fucking hurting Sveta, and there was nothing I could do about it.
No flight, no strength, no aura. Just me and a minefield.
Swansong used her power again. She was on her knees, lashing out to destroy the traps that illuminated around her. I saw her stagger to her feet, make it a few steps, only to collapse again.
I could see the expression on her face, all softness gone, only darkness behind eyes that smoked visibly with Kenzie’s tech.
Immediately, I started fighting my way back up the ditch, to the road where the traps weren’t set, then I jogged as best as I was able when my arms and shoulders were fighting me, jerking this way and that. I was a person wearing a straightjacket, the strings being tugged and jerked this way and that.
It had been Swansong that had made the… the utterance. Not a word I’d expected from her mouth. Not a tone I’d imagined either, but one that made a profound kind of sense. An order – she’d wanted to be the team’s leader at one point. A plea – she had been a member of the therapy group, and to sit in on a therapy session she’d had to bring herself to ask for help before.
No, a plea… because she cared enough that she wanted to help Sveta much as I did.
I took the path that she’d clearly taken, off the road, into ditch, then into field. Across what had been farmland, ridged with where the irrigation and crops had been. A red light flared to my right, and I veered left, away while still heading forward.
“My arms don’t work,” I told her.
“Neither does my leg. Give me your body,” she said.
She laid a hand across my back, fingers and fingernails digging into the back of my neck, the raw material of her damaged arm biting through the fabric of my costume.
Wasn’t- hadn’t her arm sparked earlier? Was that a danger?
The case fifty-three had Sveta’s face in its hands. It was a weirdly shaped figure, squat bodied, but with a skinny neck topped with a normally sized head. All was clad in what looked like cylindrical extensions of shell, white and ornamented like a castle with crenellations. What the shell didn’t cover was ropy, yellow, and slick with fluids. A notch was inset into one shoulder, making it so one arm seemed to practically float in the air, joined to the body at armpit but not at shoulder.
I was put in mind of a ‘rook’ chess piece, given arms and legs, with internal workings that dripped phlegm. I was especially mindful that the arm that was barely attached didn’t seem strong, but it was gaining strength as its powers returned.
My powers- one fifteenth of what they should be, maybe, if I judged by ‘flight’ alone.
I was Swansong’s legs, her arm at my back and her body lined up beside mine. With an arm that still spasmed -still, and only from a glancing contact with the lightning- I tried to hold her around the waist, to keep her upright.
The red lights appeared. Swansong lashed at them as they came into her meager reach. It was a flirtation with danger, because her power’s range was so abysmal like this, the effect of that power random within the area. Sometimes a twist, sometimes a tear, sometimes annihilation, but not always in a straight line, aimed in the direction her hand extended. Sometimes it veered left, sometimes right.
How long until we got unlucky? If we had two seconds and her power struck out wildly with six lashes of power in that span of time, three lashes if we were slow to react or get her in position to reach out, how long and how many attempts until the power just… didn’t hit the trap?
Sveta’s tentacles were wrapping around the ‘rook’ case fifty-three. They gripped shelled sections and they gripped the soft sections of actual flesh. There wasn’t much strength in them, but as she regained her strength, the rook seemed to regain his twice over.
Paris threw a dart toward the remaining, injured Harbinger, and the Harbinger leaned to one side to let it pass by. Every step the Harbinger took seemed labored, heavily favoring one leg. Actions were kept efficient, tight, and careful, as Etna found her footing and created a bubble of hot but not superheated glass and hurled it.
The Harbinger twisted around, striking at the orb with one gloved hand, then the other, deflecting it. It was pushed off course and shattered on impact with the ground. Red lights illuminated around the impact site.
Paris kicked out. The Harbinger avoided the worst of it, but still stumbled back, doing the half-step with the injured leg to minimize the time spent on it, and tumbled to the ground beside the glowing trap.
“Hit it!” I shouted.
Fingers found a glass shard from the orb, then, awkwardly, thrust out, heel of the hand pushing the shard into the glowing red light.
The crackle was muted, dancing around the Harbinger’s hand, but it didn’t swallow him up or completely disable him.
My shout had drawn attention. Etna created another globe of hot glass, then hurled it. It was barely on the cusp of being hot enough to change colors, and I could see the glow emanating as her power provided a little extra push to the throwing motion, staying with the globe as it flew. Like it was less a globe of hot glass and more like a rocket.
I shifted position, putting Damsel between myself and the globe, bracing her and holding her as she reached up with both hands.
The blast annihilated the shot.
Yeah. There were things that still caught me off guard, like that ‘help’, but I knew this much. She preferred to face danger head on and blast it out of existence than to run. Even before I’d fully braced and supported her, she’d been reaching up to blast.
We were past the worst of the minefield. Ashley broke away from me, staggering forward on peg leg and one leg that wasn’t cooperating, and she struck out with her power, twice just to keep her balance or push herself upright when her leg was starting to give, a third time to strike at one red light that had blinked to life.
I followed, mindful of Swansong’s blasts. The spasms had subsided enough that I could put my arms at my sides instead of having them folded up against my chest or awkwardly around Swansong. ‘At my sides’ wasn’t the best way of putting it, as fingers were curled up into claws and I couldn’t really extend, swing with, or rotate my hands and arms. It was a fight just to keep them from getting in my own way.
A glance over my shoulder suggested the others weren’t recovering in any visible measure. This recovery seemed to be because I’d only taken a glancing blow. That my heart hadn’t actually stopped seemed to be because I had armor at my chest. Something to conduct or take the focus of the arc, I couldn’t say.
Contender, a case fifty-three with ‘feathers’ that looked more like worn leather than any featherlike, Paris, and Etna all stood lined up against Swansong, the Harbinger and I. In the back of their group, Sveta wrestled with the ‘rook’ case fifty-three, and she seemed to be losing. He was pressing the edge of her face into the ground like he was trying to break it in half.
“Leave her alone!” I hollered the words.
I saw him visibly pause.
“He don’ like tella he what do, no yah?” the other case fifty-three said. A string of English with some heavy tonal emphasis on vowels, especially on the ‘tella’.
“Not unless you want to egg him on,” Contender said, putting one fist inside his hand, cracking knuckles.
I tried my forcefield on for size. Skintight, but I could feel the rustling, sense the extension of it, as a hand reached out here, a Victoria-ish shape emerged there.
Something simultaneously reassuring and quietly horrifying. If only there was some way to keep the forcefield in its wet-paper-fragile state, where it hugged my body again and didn’t echo my worst nightmares.
At least it didn’t break when I took a step.
Powers were coming back into play. I was still grounded, but I could use a bit of flight. The winged case fifty-three seemed to be in a similar boat. Half-mummy, dessicated with ‘feathers’ like straps, half-bird, with its body extending into wings that weren’t like a bat’s or a bird’s, draping down and out from the arms. They moved sideways more often than they moved forward, and a glimpse at their feet indicated why. Bladed feet, not talons, but a single blade in place of the middle toe, another at the heel. The hands were similar, it seemed, kept out of sight, hidden in the drapery of ‘wings’.
Etna had more globes of superheated glass forming in her hand. The other hand had her phone out. She’d been wearing a skimpier costume in the early fall when the weather was warm, but her outfit now was more along the evil sorceress look, with high collar and draping coat, all with a ‘flame’ cut. She looked down, checking her phone-
Swansong lunged. With her power not at full strength, the recoil of the blast wasn’t severe, and the resulting propulsion wasn’t too meaningful.
I had to trust her. I flew straight for Paris.
“No,” Etna said. She threw the globe.
Swansong shot it, but the recoil was just enough to burn her forward momentum, and her footing wasn’t secure, one foot not cooperating, the other foot absent. She landed on her knees, skidding on ice. As Etna formed a smaller globe and threw it, she blasted that too.
My attempt to close in on Paris was blocked by the case fifty-three. A flap of the draping ‘wing’ saw him… not fly, not bound, definitely not a teleport, but slide through the air, upward and at a diagonal.
When he came down, he came down kicking, the blade sweeping down toward me.
Twisting around, throwing myself back, I kicked up to meet the claw with the bottom of my boot, forcefield active. My meager flight made my landing easier.
The slice at my boot was followed up by something heavy striking at my foot, almost twisting my ankle.
I could see it hanging in the air. A shadow, like a smear that followed the talon’s trajectory. It only lasted a couple of seconds.
The Harbinger went toe to toe with Contender, neither apparently using powers. Contender seemed to have the upper hand, pressing the offense, while the Harbinger did his best.
I couldn’t afford to help. By advancing, I could maintain some pressure, keep Paris on his toes, while occupying the aerial assassin here.
Wing ‘flapped’, and the assassin slid to my left. I saw one hand raise, another flap imminent, their head turning toward Swansong.
A bit of my own flight gave me the ability to focus my movement and make it more effective- I couldn’t swing punches with my arms still spasming, so I had to kick. With flight, a roundhouse kick could hit that much harder.
He slid out of the way, hands coming around in parallel slashes toward my middle. With forcefield up, I met the blurs that followed in the aftermath of the slashes, and I was shoved almost five feet away.
All one power, it seemed. Swoop and slash, he created the blurs that propelled, drove movement, slid. When he used them, they facilitated movement. For others, it was a focused kind of pressure. I imagined that if he cut me, the blur would open up the cut.
Swansong, meanwhile, was entirely preoccupied as Etna hurled a glass globe, which was shot, but Paris immediately followed up, timing his hurling of a long, thin black dart for the moment Swansong wasn’t able to strike.
It sliced her as it passed her, and carved a divot into the ground. The divot began spraying out a geyser of frozen dirt and ice, cutting Swansong’s cheek. She had to move out of the way- and Etna was already cutting off retreat, hurling another globe. The same Swansong blast that consumed the globe also arrested momentum, kept Swansong in the area of the spray. Paris followed up, throwing another two darts-
I tried to get by, running footsteps and lunges augmented by flight, like moonwalking, but tighter, faster. The case fifty-three was right there, to cut me off. When I tried to slip by, they somersaulted in the air, changing direction while mid-slide, and slashed a flurry into the air. Left hand cut a zig-zag, foot struck up…
Not aimed at me, but at another purpose. A barrier of the high-pressure blurs cut me off from getting to either Swansong or Sveta.
I kicked the ground, hard, and sent a spray of crud directly at them.
“Kicking dirt?” Etna asked. “Really? That’s what you heroes have sunk to?”
I kicked again, aiming at her, the kick aimed for a mound with a rounder shape within it. Dirt and ice flew, and a flat stone six inches across flew past the barrier, clipping her on the hip.
Paris hurled darts my way. One hit the forcefield and was destroyed on impact, but the other missed, and that one was an issue.
Another barrier, a geyser of pellets flying like tiny bullets.
“You’re working for people who cut up kids and you’re calling us low?” I growled.
Swansong was lunging in to take advantage of Etna being distracted, reaching out. Balance off from the stone’s impact, Etna had a panicked response, throwing the half-formed globe, then a glob rather than a globe, barely a handful, all while floating backward.
Still holding onto that phone with the one hand.
Swansong couldn’t advance while the ground was littered with cooling masses of glass.
“She doesn’t care about hurting kids. She hit Lookout because she can’t aim,” Swansong said. “Embarrassed an entire neighborhood of supervillains.”
“You want to see how good my aim is?” Etna asked.
“Are you suggesting you weren’t trying before?” Swansong asked. “Because you saying that doesn’t intimidate me. It suggests you’re a lazy supervillain halfwit.”
Etna threw more globes, floating and doing her own moonwalk. Swansong ducked, wove, started to close the distance, and then was forced to back off again as Paris threw more darts.
They had everything they needed to ward us off. The globes were just too menacing in terms of the sheer damage they promised to inflict if she could actually hit us with one, the aerial assassin had the ability to create a fence of slashes, and Paris produced the geysers, though he seemed more focused on capitalizing on momentary weaknesses.
Contender- he’d dispatched the second Harbinger, knocking the kid out.
For the time being, we were two against one.
I glanced back at the other group. It would have been nice if that wolf came charging in, but it was staying close to its master.
“Don’t turn your back on the enemy,” Contender said.
I was fully aware of him, as he joined the aerial assassin, standing beside the guy. I was aware of Paris, and of Etna. Of Sveta, who had fluid running down her face, but who was at least holding her own, against another case fifty-three who seemed implacable.
Swansong was bleeding in multiple places from the geyser, and the bandage at her neck was soaked through. Something had pulled at the injury.
It couldn’t be easy.
“We should end this,” Paris said, very quiet.
“Why?” Contender asked.
“Do you disagree?”
Contender shook his head, as if exasperated. “Vulturehawk, you and I take down goldie.”
“Not confident you can do it alone, Contender?” I asked, taunting.
“I’m very confident we can manage it as a pair,” he said.
“You call yourself Contender and there’s no fight in you,” I said. I pushed out with my aura, full strength, and even at that it felt like I was outputting a three on my normal one to ten scale.
The taunts were borne of nervousness, and a little bit of it was the conscious awareness that powers tended to make sense. Contender’s name, his power, his assured cockiness, and the way he tended to go after people he thought he could beat, it painted a bigger picture.
Whether he was a prize athlete who’d hit hard times or someone who’d never been able to score a win before he had powers, whether it was a school that had exerted pressure… I felt like being called out for cowardice would get to him.
“We each get one easy one,” Swansong said. “I get the halfwit who can’t aim unless she’s hitting a kid, and you get the contender who can’t win his fights.”
Contender arched an eyebrow above the white and black mask he wore, looking back at the Harbinger.
“Holding that up as a victory isn’t making you look better,” I said.
“Hey ‘tend, ya got dez deaf it,” Vulturehawk said. His eyes were sharp.
“Yeah,” Contender said.
I tried to slip past, but Vulturehawk was fast, more mobile with two-thirds of a sliding power than I was with two-thirds of a flight power that didn’t really do more than make me weightless. I continued to exert pressure, studying them. When there was a chance, I glanced back toward the others, to check.
There were headlights on the road.
The claw skimmed along my arm. I kicked, another roundhouse with part of a flight power accelerating the movement, then used more flight to change my direction as I fell, while Contender ducked in low, trying to flank.
I could avoid the opening swing, bring arm and leg up to shield the one side of my body as he kicked-
I didn’t miss the weapon that he slipped into one hand. My thought was knife.
A baton, that whipped out like a switchblade, striking me across the face.
I drove my forehead into his face. The icon at the front and center of my hood slashed forehead and eye. He stumbled back, but I was on his heels.
He found his bearings, and instead of panicking, he began to respond. Blocks, a strike to my jaw, then a kick. The kick to my side hurt.
He knew my forcefield was something that ‘broke’, or he thought it was fragile.
He was bigger, stronger, and if I was a hundred percent honest, his hand to hand technique was better than mine on a general level. I was willing to press it regardless, trusting that one in every two hits that he landed wouldn’t count, while I could make mine count just fine.
He created his circle, a flash, a flare, and I lost my power.
Which- well, of fucking course he did. Now I wasn’t ignoring one in every two hits, and he had the baton.
I shifted to the defensive, looking for an opening. Punch after punch, and I kept my arms up, dealing with the fact they were still spasming. The cut on the bottom of my foot made footwork hard, and I couldn’t use any degree of flight to ease my weight off of it.
I was too out of practice. The patrol training had been me instructing the newbies more than it had been me learning.
Swansong’s power was audible, and the nothingness that extended around the perimeter of the area became a universe of roiling distortion, blurs, and shadow. The bubble collapsed. I saw Swansong with her hand extended my way. She’d caught another glancing hit from Paris for her trouble.
A bit of flight and the ability to take one baton swing without flinching or slowing down in the slightest bought me an opportunity.
My thumb slipped one of the rings from the base of my finger to the middle part. Each ring had spikes that swept back along the back of my hand, and by moving it to where I had, with my hand in a fist, the spike pointed forward.
I aimed for the throat, worry for Sveta burying the clear awareness of what I was trying to do. The spike punched into meat. I repeated the hit, flying close so my legs wrapped around his upper body, punching- catching the underside of his jaw, his face, mask, then helmet. He twisted to keep me from getting at the neck again.
Swansong’s voice. I kicked away and flew back.
Vulturehawk was swooping in, and I was ready for a fight. Ready to just fly in close and put a mess of holes in him.
But he wasn’t interested in a brawl. He cut me off and backed away, dropping down near Contender to check the wounds.
“No arties, ‘tend. All sho’, rest sure.”
“Fucking hurts,” Contender growled.
“Yep,” Vulturehawk said. Even the single word had its peculiar inflection.
“Don’t stand in the water,” Paris ordered.
He pointed up.
Above us, a diagram in blue lights. Byron’s constellation. He was still lying on the road, I could see, but he was focusing enough to draw something for us.
As if seeming to realize the other guys were onto us, Byron activated the diagram.
The water the diagram writ across the sky created was something that gushed skyward.
I took advantage of the distraction to fly straight for Swansong. I still couldn’t hold up my entire weight with flight -whatever had shaken our powers had shaken them good- but I could make myself nearly weightless. I pulled a Harbinger and situated myself above her.
I’d heard the term raining buckets before, but this- this was closer to the idea. It was as though a swimming pool had been dropped on us from above, diffused by the fact it had been cast up, breaking apart as the wind and slight differences in timing added up together.
I leaped upward, and then I used my powers. Flight, to stay airborne longer. Forcefield, to block and break the worst of the water.
Swansong used her power.
The water settled, sloshing and filling up irrigation ditches. The villains found footing on higher ground, where snow and ice piled up, or where the dirt was highest. Paris had one foot up on a fence, the other on stone.
Byron had drenched them, at least. When I looked at Swansong, she looked sixty percent dry.
The Harbingers – slumped over dirt mounds. Drenched but they would be fine if they got warm.
Not for the first or second time, I took the time to glance back. The truck had stopped a distance away from where our group had settled. New blue markings in the air blocked the roadway. People had climbed out of the vehicle. Prancer and Moose.
That- it would have to wait. The others were vulnerable, but as shitty as Prancer was, I was pretty sure he wasn’t about to take helpless people hostage. Those ‘helpless people’ were probably able to use powers, too. Too dangerous for him to crack.
He might have been calling friends.
Each time I’d checked back over my shoulder, I’d been looking. This time, with water settling, swirling, and frothing or carrying loose debris, I could make out particulars in the darkness.
A swirl where water at the edge was settling.
I flew to it, reaching it just in time. A cylindrical hole in the ground, three or four inches across, and deep. As I got to it, the red light of the trap that had been embedded into the ground illuminated. It had been triggered by a disturbance from the sudden rush of water.
I grabbed it and I hurled it, grenade-style. The Wretch provided the strength for extra distance.
Etna’s attention was on her phone. When Paris got out of there, Etna didn’t.
The device activated. A crackle of red energy that swept over Etna. I saw her drop, limp, spasming, and she landed face down in the water.
Paris started forward, and Swansong used her power. A warning shot, fired off to her side. Paris stopped.
Etna remained where she was, periodically pushing herself partway up, then splashing back down.
Paris waited, chin high, hands clasped behind his back. Swansong stood, hair damp, head bent, glaring up and across at Paris. Four good paces separated them.
Etna, unable to move on her own, floundered in the water.
“Is her phone there?” I asked.
Swansong started forward. Paris threw darts, planting them in the dirt between Swansong and Etna.
With a blast of her power, followed by a short stumble and recovery, Swansong destroyed the swathe of dirt and the geysers.
I had blood running down the finger of my glove. The ring squelched as I adjusted its position, the blood on the inner circumference squeezing out.
Etna continued to flounder.
“Do you think we care?” Contender asked. “She was two-bit. Vulturehawk and Thud aren’t even from around here. They don’t give a shit about her or me or Paris over there. I’ve got a job. Cushy gig in another universe, gets me out of this sad echo of the world we lost.”
“Joining the fourth sect,” I murmured.
“Yeah,” Contender said. “And Paris? Paris has his own thing going on.”
“You don’t need to talk about me,” Paris said, creepy-quiet.
“If you’re trying to scare us, it won’t work,” Contender said, one hand at his neck. “You can’t use her for leverage if none of us give a shit.”
“She’s not leverage,” Swansong said. As she paced, Paris threw another dart. She destroyed it before the geyser could appear. Pale as she was, the red line and the trickles of blood stood out on her face and at her scalp, running through her hair to matt an area with blood. “We’re getting used to the idea of killing. Again, in my case.”
I drew in a deep breath, exhaled. Etna blew bubbles.
“This looks worse for you than for us,” Contender said. “She hasn’t hurt anyone, not that I’ve heard, she wasn’t a part of this except that she was one of a bunch of people they hired. I don’t know what happened with this kid she apparently hit, but-”
“Contender,” Paris said.
Contender looked over at the tall, long-haired man.
Paris just shook his head.
Telling Contender to shut the fuck up, using silence to evoke silence.
Etna struggled, but she didn’t find the means to get her head out of the water.
Ice water, it had to be. When I glanced at Paris, Contender, and Vulturehawk, I could see how the cold and damp was getting to them.
Thud,who held Sveta against the ground, didn’t seem to mind overmuch. Sveta was adapting to more targeted holds, hauling on Thud’s knees, pulling his head down.
This- it was a stalemate of a particularly dark sort. If we- if I backed down now, hauling Etna out of the water, then I wasn’t sure I could go as far as was necessary the next time I had to make the call.
And Contender was probably right. They probably didn’t care.
We needed a break for the stalemate, and it was either going to be one of theirs or one of ours. Ours were out of action. Theirs…
I glanced back.
Prancer and Moose were approaching, picking their way across the water. They had one of ours hostage- Sveta. Three of ours if we included the Harbingers, who we couldn’t help.
“Big bad Paris,” Swansong said. “Can’t even protect his subordinate. From all I heard about you… I thought you’d be more.”
He didn’t take the bait. I was put in mind of the cold, calculating professional, rather than Love Lost’s type.
Moose and Prancer reached the edge of our collection of capes. I saw Moose pause as they got to a vantage point where they could see Etna moving awkwardly while belly-down in water.
“Hey,” Prancer said. “Blue and Bitter are coming, along with the rest. Your buddies won’t recover before they get here.”
I glanced at Swansong.
“We don’t need your help,” Paris said. A voice at normal volume, steady, condemning.
“Help would be nice, to get out of the cold,” Contender said.
Paris gave Contender a look.
As much emotion as we’d seen from him yet.
“I don’t care enough about this to help or not help, or to care that you hate me for no damn reason,” Prancer said.
“I’d care, but I get the impression this is complicated,” Moose said.
“It’s really not, Moose. They cut up kids,” I said. “Carved off pieces. Left ’em crying. For a good few of them, they were crying over what happened to their friends, not themselves.”
“Took my leg,” Swansong said.
“You think I’m nicer than I am,” Moose said, his voice low.
“I think you’re a cape who flew under the radar for a long time-”
“Your polite way of saying I’m B-list.”
“-You lived in the woods of British Columbia and you oversaw drug grows. Kept ’em safe, scared off trespassers, dealt with police. As villains go that’s pretty harmless. You didn’t sign on for this bloody, killing stuff.”
“Nope,” he said. “But I didn’t sign on to stop it, either.”
“Bull,” I retorted. “This isn’t you. You can’t be okay with this.”
“I came out of the attack on the Fallen compound needing three inches of colon removed after it got pulled out of my middle and left exposed to the world,” he said. “A friend died. I’ve had to face a lot of ugliness.”
“Boo fucking hoo,” Swansong said.
“No,” I said. I could see a dark look in Prancer’s eyes. As dark as any I’d seen in Swansong’s earlier tonight. “Ugliness sucks. It hasn’t been great.”
“I can’t stand gutless villains. There’s no point to this, and there’s no point to holding back and being neutral except to be an utter coward. You cast yourselves in the worst light by hiding when it counts.”
“Swan?” I asked. “Speaking of standing by, give Etna a breath of air?”
She didn’t budge.
“One breath,” I said. I glanced at Paris. “Unless you’re going to stop her?”
A gamble. Was he going to act differently while Prancer and Moose were here?
She walked over to Etna, and Paris didn’t stop her.
She hauled back on the decorated ‘flame’ collar of Etna’s costume and lifted her up. Etna took in gulps of air, coughing and sputtering, her arms curling up awkwardly, like t-rex arms. Not that I’d been better.
Swansong dropped her. Etna splashed down into the water.
“This is who you are, Moose? Gutless?”
“I’m sayin’, feeling awfully mortal after that little funeral service. All I’ve wanted since the world ended was a place and some people to keep close.”
“Do you want those people to be people who maim others?”
“I wanted Hollow Point, but that didn’t work out. This… it’s closer to a summer camp. Some shitty people, sure, but freeing, finally a chance to breathe, after a lot of bad days.”
“People who maimed others,” I reminded him. “When I gouged you beneath your mask, you said your mom would’ve cried over it. How’s she going to feel about this?”
“Low blow,” Prancer said.
Moose just made a bit of a face, almost a scowl, but then faltering, like he couldn’t bring himself to.
“Prance?” Moose asked.
Was that him deferring, because he legitimately couldn’t come to a decision, or was he checking with his boss or partner because anything else would be dangerous?
Not that I could imagine Prancer being an outright danger to Moose.
“We negotiate,” he said. “Give her a breath, come on. Enough have died.”
Swansong looked at me, then at my nod, lifted Etna up.
“What do you want?”
“Call off the reinforcements,” I said.
“Can’t. I’m not in charge.”
“Can’t. They don’t like me,” Prancer said. “I made a play for power and I failed. Lost my Queen.”
There were more vehicles on the road now. The cars Foil had disabled were moving now.
A convoy of capes and the kind of locals who’d worked with Nursery and accepted her methods because it meant a shot at a house.
Our team still wasn’t up.
“Let Sveta go,” I told the others. “We let you have Etna.”
The chess case fifty-three turned his head slowly to look at Paris. Sveta gripped the head from five different angles.
“This the Svet’?” Thud asked, in his booming voice.
“Yeah,” I heard Sveta. It sounded like she was having trouble making words. “Let me fucking go!”
“Let her go,” Paris said. “She’s more dangerous to them than to us.”
They released Sveta, who escaped. Swansong let Etna slump to the ground, backing up to stand by my side.
I bent down and picked up one of the Harbingers. The second Harbinger was up, and crawled our way until he found ground steady enough to stand on. His leg looked mangled. In this manner, we gathered together. A very small group when compared to what felt like a larger assortment of others. Not because we were outnumbered by that much, but because they were more intact as a whole.
Swansong elbowed me. When I looked, she passed me a phone.
Ah, Etna’s phone. What had she been interested in? The reinforcements?
An overhead map with a field of red dots. The traps. Easily fifty. She’d been keeping an eye on the layout while trying to herd Swansong toward the traps. While moving around on her own. Probably everyone had something like this.
Seemed like Love Lost had been making a lot of use of the tinker power, lately.
“It’s going to mess with the dog’s tracking,” Swansong said. “How can they follow a trail if it’s littered with this garbage?”
“Let’s talk about you showing us the way to them,” I said, to Prancer.
I saw others react. Firming up, tensing, getting ready for debate, fight, argument.
“You leave anyone I name alone, your targets aside,” Prancer said, calm, “Then yeah.”
“We shouldn’t,” Moose said.
“You really shouldn’t,” Contender said, hostile and angry. Beside him, Paris looked like he agreed with the villain consensus.
“Give my guys protections, keep the peace, I’ll show you where those guys are,” Prancer said.
“You’re not making any friends,” Contender told him.
“Deal,” I said.
Prancer laughed. “Fuck no. That’s one of my conditions. Second? Money. Enough to get resituated.”
“You’re making enemies who’ll come for you,” Contender said.
“I promised my girl I’d make something of myself. I’m not doing that here,” Prancer said. “This is a mess, those guys have gone around the bend, and hearing about that kind of horror? Kids? Doesn’t sit right. Having talked to Cradle, Snag, Love Lost, I believe it. It’s fine when it’s Fallen and Fallen soldiers only. But they were too okay with it, and now it’s other people?”
“How much money?”
“I’m not greedy. A hundred thou?”
I grit my teeth.
“Fifty thou,” Prancer amended his statement. “And I hold a hostage until the payment comes. I’ll call in favors, get you your safety.”
“You can’t call in enough favors for that,” Contender said. “They paid mercenaries and hired them to defend these spots.”
“That’s their fault for not being discerning about clients,” Swansong said. “Greed made them stupid.”
“What the lady said,” Prancer echoed. He seemed to stand a little taller, in the mid-strides of a deal. “How much of you being a pain in my ass was your game in Hollow Point, Damsel?”
“One hundred percent,” she said.
“Even down to killing Beast of Burden.”
“That was different. The rest? An act. I’m the easiest and most reasonable person in the world to get along with, when you’re obeying my every whim. You… didn’t obey.”
“You call them off as best you can, you lead the way, we give you safe passage and we pay,” I said.
Byron’s power went off again. A diagram high above, drawn out in blue lines and bluer lights, it became a vast quantity of water, and that water flooded the area, spraying to cover field and road both. We were beyond the worst of it, but at the road-
At the road, it was a defensive measure. The wolf had been standing guard and the wolf had just been knocked down. They were picking a fight.
“Yeah,” Prancer said. “Deal then.”
“You’re fucking us,” Contender said.
“You’re fucking us,” Prancer retorted. “How’s Moose supposed to have his adult summer camp-”
“Winter camp,” Moose said.
“How’re we supposed to call this place home if they bring this garbage here?” Prancer asked, almost snarling. “If you help them?”
“If you thought it would be any different, you were lying to yourself,” Etna said. “This is the default. The way things are staying. It’s the best we get.”
“Fuck that,” Prancer snarled.
He turned to go, but as he did, the villains we’d been fighting with tensed, shifted footing, got ready to pursue.
We couldn’t turn our backs and a small village of capes had turned up to defend their turf. They were wet and cold after Byron’s impromptu shower, but that didn’t count for nearly enough, not when our team was halfway disabled, if not outright down for the count.
“And this isn’t even going to be the hard part,” Prancer said.