Moose, Prancer, Sveta, Swansong and I were a loose line against Paris’s group. Etna was worse for wear but she could sort of fly, and that meant she could be an airborne mess instead of a burden on her teammates. Contender was bleeding, but that wasn’t keeping him down. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
Paris stood tall, darts in one hand. Vulturehawk lingered somewhere between Paris and Contender. I interpreted it as a kind of anxiousness, finding some degree of familiarity in Contender and a bit of reassurance in Paris’s confidence. Thud hung back.
One of the Navigators had had their throat slashed. We’d read it as an attempt at a mercy kill. I found myself staring at Vulturehawk’s ‘talons’ – the singular blades at each foot.
“I was hoping you’d come around, Prance,” Contender said.
“Shouldn’t have,” Paris added.
I moved the Harbingers as we steadily retreated. One was leaning on me, the other was unconscious. My hand periodically convulsed or tensed, causing my grip to slip on the one I dragged, keeping me from making any headway. Swansong couldn’t hold them at all, and Sveta- well, Sveta wasn’t an option.
“Let me carry,” Moose said.
“Can I trust you?” I asked.
“Come on,” he said, and it wasn’t a condemnation or a plea. Closer to an ‘excuse me’, as he bent down. Each of the Harbingers was lifted up, draped over one of Moose’s shoulders. One was conscious and able enough to protest, and was shifted to a position where he sat on Moose’s right shoulder.
“Better?” Moose asked.
I wasn’t sure if he was asking me or the Harbinger, but the Harbinger said, “yes,” and I took that as excuse enough to stay quiet and stay focused on our immediate problems. I could support Swansong’s balance and keep an eye on Paris’s group.
“Treat them well,” Swansong said. “Hurting them puts you onto the shitlist of some powerful, scary individuals.”
Etna tried to make a globe, but her body convulsed and tensed, and she dropped it. It landed on the field below her.
“Trying to scare us?” Contender asked. He winced, touching his neck. It looked like talking hurt. Good.
“Individual one? Me. They’re my brothers.”
“You sound juvenile, grandstanding like that,” Contender said.
“Because they’re ex-Slaughterhouse Nine,” she said. “All of us are one big unhappy family of not-to-be-fucked-with.”
Her words were a growl at the end there.
“Who?” Vulturehawk asked Contender.
“Remember what I said when we did the Navigator job?” Contender asked. “Some days are good, some days are bad, and some are bloody by necessity.”
“Throw away all the good days and all of the bad days, and make every day bloody,” Swansong intoned. “Make every day a bad day for someone else. Then you fit in right alongside the Slaughterhouse Nine.”
“Not how I would have put it,” Contender said. “But sure.”
“I wasn’t trying to help you explain,” she said.
Our footing was slippery. What had been snow, ice, and frozen dirt was now closer to ice and slick frozen dirt, after Byron’s downpour.
“Your second issue?” Swansong asked. I had the distinct impression that she was taking all of her frustration and the pain of her missing foot and channeling those things into her words. She enjoyed being scary and this kind of taunting served. “They have brothers.”
“We dealt with them,” Contender said.
They were edging closer. Paris’s every movement was calculated, I noticed. He was like a magician, timing his movements so he acted when people were distracted. He put others between us and him, and the moment we were engaged and reacting to other people, he’d start moving again. He had a dart in each hand but he didn’t throw them.
“You got lucky. Our powers got wiped out by whatever that was. Now we’re at, hm… I’d have to use my power to get a feel for where we are.”
“Seventy-five percent,” I said, testing my own flight.
“Harbinger,” Swansong said, keying her voice to be something closer to haunting, “Think you can beat all of these guys when your power’s working again?”
“Injured, so no,” the Harbinger said.
Swansong turned her head, shooting him a glare.
“Give me four rocks I can throw and my power at eighty percent and sure.”
“Thank you,” she said. She turned to face Paris’s group, while still talking to him, “I’m intimidating them and you throw a ‘no’ out there? And Jack said you were one of the scariest of them.”
“I am. We are. Which is why, ideally, I’d like four rocks I can throw, my power at eighty-five percent, and one nail or pen. Because beating them isn’t enough, now. Both sides of this equation need to be balanced out.”
“You couldn’t end this by saying you’ll annihilate them? Or even ‘break them’?”
“Those kinds of phrasings have been made weak by overuse. Math is unchanging and crystal clear.”
“Only to you,” Swansong said.
“This is going completely over my head,” Moose said.
“Just don’t drop ’em,” I said. “You don’t want them holding grudges.”
“Alright,” Moose said. “I wasn’t going to anyhow.”
I glanced at the phone, tracking my blip -the phone I held- and extrapolating directions from the way the image showed an overhead view of field and road. Reaching over, I gave Swansong a tug on the arm, pulling her away from a course that would put her in the way of traps.
“Hey Moose,” Prancer said. “Remember the old mechanic, when we were road tripping? Got in an argument with Velvet?”
“Remember why I handled it the way I did? Don’t go saying it, just yes or no.”
“Tricks, Prancer?” I asked. “You’re being vague.”
“Nah,” he said. “Not coordinating against you. I swear on Velvet’s memory.”
“He’s being honest,” Moose said. “I remember, Prance.”
We continued a slow retreat toward the road. Paris’s group wasn’t letting us go, and I could tell that at least Paris had noted that we were adapting to the mines. He might have hoped we’d walk right into them.
Before he could adapt or attack, I spoke up, “Contender. Paris. The Harbingers are in good with the people who really run this city, you know. We asked for help in dealing with the real scumbags, with you assholes, and they sent these guys. You have enemies with reach that extends beyond dimensions, now.”
“We’ll manage,” Contender said.
“We closed the doors,” I told him. “Exits to other worlds are closed, until we unlock them. You’re stuck here with us. No running back to Cheit, no escaping the consequences.”
We steadily retraced our steps, moving backward through the field, toward the larger group of villains and our incapacitated allies.
Sveta was staying further away. She triggered a trap and grabbed it, hurling it in the general direction of Contender’s group.
Paris looked ready to deal with it himself, but it was Contender who stepped forward, using his power to draw a glowing bubble around himself and the trap both. Two seconds passed, and the bubble receded. The trap was broken at his feet. No symptoms.
I noted the moment when Paris’s group stopped, Paris touching Vulturehawk’s shoulder to get his attention, making sure he stayed with the others. As part of that same check to make sure his group was organized, he turned to make sure Thud wasn’t falling behind. The chess-piece Cauldron deviant was slow, heavy.
Turning my head, I could see why they’d signaled the stop. Bluestocking stood on the road, a hump of dirt that had been sifted of stones, flattened and packed down.
I saw Bitter Pill, with Crested beside her, and I saw Bird Brain. Bird Brain held a rifle. I didn’t see any of Bird Brain’s funny head movement, but I knew it was in the cards.
“You okay, Et?” Bluestocking asked.
“They have-” Etna grunted out the words, throat tensing and jerking. “Phone.”
“Your phone. Did you do something stupid like have both personal and cape business on one device?”
“Mm,” Etna grunted in the affirmative.
“That’s stupid,” Bluestocking said, to Etna. To me, she said, “There are rules.”
“This group was the group that cut the Navigators to pieces and left them like that. Undying and in agony,” I said. “Pleasantries go out the window when you cross lines like that.”
“Aiding and abetting that same group,” I said.
“You played your part in this. Raising the stakes,” Bluestocking said. We’d ticked her off when we’d last crossed paths. She’d been breaking Etna and Crested out of jail, and we’d blocked her, forced her to shell out money, some limited information, and give medical care to the people they’d hurt. Now I supposed she thought she had her revenge.
I shook my head. “The stakes were always going to be raised. There was-”
Prancer cleared his throat.
“What?” I asked.
“You asked me to negotiate.”
I closed my mouth, eyeing Paris’s group. They were most likely to spontaneously attack, especially considering we were closer to the villains and hemmed in on the sides by the planted traps.
Traps we could deal with, but…
At the far side of the road, Byron and Chastity were sitting together, both visible. Chastity had been disarmed, and Byron had Birdbrain’s rifle trained on him. I could see the glow of my mother’s orb. She’d retreated into that form.
Because they traveled over the orb, I realized there were still red electricity crackles dancing intermittently through the area.
I checked the phone.
No, the traps were a little more complicated.
“Remember that thing we talked about, Moose?”
“I remember,” Moose said.
“Being sneaky, Prancer?” Bluestocking asked.
“Nah,” Prancer said. “Trying to figure out how to help you.”
“We don’t need help.”
“Look,” Prancer said. “It sucks right now. Pay’s shit, money doesn’t go far, heroes are ramping up, and we end up in places like Hollow Point and Frontier Row, here. And the heroes show up, and we can’t get settled.”
While he talked, I drew a circle on the phone screen to ‘reel in’ the zoom. Moving in closer, looking at the cluster of traps where my friends were, I could see how they were spaced out, seven in a loose cluster.
Nothing distinguishing one trap from the others.
“My group’s doing fine, Prance. Sucks to be you, I’m sure.”
“All of us are getting together. You’ve got drug kingpins and smugglers like me and my crew, you’ve got hitmen for hire, information brokers, the publicity hounds… we had to agree to a truce, to a strict no-infighting policy. A truce that means we hear stories about what people are getting up to and we let it slide.”
“You were part of those discussions too, Prancer. In fact, I seem to recall that the topic of the Navigators came up, and you had a stake in the matter.”
“Not denying I did,” Prancer said. He glanced at me. “Blue will bring it up if I don’t. I wanted the Navigators gone.”
I was in the middle of zooming out to see the trap layout when I processed what he’d said.
I tensed, phone forgotten for the moment.
“They were going after our one means of trading with the settlements establishing on the other side of the ocean. Stopping all trafficking, not just the human trafficking. With winter coming up, everything fucked up, my girl dead…”
“You asked for it?” I asked, my voice hard.
“He didn’t,” Moose said, sounding defensive. “That’s not how we operate.”
“But Cradle knew I wanted it and he offered,” Prancer said.
“And you said yes,” Bluestocking said. “My group said no.”
“But you allowed it,” Swansong said.
“Etna’s even protecting the people who did it,” I added. “And she’s working for you.”
“The only way we survive as a whole is if we’re strong. Strength in number and strength in the powers we have,” Bluestocking said. “The network of alliances we’re operating under is like a chessboard. Try to take one piece and two more are positioned to wipe you out. That’s on purpose.”
“All beside the point,” Prancer said.
“It’s the point,” I said, more than a little incensed.
“It’s not my point,” Prancer countered. He sounded heated in his own way. “My point is that deals were struck, in the midst of all of that. Cradle came to me, he made the offer, asks for a cut of traffic if he removes an obstacle from our way. He shakes my hand, and we go on our merry way. Then I find out what happened and I’m… angry at the Navigators, because it’s their fault that it came to that. Irrational, but I’ve become pretty fucking familiar with irrational lately. Familiar with angry.”
“Your point being?” Swansong asked.
“That he made deals with other major villain groups. With people in those villain groups. And I’m willing to bet he shook their hands too,” Prancer said. “The guy with tinker hands and arms and an emotion power shook Bluestocking’s hand. I remembered Snag. I know Snag could make stuff happen through his tech. I got to wondering.”
I looked between him and the villains of the villain group.
“I had a little scab on the side of my hand. Like a needle went in,” Prancer said. “I’m wondering if anyone else here had anything like that.”
“Cradle touched my arm,” Moose said. “Seemed weird at the time. We talked about it, it’s when we first started thinking something might be hinky.”
There was a long pause.
“Yeah, he shook my hand,” Bluestocking said. “If you were right, then alliances don’t matter. He breached the truce.”
“I’m right,” Prancer said. “Rationally, really, none of us would be okay with this. Right? We’re not monsters.”
The question was met by silence. I saw some exchanged looks.
“No,” Bitter Pill, the woman who had turned civilians into hulking rage-filled monstrosities, said. “We’re not monsters.”
When my eye fell on Prancer, he locked his gaze onto mine. “He didn’t have to get every last one of us. Webwork of alliances being what it is… he just had to get enough of us. Subordinates are going to follow their leaders, and they aren’t going to go after all of Frontier Row.”
“That’s a really terrible name, even for this mudpit,” Swansong said.
“Let it go,” I said.
I could have addressed the group, challenged, questioned. I didn’t. No further comments. Instead, I waited, studying the group.
I looked away, and looked back to the phone. Zooming out – lots of clusters of seven traps, some so close together that they looked like they all interconnected.
Fuck. Maybe I’d have to say something.
“Dad,” I called out. “Try nuking the trap in the center? To your left.”
“If you do anything, we’re going to have a problem,” Bluestocking said.
“The sooner they’re free, the sooner we’re out of your hair,” I said. “Provided there’s any validity to this.”
I saw her pause. She scowled, and she was good at scowling. She was probably the type who scowled while reading, scowled while watching television…
“Do it,” she said. “Antares’ dad, do what she said.”
My dad, incapacitated as he was, was able to create his orbs. He moved his arm into the right general area, then created an orb, holding it down over the trap at the center of the area. Here and there, it scootched over a half foot one way or the other, as his arm spasmed.
It detonated, his hand containing the direction of the blast. The blast didn’t hurt him, and it was small enough that it didn’t disturb anyone nearby.
I didn’t see a discernible difference. Had the red lightning stopped its intermittent crackling?
“There’s some validity to this, then,” Swansong said.
“I had a mark on my finger, and a weird heavy feeling, like I get any time I have an injection,” Bluestocking said. “I had Bitter Pill take a look at it.”
“I took it for a splinter,” Bitter Pill said.
“He broke the truce, the heroes go after him and his co-conspirators,” Prancer said. “They leave us alone. We point the way and we don’t even have to get our hands dirty or risk our own skin, because they’re going to take over dealing with that asshole.”
“You could help, make amends,” I said.
“I’ll leave that to these guys,” Prancer said. “Up to them. But I’m leaving. I’m going. Greener pastures. I have some money, I’m going to get settled in another corner. Somewhere smaller and quieter. People are welcome to come.”
“I’ll help,” Moose declared. “Carry your scary little buddies.”
“Now I have to wait for you,” Prancer said.
“Well… deal,” Moose told him.
It was a little thing, but the tone of it suggested that the tensions weren’t as high as they had been. He could get away with that kind of comment and pushback. Bluestocking didn’t look like she was going to attack any more.
The red lightning was dissipating. I wasn’t sure if it was because the trap that held the reserve power was gone, or if the network was spread too thin.
Not that things were okay.
Paris, Vulturehawk, Thud, and Contender lingered at the rear of our group.
Prancer seemed aware.
“He shook your hands. He would have, as part of the hiring,” Prancer said.
“Paris doesn’t need anything to make him monstrous,” Byron said, too quiet for Paris to hear.
“A small mark on the hand, or uncharacteristic anger?” Prancer prompted. “Both?”
Paris shook his head.
“Whatever reputation you think you’re getting or holding by sticking to the contract, you’re losing by going against all the alliances. You can’t work with a truce-breaker,” Bluestocking said.
“Years ago, his team couldn’t beat me,” Paris said, indicating Byron. “Everything I did was fair-”
“You targeted capes and hospitalized them for kicks!” Byron raised his voice.
“I met them on the streets and I beat them on the streets,” Paris said. “By the rules we all followed, that’s allowed. Reduce it all down and that’s even what it’s all about. Then they turned around and accused me of a murder that never happened. Capes came after my civilian identity. People interviewed my family. My wife. I went to jail. I almost went to the Birdcage. All of the rules you’re talking about now? Truces, what’s allowed? It didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now.”
“I could have killed you earlier,” Byron said. “I didn’t. Because I felt like I played a part in what happened-”
“But this road you’re going down, it doesn’t make sense.”
“Don’t talk to me like you’re righteous,” Paris said. “If you had any guts, you would have done to him what he did to you.”
There were two statements set side by side there. To me, they were a non-sequitur. To Paris, no doubt, a natural jump from one idea to the next.
Byron shook his head. It looked like he was recovering now. No ambient red lightning, nothing humming in the air?
“Speaking of righteous,” Bluestocking said. “I know about the charities, Paris.”
“Charities?” Byron asked.
“The money he earns, he gives almost all of it away. Keeps some to secure his family’s future, anyone would, but nobody would give as much to those in need as this guy. I bet Tattletale could shine light on why, if we asked her. Guilt?”
My mind hadn’t been going to guilt. Maybe self-aggrandizement. If his civilian identity made the donations, that identity reaped the reward when it came to reputation and social status. It wouldn’t be the first time a cape identity was used in a dark way to support a shining public image.
“Tattletale’s not available,” Swansong said. “They took her head.”
Bluestocking nodded, seemingly unfazed.
“Outing me?” Paris asked Bluestocking.
“No. But if you’re doing this for money, to throw ninety percent of what you make away at charities, I’m prepared to tell them where the money comes from.”
Paris shook his head. “Do it then. You’ll see how little I care about the money or the reputation.”
“It may not come to that,” I said. “Because I don’t think these people are on your side.”
Paris glanced through the mask that covered his brow, nose, and cheekbones, peering at the crowd. Rain pattered off of his hood. He looked cold – a guy as tall with as little body weight as he had probably didn’t retain heat well, and being soaked in cold weather impacted him. He still managed to stand with head erect, no visible signs other than clenched fists and a slightly drawn-out look to his face.
“I had a taste of revenge,” Paris said.
“What?” I asked.
“Capricorn. You took photos while out with Moonsong, didn’t you?”
“What did you do?” Byron asked.
“I had a taste of revenge. The Shepherds and Advance Guard came after us. And the Shepherds are led by Moonsong.”
Byron struggled to stand. Chastity gave him a hand, while being unable to stand herself, her shoulder as a support.
Standing up, moisture streaming off of his armor, Capricorn flinched as a spasm caught him by the side.
“What have you done?” Byron asked.
“You let me, Thud, Vulturehawk and Contender walk away, I’ll tell you what you want to know. And you do want to know this.”
Byron’s gauntlet squeaked. He looked to Swansong and me.
“Could be a lie,” Swansong said.
“It’s up to you,” I told Byron. “We’ll manage either way.”
“No,” Byron said. “Not up to me.”
He blurred, and the blur separated. Two segments, side by side. An armored Capricorn, insides partially hanging out.
Paris didn’t look especially happy at the sight. But there was something in him that looked… satisfied? Behind him and all around us, veins of rock ran through the water in the irrigation canals, filling the bottoms of ditches.
Tristan lay there, arms propping him up, Chastity providing more support. I saw villains in the larger group behind Bluestocking look away.
“Do what you have to. Save our old teammate. Paris will get what he deserves- eventually.”
“I deserve to see you suffer ten times what I did for your fake murder charge. This? It’s a beginning,” Paris said.
Tristan began to change back. As the blur fought to reconcile, I had to wince, worrying about what would happen if it didn’t.
“For those who don’t know, Cradle did that to multiple people. For those who do know and allowed it to happen? Fuck you.”
“Extenuating circumstances,” Prancer said. He tapped his hand, where a faint mark dotted the side.
I didn’t respond. Up on the road, Tristan became Byron again, and the veins of rock splashed violently, the water resettling. A few people flinched or reacted with surprise.
“He knows you’re coming, and he researched who we were up against. Breakthrough. Foil. He knows Foil can shoot through anything, that Precipice can break through anything if he uses his power and then hits it hard enough. He knows that… they’ll be tempted to.”
“What?” I heard Foil. She was still in the ditch, still recovering.
“He knew you’d want to shoot, so he put pieces of Tattletale, Moonsong, and other people you care about in the way. Don’t shoot, don’t try. That’s the information you’d regret not having, that buys me my safe exit.”
Paris brought out his phone. I saw him bring up the same screen I had with Etna’s phone, showing the layout of the traps.
“Let’s get you first aid for that neck of yours,” Paris told Contender. “Come on, V.H.”
“No,” Vulturehawk said.
Paris hesitated, staring at the aerial assassin.
“Cray’ did nick-drip my hand meat,” Vulturehawk said. “No yah?”
“Yeah,” Contender said, sounding resigned. “You realize that means we’re going our separate ways?”
“Sor’, Thud,” Vulturehawk said.
“Neh,” Thud responded, voice low, guttural.
Paris and Contender exchanged glances before heading out into the field, Thud following. Here and there, traps illuminated, and Contender created bubbles surrounding the two of them, allowing them to walk unmolested. When traps weren’t destroyed, they activated well after the bubble disappeared and the pair had moved on.
On Moose’s shoulder, the Harbinger that sat there drew a slingshot out of his pocket. “Three stones, one pen.”
“No,” Bluestocking said.
The others were rousing. Most lay on cold ground, panting for breath. I could see the sheen of sweat on faces. My mother’s. Rachel’s. Foil’s.
Byron had helped Chastity up.
“Can we hurt him? Just a little?” Byron asked. “Because he’s a dick that hospitalizes minors for being different? My friends, even? And now he’s gone after Moonsong?”
“Who are you asking?” I asked, quiet.
“I don’t know,” Byron said.
An instant later, Byron blurred.
I tensed, watching. Across the field, I saw Paris stumble, dropping to his knees on rough ground, as droplets of water became pebbles and water elsewhere became water with veins of rock in it and rock with veins of water. But Paris had been skipping over the dips, avoiding the water, and he hadn’t really been affected, other than a change in footing. Contender had forgotten Paris’s earlier warning, and Contender fell, making a sound that I heard from two or three hundred feet away.
A twisted ankle, a sprain, maybe a break.
Tristan, already blurring to become Byron again, was nodding, silent.
The change from Tristan to Byron hadn’t changed the stone back to water. Paris had to use his power to disintegrate the rock, which meant shielding Contender from the spray. It held them up.
“Letting him know,” Byron said.
“You can handle the rest of this on your own,” Bluestocking said. I wasn’t sure if this was a consequence of Byron acting, after she’d told Harbinger no. I wasn’t about to judge either way.
No, this was… uneasy ground. Ground where I wasn’t sure I knew how to navigate the terrain.
Bluestocking’s group piled into the cars or started on their walk back. Prancer went with them, while Moose stayed. We took a moment to recoup, our people getting sorted out.
“You look like someone drowned a cat,” Swansong told Damsel.
“Cats can slash your throat.”
“Your makeup’s running. And you were mocking me?”
“Look down on me and I’ll fucking evisc-“
The remaining word was drowned out by a blast of power, a swipe of claw.
Swansong took a single step back. Her costume had been damaged at the shoulder, but the skin hadn’t been touched by the power.
The bladed claw-tips, however- a line of blood marked Swansong’s shoulder from collarbone to the rightmost edge of her right shoulder. There were spots where it looked like it had cut deeper than just the skin.
“Eviscerate me?” Swansong asked, and even though her voice was calm, I could see the animation in her eyes- if it weren’t for Kenzie’s special contact lenses with their holographic smoke effect, I might not have seen how her eyes moved. As it was, I could see the starting point for the black smoke as a faint ring at the edges of her eyes. “You’re making us look bad, and that’s worse.”
“Shut up before I shut you up.”
“Let’s patch you up,” my dad said, intervening. “I have a kit.”
“How useful,” Swansong said, smiling. Calm, poised, with eyes that moved in an agitated way, checking people’s expressions, body language. Checking on her sister.
“Instead of every member of the team having utility belts, they get a big guy like me, marry me into the family, and have me carry everything.”
“I’m sure you have other merits, Mr. Dallon,” Swansong said.
“He does,” my mother said.
I was very sure that every bit of calm and charm was like a poke with a sharp stick to Damsel.
“Can the dogs track?”
“Give me a minute,” Rachel said, brusque, annoyed. Chastity went straight to her. A helping hand, a familiar face.
My mom assisted my dad in getting things out, holding the kit in her hands while he picked through the sub-compartments and drew a bent suturing needle out of a kit.
“This will sting.”
“My foot was cut off. It hurts every second. I lost my hands once. That hurt. I can deal with a scratch.”
“Sure,” my dad said.
Foil was with Capricorn, and they were talking about Paris. I could hear the emotions in Byron’s voice – emotions I didn’t tend to associate with him. He named teammates, Moonsong, Furcate, Reconciliation, and my ears latched onto the names, but I wasn’t trying to listen, and I stepped away to avoid overhearing things that were being shared in private.
Too close to home, for Byron. Paris’s involvement.
No, not just Byron. This was too close to home for Sveta, who was a little out of control, isolated, and cut off from the rest of us.
For Chastity, probably, because she’d stepped away from Rachel to go to Damsel, touching Damsel’s hair, smiling. Playing peacemaker to someone that was emotionally volatile, dangerous, who probably didn’t deserve that peace. But Chastity was doing it, and she was good at it, from what I could tell.
The Undersiders? I couldn’t tell. Rachel was alone, focusing on her dogs. Foil was worrying, no doubt, especially with the nebulous hints Paris had given. She probably wanted to be stopping March, not here. I knew she’d always felt displaced, before. It was probably why she was with the Undersiders.
Damsel was tense, but she was easing up. Walking a razor’s edge. Ashley was trying to look poised as my dad stitched up her shoulder. She wasn’t doing the best job of upholding the poised and ‘I couldn’t care less’ image, I could see the tells, but nobody commented.
And, all this while, I was thinking of Brandish as my mom and Flashbang as my dad because right now they were. I associated coming home at the end of the night to medical care and small talk or recaps of the night with family. After a point, it had been coming back to Amy, to fix any bumps or scrapes, if anything had slipped past my forcefield. That thought did sour the picture.
Soured, but it didn’t change that some of the moments my mom had felt most like a mom had been when she’d been holding my hand over the sink, dabbing at blood or probing at the bones to see if I’d broken my hand by hitting something too hard. Like other girls had their moms brush their hair, but I’d had that too when I was little and it didn’t sit with the same weight as the hand care. I remembered my dad massaging my shoulder and talking to me about the bigger picture, after a frustrating night where five carjackers had scattered the instant they saw me and I’d only caught two. In those moments I’d felt more like I was a part of the family than I had on any Christmas or on any summer vacation.
Close to home. Pain had a way of bringing us that direction, and those traps had hurt. Exposed the raw nerves.
That only left Moose and Harbinger.
I really hoped Harbinger wasn’t closer to home, because home for him had to be a scary, scary place.
I floated, testing my flight. Ninety percent.
Still no clue why it had cut out. It hadn’t been one of Love Lost’s traps. It had affected the other guys. But that kind of interruption went hand in hand with someone having a trigger event. It was just that this was… major. It hadn’t been anyone in our group or our ongoing skirmish, and it had been both more distant and more profound.
Something more intense in quantity… or in quality. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it spooked me.
“Hey Moose,” I said.
“What’s up?” he asked. “Everything good?”
His attention moved to Swansong and Damsel, then to the mutant dogs.
“It’ll have to be.”
“Good. Sorry about, y’know, not jumping on board. What Bluestocking said about alliances was more or less why.”
“I’m just glad you came around,” I said.
“What am I walking into?” he asked.
“A vicious rivalry. A lunatic who’s butchering people, and we don’t know- well, we have hints about why. It’s convenient to eliminate the Navigators in a brutal way. It plays into the villains wanting to posture. But there’s more to it.”
“Sure,” Moose said.
I lowered my voice. “Prancer’s thing about Cradle injecting something into hands was pure, unmitigated bullshit. The mechanic thing?”
“Doesn’t have to be bullshit,” Moose said. “Old mechanic gets told one thing by Velvet, he does another, turns out she’s right, but he’s proud. He needs a way out, so he can do the right thing. Doesn’t mean the way out is wrong or a lie. It’s even better if it’s the truth.”
“Cradle’s thing isn’t anger. That’s Love Lost.”
“Could be,” Moose said, jaw square, gaze focused on the horizon, in the direction Paris and Contender were both limping off. “Tinkers are funny though, aren’t they?”
“Funny,” I said. “A lot of people are getting a pass.”
“Prance delivered what you asked for.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Chastity whistled. “We’re moving!”
Further up the road, Rachel was hanging off the side of the hunting hound. It had started pacing forward. The wolf ranged further ahead, checking the path.
We packed up what we could, and Swansong’s first aid ended with an unceremonious length of bandage pressed down over sutures. Everyone started following.
“He’s a smart guy. Admirable, even,” Moose said.
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Just wait until he starts playing more to his strengths like this,” Moose said. “He’ll change your mind.”
“I dread the day.”
One of the Harbingers was waking up. That was good – being unconscious for longer than five or ten minutes was a really bad sign.
I flew to Swansong, noting that part of her costume was destroyed, and that meant her outer layers were damaged. I undid the straps for my breastplate, and pulled off the hooded top section. I picked off the shoulder and hood accessories.
“You don’t have to. The cold doesn’t bother me,” she said, while looking very bothered by the cold.
“Wear it. I have a forcefield,” I said. “You’ll have to find someone else to lean on, though.”
“Noted,” she said.
I was already feeling the bite of wind. I slipped all of the accessory parts into a pocket and I fixed my breastplate back into place – I had a long-sleeved thermal top on beneath, like a skintight sweater, and I did have gloves on, with bandages under one glove. There were still slivers of glass stuck in the bandage and the fabric of the glove, from where I had punched the trap.
“Victoria,” my mother said, while I was still making sure Swansong was squared away.
I turned in the air.
“It was good, back there. The negotiation. Getting through a bad situation. I’m proud.”
“I’m pleased too,” Swansong said. “I’ll turn Breakthrough into some top notch villains, just you wait and see.”
She laughed, mostly for her own benefit, and she might have glimpsed the frown on my mother’s face, because she doubled down on the laughter.
Capricorn broke away from Foil to see what was up.
“Give her a shoulder to lean on?” I asked.
“Gentleman,” Swansong said. She sounded far too pleased with herself, for whatever reason.
We were making some headway now. Some walking, some jogging, with the group getting a bit more spread out. The stragglers like Swansong would catch up. I hoped that a lone wolf like Rachel would hang back and wait for us if she found something, instead of going in alone. I didn’t know how predictable she was or how she operated.
I hoped too, that Damsel wouldn’t try to stalk ahead and tire herself out too thoroughly in the process, just to prove she moved faster than her sister.
Moose was waving me down. Please let this not be too complicated.
“What is it?”
“Paris, Thud, and Contender. They’re going in the same direction we are. They cut through the trees between the outcroppings, way over there. Harbinger Two saw them.”
I looked. ‘Over there’ was three hundred feet away, down in a valley. The trees were thick. I was surprised they could see anything.
“Good to know.”
“I want to shoot,” Harbinger Two said. He was the one who was most aware and able, sitting on Moose’s shoulder still.
“Which one?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Either of the two men. Not the deviant. Hard to say how they’ll react.”
I paused, considering.
“You have a gun? Foil can lend you hers,” I said.
He held up his slingshot.
Contender was looking to join religious extremists after being far too okay with what had happened. Paris was worse.
“I won’t stop you,” I said. “Maybe don’t kill.”
The Harbinger nodded. “I said I’d balance the equation.”
He slipped something like a marble into the slingshot, drew it back so far that one arm was outstretched, holding the slingshot itself, and the hand with the marble clasped tight in it was against his shoulder.
“Killing isn’t enough,” he said.
He released the shot.
I didn’t finish my protest or clarify the point. It was done.
“Okay,” he said, turning away. “Problem solved.”
“You didn’t wait to see the result,” Moose said.
“Second one’s already in the trees. She took too long to decide.”
“And the first?” Moose asked.
“Will rethink the sequence of events that brought him to this point.”
I drew in a deep breath.
That was vague, but I wasn’t sure I wanted the answer.
Fuck them, anyway. I floated up and away from the Harbingers.
It wasn’t a short trip. We didn’t have a vehicle. Still, there was a limit to how far they could travel – we hadn’t been that far behind them, delayed primarily by the time it had taken to recoup and recover at the university building, waiting for doctors and reinforcements.
I flew to my parents.
“Hand warmer?” I asked.
“You should be more prepared,” my mother said.
My dad had a hand warmer in one of the pouches of the bandoleer he wore. He drew one out and threw it up to me. I undid my forcefield, caught it in my unbandaged hand, shook it, and felt the plastic packet begin to warm.
Sveta was making her way through the trees, phantom-quiet, except for a rustling. A pale face against a dark background.
I followed, tracking her, being wary.
When she realized I was there, she didn’t startle. She didn’t grab me.
I recapped her on everything she might have missed, and I included some things I realized she hadn’t missed, and she let me.
Talking. A break from the situation. The two of us moving like ethereal figures through woods that looked like black and white snow-covered trees against a black and white background. She didn’t have much to say, so I did much of the talking.
Maybe that was still too close to home for her, reminding her of the hospital room, because there had been days where she didn’t talk then, either. The room had been filled with the mechanical voice, echoing words I typed out with the special keyboard, the voice tuned as best as we’d been able to get to my old voice. Putting aside the horrible enunciation and a more horrible monotonous tone, it hadn’t been very close at all. But some days had been like that.
But that home was better than the other home – the memories of being wild and alone, so dangerous to others that she had to exile herself.
No exile here. I’d risk a tendril around my neck in the woods before I allowed that exile to happen. I wanted to find her a solution, to dig out that one parahuman in a hundred thousand that could do something about her situation, resolve the Weld issue- make her feel like herself again.
If only there were time. If only there were quiet, if the monsters would just… stop.
Did that take something like me saying what I’d said to give Harbinger Two permission? Something more?
I thought about what Paris had said about Cradle. That we would want to shoot, that Paris had taken measures to ensure we couldn’t. I had a bad feeling, hollow in my chest.
That feeling only grew more intense as we reached the edge of woods. Cradle had a building out here, more like a factory than a home. Big, with a lot of open space within. A hangar for his robot hand-mech, potentially.
There were guards stationed around the outside, taking shifts. There were capes. I recognized some from my research.
Rachel approached, stopping at the edge of where forest met road, hugging the trees. Others were well behind.
We waited, and we watched.
There were more within. They came out regularly to check on the other shifts. Patrols seemed to be loose in how they were structured, random, numbers differing. Unpredictable.
The others caught up. There was a brief exchange of info, and then we made our initial scouting foray. Sveta used her power, tendrils and face slipping beneath snow. I flew over, dropping out of the sky.
There was no signal to tell me that the guards were agitated or responding to anything.
It meant I could check the window.
A small army was gathered within, all huddled around a fire. Groups of men, each with capes. I remembered Contender talking about the Russian cape scene- he’d toured over there in his mercenary work over there. Over there, military and powers were woven into one another. One squad leader with powers or one cape as an adjunct to a squad, adding to their capabilities. Capes were rarely allowed or encouraged to get along.
It felt like that. Not like they were Russian, exactly. They didn’t look it. But maybe Lionwing and Cretan, Noontide and Contender had been organizing things in that direction.
As I checked another window, however, I saw Cradle. Or at least, I was fairly sure I did.
An orb, a sphere fifteen feet across. Slices of meat and body parts were suspended in air, forming a puzzle-work lattice with barely any light leaking through. All was held up in the air by Cradle’s machine, multiple sets of mechanical hands, large in scale, all joined at the wrists.
An egg. A shell, stasis-sealed, protecting the people within. Love Lost. Cradle. Colt.
My first thought was Chastity. Her sense for physical things.
You won’t want to shoot.
It wouldn’t work. Love Lost and Cradle seemed to think so, and he’d researched powers involved.
This was an egg we couldn’t easily crack.