The settlement of scattered, disorganized buildings didn’t look like it had been laid out with roads in mind, and it took on the appearance of being a town on fire well before any fire had ignited. The motes of Subside’s power marked the loose boundaries of where it was being set up. Sparks and dots of red light. Soldiers stepped out of the trees, starting with Subside’s squad, built around Subside himself but led primarily by a large guy with three guns hanging off of him. The squads to either side emerged a bit later, after minimal conversation.
The show of force wasn’t for our benefit. All of the people of the ‘Rows’ of Earth N base town were out of their beds, paying clear attention now. Their number included the people who had been on guard earlier who had apparently retired from being on guard, and people who hadn’t stopped keeping an eye on things, sitting on porches or going on extended walks.
The blue motes of Capricorn’s power were our own answer, for what that was worth. As glad as I was to know we had something, the color of the lights cut into my eyes’ ability to peer through the dark. The bright blue left spots in my vision and trails that persisted even when I looked away.
The air was thick with the smell of mud, rain, and the haze of cigarette smoke that seemed to settle over a place when most of a town was left out in the cold, keeping an eye out for their mutual benefit.
That mutual benefit had been something we’d tested and cracked by applying pressure to Bluestocking, with Prancer’s help. Now Moose was approaching Prancer, who had stuck closer to Bluestocking, and they were comparing notes. No Etna in Bluestocking’s retinue, I noted.
The people in the town weren’t making a fuss about us backing up and using one of the buildings for cover.
There weren’t any better options. If we ran for it, we’d be gunned down. If we stayed and Bluestocking decided to side with Cradle’s group again, we’d be in the midst of trouble with more trouble coming from Cradle’s group.
“He’s the lead-from-behind type,” Swansong said.
Cradle was moving through the trees with his mech, shaking them. Slivers of the mech were visible where the trees weren’t as thick or where some had been felled a certain distance into the woods. Couldn’t be easy terrain, especially with something as large and weird in shape as the mech.
“Because he knows we’d shoot him if he led from the front,” Foil answered. “I might be able to hit him. Shoot through the repulsion field. But I might miss.”
“I could help,” Harbinger One said, sidling in close enough that he was in Foil’s personal space. Damsel stuck out a claw, touching his shoulder and prodding him back.
“Can you guarantee a hit?” Foil asked.
“No. Can’t see enough of him, and it’s too dark.”
“I have the same problem, so it’s not much help.”
“Don’t shoot if you can’t keep him alive. We need him to undo what he did to others-” Assuming that’s even possible. It has to be possible. “-and to give us the dirt on March.”
“If you’re trigger-happy, you could shoot-” Tattletale started. She paused one second, started again, voice quiet, and the lower undertones of Moose’s voice, even though he wasn’t technically in earshot, were enough to drown out the initial sounds.
She started again. “Woman in red. MYOSHA, all capitals.”
“Machinery explosions,” I said. “Dangerous.”
“Yes. Or one on the far left, ox skull. Prong.”
“Don’t know him,” I said, noting the soldier with an ox skull mask that looked like it obscured his peripheral vision, with the way the skull and his own eyes lined up. He wore a heavy coat over what might have been body armor. Bulky kevlar, not fancy costume armor panels.
“Point,” Tattletale smirked, the smirk faltering as she took in a halting, probably painful breath, “for me.”
I was annoyed at that, but I let it slide. “What does he do, then?”
“Brute tough, but you can wear that down. Or use Foil’s power and ignore it. Wanted to hire him once, he said no, he was busy, so fuck him. The-”
She stopped. Her face was shiny with sweat. Rachel brushed a mittened hand over her upper face to move hair away, not really as delicate in the operation as I imagined ninety-nine percent of the population would be.
“-The schtick is ‘you mess with the bull, get the horns’. Curved spikes of light. Spear you like a- like a spear. And carry you back and away. Impales you to a wall with one spike then stabs you ten times with the other, or he just pushes you back out and away. Extends the spike out past the horizon.”
“Endless range?” I asked.
“Twenty-five feet. But once he gets you, it’s endless.”
“Cretan and Lionwing are there, but they aren’t stepping up,” Tattletale observed. “They’re sticking close to Cradle. Closer relationship. They’re actually loyal.”
The conversation between Moose and Prancer was wrapping up.
The pair broke apart, but instead of Moose returning to us and Prancer going to the station where Bluestocking’s group was maintaining watch, it was the other way around.
Fifteen of us and three dogs were gathered, and all were silent, but for the labored breathing from Tattletale.
“Bluestocking hoped you’d resolve the issue in the background, come back, and go away. Not bring it to her literal doorstep,” Prancer said.
“Her house?” Tattletale asked, jerking her head. The one we were camped out by.
Prancer gave her a long look. In the gloom, his eyes seemed bright, his attention clearly on the gravity of Tattletale’s injury.
“Forget- forget I asked,” Tattletale said.
“She’ll help,” Prancer said. “She wants concessions.”
“Concessions?” I asked. “We’ve fucking sailed past the place where the line used to be drawn, where people put their shit aside because fuck no.”
“She’ll help,” Prancer said, voice firm. “But if you don’t want some asshole villain pulling a mutiny and taking over, giving you a repeat performance of all of this in a few months or a year, she needs to give her people something. You need to give her something to give her people.”
“No. Special status for the Rows. You do what you can to convince the mayor, make sacrifices, pull favors, whatever. Mayor knows what we’ve been asking for.”
“We know,” Harbinger One said. “It’s come up. All of the benefits of being part of the city and none of the costs. Open trade, loosened restrictions on goods despite being an alternate world with health risks and quarantine. No taxes, but access to the library net. It’s a hard sell.”
“Thank you,” I said. Context.
Tattletale gasped out a response, “Establishes her place on the- shortlist of people who control economy. Second rung.”
My mom folded her arms, leaning in close to whisper something to my dad.
I knew her well enough to guess what. In fact, on thinking about what she was probably saying, I could extrapolate. She loathed giving the villains what they wanted. If we couldn’t stop them, we could keep them from scoring a win.
I knew why that idea had rung so true, and why it had been something she’d clung to and repeated more often in recent years. She’d watched us give our hometown to villains, inch by inch, the perceived idea the Protectorate and Wards had given Lung territory because he was too dangerous to uproot, and that heroes had conceded it to Undersiders.
Because she’d given a villain what he wanted and expected once, and took a child into her home. And that home had been sundered.
“What happens if we can’t convince the mayor?” Swansong asked.
“Penalty clause,” Prancer said. “Two members of Breakthrough join Bluestocking. They’re at her beck and call, people get to see it. Six month-”
Gunfire cut him off.
“Foil,” I said. “Harbingers. Get MYOSHA and Prong.”
The Harbingers approached one corner of the building. Foil went to the other, jostling Rain aside, borrowed slingshot in hand.
“Tried to stir them up,” Rain said, rejoining us now that Foil had taken his place. “Got two groups hanging back, one’s backed up to go talk to Cradle.”
“Which?” Tattletale asked.
“Chugalug and a guy with a white hood, sword, robey sort of look. Second guy went.”
“Condemner,” Tattletale said. “Not hanging back. He’s a thinker and sound blaster… can communicate messages. He’s listening in, communicating something between Cradle and Blue. You’ll want to stop him.”
I want to stop all of them.
“Well fucking great,” Rain said. He visibly stopped himself, visibly forcing himself to relax. Capricorn set a scalemail glove on his shoulder.
The noises of the fighting were escalating. What had been an initial spatter of gunfire was being answered.
“What do I tell Blue?” Prancer asked. “Yes or no?”
“Tell her if she accepts some leeway, gets maybe one of us on loan as a penalty clause, fine, I’ll try to make it happen. Also, tell her I said fuck her. Not-”
An eruption of MYOSHA’s power sent debris flying. Most of that debris was paper thin, but it stirred into the air.
Prancer was adopting his breaker form. He nodded, and he ducked low as he slipped around the corner, sliding beneath the raised platform, too small to be a porch, by one front door. He sprung up on the other side, hurdling a vehicle, heading to the station.
Byron’s power produced a flood of water. I wasn’t in a position to see, my back to the wall and everything that was going on, more of my attention on the station, but I saw the constellation change, dots and lines becoming flowing water, I felt the fine mist of droplets that wind or clashing sprays of water sent into the air, and I heard the moment that all gunfire momentarily ceased.
“I shot her in the leg,” Foil reported. “But her people gathered around her. I’d shoot them, but-”
But the answering gunfire was more persistent than a slingshot could be.
“She doesn’t need to see where she’s creating the machine splashes,” I said. “There’s a chance she tries hitting us.”
“Not until there’s a final word from Blue.”
“Which might be now,” I said. “We move.”
An order, and one people thankfully listened to without bickering or issue.
“Brand,” my dad said, voice low. “Kick up some dust. Catch and toss.”
My mom nodded, backing up. Foil was pulling back because the bullets were too heavy. My mom ducked beneath the firing line of Foil’s slingshot as Foil aimed at the corner of the building.
Her power wasn’t Shadow Stalker’s, from back in Brockton Bay. It went through everything, yes. Shadow Stalker could do something similar. But it left a hole, where Shadow Stalker’s hadn’t. One shot, then two- it created an aperture with the same diameter as the bullet.
I could understand why Foil would be reluctant to put holes that big in something she was using for cover, especially with the concentration of gunfire.
I handed her the gun I’d taken. I saw the moment of reservation, knew exactly what she was thinking, but she took the weapon.
My dad created glowing orbs. he threw one to my mother, tossing another around the corner. My mother caught and threw the orb, tossing it around her corner.
They were heavy detonations, pitched to cut into the earth, to kick up dirt, dust, and moisture. A shower of mud and moisture.
Visual cover, but when it came to the bullets, there were too many. I didn’t trust the Wretch and I had the impression the dogs would just get gunned down.
The front landing that Prancer had gone under. A three-foot by three-foot square of wooden boards with perforated metal textured for walking laid over top.
I had to step out into danger to get to it, though.
I made use of the cover and I flew low enough to the ground that the Wretch cut grooves into the ground. My own cloud of kicked-up mud and ice followed behind me.
A bullet clipped the Wretch, striking the very same hand that Cradle’s power had clipped. Much like my mom’s ball had been cut and then was intact after the fact, my own power had recovered when it had been knocked out and turned back on.
But I was left momentarily exposed, my back to the enemy, nearly blind in the loose rain of flecks of mud.
I flew to the underside of the square-shaped porch, my back hugging it, and the moment the Wretch returned, I used her to haul it up and away from the wall.
It was connected well enough that one plank was left affixed to the base of the door. The rest came apart in more or less one piece.
A shield, impractical in dimension, but it was a way to shield others just a bit more reliably than the Wretch could.
“Tenor of the fight changed,” Tattletale was saying, back at the main group. “Someone accepted someone’s deal.”
Had it? I’d been busy with property damage. I flew to a position where I could guard the others, head ducked down, Wretch clinging to my ‘shield’ that had to weigh a hundred and fifty pounds. I felt the first bullets strike it, impacts harder than the swing of a baseball bat, but diffuse enough it didn’t crack the Wretch. I knew I was buying seconds, because the Wretch was digging into the cracks between the thick boards and the posts that framed it, crushing and stabbing into metal.
People used the dogs, far too many hanging onto the side or riding on top, heads ducked low. I flew up higher to shield better.
My mom was one of the last to make a break for new cover. She took running footsteps, then turned into the ball shape, just a little under waist-height, an orange-red hue in bright, color that seemed dissonant for the environment, like neon signage in woodlands.
Something exploded, smaller than a grenade, more focused. It interrupted the rolling. She stopped dead in her tracks. Sitting in the midst of exposed road.
Not something I was unfamiliar with. I flew to her, ready to kick her, but in the last second, she changed back. With only the imperfect cover of my ‘shield’ protecting her, she ran to the others.
Putting us further from the woman I’d mentally nicknamed Red, MYOSHA, who was presumably immobile.
Bluestocking’s group was out. Birdbrain, Crested, some underlings, and then the pairing of Bitter Pill and Bluestocking.
Tattletale said something. I didn’t catch it, given distance and how quiet her voice was.
MYOSHA hit one of the buildings closest to the treeline. I could see people cast into the air, flipping head over heels, amid the pieces of wood, the prefab segments of houses that had been fit together, and chunks of concrete. A giant iron container of what looked like molten metal was at the center of it all, and that container tipped as it sloped back into the ground.
Where the molten liquid touched puddles and condensation, it exploded, sending sparks flying, the resulting reaction so bright it could have been a flashbang, the crackling and fizzling deafening.
I heard a grunt of pain.
“Who!?” I heard, in a voice that could only be Ashley’s, imperious, accusatory.
“Saving your life!” my mom shouted back.
There was a detonation. One of my dad’s grenades.
“Victoria!” my dad said, in a very ‘dad’ voice. “To me!”
I flew to the sound of his voice, even while the entire world seemed to dissolve into a blinding white that made the backs of my eyes and the front of my brain hurt.
He touched me, grabbing me by the shoulders, and turned me forward. “Forcefield on!”
I had to pull out of his grip, moving to a place I had to hope was safe and out of the reach of the others, before I used my forcefield.
“Bluestocking attacked us,” my mom said.
One arm shielding my eyes, I could see the white fading, and every line and shadow that returned to the world brought a lot of pain with it. The others were down, Swansong and Damsel pushed into the dirt, Capricorn standing in front of Rain, and it was my parents who stood tall with eyes open in the glare.
The little benefits of powers, like Byron’s cold resistance and my relative resilience to emotion powers.
I could see the general silhouette of the station, and of the people on the landing. Dark shapes against a dark background, my vision filled with afterimages and spots, with Capricorn lines and Subside’s sparks, and the fallout that was cascading down around the entire town, from MYOSHA’s liquid metal spill.
“Watch out!” my father called out.
I felt the Wretch go down, and I had no idea why. I lost the strength I needed to hold up the shield and protect my back from the distant munitions. I wasn’t even positive it would matter.
“Do I move!?” I asked.
“No!” my mom ordered. My dad gave the opposite response, “Charge in! Hit them before-”
“No!” was another voice in the jumble. There were shouts, questions, most from people who couldn’t see much better than I could.
“Get your mom in there, charge in yourself, they’re using powers!”
I could see the glow of my dad’s grenades forming in his hands. I saw my mother’s silhouette as she caught the grenades she was handed, the glow as she became a ball again.
“No!” again, I heard the voice. It stood out from imperious words, complaints, and questions because it was meek.
No, not meek.
“Don’t throw!” I ordered my dad.
Something heavy hit the wall of the new house we were using for cover from the massed soldiers and capes in Cradle’s contingent, striking above heads and sending debris down onto Chastity, Cassie, and the Harbingers. Chunks of concrete larger than a fist, one chunk even larger than that.
“Why not, Tattletale? Rachel, can you hear what she’s saying?”
“It’s not an attack,” Rachel translated, voice tight. “It feels like being attacked!”
“Water?” Byron asked.
“Tattletale says no,” Rachel translated.
“Clarify!” I shouted.
Something hit me again. The Wretch went down. Another chunk of concrete, this time aimed my way. Again, I lost my strength, my feet hitting ground, my entire body, strained and tortured as it was, bearing the full weight of the posts, planks, and textured cover of metal.
“Hostage!” Rachel huffed. “Paris!”
I was already flying before she added the second half of her statement, abandoning my shield, because it was too unwieldy for a dangerous situation.
I flew closer to the group. To my parents, it was Paris and Thud backing the rest of Bluestocking’s group, with Thud hurling rocks and Paris throwing his darts with Thud’s hand pointing over Bluestocking’s shoulder. Men were hunkered down on either side.
But Tattletale had been right. This was a hostage situation, and Thud had one hand at the back of Bluestocking’s neck. Paris had a dart held like a knife at Bitter Pill’s back.
Thud could see despite the residual glare, and he had some sense that I was nearby.
A glass ball shattered in Thud’s eye socket, and in that moment, his eye sockets were riddled with uncoiling wires and glass fragments. He didn’t seem to mind much, but the scenario bought me a moment to act. I dove, saw him bring his finger to his eye to pry the wires free, and I changed direction mid-flight. A twist in the air, leg out, Wretch out-
I slammed my foot into his hand with all the strength I could bring to bear, using flight and rotation in the air. In the process, I slammed finger into eye socket, all the way to the base of the finger where it met the hand.
It got him to let go of Bluestocking.
Paris had taken a simultaneous shot, but the shot had missed the eye, catching brow, temple, and the ear, wires mangling flesh.
I acted before he could get his composure together enough to lunge forward and drive the dart of disintegration into Bitter Pill’s back. Wretch-strong, I hit him full in the chest with my arm that didn’t have deep cuts in it. Sternum and ribs shattered in my hand.
He was laid flat, obviously enough. I saw him flounder, trying to sit up, immediately and intensely failing, small sounds escaping his mouth.
In his floundering, he created a dart, larger than any I’d seen him make. I had to wonder if it was reflex, while he was stunned with pain, or if the expression of power was an automatic thing. In addition to the principle of stronger powers in times of appropriate kinds of stress, there was a tendency for powers to unlock additional capabilities if the situation was dire enough. Not second triggers, but adaptations to changes in the host’s core physical or mental state.
The Wretch, I had to assume, was that.
Either way, I stomped on his forearm. There was a chance it was innocent, but I didn’t have any more tolerance for chances.
“Give me one more excuse, and I end you,” I told Paris.
He went limp. His breaths were wheezes.
“You’d better hope this situation you fucked with doesn’t take too long, or-”
A distant cry – a warning from a parent or teammate. I saw the heads of Birdbrain and Crested turn. Crested flicked out a sharp knife, and it became a fan, the fan extending, extending, layer by layer, into one corner of the quarter-circle barrier bit into the station platform, the other corner into the pillar behind Paris.
Thud’s fist slammed hard into the metal, denting it a matter of a foot from where my face was.
The dent didn’t touch me, but the impact did. A punch as heavy as any I’d taken directly, catching me while I wasn’t relying on the Wretch, due to my proximity to Crested and Crested shielding me. I felt pain rock through me, whole-body, every wound I had amplified, and a sharper pain marked my head hitting the ground. I heard Crested fall, his barrier collapsing, saw a glimpse of what might have been the three B’s -Bluestocking, Birdbrain, and Bitter Pill- falling over.
Thud fucking indeed.
My thoughts weren’t lined up exactly right as I tried to pull myself together. I flew back, and an uncharacteristic bout of motion sickness nearly sank me.
But Thud was lifting up a foot, to stomp on me like I’d done to Paris.
I flew up, and even that movement wasn’t without its wobble.
The impact of the stomp rippled out, kicking up just about every loose particle on the station platform, on the ground beyond the platform, and everything around my team, who were still huddled together. They all fell, sprawling.
Thud didn’t bleed, but there was a hole where his eye was supposed to be, and his expression, frozen in ceramic, was twisted around the edges, his face unchanging, the slimy fibers that connected the ceramic-like plates more tense and strained than I’d seen them.
He was distracted, at least for a moment, by Paris’s cry of pain. The stomp had jostled him, and he wasn’t in a state to be jostled.
I had help coming now, and Birdbrain was backing up, gun leveled at Thud.
Her shots weren’t aimed at killing, but at disabling. Three out of the four hit the meaty flesh between ceramic plates.
He didn’t slow down. He lunged forward, and it was a weird lunge, a fast initial movement, yes, but the fast didn’t taper off. He ran over Bluestocking’s group, clotheslining them and possibly breaking a collarbone, shoulder, or two.
I flew at him, kicking. He was keeping an eye out for me, though, and turned, arm moving to strike my leg aside. I tucked it in, knees close to my chest, and avoided him instead.
The way he moved- that was a precise turn for a guy moving a lot of weight. A precise movement of the arm, stopping just where he needed it.
Kinetic extension. Every impact or movement carried… maybe exactly as far as he wanted it. Every hit, kick- they involved shockwaves, either directed or rippling out. It exaggerated how he carried himself.
He chased me, with those abrupt movements that saw him almost sliding into me, a train or truck that needed only acceleration, his ability providing him the means to accelerate through it.
I did what I could to keep him distracted and occupied, and used Paris’s body as a means to limit his movements. He stopped short of trampling Paris, and seemed upset that he had to.
Others were coming to help. Damsel and Swansong, their powers flaring. Chastity followed. Damsel and Swansong didn’t move in coordination, but more out of a kind of competition, each trying to outdo the others, to move further, faster, and more frenetically. They zig-zagged across each other’s paths to cut one another off and somehow they were more scary in this than they’d been as two wolves in a pack on their hunt, as I’d seen briefly, just a little while ago.
My goal was keeping him from trampling the local villains.
“Blue!” I shouted, as I threw myself forward, slamming my elbow into his shoulder, “you’re going to give me some serious slack on that deal we’re striking!”
“We were in danger because we agreed!” Bluestocking shouted back. “Part of the deal!”
Thud backhanded me and the Wretch hard enough to send us rocketing at a downward angle. Flight kept me from hitting the ground, as I steered up in time, but it didn’t keep me from colliding with the wall.
I could have charged in, but the reinforcements were here.
Damsel went high, Swansong went low, her peg-leg skidding on the concrete as her blast carried her forward. She reached ahead, and Thud slid backward. To where Damsel was, and to where Chastity was just now running up to the base of the stairs.
He clapped, the sound sharp, harder and sharper because of the composition of his hands. His power carried the shockwave out, impacting me, the Ashleys, Chastity, Bluestocking’s group, and just about everyone that was defending the settlement, from my team to the sketchy local citizens that had taken up arms. We all doubled over, wincing.
While people reeled, he stomped his way toward Chastity, his stomps rattling the area.
Swansong lunged, Damsel using her power in the same moment. The lunge wasn’t as effective as it could be, as her peg foot skidded on the material of the portal station platform, but she compensated for it by moving her hands down, sending herself higher up. There was a moment where she was airborne but not using her blast, high enough up that she stood to hurt herself on landing.
I went low, taking the cue I’d observed earlier. Wretch strength and bulk let me crash into his legs and actually move them.
Crested did what he could, which was absolutely the wrong thing, because Crested created a shield to limit Thud’s movements. Knife became a convex barrier, and Thud hit the barrier.
The shockwave, in turn, hit all of us.
Etna and Crested had to have gone to fuckup academy for villains.
Letting them out of the prison cell had to be the biggest mistake I’d made.
“Hey!” Damsel barked, voice pitched to be heard. “Big guy!”
He turned to look at her. Her blast had been to carry her along the concrete pad that the fancier station building rested on, and her destination had been Paris. Now she held pointed fingers to Paris’s throat.
Thud paused. It looked for a moment like he intended to fight on, pressing forward even though we had a hostage. Then he relaxed.
Another shot struck his intact eye. This one didn’t catch the eye socket and send metal wire out into the other external bits. It simply sank in, then detonated.
He screamed, his mouth remaining frozen where it was, while the slick yellow-green muscle fibers across his neck and shoulders parted, the gaps vibrating with the passage of the sound from within him.
I’d taken one eye, was that somehow license to the Harbinger to take another? What had Citrine sent to me? Worse, what did it say that she was okay employing little monsters like this? Did she use them in this kind of capacity?
Thud didn’t stop, and he swung and stomped madly now, cracking the concrete and spreading the effect. He heard distant voices and lunged toward them with the same movement trick, only to stumble where the platform ended.
Chastity ran toward him, and he seemed to hear the footsteps. He turned on her.
I flew to the side. “Thud, Paris!”
I wasn’t sure why I shouted the names, but I wanted his attention, and I felt like people reacted to their names and the names of people they were fond of to any degree.
He did turn. He swung a fist out, pure rage and recklessness, but Chastity ducked the part of it that would have clipped her. She sprung up, stepping onto his knee, and leaped up to a height where she could hit his face.
A backhand slap knocked him out cold. Chastity stumbled with the awkward step down as his bulk toppled forward, pressing against her.
“Losing your edge, sister,” Damsel said, smug.
“Stop,” I told her. “No.”
Swansong gave me a long look, but she didn’t say anything, her lips shut, the hood of my costume hugging her head with the general damp that had set in, no doubt from Byron’s activities. I lent her a shoulder to help her limp forward.
The fires had spread as a result of the shower of sparks from MYOSHA’s power. The fires, in turn, illuminated the rise of Cretan’s maze. Buildings folded and twisted, ground rose and fell, and the effect rose up skyscraper high around where Cretan no doubt was, with other areas catching up.
“You want that favor?” I asked Bluestocking, my hand at my ear, “Now’s the time to earn it.”
She gave me a very unimpressed look, but she did give Bitter Pill a push on the shoulder. Bitter Pill put one pill into a pocket, then lifted a piece of plastic to her mouth, a candy dispenser shaped like a woman wreathed in skin, tubes running from the folds to her nose and mouth. The head was levered back, depositing a liquid jet into Bitter Pill’s mouth.
Crested started forward. I wanted to say ‘not you’, but he’d really only had one strike so far, and it had been well-intentioned.
“I’ll rally the others who are too chickenshit to jump in on their own,” Bluestocking said. “Send wounded to me. I’m certified.”
I nodded. I was leery of parahuman healers, but this sounded more along the lines of conventional medicine, given a helping hand.
“He’s threatening to lock us all in,” Bluestocking said. “He had one of his hirelings reach out to me as a creepy whispergram. Don’t fuck this up.”
Swansong raised her eyebrows at me, but she didn’t say a word.
I turned to walk away without a response. Swansong leaned heavily into me, limping. We passed Chastity, who looked a little shell shocked, and a lot intimidated by the maze that was unfolding.
The other kids had been hurt in a maze like that, if I remembered right. Chastity’s sisters and ‘cousins’.
“You good?” I asked her, pretty sure I knew what the answer might be.
“Hanging back,” Chastity said. “Bruised my hip there, leg’s wobbly, and I don’t think I can run.”
Swansong made an amused sound. I pointed a finger at her, stern.
“Okay,” I said. “Keep an eye on things here?”
She nodded, smiling slightly.
It wasn’t the best excuse in the world, but Chastity had done her part, and if she kept from being hurt, then Thud would stay down.
She observed while Bluestocking went to Paris’s side, absently rubbing at her hip.
“Careful with your power,” Swansong said, as we reached the edge of the effect. She was talking to Damsel, by the angle of her head. “Capricorn said things are tricky here.”
“You be careful. I have control,” Damsel said.
We split up, taking different paths, with Damsel going high, over a building that was looking a little crooked. Swansong stuck with me.
The soldiers were filtering into the maze, and I could see some by the weird geometry of the space, flashlights mounted on guns, masks and gas masks on.
Uneven ground, an enclosed space, and men with guns spreading out through the area.
They were doing it with an ease and focus that made me really concerned that they had done drills or practiced this.
And one of those squads was Cretan’s, who would be that much better at this.
Cradle’s mech crashed through a building, maze and all. Cradle wasn’t on it. It reached forward, and the distortion made the arm and fingers bend at right angles. They dug into grass and dirt, forcing Sveta to scramble out of the way.
“What did you do to me!?”
I heard Rain’s response, but I didn’t make out the words.
The voice shook me, because I was pretty sure I knew who it was. Cradle. Confronting Rain.
I expected the Undersiders and Breakthrough to be scattered. It wasn’t the case. Cradle had done what I liked to do in certain situations, when I was fighting something or someone bigger. Throwing myself into the midst of it all and using my enemy’s disorganization and shock against them. A lot of powers and weapons couldn’t be used in that situation if someone cared about hurting their allies.
The place was a clearing, a square of grass with buildings folded in to form walls, four narrow corridors leading out of the place, and those corridors were lit with explosions and the light from flashlights. They were boxed in, high walls surrounding them.
Cradle was a matter of feet from Rain, whip-chain out and spinning in a circle, crackling with red electricity. With soldiers approaching from multiple sides, a lot of the people who could have done something were stuck keeping the soldiers at bay. My dad, my mom, Capricorn, the dogs, and Foil. To do otherwise was to be surrounded on three or four sides and gunned down. Like this, at least, the soldiers and the associated capes were left hiding behind cover.
The percussive explosions from the constant grenades was my dad’s act in this, keeping one ‘corridor’ between buildings inaccessible, pinning down the squadron on the far side of it. It looked like Mukade’s people. The initial movements of the centipedes was being shaken, thrown off, and interrupted.
My mom had her weapons out in bright yellow fans. The fans narrowed into blades when she needed something that would crackle and burn, and expanded out into fan shapes when she wanted something more diffuse.
A sweep of a fan burned one soldier my mom was fighting, making him drop his assault rifle. She kicked it backward, in the direction of the Harbingers.
Cradle’s glowing line appeared in the path. The weapon slid right into it, and was cut in two.
Whatever calculations the Harbingers were using, Cradle wasn’t sitting still long enough for them to apply. He moved here and there, at one moment approaching Rain with arm held high, chain circling overhead, ready to strike down, the other hand pointed at Rain-
“Everything I am! I was well and I’ve tried to be better, even after all this. After you.”
“I’ve heard all this before, Cradle. Every fucking night,” Rain said.
Cradle disappeared, appearing behind Rain. Rain spun around, swinging with a blade of silver, as the chain whipped toward his head. A dodge. A Harbinger changed course, to lunge right for Cradle, only to stop when an ‘x’ of glowing lines appeared between them. No more slingshot bullets, possibly. It wasn’t the only fence, either. There were enough that one good stomp from Thud, were he still standing, would bowl people over and make them fall into the lines. Not all were easy to see.
I took flight, aiming to go over, and saw Cradle move in the same instant he turned his head my way. I made myself stop, twisting, as the lines appeared.
Sudden appearance, each one sharper than any blade, and capable of cutting through powered defenses.
“I can see you, Rain,” Cradle intoned. He moved twice in quick succession, and a gunshot from one of the Harbingers echoed through the area, the bullet ricocheting and hitting a wall.
Maybe a spot he’d figured Cradle would appear at.
The Harbinger moved to reload, and a line appeared as he moved the weapon. He only grazed it, checked the weapon, then threw it aside, like it was no use.
I kept flying, slow so I wouldn’t run into anything terminal, forcing Cradle to devote some attention to me.
My dad paused in his constant bombardment of the alley to hurl one in Cradle’s direction. Again, Cradle moved. Almost too slow. He was too distracted.
And the maneuver cost my dad. Mukade’s centipedes encircled the corridor, coiling in a quadruple-helix around the alley, braced against the sides so no grenade could redirect or disturb them.
Swansong used her power, vaulting over the scene.
More lines appeared in her path. She used her blast to hurl herself to one side, for a rough landing.
There’s a certain distance these things have to be from us. But they’re still more dangerous than any weapon on this battlefield.
Swansong hurried to my dad’s side, her blasts aimed at the centipede. The blast made her slip.
“Brace her!” I ordered my dad. I was dealing with my own mess. The lines were being concentrated on me, hemming me in, and trying to put me into a position where I couldn’t move without touching one. I saw a route and took a risk, hands going over my head as I dove down, my body as narrow as possible, slipping through a gap. I landed somewhat violently, and the cut in my leg seized up with pain.
Already, more lines barred my way.
My dad to the north, my mom to the west, Rachel and Cassie to the east, and Foil to the south. Foil had a gun, and it didn’t look like the one I’d handed her, but she looked like she was struggling, and it was hard to pin down why. Injury? Stress? Capricorn was closest to my mom and Rain, drawing out a diagram. He ducked and pushed my mom as Cradle appeared, swiping.
My mom turned into an orb, then turned back, getting her feet back under her. A flicker, not unlike Cradle’s, but one that left her in the same spot.
“Now!” my mom called out, moving to the side, her back to the wall just by the corner, her weapons extended out in front of her.
Byron’s water forced the soldiers who’d been encroaching in back. The slope was downhill, and the water effective. They’d paired up for that position for a reason.
Cradle’s voice was haunting, become it carried, and it came from different places even midway through a word. “I can see you so clearly. You think you’re better.”
“I don’t, but-”
“You do. I see it. All of the weak points. The flaws, the stains. You actually think you’re better.”
“I don’t, but I know I’m still fucking better than you!” Rain roared. He struck out with the silver blade, too short a weapon compared to Cradle’s lengthy whip.
Cradle appeared close, whipping out. Rain’s reaction was too slow.
An eruption of Byron’s power and a splash of water extended his way. Cradle shifted to one side, the whip still moving, and then shifted just in time as the water became stone. A loose spike of stone that stabbed up from a point just to Rain’s left.
Tristan collapsed, swayed, and then sagged. There was no revision back.
Byron had seen it as an emergency.
“The difference between us is that I overcame what I am. Then association with you knocked me all the way down, and made it impossible to be better again. You… you didn’t overcome what you were until we made you. Until we influenced you.”
“No. That’s not true,” Rain said, holding up the silver blade. He turned rapidly, taking a second or two to find Cradle each time Cradle shifted position. Lines, angled low and close to the ground, no more than ankle height, surrounded Rain’s feet, forcing each movement to be a quick shuffle. “Love Lost gave me her tokens. I know how the bleed works.”
“She managed it,” Cradle said, voice soft amid constant grenade explosions, the shouts of soldiers, and the snarling of dogs.
“What the hell did you try to give me, and what the hell are you?”
“I’ll show you what I’m giving you,” Cradle intoned.
The mech came bounding down from a high place, whips slicing down. Cradle moved to be atop it as it came down, then moved to higher ground.
I flew to Rain, skimming past a line that appeared in my way. I caught his hand, pulled rather than lift or push. The hand-mech was two fists and two more hands as back legs, the fists coming down where Rain had been.
That wasn’t where it stopped. It had no reason to pause or hesitate, and it acted on its own, a hand lunging toward my mom. My mom who had no Capricorn, and who was too busy with the soldiers in the alley between two buildings to even turn around or go ball-form.
I let Rain fall, and I put myself in the hand’s way, Wretch active, pushing back as it pushed.
A mess of limbs against a mess of limbs.
My mom started forward, to assist, or to cut at joints.
“No!” I ordered. “Get-”
I felt the sick impact, and I couldn’t even stop to react to it, because there wasn’t a moment to spare, nor an inch of ground to be given.