I wrestled with a hand that was the size of a car, that had more leverage than I did. It had a partner hand, planted on the ground to my left, and two smaller ‘back’ hands, like a dog had back legs, one gripping the side of a building, the other digging fingers into dirt. Any number of fingers had invisible cables attached- I’d seen two before they stopped moving. Cables that could slice right through me, given a chance or a reckless movement on my part. I knew exactly where the Wretch was, where each hand and foot was placed, at one giant fingertip, at the ‘webbing’ of cables that stretched in a bow between two fingers, at a finger to my side, and in the ground.
But a hand was a series of moving parts, and I had to account for all of them. With the way the machine was positioned, three hands planted on the ground and one for me to deal with, it was trying to lift me up and push me back at the same time, or to get in position where it could squish me beneath, given a chance. I could deal with three fingers, but as the pinky finger came at me from the side, I didn’t have the bracing ready to catch it or stop it from punching through the Wretch.
I cast away the Wretch, twisted in the air to avoid the fingers that came down, and let the hand move around me before bringing the Wretch out again. The action took a second, I ran on instinct for the entirety of it, and the entire dynamic with my ‘opponent’ changed. I was between middle and ring fingers, close to the webbing, the Wretch gripping the two fingers in multiple places, clawing at the cabling between fingers now.
Less leverage, less room and time to maneuver next time, but less worry about invisible cables or fingers coming at me from the side. So long as I kept my eye on the thumb. It didn’t have a good angle to get at me, but a bad angle wasn’t no angle, and robot hands could bend in ways regular hands couldn’t.
The space was dark. It had been dark before it was folded up into a maze that creeped up around us on all sides. Lights flashed on and off in my peripheral vision, taking weird shapes, and I knew they were the movements of the flashlights, cast at ground, at walls, then both, then neither. Many of those flashlights were mounted on guns, and all of those guns were intended for us.
They weren’t even the most ominous lights in my field of vision. Slashes of light like illumination shining through cracks in the door decorated the hundred-foot-by-hundred foot space around us. Each could apparently cut through forcefield, through-
-through breaker bubbles. Like Brandish’s.
I set my jaw, refusing to look. Because I wasn’t in a position to help, and because it would distract. Not that it mattered, because as much as I was trying, as much as I recognized the immediate peril and that the others in the group were striving to cover the entryways, I couldn’t take my mind off of the fact that Brandish hadn’t moved. My dad’s voice, like a muffled echo from the surface while I was underwater, was insistent and loud.
They weren’t words meant for me, which meant I could safely ignore them, refuse to listen to them, and focus on the pounding of my pulse.
I could try.
The hand lurched, shifting as the fingers of the hand furthest from me dragged through dirt, and found some kind of traction, like a vein of rock covered by soil. It was like a new form of strength, something I had to fight against, maintaining the Wretch, reaching out to find the fold, one area where a section of torso rose out of a broader mass, the area the hospital workers had had to work extra hard to keep clean. I could protest and claim my forcefield kept the dust off, but that did nothing for accumulated sweat and the bacteria that multiplied in the sweat.
The washings and the ‘lean forward so we can get in there’ instructions had left me with an enduring awareness of the feature that would stay with me for the rest of my life. For my purposes here, it was the part of the Wretch that extended furthest in.
Where I moved, the Wretch floated around me, equidistant. But it wouldn’t block me. There was a point I could reach out and feel it, with a sense that wasn’t my awareness of my powers, but it wasn’t a barrier. More like a handle.
When I moved it, the Wretch moved around me. The hand tilted a fraction. Away from the body. Closer to the passage.
But with all of its leverage, it was stronger. It fought back, inch by inch. With every inch and every second, I had to be aware that a stray bullet or sudden shock could knock out my forcefield, and I’d need to move to avoid having my head crushed or struck from my shoulders.
Around me, more of the glowing lines began to appear. I turned in place, one hand on the crevice-handle in the forcefield, surveying my immediate situation. Four lines, arranged in a horizontal square, parallel to the ground. They were spaced a good distance apart- I could move a good foot or two before the Wretch made contact with them. A few more feet and it would be me, not my forcefield, that made the contact. But they were what they were.
A collar. Four massive guillotine blades, level with my neck, staying where they were and waiting for my neck to meet them.
Though this had been an open space before, it was easiest to think of it as a house now, doors or windows on each of the four sides. I had the mech at one side, Foil was to my right with the Harbingers, my dad and Swansong to my left, and the dogs across from me. Tristan lay in the middle, unconscious, while Rain was stuck navigating the lines that were intent on trapping him.
“Brandish, use your breaker form!” My dad’s voice.
I had no tears in my eyes, no moisture on my cheeks. My throat was tight, the breaths coming in tense, and every muscle was tight, to the point that it felt like it was choking the tear ducts and constricting the blood flow.
On a ledge above, Cradle looked down, staring with the lenses on his mask glowing. I could see him, and I saw his head turn. He was tracking something I couldn’t see.
All at once, the Harbingers and Foil broke away. If Cradle had wanted to do something elsewhere, the movement of the three forced him to devote attention here.
One Harbinger ran for it, out the door, toward the soldiers. The other joined Foil, coming my way. They dodged the lines that appeared in their way, though Foil cut it close enough that it clipped her costume, cutting the decorative material where it jutted out.
She threw herself to the ground, back hitting earth, her gun raised high.
Cradle began moving around, making himself a hard target, before settling on a position that let him see most of the field while being clear of Foil’s field of vision. The lines began appearing again. Like the glowing blades of swords stuck into the earth.
The Harbinger used the distraction, leaping onto one of the back hands. The surface looked too sheer, but he found handholds and footholds, the edge of a foot or a finger finding a groove in the metal that I might have thought was a trick of the eyes.
He had a knife that looked like it was made of glass, and used it to slice the head off of a bolt or a screw. Three strikes in two seconds.
“What can we do?” Foil asked. She shot again. The sound was loud, and I could see many people in this antechamber of Cretan’s maze react to the sharp noise.
“Can’t- it’s up to her. She’s moving, if she can just- I don’t think she wants to. Fuck!”
My dad didn’t answer. I knew. Even after all this time, Brandish hated being in the form. It left her blind and deaf, sensing and tracking the world around her with another kind of awareness. In the ball, she was confined in the dark. And she hated the dark.
She had endured for the sake of the job, and she’d come out of it bitter and hostile enough to drop a barb.
There were too many stories, and recent mention of the Breaker in the hospital that hadn’t been able to leave her form wasn’t the only one of its kind. Changers, Breakers, and tinkers who emulated those things always had the ‘what if I can’t go back’ problem in the backs of their minds. Tristan was an all-too-recent reminder of how easy it would be to walk that line, and pick the exact wrong moment to use a power.
I leveraged the Wretch, doing what I could to shift the hand, so it wouldn’t fall or strike down near where Brandish lay.
They’d been able to abandon the ‘door’ because reinforcements had come. Bitter Pill was the first to make her way in, twice as tall as she had been but not twice as thick around, with limbs that flexed like they had rubber and not bone inside. Her mouth yawned open, froth flowing from the corner lowest to the ground, and her tongue lolled out, extended in length. She had a soldier in each hand, and she flexed her entire body to heave one up, then slam him into the nearest corner. The other she shoved face-first into the frozen dirt, with enough strength to leave a furrow behind.
As intimidating as the warped silhouette was, the sounds were mewling, soft moans, with some vibration behind them, as if from the lowest point of the throat.
“Careful!” I shouted. “Glowing lines kill!”
Being big as she was, her body wasn’t good at moving through Cradle’s mess of lines. She made it about halfway before she stumbled into one and lost her leg and part of her pelvis. She crashed to the ground and in the process lost a bit of her scalp.
Birdbrain, Moose, and two more of the local capes stopped in their tracks as they saw her fall.
A long arm that bent under the weight of its extremity found its way to the lab coat she wore, which barely extended below her ribcage with her altered form. Another medication dispenser. This one topped with what looked like a tumor with a mask shaped like a baby’s face on the front.
The head flipped back, and her stretched-out mouth was already wide open for another squirt from the pizz dispenser.
Moose was more careful. He tried backhanding one of the lines, stopping short of hitting it, and let the shockwave run past it. I could see where the shockwave that followed the movement disturbed the earth. It took a ‘v’ shape, as even that was parted.
I felt the Mech I was wrestling shift in reaction to the vibration. Whatever the Harbinger was doing didn’t seem like enough.
I almost looked at Brandish as that happened, checking if she had been hurt worse by even the fact that there was movement in the air, jostling, and changing in position.
He was tall, too, and unlike Bitter Pill, he had the ‘powers gave me this physique’ build.
“Who needs help!?” Moose shouted.
“Carol- the woman-”
“Precipice,” I interrupted my dad. “Get to Precipice, Moose, help him get free of the cage. You!”
I indicated someone else from the group. A cape I didn’t recognize, who had an unkempt beard that extended below the line of his mask. He had a mean look to him, by design, by color, the way the metal armor he wore strapped in over coat and costume bottoms was as scuffed and battle-scarred as it was. But his eyes were wide and alarmed behind the mask.
“Get to her. Try and get her to change, but carry her back to Bluestocking somehow. Hug the wall, the guy making cutting lines is above!”
He looked relieved to have a job.
“I can do above,” Birdbrain said. “Give me a second, need to adjust.”
Foil, back still to the ground, gun in front of her, let go of her weapon to indicate a direction. Birdbrain nodded.
We had our reinforcements. I could hear Damsel using her blasts nearby, and wished she was here.
Moose drew nearer. I saw the lines around me disappear, the guillotine fizzling out, and realized what was imminent. A sudden lunge, the mech twisting, leaning hard on me to simultaneously push me down and use me as a bracing point to go for Moose, backhanding him.
I was ready for it. I dropped everything, losing the Wretch, the forcefield, and letting the Mech fall instead of lean on me. The backhand lost its leverage, and Moose was able to bring his hands around and put his hands out in anticipation of the attack. The sides of the gauntlets, not the palms or fists.
The mech struck him, and Moose was sent stumbling backward but not so far back that he collided with the fence of glowing lines. The points where the hands met his gauntlets, however, bent inward, metal fingers bending and crumpling.
Moose shifted his hand from ‘chop’ to a fist, not punching, but simply pointing. The crumpled parts became craters. He pushed, to follow-up, and the shockwave that followed saw the mech toppling. I hurried to do my best to guide its fall.
The axis where four arms extended out hit the ground. The landing was hard enough to jostle everyone and everything nearby. Rain, trapped with no less than six of the glowing lines criss-crossing in a loose circle around him, nearly stumbled into one of them.
“He’ll try to fuck with you, Precipice is who he really wants!” I told Moose. “Careful of more lines!”
“Fuck,” was the response.
But he didn’t stop, as he recovered and ran, now crouching, in Rain’s direction.
Meanwhile, I had to deal with the fact that the mech no longer needed arms or hands on the ground to brace itself. With two big arms and two small ones, the center-mass was off. Something I’d always had to pay attention to when learning how to throw or move big things with my power.
An image flashed into my mind, of Uncle Neil giving me field instruction, while parents stood by, arms folded.
It hurt. The regret, the full and total knowledge that I hadn’t told her about my forcefield and she’d gotten hurt because of it. I didn’t want to call it the Wretch in this context, because that felt like it was deflecting blame to the reckless and wild consciousness at the other end of my power.
The advantage was that it wasn’t very mobile. Instead of four arms pointed down and the point they met up, it was the other way around. Four lengths of arm, ‘shoulder’ to elbow, all resting on the ground as a cross, each with a massive mechanical forearm and hand rising up from the terminus or draping out from the end. In the center, protected by those hands, I could see the ‘bowl’ of stasis-frozen body parts. We needed those.
I saw Swansong look over her shoulder and gave her a tight shake of the head. Because the terrain was muddy and she was missing a foot, and because the mech had hostages at the same time she had a chaotic and reckless power.
It could drag itself, and it looked to be trying, but it was just an obstacle, with a lot of reach and, should it move in just the right way, the possibility of slamming into Brandish.
I threw myself at one elbow, pushing the entire mass just a few feet across slick, muddy ground, still wet from Byron’s power. The hand came down, and I flew back and away, spinning once in the air to try and ensure I wasn’t flying into anything lethal.
The spin made my head swim, and between the sick feeling in my upper chest, the tension in my facial features, the dizziness that swept over my every sense, and the fact that the arms and legs I was relying on were entirely power-derived, I felt like I was just a head, neck, and some shoulder.
I hit it again, to try to wedge it into the corridor that Brandish and Capricorn had been guarding, and nudge it further from Brandish.
The thing was trying to stand, and I did what I could to keep it from getting there. Moose leaped onto it, knocking an arm flat to the ground, while making the rest of it buck up.
I hit it again, harder, to knock it flat again. Metal bent and broke.
“Heads up!” Rain barked.
There were arms nested in one of the primary ones. I’d seen how they did it, a more slender arm fitting into hollows in the forearm, palm, and fingers. As they pulled free, I saw the glint and crackle of the invisible cables. The hollow spaces in the underside of each arm and hand were covered up by shutters.
“Moose, Harbinger, get back!” I called out the order.
The whips came crashing down. Five deep slices into earth as the left hand swept down. Five more when the right hand swiped horizontally, raking a nearby wall that had been raised up from the ground as part of the ‘maze’.
The hands rose and reoriented, the entire machine trying to get to a position like its original one, with four arm-shaped ‘legs’ firmly on the ground in a quadruped position, but this time with the two narrower, nimbler arms extended up and above from the midpoint, each with five cables draping from them, those cables swiftly becoming invisible.
Foil and the Harbinger took point. As the arms whipped out again, Harbinger shot. The invisible cable’s course was altered, and it clipped the ‘elbow’ of one of the arms.
I couldn’t fly full speed, so I rose steadily, up and away from the scene. Moose was helping Rain, lifting him up and out of the cage. Foil and Birdbrain were taking up different points around the clearing, to have a better chance of hitting Cradle if he turned up.
I could hear the gunfire and see how frenetic the flashlights were moving in places. More reinforcements. There were less people pressing in against Rachel and the dogs, now.
I could see the cape I’d tasked with evacuating Brandish. I could see the glow of the orb.
Rain got free and sprinted toward the mech. He made his silver blades, then sliced at one finger.
It broke, the weight of it serving as the catalyst to bring about the break. Rain was already swiping at another- until his sword fizzled out.
“Fucking come on!” he swore. “Come on, come on!”
The blade appeared again. A delay between uses, apparently. Rain cut at the hand itself.
“Back out, Rain!” I shouted.
I saw him hesitate, moving like he was going to jump back into the fray.
“You’re not thinking straight!”
He seemed to get that. He turned to run.
Hands moved, cables slicing audibly through the air, right for him.
Moose grabbed his hand and hauled him out of the last foot of the cable’s reach.
The Mech tried to stand, but with one finger and part of the hand broken, its attempt to ‘walk’ itself forward failed, and it toppled.
The fact that it was slower made it easier to keep a distance. The reinforcements we were getting were making it so we weren’t surrounded by soldiers while holding our ground in a ‘house’, to use my allegory for the nature of the clearing. The soldiers were under attack on their own, and we had a chance to breathe. To shore up.
There was an issue with fighting an uphill battle, and we had been, before the reinforcements. I wasn’t sure if we still weren’t, just given the situation that surrounded us. It was a long, hard slog to get uphill, but if there was someone standing at the other end of that uphill climb, they were benefiting from being there. Not fighting meant one could rest, could heal, and could come up with contingencies, while watching the other guy struggle. When we’d had the advantage over the villains of Hollow Point, before Advance Guard had tipped our hand for us, we’d had that option.
It was why, so very often, things could trend downhill. The wrong people got the advantage and every time that hard progress was made, they were ready with a failsafe, another plan, a way to knock the good guys down. When the good guys managed that equilibrium, it was society functioning reasonably well.
It didn’t help that the people who were willing to capitalize on the weak were villains, so even when victory was achieved against the criminals and monsters, there were often others of their ilk ready to pick up where they left off, while everyone else was picking up the pieces.
The others had the situation partially handled. I wanted to be above it, away from it. To get a vantage point wide enough that I could make out the players and see what the next move was.
To get ahead of Cradle and what he had planned.
The Harbinger who hadn’t gone to fight the soldiers elsewhere in the maze was dodging the cables, targeting the mech. It was a systematic dismantlement, where one stab or a series of smaller ones caused cracks to run along one length of arm, or made steam start billowing out of an elbow. I suspected he was very much enjoying himself, but it wasn’t fast. I had to assume that as good as he was at movement, at thinking his way around a fight, he didn’t get tinker things like a tinker did.
Sveta was at the rooftops, and as I rose up, she rose up alongside me, keeping a healthy distance.
By the look on her face, she’d seen. She didn’t meet my eyes.
I didn’t get the feeling of judgment or condemnation. But if there were words to say, I was pretty sure she couldn’t bring herself to say them. To absolve me of blame for what I’d done to Brandish required that she do the same for herself, for the accidental deaths she caused. I knew from what she’d said in the past that she always wondered about and regretted the preventative actions she hadn’t taken.
“They’re going to change it up,” I said. My voice sounded funny. Easier to be a leader, authoritative, communicating what was needed. In this medium, away from the thick of it, trying to catch a breath, I sounded so shaky.
“How?” Sveta asked. She met my gaze with the question.
“Sneak attack, or going for something they know we want. If he threatens his hostages- one of the vital organs of someone, that’s one thing. The portal is another thing where he has the advantage. Or he could just find one of us in a moment of weakness and catch us by surprise with that whip of his.”
“He has to get to his machine to do anything with it.”
“And to pilot it,” I observed. “It was faster and cleverer when he was close enough to watch it and track what it was doing. I don’t think it has the best A.I. on its own.”
“It’s scary,” Sveta said.
“Yeah,” I said. “But Cradle’s scarier. Keep an eye out.”
It was difficult to keep an eye on every rooftop, corner, crevice, and maze wall, in this space that had folded up, had parts rise up, and otherwise turned itself around enough that it was all a mess. Not every point seemed to connect exactly to each other point, and an awful lot seemed to turn back in on itself.
The guy with Brandish was having trouble getting out. He found himself back in the same place again, and to his credit, he looked upset about it. He cared about helping or doing his part for this community here.
Because the maze was shifting.
The effect was slow, but it was picking up speed. The guy was taking routes that had knocked-out or dead soldiers or signs of passage, only to find they were dead ends.
“The maze is shifting!” I hollered down.
Tremulous emotion caught me post-holler, like I’d jostled something free.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I swore. “What are you doing, Cradle?”
Tunnels and corridors weren’t serving to give the soldiers an angle for a surprise attack, so tunnels and corridors fell away. I saw a squadron running in the general direction of the others.
I flew into the upper edge of a maze wall, and I slammed into it.
There were soldiers who were far enough ahead that when they heard the action they could run or push their way forward. There were others at the tail end of the group who could back off.
More in the center, who bent over or tried to shield themselves. Stones and chunks of earth fell on them from above.
I might well have killed one or more of them, doing that. It might not be the first deathblow I’d delivered tonight.
I had to focus. The only way forward was forward. I couldn’t atone for one mistake by perpetrating another and letting other people die.
The maze was shifting to create an arena, and an aperture was opening in the side of a building. A gate, unfolding as a small crack became a hole and the hole became an archway. As it opened, so did the scale of the blades that flew out of the aperture, tiny and counting in the hundreds. Cretan followed it, charging with shield up and helmet down.
Moose started forward, picking up a piece of corrugated metal with the clear intent of shielding some of the others, but it was a coordinated attack. A short wall tripped Moose. Cretan collided with him while he was off balance. While he was on the ground, walls began to rise up around him. My dad blew up two of those walls, only to start receiving the brunt of the flying blades, which were so numerous they carpeted the floor of the clearing.
The blades were like razors, embedding an inch or so into flesh or ground, or opening up cuts, while Cretan was the hammer, to remove or exclude heavier and more dangerous targets.
My dad shouted something to Moose, threw a grenade. Moose caught it, then flicked it toward the open archway. It detonated within.
It only bought a few seconds.
I needed to be down there. Except I didn’t trust myself.
Lionwing and Cretan were two of Cradle’s inner guard. That they were stepping into the fray meant we were whittling him down. As Ashley had noted, Cradle was one to lead from the rear, and as I’d noted, he probably liked to monitor and pilot his mech, and maybe to use his emotion power.
I flew down. Through the rooftop of the building the aperture had opened in. The space had been a one-floor house, but raised up by the maze to be three or four stories tall. Instead of slamming through multiple floors in quick succession, I found myself in a void, fifty feet to travel down to the ground, only a maze-created fold of wall to knock down on my way.
He was ready for me, and he saw me. The whip flared red in the near-total darkness, illuminated only by secondhand light thrown in through the window.
I didn’t hesitate, trying to visualize the route I needed to take, and the form that swing would have.
Rather than swing, he disappeared, skipping his way into the clearing.
I hit the earth, found and picked up a stone, and stood up again. Lionwing was at the entry to the arch, drawing the blades back to her now, to form a shield at one arm.
I couldn’t fight Lionwing, but I didn’t want her to know that. That stream of blades would tear past my forcefield.
At the rear of the other group, the mech moved, reaching, and it was Sveta who reached down to grab outstretched fingers. Every single one of her tendrils found a home, either on an anchor point or on the mech itself. It strained, to the point I thought she might snap, or that tendrils might pull free.
I flew straight for Lionwing, then pulled away at the last second, using my aura. A test.
It provoked a response, the shield extending from a rough triangular shape to a spike. Another spike composed of interlocked blades stabbed out from under the shield. If both of those had hit me, far enough apart…
She knew how my power worked?
My eyes narrowed.
“Fuckers,” I said.
“Do you know how his emotion power works?” Lionwing asked.
“We got the gist of it,” I said. “But I bet you’re going to try to be clever. You seem like the type.”
I was aware that every second that passed was a second my team was fighting Cradle, the mech, and Cretan, while Cretan used his power to divide and conquer them.
At least if I tied her up I could keep her from using most of those blades on my team. It looked like she had a set quantity she could manage at a whim. Shields, blades, flying hail, even flight, from what I’d heard reported.
“Your first move in a fight is a surprise attack, pulling an ace from your sleeve. You have the hair-” I gestured at her mane of hair. “-that you obviously put time into. Nice costume. But you work for an irredeemable scumbag and do irredeemable things. Doesn’t connect. Like it’s all surface level.”
Blades flew in to slide into studs in her costume. For a second, she was buoyed up. Had I missed my chance to get an answer, in my hurry to push her?
She stabbed out, and the configuration of the sword shifted to make it more spear-like as she thrusted, the blades sliding against the palm of her gauntlet. She hit the edge of the Wretch, and the blade detonated, a shrapnel of blades cast out in every direction in front.
I’d avoided it, because she’d already established her pattern with intent. One-two hits, every time.
“Now you’re second guessing yourself,” I said. “Whether what you were going to say sounded good, the intimidation factor.”
“No second guesses,” she said.
I forced a small smile to my face, and offered her an equally small laugh, inaudible but visible.
“Ol’ Snag wants to give people things that mean something, and he gets a power that lets him fill objects with emotion, builds gear to shoot people with it. Makes sense, don’t it?” Lionwing asked. “The bitch inflicts herself on everyone around her, and doesn’t realize she’s doing it even after she brings the teenage girl into her mess.”
“Colt. Yeah,” I said. I turned sideways, to be more aware of the blades that had peppered surfaces behind me. They were starting to move again. “Admittedly on point so far.”
I’d had the distinct impression that if I’d simply said ‘no’ to the question about what Cradle’s power was, I’d get a tease. I wanted to bait her out, so I’d said ‘yes’, and now I tried to tack her pride to the matter.
It helped that she didn’t seem to care that much, and that my read on her wasn’t wrong- she liked appearances, flash, and style.
“The boy is a bad weather pattern, a cloud of misery and utter patheticness that hangs over anyone he looks at.”
I remained silent, let the silence hang.
If I gave her anything, including telling her she was wrong, which she kind of was, I was pretty sure she’d tease me and leave me without answers.
“The boss? The guy who’s out there, cutting people to pieces, targeting the tired and the distracted? He’s too self centered to give. You learn to work around that. It’s all take. Himself.”
“I have something of his I’d like to give him. Knock out his teeth and make him swallow them.”
“You stupid bitch,” Lionwing said. “He can draw it in. Read your weaknesses in chemical code, running through your head and your veins. He earned money blackmailing people by targeting them. He got more ground with people by sensing how far he could push them before they gave. And all of that was before. When he woke up tonight, he was strong. What he’s been doing? He’s been gathering what he needs.”
Reading us? Hanging back and drinking it all in?
“Now,” Lionwing said, “He’s using it.”
Soldiers to keep us busy, maybe to force us into situations where our emotional landscapes were closer to the surface.
I knew mine was.
I snarled as I took flight, Wretch out, and hit the ground to kick up dirt, sending it her way. I had to assume she needed to see to use those blades.
She created a cloud of them around herself, reached to her side, and drew a gun.
I hit the fold of maze above, where Cretan’s power had stretched out the building facing the station, and let the rubble fall. I reversed course, flipping upside down -feeling a bit dizzy from my earlier impact- and reversed course, hitting the ledge fist-first.
To bring rubble down on Lionwing. The cloud of blades became a solid bubble, a shield.
I broke another bit of rubble away, and used a burst of Wretch strength to hurl it, aiming not for her, but for where the bubble met ground. Things were less interlocked there, and the chunk of concrete half-crumbled, half-bounced through.
It was an opportunity, where she couldn’t see me clearly and she was off-balance. I fought her like I’d fight myself, grabbing another bit of concrete that broke off to be smaller than I’d hoped for, and hurling it, before changing directions.
The concrete hit one side of her bubble, and the entire thing shifted before exploding out in that direction. I grabbed her gun-hand in the moment the now-exposed mercenary wheeled around to point it at me, almost catching it between my arm and armpit.
Her hand firmly in my grip, I smashed into her, driving her into the ground. Her body rolled a short distance, her arm stayed with me.
I let it fall. Still connected, or at least partially connected. I hadn’t dismembered her, but I hadn’t ruled it out either. But it was dislocated at the very least, and I was pretty sure from the way it had bent on the impact with the ground that I’d broken the various pieces of the arm in a few places.
I took care of her like I’d taken care of Paris. I needed to know she wouldn’t be too dangerous to have at my back, but she didn’t need arms and legs. I had to knock her out, and I didn’t have a minute to spare or anything convenient to do it with.
Instead, grabbing her hair, I smashed her head against the ground twice. That was the point she was still breathing but not up to pick any fights with me anymore.
I grabbed weapons off of her, and I approached the arch.
My dad had been cut. So had one of the dogs. Moose was lying on the ground and I had no idea why, but I could assume another cut.
Harbinger two was out and Harbinger one… when I looked, I saw that the maze of Cretan’s power had raised walls all around us. Could they climb?
Ashley looked unconscious, and she was bleeding badly. I could see where Cretan stood, a safe distance away from her, and draw conclusions there. Had she tried to beat him without killing him?
We’d gotten the sign-off on killing, but for Ashley, I could imagine a spur-of-the-moment thought where she felt it was more important not to kill the other horned guy in armor.
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.
Rachel was harder to spot, because she was slumped against one dog’s side, while the dog lay on the ground. Tattletale was beside her.
I saw Foil, but no Cassie.
I saw Bitter Pill, healed from her near-decapitation and leg loss, Birdbrain, and two of Bitter Pill’s capes that hadn’t been around when I’d dove into the building. There were people from the local community without costumes on, and I had no idea from the context if they were Bluestocking’s or if they were ones loyal to Cradle and Cradle’s way.
Leaving only Rain, who was breathing hard, his expression hidden. Cretan stood to one side, his head periodically turning as he surveyed the high walls that enclosed Cradle’s fucked up little arena.
“I guess you win,” I told Cradle, my voice low.
“If he surrenders, and if you stay back, I’ll let you tend to your wounded. You’ve got a few. I’ll do what I need to in the next six hours, and then I’ll get somewhere safe. I have thinkers to ask, to make sure I’m not being pursued. Once that’s confirmed, I’ll disable the severing.”
“It can be disabled?”
“Yes or no?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“I don’t get a say?” Rain asked.
“Ra- Precipice,” I said, and my voice was firm. “Please.”
“One person is strapped to the railroad track, everyone else is strapped to the other. The trolley is coming, do I pull the switch?” Rain asked, bitter. “Except I’m the one guy. I’ve always been the one guy. I get people who say they care about me, but they always end up on the other goddamn track.”
“It’s not about that,” I said.
“Fucking feels like it. Fuck!”
I closed my eyes. I was aware that Cradle probably wasn’t keen on picking a fight with me because Lionwing had called his emotion power a kind of emotion reading or feedback response. If my resistance to emotion powers factored in, I might seem a little fuzzier.
Rain, who was the only other guy with emotion powers still standing, was part of that.
But if I fought- I couldn’t see a way through. Not when he had other mercenaries like Cretan, or anyone still outside the walls.
I had allies out there too, but the calculus…
I wasn’t sure I had another knock-down, drag-out fight in me.
“Yes,” I heard.
I opened my eyes. Rain had answered.
“Walk forward,” Cradle said. “Twenty feet ahead, hands up. No mechanical hands.”
Rain’s expression was hidden, but I could imagine his face twisting with emotion as his shoulders tensed and his head turned at a slight angle.
“I’m going to remove them.”
Rain disconnected the remains of his machine hands – one mostly intact, the other broken at the elbow. He held both the pads in his hand, the arms folded up. He bent down to lay them on the ground.
“Throw them. Into there.”
Cradle indicated a leafy area where a bush jutted up against the side of one of the warped homes.
Rain discarded them, throwing them where they’d be hard to find again. Without being asked, he started walking, head down. Cretan trained a gun on him.
Cradle looked at me, and I raised my hands.
“If your feet leave the ground or if you drop those hands…” Cradle intoned. He used his power, moving to a position where he was bent down. He picked up an oblong stone. A bright line appeared in the air to his right. He swatted it with the stone, severing the stone in half. “This happens to someone or something you care about. Could be the fix you want.”
“And you get away, you disappear, and you leave the world a worse place than when you entered it.”
“I tried. More than you know, I tried,” Cradle said. “Once powers came into it, I physically could not try anymore. Once he came into it.”
“I know people who couldn’t help but kill. But they found coping mechanisms.”
“How long did it take them to figure out?” Cradle asked. “How many deaths?”
I didn’t respond.
“I haven’t killed anyone,” he said. “Not with these hands. Believe me, I’m coping.”
“You’re fucking awful at coping,” I said.
“Aren’t we all?” he asked, and for maybe the first time ever, he sounded weirdly amused.
Then he walked away, Cretan ushering Rain forward. Cradle flickered with every movement, not that it really mattered, considering the only conscious dangers who were crack shots with a gun were on the other side of the walls that bounded the arena and the tunnel Cretan was making to the station. Above them were buildings stretched improbably tall and black sky.
I watched him disappear from sight. I didn’t budge. I avoided looking at the others. I listened.
My middle ear might have been fucked up from my earlier collision, but I imagined a shift in the air pressure. I imagined the timing was right.
I gave the signal, hand chopping down.
Sveta dropped down from that improbable height, her tendrils going to the ground and providing spring before the impact.
I flew, and as Sveta grabbed for every handhold, I threw caution to the wind. No Wretch, no problematic air resistance. I knew what I was getting into here.
But for the rainfall patter of Sveta’s tendrils on the walls of the station, we were silent, as we darted after Cradle.
He stood at the threshold to the portal, and he seemed genuinely surprised to see us. If Cradle wasn’t as quick or effective in assessing me and how to target me, it might have had to do with my emotion resistance. If he had difficulty with Sveta, it might have had to do with the fact that there were no veins for her emotions to run through, her brain maintained a different construction.
The reaction was immediate, Cretan’s power sheltering Cradle and putting a few bends in the path between them and us.
Sveta’s focus was on a few things at once, but she was capable of that. Her mechanical body had trained her.
For Rain, she reached past the bends, grabbing him by several points, before flinging him backward, hurtling at about a hundred miles an hour toward the wall by the front door. He stopped abruptly in his path.
Cradle proved harder to grab. He could move in an instant, and as fast as those tendrils seemed to be, they took a bit more than an instant.
But as we’d seen when Foil went on the offensive, he reacted to surprise with randomness, before he settled on his game plan. Four or five teleports in short order, long enough to put a thought together and assess the threat.
Sveta reached out for every point, every place he could be. It made an audible sound, like a few seconds of intense rainfall.
She got tendrils on Cradle, and Cretan raised up a wall, singular, between Cradle and Sveta. The tendril was pinched between wall and ceiling, unable to retract, reel in, or rope around Cradle enough to take any part of him. Other tendrils tried to reach around the breadth of the wall, and they didn’t extend far enough.
My role in things was to distract, to force him to play the cards he had in hand. For me, Cradle made the glowing lines. X’s in space.
Sveta pulled Cradle’s equipment out of his hand. With a flick of the trapped tendril, the equipment was sent skittering across the floor.
My goal, my plan, had been a raw one. To trust the team. Knowing that we had some good people beyond the wall, and thinking that they’d bring the wall down once they’d won, to reclaim the remaining mercenaries and assert dominance over Bluestocking. They didn’t lower the walls. No Harbinger, no Damsel, no Cassie and her hound, no Prancer…
But I’d had Sveta, my best friend. Who was more trustworthy than I was.
And Chastity, who’d earned another so-very-important friendship in Cassie, was in the station.
Chastity had to run to grab the whip that had been sent across the floor. She picked it up with two hands, fumbling with the controls. A dial on the side.
More lines barred my way.
The whip flared to life, but it was too much, producing a high-pitched whine.
Fucking tinkers, Tattletale had said.
Trapped, or too hard to use. Chastity tried to manage it, using her facility with whips to whip out in Cradle’s direction.
Too fast, too hard to hit. The same evasive maneuvers that served against Sveta served against Chastity. He produced glowing lines, and she slashed them. Banishing them.
The crackle of electricity was reaching a fever pitch now.
She whipped Cretan instead. Cutting him across the body at nipple height. He tried to scream and didn’t find the air.
Cradle turned around, staring. He touched his headgear, his hair.
“All alone,” I said. “Because that’s what happens when you act like an asshole.”
He hesitated, then turned to the portal. All he had to do was run for it.
But he’d hesitated. Rain, over in the corner, had his hands out, like he’d done with the window.
And Cretan, being not as dumb as he looked in his white bull costume, had to know that there was only one way to guarantee that he get fixed.
The maze blocked off the way to the portal. It sealed everything off. The moment was marked with a pronounced crack, as the whip Chastity had flung away detonated. Overloaded.
She dropped to her knees, staring at the remains.
Were Cradle anyone else, I think he would have made an amused sound, but he was quick enough on the draw to realize his circumstances.
All of us, underground and inside, surrounded by four walls, a floor, and a ceiling without a door. And Cradle without his tech.
His power drew lines, and waited for his targets to meet the lines. They didn’t serve him when everything was at a standstill.
“Fix me and I let you go,” Cretan said.
“Fix him and I break you,” I told him.
“I can heal from what you do,” he told me.
“Are you sure?”
There was only silence. Several of us were out of breath. Even Cradle, who didn’t move conventionally.
“Don’t you dare fix him,” I said. “We’re all going to have a long talk.”
“This fucking hurts!”
“You helped him do it to others. Call a few minutes to an hour of suffering justice.”
“The two of us, trapped in a room at night,” Rain said.
Cradle turned around, staring at him. “The last time, one way or another.”
“I really hope you’re right,” Rain growled.
The maze shifted. Cradle lunged, appearing at what was only a gap, barely enough to put a hand through.
“Fix me!” Cretan managed a roar, speaking when lung didn’t connect to windpipe or mouth.
Cradle touched something at his belt. “Just you.”
I flew after him.
The red line at Cretan’s middle flared, and the severed parts were drawn in, while they grew out at the other parts.
More like portals than anything else.
And the gap widened. Cradle slipped through. I flew after him.
We hit the portal, and he ceased being able to do his tricky movement. I ceased being able to fly. I hadn’t been aware that was a thing, and the landing, going from the top of an arched ceiling to the floor, with every injury I already had, was not a pretty one. Cradle’s landing was gentler. His getaway a bit faster. And he was faster than me on the stretch.
But we weren’t alone.
Citrine, her husband, two more Harbingers, and a small crowd of other capes. Snuff, one of Faultline’s.
Cradle, not yet past the middle ground of the portal, stopped in his tracks.
“You’ve made quite a mess,” Citrine said. She was wearing a yellow shirt with ruffles beneath an ankle-length coat.
“I can help clean it up,” Cradle said. “For allowances.”
“No,” Citrine said. “No, you can’t, and you won’t. The damage is done.”
“You need me.”
“No we don’t,” Citrine said.
“We might,” I said. “To undo the damage to the Navigators, Shepherds, and our various teams. Give me a second?”
Citrine didn’t respond.
I wasted no time. My hand wasn’t cooperating as I reached for my phone.
OMG yes yay!
Is Swnasong okay? is everyone okay? How did it go?
Fast typing for someone with injured hands.
Hard questions to answer, and she’d started from a bad conclusion. I wasn’t sure I was okay. This one had been hard.
Adding to the pile of conflicted emotions, I’d drawn a connection between this and the Slaughterhouse Nine in Brockton Bay. I’d told myself that if I’d been able, I would have helped. And that had eaten at me on a level, because I’d been raised as a helper. I wanted to help.
I’d slain that demon. At the cost, potentially, of another family member.
Turns out that demons suck to fight, I thought, my eyes on Cradle as I typed out my follow-up. I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t have looked at my own expression to match that thought, had a mirror been readily available.
Okay, bruised but okay, and less okay, depending.
Are you keeping an eye on the station?
How good of an eye? Did you get any signal readings? We timed our final moves for when the door was open, in case you might try.
I was starting to type up another sentence to clarify what she was looking for when the reply came in.
Yes. Four minutes ago, I didn’t timestamp it, but it was near your location. This is the fix?
The signal from Cradle to undo the effect.
It was the fix.
“Keep him alive for now, just in case,” I addressed everyone present, my eyes on Cradle. I was aware of the others catching up behind me. Rain, Chastity, with Sveta in the background keeping Crete from running for it. “But no, I don’t think we need him.”