The Old Man being held at gunpoint had arrested all of the private meetings and conversations in the upper floor. Most of the heat in the Lodge was coming from the kitchen built into the center of the ground floor, but that was a heat that diffused up and out from vents in the center of the upper floor, and we were arranged at the edges. The atmosphere was chilly, and eerily quiet for a dining area.
Nobody ate and nobody talked. Ears strained to hear us, despite the usual rules and expectations. We’d overturned the peace to a significant enough degree that the rules of the upper floor no longer held.
“Fine,” Semiramis said. “I’ll give you something small, you give me something, I’ll give you the rest.”
She put a slight emphasis on ‘you’, locking her eyes to me.
“Okay,” Tattletale answered.
“Is it?” I asked her.
“I’ve got a sense of Semi here. It’s okay. Really.”
Semiramis lowered her voice as she said, “Full name, please. I’d only allow a joke like that with friends and peers, and you’re far from being either.”
Tattletale smirked. Sveta did something under the table, and I saw the movement of her coat, like she’d been flicked or whipped. The smile dropped from Tattletale’s face.
“Understood,” Sveta told Semiramis.
Semiramis drummed the table with her pointed nails. “Tattletale is right. I threw a party, Engel, Egg, and Scraping attended. The intent was to make them feel welcome, comfortable, and to give them a sense of the atmosphere they might enjoy if they signed on. I kept my party sequestered, with a place they could retreat to, quieter than the party, and I remained there, waiting until they wanted to join me. Engel and Egg came, they sat, they got to talking. They knew each other in passing, from what I heard. I overheard much of it.”
“Engel almost joined the Irregulars,” Sveta said. “She wanted to focus on real life things, friends, family. Stuff she worked hard to get. Then when she was ready, we- travel and getting her from where she was to us became hard. It never lined up, and then she found other things she wanted to do. Egg did join, but more as a tagalong or mascot, too young to do anything big.”
“None of that sounds wrong, given what I heard,” Semiramis noted.
“Important thing is,” Tattletale said. “What did they say?”
“You first,” Semiramis said. “What’s this? This man.”
She indicated the white haired man with the nice clothes, trimmed facial hair, and a weapon pointed at him. He’d lowered his hands, and rested them on the bar, fingers splayed.
Tattletale leaned back, looking at me. Her hand went from fist to flat, as if to indicate something. Like a hand signal for a fucking dog.
I answered, “Case twelve. Before the PRT was a thing, a gang gained a lot of traction. They knew too much, to the extent that law enforcement thought they’d gotten their hands on cold war spy tech. Then it got to the point they thought it was experimental, never-used tech, because it was so good. Around the time they started thinking that was impossible, parahumans were breaking onto the scene, and they realized something was up. It went like I described, they thought they had the guy at the center of the information flow, the one guy who rose a little too fast, who wasn’t hurt or wasn’t as hurt by the gang. It turned out to be his uncle. A man who could feed people his own DNA to-”
“Excuse me?” someone at another table asked.
Snuff stepped in between us and the table in question. “Private conversation.”
“Snuff,” I said. Snuff turned his hooded head. I glanced at Tattletale, “Can I give him orders?”
“Sure. Go nuts.”
“Snuff, protect the Old Man from everyone else.”
Snuff stepped away, putting himself between the parahuman and the man.
“That’s what he’s called?” Little Midas asked me. “The Old Man?”
“The nickname he took on. Formally, he’s just case twelve.”
“What does he do?” Semiramis asked.
“He’s the waiter who spits in food,” Prancer said. “Only superpowered. Fuck me, I’ve eaten here way too often.”
“No jokes,” Semiramis told him. Her neck was stiff now. She had said she didn’t like losing, and in this case, she hadn’t even known she’d played and lost. There were a few other people who looked incensed.
On the upside, they’d be really pissed at Lord of Loss, who had apparently known. He’d earned his spot on the list of people where I wouldn’t be upset if they tripped and fell headfirst into traffic. Or on the wrong side of villains.
“He doesn’t spit,” Tattletale said. She pushed her glass further away from her.
“Don’t push that toward me,” Sveta told her.
“I was going to leave that part out,” I told Tattletale.
“What does he do?” Semiramis asked. “And how? Clarify.”
“They searched his apartment and found little bottles with sliced off bits of flesh, blood, vegetables nourished and grown in his own DNA. That last one might have been an experiment, might be a regular thing. He put his flesh in food and drink, and after that was consumed, he was linked to them.”
Someone nearby stood from their seat. Snuff stiffened, raising a hand.
“Asshole made us into cannibals?” the guy asked. He had a western desperado look, which arguably came into style and inarguably went out of style in the course of one month in 1998. I supposed if there was a place to take another sad stab at it again, Earth N was it.
He had nice hair though. Long, but he took care of it. His eyes were narrow in the part of his face that showed between kerchief and black hat.
“Sit,” Semiramis said. “We’re resolving this in a civilized way.”
“Fuck civilized,” Desperado said.
“Sit. We gain nothing by taking it out on him. We’ll decide his fate soon, when we know all the facts.”
“No. I don’t think we will,” Desperado answered. “We’ll decide it now.”
Semiramis narrowed her eyes. She moved her hand in a claw, stiff and tense, as if every movement would make her knuckles pop, and there was a sound like the very foundation of the Lodge cracking. More than one person rose from their seats at the sound.
Desperado turned on his heel, one hand at his jacket, head lowered so the brim of his hat hid his eyes.
“Do I-” Sveta whispered.
“Only if they threaten our man,” I said.
Sveta nodded. I watched as Little Midas tracked the nod, looked between Sveta and I, and then heaved out a breath.
“Dustwind,” Little Midas said. “No.”
“No. Not until we say.”
The Desperado paused, then turned to walk away, heading downstairs. As if taking the command as suitable for everyone present, others sat. They didn’t sit happily. Tension and anger leaked in. This warm, cozy building with whole logs forming the walls, soft light, and heat from wood stoves and fireplaces had been a safe space, and that space had been exploited.
They still obeyed, as angry as they were. Little Midas had clout.
The conversation didn’t pick up immediately.
“Clear out,” Semiramis said, turning her head to look at her people in the booth behind her. “Give us more space. Protect the Old Man.”
People in the booths around us stood. They walked away. One table of people was sitting close, and the departing henchmen indicated for them to relocate. They did.
We were surrounded now by empty booths and tables. Some people crowded in the corners of the room, leaning in close to talk to one another and either commiserate or conspire. The light that came in through the small windows by each table cast long shadows and made faces bright on one side and darker on others. By contrast, the light from the backlit bar was diffuse.
“Can they be trusted?” Sveta asked.
“Mine won’t talk,” Semiramis said. “I can’t speak for Midas’.”
“I keep mine distracted with blood and circuses,” Little Midas said. He giggled. More seriously, he said, “If you resolve this soon then you shouldn’t need to worry. Take too long… they’ll get to it.”
“We’re making it a priority,” I said.
“Blugh,” Tattletale made a sound, looking at her drink. “I’m caught between having no appetite and really wishing I could get a drink or a bite of something to get this bad taste out of my mouth, except I know I won’t feel good about eating anything until we’re fifty miles from here.”
Okay, well, maybe Sveta and I were making it a priority.
“Tell me more about what this man does. What kind of link does he make?” Semiramis asked.
“Right to business,” Tattletale said. “Not that I’m not curious.”
I wracked my brain. I’d read the file a dozen times, but the last time was a year ago. “When he slept, if people he was linked to were sleeping at the same time, he’d get their memories from the day. Vague, not complete memories, but enough to piece most things together. It gave him other advantages, an instinctive knowledge of how people would react or respond, after he slept. Made it more effective if he went after them, presumably, but he was careful, favored sending people instead of going himself, or attacking them in subtler ways.”
“That sounds awfully familiar as an M.O.,” Tattletale murmured.
I nodded. “It is. He’s in a rare class of parahuman who could pull off something like this, given a chance.”
“A rare class in a lot of ways. I didn’t think parahumans lived to be that old,” Tattletale said.
“He’s a survivor,” Prancer said.
“He could almost pull it off, but no, he’s not a culprit, too slow,” Tattletale said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. That was the sticking point.
“I’m not sure if I should thank you for explaining that or be horrified, but fuck,” Tattletale said. “I don’t get the impression he was a mole for them. Marquis, Lord of Loss, and the other background players of Earth N? Sure. But them? Not consciously.”
“But the parallel is important?” I asked.
“Could be. Teacher’s, and I’m pretty sure he’s a big part of this, his big thing right now is that he’s trying to connect an awful lot of dots. He performs that connecting with the bottom-tier thinkers and tinkers his power makes.”
“Tinkers scan things,” Sveta said. “They can study parahuman powers and reinterpret them into blueprints and ideas for tinkering. Is it possible they scanned him, and got something similar? A machine that reads memories?”
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Tattletale said. “But I wouldn’t rule it in, either. They’re acting on information fast enough I don’t think they’re sleeping or waiting until we’re sleeping to collect it. There are so many ways they could do this that it’s not worth getting stuck in the weeds. He could have a clairvoyant sitting on the guy, tinker cameras like your ex-teammate, or a hundred other things. Point is, he’s connecting the dots, and I think he’s devoting a lot of resources to keeping others from connecting and connecting dots.”
“That’s two distinctions you’re making there,” I said. “Connecting in the… team sense, and connecting in the information gathering sense.”
“I don’t care about this,” Semiramis said. “I want to know what to watch out for. You’re giving me a non-answer. You’re saying you don’t know, which is reneging on the deal.”
“No,” Tattletale said, in a voice somewhere between strained patience and outright exasperation. “I’m saying this is very much what to watch out for. What happened to you was a dots and connections thing.”
Semiramis’s voice was low. “You think he disrupted my deal with Engel and Egg to keep them from connecting dots?”
“You connected dots. We are the dots. You know the how, where, and what. I know Teacher’s why,” Tattletale answered.
“Tell me,” Semiramis said.
“You show me yours and I show you mine. How, where, what. Help me narrow this down. I’ll give you your why and then, if we’re lucky enough to get the chance, I’ll point this bruiser-”
Tattletale indicated me.
“-at the culprit, and hopefully we keep him from doing this or anything like it again.”
“Engel went to Teacher for help. She saw his organization, and had a sense of what he was building. Her unique vision reveals things in darkness and limits her ability to see things in light, and she saw enough hidden things to make her wary. He has a building larger than some cities, and he’s filling it. The lower floors were crowded enough that things had to be shuffled around and moved to keep her from seeing them, but she still saw them.”
“White walls, floor?” Sveta asked.
“I’m wracking my brain to think what other terms might be used to describe it. Was a portal used to enter?”
“I don’t know.”
“It is what you think it is,” Tattletale told Sveta.
Sveta nodded, jaw and mouth set firm.
“We knew he was siphoning in people. Not a city’s worth. That’s useful,” Tattletale said. “It doesn’t give us many hints about what he’s doing here though. Egg said something and she connected dots?”
“When they talked, they made sense of things between them. Egg said what you said, that ah, they were in the old headquarters. Engel seemed upset. I remember because of how disturbed she seemed by the revelation.”
“That’s because they were at the old Cauldron base. The place Engel would have gone to attack if she’d ended up with Sveta’s old team. The place where everything was managed behind the scenes. Where they made the case fifty-threes.”
Sveta’s head bent down, her eyes fixed on the black table. I reached out to rub her shoulder.
The others reacted with their own measures of mild surprise. A frown from Semiramis, because she probably got it at this point. Teacher being there made Teacher very hard to get to. Not to mention the people, the resources, and the attention he was paying to us.
“What else?” Tattletale asked. “What did Engel see, that Egg could explain?”
“People, many were vacant behind the eyes, lined up in the dark. I don’t know what else-”
“Every detail matters,” Tattletale said, firm, eyes wide and focused on Semiramis.
“I don’t remember the details. At the time, I didn’t care. It was a conversation about someone I cared very little about, that I wasn’t even a part of.”
“But you remember the conversation.”
“Only fragments. You’d have to talk to them.”
“Give me something, because the way things are going, I’m not positive we’ll get a chance to talk to them.”
“Broomsticks,” Semiramis said.
“Broomsticks are good,” Tattletale said. “What about them?”
“There were people in a stairwell who tried to keep her from seeing their brooms, according to Engel. Egg thought it was strange or important.”
“Brooms,” I said.
I glanced at Tattletale and saw her smiling.
Semiramis drummed her fingernails. “Engel thought it was because they didn’t wish to appear lowly, or they were ashamed. Egg said no, then said they had someone for the job? I didn’t follow.”
“The Custodian,” Sveta said.
“That was the word he said,” Semiramis said. “Why?”
“Every detail matters,” Tattletale said. “That’s good. But it doesn’t relate to our current issue, and you don’t care about it if it doesn’t relate. That’s the where and the what. Teacher in the unreachable extradimensional complex with the army of thralls and other allies. Thralls with brooms.”
“Tell me why. Do I need to worry about him doing this again? How do I stop it?”
“The why is that you got too close to people who were asking questions and you started asking your own. It’s that simple, because he’s going after anyone and everyone who does the same. His predecessors went after problems like a surgeon with a scalpel and a precise knowledge of what they wanted to achieve and how. He’s… going after things like a… analogies fail me. He’s getting enough people under him that he can gather five people and tell them ‘watch them’ or ‘slow them down’. Something like that, but he can do that for everyone that matters. Five sets of eyes on every last person that matters. He amasses information, gathers people, and connects all the dots, while blocking everyone else from doing the same things.”
“Villains, heroes, rogues, civilians-”
“Mercenaries, machines, governments,” Tattletale finished for me.
“He’ll do this again?” Semiramis asked.
“He’s doing it. He never stopped. He’s doing it as we speak. And you don’t stop it without stopping him, and you aren’t strong enough to stop him.”
“You can help us,” I said. “If you want this to stop.”
“Or if you don’t want to help us, because Tattletale’s annoying or you don’t trust heroes, help anyone who’s opposed to Teacher,” Sveta said. “But… I think helping us is a pretty good bet.”
“You’re biased,” Prancer said.
“It’s my opinion if I were objective,” Sveta answered. “Antares fought Teacher’s army before, I know more than you’d think about the place Teacher is and what’s going on there, and about Engel or Egg, and Tattletale knows things. You’re not going to find better people to handle this.”
“There’s no guarantee you succeed,” Little Midas told us. “You want money, you want access? We give you that and chances are we get nothing.”
“Not money. We don’t care about money. Give us information, which costs you very little to give-”
Midas interrupted me, “Opinions may differ on that.”
“Give us information and shortcuts to the key people in this. Introductions, opening doors, favors, whatever it takes to achieve their cooperation. Because if we don’t step in and this continues like this, we might reach a point where Teacher just doesn’t have any legitimate opposition. You want this to end.”
“Seems reasonable,” Prancer said. “But I don’t know what I can give you.”
“Semiramis can help us with details from the past. Midas can help us with details in the present. You’re our insurance for the future,” Tattletale told him. “Keep your ear to the ground. You should have a sense of what to look for. Wedges, attacks from an angle that use communication and separate or disrupt people. You’re best networked among the low-level villains. Keep an eye on them, report to us.”
“I can do that. I’ll warn you I won’t betray their privacy.”
“Of course,” Tattletale answered with a smile.
Semiramis had been quiet for a minute. Now she was nodding, more to herself.
“What do you need?” she finally asked.
“Contact details for Egg and Engel,” Tattletale said. “If you were probing around the subject of the Teacher thing before you decided to pull back and focus on other things, any notes you have would help.”
“I’ll give you the contact details and look at what else I might have that I could give you.”
“Thank you,” Tattletale told her.
“Honestly? No. Back us up. Don’t slow us down. We’re all on the same side here. Heroes, villains, rogues.”
I really didn’t consider Semiramis a rogue, to use the archaic PRT term for those who pursued strictly neutral or business-oriented interests instead of fighting for the heroes or the villains. But Semiramis seemed to like the sentiment.
She wasn’t exactly smiling or jumping with joy, but she’d found out she was being stalked, she’d eaten human flesh however many times, she was having to deal with Tattletale, and she probably had the bad taste in her mouth that anyone got when motherfucking Teacher came up.
But we had her. Prancer was cooperating.
Which left Little Midas. Mr. blood and circuses. We looked his way.
“There’s no way I can help you without losing my place in things. I facilitate, grease the wheels, I don’t obstruct, demand, or use my position for leverage. I don’t show people my books or reveal the men behind the curtains.”
“You greased the wheels for mercenaries who attacked the Navigators. Navigators who were lured out with something very similar to the form of attack being used now,” Tattletale said. “Even if you told us only what you knew, called-”
Little Midas was already shaking his head. “Won’t, can’t. And you can be reassured that means I won’t be talking to others about what you’ve all shared here. I mean no ill will, this has been very interesting, even fun, but no.”
Pain in the fucking ass. That-
“Okay,” Tattletale said.
-was not okay. I arched an eyebrow, but Tattletale couldn’t see it with the mask obscuring the upper half of my face. By Sveta’s expression, her take on this wasn’t so different.
“No groveling, no mercenary offers?” Midas asked.
“No,” she told him. “No. Time is of the essence. Prancer, you have the means to contact me. Semiramis, if you’ll give me the contact information for those two, we’d like to try talking to them, seeing what they remember, specifically.”
“I can give you the last known numbers. They made it clear they weren’t interested in further contact, after my association with Big Picture tainted their view of me, I don’t know if they’ll answer. I leave that to your discretion.”
Semiramis took a pen from Tattletale, writing the number down on a napkin.
Midas slouched back in his seat, watching carefully from behind his golden helmet. He’d expected a fight and got a surrender instead. He was wary, and I was too, even though I was coming at this from the opposite angle.
“Do me a favor?” Semiramis asked.
“Maybe,” Tattletale said, warily.
“Tell them I’m open to working with them on another project. L.J.M. does not need to be associated with it, and I’m no longer working with Big Picture.”
“But you’d still want to do a sex scene with a Case Fifty-three?” Sveta asked.
“Wouldn’t it be progress? Acceptance of the body? Something deeper than a one-kiss on screen?”
“One-kiss?” Prancer asked.
“When they allowed white people to kiss black people on screen, it started with the one-kiss. Toe in the water, never two kisses in the same episode or movie. Then they eased in, as people got used to it. Same with gay people. Then with the- you case fifty-threes.”
“I know the guy who got the first on-screen kiss,” Sveta said. “But it wasn’t only one kiss.”
“Yes, you’re right. More than one. Deliberately so. They wanted to push the envelope. But so do I, here. The difference is that they, I think, had the PRT helping? It’s common knowledge the American organizations helped. They are… greasy like our Midas here, greasing up the wheels.”
“Have I offended you, Semiramis?”
“No, Midas. But you haven’t won my favor today, either. I want this done with, with a minimum of headaches. I want to focus on my empire, and grow it. I can’t do that if this looms above.”
“You guys can work this out later,” Tattletale said. “We’re going to chase down this lead.”
Her chair scraped against the floor as she stood.
“If we leave the Old Man with them, then they’re going to kill him,” I said.
Tattletale gave me an annoyed look.
“What? It’s true.”
She almost rolled her eyes. “Yes, it’s true. Yes, we should bring him with. If we can work out what they did to him, we can work out something about how they operate. There are resources. Then… how long does his thing last, before the body digests it?”
I wondered if I should lie.
“Long enough,” I said, to be coy.
Tattletale nodded. “Two, three days?”
“Maybe five,” I lied. As far as the PRT figured it out, it was indefinite. So long as he was alive.
“You’re not taking him,” Midas said. “And he does need to die.”
Midas stood. He banished the black table, and Tattletale’s glass dropped. Sveta caught it with tendrils, which brought it to her reaching hand, only a bit slopping out.
Now we had issues.
Sveta didn’t stand up, but straightened to her full height. I used my flight to make the process equally smooth. Minor expressions of power. Posturing.
Midas had started it, with his firm line in the sand.
Sucked that we were in his territory more than we were in ours, but… I wasn’t going to watch a sixty year old guy die, when I wasn’t sure just how active he’d been in using his power.
Besides, he kind of represented something major. I could hate him, though I didn’t really loathe him, I could think he was scummy and freaky. I could recognize that he had been a gang member and had perpetuated violence, drug dealing, and a culture of fear.
But he’d survived. Every parahuman I knew who’d been in the game for a while saw enough people die or meet unfortunate ends that they kind of… absorbed it, really. The implicit assumption became that we’d die early. We had other causes and those causes were more a priority than reaching the age where we could get discounts in stores for our age.
I hadn’t exchanged any words with him. I had no idea who he was now, if he was aspiring to control like Teacher was, if he got off on feeding people bits of him, or if he was an angel. But I felt like I needed to protect that.
“He’s essential to uncovering this thing, Midas,” Tattletale said.
“Which means he submits to power testing? Investigating? Scans from tinkers?”
“Something like that,” Tattletale answered.
“And then?” Midas asked.
“And then we pass him onto the guys who have been making the most dangerous villains disappear. Out of sight, out of mind.”
“Out of sight and very in our minds,” Midas said, and his voice was lower. “Stowed in a basement in a building only the Wardens know about, made to watch or monitor key people the heroes have a problem with. People who have been fed pieces of his flesh.”
“That’s not what the heroes do,” Sveta said.
“Or in a place the Undersiders protect?” Midas asked. “Or elsewhere? He could be snatched up by another player. By Teacher. There’s no way of knowing, unless we watch him die before our eyes.”
“That’s not going to happen,” I said. “That’s not how we do things.”
“And you’re exaggerating,” Tattletale said. “You make him sound bigger than he is. Have some perspective. Is he strong? Yes. But once he’s gone he’s going to be so much trouble to retrieve that it would be a hundred times more effective and efficient to go after one of the other creepy thinkers or tinkers.”
“Like a certain young camera tinker?” Prancer asked. He was the only one who hadn’t stood up from the table or booth, and presently leaned back, casual.
“Not helping, Prance,” Tattletale muttered.
“Do you know what puts him even further out of reach?” Midas asked. “A beheading.”
“I know a few too many people who were cloned for me to be sure about that,” Sveta said.
“If you want to talk about perspective,” Midas said, “If there are questionable characters who can do that who are free and capable of resurrection, we have other worries. Be realistic. Death is final enough.”
“You’re acting like someone with something to hide,” Semiramis said.
Midas had more emotion in his voice, but he bore it well, sounding almost outraged, in a way I was betting was compelling for the twelve or so capes at the sidelines. “No. Tattletale is working to cultivate the impression we’re on different sides, Semiramis. When she agreed so quickly to my refusal to share information, it was because she plotted this. She knew that he would need to be dealt with. She knew you need this out of your way and that I’m not in a position to help with this. Think, Semiramis, think, you have niggling doubts. Little thoughts and things that don’t add up, that we’ve completely ignored.”
“This is a repeat of the fiasco just before the Navigators were attacked,” Semiramis said.
“Yep. Cries for blood,” Prancer said. “The heroes were applying pressure and villains decided to fight back, no holds barred. Your voice was a loud one, Midas.”
“You weren’t silent,” Midas answered.
“I was grieving. We all made mistakes. This course of action looks a hell of a lot like another one. One very convenient to Teacher, if we start fighting among ourselves.”
“Can we compromise?” I asked. The looks I got back in surprise ranged from Semiramis’ wary one to a ‘get real’ look from Prancer, and hostile eyes behind a jolly bearded faceplate for Little Midas.
“Compromise?” Prancer asked.
“Lend him to us. We investigate, which helps all of us, we see what we can do to undo his hold on anyone, disable his power, whatever, and then we reunite after. If you’re satisfied, we follow through with our plans, imprison or sequester him. If you’re not, then we’re exactly where we are right here, right now, but with cooler heads.”
“That involves a lot of trust in heroes,” Prancer said. “And no offense, Tattletale, but you’re kind of a jacakss. You and your teammate did get on the bad side of more than a few villains here.”
“Are you negotiating right now because you believe in it, or because you really like debating?” Tattletale asked.
“The second, I guess?”
“Back off?” she asked, in about the least offensive way someone could say that.
“Sure, fine,” Prancer replied. He backed off, walking away a few steps.
“It does involve trust,” Semiramis said.
“I’ve dealt with Bluestocking, I’m approaching you here in a fair, open way, about a situation that could hurt you. I’ve been fair,” I said.
“You say ‘I’ and not ‘we’, I notice,” Semiramis told me.
“You’re carefully avoiding mentioning Tattletale.”
“Look,” I said, “nothing good comes from our guy staying here. We’ve got enough shit on our plates that we can’t make the time to exploit this guy against you, and that’s not our style anyway. If it was, we’d be doing way better than we are, instead of building the Warden’s third headquarters downstairs and trying to wrangle a half dozen teams in the center and downtown areas of the city.”
“Admitting weakness?” Semiramis asked.
“Admitting reality. Things are a mess.”
“The difference is that we have to live with the people here,” Midas said. “We have to lead them.”
“You’re insecure,” Tattletale said.
Midas stiffened slightly. “I’m aware of what it takes to lead. Do I need to remind you that you ran a city and you lost it, your group is fractured, and you’re having to ask heroes for support because you don’t have enough of a team to lean on?”
“Talk to me in a month, Midas, because I haven’t backed down or bowed down yet, and I’m going to recover and surpass you without needing to quiver at the knees, biting your nails and worrying what the big bad group of F-lister villains in your corner world think.”
This… this was a massive pain. She was taking a completely different approach from me, where I was trying to build empathy, and Tattletale was… I wasn’t even sure. Getting him to back down?
Maybe her approach made sense from her perspective, and there was a course here where she’d batter them, get them to admit weakness, and then strike home with a decisive verbal blow, which they’d be too flustered to respond to.
But… no guarantee.
“Is there another option?” Sveta asked. “What if we… just took him?”
Midas made a hand motion. Some of his people shifted their posture. Snuff moved a step to one side, to put himself between those ‘some’ and the old man.
“I don’t mean that in a hostile, bad way,” Sveta told Midas. “But if you care what the lesser villains think… what if we skipped that part? You let us kidnap him, you tell your people whatever you want, make us out to be the bad guys, then we move forward with Victoria’s plan. We meet you, negotiate, leave the lesser villains in the dark…”
“No,” Semiramis said, at the same time Midas shook his head.
“That’s a lot of bad blood,” I said. “It closes doors for the future.”
“I’d rather close doors than kill someone without putting him on trial.”
The suggestion had been off-the-wall, but it seemed to have shifted the tenor of the conversation to be less combative. There was a pensive, tense pause.
I pulled off my mask and pulled my hood back away from my head. “Give us the Old Man, let us talk to him, let us test him and try to break the connections or force him to give them up. If the concern is that we’ll keep him and use him, you can send us a trusted representative to see what our setup is. How villains are being disappeared, imprisoned, whatever we end up doing. But we loop you in, you come away with a lot of information and a bit of clout, because from that point on, anyone here that wants to deal with us is pushed to act through you.”
“I’d agree to that,” Semiramis said. Because she wanted power and influence, she wanted control – it had motivated her hiring of Big Picture.
Even Prancer was nodding. He had his own motivations, wanting a footprint. Influence in any form would translate to people joining his corner world or supporting it.
Little Midas was the sticking point.
“I don’t like it,” Little Midas said.
“You don’t like anything,” Tattletale told him. “Except the easy, immediate solution.”
“I’m a greedy man, Undersider. When I want something I want it now.”
He touched the air and turned that air into something solid, a wispy statue that looked like it was made of a thousand hair-thin gold wires. The shape was of a woman’s face, upper chest, and breast. He gripped it by the neck and chin, hard, as it continued to form, then made it dissipate with a wave of the hand a moment later.
I was fifty percent sure he’d screwed up a part of his model at the shoulder, made it too triangular.
“Can you ‘not like it’ in a way that sees you nodding, accepting it, and us being more willing to work with you on something else later?” Prancer asked. “Any answer besides ‘yes’ is going to cost, probably start a fight.”
I saw Midas pause, stuck on the fence. I saw Tattletale open her mouth, and I elbowed her.
“Finders keepers,” I said. “Isn’t that a rule among the greedy? I spotted him, I found him. He’s mine.”
Midas made a sound that might have been a chuckle, muffled by his mask. He nodded, the molded beard at the faceplate of his helmet clinking against his golden breastplate.
“Bring him,” Semiramis said.
At the same time, Tattletale gestured to Snuff.
The Old Man was walked our way, while Little Midas’ people approached him, their words hushed and angry, while Little Midas was calm.
“You’ll cooperate?” I asked the Old Man.
“Yeah,” he said. “How’d you get me?”
“Antares is the kind of geek who reads old PRT files,” Sveta said.
The Old Man nodded.
“The past never lets you go,” he told me. “The amnesty doesn’t protect me?”
“Right now, you’re being protected, that’s a main goal of ours. But Tattletale thinks you know something we can use, the rest of the people here want to hurt you. Cooperate with us and we’ll be fair to you.”
I got Semiramis’s attention, and we began to make our way downstairs. Since the open construction of the stairwell didn’t really obscure view at any point from anywhere on the ground floor, I put myself between the man and the crowd, to better block their view. Sveta descended the stairs beside me, while Semiramis followed. Little Midas caught up and followed, with Tattletale and Snuff. The Old Man had a bad leg, apparently, and limped. I held his arm, in part just to keep him from reaching for anything, if the limp was a trick.
A lot of eyes were on us as we made our way down, step by step.
“Out of curiosity,” I said. “Etna. What happened to her? She okay?”
“She retired,” Midas said, behind me.
Prancer explained, “Went out after Bitch and her hounds, that night three weeks ago. Took a hit, decided she was done. Hung up her costume, moved. Said she’d probably have to do something cape-ish to work out her stress, so she might be a B-list heroine.”
“Oh,” I said. “I think that was me who hit her.”
What the fuck was I supposed to think about Etna now? The idea of that being what had actually happened had me caught between this being a bad, cruel joke, like saying someone’s puppy had gone to live on a farm somewhere, and it being real and me then having zero idea what to think of the inept villain who irritated me so much but had actually done something cool.
“You hit her so hard she retired?” Tattletale asked, grinning.
“It wasn’t a hit, exactly. Is this a bad joke?”
“No joke. And you’re going to have to regale us with your explanation of what this mysterious technique is,” Prancer said. “Was it a specific angle of hit? A combination?”
“You’ll have to teach me, whatever it is,” Sveta added, playing along.
“I tackled her in the air. Spun her around pretty violently, then dumped her into the side of a hill.”
“Ten-eighty spin with a punt to finish it?” Prancer asked. “That’d do it.”
“More than ten-eighty and I didn’t punt. I spun, stopped, and after a momentary pause I… very firmly introduced her to the hillside. I measured my strength.”
“And worried you killed her,” Tattletale said.
“I- no. I-”
“You worried you killed her.”
“If someone disappears and the last thing you remember is a K.O.-”
A voice from the crowd. We were partway down the stairs.
The guy looked like Cleat’s brother, but he was nubby instead of spiky. And clearly angry, from what I could see of his face behind the nub-studded helmet.
“Let it go,” Midas said.
“You’re letting them take him?”
“I made my arguments. I was outvoted.”
Not exactly resounding cooperation there.
“He fed himself to us!”
“If you want to take over the Lodge while Lord of Loss’s back is turned, now’s the time to show some leadership,” Tattletale murmured.
“Shut up, Tattletale,” Midas growled.
“It’s being handled. We have a solution in mind,” Semiramis said. “The heroes have a way to take away his power, then they’re bringing him back here.”
Not exactly the way we’d posed it, and now we looked bad if we didn’t do either.
“Not good enough,” Nubby said. The Desperado Dustwind stood behind him now.
“It’s going to have to be,” Semiramis said. “You-”
Nubby moved, and I flew over the railing, to get far enough away I could block with my forcefield if I had to. Semiramis moved in that very same moment, causing a ghostly, out-of-sync image to overlap Nubby.
It was the initial moves of a fight and those moves were very much on our side. But we were badly outnumbered by angry B-listers, and I had only a second to take stock of them and figure out who I was going to be fighting, out of everyone here. Not Nursery, thankfully, but there were others.
In that moment I was sizing up the room, I heard the sound, the gasp.
Little Midas with his arm outstretched, and the sixty year old cape with the limp was falling down the stairs. His hand reached for the railing, and was blocked by a crude block of gold.
Snuff slammed Little Midas against the wall. I flew toward Mr. Case Twelve. Sveta got to him before I did. Tendrils caught him, arresting his fall, supporting him from multiple points.
Here, everything was upside-down. Villains and violence ruled, Sveta wore an expression of anger rather than sorrow while holding a limp bloody man in her tendrils, and it was an act of caring, not of killing, because she didn’t hold him tight.
By the look of it, though, she might have been willing to hold someone else tight. I saw her look at the crowd, move, and I put myself close enough to her to block her view.
“Your plan,” I told her, in an effort to break the spell.
“We might have to. What you outlined.”
“You don’t have to,” Semiramis said. She sounded pissed as she addressed the room. “There will be no fight! You’ll seat yourselves or turn away and you will let them leave as the group upstairs arranged! If you defy me, if you press me on this, I will bring this building down on your heads!”
Could she? I wasn’t sure I grasped her power.
But they certainly seemed to think she could. Nobody fought. Nobody spoke.
Sveta carried the Case Twelve to the door, her tendrils forming a bed for him to lie across, unmoving. She opened it without adjusting how she held him.
I remained where I was, as something of a bodyguard, while the rest of the group filed out. Snuff let go of Midas and left the man slumped against the wall on the stairs.
There would be something of a contest here, to decide who had the most say over this band of villains. But if there’d been any hint of law and order here, it was gone now.
Bluestocking was outside, smoking with her overlong cigarette holder. Close enough to hear, not so close she was a participant. Her stare was long and hard as she watched us walk to our vehicle. Then she stepped inside, to take her own actions as a major figure in this miserable little community.
“What’s next?” Sveta asked. “After we get him medical care?”
I put my hand to his throat. Tattletale moved my hand away.
“Pulse?” I asked.
“He’ll live. Don’t worry about it,” Tattletale said, her voice laced with condescension.
So fucking frustrating. I’d welcome a good excuse to fling her into a hillside.
“What’s next?” Tattletale went on. “Engel and Egg, if we can. I suspect they’ve been dealt with.”
Snuff deposited the Old Man across the back seat, knees folded. I sat by the man’s head, and Sveta perched over him and the area just behind the driver’s seat. The angry, staring-into-the-distance look on Sveta’s face wasn’t going away.
“Then, whether you invite me or not, it’s understandable if you don’t you’re going to want to go talk to Cradle, Love Lost, or the idiot, to get information on the mercenaries that were hired.”
“Talk to Dragon at the same time,” I said. “Her tune might have changed.”
“It hasn’t, I’m betting,” Tattletale told me.
“She was entertaining the idea-”
“A little bit. But mostly she worries you’ve gone off the deep end, inventing a conspiracy.”
“But,” Tattletale said, her voice gentler. “They’re getting closer to believing us. One more lead or bad coincidence and they might change their minds.”
“Let’s hope,” I said.
Tattletale seated herself and slammed the car door. Snuff started up the engine. “Let’s not hope. Let’s keep them in the dark and maybe even do stuff to help them believe you’re bonkers. Because the second they come around, Antares, whether it’s because we dish out that final clue or they find it while investigating on their own, that’s going to be when Teacher drops the hammer and this gets ugly. Soon. Within the next forty-five minutes soon.”