“Did you encounter three capes when you came down this way? Two teens, boy and girl, and a woman?”
“Only if they were wearing Teacher outfits and brainwashed,” Sveta said.
“No. We sent our own that way to scout,” Gong said. Prong was just a short distance away. Both were the kind of dirty that came with the really extended combats, where sweat ran over your entire body, then smoke and then dust got caked into it.
“Annihilated,” Prong muttered.
“Don’t you dare say that,” Gong warned.
“Side doors,” Capricorn said. “We checked all the rooms we could open as we passed, but we didn’t scout thoroughly for hiding places.”
“Tandem. Take Blatherskite and Tailgate, scout the way back, check the rooms more thoroughly, bring the wounded with you, find a spot to hunker down.”
“I can fight,” Blather said. Young kid, mask that covered cheeks and forehead, with some decoration around the eyes and a brightly colored lipstick. Wide-eyed and flinching with every nearby impact and loud sound. “You need us.”
“We need to not worry about the wounded,” Gong said. The dull impacts of tinker guns striking concrete grew coordinated and numerous enough to drown him out. I could see the wall that was taking the brunt of the attack. Each shot seemed to morph it, carving out a shallow indent that spread the material around it out. The combined hail of the power was enough to stretch the wall tall and thin. Gong was annoyed enough at the distraction- at the distraction and maybe just how it seemed to affect the kids in his squad who weren’t doing so hot. Blatherskite was feeling everything and Tailgate was stiff-chinned and asborbing nothing, staring off into space.
Gong slapped his hands together, and a shockwave rippled harmlessly past us, tracing a flat, long oval around us and our cover. The sound of incoming projectiles softened, then stopped. I peeked and saw the shockwave slowing as it moved, and slowing bullets and bolts of energy, a few chunky containers that might have been explosives, and some of our allies’ stuff as well. Someone in one of the concrete cubicles near the one we were hunkered down in was firing shotgun sprays of their power into Gong’s shockwave, filling it with what looked like two-armed tadpoles the size of my fist. They clawed blindly at the air, tails whipping around violently, and their screeches were high-pitched, feral, and muffled, as the shockwave absorbed even the sound.
Blather cringed at even those sounds, despite the fact they were friendly. No respite, even as the sound of the incoming attack more or less stopped.
Gong did about as tight and vicious a little spin-move as I’d ever seen anyone do, spinning on the spot and slapping at something mid-air. Wind rushed past all of us, and the assembled projectiles launched as a volley, flying out toward one of the entrances.
The crash was loud. I flinched, and I was used to the chaos of battlefields. Gong, meanwhile, landed on hands and knees, like something had been taken out of him. Big guy, heavyset but not tall, wrapped in armor in the Advance Guard style. The ‘gong’ motif was in diamond-shaped plates at key positions around his body.
Two seconds passed, punctuated by the sounds of other ongoing struggles nearby, but devoid of any of the sounds of the offense from that one direction.
Then the hail resumed. Dull ‘splat’ impacts that made the impact areas taller, wider, and thinner. Something more ordinary struck one of the stretched out barriers and shattered it with a sound and effect very similar to glass breaking.
Fume Hood launched a series of spheres. The gas was both a deterrent that forced the group back into the corridor and a way to disrupt their accuracy. Most of her focus was elsewhere, though. There hadn’t been enough space, so her team had fallen back to another decagon.
“Kite!” Gong raised his voice to be heard. Blatherskite flinched. Gong went on, resuming the orders he’d been trying to give before “We need to not have to worry about the wounded. This is your job. You follow orders! You, Tandem, Tailgate. Find where the three we sent down that hallway are hiding.”
Blatherskite nodded, the motion tight. He’d protested earlier and he didn’t protest now. A token effort when he really wanted out.
Capricorn was in the cubicle next to ours, talking to Tandem. I could overhear parts of their conversation as he described parts of the scene we’d left behind with the big room of people, the bars, and the number of capes there.
“…can get past bars,” Tandem was saying.
“I figured, but you have to get your team past them too.”
“What a shame that we haven’t talked.”
“You ready, Tan?” Gong raised his voice.
“When you are!”
“Yeah. Nervous, but yeah.”
“Tailgate? We’re going to want your power. Two shots if you can manage it.”
Tailgate didn’t respond, like she had been rendered deaf by the cacophony.
I put my hand out, into her field of view. She startled.
“You with us?” Gong asked.
I saw the confusion as she took stock.
“Teacher’s facility, we’re in the gallery,” I said. “You’ve been here for a few hours, you’re being relieved by the second strike teams. You’re taking the wounded through that door with Blatherskite and Tandem. Tandem leads, I think?”
“We need portals,” Gong said, without giving Tailgate a chance to respond. “Here and here. We’re covering you with an attack. Prong’s diving in, he’ll need all of our support. We push, distract, cover, and then fall back to this point.”
And with that, any light of understanding in Tailgate’s expression fogged up again. “I’m helping with that?”
“You’re going with Tandem,” Gong said, clearly annoyed.
“This way,” I said. “I’ll cover you. Go to the cubicle next door. Do what Tandem says.”
Tailgate looked back to Gong.
“Make the portals.”
Fuck me, I could have hit him.
“Tandem!” I called out.
“What!?” was the answering cry.
“Tailgate’s making a portal to help your retreat and help our charge. Give them the orders! Sending her to you!”
“Go,” I told Tailgate. “Do what Tandem says.”
Again, she looked to Gong.
“Go,” he said, like he was all out of patience.
“Go next door,” I said. “Take Blatherskite.”
She did. Blather followed her, as the pair ducked out of the doorway. I ducked out too, hurrying to get far enough away I could use the Wretch to block any incoming fire from the flanks. There wasn’t any.
Clear, definitive orders for someone who wasn’t entirely here right now. I knew the drill, and I knew that someone in that state needed grounding and direction. Gong hadn’t been helping, piling on more when Tailgate needed less.
“They’re a good cape,” Gong said. “Reliable up until today.”
“Movers tend to trigger from a need to escape, shakers usually trigger from environment. Combine the two and it stands to reason that being trapped would remind her of that event and circumstance.”
“She’s a Cauldron cape,” Gong said. “She dropped out of the PRT when they started cracking down and trying to figure out who was compromised. She tried to make a graceful exit, being open about why, but got detained when she wouldn’t answer all of their questions. Eight months in special detention. She got out, got a sponsorship.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. Maybe that people who took Cauldron vials might have been motivated toward certain vials or they might have had the mental groundwork for certain end results, even with the power being from a bottle. But I didn’t know. The cape geek stuff on Cauldron had always been and remained a big question mark.
Sveta could usually be counted on to have some feelings one way or another when Cauldron came up in any capacity, but she was more focused on other things.
The corridor we’d come through was cleared for retreat, which shifted the dynamics of this scene in our overall favor. The formless, sprawling space with concrete and metal decagons spaced out across it, the high ceiling, and stale hair heavy with the smell of smoke and ozone was relatively easily defended, but mounting attacks from the space was difficult to impossible. Teams that fell back to the concrete decagons found that there was too much in the way of no man’s land to easily cross. The speedsters, acrobats, fliers, and other movers could get around or get through that gap, but they couldn’t make a lasting dent in enemy forces while they were out there.
I heard Love Lost scream. Not enough range to reach across the no man’s land.
If this whole operation was meant to be a surgical strike, the surgery had gone wrong. The strike down the central thoroughfare of the facility had brought the team here, and the way behind had closed up, organized soldiers collapsing in. No way out but through. Our surgeon had worked deep enough to find the issue and get a grip on it -our ‘gallery’ here- but blood from the entry was filling the work area, blocking of view and the ability to get anything done. So long as that flow persisted, it would be impossible to truly get anything done.
Capricorn was drawing constellations in the air. Rocks thudded as they landed. Barriers to replace the concrete walls that were being broken down. At another decahedron, Stonewall was doing something similar, planting his shield in the ground, then manifesting another.
I could only see a little bit of the decahedron where Balk’s group had retreated. Only a bit of where the woman with something of a resemblance to my aunt was having a drink of water. I saw the empty container get tossed aside.
“I saw a cape,” I said, mostly to Sveta. “Crystal’s mom?”
“Didn’t she die?”
“In Gold Morning.”
“Shit,” Prong said.
“You know something?” I asked. “Because the formations she was using with Balk, I thought my cousin passed on things we learned as kids to get incorporated into the PRTCJ, Wardens, whatever, but…”
“Try not to worry about it,” Prong said.
“It’s kind of hard not to. You’re acting like there’s something weird here.”
“Valkyrie’s always tried to keep people from seeing what she does with anyone they might know.”
“Focus,” Gong said.
“Wait,” I told him. Then to Prong, “What?”
“Fuck,” he said. “You know how Valkyrie works?”
“Valkyrie copies powers and summons vague simulations of the people who had those powers.”
“Okay,” I said. “That was not just powers. That was not a vague simulation. That was someone who flies, who has the mannerisms, who fights like my aunt did. She gave me looks and the more I think about them the more I think she remembered me. She didn’t fight or fly like anyone who learned the formations from the PRTCJ. She fought and flew like the person who helped refine them. And as far as I know, Valkyrie isn’t here.”
Prong looked at Gong, then back to me. “Okay, fast explanation, no lies, but no follow-up questions either. If we take too long they’ll reinforce with turrets, one-way forcefields and robots.”
I grit my teeth for a second. I didn’t want a fast, shitty answer.
But I did recognize the need. I nodded.
“She’s been using power interactions. Forging bodies for them, so she can send them out. She started with a dozen, increased to twenty-five. Then a few died.”
“Some of us think she got rid of them,” Gong said. “If they went bad.”
“Glossing over that,” Prong said. “She recently made more. Sent them on this mission.”
“How is she making them?” I asked.
“No follow-up questions,” Prong said. “Listen, they’re fragile. There’s stuff wrong with them. In their heads, in their bodies. She apparently fixes them or she lets other people fix them. But until she gives the word, we’re supposed to leave them alone, we avoid putting them anywhere near their old loved ones, teammates, whatever. If you see any, try to ignore them or keep interactions light. You’ll hurt yourselves if you don’t.”
“There’s stuff wrong with them?” I asked. “Plural? Scattered, or multiple things in one person?”
Sveta reached out to touch my arm.
“Right,” I said.
“It worries me that they’re apparently fragile and they’re being sent into this,” Sveta said.
“She knows what she’s doing,” Gong said. Then he raised his voice. “Ready!?”
There were answering cries.
“Breakthrough goes with!” Capricorn called out.
He was taking charge more because I hadn’t dropped the master-stranger warning from back on Shin. I didn’t wholly trust myself to lead.
Tailgate’s power created what looked like forcefields, extending out in straight lines from our dodecahedron.
“Look for the teleporter!” Gong shouted. “Go!”
He lurched forward, heavy armor and accumulated fatigue slowing him down compared to how a normal person might move when sprinting their way out of a crouch, out into the open, then a hard right into the forcefield. Except it wasn’t a forcefield, it was a gate.
Prong was faster. Skinny guy in slim-fitting armor, with a bident.
Then Sveta. Ashley and Rain were emerging from a neighboring cubicle, on the far side of the gate. Capricorn had a few more feet to cross.
Each person that hit the wall of energy dissipated, disintegrating.
It spooked me, somehow. As a spur of the moment thing, I flew, instead. I took to the air and I could see the trails of energy, vaguely color coded because each ‘bolt’ was a vaguely arrow-shaped, fractal mess of distorted reality, careening over the concrete form, some arcing in the air, others staying low to the ground.
Gong had already arrived on site, and used his power. A shockwave bowled over twenty tinkers. Prong was there a second later, turning from fractal energy bolt to human. He put the points of his weapon into a tinker’s gun-hand, and as he did, a copy of him appeared, impaling the thrall from behind.
That new version of himself pulled his weapon free, simultaneously driving the butt-end of the weapon toward a tinker-thrall’s face, and that tinker raised their weapon as a shield, blocking the hit. Prong’s copy still appeared behind them, putting the points of his weapon into their calf.
Strike, make any contact, and he got a second free hit. The original lasted only as long as both were making contact.
With the group still recovering from Gong’s hit, Prong had the run of things. Weapon swiped out, points raking someone’s chest, and a Prong-copy appeared, pulling weapon free and away, swinging it out for another slash.
My team arrived. Ashley appeared above the group, blasted to adjust her trajectory, and tackled someone from behind. Sveta grabbed one of the people at the flanks with tendrils, then moved them around, so they were a human shield in case any other groups at other entrances tried to open fire.
Rain appeared and headbutted someone in the same instant, grabbed their gun with both hands, and had his smaller, tinker hand reach down and out to pull something out of the bottom of the weapon.
And Capricorn- it was Byron now. He knew how to fight. So often, I didn’t see him actually throw punches because he preferred to act from range, drawing out his power, acting as artillery. But he’d learned with Reach, he had training in the essentials, and he had some experience with it too.
I remained in the air, taking advantage of the break in the hail of gunfire and overall chaos. The focused strike on the one entrance was drawing attention.
No time to count heads, but I could get a feel for things. I looked at each group in turn, one after another. Group A, group B, group C.
Group A, group B, group C…
The Heartbroken had made it to the gates and were crossing the floor. I could tell by the color schemes. The retreating wounded were at the exit we’d come through and cleared. Tandem was now two people, running hand-in-hand. Another Case Seventy, like Capricorn.
Group A, group B, group C.
Group C was larger.
Balk rose into the air. The artillery cape, a new flier from the Wardens, and the ghost of my aunt were with them. I saw her look at me. They were doing a loop, suppressing every group with airborne fire now.
Cue from the Shepherds, formerly of the Attendant, had been the one to point out the teleporter I was convinced I was looking for. If not them, and I figured it was a one percent chance it wasn’t, then it was tech that copied them.
When I’d been auditioning for teams, I hadn’t been willing to walk away or let the Fallen be. The pole-wielding Cue had pointed out that the Fallen had a cape that was replenishing their numbers. It had been subtle, people appearing in a crowd, but there had been a general feeling to it that felt like this. That the numbers didn’t add up, that a battle was being lost and it was hard to get a full handle on the why of it.
Two plus two equals four? No, because that first two became a three when one wasn’t looking. Dumb, but when it applied to counting enemies, it made for an oppressive atmosphere.
Right side of C. Right side of B, the group my team was fighting. I was ready to jump in if they were faltering or struggling, or if C got organized enough to make an attack. Stonewall was pressing in, shield up, keeping C distracted.
If the reinforcement teleporter was dropping people into the parts of the groups he could see, then I could work out where he was. Right side of the two groups… he was off to the right.
D, then. The entrance to the right of the one we’d come through. They were furthest from the Advance Guard assault, which meant I had less distraction going for me. I flew to one of the pillars in the complex, putting my back to it, and peeked around the corner.
They had the numbers advantage, and with only general harassment from our side, they were putting together a robot the size of a car, quadrupedal. Thirty or forty people working, while people with luminescent riot shields and truncheons formed a wall around them on the ground. A cape stood on the robot’s back.
It was like figuring out one of the pictures that required the eyes to have a specific focus. Each person wore a similar outfit, which made finding the distinctions hard. If I tried to focus, I lost myself in the visual noise and the sense of a pattern that wasn’t there.
But every thrall had a job to do. There were ones on guard, there were ones who were building, and there were others who put down suppressive fire, to limit and punish movement and keep anyone from being able to comfortably respond. The suppressive fire sub-group was the one who would gun me down if I was dumb about this, and they were the people who were firing into the air, trying to catch Balk’s team.
All behind a short concrete fence, protecting the guys in the very front from the waist down. A robot in the center as a platform only one cape was brave enough to stand on top of.
The hidden picture was in who fit the pattern, who didn’t. Who was still?
Balk’s squad did their fly-by, harassing the group, trying to disrupt what they were doing. The ball hit the glowing shields and bounced off, flew back to him, and then hit the robot instead, crashing through layers of metal and circuits. It bounced out, hit another shield from a defender with good reaction times, and then returned to him. The artillery cape lobbed something, and the cape on top of the robot shot the lob out of the air.
The ghost of the woman who had read bedtime stories to me when I was little and she was visiting, who had given me baths, who had taught me to fly smart, and who had given me the first for-adults book I had truly loved brought lasers down on their heads, sniping wherever defenses were missing.
“Balk!” I shouted.
He looked for me and didn’t see me. I waved an arm.
“Hit them again!” I pointed.
He motioned, said something. His team looped around. Another artillery shot. Another rain of lasers. The other cape in his group had reloaded and unloaded their semiautomatic rifle from the air.
Shields were raised to protect the group.
One shield raised a bit slower. A single person protected by the people on either side of them.
I checked the area below me was clear enough, then hit the pillar I was hiding by with the Wretch.
Another two hits, and I had a chunk of rebar-reinforced concrete nearly as tall as I was. And I could ball-up while flying, using it as a shield.
I charged in. A hail of fire whittled at my concrete. Balk hadn’t left, though, and his team unloaded on the group below.
Ramming, I hit four of them with the chunk. Shields in the way, they repulsed me, the riot shields flaring with energy. I could smell ozone so thick in the air I could barely breathe.
Second try. I threw the concrete high, lobbing it toward them, so it would crash on them from above.
I was counting on them to not be stupid. I didn’t want to murder them.
They weren’t stupid. They were even smarter than I’d anticipated. Half of them raised their shields up. The other half kept shields down and forward. Gunners shot, catching the Wretch.
Do you have to be such a big fucking target, Wretch?
I flew in, because any direction but away was too dangerous. An implosion from Balk’s artillery cape pulled some of the group back, but they were packed in enough that there was no room to fall over, only to be pulled back and off balance.
The concrete and the distraction of that- trying to get it to fall in front rather than behind and on top of people, that was the bigger help. They did repel it so it was skewed to fall in front.
I flew under it, over the short fence. The glow of the shields in my way was my only good indicator of where I could move, when I had less than a second to decide.
A gap. I put one hand on the fence, to better control my flying vault over it, down, and into the forest of legs and boots. No Wretch to protect me.
Reorienting, avoiding the first few kicks from people who realized I was in their midst, I caught the cape I wanted and flew up and out, hauling him with. The stitches at the back of my hand complained at me, the beds of fingers with the recently lost and reattached fingernails made my fingertips feel vaguely mushy, in the worst, touching-a-burn-blister kind of way. My other arm was weak.
I only got about ten feet before he caught my shin with the bottom end of the shield, repelled me, and forced us apart. He swung the glowing truncheon at me, but that was easy enough to avoid.
He fell. Short distance, but still a rough fall. His shield hit the ground and bounced out of his hand.
I went after it, catching the weapon and rolling, putting it between myself and the people in the group.
They weren’t shooting. A short bit ago, it had been what, thirty people, one robot in construction, one obvious cape, and this guy, who was dressed up as a thrall security officer, hidden in the crowd.
Now it was practically overflowing, people pushing past others, storming over the fence.
Balk’s artillery person hit the bulk of them.
Keeping the shield between that group and myself, I trusted Balk to handle it.
I focused on the teleporter, taking flight-
And I saw something not so dissimilar from the forest of legs I’d just flown into. A portal or a power at work, a blur of people in silhouette, with bright lights shining in the gaps.
Trying to get me to fly into and through it, teleporting me away.
I flew over, instead. He had the truncheon ready for a swing.
He hit the Wretch. The Wretch hit him. A single blow to pelvis or upper thigh, his legs went out from under him, and his head cracked against the ground.
With neither of my hands or arms fully cooperating, I managed to draw him up into a loose carry, then I flew.
“Good to go!” I called out to Balk.
His group flew to make a formation with me.
“Teleporter, hidden in their group. Part of the reason for the reinforcements.”
“Only part,” he said. “They’re dragging away wounded, healing them with medical thinkers. Sending them back in.”
“This guy was expediting them. I want to drop him off at Stonewall’s.”
“We’re overdue for another circuit,” Balk told me. “Hurry.”
I hurried. No time to waste, no questions. Stonewall’s group was holding the position that was hardest to hold, defensive capes, and a number of the more lightly injured.
Now with one more.
I passed them the injured, gave them brief information. Balk’s group was already resuming its circuit.
I flew to my team.
Already, the tone had shifted. The reinforcement teleporter had been seeding each group with new members, sufficient to more than replace the ones who dropped out of the fight, injured, knocked out, or dead. In a last ditch effort, he had dumped a ton of reinforcements into the one group furthest from this door.
A game of whack a mole, where you swung at one, but two more popped up. Focus on the one entrance, and the other entrances pushed in. All the more so because the group I’d labeled ‘group D’ had increased in number.
The entrance to the hallway became a new spot we had to defend. Roles shifted, our rear became our new defensive front. Fume Hood laid down some cover fire, choking whole groups of the enemy.
And the hallway- more of the same.
Hundreds, I thought again, as I processed the idea. This wasn’t the only defensive front. Hundreds of human beings, hundreds who didn’t flinch, didn’t break down, and didn’t break pattern.
The loss of his subject’s full volition wasn’t even a huge drawback in this kind of circumstance. It was an asset for Teacher.
Byron hit someone, transitioned that hit into a grab, and pulled them to one side, where one of his constellations blasted out water. Sveta made it further down the hallway, where there were less of our people in reach. Her tendrils cut where the saw teeth ran along flesh, and grabbed otherwise. The two combined were… nasty. To cut someone’s arm and pull on that skin?
Roman tore through people. Pick a target, lunge in, win. Rinse, repeat. Juliette, like Ashley, hung back at the sides, looking for opportunities.
We’d won the entrance. Now the hallway, while the rest of the gallery folded in behind us, pressuring stonewall, pressuring our guys on the outside. Me included.
I had the shield I’d confiscated, and nobody had thought to turn it off or disable it for me. For now, I focused on using it to help shield the group.
Rain had a blade out, and ‘parried’ a swing of a gun being used as a club. It still hit him, parry or no, but it broke in the impact, diffusing the hit.
They were doing that a lot. I suspected the tinker guns made by Teacher’s shitty tinkers ran out of power fast.
Chastity and Samuel were hanging back. So were some of our volunteered capes. Withdrawal leaped up, latched onto the wall, then sprung down, over and over, targeting stragglers. Caryatid used her breaker form’s ability to draw her costume into the form by utilizing loose and torn fabric to shield some of our team. She’d grabbed one of the fences and used it as a shield.
One guy on the ground ran, and Withdrawal pounced onto them. A feint, or a sacrifice play, because two more ‘hurt’ thralls went after him while his back was turned.
Caryatid slammed into them, a burst of movement, a push. She went still again to absorb incoming fire.
Imp… I had no idea what she was doing.
The usual thing about cape fights was that they involved a fight against another cape. Even the way the PRT broke down fights, with classifications and calls, number ratings and priorities, there was a standard order in which capes were to be dealt with. One at a time, knock them down. Thinkers first, tinkers second, brutes last.
This wasn’t that. It was a fight against a swarm, and I had only limited experience with that, ‘fighting’ Crusader, getting tag-teamed by Tattletale and Skitter. Dealing with the Merchants.
None of them had the individuality to stand up and step out from the crowd, pull out any special heroics. But they did shelter capes, and they did target ours.
Imp could do a lot, I was sure, but there weren’t many major players here, and I imagined she was best when there was a specific, vulnerable, high-priority target to go after.
My focus, as such, remained diffuse, looking for telling breaks in the pattern. Large scale movements, individuals that stood out, and convergences on our guys.
Stonewall had gone still. He was drawing more and more fire by the second. I saw him move, trying to bring his shield around, and it was slow.
Being affected by a power?
“Support Stonewall!” I called out.
My squad wasn’t the only one to leap to his defense. Balk came down, and Stonewall’s group from the decahedron broke out of cover to hurry over. The injured made a simultaneous break for the hallway our other injured had gone to, taking advantage of distractions and the fact that our group at the one entrance was drawing all of the attention.
I landed right beside Stonewall, borrowed shield out to block incoming fire. His stone armor had been scarred and whittled away. The guys at the nearest checkpoint had what looked like rifles that fired railroad spikes. One or two had embedded in Stonewall’s armor, and blood was leaking out of the wounds.
“Power died,” Stonewall reported. “Not strong enough to move my armor.”
Withdrawal caught up. He’d gone out of his way to pick up the riot shields, and he now had two attached to each of his arms, one near each arm-tip, and one near where his actual hands were. Orange motes circled around us. What would be a protective wall.
And past those motes, even in the wide open space that was the gallery, there were enough thralls that they were walking shoulder to shoulder. Many armed, though only a third of the weapons seemed to have battery.
“I thought I fucked up their guy who was teleporting in reinforcements,” I said. “What the hell?”
“You did,” Stonewall said. Immobile, a man within a costume that wouldn’t move. “It’s been like this every step of the way. They have precogs, clairvoyants, they have morale detectors. They know where and how to push. The big push is because you forced them to play their hand.”
“It’s good. Listen, someone needs to tell my team to retreat and hold the other hallway. We can’t have our injured getting mobbed.”
“On it,” someone reported.
One less person in our defensive huddle. Against an army.
Hundreds. The word had passed through my head and stuck with me. Half of the gallery was now filled, to the point I had to wonder if we were approaching a thousand thralls in attendance.
“They’ve got masks on!” Balk called out. “Be wary of gas!”
Shit. He was right. The front two rows had full-face masks on, eyes glowing, lower faces covered by blank surfaces.
The rows of thralls behind them didn’t, though. That suggested it wasn’t gas.
“Might be flashes, not gas,” I added.
“Might be,” Balk answered.
His squad landed around us.
My aunt, for lack of a better way of putting it, landed next to me. Again, there was fleeting eye contact. The expression she wore was perpetually what I’d seen on her face the day Leviathan had attacked. Before we’d lost Eric and Uncle Neil. Serious, even a little haunted. With purple and black eyes.
She cast a forcefield, then reached back with her other hand, creating a laser. She began to cut through Stonewall’s suit.
The lights went out. One by one. I might have thought it was the shaker from before, the ripple that made the lights flicker as it passed.
All at once, we were in darkness. Costume elements and powers glowed, there were a few scattered fires, a few flashes of sparks where wiring had been torn up, and rows of glowing eyes.
“Night vision,” the artillery cape said.
“They did this before. We didn’t see the masks,” Balk reported. “Wait it out, try to take down the ones with masks.”
“They had them then. They refresh the injured or pass on the gear,” Stonewall said.
The artillery cape’s power flickered and flared with light as she created and hurled it. Definitely an aerial sort of attack- as ground to ground it had trouble getting height and dipped downward fast, like throwing paper airplanes built to nosedive.
The riot shields were as useful as anything, when it came to the lighting. The laser and the forcefield were another big help.
Someone audibly tore a chunk of Stonewall’s costume off. He began to climb out, reached out, groping, and found my shoulder.
“What do you call yourself?” I asked into the darkness. I could barely hear myself over the noises around us. I could barely breathe to utter the words. The battery indicator on the shield had an unfair share of my attention. Without it I’d have to use the Wretch in an environment where I wasn’t sure where all of my allies were.
“Sarah,” was the answer.
“No cape name?”
“Photon for now.”
“Not Lady Photon?”
The response was drowned out, but I was pretty sure it was ‘someday’.
For a short while, there was only the effort, trying to stay sane and focused on what needed focus while fighting in the dark against an army that could see.
She didn’t ask about Crystal. She didn’t ask about me.
Didn’t ask about mom, dad, or how we’d gotten on.
“I think she might be here. She would have joined and I didn’t hear from-”
“She’s at the far end.”
A lot of the guns being used by the thralls in the dark were dark. No glowing chambers, no glowing projectiles, no muzzle flashes. The only signs they were being used were when our defensive squadron was pummeled, wounded, or knocked flat. Blood splattered against one side of my face.
“Hit,” was the guy’s grunt. “F-ffuck. Muh face.”
“Stonewall’s all the way out! Fighting retreat!” Balk called out. “Someone get our wounded!”
‘Sarah’ pushed past me, touching my arm in a way that suggested she could see me enough.
I couldn’t think of what to say, or what to do. The flash of the indicator and the hum of the shield I was carrying dying distracted me. The shield was next to useless now, and I had to do my part.
“Keep your distance from me if you can,” I said.
I stepped away from the group, away from Sarah, and knelt down, head down, activating the Wretch, hoping I wouldn’t take too much fire.
I went to your funeral, I thought. After Gold Morning. You meant so much to us and we couldn’t even properly grieve, because there were so many people who needed the chance to hold services. I put flowers on your doorstep every time I went to old Brockton Bay.
I looked away, tried to get a sense of directionality. There were powers being lobbed at the rank and file, bright enough to be seen in the darkness. I could see where tech was being used to diffuse the impacts, break it up, or limit the damage.
It wasn’t as easy as using a single big, wide-area power.
We retreated, using guiding lights of powers as an indicator. Ashley’s eyes glowed white in the dark. I could see the single eye of Sveta’s, Precipice’s, and Capricorn’s, and the crack across Precipice’s mask.
Into the hallway, which had been more or less cleared. Capes were fighting further up, and capes were fighting behind us.
But in the meantime, we had some light, and we had a chance to breathe, spacing out enough that we could find our individual groups.
I almost dropped to a sitting position as I got to the others, and I hadn’t been running around much.
Byron made water, filling a container, than drank it. He capped it, tossed it into the air, and changed to Tristan. Tristan caught it and drank more. At a nudge from Sveta, he handed it over.
“My brother can make water if anyone needs a resupply,” he called out.
“Let us finish what we have,” Gong said. “We’ll take you up on that.”
“Sveta did us all proud,” Ashley said. “She cleared half of this hallway herself.”
“Did I? Sorry, I don’t want to sound like I’m fishing for compliments-”
“I’ve always felt you should claim every compliment you can get.”
“-but my control slipped some.”
“You handled it. You did well.”
“I’d like to think so. I hope so. I feel like I’m closer to being the hero I want to be. I wish it was a little less bloody.”
“Don’t we all?” one of the capes from Gong’s group asked.
“It means a lot that you’d say it, though. Thank you, Swansong.”
“What’s the standard way to compliment you, Swan?” Precipice asked. “Florid, exaggerated? I’d probably come across like a sniveling cartoon toady to the big bad guy if I tried.”
“You’re nowhere near that,” Sveta said.
“As fun as it would be to hear you try,” Swansong added, “I wouldn’t worry. Complimenting me risks belaboring the obvious.”
“Wow,” Tristan said.
“You did okay, Swan,” I said. “Not a lot you can do with a lethal power and this situation.”
She made a noise of assent.
“And you?” Sveta asked. She found a position next to me. “Your hand is bleeding.”
It was. Whatever. Not enough to matter.
“Talked to Aunt Sarah.”
“And it was eerie. I’m not sure how to put it.”
Like something was missing.
She laid her head against my shoulder, being careful of the spikes.
Catching our breath. Touching base, going back to the old therapy circle of group reaffirmation, maybe.
Imp and the Heartbroken were a little further down. They… were picking fun at each other. Roman and Juliette were having harsh words. The tone, insults excepted, was fairly light. Like they didn’t take this seriously.
“Can we get that water?” Gong asked.
Tristan became Byron, who provided the water, a small constellation, a short, focused spurt of stinging cold spray.
There were others who wanted drinks, so Byron switched back to Tristan, who began drawing out what might have been a bottle. He created it, Byron filled it, and then they swapped back.
The goal had been to make it to a place where staff had access to water. The siege in the gallery hadn’t quite allowed it.
Withdrawal had to move carefully, with the bulky frame and the hallway that was only ten feet across. Caryatid followed.
“Hey, Withdrawal,” I said. “Nice showing.”
He released a heavy, shuddering sigh.
“Finale would have been nice to have around,” he said.
“Wouldn’t have been good for her,” Caryatid said.
They found a spot to sit down, Withdrawal’s long limbs folding up to a degree to maintain a more compact silhouette.
Thinking about Finale got me thinking about Lookout, and thinking about Lookout got me thinking about maps.
Communications were still limited, we only had access to Lookout if we could use her tech to hack a computer, and only then for a brief time, apparently. But we had the maps, and that was her contribution. With Sveta, Rain and Ashley, I went over the maps, talking about options.
“Hey, Azúcar,” Tristan said. He was still making bottles. The group around him had shifted.
I looked up.
Tristan was paying attention to a girl in a cat mask, ears sweeping back along the sides of the head, gauntlets on.
“Hey, ass,” was the response.
“Uh, Capricorn,” I said. “Careful. Remember what they said.”
You’ll only hurt yourself.
“It’s okay,” Azúcar said. “I’m a little bit further along. Normal rules for the Flock don’t apply. I can cheat it.”
“Sure,” I said. I was aware that there were others standing nearby. ‘Sarah’ being one, younger than she’d been when she died, now that I could see her standing still in decent lighting.
“You look good,” Tristan said.
“I feel good,” she said. “Nine-six-ten-five.”
“You changed it.”
“Dying necessitates change,” she said, looking down the hall in the direction of the fighting. What we were supposed to fight past and through. They’d be setting up. “But you’d know that, wouldn’t you? False deaths? Impermanent deaths?”
“Yeah. Guess so,” Tristan said. “Good to see you. Glad the numbers are so good.”
“Only going to get better,” she said. “I’d say it’s good to see you too, but…”
She made a movement of her head. Hands wrapped in oversized ‘cat claw’ gauntlets moved up, claws moving close together.
“…only a little good.”
“I’ll take it,” Tristan said, eyes down on the bottle he was making. Then he blurred.
Byron filled the bottle with water. He stood straight to hand it over, and she wrapped him in a hug. He hugged her back.
I didn’t try to listen in on their conversation, but they were speaking at a volume above murmurs, below whispers, and it was impossible to turn my ears off.
“Alive and well, last I heard. With this whole thing, though-”
“Don’t be such a downer.”
“We broke up.”
“Still being a downer,” she said. “But that’s good. Good she’s alive. She was- she was trying. Good you broke up.”
“Tristan kept one of your old lemon drop candies as a, I think it was a reminder,” Byron said, voice low. “Always got its spot in his belt pouch. He only cleared it out recently, a week ago, but it’s with his stuff.”
Lemon candy? I thought.
“Do you, um, still like those?”
“Still being a downer,” she said. “You should be careful what questions you ask if the answers would trouble you.”
“Heads up!” Stonewall called out. He’d regained his power and rebuilt his armor. He had a shield in both hands. “We’re mobilizing.”
People got to their feet, got ready. Withdrawal unfolded his gear.
“Be well,” Azúcar said.
“And don’t worry. I’d love a lemon drop right now.”
“Do you remember why they were important?”
“Don’t pick apart your happiness, Capricorn,” she said. She punched his arm lightly, claws retracted.
I was so envious of their interaction I could barely stand it.
“Stonewall,” Swansong called out. “We had a plan.”
“What’s the plan?”
“We don’t go forward. We go through the wall,” she said, her hand sparking.
“Will that get us where we need to be? I’d be worried about deviating from the set routes.”
“It’s territory without good rest spots. But maybe that hurts them as much as it hurts us,” Sveta said. “We can draw a map.”
“Or I can trust you,” Stonewall said. He clapped gauntlets of high-density stone together. “Everyone, we’re pushing for the nearest stairwell-”
He paused to check that Swansong and Sveta could get us there. They nodded.
“-And we’re heading upstairs. It only gets uglier from here. We’ve fought mostly thralls up to this point. As we get closer to the vitals of his infrastructure and organization, we’re going to have to fight the thralls and some of his better capes.”
“All precautions in effect,” Balk said. “He recruited some of the worst of them.”