“This is the bogeyman?” I asked.
“Yes,” Sveta said, not sounding happy.
“Fuck yes,” Imp said, all excitement. “Power: win.”
Win. Sveta had mentioned her, but she hadn’t phrased it quite like that. She’d called it powerful precognition, potentially the most powerful in the world.
“I prefer Contessa,” the woman said. “One moment- forcefield.”
She pointed at me.
“Do it,” Imp said.
I activated my forcefield, just in time for the Custodian’s return. She pushed, the Wretch pushed back. The accumulated, sustained force drove me into the wall, and broke my forcefield.
But I wasn’t the target. The force that was the Custodian rushed past me and down the hall, pushing past wires and over water, touching that water enough times to leave overlapping handprints and footprints.
My skin crawled as I shifted my position to better avoid the dangling wires.
Barely able to stand, Contessa raised her hands, fending off a similar onslaught. Arms moved in minute, strict ways, her body twisted, one leg slightly raised, as she almost lost her balance, then regained it.
She spoke, while defending herself.
“He’s going to ask you to tear it down.”
There was a slight pause in the assault, then a sudden, violent strike. A hand whipped out to catch a doorframe, and the woman altered the trajectory of her movement through the air, ducking low. It bought her a second while the ambient force that was the custodian flowed around her, grabbing her and dragging her by inches, but not slamming her violently into the wall at the end of the hallway.
“Tool,” Contessa said, while she was unmolested enough to say something. “Rain.”
“Tool? Which tool? What?” Rain asked. No use. Contessa was busy enough fending off a further assault that she didn’t have the breath.
“Any tool,” Imp said. She stood with her back to the corner, arms folded, looking unruffled, even though the Custodian had come damn close to hurling Contessa into her. “It’ll be what she needs.”
He reached into a discreet side pocket at his costume, where his pants were more rigid at the side with decorations. He pulled out something that looked like pliers.
The woman continued to defend herself, fending off a thousand accumulated strikes by way of efficiency, deflecting the ones that would have driven the entire assault home. She sidestepped an invisible attack, and the wall groaned behind her, white paint flaking off of plaster and wire mesh.
The assault was relentless, but didn’t seem to do enough. Here and here, the woman slipped to one side. She was picked up, slipped away from the Custodian’s grip, and wasn’t shoved or thrown, instead buying herself a second to speak.
“Wait three seconds, throw it into the ceiling, at eleven point five o’clock,” Contessa said.
The assault on Contessa stopped. I could see movement through the water that pooled on the hallway’s floor, with the dangling wires sparking where they touched it. All electrified, now with the Custodian rushing toward Precipice.
I got in the way, forcefield out. She crashed into me, drove me back, and pushed me toward Rain, where the Wretch would have him in her reach.
Stay still, I thought, as we were pushed through wires, using my flight to push back against the driving, invisible force. Don’t lash out, don’t bite. I can’t control you but please, don’t do anything for two seconds.
I found myself within reach of Rain for a moment, but the Wretch didn’t strike him. A second later, he was driven back. The Custodian had flowed out and around me to attack him, picking him up. Sveta reached out with tendrils to support him. He used his power to lock himself in place.
Rain threw the tool. I felt it hit the Wretch, not hard enough to break it, and it ended up going nowhere near the eleven o’clock direction.
But it hit live wires. Sparks flew, and all of the lights went out, casting the hallway into near complete darkness. Only a few small fires and costume details glowed. I saw Rain fall to the ground.
“Once this facility has served its purposes, he will discard it. He will ask you to help him build something new somewhere else. You will be excited, initially. A fresh start, a new build. Then you will come to resent it. You will hate him. You will hate yourself.”
There was only silence.
“You will live for a very long time, Custodian. It will be a long time of hating yourself.”
The lights came back on. Red-tinted emergency lighting.
Contessa now stood in the water that had been electrified before. The switch to emergency power had removed the hazard. She brushed wires aside as she walked through them, putting a hand out to the wall for balance.
“You okay?” I asked Rain.
He nodded, the silver-white cracks and glowing eyes of his mask bobbing up and down. “Where is the Custodian?”
“Gone,” Contessa said. “But not done. We should walk briskly.”
“Or run?” Byron asked. He stood outside of this particular set of hallways.
“Walk briskly,” Contessa affirmed. “Ask your questions, tell me what you need.”
“How does this work?” Capricorn asked. Byron. He’d been in the other hallway, and now stood at the door.
“She’s a genie,” Imp said. “Make a wish.”
“It’s not quite that,” Contessa said.
“She decides the future outcome she wants, her power tells her how to get there, and she can do it in the blink of an eye. So! We need Teacher dead, defeated, or disabled,” Imp said. “We need to deal with his cronies. Bonus points if Teacher is disabled and at our mercy. There’s stuff we want to ask and do.”
“We need to save the heroes. As many people as we can,” I said. “Save people in the city from the fallout of what Teacher wants to do.”
“No,” Sveta said. “Those are important, but there’s another important question. Can we even trust you?”
“It doesn’t matter if you do.”
“The way here wasn’t as hard as it was in other parts of the facility,” Sveta said. “This feels like a setup.”
“It is set up, but not as you imagine,” Contessa said. “I was resisting the influence of powers, maintaining a thought-loop. He wanted to keep me close enough to keep an eye on me and regularly make his attempts at controlling me, but not so close that I could disrupt everything if I broke the loop myself. Well before I could reach him, he’ll have Custodian activate failsafes in this section of the facility, something I can’t do anything to prevent, only mitigate. He’ll use the delay to pull the trigger on his plan, disable my power in the process, and claim a complete and total victory.”
“Uh,” Imp said.
“You were one hundred percent sure we’d win, Imp?” Swansong asked, from the back.
“You tempted fate,” Juliette said. “Tsk tsk. Samuel would be so disappointed in you.”
“What the fuck?” Imp asked.
“There are options. We can work within the confines of that reality if we move quickly and if you’re decisive as a group.”
“Why are we walking briskly, then?” Imp asked. “If they’re going to, what, set this entire place on fire? Blow it up?”
“Running would guarantee that many of us would die, because of where we would be when the Custodian acts. At this pace we’ll be positioned so we survive, very dusty, some of us scraped up, but only superficially.”
“How blind are you?” Sveta asked.
“Blind?” Precipice asked, twisting around.
“Remember the briefing, we talked about assets Teacher might have? She was one.”
“And we were supposed to let Valkyrie handle her if we could. Run otherwise.”
“Because she’s blind around very powerful capes, or near certain effects, like messy portals, strong tinker devices, Endbringers, and Scion. When the Irregulars attacked Cauldron, she was a big thing we had to plan around.”
“We weren’t positive you weren’t behind Scion. Objectively, looking Cauldron’s operations from the outside, you were outright evil and you seemed to be doing what Teacher is doing now.”
“I wasn’t the only person who was blind at that point in time,” Contessa said. “Right now? To answer your question, I’m unable to see Teacher, but I know enough to simulate him. I can’t see the full cost or casualties of his endgame, but I can simulate those too.”
“Simulate,” Precipice said.
“Determine the outcome based on all known information and outside context.”
“So you could be wrong.”
“It is very rare, and even more rare that it matters enough to throw things into disarray. For right now, I have to tell you I can’t do as you ask.”
“You can’t beat Teacher?” I asked. “Because of the blind spot?”
“I can’t defeat him, spare as many of your allies’ lives as possible, and save the lives of people in the city. Not as I or my power understand circumstances, and my power understands everything outside of the blind spots that are Teacher, Valkyrie, the Simurgh, and two broken triggers that authorities aren’t aware happened.”
“The Simurgh? She’s here?” Rain asked.
“She’s still stationed in what used to be Brockton Bay, keeping company with the Titan.”
Imp groaned. “You’re making me look awful here. I promised these guys one hundred percent victory.”
“If you’d found me sooner, then I could have.”
“How do you know all of this if you were in a coma?” Sveta asked. “The Simurgh, who’s where, what Custodian is doing?”
“I’m finding it out as I explain it to you. I asked my power for the path to provide the explanation I need to give, that serves the purpose of filling me in on present circumstance. When you talk among yourselves, I’m asking my usual questions.”
“Like how you can avoid being fucked over by a Stranger or Master in the next day or whatever,” Imp said.
“What are our options?” I asked. “You said you can’t do all three?”
“First, I can stop Teacher directly. He thinks he is out of my reach, but there are options. He will pull the trigger on his plan, but I believe it can be mitigated. This comes at a cost. Your group here would split up and pull members away from Teacher’s retinue and into the field. The fighting will be hard, violent, and many heroes currently fighting in this facility will die. Because you’ll ask, one Undersider will die, two Heartbroken will, though there may be more casualties within the blind spot. I’ll warn you, one member of Breakthrough will not die, but will suffer for so long it may as well be indefinite. I would die. The casualties would be mostly among the other capes in this facility.”
“What the fuck?” Imp asked. “Who dies?”
“Telling you disrupts the end result. More would die as a consequence. Besides, you don’t want to know.”
Imp had asked it so quickly. Who dies?
But heroes were self-sacrificing. To put on a costume and go out to fight and make the world better meant we were inherently willing to put our lives and well being on the line.
If we held a vote, wouldn’t the heroes agree that the option with the best outcome was the one where the heroes gave their lives?
Was that even fair to ask? Breakthrough sacrificed… one member to suffering? I wasn’t sure how to wrap my head around that.
Contessa went on, “The city will be relatively unscathed, but the lack of heroes will have long-term consequences. There will be a period lasting a year and a half where villains rule it, because heroes cannot put up enough of a fight.”
“Not necessarily so bad,” Imp said.
“It would be bad. Endemic corruption, civilian lives lost.”
“Fuck off! Stop making me look bad!”
“Since we know, can’t we do something about it?” Byron asked. “The villains ruling?”
“The only things you could do would be immaterial or would require action now, which would make other results worse. The three plans I’m listing are already assuming best choices made.”
I summed it up, “Teacher gets defeated, his plan derailed… his best, most dangerous capes?”
“They’re close enough to Teacher I cannot say for certain, but they have good odds of being defeated and executed.”
I continued summing it up, “Heroes die en masse, city suffers-”
“Moderate consequence due to the loss of heroes.”
“What’s option two?” Imp asked.
“Executing his plan requires his devoted attention. We allow him to pull the trigger and we use that opportunity to close in on him, subverting his control over his ‘cronies’, as you put it.”
“That was Imp,” I said. “Isn’t that really bad for the city?”
“Hundreds of thousands of lives would likely be lost. But heroes would be largely unscathed, and would go nowhere near the blind spot. The disrupted portals could be closed. Heroes would assert dominance over the villains in the aftermath, in part with my assistance. In the long term, objectively speaking, it provides the best, healthiest outcome.”
“Hundreds of thousands,” I said.
“Including people you know. For Antares, a list would include names like Jasper and Presley, these names mean something to you. Presley matters to Swansong. For Precipice, nobody you know intimately, but Erin’s mother would die, as would the boy you talk to while waiting for the train. For Capricorn, Luciana and Sofia, Jaqueline.”
“I don’t know a Jaqueline,” Byron said, before blurring.
“The fucking noodle shop girl?” Tristan asked.
“Sveta, it would be Thad and Adah.”
“The kids Weld and I would watch sometimes.”
Contessa turned to look at Love Lost, who had emerged from one hallway, and she had no names for her. She addressed Colt, who stood behind Love Lost, instead. “Reese.”
“What about people we know?” Imp asked.
“Do you really want to know?” Juliette asked. “Really?”
“Telling you runs the risk of cementing your feelings on the question. You wouldn’t make an objective choice.”
“As opposed to saying an Undersider dies?” Imp asked.
“It’s Cassie,” Chastity said. “I can’t think of anyone who is as important to enough of us.”
“Letting you come to the conclusion makes it softer.”
“Does it?” Sveta asked. “I can’t help but feel manipulated. Once you do your thing, if there are no blind spots around, don’t we effectively lose all free will? You can guide us to whatever conclusion you want. The outcome is decided.”
“I could guide you to any conclusion I wanted without giving you a list of options to choose from.”
My heart did a kind of double-beat, hard in my chest, before launching into a rapid-fire beat, the danger of this whole circumstance making itself abundantly clear.
“I determined the three outcomes you would collectively be least unhappy with, and stopped asking there.”
“Why not push further?” Sveta asked. “Why not use your power to choose?”
“Because determining victory here requires a hard and firm decision on what victory looks like. Maximum lives saved? Best long-term outcome? Do you want your enemy dead?”
“And you can’t choose yourself?” Sveta sounded accusatory. I didn’t blame her.
“I’ve only stopped and made choices for myself five significant times since Cauldron began. Three of those times, the outcomes were catastrophic. One of them led to my being captured. The other two times, the outcomes were neutral. Here, with the stakes as high as they are, I won’t gamble and I won’t make my own decision about what ‘victory’ is.”
“Teacher defeated with plan disrupted, heroic losses, city suffers moderately,” I said. “Teacher pulls the trigger before being defeated, minimal or no heroic losses, city suffers deaths in the hundreds of thousands-”
“Suffering only in the short term,” Contessa said. “Benefit in the long, excepting interference of a blind spot.”
“Blind spot could mean the option where people suffer in the long run doesn’t happen, then,” I said.
“It is not in my experience that a blind spot affecting my outcomes ever helps. But it’s possible.”
Right. Fine. Shit.
“Or?” Tristan asked. “Third option?”
“Or Teacher likely gets away, his plan disrupted, the heroes suffer moderate losses, the city suffers moderate losses. No more than four thousand injured or dead.”
“That’s supposed to be a result we’re happy with?” Tristan asked.
“There is nuance. Teacher has a good chance of escape, his plan disrupted, he attempts some more operations, proving to be a headache for you and other heroes, but is soon captured. There is a chance he dies before leaving this facility- I can’t see or simulate enough about him to know with any certainty. It’s immaterial.”
“It’s not,” Imp said. “That bag of rats clothed in human skin needs to be gone.”
I privately agreed.
“In this third outcome, no notable heroes die. Less civilians die overall than in the other two options.”
“Meaning the drawback is that we potentially have to put up with Teacher for a little while.”
“There’s a ‘but’,” Ashley said. “There’s more.”
“Two members of Breakthrough are removed from the equation as a result. One endures some torment for… quite some time.”
I looked back at my team.
Why were two of the options so awful for us?
Beat Teacher unequivocally, limit the damage, good heroes die en masse, including some of our team. Long-term damage and trouble for the city, with a moderate number of deaths as a casualty.
Let him pull the trigger, spare the heroes, massive civilian deaths and damage to the city. Potential long-term benefit.
Let him escape for later capture. Moderate hero deaths. Low civilian deaths. But half my fucking team would die.
“What about Undersiders?” Imp asked.
“Oh, shit,” Imp said. “Sorry, Breakthrough. I’m afraid that’s the option we’re going with.”
“One Heartbroken,” Contessa said.
“Fuck off. If it weren’t for me, we wouldn’t have come to rescue you. You owe me. Give me better futures!”
We were in the area that fed into the cells, white hallways and corridors all tinted red with the emergency lighting. Boxes and storage cases were inset into the wall.
“I can’t agree with the way you’re doing this,” Sveta said.
Contessa stopped walking.
“Reducing it down to these big, blunt abstracts. Option A, option B, option C. You’re slinging the trolley problem at us, and I can’t help but feel it’s Teacher having a laugh.”
“When you decide the outcome first and results are virtually assured, then it’s inevitable that it’s reduced to these kinds of decisions. Always maddeningly hard ones, both good, both bad. This is how Cauldron operates. Let me know when you’ve made your collective decision. For now, Sveta, would you climb into this box?”
Sveta gave the woman a dubious look.
“You’ll be fine. Excuse me for being abrupt, but the rest of us must go,” Contessa said, before turning and moving on.
I remained where I was, as the group moved on, staying close to Sveta. Love Lost and Colt were stragglers, and they were last to leave earshot.
“I hate her,” Sveta said. “I hate what she represents. ‘This is how Cauldron operates’. Fuck that.”
“I don’t like any of these options. Isn’t it better to have hope things will all be okay?”
“Yeah. Probably. But this might be what we have to do.”
“I hate it. ‘This is how my power works’. Yeah, except she talks about the end result, and skips the whole part of how we get there. I guess we figure that out, right? But don’t mind me, Contessa, I’m just one of the things you used to get to one of your optimal destinations.”
She touched her cheekbone, where the tattoo marked her face.
I didn’t have words, so I gave her a hug. The armguard I wore was awkward, and Sveta’s costume had too many pokey bits, so it wasn’t the hug I wanted to give her.
She broke away, her arm dissolving into a mess of thin tendrils, which she used to reach up to the box lid. Her control faltered, and for several long seconds, her power gripped the various parts of the tote-like container, the hinges, tugged it nearly off the shelf.
“I hate this,” she said, before concentrating for a moment to assert her control. She opened the box, reached up to the shelf above it to lift herself over, and then climbed in.
I flew after the group. I found them in the room with the computers, alongside Rachel, Imp, two Harbingers, two Mortari capes, Foil and Parian. Chastity was staying close to Rachel, talking to her. Rachel was eating out of what looked like one of Teacher’s ration kits for his thralls, nodding her head.
We’d known the Undersiders and Harbingers would be in the area.
Chastity looked scared, and I couldn’t blame her. Whatever option we chose, Heartbroken died, or her best friend did. It almost looked like she would cry, but a smile on her face and a persistent, constant talking under her breath to Rachel kept her from stepping over that ledge.
It made me think of Kenzie.
Kenzie wouldn’t be untouched either. Heartbroken or Breakthrough, she would take it hard, unless we chose the option where we let Teacher pull the trigger, hurt the city and kill civilians, while leaving the heroes unscathed.
“…help in the blind spot,” one of the Harbingers said. He smiled.
“Please do,” Contessa said. “That makes things more consistent. Antares, now that you’re here, could you take one of the dogs? Into the room behind you. Some of your teammates are there.”
“We’re just going into a room?”
Rachel put the ration kit down, bent down, and straightened up with a dog under one arm. She approached, carrying a smaller dog under one arm.
Contessa explained, “After three impacts, use your forcefield. I gave instructions to the others. Go now, be ready. Discuss what you want. I’ll have further instructions after you’ve come to your decision.”
I wanted to ask questions, to say something.
Rachel handed me the dog. It was a chihuahua that might have been inbred, its teeth sticking out at one side, hair in a tuft that tried to become a mane, tracing down the back of the neck, while being too thin. More wispy fur extended around its paws. It made its best attempt at a deep-in-the-throat growl, which was less intimidating than me saying ‘urrrrr’ might have been.
“Hi Yips,” I said.
“Good remembering,” Rachel said. “Look after him.”
“Absolutely,” I said.
I walked away, dog in the crook of my arm, periodically turning its head around. It stared at Ashley and Rain, growling, turned its head, and seemed to notice I was there, jumping a little, before yipping and barking. Like it had fucking forgotten I was carrying it in the five seconds it was focused on something else.
The room that looked like a conference room, with a whiteboard on the wall with lots of chemical formulas written on it. Within the room, Ashley and Rain were waiting, Rain sitting on the table, Ashley by the wall.
“Are we supposed to discuss this?” Rain asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I feel like it’s a personal decision, and it’s not really a decision we have any right to make.”
“Maybe we write it on our hands?” he asked. “We show each other simultaneously, so we don’t influence each other.”
It felt like such a shitty way to decide on so many lives.
“Yeah, if we don’t come up with anything better. Where’s Capricorn?”
“Filling an elevator shaft with water.”
I could see through the open door as Contessa worked on the computer. At least we had a bit of a reprieve. She wasn’t running for cover, and I didn’t hear anything, let alone any impacts.
The Harbingers were sticking close. Contessa pointed in the direction of the elevators, then at our group. A third point was aimed in Sveta’s direction, where the massive storage totes were. Both Harbingers turned their heads around to look.
“How are your ribs?” I asked Swansong.
“Fine,” she said, the answer terse.
“She got shoved by the Custodian. It bled pretty badly.”
“I stopped the bleeding. It’s not a problem, I’m good to fight.”
I turned around, looking for the whiteboard markers, and found one on the ground. It seemed to be a permanent marker, used to draw the lines that sub-divided partitions and portions of the whiteboard and write headers. A part of me wanted to grab another marker, but it felt petty and weird to do so when handling a decision like this.
I pulled off my glove, and, after some consideration, I wrote down my preference for the plan, the handwriting awkward because I couldn’t write on my injured hand, so I was forced to write on my right hand with my left, which had the armguard and buckler around it, and a squirmy dog under my arm.
Then I pulled my glove back on using my teeth, covering the letters. Rain put his hand out for the marker, and I gave it to him.
“1, 2, or 3?”
“I used ABC.”
“I’ll do the same then.”
Contessa was still at the computer. I closed my eyes, shutting out the rest of the world while I thought to myself. In the doing, accidentally opened the map from Lookout’s tech.
Lookout had a question:
what r the letters for?
I found another marker, and wrote on the whiteboard. Making a decision. Can you ask the others to vote too? Write it down for after?
Swansong pulled her costume’s shoulder strap away from her shoulder, and she wrote something there, her back to us, before lifting the strap up to cover it.
“My power would erase anything I wrote on my palm.”
Contessa, still at the computer. The Harbingers were gone.
Whatever she was doing was working. When I switched my view away from the map and to Kenzie’s diagram of the facility’s infrastructure, I could see that Kenzie was making headway. I could see some messages between her and the computer console Contessa was at.
I cannot work with tinkertech or tinker code but I can give you the boot passwords to the server terminals. Old data is still on the systems, heavily encrypted.
i reset & access old system archetecture in at boot lvl???
d- ! _ ! d-
It felt like we should be going after Teacher, not waiting. The Custodian would be telling Teacher that Contessa was out, he would be making plans to pull the trigger, whatever the fuck that was supposed to mean.
“When do we reveal the letter we chose?” Swansong asked.
“Or letters. If you’re okay with multiple ones,” I said. “For a certain use of ‘okay’.”
“When?” she asked.
“After this supposed trap of Custodian’s.”
“We should ask others,” she was uncharacteristically quiet.
“If we get a chance,” I said.
“I feel like I’m getting more blood on my hands no matter what I choose. And it’s going to be people I know, no matter what I choose? People I barely know.”
I clenched my teeth, looking away.
“More blood-” Ashley started. She stopped as she felt it.
I expected a blast, a rumble. I expected Contessa to get off the computer in advance of the attack. Instead, the explosion was dull, like all the air was sucked out of the room. The room distorted, the floor dipping in one corner.
In the center of the room with the computer terminals, I saw a pillar plunge into the floor, the ceiling turning into a cone around it, dipping down. Dust plumed up and out, and Contessa turned her head, raising a thin arm to cover her face with her arm and the fabric of her shirt.
The Custodian is collapsing this section of the facility, I thought. All of it?
The entire terminal room followed the pillar down, concrete cracking and tearing, rebar exposed, dust pluming, and lights going out. White tile and wall segments broke away, bounced, clattered, all illuminated by the red of the emergency lights.
Our room was next, the floor cracking with a violent shudder, then dropping away. We fell in darkness, no cues, no idea of what to avoid. Yips struggled violently, shrieking as he fought to get away from my grip.
The floor crashed into the floor beneath. Half the room bucked, forcing us into one corner of the space, dangerously close to one another. Things groaned, but I could hear the cascading destruction as the floor we were now resting on collapsed as well.
Had to get away. If I didn’t, using the Wretch would kill the others. I fought to fly and crawl to a more enclosed area of the room.
Rain used silver blades, drawing out lines.
The floor gave away. We dropped, hitting the floor beneath that. The weight of concrete and material slamming into the floor was too much, and the third impact came before I was done grunting from the second.
I used my power, pushing out- and the violence of the fourth impact saw concrete that had been in slabs coming apart into chunks as big as my head, illuminated only by the silver blades from Rain’s power.
Ashley used her power, blasting, as I tumbled, letting myself fall because any of the added velocity from flying could be dangerous. I had no idea if I was falling into the blast, but I did know the corner I’d wedged myself into prior to using the Wretch wasn’t there anymore, and if I’d stayed I’d have been pulverized.
She continued using her power, blasting continuously, while I lay where I was, cradling the animal that had gone utterly still, only breathing with explosive pants that seemed to double how big it was. I didn’t get the impression it was Rachel’s power.
“Everyone okay?” Rain asked. His voice was muffled.
I panted for breath, nodded, then remembered he couldn’t see me any more than I could see him. “Yeah.”
“Yes,” Swansong said, grunting.
The slabs had fallen in such a way that we were in a bit of a lean-to, an intact section of metal pipping holding up a slab so it formed a triangular prism.
Yips began to expand. This time, it wasn’t because of breathing. I pushed him away.
Concrete cracked and groaned. I remained ready to use my power-
I closed my eyes and held my breath as choking dust flowed into our little piece of safe ground. I waited until my lungs were fit to burst, then breathed through my sleeve. I regretted it as I choked on dry dust, coughing.
When I opened my eyes, I could see lights, so distant and numerous that they could have been stars of the night sky. Except they were ordered in rows and columns.
I looked up, and I saw they were ceiling lights, on a floor far above where we had been. Past the choking dust, I could make out the skeletal rows and columns of walls and floors, from the parts of the facility that were still intact, surrounding us on four sides.
Too many had thralls perched on them, staring down at us. Many of those thralls were armed. We stood in no man’s land, an area of devastation so vast I knew that even if I’d flown from the moment the Custodian had disappeared, ducking and weaving through corridors, I might not have escaped the full breadth of the damage.
And yet even with all of that gone, we were still indoors, still surrounded by facility. By thralls.
Yips, instead of waiting and letting us assess the situation, heaved himself free of the concrete slab that was now resting against him. Monstrous and the size of a horse, he shook the dust off.
Byron was wet, joined by the Harbingers and Mortari capes. The remains of the elevator were a spear of metal, stabbing skyward.
Contessa straightened, dusting herself off.
“His lieutenants are here. They know how I operate, so they’ll be careful,” she said. “They’ll be sure to only engage me from a distance, but that doesn’t mean they won’t target you if they can. Be ready.”
I could see Saint’s angel craft. I could see costumed figures with glowing points on their armor, that could have been the Speedrunners. Could have been anything. I saw Scapegoat, Black Lamb, whatever he called himself. Had to be, with the motif to his helmet. He wore tinker gear.
I used flight to straighten myself up, because I still didn’t have my sea legs after that drop. Ashley got to her feet, hand at her ribs, in an uncharacteristic show of weakness. Rain remained crouching, looking around.
“I’ll need your decision,” Contessa said, before stepping forward to pick a fight with what looked like half of Teacher’s facility.