The collapsed section of the facility was vast enough that the people at the edges had to organize and travel to reach us. In the gloom, they were visible as white-clothed figures scrambling around us like ants, illuminated by red emergency lighting. Fabric chutes were unfurled, and people began sliding down from the ruined edges of upper floors to the sea of rubble below.
In a dormitory room two stories above us that had been sliced in half, one person stood at the ruined border, a person a few steps behind him. They handed him a tinker gun, which he immediately started using. The person behind him had a gun a moment later- a relay line like firemen passing along buckets, but kind of the opposite, because they were laying down fire.
They weren’t alone. The evacuation chutes were acting like slides for people to drop down to the floor we were on, and there were multiple points like the dormitory room, where a single person with a tinker gun became two, which became three, then four, until they were shoulder to shoulder, wall to wall, using up the available space. A shitton of resources were being dumped on us, a lot of guns aimed our way.
I flew up, to get above the ambient dust cloud and assess the situation.
They weren’t accurate, which-
I winced as the Wretch blocked a shot that had come at me from behind. Sparks flew from the impact, and sizzled audibly as they landed on my costume, refusing to go out. I had to use my armguard to scrape them off, while swiftly descending into the dust again, crook of my elbow over my lower face.
For the most part, they weren’t accurate. Not accurate in a special way.
I was working under the impression that Teacher had gone with the tinker guns because of a weird sort of practicality. Creating two hundred tinkers and have them each make their own guns was more discreet than acquiring two hundred normal guns of any quality, when the options were salvage from Bet, Cheit, or Shin. Side benefit: there was more chance that a tinker gun of a particular variety or style might work against a parahuman attacker. If he were to grab two hundred ordinary assault rifles and the first one didn’t work against an attacker, then there was a good chance the next one-hundred-and-ninety-nine wouldn’t either.
Drawback? They were tinkers who were shooting. People who knew how to use the specialized guns, but who didn’t have any thinker tricks, enhanced vision in the dark, or added accuracy. With that in mind, it was the muzzle flashes that didn’t look like tinker guns that worried me.
There was a lot to unpack, thinking about it. Could he have created one hundred tinkers and then one hundred people with powers that made them better gunmen, to partner with them? Probably. Why not, then? Because he wanted to bog us down. He was willing to kill, but time and delay were more important from his perspective.
And it was probably working.
There were some faster capes in the air now, and some tinkers with jetpacks. They buzzed past our guys on the ground, one flier with a beam power was flying around Chastity, focusing the beam in her direction, while she struggled to keep cover between them. I went after him.
Another tinker with a jetpack zipped out of the dust cloud around us, passing within two feet of me. She was engaged in a bombing run, flying over Rachel’s group, lobbing what might have been grenades. Yips, growing by the second, went bounding over to Rachel, and put himself directly into the way of the grenade that Rachel was guiding the other dogs away from. He flew ten feet, only missing Rachel because she ducked, tried to stand for a second, then crumpled.
Couldn’t chase. It’d be starting from square one, and this tinker was favoring the dust clouds.
Rachel spun on her heel, turning her full focus toward Yips. He began growing faster, regenerating, the wound closing.
The flier with the beam turned his focus my way. The beam hit the Wretch, and I brought my buckler up, putting it in the way while I closed the distance. When the Wretch failed, the beam hit the little shield, warming it enough I could feel it radiating through another layer of metal and a padding of bandages.
I got in close enough to hit him. I crashed into him, shield pressed against his chest, and he lurched, flying awkwardly to get out of the way of the heated metal. He didn’t react like he was in pain, but wore an expression like, ‘yeah, this white hot bit of metal is a concern’.
He tried to dive, and the metal stuck to the burned skin, which made him flounder in the air.
I took advantage of it, catching him while he didn’t have his spatial orientation one hundred percent, then whipping him around. He flipped head over ass, arms and legs spread-eagled, into the dust. I chased him, diving to kick him before he had his full bearings.
He fired the beam again, and I twisted in the air, bringing knees to chest and shield up to make myself a smaller target. My leg-guards caught the beam.
I found him in the dust, because I could chase the beam to its origin point. I caught him, only I was upside-down as a result of my earlier aerial acrobatics. He fought to get free, using his own flight and the propulsion it generated in the air to try to separate us. Seeing the way he was going, I let him.
Within the cloud of dust from the fallen section of building, still yet to fully settle, he flew up and away from me. Except I was upside-down and at an angle, so his ‘up’ was really down. He flew up and sideways into a pile of rubble, crushing his own shoulder and ribs at high velocity.
I flew down to him to check he was alive, feet planted on his wrists, finger at his pulse. My face was turned upward; I blinked dust out of my eyes and tried to spot motion. The jetpack tinker- where?
I spotted the glow of their munitions, and with the assurance the wiped-out flier was unconscious but not outright dead, I gave chase.
They saw me, and took maneuvers to rise up and fly away. They were a bomber, which meant they wanted the high ground. They… didn’t stop turning. The maneuver they’d started didn’t stop, as they hauled on one of their controls and kept hauling on it. Their arc in the air was a lazy circle, flying up, over, down, and then across the ground, face and upper body grinding against concrete and leaving a red smear as the abrasive ground sanded away flesh. I flew after, but I couldn’t reach them before they hit a piece of rubble, which saw them bank off, spiraling violently in the air with the ruins of half their jetpack spitting out smoke. They crash-landed.
I would have wondered why, but the distraction of movement in the corner of my vision interrupted the thought and answered the question in the same moment. Juliette was resuming her run, rejoining Chastity, who put a hand on her shoulder, supporting her as they ran across uneven ground.
Rachel was already moving again, darting from cover to cover while her wolf and a hound flanked her, shielding her from stray fire. If Parian and Foil were here, they hadn’t been with Rachel or gotten instructions from Contessa. I hoped they were okay.
Capricorn trailed behind her, with Love Lost running behind him, Colt floating above, wearing her breaker form.
When the shots from the tinker guns didn’t fly as fast as bullets, Colt was agile enough in the air to weave around them.
Ashley had shot the ground, carving out a furrow, and crouched in it, one hand at her side, Rain was in beside her, trying to peer through the dust. They looked up at me, waiting for the go-ahead.
Sveta was out of the box, emerging from the dense rubble of the collapsed hallway where the box had been stored. She passed between the Harbingers, who had found their own ways to survive the devastation. She stayed low, her body breaking down into tendrils that allowed her to crawl lower than a person otherwise might.
That was everyone, then. Dusty, a few scrapes.
Us being okay this far felt like it was a bit tenuous. This was the prelude, the calm as our enemy organized and did their best to recover from the shock of an entire section of the facility collapsing. Dust hung heavy enough in the air that every light, glowing fourteen year old, and shot from a tinker gun had their own nimbus. That dust had nowhere to go, because we were still indoors, and whenever rubble belatedly collapsed or a shot from a gun hit something it would kick more dust into the air.
It didn’t feel like we were the major players in this, though.
No, that would be Contessa, who took no cover. It would be the capes, who were coming at us from one direction. I made note of the capes who wore white costumes, not the one-size-fits-all white tunics and slacks that the rest of the thralls were decked out in, which gave them cleaner, meaner silhouettes. One of the capes was giving them the ability to float down to the ground, riding on pieces of rubble.
There were others. Capes who wore costumes that weren’t generic white. With the dust and distractions, I couldn’t do a lot of figuring out in the moment. The Speedrunners were definitely among them. There was a woman in a short skirt. There were others.
“Decision!” Contessa raised her voice. She threw a chunk of debris she had picked up. A bullet struck it, that might have been on course to hit a member of Breakthrough. Either the bullet or a fragment of the debris hit another projectile in the air, prompting a mid-air detonation.
Fuck me. It could have been that she had done it to save two lives or prevent two injuries with one throw. It could have been that she casually did it to punctuate her statement.
I flew down to the others, where they were using Ashey’s furrow to gather together. Rachel caught up, but her dogs were big enough they couldn’t use the same pile of debris as cover. The whistles and orders to get them into just the right position were constant, over the course of what felt like a minute and was probably closer to fifteen seconds.
Enemy capes are marching or flying our way. More gunmen are gathering at the flanks.
Chastity coughed violently. Byron passed her a Capricorn-made water bottle he still had on him, threaded to his belt with a wire. She drank some, then splashed more water into her face, rinsing dust out of her eyes.
I huddled a little closer to the others. My hood was up and by clustering together we could shield one another from the dust around us.
“We wrote it down on papers,” Byron said. “Do we show them to one another all at once, tally them up?”
“B,” Rachel said.
B had been the vote to let hundreds of thousands of citizens die. They included people close to us.
“What?” Chastity asked. “What? But Cassie.”
“B. I don’t like it either, but it’s the simplest.”
“It’s not simple at all!” Chastity raised her voice, with an emotional hitch. “Cassie.”
“Chastity,” Rain said. “You can’t-”
“I can,” Chastity said. “She’s my most important person. If you all vote to kill her, then you’re kind of killing me too.”
Rachel reached out. Chastity pushed her ‘aunt Rachel’s’ hand away.
“The first option is bad,” Rachel said. “Undersiders die, city goes to shit, more people die, only good thing is Teacher is dead. Last option is bad, if we let him go, he will hurt others, and Tattletale says he always steps up his game, steps up his scale. He will keep doing what he’s doing fucking worse until we catch him. We made the choice to let him go when we fought him last time. Now this. We can’t do it again.”
“We don’t have to. I picked A,” Chastity said. She dropped her eyes. “Imp picked the same thing, told me to pass it on. I know it means Undersiders die. It might mean you or Imp die, or Foil or Parian. It might mean Heartbroken die, maybe me included. But I can’t sacrifice Cassie, I agree Teacher needs to be stopped now, and this gets less civilians hurt in the short run. I can’t conscience the choices that let me and my loved ones get off scott-free.”
“B,” Juliette said. “I can conscience it.”
Byron was already unfolding one paper. Ashley’s hand went to her shoulder, where she’d written it and then covered it with her dress strap. Sveta reached out to cover Byron’s paper.
Love Lost and Colt settled into cover. Noting the conversation, Love Lost pointed at Rain.
“What?” he asked. “No. I don’t make your vote for you.”
She tapped the side of her head.
“I know you have Cradle’s tokens. I know you’re not yourself. Pick yours. Just… work at it. Colt said you can fight through it.”
“Yeah,” Colt said.
Love Lost dropped her hand, hiding one claw beneath the other. She made a sign with only the barest pretense of hiding what it was. Colt made her own choice, glowing fingers extended and pointing down much as Love Lost had done, just a different set. Love Lost glared at her, then looked away. Colt barely reacted, staring down at a point on the ground, fingers unmoving.
This would divide us.
Putting all of her feelings aside, because she didn’t trust herself under Cradle’s influence.
I peeked, and the dust was starting to clear more, flashlights were out to better illuminate the battlefield where the red lights in surrounding areas didn’t reach, and thralls and capes were making their way across.
But the Custodian had dropped the equivalent surface area of a town. We had a few minutes. I made a hand motion for Rain to keep an eye out, since he was positioned at the far end of our cover. He nodded, twisting.
We were ready, but-
-But we were distracted, because Chastity was saying something else, momentarily drowned out by chaos. “-leaked it to Lookout.”
“What?” Swansong asked.
“We wrote it down,” Chastity said, “because we couldn’t remember the options, but then Capricorn looked, and Lookout can see through his eye.”
Byron looked Swansong’s way, one eye glowing behind the eye-slit of his helmet.
“Idiots and imbeciles,” Swansong said.
“It’s too late to do anything about it,” I said.
Swansong banged her head hard against the concrete behind her. “Use Lookout’s time camera tech, work out a way to go back in time, and make sure these idiots aren’t deprived of oxygen at birth.”
Her three extended fingers indicated the Heartbroken and Capricorn.
“Go easy,” I said.
Byron answered, “I’m sorry. Heat of the moment, I was making sure everyone was present. I had a lot to do in a short span of time.”
“What does it mean?” I asked. “Lookout saw, so…”
“Lookout tallied votes from her team and Tattletale,” Byron said. “We have their votes.”
I blinked, to bring up the communication log from Lookout, as I worked to get my glove off. My heart was heavy.
“It doesn’t matter,” Sveta said.
I stopped, my hand at my glove, the injured hand making me very aware of how injured it was, as I held it in place.
“We have to make a call,” Rain said.
“No, we don’t,” Sveta said. “Fuck this, and fuck her. She’s too scared to make a decision, so she foists it off on us, and… what? We have to live with the fallout? Just so she can have an easier time of it?”
“It’s more complicated than that,” Chastity said.
“Do you really believe that? Or are you standing in for Imp now?” Sveta asked.
“Can we really afford to debate about this?” Byron asked.
“No,” Sveta said. “So we jump straight to making her decide. Because if we decide, then it utterly destroys us, no matter what we choose. Why? For her convenience? Because she’s a coward?”
“Says the coward,” Juliette said, her tone dry. “You don’t want to make a hard call.”
“I made a call. I heard the three options and decided which one I liked most before she was done, because of course I did. But I’m not going to share it, and I’m not going to give my choice to her,” Sveta said. “Knowing what we know, it’s-”
Something detonated close by.
“-tantamount to murder, with what we’d be putting into motion.”
Sveta looked at me, looking for allies, for help.
I so badly wanted to be that for her.
“We all made our choices,” I said. “Lookout made her choice, as did the other Chicken Tenders.”
Juliette snorted at the name, a small sound, badly out of sync with the scene and conversation.
I’d already kind of wanted to slap her because she had called Sveta a coward, that didn’t help. Except want was just that. Want. I held my temper.
“We’ll still feel guilty, if we made the choice and we see the fallout. We’ll feel resentful if we make her choose, she chooses something different, and we feel like the alternative we wanted would have been better.”
“I’m okay with resenting her,” Sveta said. “I’m less okay with resenting each other, because we picked different things, or things we think are unconscionable.”
“If it helps,” Byron said. “I think the money is on me or my brother being the ones who end up dying or suffering for a long time. I don’t know what happens when a case seventy dies. I won’t hate people if they pick that option.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Sveta said.
“We made the decision and we have to live with it, even if we don’t make the call,” I told her. “Isn’t it better to own it?”
“Uh,” Rain said. “Just going to say… you asked for my input on killing the Leper. You did give me the option to back down, told me why. But you did ask.”
I met the glowing eyes of his mask.
“I’m glad I didn’t have to own that. You were the one to kill the Leper,” Rain told me. “And I think Sveta’s right. We shouldn’t have to own this.”
“We’re not the ones who pick the targets or pull the trigger here,” Sveta said.
“Aren’t we?” Chastity asked. “We’re the triggers, we’re her pawns in this.”
“We’re the bullets that fly out of the gun. It’s not great, but it’s necessary,” Sveta replied, her expression tense. All of this, it was too close to her heart. Cauldron had stolen her life, made her kill so many people already, by way of making her a monster. To accept this would be to condone that, and I couldn’t blame her for refusing to condone what she’d gone through, any more than I would willingly accept any healing from my sister, knowing what she could do, and that she hadn’t meaningfully changed.
Quiet, Sveta asked, “Any objections?”
Juliette raised a hand. Chastity made her put it down.
“Contessa!” Sveta called out. “We decided we’re not going to choose! You make the damn call!”
There was only the noise of chaos, gunfire, of rubble collapsing, choking dust in the air. No voice in response.
“Contessa!” Sveta raised her voice.
“Come,” Contessa said.
Make the damn call, Sveta said. But we’d chosen.
I’d seen Ashley write hers. C. Letting teacher go, knowing two members of Breakthrough would die.
In the chat log, Lookout said she’d seen Rain write his. Rain had picked C.
Byron’s unfolded paper, before Sveta had covered it. C.
Lookout had broken from pattern. Her vote was in the chat log, visible through the eye tech she’d given me. A. Heroes die, city suffers later as a consequence. One member of Breakthrough suffers long term.
Maybe that was the problem solver’s mentality. Suffering wasn’t gone. Suffering could be fixed.
She’d listed the votes of her teammates. C, B, C. No idea who was which.
Love Lost had been angry, glaring at Colt, because Colt had extended two fingers for the second option, B. Love Lost had chosen C.
We’d fucking chosen. We’d made the call.
Why did that seem to bother me more than it bothered anyone else? I was the last one to leave the huddle, last to face this decision. I procrastinated, even, by checking the state of things.
I could see the light of flashlights. People halfway to us. The area was dark, but frequently illuminated by flashes from gunfire and passing projectiles, but capes and thralls had flashlights, and the light from those was ongoing, steady.
Let’s do it, I thought. A, B, or C?
I rounded the corner just in time to see Contessa standing beside Rain. He was doubled over, my teammate stiff, tense, or reaching. Contessa was stabbing herself in the heart.
Scattered gunfire passed the group, closely enough that Sveta reached out for Rain, pulling him back and toward cover.
He, for his part, reached for the pocket at his side, that had a hard case where belt flowed into legging.
Two syringes. We’d had three, and she had stabbed herself with one.
“She powered up?” I asked.
He shook his head.
Changed the variables? I thought. the dosage was supposed to keep the power the same, but adjust it, gain something, lose something.
“Based on the doses that are left, she took the power dampening one.”
“Nullifying, in my case,” Contessa said. “He was seconds away from temporarily disabling my power.”
“But you just disabled your power entirely for a while,” Rain said. “Can you even do anything now?”
“I have practice recalling what I plotted out earlier in the day. I just won’t have perfect execution. Harbingers?”
They were lingering in the fringes, using cover, and using slingshots. Both turned her way.
“I need one of you to go to Citrine. Tell her to go home, right away.”
“I’ll stay,” one said.
The other turned, running.
“What option is this?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. “Capricorn, that way. Find the stairs, defend them, stay there until everyone’s back. They’ll pass through once.”
She extended an arm, pointing. Pointing fucking through the mass of capes with flashlights, Teacher’s elite, and innumerable thralls.
“I’m going alone? At first?” Capricorn asked.
“You’ll have company soon, and you’ll have backup.”
Byron turned and ran, shifting to Tristan for that little bit of added strength and the speed that came with it.
She took two long steps forward, grabbed Colt by the neck, and pulled her closer. Colt initially resisted, then followed. A glowing pellet passed through the space she’d been occupying a second ago. It splattered like a giant paintball and melted the concrete and rebar.
“You shut off your power,” Rain said. “Are you even-?”
“I remember what needed to be done,” she said. “But I will remember less accurately if you pester me. Give the needles to Swansong.”
“You, Love Lost, and Colt, go that way, you’ll face the Fallen. Be aware of how far a voice reaches. Circle back toward Capricorn at the stairwell, then keep going forward. You’ll find the ones taking custody of Chevalier. Save him. Then go back to the stairwell.”
My heart sank.
“I-” Rain started, another question or statement.
Love Lost grabbed him, pulled him closer, then pushed him away, all in a fluid movement, managing not to shred him with her claws in the process.
“Swansong, Sveta. You go together. Go up to the second floor. There is a thrall commander you need to remove. Cut through to the outside and go in opposite directions. Sveta will target the Dragonslayers. Deal with them-”
“Kill them, you mean.”
“What?” Sveta asked.
“I assumed kill when I interpreted the step, but didn’t consider the alternative. Too late now. It should be fine, whatever you do.”
“Should be fine.”
“Saint has a key on his keyring that’s a disguised override. Take it, find the slot in his machine. Insert it.”
“Then return to the stairwell.”
“What am I doing?” Swansong asked.
“Valkyrie. Do not wake her up. There is a member of her flock wearing yellow. Make sure she takes the syringes.”
Swansong looked at Sveta, nodded, and then the two of them headed off to the side, heading for the least occupied gap in the enemy rank and file.
“Heartbroken, Rachel Lindt, assist the others in leaving, rendezvous with Imp in the process. Then I want you to head to the stairwell, use the third floor because the way will be blocked. Then go to find Narwhal and Miss Militia.”
“Why?” Juliette asked, looking back at Rachel.
“Because she said so,” Chastity said.
“Because you need to stop and knock out Miss Militia. Then surrender, or the subordinate heroes will retaliate. If she’s gone her team won’t get in too deep. Once you answer their questions, bring them back to the stairwell.”
My heart was pounding, getting worse with every statement.
I looked at Breakthrough, as they ran for it. Swansong wasn’t as fast as she normally was, and it was more noticeable when Sveta was moving quick. Still, they both managed to get up to the second floor.
Rain was focused, in the zone, and I saw him jump at a nearby parahuman power in a way that suggested he was scared out of his mind. But he persevered. Love Lost was, the occasional glare excepted, almost emotionless, unflinching. Colt…
I had no idea about Colt, but an uncharitable part of me was inclined to think that she was too oblivious to be scared.
Capricorn was at a piece of cover. He was creating a constellation, which drew attention and gunfire to his end of things. It didn’t help that he was alone out there.
Fuck me, I hoped she wasn’t going to trip up and get something wrong while depowered.
“Antares,” Contessa said. “Support Precipice and Capricorn. Then focus on Teacher. Try to cut off his retreat… I can’t be sure how that will go.”
“Just tell me, did you cheat? Did you actually decide, like Sveta wanted, or are you throwing away lives while you… I don’t know, used your power to decide what would make people least mad? What you could convince us of?”
“Precipice needs help now.”
I shook my head, and I flew after Rain. I could see flashlights, and I could see people who weren’t using flashlights ducking in and out of cover. A large group, not wearing white tunics and slacks, not wearing white costumes either. I thought I saw the look of the Advance Guard uniform, but it was hard to say. They were following instructions, moving through the wreckage and ruins in an organized way. Big tough guys to the top of rubble piles. Other snuck around.
Not our guys. Not anymore. First wave attackers that had been co-opted with Teacher’s power or-
He was there, giving instructions. He held a cane but didn’t move like he needed it. Beside him-
My vision in one eye blurred.
Automatic blurring, because Kenzie had tech resistant to Mama Mathers’ profile. I hurried to turn my gaze away, because I only had tech in the one eye. Slivers and flickers danced in my peripheral vision. I tried to keep an eye on Valefor, and her hand slipped into my view, blurred and pointing my way. Telling him where I was.
I twisted away before he made eye contact, diving for cover. I slammed into the ground, classic, practiced landing, sufficient to crack concrete.
“Valefor’s here!” I called out. “He has a jaw and eyes, and he has a squad of capes he got from the first wave!”
“Shit,” Rain said.
“He has Mama Mathers with him. I got a glimpse. it’s fucking with me a little bit.”
“Shit, shit, shit,” Rain said. “That means she knows exactly where you are. Don’t try to be sneaky.”
“Okay,” I said.
The squad moved through the piles and low points between slabs. They were organized, I could tell, one person moving forward, his buddies covering him, then the next person in the relay moving forward.
I saw the blur of Mama Mathers and looked away again, to be safe. I kept my other eye closed, but she was playing tricks there. Slits of light split my eyelid like it was being torn. A line of brightness crossed it like my eye was being cracked open, and I saw something like a sea of grasping hands, all covered in sores.
“Fuck this,” I whispered. “Why didn’t you warn me?”
I knew the answer though. I’d stayed to quiz her instead of listening. With her power temporarily nullified, she was playing a little sloppy with the end results.
More movement darted across my eye, like something was lunging at me. I twisted my head away.
“Fuck,” I muttered.
“Shh,” Rain said.
I could hear concrete break under the weight of the people who were creeping over it. I moved, pointing to let Rain, Love Lost, and Colt know the direction. Rain and Love Lost nodded.
Colt ducked into a nook in a fallen section of roof that had landed on a desk. There was a small hidey-hole there. She stayed out of breaker form, no doubt to avoid giving away a telltale glow.
I crossed the distance, taking up Colt’s spot near Rain.
Someone shouted an order, distant, while I was in transit. Nothing about me, as far as I could tell.
“There it is,” I heard Rain.
“There what is?” I asked.
“She said to be mindful of how far a voice reaches.”
My vision continued to flicker at the periphery, twisted, and became something lunging at me from the side. I looked away, my neck tense.
“Sniper’s dilemma,” Rain said.
“What’s that?” Colt asked, from her hiding spot.
“When two snipers found themselves at odds, each gun capable of holding a round with a long reload, firing first put you at the disadvantage,” Rain said. “It gave away your location with the muzzle flash, and it left you unarmed, while they got a bead on you. The only way to survive was to wait for them to crack, or get to a position where you could take them out, guaranteed.”
“The voices? Love Lost and Valefor?”
“Yeah,” Rain said. “Whoever shouts first loses. We have to be certain we’re in range. If we go too early and we don’t reach him, he runs forward a bit and shouts something while Love Lost catches her breath. If he goes too early, we can do the same.”
Love Lost nodded.
“Can’t be certain of range without looking to check,” I whispered. “That’s hard to do, gives us away.”
“I could stall him,” Colt said.
“Not without looking,” I said, again. “Mama Mathers.”
I wanted to move to flank, to grab stuff and lob concrete at them until they were no longer an issue, but they had hostages. I couldn’t risk the collateral damage. Not when it was innocent capes with brainwashing.
I could try to locate them, guess at distance, but that put me at risk, and it meant Valefor could catch me with eye contact.
I did move to flank, leaving Rain behind, but I didn’t do it with the intent of mounting a direct attack. I circled around, and I came within ten feet of a cape surrounded by what looked like a personal sandstorm of black sand. A big cape.
Brute, was my thought, as he reached out, arm forming a rough hand shape as the sandstorm expanded and extended out. He tore into cover and hauled it away, and his sand stripped away at the material of my costume, scraping up my armor, and taking off flecks of my chin.
I took evasive action, ducking around one piece of cover, then around to another.
I looked back. He’d kicked up a lot of dust, in addition to the ambient particles of his power.
Could I confront him more directly, while Valefor and Mama Mathers were in the cloud?
Work with me, I thought. Grab it, then freeze.
The long shaft of metal had been a beam holding something up, and now lay amid the rubble. The Wretch gripped it, and with the noise and the dust that created, it gave away my position.
Which meant more black sand, meant I had a cape slipping into the floor near me, racing along as fast as my eye could track, then popping up, throwing out a lasso of what looked like wire. A device, not a power thing.
I ducked away from both, circled around.
I was mid-air when the black sand cape swept his arm to one side. The dust cloud that ensconced Mama Mathers and Valefor was cast away in an eyeblink.
Valefor seemed to think he wasn’t in earshot, because he didn’t waste his breath. I didn’t meet his eyes.
I flew up and back, then brought my feet up, using then to help hold up the beam, my abs and thighs tight. My hands gripped the end.
I was the crossbow that launched it, Wretch strength kicking in, my legs providing the support at the front end while keeping it more or less stable.
As big and accurate a strike as I could manage, that didn’t have collateral damage. It didn’t strike home, but it got close enough to graze him. He grunted, even coughed as more dust was kicked up by the metal beam spearing into the rubble he was perched on.
Love Lost heard the cough. She stepped around cover, and she screamed.
She’d always been too rash, and she was worse under Cradle. Even knowing the game at play that Rain had talked about, she jumped the gun. The black sand cape threw out his hand, extending a wall of black sand in front of Valefor.
Her scream didn’t touch him, didn’t bring him into a headlong run. Not quite close enough. She seemed to realize it, and urged Rain and Colt to run.
They had a harder path than Valefor did, and three people moved slower than one. He could close the distance and use his own shout.
Valefor shouted something the others were more likely to hear than I was. I wasn’t close enough to hear it. He continued to shout, closing the distance, while I dove for something else to throw, and was blocked by more black sand. He used his power in two violent bursts- one to knock out the Wretch, the other to hit me. I covered my ears and my face at the same time, rising up and out of reach.
Below, I saw the tableau. Precipice and Love Lost had stopped.
And at the same time, Valefor was no longer running. Mama Mathers was, a blur that raced toward her child.
Love Lost closed in, moving with one arm and both legs, her eyes closed, her other hand pulling her mask away from her face. Rain spoke, giving her instructions. Telling her where to go and where to aim, urging her to be quick, when every step threatened to move a piece of concrete or tile and roll the ankle. She had her power, but she wasn’t weightless.
Juliette stood off to the side, Chastity watching her back.
Valefor was frozen, unable to do anything to get clear of danger, while Love Lost positioned herself.
But Rain was partially blind too. He avoided eye contact with Valefor.
I flew to get closer.
“Five feet to the right, turn to ten o’clock!” I screamed the words down at them.
How far does a scream reach?
She listened. She crossed the distance, stumbling over rubble, turned, and then screamed.
She caught Valefor in the same moment Juliette was forced to break her hold on him due to incoming fire. He began a reckless run in Love Lost’s direction, heedless of the dangerous footing. Mama Mathers turned to run the other way. Her troops, no doubt coordinated by phantom images of her, turned to do the same.
Abandoning her son. Someone I had to assume she cherished.
“Claw out!” I called out. I flew down, avoiding the black sand that was cast out to distract, and flew in so I would be right behind Valefor.
Valefor grabbed a piece of rebar as he ran, moving to attack Love Lost, while she couldn’t be sure she could open her eyes.
He swung, hitting her extended claw, rather than run headlong into it. What followed was a short, violent melee, as Love Lost fought blind at first, swiping and lacerating chest, stomach, then arm. She got swatted across the scalp, and this prompted her to open her eyes, maybe thinking she needed to do it to save herself. She froze mid-swipe.
Valefor twisted around, pointing at me. Love Lost leaped, using Valefor’s shoulder as a springboard. I chucked the concrete at Valefor, and met Love Lost in the air. Juliette froze Love Lost, and I had to catch her and ease her to the ground to keep her from falling in a dangerous way.
It was Colt, in her breaker form, who broke out of the cover she’d taken, slicing through, then dropping out of her breaker form to tackle Valefor.
Bleeding from where the concrete I’d chucked had hit him, bleeding more from where Love Lost had caught him with her claws, he snarled curse words, and in the midst of them, he used his voice as a power, aiming it at her.
“Die!” he directed the words at Colt.
She stumbled back, twisted, and no doubt looked for the most convenient place to throw herself. A jutting row of rebar spikes.
I intercepted her, tackled her, and threw my hands around my ears to muffle all sounds. I twisted around to look, and kept my gaze below Valefor’s shoulders. He’d stopped moving, but not because of Juliette.
A bullwhip encircled his throat. He grunted, veins standing out from rage and lack of circulation both, hands fumbling.
“Do I?” Rain asked.
My turn to answer.
Aware of Colt, I nodded.
The silver blade caught Valefor around the middle. Chastity pulled him off balance, and he landed firmly and uncomfortably in a sitting position atop a jagged heap of concrete. The concrete didn’t matter as much as the solid landing, which made the silver line split.
Upper half slid from lower half with an audible sucking sound.
Chastity had to get close to unwind her whip from Valefor’s neck. I just focused on Colt, waiting to see if the instruction would wear off. When Rain was able enough, I let him take over, while I flew into the air, ready to intercept any incoming fire.
There was less dust now, and there were still a lot of thralls, albeit distant ones. More thralls on the same level as us, but they had to expose themselves by standing on the highest heaps or otherwise weave through the valleys and tunnels that the debris made until they were close enough.
But they were getting close. We needed to bail.
Valefor’s power wasn’t fading. Chastity opted to walk up and slap Colt unconscious. A moment later, she slapped Colt awake.
Reset button, it seemed.
We were alright. Valefor was dealt with.
But the way ahead was long and violent.
I motioned for others to follow. They did.
While I guarded the group, keeping an eye out for Capricorn, Ashley blasted a segment of the second floor, bringing it down near a squad of people. Sveta dove in, to bind limbs and drag them into the dust and debris. Capricorn created a gout of water.
As we moved one step forward, a dozen squads of men with tinker rifles headed a couple of steps in the same direction, or formed a pincer in front of us, or a pincer behind us.
A hundred steps forward, and there was an army in the rooms, corridors, and ruins to our left, an army in the rooms, halls, and debris to our right.
I could see the hallway, and Capricorn used Tristan’s natural strength to get ahead of our slower runners, while I flew over and up to ensure there were no ambushes waiting, Sveta right on my heels.
I found one gunman, and hurled him out of cover, keeping hold of his gun.
Tristan ran halfway up the stairs, and began drawing out the comprehensive diagram that would solidify into walls. So long as he held this point, they’d be a lot slower at chasing the rest of us.
The last people caught up, reaching the base of the staircase. A wall flashed into existence, black stone with orange-red veins.
I wanted to say something. I wanted to be encouraging, to tell people I loved them.
Nobody had words.
We knew what option this was. That we were saving heroes and gathering forces here. We weren’t gunning straight for Teacher, so it wasn’t A. We weren’t abandoning this point either, and this point was presumably where stairs led up into Teacher’s area. It was C. Driving Teacher to run, plan abandoned. Some heroes died. Few civilians would die.
It was the option I’d chosen. I’d been ready to vote for it, A if it wasn’t feasible. Never B. Not that many lives. Not that there were any guarantees with the blind spots.
Two of us die, one suffering for ‘quite some time’.
I wish I’d thought to ask if that meant one of the two suffered or not.
The building shook as someone used a power on the wall Tristan had erected. Without a goodbye, without a commentary, without final strategy, our team split up, running footsteps sounding hollow in wide hallways and corridors.