The first thing he looked at when he could see the light again was the computer screen with the numbers. It took a moment for his eyes to focus.
In red, a 96.1%. If and when it hit one hundred percent, this would no longer be a war, a raid, nor a petty rebellion. It would be cataclysm, with his facility at the epicenter. As he watched, the number changed, to 96.15%, then 96.12%.
In white, the number below displayed 66.8%. The floor. What reality as they understood it was willing and able to handle. Every use of power was a small fraction of damage, and that damage would not heal. At best, it could be spaced out, controlled, or targeted toward specific problems.
He couldn’t meander. Remaining in the threshold served nothing and no one.
Teacher stepped out of the back room, accepting the wet towel that his soldier handed him. Pulling off his square-lensed glasses with one hand, handing them to the soldier, he wiped his scalp, face, neck, and wet his beard, before slicking his beard down. The soldier handed him a bottle of water, letting him drink while pulling his shirt off, stopping at the armpit. The soldier took the water back, finished removing his shirt for him, returned the glasses, and went to get another.
He approached a computer screen, tapping keys. A map of the complex showed a series of blobs, suggesting Contessa’s range of influence, assuming a distance that she could certainly travel, assuming she were capable of walking and running, a distance she could probably travel if she could access the right resources, and a distance for how far her influence reached. Could she communicate with someone in a location? That location would be highlighted in yellow.
Saint had noted something on the system, suggesting that one of the parahuman’s hackers had used Saint’s Michael III as a relay. That was enough to compromise everything, his entire facility and the surrounding region were yellow. If Contessa had her powers, she had a knife to his throat.
He would manage. For now, her powers were still gone. It tied him down, because he had to watch for the moment they returned, and consider the damage she could do, much as he considered the damage she had already done.
But he would manage. He had been anticipating her for a long time.
Other feeds showed the state of several battlefields, but finding what he needed was laborious and tiresome. For every glimpse he was given of something he cared about, he saw twelve more screens of white hallways with blood spatters, ruin, and broken structures with bodies.
His soldier returned with a shirt. He took it and put it on himself, aware that he had lost weight.
“What do I need to know?”
“An event you flagged as priority blue has occurred,” another soldier reported. In his command center, eight thralls were either at computers or waiting at the ready. None of his lieutenants were present.
“What event?” he asked. He raised his glasses and rubbed at his eyes.
“Citrine and her husband were at work, they received a phone call, departed immediately to leave, skipping their usual procedures in their hurry, and were blown up by a car bomb. One injured, one dead. It was anti-parahumans.”
“Alcott? She’s been in the anti-parahuman orbit.”
“We looked in on her. She’s upset. She’s meeting Gary Nieves shortly.”
“When it rains it pours,” Teacher said. How annoying. He’d been keeping his eye on that for some time, and his plan had been to intervene when things fell down in a particular way. Stepping in here, putting his thralls in the right places, and calling some mercenaries he had in reserve would give him the city in the same way he had Cheit, and it would put him three moves away from checkmating Shin, who were complicated, and made more complicated by how vigilant they were against another power play.
Now he had to choose. He could have that but lose this, or vice versa.
For something to be this conveniently inconvenient or inconveniently convenient suggested Contessa.
He turned, and he looked at the door he had come through. It had been a brief visit, but it had taxed him all the same. He considered himself brave, and more than that, he considered himself confident, but some things were too dangerous to handle directly.
Let’s assume she’s got me, he thought. We’ll assume Contessa has that knife at my throat. Will she use it? Will I walk blindly into the blade?
“I’ll use your power, Melody.”
Melody was a young Asian woman with the side of her head shaved. She had some tattoos, but she had more flesh that had been cut out with a scalpel and left to heal as scars, raised lines, bumps, and swirls on flesh. Some had been self harm, some had been body modification. She had her demons, and those demons had chased her into his company. She had been one of the first he had recruited after Gold Morning, when he had become big enough to require managers.
She approached him, hands clasped behind her back. She met his eyes, and opened them wide, then wider still, until two eyes became one, the one eye became something larger than her face, occluding the rest of her, the room, and them him, in that order. He could feel it overlap and intersect his lower face, the bridge of his nose, and his own eyes, so they became one singular portal as well.
“Who?” she asked, a voice from nowhere to nowhere.
“Let’s begin with their leadership. Chevalier. I sent Christine to deal with him.”
Two spots opened, each a window, showing another viewpoint. The two were slightly different, a left eye and a right eye, and as they filled his new perspective, they widened and overlapped until they were his eyes that he looked through. He felt a heartbeat, felt shoes tapping their steady beat as the wearer walked.
He felt lips part and greet him with a, “Hello…”
“…I’m so glad you could join us, Teacher.”
Heads turned, thralls and hostages alike. She smiled. Teacher was only here for her.
It wasn’t often that others were looking through her eyes. It required that she let them.
The room was large, with a fan in the one side and the associated turbine loomed house-large in the space. Scaffolding surrounded the turbine and more machines fed air into ventilation that reached the rest of the facility. Much of that was closed off to prevent certain powers from being used against them.
All around them, sheet metal and machinery from broken turbines, broken tile, and broken sections of wall littered the ground. Bodies and hostages were scattered all around them.
For every person who was down, there were two thralls. For every hostage who was alert and able, there were two thralls and one of her Fallen guarding them, keeping them in line. She had no shortage, since Teacher had rescued them from prison and collected them from the city.
More than that, Teacher had given her a world of faithful, and for that, she was willing to let him share her eyes, share her awareness.
Christine clasped her hands together and pressed them against her chest. She could feel her connection to more than two hundred and ninety thousand souls in the heart of Cheit. To each of those souls, she granted a small grace. A part of her watched each one with a separate eye and its own ability to judge and track their actions. Enough of them were believers that she could give them small blessings. She made the beautiful more beautiful, the holy more holy. Crosses on walls throbbed and glowed. Sacred hearts bled. Images of martyrs turned their heads to smile down at their blessed with love.
Here and there, she tested, and she judged. She could nudge, by giving grace to some and giving others a reason to doubt. Some of these denominations? No. For now, she punished those who preached too much peace, with glimpses of the holy that fled or walked away. She punished those who spoke of God but not of Jesus, or worshiped the Koran and not the Bible, by making certain books, icons and objects rot and twist like snakes, and by making shadows deeper. She gave them glimpses of hell.
They had only glimpsed her, so she could only touch their eyes. There would be more opportunities later. Over time, she would make what she knew replace their mere beliefs, and she would make their most zealous twice as earnest in that zealousness. She would make brown and black bend the knee to white, once they had served her purpose. But all of that would come later. For now she was content to work by increments, to use who she could.
Thralls milled around her, seeing to individual tasks. She had heard one of Chevalier’s men saying the word, and she’d liked it enough to keep it. They applied restraints to people who were one step away from being corpses.
All around her, Thralls paid her their worship, and they invoked her. She allowed fragments of herself to manifest, to look around, and she could see everything.
But with her own eyes she saw Chevalier. She approached him, and she raised a foot, planting it on his shoulder, while he knelt with hands and knees on the ground. His armor was too heavy for him to lift. Teacher had stolen his power.
That touch of foot against shoulder reverberated through the man.
She took that reverberation and she made it into touches. An embrace that crawled across his skin.
He’d looked at her earlier, and now she filled his eyes.
But more than anything, he had sensed her with something else, something beyond sight. He had seen her aura, and now she invaded that seeing, took hold of it. He could look at those blessed with power and know them on a profound level, see memories, history, feelings, and the nuances of power, often in abstract.
So she gave him that. She gave him herself. Memories of herself as a pregnant teenager, praying, praying for recourse. Her parents had tortured her, her school had abandoned her. She hadn’t even known what pregnancy really was, let alone the labor, and each new aspect of it was a horrible surprise. The only grace, if it could be called that, was that the state had said it was her right to care for her child. They did not force her to give up her Elijah to her parents, as her parents had demanded. Her parents had forced her to choose between home and the child of her womb, and she had chosen the child.
It had not been easy. It had been the stark opposite of easy.
Particularly when her child, still suckling at her breast, had looked up at her with eyes that flashed, and had asserted his will over hers. Blessed child. Cursed child. One in a million, among those who were one in thirty-thousand.
She had been saved by people who had worked at this facility before. They had given her power and then by faith or by fortune her power had outstripped their ability to deal with her. They had asked her for favors and she had done only some of those favors, as she pleased. They had, after all, enabled her to hold her Elijah without being his slave.
With this and more, she assaulted Chevalier’s eyes with more deep truths that the eyes normally couldn’t see. With visual representations of feelings he would know to be her fact. What it felt to be worshiped, what it felt to give all of oneself up to faith. The security of giving oneself over.
He endured it all. He knew all of the tricks, the techniques, the things that members of the PRT, Protectorate, and Wards had studied. He had sweat at his brow and a distant look in his eyes.
She had been told of these things from a Ward named Sunflower, who had gone to meet a boy she had met online, and found that boy was named Elijah. He had brought her to Christine, and Christine had thanked her by arranging her a husband. A shame, that Sunflower had been stolen away by the heroes.
As of now, she had two with her who had been brought into the fold much as Sunflower should have been. Ala and Chort. They watched over her while she swam in memory, almost floated almost three hundred thousand connections, to eyes, ears, skin, and to other senses.
She felt lighter than air, transcendant, while Chevalier crawled amid broken tiles before her, his friends and allies in the process of being bound by chains, even though many were too injured to move, and the remainder were unwilling to act because thralls and Fallen had the injured hostage. Chevalier was powerless and she was more powerful than she had ever been.
She ran fingers through Chevalier’s hair, then did it again without touching him with her hands, using her power only.
“Tell me, do you have a means of listening to others? Do you know if my Elijah lived?”
Chevalier was silent. He likely knew she could get a small foothold in the mind by being talked to. It was a benefit of small fractions for her, but he refused to grant it.
“Come, look up at me,” she told Chevalier. She put a hand at his chin, and Chort helped her, forcing Chevalier’s head up until it couldn’t move any further. Chort wore a wolf pelt with goat horns over head and shoulders, and despite being only sixteen, was strong on a level that surpassed even heroes like Alexandria. When he moved, he did so with care. To him, Chevalier was like eggshell.
She reached for Chevalier’s mouth, and her fingers slipped past lips, fingertips growing wet with saliva.
“Taste me,” she said. She would have every sense he could give her.
She would have him, eventually.
He twisted, in a movement that might have taken every last bit of strength he had in him, perhaps a scrap of power that Teacher hadn’t managed to cut him off from. He raised himself up, found a small freedom of movement, and parted his teeth, catching her fingers in them.
With the weight of his armor and the fierceness of Chort’s grip, the collapse back to his former position made his teeth come together with a force that could have cracked them, had her fingers not been absorbing the worst of it. Her knees buckled, her back arching, and her arm going stiff as she felt flesh part, teeth scraping bone and finding joint.
Every second was glorious agony, as she felt the taste of her blood well in his mouth. She made it as ambrosia, little by little, and then she twisted the taste and the feeling, took the pain they shared and made it into a new pain just for him, until her blood was as acid, and as far as he was concerned, his every sense was telling him the acid had dissolved the bottom of his mouth, his tongue, throat, teeth, and jaw.
He released her, and for an instant, she saw the horror in his eyes, as he tried to comprehend that his lower face had dissolved.
Then… that inkling of resolve.
“You’re going to join me,” she told him. “You’ll be by my side, wearing armor crafted from the flesh of the Endbringers you so stupidly challenged.”
Her head turned as she felt a power reach for her and find her. Close by, someone searched for her feelings. Christine looked at a wall, and her eyes tracked the source of the power through that wall.
She reached back, faster than they could find her, and impressed her feelings onto them. She looked at them, and she found the emotional equivalent of frozen-over wasteland. She tested that wasteland, with a feeling of tranquility, and found little traction. She gave them hope, and there was something there, something that lingered, that stuck to the walls of the heart. She gave them a feeling of being loved, and found more ground.
Hope and love. She twisted at feelings and tried different variations. Romantic love. Not so important to this particular heart. Love for a job. More important, but not the most important thing. Familial love? There.
The woman slowed as the emotions swelled in her breast.
Christine Mathers watched and waited, cradling her injured hand. A thrall approached to tend to it. No healing powers -oh, how she had wished to get a healer under her wing- but only medical expertise.
It took only a few more adjustments before she found the right kind of familial love, and then found the exact feeling that struck closest to this wasteland heart.
The love of a mother for the daughter she had lost, and the certainty that she was loved back. Christine had felt it when Elijah had been days old, before his eyes had flashed as they had.
The woman had stopped. She might have been crying now.
“Ala,” she murmured.
Christine touched Ala’s face, put a hand on Ala’s shoulder, then got closer, until her front pressed against Ala’s back. She lifted Ala’s arm, her own in line with it, and she pointed Ala’s finger.
Clouds began to form, loose and dark, in a vague line that reached out across the room they were in.
The beam of darkness that speared through the middle of those clouds would punch through ten walls of this facility. It only needed to punch through one to snipe their target.
The floor trembled. Christine reached out for Ala’s shoulder for balance.
Things gave way. An attack from below, cutting the floor out from beneath them. A furrow, cutting into the center of the room, ten feet wide.
Ala fired, but the tremor in the ground distorted her aim. Christine could feel the target was alive and well, still reeling with emotion.
One of Chevalier’s capes, though handcuffed, used a power to produce a circular pulse around them, extending out a hundred feet. Her Fallen were alternately pushed and pulled closer to the furrow, the hostages further away. Chort caught Christine and Ala with one arm, his fingers digging into the ground.
Another pulse from the same cape. It threw injured and hostages across the gap, Fallen into it, or onto the other side. Only a few were secure enough or as heavy as Chevalier, and didn’t move as a consequence.
She could hear it, now. The sound like a blade being drawn from a sheath, but constant. She could heard the rumble as machinery shifted.
The attack continued, tearing out more floor.
Virtually everyone present had seen her. There were enough she had touched, that she could give them physical sensation as well. With that, she gave them waking nightmares, to assault their senses. Whether their eyes were open or closed, she made them see their friends die in the worst ways, with hallucinated shots from Ala’s cloud stripping away faces, sawing off legs, and inflicting horrific burns. She saw them scream, struggle, some lashing out or charging.
She made them see floor where there wasn’t any, and a lack of floor where there was.
“It’s not real!” Chevalier bellowed, as the first few fell. She filled his mouth with the taste of bile, and the feeling of a hand reaching up his throat to grab his tongue. Still, he managed, eyes shut, his words somehow both a mumble and a shout. “Don’t move! Don’t move! That’s an order!”
“Are you watching, Teacher?” she murmured. “Send us more soldiers. Ala, shoot them. Chort, guard us. Everyone else-!”
The order she had been planning to give fled her mind as she saw a figure scrambling up a section of floor.
He found his footing, backed up, until he was nearer the hostages. He turned his full focus to her, glowing eyes peering at her, and there was no connection, aside from a vague buzz of technology that her power reached into. She had no way into his eyes.
He was supposed to be one of hers. He had been one of the ones to get away, as Sunflower had, but his escape had been late.
The one who was slicing up the supporting walls ground rumbled, the floor twisted, the house-sized turbine in the center of the room lost some of its foundation, and the fans it managed that drew in air from the outside and pumped it into ventilation shifted in kind.
The fans still turned, but the turns were torturous, metal against metal. A continuous screech.
“Rain,” she called out, her voice high and ethereal, disappearing into and emerging from the screech.
He clenched his hands.
But as much as she called his name and invited a response, Rain wasn’t her focus. When she looked at him, she imagined one of her Fallen. The Fallen he should have and could have been.
She projected that image into the eyes of Chevalier’s capes, injured, cuffed, and free. She brought Sunflower into the scene, put this image of Rain there, his hand at her throat, her legs kicking and failing to scrape the ground and find footing. She made his fingertips so tight at her throat that they dug in and drew blood, the small mechanical arm that extended from his elbow with clawed fingertips having raked the flesh of the phantom Sunflower’s arm.
She watched with satisfaction as the first cape turned against the Fallen Rain to save the teenage heroine. A punch into the air, that produced a phantom fist that traveled until it struck Rain from behind.
You walk up to them as if you think they’re your allies, that you have their back and they have yours. But you’re alone, child. You will always be alone, unless you’re with me.
The second cape lashed out. A pulse from the cape who had separated hostage from hostage taker, hers from theirs. Rain was cast aside.
The ground rumbled again. A section of the room at the end furthest from Christine collapsed.
“Give me my reinforcements, Teacher,” Christine said. “Now.”
“Five squadrons should converge on Christine’s position at Turbine Four.”
“I’ll arrange it,” his soldier said.
He looked at the numbers.
97.7% in red. The number steadily climbed, dropped, then climbed again.
67.0% in white. The number climbed with a glacial slowness.
13% of his facility’s systems were compromised, and that number, at least, was going down.
Dangerous, but not so close that he had to change his plan.
His children crawled out of him and across the floor, scurrying to where a bloodstain had been left behind in the earlier fighting.
He liked moving, enjoyed the languid grace of even the simple action of walking. His head didn’t rise and fall with his footsteps, and his footsteps were feather-soft on the floor, despite the fact he weighed nearly three hundred pounds. All muscle.
“Hello there, little brother,” Swansong said.
Don’t call me little. Agitation sang through every part of his body, mercury-filled hydraulic channels within his body narrowing, muscles tightening. The children that lived within every cavity in his body stirred, ready to act.
She huffed for breath, crouching on the ground, one hand on the floor and the other on a storage container. She used the storage container to help find a standing position, then moved a bit further. Five seconds of effort, pain, and leaning on an object for help, just to cross a short stretch of ordinary floor.
He dropped to all fours and crossed a similar distance with a single step, before climbing up onto a larger storage container, to show her that he could, and to see what she would do.
“A Crawler wanted my sister to use my power on them. Bonesaw said no, that the evolution it provoked could kill her or hurt others. Too much. I thought you might be interested.”
He couldn’t remember much about her. Someone -he didn’t remember who, and the memory was vague because it wasn’t his own- had commented on Damsel, to say that the more she talked, the weaker she was, the more insecure she felt.
“Want me to annihilate you, little brother? It will give you room to evolve.”
He stared her down.
“Or are you scared?” She held her chin higher.
He didn’t move from his perch on the storage container, instead relaxing sphincters all across his body, to make openings large enough that his children could drop out. They hit the ground, bouncing where ridged backs hit floor, settled on their flat bases, and began scurrying in unpredictable zig-zags.
Twenty, from cavities along his arms, one hundred from cavities at his back. Thirty from points along his legs. One from his urethra, two from glands at either side of his mouth. Almost forty were crammed into his digestive system, and they wormed their way out through gaps and folds, making their way to openings in the stomach.
His entire body reformed and restructured, more gap than physical mass. Webbings of skin stretched to cover gaps here and there, but they were so thin the light could shine through them.
Swansong used her power as the first of his fist-sized children drew near. It was slow to initiate, slow to cut off, and a moment after stopping, barked out another brief blast that sent her off balance.
When she went to use her power again, it didn’t activate.
“You have to send your swarm after me because you’re too scared. You’re smaller and more pathetic than these bugs of yours, Nedley.”
Fluids within his chest and stomach churned. He could feel protein chains and calcium forming the basic infrastructure that would become full fledged children. They were stronger now. He had fed on the flesh from the Black Goat and from two of Valkyrie’s flock. By feeding he evolved, and by evolving, he improved his children.
She couldn’t catch all of them. Even if she had access to her full power, she might not have managed it. They crawled up the storage containers in the hallway of the loading dock, then leaped. She blasted those. They snuck low, zig-zagging across the ground. She caught those too.
But one scurried close to a storage container, masked by a lip of metal above it. It got close enough to reach out with pincers, snipping the back of Swansong’s heel, like wire cutters through butter.
She blasted it, right hand outstretched but shifted her weight to compensate for the recoil, and in the doing, she put her weight on the injured foot. Blood spurted, and she lost her balance, the ongoing use of her power throwing her back as she fell.
With sharp eyes, he could see how the lower half of her heel had slid left, the upper half sliding right, until they slid past one another.
She fell, and with pain and disorientation, she didn’t seem to immediately grasp which direction his children were coming from.
Capes from Valkyrie’s contingent joined the fray. One with needle spines he could fling, to spear ten of Spawner’s children with ten needles.
“You’re pathetic, Spawner,” Swansong taunted him. “I’ve talked to someone like you. Someone small, trying to pretend they are something more than they are, and doing a bad job of pretending. The harder they’d try, the more pathetic they would look. You’re embarrassing yourself and worse, you’re embarrassing me, because I consider myself related to you.”
“Related?” one of Valkyrie’s capes asked.
“Sure,” Swansong said. “Close enough to being related. Same person brought us into this world. Nedley? You need to be something more, if you’re not going to make the rest of us look bad.”
He rankled, but he didn’t act on it. He was Ned and he was Bradley. There was overlap between the two and he lived in that overlap, drew memories from it, and pieced himself together. Half of the time, when he reached for memories, he stumbled onto the memories from that overlap between the two characters, seeing them like double vision. Cockroaches scurrying across a kitchen. Staring down at bloody hands. People with twisted expressions shouting at him, so much larger they had to be parents or authority figures.
More cockroaches, scurrying across the kitchen.
Ned would have been driven by those taunts, pushed to attack despite the apparent trap. Bradley would hang back, trusting his creations to do the work.
But it was a bitter feeling, for those two parts of himself to find their way to shared common ground. A resentment of himself.
Valkyrie’s heroes scurried before him. Swansong moved like a roach with legs pulled off.
Ten of his children stirred in his belly. Acid churned and fed them. Chemicals dumped into stomach from chest cavity, generating reactions that created more complex components, along with a bioelectric jolt that gave them life.
The ten became twenty, and twenty became forty. Forty became eighty, and his upper body swelled with them.
When they left his body this time, they were faster, larger, with more durable shells. He’d colored them to blend in with the poured concrete floor of the loading area.
A cape grabbed Swansong’s arm to help her get back from the spreading tide, and she flinched, her power sparking, her empty white eyes and eyebrows suggesting fear. Fear that she might destroy the person saving her, or fear because she was as vulnerable as she had been since Bonesaw had lopped off her hands?
Spawner hadn’t been told that. Ned and Bradley hadn’t been told it. Still, he had picked it up at one point, and it was considered one of his memories now.
Her composure slipped further, as she tore her arm away, telling the cape to get away from her. Her attention moved between his children and the capes who were gathering behind her. She searched.
For his part, he turned to look up at the lovely Ingenue.
Ingenue pointed at Swansong, then formed that same hand into a fist.
A command for him, or-?
Swansong used her power to blast the nearest bugs. She pulled away as though she had touched a hot stove.
He didn’t look away from Ingenue, trusting smaller eyes at the side of his neck to see the essential details of this ongoing conflict. Two of Swansong’s fingers crumbled, falling to pieces.
“She gave me my control back,” Swansong said. “To think I had some respect for her. She’s an idiot.”
She gave you that control back at the cost of your immunity to your power, Spawner thought. He was already pumping out more of his children. The member of Valkyrie’s flock that threw needles missed one that leaped up to the small of his back. Before he could twist around to pull it free, it was severing his spine. He dropped to his knees, toppled, and landed in the midst of six more children, who went for the more complex structures of brainstem, eyes, and internal organs.
His collective of children advanced in neat rows and columns, weaving their way through, onto, and beneath anything in their way, from forklifts to storage containers, barrels to chunks of concrete.
She used her power, and the power licked up her arm to eat the flesh there, disintegrating more of her hand. A one-handed propulsion, that sent her more horizontal than vertical. His children leaped for her and three were eaten by the blast, a fourth landing on her arm. Two snips in rapid succession, to carve out a chunk there.
She aimed to fling herself at him.
He flung himself back.
He could heal rapidly, and his creations could use material to piece him back together, but he had been maintaining a Bradley mindset to avoid being provoked, and Bradley was one to run first when he was unsure.
She moved the hand around to her front, bringing her knees close to her chest as she reversed course with her power, hurling herself back toward capes. She was losing blood from damage to her forearm, damage to her upper arm where the chunk had been cut free, and the sliced ankle.
But she looked at him, and her lips moved.
He could smell it in the air.
A cape caught her, leaping to intercept her in the air. They landed, and she was deposited on the ground. She said something to the cape who had saved her.
Captain Claw, Usher, and Leister had descended. Swansong had Valkyrie’s capes, but Spawner had Ingenue and her bodyguards.
And he had the desire to prove himself.
Time to not be Bradley anymore. He would be strategic about this, lunge for the more vulnerable targets.
When he moved, he moved with a body engineered by a thousand refinements, a thousand chunks of meat and body parts marinated in the fear and adrenaline of his meals. He couldn’t eat with the mouth he had now, but he could be fed.
He was swift, and his leaps were as long as Swansong’s were with her blasts. Skin stretched between elbow and waist, giving him a foot or two of glide.
The cape he chose to go after first was a heavyset man with a torch in each hand. Spawner hit him like a truck, and grabbed the man by the arms. Others approached at a run, while Spawner simply held his victim.
Held him, and let his children crawl free and crawl into the man.
He hurled the body at the people charging his way. Most dodged, but a woman who dodged was ambushed by a bug that leaped from the torchbearer to the side of her neck.
Another overlap between Ned and Bradley is that we are survivors.
He lunged for another, and she threw a piece of paper. Paper expanded out into a wall, spearing floor and ceiling. His claws fought to impale the material, but he was able to cling to it.
A fresh batch of his children crawled out, climbing on the paper, racing toward the edges. Each was programmed with an image of the person they were hunting.
Others used powers, they killed his children, and they tried to stall things.
But the paper wall broke down, dissolving into a million sheets that filled the air. He had a glimpse of the woman who had created it, being taken to pieces to an extent where she already looked like a vaguely person-shaped stack of beef cubes with bones here and there.
Darkness boiled out of the tunnel that Valkyrie was residing within. It leaked out as a heavy fog.
The sound of Swansong using her power caught his attention, as the fog swelled from ankle height to knee height, even with the wide surface area.
It blocked their view of his children, but it blocked his children from seeing too.
He saw them leap, hopping up until they were out of the cloud of dark, then leap again once they hit solid ground, for whatever they’d seen. Most got out of the way.
Swansong was using her power despite the damage it did to her, and she was doing it for no apparent reason, except to hold a bit of her darkness in her hand.
Spawner narrowed a half-dozen eyes.
“Darkness is my ally,” she said.
No, Bradley thought, irrationally annoyed. That isn’t a good line!
Be more afraid, Ned thought.
He leaped. She used her power, hopping up onto a storage crate as he’d done earlier, landing on her shins rather than use her injured foot to bear her weight.
He approached, running through the waist-deep darkness, and he saw her surreptitiously place something on the container. Before he could close the gap and reach her, she threw herself sideways, into the darkness ten feet below the top of the storage container. Her power went silent as she was submerged.
He tossed one of his children onto the top of the storage container she had occupied, with a simple instinctive command programmed into it. To seize whatever was there, to jostle, disturb. If he gave a command, it was to bring the thing to him. Otherwise, it was to carry it away.
It found nothing.
Leister pole-vaulted himself into the air and extended his trident, making it long and wide, before raking it across the floor. When he pulled it up out of the pitch black fog, it was alongside body parts and Spawner’s children. The body parts belonged to someone who had been devoured earlier.
He visited the same spot she’d occupied, in part to get her scent. He watched as she emerged, approaching Captain Claw, as if he wasn’t a consideration. Her back was to him, and she didn’t even glance his way. Claw fought with his hands in his pockets, a phantom image of something large and bestial looming over his upper body and head, clawing and snapping at Swansong and destroying the area around her whenever it missed. When her power destroyed a part of it, it was quick to be replaced.
Ned lunged, hurling himself after her. He huffed a breath as he passed Usher.
Someone struck him with lightning, and he felt it burn into his side. His stored children crawled to fill that void, some to be resources, others to dismantle, others to build something to replace. It was faster than healing on his own.
Captain Claw looked at him as he charged, giving the attack away. He used a swipe of his claw to help maneuver himself out of the way as Spawner leaped in.
She twisted, leaning against the wall with one hand, one foot on the ground, reaching out with one hand and using her power.
The power washed over Spawner, and it did only superficial damage. At the same time, her hand broke in two, a metal pipe jutting from where the armbones would be corroding visibly under the power’s influence. Flesh blackened and cracked.
Her other hand- she wasn’t using it, he saw.
She slammed the metal spike into his throat, and it penetrated. Black blood oozed out. She used her power, and Usher’s protection ensured it did nothing to him, while at the same time destroying more of her arm. The pipe broke off, and blood weeped from the socket.
“So weak you can’t take me one on one,” she said. She smiled. “You embarrass all of us.”
He punched his claw into her abdomen. One of his children crawled from his arm to his hand, into the open wound.
He preferred his rebuttal.
She used her power, aiming it at him, but she didn’t do it to hurt him. It was to propel herself backwards, arms spread, into the darkness just below their little platform.
He leaped down, striking out, and he hit nothing.
He’d have to find the source of this nuisance. She had one of his children inside her stomach, and it would devour her as twenty of his children had taken the Black Lamb to pieces.
He would find the darkness creator, and then he would pick off the rest.
Another common ground of Ned and Bradley was that they hadn’t been good with women. Ingenue was a spark, a stirring for the soul. She evoked the worst parts of him, then embraced those parts, and that was an intoxicating feeling.
He wanted to impress, like a schoolboy on the schoolyard wanted to win over the pretty girls. He wanted to be his best self.
Leister was dispatching two. Usher hung back, tinker gun in hand, and picked off someone from the very back lines of the enemy group. Claw was already engaged in a one-against-three skirmish. Two of those three were injured.
This was Valkyrie’s last stand, and Valkyrie wasn’t even here.
He waited until he had fully regenerated the damage to his throat, and then he roared.
The roar was undercut by a sharp whistle from above.
“The ladder,” Ingenue said, her voice audible only because he had advanced hearing.
He turned, and he saw Swansong there. She climbed the ladder with only one working hand clenched into a fist, both legs dangling limp, blood covering bare legs to the point someone might think it was leggings she was wearing. Her arm was a stump that she used to embrace one rung before reaching another rung up.
Still she didn’t look at him.
Was this Bonesaw’s work? He had never been injured enough to activate any berserker protocol or some innate programming that had been implanted with memories.
But her forward progress was single-minded, laborious, and marked with wheezing breaths.
She went after Ingenue.
He hopped down and waded into darkness, trusting it to make him even more silent in his movements. He watched for every and any tell. There was no Captain Claw to give him away, now.
He leaped, pouncing.
She twisted, one arm wrapped around the ladder, one leg dropping from a dangling position to rest on the rung and anchor her further. The stump, pointed his way, and the blast that erupted was wider and blunter. It consumed ninety-five percent of him.
“Leister! Claw! Usher!” the Black Goat called out. “We’re going!”
They abandoned him. He was their heavy hitter, their unstoppable force. Bitterness seized him, percolating through what was left of his brain and saturating everything that brain housed.
He got a glimpse of Swansong as she walked past him. Of a belly with the wound in the side opened wider, a ring of black around it to suggest she’d used her power within the cavity to destroy his child. Ribs with bandages lying tattered, bones scorched and flesh raw around the edges. Her arm was a stump.
Her eyes- only one was white from corner to corner, the edges smoking black. The other was ordinary.
Was that somehow how she had seen him?
She made it roughly seven steps before collapsing.
He watched as the darkness dissipated. The surviving members of the flock gathered, two going to her side.
“You asked before. We got her. She’s over there. Right now we need to get you help.”
“Can’t see her. A little fuzzy. Give her these.”
She handed the scant remains of one broken syringe and another intact one.
“We need to give you medical attention.”
“Take it from someone who died-”
“We’ve all died once,” the boy in black leather said. “Most of us. Not her.”
“I don’t have long. I’d rather do things. Make arrangements. This way. Over here.”
Every utterance was a little more strenuous than the last.
But the two members of Valkyrie’s flock helped her, almost carrying her to the destination. The storage container from before. The one in black went to the one in yellow, who lingered in the background, nursing an injury of hers.
Swansong reached up, and fumbled for a spot on the storage container.
Invisible, almost flush with the container. Something that resembled a cross between a wire Christmas tree and an antennae.
“I’d give you mine, but-”
There was a lull. One of the capes who was propping her up gave her a slight shake.
She rallied, with more vigor than before. “-a friend of mine would be hurt if I gave you mine. Take it. It’s like a syringe… maybe it counts. Flick this, insert the eye. Supposed to go to yellow.”
“The one in yellow.”
“We could get help. Go after Black Lamb.”
“No. No. Death doesn’t scare me. I’ve beat it enough times before. No, don’t let her have me. Val…”
“Is that why you said not to wake her up earlier?”
There was a pause. Spawner couldn’t see enough to know if there was body language.
“I thought I’d go out screaming and ranting, sick and hating myself for it. I did… every other time except the first…”
“You said you had a friend?”
She nodded. “Glad it was me. Means there’s less chance it’s her. I can handle this. Been here enough times.”
“You think you’d learn,” the boy in white said.
She scoffed, a light, soft sound.
There was no more conversation. More of the flock emerged from the tunnel. The wounded were gathered and tended to, and they had their own conversations.
The two boys remained near Swansong for a few more minutes, and then they walked away.
“Kid,” the one in white said. “Can you make heads or tails of this?”
“Looks like a camera with some broadcast tech.”
“Why would she give it to us?”
The conversation overlapped with another, similar one. The girl in yellow had the syringe, and another cape held the broken traces of the other one.
“What do I do with it?”
“I think you use it, Canary.”
“And the broken one? I don’t know how I’d get that little fluid in, but I don’t like the ideas, not when it’s mixed with broken glass, or whatever that is.”
“It seemed important.”
There was a pause. The two groups converged.
The one in yellow injected herself with the intact syringe. There was a long pause, and then she nodded.
Then she stabbed her upper arm with the broken end of the other syringe.
Spawner saw the group patrolling to look for his children, killing them wherever they were found. They drew steadily nearer to him.
One locked eyes with the fragment of his head that rested on a forklift seat.
That was enough. He was dead and done for. He closed his eyes and waited for the killing blow.
Capricorn and Antares used their powers in alternation. Stone wall, then forcefield. Wall, then forcefield. The attack was relentless, not helped by the fact the Speedrunners were spearheading the attack.
Antares tore apart a section of protective sheeting that covered a sensitive area of wires, and used that as added protection. Laser beams and bullets tore into anything they tried to put between themselves and the enemy.
“Lookout’s sending us messages.”
“A way out of this?” Tristan asked, through grit teeth.
“No,” Antares said.
“I don’t know how you can read and fight at the same time.”
“I shouldn’t have,” she said, and her voice was dark.
They’d managed to beat a fighting retreat to the next major intersection. Rounding the corner bought them a bit of reprieve from incoming fire, which let them erect a more confident defense. Ceiling was torn down and rock wall was drawn out, thick and solid.
“It’s bad news,” Tristan said, quiet.
“We don’t know anything for sure yet,” Antares said, setting her jaw.
There was a heavy bang as an explosive detonated against the wall. They backed up a few steps and Tristan created a second later.
While he worked, he commented, “Except Lookout’s upset because she knows, isn’t she?”
“We don’t know,” Antares said.
“Alright. I don’t want to know, so that’s perfect for me. I’m sick enough over Byron, he was at the very edge of passing out when he swapped to me, what if I switch to him and that’s it? But I can’t- I can’t not.”
“It’s okay,” Antares said.
“It’s really not.”
“I’ll rephrase. Yes, it scares the daylights out of me, I can’t imagine how you feel, but it’s a problem for later. Yes?”
Tristan clenched a fist, then nodded.
“I don’t mean to be a bitch, but-”
“No. It’s right. Makes sense. Plan?”
Antares went on, “We have options. But I can’t do this. This right here. We can’t do this. We’re pinned down, and I’m supposed to go after Teacher. We should make a break for it.”
“I’m supposed to hold the chokepoint.”
“You held it.”
He shook his head, and then turned to face the wall.
“Now’s not the time to be stubborn. You don’t sacrifice yourself because your brother might not be okay.”
“Giving up the chokepoint means they come right after us. That’s sacrificing all of us.”
The speakers crackled, and then music began to play, an aria, with light instrumentals.
“Master-stranger,” Tristan said. “That’s getting to me. I think. It might be-”
“It’s a power,” Victoria said. “Working full strength through tech.”
The intensity of the assault on the far side of the wall had died down. There was a buzz of communication.
“I think it’s from our side. Swansong’s cape with the yellow costume… there aren’t a lot of them. Most would be Advance Guard, but they’d be together, not with Valkyrie. I think that’s Canary.”
“She’s a Warden now. Under Valkyrie’s wing. They knew each other in the Birdcage. She normally only has a minor effect in actual recordings or speakers. It was Swansong.”
The song continued, tranquil, more hum with percussion at this stage than the aria that had opened things.
“Knock knock!” was the voice on the far side of the wall. Obnoxious and loud.
“That’s Imp,” Tristan said.
“Back up!” Antares called out.
Then she smashed the wall.
Heartbroken, dogs, Rachel, and Imp were gathered on the far side. They had attacked from the rear. From the blood on her knife, Imp had done her share.
“Undersiders scare me,” Tristan said.
“Good,” Rachel said.
There was a look on their faces. Hurt, hollow.
Tristan counted the Heartbroken. One was absent- and on the back of one dog, wrapped in a blanket-
“Samuel?” he asked.
Rachel nodded, looking away, angry. Chastity had her arms folded. Roman and Juliet looked like they were in a very similar space, weirdly sullen.
“The littler kids are going to be hell to manage,” Imp said. Her voice wasn’t as lively as it normally was. “You?”
The question was so casual.
“We’ll see,” Antares said. “They’re coming.”
Tristan shook his head, switching over to look at the displays. He could see the markers of each other member of the group, excepting one. They didn’t have labels.
He could see the messages Lookout had sent and was sending, and the replies.
There was no reason to stay and hold the chokepoint, with the Undersiders having done their share.
They rendezvoused with Sveta. Wounded, with holes in her arms and shoulder, Sveta hugged Antares.
Every appearance was simultaneously relief and horror.
Then they saw Rain, with Love Lost and Colt. Colt was covered in dust. Chevalier and his team followed behind.
They ran into thralls, and found those thralls didn’t have much fight in them. As the music sounded throughout the facility, cutting in and out as Lookout managed to get her grips on a system, then was blocked or shut down, the thralls gave up their efforts.
“Is this A or is it C?” Imp asked.
“C,” Tristan said, trying not to think about what that meant. Two members of Breakthrough were supposed to die.
Victoria picked up speed, moving away and ahead of the group, as they hurried to their destination. She and Ashley had been roommates, or housemates. Two sides of a peculiar coin, in some ways.
Victoria only flew like she was flying now when she was using the Wretch, keeping a distance, making sure not to get within ten feet of anyone, like a bubble surrounded her. Except in this case, it did.
They found the tail end of another group. Legend’s troops who moved on foot, who were disarming a group of thralls that had surrendered.
Antares held up a hand, and Tristan took up a position, getting people to give her a wide berth. She picked up one of the tinker guns. She held it in one hand, checked the ammo, and then picked up another.
She picked up another gun, and then another.
She picked up another gun, and then yet another.
Others went on ahead, as Breakthrough remained where they were, diverting the flow of foot traffic, watching, waiting for the remainder of their team.
“Tristan, is Byron-” Rain started.
“He’ll live,” Tristan said. He wasn’t sure, but… there was no other option. Even if it meant convincing Antares to let them go to her sister.
Antares carried the guns without touching one of them. Her hood hid her eyes, and her feet didn’t touch the ground.
She didn’t elaborate on the new trick, and Tristan didn’t ask. In some ways, he associated new tricks to the way his power had changed when he had murdered Byron. It made a degree of sense to him.
They reached Teacher’s command center, spacious enough for the leadership of most of the Wardens and a few other team leaders. Few members of the second wave assault had made it this far in.
The thralls were arrested, and Teacher was there. He stood in the threshold of a doorway.
Through that door was a special kind of oblivion, with images that swirled in darkness like images on the back of closed eyes with fingers pressed down on them, but image and background were all pitch black.
“I’ve seen that doorway before,” Rain said, his voice a hush.
“Every night,” Rain said.
“It feels like the will that pushes my body to act when I’m not in control,” Sveta said.
“Ashley talked about it,” Antares said. “Seeing a landscape in her dreams.”
“He found a way into the spaces between worlds,” Legend said. “Where the things in our heads really reside.”
Contessa stood beside Legend, unmoving.
And Teacher needed only to take a half-step backward or to fall back to enter that realm.
He pointed at the computer. A number in red showed 95%.
“What does that mean?”
“It means I need only to give the world a little push, and everything crumbles,” Teacher said. “And I hold the reins of what’s there when our world crumbles away.”
“Why? What does that serve?” Chevalier asked.
“She didn’t tell you?” Teacher asked, indicating Contessa. “It gives us the best outcome. Humanity, mankind. The clock is ticking, the process of the agents coming together and uniting before shattering our world and trying to reach others never quite stopped. It simply… lost the pilot. Lost all direction.”
Legend looked at Contessa.
Teacher went on, “I didn’t have a perfect precog judge what I was doing, so do tell me if I got it wrong. I’ll accept any and all punishment.”
“You’ll do that anyway, you mangy foreskin,” Imp said.
“No,” Contessa said. “You’re right.”
Teacher smiled. “This is the best option. You’re on my side.”
“Objectively, it’s so close to the best option it’s almost indistinguishable. But it’s not one of the options I gave them.”
Teacher’s face fell a fraction. “What-”
“I gave them the options they would be happiest with. I picked one. I’m done with the objective best, with the ugliest path to getting there.”
Swansong fucking died and my brother might be joining her, and this isn’t the ugliest path?
Tristan felt bitter, and he looked to his teammates to see they felt the same way. He saw glares and anger, but no expressions perfectly reflected his bitterness or resentment.
Teacher swayed, like he was going to step back into that darkness.
“You don’t want to do that,” Contessa said.
He hesitated, staring.
Contessa turned her head a fraction, and Teacher followed that fraction, his eyes falling on Breakthrough. Studying them. Antares floated above the computer terminals, still holding the guns. Rain sat in the chair. Sveta had her arms folded. Tristan clenched a fist, while studying the man.
Teacher took a step forward. It put the door behind him. Like he had abandoned the notion of stepping through it.
What had he seen or figured out?
Teacher addressed the room. “Within a very short time, the city will break down. Nothing to do with the recent car bombing of its parahuman mayor. You’ll wish you’d sided with me. If you kill me, you’ll regret that I can’t help you find sanity in the madness, when our world becomes theirs. If you imprison me, you’ll be coming to my cell to beg for help. Let me go free, and I’ll have things in place.”
“We’re not going to let you go free,” Chevalier said. “We can talk about whether execution or prison are more appropriate.”
“It’s all going to go to pieces,” Teacher said.
“And you’re going to go into custody,” Legend said. “Are you done? You’ve said your piece. There aren’t too many who are willing to listen when you’ve killed or hurt our friends and subordinates.”
Teacher held out his hands. The other thralls in the room did much the same.
It was Chevalier who slapped on the cuffs, dragging Teacher toward the door. The crowd parted.
With nearly every back turned, only a few were looking the other way. Rain was among them, and the way he startled made Tristan turn.
The doorway to the shard realm flickered, and then it went out.
It was a trick of layers. While eyes were turned toward the door, someone stepped out of the crowd. One of the younger capes from the Wards. They put an arm out, grabbing Teacher, and it was Legend who was fast enough to grab the two of them.
Teacher, Legend, and the junior cape all disappeared in a wisp of blue dust.
Amid the commotion, one by one, the guns Antares had picked up dropped to the floor, some with mangled handles. After the first, Sveta caught them.
And on the terminal closest to the door that had disappeared, numbers adjusted. A red number declined to 87%, 85%… A white number ticked up. Nearly at 70%. A third looked eerily similar to Kenzie’s map of her control over the complex. Steadily and swiftly, she took full and total control of Teacher’s resources, and he had no idea what to feel about that, given what she must be feeling.
He got away and that confirms it’s option C, Tristan thought. The confirmation drove the point home, and emotions bottled up over days surged to the point he momentarily felt out of his mind.
That it was option C meant Swansong’s death was real, and another death was imminent or connected to all of this. Possibly fucking Byron.
“Legend will be fine,” Chevalier said, and he almost sounded convincing. “Let’s get to work. We’ll assume this is real, and that means there’s a hell of a lot to do.”