What a shitty, shitty battlefield. Cold, snowy, tall buildings on either side, cars sitting bumper to bumper down every bit of road and street I could see, and people who had evacuated their cars gathered at the edges, in doorways, nooks, crannies, building interiors.
I kept up in the air and out of the way, flying across the street and turning around so I could watch them and keep an eye out for Breakthrough as they advanced.
I relocated as Damsel directed some of her people my way – Mockument, Gibbet, Hookline, and Sidepiece, then relocated again. She wanted to come after me, it was clear, but I was more mobile.
I didn’t mind being a distraction, if that was what it came to.
The Huntsmen were heroes who had set up shop in the city outskirts, west of the area that was geographically approximate to where New York had been on Earth Bet. I could see them already, mostly hanging back and ensuring people were evacuated. Heroes with something of a vigilante edge, and that edge combined with their aesthetic of black costumes and hoods to make me think of Shadow Stalker, to the extent I almost expected her to pop up among them.
But they had a nature theme, and Shadow Stalker didn’t, and they were serious about their job, policing the park territories. Thing was, they were probably more corporate and business-driven than the likes of Auzure. The park territories were tracts of forest multiple acres in size, which the government had contracted out to companies and groups of people who agreed to provide the city a scheduled allotment of game meat, wood, and other natural resources. So long as they provided that, they had the excess to use as they saw fit. Most subcontracted, to fill criteria, and most also subcontracted to hire the Huntsmen to protect their ends of the deal.
All of which was probably fucked, now that we were moving people out and away from the city, to alternate worlds and areas a half-day’s drive away from the city.
Trophy Wife, Backwoods, and a few others had preyed on the system the Huntsmen and park territory companies had set up. Now they positioned themselves between the Huntsmen and Deathchester, but they watched me most of all; Damsel had pointed me out and warned them. Their position and mentality reflected their experience with their nemeses.
Trophy Wife had a white fur coat with a trophy wrack sweeping up from her back, behind her head, with animal parts and what might have been human bits dangling from it. Very intimidating, regal, messed up. I could see why Ashley liked her. Backwoods had a gnarled wooden mask, black toque, black overalls, heavy boots, and a dark green canvas coat that looked like it had been liberally smeared with oil or black grease. Maybe to dull colors or to turn a regular coat into something resembling forest camouflage. He held spear-like branches in each hand, and had a ‘v’ of two more branches sticking up from his shoulders.
Nailbiter and Hookline were the ones who had reacted most to Damsel’s alert, and walked on top of cars to get closer to me. Nailbiter had extended her limbs. Same principle as Trophy Wife putting herself closer to the Huntsmen. Old grudges, and they had some sense of how to fight me, both in terms of what I was capable of and how that actually applied in the real world.
Gibbet was sticking close to Hookline, I noted, despite being a member of Mockument and Torso’s troupe. She wore a truncated red noose around her neck, a black head covering that covered everything from the neck up, with a tear for the mouth that had been stitched up with red cloth, and tears around the eyes, which had been painted black, with red ‘x’s over the eyelids, and either contact lenses or a minor mutation that gave her actual eyeballs the same red ‘x’. She wore a long and heavy black coat that probably weighed as much as she did, with more stark red imagery embossed on it. She looked barely over five feet tall, petite enough I doubted she weighed over a hundred pounds, and she carried a L-shaped length of wood, telephone-pole thick, with a noose hanging from the short end, bearing it across her shoulders.
I guessed Hookline had a girlfriend now.
Hookline’s hook flew up at an angle, flying past the rooftop’s edge and past me, then did a u-turn, reversing course to travel back down to him, hook looped around and scraping against the chain on the way down.
Gibbet hopped up onto the hook itself, swayed a second for balance, and then found her position. The hook started to retreat back up toward me, carrying her.
Nailbiter, too, started climbing, using the chain as a handhold.
I flew away from the roof they were aiming for, which made Nailbiter stop. Gibbet continued to be carried up.
Mockument was in his own sub-faction, with capes who tended to hang around together. Jokers and ‘randoms’. He had a look that made me think of a jester proportioned like a gorilla, predominantly done up in the new group’s aesthetic of white and black checkerboard. Torso was a mannequin or doll’s head and upper body in a hard and bulky stone-like material, the rest black and slim. with doodle-like drawings on it. Mismatched cartoon eyes, a heart roughly where the heart would be, and a few words so scribbled out I couldn’t understand them. The look seemed immensely top-heavy and uncomfortable.
Mockument, Torso, Sidepiece and Damsel were in the center of the mess, breaking into cars and collecting things, or cutting off the ropes that tied luggage to the tops of vehicles, so they could open the luggage and fish through the things.
I winced as I saw Damsel using a power to blast open a lock on a hard plastic case. She held up a bass guitar. Sidepiece said something and Damsel threw it to her, followed by the strap.
Damsel looked up at me, and I could see her distant expression. Whoever Damsel was, I knew the kinds of expressions she wore and why. My ex-roommate was almost exactly the same.
I took her bait, flying toward her.
“Damsel!” I called out.
She pretended to ignore me. I avoided flying in close enough that she could use her power to close the distance and try to tag me with a blast. I didn’t want her one blast, let alone two in short succession.
“You can’t use your powers! This area is high-risk!”
“Fuck you!” Sidepiece screamed the words.
“How convenient for the heroes. Scared!?” she called out.
“Heck yeah we’re scared!” I answered. “You’re like an arsonist at a gas station!”
“Can we do that later?” Sidepiece asked Damsel.
Backwoods was using his power too. He hurled his wooden spikes, they hit a car near the Huntsmen, and then exploded into a dozen more spikes, impaling the car from within.
I looked in that direction, anxious but unable to do anything. I had to trust the Huntsmen.
“Can we talk? Face to face?” I called down. “I know Lookout really wants to chat, and I know you like her!”
Mockument used his power. Hand held over ground, then slowly lifted, raising up a pillar of pavement from the road.
“Don’t-” I started.
The pillar broke like an egg. Flesh spilled out, reaching, groping. I had no idea what it was at first, until I saw the blonde hair and the extent of naked flesh. I flew back about ten feet just from the unconscious recoil.
A caricature of a monstrous caricature. Features distorted, with mouths yawning open in horror, lips lipstick red, or whole faces smooshed into distorted kissy faces. I saw a tattoo of a heart with an arrow through it, the space within with a word in it. ‘Amy’.
“Listen to me!” it screeched, shrill. A hand slapped against a nearby car, caving the tire’s housing in while pushing the car a few feet away. “Ugh! I have a runny nose and a sore throat!”
Sidepiece began cackling.
“I… actually don’t know what to say,” Damsel said. “I was going to joke I didn’t have to go with you to have a face to face with you. But there’s nothing to joke about. It’s just sad.”
“Get rid of it,” I said.
“Get rid of me!” the thing screeched. “I’m so done with this shit!”
“You’re so ugly inside,” Damsel said, before looking up at me, locking eye contact with me, narrow pupils staring.
I tried to draw in a breath to say something else, and the breath hitched. “Let’s call a truce. Thirty minutes, we have tea, you tell us what you-”
The thing used my aura, its power spurting and stuttering, washing over me as something I had too many resistances against.
No, that wasn’t enough to interrupt me. What was enough to get me to stop talking was that it kept talking over me, louder, echoing my words. It flopped around, trying to use flight while having no less than six different frames of orientation fighting against one another. “-have some fucking tea! Tell us what you want!”
Sidepiece fell over, laughing.
I couldn’t get distracted. We’d been told our presence helped the numbers. I’d work toward that.
“-tell us what your demands are,” I said. “If you guys back down and don’t stir things up, we’ll pay you off, strike deals, give you a territory. You picked the right time and place for this. You win.”
“-right time and place for this. Fuck! You win, we lose like we always do, boo hoo!”
“Can we keep it?” Sidepiece asked.
“You want to deal?” Damsel asked. “Truce?”
“Yes!” the thing on the road screamed.
“Let’s shake on it,” she said. Her eye contact didn’t waver. Her clawed hand extended my way.
I knew Ashley. I knew that she had her tells, and one of those tells was that she tended to go very still and quiet when poised for the attack. Swansong had done it with Beast of Burden. Before any outbursts, there was often a moment where she was more terse, quiet, as if something below the surface was simmering, and a part of her was trying to keep it from losing control by doing nothing.
Which was ironically what I wanted her to do.
“Stop ignoring me!” the caricature screamed. Sidepiece laughed every time it talked or tried to fly and hit a car instead, the laughter completely new each time.
Torso and Mockument were hanging back, watching. For how ludicrous their costumes were and how Mockument’s power worked, neither seemed to find much humor in this.
Ashley stared me down, pupils narrowing and then disappearing entirely, until her eyes were pure white. She wasn’t trying to bluff. She was challenging me on my convictions, with the implicit threat that she would slash me or use her power to annihilate me.
I called her Ashley in my head because in this moment, in that dangerous frozen position, her mannerisms were one, the same, and both.
“I just noticed, the tattoo says Amy,” Sidepiece cackled.
“Amy!” the thing screeched, abrasive. “Amy, I love you!”
“I wouldn’t have thought, Antares!” Sidepiece jeered.
“How I love you, let me count the ways!” It was demolishing a car in the process of trying to drag its bulk onto the trunk. The strength seemed to come and go, as did the flight and the aura. “Sweet sexy sister of mine!”
Sidepiece, already mid-laugh, stopped mid-laugh, dragging in a wheezing breath, before collapsing against the side of a car. She made a sound that might have been her saying, “Oh my god!” while wheeze-laughing at the same time.
It was all I could do not to use every power I had to wipe that thing from the face of this earth. Sidepiece a close second. Mockument third.
I shot Mockument a look that made it unambiguously clear what I was thinking.
“No truce?” Damsel asked.
“Truce yes, but I’m not stupid enough to come down there and shake your hand. Besides,” I said. I pointed to the mask I wore on my lower face. “Cold.”
“You’re cold!?” the caricature asked. “I’m naked and I’ve got ten different tits pressed against icy pavement and I’m also sick!”
“Yeah!” Sidepiece called out. “Have some consideration, you pious, sister-fucking bitch!”
“Those were the happiest days of my life,” the caricature said. “Because she forced me to be happy. But they were still the happiest. I might go back if I could. Things were simpler then. I had everything I wanted. Because she made herself the only thing I wanted.”
“Ooh,” Sidepiece said, “Oh. That recontextualizes a lot.”
“If you had an ounce of decency in you, you’d kill that thing right now,” I said. I turned in the air to face Mockument and say, “Or unmake it, send it back to where it came.”
Sidepiece retorted, “If you had an ounce of decency, you wouldn’t be a sister-sexual and a sister-romantic! You think you have the right to preach morality and tell us what to do!? Hypocrite! Sister fucker!”
I flew back another ten or twenty feet, feeling a horrible kind of sadness welling in my upper chest, to the point it hurt to breathe.
Damsel had been planning something, and as I retreated, she lunged forward. She created a ball of power in one claw, and a lateral blast in the other, as if to push the ball out my way. The ball unfurled, traveling a surprisingly long distance.
If I hadn’t been wary, that might have grazed me.
My heart sank further, and I floated further back, staying relatively low to the ground.
I couldn’t get distracted. If nothing else, I had grown up around heroes. From the day I’d first started playing at being a hero, my parents had both been giving me tips, using some to manipulate me into doing homework or chores, because didn’t a good hero need to be smart? If a heroine wouldn’t keep her room clean, how could she keep a city free of crime? Tell that to Crystal.
They’d hammered in situational awareness, a need to stay in control.
I couldn’t come here, looking to keep power uses down and keep control over things, then turn around and use the full capacity of my strength on these guys. I couldn’t provoke them or risk provoking them.
I tried to tell myself that if I was at least getting them to stand down in this moment, if they were standing there laughing at me, at least they weren’t using powers and threatening everything.
Backwoods was still periodically using his power, lobbing stakes of wood that exploded into multi-pronged outgrowths of wooden spikes. Each time he pulled one from his shoulder, another grew out.
I saw Gibbet and Hookline huddled together, his hand at her waist, their hips touching, his head bent down to talk to her, while he kept one eye on me. His hook…
I saw the line of it trailing down to the ground, and the slack seemed to run beneath cars.
He saw me looking. The hook had been creeping in my general direction, snaking between cars. It didn’t have to travel far, and it was whip-fast as it rose up toward me.
I put my foot up to give me a chance of kicking it or deflecting it if I needed to, while flying in another way. It wasn’t necessary, and I managed to avoid it.
I hadn’t used my forcefield on going through the portal because I hadn’t wanted to hurt anyone on either side of the heavily guarded hole in reality, and I hadn’t wanted to damage the architecture of the portal itself. Now I acutely felt the lack.
I looked down at the caricature, which was crash landing after another aborted flight attempt.
It was his power, right? He created copies of people that reflected what they hated most about themselves. Threw in a few mistruths, like the ‘I’d go back’, if they’d fuck with the target’s head enough. Right?
I had to deal with it like I’d deal with any emotion power or secret-penetrating thinker power. If I melted down now or did something that impacted innumerable others, I’d just be doing what my sister did.
And there was way, way more to that line of thought, and I was nowhere near being able to tackle it.
I was in a position to go after Backwoods.
Trophy Wife shouted, “Flier!” as I made my approach. Backwoods responded by throwing down a spike, surrounding himself in spiked branches.
I couldn’t plow through, but I could dodge through, if-
The Huntsmen were motioning, waving arms in certain directions. The ones on the left waved me left, the ones in cover to the right waved me right.
I headed left, because the only consistent message was not to fly straight for him.
As I got closer, branches forked, stabbing out, and then bloomed, exploding into foliage with gray-green leaves and tiny white flowers. They grew with enough violence I could imagine I would have been scraped up, if not outright flayed or stabbed with a branch that then expanded out into five branches pointing out in different directions.
I could see some spots where the foliage was already grown, perhaps strategically located to block the defending capes from being able to shoot. As I flew over, toward the Huntsmen, they motioned again. This time it was unanimous. Up.
I flew up and over, giving the growths an extra-wide berth.
Leaves and flowers came to pieces, detonating into what might have been poisonous gas or pollen, a heavy cloud that was about as dark as green could get while still being green.
Backwoods began to make other growths sprout and bloom, filling the area.
“I’m guessing they weren’t up to talking,” the leader of the Huntsmen said.
I shook my head.
Two Huntsmen were holding their ground behind cover that in itself had enough cover that the branch detonations wouldn’t reach them. One used the length of a bus with some cars on the opposite end. Another used a bus stop. It seemed someone had tried to drive on the sidewalk to circumvent the traffic, out of selfishness or because the villains had spooked them, but they’d hit the stop and the mailbox that was built into the one side of the stop. That car was the added cover for the cape there.
The third Huntsman was crouched by a row of cars, looking through a succession of windshields and rear windows to get a blurry sense of what was going on.
Three more were guiding the crowd. They weren’t having a lot of luck in convincing people to get the fuck out.
“They sent us backup, huh?” one of the Huntsmen asked. A woman with her hood down, wearing a white mask with a lot of airbrushed details on it. It made me think of Snow White- black hair perfectly arranged, overly rosy cheeks and eyeshadow, crimson lips. Their cape and hair blew against the wind, not with.
“Precog said it improved the numbers. We’ve had a few run-ins with Damsel, Sidepiece, Hookline, and Nailbiter. Disjoint’s not around?”
Snow White answered, “Recovering from an injury. Sidepiece has a few parts of him with her, from what she said.”
“Damsel’s twin was on our team as Swansong. Swansong died in the raid, it’s part of why Damsel is acting out now.”
“Good to know. That wasn’t in the briefing.”
“Questions? Concerns? Any way I can help? Need any rundowns on power?”
“We got the rundowns. The priority is evacuating. There’s a lot of people still out there.”
I looked and I saw a few. People hunkered down in their vehicles, periodically putting their heads up to look around.
“I’m not positive what we can do. They might be better off staying put,” I said.
“They keep using maximum danger powers. Damsel of Distress’s chaos storm power. If something goes wrong, those people are right in the middle of it. We tried to bait them away, but they aren’t biting.”
“Loot’s too tempting,” I said. Torso started to pick up a piece of luggage and fell over, faceplanting into the top of a car, shattering the windshield and partially caving the roof in. Hookline and Gibbet were sorting through a suitcase, with Gibbet holding something lingerie-ish up against her front. Way too big for her.
Hookline, meanwhile, cracked open what might have been a jewelry box, going by the glitter as he emptied the contents into his hand. Gibbet laid the see-through top over the top of the case, and Hookline emptied the jewelry box onto it, so they could sort through.
Damsel put bladed fingertips to her mouth, then whistled, sharp. Backwoods and Trophy Wife looked, then began to retreat.
“Move up!” Snow White ordered her people.
“Looks like my team just arrived on the scene,” I said. “She’s pulling back to defend.”
“Stay out of their ranges, do what you can. You know the restrictions?”
“Yeah. Minimize powers, only use always-on powers or ones that were turned on before the fight,” I recited.
“Any help you can give is great.”
“Rundown on Trophy Wife, anything else about Backwoods or Mockument? What does Torso do?”
“Trophy collects parts, has an aura that grants subtle mutations to people around her based on what she’s collected. She gets the same thing at double strength, just for herself. Nightvision if she tore out a cat’s eyes, manual dexterity if she has some person’s amputated hand, ability to land on her feet if she has a cat’s tail, raw strength if she has a strip of muscle from a large animal, sharpness of nails if she has the claws from someone’s pet cat. She’ll have important ones inside her coat.”
“Great,” I said. That made Backwoods even more problematic. He was the most wanton with his power, that power was disruptive and dangerous, and now he apparently had a mess of minor benefits granted by being close enough to Trophy Wife.
“Backwoods, nothing too special. He’s dropping traps here and there, trying to be subtle. There are two big branches extending over his shoulders, but they really form an ‘X’, and he’s grabbing from the lower prongs.”
“Good to know,” I said. I floated up a bit, watching the guy.
“Mockument… we don’t really know. The minions aren’t strong, they barely have powers, they don’t really have brains, they’re just conduits for a thinker aspect to his power, but…”
Snow White looked over at the caricature of me. It was perched on top of a car now.
“Jesus,” she said.
“Yeah,” I tried to sound casual, and I sounded too quiet instead. I spoke more normally as I deflected with. “It targets parahumans only?”
“Probably uses some weak connection to the power or replicates what it can track nearby.”
“Barely replicates. Weak powers.”
“Its good to not underestimate powers. Even broken, intermittent ones.”
Snow White seemed to accept that. “Right. About Torso-”
There was a crash.
Powers in use. Damsel, primarily. With a blast, she totaled someone’s car and most of the things they’d brought with them through the end of the world and this evacuation.
I clenched my fist.
“Do what you can,” she said. In the tone of someone who was resigned to not doing a whole lot.
I flew straight up.
The tallest rooftops downtown were left below me. The air got colder and the precipitation more ferocious as I rose up higher, and if I had any trouble breathing, I wasn’t sure how much of it was my cold constricting nasal passages, and how much was the thinner air.
My eyes closed, fists clenched, I slowed my ascent. I continued upwards, more gentle now.
I could feel the transition. My flight was like an ice cube, sliding across a slick floor. If there was any resistance, it was in the air. But up here, the air was thinner. I panted for each breath.
Maybe it was how pure things were up here, now small the problems below were, how there was little to see except the diffuse clouds that made it impossible to see twenty feet away from me. There was no noise up here, except the wind against my hood and the bottom end of my coat.
Maybe it was that the air was thinner, so there was more room to feel other things.
I could feel distinctions. The ice cube slide of flight became smoother still. It was a slide over skin, not scar tissue. No bumps, no tiny bits of turbulence that weren’t actually wind. If I controlled fire and paid the most acute attention, would I see the difference in how the flames touched and tongued the air? If I mutated from head to toe, would it shape my form, the whorls of metaphorical fingerprints, and the spacing of pores?
Go, I communicated.
I activated my forcefield and aura, and then I let myself fall.
Surrender was the name of the game here, so I pushed everything out of mind. I held onto that tranquility and peace of the cloud cover above, with the thin air and the scarcity of noise. I held onto nothing else. My plummet was almost meditative. The wind didn’t touch me, but it touched the Wretch, catching the broad side of one part of the form, and flipping the Wretch vaguely around me.
My head was below my feet as I watched things unfold. Sidepiece had a double now, shorter, fatter, more missing around the middle. My double was still there, but her double was dangerous, where mine flopped around. It was more wanton in how it tore itself to pieces, but those pieces didn’t all explode, and didn’t explode as violently.
But it was fucking loud. Shouting, squawking, taunting.
Anger and instinct fed into my actions, as I went with the flow. I wanted a weapon and I didn’t even have the buckler or armguard. I patted pockets, found small change, and extended my hand. I let go of it, and it collected within the forcefield.
Then, just as easily, it escaped the forcefield. A mouth or other cavity yawned open. The change leaked out and found another invisible trap to fall up into, one or two coins being lost in the process.
I’d thought about this, a long, long time ago. As a ‘what if’. In reaching for the change, I hadn’t even consciously recalled the memory. It was only when I realized what was happening that I connected the thought.
The change moved, then disappeared.
I saw the violence, heard the impact of change striking car doors and icy road. I’d been plunging toward my caricature and now I changed course. My caricature was dead. A coin dropped from the top of the tallest building in the world wouldn’t kill someone. A handful thrown with the kind of strength and force that could lift trucks had a treatment like a low-impact shotgun.
Fuck the ‘wretch’, I thought, the thought punctuating the full collapse of her body onto the road.
I blindsided Sidepiece’s caricature, flying up close until the forcefield got a grip on her, then let the forcefield do its thing. All around that same area of the road, everything was transforming. Telephone-pole thick gallows were lurching and spearing up out of the ground, ropes snagging and pulling at my teammate’s arms, legs, and in Rain’s case, neck. He slashed the rope twice before a full-body kick jerked it enough to trigger the silver lines. He dropped ten feet to the ground.
“Holy,” Sidepiece said, as I disengaged from her other self’s remains. I reached for the Sidepiece caricature’s lower rib, then hurled it at Gibbet, finishing the action before I fully realized I wasn’t grabbing it with my hand.
It hadn’t been my idea, I was pretty sure.
The rib detonated, more of a focused blast in two directions, that seemed to punch through a nearby bit of metal construction fencing by the side of the road. The rattle of it knocked Gibbet from her perch atop the tallest and sturdiest of the gallows, and she fell into the darkness beneath a sea of structures that loomed over parked, dark, and snow-colored cars.
Rain was cutting a piece off of a car that had been demolished by one of the attackers. Tristan picked it up to use as a shield, while beating a retreat. Most of the aggression was targeted in a way that meant he couldn’t run or the flying bits might hit people at the very fringes of things, so he just ran straight for Sidepiece, trying to limit how far her power could reach or what she could do in the motions of her arm or reaching down. He began to bend the metal around.
Sveta was almost at full capacity. Her ‘power’ was always on. Her focus was Nailbiter, who was much the same. As with Croc o’Shit, Sveta showed her stuff when faced with enemies who were too big and tough to take down in any normal way. I imagined they became accustomed to being too big to wrestle or crush, and let their focus and skills slip when someone like her effectively tried.
Torso charged into our group’s back line, and our guys scattered for the most part. That wasn’t the focus here. I turned around, spotted Mockument, and flew toward him.
He was already creating another minion. Pillar raised from the ground, already cracking.
I was trying to be careful to preserve the forcefield. I kept my flight speed controlled to grab the rusty little post-GM car instead of just punching it. To partially push, partially pull, but mostly just to get it from where it sat to Mockument.
I wasn’t going full-bore, so he had time to react. He tried to get out of the way, and he wasn’t quite that fast. He put his mis-proportioned arm out, and he managed to exceed the strength of the forcefield.
Well, for the most part. The forcefield didn’t get tired, and every fraction of a second that passed, Mockument was losing ground. But he did manage to bring feet up and out of the way, so being caught between two cars wouldn’t sandwich and pulverize his legs. Flexible, strong, he had the ability to create minions and the ability to gather information from those minions, because they reflected deeper things about the targets.
I saw his eyes, and I saw the trick. Irises of a different shape beneath that jester mask. That would be Trophy Wife.
I twisted around, saw her looking, and moved my hand, fingertips grazing a car’s side-view mirror. Multiple hands slammed the side of that car, indenting it a half-dozen times.
In another time and circumstance, I would have berated the Wretch. I would have cursed it out for the unnecessary property damage, for not doing quite as I wanted.
But I was pissed, hurt, sad, sick, and a little door had opened before, back in Teacher’s headquarters. Once opened, it didn’t close quite the right way again.
Hands gripped the side mirror, and I twisted as the Wretch did the same. The mirror was flung so fast I had trouble tracking it with my eyes. It hit Trophy Wife, hard, and flew off with enough speed still driving it that it shattered a car window, striking ragged side first.
Trophy Wife was tough, and we’d hit her where the trophy rack was attached to her back. But that was a hit that would have been bone-breaking without the armor, if not purely lethal. Backwoods started to run to her side, but the Huntsmen fired bows and crossbows, one using a net that was thrown at least two hundred feet.
Backwoods started producing more outgrowths to act as cover so he could get to his partner’s side. She was leaning over a car now. He helped her straighten.
Behind me, the Wretch pushed the car. Mockument was still there, one hand sealed to the roof of the car by Capricorn’s power. With one leg dangling while he fought to get leverage, the movement of the car pinned that leg.
“I hate your power,” I told him.
“I hate it too,” he replied. He smiled wide, but his eyes were cheerless. “The person who had it died, and I’m the mess they left behind.”
I backed off, leaving him to it.
Damsel was using her blasts. A lot of it was focused on fending off the attack from the Huntsmen, who were closing the gap. The villains were closing their ranks, Hookline and Gibbet together, Trophy Wife and Backwoods joining them from one direction, while Torso faced off against Breakthrough at the other.
One of the Huntsmen had a flier power, a helmet with a cowl built in and a flame motif at the sides and was flying near outcroppings, provoking them by stabbing at them with a glass spear, then flying away. The wall that was created was almost a barrier to the villains escaping.
Except for Damsel, who blasted at the nearest one.
“Idiots, imbeciles, incompetents! We finally get a good thing going and you can’t do the most basic things!”
She blasted again.
That ugly feeling I’d felt free from in the clouds above was worse.
Hookline’s hook came around. I tried to dodge it, or to catch it, and in that moment, the spell was broken. Training working against me. It was me acting, not the Wretch, and the Wretch in that moment wasn’t as smooth or focused. The hook struck it, and I lost my forcefield.
Damsel used her power again, a continuous burst used as a shield as another net was thrown.
“No powers!” I shouted, top of my lungs. I dropped out of the sky and onto a car, the impact punctuating my shout. My throat felt tight from the cold and the recent high flying.
Damsel blasted again.
“Damsel!” Lookout shouted.
You were supposed to stay back.
Kenzie ran forward, into Torso, who was facing Capricorn and Rain, and pushed Torso out of her way, toppling him, to the extent he faceplanted. He couldn’t get up on his own. She hopped onto his back for the extra eight, then hollered, “Ashley!”
Ashley stopped, hesitating. She flexed her claws, glaring, going very still.
In the midst of that stillness, again, I saw mannerisms that were more Swansong than Damsel.
Bleed. Personality leakage.
Followed by anger. Recognition of what was going on.
“Don’t,” Kenzie said. “Can we talk?”
For an instant, I thought there might be compromise in that internal war.
Then she looked at the crowd.
Pride, I thought. That’s a no.
“She already offered,” Damsel said, pointing a claw at me. “I made my answer clear.”
“I’m offering,” Kenzie tried. “We got along, didn’t we?”
“You’re annoying me,” Damsel said. “I destroy things that annoy me.”
I could see Kenzie absorb that, a twisting of a knife in an already tender wound. She shrank into herself to the point she seemed an inch or two shorter, backing up until her back was resting against a car.
“We surrender,” I called out.
“We give up,” I said. “You win. Take your loot, leave. Let people continue evacuating.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“Take what you wanted. Take your wounded if you care about them, leave them if you don’t and we’ll give them treatment. I’ll argue to release them after. All we want right now is peace.”
It was like all of the fight had gone out of me the instant I’d banished the Wretch. I just felt that sadness again.
“Weak.” She said the single word softly.
“You’re too strong, you’re too dangerous, it’s not worth it.”
“I wanted to talk,” Kenzie said.
“I want you to shut your mouth for once,” Damsel said. “I can guess what you have to say or to ask and I don’t care, I don’t want to talk about it.”
Trophy Wife said something, approaching by a few steps, when Damsel twisted, looking like she might lash out, out of a purely defensive, paranoid place.
“-go,” was the last word Trophy Wife said, through the pounding in my ears.
I motioned to Tristan, who walked over to where Sidepiece was. She’d broken free of the section of car roof, and now lay slumped against a car. She took his hand without a fight, and wobbled as she made her way toward the rest of Damsel’s group.
Mockument was over there too, but it took Backwoods’s help to support him.
It didn’t look like Damsel believed us, and I didn’t fault her. The Huntsmen only had three of their capes here. The rest were making a more concerted effort to get people clear. Technically, we were matched in number, or slightly ahead in numbers if we counted the members of Damsel’s team that had been knocked out or hurt.
But we were knocked out too. We didn’t have our powers, or we had them and we weren’t willing or able to use them.
Lookout stepped off of Torso’s back, and Snow White worked with Rain and Tristan to help the guy up. He fast-walked to catch up with his group. They had to weave through the cars and the outcroppings of Backwoods’ power, using the gaps created by Damsel’s blasts earlier in the fight as a kind of path.
They left, Hookline and Gibbet grabbing two massive suitcases, including the one they’d dumped jewelry into. Backwoods threw sticks behind him, littering the road. If we gave chase, he’d turn this road into a thicket.
Sveta, off to the side, was the last to release the villains, letting go of Nailbiter. She found her way to us.
“Doesn’t feel right,” Snow White said.
“Really doesn’t,” Sveta said. “What was the reasoning?”
“It’s the old reasoning. Years of cops and robbers distilled into moments,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
“Mm,” Snow White made a sound.
“Lookout, can you do us a favor? It’s okay if you can’t, but-”
“Give me something to do,” she said.
“Okay. Trace what belongs where. Whose cars were damaged. We have funds, and money might not mean enough right now, but…”
“Money for the people who had stuff break. Okay, I can look up license databases.”
“Do you need to go back for tech?” Rain asked.
Lookout shook her head, tapping her eyeball.
“How much brain-overheating tech did you jam into your eyes, Lookout?” Rain asked.
Sveta looked at me, the team mom worried about the team kid.
Yeah. We had to talk about stuff, arrange stuff, get everything in order. Kenzie was grieving, but…
“Can you track their group?” I asked.
“Yeah. Are we following?” There was interest in her eyes, but not hope.
I nodded. “We need to get that loot back for the owners, if you could keep tabs on what’s from where?”
“And I want to try talking again. On their turf, away from this mess, away from the high-risk area, and without all these people watching.”
“Ashley isn’t as conscious of her standing if there isn’t a crowd,” Kenzie said.
“Hopefully not,” I said.
The Huntsmen were getting sorted out. The flier with the glass spear pulled off her helmet, because she was sweating, and I recognized the hair and facial features. Etna. That would be who filled the Huntsmen in on ‘our’ villains from the stretch between the New York and Boston areas of the megalopolis.
“I don’t want problems,” she said. “I moved way out to the woods on the end of the city to get away from everything else, and I still get dragged into it.”
I shook my head. “We’re good.”
She gave me a wary look.
“Alright,” she said.
“Good showing,” I said.
She nodded, then walked over to her team.
“I saw Swansong in there,” Kenzie said.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“It sucks. Because if she’s in there, then she can’t be out here.”
“I’d rather nothing at all and a bit of hope or pretending, than this.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Yeah. Absolutely.”
I pulled her into a one-armed hug.
“We were talking on our way over here,” Rain said. “She once mentioned she had dreams. She was studying them with the Wardens. Might be relevant, before we try anything with…”
Sveta arched an eyebrow. Tristan, at the same time, elbowed Rain, giving a look to the Huntsmen, who weren’t close by but were potentially close enough to hear.
We walked away from the others. The civilians were starting to make their way back to cars. Tristan bent down to pick up luggage, and Sveta did the same.
I was a little dizzy and fatigued, so I kept my work light, gathering things that had been knocked from luggage and boxes atop cars onto hoods and trunks, or the big things that had tumbled to the ground.
Further discussion was delayed as people approached Tristan with questions. They left, others approached.
Then those people left. Traffic began to crawl forward at its glacial pace, slower and more awkward because of the damage, the pulverized cars, and the spiky outcroppings of wood that had to be navigated around.
All accepted with resignation, or quiet glares in our direction.
“We’ll talk about it,” I said, when I was sure the coast was clear. “After we talk to her. Because this situation as it is is untenable. If we’re going to have to take the high road again, I don’t want it to be because we’re accepting more losses. We might as well take the highest road and decide things.”