The entire ‘room’ shook as the many-handed beast reached to its right and tore a concrete slab out of the ground, reached to its left, and grabbed a chair and a fistful of floorboards from Rain’s room. Cradle and Rain were almost mirrors to one another in how they moved away from the respective damage. Difference was, Rain kept running.
Cradle only moved as far as he needed to get out of the way of any immediate hazards. He maintained a kind of eerie calm, finding a position on another slanted concrete block that was like a massive tombstone with no epitah, that had been tilted to a thirty degree angle.
I had the impulse to fly and I couldn’t, and feeling that lack while facing down something as big and intimidating as this many-handed thing was suffocating. I’d never been especially afraid of spiders, but this thing was like three spiders of varying sizes all overlapping one another, each limb ending in a hand. It was fluid enough in its arrangement that it could be as tall as a two story building, then sweep out to be barely any taller than I was, but with limbs reaching out to every surface across a twenty foot span.
No eyes to look into, but the glowing cords in gaps and joints drew the eye, and gave suggestions of slanted eyes or opening apertures, that weren’t actually there.
It was hard to convince myself to breathe, to move. The thought that broke the paralysis, fleeting as it was, was that I’d seen and been frustrated with civilians in the midst of the Endbringer attack and the broken trigger. It’d be hypocritical to cast aside all self preservation now.
“Up,” I spoke to myself as much as the people around me, my voice gaining volume as I continued, “Focus, process later! Survive now!”
Sveta was already getting to her feet. She was wholly human, tattooed from the fingertips to her shoulders and up her neck, with the tattoos clearly aimed at covering up deep seams in her arms. I saw her wince as she moved her foot and cut the outer edge of it on what looked like a bed of obsidian and igneous rock that was nearly invisible with the black coloring and the gloom of the room.
“Watch your step!” I called out. This was a time for punchy orders that got everyone on the same page, communicated necessary, lean information with no ‘fat’. “Rooms can have hazards!”
“You’re all idiots!” Tattletale growled.
Exactly what I was just thinking we shouldn’t do. Pure fat, no lean.
Rain was getting to his feet to my right. A ways to my left, Tristan had hurried over to Byron’s side, and Kenzie was near him but unable to really help. The other three kids gravitated toward that end of the patchwork room. Tristan and Byron’s areas looked like concrete floor with spilled paint on it in ‘their’ colors, narrow metal pillars inset in concrete stumps making the entire area like a forest. Byron’s area had blue-green paint and was tinted like it was night-time, Tristan’s area was reds and yellows with traces of orange, and shone like there was a window with sunlight shining in from outside, though the window was nowhere to be seen.
Damsel stood, her expression hard and cold. I’d noted before how she seemed to freeze up or go still when angriest and most dangerous, and she was pretty much there. Difference was, she had to get to her feet first. Her area backed on Rain’s and one of the Heartbroken’s, and looked like a derelict apartment, with lighting like it was nighttime and the only light came from the moon through windows, even though the windows weren’t actually there. The hand she placed up against a partially intact wall for balance had long bladed fingers. She kept those, I supposed. I wondered what the distinction was, that made it matter.
I could see varying degrees of animation and emotion among the others. For most, the many-handed monster didn’t seem to even register, because the specters of their past chased them. Ashley, the Heartbroken. Tristan barely flinched because his concern was wholly for Byron.
Love Lost and Colt just looked bewildered. Bewilderment became alarm as the many-handed thing crushed the concrete slab it held with two arms, then swiped the partially crushed mess in their direction. The result was a hail of rubble.
This is a fucking mess, I thought.
“The kids,” Sveta said.
We needed a battle plan.
“Colt, Love Lost!” I called out. “Look after the kids and Capricorn Blue! Be prepared to carry him! Cap Red, we need you!”
“Don’t be stubborn! You have armor!”
I saw him hesitate, then he turned toward his brother, his back to me. I thought for a moment he was rejecting me, but he was unstrapping Byron’s chestpiece, pulling it free. Once they saw what he was doing, Kenzie and Chicken Little helped with the strap at the other side.
The many-handed thing didn’t come after us, and the rationale could have been that it didn’t want to go too far into the room and leave us room to slip behind it.
But it was tearing up the floor and tearing up the terrain. Where the ground wasn’t rendered almost impassable, it was littered with enough debris that we’d have to be careful where we put our feet.
And it was gathering materials. Rebar, wood.
I wasn’t sure armor counted against a threat like this, but I had seen Tristan fight, I knew he had experience. If we were going to make it through that forest of limbs and get past the guard dog and into the darkness behind it, we needed some experience and we needed to organize by some metric.
“Precipice,” I called out.
“I’m fighting,” he said. He had a length of floorboard that he held like a spear. I didn’t think it would matter, but…
“Grab me one?” I asked. That got me a sharp nod.
Tristan jogged over, Byron’s scale-mail breastplate loosely strapped to one arm, his hand gripping loose straps at the other end. He stood beside me, Sveta just behind me.
Love Lost and Colt were in the jungle of rusty iron beams and concrete, that was the Twins’ portion of the room.
I looked back at my section. Panels of tinted glass and what might have been the texture of solar panels, cracked but not broken. Though they were gold, with the more solid solar panel texture having a backing of black beneath that surface level, there was no warmth to it at all.
I turned back to the threat, pushing away the idle wondering as to whether the others were subtly bothered by their own spaces like I was by mine.
Rain tossed me one short spear of wood, and it hit me in the ribs as I caught it. The sensation startled me, and as I looked down, I could see I didn’t have my breastplate. I wore the black hooded top from my costume over the white dress with the watercolor skyline of Brockton Bay across the front. My hair was braided, and it had been… a long-as-fuck time since I’d done that with any regularity.
He handed more wood to Sveta and to Tristan.
“I can’t unfurl,” Sveta said.
“No traumatic forcefield for me, either,” I said.
She met my eyes, and in the gloom of the room, I knew that our sentiments were very much the same. For her to actually have a body with no associations to her power. For me to not have that shadow hanging over me.
I reached out to squeeze her upper arm.
“Tristan and I will distract it, fend it off,” I said, turning to the thing we were up against. I watched as it moved, continuing to tear concrete apart and harvest the rebar. Slow, methodical, I felt like its mannerisms were defined by it keeping three-quarters of its attention on us and one-quarter on what it was doing.
It shook more concrete free of the rebar. Damsel had to step behind a damaged wall, and still got plaster dust on her when the concrete punched through one portion of it.
“Sveta, Rain, focus more on distraction,” I said.
“Okay. Harry, harass?” Rain asked.
“Just… bait it to attack and move. Circle around.”
Cradle, off to one side, was watching everything. He didn’t move, didn’t try anything.
Is this thing like Cradle? Lurking in the background, before stepping in to do some horrific violence?
“Damsel,” I said.
“Don’t you dare give me orders,” she snapped. Her claw cut light furrows into the ruined wall it was still touching.
“Tattletale, then?” I asked. “Can you help Love Lost and Colt with the kids and Byron?”
Tattletale had stood but hadn’t moved from her starting position in her room, which was the furthest from the monster. Her dream was furthest removed from the mall, too. Her area, despite being so far back, was bright like a room with a window open and the sun shining directly in, with a stretch of plush white carpet and a white wall cutting it almost in half. Wall and carpet were stained with large blotches of bodily fluids.
“You were going to ask Damsel to try to hurt it,” Tattletale said.
“Yeah,” I said.
She reached to her hip and drew a handgun. She still wore an expression like she hadn’t quite left the dream behind. Sad, a little lost, not looking at us or the many-handed thing. “I’ll do what I can.”
“How?” Rain asked. “How’d you bring the gun?”
“Every day since I started working for Coil, back in Brockton Bay. Even before Leviathan, I had it with me.”
“She shot me with it once,” I remarked.
“If I’d known you’d be dragging me into this, I would have shot you with it twice. I thought the worst thing I’d have to deal with was maybe consoling your tinker if none of you came back. No, I get dragged into this.”
“Power didn’t predict this?”
“My power didn’t,” she said, her voice tense. “That niggling little voice in the back of my head did, but I ignored it.”
I looked back at her, studying her. Costume, gun, all was cohesive, complete. Tristan didn’t have his helmet, Rain had a hooded jacket on with no mask, no costume elements except for the solid pads along his jacket sleeves which the mechanical arms he built could normally be mounted on.
Love Lost was in costume, Colt in civilian clothes, still with that massive mane of dirty-blonde hair that frizzed and puffed out to either side. Kenzie wore a black pinafore dress over a t-shirt, but she had sneakers, Chicken Little and Candy wore civilian clothes. Darlene, I noted, had a nightdress on, a bit old fashioned.
This is us, I thought. I pulled up my hoods, the hood built into my dress nestled inside the hood from my costume top. Protection from any debris.
The many-handed thing had been tall, initially, almost wispy with how drawn out it was, how thin the arms were in comparison to how long they were, then it had flattened out, to cover and guard more ground, and to reach more things it could pull apart and scatter around as debris.
Now it drew in together. Small enough in how each limb folded in or hid others from view, with more of the orange wiring and joints exposed to plain view than any of the hands were. Mere seconds had passed and I was already having trouble tracking just how far those hands had reached when arms were fully extended.
That is… that, I thought to myself. And that’s a deceptively open path to the exit it very much wants to guard.
“Look, near the shoulder bulge,” Sveta said.
The ‘shoulder bulge’ was one extended part of the ‘body’ where all of the hands seemed to reach out from, a lump toward the upper left part of its mass. There, illuminated only by the general orange-yellow glow from the wires connecting arm pieces together, a hand as big around as my upper body was from crotch to throat gripped rebar, bent it neatly to a right angle.
I could see other machinations now. Six hands closer to the core of the body were doing their individual parts, taking components that unseen hands passed to them, each performing specific actions that were methodical, sure, exact in the spacing of everything. Like it was a machine.
My eyes widened. Is it tinkering?
“Go!” I shouted. “Right now! Before it can finish building! Love Lost, Colt, get ready to go!”
It was so big, and it hung there, partially in the darkness, like there could be more behind it that I hadn’t yet seen. It didn’t breathe, didn’t make noise, and only the shuffling of the sleek material of arms and hands against itself was really audible.
“Go!” If I hadn’t been shouting, I might not have had it in me to take that first, involuntary-at-the-outset deep breath. If I hadn’t been able to take the deep breath, I might not have been able to lean forward, when all I wanted to do was step back and hope it wouldn’t do anything until the forty minute timer ran down.
If I hadn’t leaned forward, I wasn’t sure I would have been courageous enough to run forward. And if I hadn’t done that, then the others might not have budged, not when Sveta and Rain were following Tristan and I, and Tristan was distracted.
My foot hit black stone, and I avoided stepping on the almost invisible outcroppings. One step, then another, legs moving to push my weight more forward than up.
With the third step, the timing not quite coinciding with my footfall, I heard the heavier step of Tristan’s boot.
Be mindful of the arm’s range, any weapons it might have, deflect if you absolutely have to, I thought, trying to visualize the upcoming situation, trying not to think about how my mom had drilled ‘visualize’ into me back when I’d played basketball. It’s okay to get hurt, so long as we all get through the door. Watch for anything it might push into us.
The arm unfolded, pulling free of the shuffle of forty or more limbs that were folded into one central area -No weapon- and swung backhanded. It couldn’t reach me. Nothing in its path to throw.
Others slowed. I was dimly aware of them behind and beside me. I didn’t slow down. I was confident of my estimation.
The hand dipped low, striking the damaged section of floorboards. It carved out a furrow, turning a hole into a ditch, a gap in the room with only ruined wood below, like it was broken floorboards or rafters with foot-wide gaps between pieces of wood, all the way down to fucking infinity.
Which meant that when I shifted course to favor the smallest portion of the gap leaped the ditch, I was simultaneously going weak kneed, my mind wrestling with the idea that it might really be infinity, that what happened here could really be forever.
Muscle memory saved me, if nothing else. I landed on all fours, scooted one foot forward to be sure I could spring to one side if I had to, and twisted around to look up.
Just seconds ago, I’d estimated the number of limbs at forty. How long before that had I called it three spiders- three times eight?
Now I was closer, within reach of the longest arms, which were thin, tendril-like, and immensely strong. I could see it pulling more limbs free of the jumble, revealing something that looked like a disc, suspended in lightning that had been frozen in time. The disc barely concerned me, because I could have put the number of limbs I was seeing at anywhere from eighty to one hundred.
“It’s multiplying its arms!” I called out.
“No,” Sveta said, and the statement was punctuated by one arm high above me stabbing in my direction. It might have sounded like a sad, resigned thing, even an acknowledgement that I was well and truly fucked.
The hand was slender, considering the arm was about as wide as I was and the hand was disproportionately narrow and long-fingered for the arm. It speared down wrist-deep into floorboards, then moved, tearing another trench.
I had to back up and to the side, mindful of where I set my feet. There was a bottomless ditch behind me, a trench in front of me, the floorboards starting to fall away, with a loose precipitation of pine needles and leaves that had dried out a long time ago.
“-It’s not three-dimensional,” Sveta finished her statement.
The closer we got, the bigger it was, and the more its arms multiplied. More joints existed in more shades of color, and the color that radiated out from those joints was mild, less than a candle might shed, but so numerous collectively that they made something brighter. They were the source of the seemingly sourceless illumination that made it possible to see in the rest of the room. I could map it from room to room, including that cold golden light that was apparently meant for me.
As it moved again, I jogged over to one side, so I was further from the trenches, and so a third strike wouldn’t see me fall into the abyss.
Rain’s space was a shack that had been left exposed to the elements, and it was my battlefield for the moment. The hand altered course, coming right for me. I saw a work bench, jumped up, and planted my foot on the top. I looked up, saw the hand, and let myself fall back, kicking backward from the edge of the desk to throw myself onto my back.
The desk was- not even obliterated. Smashed down and through floorboards into whatever oblivion lay beneath. The arm seemed to continue plunging down forever, while the body barely moved in accordance with it.
I lay there, on my back, arms out to either side, floorboard plank as a spear or tool gripped in my right hand, held against my chest. I remained where I was because the thing was above me, and being on my back made it easier to see what it was doing.
I turned my head to look to my left. At the others.
The room had once been five-sided, maybe a hundred feet across, like the ground floor of a house in Brockton Bay. The damage to Rain’s section took maybe a quarter of the space we had available to maneuver away from us. Twenty or thirty of that hundred feet of breadth gone. Maybe five feet at the far edge, closest to the back wall.
Another two quarters weren’t so doable, because they were a mess of concrete slabs, some a dozen feet long and five feet across. Slabs that had to be climbed, climbed beneath, which was more difficult because they were littered with crushed concrete and stray rebar.
And because Cradle was there, staring us down, acting like the many-handed power that loomed high above me was a non-threat. One small push or kick at the right time, and he could end anyone’s attempt to get over any one of three different concrete slabs.
The additions had been stacked onto one end, Tristan and Byron’s maze of rusty support pillars and paint, Sveta’s black rock. Darlene’s stark room with a table and bed overturned, food and cloth strewn so densely on the floor there wasn’t anything visible. Candy’s- it looked like a car interior, with barely enough room to squeeze through. Aiden’s looked like a rooftop with building faces pressing in on either side. Kenzie’s- a bedroom, almost utterly black. One of the few that was illuminated by any discernable source – panels like the glowing screen of a phone or monitor, like they were turned on but displaying black, with that natural, cold glow.
The kids were hanging back, Love Lost’s unadorned hand held out in that universal sign for ‘stop’. Colt was a little further ahead.
And the thing, it was there above me. A hundred feet tall and a hundred feet across, with more than a hundred thin reaching limbs holding it up, gripping things, or reaching inside itself to fiddle, to grasp, to take snatched-up materials from the room and feed them into the center.
When it moved a few feet this way or a few feet that way, I could see the loss or addition of arms, as though quantity and distance were inversely correlated.
The bulk of its body was directly over the wall we wanted to get to, and even from my current vantage point, it looked like there were more arms occupying that space than there was empty space.
“Tattletale-!” I called out.
I saw arms move, reacting to the noise I’d made. It was simultaneously attacking the others.
“-Don’t shoot it!”
Three arms, three hands almost as long as I was tall. By how slim the hands and fingers were, and how hard the floor should have been, I could picture them shattering as they hit the ground. But they were tough.
They didn’t come for me. They went after the floor around me. Three separate points, with the very start of the most recent ditch between the two of those points I would have most liked to run between to get to the door.
I rolled to my feet, stumbling as the floor sloped beneath me. A sick feeling gripped me, like the plunge of a roller coaster, with zero thrill, only a feeling of despair.
We wanted to distract it? It could hit all of us at once if we were in reach and it would have eighty more arms to spare.
Dark floorboards an infinity below me on three sides were illuminated only by the many green-tinted joints and digits that the endlessly long arm had at irregular intervals. I moved to back up, ready to leap again and retreat toward the back of the room, and an arm moved to block me. I turned another way, and an arm swept across that exit to sweep out and destroy floorboards between two of the penetration points.
Nothing to grab onto, no handholds with the nearest joints a couple of feet below my own two feet, and higher above me than I could have jumped or easily climbed to access.
The floor dipped precipitously again. My feet began sliding on dusty, pine-needle covered floorboards, and that horrible rollercoaster-drop feeling became an ongoing thing.
Too wide a gap to jump, no footholds.
I adjusted my grip on the spear, stabbing down at the joint below, driving the tip into the mess of faint green wires. It penetrated, doing some damage, and remained jammed in.
The arm dipped another foot, and the bottom end of the floorboard was pulled out of my hands. I backed away, not because of fear or immediate threat, but because I was one more shift of the floor’s angle from sliding down into oblivion, and I wanted a chance to be able to think and react before I did anything there. With hands and feet, I could move back three or four feet, and I would summarily slide two feet back toward the edge.
I wasn’t even breathing, and I had to force myself to start, because I could not afford for my muscles to be oxygen starved at a moment like this.
Tinker, I thought. It’s a tinker and it’s a shaker and it’s a changer, for all intents and purposes.
There were rules for engaging with tinkers, changers and and shakers. Tinker especially, you deprived them of their stuff and blitzed them where possible. The rule for shakers was to avoid fighting on their turf.
I couldn’t stay put. The two ideas were half-formed and they combined into one notion, that I put into motion before even being able to fully visualize it. My mom had dropped the ‘visualize’ part of her general encouragement when I’d become a hero.
Like the basketball was always a thing of dreams, fancy, and imagination, and the hero stuff, that was what required practical advice and attention.
I pushed myself forward, rising to a standing position and running down the slope, to plant my foot on the very end of that floorboard. It bowed and splintered under my weight, and I dropped toward the infinity below.
My other foot came to rest on the angled surface, scraping down it as I sought to push the bowed part straight more than I sought to find any balance or extra traction. My right foot remained on the floorboard and my right knee hit my chest painfully as I dropped.
The hard edge that separated the front portion of my boot tread from the heel portion caught on the floorboard, giving me control and a semblance of awareness over the position of the piece of wood.
Maybe steadying it that tiny fraction I needed to keep it from bowing further. When I kicked off, I used one leg to launch my full body weight, and the board didn’t spring or fall away from me. My belly hit broken floorboards, and my legs and hips dangled. The buckler and armguard were more hindrance than help as I fought to get a grip.
A hand smashed, palm flat, into the ground about ten feet away from me, floorboards crowning up around the impact site, and I lost an inch of ground. The hand was added traction for whatever heavy lifting it was doing elsewhere.
I wobbled left and right, trying not to make sound or alert it to my presence, gaining quarter inches of progress as I wormed my way forward. I scraped my thighs bloody in the process of getting them over the shattered row of floorboards.
I crawled forward, hands and knees, then shifted to a kneeling position. I was almost directly beneath it.
I looked up, and I saw what I could imagine another planet might look like, if it were separated from our world by only a few hundred miles. A tangle of reaching limbs, recesses, never repeating, not a funhouse mirror or kaleidoscope, but wholly unique when I looked at any portion. Its dimensions distorted the dark portion of the room in retrospect, making it seem like the distance to the gate was miles, and those miles were punctuated by hundreds of arms that were planted on ground that had ceased to be floorboards and was now a plain of what looked like hard, packed salt, granular against my scraped knees and palms.
I felt like my body was nonexistent between my ribcage and my knees, after having my stomach drop so much and so intensely across those frantic minutes. Standing was an exercise in convincing myself not to flop over like Torso had.
Blitz it, I thought. It’s a tinker, supposedly. Let’s hit it before it can hit us.
Moving forward was disorienting. Normal rules for perceiving this thing didn’t seem to apply, as things moved at the wrong speeds in my peripheral vision when I moved past them.
I found the arm that looked like it was straining to bear the most weight and I punched at the purple-tinted cordage with my buckler’s hard edge. Light danced with blinding brightness from the damage I’d done, so I hit it again, my eyes averted. Every muscle in my shoulder, arm, and forearm hurt, and the old bullet wound in my bicep was shot through with a feeling like I’d been stabbed. Because of course it was turned into a part of me.
Four hands came plunging down, one for me, three to provide support that this many-handed monster wasn’t getting from the one I’d punched.
I backed out of the way of the one, and used my hood to shield my face from the cloud of granules and dust that exploded around the impact site.
I could see phantom images in that dust. Traces of writing hanging in the air in three dimensions with diagrams. Shadowy figures, like people who were too stooped over, almost bean-shaped, their faces lost in a puckered mess I couldn’t interpret. They even wore clothes. Three large and one small, as they placed a limb on the small one’s side, where no limb had existed before. As the dust got thinner, the clarity of the images gave way to lines and numbers, like some vast over-blueprint written throughout this space.
As I moved away from the scene, it changed. Distance correlated to other things. Or perhaps correlated to quantity, still, but the memories took on another, fuller form when viewed in aggregate. Written behind the air here to be uncovered like pencil rubbings on a sketchpad.
You fought the same fights we’re fighting now, I thought to myself. And if they moved on, that means they got you.
I couldn’t stop moving, so I ran like I normally flew, straining my legs, seeking any opportunity to reverse course, feint, and make my path hard to predict. It swiped at me, brought hands down, tried to bar my way by laying one arm flat to the ground.
When it didn’t come for me specifically, and when there were joints in plain sight, I punched the buckler into the vulnerable spots. Here and there, it cut. In other places, it bent rigid filaments and components.
It pulled entirely away from the others. They were fighting their own uphill battle, and as it twisted, facing me more than anything, they were given a reprieve. Time to get an injured Colt to her feet, to run forward unmolested, to find their equilibrium.
The entire room groaned as the many-handed, planet-sized guardian shifted its ‘stance’, for lack of a better word. Arms found positions on walls far too out of our reach to access, and others were placed strategically where it would take far too long to run to, or near broken sections of ground.
Other limbs , I could barely see, even a majority of others, were gripping a ceiling far out of sight in the darkness high above the room, so the rest of it could hang down.
It reached into itself, and it pulled out finished work.
I counted ten pieces of tinker technology, built to be larger than I was. Then I revised my number to fifteen, then to twenty. Discs, gauntlets, claws that glowed too bright to look at directly.
“Hurry!” I called out, with one word taking up my full capacity of air. The next two words were the same. “Devices incoming!”
I could make out the others past dust and images of a world past. Their route was close to the dais, beneath an outcropping of Cradle’s slabs. That outcropping served as their cover from the worst of it.
Filaments extended down. Not a hand, but a thousand prehensile strings that snatched at my clothing, the roots of my hair, my arms, even my nose momentarily, my tit, and the toe of my boot. One moment I was free, the next I was being wrenched skyward, filaments cutting into clothes and skin like razor blades, and in the third moment I tried to move and I realized the sheer limitation of movements available to me.
I shifted position, wriggling my shoulders until I was out of my jacket. I hoped to slip free, and I found the cords cutting into my sleeves too tight. It was a good thing the material of my costume top was made to be rugged. I hung from my forearms and one toe, my jacket bunched up around my elbows.
My midsection almost didn’t have the strength for me to twist, to bring my foot up, and to get it to where my elbow was. To push, scraping the sleeve against my arm inch by inch, as the ground disappeared beneath me, half-foot by half-foot.
I got one arm free, and I swung. I kicked off my boot, and swung again, dangling only by the one arm.
And inch by inch, my body weight now pulled my arm free of that sleeve.
Cords were reeling in, possibly ready to reach out again. I focused more on the moment than the future I could be dreading. I kicked out, swung, and wrapped both legs around the nearest arm, giving me the leverage to pull with almost my entire body. Getting my arm free. It got my costume top.
Which apparently wasn’t okay.
From one disc above me, a flare of orange, a burst of flame. Like Colt’s lighting arms, but it was fire, and it was sinuous, with three digits like a bird’s talon. When it hit the granules beneath me, it turned them to glass. Forming a shape like a letter ‘Y’, two talons slid in the ground around to point away from me, and the third stabbed up and in my direction, aimed right for my upper body.
I punched out with the buckler, my other hand going to my wrist, to push against the wrist that bore my armguard and buckler, bracing it against the force of incoming heat and flame, that threatened to throw me from my perch.
The heat swelled, metal melted, and residual heat blasted my face and scalp, despite the fact that my shield, part of the thing’s arm, both of my arms, and my hood were between the source of the heat and me.
The intense burning sensation hit a dizzying crescendo, then changed to something approximating cold. Like all sensation was gone. It felt like it took half of my consciousness with it.
I barely even heard the gunshot. I did hear the ringing silence after, dimly registering the fact the flame talon wasn’t firing anymore, and instead hung limp, sparking.
Thanks Tattletale. I bet you’re going to be smug about this.
I tried to slide partway down using thigh-strength alone, but the fire had damaged the thing’s own arm, and I wasn’t all there. I hit a stopping point and nearly fell from there, but found the wherewithal to slide down a bit more, to punch my arm in the general direction of the melted section of smooth white ‘skin’, jabbing the contents within with a buckler of glowing metal that easily bent and smeared globules of molten steel amid dense wires and filaments. They burned with an acrid smell.
I tried to slide down a bit more, and somewhere along the line, numb, I lost my grip.
The impact knocked the wind out of me. A blinding pain at my leg made me twist away, but it was the pain and blurry vision through eyes that might have been burned that informed me my shield and arm had come into contact with my knee.
The others were more in this section now. Last leg of what shouldn’t have been this insane a journey.
More devices were going off. Claws that scattered shelving units and propelled them away with force. Limbs sprouted from the ground, and Tristan carried Byron’s weight on his back while charging one, throwing their full weight and the shield into the limb to push it back and away, giving Sveta room to move, as she jabbed at another with a stick of metal. Damsel kept her distance from the pair, but as the smaller hand recoiled from Sveta’s stabbing, she took advantage to turn the hand into a stump with a swipe of her claw. Given the logistics of the claw, the weight of it, and possibly the fact that tinkertech that didn’t belong to the many-armed agent itself wasn’t working, the slash seemed to require a lot of effort.
That, or it had always been a weapon more for show and shaping her power than for practical slashing of any opposition.
Chicken Little called out a warning about a bombardment from above, and Sveta and Tristan split, moving in opposite directions as fresh Tinkertech was unleashed. Sveta went deeper in, Tristan backed up to the nearest cover, adjusting his grip on Byron.
I saw Sveta look up and see the sky I saw, all darkness, pale arms, and glowing points of light. I saw as it dawned on her, the nigh-impossibility of getting through this forest of limbs and now almost-continual bombardment.
I saw Sveta look at me, my burned self, and seem to despair more over that than anything.
Tattletale fired with thought behind each shot. One bullet for a given device, not every device got a bullet. It might have been only the ones she thought she could break, and most of them broke.
She wouldn’t have access to her power, I was pretty sure. I thought of the girl in her trigger event.
You’re not dumb, I thought. You know what to do.
Rain, Tattletale, and Love Lost passed beneath the granite slabs, guiding and shielding the kids. Cradle loomed above, unmolested, still watching. I opened my mouth to shout a warning, and the air in my lungs tasted burnt, my lips split, and the effort dizzied me. The pain was coming back, but it was simultaneously profound and disparate, touching some parts of my upper body and leaving others entirely numb.
A casual two-handed throw of a piece of rubble.
Rain was sheltering the kids with his body. In the end, it meant that when the rubble came down, it struck both him and Candy.
He stared down at us with scuffed glasses, saw Tattletale taking aim, and ducked down, hiding in his portion of the room.
Sveta started my way, but the ground between us was suddenly riddled with phantom handprints, forceful enough to turn the granular into something solid. She shied back behind the wreckage of empty shelving units in what I presumed had been Snag’s area. Writ large with the spatial distortion that came with being directly under this thing. This guard dog.
Long seconds passed, and was feeling colder and colder with every heartbeat.
The bombardment was slowing. The thing was drawing back into itself.
“Why did you go ahead?” Sveta asked. Asked me.
My throat felt impossibly dry. I’d inhaled air that was too hot, maybe. “Needed to distract,” I said, intending to say ‘it’, and getting only a mouth movement with no air instead.
“You did that. You followed through,” she said. “Gave us that opening we needed.”
Tattletale and Love Lost worked together to carry a partially caved-in Rain, Tattletale with a gun in her hand, her eyes on the concrete above her.
Darlene, Chicken Little, and Kenzie carried an injured Candy. Rain had apparently absorbed most of the blow.
“Essalated,” I managed. “Esc-”
“Escalated,” Sveta said.
“It did. Like an Endbringer.”
I pointed, using my less burned arm.
It was escalating even now.
Disparate parts and pieces of technology knitted together into something big. Some tinkers specialized in the big stuff. Others worked toward it for a long time. In Boston, the original Damsel had faced off against Blasto’s big project. At Gold Morning, String Theory had unveiled her own, apparently. The tinkers had collectively built one.
Now this nest of arms was forging something else, and by the looks of it, the glow of individual energy cells powering on, it was nearly complete.
I could remember the files, the information only for team leaders and Wardens. Information on the Endbringers, provided in retrospect, only after Gold Morning when the Endbringers cooperated against Scion and the attacks stopped.
“We can’t get through.”
Sveta looked, and I saw her purse her lips. Too many limbs, and too much tinkertech had been used to complicate the way through, riddle it with hazards.
“I don’t think we can, sweetie,” she said, barely audible. The kids were yelling, pointing at what Sveta and I had already noticed.
I shook my head. It wasn’t time to give up like this.
“Get-” I managed, pointing. “Him.”